An Interview with Kenny Grohowski

Deep advice from one of New York’s busiest and most diverse sticksmen.

Kenny Grohowski’s somewhat eclectic resume could feel virtually endless. A brief survey of the Brooklyn-based drummer’s current active output includes touring and recording projects with Felix Pastorious’ Hipster Assassins; the costume-clad black death-metal band Imperial Triumphant; the prolific avant-garde composer John Zorn; the jazz-funk group Dapp Theory; Kilter, a jazz-rock/metal group run by the Swiss/French bassist LaRon Davie; a trio with the experimental New York–based guitarist Sally Gates; Igor Lumpert’s wild jazz foray, Innertextures; and the Modulators, an avant-garde group with somewhat of a surf-based tinge. That’s not to mention that since 2016 the drummer has been with Brand X, the seminal jazz-fusion group whose previous drum chair has been occupied by the likes of Phil Collins, Mike Clark, Frank Katz, and Chuck Burgi, among plenty of other heavyweights.

We recently caught up with the ever-busy Grohowski via phone as he took a brief afternoon break in Central Park.

How’d you first start at the drums?

Kenny: My dad was a drummer, and my grandfather had a pretty popular salsa group back in the day that at some point my dad had joined. My grandfather was born in Puerto Rico. When he moved to New York, he started that band. And my mom was also one of the singers in the group.

A lot of the members of my family all played some sort of instrument. My mom and dad grew up in Brooklyn, although I was raised in Miami. But the family kind of started their musical career in New York.

By the time I was twelve, I joined the junior high school’s music ensemble and started taking private lessons. I was more heavily into jazz in high school while I was studying. And before that I grew up on a lot of Caribbean music, as well as fusion, rock, blues, classical, and whatever other stuff. It was a musical family, so everyone else was into all kinds of different stuff. My mom really loved R&B, new jack swing, and more clubby music, so there was a lot of that in the house too, along with some fusion, prog, and blues.

What was your lesson experience like?

Kenny: Early on I was taking lessons with a couple of guys in Miami. Funny enough, one is a nephew of Alex Acuña, and the other is Acuña’s cousin. But they were both pretty good percussionists and drummers who lived there. So I studied drumset with them—stuff like Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer, New Breed, basic rudiments, Stick Control, Syncopation—it was all that stuff.

At the junior high school I attended, I got recommended to study with a teacher named Peter Webster, who was more of a classical player down in Miami. He played with the symphony orchestra there. And there’s not a lot of off-Broadway stuff in Miami, but there are a few theaters that do Broadway musicals and travelling shows. He was a pit player in that scene and a freelancer. So I was doing more classical percussion—learning about the xylophone, glockenspiel, timpani…. So it was pretty busy during junior high with a lot of pretty intense practicing and studying.

And the high school I went to was a music magnet program where Peter was teaching, so I just kept taking lessons with him. It went off from there.

Do you teach?

Kenny: Every once in a while I’ll do some substitute teaching at NYU and the New School, usually like an improv ensemble. But with a lot of those schools, you have the faculty roster of literally every drummer in NYC. Guys like me are kind of…. You have to really want to study with us if you can study with Keith Carlock or Ari Hoenig. You could take lessons with Jojo Mayer, or you could take lessons with the guy who took lessons with Jojo Mayer. What do you really want at that point?

Sometimes I’ll get a student who wants to take a few lessons. It’s almost always a jazz player who wants to either get into Arabic or Afro-Cuban stuff, or they want to start playing double bass and they don’t know where to start. And I think I’ve had one or two students who wanted to know generally how I approach music—like my concept.

What would you consider your concept?

Kenny: I just try to orchestrate whatever the music needs. Different styles of music require different things from drummers. If you’re playing something that’s more like straight-ahead rock, you probably don’t want to be outlining every single note that the lead guitarist is playing, unless they ask you to or you can find a musical way of doing it. But chances are, you’re just going to be playing rock. Whereas in more of a jazz setting, there’s probably a good chance that there isn’t a specific groove that you have to worry about, rather than more of a feel, sonic, or comping approach. So that’s an avenue where you can be a little more expressive.

And I guess a lot of it comes from what Adam Nussbaum used to say: Number one is the music; number two is everybody else around me, and number three is me and what I want to put into this. And that’s a very broad thing to say. Depending on who you are as a person and your personality, generally, your proclivities as a player will then dictate how you navigate those ideas. You could be more sparse or open, or a busier and more interactive player, or more dominating—like this is the time, this is the groove, and this is where things are. But I think no matter who the player is, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s about the music, the people you’re making it with, and the listeners.

As far as working on the actual music, I guess a lot of what I do isn’t conventional. For me, whatever music I’m playing, I make sure it’s memorized. I understand what the bass, piano, or horn players are playing, what the melody and harmony are, and if there’s a specific ethnic or cultural place that the music comes from. Or is it coming from more of an original perspective—a composer’s perspective, or an instrumentalist who has very specific visions of what their music has to sound like. It may sound like some Moroccan thing or an Afro-Cuban thing, but that might not be what that composer is hearing. That’s just my interpretation. So it varies. But a lot of it for me is internalizing as much of the music as possible. That way at any given point, you know where you are in the song. Then you can figure out timbres, grooves, approaches, and what’s best for the drums to do.

Was there maybe one moment coming up where you were struggling with a specific concept?

Kenny: While I was taking lessons with Jojo Mayer, there was a point where he was showing me more of his advanced technique stuff, like the stuff that he eventually released in his Secret Weapons for the Modern Drummer DVD. I was taking lessons with him for one semester when he was developing that stuff.

It’d get to a point with him where I said, “I have to be honest, I’m going to come back here—even if I spend every day shedding—not being able to do this. I’m going to need a lot of time to deal with this.” And I’m still working on it. [laughs]

Some people say that I have some version of Moeller technique that I use and work with, but I don’t fully believe that. It’s not really Moeller; it’s something else. But it took me a long time to come to terms with having that relationship with the stick and rebound and how your body works ergonomically.

And honestly, a lot of what I work on when I’m at the studio shedding now is basic material, especially now that I have physically demanding bands and longer shows. In one of them, Imperial Triumphant, I’m wearing a costume on stage. So I have this extra weight, and you still have to do all the blast beats and all the big stuff. It’s a challenge.

How does it feel in the costume when you’re playing that material?

Kenny: It can be a little annoying, but in a lot of ways it helps me focus on what I’m doing. With a lot of that kind of music, it’s very easy for me to get overly emotional while I’m playing, especially in a metal context where things are very loud and raucous to begin with. It’s easy to overplay or play too hard to where you’re working past the point where you can produce sound and hurting yourself from the shock.

So the mask and cloak that we wear helps me be a little more relaxed. I have to be mindful of my posture and ergonomics. Because if you’re playing a forty-five minute or hour set and not regulating that, even with water, you could pass out. There have definitely been a couple of gigs, in Moscow for instance, where there’s no air conditioning, no fans, no ventilation—there’s not even a door or window to open. Everyone’s dehydrated, and I’m collapsing off stage, and the clothes are so soaked that we’re wringing them out. It’s really bad.

But that’s also part of the challenge of it. You have to be able to sustain this for an hour a night on the road. So in some small way, because of those exercises with Jojo, we were working on getting more motion out of the sticks and more ergonomics in the setup. That helped get me to a point where I could jump into metal gigs without being totally unprepared.

Probably the biggest challenges were more personal though. Being a transplant to New York, there’s an attitude that you’re not enough. And when I was in school, the guys I studied with were top-notch musicians. A lot of guys have gone on to do great stuff. But there was a lot of crippling anxiety. Everybody was like, “Man, I have to shed. I suck.” [laughs]

And it’s healthy to be self-critical in an honest and accurate way. But it’s easy—especially if you’re a new kid in town, nobody cares that you exist, and you don’t have any friends—it’s very easy to get lost in that. And I’ve seen so many musicians and friends who are very talented, lead bands, have albums, and are signed, and yet they still have this thought at their core that really keeps them from truly ever embracing their ability.

That seems to be the biggest challenge to most musicians, young or old—letting go of that inner critic that’s always telling you, “This is no good, and you’re no good.”

Do you feel like you’ve overcome that?

Kenny: I think at this point, yeah. Not that I’m really a confident guy. I can easily rattle off so many names of drummers that can do stuff that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do. But just letting go of that need to have that is important. I see a lot of guys now that are younger who have a lot more confident sense of self because they grew up in a time period where nobody ever told them that they were bad at anything. So when a guy like me comes along and says, “I’m sorry, but you guys aren’t interacting and it doesn’t sound very good,” they kind of don’t know how to handle it. Some of them do, but that’s how most people are. But when I say, “It’s not happening,” it’s because you’re paying a lot of money to be here, and it’s better to tell you now that this isn’t sounding good then having you find out on the actual gig.

I think a lot of the challenges that face musicians is just getting out of your own way. It took me personally a long time to get to that place where you’re letting go of ego, as Bill Hicks would call it, where you’re just not concerning yourself with how you think of yourself, and you’re only concerning yourself with the work you have to do—the hours you have to put in—because it’s just time over distance. You just have to put in the work, no matter how naturally talented you are or not. There are a lot of guys who have a natural ability and who are gigging all over the place, and they sound great. But they worked really hard and they focused.

How much time do you practice now, and how much time would you recommend a younger student to put in?

Kenny: Go as long as you can. And part of that too is, going back to the ego thing, is being honest with yourself. If that day you’re able to get twenty solid minutes where you go through the basic rudiments with the click—with no B.S., no TV, no YouTube, no phone, no distractions—just twenty minutes of hardcore singles and doubles at 62 bpm. If you can do that, great. If you can do two hours of that, and work on some Stick Control or check out a piece of music that you want to get into or shed along with like a John Bonham or Philly Joe Jones record, however much time you can really focus and be in that headspace is beneficial.

When all is said and done and you’re at the end of your life, you’re not going to look at how many days you practiced. You might not even remember how many hours. But you’re going to know the results of what you did and where you got to. And you’re going to hope that somebody else will pick up where you left off and take it further.

This isn’t just for us. The harder we all work, all of us benefit, especially now with technology. Now that anyone can share this stuff with almost virtually anyone in the first and second world, there’s just so much more information that can go around. I don’t think there should be a minimum, and I don’t think there should be a maximum. Whatever you can give that day, give a hundred percent during that time. It’s the quality of the time, not the amount.

Kenny Grohowski endorses Bosphorus cymbals.