Get Yer Kit Off: Cory Champion

Get Yer Kit Off: Cory Champion

Julien Dyne (Ladi6, Avantdale Bowling Club, solo) speaks to Wellington-based drummer/composer Cory Champion to find out how he does it all.

One of the hardest working and nicest people you’ll ever meet, Cory Champion has been inspiring myself and many others for years with his tasteful drumming and prolific musical output. Cory exemplifies the new breed of contemporary musician, diverse and well adept at playing drums in a conventional live band setting, regardless of genre (Electric Wire Hustle/Shocking Pinks/Clear Path Ensemble/Glass Vaults/Lucien Johnson)

He’s equally at home creating hi-tech futuristic music in the studio (and releasing records on international labels every few months it seems!). His latest EP ‘Grooves’ under the name Borrowed CS was released in October 2020.

What attracted you to the drums as an instrument to study and play as a young person?

It’s hard to say what drew me to playing music but I remember when I started school, my mum asked me what instrument I’d like to play and my first choice was drums. She wasn’t keen on that straight away, but a couple of years later I took up group percussion lessons at the community music school and persisted through that until I got a drum kit just before I started high school. So in a sense, it feels like something that I’ve always been interested in.

My mum doesn’t play music but her parents are retired, professional musicians. My grandfather, Alan Gold, was the principal clarinet player in the NZSO from 1961-1994, and my grandmother, Helen Guthrie, played in the orchestra, chamber music groups, and taught violin and piano.

In addition to your talents as a drummer, you are equally known and revered for your music production skills. Does drumming inform your production and/or vice versa?

Oh yeah, they’re absolutely related. Sometimes that relationship is literal. It can be easier for me to play and record a groove that I’m hearing rather than program it. However, most of the time it’s more oblique. When I studied how to accompany when playing jazz I spent a lot of time listening and developing the understanding of the weight and momentum of each beat of the bar. Bob Moses talks about this in his book Drum Wisdom. So when it comes to making tracks, this understanding always informs my decisions when programming or constructing patterns.

Another thing I like to do, which I hear in your music too, is to have full live takes of parts – especially if the part is a one bar loop with no variation. By playing that part for a long period the track has a completely different feeling because the constant subtle shifts in timing and dynamics. This can be even more pronounced in the more minimal styles of music, such as house and techno, where parts are typically programmed on the grid or looped.

Who are some of your favourite drummers locally and internationally, and why?

Man, there’s so many great drummers around. I think drummers like yourself, Chris O’Connor, and Alex Freer all have beautiful sounds. I love Riki Gooch and I am always inspired when I see him play. Kody Nielson is awesome too! Some of the legends that have given me a lot are Elvin Jones, Mike Clark, Donald Bailey, Billy Higgins, James Gadson, Jon Christensen… there’s so many, I could go on. I was so lucky to have studied with Lance Philip and Roger Sellers and they were both amazing mentors.

cory champion

Let’s talk about bass players. Watching you play with Johnny Lawrence (for instance) is pure joy. How important is the relationship for you between bass and drums?

It’s always great playing with Johnny! Beyond having an incredible sound and feel I think he always makes great decisions. Also, we have similar taste in a wide variety of styles so it feels like we’re on the same page. I’ve also been loving playing with Tom Callwood more over the last couple years. He’s so easy to play with and has amazing ears.

And of course, I’ve been hanging out with your dad, Paul Dyne, recently and it’s always such a treat going up to his place for a session. We talk about what we play, which sometimes can be confronting, but is always rewarding. I get a lot out of those hangs. I’m a big fan of Marika Hodgson, Chip Matthews, and Cass Basil too. I would love to play with them more.

What groups/artists are you currently performing or recording with?

I’m always working on my own Borrowed CS music, and currently, I am making the next Clear Path Ensemble album. I had the first Clear Path Ensemble show in October at the Friendly Potential festival catacombs which went really well, so I hope we can do some more shows soon. I just finished a tour with Lucien Johnson’s quartet (with Jonathan Crawford and Tom Callwood) and I’ve got upcoming gigs with Estère, Glass Vaults, Louis Baker, and Devil’s Gate Outfit. At the moment I’m working on recording projects for Lucien Johnson, Aja, Grayson Gilmour, Mara TK, and your new album!

What drum set do you mostly use for recording and for live and why?

Recently, I got a Gretsch Broadkaster in be-bop sizes, and I’ve been playing lots of acoustic music so that’s been amazing. I like playing quietly and these drums have such a rich full sound even at a low dynamic. My Ludwig Super Classic is my go to for everything else. Both kits record really well, so I just change it out depending on the gig. The Gretsch is good for high pitch tuning and the Ludwig is really classic and versatile.

You have some beautiful cymbals too. What kind of cymbals do you gravitate towards for the various situations you work in?

In 2011, I heard Riki Gooch playing a small club gig in Wellington and he had these custom cymbals made by this cymbalsmith from Adelaide. I was shook – they sounded so incredible. I asked Riki about them and the next day I got in touch with Craig Lauritsen and ordered the 22”. A year or so later, I ordered the 21” and he brought it to Wellington and I got to meet him. He’s an awesome guy and obviously an amazing cymbal maker (and drummer!). I’ve also got 14” hi-hats and an 18” china type from him. I mainly try to stick with those cymbals for everything, but I do use other pieces if it’s better for the music.

As a man of many talents you also play the vibraphone. Is that an extension of drumming or its own beast?

Honestly, I think the vibraphone is it’s own thing and it doesn’t cross over too much. But in saying that I have been trying to apply more rudiments and stick control type exercises onto the instrument to help with flow and mobility. Lance Philip got me started on vibraphone at university and I’ve had a hang with John Bell which was really helpful. Beyond that it’s just been self-directed study.

Which albums/recordings that you’ve been part of best demonstrate your deemon drumming skills?

My Clear Path Ensemble record came out earlier this year on Cosmic Compositions, and all my Borrowed CS music is linked on my Bandcamp page. I’m proud of my playing on Lucien Johnson’s forthcoming record which is due for release early 2021. The new Glass Vaults’ record ‘Sounds That Sound Like Music’ is really fun. I loved the process of recording that with Bevan Smith – it was very relaxed and his drum production is very unique and interesting.

I really like the stuff I’ve done with Christoph El Truento too. His album ‘Peace Maker Dub’, a couple things on ‘isolateblends’ and he produced Melodownz’ track Abundance with Troy Kingi.