December/January 2019

by Kate Baya

Get Yer Kit Off: Jess Hix

by Kate Baya

Get Yer Kit Off: Jess Hix

Jess Hix is a talented trained multi-instrumentalist who has made a name for herself within the music industry as a professional percussionist and drummer. Jess plays in multiple bands, covers and originals – and has also spent time performing with the Royal NZ Navy Band and Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. Currently, you can catch her drumming for The Backchat, Superhero Second Line, and Audio Farm. Kate Baya chatted with Jess about her drum set up, how she got started and what she’s up to in 2019.

jess hixLet’s kick off with what it was that inspired you to start playing the drums, Jess?

I was actually playing the piano when I was nine. Then around 12 years old, I saw an ad on TV where this guy was busking and I think that was the pinnacle moment when I was like, “I want to play drums!” I have a twin brother and he was playing in a brass band and I just went along. I played triangle and bass drum for like a year. There was an old dude playing the drum kit and I was determined to take his spot! So I was doing that for ages and then I just started playing more in high school.

And how was it that you became adept with tuned percussion?

I did lots of tuned percussion because I could already read music, that kind of took over. It just kind of happened, especially in a brass band, you just have to play heaps of tuned stuff. My musical journey has been a little bit weird actually, but I think it’s made me quite versatile. I have a classical music degree, so have played in various groups from orchestras to concert bands to chamber groups and percussion ensembles.

jess hixAre there techniques in tuned percussion that cross over to playing on a drum kit?

I feel like it’s a totally different instrument. You’ve got four mallets and you’re playing chords and lines. I have had people be like, “Oh just get a marimba and put that beside your drum kit and play!” I’m just like “Yeeeaaaaah, I’d love to lug that around…”

So then how was the move to full kit playing?

I always had a drum kit when I was at high school. I was always playing in covers and rock bands with my friends – Blink 182, Red Hot Chili Peppers and all that haha – probably really terribly! Then I went to uni and did my classical degree and drums kind of took a back seat to that. Then I got the job in the Navy band when I was still at uni and moved up to Auckland and tried to throw myself into every situation. The NZ Navy have a 28-piece band that breaks down into various groups including rock band, big band, jazz combo, dixie band and marching band. I was involved with most of these. Playing a lot of kit for jazz combo, cocktail parties on ships and all that. I just started jamming heaps, joined a band up in Auckland and was always working on originals projects with friends. But yeah, I was doing everything I could musically, and now I guess I play more drums than percussion.

jess hixDrum kits or percussion setups? What’s your preference?

Ahh. That’s hard! They are very different things. It was pretty hard for me coming from classical to let loose a bit. People were like, “Just make something up!” and I was like “Whaaaat?” But I’m pretty used to it now. I love playing drums. When I first started I was mainly reading music and then got into more improvisational stuff.

Tell us about your own kit.

It’s a pretty small set up. I just have a four-piece kit. One rack tom and one floor tom. One ride and one crash and some hats. I feel like it’s enough. If I’m just laying down a groove I’m not crashing all over the place. I can crash on the ride as well if I want a different sound.

I do sometimes think I should probably branch out and have two crashes, but then I don’t really need more gear. I did buy this nice Kdrums snare though. I played a Kdrums kit on a tour I did with The Backchat, and that’s when I had a go on that snare. It sounds so great! You know when you get a crappy snare and you’re not getting much snare sound at the edge of it? It’s not like that. It’s responsive where ever you hit and I use it for heaps of stuff. I also have a brass Weta snare and I just use that for Superhero Second Line because it’s super ringy and bright. It suits the vibe.

Sometimes I’ll just play bits of percussion like jam blocks. I have a tambourine on my hi-hat. So when I say my set up is simple, I suppose it’s different for everything. Audio Farm has all this percussion and then Backchat is a bit more chill, but I’m also singing in that band so that’s enough to think about!

jess hixI tried singing and playing the drums once… never again. It’s pretty tough.

I’m just singing BVs and focus on trying to be solid. It’s a whole different ballgame. At first, I was like, “Yeah I’ll do it!” and then later was like, “Shit… this is pretty hard.” It’s just a coordination thing. It’s just another sound source and that’s kind of what we do as drummers with all our limbs… I’m just adding one more thing. If you look at it like that it’s really just an independence exercise. Just breaking it down. It’s fun, but I would never do lead. I’m happy at the back!

You’re pretty busy with music. Is it a full-time thing for you?

Yeah! I play in some covers bands and I play for Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra. It keeps my classical chops in check. I teach as well, which is a whole different thing – you’ve got to find a way to keep everyone interested. I had some really great percussion teachers throughout high school and uni and they were really inspiring to me, so I try and be like that. You need to let the students play what they are interested in whilst still giving them a good base in theory. If you can’t read music it’s a lot harder to understand what is going on. Theory makes you a bit more of a well-rounded musician.

It’s not always easy to find a space for your drums where you can freely practice. Do you have your kit set up somewhere where you can rehearse?

My kit is packed up right now, but I just practice at the Auckland Drum School. It’s just around the road and I’ve got a studio there. I’m so lucky it’s a good space. I can’t get my band in there though. There are some rules about noise and I’m in the smallest room, but I like it. It’s got character. I go in there and practice all the time.

Seeing as you’ve been focusing on rudiments, do you have a favourite?

Uhmm… I think maybe the paradiddle-diddle. I don’t really have a particular favourite, but yeah maybe just paradiddle combos. I’m not going to do all these drags, triplets, and flam taps throughout my playing because it would sound just kind of messed up. Actually though, I’m going to contradict myself here, I use all that stuff heaps with Superhero Second Line. I’m just playing snare drum, so there are heaps of flams and buzz rolls. It’s a bit different to pop music. I guess it depends on what you’re playing.

So how have you altered your playing to suit pop?

For pop music, I really like groove-based playing. Nothing too fancy. I’m happy to just sit on a groove and just make sure it’s locked in and solid. So I guess I just simplify everything, not that that means it’s simple. I’m happy to just focus on holding it down. I get to play busier with other bands so I get a bit of variety. It’s cool.

The Backchat stuff is fun. The singer and guitarist will come in with the bones of the song and we’ll work on the form and have a jam with myself and the bass player. Then we figure out a groove that works with their melody. It always feels fairly straight forward because they’ve already come up with an idea.

Is writing with The Backchat different from your other bands?

In my other bands, like Audio Farm, I’ll make up a weird groove and they’ll be like “ok cool. Let’s play something crazy”. It’s like brass house music and has a Too Many Zooz vibe. There are two horns players and they’re also playing synths and looping and running their horns through effects pedals, and it gets a bit crazy. That’s real fun actually. It’s more of a creative band. We do have some songs that have form, but there’s a lot of improv going on. The guys are looping some kind of line and I’m hoping that they play something relatively in time with what I’m doing. I think it makes it exciting though. I just have to make sure I can hear them.

How do you get your kit to sound the way it does?

I’m not too fussy with it, I just kind of get the right tone that I feel sounds right. For the toms, I’ve got the bottom head higher and the top looser. When I first got my kit it had clear heads on and I wasn’t happy with the sound, so I bought some coated heads to make a little more damp. It was just too ringy for me. I don’t really know how to explain it, but coated heads fixed that.

To make sure you can hear what’s going on do you use in-ear monitors when you’re playing?

Yeah, I do. I try and run in-ear monitors with Audio Farm. With the Backchat I run them because I have a click. I have a small mixing desk, I run my click into the desk and then the sound person runs the monitor send into my desk, so I can control it. I’m the only one who has a click and the singer triggers samples, but the samples are in time with me so it’s fine. There’s a small room for error, but it seems to be working. If I’m right on the click it’s fine, and the sample is short enough so it never really goes out. If it is a train wreck we can just stop the sample, but that hasn’t happened!  

I’m lucky with Superhero Second Line because there are big loud horns and even if the monitors aren’t on point I can hear what’s going on.

How is it playing in a second line band?

It’s jazz so there’s heaps of improv going on, but the groove is pretty solid. There’s the other drummer and the sousaphone player. It’s all about listening hard and we have played that stuff so much, so we know how the grooves go and how each person plays. We’re trying to make it sound like one machine, so it’s just listening and making sure you’re locked in. It’s a repetitive groove unless you’re soloing.

Are there any standout shows that you’ve played?

I did do a really cool gig last year. It was Final Fantasy [computer game] music. It was really fun. They just tour around and have a different chamber group in every city. I played Final Fantasy music for two hours, but it was full-on. I had two drum kits and had to play drum kit and glockenspiel sometimes at the same time. I also played tubular bells triangle and tambourine while playing kit. I was in my element! I had a xylophone with a bass drum underneath and a hi-hat and a snare beside it. The set up was huge and I’d be running across to play xylophone and bass drum and then trying to play glockenspiel with my left hand while playing drum kit. It was a real buzz!

That stuff blows my mind. I don’t know how you play all that!

Yeah, it was buzzy because I did a lot of practice on it, but I didn’t practice it with the set up I was going to have on the day because it was just a pain to set all that up. So I had to think really hard about the logistics of it. A lot of that goes on when playing percussion – the logistics of what you’re going to play and where you’re moving to next. It was super fun and I was stoked. I really enjoyed it. I kind of get myself into lots of weird and wonderful musical situations. I love it and I think it always makes me better as a musician.