“The Drum Thing” Showcases the World’s Greatest Percussionists

Photo: Pauli ‘The PSM’: Drums for Gorillaz / Damon Albarn. Photographed at home, New York

The drummer is the heartbeat of every band, setting the rhythm, the tempo, and the flow of energy to every song performed. Though they are set back behind the front wo/man, it is they who keep time and connect the listener to the soul of the music. The drum literally follows the human heartbeat: one-two, one-two, raising and lowering the tempo so that we feel it deep under the flesh, in the very marrow of our bones where blood is produced.

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Photographer Deirdre O’Callaghan understands this, and has been documenting drummers from all walks of life, getting to know the master who holds the sticks. Her new book, The Drum Thing (Prestel) is a testament to her love for the percussionist. The book features nearly 100 photographs of musicians at work and at rest, along with another 100 of landscape and environmental shots, providing a pictorial opus of these unsung heroes of music—including Ginger Baker, Travis Barker, Dave Grohl, Mike D, Larry Mullen Jr., Ringo Starr, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Lars Ulrich, John Densmore, Roy Haynes, and Jack White, among many more.

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“I love the rhythm section.” O’Callaghan writes. “Drummers are underrated and underappreciated. They are the leaders even though they sit at the back. They are a band’s foundation. They express the intuitive rhythm we all have inside us, connecting us to our primal instincts. They also display respect and restraint, managing time with intelligence and skill.”

Each drummer is interviewed and photographed, the words and the images playing off each other in perfect harmony. We learn of their experiences in the band, on the road, in the studio, and on stage, working with legendary artists ranging from James Brown (Clyde Stubblefield) to Fela Kuti (Tony Allen).

“Great drummers inspire the artist to go beyond what they normally would do,” observes Jack DeJohnette, who has played drums for legends including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Keith Jarrett, and Paul Simon. He cites drummers including Art Blakely and Max Roach as masters of the form, knowing how to get the best out of the front men. “That’s the drummer’s job: to make it feel good, to inspire the musicians and also be inspired.”

That inspiration travels forth to the audience who nods their head, taps their foot, shakes their hips, or shimmies to the rhythms evoked. The drummer is the one we connect with above all, which may be why we do not need to see them: we can feel them in the bass thumping in the floors and the walls.

But it’s a beautiful and honorable thing that O’Callaghan does with The Drum Thing, shining a light on the faces that deserve to be known and seen. And the stories they share are mindboggling. Questlove recalls the moment he received a letter from a lawyer saying, “Stop the government from using your music,” as a form of torture on the detainees at Guantanamo Bay. With every page, O’Callaghan surprises us with the unexpected stories of the men and women behind the music.

All Photos: ©Deirdre O’Callaghan.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.