Little drummer boy

A drummer is often considered the backbone of a band, necessary for structure but often overlooked for flashier licks and whistles.

A drummer is often considered the backbone of a band, necessary for structure but often overlooked for flashier licks and whistles. They are the mandatory source of rhythm, high energy and time keeping, offering steady support to the fellow instruments while modestly letting them shine.

Portland drummer Neal Morgan would settle for no such thing.

After years of playing backup and attempting to mold his pursuits to that role—even learning other instruments as he believed necessary—Morgan’s mastery of the little-known intricacy of percussion demanded a stage. While on tour with Joanna Newsom, he began plugging away at a solo project, focusing solely on the percussion this time.

“It took a long time for me to come to the realization that I could make music just drumming and singing,” Morgan said. “Once I figured out this record was possible, the inspiration came in a very free-flowing, almost rapid way. Like these songs had been waiting to get out a very long time. It was a very freeing experience to know that I could make music just with the drum kit and my voice. Just doing the two things I love.”

His approach is synesthetic, blurring the line between sight and sound. He visualizes the ideal shapes and positions for each note and melody, revealing shades of sound and allowing an entirely audible image to emerge. There are clear parallels between his methods and those of a painter or sculptor, which likely stems from his history in the arts.

“[Making music] is almost how I remember making paintings when I was doing visual art,” Morgan said. “You paint something then add something there, then here, then you add this and subtract that and the piece starts showing you where it wants to go. It becomes more cerebral, and you follow it.”

On his debut record, To the Breathing World, space and position—terms rarely used to describe musical pieces—are meticulously crafted to create a three-dimensional soundscape. The songs are entirely nonlinear, requiring headphones to appreciate the subtleties and complexity of his pans, flows and transitions. The music builds and meanders, creating a storyline complicated and original enough to fill a postmodern art room at the Whitney Museum. Each piece of a completed song has a distinct and proper place to uphold.

“The panning is as much a compositional element as the performance,” Morgan said. “It’s really important, the way those vocal figures and individual notes work to exist in time in a spatial way. When you’re listening in headphones, there is an aural compass that’s created. The swooping harmony vocals are at 4 o’clock and the drum clicking is at 6 [o’clock] and the high chirping voice is at 9 [o’clock]. That is all very intentional. The chirping had to be there. It’s super important.”

Perhaps the most impressive feature of his methodology is its truly minimalist nature. Despite the density of the record, there are no loops, effects or postproduction work. Everything you hear was recorded on a laptop microphone based on Morgan’s spontaneous inclinations to do so.

“It was recorded on first impulses,” he said. “Nothing was written. Nothing happened in an edited way. The majority of what you hear is first takes.”

Currently on a solo tour, Morgan continues to explore his personal style without the implied stylistic, formative and structural expectations that can often steer artists away from their betrothed craft.

“I think the music community gets stronger and more interesting and rewarding to be a part of when participants are doing their very best to truly express themselves and to share what is unique to them. I think I’ve given it my best shot with this debut. I am a singing drummer. This is my music.”