Mark Feldman’s Level 5 release their debut EP, Sybil, on 22 February via Mutant Cat Records. The collection features compositions from guitarist Oz Noy with Feldman on drums, Will Lee on bass, and Adam Klipple on keyboards. The group has just issued a video for the track, “Jabber Jaw”, evidence of the individual members’ deep musical roots in funk and fusion.
Noy is his soulful, lyrical self on the track, while Lee (the World’s Most Dangerous Band) and Feldman lock in to create a new breed of air-tight rhythm section. Klipple adds perfectly deft touches via his instrument on a piece that rivals the Meters at their dirtiest and funkiest or the best moments of Medeski, Martin and Wood. At a time when the musical landscape is littered with one-off musical projects, Level 5 lays the foundation for a bright musical future.
Feldman’s first brush with musical greatness came when he won Modern Drummer‘s very first drum solo contest, which Rush’s Neil Peart judged. The Canadian legend wrote that Feldman’s playing was “technically and rhythmically quite sophisticated”. Peart’s contributions to Feldman’s career have continued long beyond that moment, as the New York-based drummer explained in a recent interview from his home base.
Speaking about “Jabber Jaw”, Feldman recalls, “That was one of the first songs Oz wrote for me. He doesn’t just you a demo with a riff. He sent me a song structure that was complete from top to bottom. I knew right away that it was a great song.” As for the accompanying visuals, he adds, “We shot video for all the songs. With guys like that in that in the room, I wanted to make sure it was well-documented. Plus, we’re in the world of video now. People aren’t going to hear you if you don’t see you.”
Tell me a little bit about the origins of Level 5.
I’ve been playing drums in a lot of different settings for a long time. But I always wanted to play in a fusion-ish, progressive band. I was inspired in this way by Jeff Beck’s Wired and Blow By Blow. Those albums excited me immensely. I wanted to do something like that but if you wait around for somebody to call you it’s probably not going to happen. I decided I’d have to do it on my own.
Were these guys that you’d played with over the years or was this a case of saying, “I’d like to work with this guy and this guy”?
It was piece-by-piece, one thing led to another. I knew Oz. Were acquaintances. I’d played with him once. I didn’t write music at the time, though I’m starting to. So, the first issue I faced was that I needed material. I talked to a couple of different people about writing for me but I wasn’t getting where I wanted to get. I decided I’d just call Oz. I always went to see him play when Keith Carlock was in his band. I knew Oz would write the kind of stuff that I like. He said, “Yeah, man! I’ll write songs for you!”
He’s so good. He wrote things really fast and sent me these amazing demos. Then I decided that he should be part of the band. [Laughs.] I put my foot in the door and just kept opening it wider. I knew Oz played with Will and I said, “Do you think he’d play with us?” Oz gave me his number. Then we got Adam Klipple, an amazing keyboardist. One little curvy line leading to another.
I think a lot of music fans think about their fantasy bands: “What if I had Jeff Beck on guitar and John Paul Jones on bass?” Obviously, you can have accomplished players but if there’s not chemistry, it won’t work. Did you worry, as you were assembling the band, that maybe the chemistry wouldn’t be there?
I kind of did exactly what you’re saying. I put together a dream band. Everyone said yes. There was a lesson there that I learned: You can do anything you want. You just have to have the courage to do it. Ask people for the things that you want to have happen. In terms of chemistry, I never had a doubt about that. They’re all such good musicians that there was no possibility in my mind that it wouldn’t sound good.
It sounds like you have been playing together forever.
That’s the beauty of having musicians at that level play with you. We’ve all played with many different artists, many records. It’s in our toolboxes to lock in with people we don’t know and make it sound like we’ve been playing together forever.
You look so relaxed when you play. We often have this image of drummers flailing around, a big storm of motion.
You don’t have to make these crazy big movements. In fact, it works against you. The movement that you want to begin with when you play drums is just a movement of the wrist. Just like if you were dribbling a basketball. That’s a meat and potatoes thing. You don’t have to have a big movement to make a big sound. Vinnie Colaiuta talks about how, when you’re playing drums, you want to look like you’re dealing cards. At least that’s the story I heard and it makes a lot of sense to me.
It’s funny, I saw some footage of Cheap Trick with Bun E. Carlos a few years ago. There was footage of him from behind, so you could see his feet and hands. He moves like a dancer. Real graceful motion.
I agree with you. He’s also another one of my favorite players.
In addition to playing, you also run the Bang! The Drum School in New York City. Did you always want to teach or was that something you decided to add to your repertoire later?
Both. You’d be hard-pressed to find many musicians who don’t teach. How it happened for me was that I had a straight job. I worked at Sony Music. At a point, I decided I couldn’t do that job anymore. I quit and found a studio to practice at in Brooklyn. I just practiced all day, every day. I did that, literally, for three years. People thought I was insane. But I had taken time off and I needed to get back to the level I was at and then get to a new, higher level of proficiency.
People started asking me about it. “Whoever this crazy guy who is in a studio seven-hours-a-day must be able to teach me something.” I started giving lessons. I loved doing it. It’s exciting for me to help somebody learn how to do something that’s made me so happy in my life. I think of it as transferring joy from one person to another. That’s what music is, really.
There’s a business component to it too.
I have a business hat I can put on when I need to. The school really did grow into a business. There’s a funny side story about that, actually. When I was younger, I entered a drum solo contest through Modern Drummer that was judged by Neil Peart of Rush. The prize I got was Neil’s chrome Slingerland drum kit that he played during the first Rush tours. I kept it in storage for many years. When the school started to expand I knew I needed to move to a different space. But it was going to cost money to renovate it.
I wasn’t playing those drums. I’m not really a collector. I decided to see what the market for that kit was. I went to Main Drag Music, a great music retailer in Brooklyn. I worked with them on it. They refurbished the drums, put them on eBay and the kit wound up selling for $25,000. I used that money to grow my business and make this new studio where we are today. A $25,000 drum solo helped me grow my business.
Thank you, Neil Peart!
Yeah, thank you very much!