S.W. Lauden is a multi-hyphenate with at least two names.
As Steve Coulter, he’s the former drummer for power popping punk combo Tsar. That band was mostly active in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, though they experienced a brief resurgence in the early ‘10s when their guitarmony-laden single “Calling All Destroyers” was featured in James Gunn’s 2010 superhero sendup, Super. Currently, Lauden drums in The Brothers Steve alongside fellow Tsar alumni Jeff Whalen and Jeff Solomon.
And as S.W. Lauden, he’s an author, editor, music critic, and rock historian. He co-edited two collections of essays on power pop with Paul Myers–Go All The Way: A Literary Appreciation of Power Pop, and Go Further: More Literary Appreciations of Power Pop.
Lauden’s latest, Forbidden Beat: Perspectives on Punk Drumming, isn’t merely 224 pages of One Guy’s ruminating on the meaning of punk. Like the secondary title suggests, Forbidden Beat is a collection of many different drummers’ perspectives–which take the form of anecdotes, listicles, and historical essays–that Lauden has molded into a cohesive, eminently readable whole.
THE BELIEVER: This is not really a part of the interview. But I wanted to ask, what’s your background with writing? Were you a musician first, a writer first, or were you always interested in both?
S.W. LAUDEN: There’s that point in your teen years, or at least there was for me in my teen years, where my mind was kind of being blown every fifteen minutes by something. I don’t know if maybe some synapses connected or what. But music became a real thing, a real pursuit for me, and at the same time the guitar player in my first real band handed me a book. I would go hang out at the cool hippie bookstore on my way to band practice for my punk band in high school and read Charles Bukowski, John Fante, Jack Kerouac and Kurt Vonnegut. I ended up getting a degree in journalism but I was always playing music. Then I lived in Europe for about a year and a half, and I played in some bands over there. And when I came back, I fell in with this Hollywood band called Ridel High who made a record with Joey Cape from Lagwagon. Then I joined Tsar around 1998 and made a couple of records. I mostly put writing on hold until I left Tsar in 2003 or 2004.
BLVR: Were there any music writers who you admired?
SWL: You know, it wasn’t music writers initially. I read all of Vonnegut’s books three times before I was like, wait, they publish other books? It wasn’t really about rock journalism for me. When I studied journalism, I ended up being an arts guy. But fiction was the dream. And actually, the first three books I published were a trilogy, starting with Bad Citizen Corporation in 2015, about a punk rock singer who’s a P.I. living in the Hermosa Beach area. That’s where I grew up.
BLVR: It’s funny because every music writer gets there a different way, but I sometimes make the mistake of assuming it’s all the same path. I found out about a lot of fiction from reading Lester Bangs as a teenager—a lot of beat stuff especially that he would reference, and I was always wondering, what the fuck is he talking about?
SWL: I graduated high school in the ‘80s, and there was a pronounced “Beat Generation hangover” when we were kids, because our parents and teachers read that stuff growing up. We also had guys like Tom Waits, who were contemporary but who embodied the beat philosophy. I sometimes think about how the Beats’ influence finally sort of tapered off in the late ‘80s, similar to how The Beatles lost their stranglehold on pop culture in the early 2000s.
BLVR: Okay, so—why drums? And why punk drumming specifically? You’re a drummer, but even you describe this book as being a labor of love and sort of niche. How did you figure you’d fill an entire book with essays on this topic?
SWL: There’s not a lot of writing on punk drumming, first of all. So I felt like there was an empty lane to explore something that hadn’t been explored, specifically in this way.
I had two older brothers and they’re eight and nine years older than me. And they played a lot of what you would now call classic rock, and heavy metal. And that was sort of what I was brought up on. And then I heard the Dead Kennedys when I was probably twelve. Some neighborhood high schoolers played it for me. And it just kind of grabbed onto me. And that was really the music that felt like it was mine for the first time. Like, I didn’t feel like I was getting it through osmosis, or it wasn’t being handed down to me, which is an important evolution in anyone’s discovery of the arts. And it’s right around the time that I got my first drum set. So all these things were colliding in my little tween brain. And over the next couple of years, I just kind of slowly moved away from stuff like Aerosmith and Def Leppard a little and started embracing more punk rock, and it provided this freedom for me, not only in terms of self-expression and self-identity, but also in terms of being a new drummer and knowing I was never gonna be Neil Peart. But I would hear The Damned or The Sex Pistols or Ramones, and think, Man, that’s awesome. I might be able to play that in a couple months. So this collection very much came from that place, as a personal passion project.
BLVR: You’ve done this format a couple of times now, previously with your two collections of power pop essays. It feels very generous that you’re compiling essays and presenting them in this cohesive way, as opposed to writing a “book” book, where there’s just one author’s voice the whole time. Was that always the obvious direction for this project?
SWL: I’ve thought about this quite a bit actually, especially during the whole proposal process for the book. It’s funny—it’s such a drummer personality trait to want to turn the limelight over to other people. Originally, I wanted to write an essay about power pop drummers like Bun E. Carlos and Clem Burke for Go All The Way, the book I co-edited with Paul Myers. And then I met Ira Elliot from Nada Surf and saw his passion for it. And I was like, Oh, no, you’re the guy who should write that. When we got through the two power pop books, my publisher asked what I wanted to do next. And I was like, “Well, I’m still kind of noodling on this drummer idea. I’d still like to write about drummers in some way. And I was thinking maybe punk drummers.”
Initially I toyed with this being the 400-page, impeccably-researched, sprawling opus. But I realized I’m more interested as a reader in the perspectives of other people on this topic that is always in flux. To my ears, punk rock drummers have more room than in other forms of heavy music that came before it. So they can be heard more, and they’re allowed to take more risks because it’s a style of music that’s not as technically rigid in a lot of ways—although it has gotten that way in recent years. And so I feel like punk drummers in particular stand out in the music more and really are this beating heart of energy that propels this genre forward. I wanted there to be multiple views on punk rock from behind the kit, so to speak.
BLVR: I think anyone can relate to what you’re describing—having your parents’ or family’s tastes foisted on you, and then you discover this new thing that they have no awareness of that becomes entirely yours. I think for me that took the form of discovering Pitchfork, or listening to the Unicorns or whatever, and suddenly thinking like, man, now I’m cool. But now I’m at a place where all the music I’ve ever enjoyed can coexist, and I’m old enough to know that I’ll never grow out of anything permanently. Did you reach an age where you experienced that too? Like, with Def Leppard and Aerosmith and punk rock.
SWL: Yeah, I mean, I grew up in an area where there were some real dedicated, hardcore punk dudes. And I knew I was never gonna be one of them. I was never going to be the guy with the boots and a flight jacket, or sleeve tattoos. When I started seriously playing it was with some people who were perhaps more interested in the freedom of expression and art damaged side of punk rock. Once I started playing with those guys, we had no rules around music, and in fact, that first high school band was this mind-blowing music discovery club as much as it was a band. I mean, we made some music and played some shows. But we were listening to The Velvet Underground, and then The Stooges and MC5, and then The Replacements and Hawkwind all back to back. At the same time, we’re getting heavy into all the punk stuff, but we didn’t ditch Aerosmith. Aerosmith was great! I love their ‘70s Records, and I saw them when I was twelve because of my older brothers. So it’s always been a mixed bag for me. I don’t have a lot of hard, fast rules about genre. I’ve fallen into that trap over the years, as one does. But generally speaking, I can listen to Dead Kennedys and then listen to INXS or Dio. And you know, that never really troubled me all that much.
BLVR: You mentioned something about how punk drumming isn’t as technically challenging as some other forms of music, but that it’s gotten to be. I want you to elaborate on that.
SWL: Punk drumming, at its core, is primal, I think. Ira Elliot writes the first essay in this book, and he goes way back—to Fred Below, who played in Chuck Berry’s band, or Bob Bennett in The Sonics. And he’s also talking about Moe Tucker from The Velvet Underground, who flipped over her kick drum and played it like a timpani. And one characteristic element of punk is its acceptance of the novice. For me as a young punk fan, it was like, Give me a drum set, I’m starting a band tomorrow.
But then, of course, punk drumming mutates and evolves in the ‘80s. You get hardcore, you get the UK 82 movement, you get d-beat, it all blends with heavy metal. Then there’s pop-punk, and skate punk, which is when things start getting a little more overtly technical, the drummers in particular. Someone like Derrick Plourde from Lagwagon—he was not at all from the same garage rock, self-taught school as me. He probably could have easily played in a progressive metal band. An incredible drummer with tons of chops and style.
BLVR: Right, or Blink-182 comes to mind immediately, which is also very removed from that garage school you’re describing. I think that band, and maybe Travis Barker specifically, set this precedent we’re still seeing echoes of, and now technical drumming feels characteristic of modern pop-punk.
SWL: And the ‘90s really is where that shift occurred in a big way, as far as I can tell. But here’s what’s interesting. You have Travis Barker, who is incredible, and then the other big pop-punk drummer of the era, who is Tré Cool. And I love his drumming specifically because it reminds me of ‘60s rock.
BLVR: Oh yeah, you are totally right.
SWL: They’re both super talented drummers, but on opposite ends of the drumming spectrum.
BLVR: When you start navigating the industry, you realize how fussy so many people are about drums, even in these punk circles. They need to be mic’d a certain way, they need to be played a certain way, a kit needs to be set up a certain way—drumming feels really beholden to all of these rules still, at least when compared to, like, punk guitar. But then—and this is touched on in Ira’s essay—you have all these seminal punk recordings where the drums were recorded with one mic, and the image is very mono. Do you think we’ll ever return to that aesthetic with drumming? Where the scrappy recording matches the spirit of the playing?
SWL: It’s a matter of personal taste, but yeah, if you’re a recording drummer now it seems like the expectation is that you are super versatile, which is totally understandable from a business perspective. But there’s always a small part of me in those situations that’s like, “I’m just going to play drums the way I play them, you guys record it.” I’m being kind of obnoxious about it because I never want to let anybody down if they’re inviting me into their project but to act that way now almost seems like willful defiance. Again, it’s all a matter of personal taste, but I happen to like it when the wheels feel like they’re about to fall off a little. As a listener, I like it to sound human. A good example is Charlie Watts—there are times in The Rolling Stones’ catalog where it feels a little wobbly. He’s playing to the song perfectly and I love it. I look forward to those moments. Same with some of Keith Moon’s early drumming.
Rat Scabies from The Damned makes some interesting points about all of this in the interview I did with him for Forbidden Beat. He basically says that being a self-taught drummer in a punk band forced him to be inventive. I think that’s really similar to how I’ve always thought about drums, for better or worse, as a form of brutal self-expression. I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of musicians who let me do my thing.
BLVR: I think in terms of readability, the mix of voices is really nice. And not every piece in here is just a straightforward essay—like Jon Wurster’s piece, for example, is a Top 5 on punk songs that will help whip you into shape as a drummer quickly. Were there any drummers you wanted to include in the book that you couldn’t for whatever reason? And how did you go about soliciting contributors?
SWL: I started with a wish list, but I realized pretty quickly that it was just ‘80s drummers I grew up listening to, so I had to check myself. And then I took the approach of a timeline—let’s say it begins in ’65 with proto-punk and garage rock, and then I moved through the decades. And then as the book evolved, I realized I didn’t need more essays, specifically—what I needed were more recent perspectives. That was a big evolution in developing this project, because it motivated me to reach out to people I didn’t know as well, like Phanie Diaz from Fea, Urian Hackney from Rough Francis, and Benny Horowitz from Gaslight Anthem. And those turned out to be some of my favorite stories in the book.
BLVR: What, to you, is the ideal punk drummer?
SWL: It’s somebody who’s not afraid to take risks. Again, I’ll probably point to somebody like Rat Scabies from The Damned. You practically hear him learning as he’s playing on that incredible first Damned album. But it doesn’t matter because he’s putting every inch of his soul into it, and he’s beating those drums within an inch of their life. And even after all these years, when I listen to that music, my body responds to it and I’m immediately drawn to that energy.