Metal, Funk, Fusion Or Jazz, Drummer John Sergel Says Empathy Is Key

John Sergel brings an open mind and empathetic spirit to his drumming. The University of Illinois Jazz Performance major also believes his deep-dive into metal, funk, and other genres keep his approach fresh while working with Denise, and helps bring perspective to his overall playing.

The deelagee Blog (deelagee) caught up with Sergel via email recently.


deelagee: Was percussion in your bones from a young age? 

JOHN: Sometimes I feel like the only guy without the "banging on pots and pans since I was in diapers" story! I actually didn't start playing drum set until I was 13. My folks wanted me to learn a melodic instrument and so I tried piano and guitar lessons at a young age and played trumpet in middle school for a year, but I lost interest in all of these instruments fairly quickly. I think, at that age, not being able to immediately see the big picture of how melody and harmony and theory all work together made it difficult for me to trust that all the exercises were going to pay off and translate to music. The drum set was more approachable, and I could see how the exercises were going to pay off and how it applied to what I heard in songs. More importantly, I just felt really good when I was playing. I'm so grateful to still have that same feeling when I play. 

Can you describe what that "feeling" is, or what it does for you … or to you? 

JOHN: I just feel like I'm home, I guess. I'm just honed in on sounds and how my body is moving and I feel I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be. It's almost like my brain can't help but positively reinforce everything I'm doing when I'm playing. This doesn't always make for the most productive practice sessions but regardless of how I perform or how tired my body is telling me I am, there's nothing I'd rather be doing. I'm very grateful to have so much natural passion for something. 

You’re finishing your jazz degree at the University of Illinois and play jazz gigs in C-U and central Illinois, but you’re also playing in the metal band Beyond Threshold and I would assume other genres. What do you get from playing in those wildly different styles, or are there more similarities than one might think? 

JOHN: I love hopping around between different musical worlds so much!  Just this last week I did an Avant-Garde gig and a Fusion gig here in Urbana. Each style has its own patterns and quirks and the challenge a lot of time is finding a way to fit into that style without sounding generic, like someone copy and pasted a "blast beat" or a "funk groove" or the "spang a lang" ride-cymbal pattern. Those are fine as starting points but you want to get past those surface-level cliche's and really dig in and find out all the different ways you can approach the style and interact with the rest of the band. For me, that comes mainly from studying records in that style, digging through YouTube, and trying to stay up on different technique books that specialize in different styles. The main thing is to keep an open mind. I feel like, whether your a musician or a painter or a biochemist or a bricklayer, the tendency is to get wrapped up in what we already know and love and shut ourselves off to other styles or ideas. I try to stay vigilant about correcting that habit because the more different styles you study, the more you grow. Your perspective expands! Working with Denise has also pushed me to explore other styles. She's encouraged me to think outside of the jazz/ funk/ rock/ box and to incorporate more of an earthy gospel/folk sound as well. 

Speaking of Denise, she talks about your sensitivity as a player, both for your technical abilities and for your stage awareness. I think she says, “he’s a giver.” Where does that come from? 

JOHN: Aww shucks. That was very nice of her to say.  I try to live and play with as much empathy as I can. I try to pay very close attention to people and what they do or don't respond to and I try to constantly see things from another person’s perspective and understand when I don't know what I'm talking about and shut up and listen. I know how good it feels to create something and be happy with how it sounds, and I know how frustrating it can be when you're just an adjustment or two away from what you want but don't know what the adjustments are. I want to do everything possible to bring it all together or to at least help in that process. I just want to make people happy by doing what I love, and I pour as much of myself into that as I can, every time. I'm so grateful to be working with Denise and I learn new things each time we play together. She has shown me such kindness and patience and her resolve and passion are very real sources of inspiration for me. 

Totally different direction: Don’t recognize the image with the robot on your Facebook page. Where is that from and why are you drawn to it? 

JOHN: That's by Matt Dixon over in the UK. Honestly, I found his artwork while I was in a bit of a mid-semester depression. I was juggling a lot with school and gigs and in the process of going through a divorce and I very desperately needed some sort of inspiration. I came across a picture on google images called the "lonely robot" that I related to a lot and I looked up the rest of Matt's work online and ordered a few of his art books. The picture I have for my Facebook cover is that adorable robot navigating his way through the junkyard. I was (and still am) trying to navigate what was next for me in terms of relationships, school, music career, etc and while the scenery around you momentarily can seem a bit dreary, you try to keep that childlike curiosity alive and stay focused on "what's next" and that's what I felt like the robot was doing. Gah, I love art.


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