Meet Pauli, the Drummer Changing the Game from the UK to NYC
New York today, Berlin tomorrow, Tokyo the day after that. Such is life as a touring drummer. Opportunities arise based on their own sense of time and urgency and, dynamics change given the crew and/or musician. This transience—and the music industry at large—is fueled by structured chaos and staying grounded (a feat when massive egos, budgets, and crowds of thousands are a part of the equation). For Londoner-turned-Manhattanite Pauli Stanley-McKenzie, it’s all about making sure he’s got everything he needs within reach from the place he calls home, and currently, home is an underground party called Back to Life.
For just over a year, Lower East Side spot Louie and Chan has played host to the party, featuring appearances and sets from iconic Brits like Idris Elba and Daniel Bedingfield, along with a steady rotation of the freshest DJ talent NYC has to offer (think Moma, Jasmine Solano, and Just Blaze). We kicked it with Pauli to talk drums, music, and partying, and most importantly, how he manages to keep his cool amidst the chaos.
How long have you been drumming?
I started drumming professionally in 2005 when I won UK Young Drummer of the Year. The following year, I toured in South Africa at age 17 and worked with the Afro-pop legends, Osibisa.
At which point did you want to take drumming a step further by steping out from behind from the kit to the forefront and becoming a solo artist?
From age 18 to 24, I toured consistently with artists Eliza Doolittle and Tawiah (Supporting Mark Ronson) and also with bands Kindness and Gorillaz Sound System.
After nearly a decade in the game, I was encouraged by my friends Eric Lau & Oddisee to start making my own music. I guess they saw something in me that I wasn’t able to tap into at that point. All I knew was that I wasn’t happy; there were a few other bands that I got fired from along the way—I didn’t agree with what they portrayed, their direction or messaging. So in 2013 I opted for autonomy; I quit drumming all together and moved to Paris to submerge myself in art and distance myself from distractions. I discovered this quote in French that translated to “Fail to follow your dreams and people will hire you to fulfill their own.”
About a month into my escape, I got a call from Damon [Albarn] asking me to play drums with Bobby Womack, and I politely declined. I told my mum…she said I was crazy and that it was the first time she had actually heard of an artist that I could have played for. So I took my mum’s advice and called Damon’s PA back and asked if the offer was still open. Subsequently, we headlined Glastonbury in June 2013.
Who or what have been your greatest musical influences?
Most of my inspiration comes from visual stimuli—I’m no movie buff, but I love Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Spirited Away (2001). They’ve been more influential than any music I’ve ever heard. Also, I know he’s a really buzzy name at the moment, but genuinely, Basquiat changed my life.
Similarly, if I had to choose musical influences they are all based on shows and films I saw as a kid: Bob Marley’s 1977 performance at the Rainbow Theater, Pink Floyd’s 1972 performance at Pompeii, the Talking Heads 1984 concert film, Stop Making Sense, and even MC Hammer’s 1990 movie, Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em. The movie was a huge influence for a 2-year-old kid; there was something fascinating about watching a hip hop superhero. I wanted to be Hammer.
As a touring drummer, how do you best connect with different artists? When you keep tempo for others, how do you slide into the vibe?
I only work on projects that I vibe with. That’s essential. Integrity is everything.
What was your work with FKA like? What is it like to bring your creative abilities and insight with an artist so specific? Same goes for Jamie xx and Robyn?
Every live situation is different. Twigs was my first real MD [musical director] job; she saw something in me that I hadn’t previously seen in myself and for that I am eternally thankful. I believe she is the most exciting artist of my generation. Working with her was truly a blessing and led to my next MD gig working the TV show circuit with Jamie (which included Le Grand Journal in Paris and Late Night with Seth Meyers in NYC).
Working with Robyn was very different…she’s a legend! We were embarking on a headline festival tour (one of which was GovBall) and only had a week to compile a 90 minute set together.
What made you start Back to Life? You’ve brought on multiple DJs from the US, UK – what draws you to them/their sounds? (like Idris Elba)
Moving to New York was the impetus. Idris is my big brother…I met him in Mali on an Africa Express trip. We got talking and realized we had way too much in common. We both grew up off the same road in London and moved to NYC at the same age; we’ve worked on some music together and ever since we’ve been mates. Whenever he touches down in NYC we link up and on this occasion it happened to be the same weekend as Back To Life, so he came through and blessed us with a ridiculous house set.
Back to Life has really been a chance to amalgamate Brits abroad. There’s a lot of us here.
Featured image courtesy of Dierdre O Callaghan
Check out Back to Life’s latest mix and stay tuned to Milk for more from our favorite intercontinental creators.