Drumhead of the class

Jim White is indie rock's drummer of choice-and with good reason.

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NOT THE PIANO MANIf Jim White looks uneasy, it might be because his snare drum isn’t in the picture.

NOT THE PIANO MANIf Jim White looks uneasy, it might be because his snare drum isn’t in the picture. Photo: Cinzia Reale-Castello

In the bowels of Madison Square Garden, a beefy stagehand, bedecked in muscle shirt and goatee regalia, is curled up inside a hockey net. Soon he will be hauling amps and guitars for the evening's performers—Interpol, Cat Power and Liars—but now he is fast asleep, nestled in the Rangers' goal with the dreamy innocence of a newborn.

In the bowels of Madison Square Garden, a beefy stagehand, bedecked in muscle shirt and goatee regalia, is curled up inside a hockey net. Soon he will be hauling amps and guitars for the evening's performers—Interpol, Cat Power and Liars—but now he is fast asleep, nestled in the Rangers' goal with the dreamy innocence of a newborn.

To this scene approaches Jim White, the journeyman drummer who tonight will form the backbone of Cat Power's band. White has a steadfast wardrobe of his own: dark rumpled suit, white shirt, no tie, chest hair. He sits down at a kit planted alongside the hockey equipment and attaches an antique snare that he has been lugging around all afternoon. "What would you like in your monitor?" the night's soundman asks. "Chan—"

"Just voice and guitar," White says, his vowels swallowed by a clipped Australian accent. "We'll start with that." The drummer examines his snare, picks up his sticks and rapidly strikes each drum. He operates with perverse ease, as if, like some doomed Spider-Man villain, his body has physically morphed with his instrument. White is by no means a hard-hitting player—PJ Harvey has compared him to a ballet dancer—but in the vastness of the Garden's backstage, the drums sound thunderous. Even this racket, however, fails to extinguish the stagehand's nap; as the drumming abates, the man's snoring continues.

The wheezing worker may not know it, but he has joined an illustrious line of vocalists to get a boost from White. The Melbourne native and current Brooklynite, who first came to note in the mid-'90s with the instrumental trio Dirty Three, has become the most in-demand drummer in town. In addition to Cat Power (with whom he has played off and on for a decade) and Harvey (who employed him on her new album, White Chalk), White has performed with everyone from Nick Cave to local psych-folk band White Magic. Those who play with White speak of him with the ardor of religious converts. "Drummers are one thing and Jim is another," Will Oldham says. "He takes a song apart, element by element, and then rebuilds it with his parts incorporated. The joy of being on Conan for me came mostly from one thing: getting to watch TV later and seeing Jim play, knowing that lots of people all over the country could see the same thing."

In an e-mail, Joanna Newsom writes that White "drums like somebody who is working with pitches as well as rhythm. He's definitely a virtuoso player. He can cling, with a palpable, high-stakes looseness and gorgeous blind faith, to the downbeat, sounding for a moment like he's dropped his sticks before resolving into shockingly metronomic precision."

Now, for the first time in a long and varied career, White receives cobilling on an album: You Follow Me, a series of duets with local singer Nina Nastasia. "Nina was playing a ballad and it got me thinking about the drums," White says, sitting in the Cupcake Caf in Hell's Kitchen hours before his Garden debut. "I wanted to see if they could fill the same role and emotions that strings and stuff normally would. It could be very subtle and still, but in the starkness you could hear what I was doing."

As with much of White's work, his drumming on You Follow Me is muted and uncommonly busy. "I wanted it to sound like you were hearing a full band," Nastasia says. "And if any drummer can take on a whole band, it's Jim." According to White Magic's Mira Billotte, the drummer "is so intuitive that he basically developed his own style. Even though he's playing rock, he approaches it from a perspective that's like improvised jazz." And while White insists he never had an interest in playing jazz—his training consists of teenage lessons "from a guy down the road"—his tendency toward improvisation keeps singers on their toes. "He doesn't rest on his laurels," claims Bill Callahan, whom White has accompanied both in concert and on Smog albums. "It makes a tour not-dead and inspires me to constantly think of how songs could be more appropriate to the night."

As for this evening's Cat Power show, White is the portrait of gigging-musician nonchalance. Until, that is, he tucks his snare drum under his arm, leaves the caf, hails a taxi and instructs the driver to deposit him at the arena.

"Where's that?" the cabbie responds.

"Where's that?" the typically staid drummer roars. "Are you serious? Jesus! It's Madison Square Garden!"

Nina Nastasia and Jim White play Mercury Lounge Wed 3. You Follow Me is out now on Fat Cat.

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