The Low Hum: Drone Not Drones’ 28 hours of tunes

Alan Sparhawk plays the guitar during the Drone not Dronez concert // Photo by Steve Cohen

Alan Sparhawk plays the guitar during the Drone not Dronez concert // Photo by Steven Cohen

Going into Drone Not Drones this past January, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Like a lot of people, I wasn’t very familiar with drone music. And as much as I enjoy live shows, I also value being in bed by midnight at the latest, so 28 hours of straight drone music was very much out of my realm of normalcy and comfort.

As I stepped into The Cedar Cultural Center, I was hit in the face with the smell of patchouli, essential oil blends, and body odor. The musician on the right side of the stage filled the room with a low humming, accompanied by the occasional clatter of instruments being set up and broken down on the left side of the stage as Nels Cline, a guitarist best-known as a member of Wilco, prepared his set.

There were people strewn across the floor, curled in blankets and sleeping bags. Those near the edges of the room either sat cross-legged in meditation or stood leaning against walls, winter jackets still on, trying to look like they were at least a little comfortable with getting cozy at a show. The room was nearly totally dark except for the Dada-meets-psychedelia animation playing on the screen behind the stage.

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“I feel like a lot of people don’t really know what drone music is, but it doesn’t really matter if you know what it is, because it’s just your surroundings,” explained the venue’s house manager, Jared Hemming. “It’s just like breathing. It’s musical yoga.”

Trying to explain drone music for the unfamiliar can be difficult, because it is at once minimalistic and complex. Overlapping with more familiar genres like slowcore, doom, and post-rock, drone music puts heavy emphasis on continued and repetitive sounds and tones to create an atmospheric sound that blurs the line between music and noise.

“Drone music is about transcendence and experiencing something viscerally,” said Nathan Nelson of American Cream Band, part of this year’s lineup. “Commercially-made music is supposed to be a soundtrack to a life you are already living, to reinforce your memory. Drone requires the listener to give up control of the moment and connect to a consciousness outside of themselves.”

Drone Not Drones began five years ago in response to the Obama administration’s use of drones to target terrorist suspects. Alan Sparhawk made Luke Heiken’s bumper sticker phrase famous after ending Low’s Rock the Garden set in 2013 by pointing a determined finger and repeating the phrase to the crowd. Heiken had originally planned to make a drone compilation album with the phrase, but shortly after the Rock the Garden incident, he began planning the first Drone Not Drones concert instead.

“There are plenty of good uses for drones,” explained Heiken. “They’ve been used in search and rescue, they can be used for salvaging. But what I have a problem with is [the military] going around the law and using them to kill people without even really knowing why they’re killing people. Money then from [the show] goes to Doctors Without Borders, who I feel are doing the best work out there, going into these types of places and helping the people who need it the most.”

Photo by Steven Cohen

Photo by Steven Cohen

Cline slowly and surely faded into his set, overlapping with the end of Chuck Johnson’s set to keep the drone constant. That background drone continued through Cline’s set as he intricately plucked and strummed away, even chanting into the guitar pickups. People in the audience who weren’t all bundled up on the floor were rocking and swaying, one person even doing a sort of improvised combination of tai chi and ballet to the near-rhythmless music.

Before I knew it, IE, a local band featuring a few cultural studies professors from the University of Minnesota, were taking over the drone on the opposite side of the stage and more people were filling in for Low’s set right after.

Drone music, explained IE’s Michael Gallope, “is about taking a long stretch of time, activating it, making it come to life, while doing very very little, in fact as little as possible. How do you still create energy, an atmosphere, but doing almost nothing? It’s kind of an amazing challenge.”

Low were up next, beginning methodically with some soft, repetitive drumming during the overlapping switch of bands. By this point, the crowd size had nearly doubled and those who were originally standing against the wall had loosened up and were laying on the floor now using their jackets as pillows, making room for a new wave of drone-goers.

Low’s intro was slow and thoughtful as they faded into “Dark” off their 1996 album, “The Curtain Hits The Cast.” The vibrato in Mimi Parker’s voice stood out in the silence of the crowd, but their style of drone was easily the loudest of the night—which is saying something.

As the Low fans filtered out while Devil’s Flying Machine, Charlie Parr’s electric project, took over, everyone else hunkered down for the night. By this point there were distorted kittens on the projector, it was just after 2am, and the eighth hour of Drone Not Drones was “blissfully weird,” as described by one drone-goer who wished to remain anonymous so as to not “mess with the drone mojo.”

“The people who are coming in right away to grab a spot on the floor aren’t necessarily at other drone concerts,” said Heiken. “It’s almost like it’s a unique event, it’s something different to do. I don’t want to say [they] look square, but [they’re] people who look like they may not necessarily go to things like this normally.”

Nathan Nelson added, “When a group of people together all give themselves over to transcendence, the group makes its own collective consciousness. It becomes a community and it feels more real than a thousand likes or friends on social media. In this way, the drone can be a monolith for social change. I think every single person who gave themselves over to the drone would tell you the same thing.”

Drone is “really great for people who want to unplug. It’s the kind of people who in 2018 would still buy a vinyl record because they just like the sound of it,” said Hemming. So then are these the same people who play drone music? “No, the people who play drone music are the people who buy on cassette. Those are the drone musicians.”

The Saturday afternoon scene was much sparser and a little more alive compared to the crowd who were at the venue in the small hours of the morning. The scent of patchouli and oil blends had disappeared, replaced with something like a fruity vape flavor. I noticed one bright blue sleeping bag lump who seemingly hadn’t moved since I first arrived the evening before. There were a few kids playing a silent game of tag, a woman knitting and rocking a sleeping baby in its car seat with her foot, and small groups of people whispering back and forth near the ends of the room.

Lacustrine Cities brought the spoken word back to the stage, repeating “you don’t deserve rock and roll” near the end of their set over big, thundery drums that filled the near-empty room, all while the baby somehow slept on. The afternoon brought bands that were sample-heavy, and by the 20th hour, everyone had the silent setup/breakdown transitions down solid so as not to interrupt the drone for those currently performing—and for those non-performing, like American Cream Band, who had a styrofoam head standing at the microphone and all of their instruments and lights rigged up to play on different triggers.

“I try to give, musically, as little direction as possible to the bands when they ask me about it,” said Heiken. “I want them to interpret it how they want to interpret it because in the framework of this 28-hour drone, even if I say this particular moment right here may not be droney in the context of what’s going on, it almost becomes drone. There are metal bands that use drone, there’s Eastern European folk music that can get droney, the accordion can get droney, it can sneak its way into other genres too.”

Saturday evening wrapped up the 28 hours of drone music with a turnout not quite as large as the previous night, but substantial nonetheless. Pyrrha, a string trio, brought a more orchestral sound to the drone, which has largely been dominated by distorted guitars and audio programs. Loscil’s ambient, minimalist style seemed to inspire the audience to meditate.

Photo by Steven Cohen

Photo by Steven Cohen

Then, after the last bleeding transition of the show, Forma closed the 28th hour of the drone to respectful applause from the audience. Folks began rising from their blanket nests, the immovable blue sleeping bag lump unzipped for the first time, all awakening from the mental check-out, and for many, the spiritual check-in that is 28 hours of drone music.

“Something happens to your perception of time,” said Gallope. “When music is environmental like this, it fills up the whole space for hours and hours, it takes three, four, five hours of it before your mind starts to fully unwind, and at that point, you start to hear sounds with much less anxiety.”

This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Growler Magazine and 89.3 The Current, Minnesota’s non-commercial, member-supported radio station playing the best authentic, new music alongside the music that inspired it. Find this article and more great music content at thecurrent.org.