A conversation with Chico percussionist Mike Wofchuck
If there were such a distinction, Mike Wofchuck would be Chico’s “drummer laureate.” Since the 43-year-old Bay Area native came to Chico in 1988 to attend Chico State, he’s provided a wide range of beats for some of the area’s most popular musical acts. He was the original drummer for Chico’s favorite musical sons, The Mother Hips; he’s the unassuming third member for MaMuse, with Chico’s favorite musical daughters, Karisha Longaker and Sarah Nutting; and in recent years he’s been bandleader for Wolf Thump, the 11-person samba drumline—which features the women of MaMuse, plus an eclectic collection of local artists and musicians, including David “Dragonboy” Sutherland, Ayrian Dilts, Cameron Scott and Evin Wolverton, among others—that is the wildly beating heart of every festival, concert and community event that they show up to.
Wolf Thump is a local offshoot of Oakland’s The Loyd Family Players, a similarly configured troupe that Wofchuck (pronounced “Woof-chuck”) founded before leaving the band to concentrate on his Chico endeavors which, in addition to his musical pursuits, includes tending to bees for the apiarist’s Wofchuck Honey Co.
The Wolf Thump crew just finished recording their first CD, For the Love of the Groove, at Origami Recording Lounge. In anticipation of his troupe’s CD-release party (Aug. 16, at the GRUB Cooperative), Wofchuck answered a few questions about the new album (“It’s high energy. Someone can clean their house to this music in a very fast fashion.”) and the art of drumming. (For more with Wofchuck, see Arts DEVO, page 31.)
CN&R: Can you tell me a little about your drumming education?
Wofchuck: It was mostly just studying with great teachers—Lansana Kouyate [and] Sidiki Diallo were some big influences on me. Also, I studied a bunch of tabla. I went to India and studied there, and also I went to the Ali Akbar College [Indian classical music school in Marin] and studied there for a bit. But I think, also, I just listen. You listen to a Fela [Kuti] album, Tower of Power, you know, Nickel Creek, [and] you can learn something. I’m always listening to what’s going on in an ensemble, so it’s like a constant study for me.
What is it about a group of drummers that gets people so engaged?
It’s just very simple. It goes right toward that feeling that you want for dancing. It’s this thing that’s been around forever where people are hitting drums and people are dancing. There’s a relationship there. [There’s not] a lot of: “What are they saying?” Or, “What’s the message of this song?” Or, “What [are] the chord changes?”
There’s an idea that your mind isn’t the main perceiver of that music; it’s more of a feeling, so it really hits you in the heart. I think that people really look for that. They want a release.
How’s that look from your side—seeing the crowd start to move?
Well, that’s what it’s all about. That’s where the energy comes from. We just set up, and that’s what we’re looking for. So, when we’re met, then the drums can really do what they want to do. If you don’t have that relationship and that engagement, it’s definitely harder to get the energy up as a performer. But when you’re received and people start dancing, it’s just like a good game of tennis: It’s just back and forth.
That’s the beautiful thing about African music that I learned when I was studying West African drumming—that relationship between the drum and the dance. When you watch these masters—I was so blessed to see so many djembe players and master dancers just play off each and follow each other and get that vibe—it’s so beautiful.
Were you worried about losing some of the live energy being in a studio?
No. I didn’t want to try to recreate what we do in a live performance, which is a lot more improvisation, a lot more engaging in the dance and letting the vibe happen. This was more like, “We have these drum arrangements—let’s view them more as songs.”
We put a lot of energy into getting the songs right and knowing the music. So, when you’ve got that already, all you’ve got to do is flip the switch and just let it happen. It’s such a good crew that we were able to really just get our mojo going together and deliver that. And I think that the studio is just a make-or-break kind of situation, and I love that. I love that feeling of, “It’s on now!”