Everybody's got a drummer joke. And all the punch lines are based on the same stereotype: Drummers in rock bands are synaptically challenged freeloaders who lack the talent to play a real instrument. But talking with the drummer for Brooklyn's the King of France has a way of flinging those clichéd notions out the window. That's because Michael Azerrad isn't your average drummer -- he also happens to be one of the more revered music writers of his generation.
Before he got behind the kit with the King of France, a Talking Heads-influenced group fronted by former Kelley Deal 6000 guitarist Steve Salad, Azerrad was a prominent Rolling Stone writer best known as the definitive Nirvana biographer and author of Our Band Could Be Your Life, about the legacy of underground bands of the '80s (think Sonic Youth, the Replacements, etc.).
The King of France was born in 2002, when Azerrad and Salad, who had been casually jamming together between practice sessions for other bands, ditched those projects to give their collaboration a chance in the clubs of New York City.
"I was a drummer for many, many years before I was a music journalist," says Azerrad, who started hitting the skins at age 7, after his dad brought home a copy of Sgt. Pepper's. That influence is apparent on the King of France's self-titled debut, which came out last fall and features a dozen bouncy, piano-driven tracks that sound like they could've been the theme songs to some late-'70s sitcoms. The erstwhile frontman for Minneapolis' Deformo, Salad packs an idiosyncratic voice that's largely responsible for all those David Byrne comparisons, going from high-pitched shriek to lounge-y croon, sometimes in the same verse. The music is harder to pin down: You hear the Velvets one moment and piano men like Ben Folds or Elton John -- or even fellow Minneapolitan Mark Mallman -- the next.
Considering his line of work, Azerrad's no stranger to name-checking sound-alikes. "It amuses the hell out of me when people say, 'You guys sound just like Harry Nilsson,' and someone else will walk up and say, 'You guys sound like early Talking Heads.' No one seems to agree who we sound like, which just makes me chuckle."
But is this just another case of rock-critic-as-frustrated-musician? Azerrad, for one, sees it as an apples-and-oranges comparison. "I don't think that it's any different from going back and forth between bricklaying and long-distance running," he says. "Or brain surgery and handball. They're just two different things that you can do in your life."
Unlike some critics, Azerrad seems to be missing the jaded gene when it comes to music. "One of the drags about having this job is you feel obligated to think critically about all the music you hear," he says. "You got into this because you love music, but when you start thinking of it as a job then you've just ruined the thing you love the most. Playing music gets you out of that. You're not intellectualizing; you're just in the zone, enjoying it."
He hopes that enjoyment comes through on the album. "There's something in the bio about making music that makes you want to spin around with your arms outspread, like the people in The Sound of Music. This kind of ecstatic, unselfconscious, joyous feeling -- we're always going for that. Because life is pain," he says, "and music is a great balm for the soul. It's a narcotic; it's an aphrodisiac. It's speedy; it's a downer -- whatever you want. Music is a powerful potion. We try to be sonic pharmacists."
Sounds like something Wayne Coyne might say. But the King of France actually makes much more accessible stuff -- you'll find no Japanese girls fighting off pink robots here, and you won't need a fistful of mushrooms to be able to relate. The band might not be flashy or ultrahip ("We don't have trendy haircuts or cool Williamsburg clothes"), but its music is good and melodic and fun. It's the kind of music that, well, OK, fine -- it makes you want to grab Julie Andrews and dance in a meadow.
Still, Azerrad's not about to turn in his press badge in favor of the rock star life, as thrilled as he'd be if the King of France hit it big. "Whoever said that line about writing about music is like dancing about architecture ... I personally would like to see someone try to dance about architecture. I think it'd be fascinating."