This article was published in the Guardian, on July 13, 2007.
It was seven o’clock, on the seventh day of the seventh month of the seventh year, and the announcer sounded rattled: “Drummers forty-seven and forty-eight, where are you? Drummers, we need you to get out of the queue for the pissers. Now.”
Live Earth was not the only show in New York last Saturday. The Japanese experimental rock band, Boredoms, threw a party in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. There were no sermons, no tickets and no need to worry about the carbon footprint of the seventy-seven drum-kits arranged in a spiral. “The seventy-seven drum group is one giant instrument, one living creature,” declared the band’s leader, Yamataka Eye. “The seventy-seven boa-drum will coil like a snake and transform to become a great dragon.”
On a perfect summer evening, it seemed like all of lower Manhattan wanted in. Four thousand people filled Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park and hundreds more crowded the bridge or perched on the banks of the East River. Boredoms have had a profound influence on the American art-punk underground, and working with Sonic Youth, the Beastie Boys and Nirvana has lent them an unlikely crossover appeal, but no-one expected this, a frustrated queue of skinny jeans, tank tops and tattoos stretching half a mile down the waterfront.
Hisham Bharoocha was the event’s musical director. “It always amazes me that Boredoms have such a big following, as an incredibly avant-garde band,” he said, “but the new music that they’re doing is a lot more friendly to the ear.”
When he posted on a message board, asking for volunteers, more than three thousand drummers replied. “Some people were so intensely excited that I just had to let them do it. It wasn’t about who you know or which bands you’ve played in or how amazing you are at technical stuff. It was all about having the same relationship with ideas that the Boredoms have, and about being able to take part in a big project without having an ego.”
John Moloney, of Sunburned Hand Of Man, was one of fifteen ‘Drum Leaders’ charged with keeping his section in time and alert to rhythmic changes. He said: “I’m a huge Boredoms fan, so I told them ‘I will drink rat blood to do this thing’ and in a very gracious gesture on their part, they put me in.” He had been drinking free Sapporo all afternoon.
The performance began with a swarm of cymbals, like livid bees flying closer and closer, as drummers joined in one by one around the spiral. When the toms thumped, Eye began to howl, approaching the microphone from below with his head tilted back, like a dog. He summoned the whine of a cargo plane from his synthesizer and struck seven guitar necks tuned to different chords. Facing him on the riser, Yoshimi, his long term partner in noise, was uncharacteristically quiet, smiling as she pounded out the beat.
A few minutes into the collective trance, Eye raised a silver trident in the air and the drummers attacked their kits like heavy metal soloists. The D train rolled silently past over Manhattan Bridge, its familiar rumble drowned out by the hammering snares. A committed group of ravers by the water’s edge bounced up and down, hands in the air, urged on by a woman on stilts wearing a gold jumpsuit. The five-year-old Japanese girl to my right grimaced and pulled on her Hello Kitty earmuffs.
The battery lasted almost two hours, and towards the end many people drifted away to continue their Saturday night elsewhere. The sun dipped behind the downtown skyline, and a few wispy pink clouds reflected what little light was left. It felt like a fitting celebration of the Japanese festival of Tanabata, when two stars align across the Milky Way. “When this is over, please hug a drummer,” came the announcement, and finally, the dragon slept.