In 2011, having realised the dream of many musicians — winning wide acclaim as part of a successful band — Greg Fox walked away. He'd spent the past two years playing with Liturgy, a New York outfit that reimagined black metal as, to borrow a phrase from one of its song titles, an ecstatic rite. Fox’s drumming captured the headlong lunge at the heart of the genre but added a refreshing elasticity. As much a massage as an attack, his playing allowed the music to breathe. But months after they released their defining statement, the still breathtaking „Aesthethica“, Fox decided he’d had enough. ‘Liturgy was fun and educational,’ he wrote in a statement at the time, 'but it's time for me to move forward.’
Departing Liturgy propelled Fox not just beyond a given band but beyond any sort of musical limitation. His output during the past decade is mind-boggling in its range: free-form electroacoustic duos with fellow drummer Kid Millions; epic instrumental doom-prog with Ex Eye; trance-inducing minimalist jams with Zs; exploratory psychedelia with Guardian Alien; heady electronica under the GDFX banner; and even a brief but fruitful return to Liturgy for 2015's challenging „The Ark Work“. And that's only a partial list.
At the Monheim Triennale 2022, he’ll perform in three other contexts: solo, possibly on a MIDI-equipped drum kit that transforms him into a one-man synth-and-percussion orchestra; with futuristic, jazz-adjacent improv group Quadrinity; and, maybe most surprisingly, in a reverent Black Sabbath cover band that unites Fox with avant-garde fellow travellers like singer Angel Deradoorian and guitarist Mick Barr. All these projects make use of his spellbinding chops, combining a metal drummer’s speed, power, and double-kick-pedal command with a startling fluidity derived from his in-depth study of advanced hand technique. But in Fox’s musical world, virtuosity is never an end in and of itself.
That idea came into focus, according to the now 36-year-old Fox, almost as soon as he left Liturgy, in part due to a serendipitous meeting. Around this time, Fox says, friends of his started mentioning a familiar name: that of Milford Graves, the drummer, philosopher, healer, researcher, martial artist, and all-around visionary who’d revolutionized jazz drumming in the mid-’60s, and in the decades since, had become a sort of spirit guide to generations of improvisers in New York and across the globe. Fox knew of Graves, having come across his name in a college course and seen him play alongside John Zorn, so he decided to drop him an email. Some months later, he visited Graves in his combination drum studio and research lab in Jamaica, Queens, and what resulted was a friendship and mentorship that fundamentally altered Fox’s worldview, and would last up through Graves’ death at age 79 in early 2021.
'I was already, at the time when I met him, going through a big change, because I was unhinging myself from deriving the majority of my self-worth from being told that I was really good at playing drums in Liturgy,’ Fox explains in a March Zoom call from his home in Brooklyn, also the site of his recording studio, Studio Te. 'I was unhooking from that, and while I was doing that, I was meeting Milford, and we were talking about slowing down, giving space to the playing, thinking about communication. It's not like I didn't have any experience improvising; I did. But it changed all of it completely for me. It began to take me out of an idea of constantly determining whether every note that I play is cool or not. Being with what's happening in the moment, and trusting it.
'Just trying to focus on being honest and not really trying to be — to some degree, maybe it's impossible to escape fully — but trying not to be impressive,’ he continues. 'Or trying not to worry about being impressive.’
Meeting Graves yielded wondrous musical results. For example, Fox's transporting 2014 solo album, „Mitral Transmission“, grew out of Graves' pioneering research into the ways that artists can study their own heart rhythms, and use them to enhance their work. ‘He showed me what my heart sounded like," Fox says matter-of-factly. ‘He showed me, with my heartbeat, all the rhythm that is contained in it.’
More broadly, this period represented a major junction in Fox's creative life, the moment when he left behind not just what he knew, but the musical context that others knew him for. 'I took the risk, and jumped off the cliff, and found out that there was something on the other side of that,’ Fox says.
'I just was trying to find myself, trying to find my real voice, trying to find situations that felt good.’
The truth is that Greg Fox was probably never destined to be a one-band or one-genre drummer. He grew up in New York, enchanted early on by his father’s copy of Frank Zappa’s „Hot Rats“ and the Nine Inch Nails and Cure records that a babysitter would play after picking him up from school. He started playing trumpet in fourth grade, then switched to drums a few years later, inspired by his maternal grandfather, an amateur jazz drummer. In high school, he saw jam bands perform at fabled New York club the Wetlands, and started delving into more bizarre sounds after a friend played him Mr. Bungle.
Once he graduated, he moved to Brooklyn with a friend and got a job at a Manhattan music store. There he met a future musical mentor, Guy Licata, who specialized in translating the sleek breakbeats of drum'n'bass and jungle to the drum kit. Licata taught him techniques for increasing hand speed, including the so-called “push-pull” method behind Buddy Rich’s famed one-hand rolls, which Licata’s own teacher Jojo Mayer had shown to him. Fox practiced hard, and those skills would later prove crucial in Liturgy and beyond.
Enrolling in college in upstate New York, Fox studied studio art alongside music and played metal with future Liturgy bandmate Bernard Gann. After school, he toured heavily with Teeth Mountain, a group that combined polyrhythmic drumming with expansive drone, and that would eventually sign on as the backing band for charismatic avant-pop composer/party-starter Dan Deacon.
So in 2009, when he joined Liturgy, Fox hardly fit the description of a typical black-metal drummer. But the band proved to be an ideal context for him to apply what he’d learned thus far and, from there, to develop a signature voice behind the drum kit.
'This thing that I was learning to do in a jungle kind of context, I learned and then took it and used it in a metal context,’ Fox says. 'I wasn't doing it because I thought it would be clever; it just happened. And Liturgy is certainly extremely expressive music, so I was really able to put a lot of my energy and soul into that playing and using that technique. As I got better and better at using it and applying it to different things, all of a sudden, I found myself with my own style.’
But even as the group gained momentum and his own playing drew notice (in a 2009 New York Times review, Ben Ratliff called Fox 'one of the most exciting drummers I’ve seen recently in any kind of music’), Fox began to understand innately that playing metal wouldn’t be an endpoint for him.
'I love that music and I love the community very much,’ Fox says. “But there were times where we be at music festivals backstage and I would see some of the guys in other bands who looked like they'd been at it their entire lives and kind of look like their flesh was falling off their bones, and I just remember very clearly thinking, like, “I don't want to end up like that. I don't want that for myself. That's not who I am.”’
Moreover, Liturgy itself had grown, as Fox describes it, 'interpersonally challenging’. So he moved on, and kept searching. 'I think I just was trying to find myself, trying to find my real voice, trying to find situations that felt good’, he says. 'You know, not wanting to believe that it was necessary to, like, suffer to be a musician.’
'Sometimes I just think it's nice to play rock & roll with your friends.’
These days, it seems, situations that feel good are the only ones Fox has time for. With all touring cancelled during the pandemic, he’s been finding fulfilment in drum practice, as well as teaching and what he calls 'transformational coaching’. When it came time to select a musical programme for Monheim, he focused on the projects that would afford the greatest potential for spontaneity and collaborative joy.
Fox's band Quadrinity builds off his enchanting 2017 solo album „The Gradual Progression“. The record showcases Sensory Percussion, a state-of-the-art interface developed by Fox’s friend Tlacael Esparza that, as Fox has put it, 'allows you to turn an acoustic drum kit into an extremely versatile MIDI controller’. The result is a lush sonic garden, where bits of vocals, saxophone and synths spring up around Fox’s alternately serene and pummelling drum work.
Guitarist Michael Beharie, bassist Justin Frye and saxist Maria Kim Grand, all of whom appear on „The Gradual Progression“, join Fox in Quadrinity, along with vocalist Angel Deradoorian. And while the group initially stemmed from Fox’s album, he says he’s more interested in embracing a collective-driven sound in future.
'That project is amazing because all of those people are, beyond being some of my favourite musicians that are alive, also some of my favourite people to be around and spend time with’, Fox says. 'And their understanding individually and collectively about music vastly supersedes mine — from a theoretical point of view, especially — and so it's very cool to get to play with people who can talk about music in a way like that. To hear them discuss music ideas that I presented them in a language I don't understand is always really humbling. And because they're people who I love and trust very deeply, I never have to tell them what to do — to the degree that I decided I don't even want it to be my music; I just want it to be our music. So I think probably we'll just improvise.’
That same openness will inform Fox’s solo performance. He may expand, he says, on the aesthetic of „Contact“, a 2020 solo album and the fullest realization yet of his use of Sensory Percussion to create a vibrant and enveloping 3-D sound world. But he’s going to wait and see how he feels.
'Honestly. I'm not sure what I'm going to do’, Fox says. 'I might just play the drums. I might do something with a small modular[-synth] rig because, for a couple years now, I've been using the kit to trigger modular situations or interact with them. Maybe I'll play the guitar. I think it's a safe bet that drums will be involved, but besides that I'm not totally sure if I'm going to use Sensory, if I'm going to use modular… When it comes to playing completely solo, I like to figure it out as I'm getting closer to it.'
In keeping with Fox’s post-Liturgy revelation, the Monheim project that Fox seems most excited about is, interestingly, the one that's least geared toward showcasing his abilities and carefully honed musical language. It is, plainly and simply, a Black Sabbath cover band that features Fox, Deradoorian, Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner, avant-metal shredder extraordinaire Mick Barr, and Interpol touring bassist Brad Truax playing orthodox but still passionate and personalized readings of classics like "War Pigs," Sweet Leaf" and “Fairies Wear Boots." Fox, Deradoorian and Zinner first performed Sabbath songs together in 2018, at Berlin’s PEOPLE Festival, and the project grew from there, yielding a debut single, titled „Master of Rehearsal“, in 2020.
'We did it there, it was the most fun thing in the world, and then we got home and we wanted to keep doing it, so we were like, "Who should we ask join?” and we just asked Mick and Brad and they were down and it very quickly became my favourite band I've ever done.’
At first, it might seem surprising to hear those words coming out of the mouth of a drummer known for innovation and restless creativity. But taken in the context of Fox’s overall arc — painstakingly honing a fresh and, yes, impressive style only to come to the realization that there’s more to music than showing people what you can do — it makes perfect sense.
“There's something cool about just doing the thing that feels good, that makes people feel good. It doesn't have to be, like, a guilty pleasure. I think the musical context that I and maybe a lot of other folks around me found ourselves in, is that everything has to have deep significance or deep meaning or be groundbreaking or edgy or boundary-pushing or transgressive, and it's just exhausting sometimes. Sometimes I just think it's nice to play rock & roll with your friends.”
As he reflects on his path in 2021, a decade after jumping off the cliff and leaving behind his musical comfort zone, he sounds more sure than ever of what feels good to him — and, more broadly, what he values in music as a whole.
“When you see somebody play, there's a big difference between seeing somebody show you what they can do and show you how they're feeling,” Fox says. “I just always resonated more with the latter.”