Painting To The Beat Of His Own Drum
MARIO DUPLANTIER talks about his drumhead artwork and his need to create art while on the road with GOJIRA.
AS the drummer of Gojira, Mario Duplantier needs no introduction. His reputation for pulverising beats layered with intricate sequences have seen him nominated for best drummer in various metal awards, currently Revolver’s Golden Gods. And when Mario has finished beating the proverbial out of his drumheads he likes nothing better than to paint on them, using them as a unique canvas to document his experiences. These works of art are fast developing a reputation of their own, particularly among his ever growing legion of fans. Initially these were seen popping up in Gojira’s merch stall on tour but such is the collection now that they have their own section in his new online gallery.
When we meet he's clutching his laptop and a couple of his latest drumskins, one completed the day before and one that is a work in progress. There's no chance of that being finished today; it's the second show of the Jägermeister Tour and preparations inside the venue are in full swing so we’re relegated to the back lounge of the tour bus to have a chat about his art.
So when did this novel idea originate? It goes without saying that as a drummer and an artist it’s both relevant and unique to himself, an extension of his creativity. Mario’s explanation is a little more simple. It's like putting a child in front of a blank page - he just can’t help himself!
"You know, during rehearsal when we practice or prepare for a tour I am always behind the drums, and there is this white bit in front of me, this snare, it’s always like a piece of paper. I have a marker sometimes and I just want to do something! But I do use this snare space for a lot of things, for ideas when I’m composing. I also put some notes on there which help me during the show, for example, when I play very fast I have some mental techniques that I use and I note those on my snare, then I can remember when to breathe, let my left leg relax and so on. As a drummer it’s just a good way to connect to all these works when I practice."
“I have this utopian view but there are so many things I would like to do. At least by my drawing, I can express a little bit of this.”
Growing up in a creative family, art was also a way of life since childhood. Both his parents are artists, his brother Joe, Gojira’s frontman, is also a talented artist and their sister is renowned French photographer Gabrielle Duplantier.
Mario is not overly concerned about technique as such, explaining that as far as he is concerned, his is just another approach.
“I love to paint and draw exactly what I want to do, like a form of therapy maybe. Drumming is my life and I spend all my time playing with this band. We're always on tour, so for me there is a link between the drums and my drawings so it makes sense to paint on the drumheads. And of course it’s a good way for people to have something from me, it’s interesting to mix the two, I think it’s a good idea.”
It’s certainly one way to combat the number of dead hours on tour. Any musician will usually cite the boredom of hanging around as the most frustrating part of their job. Boredom is not Mario's motivation though - it’s creativity.
"For me it’s like a compulsive aspect of my personality, I need to always create something, it can be a picture, it can be a drawing. Even if I’m not a professional artist I always try to stay creative because I think it’s sad to just live and not do anything but play video games - I don’t judge anybody who does that, it’s just for me it’s more constructive and something of a necessity, I have to stay creative, for me that’s very important."
If it's not painting, he's working on photos for the band on the road, or he'll be making their teaser video trailers and if not that, composing music on his computer. Does he ever relax, I ask or is he constantly up to something? After all, Gojira are not exactly taking it easy on tour with their relentless schedule crossing various continents.
"Constantly," he laughs, "I never stop."
And if for some reason he can’t get to do anything? ( His appearance in the latest tour video teaser springs to mind. )
"Ha! No, no it’s okay, I don’t become sick or crazy or anything! Actually, sometimes I have no inspiration for drawing but it’s funny when that happens, I will be inspired by a photo instead, or video."
But let’s get to the practicalities of painting on drumskins while on the road. For one thing, they need time to dry and getting space can prove tricky, as is the case today.
"Actually, I play with the space I have so sometimes it can be all the crew, musicians and me cramped together on the bus like this and I’m still drawing," he demonstrates, grinning. "Sometimes the others complain because I am always painting and I might put it on the floor. I am a bit of a messy person - I try not to be but, no... space is not easy to find every day."
This idea of Mario being the nuisance kid in the back of the Gojira bus determinedly painting a drumskin on his knee conjures up a such a comical visual I cannot help but laugh. No mean feat however, considering the actual materials he uses: Chinese ink, oil paint, glycerol and whatever he can get his hands on at times - coffee, for instance. Or varnish. Even tape!
“Each tour I have a new obsession, so this one tour I remember it was in August 2012, I was tripping with tape, I was always creating something with it and I added tiny bits of details, it was great fun."
And ALL these things have to come on tour?
"Yes!! But I use everything I get - this is my bag of things, all my shit I bring", he says producing a bin bag crammed with art supplies, paint pens and spray cans. Who clears up the mess I wonder? He laughs, "Me. I have to clear up, but I try not to be too messy right now otherwise the others will kill me."
Whales are a recurring subject in Mario’s work. One of these, titled Le Fisher sold almost immediately upon hitting the website prompting a demand for copies, a success which really surprised him.
"I never paint the same picture twice but I do a series. I love to do whales, they are very fun to draw. I think the ocean represents something in consciousness for everybody. For me, whales are massive and we are so tiny, it's humbling. I talk about the fact that we are so small, that we are nothing compared to the power of nature, it’s a bit cliché but it’s true. It’s a fascination for me.”
On the road in North America depicts the tour bus driving into the jaws of a great head.
"With this job you don’t know where you are going one day to the next so maybe it's my fear of this life, I’m always in a bus, I play in a death metal band, I don't know where I am, I worry about my future sometimes, well, not too much but I can see why I drew it because I'm always on the road."
A reference perhaps to how their lives are swallowed up by the need to constantly feed the demands of this touring machine?
"Exactly! You are right, but if I paint that, it helps me just to let something out, express that in some way."
This theme also runs through Meditate but by contrast it's more wistful in tone.
"It’s also my dream. I painted that because sometimes I have this really strong desire to be on a hill under a tree and just relax, take time without the phone, without anything and take some time to meditate. We’re always connected everyday with the internet, we have to prepare tours and sometimes we can become a little crazy about this. I have this utopian view but there are so many things I would like to do, at least by my drawing I can express a little bit of this."
It's a poignant reminder of the level of sacrifice these guys make to keep the rest of us entertained, wishing only for a few hours of precious personal space and seldom getting even that, especially now that Gojira are going stellar.
Chinese ink is a particular favourite of Mario’s - challenging to use though, and you would think it would run everywhere especially on drumheads made of mylar.
“Ah, but I have to control where it goes," he explains. "I use a lot of water and just one drop of chinese ink, I’ve been using this technique for four years. I create something with the water and let it dry so maybe I need a day for that. It takes a lot of practice to get it right but it’s very interesting to paint on this plastic, especially with different materials."
Incredibly the textures in some of these pictures are all chinese ink and nothing else, for example In The Ocean.
"It’s a mystery, it’s why I love it," he says. “I use a pen to direct the water and when I let it dry it creates this material. Sometimes I combine this with oil and acrylic, or as in Le Feu a mixture of glue and red ink."
Asked about artistic influences, he immediately credits his father, especially for using chinese ink.
"He was a big influence for me actually. His drawing is amazing. My father, he is one of the best artists I know, he’s amazing and he’s not famous. Sometimes I feel sad for him because he deserves it, you know, he’s such an incredibly talented drawer in black and white."
As we browse through an impressive catalogue of images, Mario shows me the original painting for the L'Enfant Sauvage cover made with water, Chinese ink and a mixture of oil. It’s dark, very organic with incredible texture, a completely different vibe to the one currently adorning the album.
"I don’t use Photoshop very well, so this is a real painting on a canvas. It was the beginning of the album cover. I showed it to Joe, he did his version which is the one we used. Joe has a great talent for making these symbolic and very powerful drawings. We don’t have the same style at all, mine is a bit chaotic and very different but he is much clearer in his expression. Everyone preferred his in the end," he says cheerfully.
The youngest Duplantier's admiration for his elder sibling is evident and his praise is genuine. "Joe is very skilled in thinking about marketing, the head he did was more adaptable to the shirts, the backdrop, the stage setup, everything."
“I do this with a lot of passion, I really love to do it. My approach to it is very real.”
All of the drumskins used are a small part of Mario's drumming history, a little piece of himself in fact, which makes them all the more special. Most are his tom covers but his website does feature a couple of TAMA Superstar Custom bass skins. Currently fewer of those appear as they’re not changed as often and right now Mario is using the Gojira head logo custom covers. He does have more bass skins at his practice space ready to paint, some from The Way of All Flesh tour, some from the Mars to Sirius tour.
And how do the fans react when they see these on the merch stall?
"They really, really love it," he says looking both pleased and amazed. "I think they want something from the band and it’s directly from me. It’s unique and it's all original painting so it’s not like a poster. They have a part of my trip and my travel, they have a part of me a little bit. I mean, they want to buy them, not everybody - some people don’t care, but those who love my drumming, they want something from that. The interest is great and I thank them so much for it. I know it might seem I am surfing a bit on the success of the band but I do this with a lot of passion, I really love to do it. My approach to it is very real.”
Mario's sincerity is without question and his enthusiasm is both infectious and inspiring.
“You know, I love this idea, I feel good with it,” he says with a huge, satisfied smile and with not one single shred of conceit. And with that he departs to prepare for tonight’s show. What visions will appear on those drumskins at a later date remains to be seen. One thing is for certain, his story will continue and it will never be dull. Watch it unfold over at MarioDuplantier.com