America

Jim White, Your Favorite Songwriter’s Favorite Drummer

In the early 1990s, Jim White was a drumming journeyman, having pounded out rhythms in a string of loud and rabid bands with snotty names, like Feral Dinosaurs or Venom P. Stinger. On the cusp of 30, he started Dirty Three, along with two other idiosyncratic Australian instrumentalists, the violinist Warren Ellis and the guitarist Mick Turner. Their lambent jams found unexpected enthusiasm inside Melbourne bars.

One afternoon during the group’s early days, Eddie Midnight, the jocular brother of a friend, shouted out to White, calling him by the nickname he hated: “Hey, Skins! You got a minute? I found something good for ya.” Back at his house, Midnight pulled out an ash-caked snare — its heads busted and one rim missing — that he’d spotted in a shed. White said thanks and took what he suspected was trash to a music shop. The employees were flummoxed: Where had White found this treasure, a Ludwig Black Beauty from the 1920s? It was a holy grail everywhere but a near-impossible score in Australia.

And then, White played it.

“It just sounds amazing, irrefutably beautiful — very dynamic, always warm, got a great crack,” White said, smiling in the spartan kitchen of the Brooklyn walk-up where he’s lived since 2010, on a sunny February afternoon. He extended the snare, its nickel frame mottled like an ancient mountainside. “People hear it, and they say, ‘Do you mind if I go buy one just like it?’”

But ask the singers with whom White has played during the last 30 years — Cat Power or Nick Cave, PJ Harvey or Bill Callahan — and they might agree no one else makes that battered snare (or, really, the drums) sound quite like White. Intuitive but measured, propulsive but patient, White’s drumming has become an instantly identifiable instrumental voice, anchored by Midnight’s gift.

White’s new solo album is the first in a triptych of new releases that includes a duo with the guitarist Marisa Anderson and the return of his band Dirty Three.Credit…Peter Fisher for The New York Times

“You can hear the rainbow of his emotion in the swells, the dropouts, the attacks,” Chan Marshall, who records as Cat Power, said in an interview. “He’s able to master the set at any time, in any situation, and it’s always going to be Jim White. I don’t know anyone else who can do that.”

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