The enchanting percussive world of Popp

While avoiding public spaces and experiencing a strange ambivalence / impatience towards record store browsing, I’ve been spending some time this last couple of years exploring various profiles on bandcamp, often brought there by discoveries and connections made via Instagram or YouTube.

Among many such discoveries is the work of German percussionist Simon Popp, who creates a lovely world of percussion-centered compositions and vignettes, with plenty of open space to give his eclectic collection of bangable bits and baubles aural room to be articulated and appreciated. Popp has two full-length recordings available, plus a couple of remixed tracks from his recent (July 9, 2021) album Devi. Both albums are interesting and exploratory, pleasantly existing outside of many currently familiar / popular niches of style and approach.

He is also a frequent collaborator with various artists and member of the artfully colorful jazz group Fazer, which features rhythmic constructions via 2 drum kits. It seems Popp and members of Fazer operate their own label called Squama Recordings; a bountiful cask of interesting collaborations between varied combinations of the members of Fazer, and a couple of releases by female artists outside (but presumably near) the Fazer circle. There is a heavy spirit of sincere exploration among these releases. While the sounds and approach can in many cases be fairly regarded as “experimental”, it all goes down smoothly with little to no abrasiveness or discordance. In some cases, notably with Fazer and Enji (<*wow*), the material comes in flavors of warmly approachable and strikingly intelligent melodic jazz, with flavors of experimentation throughout. Popp is a frequent through-line to the Squama catalog, with a distinctive percussion-forward sensibility steady among most of them.

His tool kit includes drum kit (used sparingly in its raw form: typically he treats the kit with dampeners or effects, or focuses only on certain parts of it, thus avoiding any sort of “basic” drum kit sound), singing bowls, miscellaneous wood blocks, metals, shakers, hand drums, tabla, sticks, triangle, cups, bells and other items. The sound of his compositions is global and difficult to fit cleanly into any particular tradition, which contributes significantly to its appeal. There’s an eastern feel to much of it, but the works overall maintain a passionate eclecticism and curiosity. It’s distinctly modern / current feeling, with interesting use of gated delays / reverbs, general use of miscellaneously-scaled and / or stereo-active reverbs, flourishes of subtle textural manipulation via delay time shifts, flange, and other tweaking.

Percussion as central instrument (including a lot of minimalist electronic music) has become a central interest of mine over the last handful of years. Centrality of percussive sounds and rhythm lends an aesthetic openness and purity, which often relieves me of distracting stylistic associations. When compositions consist primarily of percussion and the open spaces around it, there is much less tendency to think “this sounds like __” than if you were listing to space rock, krautrock, ambient music, IDM, chiptune, polka… Drum-music of this sort isn’t easily lumped in with “drum circle” stuff, eastern drumming, or any other more widely followed niche, either, so it offers a freshness for those with finicky sensibilities weary from too many associations.

Due to being percussion-centric, Popp’s work in some areas can sound a bit like percussion-laden recordings by Steve Roach, vaguely reminiscent of Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ, or Mickey Hart’s Rhythm Devils – River Music: The Apocalypse Now Sessions, but much more focused on the drumming. Another comparison could be with Tomoko Sauvage‘s beautiful work with porcelain and glass bowls, hydrophones, etc., in that Popp, too, works with resonant materials and ambiences, and does not always rhythmically adhere to a grid. I’m also reminded most of all of Phillippe Foch’s Taarang, which of all these vague stabs at comparison comes closest to Popp’s approach. There are or course many other more or less comparable percussion-centric artists and releases, with so much flavor to offer.

Though Popp’s work focuses on drumming, it’s got plenty of added ambience, tonality and melody, tastefully integrated with a delicate touch, leaving plenty of space for the drumming to maintain centrality. Ambient tones and minimalist melodic tendencies come from what seems to be all or mostly his collection of singing bowls, gamelan and other tonal-resonant percussion instruments, which brings an absolutely lovely textural uniqueness to the music. He also adds flourishes of electronics which are either triggered by striking various drums / objects or by hand in tandem with play of other instruments. Atmospheric sweeps and surges come and go without ever diminishing the centrality of percussion.

Of the available Popp / related recordings, my favorites are his solo items (have a listen to “Myna” or “Yerba”) and a collaborative project called Pleats. Both focus centrally on percussion and open space, with subtle electronic flourishes and minimalist melodies, intoned exclusively by resonant objects and / or triggered by striking with sticks / mallets. Pleats is a quieter, more ambient-leaning and impressionistic venture than Popp’s solo work; sleepy and moody for the most part, with a couple punchier pieces (“Raul” is an easy favorite).

Sound Measures Part VI-X is another lovely deposit of 2xDrummers work, seeing Popp alongside fellow Fazer drummer Sebastian Wolfgruber (the duo have also recorded together as Fazer Drums) and an electronic reworking of their 20 minute piece by Tunisian electronic artist Azu Tiwaline.

With Popp / Squama’s catalog of recordings only reaching back to 2018 or so, they’ve amassed an impressive collection. Popp’s work in particular seems to point in adventurous directions. Here’s hoping there’s plenty more output on the way. For Popp’s next release, how about an expansively diverse double LP?