If you follow Victor DeLorenzo on Twitter, you know that the famed Milwaukee drummer begins every morning with a pair of tweets: “My coffee…” and “My head…” “My coffee has a special way of dealing with things,” goes a recent entry. “My head feels like a defective prototype,” goes another. In a time when early-morning doomscrolling is the norm, DeLorenzo’s idiosyncratic tweets are the best part of waking up.
Not coincidentally, the first two tracks of DeLorenzo’s latest album, Spoken Drum, are entitled “Head” and “Coffee.” But they have little in common with the folk-punk sound of his old band, Violent Femmes, or the ambient jazz of his current group, Nineteen Thirteen. Instead, as the title suggests, Spoken Drum is a loving tribute to old-school spoken word albums—all shot through with the drummer’s droll sense of humor and distinctive chops.
“This record is in the tradition of those great ’50s and ’60s—and beyond—spoken word records,” DeLorenzo says. “Almost like what you would hear on the ‘word jazz’ recordings of Ken Nordine, the famous disc jockey out of Chicago, or what you’d hear from the Scottish surrealist poet Ivor Cutler.”
Spoken Drum is unique in DeLorenzo’s discography in other ways. Perhaps more than his musical background, the record taps into his background as an actor. (He was a member of legendary avant-garde Milwaukee group Theatre X.)
“It was a chance for me to throw a little bit of a spotlight on my acting career in a way that I could deal with the texts that I wrote for this collection very differently than I would deal with lyrics if I was going to be singing a song,” DeLorenzo says. “It was really fun for me to be able to indulge that part of my career, and not think so much of making another singer-songwriter record.”
The performances on Spoken Drum indeed show an actorly range. DeLorenzo reads the first half of “Run” like a half-remembered dream before bringing it back to the waking world. On “Civil Rights,” he utters the names of fallen leaders and covers it all in a gorgeous wash of sampled cellos from his Nineteen Thirteen partner Janet Schiff. The funky/wacky “Bow,” meanwhile, features nothing but drums, noises, screams, and DeLorenzo scatting the word “bow.”
“I knew this wasn’t going to be just a singer-songwriter collection. I didn’t have any interest in that,” he says. “But I also didn’t want to make it just a stark recording of drums and voices. So I figured I’d find the sweet spot somewhere in between.”
Ultimately, as the Twitter-inspired “Head” and “Coffee” demonstrate, Spoken Drum pays tribute to someone else, too.
“I’m finally giving voice to my head and my coffee, other than just people reading about it every morning,” DeLorenzo laughs. “So in that way it was charming to me that I got to kind of do a homage to myself.”