In the heart of the vibrant Champaign-Urbana music scene, drummer and percussionist James Mauck stands as a dynamic and innovative figure. His journey into the world of music began in fifth grade, fueled by an early fascination with drumming. Unlike many who might opt for more melodic instruments, Mauck was drawn to the rhythm and energy of percussion. His initial encounter with the French horn, although brief and challenging, opened the door to his eventual love affair with the drums. It was his parents who recalled his early interest, from banging on pots and pans as a toddler, leading him to start lessons on a practice pad for a year before he even had a drum. As he progressed, the eclectic sounds of Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd, introduced by his father, deeply influenced his style. Mitch Mitchell (Jimi Hendrix and the Experience), in particular, became his first major drumming influence. Mauck’s musical exploration further expanded in middle school, where jamming with a friend who played guitar in his basement became a regular practice. This blend of structured learning and informal experimentation laid the foundation for Mauck’s diverse musical career. His involvement with various local bands, including Sweetmelk, Keith Hall and Creeping Grass, Afro D and Global Soundwaves, Mango Pods, and Dropsy, is a testament to his versatile talent.
Mauck speaks with palpable enthusiasm when he delves into the genesis and evolution of his solo project, Forebeat. His voice crackles with energy as he recalls, “I had been wanting to do Forebeat for ten years.” This decade-long aspiration finally took shape following his formative years in the undergraduate program in professional performance at Eastern Illinois University. It was during this period that Mauck’s experimental streak found its footing. He vividly describes his foray into the world of electronics, where he began to blend the unconventional with the traditional. “In my time at EIU, I started experimenting with different electronic sounds, which I’d often use at punk shows,” he explains.
A significant shift occurred when Mauck moved to Indianapolis in 2014. Working at the Percussive Arts Society, an international non-profit focused on educating percussion students and preserving percussive history, he found himself at the epicenter of rhythmic innovation. It was here he encountered Rob Funkhouser, a solo percussionist and composer whose unconventional performances at punk shows, often involving amplified gongs, left a profound impact on Mauck. “Witnessing Rob’s audacity to break norms with his amplified gongs at punk shows was a revelation,” Mauck recalls. “It rekindled my desire to pursue Forebeat as more than just an idea.” This inspiration culminated in 2018, when Mauck finally launched Forebeat as a tangible project, marking a significant milestone in his artistic journey.
This influence is evident in the way Mauck approaches his music, continually pushing the boundaries of conventional percussion and exploring the fusion of varied sonic textures in his performances. The amalgamation of these experiences and influences has been instrumental in shaping the unique sound and ethos of Forebeat, marking Mauck’s journey as one of continuous exploration and innovation in the realm of music.
His solo project, Forebeat, as Mauck describes, is “sort of punk, avant-garde,” heavily influenced by Death Grips. The evolution of Forebeat from noisy drumming to a more technology-focused approach mirrors Mauck’s own growth as an artist. The creative process is largely improvisational. “I have an outline of what I want to accomplish, but it’s mostly improvised,” Mauck explains. His influences are diverse, from Zack Hill’s (Death Grips) unconventional technique to Paul Nillsen Love’s (Norwegian jazz composer and percussionist) acoustic drumming. Mauck even describes Forebeat’s sound as “Paal Nilssen-Love meets Madlib“.
As well as being a freelance drummer, Mauck also adeptly juggles his time between teaching and performing. “I teach at Illinois Wesleyan. I teach percussion there. I also have a company and occasionally compose for the University of Illinois dance department,” he explains. His freelance work is carefully chosen, with a keen awareness of his tight schedule. “I’ve learned how to say no to certain gigs,” Mauck notes, detailing his approach to managing commitments. He now prefers gigs that require minimal rehearsal, diverging from his past engagements with cover bands and musicals that demanded extensive preparatory work. “So I generally pick up gigs that maybe have one or no rehearsals,” he adds, emphasizing the need to fit freelance work into his schedule alongside his steady teaching and composing roles.
Discussing the local music scene, Mauck’s appreciation is evident. “I love how open musicians and audiences here are to avant-garde music,” he says, giving a nod to Jason Finkelman, the Faculty Director of Global Arts Performance Initiatives and the Coordinator of the Robert E. Brown Center for World Music at the University of Illinois. “Jason’s work with the Improviser’s Exchange has been crucial in building an audience for avant-garde music in Champaign-Urbana.”
For Mauck, the best part of the local scene is its familial feel and the inter-genre collaboration. “It’s beautiful to see bands like Keith Hall and the Creeping Grass come together,” he observes. If he could change anything, it would be to strengthen the connections between different music scenes in the area, including with U of I students and the local hip-hop scene.
Reflecting on a memorable performance, Mauck shares an anecdote about using a zither, a harp for children, with a pickup during a Forebeat show. “It picked up the audience’s chatter, and I could pitch bend their conversations,” he laughs, emphasizing his philosophy of not taking his music too seriously.
Asked about what to expect at a Forebeat show, Mauck offers a simple yet intriguing description: “Expect to hear sounds you haven’t experienced before, and it’s visually interesting too. I use non-traditional instruments, like my microtonally-tuned Zither.”
I asked Mauck how he’s evolved since his early days as a professional musician. In a contemplative tone, shares his profound journey of musical self-discovery. “I’m not afraid to sound like myself now,” he declares, highlighting a significant shift in his approach to music. This evolution marks a departure from his earlier days, where he often found himself emulating the styles of other drummers. Over the years, Mauck’s experience has transformed into a quest for a distinctive sound, a search that has led him to embrace his individuality. This progression is not just a change in technique or style, but a deeper, more personal journey towards artistic authenticity and self-realization. He speaks of this transition with a sense of pride and accomplishment, recognizing it as a pivotal chapter in his life as a musician.
Mauck’s impact on the Champaign-Urbana music scene is undeniable, from the bands he plays with, to his unique vision with his solo project, Forebeat. His journey, marked by continuous exploration and a passion for innovation, serves as an inspiration to fellow musicians and fans alike. With a rhythm that resonates well beyond the confines of conventional music, Mauck continues to beat a path of distinctive soundscapes and collaborative ventures.
James Mauck’s Forebeat
Rose Bowl Tavern
M Jan 29th, 5:30 p.m.
Tips in bucket