“If somebody comes to town, or if somebody needs a drummer at the last minute, I became their drummer in a pinch.”
A few weeks ago, Jonathan Ulman was reclining in my office thumbing through vintage issues of Modern Drummer. I moonlight as a seller of old periodicals, it’s a yearslong hobby gone awry, and upon acquiring hundreds of percussionist magazines from multiple eras, I asked the STL GLD stick man if he wanted to come listen to some music and grab a few glossies featuring the likes of Kenny Aronoff and Questlove for his shelf.
I’ve always known that Ulman is an ace. In addition to his work with STL GLD, the Moe Pope-fronted hip-hop outfit that has dominated hearts and minds in these parts for nearly a decade, he’s a go-to session musician in New England and beyond, collaborating with artists across genres. But in picking through those dusty stacks of music rags together, I wasn’t thinking that he might soon be a candidate for one of those covers himself. Whereas now that possibility is coming into focus.
This week, the producers of Late Night with Seth Meyers announced that Ulman will be playing with their house band 8G for four nights starting June 27. It’s a major honor in the music world; helmed by comedian and musician Fred Armisen, a friend of the host’s from their Saturday Night Live link, they change drummers with the frequency of Spinal Tap, only with more fanfare and less complications. Other recent fill-ins have included Nikki Glaspie of the Nth Power, Justin Timberlake collaborator Brian Frasier-Moore, Beck’s Chris Coleman, and Matt Cameron of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.
“For me, this was the top of my bucket list,” said Ulman, who grew up in West Roxbury watching local bands closely before starting to play in them himself. “I set this goal for myself seven years ago and to see it come to fruition is pretty surreal.”
Not that this is such a surprising development. Those who know Ulman well note his dedication foremost; he’s a perfectionist with stripes from folk to hip-hop who counts among his credentials a staff gig at Berklee and five Boston Music Awards for session musician of the year. We actually spoke about his ambitions while he was visiting me and my magazines, and as it turns out, his compendium of life goals is long and seemingly endless.
“When I was young, I made a bucket list of places I wanted to play, and Paradise was the main place,” he recalled. “If you played the Paradise, you made it.”
Ulman started drumming at around 10 years old after the piano didn’t go well. His brother was into Golden Era hip-hop, and he used “all his cassettes to learn to play.” “Later in life,” Ulman said, “I realized that’s the best way to learn drumming because those beats—old EPMD, Gang Starr—teach you pocket drumming. Now, when I’m in the studio, my timing is tight because that’s how I learned.”
Following stints in several bands and a requisite grunge phase in high school, Ulman matriculated to Northeastern where he studied digital media and photography. The goal there, he said, was to “be my own self-sustaining ecosystem,” and in the two decades since, he’s fulfilled that fantasy by drumming his way onto literally hundreds of projects. If anyone’s equipped to step up and fill in, as he will do on national television at the end of this month, it’s Ulman.
“I basically created a name for myself as a session musician,” he said. “I became this person who if somebody comes to town, or if somebody needs a drummer at the last minute, after so many years of people seeing what I was doing, I became their drummer in a pinch. People used to say it was a break glass in case of an emergency type of thing.”
Ulman is always happy to improvise (“you need somebody who is imperfect to give it that life,” he said about the touch of a real player compared to a drum machine), but also likes working with pros who know exactly what they want—someone like the Arcitype, the star producer and his bandmate from STL GLD who also links Ulman with countless artists through the Bridge Sound and Stage studio in Cambridge.
“In order for me to feel fulfilled, the session work has to come from a live perspective and a studio perspective,” Ulman said. “Here’s how I look at my career—I would love to play for 80,000 people every night and tour the world, and maybe I will do that and that’s important, but my legacy as an artist and what I can look back on is the albums I have played on.”
They’re musical accomplishments, to be sure, but business wins as well.
“I put a thousand fishing poles in the water and see who bites,” Ulman said. “If I have a show in New York on Friday, I’ll go down on Wednesday and introduce myself to a bunch of producers who I’d like to work with.”
He added, “I set some pretty high goals for myself from the beginning, but when you’re in bands you’re kind of relying on these other people to fulfill those goals that you set. I would be in five bands at the same time and it was always like, This is going to be the one that takes me to the top, because in my mind it was like, I’m a drummer and I’m always going to need the other people.”
And the bucket list just keeps on getting checked off. As things turned out, Ulman didn’t make it onto the Paradise stage until his late-20s, with singer-songwriter Thalia Zedek on a bill with the Kills. By that time though, he had proven himself to be resourceful on his own, and had already played to much larger crowds; with STL GLD and others, he’d also soon arrive on platforms like Boston Calling and New York’s Governors Ball.
None of those festivals, however, provided nearly as large of an audience as the Hub drummer will face at the end of the month on Late Night with Seth Meyers.
“I know how hard I worked to get on their radar, and knowing that I will get to sit in the same seat that my drum heroes have sat in is something I will forever remember,” he said. “I’m excited and nervous and looking forward to enjoying every moment of it.”
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.