Alone in a storage facility, he finds solace on one of the world's largest drum sets
At a self-storage facility in Baltimore, Bill Allen lifted the door on space No. 41 to reveal his life’s work. In units all around him were people’s living-room sets, mattresses, bureaus, and weight-lifting benches, but for Allen, his 15×20-foot unit is more like an office. Five or six days a week he bicycles four miles from Dundalk, Md., to play a drum kit that is, surely, one of the biggest in the country, if not the world.
ABOVE: Bill Allen plays his massive drum set 40 hours or more a week. That time is “like a therapy,” he says.
On a 90-degree day, 60-year-old Allen, outfitted in green khakis and an olive-striped knit shirt, had the look of someone reporting a condo association’s minutes, but once inside he began the tumultuous process of navigating the cramped space onto the drummer’s stool– the epicenter of 12 gongs, 13 cymbals, 24 toms, two bass drums, two floor toms, one snare, one hi-hat, six sets of chimes, three triangles, three timpani drums and one cowbell. (Allen is a strict minimalist with cowbells.)
“How long do you want me to play for? Forty-five minutes?” He wasn’t joking. “I’ll cut loose.”
Video: Bill Allen plays one of the world's largest drum sets
He doesn’t have a steady band, partly because he only wants to play Christian rock, and Christian rock is not exactly the trending music scene in Baltimore these days. Plus, there’s virtually no stage that can handle Allen’s set. (These facts don’t deter Allen from using a stage name — Bill Thunder. A stage name would seem as necessary as another gong, but then, who wouldn’t want to be called Bill Thunder?)
He lifted two sticks as heavy as plumbers’ wrenches and began to create a pulsating rhythm with his bass drums, as snare and cymbals clashed against each other. Soon he ushered in a rain of cymbals and toms, creating an unrelenting storm. It could have been a soundtrack to an army of Vikings being pummeled by a more savage army of Vikings. There was no discernible groove, exactly, not something you could tap your foot to, but the wall-quaking onslaught was riveting. Then he pivoted and brought out explosions from the gongs on the other side of the kit. Was he trying to conjure the Dawn of Man?
The timpani bubbled to the surface, and the mood became orchestral. As he turned back to his stool, he brought back the rolling storm until it had passed and left the area altogether. It was a remarkable show of precision and chops, a master class in how to build a dynamic musical narrative.
At 86 degrees, the room was green-house hot, and Allen wiped his moist face. He had intended to go longer. “I was playing in slow motion,” he said, chagrined. He pulled out a plastic comb and ran it through his sandy red hair. Despite the physical rigors of his intense solos, Allen likes to stay neat.
In 2006, Modern Drummer, the leading trade magazine for percussionists, featured Allen in its “Kit of the Month” column. He still hadn’t recovered from the headline, though: “Just Another Garage Drummer.”
“That pissed me off,” he said.
And the attention he hoped for never materialized. “I had a few calls, but it was just a bunch of kids,” he said. “They asked what kinds of pedals I use and stuff. You know what I mean? I’m looking for somebody who wants to get a serious band together. Right now I got a guitar player and a singer, but I don’t know about that singer.” His latest band was called The Sons of the Prophets, though they hadn’t yet had a gig, and that name worried Allen’s pastor, so Allen would eventually change it to Mind Control. (Not to be confused with an earlier band of his, Thought Control.) And then again to Alien Thunder.
After cooling off in the storage site’s frigid office, he stepped back into the sweltering space to start up again. Not many people could spend so many hours in a cinder-block inferno like this. The carpet was threadbare, and cables lined the floors like snakes. Plastic bags and plastic cups were stashed around, and the number of cigarette butts in the ashtray outnumbered the drums. Still, Allen enjoys it here. “I got this place like Home Sweet Home, you know?”
There is not a lot of coming and going within the self-storage barracks, save the security guard, but it’s not always lonely. “There’s a Mexican band right next to me,” Allen said. “There’s about eight of them when they’re playing. They’ll probably come in later today. . .When you hear different things going it just sounds like massive confusion. You just have to put headphones on and deal with it.”
Allen has dealt with no shortage of hardships in his life, some of which dictate his daily routine. He has schizophrenia, for one. But his complete devotion to his mammouth drum set not only brings him remarkable joy, it gives him a singular purpose: playing solos. It’s just that no one gets to hear them. (He doesn’t own a computer, so there’s no putting them on YouTube.) The real challenge is not how he copes with so many hours inside the musty shed every week. It’s how he copes with all the hours outside it.
ABOVE: In his crowded storage facility, equipment from another era; remnants from an old habit; Allen steps outside for a break.
Allen grew up on a large poultry farm in Rosedale, Md. His mother played keyboards, and that was his first instrument, too. His middle brother, Fred, also a keyboardist, would later record with Bootsy Collins under the name Frederick “Flintstone” Allen. He noticed Bill’s percussive inclination with the keys.
“I had the sledgehammer approach,” Allen admits. Fred suggested he might make a better drummer. That proved to be good advice, and Bill excelled at drums in the school band.
Then at 15, Allen experienced the first in a series of dire blows. At a party in his basement, he and his band were taking a break when someone poured something into his drink.
“I drank it all, and then I’m wired to the max,” he says. The mixer proved to be a sizeable dose of LSD. Allen was hospitalized for a week. “I was OK after that,” he says, “but all of a sudden, later in life, the flashbacks started.” He was around 20, enrolled in Essex Community College. He didn’t get to finish.
The real challenge is not how Allen copes with so many hours inside the musty shed every week. It’s how he copes with all the hours outside it.
Doctors gave him a regimen of drugs to keep the flashbacks at bay, and he says his last one was 11 years ago. He blames the LSD for his schizophrenia; his psychotherapist at Key Point Health Services, Jill Grosky, says there’s no way of knowing for sure.
“He doesn’t necessarily see schizophrenia as a problem, and that’s actually a great thing,” says Grosky, who agreed to discuss Allen’s condition after he gave his consent, “because it shouldn’t be a problem as long as he’s maintaining himself in treatment, which he has been very well.” Grosky says that Allen hasn’t been hospitalized since around 1982, and that that is “very significant for someone with schizophrenia.”
Timelapse: The making of a 68-piece drum set
It took seven hours to tear down Bill Allen’s drum set from the storage site and re-build it at The Paradox in Baltimore for a photo shoot.
The LSD incident wasn’t the only setback of Allen’s young life. His mother died in 1979, when he was in his mid-twenties. Not long after, a Pentecostal tent revival was held on the Allens’ farm, and Allen wandered in. The church’s band members had heard Allen playing his drum set out in the yard–“You could hear it all over the place,” he says–and noticed that he drove a bus with a painted cross on the back. They happened to not have a drummer at the time.
Allen was a Catholic, but two days after stepping into the tent he was the band’s new drummer and had converted to Pentecostal. “I wanted to get a band going,” he says, “and it just happened, you know?”
His father soon re-married, sold off the family’s lucrative Evering’s Poultry Farms and moved to Pennsylvania without a forwarding address.
“He took off with everything,” Allen says. “He disowned us.” Neither Allen nor his brothers ever saw or heard from their father again, though he lived to be 91.
“I don’t even know what he looked like,” Allen says. “He got cremated—that’s what I heard.”
The complicated rhythms of life.
It was around this time of his father’s abandonment that Allen was developing his vision for growing his drum kit. There was no deep reasoning; he just liked the idea of having a drum set bigger than anyone else. So he kept acquiring new pieces.
“It’s not the biggest,” says Modern Drummer associate editor Michael Parillo, “but I would certainly agree that it’s among the largest ones we’ve seen come through here.”
Allen has filled nine notebooks of drum rudiments—rolls and beats, really —which, to the untrained eye, look like computer code. “Took me two years, two months, and 23 days to write it out,” he says.
“It’s not the biggest,” says Modern Drummer associate editor Michael Parillo, “but I would certainly agree that it’s among the largest ones we’ve seen come through here.”
Because he has been on government disabilities for much of his life, he has not had a traditional career. He worked at a movie theater—taking tickets, working concessions—for nearly 11 years, and had stints at Taco Bell and National Training Systems, where he handed out fliers and helped recruit potential workers. He has been in a steady stream of bands, but none has ever landed a record deal or played much outside of Maryland.
For Allen, these hours on the drum kit each week are “like a therapy,” he says. “I feel like I’m riding through the universe.”
Most every week Allen plays in the band at Crusaders for Christ Church, in Edgemere. The pastor, Charles Dennison, is also the guitarist.
“Drums is his life,” Dennison says. “I could not possibly get out there with my guitar and go out early in the morning and sit in a room by myself, with the amplifier on, and sit there and wham on that guitar all day long, hour after hour. It would drive me nuts.”
He won’t let Allen bring his kit to the sanctuary.
“We wouldn’t have any room for the church,” the bewildered pastor has told him. The purpose is to worship God, not overwhelm him.
At a Thursday night service, an hour before the proceedings began, there was a highly involved sound check: volume fiddling, strumming, tuning up. “Test, test,” Allen said into the microphone. “Praise the Lord. Test.”
“He would always like to get into something deeper, but he knows he can’t do it during church.”
—Allen's pastor, Charles Dennison
When the service began, there were four people on stage, including Sister Charlene running sound, and four in the congregation.
The church’s kit has three toms, a snare, three cymbals, and Dennison insists he play with brushes. “He would always like to get into something deeper, but he knows he can’t do it during church.”
The evening’s first song was “When the Spirit of the Lord,” in which Allen took a four-measure solo—modest by his standards. The bassist, Brother Marvin, responded with a solo himself.
The repertoire was a countrified take on old-time gospel standards: “I Saw the Light,” “Amazing Grace,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “I Want Us to be in Heaven Together.”
All but one of the parishioners would come up and take their turns on lead vocals. The average age tended high, and one man, who sang a heartfelt lead on “They’re Holding Up the Ladder,” asked if he should do another. They agreed. “They’re holding up the ladder that I’m climbing on,” he began.
Brother Marvin had to cut him off. “No, we just did that.”
Allen often played with his eyes closed in quiet intensity; here and there he snuck in some fancy hi-hat work. Mostly he obliged by providing a shuffling backbeat. During “I’ll Fly Away,” though, he worked in an intricate fill that brought Brother Marvin to a stop. Brother Marvin turned back toward Allen in surprise, then looked at the pastor. He laughed. Brother Bill, he and the pastor knew, was filled with the spirit.
After 50 minutes of music, it was time for Dennison to move to the pulpit.
“Sometimes you think you hear the devil talking, and you think it’s God talking, and then you get into trouble,” he warned.
At one point, his microphone cut out.
That could be the devil right there, he said.
Sister Charlene quickly jumped into action to see what could be done about the fallen angel.
ABOVE: Mike “Spike” Redmond, a guitarist, has known Allen since the early ’70s; Allen outside his apartment with Mary Phillips, who has been doing some back-up singing in Allen’s and Redmond’s band Alien Thunder; rehearsals are sometimes at Allen’s apartment.
Mike “Spike” Redmond is Allen’s current guitarist. He has known Allen for more than 40 years and estimates they’ve worked on 30-odd songs together. Redmond says he has played clubs up and down the East Coast—and in the ‘80s played the 9:30 Club and Baltimore’s Marble Bar, played in bands that opened for the Dead Kennedys and the Circle Jerks. (Allen’s band LeftOver once got to open for Loverboy and Johnny Winter.) There’s no room for Redmond at Allen’s storage space, and the lack of a reliable practice facility has meant their progress is perpetually stalled.
At Allen’s apartment — kept dim, as smoky as a teachers’ lounge in the ‘70s, and lined with stacks of musical equipment and crates — Redmond, his long hair stuffed under a baseball cap, was all lament. Living in Dundalk was tough going, he said. “It’s like a dark cloud’s over this place. You can’t get nothing moving.”
Redmond, 57, says he’s spent 17 years in jail, in various stints, for drug charges, but these days he’s a deacon at Merritt Park Baptist Church. Outside of music, he has made his money as a carpenter and a roofer and is on disability now after falling 36 feet and injuring his back.
He has plenty of time to write songs. “They come to me just like they did when I was 16,” he said. “It’s the situation, not having a place to practice that’s holding us up.”
One place Redmond and Allen could play together, though—without having the police knock on their door, which happens frequently when they jam at Allen’s apartment—was an open-mike night every Monday at the café Teavolve, in Baltimore. Since neither had a car, they were used to biking the eight miles, Redmond with his guitar strapped on his back, and Allen securing a pair of bongos in a crate behind his seat. Like Toto, Redmond said.
They’d been playing together at Teavolve for about a year, though Redmond had been showing up on his own closer to seven. On a Monday in July, they arrived early, and at 6:30, a notebook was put out for performers to sign up. Sometimes Allen and Redmond got to perform three or four songs, Redmond said, but tonight they were getting squeezed to two.
Redmond, in jeans, blazer, and a porkpie hat, led Allen to the back of the café, taking over several tables with their equipment. They each ordered a cup of coffee and waited.
The open mike could bring in 30 to 50 people to the airy, comfortable space, though sometimes half that were the performers themselves.
Allen had his wraparound shades out. “Do I look better with these on or off?” he asked, demonstrating each look.
Redmond had no stake in the decision.
At 7, the MC, Sharif Kellogg, announced the first performer. A petite mandolinist named Erin took the stage and sang sweetly. Next, Jocelyn Faro brought up her guitar and introduced 11-year-old Julia. “It’s her first time at an open mike, so please give her a little bit of love.”
As it turned out, Allen was not the only one who had worked out a stage name. Julia went by “JC Haven” for her music business, her father said, and she was already starting to record. In a surprisingly soulful voice, Julia delivered the Taylor Swift song “Mean” in a way that galvanized the crowd so that they were clapping with the beat before she was done.
Next up, Tim, in pale blue shirt and khakis, got ready to read his poem “Sweet as Peaches,” telling the audience this was the date on which Paul McCartney was introduced to John Lennon. “And I personally would not be writing anything if that event hadn’t happened,” he said. He dedicated his reading to John Lennon.
“Please be my sweet pea. Please be my sweet peach.”
By the time he was done with the first poem, no one could quite bring themselves to look up from their table. The momentum got no better when he announced, “I’m writing a musical.”
“All right, thank you very much, Tim,” Kellogg said after the second poem. “Next up we have Bill and—it’s Spike, right? Am I saying that right?”
Allen and Redmond proceeded to set up, giving the casual atmosphere an awkward injection of professionalism. Redmond strummed his guitar for 30 seconds, looking for an acceptable volume from the monitor. Allen, who had decided to keep the sunglasses on, worked his bongos onto his stand and pulled out two mallets the size of meat tenderizers. “Check, check,” Redmond said into the mike.
“So we’re gonna, I guess, take a minute here,” observed Kellogg, “and then we’ll get rolling with Bill and–” Blank.
“Spike,” said Remond, who kept plucking his guitar. Finally they jumped into Redmond’s composition “I’ll Take You There.” Allen launched into a dizzying, highly intricate beat, his bongos detonating through the room. The tempo wobbled like a drunk. Redmond strummed harder and looked at Allen, pleading with him. Allen, in his sunglasses, kept banging away. It sounded as if they were playing from different continents and trying to sync up through a two-second delay on Skype.
“I can’t hear the guitar,” Redmond told Kellogg mid-song, 10 feet away. Kellogg seemed surprised because everyone else could very clearly hear the guitar.
“Time is running down,” Redmond sang. He played a nimble solo, but it was barely audible over Allen’s drumming. At one point, the guitar came to an abrupt halt—intentionally, for dramatic effect—and Allen should have stopped, too, but he blazed on.
At Teavolve in Baltimore, Allen performs alone at an open-mike event.
The serenity of the place was quickly on edge. The uneasy crowd couldn’t have understood, but Allen playing bongos in a coffee shop was like Mighty Joe Young performing in the Golden Safari nightclub. This was a musician whose drum solos had names.
They played for six minutes uninterrupted, moving into an instrumental called “Stevie’s Revenge.” When they were done, the applause was like drizzle after a violent squall.
The next performer stepped up quickly to the mike with his guitar. He announced he had a song about football.
Allen and Redmond retired to their booth in back. Both were discombobulated. Seething. Allen announced he was going to find a 7-Eleven for cigarettes. When he returned, before he had fully climbed back into the booth, he said, “Yeah, Spike, I really thought we stunk.” Within a couple of minutes, he jumped back up to go smoke more cigarettes and pace.
Allen playing bongos in a coffee shop was like Mighty Joe Young performing in the Golden Safari nightclub. This was a musician whose drum solos had names.
Redmond complained that Allen had drowned him out. “If I could have, I’d have taken those mallets and flung em’,” he said.
Outside, Allen maintained the tempo problems were all Redmond’s. “I’m going to look for a new guitarist.”
After other performers came and went, the two got ready to head back to Dundalk, but Allen was still worked up. “That’s the worst we ever sounded.”
But when you’ve known someone for 40 years, friendships develop their own flexible tempos, and their anger soon disolved. Redmond suggested Allen switch to brushes as a possible solution. Allen said he couldn’t afford brushes. “I’ve got to eat!” he said.
Redmond said he would figure something out. “Yeah, Billy, I don’t know if it will be the best of them, but I’m going to scrounge up a set—“
“Scrounge up a set of brushes,” Allen said.
“I don’t know if I can get you the greatest thing ever made.”
“I know. I can play anything,” Allen said. “I can play pencil sticks.”
“I’ll get you a good set.”
“If you get cheap ones, I’ll be playing and pieces will be flying everywhere,” Allen said, suddenly alarmed. “You know what I mean? It will just fall apart.”
“Them mallets are too loud,” Redmond said. “It’s like marching in the 4th of July Parade. It’s just way, way too—“
“We just got to say, It sucked, laugh about it, forget about it,” Allen said. “And just move on.”
“And come up with different [drum] patterns,” Redmond said. “That’s all it is. Ain’t no big deal.”
Then, seemingly apropos of nothing, Allen’s thoughts were back to his father’s abandonment and the family house he sold while Allen was hospitalized—a devastation that comes up frequently in Allen’s conversations. Maybe the connection was the sting of the night’s performance, the echo of letdown.
“He fixed me good,” said Allen, shaking his head.
As the week went on, Redmond decided which songs he wanted them to play at the next Teavolve show and had them working on the arrangements. They just had to get tighter. Besides, they both knew all about recovering.
Allen rides his bicycle to an open-mike night at Teavolve in Baltimore.
Despite what we know about the human brain, the advancements of technology and medical research, no one truly knows what it’s like inside anyone else’s mind. The brilliant mind, the artistic mind, the troubled mind. Unknowable. We’re all in our own heads, trying to make sense of what life brings each day. That doesn’t mean we’re ultimately alone, of course, but sometimes we are our truest selves when no one else is there.
Inside storage unit 41, it is difficult to get around. It’s often too hot or too cold. Not everything is in a logical place. It’s in need of maintenance. During some moments it’s as quiet as outer space, but generally what goes on inside is an extraordinary cacophony—and wholly original. It lurches forward to a grandiose opus that go will on for 20 minutes or more, then shift to a meditative, pensive mood just as quickly. Placidity. Sometimes it doesn’t fully settle into a coherent swing, or it’s repetitive. Other times it’s marvelous bedlam. There’s no audience, no other musicians. Just full-out, manic drum solos, one after the other, all played against the steady metronome of the human heart.
David Rowell is the deputy editor of the Magazine.