Legendary LA punk rock drummer DJ Bonebrake trades drumsticks for jazz mallets

Drummer wanted flyer for the band X
Drummer wanted flyer for the band X Unknown artist/DJ Bonebrake Music

Legendary Los Angeles punk band X is staging one of its occasional reunions this weekend in Orange County. The band hasn’t put out a new record in years, but its founding members stay busy with a host of other projects. One of them includes Don “DJ” Bonebrake, who occasionally trades in his drumsticks for vibraphone mallets with his work in jazz combos, classical orchestras and maybe even your band.

DJ Bonebrake is probably best known as the long-serving, hard-hitting timekeeper behind the band X. But there's another side – one that even a lot of diehard X fans may've never heard.

On his latest album "Easy" with L.A.'s Orchestra Superstring, Bonebrake goes from L.A. punk fury to California cool jazz.

"Rhythmically I can take more chances on the mallet instruments as opposed to playing the drums because the drummer has to hold down the beat," says Bonebrake. "On the vibes you just take a breath and can play some weird rhythm, as long as you know where you are!"

The forays into jazz are no gimmick. Bonebrake is a veteran vibraphonist and marimba player. Unlike a lot of other punk rock musicians who join a band, then figure out how to play, Bonebrake was a seasoned percussionist when he joined what would become one of the seminal American rock bands of the 1980's.

"Go back before X and I was playing in a jazz band, a Dixieland band I was playing in three community orchestras," says the lean 50-something-year-old drummer.

"I want new experiences. Someone says, 'oh the orchestra is going to play the Shostakovich 8th symphony,' it's like, wow! That sounds great!"

Back in the early '80s, you can pretty much bet that Bonebrake was the only guy in L.A.'s underground music scene who knew his way around a vibraphone – and a marimba. It led to his first notable if somewhat obscure gigs as a sideman.

"I'm known as the rock guy from the punk era who had a marimba, and I played it with Geza X and the Mommymen," says Bonbrake, recalling his collaboration with performer/punk raconteur Geza X's short-lived project – a group that came across like Devo's snottier, more dangerous and harder rocking little brothers and produced one album, "You Goddamn Kids!" in 1982

"And the Flesh Eaters is another band they said, 'oh, you play that weird instrument.' That was my little tiny career as a marimba player."

Bonebrake still has that marimba too – an enormous 8-foot long Degan Imperial that the musician believes was manufactured in Honduras before World War II. It sits in Bonebrake's converted rehearsal studio behind his tidy San Fernando Valley home.

It's a powerful instrument. Just a few gentle strikes of the wooden keys fill the space with sound and cause a snare drum across the room to vibrate in percussive sympathy.

"It's a weird instrument because it's everywhere," says Bonebrake. "Once you learn what it is you'll hear it in car commercials, in movies. I mean it's the most ubiquitous instrument, both the marimba and the vibes."

The vibraphone – Bonebrake's other musical obsession and one that's taken years to master. "You start to see patterns it starts to become easier. You just see all the notes that you can play and the really fun thing about playing jazz is that you try and find all the notes that don't fit in the pattern," says Bonebrake.

"I'm trying to understand the art of jazz. You're just playing in the moment and you're looking for that outside thing."

Like his long-serving partners in the band X, Bonebrake is a restless musician; unwilling to rest on the laurels of past punk-rock glories and always looking for a new outlet – from the edgy but cool Latin jazz of Orchestra Superstring, to the modern experimentation of the Bonebrake Trio and the occasional stint with the Palisades Symphony.

He's also a sought-after session man who's worked with everyone from John Lee Hooker To Rickie Lee Jones. Bonebrake will even record the drums for your band – for a modest $250 per track.

"Why do I do that? I'm trying to make a living!" says Bonbrake laughing. "I'm supporting a family, so I'm a drummer for hire. I play weddings! Come to DJ Bonebrake Music and I will record real drums for you!"

Bonebrake says it's not just about the money, though every gig counts. He wants to, needs to play every day.

"I don't wanna sit around and wait, and most of these projects you can't play every day, because you don't make enough money, so my attitude is I say ‘yes' to everything, I do as much as I can."

That includes saying yes to now annual reunions with X. The band plays a handful of shows across California this month, including two nights at the House of Blues in Anaheim this weekend.

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