When Larry Hoff first picked up a drum, it wasn't to play snare or bass in a rock band.
"The djembe was the first drum I played," said the 31-year-old from Swansea of the African drum with a distinctive hour-glass shape.
"I was 17 and there was a guy who was in a friend's band called Madame Sky and played the bongos. He influenced me."
Part of the "festival, tie-dyed scene," the djembe set Larry on a path to explore a world of percussion instruments. Now he plays everything from the squat twin timbales to the tall, barrel-shaped Cuban congas.
Eventually, he learned to play the classic American drum set, and today has all of his percussion instruments in the lower level of his parents' home in Swansea. There is the standard set for jazz and rock, and his much larger ensemble of world drums that includes a variety of cymbals, bells and blocks.
He fuses pieces from the two when he has a gig with Earthsol, a local band he played with from 2002 to 2005. He rejoined Earthsol in 2010 after his return from an extended stay in Colorado, where he played with a variety of bands.
"You have to think like an octopus," he said, grinning as he sat behind a set of three congas. His hands moved smoothly from one to another, his placement of fingers or palms producing snaps, pops, bass and muffled tones on the skin heads.
"You have to learn the voice of the drum first," he said of using his hands in a variety of ways to bring forth different sounds.
Picking up a drumstick, he worked the cymbals, then sampled the wood blocks, which also emit varied tones.
Last week during a rehearsal at Earthsol guitarist Dan Cross' home, he used hands and sticks to practice with the band, which performs electric and acoustic music, from rock covers to original sounds.
During the day, Larry, a 2000 Belleville East grad, works at Jonny's Pizza in Fairview Heights.
"I'd like to make music more full time, do more networking," he said. And he'd like to teach percussion to private students.
Larry said it was now-retired instructor Jerry Bolen at Southwestern Illinois College who was instrumental in laying the foundation for him in 2002.
"He was very strict with me," said Larry, who played varsity doubles tennis in high school and laughs about having strong wrists.
"You make yourself better by playing every day. There is technique, exercises. You can compare it to sports: Drills and exercises. There is sticking, where you slowly build up the tempo and then bring it back down. It's not always fun. You have to take a deep breath and do it."
Moving to the Boulder, Colo., area for five years was something he felt he had to do. He supported himself mostly working in a restaurant, but got the opportunity to play a wide range of music with popular local bands, such as Smooth Money Gesture, the bluegrass fusion of Mountain Standard Time, plus the eight-piece Latin dance band Onda (Spanish for "vibe") and an Afro-Cuban study group/band called Bamboche that has been around since the 1980s.
"I learned so much there," he said. "There is the magic of the moment when you're playing. There is the listening aspect. You have to be on the same page, be patient and listen. ... You can take music to different places. You learn to be flexible. You have to learn the structure within, learn the rules to break the rules."
Back home in Swansea with his dog Vera, he's enjoying spending time with his parents, Larry and Terri, and other family.
They have supported his music since the day he picked up a small drum, said Terri with a laugh.
"Noisewise, it was nothing," she said. "I thought it was neat."
They were in for their own education, Terri said.
"He's introduced us to so many artists. He puts something on and its 'Who's that?' I'm a huge fan of salsa and Latin music."
Larry isn't exactly restless, but he's ready to try new things. Happy playing Earthsol's occasional performances, he's hoping for more.
"Maybe there's a band out there might need me."