Category: Interviews

  • Interview With Chimaira Drummer Andols Herrick

    There’s no shame in it. Lots of drummers deliver pizza before getting their big break—you know, the one that includes a record deal, world tour, and enough cash to stop once and for all having to haul around extra-large slices of pepperoni and cheese. But in mid-2004, Andols “Andy” Herrick did the unthinkable, the downright crazy-nuts. He quit his thick-muscled, increasingly popular metalcore band Chimaira and actually went back to delivering pizza. “Yes,” he says, “I just wanted to work and be normal for a little bit.” 

    Ask him again, though, and the story of why he left the band gets a little more complicated, a little darker. “It was mainly because at the time my playing was really kind of falling apart,” Herrick explains, “and I was having bad shows every night. Eventually I was at the point where I was just miserable going on stage. And I didn’t want to be on the road anymore. So those two things combined, and it was going on for a long time, building up, building up. The other guys [in the band], they’d always try to be supportive, telling me, ‘Stop worrying about it, everything sounds fine,’ but I would listen to audio of the shows, and just be totally embarrassed. It really came down to my left foot. It was having a total melt down. I would do a double bass run, and I’d come to the end, and it would just fall apart. Stuff that I had recorded in one take, I couldn’t play live anymore. And that’s pretty much what drove me to my breaking point. Finally, I just thought, ‘I need to get out.’” 

    So he did. And in retrospect, that two-year, self-imposed exile couldn’t have been a more painful decision for someone who had grown up—and had lived—in music. Herrick took to the sticks almost two decades ago, influenced by his older brother, who played drums before turning to the piano. (Both his parents played instruments as well, and one of his other brothers eventually earned a master’s degree from Julliard.) Music was in his blood, and by the time he was 13, when Metallica and Anthrax and Slayer entered the scene, his blood was boiling. The new-born thrasher first started slamming with bands in the ninth grade, eventually meeting guitarist Rob Arnold, who a few years later brought him into Chimaira. At the time, Herrick was all of 19, though already with fast feet, sophisticated hands, and an aggressive groove that would be put to pummeling good use on the band’s first two albums, Pass Out of Existence and The Impossibility of Reason, both underground metalcore sensations. And it wasn’t long before Herrick began doing what all real musicians have to do: living and honing his craft on the road. This, then, is the guy who took himself off the stage. It must have been hard. 

    “Yes,” he agrees, “it didn’t take that long afterwards when I thought, ‘That was a bad move.’ It felt right at the time, at the very first, when I kind of felt relieved and thought I did the right thing. But it probably wasn’t more than six months before I got the itch again. When I was away, I didn’t really play at all for a year, and it wasn’t until the beginning of 2005 that I started teaching drum lessons a little bit, so I had my own practice room, and that gave me a chance to practice here and there. I would set up my drums and start playing those patterns that killed me live at the end of being in the band, and I would suddenly just be able to play them all again. It must have been a mental block, or it could have been some sort of burn out in that respect.”

    With his drumming confidence firmly hammered back in place, and with his left foot now free to fly, Herrick jumped on the hot seat for Roadrunner United’s All-Star Sessions, where he thumped alongside Joey Jordison and Dave Chavarri, and where, more importantly, he was reunited with former Chimaira bandmates Matt DeVries [guitarist] and Mark Hunter [vocals]. From the first note struck, the musical connection was still there. “It felt totally natural,” Herrick says. “It felt great, comfortable right from the get go. I kind of realized, ‘Oh, man. I really miss this.’” 

    And apparently he wasn’t the only one. A few weeks after the session, his phone rang. 

    “When I got the call,” he remembers, “that the guys were interested in bringing me back, that was the catalyst for busting my ass, for me to get down [to the studio] every day and practice. I kind of had to make some serious improvements in a short amount of time. But the guys definitely didn’t have to convince me to rejoin the band, because I was ready to throw down again.” 

    But there was one ever-so-slight hurdle. While Herrick was doing deliveries and teaching lessons, Chimaira had charged on, playing for a short time with Richard Evensand on the skins, and then with shred-master Kevin Tally, who tracked the band’s self-titled disc in 2005. Tally’s ferocious whacking is not the easiest bunch of drumming to get under the sticks, so Herrick, ever the perfectionist, carefully worked out his colleague’s beats, whipped them into jamming shape, and eventually joined the band on the road. “We toured from the end of March to the end of May this year,” he says, “and we did a lot of those songs. We spent a lot of time making sure I could do the parts—all the fills and stuff like that—as closely to what Kevin played as possible because I think what he did is excellent. People expect to hear [the songs] sound that way, so out of respect for what he did, I didn’t try to put much of myself in anything.”

    That was all right, because Herrick finally got to flex his own ripped drumming muscles on Chimaira’s new disc, the aptly titled Resurrection. As usual, he perfected his patterns in preproduction and managed to lay down in a take or two some of the meatiest metal drumming that’s ever ripped apart your iPod. In particular, check out the complicated bridge pattern on “No Reason To Live,” an exhausting barrage of drums and cymbals. “I heard the guitar part,” he explains, “and thought it needed something other than a standard drum beat with hat/kick/snare, so I sat down and started doing all this stuff between two rides and basically using the entire kit for the beat. Even though it’s only eight measures, it took me a long time to get the muscle memory to throw my hands all over the place and hit everything I wanted to hit. It’s kind of crazy, but I basically try and do what’s called for in the song, while making it as creative as possible. I just tried to make it the best I can.” 

    And as you slick-kick enthusiasts already know, Herrick’s “best” usually has a lot to do with his feet. Though a master of manic pedal work, he tends to double kick with a purpose, tastefully integrating and weaving licks into the rhythmic structure of songs, like on “Empire” and “Six” off the new record (or, for the old-school fans, “Stigmurder” from The Impossibility of Reason). “I don’t try to ram notes just for the sake of ramming notes,” he says. “And as far as patterns go, it happens to be that guitar riffs are a certain way and it kind of needs to match that, so it ends up not being a typical bass drum part, but a little more syncopated, a little more intricate.” 

    But if you’re thinking about doubling down and tackling some of his own intricate, syncopated, speedy tunes (we know you are), Herrick recommends treading carefully—at least at first. And remember: The guy speaks from experience. “In the beginning,” he says, “obviously your left foot has to go from doing nothing except occasionally hitting the hi-hat pedal to actually trying to keep up with your right foot. I made the mistake early on of basically trying to play along to these fast double bass parts without really ever developing control on the left foot. I’m actually thinking I’m still kind of paying for that today, where my left foot independently doesn’t work as well as my right, so I do a lot stuff where I play single parts on my left foot and try to make it stronger like my right.”

    Oh, man. Herrick worrying again about a weaker left foot? Sounds a bit like that thing that drove him down the lonely road to Dominos two years ago. Does he ever worry that he might have to pack it in once more? That his foot might freeze up? That playing might produce more pain than pleasure?

    “No,” he says, laughing, and then stopping, and then saying again, seriously this time, “No.” 

    It’s just a word, of course. A small one at that. But his tone means everything: No. No more not playing drums. And definitely, without a doubt, no more goddamn pizza deliveries.

  • Interview With Isis Drummer Aaron Harris

    Aaron Harris doesn’t go around looking for ghosts. He isn’t a medium or a seer or a soothsayer or even—as he puts it—a “weird spiritual person.” But when he walked into the drum room of Bomb Shelter Studios, a converted 100-year-old soap factory, he knew something was in there. 

    “It’s a really beautiful, really amazing studio,” Harris recalls, “and the drum room is huge—all-brick walls, high ceilings, concrete floors. I remember checking it out, and I just got this really weird feeling. I turned to the assistant who was kind of giving us a tour, and I was like, ‘Is this place haunted or anything?’ He said, ‘Yeah, it’s really funny you ask that because some weird stuff happens in here at night.’ And I thought, ‘All right, perfect. We’re recording here. This is definitely where we’ve got to do it.’ I don’t know what it was, but something definitely told me that that was the studio. It had this almost creepy feeling that felt really perfect for the vibe of the record.”

    The almost-creepy-feeling record is In the Absence of Truth, the latest full-length from Harris’ post-rock, experi-metal band Isis. And if that vibe alone isn’t recommendation enough for you to check it out, well, let us be the first to smack you upside the head with this pronouncement: Absence is, sticks down, one of the year’s best discs, with over an hour of sophisticated, instrument-dense tunes that combine heavy guitars, trance atmospherics, clean and death-growl vocals, and tricky time signatures—all expertly born on the muscular back of Harris’ superb, tribal tom beats. These Isis dudes, to put it plain, can really, really play.

    A little surprisingly, then, Harris himself has never had any formal instruction. “And I couldn’t even tell you honestly what some of the timings are in some of the stuff I’ve done over the years,” he says, apparently gifted with a strong internal clock and a knack for untangling twisted tunes. Harris in fact picked up most of his stick skills the old-fashioned way—by whacking the hell out of a drum set. Around age 12, he discovered his dad’s kit in the basement and started jamming along to Chad Smith and Bonham, eventually tackling songs by Soundgarden, Fugazi, Helmet, and the Melvins in high school cover bands. And when he was 18, after he had moved from Maine to Boston, and after his first serious band, Loga, had fizzled out, Harris’ penchant for progressive playing proved just what vocalist Aaron Turner and the rest of the Isis guys were looking for to forge a new sound. “We were all interested in forming a band,” Harris says, pausing for a second before adding a sentence that makes all the difference: “We had the same musical vision.”

    Pay particular attention to that word vision, because unlike your typical chops-out-the-yin-yang group, just shredding tune after senseless tune, Isis specializes in composing unified high-concept albums. From 2000’s Celestial (with its critique of tower imagery in Western culture) to 2002’s Oceanic (whose main character explores the idea of community) to 2004’s Panopticon (again a take on the tower, this time by way of English philosopher Jeremy Bentham and French cultural theorist Michael Foucault), the band weaves thoughtful themes throughout its work, and the new album is no exception. Don’t get your Google fingers warmed up just yet, though, because you’re not going to find a quick, ready-to-digest summary of Absence. For this one, the band is holding back the crib sheets and the Cliff’s Notes

    “This time around,” Harris explains, “we just all decided that with [the previous albums] we kind of hand fed the information to everybody. The whole point of doing these kinds of concept records is to get something to the listener to kind of get involved with, to make the record a little more personal. And when we throw [information] out there—here’s what this means, here’s what it is—it kind of defeats the purpose. So this time we wanted to leave a little more mystery for the listener to make your own ideas or concept or relationship with the record.” But Harris does offer one tantalizing hint, gleaned easily enough from the album title itself. “It’s based loosely on perception,” he says, “on personal perception of anything really, and what’s true and what’s not true.” 

    It’s all heady stuff to be sure. But, mercifully, you don’t need a Ph.D. in comparative philological postmodernist philosophy to just sit back and enjoy Harris’ pounding. And this time, there’s a whole lot more pounding to enjoy. “I always had a less-is-more approach to my drumming,” Harris says, describing the repetitive, trance-inducing rhythms that have anchored the band’s sound on the last three releases. “But this time going into the record, I just felt kind of lost as far as direction and what I wanted to do, like I exhausted the approach I had on the past records. And I just didn’t want to dumb things down. I was interested in trying to do something kind of unconventional, where it didn’t have to be a kick/snare/hi-hat beat, you know? It could be a tom beat or whatever I felt fit. I just wanted to try some new things.” 

    So Harris let himself bang out more complex beats, still repetitive and trance inducing, but heavy on the toms for a rich tribal sound. He also added to his (get ready for this) minimal 4-piece kit a double pedal, which you can hear put to stomping good use on the album’s closer, “Garden of Light.” And for the first time, he even got plugged in, hooking up a Roland SPD-10 and a couple of Madala pads (the kind Danny Carey uses) for triggering organ and tabla sounds on songs like “One Thousand Shards” and “Not in Rivers, But in Drops.” He did all of this, mind you, while still effortlessly navigating the band through the usual number of tripping and treacherous time signatures.

    Did all that extra effort have anything to with the ghost? “No,” Harris laughs, “it was just that one day that I felt something. When I went back to do the record, it didn’t feel like that at all to me.” Maybe that’s because the supernatural got spooked by all the super sweaty drumming. 

    “It was a lot of hard work,” Harris admits. “[The album] put everybody in a position where they were trying and playing things that we’ve never done before, and just really pushing ourselves. So I can very comfortably say that I think this is our best work, and as a drummer, definitely my best work. I’m really, really psyched on it.” 

  • Interview With Drummer Jamin Wilcox: Under the Influence of Giants

    “Can you hear me?” Jamin Wilcox asks again. 

    Our phone connection has been fading in and out for about twenty minutes, and because sticksmith Wilcox and the rest of the guys in Under the Influence of Giants are making their way to a gig, traveling apparently through some black hole of cell phone coverage, there isn’t a damn thing we can do about it. 

    “I was just saying,” he says one more time, “that the next songs that we have to write are going to be way better because we’re songwriters. I mean, a lot of people have that first album situation, and they just can’t pass it, but we…. ”

    And, of course, the line gives up the ghost. Just like that, it goes and dies right during the money quote. You know, the one where Wilcox was about to say the group’s success isn’t some fluky, fickle response to a debut album that’s just accidentally chockfull of groove-based, R&B-tinged, disco-rock glory. And to prove it, Wilcox would surely predict, the band’s next effort will be even more catchy, ballsy, and downright irresistible. So there.

    Sure, he was probably going to be a bit more modest about it, but all crystal-ball prognostication aside, the facts are these: UTIOG, as fans refer to the band, has a hot-to-dowload iTunes single called “Mama’s Room,” a video for the same song in constant rotation on MTV (the shimmy-slinking sexy girls in the video admittedly help a little), and—most important—a unique sound that seems bound, destined even, for dance-floor domination. Thousands of well-shook booties, after all, just can’t be wrong.

    But Wilcox didn’t say that, didn’t get the chance to finish any thoughts about his band’s future. All he could sneak through our faulty phone line was a story or two about UTIOG’s past and how this whole rump-shaking retro-rock ride got going. And it started, as these things always do, with the possibility and the promise of playing great songs.

    About three years ago, while he was keeping time for alterna-rockers Audiovent, Wilcox met vocalist Aaron Bruno and guitarist Drew Stewart. The two were already in a signed band called Home Town Hero, but there was something undeniably, irresistibly sparky about the guys’ musical connection. “Because we’re all songwriters,” Wilcox recounts, “I kind of had a musical flirty relationship with Aaron, just because we knew there was something there a lot bigger than what we had [with our former bands] … I don’t really want to say bigger, I just want to say we knew it would be more to our liking for us to be in a band. So we started jamming together and writing together, and we just knew that it was going to work.”

    And they were right. The guys, later joined by big-beard bassist David Amezcua, whipped out a bunch of diversely influenced (hence the wink-wink-nudge-nudge band name) and incredibly infectious tunes that whipped up so much grassroots digital buzz (courtesy of a MySpace page thousands of friends strong − all without label backing, mind you) that not even the ears of a major record company could ignore them for long. All on their own, then, the four fellows scored a deal. 

    But best of all, they also managed to entice the ears of former Blind Melon stars Brad Smith and Christopher Thorne, who agreed to man the boards behind UTIOG’s self-titled debut. And it wasn’t long before the musicians-turned-producers proved a perfect fit for the tune-conscious band, Wilcox in particular. “They were just as excited as us to try to break new ground in every way possible,” he recounts, “and they go for uniqueness opposed to flashiness.” 

    For Wilcox, that meant he could unleash his creativity and count on their support to record in an unorthodox manner to get certain sounds. Instead of using samples to capture the big-and-booming, layered drum tracks on “Stay Illogical,” for example, the group collectively played kick drums with mallets. And if you listen closely to the bridge of “Got Nothing,” you’ll hear electronic, Simmons-like drum sounds that are actually produced by Roto-toms (who uses Roto-toms anymore!). And though each song had been well rehearsed, Smith and Thorne even allowed and encouraged those spontaneous, organic moments that can make even the best music feel a little more magic. “There’s a song called ‘I Love You,’” Wilcox recalls, “and at the beginning of the second verse, there was a drum roll. What they did on that was I was playing and I dropped my stick. The click was still going, and I picked up by just doing a roll back into the song, and they loved it and put that piece in. Me just kind of screwing around getting back into the song, and it ends up being cool.”

    Way cool even. But all the creative freedom and experimentation never got out of hand, never got in the way of the tunes. Wilcox describes the band, along with the two producers, as “cohesive” during the recording sessions, and he emphasizes again the group’s ultimate strength (the reason, remember, why UTIOG is going to make a mark beyond this first impressive album): the commitment to good songwriting. “I mean, everyone has a very, very strong opinion about music,” he says of the band, “but everyone at the end of the day—and the most important thing—agrees that whatever is best for a song is best for a song.”

    And you fast get the impression that what Wilcox thinks is best for an UTIOG song has everything in the world to do with what he thinks of as “good” drumming. It’s an aesthetic he probably picked up from the players who influenced him most, guys whose grooves and licks he early on tried to get under his sticks—drummers like Clive Stubblefield and Steve Gadd, Phil Collins and Mick Fleetwood, Ringo and, “number 1 on my list,” master pocketman Bernard Purdie. But mostly, though, it’s probably something he got from his dad, John “Willie” Wilcox, who kept a deep R&B beat for Hall & Oates back in the ’80s, and who pulled out a kit when 11-year-old Jamin finally got the jammin’ itch. Way back then, from the beginning, he knew that good drumming was never about, as he says, the “snazzy” stuff.

    “I grew up,” Wilcox explains, “under the philosophy—and I still do have this philosophy—of when playing drums, to play musically and not be self-indulgent. I couldn’t imagine forcing myself to do double-stroke rolls on a hi-hat just ’cause I could. [Being] aware of what the vocals are doing and what else is going on in a song other than yourself—I think that’s what makes a good drummer, you know?.…Hey, can you hear me?”

    Yeah, man, we hear you. 

  • Interview With Eighteen Visions Drummer Trevor Friedrich: First Time’s a Charm

    Sometimes even the most dedicated drummers need a decade or two (if ever) to hit it big. But for a couple of special players, well, a whole lot less time will do. 

    “I started playing like five years ago,” says Trevor Friedrich, the 22-year-old slammer behind hardcore heroes Eighteen Visions. “I actually started because my dad wanted to do this extension on our house. All we needed was [our neighbors’] approval, and they denied it—on top of being like the worst people ever. So he had had enough. I had a bunch of friends staying over, so he woke us all up one morning, and he’s like, “Hey, we’re going to go to Guitar Center and start a band,” just to kind of piss them off. So he basically bought a bunch of stuff, and the drums stuck with me I guess because everything else wasn’t fun if you sucked at it.”

    Friedrich, though, apparently didn’t suck for very long. Once the thrill of terrorizing the neighbors abated, he decided to sharpen his sticks in as many local bands as possible, specializing in metalcore and grindcore groups like Tire Iron (“it wasn’t even music it was so heavy”) and developing his skin-smashing skills along the way by learning “every AFI song.” During that oh-so-short time period, he somehow managed to master a uniquely thick-kick, deep-pocket style, even though he’s never taken a formal lesson or learned a rudiment (though he wishes he had), and never gets a chance to practice much anymore (though he wishes he could). “Yeah,” Friedrich admits, “I’m seriously like the weirdest drummer.”

    Weird…or just really, really fortunate. How else does a guy with only five years of stick time—no matter how good he is—hook up with Eighteen Visions, a band whose last disc, Obsession, earned devil horns from Revolver and even snatched Metal Hammer’s album of the year award? 

    “That’s another good story,” Friedrich deadpans. “I got into them shortly after I started playing drums. Ken [Floyd, the group’s original drummer and now guitarist] used to play a 10″ soprano snare. I thought that was the coolest thing, so I went out and bought one, and I’d always try to play Eighteen Visions songs. And with going to their shows and being so much in the hardcore scene, I just became friends with them. I was going to school in L.A. for art, and I was in two bands at the time, but never touring bands. And I was really close with the touring manager, and he called, and he was like, ‘Hey, the new drummer isn’t really working out,’ and then just kind of jokingly shot off like, ‘What we need to do is have you quit school and come drum for us.’ I laughed it off and said, ‘Yeah, dude, I’ll do it.’ And he was like, ‘Really?’ So I had four days to move out of my apartment, find a storage space, and learn all the songs, and then I was on tour.” 

    Well, it was almost that easy. Though he was buds with the bandmembers (always a big plus) and had the chops to handle the gig, an audition was still set up. Friedrich spent two days tracking down a copy of Obsession (it had sold out all over town) and the next two days listening to each song for hours on end, playing along with headphones, patiently perfecting each pattern by ear—just like he always had. “But I was nervous,” he says of the audition. “I was like a wreck. When I was setting up my drums, I kept asking a million questions, “Hey, okay, so where do you want me to set up my drums? Is this okay? Can I set up here?” And they were just laughing at me. And, you know, it’s nerve-wracking because not only am I a new drummer, [but] the old drummer is still in the band, and he’s a drummer that I looked up to. It wasn’t replacing somebody that’s gone. It’s replacing somebody that’s there watching you and critiquing you.”

    Floyd must have liked what he heard, because Friedrich’s butt is now firmly planted on Visions’ throne, and his big, heavy beats are driving the group’s latest, self-titled CD. Unlike the double-kick frenzies and improvised rolls that mark early Visions tunes, Friedrich’s drumming is all taut muscle and sinewy meat, the kind of slamming that tilts toward AC/DC (if, that is, Phil Rudd had ever whipped out the slick hand-and-foot combinations on “Nightmare”). Though earlier fans might find themselves on unfamiliar ground with such groove-based bashing, Friedrich himself finally feels his playing is right where it needs to be with the band. “The new album,” he says, “is a world of difference because instead of copying beats, all the beats are your own. Everything is just completely natural. I feel like I could play them in my sleep.” 

    And he might have done so had the recording session itself not been a bit of a wake-up slap. See, it was his first time in front of a big-label red light, which is stressful enough, but producer Machine (from Lamb Of God fame) walked in with an added challenge: He wanted drums and cymbals to be played and recorded separately. “It was the weirdest thing ever,” Friedrich recalls, “because he didn’t want me to even air-drum cymbals. He wanted me to focus just on kick, snare, and toms. And there’s a bunch of fills where I’ll throw a cymbal or a hi-hat in between a roll, and I couldn’t just air it, I just had to leave it out.” Once he was able to isolate his limbs and play the patterns, there still came the inevitable twists and tweaks to the drum parts he had rehearsed and fine-tuned during preproduction. “So not only did I have to do it all weird,” he explains, “I had to completely remap where I hit. And up until cymbals were recorded, we were changing stuff around. It was kind of a brain buster.” 

    But the craziest mind trip of all came a little later. At some point during the 13 days of tracking, Friedrich was laying down yet another part, when suddenly he realized he had an audience. “Me,” he remembers, “in this huge-ass room by myself, recording drums and looking up and seeing Machine, who’s this gnarly producer, and Davy and Jay from AFI. I was like, ‘What the hell is going on here?’” 

    Doesn’t sound like anyone told him he was becoming a rock star. About a decade ahead of schedule. 

  • Interview With Unearth Drummer Mike Justian: Blisters, Blood, and Philosophy

    Maybe the planets were aligned just right, or maybe Santa Monica’s sweltering summer sun had finally taken its toll, but when we got Mike Justian on the phone, he was sounding mighty philosophical. 

    “Cliché as it may seem,” he says, “Bonham is one of the most incredible drummers, not because of what he played but because of what he didn’t play. That’s what I really respected about him, guys like him and Phil Rudd. You knew that they were capable of a lot, but I think that a great drummer is like a wise man: A wise man never says more than he has to.” 

    Now, you’ve heard that less-is-more sentiment many times before, though probably from swing-obsessed jazzbos, or perhaps even from a few holdover, four-on-the-floor hard rockers. But Justian hammers furious, complex beats behind metalcore mavericks Unearth; and in a genre that in general celebrates the shredding of notes (lots and lots of them), his skinsmanship still stands out—aggressive, fast, abundant, very damn loud—and there isn’t much to indicate that he’s holding back or keeping the reigns on. So how to become a great drummer when you’re never allowed to keep your sticks still? Is it possible to be a wise man when you don’t—by necessity—ever get the chance to shut the hell up? 

    “I’m trying to find a balance,” Justian responds, “because you still want to respect your own creative interests and keep your own artistic integrity intact. I definitely focus a lot more on that fundamental concept of deducting things from the repertoire versus incorporating things. I’m trying to learn how to say more by not saying more − if that makes any sense. But if you want to be the grand pooh-bah of double bass or whatever, then do that if that’s how you are just naturally applying yourself to the music. Don’t do it because you feel like you have to, don’t do it just for the sake of doing it: Do it because that’s just what you do. I never really consciously said yes or no to anything, I never really threw out the blueprints and put a whole lot of pretense in my playing. I always just sort of let things flow.”

    Just let it flow. Hard advice to follow unless you’re as natural a drummer as Justian is. Born into a family full of musicians, a pounder “pretty much out of the womb,” he bludgeoned laundry baskets with wooden spoons when he was a toddler; annihilated a Muppet Babies kit as a youngster; formed his first band (with his brother) at 12 years old; and began touring with bands non-stop once he turned 18. A stint with velocity-metalers Red Chord eventually gave way to the gig with Unearth, right in time to record the band’s 2004 breakthrough disc, The Oncoming Storm. Though the album remains a favorite for both fans and critics, when the time came to track the follow up, this year’s III: In the Eyes of Fire, Justian and the guys (now backed by producer Terry Sullivan of Soundgarden fame) wanted to capture a more live, organic band vibe. They wanted more flow.

    “I didn’t even do click tracks to the songs,” Justian recounts. “I just kind of went for it, which is the complete antithesis of our last…way of doing things, where everything was mapped out, and there were scratch guitars, and I didn’t actually get to have contact with the guitar players. There wasn’t that metaphysical bond that sort of happens when you get together and play. I wanted this to be more natural—so no triggers, no Sound Replacer, no Beat Detective, nothing is quantized. There’s a little sample on the kick and snare, and there’s a few edits, but aside from that, it’s my playing my way.”

    But doing it “my way,” as Sinatra will quickly remind us, is rarely a rose-lined path, even when you’ve got flow on your side. Justian spent about a week and a half tracking drums, ten hours a day. And every day was the same: struggle with a song for ten hours, go back to the hotel, crash, wake up, nail the tune cold first thing in the morning—rinse, repeat. “There were just sporadic points in a song,” he recalls, “where I just couldn’t get it, or I could get it pretty much in the vicinity of what I wanted to do, but I still couldn’t walk away feeling good about it.” So by the tenth ten-hour day, the quest for perfection (or, simply, the search for satisfaction) had brutalized his body. “By then,” Justian says, “I ached and I was in pain and I was starting to look like a soldier coming home from battle. I actually had this bruise on the bottom of my foot, and over the bruise was a blood blister that had formed. There was a bruise on my hand, my wrist hurt, and I had to play with all these bandages on. I had blood blisters forming on my fingers because I was pretty much playing ten shows a day.”

    And not just your run-of-the-mill metal show. If you haven’t listened to Eyes yet, stop reading and throw on your copy now. (And if you don’t have one….Why are you still reading? Hit the download button, or haul ass to the CD shop.) First check out the intro of “This Time Was Mine,” the blistering hi-hat pattern that bloodies fingers. And then just pick a track—all the fills, cymbal smashings, quick tempo changes, double bass runs. Try playing it for a week and a half, ten hours a day. Over and over. Just one more time. And then again. Maybe Justian could have spared himself some of the bleeding and bandages by stifling the inner critic. But that wasn’t going to happen.

    “I’m pretty meticulous,” Justian admits, “and I’m not a cheater. I’m not going to rely on the wave of digital technology that’s coming in sucking all the blood and guts out of music to sound like a good drummer. But at the same time, I’m not just going to lay back and let a bunch of half-hearted playing end up on a record. I wouldn’t surrender the idea or the vision I had just for something easier and more pliable.”

    So tenacity—unrelenting vision—is the final component of what goes into the making of a great, wise, metalcore madman drummer like Justian. A little judicious shredding, a bit of flow, a lot of tenacity. 

    Oh, and the blood blisters, of course. Don’t forget the blood blisters.

  • Interview With Drummer Dustin Hengst: Damone’s DIY Destiny

    It was sometime in 2004 when Dustin Hengst discovered the tie around his neck. And he couldn’t understand how the hell it got there. 

    Two years earlier, the Texas native was bashing the beat behind retro rockers Damone. The band had recently signed with RCA, and a debut album, From the Attic, came out punching with fists full of catchy, punkish tunes. At first, all signs pointed to a rocket ride to rock stardom. But somewhere during the initial ascent, the gas gave out: corporate mergers occupied the attention of an increasingly lukewarm record label, the album itself suddenly stalled, and Dave Pino—the band’s original guitarist and sole songwriter and lyricist—decided to pack up and quit. Worst of all, the rest of the band was dead broke.

    “It was not a good feeling,” Hengst says of that lean period. “We had toured the U.S. three or four times, we went to China, we went to Japan. And it didn’t take off. At that point, it had been over two years since we’d been signed. And when that label advance runs out, you’ve got to figure out something.”

    So the gig-hardened rockers stripped off the leather and took day jobs to keep themselves and the band alive. Vocalist Noelle (think Joan Jett with a sensitive side) watered plants at office buildings. Bass player Vazquez began substitute teaching (“and if you know him,” Hengst says fondly, “he’s the last guy who should be doing that”). A new guitarist, Mike Woods, eventually entered the fold, earning his keep by selling coats at Sax 5th Avenue. And what about Hengst, a graduate of Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music? Well, he tightened up that tie, walked over to a local temp agency, and got work at an auto-club. “I was calling tow-truck companies,” he recounts, “and taking surveys all day.” 

    A quick survey of their own situation got Hengst and company writing tunes for the first time and then trying to record them—on the cheap, guerilla-style—in Noelle’s apartment. Though still technically signed to RCA, the new-look, new-sounding Damone eventually leaked the demos, and the positive reaction from fans as well as from industry reps renewed the band’s confidence. Negotiations began to free the band from their contract, and the day the cuffs came off, they were driving to New York to perform a secret showcase for Island/Def Jam. A day later, a deal was on the table. As impossible a turnaround as it seemed at the time, Hengst has an explanation: “A band like us,” he says, “We’d had a record out on another label, it didn’t do well, and they knew the songwriter wasn’t in the band anymore. We were damaged goods. It really was the strength of the new material that got us signed. It wasn’t because there was any hype or anything going on. It was because they liked the songs, and then when we showed them that we could play them, they were like, ‘Okay!’”

    Exclamation noted. The demos became Damone’s new album, Out Here All Night, twelve tracks of big pop hooks with hard rock overtones, edgy melodies, and an appealing dash of hair metal glam. Actually, though, became is not exactly the right word to describe what happened to those demoed songs: They indeed are the album. Incredibly, the band’s new label thought the songs sounded so good that none of them needed to be rerecorded, only remixed. “So we never went in with a producer, we never did anything like that,” Hengst says. “The record that exists now is the record that we made in our apartment…while we were all at work.” 

    Not a bad showing for a bunch of first-time tunesmiths, and not really at all surprising. Unlike Damone’s debut album, which was written entirely by departed guitarist Pino, Out Here’s songs benefit from a collaborative creative process, with everyone throwing ideas in, around, and out. Hengst in particular stepped up by helping with guitar parts, vocals, lyrics, and song arrangements − so much so that his internal skinsman soon started protesting. “It got to the point,” he recalls, “where my drum parts were the last thing I was thinking about. It would be like, ‘Wow, I just spent all week figuring out the structure of the song and where I want the solo to go, and I haven’t even thought about what I’m going to play.’ It was pretty crazy, but I squeezed out some drum parts I’m pretty happy with.”

    And we’re happy too. It won’t take long for the thumping toms of “What We Came Here For” or the driving double bass licks of “Get Up and Go” to make your limbs wake up and flail. Though uniquely combining solid hard-rock slamming with just a hint of old-school Berklee swing, Hengst isn’t really looking for compliments. “I’m not trying to do something that has never been done before,” he insists. “As far as just actual technical style, I enjoy playing straight-ahead rock, power-rock drumming. A lot of the stuff that I was really into at Berklee, I don’t feel like I should apply that to Damone. It’s not needed really. It’s more fun I think to have a steady rock beat with flourishes here and there. I really enjoy just playing four-on-the-floor.”

    Don’t let the guy fool you, though, because his overall playing is a little more complicated than just a kick drum pounding quarter-notes. You’re not going to hear as many whiplash licks as in a Virgil Donati solo, but Hengst’s holistic, conceptual approach to composing might hurt your head just the same, like on the title track, ‘Out Here All Night.’ “The idea was that this song is about the guitar riff,” Hengst begins. “So I’m going to really lay back during the verses and let the riff be the hook of the song. And then there are going to be times during the song when the drums should play off of it and add to the intensity of it. And that’s what happens during the end of the song, where I do the fours and twos around the kit with the double bass. It was all based around embellishing this pre-existing guitar riff. A lot of the drum patterns follow the same movement, the same rhythm, as that riff. The drum part then makes the song feel cohesive and whole.” 

    “The types of styles of drumming that I like the best, or a combination of drummers that I really look up to, like Roger Taylor or Phil Rude or Stewart Copeland or Dave Lombardo − I think what they have in common is that they are aware of what the song is doing and aware of what the song needs, and I would like to describe myself as more of a compositional drummer, as a drummer who is interested in helping the song more than anything. That’s really the reason I have a job − because of the songs.”

    Ah, yes, the songs. If you have a radio and at least one functional ear, you’ve probably heard the title track tearing up the alternative charts. Much of the buzz is based on the band’s matured, kick-ass sound, of course, but Damone now has something they’ve never had before: strong support from a record company, one that’s not afraid to tempt ears with modern-day marketing techniques. “With a label like Island,” Hengst says, “They’re really progressive and forward thinking. They asked us, ‘What do you think about putting the whole album out on iTunes before the CD is released?’ If you’re Linkin’ Park or somebody, where initial CD sales are a concern, that might be the wrong thing to do. But what it ends up being—and we know this now because fans have told us—is that it’s something really nice you can do for your fans. You let the people who come to your shows and who know about you have it now—they can just go home after a show and download it—and that gets the word out even more. It’s a very interesting approach, and it seems to be working out well.” 

    So well in fact that Damone can lay claim to being one of the few groups that have been able to reinvent themselves from “damaged goods” into DIY destiny makers. Hengst can now enjoy a new and well-earned rocket ride, and if there are any concerns about running out of gas again, take note: “It turned out being a really good turn of events that things went so wrong the first time around,” Hengst reflects, laughing a little. “So this band was meant to hang in there for a reason.” 

    A reason, we’re betting, that has nothing at all to do with ties or tow trucks.

  • Interview With Gomez Drummer Olly Peacock

    Olly Peacock is an easy-going fellow, but come on now—don’t malign the man’s cymbals, even if you are Gil Norton, famed producer behind the Pixies and Foo Fighters.

    “Gil’s renowned for being a bit—not cruel—but pushing drummers,” Peacock explains. “He’s one to have a go at you or take away cymbals if he doesn’t like them. I was always fond of the fact that when we first got together he told me he didn’t like Chinas, and I’ve got two of them. I think it was when I was playing them in the chorus [on one of the new songs] that he’d come in and start going, ‘I’m serious now, I don’t what you to play the China stuff.’ So for the next take, I’d play it twice as much, and then he’d go on the intercom and go, ‘Ol, now honestly, just leave that alone.’ So I’d give it a bit more, and then he’d walk into the room and start threatening me with a finger, with his eyes wide open. To see the cringe on his face—that was the funniest thing,” Peacock laughs. “I kind of wanted him to do it and take half the kit away, but he never got that far. It was definitely like you kind of wanted to push it to see what would happen.”

    The good-natured producer prodding was probably inevitable. Peacock and his Brit-hip group, Gomez, have released seven albums over the last decade, but the new disc, How We Operate, is the band’s first with an outsider behind the boards. “I think years ago, when we were younger,” Peacock says, “we weren’t going to be told what to do. I don’t think we would have dealt with it very well, and I think it would have ended up with one of us walking out after five minutes. It took all these years to kind of get to grips with that. 

    “We gravitated towards Gil because he was from the same neck of the woods from where we are in the north of England. It was all very interesting getting him involved. We did a couple weeks rehearsal before recording the album, which we had always intended to do. I think everybody else in the world rehearses an album and then goes and records it, but we generally just go in, and things get written on the spot. So Gil came down, and basically arranged all the songs, which is a really great way of doing it. We all worked quite well together. He questioned everything that we wanted, we questioned everything that he wanted, and then he told us off a few times, which was quite amusing.” 

    It’s easy enough to shoulder a little cursing when you have Peacock’s credentials. Though Gomez officially began in 1996, the group’s roots formed some 16 years ago, when Peacock and guitarist/vocalist Ian Ball, who have known each other all their lives, decided to put a band together. “It was one of those situations,” Peacock says, “where we told each other what we would play. ‘You play guitar, you play drums.’ And I ended up with the sticks—unfortunately.” The freshly christened skinsman started off by playing along to pop tunes, but those soon gave way to heavier, meatier styles of music. Before he knew it, thrash metal grabbed hold of his scruffy neck, and names like Lars and, more importantly, Lombardo headed up a list of influences. At 17 or 18 years old, the young drummer got bit by the jazz bug, and that’s when Peacock felt he ought to work on his chops, though never to the point of becoming an obsessed practice-pad shredder. Because he’s always been in a band, it’s playing music—rich, textured, nuanced music—that is still very much on his mind. “I’m more of a kind of guy,” he says, “that likes to just let all the influences come in and have more of a style and more of a personality rather than one of those guys who can just play the kit well but is very standard.” 

    No, Peacock’s playing—particularly on this latest batch of eclectic Gomez tunes—could never be mistaken for anything “standard.” What to call a drumming style that shifts easily from the laid-back brush work on “Notice” to the jaunty country-calypso beat of “Cry On Demand” to the blues-rock undercurrent of “Chasing Ghosts With Alcohol”? Peacock himself offers a description. “I always like to use the word fluky,” he says, warming up for a bit of old-fashioned—and endearing—self-deprecation. “Everybody else in the band always says I’m quite fluky. I seem to kind of just throw the sticks around, and I have lots of drums and lots and lots of cymbals … Yeah, I think that’s what I do: I have lots of things to compensate that I’m really bad, and hopefully something kind of good comes out of it.” 

    He laughs again, and then continues more seriously (but only a little more seriously) about his role in the band: “I guess I’m supposed to be the time-keeper and all that stuff, but our bass player is usually the man that keeps us all together, to be honest. He’s the guy who’s keeping it tied down, whereas I’ll be off just doing whatever I want to do, especially live. In some ways, I think I’m more of a mediator between everything—between what the song is and what it then turns out to be. I’m usually one of the members of the band that tries to either ruin songs in some ways or make them more exciting with electronics or rearranging things. There’s always that want and need in me to make something simple a little more complicated, a little stranger.” 

    Ironically, he might have met his equal for making songs a little more complicated. Though Norton generally suggested stripping down Peacock’s complex rhythms, the veteran producer could also make some limb-tangling requests, sometimes at the last minute. Take, for example, the recording of the new album’s title track (the same song incidentally in which Peacock playfully tortured Norton with those forbidden Chinas). “I was coming from the point of view,” Peacock explains, “of having a sort of German, very stringent, kind of tactile and simple beat, but cleverly done with off-beats on the hi-hat and the bass drum syncopating. This was one of the coolest beats I had come up with. We’d been rehearsing it, and I had had this in the bag for a week. And then just as we’re recording, Gil says, ‘No, I think you need to do something else to start the second verse. Just stick the bass drum on this beat as well as putting it in on the 1 and the 3 while doing the double stuff. Okay? Go and record it.’ And I’m like, “Do you realize how annoying that is? I don’t want to change it, and it’s that hard to play.” When I got to the chorus, I had this groove going that felt completely alien to the whole song, but everybody else is digging it. I managed to pull it off, I don’t know how. That was a bit of a tough one, but it came out really well.” 

    Everything came out so well, in fact, that the buzz is beginning again. Gomez’s debut, Bring It On, kept critics and fans alike clapping along to its blues-tinged electro-folk rock. After the album picked up England’s coveted Mercury music award and once a well-received sophomore effort hit the shelves, the band seemed poised for global dominance, ready to reap a level of popularity similar to a Coldplay or, at least, a Keane. That kind of mass appeal, though, has somehow eluded the band, particularly—and strangely—in their own country. It’s a situation that Peacock thinks about: “We’ve got to the point where now as musicians we’re very much on our game. I think now it would be nice for just a few more people to be checking us out, especially in England, where the music culture and especially the journalism … Well, it’s just so fickle that it would be nice for people to go, as I would do as a listener, ‘Okay, hold on. This band released a good record. I might not care too much about them, but it’s good music, and I’ll just get with it,” rather than going, ‘Hold on. They haven’t got their hats on or their cool ties or their big, pointy shoes.’ That seems how everywhere else in the world works. They don’t give a damn unless you’re making good music.” 

    So if you give a damn about good music, then get ready to check out Gomez. Be sure to leave your big, pointy shoes at home, but don’t feel like you have to keep your Chinas in the closet. Peacock is already dusting his off for the tour. 

    Let’s not tell Norton.

  • Interview With Drummer Fred LeBlanc: Reviving Rock and Roll (One Orgasm at a Time)

    Cowboy Mouth is like a kick-ass, New Orleans rock-and-roll orgasm,” insists drummer and lead singer Fred LeBlanc. And we’re in no shape to argue—there’s barely energy enough to lie back, light a cigarette (forget you heard that, kids), and thank the loin-shaking heavens. 

    Though destined to keep an audience weak in the knees, the Louisiana native had something of a shaky start himself. “I was born deaf,” he says, “and my folks used to put my head on the stereo speakers when I was a child so I could feel the vibrations.”

    No, we didn’t believe him either, but—incredibly—it’s all true: Baby LeBlanc entered the world with overgrown tonsils and adenoids that blocked his hearing passages. The condition was treatable, but doctors couldn’t help until he turned three years old. “My lugs were very weak—they were underdeveloped—so they [the doctors] had to wait until my lungs were strong, which is pretty funny when you see me today,” laughs LeBlanc, unleashing a bit of the vocal power that keeps Cowboy fans coming for more. “So music was like my first communication. I was always told I could sing before I could talk.”

    If that wasn’t sign enough, the subversive sway of Sesame Street soon sealed the youngster’s fate. “I started playing drums,” LeBlanc recounts, “because Oscar the Grouch was my hero. For Christmas when I was five years old, the only thing I wanted was a giant green garbage can, just like Oscar. So on Christmas morning, there was a giant garbage can that had freshly been painted green. I climbed in it, loved it, my brother and his friends used to roll me around in it, and then one day, I turned it over, and I just hit it, and I was like, ‘Oh, yeaaaaaaah.’ And it was all downhill from there.”

    Or, really, a steady climb uphill. A cheap drum set eventually replaced the garbage can, and LeBlanc quickly became the go-to drummer in his neighborhood, honing his skinsman skills on a high school production of Jesus Christ Super Star (“I brought [my kit] into the rehearsal space where they were doing this, and people looked at me like I had two heads”) as well as with the usual run of garage bands. A five-year stint with Dash Rip Rock began in 1985, and though the group successfully toured and released a few albums, LeBlanc grew tired of “the vices and the excesses and the craziness” of the lifestyle and quit to follow his own fortunes. A solo deal with EMI was over by the end of 1990, but LeBlanc—determined and dedicated as ever—was not done yet.

    During that pre-Cowboy period, he had a revelation. “I always played behind other people in other bands,” LeBlanc explains. “I played in this cover band where the lead singer was like an Elvis-type guy. He was kind of portly, and he’d jump on the drum riser and start bending over to sing to all the ladies. Whenever he did that, his pants would start to come down, and then all of a sudden in my face would be this big, fat, hairy butt crack. I remember thinking, ‘You know, I am never playing behind anybody ever again.’ So I never did.” Confident he could dominate the stage as well as any prancing, mike-wielding front man ever has, LeBlanc moved his minimalist kit front and center, thereby becoming not only drummer and lead singer but grand master of ceremonies. The combination clicked with Cowboy Mouth.

    Since forming in 1991, the raucous quartet has toured nearly non-stop, playing over 175 shows a year across the country, servicing an estimated eight million fans over the last decade and a half. The road warriors have also somehow found time to record 11 albums, including the new ruckus-raising effort, Voodoo Shoppe, which like all the discs in the Cowboy catalog stands steady on LeBlanc’s solid, foundational grooves. “My playing style is very, very simple and very, very song supportive,” LeBlanc says. “I learned a long time ago as a drummer that it’s more important, at least on my end, to serve the music and the song than to sit there and try to be flashy and show how many fills you can play. The greatest music in the world to me—whether it’s like the Beatles or Nirvana—was when the drums are very present, very powerful, but they’re not something that takes over the song. That’s what I choose to do.”

    Don’t think, though, his shred-free drumming is without excitement and energy. There have, of course, been electrifying drummer-leaders before (that Buddy Rich guy comes to mind), but you’ve never seen anything as entertaining as LeBlanc leading Cowboy Mouth. He can barely keep on his throne, hovering just long enough to wallop the bass drum or pulverize a lone crash cymbal before leaping up, flipping a stick, and whipping along his limbs, hands, and head—doing everything possible to connect with each and every sweat-soaked person in the audience. So infectious is his performance that not even hometown drum heroes are immune. “Ziggy [Zigaboo Modeliste of The Meters] came out to see us two years ago at Jazz Fest,” LeBlanc remembers. “After the show, he comes up and puts his arm around me and says, ‘Boy, you were the s**t!’ If Ziggy says it’s good, then it must be good.”

    So haul your butt off that throne of your own and hightail it to a gig, because Loud Lungs LeBlanc and the rest of the Cowboyers are not merely good: They’ll revive your faith in the regenerative power of rock and roll. “We are very conscious about wanting to put something positive forward,” LeBlanc says thoughtfully. “It’s easy to get people riled up when you sit there and bitch and moan about things. We wanted to try to approach like what the old gospel churches used to do: Instead of people leaving the show feeling worn out, I wanted them to leave our shows feeling reenergized, feeling like they could take on the world. Life is too short not to enjoy yourself.”

  • Interview With Subways Drummer Josh Morgan: Real-World Rock Star

    All photos: the awesome Eddy BERTHIER

    Every once in a while, we catch a young drummer on the cusp of superstardom. Bid welcome to 19-year-old Josh Morgan, beat maker for British sensation The Subways. The trio first captured American ears last Fall, when the rowdy tune “Rock & Roll Queen” was featured on the popular (and music savvy) T.V. show The OC. Since then, the band has moved closer to U.S. domination with a well-received minitour and a just-released full-length debut, Young For Eternity. A real family affair, the tight-knit trio is completed by guitarist/vocalist Billy Lunn (who is also Morgan’s half-brother) and bassist/vocalist Charlotte Cooper (who is also Lunn’s soon-to-be wife). 

    Morgan took to the drums when he was around 13 or 14 years old, learning the instrument as he jammed with Lunn and Cooper. Although his father expertly manhandles a guitar and his grandmother taught herself piano, Morgan felt a connection to the drums, even before he actually put sticks to skins. “I’ve always admired drummers since I was a kid,” he says. “When I was watching Tops Of The Pops [a British music show], I always stared at the drummers, never at the singers. I thought it would be fun to start, and it turned out it was a real good calling for me. I was an aggressive little kid,” Morgan laughs, “and it calmed me down a lot.”

    Drumming apparently calmed him down a great deal indeed. Not a hint of aggression is evident in his personality—Morgan laughs easily and speaks candidly, peppering the conversation with good-natured profanity—but his playing itself bears the mark of storm and strife. The guy hits like he’s exorcising, or conjuring, demons. He says his playing is “really passionate…very head-bangy and loud. Yeah, very loud. I go through snare skins bloody daily. I really bash them, and sticks don’t last more than two songs. It’s really quite damaging. Billy and Charlotte, bless them, they hate my drumming.” Morgan continues with the joke: “I think they want to kick me out.” 

    Not a chance. The trio—bound by blood and love and music—has made one of the year’s best debuts with Young For Eternity. Released mid-2005 in the U.K. and helmed by producer Ian Broudie (of Lightening Seeds fame), the disc hit U.S. shores in February. The straight-ahead songs, delivered with a double punch of Sex Pistols attitude and a bit of Beatles mania, don’t lend themselves to drum shredding, so Morgan stays true to the groove and his music-making credo: “Go with the flow and play with my ears.” All in all, The Subways’ freshman effort is a taut 36 minutes of sexy, uncompromising confidence that demands your attention—just the way great rock and roll should.

    After the disc has had its way with you, take a moment to towel off and listen again to Morgan’s energetic drumming—or rather, what he’s drumming on. Eschewing the resurgence of monster prog kits and the increased integration of electronic triggers and sampling, Morgan keeps it simple and acoustic, abusing a minimalist 3-piece kit—bass drum, floor tom, snare—and a single cymbal. A lone tambourine hangs in place of an abandoned rack tom. “It’s so comfortable to play at the moment,” he says, describing his unique setup and its evolution. “I’ve stripped it down to what I actually ended up using and needed. I don’t use a hi-hat because I just got sick of it. It’s kind of a dreary sound … So I just thought, ‘Screw it, I’m dropping it.’” The conventional rack tom followed a similar fate. “I didn’t like the sound [of two toms], so I got rid of that and just used the one, and it sounded so natural. On the album, the drums just sounded so free, and the one cymbal is very clean. We go to gigs, it takes five, maybe ten, minutes to set the kit up. And because there’s less, there feels like to me I’ve got more to do: There’s more for me. It’s unbelievable how many sounds I can make out of these tiny little instruments.”

    Even more unbelievable, however, to Morgan was the immediate roar of audience approval at the band’s shows in America. The trio earned their stage swagger the old-fashioned way, by gigging relentlessly, but they did feel some concern about performing in the States. “We came here thinking that people would just be standing there, not even clapping,” Morgan admits, “And at the end of a set—every set we’ve done—they’ve just been screaming for encores and just going nuts. It’s shocking.”

    But not really surprising. From the beginning, the band has had an intimate rapport with their audience, just the way Morgan wants it. “When it comes to chatting with fans,” he says, “I love spending loads of time with them and just talk about nothing. And people do come up and chat.” And that’s because Morgan truly is a bloody great, approachable bloke who—despite all the publicists and the photographers, the interviews and the screaming crowds, the sound and the fury of the rock-and-roll machine—doesn’t quite know he’s a rock star. “It’s hard to judge where I am at the moment,” he thinks. “We’re very new to the music business; we’re kind of babies I guess. Maybe in about 40 years I’m going to realize I’m in the music business. I’ll just take it as it comes.” 

    Morgan reflects for a moment before adding, “The one thing I really hate, though, is like these really sweet people from the record label doing everything for you. We’ve got guitar techs just working their asses off, and I’m just like, ‘Just chill, man. Relax. Have time off.’ They’re tuning the guitars, changing the strings, and all that. It’s a bit weird, people doing stuff for you when I’m used to tuning everything myself. I love to tune my own kit: It keeps me in the real world.”

  • Seven Jam Band Percussionists We Totally Dig: Mike Dillon, Rajiv Parikh, Andy Farag, Brian Carey, Scott Messersmith, Jeffree Lerner, and Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz

    Mike Dillon (Garage a Trois, Les Claypool, Critters Buggin’)

    A multi-instrumentalist who’s played shoulder to shoulder with such kit heavyweights as Stanton Moore and Matt Chamberlain, Mike Dillon began his percussion journey in 1975, when he was 10 years old and “always wanting to hit on things.” Although best known today as a vibe/marimba man, he started as many others do on drum set, taking lessons with local teachers and working through rudiment books. He played a good deal of classical mallets when he went to college at North Texas State, where the Latin percussion bug bit him hard as well, but he seriously began getting into vibes in ’94 after watching Straight, No Chaser, an influential documentary on Thelonius Monk. Now over a decade later, he boasts a packed resume of recordings and live dates with the jam band elite.

    Though he probably wouldn’t be comfortable with the characterization, Dillon embodies the first essential characteristic of a jam band percussionist—relentless dedication. “I always think about John Coltrane,” Dillon says, “how he was always practicing. He was really searching and defining what an instrument could do.” Channeling the spirit of Cortrane’s drive, Dillon combines restless devotion with an energy and adventurousness that for him is what the job is all about. “That’s the great thing about being a percussionist. There’s so much to study. The one thing that I was fascinated with from the get go at music school was the concept that your whole life you’re going to spend learning instruments. So now I’m [focusing on] the goal of playing a lot of instruments and making them sound like me.” 

    His sound—unique, eclectic, and with just a hint of irreverence—is also born of his desire to expand musical boundaries: “I like studying the jazz language on the vibes, but I’m a product of punk rock and rock. I bring all that stuff to my world and just play, putting the emotion and the fire into it.” Exactly what the great players have always done.

    Listening to Dillon. For a fix of the funkiest vibe work that has ever slithered from New Orleans swampland, download “Bear No Hair” off Garage a Trois’ Outre Mer. Dig deeper into Dillon’s funky playing with the cut “Hungry Grasshoppers” off his self-titled solo album. And for those of you who feel particularly adventurous, check out any song from his group Hairy Apes BMX (a.k.a Butt Moving Experience), where he also handles rap duties. 

    Rajiv Parikh (New Monsoon)

    One half of the percussion section for San Francisco–based jammers New Monsoon, Rajiv Parikh didn’t play music at all before picking up what many consider the most difficult and demanding of all percussion instruments—the tabla. The 33-year-old started studying it after high school, when he was 18 or 19, which is considered very late indeed in a tabla player’s life. Though he grew up with a love for music, particularly his father’s collection of Santana, Bob Dylan, and Stones albums, it wasn’t until his mother brought home a CD of classical Indian music that he found his calling. “I really had no idea about any of it,” Parikh explains. “So I put it on, and that was it. It was like divine intervention, really one of those moments that changed my life. The tabla player who was playing on the record was just blowing my mind. I didn’t know who it was. Later, I found out it was the man, Zakary Hussein. He just happened to be living in the Bay area and just happened to be starting his Summer tabla lessons. They say in Indian classical music that the student finds his guru, or teacher, and that the guru finds his student. And that’s really, profoundly what happened to me.”

    Despite his late start, Parikh knows best the second characteristic of the jam band percussionist: You’re going to play a lot of gigs. New Monsoon logged in an average of 150 shows during 2003 and 2004. A musician’s dream scene, the jam-band performance space is created by the audience itself because jam band fans tend to be as dedicated as the bands they follow. And that’s okay with Parikh: “It’s a very cool thing I think. Most of the audience is music fans who come to the shows for the experience, for what it does to them. The jam band community is a terrific community of music lovers who want to see live music.” And as a jam band percussionist, you’ve got to want to play it. Just be sure to tape up your fingers.

    Listening to Parikh. Got a taste for tabla? Download an example of Parikh’s skillful and subtle playing with the rest of the percussion section on “Dark Perimeter” from New Monsoon’s latest studio release, The Sound. Or indulge by going right to “Velvet Pouch” (where Parikh sings tabla bols) and to the appropriately titled “Tabla Solo” from Live at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival

    Andy Farag (Umphrey’s McGee)

    Forget what you were expecting from a jam band—you know, all that meandering, distortion-free string-noodling stuff: Umphrey’s McGee can rock out. And with a possible set list of 130 to 140 original songs and about 200 covers, they can rock out for quite some time. Percussionist Andy Farag joined the Chicago-based, guitar-oriented band six months after the group played its first professional gig in ’98. A relative latecomer to the skins, Faraq began two years of drum-set lessons when he was 17, but being a percussionist is where his heart was. He made a complete switch to hand-drumming when he joined Umphrey’s, he credits his time with the band for shaping the player he is today. Though he is proficient in all afro-Cuban and Latin percussion, Faraq isn’t afraid to lay down just a little tambourine and cowbell if it’s called for. 

    And believe it or not, oftentimes that minimalist approach is exactly what’s needed. According to Farag, if you’re going to be a jam band percussionist, you have to master the art of adding color without clutter—or, to put it another way, you have to learn to play nicely with others. “I’ll really listen to what he’s [drummer Kris Myers] doing,” Farag explains. “When I hear him do a fill, maybe I’ll counter that fill, maybe I’ll play right after him. I’m always listening, and I think I’m good at coming up with good, tight, thought-out patterns that go along with all the other rhythms. I’m really big on that—not necessarily ripping all the time but coming up with a solid foundation for everything else to spice up the whole sound.” 

    Big ears are also essential during improvisational pieces, which have long been associated with playing in a jam band. Again, the stage is no place to bully your bandmates. Farag describes Umphrey’s improvisational approach as a little less free than some other bands’, preferring to play within and with an established structure rather than creating a new piece on the spot: “We try to make it sound like a song, like it’s been rehearsed. We try to add melodies and harmonies. One guy will come up with a riff and another guy will harmonize with that riff. Instead of just jumping in, I might sit back and listen for a minute or so and see what the best thing to add is, what would musically fit in that situation.” 

    Listening to Farag. For a lesson in listening, download “13 Days” from Umphrey’s McGee’s latest album, Anchor Drops. Farag keeps it simple by tastefully accenting Kris Myers’ hi-hat pattern with shakers. Adding just those few notes whips the groove thick and frothy.

    Brian Carey (New Monsoon)

    Rajiv Parikh’s percussion partner in New Monsoon, Brian Carey knows how important a well-trained ear is as well because he’s been working out his for two and a half decades. Primarily a Latin percussionist these days, Carey started off with a pair of sticks and a snare drum when he was eight years old, eventually graduating to a drum set and getting involved with marching band and drum corps during high school. Eventually, he had an affair with mallets, marimba, and timpani that was soon followed by a lasting relationship with congas, timbales, and bongos. 

    Besides the obvious good fortune of getting your hands all over a number of instruments, Carey points out another perk of playing percussion in a jam band. When the time is right, when the conversation calls for it, you actually get to use the chops you worked so hard to develop. Carey takes a solo every night with Monsoon, but like with everything else in a jam band, to play a solo is to play on the edge. Carey constantly attempts to push himself to new levels: “I fall into patterns like everyone,” he confesses about his solos. “Seemingly you’re never out of ideas, but when you play out so much and you don’t get a chance to practice so much on the road, you kind of fall into patterns. I’ll listen back to some of my solos, and I’m like, ‘I did that a week ago.’ So I’ve got to go back to the drawing board. You got to put that drum to the left and that drum to the right and change things around.” Sometimes you just have to make yourself a little uncomfortable.

    If you’re going to walk the edge night after night, you have to work at keeping your balance. That lesson Carey learned early on and the hard, embarrassing way. When he was teenager, Carey’s high school band had the opportunity to perform at a state competition. The featured song had a tricky meter and tempo shift that Carey didn’t bother to rehearse. “I was 15 at the time and thought I was a bad ass,” Carey recounts. “I totally botched it. I was the goat of the whole band. That taught me at a young age, ‘Don’t think you’re so good.’ Because no matter how good you are, you’ve got to be prepared.” 

    Listening to Carey. Download “Another Night In Purgatory,” one of New Monsoon’s more rocking tunes from The Sound. Carey hammers down a conga rhythm behind a driving beat. And for an example of Carey’s playing on the edge, check out the jaunty tune “Calypso” from Live at the Telluride for the opening percussion solo that clocks in at over two and a half minutes.

    Scott Messersmith (The Motet)

    Scott Messersmith didn’t always know he’d be a professional musician, but one thing was for certain: “It became clear,” he says, “that music would guide my life.” Born in New Orleans (and with a healthy dose of second-line drumming in his blood), Messersmith has been banging on things since he five years old. He started on drum set but moved quickly to hand drumming. Interested in world music and instruments early on, he studied with an African percussion teacher from Senegal when he was 14, and during high school, he became involved in a drum and dance group that played West African and Afro-Cuban rhythms. He eventually dug even deeper into Cuban music by making several sojourns to Cuba to study bata. 

    Now 32 years old and an accomplished player by anyone’s standards, Messersmith has been keeping the beat peppery for The Motet since ’98, when he moved to Bolder, Colorado and met drummer-leader Dave Watts. Messersmith and Watts are The Motet’s remaining original members (some 20 to 30 musicians have passed through over the years), and as you might expect from a drummer-led group, there’s a strong focus on percussion. “Everybody in the band,” Messersmith boasts a little, “learns to play a little percussion.” 

    The Motet’s sound, then, is rhythmically textured, dense, and potentially tricky: It’s the kind of music that requires a percussionist to make careful choices. Not a machine-gunner of notes, though his chops are evident, Messersmith describes himself as “more of a groove guy” who listens to and attempts to interact meaningfully with his bandmates. “I try to whenever I play with someone to communicate in a musical way. I just try to be as musical as I can. I try to feel out what’s going on and fit in where I can.” 

    Like many of the percussionists featured here, Messersmith is wary of the jam band label and the type of playing it signifies, preferring instead to describe The Motet as an improvisational jazz-based band that fuses a number of styles and in the end tries to “make it all danceable.” Though the label has for him negative connotations, he without a doubt appreciates the jam band environment. “That’s one thing I like about the jam band scene,” he says. “There’s not much ego getting in the way of the music.” 

    Listening to Messersmith. Download “The Magic Way” for a jazzy jam-band sound that’s smooth, slick, and sexy. Just after the three-minute mark, the song neatly switches into a disco-flavored vibe with Messersmith complementing Watt’s groove with shakers and congas. For an example of economical playing at its best, listen to how Messersmith’s cowbell pattern on “What’s the Purpose” propels the beat. 

    Jeffree Lerner (Sound Tribe Sector 9)

    Jeffree Lerner began playing on pots and pans at his grandparents’ house when he was very young (he describes drumming “as something that as a kid was an instinctual thing”), but he didn’t get serious until college, when he was around 19 years old. Always exclusively into hand drumming, and a little leery of formal study at first, he has developed a voice on the instrument that he feels is “kind of like music today…a melting pot.” 

    It’s also a voice that fits perfectly with his group, Sound Tribe Sector 9 (or STS9), a jam band that’s truly plugged-in. Lerner describes STS9’s sound as “balancing technology and traditional instrumentation,” and the result on their disc Artifact and the remix project Artifact: Perspectives—both bolstered by guest vocalists and rappers—is unconventional, unexpected fare indeed (even for a jam band). Marshalling the traditional array of African and Cuban percussion, Lerner also enhances the atmospheric, downtempo tunes with sampled sounds and rhythms from an Apple G4, taking the jam band genre—and the role of its percussionist—into the 21st century.

    But even while venturing into the seemingly spacious realm of electronica, Lerner reiterates the importance of keeping your ears alert and your hands (or trigger finger) in check: “The drummer [Zach Velmer] I play with—not in any negative way—he’s a real busy drummer. He’s holding a lot of different spaces with that, so I guess the metaphor that I’ve always used—I think of the percussion as a water instrument. And so, I feel like these guys are building a landscape around me, and I kind of fit in between the crevices and spaces. I listen. We think of our music as a conversation. We try not to talk over each other, to interrupt each other…It’s a one band, one voice kind of thing.” 

    Such conversational courtesy—again, the percussionist’s art of playing color without clutter—engenders a sense of trust within the band that is to everyone’s benefit. Even the unpredictability of improvisation, which can feel frightening at first for less experienced musicians, becomes a haven for music making. “The space we create with the five of us,” Lerner explains, “seems like the safest place on the planet.”

    Listening to Lerner. STS9’s latest disc, Artifact: Perspectives, is cooler than igloos, popsicles, and the tundra combined. Get a sample of Lerner’s breakneck drum ’n’ bass sampling on “Tokyo/Better Day Remix.” Cool down with the downtempo gem “Better Day Remix.”

    Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz (Widespread Panic)

    For those who like their jam southern fried, Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz cooks it up hot and plentiful with Widespread Panic. The most experienced of our septet of percussionists, he’s a multi-instrumentalist, proficient in all the usual bangables (including tablas), and is by turns funny, wise, and music-biz savvy. Listen up.

    Hailing from Waco, Texas, he played his first show at eleven years old and spent the next few decades gigging and paying dues before moving to Athens, Georgia. The night Ortiz drove into down, he sat in with Panic, who immediately offered him a job (clearly the guys knew a great thing when they heard it, but it took a bit longer for Ortiz to join the lineup full-time). Now approaching nearly 20 years together, the band has made 15 albums, many of them live jam-band staples, and can perform five nights in a row without repeating a song. With that kind of history, you’d think the band might relax.

    Despite the extensive experience playing together, Ortiz and the Panic boys still relish jamming on the edge. It’s a point of honor. “We pride ourselves on not doing the same shows night in and night out. We like to change it up. Even if we repeat a song on the seventh day, the solos may change and the places where the solos come in. So we’ve had lots of train wrecks. To us, that’s what still makes it fun. Some members of the audience will be like, ‘That was close.’ And we’ll think, ‘You don’t know how close that was.’ We still want to go to the edge. And there’s always a little ledge on the other side of the mountain that we can hold onto in case we want to regroup.”

    With all the wily wisdom that only experience and perspective brings, Ortiz also knows it’s important to keep a level head because, hey, even though you’re a talented multi-instrumentalist with chops and ears and heart and passion, you’re only a percussionist after all. “You look at a band as a baked potato,” Ortiz says, just a little too pleased. “You’ve got your skin and your meat and the cheese and bacon. Well, I always say your percussion player is kind of like your chives. It’s nice to have, but you can do without it sometimes.”

    Really, though, you can breath easy. When was the last time anyone actually asked to hold the chives?

    Listening to Sunny. Check out what a few chives can do for the groove by downloading “Chilly Water” and “Postcard” from Widespread Panic’s newest album, Live at Myrtle Beach

  • Interview With Drummer Sam Brown: Shining With the Sun

    The Sun’s Sam Brown isn’t ungrateful, of course, but recognition as a stickman just doesn’t mean as much to him anymore: “There was a time—maybe ten years ago—when I would have been pissing down my leg about being in a drum magazine. I was just so into being a drummer: It was like my whole being. I still really enjoy playing, but now I’m definitely way more into songwriting than I’m into drumming.”

    Put down the pitchforks. Although Brown doesn’t immediately come off as our typical drum fanatic, his credentials are impeccable. At 33, he’s closing in on two decades behind the kit, having mastered his first beat on a desk during English class in the eighth grade. After the usual run-through of garage and cover bands, he began catching ears in earnest with Fever Smile, a country-tinged grunge group that played the Columbus music scene from ’92 to ’94. Soon after, he went power punk with Gaunt from ’95 to ’98 and became a cult favorite with the New Bomb Turks in ’99. Along the way, his playing has continually evolved by incorporating elements of John Bonham’s power, Keith Moon’s energy, Dennis Chambers’ licks and tricks, Jimmy Chamberlin’s dexterity, and Robert Ellis’ dynamics and creativity. The guy knows drums.

    But he also knows music. By the time he landed The Sun gig in 2001 (he was in the band, by the way, for only a week or so before the labels were impressed enough to start throwing around contracts), Brown had long been a song-oriented, groove-based player. “I was never one of those lonely drummers in the basement that just played fills over and over again,” he explains. “I’ve always played with people, I’ve always played songs, and I’ve always had to keep good time that people could play to.” His drumming with The Sun has lately become even more economical and supportive: “It’s more basic than it used to be: I pick my battles … When I first learned a lot of the stuff that I had been trying to play, I overplayed, hoping there was some drummer in the audience that I could wow. The older I got, the more I realized that Charlie Watts is a genius.” 

    If fitting in with the music—and making it feel good—is genius, then Brown will be getting a Mensa membership for his work with The Sun. Fronted by the unique and powerful vocals of chic-geek Chris Burney and driven by Brown’s perfectly tailored beats, the band began getting serious buzz with the teaser EPs Love And Death in 2003 and Did Your Mother Tell You? in 2004. A full-length debut, Blame It On The Youth, finally appeared last year to much fan approval. The disc includes a few songs from the previous releases, and though undeniably polished and primped, it maintains all the urgent energy and attitude of a garage band recording. And best of luck to the retail clerks who have to figure out where to file the disc (alternative is just too easy a catch-all for the band’s eclectic sound). Brown describes the album as “all over the place, there’s a lot of different kinds of songs on it, so we’re not a rock band that just plays rock for an hour.” Expect instead a richer, a more textured and diverse bunch of tunes—whether the faintly punk “Pavement Jive” or the techno-sexy “Romantic Death.” Get a little closer, and you’ll warm up quickly to Brown’s drumming, particularly the playful floor tom/snare pattern on “Must Be You.” Just be careful before getting too close: The Sun is hot.

    Brown helped crank up the heat with his writing. He began tracking songs a year and a half ago in a makeshift studio, not for any particular reason at first, just to enjoy playing guitar and singing. “They weren’t even really meant to be Sun songs,” Brown says of those early demos. “I just kind of wrote them because I was having fun and I finally figured out how to do it.” Five of the tunes on Blame started life in Brown’s studio, including “Justice” and “Valentine,” the latter of which features one of the album’s busier drum parts—a two-handed sixteenth pattern between the hi-hat and snare drum—and an infectious 80s feel that hearkens back to Brown’s early predilection for John Hughes soundtracks. 

    The Sun’s genre-defying music may leave some wondering what the band is all about, but there’s absolutely no question that the boys are an adventurous, forward-looking bunch. Embracing current technology and the listening habits of music fans, the band released Blame It On The Youth in a DVD-only format. The disc doesn’t play in conventional home or car CD players, but each song is included as a high-quality audio file that can easily be burned to a blank CD or transferred to an MP3 player. Equally revolutionary (and we hope other groups are taking notes), the disc includes videos for every song. Mostly shot on the cheap by artist friends and willing professionals, the clips uniformly match the creativity and cleverness of the band’s music. One especially daring effort—the video for “Romantic Death,” which plays on the French petit mort (look it up)—earned Blame a coveted Parental Advisory sticker.

    Distraught mothers aside, The Sun has managed to warm over the masses, even a usually frigid recording industry. The band’s big-time label, Warner Brothers, displaying none of the usual skittishness expected from a major player, fully supported the band as well as the unconventional album format. “They’ve really held up on their end of the development philosophy,” Brown says. “We’ve been with them for three years, and Blame It On The Youth is just now coming out. There’s a lot of good faith there. We couldn’t ask for a better situation as far as a major label deal goes.” 

    With all the attention the band has been getting (from the music press, of course, but the stodgy ears of USA Today and The Washington Post have also perked up) and with his sights firmly set on penning more tunes for the next record, Brown isn’t about to be forgotten behind his kit: “My role used to just be drummer. Chris was our main songwriter, pretty much our only songwriter. The whole dynamic of the band has changed in the last year because I wrote five of the songs on the record, so now I’m doing all the interviews.”

    Even the interview for a forlorn drum site.

  • Interview With Drummer Mitch Marine: A Musician Who Plays Drums

    No shirt, no shoes—no solo.

    Unless, that is, you’re talking about Mitch Marine. Current stick man for Dwight Yoakam (yes, country-superstar Yoakam), Marine once played a solo naked on stage with Smash Mouth. He toured with the alt-popsters from 1999 to 2000, when the song “All Star” was all over the airwaves and the band’s popularity was at its peak. During one capacity-crowd show, lead singer Steve Harwell began throwing Marine’s clothes into the audience.

    “I play barefoot,” Marine recounts, “so he grabbed my cowboy boots from the stage and threw them. He took my hat off and threw that out to them, too.” The shirt eventually went as well. And not one to be outdone, Marine himself tore off and tossed his own pants. After raising a few devil horns to the roaring crowd, he ripped into a solo. That balls-out, rock-and-roll attitude is something special because, hey, even Chad Smith wore a sock. 

    Enormous performance cajones aside, Marine is not only an accomplished player but—dare we deny that old joke about drummers—a thoughtful, song-oriented musician. “There was a time,” Marine explains, “when I honed in on the drum part, but when I listen to music now, I really get into the song. When I’m doing my job, people are dancing, and the singer can let go and just sing. That’s more important to me than other drummers giving me a high-five.”

    The funny thing is that he should have been used to getting high-fives. He’s spent three decades behind the kit, starting when he was 11 years old. At 21, Marine hooked up with Brave Combo, a 4-piece band that played world dance music—an eclectic blend of polka, salsa, mambo, waltz, country, rock, and all their variants. Though he played in a number of bands during high school and even logged in time as a music major at North Texas State (where he rubbed elbows with Matt Chamberlin and Gregg Bissonette), Marine counts the decade he drummed for Brave Combo as “formative years” that brought him more than formidable chops. His ears also got a work out when he began making records.

    “Going into the studio is like putting your playing underneath a microscope. You have to let go of your ego.” On one tricky Latin tune, Marine tried to emulate the parts of four percussionists by playing a different pattern with each limb. While playing the song, he felt like it grooved, and other people seemed to dig it. “But then I heard it on the recording,” he says, “and it really killed me. ‘My God, it sounds like that?’ It wasn’t what I wanted to hear on a record. I had to sit down and rethink what I was doing. I ended up playing a much simpler part.” Simpler and with space for other instruments, space for the song simply to breathe—that sounds sort of like crazy musician talk.

    Around the age of 34, having played a lot of different styles with a lot of different folks (including a stint as bruiser for string-slinger Andy Timmons), Marine fell into a creative rut. He put the drums aside and picked up a bass. “I wasn’t in a learning phase anymore with the drums. I felt like I was practicing the same stuff I had been practicing for a long time,” he explains. “I just really wanted to work really hard at an instrument.”

    From 1994 to 1996, he got his chance by playing bass in a couple of country bands. It was an exercise in—and a return to—simplicity. “There wasn’t a chance of me playing a fancy fill. I didn’t know any. I was all meat and potatos.” 

    The sugar-free diet put his future role as drummer into perspective. “Playing bass probably did more for my drumming than just about anything. It really solidified my playing. I got to understand what it’s like to work with a drummer and what you want out of a drummer from the other side.” Musician Marine’s advice from the other side: “Don’t lose the groove, dude.” 

    With his sticks dusted off to join alt-rockers Tripping Daisy in 1997, and with the Smash Mouth gig behind him at the turn of the millennium, Marine moved to L.A. three and a half years ago. He dove into its burgeoning, energetic country/roots rock scene. At some of the many bar gigs he played, his future employer—cowboy hat, twang, and swagger included—began showing up, just watching and checking players out. Apparently looking to revamp his sound, Yoakam would eventually pair down his large, 7-piece band to a 4-piece that could get a little more “hillbilly.” 

    Marine first played with Yoakam at the House of Blues for a benefit concert. The impromptu band didn’t rehearse, but—yet again—Marine’s bass playing carried the day. “When I was first learning to play, I transcribed a lot of Dwight’s tunes. So I just knew them really well.” Marine was offered the throne on Yoakam’s ’03 tour. “It was a nice opportunity,” Marine says, “to play all the great songs but put a little of my own personality in it. Dwight has a really strong voice and a gigantic presence, so he doesn’t need a large band blaring behind him anyway. From what I could tell, his fans really liked it.” 

    The fans are also liking—and coming out again for—the new album, Blame the Vain. It’s a revitalized Yoakam, with much of the earthy, bad-boy strut that made country fans first take notice 20 years ago. Yoakam brought in the new material to soundchecks on the previous tour, and Marine worked up the songs. “We were really on the same wave length. My instinct was where his instinct was,” explains Marine. The industry-savvy drummer knew, however, that was no guarantee he would play on the new album. Producers, particularly producers for country music, like to replace road players with their favorite session stars. Yoakam, though, ended up pulling double duty and produced the new record himself. “He got to choose,” Marine says, “and he chose me.”

    And how could he not have? “Dwight describes me as a musical drummer—more of a musician than a drummer,” Marine laughs. “And I feel great about that.”

    Ah, acceptance. What was the punch line to that drummer joke again?