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?

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