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.

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