Challenges, pt.2: Adapting...
The most important thing for any drummer to remember when playing in a band is that he or she needs to fit that band stylistically. A really busy drummer in a straight forward band sounds out of place, even if that drummer is phenomenal. My fallback argument for that scenario is that no one wants to hear Neal Peart play for AC/DC. Likewise, a straight forward drummer in a technical band can keep that band from fulfilling its potential. Either way a drummer that isn't a good fit stands out like a sore thumb, and I prefer music that works as an entire package. Whenever an individual musician stands out in a band, whether it's because they are more advanced than the other players or because they can't hold their own, it keeps me from being able to enjoy the band as a whole. Trying to "fit" the bands I have been a member of is what has posed the greatest challenge to me. As bands evolve, any given musician's role can change. Being flexible and open minded can be crucial when trying to maintain balance through those changes.
The differences between Confessor's first album and second album were great enough that I had to approach the songs differently. Confessor's "vibe" had been what set us apart to begin with but that vibe was very different once the band's membership changed. New members bring with them new ideas and that can often lead to a new direction. Likewise, though there are several similarities between Confessor and Loincloth there are many things that one band would do that the other would never attempt. Making the adjustments that I felt were necessary to "fit" how the two bands wrote helped me to become a more complete, and more grounded drummer.
Confessor, "Condemned": Boy, were we young when we were writing "Condemned"! One of the things that made that such a special time was that the five of us were all evolving together. We all were energized by every new riff, and every new thing that we came up with to twist things around. None of us wanted to play our parts the same way every time, and I was able to apply new things and simple polyrhythms to the riffs in ways that enhanced the quirkiness of the guitarists' ideas. We played around with numbers in a handful of spots by adding a note here, two or three notes there, or by taking a note out every now and then. My polyrhythms worked out over the top of our steadier patterns, and I had a blast figuring out different ways to use simple techniques to make things sound more complex than they really were. I always insisted that if what we were writing was really difficult, I would never have been able to keep up. We found ourselves in this exciting little pocket in which every song held a new surprise. We got totally jazzed by every trick that affected the way any given part felt, and that enthusiasm kept us writing the kinds of riffs that lent themselves to those tricks.
Most of the songs on "Condemned" were written by everyone as a unit, and we all shared a vision that held heaviness and rhythmic fluctuations up as the most important elements of our music. That meant that there were countless things for me to highlight and manipulate. We were all on the same page though our musical backgrounds were somewhat different. The excitement of feeling as though every song we wrote had a "new toy" hidden within it kept us searching for ways to highlight those rhythmic hiccups. I was able to break some of the polyrhythms down with simple math, but it was the quirkiness of the guitar parts that inspired me to search for those counter rhythms in the first place. We fed off of each other. I could have played any of those parts in a more straight forward way and it would have been much easier to hear how basic our approach really was, but it was our mission to twist things up in part because of how much we all enjoyed what we came up with through playing with numbers. We were not so interested in music that flowed smoothly, but were instead interested in contrasting rhythms and sounds in ways to create what seemed to us to be truly vibrant, provocative music. My job was to make heavy riffs heavier, and math rock riffs even more confusing. That was right up my alley and it was the music I cut my teeth on while learning how to play drums.
Confessor, "Unraveled": Confessor ceased to be what it had always been within a year or so of the release of our first album. Our original lead guitarist quit just before we went into the studio to record "Condemned". Once we found his replacement we were playing out so much that we never sat down to write. One thing led to another and Confessor disbanded. We became Fly Machine, and we made a conscious decision not to follow the path Confessor forged but to see what we would write as a new band with new members. By the time Fly Machine broke up we had changed a lot more than we realized, so years later when Confessor got back together with a new guitarist our dynamic was very different. Musical tastes had changed by then, and when we threw a new member into the mix there was really no chance that Confessor's second album would sound exactly like the first. Personally, I was not prepared for how different things would end up sounding.
One of us had quit playing music altogether for five years, and in that time a different set of values had set in. No longer was "heavy" such an important thing to strive for, and a lot of the riffs on Confessor's second album reflect that. The unity that we all shared before was gone, and there were some sharp stylistic differences that we had to work around. One guitarist was more interested in having more of a rock feel and the guitarist who was excited about more complicated riffs didn't write them with the same aesthetic in mind that had inspired us all before. It was tricky to try and balance the divergent musical tastes and create something cohesive. Ultimately, we had two songwriting styles that became more separate instead of blending into something new. The challenges I faced were not the ones I had anticipated, and it was difficult for me to figure out what my role was when the music was so far from what we had done before. We had abandoned the kinds of quirky riffs that inspired so many of the counter rhythms on "Condemned" for a much more straightforward, rock album that occasionally sounded more like Alice in Chains than Confessor.
I was faced with the challenge of finding more subtle ways to be a busy drummer. Stark contrasts between drums and guitar were what we all wanted when we were younger, but there was simply no room for me to "be me" in a lot of the riffs on "Unraveled". It was uncomfortable at times, but I felt obligated to find whatever my new role was and be the right drummer for that record even if much of what we had to work with required that I abandon my own instincts and play within a framework that I found to be stifling at times. The guitar parts were no longer written with rhythmic changes in mind, and we were almost as much rock as metal, so I had to play in a more subdued way that fit our new sound.
There were a few songs on "Unraveled" that allowed me to open things up a bit. Songs like "The Downside" and "Hibernation" were enough like what Confessor had done in the past that I had a more intuitive grasp of what to do right away, but songs like "Sour Times" and "Strata of Fear" left me scratching my head for ways to remain true to myself without stepping all over the material by being too busy. I ended up putting more of my creative energy into hi-hat and cymbal work than ever before, but I also had my first real chance to play around with dynamics. Confessor's older material was busier but we were always at full throttle. Dynamics never came into play at all because we never backed off. Fly Machine morphed into a band that had definite peaks and quieter parts, and I was able to draw from that experience to try and put a different kind of life in the newer, more laid back Confessor songs. I was happy to find something that I felt contributed in a positive way to those songs because I had racked my brain trying to find ways to put my mark on them, and I kept coming up empty handed. There simply was no appetite for the same mode of songwriting we had employed before, and I was really struggling to come up with ways to make everyone happy, especially me. So many of the things that were unique to Confessor had to do with the contrast between guitar and rhythm section and the details we put into riffs and transitions to keep them from being repetitive. But those things would have seemed superfluous on "Unraveled". Technicality for its own sake never interested us in the past, and no one wanted to throw something into our songs just to adhere to some sense of fealty to an aesthetic that was no longer shared by everyone on the band. For fans of math metal, "Unraveled" has its moments but it is a very different album than its predecessor.
Loincloth, "Iron Balls of Steel": Loincloth's first album is a return to the choppier style of metal that I have always loved. It's different from Confessor in that it is an homage to all of the things we have been moved and inspired by from metal over the years. Yes it's technical, but we really wanted to be just as heavy as confusing. It is an album full of dynamic peaks, but we are such a short attention span band that there really isn't any "down time" on the record. What few breathers there are stand out because they are the only times that we settle into anything that resembles a groove. We almost never play anything long enough to establish discernible patterns, so polyrhythms wouldn't work as a contrast point. You have to have two conflicting patterns in order to hear the differences, but we don't care to establish anything long enough for people to figure it out. Simple polyrhythms work when you can hear both of the patterns and how one manipulates the other. Loincloth songs are like long, mapped out stream of conscious musical statements. Because there are no vocals, every song is designed to highlight the riffs. My body language is very different while playing these songs. I go back and forth between using the hi-hat and the ride constantly and I have to use my body weight to give the right momentum to make those transitions smoothly. For me, it has proved to be a much easier and more organic way of playing drums.
In Confessor, I was constantly looking for places to play "against" the beat, but for this project the guitarist and I tried to play more like one instrument. We didn't want their to be much air filling up space because we wanted listening to the album to be a more physical experience. Part of that stemmed from how much we all liked the sensation of having the rug "pulled out from under you" that happens when the drums change things in the middle of a riff. I tried to find as many of those places as possible. I also used my cymbals to create jarring exclamation points throughout the album, so it's a forty five minute study in drumming abstractions that ends up making the more traditional moments stand out because they are less tense. Writing "Iron Balls of Steel" was cathartic for me because it was my outlet for drum exploration during the period in which Confessor were writing their more relaxed album. There were several things that I tried for the first time on the Loincloth record, and I can't wait to apply what I learned on Confessor's next album.
Far and Away: Until earlier this year I was in another band called "Far and Away" with two members of Confessor/Fly Machine. We were very much a rock band, and we only tried to be heavy every once in awhile. We were vocally driven, and our singer ( one of the first singers I ever saw live ) was a truly gifted local guy named Ed Nicholson. I wanted the band to have a classic rock feel, and I have to say that playing in a way that was so counterintuitive was probably my biggest challenge to date as a drummer. I still found a way to be busy, but the free flowing style of classic rock drumming is nearly the exact opposite of the way I constructed my parts in other bands. There were times where I did actually achieve what I set out to do, but it took a lot of stepping back and becoming someone else behind the kit. Underground metal needs heavy hitters ( no triggers for this old fool! ) and after a quarter of a century of volume and impact carving my swing, playing lightly and having to rely so much on finesse did not come easy. I felt like I made things too stiff whenever I couldn't loosen up enough to allow the guitar to tell most of the story. I meant for the band to be more atmospheric at times, which I had some experience with in an improvisational project I was part of with my good friend ( and musical virtuoso/chameleon ) Wayne Leechford on the Chapman Stick many years ago. Without that experience I would have been completely lost. As I have said before, learning is most of the fun of playing music, and all of the bands I have been in have forced me to figure out different ways of playing so that I could be the best fit for whatever our mission was at the time. My natural style of playing would prevent me from being on most bands' short list of drummers for consideration. Being able to adapt to my musical surroundings is crucial to being able to expand my own horizons.