I saw the California-based pop band Rooney perform live before I was familiar with their music. Besides featuring some very powerful, tasteful drumming, I found them to be extremely melodic, with hooks that stuck in my head for days after the show.
Story by Billy Amendola
Photos by Paul Jonason
I was actually disappointed to find that some of the tunes they performed weren’t on their successful self-titled debut, which contained the hits “Blue Sky” and “Shakin”. It seems Rooney has a problem most bands would die for: too many good songs to choose from! MD Online spoke with drummer Ned Brower while the band was laying down tracks for their upcoming sophomore follow-up.
MD: What is the band up to these days?
Ned: We’ve been working on a Queen tribute album that Hollywood Records is putting out, and we chose the song “Death On Two Legs,” from Night At The Opera. We thought it was the most unknown song that sounded like it could have been on their Greatest Hits album. We’re very happy with it. We’re done tracking, now we’re mixing. It was real interesting breaking down the Queen recording, because I’m a big Roger Taylor fan.
MD: And you’re working on a new Rooney record as well.
Ned: Yes indeed. We started last year and now we’re about to start up all over again.
MD: Have you been touring?
Ned: No, we took a couple of months off before we started recording. And now we’re making another album. We do have plans to go out touring this summer.
MD:So you are going to combine all the tracks?.
Ned:I think what we’ll do is combine all the best material, which by then will probably be quite a few songs. I don’t know how many more new ones we’re going to record, but I think there’ll be at least twenty-five songs to choose from.
MD:Are you involved in the songwriting?
Ned:[Singer/guitarist] Robert [Carmine] writes most of the songs, but I’ve written a couple that we’ve recorded, and hopefully there’ll be at least one or two on the record.
MD:Do you play any other instruments?
Ned: I play a little guitar and bass, and I sing.
MD:When I saw the band live, it was amazing how much singing you were doing while rocking out on the drums.
Ned:It’s fun. I’ve really gotten into that.
MD:While we’re on the subject, can we talk about some tips for drummers who sing and play?
Ned:Sure. I was a singer before I was a drummer. For a long time I resisted playing and singing. I didn’t think it was cool to be a singing drummer. Then I started discovering all these classics and guys that I really appreciated, and they’re mostly singing drummers.
I think the key is to figure out a way that you can hear yourself and get a good mix, because you want to be singing on key. The other thing is mic’ positioning. You’ve got to put your mic’ where you can get to it and still play comfortably – which for me hasn’t been a big problem. I don’t use any kind of strange gooseneck or anything, just a small mic’ stand. You have to get the notes out acoustically and know those notes in your head. Then you’ve got to just go for it. Another thing is to get right on the mic’, because otherwise you’ll get a lot of bleed. The main thing is, you’ve got to be confident and get in there and just hit it. I like watching footage of The Band with Levon Helm – great singer/drummer.
MD:When did you start playing?
Ned:I started playing drums about twelve years ago. I always had an interest since I was a young kid. I used to bang on stuff all the time and be obsessed with Van Halen records and Animal from the Muppets.
MD:Where are you originally from?
Ned:I grew up in Seattle, and then moved out to California. I was really inspired at a young age, because there was just so much music going on in Seattle, and it was that whole grunge movement. It just seemed like the thing to do, and a lot of my friends were starting bands.
MD:Did you see anyone in particular that inspired you to play?
Ned:At that time I would be watching other dudes in bands from my high school that seemed amazing at the time. Looking back, some of them were pretty good and some of them weren’t. [laughs] I was hanging around with my friends and just started to get into punk rock and trying to play real fast – which I’ve since outgrown, but at that time that was the thing.
MD:Did you take formal lessons, or are you self-taught?
Ned:I never took lessons. I was always self-taught. I would sort of pat on my lap to records in my room until I got a CB700 drumset. When I first started a band, I was the singer and a bass player. Then I started another band later and I played drums. I would sort of show up early to band practice and sit in on the other guy’s kit.
MD:How old were you?
Ned:Fifteen, somewhere around there. I was in choir, so I had some music classes from that.
MD:That’s one of the things I really dig about the band, you’re very melodic.
Ned:Thanks. That’s the one common thread with the music we all listen to – good songs, with hooks.
MD:How did you meet your bandmates?
Ned: I met my bandmates through the guys in the band Phantom Planet, who are closer to my age – my bandmates are all quite young. Robert’s brother is actor Jason Schwartzman – who’s a great drummer. He was in Phantom Planet.
MD:They’re the band who do “California” for The OC TV show.
Ned:Yeah. They’ve had a few member changes, so it’s a totally different band. But Jason was in that band for over ten years.
MD:Let’s go back to some of your influences when you were growing up. Who was the first drummer you saw who made you say, “Wow, that guy’s pretty good?”
Ned: It’s hard for me to remember, because at that time when I was first getting into music, I was more into the band, not necessarily the drummers. I remember when I was a little kid, my friend’s older brothers were into Van Halen, and Alex Van Halen was the first drummer I recognized. So I’d say Alex – but that was even before I started playing for real. I remember when I was in high school there was a band called Sunny Day Real Estate, with William Goldsmith, who is amazing. I saw him a year ago with The Fire Theft. He was a big early influence. He’s a total powerhouse. Listening now, it’s not a style I bring into my band so much, but at the time it really moved me.
Ned:Ringo, and Bonham. And like I said earlier, I love Roger Taylor’s playing. An I’m a huge fan of Stan Lynch, who was the original drummer in Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.
MD:He’s been producing more.
Ned:And he writes songs. He’s awesome! I love the sounds on those records, and his playing is really tasteful. I’ve never been technical, but I hear the great groove and those kind of slowed-down fills that you can digest, and it really adds to the song structure. It gives the songs dynamics, and I love that.
MD:When you were growing up, what records would you play along to?
Ned:I was into Pearl Jam and Nirvana. I got super into Green Day – their pre-major label stuff like Kerplunk, the one that came out before Dookie. That was sort of my cool underground record. And then they got monstrous when I was in early high school, and that made me sad. Everyone has that story.
MD:On your debut record there’s a song called “Pop Star.” How did you come up with that beat?
Ned: I think originally when we were kicking around the idea, we were making this song about the topic of modern music. So I was trying to make a beat that sounded like it could have been a loop. And at the time all the rap stuff – which we don’t really listen to – had that chick-chick-chick?
MD:Where the hi-hat sounds like it was programmed.
Ned:Right, but I played it. It was really supposed to be a gag, and then all of a sudden it became a signature part. It also reminds me of old roots reggae beats, which I’m a big fan of as well. It’s a fun one to play live.
MD:While we are talking about the debut record, Keith Forsey produced some of the tracks.
Ned:Yes, and we are working with him again on this Queen track.
MD:Did you know he was the drummer for Donna Summer back in the day?
Ned:Yes, he’s fantastic! Dr. Disco they call him. [laughs] He can lay down a loop for about an hour.
MD:Have you learned anything drum-wise from him?
Ned:He’s a great song guy. He writes songs, and he really approaches the song from a groove perspective – a drum perspective that feels good and that we can on. That’s definitely how the first record was made, and it’s been really fun to work with him again. He’s just a great guy and has a really good spirit and energy about him. And he’s a hell of a lot of fun too.
MD:Were you influenced at all by your parents’ record collection?
Ned:Sort of. They were into stuff that I’ve come back to now, and it resonates because I heard it when I was young. They were really into Motown, and I guess I really enjoyed it as a kid but it took me a while, playing music, to come back to that.
MD:When you track, what is the process? Do you prefer recording live?
Ned:Live is how we’re doing it now. The first record we were playing to a click. I can do that fine, but I find it very stifling. On this new record so far we’ve been going straight to tape, no click track. To be honest you can’t really tell the difference, which was a big personal accomplishment for me. We’d splice a couple of takes together and they always matched up. I’m really proud of that. And I feel that I was able to go for things that I wouldn’t have gone for with the click blasting in my ear. I would be concerned about going off the click, so I would play more conservatively. I wanted to be a little looser. And, you know, with all the drum machines and samples and everything that’s used today, I wanted you to be able to notice there’s actually a real drummer playing real, untarnished drums.
MD:What about the Queen track?
Ned:For the Queen track I got back on the click because we weren’t sure how we were going to slip things around. We pretty much stuck to the original arrangement but we changed some little things, and the click helped us get through the back section, which gets very twisted up. You don’t really know if it’s by accident when they recorded it or if it was something intentional. Now after recording both ways, I guess either way is kind of cool. I can go back and forth a little bit better now. To be honest, the first record was pretty Pro Tools-y. But this new record has been recorded more authentically, much like the way old records were made – but it doesn’t sound low-fi. We didn’t try to make it sound looser, we tried to make it as tight and rich as possible, just with human power.
MD:Does the band feel more confident, because of all the touring you’ve done since the first recording?
Ned:Absolutely. We were so young when we made the first record – mainly the other guys, but even I was still in my early twenties. And then we toured relentlessly for a couple years. We worked so much on the material in front of live audiences, it was such a snap to record this new one.
MD:How was it working with Jimmy Iovine on the first record?
Ned:It was cool. He produced the track “I’m Shakin”. He had some good song ideas, and he came in for a day and walked us through it. We had a really great engineer on that one named Adam Casper. He’s from Seattle, and he’s done a lot of records. And Andy Wallace mixed it, which was a godsend.
MD:So you were happy with the way the drums sounded?
Ned:I was. We’d done so much layering that we weren’t necessarily happy with it at first. But Andy was great because he stripped it back, took a lot of the stuff out, and got this nice big drum sound. That’s kind of what he’s famous for. I was very pleased.
MD:What kit did you use to record?
Ned:I have a Ludwig obsession, and I have four of their kits. I love their vintage drums, and even their new stuff is really cool. I have two new Classic Maple reissues.
MD:Do you do your own tuning?
Ned:Yes, I have very strange taste, I like very dead, low sounds. I tune my heads so low they’re almost flat. You almost get a crease when you press on them. And I like rags and Moon Gel mufflers. I just love that warmth. A lot of people who get on my kit can barely play it because there’s not very much reaction.
MD:What about live? Do you still tune the drums that low?
Ned:Oh yeah. Actually when we record them I tune them up a bit more – they’re still tuned really low, but not as extreme. It’s live that I really go low. We spent a long time where I didn’t have a drum tech, and I found that if you get a lot of sustain, it gives the mic’s and all the sound equipment more time to go haywire. So it became my signature sound and I got a lot a lot of good feedback. And I think it was the balance of the way I set up the kit and our sound guy, Ted Kedick, who’s a master at getting the most out of it. I’ve just gotten used to it, and now it’s like riding a bike. It sounds unique to me. I’m tired of the real hi-fi drum sound, and that high-pitched resonating sound is not my thing.
MD:What cymbals do you use?
Ned: Istanbul Agop. It took me a while to find them, though they’re actually based right here in LA.
MD:What sound qualities do you like about them?
Ned:They have that handmade quality, and they’re extremely dark. It took me a while to find a set of cymbals that I really liked, and now I feel I have this killer one-of-a-kind thing happening. Every cymbal sounds a little different. And the guys are cool. They just have that homespun vibe.
MD:What sticks do you use?
Ned:Vater 5A wood tips. Those guys are great too.
MD: If there were any song that you could have played on, which one would you choose?
Ned:Well, I would have most liked to play with The Beatles, just because they’re probably my favorite band. But as far as an actual impressive drum bit – wow – my whole monster record collection just runs through my mind?. I’m a big fan of the song “Bankrobber” by The Clash, with Topper Headon. He’s great. But I don’t know if I’d pick that one, it’s pretty simple.
MD:Do you practice at all?
Ned:I’ve been practicing lately because we finally got a lockout in a convenient location, and I got a new “old” Vistalite kit.
MD:One of the reissues?
Ned:No, a 1977. It’s like a three-color kit – it’s very cool. It’s a real one-off; it’s red, white, and smoke. It’s bad-ass, I’ve been playing that a lot.
MD:Technique-wise, what would you like to work on more?
Ned:We’ll, I think I’ve got the triplet stuff down pretty well, and the ’60s style where you kind of hit the rack tom once or twice in the beat. I’d really like to work on fills that stretch across measures, like the way that Keith Moon used to do it. Improving my pocket is always important; lately I’ve been playing Stevie Wonder’s stuff and just grooves – which is kind of a new thing for me. And I’d like to rock with a traditional grip, but it’s still so awkward whenever I try it. My dead tuning thing doesn’t really help. [laughs]
MD:You’re not going to get too many ghosts notes.
Ned:No. [laughs] You watch Levon and The Band and his sticks are bouncing all over. He plays traditional and it looks so cool and classy, but it’s probably not for me.
MD:So, what’s next?
Ned:I’m hoping that we’ll be back out soon with a new record and tour.
MD:What makes a gig great?
Ned:The crowd response. When the crowd is good, the band plays very well. We’re really into set flow, and we try to keep things moving without too much chit-chat. It’s always fun to string a couple of songs together. We like to have people walk away wanting more and having been blown away, and that’s what we always try and do.
For more on Ned and Rooney, check out www.rooney-band.com.