Erin Tate: Web Exclusive Interview
Since their debut album in 2002, Minus The Bear have staked an undeniably unique place on the music map. The band’s brand-new third studio album, Planet Of Ice, sees their formidable mix of imaginative odd-time manipulation and mega-precise performances scaling even further heights. Drummer Erin Tate is the monster drummer driving this sleek and surprising rhythm machine.
MD: First of all, congratulations on the new record.
Erin: Thank you.
MD: I want to ask you about your influences, since Minus The Bear’s sound is such a cool mix of sounds. There’s everything from pristine pop along the lines of Pinback or Sea And Cake, to modern prog like Porcupine Tree, to drum ’n’ bass.
Erin: I was really inspired by electronic beats at first. When I was an early teen playing the drums, I listened to a lot of mid-’90s East Coast hip-hop, and then I would listen to the oldies station constantly—Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Beatles, Dave Clark Five…. But at the same time I listened to A Tribe Called Quest and all that kind of stuff, and that kind of inspired a path that my drumming ended up taking.
Before we recorded this album, every night after practice I would come home and listen to one classic record. I would just lie back with the headphones on and focus on other people’s arrangement ideas. I’d think, Alright, what makes this record sound so good to me, what makes these songs so interesting? Is it because it’s incredibly simple, or is it because it’s incredibly hard? So a lot of my writing style is based on just trying to explore a lot of options and coming up with tons of different ideas for different parts. Like the opening song on Planet Of Ice, “Burying Luck,” I think we came up with five or six different arrangements for that song. There was a version of it that was two and a half minutes long, and there was a version that was like eight minutes long.
MD: When you were going home after rehearsals and doing some hard listening, what were some of the albums you listened to?
Erin: Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains The Same, Guns ’N Roses’ Appetite For Destruction, The Chronic by Dr. Dre…. And I’ve been heavily into Pink Floyd for the last year or two. It’s funny, because I hated them while I was growing up. But two or three years ago, we were in Europe and someone put on their Animals album, and I was like, Why don’t I like this band? I started getting really into them. Now I listen to Dark Side Of The Moon and Animals and Meddle constantly. I also have a lot of guilty-pleasure music, like I’m super into that new R. Kelly record for some reason.
But back to when I was listening to a classic album every night, I did that because I’d kind of gotten into a rut when we were writing material for Planet Of Ice. When we were finishing the last record, I split my finger open and broke my index finger. I had to get a bunch of stitches, and I had a huge cast on my right hand. When we were finishing writing the record, the month prior to recording it, I was literally playing one-handed just to finish writing songs, and I finished my parts right before we went in. But I’d gotten so bummed out; I’d lost a lot of inspiration, and I was trying to figure out any way to inspire myself as far as getting songs done. So I went to a laser light show. I went to Laser Dark Side Of The Moon.
MD: I was going to say, it had to be Laser Floyd.
Erin: Absolutely, and it was great! I was just like, Man there’s really something about sitting back and listening to a classic record, blaringly loud, with these amazing lasers going on, among a bunch of fifteen-year-olds. [laughs] I followed that up with Laser Houses Of The Holy.
MD: Let’s talk more about the recording of the new album. How was it different this time?
Erin: With this record we had to spend a lot of time hunting down what kind of tones we wanted. We had demoed a lot of the songs earlier, and when I was at the studio I had three different drumsets and four or five different snare drums. We got to go in and be like, Alright let’s look at the vibe of this song and see what kind of drum tone we want. I have a ’70s clear Vistalite kit, an old Slingerland jazz kit…. And then at the studio where we recorded, there’s a couple different rooms, so we got to move around. If we wanted a bigger drum sound we could move it to the “cave” room, where the drums sounded enormous. We used more mics on the drums on this record than I think we’ve ever used—seventeen mics or something. We got to control sounds a lot just by using different mics. We tried to make sure that each song had the feel we wanted.
MD: Do you get into much post-recording sound manipulation and sound replacement?
Erin: There’s not a lot of sound replacement. The way we’ve been recording lately is to do ten takes of the song and then go through and pick out the parts from each take that feel the most solid, and edit them together. But we don’t do a lot of manipulating; what you hear is basically what you get. Especially with this record, we just wanted to make it as solid as it could be. I used click tracks most of the time, and we would map out the changes in tempo at certain points in the songs—certain parts should have more energy, certain parts should be slower…. Though there were certain songs where we were like, Let’s not do that, because we wanted to get across the feel of a band playing live, as opposed to making it “perfect.”
MD: Do you have specific ideas about where you want the drums to sit, feel-wise—behind the beat, ahead of the beat—or do you basically have a comfort zone that’s just part of the web of the band sound?
Erin: It’s kind of like that. Many times, especially on previous records, the writing process was just me and the guitar player, Dave Knudson, going in and writing the basic foundations of the song. Then everyone would come in and help fill in stuff at the end. In that case it was kind of like, This is the way the song goes, buddy, this is he pocket. On the new record we tried working on that a bit more, changing it up and challenging ourselves. There is stuff on the record that when we first came up with the part I definitely felt one way about it, and then re-thought it after listening to it, and I would be like, Alright I’ll fall into your pocket a little more here. The new record was definitely more collaborative; everyone was around more.
MD: Is there a difference between your approach to recording versus playing live? Do you play to clicks onstage?
Erin: No, generally I don’t. There are some songs off previous records where it’s kind of more electronic, so on two or three songs I’ll play to a click. There’s one song that has an 808 kick drum going through the whole thing, so I’ll play to that. And then there are some songs that have an electronic part for like thirty seconds in the middle of the song, so I’ll throw on headphones real quick for that. But I really don’t like it, it makes me feel disconnected from the show. There’s so much more adrenalin live; it just seems like everything gets a little bit faster.
MD: How does a drummer get better at playing to a click track?
Erin: I’ve definitely practiced playing to a click to try to get good at it. I used to be horrible at it. I could play along to simple beats, but once I started throwing fills and that kind of stuff in…. I’m still not that good at it, but I’ve worked on it.
MD: Do you practice much these days?
Erin: Honestly I don’t really practice very much, but the band rehearses a lot. When we were writing for the new record, we generally rehearsed five or six days a week, just because it takes us forever to write a song. Sometimes it goes quickly, but we change things a million times and go out of our way to make things as interesting as possible, without going overboard. I try to rehearse the tunes on my own too. And I play drums for another band, so I rehearse with them sometimes.
MD: What is that other band?
Erin: I play with a Seattle singer/songwriter named Heather Duby. She had a couple records out on Sub Pop a few years ago. She actually sang backup on the last two Minus The Bear records. She’s a really good friend of mine, and Alex Rose, who plays keyboards in Minus The Bear, plays guitar in her band. I played on her last record, and Matt Bayles, who produced the new Bear record, is recording her new record right now. I just played on that too. It’s good to challenge yourself in different ways.
MD: As a drummer, what do you feel you do well?
Erin: I don’t really fancy myself a “drummer’s drummer.” But I think my strong suits are arranging, getting different sounds, and making the other dudes try to come up with stuff that they wouldn’t necessarily think of.
MD: How about the opposite: If you had something that you really had time to work on, what might it be?
Erin: I’m not super flashy, I can’t do giant snare rolls and marching band–style stuff. I’ll take some lessons one of these days and learn how to actually play.
MD: I don’t think you give yourself enough credit. Your parts can be pretty complex, yet there’s a lot of emotion there as well. And there are some tricky odd times you’ve got to deal with.
Erin: Yeah, that’s Dave. He writes weird parts and makes me come up with stuff. While recording the last record, I’d take a giant sheet of paper and write out the parts. We were writing so quickly toward the end of the record that it was kind of hard to keep up with everything, so I could go back and look at the notes. And then for this record I started hanging these notes on the wall of our practice space. It was covered in giant sheets of paper so everyone could follow along.
MD: In rehearsal, what kind of things do you go over a lot?
Erin: In our songwriting we really focus on transitions and getting from part A to part B smoothly and in an interesting way, like having someone drop out and re-enter in an unusual manner. Talking about the prog stuff, in bands like Pink Floyd and Yes, their verses and choruses might be interesting, but the way that they get to them, and then out of them, is what’s most amazing to me. Especially some of those long Pink Floyd songs where they kind of go off on a tangent but then a familiar element comes back in…there’s obviously a lot of thought there. To me that’s what good songwriting is—just digging it out and making it interesting in every aspect.
MD: Are there any drummers who have been especially influential on you?
Erin: Someone I’ve always been very impressed by is William Goldsmith, who played drums for Sunny Day Real Estate and The Fire Theft. He’s on the first Foo Fighters record too. But when I was seventeen I got Sunny Day’s Diary album and was just blown away by how fancy he could be without also being totally over the top. He seemed like one of those drummers who went in and just rocked the song, like, “Yep, this is the way it’s going to be.” He’s one of the first drummers who really inspired me to go for it—but also pull it all the way back. On every new Sunny Day record he got more and more focused on making the songs work as opposed to being too flashy. But because of the first record you knew that he could do it at any time. When I was younger, that seemed amazing to me.
Stewart Copeland of The Police has always been one of those dudes where I’ve been like, “I don’t get what you are doing.” So much of the stuff that he does is flashy without being flashy, like switching around simple kick and snare patterns. He’s a great drummer to listen to and try to figure out. When I see live footage of The Police, the dude is just going crazy. You can really tell that he’s not just playing the drums, he’s really feeling the music. That’s a huge part of my playing. I really don’t like playing stuff just for the sake of playing it.
There’s this drummer who played in a band called Engine Down, named Cornbread Compton, who I highly recommend checking out. When we first met them on tour a few years back, I couldn’t even handle how good he was. We quickly became friends. Technically he’s so good, but he hits the drums like a madman, and he has so much feel and character in his drumming. He’s been playing with a bunch of different bands now, because Engine Down broke up.
The drummer from Alkaline Trio, Derek Grant, had an instrumental two-piece that totally sound like Yes. They’re incredible. He was just playing with Cursive on their last tour. Then there’s a band called The Velvet Teen. They’re also really good friends, we’ve been touring with them for years. On their new record, Cum Laude!, they got this new drummer who’s this super-quiet, shy kid from Santa Rosa, California named Casey Deitz, who is unreal. We’d spend every night on tour just watching him play. The Cum Laude! record is some of the most creative drumming I’ve ever heard.
MD: Let’s get back to Minus The Bear. Your tempos can be pretty brisk. Do you find that pacing is an issue during your shows, or do you just kind of go for it from the beginning and just take it to the end?
Erin: I try to. There’s parts in certain songs where people might be, “Whoa, dude, you’re rushing the tempo on this part,” and then I’ll make a mental note and try to lay back off a little bit. I just get all excited sometimes and start rocking out. But it’s something that in the last couple years I’ve been trying to think of more. I definitely don’t like when I go see a band and their songs are slower live than they are on the record. I’m personally into having a bit more energy live and making the songs rock a little more when they need to. But, yeah, pacing is hard in a live circumstance. When you’re playing in front of twenty people and you’re just kind of chilling, drinking a beer, playing some drums, it’s not a huge deal. But when you’re playing in front of a thousand people, it can be really hard to do.
MD: So you don’t have trouble coming up with enough energy, you just have to watch how you’re using it.
Erin: Yeah, until I’m like three-quarters into the set, and then I feel like I’m going to fall out of my chair. [laughs]
MD: Can we talk a little more about gear? You mentioned an old Slingerland kit. Is that sort of your official kit?
Erin: Yeah, it has been. I’m kind of into this new Vistalite kit too. It’s a bit bigger. I’ve always used smaller drums. My Slingerland has a 20″ kick drum, a 12″ tom, and a 14″ floor tom. But I decided that I wanted to try something bigger, so my new kit is 22″, 13″, 16″. I don’t use any specific brand of drums. I’m into variety. It’s actually been an issue lately. A lot of people from drum companies have been emailing me, asking me to sponsor their equipment. But as much as I’m into the idea of being able to get cheaper kits and stuff, I’m also very much into being able to play whatever I want, whenever I want. Like, during our last tour I decided that I wanted to play my Slingerlands again, so I just went ahead and broke those out. Then this next tour I’ll probably play my Vistalites again. I just want to be able to play whatever I want to play. The I have several snare drums to chose from—a Slingerland, the Vistalite snare that goes with that set, a Tama Starclassic—and then I’m going to buy a Gregg Keplinger snare. He makes these crazy handmade metal snares. I used one a bunch on the new record, because you can get so many different sounds out of them. They’re insane.
MD: How about cymbals?
Erin: I use all Zildjian cymbals, including a K ride I recently got, which I’m really into.
MD: How about hardware?
Erin: I use all DW hardware; it seems to be the most solid and sturdy.
Erin: I use Pro-Mark 2Bs with wood tips.
MD: So what’s on the horizon for the band?
Erin: We took the summer off just to relax, since we worked so much on this album. We’re doing a few in-stores down the coast right now. In Seattle we’re doing a listening party at the Pacific Science Center; it’s gong to be Laser Planet Of Ice. Totally my idea of course. [laughs] It’s really funny to think I have a meeting with a laser guy. Then we’re doing a festival in Chicago at the beginning of September, and then we start a headlining tour in the US , and hopefully get over to Europe right after that. We will be touring for the next six or seven months.
MD: Do you perceive any changes from the last time you went out? Are they different kinds of rooms this time?
Erin: Yeah, the rooms are bigger this time around.
MD: That’s great, that’s what you want.
Erin: Yeah, and we’re playing some clubs that I’ve always wanted to play, so that’s exciting.
MD: That’s great. Good luck on the tour.
Planet Of Ice was released on August 21. For more on the band, including their tour schedule, go to www.minusthebear.com.