by Waleed Rashidi
Spend just a few minutes watching Aaron Gillespie perform Underoath songs on stage from the comfort of your home computer via live footage posted on YouTube, and you’ll likely encounter two results. First, you’ll feel totally exhausted after being captivated by the Florida-based hardcore drummer’s brute physicality, putting his all into every kick hit, snare slam, and tom rudiment. Second, you’ll also feel incredibly motivated to get behind the nearest kit and replicate what you just witnessed. Now, bear in mind, both of these feelings are totally natural, acceptable, and understandable.
That’s because what Gillespie’s performances impart is that playing drums in a hardcore band really is hardcore. Whether it’s hustling a technical, syncopated rhythm with his guitarists, deftly driving a wayward composition that switches to odd-metered time signatures at the drop of a hat, or battering through an entire chorus by battling his kit, Gillespie always delivers, all the while maintaining his composure by infusing dynamics into an otherwise combative performance. It’s real and it’s dense, and it’s also attaining the respect of a whole new generation of drummers who view Gillespie’s skills behind the drums as their ultimate goal.
What complicates this already complex situation is the fact that not only is Gillespie an absurdly heavy drummer with a penchant for playing for the song, he’s also contributing a healthy portion of the sextet’s vocals–a tall order made that much taller. He’s a multi-instrumentalist who also performs under the guise of The Almost, his decidedly more straightforward and mellower melodic rock solo act (which also finds him behind the kit during the recording sessions).
Gillespie got his start playing drums in church at age seven, but by the time he was fifteen, he’d joined Underoath. “We’d just started playing on weekends, messing around town,” he recalls. That was ten years ago.
Fast forward to today: Gold record awards, MTV video rotations, millions of albums sold worldwide, Billboard-charting releases, and even a signature drumset model from Truth Custom Drums. Yes, Gillespie has helped take the casual garage band that was Underoath and made it the popular phenomenon it has since become, first in the underground music circuit, and now as a hallmark hardcore rock act. And nowhere is this more evident than with the release of the band’s fourth full-length, Lost In The Sound Of Separation, which places Gillespie on his highest pedestal yet.
MD: Tell me about developing your vocals while drumming with such intensity.
Aaron: Developing that never ends. It’s not something you get comfortable with. You don’t ever want to skimp on either instrument, so you want to make sure you do all your drum tracks to your hundred ten percent ability, and then you want to make sure you do all of your vocals to your hundred ten percent ability. When you’re in the studio, you don’t do them both at the same time. The dilemma I always run into happens afterwards, in pre-production for a tour–“Oh, now I have to do these things together.”
We just completed a new album, so now I’m trying to figure out how to duplicate what I did in the studio. I’m real excited, though; the new record is kind of daunting in terms of doing both at the same time, but we’ve been out on tour, so we’re figuring it out.
MD: So I take it you don’t write your drum parts around your vocals.
Aaron: Yeah, that’s the problem. If you’re singing a lot of choruses of songs, it kind of works out when you’re playing a straight 4/4 or 3/4. It’s simpler to stay on the downbeat of the song when you’re singing, instead of trying to sing over some kind of syncopated 7/8 drumbeat or some heinous double bass part. If you’re trying to do that, which I am during a few parts, it’s a definite pain in the butt.
I’ve found that the biggest thing that’s helped me with the singing/drumming thing is that I play to a click live all the time. And that’s super important. I mean, if you have that, it’s kind of like a safety net. We started using a click originally because we had a Pro Tools rig on stage–a Reason rig–so we had to have it.
MD: You’ve done quite a few recordings with Underoath. Did you have specific goals while recording Lost In The Sound Of Separation?
Aaron: Rhythmically, this time, I really wanted to take it back in time a bit. I feel like every two or three years, new trends happen in drumming, like certain fills that you hear. And for this record I kind of wanted to throw it back to an older rock drumming approach.
For instance, I did a bunch of stereo tracks on some songs, like right and left mono tracks, and used really big drums on everything–16″ and 18″ floor toms, a 24″ kick drum. I even tracked one song with a 28″ kick drum. I just wanted to take it back to 1976 a little bit, and have that big drum tone, and in the face of modern music, have that real classic rock drum thing happening.
MD: What else did you use in the studio?
Aaron: I’m a Meinl guy, so I usually use a 24″ medium ride or a 22″ medium ride as my main banger. But this time Meinl sent me boxes full of different stuff to try. We got about two songs in, and my tech put up this cymbal called a Spectrum Ride, and I ended up using that on the entire record. It had this nice wash to it, but it was still kind of “bell-y,” which was interesting. It worked great in the studio. I also used a 21″ Byzance medium ride on the left side and a 22″ medium crash, which is this new thing they came out with; it’s kind of dirty and sounds like it’s been buried for a couple of years. I also used 14″ dark hi-hats with the bottom cymbal on top.
My drum tech had the idea to have Truth make me a vintage kit, so they got mahogany shells with maple reinforcement rings and big-ol’ round-over edges, like old Slingerland drums. I’ve been using that kit live and I used it on this last record. We had two kits made; there was a prototype kit that didn’t even have badges. It’s really cool, there’s so much contact between the head and the bearing edges–it’s the most resonant thing, that woody, kind of dead-ish tone. It’s freakin’ awesome.
I feel like everyone’s using those big cannon kick drums, those deep ones, and I’ve had some, too, like a 20″. But I went back to a 16″ depth for the record, and it’s the best. Back in the day, all of the big old Gretsch and Ludwig drums were 14×26. I love that sound.
Read the rest of this interview with Aaron Gillespie in the January 2009 issue of Modern Drummer on sale now in print and digital.