Harland Burkhart of Wild Hunt
As an MD subscriber back in the ’90s, I was like a deer caught in headlights, leafing through the latest issue that showed up at my doorstep. Looking at these jazz fusion guys’ kits with seemingly flawless arrangement, reading over some harrowingly cryptic sheet music, or seeing Terry Bozzio piloting a whole kitchen of weird-looking toms and cymbals…honestly, those front cover-featured powerhouse drummers kinda intimidated me. Back then I didn’t feel like I could put in enough time to bring myself to that level of ability, which I now know was a bunch of BS, of course. Only recently did I realize that something was distracting me; I wanted to write all the music! Or at least have a say on more than just the rhythm section.
I’ve always been infatuated with melody and the relationship between it and rhythm. Obviously the drum was the instrument I was drawn to, but I wasn’t solely a drum fanatic. The drums were just the tool I was most familiar with that I could use to contribute to the greater ensemble. In the late ’90s I became obsessed with electronic and experimental music, which taught me a lot about recording with my own digital setup that I’d amassed at home. This rekindled my interest in metal, which had been dormant for some years previous.
With digital recording, I had a medium that could help me execute the more extreme ideas I always wanted to. I would record anything that came to mind, using my voice to help map out parts with a synthesizer and sequencer for the other band members to play. All the while I was modeling the drums and vocals around each other on recordings. And then—as if to reel me into the path I’m on now—I saw a video of Levon Helm singing lead with the Band while handling business behind the kit, howling away with just as much passion, conviction, and ease as any other singer I’d seen, if not more. I was pretty taken with that performance, and here, I began to see a new approach materializing.
Initially I had decided to take on singing while playing drums, because Wild Hunt couldn’t seem to find anyone to fit the bill for a front person. Everyone we auditioned was either a complete egomaniac, or crazy, or trying too hard to sound like Maynard James Keenan. By this point, Wild Hunt had become such a precious project to me that I decided it might just be best to take matters into my own hands. Besides, I was much more interested in making our overall musical vision come to fruition as something solid, and not cutting down on responsibility so I could play more ridiculous drum fills. Only we knew what we wanted to sound like, so why slow our momentum with a new member that would have to be carefully molded to our liking? I was the one practicing singing and recording myself at home, so me handling that job seemed the most logical at the time. This was a big compromise at the start because, obviously, to wear the vocal hat behind the kit makes things quite a bit more complicated. Yet, being stubborn in the name of your art can pay off, both in ending up with an original creation, and ultimately, acquiring a bigger arsenal of skills to take to the stage.
People are always asking me how I can do this (or why I even bother). My answer isn’t very interesting: I keep practicing. Over and over! It really does come down to making all my movements second nature. Even with all the oddball off-time parts—which I’ll admit can still get the best of me periodically—repetition works magic. Just as Kollias and Roddy might eternally argue over the most supreme double kick technique, it all depends on the individual and what’s most comfortable for him or her. And the best way to attain this is through relentless rehearsal.
Wild Hunt usually starts songs as instrumental parts before the words are written and placed, so I often figure out a basic rhythm before anything. All the while, I’m keeping in mind that vocals will eventually be placed, and to make sure there will be spaces to cradle them. Once I have the placements set, I have to turn myself into an octopus, to make my hands, feet, and voice independently comfortable to ultimately work as a whole. There always seems to be an initial hurdle of unfamiliarity, where my joints almost seem to atrophy and whatever words I’m supposed to be vocalizing come out as grunts and wheezes. At this point I might slow the tempo down and simplify the pattern to a very basic version, emphasizing the key accents.
After playing the same few bars about thirty times, something finally locks into place. It always works this way, whether it takes two weeks to figure out two bars, or a couple of hours to master the whole verse. What follows is kind of like playing in a meditative state—one that opens the doors to performing with real expression, and even being able to improvise a little. The drums are now catering to the voice, and vice versa. As a cherry on top, I’ve taken to manning my own vocal effects, which I’m constantly changing throughout a set. Until we decide to have our own soundman, I’ve taken to dancing around between three pedals with my right foot, but as more of a challenge than a headache. Besides, there’s nothing like being able to turn some little club into something like Rouen Cathedral with a reverb setting, at will.
Also, one thing that has helped me greatly is the use of a metronome. Both Wild Hunt and my other band, Dimesland, churn out countless practice demos with a loud and obnoxious click throughout, placed to match all the tempo and meter changes. Obviously, there’s nothing like playing with the band without the click, because that’s where the feel lives. And early on, I definitely didn’t want to have anything to do with that incessant tick, constantly reminding me of my inadequate timekeeping. But toughing out these gridded demos has not only strengthened my inner clock, it’s also helped me map out patterns I never would have thought of otherwise. Dimesland, which is more technical, has helped me with this big-time. Now some of the most alien rhythms and progressions aren’t so daunting anymore, and instead it’s actually exciting to think about what I can do to them, both rhythmically and vocally.
Anyhoo, thanks for reading, and much thanks to MD, of course. I’ll have you know that I’m looking at a back issue with Alex Van Halen right now. I never knew he had a kick drum that was actually a beer fridge! Genius!
Wild Hunt’s LP Before the Plane of Angles is scheduled for release on Kemado Records on May 1. For more on the band, go to wildhuntband.blogspot.com. Dimesland’s Creepmoon EP is now available on Vendlus Records. For more on them, go to vendlus.com.