by Adam Budofsky
The July issue of Modern Drummer magazine contains a feature on Antemasque’s heavyweight drummer, Dave Elitch. In this MD Online exclusive interview, Elitch elaborates on a number of topics covered in the print story.
MD: What did the idea of drum education mean to you as you were growing up, and what does it mean to you now?
Dave: I started playing when I was ten, but I didn’t get serious until I was fourteen or fifteen. I very much liked the teacher/student relationship, like any situation where someone says, “Go and do this, come back when you’re comfortable with it, and then we’ll do more stuff.” There was something really satisfying about getting stuff, like the feeling you get the first time you figure out how to play a half-time shuffle. And I just got totally addicted to that.
It’s a very beneficial thing to get into that kind of practice when you’re a kid, because in society today everything’s about instant gratification. So being able to sit down and focus on something for an extended period of time is more valuable than it’s ever been, when we live in a society of constant distraction. You read articles about the brain reorganizing itself in terms of living in society today, and we might even down the line lose the ability to zone out and have passive thought. That’s where Einstein came up with most of his theories—doing the dishes or playing violin, just spacing out.
MD: Do you cover listening skills with your students?
Dave: I try to steer people in that direction slowly, pointing out things, like, “Listen to how the bass is slightly behind the drums on this” or “Listen to how he’s squishing the hi-hat together,” or having them step back away from the drums and listen to everything as a whole.
MD: In retrospect, as a student, did you go down any bad roads?
Dave: I wasted a lot of time playing along to really awful progressive rock records and left-foot clave and double strokes with my feet…. It hit me like a brick wall when I realized how hard it is to achieve a great feel and have good time. I was like, “I’ve been wasting so much time on all this dumb stuff that I’ll never use—this feel stuff is really where it’s at.” Since then I’ve been making up for lost time by really working on that stuff.
MD: What about taking the time to really listen to the sounds of the drumkit? When you play extremely quietly, for instance, you begin to notice things like how long a floor tom sustains after you hit it, or the different sympathetic vibrations you hear coming off cymbals and even stands.
Dave: I think the only way you’re really going to get to know the intimacies of an instrument, not just drums, is to play multiple styles of music. When you play quietly like that, not only do you play differently, but the vibe is so different. Brian Blade is a great example of that. I’ve never seen someone who can play so quietly and so loudly. His dynamic range is huge, incredible. That guy can really do anything.
MD: People automatically think of drums as being loud, but there’s an amazing amount of stuff that can happen at low volumes.
Dave: Totally. Check out the Ray LaMontagne stuff with Ethan Johns or Jay Bellerose on drums, or Matt Johnson with St. Vincent. I saw them play at Coachella a while ago. He’s playing super-soft with towels on everything, but you can rely on the PA [to provide the volume]. And when you play that softly you get so much more low end out of the snare drum, depending on what the vibe is. It was also cool to see how Matt’s really changed over the years. He was playing fairly hard on Jeff Buckley’s Grace record, and the tone was different. That’s one of my favorite records, and his playing on it is perfect.
MD: Hypothetically, can a drummer be “good” and sound bad in certain situations?
Dave: Sure, especially if your voice is very strong. I’ve heard some of my biggest influences sound wrong in certain situations.
MD: When you’re presented with students for the first time, do you look at them as blank slates in terms of what they might need help with, or do you have a mental checklist of things that you look out for?
Dave: I see so many random people from around the world—I do a lot of one-offs these days—so basically I will just tell someone before a lesson: Make sure you come prepared with lots of questions. I’ll say, “This is your time. I’m not going to force things on you—though if I see something really gnarly when I watch you play, I’ll insist that we work on that.”
Sometimes I’ll help someone out by showing them how I chart out songs for sessions. Or it can be, “How do I not look like an idiot on my first tour”? It can really be anything, down to really heavy method-book work. I had two dudes yesterday who were like, “Can you show me this, this, and this, and then show me some crazy lick at the end”? Maybe a few years ago I would have been like, “No, I’m going to show you what it takes to go from point A to point B,” but now I’m like, “Sure, if that’s what you want to learn.”
I’ve been teaching Michael Miley from Rival Sons. He works really hard. I have a lot of respect for people like him who are in a pretty big touring band. They’ve gotten accolades from Jimmy Page and all these people. Michael doesn’t have to reinvent himself. He doesn’t have to take lessons at all, and he definitely doesn’t have to do what we’re doing, tearing himself apart and building it back up again. When I first started seeing him, he was using French grip on everything and using a ton of elbow and no wrist. So I’ve got him getting the French grip and a nice Moeller whip happening, at least in his right hand. And in a month or two he’s really reinvented himself, and he’s super-stoked.
MD: Most drummers need to work really hard to get where they need to go.
Dave: All the great drummers or artists I know have to have an inordinate attention to detail. And you have to be okay being by yourself to do that work. But at the same time, drummers are special because you have to pull everything together. All of my best friends are drummers, and we have a really tight scene where we hang out. About fifteen of us are constantly calling or texting to grab a beer or coffee. I don’t know any other instrument where the players have such a strong sense of community and look out for each other.
MD: Would you agree with the statement that one of the most important skills to develop is how to learn about yourself?
Dave: Oh my God, it’s all self-analysis. The whole world would be such a better place if everyone went to a therapist every week. Pattern recognition: When this happens, I do this. And then observing that and unlearning. The more self-aware you are, the more of a leg up you have on people who aren’t.