Dan Pawlovich is currently on the road with pop-rock group Panic! at the Disco in support of its latest album, Death of a Bachelor. Here Modern Drummer Online asks Pawlovich about backing a band that seamlessly sifts through multiple sonic landscapes while still staying on top.
MD: How long have you been with Panic! at the Disco, and how did you end up joining the touring band?
Dan: I’ve been with them for almost three years. My first show drumming was August 7, 2013 in Nashville, Tennessee, but I was hired a few weeks earlier as a drum tech. I was there for rehearsals, to learn the gear, meet the band and crew, and set up the drums. The funny thing is, at first I gave very serious thought to not accepting the job because it was a tech gig, and I wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted to be doing at the time.
Around this time, Panic was on tour playing free shows in small clubs for local radio stations to promote Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die. They said that I might be needed to play drums with the band when they crossed into Canada about a month into the tour. So early on, I was prepping mentally more than anything else. On the eve of the fifth show I received a call and was told that I’d be needed to play drums the very next day in Nashville.
Even though I wasn’t ready at that moment, I knew I could be by the next day. The band offered to cancel the show and take a rehearsal day, or cut the show to a half hour. But I felt confident I could figure out the full set. After talking with the band, I secluded myself in my hotel room for the rest of the night and air-drummed each song over and over again until I could play them without making a mistake. Once I made it through all fifteen songs, I took notes that would hopefully help jump-start my memory for the next day, and quickly fell asleep.
The next morning, I went right back to my tech duties, except this time I set up the kit for myself. Wasting no time, we started soundcheck. It’s worth mentioning that I probably knew the music better by the lead vocals and lyrics at that point—I was a fan first—so [front man Brendon Urie’s] cues were going to be very important. I was relieved to discover that he always sings during soundchecks. It really helped me know exactly where we were in a song and what transitions were coming up. Between soundcheck, vocal cues, and short-term muscle memory, I felt confident I was ready for the real thing.
That first night, I made a few minor mistakes. But all things considered, I think the band was able to focus on the show without worrying too much about what was going on behind them. And here I am, three years later, feeling very much a proud part of an amazing team of great people and musicians.
MD: What was the process like adapting the songs off of Death of a Bachelor to a live setting?
Dan: Some parts are sampled, like the intro to “Hallelujah.” Brendon likes to twist things up, so it can make for a really cool result, and I enjoy the challenge of figuring it out. For instance, I was told that the drum fill that starts “Hallelujah” was chopped in half. So while it may have been a more recognizable fill before, it now became difficult to figure out how to make it flow. I ended up finding two ways to play the pattern—one uses rudiments and the other uses crossovers with the hands—the latter of which I stuck with. It can still trip me up from time to time, but I love that.
It’s the same with a lot of the music that’s “built” today. Sometimes a beat is constructed that sounds amazing but would require a player with more than four limbs to play. So the challenge becomes, how can I play it in a way that honors what makes it cool with what I have to work with? I really embrace all of it.
All of the acoustic drums on the record—and the majority of songs were done with live drums—were performed by Brendon, and he’s a great drummer with a marching background. He has a mental catalog of beats and styles that always brings a welcome challenge for me. So he comes up with really fun stuff to play and learn. And if I have a question about anything, he can show me right on the spot.
MD: Did you have any input or change any of the recorded parts for the live show?
Dan: I’ll first insist on playing what’s recorded. So even with the new record, if I’ve nailed ninety-five percent of the song after a few run-throughs, Brendon might say, “You can do whatever with the fills,” and I always appreciate that. But I’ll still hone them until I feel like I’m in control of what’s there.
Once I know I can do it a hundred times over, I naturally let my flow take over, and that’s when new things happen that might end up sticking. I know I’ve hit something good when Brendon flashes a smile during a performance, or the next night he air-drums the fill. That’s my favorite. From there, some things may just become an expected part of the show—we’ll never need to have a dialogue about it.
I think one of the most overlooked elements of becoming a better musician, especially when it comes to learning music that already exists, is the benefit of learning what’s actually written first. It’s easy to overlook because it’s right there in front of you, but there’s a lot to be gained from this approach, especially if the song has already proven its effectiveness. One of the coolest lessons I learned from this was found in covering “You Wreck Me” by Tom Petty with a previous band. Individually, each instrument’s part in that song is simple, and it’s easy to stray and get flashy rather than to play what’s already there. But once I committed to the original parts, I learned so much more. There’s greatness in the sum of its parts, and I apply that lesson to everything I do musically.
MD: Do you have any warm-ups you do before playing live?
Dan: When we’re on tour for a long stretch, I’ll get into the routine of spending about an hour a day working out and running. It helps to keep me healthy—apart from the workout of the show—and has a noticeably positive affect on my posture and performance. I recently started singing backups behind the kit, so vocal warm-ups have been added to my stretching routine. I don’t go crazy if I’ve already worked out, but I do go through about twenty minutes of odd sticking patterns to get my movements untangled and work in sync with my mental preparation.
MD: Can you talk about the electronics you use and how you incorporate them?
Dan: We run Ableton Live, which is a fantastically capable application for the purpose of backing tracks. These days, backing tracks have become a mainstay and are more embraced than scoffed at. But after a year with the original mono instrument tracks on the left, and mono click on the right, we thought that stereo was the way to go. Also, we use separate stereo stems, so our front-of-house engineer, Spencer Jones, can tailor different parts to the individual show or venue. We have them broken up into three basic categories: programmed drums, or samples that get layered underneath the live drums; synths, strings, and other production; and background vocals. There are also a few transitions that end up on the programmed drum output. And of course, there’s the click.
Our playback rig is a redundant system comprised of two cloned MacBook Airs, MOTU UltraLite mk3 Hybrid USB interfaces, and two Radial SW8 auto-switchers, which are glorified 8-channel direct boxes that can switch automatically to the backup when a drone signal is lost. It’s a cool setup but can be very complicated without a thorough knowledge of everything inside. It’s built like a tank, though, so once it’s operating properly, it’s reliable.
MD: How do you find playing to a click or backing tracks live? Any challenges?
Dan: When I’m really on, I don’t even know it’s there. I’ll have to speed up or slow down just to hear that it’s still running. I think it’s an amazing tool. It also allows anyone to do an infinite amount of extra things with no more of a budget than the computer that they probably already have. With Ableton and some other live DAWs, you can sync lights and video, trigger effects, and program it to change drumset samples at a specific point in the song. You couldn’t do that without a guide track.
MD: Do you ever feel any pressure or nervousness playing larger venues or higher-profile gigs? You seem pretty comfortable and energetic live.
Dan: Television performances make me a little nervous, though larger venues and capacities make no difference. A high-energy crowd of 200 people feels no different from a high-energy crowd of 10,000. They’re both amazing to play for. But television is a different beast. In most instances there’s an opportunity to do another take, but we don’t like to do that and haven’t yet. So for songs like “Hallelujah,” with that crazy intro fill, it can be really intimidating.
And there’s a whole day of waiting and building excitement that all gets released in a three-minute performance. It can be a little hard to keep from spilling over. So I warm up all day and try to keep moving so that the energy doesn’t get too pent-up. And when we go out there, it’s show time—there’s no turning back. I hold on to my sticks like we’re playing in a hurricane. My biggest fear in that setting is dropping a stick. Lately I’ve calmed down a bit, but admittedly it’s only because we might be performing a less musically complicated single. Throw me on television for a song like “Don’t Threaten Me With a Good Time” and it’d be a whole different story.
Still, these nervous moments tend to be my favorite part of all of this. In soundcheck we can always stop and restart. But once we’re live and we get the cue to start, there’s no turning back. That’s really exciting to me, every time. When we nail it, we all know it, and it creates a positive energy for the audience and our entire team.
MD: Who are your drumming influences? Do you channel any of them with the band?
Dan: Maybe not channel in the moment. But first and foremost, I’d say Tré Cool. Green Day was that band for me—the one that woke me up. I remember hearing “Basket Case” and seeing the images on MTV. It was like that moment in Wizard of Oz when everything went from gray to Technicolor. It was so vivid, and I was never the same again.
This may not count as channeling, but one thing I can point a finger at is Tré’s hi-hat style. He’s so on time, but he constantly fluctuates his velocity and pressure on the pedal. It might be partially a side effect of compression. But even if he’s playing a closed, half-open, or open hi-hat, he’s always performing minor fluctuations that to my ears give everything so much extra life. I definitely embraced that, and I do it all the time. There’s no real thought that goes into it. As I’m having fun, I’m bouncing and letting my foot move and letting my arm hit however it’s going to with the rest of my body. I may have a solid style, but I like to let the consistency in my velocity vary.
MD: Do you have any advice for drummers trying to get into the business?
Dan: One thing I’ve learned is that even though I’ve strayed from time to time due to various pressures in life, I’ve since recognized the path that I strayed from was a musical one. And the more I stuck to the main path that I know makes me happy, the more return I received from others walking a similar path. Everyone you work with is there to help and be helped by you in return. I can think back to times when I had enough income from a job I didn’t love and how unhappy I was. And I can think about times when I had no money at all, but I was playing music regularly and was inherently happy.
When good things happen that make you think it’s a small world, it’s a good sign that you’re on the right track. I really think that if I hadn’t remained active in music after [Pawlovich’s previous band] Valencia disbanded in 2012, I may not have been on the minds of the people who helped me get in touch with Panic in the first place. So even though it’s nearly impossible to know in what form the next step might manifest, the opportunity will come. And if you’re already doing what makes you happy, you’ll be ready and recognize it when it does.
MD: Do you have any other projects you’re working on?
Dan: Yes, it’s called Mosey. The Way We Remember It is a record I’d just finished a month before I started working with Panic. It was initially released in 2013 on Kick Rock Invasion in Japan, and it’s going to be released this September in the U.S. on vinyl by my friends at Know Hope Records.
And I’m constantly working on content for my music production company called Treble Hook Music [treblehookmusic.com]. I produce bands, mix records, write and post music, and even occasionally build something physically, such as a one-of-a-kind snare drum. This year I plan to start offering remote drum recording services for anyone who might be interested. One of my great passions next to drumming has always been recording and producing. And I’ve always had a knack for knowing how a piece of music or drum pattern should go, even when there might not be a lot to work with in the early stages. So I hope to offer what I love to do as a service to others who might want drums on their music but may not have a drummer or a capable setup to do it themselves.
MD: What gear do you use in terms of drums, cymbals, sticks, and heads?
Dan: I’m very lucky to have friends in all the companies of products I grew up playing. I tried almost every company out there in my years coming up, and the companies I have long since stuck with are Zildjian cymbals, Vic Firth sticks, Remo heads, DW hardware, and SJC Drums. I’d play these companies whether they endorsed me or not. And they have the mentality of wanting to grow together. It’s very cool and feels like a family.