by Willie Rose
Tommy Benedetti, longtime drummer with the Boston-based roots/reggae vets John Brown’s Body, is currently on the road with the group supporting its newest release, Fireflies. Benedetti fills each song on the album to the brim with pure and tasteful grooves, and on tour he pushes them into overdrive. Modern Drummer asked the drummer about the vast amount of influences that fill his incredibly deep pocket.
MD: What goes into getting the recorded drum sounds in a reggae setting, and in particular, the sounds on the newest record?
Tommy: We recorded Fireflies to tape to get the proper warmth and vibe that we were looking for on this record. For drum sounds, we were going for a real thick and tough kit sound. I did have muffling on the toms, but I certainly wanted to still hear tones. I used two different ’70s Ludwig kits, which were really fun to play. One was a 1975 Vistalite and the other was a 1972 black oyster pearl. I rotated between a Pearl Chad Smith signature snare and my 6.5×14 Walberg & Auge hand-hammered brass. We knew that the drums would end up getting the dub treatment in a lot of tunes, so the foundation had to be strong with a lot of depth while still maintaining a nice snap. We call our sound “future roots.” To us, that means respecting and honoring the roots but always sonically and musically pushing forward. That’s what we were going for on this record.
MD: There are points on the new record where it sounds like the snare is delayed, or a lot of reverb has been placed on a cross stick or certain cymbal hit. How did you get these sounds?
Tommy: The engineer has always played an important roll in JBB and in reggae in general. A record can take on a whole different character depending on who’s in the control room. The engineer on Fireflies, Craig Welsch, used all vintage effects to get the real-deal sounds. Two of the real signature effect sounds that he used were the Roland Space Echo Delay and a spring reverb. You hear the spring reverb on the opening track “Who Paid Them Off.” He did some crazy stuff where he ran the snare through the effect with a fast delay, then back through another spring reverb.
What you’re hearing overall is the huge influence that dub music has had on JBB. Dub originated in the late 1960s, but really hit its golden age in the mid to late ’70s. It puts heavy emphasis on the bass and drums, and uses swirling reverbs and delays on the horns and vocals to create this incredible soundscape. It is a big part of our sound in the studio and live.
MD: When playing live, do you control a delay for your snare or any reverb effects, or is that handled elsewhere?
Tommy: We have always traveled with our own engineer. It’s crucial. So our engineer, Kenny Christianson, is mixing the band and doing all the effects, delays, and reverb blasts from front of house. He travels with a big rack of gear that allows him to get a lot of the dub sounds you hear on record. So we’re able to give fans the full sonic experience every night.
MD: How much improvisation is involved live with JBB? Do you generally try to stick to your recorded parts, or is there room to stretch?
Tommy: JBB is an eight-piece band including a three-piece horn section, so there are specific arrangements that we stick to, and the beats stay the same each night. But there are definitely spots during solos or bass-and-drum breakdowns when I get to stretch out. With the energy of a live crowd—and JBB is a high-energy show—I tend to play a lot more fills live than you will hear on record. I consider myself more of a live player, and I have big ears, so I’m always listening to the horns, bass, or vocals for something to react to.
MD: Are there any challenges to going out on a two-month-plus tour?
Tommy: The first bunch of dates on the Fireflies tour last from mid September to early December, but we aren’t out the entire time. Our touring has evolved toward a more strategic approach in the last few years. We aren’t really out for more than two weeks at a time. We’ll often do three or four-date runs at a time, then fly home in between. Then maybe four times a year we’ll go out for two weeks. Don’t get me wrong, in the early days we would be out for two months straight, and yes it was challenging! Thankfully now we travel more comfortably and have settled on a schedule that gives us a good balance of tour life and home life.
MD: What originally drew you to reggae music? Were there any particular bands that you liked early on?
Tommy: I’ve been playing reggae for over twenty years. I started diving into it as I was finishing up at Berklee College of Music in Boston around 1993. My friends and I used to go see this band called the Tribulations. They were a killer nine-piece roots-rock and reggae group out of Ithaca, New York. I loved them, and I’d never seen or heard a band like them before. The drummer was Stacy Jones, who I knew from Berklee. Stacy was leaving the band to join Letters to Cleo, and I was about done with school, so Stacy recommended me for the gig. I got the gig and had a ton of albums dropped on me to study. This was my real first taste of hearing deep, authentic roots reggae and dub—Black Uhuru with Sly and Robbie, Linton Kwesi Johnson, the Gladiators, Gregory Isaacs—crucial stuff. It took me a few years to get comfortable with the grooves and the style. It was so different from anything else I’d ever played. The Tribulations disbanded about a year and a half after I joined, and a year after that a bunch of us got back together to form JBB. That’s when I really started getting bit by the bug.
MD: What was the learning process like when studying reggae drumming? What did you work on to develop the different sub-styles and grooves of the genre?
Tommy: I never really got a chance to shed the stuff on my own—which in hindsight was good, because I was actually playing it with people and learning on the go. I went from Berklee to rehearsals right to the road. JBB has always had tunes with a variety of feels and beats. So I had to learn steppers, rockers, one drops, lovers rock, and rocksteady. I just listened to everything I could and studied very closely.
I always paid specific attention to my hi-hat hand. It’s something that I’ve put a lot of work into. I also spent a lot of time working on different cross-stick patterns over different beats to develop a bigger vocabulary to choose from. We were also lucky to have backed Justin Hinds in 2000. Justin is one of the founding fathers of ska and rocksteady, so being able to dip into those grooves with one of the masters was one of the highlights of my career.
MD: Are there any albums or educational resources that you’d recommend for someone looking to get into the reggae drumming?
Tommy: I would suggest starting with an album by Ras Michael called Nyabinghi. It’s just hand drums and vocals—very raw. This will get you dialed into the heartbeat rhythm, which is the foundation of reggae. From there, some of my favorite records are Lee Perry’s Super Ape, Dennis Brown’s Visions, Peter Broggs’ Rastafari Liveth, and Joe Higgs’ Life of Contradiction. I could go on! These albums represent four unique styles of reggae drumming.
As far as the instructional/educational side, I highly recommend Gil Sharone’s DVD Wicked Beats. He really covers a lot of beats, feels, and fills as well. It’s excellent.
MD: Who are your drumming influences or favorite reggae drummers? Are there any particular drummers you tried to channel on the new record?
Tommy: The person responsible for me wanting to be a drummer is Alex Van Halen, hands down. Those first five Van Halen albums are untouchable. I grew up on rock and metal, so I was really into Phil Rudd, Clive Burr, and of course John Bonham when I was starting out. As far as reggae, it’s hard to narrow it down, but a few of my favorites are Style Scott, Sly Dunbar, and Michael “Boo” Richards. Since drums and bass are inseparable in reggae, I need to mention the corresponding bassists to these drummers: Earl “Flabba” Holt, Robbie Shakespeare, and Val Douglas, respectively.
I don’t really think I directly try to channel anyone on the new record. I’ve been listening to and playing reggae for a long time now, so it’s a big part of my style that comes out naturally. I always just try to be present and be myself behind the kit.
MD: There seems to be a huge focus on groove with the new record as opposed to throwing too many fills in. What’s your approach to playing for the song?
Tommy: I’m a pocket player, and my main job is to serve the song. With our sound and style, throwing fills everywhere just wouldn’t be appropriate. I like to make every note and every fill count. I just feel that it’s more effective to drop memorable fills that add to the song, rather than to play a ton of them. I try to play tastefully and not get in the way of anything. JBB has a big sound, with thumping bass, horns, B3 bubble. It works to sit in the cut, strike heavy, and make it count. First and foremost I want to make the song feel good. The groove is the law.
MD: As a member of a band with years of experience, could you give any advice for drummers looking to step into the music business as a career choice in today’s environment?
Tommy: It’s a tough business. But like anything in life there are things you can control and things you can’t. You can try and surround yourself with people that inspire and challenge you. It helps being in a city like Boston, where the level of musicianship is extremely high. I also find it important to have a good work ethic and be willing to hustle. It’s good to be proactive and not just sit back and wait for things to happen. If you see a band around town that you dig, make it a point to introduce yourself. You never know when they may need a drummer! And every time you step behind the kit, play with 100-percent conviction.
MD: Can you describe your setup?
Tommy: My touring kit is a Yamaha Maple Custom Absolute in Silver Sparkle finish. The tom sizes are 10″, 12″, and 14″, and the bass drum is a 22″. I have a 6.5×14 Walberg and Auge hand-hammered brass snare that goes everywhere with me. I also use a 5×13 LP timbale to the left of my hi-hats. My cymbals are all Zildjian. I usually use three to four cymbals that I swap out occasionally for different sounds. Generally I use 18″ and 20″ A Custom crashes, a 19″ A Thin crash or a 19″ K Dark Thin crash, and an 18″ Crash of Doom. I always use 14″ K Constantinople hi-hats. For heads, I have clear Evans EC2s on the toms, a clear GMAD on the kick, and a coated Genera HD on snare. And I use Vater 5A wood tip sticks.
Photo by Tobin Voggesser