The former Kyuss and Fu Manchu drummer, who’s currently with Vista Chino, tells it like it is, was, and always will be.
Drummers have to understand the sound the way a surfer has to understand the ocean. Sonically speaking, no two days are ever the same. Whether you’re a session dude or a touring drummer, you start at zero every day.
Sun, heat, rain, clouds, smoke, wood, metal, concrete—it all affects sound. Drums never lie. Only drummers lie. Don’t blame bad sound on the monitor guy. If the monitors suck, don’t use them. Great drummers walk into a room and know what the sound is.
You win some and you lose some. That’s the beautiful romance a touring drummer experiences. Sometimes the room is flat and dead. How are you going to play with life and fire? Sometimes the room is huge and beautiful, and when you sit down at the kit, beats roll out of your hands like nothing and for a second you think you’re John Bonham. But can you check your ego and still be part of the band?
You don’t hear dynamics in rock drumming these days. At least I don’t. It’s physical. There are no volume knobs on drums. They’re acoustic. At least mine are. Guitar players can turn up their amps, and a lot of them do. Drummers turn up their fire. We burn more wood. The acoustic harmony of the jazz quartet in the ’40s had sonic balance, understanding, intelligence, and focus. A great rock band will have the same character regardless of all the amplification. The principles are the same.
Don’t sacrifice focus to be heard. Let the sound system project what you’re doing so the listener comes to you. About a year ago I was performing at a festival in Europe when right before my band went on, a stagehand complimented me on being the only drummer of the day who didn’t use a computer. I didn’t know how to respond to this, so I simply said thanks and went about my gig. Trippy. I’m down with computers and drums. I’m also down with wine and whiskey. But not together. Dig?
The best drummers are the best listeners. The art is listening to the sound and the song and pushing, pulling, gambling, and negotiating with it. Drums is what made the rock roll. It’s what made the jazz swing and the funk funky.
You ever try playing a mid-tempo beat at a voice-level volume for at least forty-five minutes without stopping or even doing any fills? Try it. It’s a great exercise. I call it drum meditations, and it’s my belief that this is where great drumming comes from. Listen to that room too! Be one with the natural sound. Don’t think you’re above it. You’re not. You’re in it.
Nowadays, everything is amplified. Everything.
Musicians are the shamans of sound. We have a natural gift and contribute magic to the principles and laws in this dimension we call music. We celebrate that which can’t be seen but can be felt and heard. Muscle and volume don’t make music rock. It’s the feel.
Led Zeppelin wasn’t one of the greatest rock bands of all time because John Bonham was the loudest drummer of all time. No question, John could put a stick on the drum. But it was his feel and his dynamics that made Zeppelin great. Nobody understood this more than Jimmy Page. If you listen closely you can hear and feel Bonham’s unwavering loyalty to the band. He plays like a proud cop, out on the beat. He doesn’t screw around, make deals, or cut slack. His job is to protect and serve.
Passion and fire are always at the center of great drumming, but the ability to keep your wits about you and not get bucked off the horse is true power. It’s a wisdom, and it comes with experience. Thousands of songs, thousands of recordings, thousands of gigs, thousands of rooms. Big rooms, small rooms, medium rooms, filled rooms, half-filled rooms, empty rooms, famous rooms, unknown rooms, and even outdoors where there is no room—or, I should say, nothing but room. Drumming is a philosophy. It’s a religion. It’s a science. It’s an art. You gotta think without thinking. You gotta be present yet contemplate the near future without dwelling on the past (the past being eight beats ago).
Years back I knew a dude who tried telling me one night that Charlie Watts sucked. We hadn’t even started drinking yet, and this embarrassing statement fell out of his mouth. I haven’t spoken to him since.