by Ken Micallef
Rival Sons—drummer Michael Miley, guitarist Scott Holiday, bassist Robin Everhart, and vocalist Jay Buchanan—play authentic rock ’n’ roll as dictated by such pioneers as Led Zeppelin, the Yardbirds, Cream, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. At the heart of the band’s blues-drenched roar is Miley, whose heartfelt grooves might sound passé in lesser hands.
On the band’s third album, Head Down, Miley consistently achieves passion, power, and inspired invention. From the pounding four-to-the-bar pummel of “Wild Animal” to the skull-destroying opening salvos of “You Want To” to the implied violence of “Manifest Destiny, Part 2” to the Simon Kirke–style impact of “All the Way” to the swinging groove of “Until the Sun Comes,” Miley and Sons chase authenticity like they’re in a battle to reclaim the very soul of rock ’n’ roll.
MD: What’s key to playing a classic rock style with freshness and energy?
Michael: You have to play the song, first and foremost. And songs generate feelings and emotion and truth. I try to get inside the song and let my influences take over. We all have our influences, and you tend to wear them on your sleeve.
MD: When the band presents a new song, you’re not thinking classic rock influences necessarily?
Michael: In Rival Sons, we lock ourselves away in the studio and try to complete one song per day. We write everything together. Maybe the first reference I’ll think of when someone comes up with an idea is the Kinks, or the Rolling Stones—real riff-oriented music. Obviously I wouldn’t play a busy or complex funk beat to that style of music; I’ll lay down a simple beat, and little nuances will come from what Jay is doing. I’m a very singer-oriented drummer.
The nuances build as we start jamming. Sometimes our producer will record the rehearsal and then piece together a take from different performances. So we’ll have a real raw intro and chorus, for example, where none of us really knows the song yet. It has that looseness, and that’s our formula—a forced, visceral gut reaction to the first time we hear the riff or song structure.
Michael: Oh, yes! I have fought tooth and nail with the band and producer. I might say, “This is the worst drum take!” But they’ll love it. “But that fill sounds like I dropped a beat!” But they’ll say, “It made it urgent!”
MD: Do you push to replace parts?
Michael: I have punched in maybe one time. It’s always a group decision. Our first engineer, Greg Gordon, said the way they fixed mistakes in the old days was to punch up the volume. Make it louder; make it like you meant it. You can hear that on the early Beatles or Stax or Motown or Who recordings, before they began tape splicing and fixing mistakes. There’s an innocence to older music that we all love; they weren’t nitpicking every little thing. Our goal is “What you see is what you get.” It’s how music used to be before it was over-thought.
MD: So no gridding in Pro Tools?
Michael: No grid, and no click. I can play to a click—I did it with Kelly Clarkson. But you have to rest on your years of practice. Once we have a riff going, it sits in the pocket and the tempo is naturally agreed upon between us. It’s about that truth. That allows us to adjust the groove and stick it where it belongs. It’s a feeling. And the reaction we get is the result; people say that they haven’t heard music like this in years.
MD: You have an interesting warm-up based on Tony Williams’ drumming on Miles Davis’s Filles de Kilimanjaro.
Michael: Any rhythmic melody is based on a double, a single, or a paradiddle. Then there’s flams, right? On every solo section on that album, Tony is playing 8ths on the hi-hat and ride cymbal and then freely expressing himself with the left hand and right foot around the rest of the kit. Based on that, I warm up with doubles between the snare and kick, with the pulsing 8th-note ostinato. Then I break up triplets between the kick and snare, then spread it around the kit. I also got that idea from Stick Control, taking page one and playing the L/R patterns between the left hand and right foot against a ride cymbal ostinato.
MD: There are instances in Rival Sons’ songs where the band drops out and you carry on with a groove or a more active fill. What dictates what you play in the rests?
Michael: It’s like setting up figures in a big band. You’re telegraphing what’s about to happen. There’s a part in “All the Way” that has the big swing beat on the toms. Originally when I played that we were going to create a drum sample and make it sound like two drummers, but I ended up playing the two parts, doubling myself. You want to telegraph all the big moments, basically.
Michael: At Los Alamitos High School my big band instructor was Chad Wackerman’s dad, Chuck Wackerman. Brooks Wackerman and I used to skateboard together and pick up girls. In big band I listened to everything from Frank Zappa to Miles Davis. I went through Jim Chapin’s Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer with Chuck Wackerman. I went to Fullerton College and played in big band there too. In college I studied with everyone from Chuck Flores to Chuck Silverman, and when I was twenty I went on tour with the Furthur Festival after Jerry Garcia died. I had been studying with Sergio Mendes’s percussionist Chalo Eduardo; I was obsessed with Brazilian music. I went to Brazil to study, and I played with two different samba schools. Being there for two weeks changed my life.
MD: How did you come to play with the samba schools? That’s an honor.
Michael: I just walked into the rehearsals. I was trying to memorize the repinique and surdo parts. I led the samba band at California State University at Long Beach. [Miley graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in performance.] In Brazil, no one could enter on the right beat. They’re all just working guys in the samba bands, not professional drummers. They don’t count anything. There were thirty surdo drummers, and no one could find the beat. So I raised my hand and the leader let me play. He kicked it off, and I came right in on the beat. All the other drummers gave me dirty looks! There were seventy-five drummers total, and that was just an afternoon rehearsal. After being in Brazil I came back to the U.S. with some fresh ideas.
MD: What did you play at your senior recital at Long Beach?
Michael: I played “The Black Page” on the drumset, a Bach piece on steel drums, and a Chopin piece, “Nocturne in E Minor,” on vibes.
MD: How did you join Rival Sons?
Michael: When I graduated I played in a band called Bird 3, then with Joe Firstman on Atlantic Records. He was hired as music director for the house band on Last Call With Carson Daly, which I did for five years until 2009. I had met Scott and Robin in 2007 in Bird 3, and I got them in the house band as well. I had been on Jay’s solo project. In this band we really are rival sons—sometimes we want to tear each other’s heads off. But we all love soul music.
MD: How do you keep your chops in shape on the road?
Michael: I do yoga and work with resistance bands. And I do aerobics to get the blood flowing. On the pad, I do RLRL and double it in unison with my feet and hands, then change the tempo. Then flams and Swiss triplets.
MD: How does it feel to be in an American band that had its first success in the U.K.?
Michael: It’s a tradition, from Jimi Hendrix to Kings of Leon. All of my rock ’n’ roll heroes are from England. We played at the Electric Ballroom last year during the Classic Rock awards show [the band won for Breakthrough Artist], and when I looked over, Jimmy Page was watching us. That’s incredible. If you can win over the U.K. fans, who throw pints of piss at bands, you’ve really achieved something.
Miley plays a Mayer Bros. drumset featuring a 6.5×14 aluminum or titanium snare, a 10×14 tom, a 16×16 floor tom, and a 14×26 bass drum. His Paiste cymbals include 15″ 2002 Sound Edge hi-hats and 19″ and 20″ 2002 Wild crashes. His kick and tom batter heads are Aquarian Classic Clears, and his snare is fitted with the Texture Coated model; all of the batters have a dot. He uses Wincent Michael Miley signature sticks, Cympad cymbal washers, and Scosche in-ear monitors.