To the self-styled number cruncher with Confessor and Loincloth, if he’s communicating an “unbalanced” feel with his drumming, he’s doing something very right.
For anyone who’s grown numb to metal drumming conventions, a first exposure to Steve Shelton can be revelatory, like hearing a familiar language spoken in a whole new dialect. Shelton’s twin bass drums lurch and lag, as hand-muted cymbals leap out in the high register and downbeats flip constantly, yielding a heady blend of bafflement and exhilaration. If the parts Shelton constructs for his two main projects—the technical doom outfit Confessor and the hyper-mathy instrumental trio Loincloth—sound chaotic, that’s entirely by design. The drummer backs up his ingenuity with a fierce sense of discipline.
Like most innovators, Shelton began as a devoted mimic. Speaking via phone from his lifelong home of Raleigh, North Carolina, the exceedingly personable forty-five-year-old drummer describes how hearing Rush’s Moving Pictures on his fourteenth birthday sealed his fate. Shelton obtained his first kit three years later and developed a serious autodidactic streak. “I put down all my other pastimes and put everything into figuring out what all my favorite drummers were doing,” he says, citing Neil Peart and Terry Bozzio (the latter specifically on Missing Persons’ Spring Session M) as formative influences.
Early studies were entirely self-directed, and even though Shelton didn’t have a working knowledge of the rudimental language, he had a clear idea of what he wanted to accomplish, along with the independence and power to pull it off. A fan of Confessor before he joined in 1987, he’d dream of amping up the rhythmic complexity of the band’s classically styled doom metal, heavily informed by Black Sabbath worshippers such as Trouble. “I just knew that if they had a drummer that would play with numbers, it could be really interesting,” Steve recalls. “And when I joined, that’s exactly what we ended up doing.”
Right away Shelton began experimenting with counterintuitive beats. “I had all kinds of freedom to play around with how different rhythms could affect the way a riff feels,” he explains. “And every time I did something that made it feel like we lost our balance for a second, everybody loved it.” Confessor’s songwriting— honed over the course of several demos, recently reissued on the Divebomb Records compilation Uncontrolled— followed suit, and by the time of their first full-length, 1991’s Condemned, Shelton and Co. had perfected their mutant strain of doom metal, which subbed out the style’s trademark hypnotic churn for tense anti-grooves, topped by vocalist Scott Jeffreys’ piercing wail.
Meanwhile, Shelton devised increasingly unusual methods of constructing beats. He’d refine ideas on paper using his own makeshift notation: long hatch marks for snare and short ones for bass drum, and a little circle for ride cymbal. One of the resulting parts, the unaccompanied intro to Condemned’s title track, stands as a high point in Shelton’s slim discography. Here he layers a spacious ride pattern over a complex seventy-two-beat rhythmic figure, mixing in double bass triplets to add a strange off-kilter propulsion. As Shelton explains in an instructional feature on Confessor’s 2006 DVD, Live in Norway, his goal for this section was to make the basic rhythm feel “a lot choppier and more awkward,” an overarching directive for his drumming.
Shelton’s beat science has found its fullest expression in Loincloth, an instrumental project formed in the early aughts during a lengthy Confessor hiatus. The band issued one tantalizing demo in 2003 but then fell silent until early 2012, when it reemerged with its debut full-length, Iron Balls of Steel, arguably the key Steve Shelton statement. The drummer’s drive for painstaking intricacy saturates the album. Unfettered by a vocalist, Shelton, guitarist Tannon Penland, and bassist Cary Rowells (also of Confessor) subject their burly riffs to constant mutation.
Shelton finds no tedium in this obsessive tinkering; for him, it’s pure adventure. “A riff can be great in and of itself,” he says. “But you can play around with it and show people the seven or eight different ways it can be great by manipulating the rhythmic feel. That’s what Loincloth is trying to do.” That principle serves as a partial explanation for Iron Balls’ lengthy gestation period. “We would spend weeks working on what would ultimately turn into a minute’s worth of music,” Shelton explains. “If you’re always looking for that point where you can pull the rug out from underneath the listener, you’ve got to search around with a microscope.”
Timbre is as important as timing in Shelton’s world of sound. The contrast between the thudding low end of his deep-shell toms and the chirpy highs of his cymbals assures that his parts slice through the mix with maximum clarity. “It’s not uncommon at all for me to be able to loosen the lugs with my fingers,” Steve says of the extra-low tom tunings he favors. “That way I can mix my lower tom in with the bass drum in a way that’s really thunderous.”
To offset his drum sound, Shelton employs an array of splashes, effects cymbals, and Chinas. “If I’m going to get a different cymbal, I’m going to get one that’s very obviously different,” he says. “Otherwise it’s like nibbling off the same cookie. I’d better have a few cookies around me that are very different.”
Even when using traditional crashes, Shelton aims for the most jarring sound he can find, often hand-muting (“I’ve played my knuckles open countless times doing it”) or smacking the cymbals without an accompanying bass drum hit. “I do that a couple times on the Loincloth record,” he says. “It makes you feel like, ‘Wait, did I just miss something? I haven’t landed yet.’ I love putting people in that situation.”
Hearing Shelton discuss his bold rhythmic concepts, it’s clear that a quarter century on from his debut with Confessor, the drummer is as ardent as ever about his mission. “I feel like Loincloth is the perfect band for the way I play drums,” Steve says. “If I didn’t love the music as much as I have from day one, and if I didn’t feel like it was precisely the kind of music that I could really make a difference in, then I doubt very seriously that I would’ve had the patience to stick with it.” One listen to Iron Balls of Steel reveals that Shelton’s devotion has paid off: In a genre choked with convention, a difference is exactly what this singular drummer has made.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Shelton plays a 1986 Tama Superstar deep-shell drumset with 10″, 12″, 13″, and 14″ rack toms, a 16″ floor tom, and 24″ bass drums, plus a Pearl 8×14 free-floating steelshell snare. His wide variety of cymbals includes Sabians (13″ and 14″ pairs of AA Regular hi-hats, 16″ and 18″ Rock crashes, a 22″ Rock ride, and 5″ and 12″ splashes), Wuhans (14″ and 20″ Chinas), and two ice bells (a 9″ Zildjian and a 7″ Latin Percussion). His preferred Remo heads are a Coated Emperor snare batter, Clear Pinstripe tom batters and Coated Ambassador bottoms, and Clear Powerstroke 3 bass drum batters (with no front heads). Shelton favors Vic Firth Metal sticks with wood tips.