Billy Corgan Hired Him Based On A Gut Reaction—The same measure he wants the drummer to use when coming up with his own parts.
Mike Byrne turns twenty-three this February 6, and three words associated with birthdays prove helpful in introducing the rising star to MD readers: wish, gift, and celebration.
Consider it a safe bet that if you’re a musician, you at one time or another made a wish for the opportunity to play with one of your favorite bands. Sure, it’s a pipe dream, and for anyone who started playing as a kid, it’s likely impossible now without the aid of a time machine. But in the summer of 2009, a nineteen-year-old Mike Byrne saw his wish fulfilled.
Perhaps even more impressive, though, is that Byrne was not some child prodigy copping Buddy Rich licks while in diapers. He started playing when he was twelve, which brings us to the second birthday association: gift. Byrne has a frightening amount of raw talent—a natural gift—yet he also possesses a mature poise behind the kit that conveys confidence in his abilities. Still, he’s acutely aware that he is far from the peak of his potential. He’s hungry to learn and grow as a drummer, and he doesn’t seem at all intrigued by the superficial and glamorous aspects of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. This combination will hopefully set the stage for us to celebrate the music that Mike makes with Smashing Pumpkins (and his side project Bearcubbin’) for many years to come.
Byrne has already caught the attention of many MD readers, winning the 2011 Readers Poll award for Up & Coming drummer. But our recent conversation with Mike, in which we speak at length about his transition into Smashing Pumpkins and about the band’s critically acclaimed new album, Oceania, marks the formal introduction of this future star.
MD: Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan has discussed being understandably apprehensive about bringing in a nineteen-year-old to audition for the band, due to the age gap. But once you started jamming, the chemistry was tangible. What was the dynamic after you were officially hired?
Mike: At the very beginning of the process we did have to learn how to work with each other. The band members’ ages do create a gap, and we had to figure out our common interests. But over time it became this thing where we literally had three generations of aesthetic to work within.
Billy is into things that stretch way beyond what I’m aware of musically, but he’s not necessarily listening to a bunch of underground independent bands from ten days ago that I might be listening to. Jeff [Schroeder, guitarist] and Nicole [Fiorentino, bassist] are both in their thirties, so they have their own taste as well. So it’s cool in that regard, because we can pull from a collective of information that’s a little bit larger than if we were all the same age.
MD: How did that influence the Oceania writing process?
Mike: It was a very open-minded process. Billy encouraged everyone to find his or her own voice. He definitely wanted Oceania to be a coming-out party for the new lineup’s sound. There were moments when I was like, “Okay, I’m stumped on what to play here…what do you think?” And Billy would say, “Nope, figure it out. You have to do this with your own sound and your own style.” It was encouraging, and at the end of the day I think it made for a way cooler product, because it sounds like something that is intrinsically us, as opposed to one person’s concept of how an entire band should sound.
MD: Your playing on the record doesn’t seem constrained at all. Were there times when Billy suggested you tone down any of your parts?
Mike: When I was writing parts, Billy would sometimes turn around and say, “Just be aware that you’re going to have to play these songs in an arena.”
MD: Meaning it might be best to leave a little more space so the parts translate in a large room?
Mike: Yeah, exactly. So I would go and reformulate a concept. Now, after three years and a few tour cycles, I kind of get what does and doesn’t work in an arena. It’s such a strange thing what translates when you get into a big space. The slow, simple, powerful fills can light the place up more than crazy oddball chops will.
MD: The production on Oceania is big and lively, and the drums sound especially fat in the mix, yet an organic feel is maintained. What was the recording process, both in terms of how you tracked your parts and how you went about getting sounds?
Mike: We recorded at Billy’s studio in Chicago, and there’s a huge collection of vintage drums there. On past EPs, we would change out everything for each song, and it would take days to record a song that way. We’re kind of perfectionists when it comes to tones, so we don’t really get started until everything is exactly the way we want it. But when we went to record Oceania, we wanted to find one drum sound that would be perfect for the entire record. We changed out snares a bit, but most everything else on the kit stayed there for the entirety of the recording.
We spent about four days at the top of the record finding the sound and figuring out weird miking techniques, like where we could put mics in other rooms to catch ambience. We did some odd re-amping with PA speakers pointed into a completely separate room while I was playing, to catch the reverb, or we would keep certain doors open so the drums would bleed into other mics that were set up around the studio. It was a pretty intense process to find that sound, but we were all super in love with it once we found it.
MD: Did you record all the drum parts first, or did the band go song by song?
Mike: We tracked the drums first, which took about two weeks, because there were moments when we were still writing certain parts of songs. Usually there would be a day of final intense arrangement detail, and the next day would be tracking it over and over to get that perfect take. We did the whole record without a click, except for some of the songs that had sequencing. So that made for some long days. [laughs]
MD: It seems rare these days to hear about bands recording without a click.
Mike: We worked really hard to achieve that Black Sabbath mentality, where perfection was not necessarily in the polish of it but more that the band has this organic swing. Especially the first two songs on the record—we just wanted to let those breathe rather than have the listener feel like they’re being punched in the face by a metronome.
MD: Your snare sound has a lot of depth but also a ton of presence. How did you achieve that?
Mike: The snare tunings changed slightly to suit each song, but we did do a lowerpitched [overall] tuning, which meant I had to really stick everything the whole record. We would track a sluggish-sounding snare and then re-mike that snare by doing the old Beatles trick where you put a speaker on top of the snare drum and mike the snare from underneath, isolate the snare track, and essentially just send the pulse of the snare track into the head so it would rattle the snares, giving you an isolated track of just the snares. Then we would blend the tracks together. It’s a good sound, but in general the snare drums we used just sounded good out of the gate.
Because we wanted to get this impossibly great drum sound, what we ended up doing was recording the drums without the cymbals, and then I played the cymbals separately and dropped them into the drum tracks.
MD: Queens of the Stone Age has been known to use that technique.
Mike: Exactly, the Joey Castillo thing.
MD: Your ride cymbal sounds great as well. What kind of ride is that?
Mike: The ride I used for 90 percent of the songs was a K Constantinople Flat ride, which was super-articulate yet had a warm, subtle, shoegazey undertone that doesn’t really grab your attention but still has a good presence and fills the space nicely. It kind of lets your mind focus on the whole of the music.
When we initially wrote a lot of the songs, I was playing jazzier ride patterns, but I think it sounds cooler when there’s this constant hypnotic wash. I didn’t want to take away too much rhythmically by throwing a lot of bell tricks in there. We’re actually doing a lot more of that now, though, so I’m shooting myself in the foot by saying that. [laughs]
MD: So you didn’t use a click for most of the record, but live you’re playing the new album in its entirety with an accompanying video-mapping production done by Sean Evans, who did Roger Waters’ The Wall tour. Will you be playing to a click to keep everything in sync?
Mike: Yeah, the front half of the set is always the same, playing the new record in its entirety, and the back half will change depending on the night. We are really adamant about getting this new record in front of people.
As for the light show, Billy and I had that same thought when we first went into the idea of creating the giant visual component, because we wanted to play to something in sync, but we didn’t want to neuter the band’s feel. I only get a click start before most of the songs, unless there’s hard sequencing on it—then I’ll play to the click for the entire song. But it’s basically a click start followed by the window where we play off the click, and then the next song gets a click start, and the set operates in blocks like that. So for most of the show I’m not playing to a click.
MD: For the songs with sequences, do you find that you have to alter your feel at all?
Mike: I like the experience of playing to sequences in general, and when you’re playing to synths and stuff it’s nice to have that constant pulse running. I think I do tend to revert to a more rigid, syncopated feel, though, when playing against those arpeggiators and stuff, just by basis of the fact that I’m hyperaware of where the time is at the moment. When we’re playing in loose time, I lay back a bit for that rock mentality. With the click it’s not necessarily more mechanical, but I do tend to play within the feel of the sequences.
MD: Since you’re playing the entire record sequentially, that means every night you open with “Quasar,” which features some blazing chops. What’s your pre-show warm-up to get ready for such a demanding first song?
Mike: It’s definitely a blistering way to start the night. There’s this weird double-stick right-hand pattern thing I do, because I’m a bit goofy with my left hand, so I do a lot of inverted paradiddle-diddles to warm up my right hand. I also do singles, and I play a lot of out the [Joe Morello] book Master Studies, taking everything slow and getting faster.
It’s one of those things, though, where no matter how much I warm up, the first few songs of every night I’m adjusting to the adrenaline or change in atmosphere when I get on stage. So there’s always going to be those first few songs where it feels a little stickier than the rest of the set. The trick is making that unapparent.
MD: So we began by talking about the dynamic of the group while writing and recording, but what has life been like on the road for a multigenerational band such as this one?
Mike: Regardless of our age differences or the various worlds we come from, we are very lucky that we’re four people who have a good amount in common, so it’s really a band that functions as a band, as opposed to being four people that only play well together.
It’s encouraging to be surrounded by good people, because nobody has a problem or is out doing weird things that make everybody else uncomfortable. It’s been a cool, mellow trip.
MD: So you’re not inclined to live up to any of the rock-star clichés while on the road?
Mike: Nah. We’re not party animals. We typically spend our downtime record shopping and sightseeing, and I honestly like it better that way.