Ryan Van Poederooyrn
No one’s ever going to accuse Devin Townsend of being a slacker, and you can be damn sure the metal icon’s collaborators work their fingers to the bone just trying to keep up. That goes double for DT’s go-to drummer, whose latest forays with the metal multi-threat could be his most challenging yet.
When Modern Drummer hooked up with Ryan Van Poederooyen, he’d just arrived in Los Angeles to lay down tracks for the latest chapter in Devin Townsend’s infamous Ziltoid the Omniscient tale, Z2. RVP—as the drummer is known—occupied the drum throne with the Devin Townsend Band between 2002 and 2007; since 2009 he’s done the same in the Devin Townsend Project. Van Poederooyen is also an official member of the metal act Terror Syndrome, which he created in 2006 as a solo project but grew to full-band status, and the progressive rock group Ten Ways. The prolific Townsend has kept the drummer so busy lately, though, that both of those bands are effectively on hold. “Once Ryan gets something,” Townsend tells MD, “he’s got it. I can really rely on that level of consistency.”
After our interview, Van Poederooyen proceeded to record his drum tracks for Z2 in just two days. That’s impressive on the face of it, but did we mention that it’s a double album—or, more precisely, two separate but related albums? And that both were recorded to tape, which further narrows the margin for error? “Ryan deserves to be recognized not only for his drumming but for his ability to adapt to very challenging situations,” Townsend says. “And not only does he nail it—he comes out of it with a positive frame of mind.” We begin our discussion with RVP by asking him about the writing and rehearsal process for Townsend’s latest call to arms.
Ryan: Devin comes in with all the song ideas. He’s the songwriter and we’re the band, although he will always listen to suggestions, which has resulted in a couple of songwriting credits for us band members. For drum parts, he’ll come in with some great ideas that I’ll use or feed off of. He has a great mind for drumming, and we work really well together in that respect. At other times I’ve written brand-new parts that we’ll use instead. In the end, I always play for the song and put my touch on whatever idea is used.
As far as the process goes, once we get my parts figured out, the band gets in the room and we start jamming out all the ideas together. Sometimes things change, depending on where the vibe takes it. These latest records were totally different. We had six weeks to learn both albums. Devin put a lot of trust in us learning the songs on our own time and putting our spin on parts that merged with his style of writing. In this case, playing with Dev for the past twelve years and knowing his writing style paid off for the band. I’m very proud of both records.
MD: What are your thoughts on current digital recording technology?
Ryan: It’s changed so much. I’ve recorded to tape in the past, and I’ve recorded many albums the digital way. I appreciate what you can do with digital technology and how much faster and perfected recording has become as a result. I also have a great appreciation for the old-school method of recording to two-inch tape. We recorded the drum tracks on this double album through a CLASP system, which puts them into Pro Tools in real time via two-inch tape. I guess you could say we combined old technology with new. It’s all about adaptation and making it work for you.
The drum sounds we achieved by recording this way are absolutely massive. With the incredible engineering skills of my brother, Jay, these two records are the best I’ve ever heard my drums sound, hands down. We’re going for all-natural sounds, no samples.
MD: Is it challenging to handle the wide stylistic shifts in Devin’s catalog?
Ryan: It’s been difficult at times, but I believe that you can never stop learning, so I take challenges head on. Learning stuff from [2009’s] Ki was challenging because it’s a different vibe from what I’m used to. Duris Maxwell, the drummer on that album, is phenomenal. Same goes for the talented Dirk Verbeuren [Soilwork] and the songs he recorded on the Deconstruction record . Each drummer has his own thing, and trying to emulate someone else can
Devin wants you to learn the song the way that it was recorded. Adding your touch to beats and fills here and there, yeah, he’s fine with that, but the gist of it is, “Go in there and try to re-create what was recorded.” I totally respect that. To be honest, I want to pay respect to the guys that recorded it. I had to play the Strapping Young Lad songs “Love”? and “Detox” for the Retinal Circus concert Blu-ray we did in 2012. I’m the only drummer to play those songs other than the legendary Gene Hoglan. It was important to me, and to Devin, to do them justice and pay respect to Gene and SYL as best as I could.
MD: How did you get the gig with Devin?
Ryan: In Vancouver I played as much as I could to get my name out there. I did session work, played in a few different bands, and learned different styles of music to become as well rounded as I could. Devin wanted to separate his solo band from Strapping Young Lad, so he asked people he knew about drummers they would recommend for the gig. My name would keep popping up. He even asked Gene at one point, and Gene gave me a thumbs-up, which is an honor coming from him. Gene had seen me play around Vancouver with my old band God Awakens Petrified, and he liked my playing. From there, Dev asked me to try out for the now defunct Devin Townsend Band.
The funny thing is, I’d just gotten into his solo album Ocean Machine a month prior to his calling me. That’s one of my favorites of all his records. I wasn’t a fan of Strapping Young Lad at that point, though. I didn’t get the music at the time. I got it eventually! But I loved his solo material, so getting a call to try out was surreal. We set up an audition, and I remember jamming for only ten or fifteen minutes before he said, “You’re the guy!” He has this thing about snare drums and drummers’ connection to them. He dug my groove and my connection to the snare and the rest of the drumkit.
MD: What was your band experience prior to joining Devin?
Ryan: Before joining Devin, the band I was in that had the most popularity was God Awakens Petrified. That was experimental metal. In Vancouver we had a great following and did really well. I also played in a pop/rock band called June with my brother, who played bass. The drumming almost had a Dave Matthews vibe to it.
I also did independent and label session work for producers such as Brian Howes, Chad Kroeger, Rhys Fulber, and others. With Terror Syndrome I brought in several guests, including Devin, Alex Skolnick [Testament], Trevor Dunn [Mr. Bungle], Christofer Malmström [Darkane], Byron Stroud [Strapping Young Lad, Fear Factory], and bassist Michael Manring [Michael Hedges, Montreux]. I joined Ten Ways in 2008. That’s a prog-rock band formed by DTP guitarist Dave Young and his bass-playing brother, Mike, who’d been in the Devin Townsend Band. Both groups are still active, but due to the hectic year-round schedule of DTP, there’s no time to further either band at the moment.
MD: What were your formative years in drumming like?
Ryan: My father is a pianist, and when I was growing up he played in a rock band. I was always blown away by the drums. I’d get up and start banging around on the kit when they finished soundcheck, and my father took notice and saw that I had some rhythm going on.
I learned technique and all the important basics of drumming through lessons, which I took for a year or so around age ten. In high school I joined band class and stage band and took a few more lessons, and at sixteen I joined a rock cover band. I played bars on weekends and had to sit in the hotel room between sets because I was underage. The experience of consistently playing live was priceless for me at that age.
MD: Who was your first drumming influence?
Ryan: Neil Peart. Rush was a huge inspiration for me growing up, and Neil was my imaginary drum teacher in a sense, because I would learn Rush songs all day. That cover band turned me on to prog music. From there my appreciation of drummers grew over the years. Guys like Tim Alexander [Primus], Stewart Copeland [the Police], Vinnie Paul [Pantera], Tomas Haake [Meshuggah], and, most recently, Gavin Harrison [Porcupine Tree, King Crimson] have made lasting impressions on me.
MD: Do you ever write out your parts or read charts?
Ryan: I can read and write drum music, but Devin has never come to me with parts written out in notation. It’s always demos, learning by ear. For example, this new Ziltoid album has lots of challenging songs throughout. It’s technical music—time-signature changes, complicated rhythms and fills, and lengthy songs. A lot of memory was required, more than usual. As a result, I had lots of charts this time around.
I rarely write out notation, though. Instead, I’ve come up with more time-efficient ways to remember my parts.
For example, one song goes from five to three to eight and back to five with an accent on 3, and so on. So that’s how I would chart it out. Or I’d write “China part” for a section of a song. In my head I know exactly what that means, because the beat is based around the China cymbal. Again, it’s about adapting and working through the intangibles of music.
I’m always trying to learn and be as creative and as versatile as possible with drumming, charting, and anything I do. I prepare myself in many different ways and don’t focus on any one thing. That’s how I live my life as well. Learn and enjoy every day, set goals, take action, believe you can do it, be positive, and be grateful for the present—and excited for the future.
Story by Chuck Parker
Photos by Alex Solca