More than twenty years into their career, the modern rock trailblazers Halestorm continue to scale the genre’s highest peaks. And on the band’s latest release, their energetic drummer and founding member got a chance to fully explore his true voice in the studio.
It can be difficult to take your eyes off Halestorm’s drummer, Arejay Hale. At the band’s concert at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey, this past August 6, Hale towered over his low-lying Pearl kit and flat-mounted toms, delivering massive backbeats with full-arm extensions, switching lead hands mid-measure on a whim, and lacing adrenaline-fueled grooves with an abundance of stick flips.
But don’t let a deft stage presence distract you. In Halestorm, the rock group Arejay started with his sister Lzzy when they were still in grammar school, the drummer slays. On that August night his blazing rock chops were on full display, as he fired off rapid double bass flourishes between burning full-kit fills with a continuous, frenetic energy. The drummer tastefully peppered single bass drum 32nds into creative, powerful rock grooves. And all the while, with his wild, full-strength technique, he made it look easy.
The Pennsylvania-born siblings Lzzy and Arejay Hale have been playing music together since 1997. When they started in their early years—Arejay at ten and Lzzy at thirteen—their father, Roger, joined them on bass. After countless regional and national gigs, in 2003 the group added Joe Hottinger on lead guitar, and one year later Josh Smith on bass and keyboards.
Halestorm’s solidified lineup would go on to release several full-length albums while building a massive global audience thanks to rigorous world tours. Their self-titled 2009 debut climbed to number 40 on the Billboard 200 chart, led by the single “I Get Off.” In 2012 The Strange Case Of… sold 24,000 copies in its first week and earned the band a Grammy for the song “Love Bites (So Do I).” And in 2015 Into the Wild Life peaked at number 5 on the Billboard 200.
This past July 27, while on the road for an international trek that lasted through October, Halestorm released their fourth Atlantic Records album, Vicious. Recorded at Rock Falcon Studio in Franklin, Tennessee, and produced by Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Alice in Chains, Rush), the effort sees the band branch out to write their first album completely in the studio without cowriters or collaborators. With Raskulinecz’s influence, the group’s familiar catchy hooks, powerful riffs, and creative arrangements still abound, but there’s a new sense of energy that the band members felt was missing from previous efforts. “We wanted to make Vicious a little more experimental,” says Arejay Hale. “I feel like we had more freedom this time to capture what we do most of the time, which is play live. And we wanted people to be able to buy the record, or whatever—listen to it, stream it—and be able to get something close to the experience of seeing a live show.”
Modern Drummer spoke with Hale while he was home in L.A. during a brief break from Halestorm’s 2018 tour.
MD: What was it like working with Nick Raskulinecz on Vicious?
Arejay: Nick’s a legendary producer. He’s done so many incredible records. He’s worked with the Foo Fighters, Deftones, Queens of the Stone Age…. It was different from any other experience we’ve had with a producer. Often we’d forget that he was our producer; [it was like] he was just our buddy hanging out while bouncing ideas back and forth with us.
We also didn’t really have anything written before we went in to record. The four of us went into the studio and pretty much wrote the entire record—just the four of us with Nick coaching us. So it led to much more of a genuine-sounding album than our previous records.
MD: Is that the first time you’ve written an album like this?
Arejay: Yeah. For the most part with the last three records there was a lot of cowriting—a lot of collaborations—which is great. I’m all for collaborating. You can come up with some great stuff by having more than one brain involved. But after doing that for so many years, when we went in to make this record, we just felt a lot more confident as songwriters and that we could do more of it ourselves without outsourcing so much to other writers. So the end result was kind of a much more honest-sounding record. No gimmicks, no frills, no clever…well, I mean, we try to be clever, you know, poetically. But nothing so cliché.
MD: How much input did Nick have on you from a drumming perspective?
Arejay: Nick’s worked with Dave Grohl, Taylor Hawkins, Brann Dailor, Neil Peart, Will Hunt, Ray Luzier, Abe Cunningham…. He’s worked with the greatest, highest-energy performing drummers out there, and he’s captured so much energy on tape. I was stoked to finally work with him, because with every record we’ve done—and I’m proud of what we did—when it came to the drumming, that’s the last thought that I have leading up to tracking. I’m mostly focused on making sure the songs are good.
So when I get to sit down on the drums, often producers will want me to simplify everything and want it to be easy to grasp, which is fine. I think part of the reason that our first couple records did what they did was because they had so much space, and everything was a lot more simplified. Nick made sure that none of us were overplaying, but he also added a lot of creative elements and encouraged a lot more creativity out of me. He wanted me to do takes where I’d go crazy and cut loose, and it felt very freeing.
When we’re playing live, oftentimes I’ll go off script to throw a curveball to keep it loose and interesting—not just for the audience but for us, too. I feel like if we play the same set every night, it gets pretty stale. So a lot of those elements that we try to apply to our live show, we started to bring to the table in the studio, which is kind of difficult. In the studio, there’s no audience, and there’s no adrenaline pumping. It’s more of a sterile vibe.
So while recording, Nick would use a drumstick as a conductor’s baton. He’d stand in front of me in the live room while I was tracking, get in my face, and say, “Come on! Bring out the crazy stuff!” I looked forward to tracking the drums with him every single day. We’d do fifteen to eighteen takes of each song, because we didn’t want to do a lot of editing. We wanted it to be a sole performance. So I’d have to play the song from front to back and nail it perfectly, but also try to bring that special energy and vibe to the track. It was a real challenge, but it was so much fun.
MD: You don’t sound reserved throughout the new record.
Arejay: I appreciate that. That was part of the challenge—finding that balance dynamically between the sections where you really bring the fire and add a lot of flair, and the sections where you open up and leave a bunch of space. As far as my drumming goes, it feels a lot more dynamic, or a lot less linear than the last couple of records, where everything had to be simplified, and where there was maybe one moment where I could throw in a clever drum fill or something. But with Nick, he wanted to make sure that every drum fill had its own unique flavor.
He was very thorough and detailed, all the way down to what cymbal I’d hit—whether I’d hit two cymbals or use two hands on one cymbal. And occasionally he wanted me to apply more showmanship in the studio. He’d say, “You’re playing too stiff and concentrating too much. You’re not opening up and playing totally free like you do live.” And that was such an advantage that he had as a producer. He’d seen us live many times, and he was a big fan of our show. As a producer, he knew exactly how to capture that energy.
MD: When you say “showmanship” in the studio, what do you mean?
Arejay: He wanted me to spin my sticks and flip them up in the air while recording. I mean, he also didn’t want me to break any overhead mics. [laughs] But he wanted me to get into it—shake my head and throw my hands in the air and stand up if I had to. He just wanted me to bring the energy.
A lot of producers will want you to play a different way [from how you do live], and I understand that. Playing in the studio is a totally different dynamic. In my experience, you need to ease up off the cymbals and dig more into the toms, because [otherwise] they’re going to get buried in the mix.
MD: Did you make any adjustments to the kit in the studio?
Arejay: Here’s a trick, and it’s something that we’re proud of having done on Vicious. We took the bottom heads off the toms and miked them from underneath. This really helped to bring all the sounds out of the kit. If you listen to any record, the first things to get swallowed up in the mix are the toms. And we definitely noticed that when we were getting the mixes back after tracking. At first we were a bit disappointed because the toms would disappear. But eventually we really hammered our guy that mixed Vicious, Chris Lord-Alge, to make sure the toms were there. And he delivered. But miking the toms that way really isolated them so they weren’t picking up so much wash from the cymbals, snare, or kick. When we’d listen to a take and solo the toms, we could barely hear the other voices. And then when I’d hit the tom, you could hear it so clearly. The toms just popped out.
So thanks to that, I could bring a little more energy to the recording. At the same time, I was trying to keep in mind proper techniques of recording, because, you know, a lot of the great drummers are able to bring the energy and use proper technique at the same time. But in this case, the objective was to bring as much live energy to the record as possible.
MD: Could you describe that idea of proper studio technique?
Arejay: When you’re in a recording environment, you automatically think and play a little bit differently. You’re focused more on getting the parts right and making every stroke count. We try to do that live, too. But in a live setting, it’s more of a performance. Everybody is listening to each other and playing to each other, and I feel like there’s more space for dynamics. With every record that we’ve done, I felt like I had to make sure every stroke was consistently played with the same intensity. And with this record, there was a lot more experimenting with dynamics.
And this kind of touches on my beef with modern rock drumming—a lot of times, it can be so boring and linear. Basically, [it’s] all the same level, intensity, and sound. If you listen to a lot of modern rock records, you can hear that everything is sample-stacked—there’s the same reproduced snare sample every time that the drummer hits the snare or plays a fill.
That kind of thing works for some bands. But we just wanted to make a very real and organic-sounding record. And I think that people are kind of screaming for that now, especially in the rock world. So we just wanted to throw a wrench in the gears and make a really great-sounding record that works on radio, while still evolving.
MD: Have you used some of those stacked samples in the past?
Arejay: I mean, of course. [laughs] Especially with our first two records—our self-titled album and The Strange Case Of…—they were done like that. But keep in mind, this was back in 2007, 2008, when we were making our first record, and I think it was 2011 or 2012 when we made our second record. It was a different time. That stuff was relevant, and we were a new band. We hadn’t proven ourselves yet. Although I think that we definitely had proved our worth as a live band—we got signed as a live band. But when we wanted to make our first record, we were terrible songwriters.
So there was a lot of cowriting and preproduction. And we also were so inexperienced in the studio…. I’m very grateful to this day that Howard Benson produced our first record, because he had his “set way” of making an album. He was the ultimate producer for new bands who had no idea what they were doing. It was like studio training working with him, his team, and Mike Plotnikoff, who’s an incredible engineer and producer with an amazing ear. I’d say that Howard’s team was the reason that our first two records came to be.
And when we wanted to make Into the Wild Life, that was the first time that we wanted to experiment with someone that came from a different background. So we worked with Jay Joyce, who was great because he came from more of an alternative side. That album was a lot more experimental. We tried a bunch of different techniques and instruments. We used synths, acoustic guitars, piano…. And also what I like about that album is that it flows from front to back, like one complete musical piece.
I love the way it turned out, but when we toured on that record, we were kind of getting people at shows saying, “I love this record, but you guys have so much more intensity live.” So after all those experiences, when we sat down with Nick for Vicious, we agreed that we wanted to capture that intensity from our live show.
MD: Did you switch out any drums during the recording process? The drum sound on “White Dress” stands out.
Arejay: We used mostly the same kit throughout the record. Nick has an old Slingerland bass drum that’s just decrepit. It’s got this hideous black wrap, and it looks like a total piece of shit. But it sounds amazing. [laughs] The wood fibers are so dense that it just has this snap. Its attack sounds so good. So we used that same kick drum for the whole record.
We also used a Gretsch Bell Brass snare. It’s the same snare that Nick used with Sean Kinney on Alice in Chains’ Black Gives Way to Blue, another incredible album that he made, and one of my favorite records.
And some of the toms that we used on the record were actually given to Nick by Neil Peart. So that was cool. I got to play Sean Kinney’s snare, Neil Peart’s toms, and this old, piece-of-crap Slingerland kick drum—and it all sounded great! [laughs] I swapped out a bunch of cymbals, too. I had some different Zildjian EFX cymbals, a bunch of weird, trashy sounds that I was stacking, and some cool splash cymbals with holes in them.
Drums: Pearl Reference Series
A. 6.5×13 snare
B. 6×10 Popcorn snare
C. 14×14 floor tom
D. 18×6 Rocket tom
E. 8×12 rack tom
F. 16×16 floor tom
G. 21×6 Rocket tom
H. 18×24 bass drum
1. 13″ A Pocket hi-hats
2. 14″ Oriental China “Trash”
3. 17″ K Custom Hybrid China
4. 21″ A Sweet Ride (brilliant) with 7.5″ Volcano Cup Zil-Bel on top
5. 18″ A Heavy crash
6. 14″ A Custom EFX crash
7. 18″ A Heavy crash
8. 9″ Zil-Bel
9. 9″ Oriental “Trash” splash
10. 18″ Oriental China “Trash”
Percussion: Latin Percussion Mini Timbales and Classic Rock Ridge Rider cowbell
Sticks: Vater VGS5BW Gospel Series 5B
Heads: Evans, including EC Reverse Dot snare batter with a Hazy 500 resonant, Onyx tom batters, EMAD bass drum batter with EQ3 Smooth White resonant, and System Blue series batters on Rocket Toms and mini timbales
MD: Could you talk a little about your live setup?
Arejay: My setup has kind of morphed and evolved over the years. Little by little I started to adjust my kit so that it’s good for my posture, joints, back, and muscles, so I’m not destroying myself every night. But everything is spread out so I can still take big swings.
I used to have two floor toms on my right side, and then I swapped one out to the left. It’s nice to break up some of the responsibility of having to move to [only] one side to do a roll down the toms. I can go right, or I can go left. And I tried to lead with my left hand on the hi-hat. After a while, that became more comfortable, so I threw my ride on my left side too. [laughs] Switching lead hands helps share the load of the impact that I’m getting on certain limbs and joints.
I’ve been with Pearl for maybe five or six years. They’re all cool and accommodating, and we’ve become close personally, which is the biggest thing for me. The same relationship goes for Zildjian, Vater, Evans, and Latin Percussion. I’m blown away that they want me to represent their products.
MD: On “White Dress” you play a fast ghost-note pattern in the verses. Is there anything you worked on to develop that difference in dynamics between louder and softer strokes?
Arejay: You know, it’s funny that you mention that. Here’s another thing about Nick: he’s the first producer that I ever worked with that didn’t discourage ghost notes. [laughs] I feel like every producer in the world hates ghost notes. Like, “Why are you playing that stuff? Just play the snare.” I’ve talked to other drumming friends of mine, [and they’ve told me] the producer will put a giant sign up in a live room that says, “No f**king ghost strokes!” or something. [laughs] And I remember seeing a picture of that and thinking, God, that’s so sad.
But when I worked with Nick, he wanted me to add those and said, “Play those ghost notes a little bit louder.” And if you listen to the song, in the verses of “White Dress,” you’re right, there’s a tight little ghost-note pattern. I was originally playing a simple beat, with 8th notes on the hi-hat, which has become one of my favorite things to do. I don’t know why, but I think it’s because over the past couple years I’ve just developed this insane love for hip-hop. Warming up to hip-hop has solidified so much of my playing and timing.
So going into making this record, I wanted to provide some of those elements within our sound. Again, I was just getting so bored with modern rock drumming. So when I warm up to Yelawolf, Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, or some old Run-DMC or NWA, that helps me get in a solid mindset tempo-wise. But I wanted to bring some of those fresh flavors and different techniques to rock music. I think that rock needs more of a melting pot like that, or different elements coming into it. A lot of times in big choruses, you have to play wide-open, washy cymbals, and stuff like that. But I felt like in verses and bridges, I could experiment with weird, trippy, almost trap beats.
You’ll hear that in the verse of “White Dress,” and you’ll also hear it a lot in the song “Do Not Disturb.” That song was really fun to play because it’s a simple, solid beat with a lot of cool ghost strokes, and a lot of weird, trippy fills that land on 2 or the “&” of 2.
MD: Would you say that your recording mindset has evolved compared to past albums?
Arejay: When I go back and listen to our old records, I just cringe because my playing seems so simple and dumb. But I think that’s probably part of the reason that we got here. We needed to make records that were very spacious and that fit into the mold of modern-rock radio at that time. Our first album came out ten years ago. So at that time on rock radio, it was Nickelback, Theory of a Deadman, Shinedown, and all the bands that we toured with. They were burning up the radio, and we had to fit in there somewhere.
I mean, our first single was a song called “I Get Off,” for f**k’s sake. [laughs] It was around a time where “stripper rock” was the big thing. So we wrote this song called “I Get Off,” which had more of a metaphorical meaning. It really talks about how much we enjoy playing live, and we say, “I get off” on that, kind of in a tongue-in-cheek way. But then, everybody on the business end thought, “This is perfect. This is a song about sex. It’ll sell!” [laughs] But I have no regrets because that was the song that kind of launched us. You can’t bite the hand that feeds, and you can’t complain.
MD: You guys seem to be on a consistent, three-year release schedule.
Arejay: Well, I think this record was more of an exception. We definitely put more time into this one than we did for any other one, partially because we feel like we’re at a point now that if we half-ass it, then it’s going to be a huge disappointment. So with me, I’ll never want to put a record out that I don’t absolutely love front-to-back, and I don’t want any weak points.
But we also kind of dug our own graves, because now we’re kind of notoriously known as a live band, and that’s been our strongest suit and our bread and butter. So when we put a record out, we’re on the road constantly. And we feel very lucky that we get to go to so many different countries. We’re doing the States, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan…we’re going all over the place. So I think a lot of the reason that there’s so much space between records is because there are so many places that we need to play several times to make sure that everybody gets to come out.
It’s a totally different world now than it used to be. You used to go on tour to promote your record and sell records. Now that music is free, you make a record to promote your tour and concert sales. So it’s kind of done a complete 180. I think that’s a big reason that the album cycle is so much longer now than it used to be. In the past, you could put a record out every single year, tour for six months, and sell a bunch of albums. Now the only way that bands can make an income is from touring. We don’t make money from music sales anymore.
MD: Does that model bother you?
Arejay: It doesn’t, because we’re so used to being on the road. My entire life has been out of a suitcase, since I was ten years old. I feel like such a freak sometimes, because I don’t know how to settle in. Sometimes I won’t even unpack after I come home from a tour. But the good thing is that not only do we have immediate family in the band, but Joe and Josh are practically my brothers at this point, and even our crew—we’re all one big traveling family.
MD: Do you have more of a positive outlook on the effect that streaming services have had on the music business?
Arejay: Absolutely. I think that anyone who’s bitter about the way the music business is evolving is shooting themselves in the foot, because they’re not accepting that that’s the direction everything’s going. We’re always going to be evolving and moving up and out. And music genres are always going to evolve.
I see a lot of new artists bypassing the traditional ways of making music. You make a record, put it out there, promote it yourself, and book your own shows. I know so many bands, especially out here in L.A., that are doing it on their own. And they’re doing well. And sometimes you can get noticed by the right people and take it somewhere huge. So I think it’s a great medium for artists to get their music out.
MD: Do you enjoy that touring lifestyle?
Arejay: I really do, but you take the good with the bad. You have to enjoy everything. I really try to be conscious of keeping a good headspace when I’m on the road, because you can so easily just fall into focusing on all the negative aspects, like the lack of sleep, the malnutrition, the constant traveling, time-zone changes, being away from home and loved ones…. That can get really hard after a while.
In our lifestyle, the people and the fans that see it from the outside, they only see us performing on stage, or they hear the music, hear us doing interviews, and see us having a good time. And those are all the fun parts. We enjoy the work. But what they don’t see is the twenty-three other hours of just draining, grueling work that goes into it.
MD: How do you stay in a positive mindset on the road?
Arejay: If you don’t take care of yourself physically, you can fall into a negative headspace and become discouraged to keep going. You can start to feel resentful toward traveling, touring, and playing shows. Now that touring has become the main part of the job, you need to be able to tour for ten months out of the year for three years straight. And the best way to do that is to take care of your health.
Luckily I have two guys in L.A. to talk to—Mark Goodwin from Sick Puppies, and John Bach from the band Mount Holly, who gigs all over L.A. We get together and talk about this stuff often. We’ve all concluded that the best way to stay healthy is to not smoke on tour, to take it easy on the drinking, and to diet and exercise.
You know, it’s like we’ve gone from cocaine, booze, and rock ’n’ roll to gym day-passes, health shakes, and rock ’n’ roll. [laughs] But I see so many bands that don’t maintain their health and that just can’t keep up with the rigorous touring schedule. They’ll roll into the venue looking miserable because they’ve been driving all night, and all they had to eat was truck-stop food and McDonald’s.
Now that we depend so much on live shows to make a living—and not only for ourselves but for everybody on our team—there’s so much riding on us being able to perform. And if we can’t perform, then that means that everybody is out of work. There’s a lot riding on that. So that’s just something that Mark, John, and I are big advocates of—we want to make sure that up-and-coming bands know that you can really burn yourself out. And if you want to do it for the long run, then you really have to stay healthy.
MD: Do you get a chance to practice on the road?
Arejay: I do. Lately I’ve been focusing on my chops and rudiments. I’ll practice rudiments along with a metronome and slowly increase the speed until they feel smooth. Or I’ll listen to hip-hop or electronic music and play along to the songs on a pad. That helps me not only with my chops and timing, but also with the fluidity of going between different rudiments—going from five-stroke rolls to paradiddles to flam paradiddles, to all the different diddles out there. [laughs]
And for me, electronic music, hip-hop, or alternative four-on-the-floor stuff is good for me to warm up to because it’s very steady tempo-wise. So when I’m going in and out of the rudiments, the tempo is consistent. It’s a challenge, because with certain rudiments you want to speed up or slow down. If you’re doing it to a set tempo, then that keeps everything solid and spaced out nicely.
MD: Was there a specific point when you were coming up when you decided that you were really going to take music seriously?
Arejay: Oh, boy. I mean, you’re right that there are those moments. But the thing is, I think that there have just been a lot of them. [laughs] When we first got signed, the first of two shows that we did was at this venue called the Machine Shop in Flint, Michigan, which is kind of a famous venue for up-and-coming bands. It’s like the place to go in Flint.
We were opening up for Seether and a band called Dark New Day, and that was the first show where I got really nervous. I never used to get nervous before a show, but that was the first time where I thought, The heat is on. We [had] just got signed to Atlantic Records, and this was our first show—what if people didn’t like us? [laughs] And it’s funny because I was never that guy. I never cared what anybody thought. But this was the first time in my career where I actually cared. And we played the show and everybody loved it. And that was when it was like, All right, I think we’re doing the right thing here—now we’re starting to get it.
At the second show, we were opening up for Shinedown at this festival called Summerfest in Milwaukee. And I thought the same thing: What if they hate us? Thank God our team—our record label, management, and booking agent at the time—had seen us plenty of times in New York. We’d been showcasing for all these people for a year or longer in New York, and they kept saying, “We should talk to you guys about doing a deal.” We’d get excited, and then they’d say, “Actually, we need you to do another show.” We did so many showcases, but luckily they saw something in us that we probably didn’t, and they felt confident enough that as soon as they signed us, they said, “Let’s put them in front of some audiences—the people will love them.” So we got really lucky there.
It’s just been one slow milestone after the next. And I think there’s a misconception that a lot of bands have. They think that there’s one moment that they go from nothing to blowing up. In some cases that does happen. But for us, before we tried to get signed, we wanted to get really good at our craft. So it’s just been a slow and steady path the whole time.