Since answering a drummer-wanted Craigslist ad that listed influences from Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath to Public Image Ltd. and Can, BJ Miller has proven the ideal rhythm generator for his band.
The L.A.-based group Health’s sound could be neatly represented by a Venn diagram of riff -, dance-, indie-, and noise-rock, and BJ Miller’s detailed slugging easily betrays the influences of his older siblings’ Public Enemy and Faith No More records—but also, in its open-mindedness, the jazz piano that his father would play at home.
“My earliest understanding of drums came from Steven Adler, Mike Bordin, and the Beastie Boys, peppered with Art Blakey and Buddy Rich,” Miller tells Modern Drummer. “But it was John Bonham, Dave Grohl, and Danny Carey who most influenced my style of drumming. Ginger Baker, too—we have the same birthday, after all.”
Perhaps even more influential on the young drummer, however, was his mother. “She taught me to persevere and unwittingly led me towards drums in the first place,” Miller says, recalling how she insisted he make use of his older brother’s abandoned Remo drum pad and sticks. Following a blazing paradiddle demo by his band director, the kid was hooked. “I knew right then I had to be able to play one just as fast; every time I use paraparadiddles in ‘Men Today,’” he says, “I still think of that lesson.”
We caught up with Miller as Health was in the midst of its North American tour.
MD: What’s the band’s rehearsal process like leading up to a tour?
BJ: When we started, Health would almost over-practice. We were so obsessed with getting our crazy math-balls, start-stoppy, esoteric noise-rock tighter and tighter that we had ourselves in the practice space at least four days a week the whole year. These days, once we have a set dialed in we can just add new stuff to the mix.
MD: How do you maintain the stamina to play some of Health’s more intense parts live?
BJ: I come from an athletic family, and since the days of waking up at 5 A.M. to lift weights for high school baseball, I’ve been used to exercising regularly. At the beginning my lifestyle followed the typical [hard-partying] mode of touring musicians. These days I’ve given up drinking— for a year and a half now—which has made an undeniable difference in my endurance behind the drums. I also try to ride a bike, jog, and swim a couple times a week, which laying off the booze has encouraged even more.
As far as techniques go, I’m by no means an expert on the Moeller method, but I do more or less whip the drumsticks, and try to imagine pulling the sound out of the drums. I bury the bass drum beater, which can be a little tiring, so lately I’ve tried to focus on just the right amount of pressure there, especially when it’s a blast beat or something fast.
Before playing I have a variety of go-to stretches, like hands out in front of you, palms down, and then rotating your palms away from each other. I take a bungee cord with me on the road and tie it to a door handle or a rail and do baseball warm-ups. I wasn’t always so prepared over the years, and I paid the price with tendinitis, a sprained hand, and tennis elbow. On that note, I never leave home without compression gloves and sleeves. And the obvious, ice after the show. If I’m ever trying to recover from an injury, I’ll downsize sticks to a 7A to lessen the strain. You have to listen to those injuries and be humble to the healing process.
Just before the show I try to sit quietly somewhere and slow down my breath. Tightness in the forearms or cramps are about the worst thing that can happen during a set, so I do everything I can to just stay calm before the storm. I’m an avid coffee drinker, which doesn’t help.
The fact that I’m singing backup vocals on half the songs now and have to catch my breath makes the anaerobics that much more challenging. But keeping a healthy lifestyle has made a world of difference. That being said, there’s no shape like show shape. Somehow no matter how good I feel before a tour, it takes a good five shows or so before I really feel up to speed.
MD: What’s the process like adapting Health’s music to a live setting?
BJ: It’s changed considerably over the years. Around Get Color  we started to use tracks from pedals, like the rhythmic synth sound of “Die Slow” or “Death+.” These were the first incarnations of us being track based, and I had to be able to hear the monitor well or everything would be off. So I got professional molded earplugs to make sure I could keep those songs tight. I began to use triggers run through a Roland SPD-S. At the same time, Ableton was getting more crucial to the production and writing process, so we replaced the triggers with plug-ins and I switched to in-ear monitors with count-ins and all. It’s a bit of a leash, but the trick to adapting live drums to Ableton tracks starts with simply playing along until they are memorized like video games you can always win, and each night you’re trying to beat the game again. And when you’re off that leash, go nuts.
BJ Miller plays Mapex drums and Istanbul Agop cymbals, and uses a Pearl Eliminator Demon Drive double bass pedal, Vic Firth 3A sticks, and Evans G2 Coated heads.
Also on the Road
Barry Kerch with Shinedown /// John Tempesta with the Cult /// Martin Axenrot with Opeth /// Matt Abts with Gov’t Mule /// Rhys Hastings with Angel Olsen /// George Kollias with Nile