Dave Elitch

Studious, worldly, insightful, yet betraying an appealing quality of easygoing dudeness that draws you into his world, Antemasque’s drummer is the kind of guy you want on your team. Especially if your team is out for rock ’n’ roll blood.

Story by Adam Budofsky
Photos by Alex Solca

Few double bills pack as much of a punch as the Le Butcherettes/Antemasque show that blew through Brooklyn Bowl late last year. Modern Drummer was somewhat prepared for the onslaught of sound. Teri Gender Bender, leader of Le Butcherettes, has received much coverage for her gutsy, poetic garage rock and even more attention for her incendiary stage show. And Antemasque being the latest project of Mars Volta founders Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, you know that’s going to be an exercise in extreme sonic intensity. Neither act dashed the New York crowd’s expectations—though you’re never quite prepared for just how hard the extended Volta family rocks when it takes the stage.

Dave Elitch has been a member of that inner circle of fire since touring with the Mars Volta in 2009 following Thomas Pridgen’s exit, and if there’s a drummer who can bring the tension and release required of the Antemasque gig, it’s him. Steeped in concentration, alternately locked on some secret target in the front row or on one of his bandmates on stage, the drummer looks like he could erupt at any moment. Sometimes he nearly does, and it’s a miracle his gear doesn’t collapse beneath the attack. Well, it would be a miracle, if Elitch hadn’t spent years in the woodshed learning just how to balance passion and control. In Antemasque’s world, it’s a chop that’s as important as a clean single-stroke roll. Maybe even more.

Watching and listening to Elitch reminds you just how smart rock ’n’ roll drumming can be, and how true musical intelligence transcends style. In the past few years he’s elevated not only Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez’s progressive punk but also
the powerhouse metal of supergroup Killer Be Killed and the gleaming modern pop of M83 and Miley Cyrus. Lately he’s also put his stamp on some Hollywood soundtrack work, double drumming with Victor Indrizzo on the St. Vincent score and with Jeff Friedl for Insurgent. Perusing his résumé, it begins
to make a lot of sense that Elitch has a great rep as an educator who’s particularly ace at helping pro drummers take their art to the
next level. MD came looking for a little of that rhythmic illumination as Antemasque was preparing for some mid-winter festival work overseas and the release of its second album.

MD: In performance you look incredibly focused, but at the same time there’s a kind of wildness bubbling below the surface. Is that something you’re conscious of?

Dave: In high school I’d play along to Buddy Rich, Art Blakey, and Mahavishnu Orchestra, but at the same time I’d also be listening to Meshuggah and Pantera and Tool, and I got into those compressed, slammed snare drum sounds. I was trying to create the same sort of sound I was hearing on those records, so I ended up having a pretty heavy left hand because I was just trying to get it to sound the same, though I didn’t know about compression or any of that stuff back then.

I also grew up playing along to Sevendust, Deftones, all of the late-’90s heavy/alt music that was popular then. I was huge into Morgan Rose and Shannon Larkin, and not only did I like the records, but I’d go and see them and they’d put on a show. I wanted to be visually entertaining too, so around 2006, 2007, when I was in the band Daughters of Mara, I’d videotape myself practicing the tunes. I’d think to myself, I’m gonna go nuts this time, and then I’d watch the video back and think, There’s really no discernable difference here. [laughs] I realized then that the amount of extra energy you have to put in to make it visually obvious is much greater than you’d ever think it would be. So it was a conscious thing back then, but now I don’t think about it much. It’s just become how I play.

There are a few drum-cam videos of me playing with the Mars Volta in Australia, and I’m having a pretty good time. There’s one of “Goliath,” which got a fair amount of attention, so I recently posted the remainder of the show. If I like the music I’m playing, I really get into it and start standing up and beating the hell out of everything.

Conversely, when I played with Miley, I had to think about so many different things—hitting the right pad at the correct time, production, visual cues, etc. Plus no one could see me, so it didn’t matter. I didn’t go that crazy in M83 either; I was just making sure I played all the parts right and the band gelled. With that said, there are definitely times when I consciously go nuts, so it’s cool playing with Omar and Cedric, because they make an effort to put on a show as well, and I’m able to feed off that energy.

MD: Sometimes a drummer can go so far with the onstage antics that it’s distracting.

Dave: Sure, that’s why I don’t spin my sticks or anything. I always thought that was super-goofy-looking. [laughs] But I do channel that emotion that made me like heavy music in the first place.

MD: In a previous interview, you said one of the things you like about the way Stacy Jones plays is that he hits hard but still grooves. Did you ever focus on that in your own playing?

Dave: Yeah, Stacy could be playing a ballad and just be crushing it, but it still feels good. He’s got a nice lope to his playing. That’s hard to pull off. He’s played in arenas forever, which has something to do with it. But you don’t want to go off too hard and have it adversely affect your sound and feel. That’s the whole reason those Mars Volta drum-cam videos exist. I would set up a camera at every show and go back to my hotel room afterwards and watch the video for the express purpose of that. I would notice that I jumped off my throne there and everything stiffened up, or my time got wonky somehow. Even if you’re playing to a click, your time can still stiffen up.

MD: You’ve developed a great reputation as a teacher. Let’s talk about your own drum education.

Dave: I studied with Jason Gianni between sixteen and twenty years old. I grew up in Sebastopol, California, which is an hour or so north of San Francisco, and he was living in the Bay Area at the time. Jason was cool enough to drive up to my mom’s house every two weeks, and he’d hang for two or three hours—super-generous with his time. We went through all the Syncopation and Alan Dawson stuff, The New Breed, polyrhythms, Latin stuff…. Jason can teach anything, and he opened a lot of doors for me. There’s a Remo video of me demonstrating some warm-up techniques on a pad, and I do this French finger thing. Everybody freaks out over that video, and Jason showed me how to do it back in the day.


MD: Did you have other influential teachers?

Dave: I studied with a couple other teachers up there—Eric Weidenheimer was my first teacher, Rob Matteri after that, and this dude Dominick Godino, who’s a jazz guy who had good traditional grip, so I got that from him. I took a lesson with Mike Mangini when I was seventeen, during a five-week summer performance program that I did to see if I wanted to go to Berklee. So I kind of just took bits and pieces from people.

MD: You mentioned traditional grip. Were there specific things you wanted to get out of it?

Dave: I grew up playing a lot of jazz, but I always played it matched. Obviously I saw dudes playing traditional, but I thought it was antiquated and not super-useful. Then, several years ago I started having people ask me to teach it to them. When you’re playing traditional, your hand is underneath the stick and you’re cradling it, and it’s a much lighter, more delicate sound. So I ended up working on traditional grip because if I switch over I don’t have to think about not doing rimshots—I just hit the drum and it’s right in the center. If I’m doing a vibey thing that’s low volume, I don’t want to do rimshots. Playing a vintage drum with tape all over it, tuned down super-low, you don’t want to do rimshots, because it won’t sound good. You want to hit right
in the center.

So, as I was teaching I would play traditional all day—I don’t play that much when I teach; I mostly listen and talk—but after about a year or two it started to feel comfortable. It was a very slow, gradual build, but now I can play it pretty comfortably, and it’s become another tool in my belt.

MD: How about other grips?

Dave: I’ve tried everything over the years, and I’ve formulated my approach by taking what works from others and leaving what doesn’t. It all comes from learning how the body functions physiologically, physics, energy, and nature. Once you tap into these paths of least resistance, you’ll feel it and it will all unfold in front of you.

My grip is nothing revolutionary. It’s sort of similar to a Chuck Brown thing, like Bozzio and Mangini do. It’s not super-common, but to me it makes the most sense. I don’t have to ever change it. I mean, if I’m really slamming, my left stick will move in between my first and second knuckles of my index finger out of necessity, because I need more reinforcement to handle the extra energy coming back at me.

Something that I drill into people is that you work really hard in the shed, and when you play music, just play music. I don’t care if you’re holding the stick like a hammer, just play music and be in the moment. If you think about technique while you’re creating something, it defeats the purpose.

MD: We recently ran a picture of Greg Saunier of Deerhoof where I’m not sure how the stick is staying in his hand.

Dave: I couldn’t have come up with a better example of this concept. I saw Deerhoof when I was playing with Volta at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in England in 2009. I had never seen them before, and I was like, What is going on here? Saunier’s this lanky dude sitting way too low, and everything’s positioned strangely—he’s doing everything “wrong,” but it sounds awesome. So in the end it’s about what you’re creating in the moment. If something gets screwed up and you’re not super-efficient, who cares? You work on it and you do the best you can.

MD: Let’s talk about the bass drum/snare drum relationship. On the Killer Be Killed record, there’s a point to the bass drum sound, which marries it to the snare in a really nice way.

Dave: It’s funny, I grew up playing a ton of double bass. I would spend hours in my mother’s garage like I was in the gym, counting reps. I’d count a hundred reps on each cymbal—I had a lot of cymbals back then—and I’d do 16th notes for like an hour, just trying to get my speed up. But when I started working in L.A. years later, none of the gigs required double bass. So until I did the Killer Be Killed stuff, I hadn’t used double bass in years. I’m sitting there tracking the record like, My God—my left foot sucks. I had to build that back up for sure. Creatively, I don’t really hear double bass in my head anymore, and I didn’t want to just be doing those lame quad fills all the time. I think there’s one typical quad fill on that record, but I really went out of my way to not do that. People have been doing that for forty years; it’s old and played out.

But in terms of the kick drum/snare relationship, that’s the meat and potatoes of heavier music. I guess you could say that about all styles, but especially in heavier music. I’m always listening to the guitar and trying to go off what that rhythm is, and if there are vocals I’ll play off them as well. When I did the Killer Be Killed record there were no vocals yet, so I was just trying to stay out of the way as much as possible for whatever the vocals were going to end up being.

MD: Who are some of your favorite players in terms of their bass drum/snare work?

Dave: Abe Cunningham has a beautiful way of coming up with these lyrical, hooky, cool beats. He’s one of my all-time favorites. There are so many Deftones songs where you can hear just the drum patterns and know what the song is. Jason Gerken from the band Shiner is another of my favorites.

MD: I’m not familiar with him.

Dave: Not a lot of people are, but you should check out this record called The Egg. That’s the reason I had DW build me an acrylic kit, because he played a Vistalite kit on that record and I just lost my mind over it. He’s kind of the archetype for me when someone says, “He plays a lot of interesting stuff but doesn’t get in the way.” Most of the time when people say that, it totally does get in the way and it’s super-obnoxious, but he comes up with the coolest unorthodox grooves and fills, and it really doesn’t get in the way at all.

MD: What do you think drummers worry too much about?

Dave: Drum shit. [laughs] Drummy stuff. Weirdly enough, once I started focusing on my drum tones about ten years ago…you start to pay attention to how the tones fit into a song and why those choices were made in the first place, and then you start thinking about the song and its structure, and then all of a sudden you think about the lyrics and how everything’s fitting together. When you take a step back, all of a sudden you’re a musician.

I think drummers have this huge tendency—myself included, for a long time—to think about everything from a drummer’s perspective. Not always listening to things from a drummer’s perspective is valuable and can be difficult to do. That’s why someone like Steve Jordan works all the time, because he doesn’t think like a drummer; he thinks like a producer.

MD: What was the concept going into the recording of the Antemasque album?

Dave: Omar and Cedric and I saw eye to eye in terms of writing the songs and recording them quickly—sometimes immediately. Usually I only played the song once. Sometimes we’d comp two takes together. I’m playing a tiny kit, tuned down and taped up, and it was just about getting the vibe of the three of us in the room. Sometimes Cedric would be doing scratch vocals in the room with us and it’s bleeding into my drum take. Pretty low-fi garage-rock vibes.

MD: What are your thoughts on fills?

Dave: If you’re playing a fill every two bars, they don’t have a purpose any longer. I like it when I’m playing for the song and then do a fill where it wasn’t expected, and they’re thinking, What was that?

When we were playing in Germany, the Intersphere opened up for us, and their drummer, Moritz Müller, was incredible. I felt a connection to his approach. You’d never know what he’s capable of, then every once in a while he’d throw in a fill and you’re like, What the…!

Mario Calire is one of my best friends, and last night we were talking about the plethora of people doing the Bonham thing now. The whole point of making music and doing art is “This is me—this is how I interpret things,” not “Hey, I’m doing the Bonham thing!” It seems so obvious to me, but I don’t see a lot of people…I mean, my whole life I’ve tried to do something unique.

MD: You mentioned Bonham copycats and I immediately thought of the Bonzo Bash.

Dave: Oh, God, what a nightmare. [laughs]


MD: But it’s cool to honor the greats, right? Is the problem a lack of people taking his ideas further?

Dave: That’s what I’m saying. Bonham already did it; I don’t want to hear your impression. And it’s not about certain drummers not being great players, it’s about who are you? I mean, I get the same feeling listening to “Fool in the Rain” as anyone else does, but no one else is going to do that as well as he did, so let it be. You’ll do it more justice by not dragging it through the mud. Stop it. I’d much rather see someone attempt some new thing and fall flat on his face than rehash old stuff. Don’t even get me started on that YouTube cover video nonsense!

MD: Are you being too hard on people?

Dave: No! [laughs] No, this stuff has bothered me since I was a little kid, so I don’t feel bad about saying any of this. And for that matter, I might be harsh on people, but I’m also harsh on myself. I have very high standards, and I think you have to have high standards to be good at anything. A small amount of OCD doesn’t hurt either. [laughs]

MD: You’re known for teaching some established pros. Do you sometimes have to negotiate egos?

Dave: With the people I’m friendly with, it’s never been difficult, but that possibility still exists. People like Dominic Howard from Muse, Eric Hernandez from Bruno Mars, Jason Sutter, Stacy Jones, Jeremy Stacey, Mario Calire, Michael Miley from Rival Sons—these dudes are good friends of mine, so it actually takes more on their end to say, “I know we’re good friends, but I’m going to be respectful and we’re going to
do this thing and do it right.” Because it can get brutal.

I mean, I’m not dismantling these people—well, sometimes I am, actually—but I’m trying to make it constructive, and it can be difficult at times, depending on the person. And these people have lived so much and done so much work that they understand what it is to do that. There have definitely been times when I’ve taught people that I don’t know, and they go, “This is really hard,” and then they never come back.

It just takes time. You’re reprogramming all these neural pathways and synaptic connections. The hardest thing you can do as a human being is to unlearn something. You’ve made these giant freeways of neural networks that are deeply embedded, and you’re trying to make these tiny new little pathways into the main arteries to be called upon. That requires a great deal of time, sensitivity, and incredible focus.

MD: What about when you teach younger players? Do you have strong feelings about when you should start working on certain things—grip, for instance?

Dave: It’s changed a lot as I’ve taught more—I’ve been teaching for fifteen years—and I’ve relaxed a lot about it. I don’t teach as many beginners as I used to, but when I do teach someone starting out I say, “This is how you hold a stick. Do the best you can, and every once in a while we’ll check back in.” We’ll dive in when they’re ready for it.

MD: Ideally, how much time in a day should be spent practicing?

Dave: I’m a big proponent of spending a small amount of time on something but being incredibly focused, taking breaks when you need to, and being goal oriented. A lot of people are time oriented, for instance: “I’m going to practice for three hours.” That’s totally arbitrary—what you get done in three hours might take five hours for someone else. It needs to be goal and task oriented. For example, “I’m going to get my single strokes up to 100 beats per minute and get them super-solid. Then I’m going to get page 16 in The New Breed up to 120. Then I get to play along to some songs and have fun to reward myself.”

Another thing is, don’t spread yourself too thin—maybe two or three topics total. Bite-size things. I’ll tell people, “Work on this for five minutes, go have a sandwich, and come back and do five more minutes.” You’ll make a ton of progress that way. I’ve heard people say, “I’m working on my double strokes and watching a movie.” How crazy is that? Now they’re managing to do two things poorly—they’re not doing their double strokes well, and they’re not watching a movie well. So a lot of this stuff is about how you practice, not what you practice.

MD: Is part of being a successful student learning to be comfortable sounding bad at something for a while?

Dave: Yeah, that’s everything. That’s what separates the men from the boys, as they say. Obviously your natural ability plays into it; some people get it faster than others. But if you have a good work ethic, you’ll always surpass those who have a natural ability but no work ethic.

MD: You need to have a great amount of trust in your teacher that the time spent will be worth it.

Dave: Sure. You have to see the look on some of these people’s faces—that’s how you hold the stick? Now, I had teachers who were like, “Do it this way,” and I’d ask why. “Just do it!” “Oh, okay…” So whenever I go through this stuff with people, I make it a point to say, “Here’s how you’re currently doing it, and these are the reasons why it doesn’t make sense.” I never use the word wrong or right. I say, “This is why the way you’re doing it is much less efficient than the way I’m doing it. You could go the rest of your life doing it your way, but you’ll be getting five miles per gallon instead of thirty, or you could injure yourself.”

MD: How has teaching served your playing?

Dave: To be a better teacher I have to think about different ways to convey things, because the way it makes sense to you might not be someone else’s first inclination. The more I teach, the more perspectives I have on my relationship to the instrument. As cliché as it sounds, I learn just as much from my students as they learn from me.

MD: What are the most common themes you work on with drummers?

Dave: I can’t tell you how many drummers’ grip and time are good enough but they’re not emoting anything. And that’s because they’re not going for a sound. They’ve never thought about what the snare drum sounds like. Most people come in and are hitting it two inches south of where they should be hitting it, or they’re not doing a rimshot. The snare drum is the life force of the song. I put my whole existence into every backbeat. That’s why I love Steve Jordan so much. Everything that dude plays on sounds good, and he has so many different ideas of what good is.

But the number-one thing I see that I need to correct, especially with pros, is hitting cymbals and snare drums as if they’re several inches farther away from where they actually are. I always try to make sure my stroke is where it’s supposed to be. I’m not pushing through something—that’s not going to sound good, and you break things that way.

MD: Are there areas of drumming that you feel aren’t being served by drum books, DVDs, schools, magazines, and so on?

Dave: That’s a good question. I think I can address that globally, and this is coming from my being an educator. With all of these forms of education available these days—including some random video that some random person made on YouTube—you must question the source. You have some people teaching jazz like it’s sixty years ago, which defeats the purpose of jazz entirely. The whole point of jazz is to push boundaries and be constantly evolving. You have guys saying, “Here’s the swing pattern; play the hi-hat on 2 and 4….” and then you listen to a current guy like Jim Black or Dan Weiss or Mark Guiliana or Dave King, and those guys couldn’t be further from that. I think there’s a massive disconnect there.

I always shy away from the words expert, master, and guru, because the more you learn, the more you realize you have no idea what’s going on. And the more you search, the more you realize that it’s an endless endeavor for knowledge.

Dave’s Setup

Drums: DW Maple/Mahogany
A. 6.5×14 prototype thick-shell bell brass snare in shipwreck finish
B. 8×13 tom
C. 16×16 floor tom
D. 15×24 bass drum

Cymbals: Sabian
1. 15″ Artisan hi-hats
2. 22″ prototype crash
3. 24″ HHX Legacy Heavy ride
4. 21″ prototype crash

Sticks: Vic Firth 5B or Rock model

Heads: Remo, including Coated Emperor or CS snare batter and Hazy Ambassador bottom, Clear or Coated Emperor tom batters and Clear Ambassador bottoms, and Clear Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter

Hardware: DW 9000 and 6000 series