While most aspiring players spend hours working on hand technique, studying the music of favorite drummers from recordings and videos, and poring over ModernDrummer, all in the hopes of one day landing a spot with an artist of choice, other drummers take a less formulaic approach to achieve positive end results. Fort Worth, Texas, native Mike Mitchell has held the drumming chair with jazz bass wizard Stanley Clarke’s band since 2013. His career path, like the music he makes under the name Blaque Dynamite, follows no formula.
Mitchell began playing drums in Fort Worth’s St. Matthew’s Baptist Church at two years old, and by age eleven he’d already landed several drum endorsements. He attended Dallas’s renowned Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, but before graduation day, Stanley Clarke whisked him away for a world tour, the first of many.
Mitchell has also toured with R&B queen Erykah Badu, as well as such prominent jazz stars as Christian McBride, Christian Scott, Derrick Hodge, and Antonio Hart—he’s even performed with Herbie Hancock. Mike Mitchell is twenty-three years old!
For KillingBugs (Ropeadope), his second release as Blaque Dynamite, the drummer/producer follows his avant-garde instincts. Though he’s accompanied by vocalist/keyboardist Jon Bap (with whom he has recorded extensively) and a large cast of musicians, Mitchell plays many of the instruments himself, and equally well. Spanning rock, hip-hop, jazz, EDM, future-funk, and more, KillingBugs is an uneasy and startling listen. Atmospheric guitar and Latin cowbell derange the flowing fusion groove of “Hypegun.” A lone drum solo directs the mad electronic onslaught of “Clapidgea.” Return to Forever–style funk spins into frenzied hyper-speed in “Frlly.” Prog rock morphs into a gooey robotic drone within “Ayo.” A frenetic drumming free-for-all within a chest-pounding love song barely guides “Dear 5/29/94.” It’s like Chris Dave and the Drumhedz permeating the old-school styles of Frank Zappa, Curtis Mayfield, and Aphex Twin, accompanied by an overworked sample army. Mike Mitchell’s drumming is deadly and deep, yet inextricably entwined with the album’s intense production.
It’s in concert and in the resulting YouTube videos where Mitchell’s drumming creates sensations of shock and awe, the drummer himself often seemingly as in awe as the audience. In one, “Mike Mitchell Stanley Clarke ‘Brazilian Love Affair’ Live,” the drummer opens the George Duke tune after a fill with left-hand rimclicks, a stylized Brazilian bass drum pattern, the hi-hat pedal on the “&” of each beat, and an alternating call-and-response pattern between the tom rim and cymbals with his right hand. Mitchell’s playing is graceful, his groove contagious. His playing is exquisite to watch, like a gazelle at full speed. His touch is lightning quick, his textural inflections perfect. During the piano solo, his left hand switches from matched to traditional grip, slowly ramping up the heat with snare and ride bell accents. Hi-hats go into overdrive, pumping eight to the bar before Mitchell wallops a three-floor-tom combination figure around the 5:20 mark while the pianist creates further agitation by breaking up the measures. Mitchell pushes even harder in response, playing full-set figures over the barline and skull-crushing crashes. Like Vinnie Colaiuta, Mitchell’s long arms act as whips, erupting in snare drum flurries and cascading cymbal accents. The crowd goes nuts.
At the 6:41 mark, the groove turns to funk, and Mitchell switches to a left-side hi-hat stack and snare drum. Finally, around 9:38, he solos over a vamp, blistering his total set in what sounds like triple-speed groupings. His playing is absolutely ferocious, his ideas complex and remarkable, yet he’s grooving hard. Accented figures fly between toms and bass drum, and blazing groupings ricochet from his snare. Then he drops back, with only his bass drum keeping the groove. Playing the song’s form, Mitchell grins mischievously, and then alternates between a full-on funk phrase and manic full-set fills, ultimately coalescing in a barrage of Brazilian rhythmic fury complete with cross-sticking patterns and bar-hurdling illusions. Clarke is smiling, the crowd is whipped, but Mike Mitchell is just getting started.
MD: In your YouTube videos, you seem to surprise yourself with what you’re able to play.
Mike: I want to know what’s possible. That’s why I consider myself a jazz musician, because that’s what jazz is—it’s about surprising yourself all the time.
MD: Why do you play such long solos?
Mike: In Stanley’s band he expects that. This band is about the players, not the music. You learn the music, then express yourself and give the guys a heads-up, so the next guy can express himself.
MD: Do you lean on specific stickings or combinations in solos?
Mike: I play singles, double paradiddles, triple paradiddles, flams, flam taps. If I look at a video, I can explain it, but when I’m playing it’s an out-of-body experience. I’m somewhere else.
MD: Is it easy to enter that state of mind?
Mike: Yes, as soon as I sit down. When I’m playing music I’m not paying attention to what I’m doing myself, I’m more of a reactive player. I’m hearing what the other musicians are playing first. I give a natural reaction without thinking. My playing is about what I’m feeling and what’s going on around me. I’m about supporting the music.
MD: What was your goal for your Killing Bugs album, which you’ve released under your alias, Blaque Dynamite?
Mike: There wasn’t a real goal. The way my friends and I create music, we just try to see how creative we can be. On a lot of the songs, I played instruments other than drums, including keyboards, guitar, and bass, and I sing all of the songs.
When we were making the album we just wanted to create something that we hadn’t heard before. We wanted to make music with the jazz mentality that we can create anything and play over it. It doesn’t matter what style it is, but the whole purpose of being a “jazz guy” is creativity. That was the goal, to be creative and make music we hadn’t heard before.
MD: “Dear 5/29/94” is a love song within a blow-out fusion track. That’s a first.
Mike: I wrote that song about a ridiculous ex-girlfriend who has to stay away from me for the rest of my life. That song is literally about a journey of hatred. Very toxic. Then I have a song called “Ayo,” which is about my actual girlfriend.
MD: You went to a music and arts high school. But you didn’t study music in college?
Mike: I didn’t have the chance. I did the audition for New England Conservatory and was accepted, but then I began touring with Stanley Clarke. I was seventeen. And even before that, I was playing with Christian McBride. When I graduated high school I did a couple gigs with Stanley, and he wanted me to go on tour in South America. I got back home literally in time to walk on stage for my high school graduation.
MD: You’ve played the drums since the age of two; drumming must be like talking for you. But did you spend hours practicing at some point?
Mike: Definitely. I started playing drums at two but I didn’t really begin intensive practicing until I was four.
MD: At the ripe old age of four. How did you even reach the ride cymbal at four?
Mike: I had a Yamaha kit: a 12″ snare, a 10″ rack tom, a 13″ floor tom, a 16″ bass drum, and a couple cymbals. It was small and actually my size. I practiced on that set for years. I would get off school at 3 o’clock and play on the drums until 8.
MD: What did you practice? Did you take lessons?
Mike: I didn’t have any lessons until high school. From age three to thirteen I would practice four to five hours a day, every day.
MD: And what did you practice?
Mike: I’d play to records by artists that I liked. I’d learn their whole catalog. I’d practice Mint Condition, which is Chris Dave and Stokley Williams on drums. Or I’d practice Earth, Wind & Fire, which at the time was Sonny Emory. I was shedding a live Gap Band concert record; the drummer had a double pedal, and that made me want to get one and figure out how to play that.
I also played to a lot of gospel albums. Calvin Rodgers’ records were a huge influence on me. He’s the drumming face of many current gospel records. And gospel musician Myron Butler—his musicians went on to play with Snarky Puppy. That was my childhood.
MD: You eventually met your childhood drumming heroes?
Mike: Yes, I began meeting these drummers, such as Chris Dave and Robert “Sput” Searight. They said I was good and recommended music I should listen to. Sput gave me a tape of Tony Williams Lifetime and then tapes of Elvin Jones’ different bands. Hearing that at fifteen, I hated it. Didn’t understand it at all. [laughs] But I kept listening to it because I knew there was something there that I needed to learn, [even if] I didn’t know what it was. The older I got, the more I listened, and by the time I got to high school, those records were still boring, but I was beginning to get it. They eventually became some of the most beautiful brushwork records I’d heard in my life. But at twelve I didn’t want to hear brushes, I wanted to hear somebody rip!
MD: Whose brushwork?
Mike: Elvin Jones.
MD: Did a high school teacher show you the rudiments?
Mike: In high school I was a troubled child. I didn’t want to do anything except go to my jazz classes. But a teacher outside of Booker T., Chris Knox, became my mentor. Another teacher showed me the rudiments, but Knox explained the science behind musicality—like the emotions people feel when you play the ride cymbal, or what the side stick will do for a song. And he taught me how to read music. Chris taught me to play freely and not overthink or overcompensate for things that felt awkward.
MD: Did playing swing and jazz come naturally to you after having played gospel?
Mike: At fourteen, everything is natural. The technique was there since I was eight. Understanding musical etiquette came at around thirteen. I started recording when I was eleven.
MD: What’s been hard for you to grasp on drumset?
Mike: Honestly, it all came very naturally. Even now when I’m uncomfortable with something, if I sit with it for five minutes it becomes more comfortable. It’s not because I’m that good or something, it’s just my state of mind that “this is obtainable.” I just have to be patient with myself. I don’t feel that anything is really hard, I just have to be more patient. Then I sit down and figure it out.
MD: What do you practice now?
Mike: I practice rudiments for fluidity, for my wrists. It’s not that I need to sharpen up on new rudiments, but certain things keep my wrists warm. I have a regimen. For sixteen bars I play singles, doubles, and paradiddles, then I’ll do flam taps for sixteen bars, and then repeat. It works out all my wrist kinks and fingering. I do that on my lap or on a pillow or a drum pad. I usually do it with a metronome. I listen for evenness. If it’s uneven, I’ll bring the tempo down.
MD: Are you always confident? Are you always ready to sit down and burn?
Mike: Yeah, I’m ready to burn all the time. Even when I know I shouldn’t be playing—if my hands hurt, or if I’m really tired—when I sit at the drums, I’m there.
MD: Are you ever at a loss for what to play in a certain section of a song?
Mike: Nah. One thing I practiced the most is being responsive. I’d learn tunes from The Real Book. I’d know the form of the song, and then I would find the recorded version of it and practice to it. Sometimes I knew the song, but I hadn’t heard the record. Or I’d practice my responsiveness on something I knew. Or I’d read the lead sheet, and the new ideas from the other musicians around me would inspire me, and I’d just jump in and start playing.
MD: What did you practice for independence and maneuvering around the kit so well?
Mike: One of my teachers gave me a regimen where I’d play an ostinato on the left foot, a different pattern on my right foot, another pattern on my left hand, and a different pattern on the ride cymbal. I practiced that for a really long time.
MD: What’s your warm-up routine?
Mike: I stretch—leg stretches, arm stretches. If I need a warm-up with sticks it’s just singles, air-drumming.
MD: How do you tune your drums?
Mike: It depends on the music. I naturally tune high. If I’m playing with Derrick Hodge, I’ll tune my toms really low but my snare really high.
MD: Has Stanley Clarke offered any advice?
Mike: He just says, “Play something that matters. Never stop.” His whole thing is to play how you want to play, but communicate it to the band. So however I play is fine with Stanley, but I have to communicate with the band. It needs to be clear for the band. It doesn’t matter what it is—as long as it’s clear, it’s cool.
MD: What are your long-term goals as a musician?
Mike: I have many. I want to play the drums for the rest of my life, and I want to create with people, whether it’s on the drums or in a mic booth or on guitar. Drumming is my first love and my last love, but the drums are also a gateway to other things. My ultimate career path is to make records, tour with my band, and tour with other bands. Drums are my life right now, but later I will have other people in my life. So I want to be able to serve both of them properly. I want to play every night, make great money on TV—or maybe I’m not playing on TV at all, maybe I’m playing at a cafe that I own. The older I get, the more family-oriented I become. But right now I want to tour the world.
“I’m ADD and ADHD,” says Mike Mitchell, “so my setups change every day on tour. Sometimes I’ll have a left-handed and right-handed kit put together. Or a Billy Cobham–style: four racks on top and two bass drums. Sometimes I do the Tony Williams two [toms] up/three [floor toms] down setup. Then I might play a couple snare drums and a floor tom with a couple cymbals for hip-hop. It depends on the band and the type of music I’m playing.”The following is the setup Mitchell was using at the time of our interview.
Drums: Tama Star
• 6.5×14 snare
• 8×12 tom
• 9×13 tom
• 14×14 floor tom
• 14×16 floor tom
• 16×18 floor tom
• 18×24 bass drum
• 16″ K Special Dry hi-hats
• 19″ K Special Dry crash
• 22″ K Constantinople Thin ride
• 20″ K Special Dry crashes (2)
Heads: Remo Clear Black Dot batters
Sticks: Vic Firth Blaque Dynamite Signature model