Features

Rival Sons’ Michael Miley

In the school of hard rock, the members of RIVAL SONS are at the top of their class. But even after logging thousands of miles opening for legends like Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, they know that the journey never really ends, and the hunger to succeed never subsides. And that’s just the way they like it.

Story by Ken Micallef
Photos by Alex Solca

Rival Sons’ fifth album, Hollow Bones, packs a Led Zeppelin–size wallop in songs that shake, rattle, and reverberate like the ghosts of rock gods mingling with blues royalty. At the center of the storm, drummer Michael Miley balances his fixations on studio legends Jeff Porcaro, Steve Gadd, and Bernard Purdie with the coliseum thud of Zeppelin’s John Bonham, AC/DC’s Phil Rudd, and Black Sabbath’s Bill Ward.

A graduate of California State University at Long Beach, where he received a bachelor’s degree in percussion, Miley possesses the legit tools of a concert percussionist, but also the passion of a grimy rock urchin steeped in groove goo. Miley’s well-documented solos are all flash and phantasm balanced by deep pocket, thick tone, and thumping delivery. And as he creates drum parts on the fly when the band records tracks, Miley must keep his intuition and musical skills fully active and on alert, 24/7.

Joined by fellow Sons Jay Buchanan (vocals), Scott Holiday (guitar), and Dave Beste (bass), Miley performs classic-rock sounds as a twenty-first-century musician who is fully aware of listener expectations and business demands. Rock is no longer simply about jamming with your buds; it’s a corporate business where every decision, every note, and every musical choice has long-term implications on your career.

Playing London’s O2 Arena with Black Sabbath the day of our Modern Drummer interview, Miley notes that he’s thankful for “our cult following in the U.K., built on playing with big acts and getting exposure and sweating our butts off.” American ingenuity…American work ethic…American success story.


MD: When Rival Sons plays these giant tours across the U.K. and Europe, what’s your takeaway?

Michael: I watched Black Sabbath’s drummer, Tommy Clufetos, every night, and he opened a lot of doors as to how I approach my own drum solo. When Rival Sons does a headlining gig, I usually take a three-minute solo. It’s not a gigantic thing, but the way Tommy structures his solo and the way he stays in shape have influenced me. I have a hard workout regimen on the road; Tommy has a harder one! He’s super-professional. And as a part owner of Rival Sons, I really take note of Black Sabbath’s production.

When you’re on the arena level you see how the big boys do it. Having opened for Kiss, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Lenny Kravitz, Deep Purple—all these big boys—you see how they run their show, what kind of lighting rigs they’re using…so we go to school every night.

MD: You said you’re part owner of Rival Sons—is the band incorporated?

Michael: We have five albums and one EP; it’s a big business. It’s merchandise, publishing, records, and touring. Four income streams. A lot of musicians think, I’m going to join a band. It isn’t just jamming in your garage. It’s a big-time business when you get out here on this level. I never took a class on the music business. Some people read Donald Passman’s All You Need to Know About the Music Business. I’ve read big parts of it. I’ve signed multiple record deals, and at this point in Rival Sons each one of us individually has had record deals before, so when we came into this band we had a better business mindset.

Rival Sounds

MD: Your drumming and tones are reminiscent of the ’70s ideal of big drum sound, big live room. Sometimes you sound slightly behind the beat, another classic maneuver. How do you generally create a drum part in Rival Sons?

Michael: I always say a good song will write itself. The groove is insinuated from a good song. If it’s a simple lyric and a simple rhythm, I should play a simple beat. In “Thundering Voices” [from Hollow Bones] I was just building off that groove while we were jamming in the studio. Dave Cobb, our producer, was like, “Miley, just keep playing that over and over so we can come up with a riff.” And so it happened that way.

On most songs, though, you have a riff that dictates the bass drum melody. Then you decide if you want an open or closed hi-hat based off of what the others guys are playing. There’s formulaic stuff: closed hi-hat in the verse, open in the chorus. Ride cymbal in the intro, the re-intro, and the guitar solo. A good ol’ rock ’n’ roll tune is not rocket science. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. But I am trying to find the funk in the grooves. Funk and jazz are my favorite stuff to play, so I ask myself, What would David Garibaldi do here? or What would Bernard Purdie play here? as well as What would Bonham or Jeff Porcaro do? All my heroes. I have a whole toolshed of influences.

So when I play something in the studio, maybe everyone turns around and says, “That’s it!” Or they say, “What the hell are you doing?” I’m trying to be as natural with it as possible. We write and record a song a day. Everything you’re hearing on the album is my first instinct. Everything on the album is a first or second or third take. Dave Cobb wants to keep it visceral and dangerous. We leave in the mistakes. Bass, drums, and guitar record together on the studio floor. Jay either sings with us or he adds his voice later.

MD: Generally speaking, are you using the same drums throughout the record?

Michael: Yes. I use a 26″ kick drum and we use the Glyn Johns miking technique: one mic overhead, one mic to the side near the floor tom, and one mic on the kick drum. That is the basic sound. Very Beatle-esque approach. A pure drum sound.

MD: You consistently go for a ringing snare drum sound. Why?

Michael: Rival Sons has big balls! Nothing in this band should sound polite or orthodox. Sonically I have to cut through those big fuzzy guitars and the low midrange bass. Everybody has their frequency spectrum that they sit in; we’ve figured this out over the years.

And regarding the ringing snare drum sound, all my favorite drummers from the British Invasion, most of those snare drum sounds were big, open, ringing metal drums, tuned high. Mitch Mitchell, Keith Moon, John Bonham, Ginger Baker—they all used higher-pitched, ringing snare drums. That’s how I interpreted it. The ’70s was when drum muffling began, but no one was muffling in the ’60s.

MD: What heads do you use in the studio?

Michael: Aquarian Coated Power Dot for the snare drum, wide open. On the toms, Classic Clear Power Dots. They’re sort of like the Remo CS batter head.

MD: You’re always very relaxed sounding. What’s the key to staying relaxed in music that requires a big, open groove? And how do you maintain that in concert, when tempos can speed up?

Michael: Scott, our guitar player, plays on top of the beat. He has more of an urgent kind of feel. He makes me sound behind the beat. Scott and I have been playing together since 2005, so whatever is happening there, I’m not consciously playing behind the beat. But as far as playing relaxed, I am influenced by the funk drummers, including Chris Dave. His feel is insane. He’s a pioneer for feel in the modern era; he has opened doors.

MD: But he doesn’t play behind the beat.

Michael: No, he’s perfectly on the click. But he’s got such good timing, he can phrase anywhere he wants, whether it’s flamming the backbeat, which will automatically make you sound behind the beat—or it may be earlier, depending on how you look at it. I have open ears for other drummers, other genres, to allow that influence in.

Rock ’n’ roll was originally black music played by white British guys. Black American music, rhythm and blues, gospel. Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, these guys were obsessed with American blues and R&B. In the modern era, I want to be just as open. I won’t be dropping a sampled beat from A Tribe Called Quest in any of our songs, but Chris Dave can play bebop, funk—he’s a multifaceted guy. I allow for those influences, as well as Jeff Porcaro. And Keith Carlock. He’s another guy who can phrase around the beat; he’s not such a grid-oriented drummer. There’s a feel, an energy. Whereas Benny Greb is more on the grid, and he’s got as great a feel. I’m trying to draw from all of these guys while also trying to figure out Steely Dan grooves.

Warm-Up to Practice

MD: What’s your warm-up routine?

Michael: I have a DW Go Anywhere Practice Set. My awesome drum tech sets it up every day. During the day I’ll practice on my own, then one hour before the show I’ll do calisthenics, jump rope, to get my blood flowing. Push-ups and resistance bands for ten minutes. Maybe some yoga postures. Then I get on the kit and play doubles, singles, paradiddles, and paradiddle-diddles with a basic foot pattern. I will start slow and get up to as fast as I can. Specifically, I have the metronome speeding up two beats per minute every eight bars. I can get from 100 bpm to 200 bpm in about twelve to fifteen minutes. It’s a slow build until I peak out my singles and doubles; that warms up my hands. Then I start improvising singles, doubles, paradiddles, and paradiddle-diddles. Or I’ll work on Gary Chaffee’s Linear Time Playing, or Ted Reed’s Syncopation, or George Lawrence Stone’s Stick Control. I have these books with me on the road, just trying to find different patterns. I call it untying knots, finding little melodies.

Everything you play on a kit will be a rudiment, somehow, some way. It could be a single, a double, a flam, or any combination therein. You can play a paradiddle on a snare drum, but the second you put a hand to the cymbal and leave your other hand on the snare drum, now you have a funk beat. But it’s still a paradiddle. It’s getting the brain to adapt to phrasing rudiments around the kit. That’s what I do every single day. Just trying to open up my vocabulary. So the more your ear can hear different patterns, the more patterns you can drill into your muscle and brain memory, the more your vocabulary can speak naturally to where you can sound relaxed. You can hear when someone is overthinking. You can hear when somebody is relaxed. I think the people who sound relaxed have put in their 10,000 hours. Do you know that reference?

MD: Yes, from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. I know it, though I don’t completely agree with the premise.

Michael: I’m not in full agreement with it either, but you do have to put a lot of time into your craft.

MD: Working on so much sticking before a gig, do you ever blow yourself out?

Michael: No. I used to not warm up at all. I used to love going up cold. It feels so fresh. But I’m not doing my warm-up at any super volume. I’m playing everything at low to medium volume, and I’m working on things that I have trouble doing. And so when I get on stage, I know these grooves like the back of my hand. They’re a lot louder live, and I’m playing on the full kit. But I do want to break a sweat during warm-up. I want moist skin. I want blood in my muscles when I walk on stage. It’s definitely a balance. But I never play so hard that I blow out my chops before a gig.

MD: When you have time to practice, what do you focus on?

Michael: Everything I just said in a more macro, concise way. I’ll spend six to ten hours a week on Gary Chafee’s Linear Time Playing, thirty minutes to an hour a day, where I’m digging in deep and spending longer periods of time on these things. So when I get on tour I have a few exercises I’m working up to speed.

At home I’m taking my time and playing grooves at 50 bpm. Funk grooves that you might play at 120 or 130 bpm, I’m playing at 50 bpm. Really slow and methodical and to a metronome. I’ve been studying with Dave Elitch [the Mars Volta, Antemasque] for two years. I home in on technique. If I have any injuries…I had a left-foot problem, so I was working on my hi-hat technique. I try to repair any errors or damage that was done on the last tour. I never want to be complacent.

We’re becoming more popular, and [the press] are comparing me to Bonham and the British Invasion guys. And we’re playing blues-, gospel-, and R&B-infused rock ’n’ roll music. That’s the language. But I don’t take it for granted. I don’t want the band to have a hit single and then my single-stroke rolls still are only [operable] at 160 bpm. I’m only going to get more of a spotlight as the band becomes more popular, so I don’t take it for granted. I work really hard, and I want to be the best I can be.

Rival Songs

MD: “Thundering Voices” has an unusual contrasting bridge section where it sounds like you’re playing a three-over-two pattern. It breaks things up in an unusual way.

Michael: It’s basically a Cuban triplet. It’s not a strict triplet. You know the clave [sings pattern]; the part I play there is basically the 3 of the 3:2 clave repeated. It’s dotted quarter, dotted quarter, quarter. I’m flamming on the toms and playing a straight-four bass drum pattern. I’m flamming the Cuban triplets. The hi-hat is playing straight four with the bass drum. The guitar went from a single-note, fuzzy guitar riff to clean fingerpicking, a complete contrast. So I wanted to create a complete contrast as well. The vocals change as well; it’s a big contrasting section. I wanted it to sound tribal.

MD: You play a clean buzz roll on “Fade Out.” No one in modern rock, or even Chris Dave, plays buzz rolls. Why did you play that there, and what gives you license to do so? Buzz rolls are like Ian Paice.

Michael: Oh, yeah. That’s the reason. It works perfectly musically there, and I’ve always loved a [dynamically controlled] buzz roll into a rimshot. I think it has great effect to set up the next section of a song, especially a second verse, as in “Fade Out” after that Gilmour-esque guitar solo. A buzz roll was the first thing I thought to play. The producer loved it. I wear my love for R&B and jazz on my sleeve. I like that sound better than I like Avenged Sevenfold. I think INXS featured a really clean roll in a hit single. Jeff Porcaro, Jim Keltner, Steve Gadd on the Steely Dan records all played rolls. They’re my heroes.

MD: Are you playing rimshots on 2 and 4 on Hollow Bones?

Michael: Yes. On anything that’s up-tempo and loud I’m cracking the snare every time. Even on the “Fade Out” verses, I’m playing rimshots. On other ballads I’ll play the tip of the stick, not a rimshot. I also play a little further past the center of the snare head, which I learned from Jeff Porcaro. It gives a little fatter sound. It adds a little low end to the crack. It’s not just all high-pitched; I want some low end in the crack. I play a Wincent 5BXL drumstick. It’s a heavier stick.

MD: The intro of “Black Coffee” is a pummeling blast of drums and cymbals. How did you create that?

Michael: We wanted it to be on “11.” Then the verse drops way down to hi-hat only. We wanted to come out of the gate just swinging balls to the wall. Like the horse races, right out of the gate at top speed. A lot of licks, a lot of drum and guitar fills. I think it’s effective. We’re going for big contrasts of light and shade there. That was all live, including vocals.

MD: In the studio, you create grooves in the moment. Do they change radically on tour?

Michael: We will hone certain aspects, but I’ll stick to the pattern on the album. If there’s a fill that goes into choruses, I’ll play stuff verbatim from the album like a drum hook. Then there’s certain fills in sections where I have more liberty to improvise. And we have spots that are purely improvisational.

MD: You’ve found your style within a larger style. What tips can you give to younger drummers on creating their own style?

Michael: Listen to as many different styles and genres as possible. That’s how you become well rounded. My goal was to be a studio musician, originally. I wanted to be called for jazz, polka, Afro-Cuban, R&B—anything that was required. I wanted all those tools in my shed. I suggest playing in the school orchestra. Go for a music degree, which will give you twenty-four hours a day in a practice room. That will shape you musically. If you know what I-IV-V means as a drummer, you’ll be able to identify phrases as sentences. Then you’re not phonetically speaking each vowel—you’re speaking in entire sentences, and entire paragraphs. You’ll be able to develop longer phrases that have musical meaning.


Influences

Toto “Hold the Line” (Jeff Porcaro) /// Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight” (Phil Collins) /// Tower of Power “What Is Hip?” (David Garibaldi) /// Led Zeppelin “Good Times Bad Times” (John Bonham) /// The Who “My Generation” (Keith Moon) /// Cream “Sunshine of Your Love” (Ginger Baker) /// The Jimi Hendrix Experience Axis: Bold as Love (Mitch Mitchell) /// The Beatles all (Ringo Starr) /// Steely Dan all (miscellaneous)


Recordings

Rival Sons “Radio” (from Rival Sons EP), “Pressure and Time” (Pressure & Time), “Run From Revelation” (Head Down), “Open My Eyes” (Great Western Valkyrie), “Black Coffee” and “Thundering Voices” (Hollow Bones)