Listening to the albums that put Heart on the map in the ’70s, like Dreamboat Annie and Little Queen, it’s clear the band members were students of Led Zeppelin—and that drummer Michael Derosier was the star pupil.
Derosier seemed to pour everything he learned from Zeppelin and John Bonham into 1978’s Dog & Butterfly, grooving with a sweet pocket and flashing killer chops that probably inspired thousands of drummers and another million or so air-drummers. Highlights include “Cook With Fire,” which is teeming with four-stroke ruffs, stutter-step kick work, and lightning-quick licks, none of it shaking the foundation of Derosier’s rock-solid feel. And Derosier’s playing on closer “Mistral Wind” is positively insane. As the track morphs from an ethereal acoustic song to a menacing slab of proto-grunge, Derosier explodes, firing off 32nd-note snare fills and triplet-based licks as the time shifts between measures of four and seven.
Of his stellar work on those tracks and others on Dog & Butterfly, Derosier says that, like Bonham did with Zeppelin, he was attempting to carve out an identity for his drumming within Heart’s sound. “I used to talk about that philosophy quite a bit: creating a place in the band for the drummer,” Michael explains. “As a teacher I always pushed that on students: ‘Don’t be afraid to speak up.’ I don’t know if a lot of people get it. I don’t know if the guys I played with in Heart really understood it. The drums should fit the vibe of the song, but they should have their own place in the band. And Bonham had his own sound. That’s why he stands alone.”
The Zeppelin influence extended to the drum sounds on Heart’s records from that era. There’s a definite similarity between Bonham’s room-y thwack and the tone of Derosier’s drums on Dog & Butterfly. It’s a classic sound that totally holds up. But forty years on, Derosier still struggles with some of the sonic details.
“Back then I wasn’t happy with the way a lot of the stuff sounded,” he says. “Dog & Butterfly was better, in some ways. It was a progression in terms of our approach to recording. But it was still a process where I went away from it being unsatisfied, with the drum sounds and overall. Some of the more overproduced qualities work for some of the lighter stuff, like the higher-pitched North toms I used on ‘Lighter Touch.’ It needed something like that to jump out at you a couple of times in the song. But I don’t think we ever got quite aggressive enough on the other side.”
Derosier’s feelings are also mixed regarding one of Heart’s most classic jams and the biggest hit from Dog & Butterfly, “Straight On.” He’s happy enough with the playing, as he should be with such a fierce, fat groove that alternates between four on the floor and a straight 2 and 4, then morphs into a much funkier, syncopated feel for the outro jam. Yet Derosier feels that Heart’s dalliance with dance music on “Straight On”—something that rock bands from Kiss to the Rolling Stones were doing at the time—was a bit calculated.
“I think we did a good, legitimate take on [dance/disco music],” the drummer says. “I do like that stuff, and [singer] Ann Wilson really liked that music. But at the same time I always felt a little cheesy and that we were jumping on a bandwagon. You have a certain amount of success, and you want to maintain that or expand on that, so you find yourself sometimes getting sucked into trends or fads. It was sort of like we were allowing ourselves to be drawn into that, instead of following our own path. You end up finding yourself being a follower. And that’s part of the reason I got sick of the band after a while. I never felt like we were progressing and trusting our chemistry as much as we should have.”