Shinedown’s Barry Kerch
by Ilya Stemkovsky
Photos by Rick Malkin
We’ve all been there. Gazing at the posters of our favorite musicians taped to our bedroom wall, dreaming of the day when it’ll be our face that some future teenager will be staring at. Imagining it’s us on that drum riser, playing in sold-out arenas—and if we’re lucky, still delivering kick-ass shows twenty years down the line.
Barry Kerch was that kid. And now he’s unquestionably that veteran player, a survivor who seems almost ageless in his ability to kick it as hard today as he did when he first started out—maybe even harder, for in his travels he’s learned about profound concepts like efficiency, pacing, and picking your spots.
Kerch has also figured out how things can work in the real world, regardless of what skills you’re born with, and he’s learned to not always believe the hype machine. He knows that making it to the top demands much more than being in the right place at the right time or possessing a desire to take it as far as it’ll go. It also means having the chops, personality, and endurance to keep the gig. “A professional drummer just plays the drums,” Kerch says. “He plays for the song and can be a chameleon. He plays for the group. That’s being a pro. It’s a job. I’m in the music business. I’m not a rock star.”
We’ll leave judgment on that last point to you, the reader. Not up for interpretation, however, is whether Kerch looks poster-worthy. Initially inspired by an early hero, Mike Bordin of Faith No More, the now thirty-nine-year-old drummer still sports the telltale waist-length dreadlocks he’s had since the world was introduced to him via Shinedown’s 2003 debut album, Leave a Whisper. The look is more than just a fashion statement, though. Kerch embodies Bordin’s tough, earnest integrity, and has produced a catalog of thunderous performances that fans of FNM’s famed lefty could easily get with.
Tracking drums and cymbals separately on most of Threat to Survival, Kerch teaches a class on playing for the song, drawing great tones from his instrument and setting up impacts so hard they make your teeth hurt. The road to success has been a long and winding one for the Florida native, and his even demeanor, kind heart, and dedication to swinging, stadium-crushing bombast are the keys that unlocked that door.
MD jumped at the invitation to spend some time at Ocean Industries Studios in Charleston, South Carolina, during the tracking of the lead single from Threat to Survival, “Cut the Cord.” Kerch and bassist/coproducer Eric Bass locked seamlessly. They were also in a constant state of looking to take Shinedown’s music in new directions. The band’s sound is muscular and generally dark, but some kind of twist is always added to take the compositions well beyond standard Top 40 radio fare.
By also being privy to the creative workings of an as-yet-unnamed side project that the Shinedown rhythm-section mates have been working on for a year and a half, we witnessed the indulgence of certain musical elements that were creeping into the writing and production of Threat to Survival in vibrant, unexpected ways. The application of those concepts helped make the album Shinedown’s most unusual and exciting to date.
MD: What’s the writing process in Shinedown?
Barry: For this album it was similar to how it was on our last album, Amaryllis. I’ve never been invited to the writing sessions, because [singer] Brent Smith can’t stand drums in the writing room. It’s distracting to him. He likes to write with an acoustic guitar and build from there.
MD: Is that process different when you’re just working with Eric Bass, like on your current side project?
Barry: Yeah. When it’s Eric and me, we write together, which is why we did this side project. On Shinedown’s material, there’s [writer/producer] Dave Bassett there, and they want to include Zach [Myers, guitar] as well. Dave is like our fifth Beatle. He’s been writing with us since The Sound of Madness, and he produced a lot of the songs on this record. Brent likes to write with new people, just to have new ideas. A lot of people out there shit on that, like it’s selling out. They think just because you’re in a band together, you write together. It doesn’t work that way.
MD: So how much of Threat to Survival was written with all of you playing together at the same time?
Barry: None of it. On the first couple of records we tried doing that over and over again, but it was like beating a dead horse. It just doesn’t work for Brent. For him to get the lyrics out that he does, he’s got to have his method. But it’s fun for me, because then I get to come in with a better idea of what the song structure is going to be. I think that’s why my drumming in Shinedown serves the song well. There’ve not been many “Look at me” moments, because it doesn’t work for this band.
MD: The drum patterns on Threat to Survival are relatively simple and bashy, but it still swings.
Barry: That’s my fault! I like to swing.
MD: There’s hardly enough rhythmic material happening for it to swing, and yet it does.
Barry: That’s a big compliment. I appreciate that. This side project of Eric and mine, that’s more of my roots playing. I love R&B and James Brown’s drummers. They’re some of my biggest early influences. I love drumming that makes you move. Everything was intentionally done because of the space in the songs on this record. On a song like “Devour,” which has to be precise 16th notes straight through, there’s no room to swing. On something like the chorus of “Outcast,” it’s pretty straight, but I try to swing the kick drum every once in a while. Especially with a little bit more programming on this record, that’s what’s going to create polyrhythms between the programmed and acoustic drums and make it swing.
MD: How do you feel the decision not to use one single producer or recording environment for the album affected the final product?
Barry: I think it was nice for us; it was fun. We spent the last two records with [famed producer and chairman of Warner Bros. Records] Rob Cavallo, which was a great thing. He’s a great producer. He’s able to kind of make the record his and ours. With this one, it didn’t have that vibe, because the songs are so dark and different and disjointed, in a good way. They’re all over the place. We were trying to get them together, but the vision of having one producer do all that just didn’t work.
MD: Aside from “Misfits,” there aren’t really any ballads.
Barry: No. It’s a driving and more mid-tempo, groove-oriented record. I think it’s a very drum-oriented record compared to the last few. And since we weren’t in one room, it was fun for me, because drums are always the first in, with one producer and all the guys in the control room looking at you, going, “Why aren’t you done yet? This is costing money.” I was able to spread out and relax and maybe even explore a little more, because it wasn’t everybody staring at each other, waiting for their turn. I enjoyed it.
MD: How much did you map out your parts ahead of tracking? Did you spend time working with demos, or was any of it put together while you were tracking?
Barry: None of it was put together during tracking. All of the demos were pretty well in place. I played with them a lot here at home to learn the programmed drums precisely, then I would work on fills if there weren’t any in the demo. Then, when we got to the studio, if the producer wanted to change something, we would. There were a couple songs where audibles were called and we would change something or add an intro or shorten a section. We’d do those on the fly. If they didn’t like what I had for fills, we’d work on them. For me, a lot of times it’s not that I play too much, it’s that I don’t play enough. I’ll learn the demo and keep it super-simple, and they’ll say, “Hey, at the end of the song, would you do a little bit more?”
Then, going into this record, I really practiced not playing many flams. The last record didn’t have any, because Brent decided that he hated flams. He called them “flubs.” [laughs] He would ask me, “How would Dave Grohl play that part?” I’d say, “Well, he’d play flams all over that part, because that’s what he does.” Then he’d say, “Well, do it without flams!” [laughs]
If you listen to Amaryllis, there might be one or two. On this record, “Cut the Cord” was the first song we wrote, and we did the drums at Eric’s studio without Brent there. There’s those big, open flat flams before the last chorus, and Eric left them in and sent it to Brent to see what he thought, and he loved it. So the door was open and I got away with a few flams on this record.
MD: I think I was there the day you did that.
Barry: You were. You saw that.
MD: I remember thinking there was no way in hell those flams were going to make it on Top 40 radio.
Barry: You did say that! I forgot about that. It’s our biggest single ever. Apparently Brent doesn’t hate flams anymore. [laughs] I think what was happening, though, in Brent’s defense, is that I was playing them too open and they were distracting him.
MD: Are most of the final tracks on the album comped, or are they full takes?
Barry: Dave’s stuff is pretty much full takes, with maybe a fill here or there comped. [Producer] Scott Stevens’ stuff is very comped. He loves to comp. He heard things that I don’t think any of us were hearing. That’s just the way his ears work. And then Eric, you’ve seen Eric in the studio and how he works. Making “Cut the Cord” with him, which was the first one, was a blast. He and I have such a good rapport. We have the same brain in the studio, so it’s just natural.
MD: That’s one of the songs with the most impact, especially where you leave space before the last chorus—it hits so much harder when there’s space right before it.
Barry: That was a fun one to make. Eric and I were stealing a lot of the stuff we’d been doing on the side project on that one, and it ended up transferring to this whole record. I think 90 percent of the record was tracked with drums minus cymbals, with the cymbals overdubbed later.
MD: You’d never know it, listening to the feel you achieved. Are there any secrets to making that kind of tracking work?
Barry: I had bruised legs for months! [laughs] It looked like I got hit in the thighs with a baseball bat. It was horrible. But it’s so much nicer for the mixing engineer to be able to have more control over the cymbals. When you’re overdubbing cymbals, your snare is your left leg, and vice versa when you’re playing the kick and snare—you’re riding on your right leg. That’s how you still get that groove. I think if you just stood there and played cymbals, you’d never have cohesiveness.
MD: How did multitracking most of the parts on Threat to Survival, as opposed to playing them live, affect the writing of your parts?
Barry: I’ve gotten very comfortable with playing separated parts, especially doing the side-project stuff with Eric. It’s a good challenge, but the hardest part is making it sound cohesive when you put it all back together. But I really prefer tracking that way, just for sonic control. I hate the sound of cymbals, I really do.
MD: There’s not even a lot of cymbals in the mix. On the verses of several of the songs I wondered if you were riding the floor tom or playing with both hands on the snare, or if there were just no cymbal parts.
Barry: They’re there, just very subdued. They work, but can become abrasive so quickly. That’s also up to the mixing and mastering engineers.
MD: There’s at least one instance I noticed where there’s independent hi-hat and floor tom parts happening at the same time.
Barry: That would be “Outcast.”
MD: How are you approaching sections like that live?
Barry: I’ve had to work on my left-hand independence a little bit more. That’s why I’m using the gong drum. I’ll move my left hand from the gong drum to the snare. And it’s no secret that there’s programmed drums on the album. Those tracks will be going when we play live.
MD: How prominent is that in the live mix?
Barry: On that song, it’s a good doubling of everything. There’s a trashy electronic snare and trashy toms on top of the natural toms, and they really blend well together.
MD: And those aren’t being triggered—they’re in the backing track?
Barry: It’s in-track. We always run a percussion track with tambourine, shakers, and that kind of stuff.
MD: How do you think more inclusion of samples, like the stuff that Eric pulled from old LPs, influenced the material on this record? You guys hadn’t really done that before.
Barry: No, we hadn’t. Maybe small things in an intro or something. That’s the place where things bled in from this fun side project.
MD: It makes Threat to Survival sound quite different from the last few records.
Barry: Some people are crucifying us for it and using the old “sellout” line, but we’ve been told we’ve been selling out since the first record! [laughs] But look at bands like U2. Achtung Baby and Zooropa were different records for them, and that’s okay. It was fun, and they were actually very successful. This record is doing really well for us so far; it’s just different. Some of the diehards are pissed off. They say, “Why doesn’t it sound like Leave a Whisper?” Well, that was thirteen years ago, and we don’t want it to sound like Leave a Whisper.
MD: And on a whole, this record is actually heavier than Amaryllis.
Barry: There’s only darkness on this one, because Brent was in a dark place and he was telling dark stories. Every album is very autobiographical of the band. This one is no exception. Lyrically, it’s heavy. Musically, I think it’s heavy. A lot of people are asking where the fast songs are. Where’s the “Devour”? Well, fast doesn’t necessarily mean heavy.
MD: There really aren’t any burners on Threat to Survival.
Barry: No, and I’m fine with that, because those things are exhausting! [laughs]
MD: Every time I hear “Devour” on the radio, I think it must be really tiring to play.
Barry: It’s miserable. And it’s typically at the end of the set. It’s one of the last three songs. Thanks, guys. [laughs]
MD: You appear to be playing extremely hard on stage. Is part of that for show?
Barry: I’m a heavy hitter, but a proper hitter. I’m not trying to break stuff. I’m hitting the cymbals properly. And the big arm movements and hair everywhere definitely make it look heavier than what it is, but I am a hard hitter. And I definitely hit harder on stage than I do in the studio. You want to be more precise in the studio, and you don’t want to choke the drum.
MD: The band’s performance in the “Cut the Cord” video is so energetic and aggressive.
Barry: That’s us in a live setting. We wanted to show people us being natural. If you put the four of us in a room with an aggressive song, that’s us. That’s who we are. We wanted to come back to those rock roots, because we’d been gone for a year and nine months. It was time to come back with a vengeance.
MD: What advice would you offer to young players who are interested in following your path, with the current environment being so much about YouTube and drum covers?
Barry: It’s a different path from what I had. YouTube is a great tool. But getting a good teacher who can watch you play and tell you what you’re doing well and what you’re doing wrong is crucial. I still take lessons when I can.
Beyond that, learn how to play the songs. And learn how to get along with people—that’s the hardest thing. I spend more time with the guys in my band than I do with my own family. You’d better enjoy each other’s company, and you’d better be able to deal with them on their bad days.
MD: Have you developed any physical problems from drumming?
Barry: Not really. I used to have some wrist and elbow problems, which I thought were carpal tunnel syndrome at one point. That goes back to learning over the years to change my grip, to loosen up and work on the Moeller technique. I’m still working on that. I don’t have it down, but I’m better at it.
MD: Do you freely switch between matched and traditional grip? I saw you move between them a bit during the acoustic set on the Somewhere in the Stratosphere DVD.
Barry: For the live rock show, no. I’m strictly matched for that, because I don’t have the ability to get the same power out of my left hand with traditional grip, though I do feel my ghost notes are stronger that way. You just play differently with that grip. In the studio, I’ll switch back and forth depending on the song. On a song like “Black Cadillac” I probably played traditional on the verses and matched on the choruses. That song was done on two different kits. The verses were on a small jazz kit, and the choruses were on a big rock kit. I do warm up with both grips, though.
MD: In the Promark video where you’re talking about using stick wrap, you say, “I kind of changed up my technique,” explaining why you no longer use wrap. What do you mean by that?
Barry: My hands are a little less choked and a little less grippy.
MD: When did that happen?
Barry: I think between The Sound of Madness and Amaryllis. During The Sound of Madness, I was having wrist issues from overuse. We toured for three years, so you’re going to have that. I’m a rock drummer in a rock band; I’m hitting way too hard and I’m slamming wood into plastic and metal five days a week. It’s going to take its toll on your body. I’m sore after shows and I have “rock neck,” but I was really starting to get some wrist issues.
I went through physical therapy and started researching ways to get some help. I took a few lessons from Dom Famularo via Skype. What a neat dude. I want to do it again. I only took three or four lessons with him, but that was enough to set me on the path. He taught me what he calls the free stroke, which is similar to the Moeller technique. It was painful to really slow it down and go back to basics and work on that stroke through Stick Control.
MD: Who are your favorite drummers in your genre these days?
Barry: Everybody is really good these days. Morgan Rose of Sevendust is great. Nothing More’s drummer, Paul O’Brien, who just left the band, is phenomenal. He reminded me of Matt Cameron [Soundgarden, Pearl Jam]. John Fred Young from Black Stone Cherry has a really cool style. Sam Loeffler from Chevelle and Tom Hane from In This Moment are great drummers. Tony Palermo from Papa Roach—I love his playing.
But I don’t know everyone in my genre, because I don’t pay attention unless we play shows together. I’ve completely gotten away from rock in what I’m listening to lately, because I’ve been bored with it. I’ve been listening more to programmed, girl-fronted pop stuff. MS MR and Banks—I’m in love with Banks’ stuff. It’s been a departure for me. I play a rock show and there are rock bands playing around me all day, opening for us or at festivals. When I get on a plane or on the bus I want to chill and listen to something that’s the polar opposite of what I do every day.
MD: When you think back to when you were thirteen, compared to when you were in your twenties—or now, in your thirties—what were your drumming motivations?
Barry: Whoa… Drumming at thirteen, I wanted to be a really good marching drummer, I wanted the girls, and I wanted to be a rock star. I wanted to get on that poster on my wall. I wanted to be doing what I’m doing right now, which is to be in Modern Drummer. In my twenties, I still had the same dreams and aspirations, but I was being more realistic. I was in college, becoming a little more artsy and learning about live playing in clubs and bars. I was still trying to get the girl. [laughs] Then I finally got her at twenty-four, and then, by the time I was twenty-five, I was in Shinedown. In my thirties, my goal has been to maintain where I am and become a better drummer. I’ve also wanted to give back, because I’m pretty damn lucky.
MD: Who were the most important people in your life in terms of becoming the drummer that you are today?
Barry: My grandmother started me on the path—my dad’s mom, Grandma Hook. Her brother was a jazz drummer in Chicago, nobody famous. I never met him, but he was a guy that worked back in the day. Like a typical kid, I would take the Christmas boxes and beat on them and make a drumset instead of playing with the toys. She said to me early on, probably when I was five or six, “You remind me of my brother. You’re going to be a drummer someday.” On my seventh birthday, I got my first snare drum.
My parents were also huge—and not just supporting me, but paying for lessons and dealing with me playing in the house. They helped me into my first drumsets and everything else. They were very supportive, as long as I did it scholastically.
MD: Who is someone non-musical in your life who is important to your drumming and your life as a musician?
Barry: My wife, who continues to support me. We’re a team. As far as who I am, my father is my hero and always will be. I’m a mama’s boy all day long, but my father…he’s just a good, humble person. I idolize him for it.
MD: What’s your definition of drumming greatness?
Barry: That’s a loaded question! [laughs] To me, drumming greatness is playing for the song and making people feel something. I like notes, I just don’t want to play them unless they’re called for.
MD: To you, what’s the distinction between a professional and an amateur drummer?
Barry: An amateur drummer is, “Hey, look at me—I’m here playing the drums!” A professional drummer just plays. He plays for that song, and he can be a chameleon. Whether it’s somebody like Steve Ferrone or Josh Freese, a pro plays for the group. If you see Josh Freese with the Vandals or you see him with Nine Inch Nails or you see him with Devo, he’s playing for that situation. That’s being a pro.
Kerch’s Threat to Survival Tour Kit
Drums: Pearl USA Custom Reference in pewter abalone wrap with Reference Pure lugs
A. 3×13 steel-shell snare with Pearl Tru Trac head
B. 14×20 gong drum
C. 6.5×14 Hybrid Exotic Cast Aluminum snare
D. 9×13 tom
E. 16×18 floor tom
F. 16×16 floor tom
G. 18×22 bass drum
H. 16×26 auxiliary bass drum
“We were using a brass snare, and I liked it,” Kerch says, “but our front-of-house and monitor engineers liked the cut of the aluminum better. I’ve been using a larger secondary kick with a slave pedal on the right side since The Sound of Madness, for intros to certain songs and on some of the ballads, where you just need that bigger tone. And the 3×13 snare with the Tru Trac head triggers samples for snare and kick reinforcement and gate control.”
1. 16″ hi-hats (Byzance Dark crash bottom/Byzance Medium crash top)
2. 20″ Byzance Medium crash
3. 22″ Byzance Vintage Pure ride
4. 16″ Byzance Trash crash and 14″ Byzance China stack
Sticks: Promark Hickory 747 Rock model with wood tip
Hardware: Pearl P3002C Demon chain-drive double pedal and slave bass drum pedal, Eliminator H2000 chain-drive hi-hat stand, C1030 straight cymbal stands, and C2030 boom stands
Heads: Evans, including Hybrid Coated snare batters and 300 Clear snare-sides, Level 360 Onyx tom batters and Level 360 G1 Clear tom resonants, EMAD Onyx gong drum batter, EMAD Heavyweight bass drum batter, and Inked by Evans custom front head with artwork by Rob Prior
Electronics: Playback Control “Vig Rig” designed by Viggy Vignola, including two redundant MacBook Pros. Backing tracks hosted live in Digital Performer. Boss FS5U momentary footswitch for track start/stop. Tru Trac head on 3×13 snare used to trigger samples from Yamaha DTX900M Drum Trigger Module and ddrum brain. Porter and Davies BC2 saddle throne. Westone ES50 in-ear monitors.
Clean and Connected
“Working for a powerhouse like Barry requires innovation, consistency, and attention to detail,” drum tech Mark “MBZ” Bennett says. “One of the things we’ve done is remove all of the tripods from the cymbal stands and connect them to the riser with a custom ‘cymbal cup.’ The throne, snare stand, and floor toms are also strapped to the riser to ensure consistent playing zones throughout the show, and I use a Tune-bot for maintaining pitch. In addition, the pH of Barry’s sweat causes the cymbals and the chrome to oxidize overnight, and the heavy amount of pyro dust after the show means that everything needs to be cleaned inside and out daily as well. For this task, I’ve been using Meinl’s cymbal cleaner and protectant spray and LADS Tour Tech drum polish to make everything look brand-new for every show.”
Off the Record: Threat to Survival
“Asking for It”
Kerch smashes away in the second chorus of the churning opener and includes a tasty fill between his hands and right foot toward the end of the phrase. The tempo is 144 bpm. (1:56)
This dynamic but simple fill leads into the song’s huge first chorus. No overdubbing tricks were used to cover the tight transition from the snare and floor tom figure before the chorus kicks in. The tempo is 74 bpm. (0:57)
Kerch builds the section before the song’s driving second chorus
to a fever pitch with this propulsive snare drum fill. The tempo is
115 bpm. (1:37)
“Thick as Thieves”
This ’80s-inspired gated tom fill leads into the song’s huge final chorus and was performed on a combination of DW piccolo toms and Remo Rototoms. The tempo is 89 bpm. (2:59)
This triplet-based groove supports the rollicking first chorus and ends with a simple, powerful fill that leads into the second verse. Check out the huge, dark hats and massive kick and snare sound. The tempo is 72 bpm. (0:52)
Shinedown bassist, coproducer, and chart-topping songwriter Eric Bass on what Barry Kerch brings to the table.
MD: How do you compare tracking Barry to other drummers you’ve worked with over the years?
Eric: Barry is a human metronome. His timing is impeccable, and, whether he’s on a click or not, his meter is very even. He was the first drummer I ever recorded who had a sound. I remember miking up the kit the same way I mike up everybody else. All of a sudden the drums not only sounded better than usual, they sounded like the drums I’d heard on the first two Shinedown records.
MD: What role does Barry play off stage?
Eric: First of all, he’s the tour mother—he’s always worried about everybody being okay. Barry’s one of the kindest and most caring people I know; he always has a smile, and he always has time. The other thing about Barry is that he’s blue collar. He hangs out with the crew on every day off, so he kind of binds the crew to the band in a way. He’s mother hen meets burly blue-collar guy.
MD: From a producer’s perspective, how well does Barry serve your vision for a drum track?
Eric: Barry typifies everything I love about great drummers. Something that a lot of people will never know about him is that he can do anything. If you want him to play Dream Theater, he can play Dream Theater. If you want him to play Motown, he can play Motown—and not sound like he’s trying to do any of those things. It’ll sound like that’s what he does.
One thing that struck Dave Schiffman [L.A. audio engineer and longtime collaborator of producer Rick Rubin] when we were working on Threat to Survival was the fact that we could track with drums and cymbals separately and when you listen back to the track, it doesn’t sound separated. It sounds like it was all done at the same time. You can’t tell on this record which songs he played that way and which songs he played live.
MD: Do you think Shinedown could survive with any other drummer?
Eric: If for some reason we had to, but I can’t see any reason why we would ever go on without Barry. It would never be the same. You’re talking about a guy who’s vitally important to the health of this band off stage and beyond vitally important on stage. With everything he has to do and the way he plays, I don’t know where we’d be, and I don’t even want to think about it.