Mexican rock band Maná is huge. But there’s a good chance you’ve never even heard of them. And “huge” is not hyperbole, because Maná has sold millions of records since its formation in 1986, and today continues to sell out arenas all over the world, including multiple consecutive nights at major venues like the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Technically, the genre applied to the band is rock en Español, but that’s a limiting term, because one listen to their music would expose you to a variety of flavors, including pop, progressive rock, and especially reggae. Anchoring it all is drummer Alex “El Animal” González, who joined the band at the ripe old age of fifteen, after answering an ad.
As a teen the drummer moved from his native Miami, Florida, to Guadalajara, Mexico, auditioned for and joined the group, and never looked back. Maná broke through to international acclaim with their 1992 album, ¿Dónde Jugarán los Niños?, and recognition soon followed in the form of many Grammy, Latin Grammy, and Billboard Latin Music awards.
González has remained a solid pro throughout Maná’s career, handling stylistic changes in the band’s sound with conviction and an expert understanding of just what to play. Live, the drummer switches from working out on his splashes on a bouncy reggae tune to slamming away on his snare during aggressive numbers. There are funk and R&B songs, as well as the expected Latin material throughout the night. As the music calls, González can sound like Stewart Copeland one minute and John Bonham the next. When it’s time for González’s solo, he shines brightly, keeping things rhythmically and musically fresh for himself while also keeping the crowd from heading for the bathrooms.
“This band has given me an opportunity to have my moment within the show to do a drum solo,” says González. “It’s a chance to express myself. And I always admired those drummers who had that duality where they can play whatever the song needs, but when they have to do something cool and creative or play a drum solo, they have that edge to them.” Maná even allows the drummer to sing lead vocals on several songs; González can be heard as the main voice on tracks like “Me Vale.”
Though González gets to work out on different styles in his main band, he further spreads his wings with projects like De La Tierra, a Latin American heavy metal “supergroup” made up of members of Sepultura and other South American bands. González is also reflective about the success he’s enjoyed and the ever-changing musical and commercial roller coaster Maná continues to ride. He’s experienced first-hand how technology has affected everything, and he’s as quick to point out his influences as he is to give out timeless advice on the role of a working drummer. And after more than thirty years of laying it down for thousands of screaming fans night after night, González and the band show no signs of letting up.
MD: You’ve mentioned your early years discovering the instrument when you spoke to MD in 2008. But now that you look back, isn’t it incredible that your mom let you move to Guadalajara when you were fifteen?
Alex: It’s crazy and I don’t think many parents would do that nowadays. When I moved from Miami to Mexico, it was a huge change culturally and musically, but as a little kid, I always dreamed about being a famous rock drummer. It was embedded in me, and it has to do with the people I grew up admiring, starting with Ringo Starr and getting into the whole classic-rock scene—John Bonham, Keith Moon, Phil Collins, Stewart Copeland, Peter Criss, and Neil Peart. So when you have that inspiration, no matter where you live, you’re going to try to achieve that.
MD: How did you handle developing your own voice while thrust into a band at that young an age?
Alex: I never had any formal drum classes. I wish I did. I always tell younger drummers, if you have the opportunity, take advantage of someone to teach you technique or hand positions. I come from a generation where we learned from the records. When it was time for my moment to present my ideas, all those drummers would help my ideas come to the table. But at the same time I would always try to be myself.
When you’re in a band, it’s important to lay the foundation as the beat or the pulse of what the song needs, no matter what type of music you’re playing. I was never concerned with playing the craziest fills or the weirdest or sickest beats. The great thing about Maná is that we’re a pop-rock band, but we have a lot of fusions in our music: reggae, ska, Latin, a whole bunch of things that we throw into the mix. So as a drummer, you have to have an open mentality to bring what the song requires. And live, I have the freedom to throw in things that I didn’t on the record. It’s fun to improvise.
MD: How often do you get to improvise at Maná shows?
Alex: All the time. The band has always given me the liberty to do that. I never play exactly the same thing. The songs are the same structurally, but I never throw in the same fills, and I always try to do something different. I’ll even mess with the band and switch the beat around or bring the tempo down. When you see a band and everything sounds like the record, it takes away from the experience of it being live.
I’m a huge Rush fan. You’d see them play “Tom Sawyer” live, and everyone would air drum exactly how the song is. I understand that, and that’s awesome. But it’s great when a band is playing and the fill that’s supposed to be like the record is totally different. It brings an excitement and keeps fans on the edge. Alex Van Halen, who’s another huge influence, wouldn’t do the same fills even though he would play the beat of the song. He would go off and do some other amazing thing.
MD: Why do you think the band’s mix of reggae and rock appealed to Mexican ears? Is reggae popular in that part of the world?
Alex: Mexico is the United States’ neighbor, so we’ve always had access to all types of music, especially rock. Mexico has an amazing culture, and it’s not always the typical Mexican music. We get stuff from Central America and South America and even Spain. It’s a melting pot, and reggae is one of those types of music. Mexico has amazing beaches, so there was always reggae music coming from the Pacific or Atlantic or Caribbean. In our case, we were influenced by the Police and Bob Marley and other bands that were doing fusions of reggae and rock. Maná also has salsa and mariachi. I respect bands who want to play just one type of music, and that’s fantastic, but in Maná we wanted to make it more diverse, and that’s fun.
MD: Your last album, 2015’s Cama Incendiada, had more modern flourishes. After so many albums, do you relish doing something different in regards to programming and sounds and production?
Alex: That record was the first one that wasn’t produced by us. The previous records were produced by Fher Olvera and me. It’s important to try new things out. Fher, who’s our lead singer and main songwriter, just wanted to step out of the box. It’s valid, as long as everything you’re doing is authentic and real. It was a good experiment to see someone from outside the band bring his perspective and ideas and intentions.
MD: Were you open to the producer’s suggestions for your parts?
Alex: In the past, I had total liberty to do whatever I wanted, obviously with the consent of Fher and the band. We would sit down and discuss things, and I put my confidence in him. At the end of the day, this is what the band decided to do. That’s happened with a lot of bands, and sometimes it’s been good and it’s worked, and sometimes it hasn’t. But the important thing is to take risks in art and also challenge yourself as a drummer.
MD: Is your warm-up routine still the same, in terms of stretches and the like, or have things evolved?
Alex: I always recommend stretching to drummers. In the past couple of years, I’ve learned certain exercises that come from yoga and pilates—stretching your back and your arms and legs and relaxing your muscles. I hit the drums pretty hard, and it’s important to protect your spinal cord if you’re moving your head around a lot and going for it. I’ve always been a very aggressive drummer with the way I attack the drums during the fast songs, and I need to be warmed up and relaxed, because you can hurt yourself. And I’ve never had any issues at all with my fingers, my arms, my back, or my neck. Stretching and warming up a half hour before I hit the stage really helps.
I don’t know how to read music, but it’s important to go through the rudiments. Start off slow and build up. Don’t overdo it, just fifteen minutes, and maybe put on your headphones. That way you hit the stage relaxed and ready.
MD: How do you keep the control while still being an animated drummer?
Alex: I think it has to do with having so many years of experience. I started professionally at fifteen. I’m fifty now. I’ve always been concerned with trying to get the best performance onstage, whether I’m in a bar, club, arena, or stadium. People paid for a ticket, and I want to give them the best show possible.
I was a huge Keith Moon fan, and more people were looking at him than at [the Who singer] Roger Daltrey. [laughs] I saw that the drummer can get as much attention as the lead singer or guitar player. So it was always important to put on a good show and be visually cool. But at the same time you have to be playing what you’re supposed to be playing and not messing up or being out of time. It’s about consistency and going for it live. Going for that lick or that fill and trying to do something that keeps it emotional or energetic.
I love seeing drummers who are passionate when they’re playing. I don’t care if it’s jazz or funk or whatever type of music. I want to leave the arena and think, that guy was so freaking passionate, he puts so much energy and love into what he’s doing. I want to transmit that so [others] can approach the instrument with the same intention. It’s great to have the knowledge of all the fills and chops and technique, but passion is part of the equation.
MD: Your drum solo is a big part of your show. How has that evolved over the years? Do you have a general map of where you’re going, or do you just wing it?
Alex: There’s a generation that grew up on drum solos, like guitar solos—or anybody that has an intimate moment with the crowd. It’s you and your instrument, and you go for it. I enjoy that moment because it’s just you and the audience. For me it’s never been about trying to show off. It’s always been about the musicality of it and throwing in a little bit of entertainment.
Every tour I try to add something different. For this tour, we have three stages. On the main stage is one drumset, and the B stage has a small cocktail kit that comes from underneath. And then there’s another drumset at the end of the arena on a little island. We wanted to get as close as possible to our fans. And I wanted to do something inspired by Neil Peart, a 360-degree kit. So you see my main kit, but then I had a hybrid kit put on the riser. When Neil had that kit that surrounded him, half was acoustic and half was electronic. I wanted mine to be all acoustic. So on the kit behind me is a 16×18 kick drum, and then 8″ and 10″ piccolo concert toms, and then 12″ and 14″ Rototoms. And then I have a weird setup of Paiste cymbals with these 12″ hi-hats I put together from splashes, a white noise cymbal, and a China.
I wanted to do this thing in 360 and just have fun. For me, playing that solo is about having that moment with your instrument and improvising. And every night is not the same. There are seven movements because it has to do with the way my drum riser is built and spins. First I face the audience and then it moves to the left, then the right, then 360, and then back to the front. So I wanted people to think it was entertaining, but also for anyone who plays drums, I wanted them to think I was technically doing some cool stuff up there. And I don’t use triggers; it’s just me beating the hell out of it.
MD: Why is the solo divided into movements?
Alex: Because of the production and the lighting, and because my tech has to manually move the riser. So I’ll improvise on the snare drum, or improvise between the snare, kick, and toms. Then I’ll stop and another movement will be on my fl oor toms and rack toms. Then another movement will be on the other side of the kit on the Octobans and the timbales and a 10″ tom and 10″ snare. Then I’ll improvise on the hybrid kit. Then I’ll go back to the main snare and do some stick tricks. So everything is planned production-wise, but as a drummer in the moment, everything is improvised. And that keeps it on the edge.
MD: What’s it like playing that stand-up cocktail kit?
Alex: I started using the DW cocktail kit back in 2008. I have to take my hat off to that company, because they’ve always been concerned with whatever the drummer needs. And they still have that custom shop philosophy, which I love, because all my drums have been custom since 1992. Normally on cocktail kits, the kick drum is [facing] up, and I’ve done that on past tours. But this time I wanted to drop the kick drum, so it’s a regular kick but looks like a bazooka. So I adjusted the pedal and had Remo make me a special head for the front and the back.
And on the third stage, the island stage, I have a beautiful White Marine Pearl DW set. I’m a huge Buddy Rich fan. I remember as a little kid, I was so in awe of that white marine pearl kit he had. And the new kit I’m using on this tour is a DW Collector’s stainless-steel kit. They grinded all the stainless-steel shells to give them a unique finish.
MD: You used to have those two Chinas on both sides high up. Those have come down.
Alex: When I started playing, I was really into Terry Bozzio. As a teen, I could only afford one China, [laughs] and I had it really high on my right side. But then later, when I got my Paiste endorsement, I had my Chinas up like Terry. I always found that very comfortable to play. And on every tour, I’d bring them up or down. On this tour I brought them down so everything is symmetrical. In front of me I have my crashes, my splashes, my ride, and hi-hats. And immediately to my left I have an 18″ China, and to my right I have a 20″ China, plus two other crashes. It’s just arranging things so they work and at the same time look cool.
I come from a generation where we were into looking at everyone’s gear. If you think about the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, everyone was so into making their kits look so badass, no matter what you were playing. That’s just who I am. It’s important for your drums to look cool but also important that you can play them. There are kits that look ridiculously awesome but they’re probably difficult to play.
MD: Is De La Tierra still active? How have you prepared for that gig, since it’s so hard-hitting?
Alex: De La Tierra is still active, but we’re in a little bit of a pause mode because [guitarist] Andreas Kisser is finishing a new album with Sepultura. But we’re in talks to record a new album, and everybody’s writing material and getting ready to bring all these ideas and riff s and songs to the table. I prepare by listening to what they send me, and I just practice my ass off . [laughs] When we’re in preproduction, we rehearse the songs live.
The last album, II, which was produced by Ross Robinson, we recorded live. That was an amazing experience. Ross has a [drum] room in his home studio, and I’m on the drums and there’s a guy in front of me, and we’re all tracking live to analog tape. It’s nourishing and positive for me as a drummer to play with other musicians and to play other genres. If it wasn’t for Maná, I wouldn’t have met all these amazing musicians that I know. You always have to be grateful for where you come from. There are a lot of metal drummers who would like to play jazz or pop music or electronic music, and I always tell people to not be afraid to play what they want to play. Don’t close yourself off and not take the opportunity to enjoy other types of music. Because it’s enriching.
MD: How has the industry changed the way Maná writes music? Do you just do your thing? Or do trends influence the band’s approach?
Alex: We’ve always been an honest band. What you see is what you get. We’ve been through so many changes in the industry, but we’ve always stuck to what we’ve wanted to do and musically what we feel is right for us as a band.
I really miss how it used to be, when people would buy records and CDs and cassettes. Now with streaming it’s a whole different ballgame. But on the other hand, the internet and social media have brought something positive. One way is that if you’re a musician and you’re working in your home studio, [social media] is a great tool to get your music out there, besides having to go play bars and clubs like we did when we were starting. And now you don’t need a record company. You can upload a song to iTunes or Spotify. How many musicians are now famous because they were able to put something up on the internet? Before, record companies had to send scouts to bars and clubs and discover the new artists and sign them.
So it has its pros and cons. Sales have dropped because people now think music is free. It’s very difficult for someone to write music and live off of “free.” If everyone could write music or be a musician, then everyone would be doing it. And it has a price. So that’s something that the industry, sooner or later, is going to have to correct. It’s art and it’s talent, and you have to protect that.
But for drummers, YouTube is an amazing instrument. When I grew up, there wasn’t MTV or videos. You went to a record store and bought a record and listened to your favorite drummer and tried to copy or imitate them. Now you can see those classic drummers like Ringo or Bonham or Keith Moon or Peart or anybody you can imagine. It’s like they opened up the holy grail.
MD: It’s great to see videos of Bonham, but you can’t teach someone feel. What’s your take on Instagram videos of drummers just blazing?
Alex: It’s a double-edged sword. God bless all these amazing drummers who I admire, like Thomas Pridgen, Tony Royster Jr., Eric Moore. You see all these amazing fills, but those guys can also play a groove and a cross-stick on a ballad. They can lay down a 2 and 4. They have that background, that knowledge. I think it should be a balance.
MD: Steve Gadd gets hired by James Taylor not because of the stuff he blazed on Chick Corea’s records. He also feels better than the next guy.
Alex: Right. Look at Steve Jordan. He’s one of the other drummers who I love. Come on, man, he’s just so solid and keeping it straight ahead. I wish I had the chops of those guys, but that’s not my reality. It’s important for people to know that even if they don’t have those chops, they can still be professional drummers. Look at Charlie Watts. If you have what the band requires and what the song requires and what the producer requires, you’ll have a career.
Every night onstage, I give everything. I’m so grateful that what I dreamed as a little kid, I’m living that dream. I want people to leave inspired after they see our band. And if you’re a little girl or boy or even an adult, and I’ve inspired you to pick up the drums, I’ve accomplished more than I ever dreamed of. I’m just very thankful.
MAIN STAGE KIT
Drums: DW Collector’s drums in custom stainless-steel finish (finish and artwork by John Douglas)
4×14 bell brass snare (main, custom painted red)
6×10 stainless-steel snare (custom by Ronn Dunnett)
8×10 and 9×12 toms
14×16 and 16×18 floor toms
16×24 bass drum
18×6 and 21×6 stainless-steel Octobans (custom by Ronn Dunnett)
13″ LP stainless-steel timbale
LP Ridge Rider cowbell (custom chrome)
Cymbals: Paiste 2002 series
16″ Power crash
13″ Sound Edge hi-hats
18″ Power crash
20″ Power ride
20″ Power crash
14″ Sound Edge hi-hats
20″ Power crash
Hardware: DW rack and stands (custom built by Alex Gonzalez and drum tech Julio Galindo), including 9000 series double pedal, hi-hat, snare stand, low drum throne
Heads: Remo, including Ambassador X Coated snare batters; Emperor Clear tom batters and Ambassador Clear resonants; Ambassador Clear Octoban, timbale, piccolo toms, and Rototom batters; Powerstroke P3 Clear bass drum batters, Powerstroke P4 24″ front head (painted by John Douglas), Starfire Chrome 18″ front head (artwork done at Remo factory)
Sticks: Vic Firth Alex Gonzalez signature model
Microphones: Shure, Crown headset
Accessories: Clear Tune in-ear monitors, Boss FS-6 dual foot pedal to start and stop sequences. No triggers or samplers.
3.5×14 custom DW piccolo snare
8″ and 10″ DW piccolo toms
12″ and 14″ Remo Roto-toms
16×18 DW stainless-steel bass drum
Hardware: DW rack (custom built by Alex and drum tech Julio Galindo), 5000 series double pedal and snare stand
Cymbals: Paiste 2002 series
10″ Mega Bell
stack: 15″ crash/14″ Sound Edge hi-hat bottom/10″ splash
18″ Novo China
12″ splash hi-hats
Heads: same as main kit
B STAGE KIT
Drums: DW cocktail kit in Matte Black finish
6×13 stainless-steel snare
6×10 and 6×12 toms
16×24 bass drum
13″ LP timbale
LP Li’l Ridge Rider cowbell
Cymbals: Paiste Signature series
17″ full crash
20″ full crash
13″ Dark Crisp hi-hats
Hardware: DW 9000 series stands, 5000 single bass drum pedal
Heads: Remo Ambassador X snare batter; Emperor tom batters and Ambassador resonants; Ambassador timbale batter; Emperor bass drum batter and Ambassador front
C STAGE KIT
Drums: DW Classics in White Marine Pearl
14 x14 floor tom
13″ LP Rock timbale
14×24 bass drum
Cymbals: Paiste Formula 602 Modern Essentials series
Hardware: DW 6000 series single bass drum pedal, trap case throne in White Marine Pearl wrap
Heads: Remo Ambassador X Coated snare batter; Ambassador Coated tom and bass drum batters and resonants; Ambassador Coated timbale batter