Up & Coming
The Contortionist’s, Joey Baca
by Ben Meyer
This phenomenal young talent clearly takes the term progressive metal drumming at face value, pushing his playing in more and more compelling ways with each new recording. More proof of the amazing things that can happen when you give a kid drums and all the Rush he can handle.
With the release of its third studio album, Language; appearances supporting groups like Periphery, Between the Buried and Me, and Protest the Hero; and its own recent headlining tours, the Contortionist has, in the minds of many fans, entered the pantheon of modern progressive metal bands. The sextet’s unique combination of lush synth textures, extended-range guitar punishment, and alternately ethereal and brutal vocals has also attracted reams of critical acclaim. Within the gushing prose are high marks for drummer Joey Baca’s approach to locking in the band’s strangely syncopated instrumental interplay and presiding over its gargantuan dynamic range. More textural journey than full-frontal assault, Contortionist albums keep you on your toes rather than beat you into submission, and Baca’s drumming is a prime mover of the music, which, even at its most demanding, has a logic of its own.
Raised in Noblesville, Indiana, just outside Indianapolis, the now twenty-five-year-old Baca grew up surrounded by music. Joey and his identical-twin brother and future bandmate, Robby, both started their journey on guitar. Around the age of thirteen, though, Joey’s interest shifted. “Out of the blue,” he recalls, “my parents bought a drumkit for me and my brother to mess around on. I just ran with it. Once I got my momentum going with the drums, I didn’t really look back.”
Initially self-taught, Baca would eventually participate in school music programs, but his aesthetic had been established much earlier. “I’ve been involved in music since the beginning of grade school,” he explains, “but I didn’t start getting into percussion until I was in high school. I did marching band for three years and played marching snare and quads. And during my senior year I tried out for jazz band and got the gig. I was pretty stoked on that.”
Baca’s rhythmic voice is unique within the sea of technical players that can be found shredding on YouTube. His drumming—a dizzying combination of hemiolas, melodic cymbal stabs, and sensitive snare ghosting—provides cohesion to the Contortionist’s material, which can be very complex. So perhaps it’s no surprise to learn that he was influenced early on by the ’70s progressive rock his father listened to. “I grew up on Rush,” Baca says, “so Neil Peart was a huge influence for sure. Early Genesis and Pink Floyd as well.
“Dream Theater was one of the first metal bands I got into,” Baca continues. “The fact that they were progressive at the same time definitely found its way into my style. I was actually into Slipknot and Korn before I discovered Dream Theater, so they probably had a lot of influence on my early playing. I also love Tomas Haake from Meshuggah; he definitely changed my perspective on drumming.”
Baca is involved in writing the Contortionist’s material, which is largely conceived while the members are in a room together, as opposed to the file-sharing compositional methods incorporated by many of the group’s contemporaries. “For the most part I’m a responsive player,” Baca says, “though there will be times when I’ll come up with a certain rhythm and throw it their way. That will keep the ball rolling and sometimes inspire the next part of the song.”
Due to the Contortionist’s extensive preproduction work, basic tracking for Language took only five days. The album was recorded, mixed, and mastered by Jamie King at his Basement Recording studio in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “We use Guitar Pro  software,” Baca explains, “and I’ll have that as my foundation. That way, when we get into the studio I have some room to improvise. The writing process for this record was partly done using my electronic kit, but right before we go in to track I’ll run through everything on my acoustic kit to get that feel. The electronic and acoustic kits are totally different in terms of how they feel. Sometimes I like to write away from the kit and then hop on and off to develop ideas. But the sounds on the record are all natural—there’s no sample replacement.”
Two thousand fourteen was a banner year for the Contortionist, and the steady climb promises to continue in 2015, which the band rang in with a headlining U.S. tour. It’s a pace that Baca has been happy to keep since graduating from high school. “That’s when things got serious with the band,” says Joey, who of late has also been delving more deeply into teaching, primarily through Periphery drummer Matt Halpern’s Bandhappy program. “I’d love to continue doing what I’m doing now, getting to travel all over the world and play music. It doesn’t get much better than that for me.”
Tools Of The Trade
Baca plays a Pearl Session Studio Classic drumset featuring 7×10 and 8×12 rack toms, a 14×14 floor tom on his left and a 14×16 on his right, and a 16×20 bass drum, along with a 6.5×14 Masters MCX maple snare. He uses Pearl hardware, largely from the company’s 900 series, as well as a Demon Drive direct-drive double pedal set at a medium tension. Though Baca used Sabian AAX crashes and hi-hats to record Language, live he’s been playing HHX models, with the exception of AAX Chinas, which he says gives his sound a bit more brightness. For the past several years he’s bounced between Vic Firth 5B and 5A wood-tip sticks, and his heads of choice are Evans G2 Clear tom batters, a Genera HD Dry snare batter, and an EMAD Clear on his bass drum.