He never planned to become an expert in the field of roots drumming. But after twenty years as one of Austin’s most in-demand musicians—not to mention his participation in two recent Americana drum software packages—that’s how things seem to have worked out. And it’s all to our benefit.
Stephen Belans has spent the better part of two decades enriching the scene in—with apologies to Nashville— the rootsiest of America’s music towns, Austin. The reliable freelancer has contributed to projects by such well-regarded international Austin-based artists as Small Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan, critically acclaimed indie-rock band Okkervil River, and Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award winner Alejandro Escovedo. Other well-known roots musicians with whom he’s collaborated, from within and outside the city limits, include Peter Case, James McMurtry, Abra Moore, Rosie Flores, Mike Rosenthal, Beaver Nelson, Radney Foster, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and erstwhile Fastball singer-songwriter Tony Scalzo.
Coinciding with Belans’ (rhymes with felons) performing and recording work is a long history in music education, privately and at leading outlets like the Austin Lyric Opera’s Armstrong School. And Stephen’s work on Toontrack’s Americana EZX Expansion Pack drum sample library and Backbeats MIDI groove collection means that elements of his playing will eventually appear on music originating from the farthest corners of the civilized world.
The first steps of Belans’ career path didn’t exactly telegraph any of this activity. While enrolled as a classical percussionist at Indiana University in Bloomington, Stephen spent equal time playing in original rock bands and taking classical gigs with one of several local orchestras. “The weird thing about that period,” he recalls, “was that all the rock ’n’ rollers were like, ‘Oh, Stephen’s pretty good, but he’s mostly a classical guy,’ and all the classical musicians were like, ‘Oh, he’s pretty good, but he’s mostly a rock guy.’ So you become a sort of jack of all trades and master of none.”
Belans has made the most of his multiple musical personalities, though. “That’s how I’ve survived up to now,” he insists. “Back then, I was doing all that stuff out of necessity; the goal in everybody’s mind was to hook up with an artist or get in a band, write good tunes, get a record deal, and go on tour. Well, none of my bands ever really clicked, and as such I was always doing many things at once, just to keep the calendar full.”
Today it seems that it was destiny for Belans to be in a city like Austin, where there’s a growing pool of artists with whom he has an aesthetic connection. “It all does kind of come full circle,” says the drummer, who moved to Texas in 1993. “Back in Indiana, I was discovering music that wasn’t necessarily popular—you couldn’t hear it on the radio or see it on MTV, and most people you talked to didn’t know about it. But there were cool records coming out that I really identified with. These records were more acoustic and raw, and they told stories instead of just being about boy/girl issues all the time. And you can tell that the drummers on them were listening to what the writer was talking about, feeling, and trying to get across, and pushing that without being up-front about it. That was really instructive to me, and it made me gravitate to those types of songwriters.”
Belans says that in relatively stripped-down musical environments like these, “It’s really easy to get super-esoteric with your playing and refuse to do the obvious thing. Like, ‘I’m gonna do something people haven’t heard before—turn the pulse around, find sounds no one’s ever heard….’ And then you realize: This is ridiculous; all this needs is a simple heartbeat.
“On the other hand,” Stephen says, “there are times when you go, ‘I’m not going to get all fancy—I’m just going to nail this thing with boom-crack, boom-crack,’ and then you listen back and say, ‘Hmm, it might be cool if there was something a little off-kilter going on.’ So you just have to find that zone where the artist is happy. Some people don’t want to hear the standard thing, and some people get very uncomfortable if you stray from it. So even if you have an idea that’s fresh and cool and you’re excited to put it in, sometimes the writer, who’s the boss, isn’t quite as inspired or impressed by your marvelous idea.”
So how does a drummer know how and when to make certain arrangement suggestions? “You have to have a good antenna,” Belans says. “Especially with younger artists—they’re so worried about what they’re doing half the time that they’re counting on you to do something that inspires them without a lot of effort. Then there are other folks who are more controlling—and not necessarily in a bad way, but they can get microscopic about what you’re doing.
“You have to figure this out pretty early in the game, because if you start asking a lot of questions and trying to be earnest about doing your best, now all they’re thinking about is you, instead of what they need to be thinking about, and the whole vibe of the session sinks at that point. Same thing live—you want to focus on keeping the flow happening. You can try things if you think the leader might be open to unusual ideas. If they look at you funny, don’t put that lick back in there the next time you play. But if they smile, you look back in your bag of tricks and see what other unusual things might be in there.”
As we all come to find out, many singer-songwriters speak a different musical language from drummers, and it can be hard to find common ground. “The advice I’ve often got,” Belans says, “is to always listen to the leader. And that’s true—you have to do that. The only advice I ever got that’s better than that was to never listen to the leader. [laughs] Because what they want is for you to provide the foundation for them to move around and be emotive. So you have to decide in the first ten seconds of playing with these people: Do they know how to play their own instrument? Can they play it in time? Are they even aware of what they’re doing?
“Seventy-five percent of these songs start with the guitar player strumming the first four bars, and then you come in. Are they truly establishing the feel that they want? The tempo? Sometimes yes, but a lot of times no. So if they start off at one tempo and you come in and keep that tempo, and they turn around and freak out because it’s either too fast or too slow, you’re tempted to say, ‘Sorry, you counted it off.’ But you can’t say that to them. You just have to figure it out. To me, that’s the most important thing—if they have an inst
rument in their hands, do they really play that instrument, or is it something they just wear to write their songs?
“Another thing to identify,” Belans goes on, “is whether their feel is the cool part of the song, or are they just pounding out the chords to get through it and it’s up to us to get the feel? Sometimes their feel is the important thing but they don’t have any clue about what they’re doing. And then, as the band starts to work up the song and keys off of that, you have to decide: Are they maintaining that and playing with us, or are they reacting to what we’re doing and we lose that thing that made it cool in the first place? These are all split-second decisions, and nine times out of ten they’re best not discussed.”
While improvisational or inherently complex styles like jazz or progressive rock have their own technical demands, singer-songwriter music can in some ways be just as difficult to play well. “For me it is,” Belans agrees, “because you have an extremely limited palette in a lot of ways. Not so much in terms of colors, but there’s only so much space you can take up as a drummer in this kind of music and have it work out.”
Almost as important as how you play on an Americana gig is what gear you use, which is also related to the overall mix. Roots musicians tend to be suspicious of flavor-of-the-month sounds, and as such, drummers playing in these situations should be very sensitive to the sonic world they’re entering. “An Americana sound is generally a ‘natural’ sound,” Belans says. “It doesn’t sound gated, it doesn’t sound crazy squished, it doesn’t have some ridiculous false reverb.”
That said, Belans believes that there isn’t one roots sound. “There can be close natural sounds,” he explains, “like Crazy Horse records, where the drums are tight and super-present and there’s not a huge amount of sustain, but you can still hear reflection—it’s not like you’re only hearing the stick hitting the drum. Then go to something like early Wilco records, which are also considered Americana, and it’s a lot of room sound. Or the Steve Earle record I Feel Alright—that’s just a ton of compressed room sound, but it’s natural; it sounds like you’re standing in the room with him playing. If you listen to a modern rock track, it doesn’t sound very natural. Sometimes the kick or the snare is way louder than other elements of the kit. I look at Americana drums as much more balanced, like they sound when someone’s playing a kit.
“From a gear standpoint, we tend to work with a more traditional setup, with fewer voices. Aside from Wilco and all the things that Glenn Kotche has on his kit, 95 percent of the time you’re going to see a standard four- or five-piece kit, a couple of cymbals, and not much else. That’s usually a good starting point.”
Belans, who also engineers and produces many of the recordings he plays on, usually takes one of two approaches. “Sometimes I hear a live, ringy rock ’n’ roll sound, so I’ll use a smaller set of toms, maybe a 12″ and a 14″ with coated heads to get some snap on the attack, and I’ll maybe tune them up and let them ring. I recently started putting my rack tom in a snare basket, but rather than having it sit in the basket, it rests on the tops of the arms, and I’ll crank the basket tighter, which makes the drum sing differently. That works well for the higher tunings. If I want it to be thuddier, I might loosen the basket and have it sit in there, and let the stand absorb some of the vibration. I also might tune down a little and go for bigger sizes, like 13″ and 16″. In terms of bass drum sizes, for a while you’d see 24″, 26″, and even 28″ kick drums, but things seem to have come back to more traditional sizes.
“Either way, at the beginning of a session, I need to decide how I see the drums functioning in the song and in the mix. Are they going to be up-front and prominent, or maybe washier and in the background? At the same time, it has a lot to do with tuning. If you’re going to play a busy part, sometimes tuning up a little gives you more bite, which is nice, but then maybe the sustain gets in the way. So you have to find that balance.”
In terms of cymbals, Belans suggests that you might not want to show up at a roots gig with eleven cymbal stands. “And I rarely use specialty cymbals,” he adds. “The fastest way to have someone look at you funny on a gig like this is to throw up a China cymbal. It’ll be like, ‘Look, we’re not playing that Steve Miller song tonight.’ [laughs] But really what’s important is the thickness and the weight of a cymbal. It comes down to sustain—do you want the cymbal to ring through the bar, or are you looking for a fast, punchy decay? I used to think that smaller cymbals worked better in the studio, but I’m finding that bigger, heavier cymbals are more in line with what I want to hear now. If I want a thinner sound, I still go with a bigger cymbal but a thinner weight.”
It makes poetic sense to use a vintage drumset on an Americana gig, but Belans says there can be pragmatic reasons too. “Everyone always seems to enjoy the older, thinner mahogany drums,” he explains. “I have a ’59 Slingerland 3-ply mahogany kick
drum and a matching snare, and people rent just the bass drum from me a lot. It’s feather light and has clamp-on spurs, and the low end is ridiculous, but you still have a lot of beater attack. I’ve got some other older mahogany/poplar drums that record really well for that thuddier tone, and some Ludwigs from the ’90s that sound great tuned up and ringy and tuned down and thuddy.
“The way a drum is mounted makes a difference too,” Belans adds. “If you’ve got your rack tom and floor tom hanging from a suspension system, that really does record differently from the way they will if they’re sitting in a basket and on legs. For this kind of music, I prefer the legs and the basket. In terms of pureness of tone, a suspended drum gives you a beautiful and satisfying sound. But you have to think about how you’re going to fit in with everything else that’s going on around you. If each tom hit sustains for that much longer and takes up that much more frequency range, then you’re probably getting in the way of someone else, and people rarely want to hear the true richness that we hear when we hit a drum alone.”
Finally, there’s the all-important question of snare drum choice. “You should have a good metal drum and a good wood drum,” Belans says. “Piccolo drums don’t usually apply to this kind of music—middle-range tuning and lower fits better. But just because it’s lower doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a bright attack, because you might need that to cut through. There are two drums that I go to over and over. One is a 5″ hammered bronze Ludwig, which is very versatile, and mics love it. The other is a ’60s Slingerland Artist series, with a singleply steam-bent shell and reinforcement ring. Mics love that one too. The crack is tough to get with any other wood drum. And for ballads I’ll often use an old 7″ Tama Artwood from the ’80s.”
Whether we’re talking about what licks to play or what drums to play them on, Belans emphasizes that it’s all about fitting into the bigger picture. “It’s definitely a supportive role that we play,” he says. “We’re one cog in a wheel—a big, important cog, but we’re still part of the machine, and all the parts have to fit together and expand and contract and give and take as the song develops, and it should be a very organic thing. We’re in a dance with everyone else who’s involved with the performance and the recording.”