A heavy hitter backs a top pop artist’s global takeover.
After establishing a substantial online following little heavier live or a little softer. We always make sure through viral Vine and YouTube videos in the early 2010s—while still in his teens—the Canadian pop singer, songwriter, and guitarist Shawn Mendes went on to dominate Top 40 radio and arenas worldwide alike. The artist’s first Island Records release, 2015’s Handwritten, debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart, thanks in part to the single “Stitches.” Mendes’ subsequent full-lengths, 2016’s Illuminate and 2018’s self-titled album, likewise topped the charts upon release, fueling multiple global treks.
This past April, the singer launched Shawn Mendes: The Tour, an international arena run that lasts through December. Deftly backing Mendes on the road is Mike Sleath, whose powerful energy has driven the singer’s live show since 2015. For evidence, check YouTube for Mendes’ 2016 performance of “Mercy” on the Honda Stage, in which you might mistake Sleath for a rock or metal drummer slamming home a pop gig while sneaking in slick triplet fills.
In 2015, Dan Kanter, Sleath’s friend and the musical director for Justin Bieber at the time, was putting together a band for Mendes. Kanter phoned the drummer for an audition, and he got the gig. Since then, Sleath has backed Mendes at highly prestigious shows, including performances at England’s Wembley Stadium in 2018 and a 2019 spot at the Grammys.
Sleath started playing drums after watching his uncle as a youngster. “Music was always around when I was growing up,” he says. “My uncle, Brian Maguire, had a giant 1974 Ludwig glossy-black kit with two bass drums, like twenty toms, and a gong behind it set up in his basement. I remember just staring up at it in awe. He taught me to always hit the drums like it was the last thing I was ever going to do, and that really stuck with me.”
We caught up with the drumming powerhouse in the midst of his current international run.
MD: What’s the band’s rehearsal process like for a tour?
Mike: A lot of time is spent coming up with intros, outros, and transitions, and extending parts to make space for crowd moments or solos. We also spend a lot of time coming up with the right fill for the part, spots we can embellish, or parts where we should let silence speak. We spend a lot of time tweaking sounds, printing samples, and trying to get things just right.
MD: Does Mendes have any specific drumming feedback for you?
Mike: Shawn knows what’s right. He has a clear understanding of rhythm and how it should fit within the melody. Sometimes he wants me to play songs a little heavier live or a little softer. We always make sure my parts fit within what he’s planning to do vocally.
As a drummer, it’s important to fit within the rhythm section and lay down a solid groove. But it’s equally important to know what the vocals are doing so you don’t step over them. I always try to phrase things to help accent the vocals. And once I get Shawn dancing in a rehearsal, I know I’ve got the groove right.
MD: How do you approach Shawn’s parts live?
Mike: Sometimes the parts are obvious, but most of the time it’s up to interpretation. You have to find a way to make the song exciting live while keeping the integrity of the recording. Shawn’s musical director, Zubin Thakkar, has an amazing ear for drums. Usually we’ll start with the basic parts and grow from there while incorporating electronics.
MD: How’d you develop your ability to play with a click live?
Mike: It’s important to not only be on the click, but to know where you’re sitting with it. For Shawn, I’ll normally sit right in the center of the metronome. For songs that have a more laid-back feel, I’ll sit just behind. At times when that Stewart Copeland “rushing” feel is needed, I’ll push a bit ahead.
Years ago I was in rehearsals with an artist who kept telling me to lay back, and I couldn’t get the feel right. After a long rehearsal getting my ass handed to me, I went home, put on a click, and played for hours, feeling what it was like to be ahead of, on, and behind the click. I eventually got it happening, and the gig went great.
I also like to practice with a gap click. For instance, you play along to a bar of click, then silence for a bar, then a bar of click, and then three bars of silence. You go on from there until you feel comfortable with hearing only one click per every four measures. It’s a great way to develop your internal time. I also like playing to a displaced click. For instance, practice along with the click on the “&,”“e,” or “a” of each beat.
MD: How do you maintain your level of energy onstage?
Mike: When you’re behind an artist like Shawn, it’s easy. If he’s going for it, I want to be right there to give him the support and energy he needs. Also, I always think about the person way back in the stadium in the 500 section. To them, I’m just a tiny speck onstage. But I want to put on a show for that person. I want to move them.
Mike Sleath plays DW drums and hardware, Sabian cymbals, Remo heads, Los Cabos sticks, LP percussion, Roland electronics, and Big Fat Snare Drum and Drumdots accessories.
Also on the Road
Glenn Kotche with Wilco /// Frank Zummo with Sum 41 /// Gee Anzalone with DragonForce /// Ash Pearson with Revocation /// Alan Cassidy with the Black Dahlia Murder