by Stephen Bidwell
When he’s not holding down the drum chair with the metalcore giant Converge, this force of nature explores psychedelic punk with Acid Tiger, metal with All Pigs Must Die, and mathcore with the two-piece Mutoid Man. In each instance, band and drummer are undeniably, unrelentingly going for it.
Converge has distilled choice elements of hardcore, most styles of metal you can think of, and the fury of classic thrash, yet no single genre name can account for the totality of the group’s sound. This at least partially explains why Ben Koller, whose career has featured a number of projects exploring different hybrids of punk and metal, is the perfect drummer for the group.
Koller’s first band of note was a grindcore outfit called Forcefedglass, which recorded a 1997 album with Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou engineering and producing. Ballou later used Koller on a side project called Blue/Green Heart. It only made sense that Ben would eventually land in Converge himself, which he did following the departure of drummer Damon Bellorado. Since joining in 1999, Koller has played on all five full-length Converge albums and a handful of singles and split releases, all produced by Ballou and the band.
While Converge is off the road, Koller has involved himself in a series of well-received projects, including Mutoid Man, his two-piece collaboration with Stephen Brodsky of the metalcore stalwart Cave In. The drummer has also filled in with Cave In on tour and in the studio, and he may or may not have been a member of the parody screamo band United Nations. We sat down with Ben after he and Converge destroyed an Austin stage at Fun Fun Fun Fest.
MD: Your precision is something else. What was your training?
Ben: When I first started, when I was in high school, I took lessons from a drummer who was really into samba and Latin music, and I played in a symphony. He really taught me a lot about rudiments. I also remember working out of Rick Latham’s Advanced Funk Studies with him.
MD: Do you still draw on Latin rhythms?
Ben: Yeah, a little, when it comes to deviating from normal drumbeats, like on the song “Last Light.” It’s kind of jammy, and there’s maybe a little Latin swing going on in there—just some atypical beats in general.
MD: What else pushed your development?
Ben: When I first started, pretty much all I did when I had any free time was music related. In school I was in every band I could join—jazz bands, orchestra. And I had lessons after school and went in the basement and played with Ramones tapes, and if I had free time I’d start bands with friends. It was just total immersion. I was a tennis player and I ran cross-country, but then I heard the Descendents and all that sports stuff went out the window.
MD: Converge includes elements of punk, hardcore, and metal. Do you have any particular drumming influence in each style?
Ben: My favorite punk drummer is pretty easy, because Bill Stevenson was incredible in Black Flag, Descendants, and All. Descendents was pretty much the first punk band I ever heard, and I’ve just always been a fan of Bill’s surfy, ultra-fast, single-stroke style. And let’s see…for metal it’s probably Dave Lombardo. There’s really no one like him.
MD: I was reminded of him while watching you and Dave Witte of Municipal Waste tonight, just in terms of making it look easy and playing relaxed.
Ben: Yeah, Lombardo and Witte are both very relaxed. We usually play fifty-minute sets, but on this tour it’s about ninety minutes every night. So I’ve been trying not to burn myself out too fast. When I feel like I’m getting tired, I just take a couple of deep breaths and relax and not use so much arm, relying on the wrists a little bit more.
MD: How about hardcore drummers?
Ben: You know who’s great? Chuck Biscuits. I guess he’s kind of a hardcore drummer, but he’s punk too, really powerful. Some of those Black Flag shows with him—he just destroys. Maybe Bill Stevenson had more finesse, but Chuck was so insanely powerful. [For me it was about] how hard he plays and the simplicity of his playing. Matt Byrne from Hatebreed is also really great—really tight, makes good decisions.
MD: As far as the endurance needed to play a ninety-minute Converge show, do you have any kind of warm-up routine?
Ben: I do lots of warming up. I try to stretch out my fingers and wrists as much as possible, warm up on a pad for a while, stretch my legs, do a little yoga, and try to get centered. I try to do all of that about forty-five minutes before the show. Plus I’ll do some jumping around to try to get the blood flowing. I’ll have someone hit me with a belt…. [laughs] Anything that helps to get me pumped up.
MD: Some people talk about Converge in terms of a pre– and post–Jane Doe era. As that was your first record with the band, what would you say you brought that might have contributed to the differentiation?
Ben: I think that before I joined, Converge was operating within a stricter set of guidelines musically. I think when [bassist] Nate Newton and I joined, the chemistry between the four of us allowed for a wider range of possibilities. I’ve always admired and appreciated bands that pushed the weirdness and creativity outside the normal boundaries. I was happy to push the weirdness factor on Jane Doe.
MD: What elements would you attach to this weirdness factor?
Ben: Before Converge I was in a band called Forcefedglass that was part of the whole 1990s screamo thing. I really looked up to bands like Reversal of Man, the Locust, Antioch Arrow, and Clikatat Ikatowi. I was doing a lot of blast beats and just playing like an overall spaz. That style comes through a lot on songs like “Concubine” and “Fault and Fracture.”
MD: When it’s time to record a Converge record, are your parts generally worked out during writing or preproduction?
Ben: We do a pretty good portion of rehearsing and recording demos before we start tracking. I think having solid demos to listen back to before going into the studio is extremely important for fine-tuning. The songs are constantly morphing, though, from the initial writing stages all the way up to playing live. Even songs we’ve been playing for over ten years are subject to being played a little differently from time to time.
MD: Has Converge changed recording approaches over the years?
Ben: Our process is generally the same. Drums are laid down first with a scratch guitar track, then guitar and bass, vocals, and extra stuff like backing vocals, percussion, and guitar overdubs. Every band is different; this approach seems to work best for us.
MD: Do you improvise during recording?
Ben: It depends on the song. Some of my parts are pretty straightforward, whereas others can be twisted around with some weirder stuff that’s outside the box. We’re not really the type of band that calls for four on the floor all the time. This is a good thing for me, since I’m a big fan of overplaying!
MD: Kurt Ballou is a prolific producer. Do you generally agree on how drums should sound on record?
Ben: We butt heads here and there, but we’re generally in agreement on sounds. I’ve been recording with Kurt since the mid-’90s, so we work together pretty smoothly. He understands what I mean when I say, “Can you add more Vinnie Paul to the kick?” or “More Bonzo, less St. Anger on the snare.”
MD: Do you find yourself taking this approach with most of the records you make?
Ben: It depends on what sort of time and resources are available. Converge is really lucky to have Kurt as a producer/engineer, because he has his own studio, and that affords us as much time as we need to record a certain way that works well for us. I have a new band called Mutoid Man that recorded an EP recently, where we took an entirely different approach. We went a hundred percent DIY and did all the tracking in our ridiculously small rehearsal closet in Brooklyn. We recorded to Logic with an eight-track tape machine and tracked guitar and drums live. We then added bass, vocals, and extra guitars on top of that and sent it out for mixing and mastering. It came out sounding pretty awesome.
MD: What was your inspiration for the solo on the Acid Tiger track “Big Beat”?
Ben: Ever since I saw Led Zeppelin’s DVD [titled Led Zeppelin DVD] I’ve wanted to have a ridiculous drum solo on a record. The version of “Moby Dick” on that DVD makes me insane, so yeah, it was mostly Bonzo worship. I think I only did one or two takes and just tried to have fun with it. There are some tongue-in-cheek moments on that record, and if we had an idea that was ridiculous we just sort of went for it.
MD: Are there any records that you’re into that would surprise people?
Ben: Maybe ’70s prog kind of stuff, like Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire, all the Bill Bruford stuff with King Crimson and Yes. There are so many bands from that era, like Lucifer’s Friend, Atomic Rooster—that stuff is great. Oh, Emerson, Lake and Palmer! The first song on their self-titled album, “The Barbarian”—that was early blast-beat innovation there.
MD: Who is your blast-beat model?
Ben: Chris Maggio. He was in Coliseum, and now he’s in Trap Them. His blast beat is super-clean, super-heavy, and super-fast. I learned blast beats from playing in a hardcore band when I was fourteen, and I’ve kind of modeled it from that; kick and right hand together, left hand on the offbeats, just as fast as you can do it. I’ve never been into the double-kick-half-time and hands-doing-double-time blast beats. It seemed kind of like cheating to me.
MD: Have you ever dabbled in gravity drops or one-handed rolls?
Ben: Maybe just for fun, but I’ve never applied it to songs. I always try to make it just as heavy and hard as possible, without cheating.
MD: That’s very apparent, watching you with Converge.
Ben: No cheat beats—play all the 8th notes, and keep it fast and on time.
Tools of the Trade
Koller plays Trick aluminum drums, including a 10×12 rack tom, a 16×16 floor tom, and an 18×22 bass drum. He plays a 6.5×14 Dunnett stainless steel snare. His Sabian cymbals include 19” and 20” AAX X-Plosion crashes, a 22” Paragon ride, and 14” hi-hats (usually made up of a Rock bottom and Paragon bottom on top). His hardware is mostly Yamaha, plus a DW 9000 double bass pedal.