Don’t let his calm drumming demeanor with Between the Buried and Me fool you—the ideas flying off his sticks can jolt you like a defibrillator. Long live technical rock ’n’ roll.
Story by David Ciauro
Photos by Justin Reich
Between the Buried and Me’s unique brand of millennial progressive metal is teeming with melodic grandeur, instrumental prowess, and fierce riffs. Woven together into long-form conceptual pieces, the group’s compositions pay tribute to prog forefathers like King Crimson while embracing the trends of contemporary metal.
Despite the increasingly crowded nature of the scene, BTBAM remains a bellwether of future heavy rock, and Blake Richardson, who joined the North Carolina–based band in 2005, inspires the kind of rapture that drummers like Periphery’s Matt Halpern and Animals as Leaders’ Matt Garstka have more recently roused in the hearts of modern metal fans. That Richardson’s advanced technique is matched pound for pound by his compositional sensitivity and physical poise—a recipe for success in any style or era—makes his art just that much more appealing.
Coma Ecliptic, BTBAM’s latest album, is an epic modern-rock opera that finds Richardson somehow only getting better. Always on the lookout for learning opportunities, the drummer habitually keeps his eyes and ears open to new ideas that he can incorporate into his playing—a sense of intellectual enthusiasm that also translates into his teaching philosophy. Richardson has what you might call a “respect the past, adopt the future” attitude, a mentality that will surely keep his name on the lips of drumming fans for many years to come.
On July 7, the same day Coma Ecliptic hit the shelves, Between the Buried and Me began a North American tour with its tech-metal compatriots Animals as Leaders and the Contortionist. As you read this, the group is preparing for a month of shows in Europe, followed by another headlining tour in November. Over the holidays BTBAM will plan its activities for 2016, which will likely include much more touring and then the beginning of the writing process for another record. Modern Drummer caught up with Richardson just as he was embarking on quite a busy and, no doubt, highlight-filled phase of the band’s career.
MD: Today’s metal drumming is more analytic and complex than it’s ever been. It seems even more important, then, to maintain composure. You seem very relaxed when you play.
Blake: When it comes to playing relaxed, there’s this duality. Part of me realizes that if I’m into playing drums for the long haul, the more relaxed I play, the better my joints are going to feel thirty years from now. Playing tense will wear the body down. But for me it’s like you have to turn on a switch. There’s moments when I’m playing some laid-back, Pink Floyd–type groove, and then right after that I’m going into some crazy-intense metal section. So I had to train my body to know how to tap into that adrenaline and be able to control the flow of that energy.
MD: Is it harder to harness your adrenaline in a live setting than in the studio?
Blake: In the studio, across the board, I’m more relaxed when I’m playing, because it’s a controlled sound environment—you can hear everything really well, and you don’t have to hit as hard as you do in a live setting. In truth, you don’t have to hit that hard live either, especially when using in-ears. But there is something that takes over when you play live, and the adrenaline does make you hit a bit harder. What’s good about practicing relaxed is that you’re not only developing good technique, you’re developing [muscle memory] so your body knows how to properly execute the technique.
Prog of Future Past
MD: In the ’80s, drummers like Charlie Benante, Dave Lombardo, Gene Hoglan, and Pete Sandoval were known for their speed and technique. Today, players like George Kollias seem to be breaking barriers on a daily basis. Is this at least partially the result of living in the digital age?
Blake: Yeah, totally. There is just a wealth of information out there on drumming technique alone. You can find old videos on Moeller technique that were made decades ago, but I didn’t have access to that sort of stuff when I was eleven years old and just playing drums for the first time. Now kids starting out have access to an incredible wealth of information right off the bat. They don’t have to figure it out for themselves; it’s all right there for them.
It’s definitely interesting, and I don’t know if it’s a positive or negative thing, but what I do know is that I can’t relate to it, because I didn’t have access to it when I was starting out. I just put a stick in my hand and started playing. What you were saying about Charlie Benante and Dave Lombardo…they just went for it! They just hit hard and played as fast as they could. People like George Kollias, he figured out the technique to comfortably play super-fast for prolonged periods of time.
MD: Do you feel that the abundance of information can actually hinder younger drummers from developing an identity, that there’s more time spent aping other players than developing a unique personality on the instrument?
Blake: Yeah, I definitely think that. When you have so many influences to pull from, it can distract you from developing your own personality as a drummer. We all draw on different influences, but you definitely want to become the most distinct version of a drummer that you can be.
Nobody should want to be a carbon copy of another drummer. Growing up, I had a VHS tape compilation of three drummers playing solos—Bobby Rock, Simon Phillips, and Dennis Chambers. Those three dudes are completely different, but as far as drum solos, that’s what I drew from. For me, just those three styles were overwhelming in a way, because they were so different.
MD: What types of drummers have you been listening to lately for inspiration?
Blake: I don’t really listen to a whole lot of metal these days. A lot of what I listen to isn’t in the realm of what we play. I like to watch the gospel-chops dudes, the jazz cats, Mark Guiliana, Jojo Mayer, Russ Miller, Chris Coleman…all these guys would just kill it in a metal band. If Tony Royster Jr. got up with a metal band, he’d be the sickest metal drummer ever!
How to Teach
MD: In addition to playing with BTBAM, you also teach. How do you juggle your hectic schedule?
Blake: Teaching is pretty small scale [for me]. I have a few kids that I work with while I’m at home. I don’t keep anything too regularly scheduled, because I do often have to leave for tour. I’m lucky that the students I have are cool with the fact that I have to leave town, and we just pick up when I get back.
MD: Do you teach while on tour?
Blake: I don’t really do lessons on tour, although it’s been highly requested. I know it’s convenient for kids that can’t travel to North Carolina for lessons, but on tour I’m very hands-on with setting up my kit and the production aspects, so there’s not a ton of downtime. Once that load gets a little lighter, I might toy with the idea of doing a few lessons a day while on the road. It’s kind of hard to do that, though, because what can you really teach someone in thirty minutes?
I’ve asked advice from other drummers that give lessons while on tour, and they say the same thing. I don’t feel like I’m doing anyone justice by just teaching them a lick or answering questions about my drum parts; I don’t feel I can truly teach them something that way. However, a Q&A-type lesson could be cool. If Bozzio had come through my town when I was a kid, and I could have sat down with him and asked questions and maybe got to play on his kit, that would have been awesome! You have to put yourself in the mindset of a fan, I guess.
MD: In those instances, do you think that focusing on a philosophy or approach as opposed to a technique may have more of a lasting impression?
Blake: Yeah, exactly. You can decipher a lick to a certain extent just by listening to it, and at the end of the day, if you’re playing what I’m playing and it sounds the same, it doesn’t really matter if you’re playing it exactly the same way as I do. I want to get a feel for how a kid plays, and I think it’s difficult to help someone develop as a player in a one-time brief lesson. I’d rather give them something to strive for as drummer.
Obeying Traffic Signals
MD: When the writing cycle begins for a BTBAM record, how do you shift your focus from the techniques you’re practicing into songwriting mode?
Blake: I approach a section or a riff from the mindset of, This song reminds me of Queen, so what would Roger Taylor do? Or This riff sounds like King Crimson, so what would Bill Bruford do in this situation? But I make my own version of that. If I feel a part requires me to lay back, I lay back; if I feel it could benefit from something flashy, I’ll go for it.
MD: Even at their most complex, your parts always complement the music. On the song “Option Oblivion” from Coma Ecliptic, from around 1:00 to 1:30 you play busily, but in a way that you’re not stepping on the vocals.
Blake: You have to find that balance where you’re having fun while staying in your lane. You’re the drummer; your job is to hold down the beat. For that section I knew that although there were vocals and guitars present, what they’re doing is relatively simple, so in a way they’re holding down the rhythm and I’m halfway holding a backbeat while also playing fills.
MD: As a progressive metal band, have you ever written as complexly as possible to feature the amount of technique you possess? Or do you find yourselves trying not to stray so far into the technical stratosphere that it alienates your audience?
Blake: As we’ve gotten older and progressed as a band, we’re approaching songwriting more and more from a compositional standpoint. We want everything to flow naturally and make sense. If you listen to some of our older material, there were constant key changes and meter changes, just for the sake of fitting a cool section in. We weren’t mindful of meter, key, or anything—it was all about cramming as much chaos as possible into one song. I still like that kind of stuff and it’s fun to listen to, but as we’ve progressed as a band we’re definitely trying to write good songs—albeit they’re still a little long for my taste. [laughs] But we’re trying to make one cohesive statement as opposed to five guys trying to play respective solos.
MD: Was the concept for this record conceived before the material was written?
Blake: I think this one’s a little more concept-based lyrically. The record is somewhat musically conceptual; there are a couple themes that are reprised throughout the record. About midway through the writing process, [vocalist/keyboardist] Tommy [Rogers] was trying to find some lyrical inspiration, and he came up with a cool idea about a guy that’s stuck in a coma and going through his past lives.
MD: Since it’s a concept record, are you planning to play the entire album front to back on tour?
Blake: We might do that—I feel that we’re somewhat obligated to. [laughs] I think we’ll play bits from the new record during these first couple tours, and then maybe at some of the later shows we’ll start playing the whole thing through, just to knock it out of the park.
Tools of the Trade
Richardson plays a Tama Starclassic Bubinga kit with 6×8, 6.5×10, and 7×12 toms; 14×14 and 14×16 floor toms; a 14×20 gong drum; and a 14×22 bass drum, with a 6×14 Starphonic brass snare. His Sabian cymbals include 14″ HHX X-Celerator hi-hats, an 8″ HHX Evolution splash, a 10″ HH Duo splash, a 12″ Max Stax China Kang on top of a 12″ AAX O-Zone splash, a 14″ HHX Evolution China on top of an 18″ HHX Power crash, an 18″ AA Metal-X crash, a 20″ AAX X-Plosion crash, a 20″ HH Rock ride, and a 19″ AA Holy China. He plays a Tama Iron Cobra double pedal and Vic Firth 3A wood-tip sticks, and his Remo heads include a Coated P77 snare batter, Clear Emperor tom batters, and a Clear Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter.