On The Cover

Ilan Rubin

It’s tough to tell where his aesthetic as multi-instrumental leader of the New Regime ends and his highly involved support in Nine Inch Nails and Angels & Airwaves begins—this complete musician brings a panoply of talents to bear on every gig he graces.

Story by Ken Micallef
Photos by Alex Solca

If you’ve seen Ilan Rubin with Nine Inch Nails, Paramore, or Angels & Airwaves, you know this twenty-seven- year-old drummer is a beast, creating bludgeoning rhythms that are also beautiful in their shape, eccentricities, dynamic range, and sheer onslaught of energy.

Rubin plays with the power and passion of his hero John Bonham, but with a sophistication and exacting approach borne of his own imposing intellect. When performing—hair flying, head swaying, limbs punching, and rhythms propelling from every part of his 5-foot-11 frame—Rubin is totally caught up in the drums while focusing equally on everything around him.

With Nine Inch Nails, Rubin must perform on drumset to a click, trigger samples from electronic pads, and gel with the band; occasionally he’ll also play keyboards, bass, and guitar. In Paramore, his slamming assault comes from his left-hand hi-hat figures and a monstrous right-hand 2-and-4 snare drum smash. A significant collaborator in Tom DeLonge’s Angels & Airwaves, where he can sometimes be seen backstage working on his classical piano technique, Rubin brings it all together: composer, colossal drummer, and savage interpreter of all things rhythmic.

Not surprising for a musician who cites Led Zeppelin and Ludwig van Beethoven as equal influences, Rubin is a multi-instrumentalist who plays everything in sight as effectively as he demolishes his Q Drum Co. kit. His musical alias, the New Regime, is treated with the same intense zeal that he brings to each project he plays on. Following Coup (2008), Speak Through the White Noise (2011), and Exhibit A (2013), Rubin released Exhibit B this past March. A stylistically diverse EP that posits Rubin the drummer as part Bonham, part Stewart Copeland, and part Jojo Mayer, Exhibit B moreover presents the New Regime in the grand tradition of David Bowie, Queen, the Police, and Trent Reznor. It’s classic rock for 2015.

Modern Drummer has been with Rubin from the start, declaring him Best Undiscovered Drummer Under the Age of Eighteen when he was only eleven years old. It was clear then, and it’s only truer today—no matter what he plays, Ilan Rubin makes the drums sing.

Tools, Tones, and Time Well Spent

MD: You recorded the New Regime’s Exhibit B while on the road with Nine Inch Nails. How and why did you do that?

Ilan: I like to be as productive as possible. I’d always have a guitar, bass, and MIDI controller with me on the road so that I could add music to preexisting tracks I’d recorded at home. I like to record big drum sounds in a larger room, so I recorded drums at the Angels & Airwaves studio in San Diego or at my home studio, where most of the vocals and other instruments are recorded with my brother Daniel engineering.

MD: Did you record Exhibit B with your Nine Inch Nails touring set?

Ilan: I used my black-stained mahogany Q set on tour with Nine Inch Nails, but on the record I used a copper Q set with an assortment of snare drums from Q’s Plate series, which are very thick drums, as well as some aluminum snares and Ludwig Supraphonics.

MD: What are the benefits of recording with copper drums?

Ilan: Q Drum was started in 2010 by Jeremy Berman, who was a builder at Orange County Drum and Percussion when I joined them at the age of twelve. I joined Q as a player and on the business side of things. What sets Q apart are the different materials we use to make drums, including galvanized steel, cold-rolled steel, brass, and copper, as well as mahogany, maple, and acrylic.

What makes the metal drums sound extra good are the maple reinforcement hoops. That allows the head to sit on a proper bearing edge, so you’re getting that attack and warmth. The tone of the drum comes from the shell material. Copper makes for a very dynamic and sonically interesting sound that I love. A copper kit was the first metal set I used, when I toured with Paramore.

MD: How do other metals differ from the tone of the copper set?

Ilan: Brass would be brighter and louder; cold-rolled steel has a slightly darker presence but a nice open quality. The metal kits resonate well and are livelier than maple. Every drummer has his or her preference. If I could I wouldn’t have a hole in the front bass drum head, because I like the boom and the response from the drums when playing live. In terms of playing an instrument that is resonant and boomy and very lively, I get that from the metal drums, regardless of room acoustics.

MD: Are Q metal drums more expensive than traditional wood drums?

Ilan: They’re not as much as you think…they’re within reach. Q Drum has a unique perspective in having a respect for craftsmanship and that affinity for vintage sound and feel, but done with a more modern, rugged perspective. Jeremy has built drums for twenty years and has teched for many bands, including Queens of the Stone Age, Muse, and Nine Inch Nails. He has his finger on the pulse of live drummers, and that’s priceless.

Rubin’s Reznor Regime

MD: How has working with Trent Reznor influenced you?

Ilan: When I started with Nine Inch Nails in 2010, I realized that everything you hear about Trent in terms of his iron work ethic is true. From a young age I was taught to treat being a musician as a real skill, and if I wanted to make a business out of it I had to be smart about it. Even at fourteen I felt a lack of professionalism with some bands I played in. At twenty, when I joined Nine Inch Nails, I thought, This is the kind of organization I want to be a part of.

MD: What has that gig taught you in terms of your drumming?

Ilan: What is unique about Nine Inch Nails’ music is that it’s electronically based, so as a drummer you have to approach it with a certain discipline. It’s not enough to know the structures. A lot of the signature parts of Trent’s music are the beats. So although I was encouraged to have a human element, I still have to approach it with serious precision. The beat for each section of the song is that specific beat. The leeway comes when I get to improvise.

There’s a song called “Piggy” where every [Nine Inch Nails] drummer has taken a solo at the end. You play in and out of time and have a chaotic thing happening. So it was approaching music with a different kind of precision and discipline, but all the while being encouraged to play like me.

MD: In the instances when Trent has said to make a song your own, which ones have you changed the most in terms of your drum part?

Ilan: One song that comes to mind is “Suck.” It has a very distinct and solid groove throughout the verses and choruses, but the live intro had a bit of a solo or improv section. I showed up playing exactly what [Jerome Dillon played] on And All That Could Have Been, the live album from the Fragility tour. I recall Trent saying, “That sounds like something Jerome played. Do something else, something you’d play.” So I did. And as I said earlier, every Nine Inch Nails drummer has made the end of “Piggy” his own, so I always had a great time changing that up when it was in the set.

MD: Are you playing with a lot of electronics on tour with NIN?

Ilan: A fair amount. I have two electronic pads on either side of me. The samples they trigger change from song to song. I’m also playing on top of a lot of sequences, and everything is to a click. The drums are driving the show, but I’m playing to sequences and other things that need to be right on the beat. For example, “March of the Pigs” demands an intricate beat, but it’s exactly what it is—there’s no deviating from that. Learning fifty to seventy songs over a year and a half, I’m learning all these beats that have to be played note for note. Nine Inch Nails is the only gig where I’ve had to approach it that way, and it’s been great.

MD: How did you initially meet the challenge—practice, memorization, charts?

Ilan: I’m very quick to pick things up, so I pride myself on adapting. Memorization comes into play when you’re learning the initial batch of songs to rehearse, which could number in the fifties. The only time I ever made a chart was for a song called “Demon Seed.” It had very intricate editing on the album, so I charted it out and memorized it. It was a lot of effort to play it only once, but at least I got it!

MD: What are the hardest songs to play with Nine Inch Nails?

Ilan: “The Collector” is a song that we played only a handful of times. It was a lot of fun, but with its time signature being 13/8—or a bar of six followed by a bar of seven, however you want to look at it—it could very easily fall off the tracks. I wouldn’t call it difficult per se, but I would really focus on making sure that beats were never dropped or skipped. It took a lot of mentally blocking out other people’s rhythms as well.

MD: How do you maintain such a high level of energy live?

Ilan: I suppose I build up stamina during rehearsals, but it’s really just the way I play. If I don’t feel like I’m putting my all into a performance, I feel like I’m short-changing the audience.

MD: What’s your pre-show warm-up routine?

Ilan: Stretches for forearms, wrists, legs—getting the whole body ready to go. Warming up on a pad is fine, but for the way I play I really benefit from my entire body being loose, not just my wrists and forearms. It’s a very physical performance.

MD: What is essential in every tour rider for you?

Ilan: Nothing is essential, but I’d always ask for a bar of milk chocolate and some Cokes. I’m easy!

Rubin’s New Regime

MD: How do you generally track with the New Regime?

Ilan: My writing process includes making scratch tracks. I lay them down, and then I rerecord the instruments. I might lay down a song fast with everything in the computer, including programmed drums, or I might record a fast live drum track. Then I’ll rerecord the drums to the backing tracks. Once the drums are set, I replace each element, one by one. I like to experiment a lot. Ideas will come from that.

MD: “Where I’ve Headed All Along,” the opening track from Exhibit B, sounds like two different drum machine rhythms. There’s the main, meaty rhythm, and another that sounds like music from the ’70s computer game Pong playing over the top.

Ilan: I had a sequenced loop in mind. I created that on a Dave Smith Instruments Poly Evolver, using its sixteen-step sequencer. Then I started twiddling knobs to create the pitch. It needed a gutsier sound, so I programmed a loop using a kick drum sound, and on each step I changed the tuning of the bass drum so it has that melody. That’s the main loop rhythm. Then the ping-pongy sounds are from the original synth demo track, which I cut out and inserted into a new loop.

MD: At the song’s halfway point it sounds like there are separate programmed hi-hats and stick clicks.

Ilan: Those all came from an Elektron Machinedrum. It’s great for creating those signature electronic drum sounds, and the tweakability is great. You can take something very standard like an 808 drum sound and mutate it into something completely different. The hi-hats are from the Machinedrum, and the stick-click thing is actually another hi-hat sound that I decreased the decay on. Decreasing decay gives you a punchy sound. I liked doing that to get different percussive elements.

MD: “Smokescreen” is a great song; you’re playing those big groove accents on 2 and the “&” of 3, and you play lots of ghost notes. The groove sounds like it’s based on a drum corps cadence.

Ilan: I wrote the song on guitar, so the snare drum is accenting the guitar line. All the verses are both hands rolling on the Q Brass Plate 7×14 snare drum with that marching quality. I’m keeping time with my left foot on the hi-hat.

MD: “The Longing” starts with what sounds like the classic drum ’n’ bass loop from “Amen, Brother” by the Winstons.

Ilan: No, that’s me. We set up a very trashy microphone off to the left side of the kit. It was further EQ’ed and compressed to get that old, crackly sound. It runs throughout the song. I liked the quality of the beat, and we recorded it quickly. That’s the only song I’ve written that started with the drums. Then we added other elements, many of which I did on tour.

MD: Are you playing the same pattern on the live drums in that song?

Ilan: Yes. But I thought of the primary drum pattern as more of a jazz thing than drum ’n’ bass. That’s why I’m playing ride cymbal. The bass is not walking as in jazz, but the notes are holding down the foundation while the drums are playing a more up-tempo thing.

MD: Later in the song you play drum breaks that recall big band swing triplets around the kit.

Ilan: That kind of tempo and style allowed me to play those sorts of fills, which I otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to play.

MD: How did you achieve that spacey drum sound in “Let the Space Remain”? Were plug-ins used?

Ilan: That’s the Elektron Machinedrum put through a tape echo. I wanted that to sound like a mechanical accompaniment to the strummy acoustic guitars.

MD: The last cut, “Voices Calling,” sounds like Pink Floyd with Nick Mason on drums. Is that a correct stylistic reference?

Ilan: Absolutely. That’s one where I specifically wanted that dry, dead, in-your-face drum sound. When you have nothing but a slow pulsing piano and deep bass, you have all that space to fill in. It’s a Ringo, Nick Mason thing going on there. Pop structures are there for a reason, and I wanted to approach this from more of a classical perspective than, say, verse/chorus. I wanted it to be very haunting and atmospheric—pulsating dynamics that fall and rise and then fall apart and explode with the piano-concerto-style playing.

For Every Job a Description

MD: “The Longing” has such mad drum fills—why aren’t there more moments like that on Exhibit B?

Ilan: It’s tough. People often expect me to write drum-centric music. But the New Regime isn’t a showcase for my drumming. It’s a place to write songs and do everything else. The more music I get under my belt, the more I find little spots to showcase my drumming. But I’m very conscious of doing it in the most tasteful way that I can.

MD: How do you change hats from band to band?

Ilan: I play what’s required. I really do my homework and go in there knowing the songs like the back of my hand and the way [the demo or original track] was recorded. I go in playing exactly what was recorded, and if they ask for more of my own thing, then I’ll spice things up. As a hired gun you’re there to provide the backbone so the band can do their thing. I wait for them to ask if they want me to spice things up.

MD: You have a great touch on the drums, no matter the style or artist. What advice can you give on getting great tone through touch?

Ilan: It comes from paying attention to consistency. If you’re playing heavy music or rock, focus on your dynamic consistency. And if you’re playing something softer and more dynamic, really focusing on staying within that dynamic zone makes you more aware of how you’re actually playing. Dynamics and touch hang side by side for me. Paying attention to consistency leads to more control.

MD: You always play with broad dynamics on record. That’s rare in rock music today.

Ilan: I agree. Bonham is a legend, and he’s my favorite drummer. People always discuss his power and hard-hitting attack, but they completely miss his incredible finesse and dynamics. They think of him as a gorilla, but that ignores all the other stuff that made him great. I do think dynamics get lost in a lot of modern recording, and that’s just the taste of the times. There’s a lot of editing and sound replacement happening, and I don’t know if I can attribute that fault entirely to drummers.

MD: What do you practice now?

Ilan: I love playing drums, but when I’m on tour I’m playing drums every night for hours at a time. When I’m at home I play piano or guitar, so drums are the last thing I do. I don’t get rusty. I can play at any time.

MD: How do people discover the New Regime?

Ilan: I’m constantly surprised by people who comment on a video or tweet, “Hey, man, I had no idea that you sang. I really like this song.” Everyone finds the music in their own way. Many people have no idea that I play other instruments or write songs. On the flip side, when I tour with the New Regime, I love it when people have no idea of my other affiliations. It’s great when people judge the music on [its own merits].

MD: How can a drummer who wants to lead a band overcome the stigmas?

Ilan: Whew! I’d say be prepared for an uphill battle. I don’t mean to sound dramatic. I’ve had people who’ve supported me from the beginning, but there are those who need to be convinced to pay attention to my other projects. So if you want to lead a band, do it at one hundred percent. Anything less doesn’t work for anybody. If it’s something you want to accomplish, then a hundred percent is the only way.

Ilan’s Setup

Drums: Q Drum Co. black-stained mahogany with aluminum stripe inlays
A. 7×14 Aluminum Plate snare
B. 10×14 tom
C. 16×16 floor tom
D. 16×18 floor tom
E. 14×26 bass drum

Cymbals: Zildjian
1. 15″ K Light hi-hats
2. 20″ K crash/ride (or A medium crash)
3. 24″ K Light ride

Hardware: DW, including 5000 series bass drum pedal

Sticks: Vater Nude 1A

Heads: Remo Coated X14 snare batter, Controlled Sound dot tom batters and Clear Ambassador bottoms, and Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter

Electronics: Roland KD-7 bass drum trigger (on pedal) and PD-8 drum pads, Apple MainStage app with apulSoft apTrigga2 plug-in for sampling, Native Instruments Maschine groove production studio