Since 2011, the British technical metalcore group Oceans Ate Alaska has been carving its way through the modern hardcore scene, driven by drummer, primary composer, and chops madman Chris Turner. After releasing two EPs in 2012, the group signed to Fearless Records and released a full-length, Lost Isles, in 2015. A growth in popularity and a slew of tours followed, including a prime spot on 2016’s Vans Warped Tour.
Turner packs jagged and unique patterns, incredible speed, and breakneck time changes into OAA’s catalog. On the group’s brand-new full-length release, Hikari, the drummer only turns up the intensity, at the same time adding Japanese and jazz-influenced nods. On “Deadweight,” four terse guitar chugs trigger a roaring avalanche of double bass blasts in the opening section before the group hammers into a syncopated groove. Feel shifts weave in and out of “Covert” while holding true to the song’s original tempo. Jazz brushwork even sneaks its way into the album’s title track. And Josh Manuel, drummer for the American metal band Issues, joins Turner for a burning drum escapade on “Ukiyo.”
Turner started playing when he was four, after seeing his father drum at a festival. Now twenty-three, he’s defining his own voice after spending years studying, developing chops, and grinding in the metal world. An adamant defector from the sample-replacement trend and an unyielding believer in hard work, Turner is making statements and backing them up with his playing.
MD: What was the recording process for the new album?
Chris: It was intense. I did a lot on this record, from composing to engineering to performing to co-producing. The only bits that I didn’t engineer were my drums and most of the vocals.
I have a home studio, so I recorded a lot of it and edited it down. And I had some pretty strict deadlines: I had to have it all done before I flew to Detroit to record my drums. I only finished it three days before I had to leave for Detroit, which gave me a whole three days to practice the album.
MD: Why did you choose Detroit to record the drums and vocals?
Chris: Hikari’s producer, Nick Sampson, works in a studio in Detroit, and he’s absolutely remarkable. And engineering a record is time consuming. If we went with Nick for the entire record, it would’ve been a lot more money, and it would’ve been time pressured. We probably would’ve had just two weeks for guitars. And it would have been long, stressful hours. I suggested recording most of it at my studio over a whole month to make sure everything was perfect. And it went down exactly like that, up until the last week, when I was like, “Shit, I need to practice my drum parts before heading to Detroit. Can we get it done now?”
We also went to Nick for a few other reasons. The studio he works in has a huge live room. And he often doesn’t need to use any artificial reverb—it’s just the room sound. With the drums tuned up, my snare sounded like a little bomb going off. It was mad. There were echoes around the whole room, and you just feel so powerful every time you hit the snare. It was like, “Oh, I’m the king of this room now.” [laughs]
So we went there for the live room, and of course for Nick’s knowledge and production value. We have a new singer in the band now, Jake [Noakes], and we needed to make sure that he came out with a bang and really wowed everyone. Good vocal production was a top priority. So Jake and I flew out to Detroit to record drums and vocals. We spent probably three days just tuning drums. I don’t know if you’re aware, but we did 100 percent natural drums. There were no triggers, sample replacements, or sample blends. It’s all real drums.
MD: Are triggers or samples a concern for you or musicians in your genre? Are you worried about someone’s perception?
Chris: I’m not worried that people are going to kick off and say, “He replaced his drums with samples. It’s not him playing it—it’s all fake.” That’s not what I’m worried about.
The reason I did this is because today, triggering is expected in our type of music. And the way the technology has advanced, it’s almost an industry standard. It’s just an expectation. You do a metal record and you replace the drums with big, fat samples that cut and are dynamically even. You just do it.
But my point is that you don’t have to. If you spend the time tuning your drums properly and learning how to hit them hard enough to get these tones, you can actually play it. Because it’s kind of gone backwards in my head. It started out with real drummers hitting hard, and then people discovered triggers. And then it kind of started to go backwards a bit, because people started using longboards on their pedals and they’d just tickle their kick drum so they could play quickly. If you hear how hard they’re hitting, you could flick the drumhead with your finger and get a louder sound. Instead of people playing it for real, they started to hide behind the technology and use it to their advantage.
When I said to Nick, “Let’s break the mold. Let’s do it for real,” you should have seen his face. He was terrified! [laughs] But he’s an established producer. He’s expected to meet the requirements of producing a metal record, and you have to have big, massive drums. The kick drum should sound like a bomb, and the snare drum has to sound massive. So we spent three days tweaking tuning, adjusting snare wires, and swapping out and moving mics. Eventually we went into the control room, listened, and everyone loved it.
And that’s my message. I want to show the world that you can do it too, without triggers or samples. You just have to learn how. And I think the mindset is going to flip. To me, today, what’s cool is being authentic without relying on technology. And I’m hopeful that it sets off a new trend of not relying on technology and going back a step.
Also, it just sounds better. You can’t change the fact that a real drum, with a real microphone, sounds better than a trigger. It still has snare and cymbal bleed. And the different velocities, the slightly different accents, where you hit the drumhead—those factors give it that real edge. It’s unique, and it can’t happen like that again. Capturing that on a record is so much more important than having the same clean, one-shot kick trigger go on for a whole record. That sound starts to give you a headache.
MD: What inspired the album’s Japanese theme?
Chris: There’s a U.K. composer and producer named Bonobo. The stuff that he does is staggering. He’s not like your standard hip-hop instrumental producer who might only use sample banks. He does it for real. The last time I saw him, he brought an orchestra, a choir, and a live drummer. And he plays these instrumental hip-hop backing tracks. But he plays it for real instead of sampling it. And I absolutely adore it. A lot of the Japanese ideas and production ideas are inspired by people like Bonobo. And after spending time coming up with those weird, wacky Japanese ideas, they felt like my little baby.
This is kind of why I don’t consider myself a metal drummer. I don’t really take inspiration from that much metal. I take a lot of inspiration from elsewhere. But at the same time, I can’t change my roots. I grew up loving really heavy stuff. I grew up on death metal like Despised Icon. So my head and heart are in harder styles of music. But I take inspiration from everything else and try to weave it into my own little weird world of metal.
MD: What was it like recording “Ukiyo” with Josh Manuel?
Chris: That song was almost entirely improvised on my end. Josh recorded his parts before me, so I had to mold my parts into his. But a lot of that was done on the fly.
MD: How’d you guys decide to do that one together?
Chris: We met on Warped Tour. And we hung out pretty much every day. We had a little drum crew, and even if the whole drum crew didn’t meet, Josh and I would play together. He initially asked me how to play metric modulations, so over the course of the tour I taught him how to do it.
For Hikari, the record label suggested getting a guest vocalist or guitarist on the album. Instead of a typical guest soloist or vocalist, I was thinking that I wanted Josh on the record. So I called him, and he said, “I’d absolutely love to, but I’m not doing the whole song without you.” Originally I was going to write “Ukiyo” for him. So I said, “I’ll only play with you if you promise to modulate with me.” [laughs]
So we go back and forth with ideas for a bit, improvising within the guidelines I programmed for the song. I start off a modulation at one point, and he continues it. It was awesome to see that the foundation of our friendship was kind of based on that musical conversation, and it’s so rad to be playing together again. And the song’s just a totally different piece altogether.
MD: After the first phrase in “Covert,” it sounds like you switch to a triplet feel.
Chris: I do. The whole song is just one tempo. Whether I’m listening to a triplet click or I’m listening to a straight click, that might change, but the whole song is one tempo. It doesn’t change once.
The great thing about modulation is that you can pretty much choose any note value, and as long as you keep that going, then you’ve got yourself a new click track. You can play in a parallel universe next to the current track.
MD: Do you always base tempo changes on a metric modulation?
Chris: It’s entirely dependent on the song. A lot of people say to me, “The music you write is so random and sporadic.” I hate the word random. I spend many hours a day for weeks on end figuring out the most perfect way to get my idea into a track. And you wouldn’t believe how ridiculously specific it is. Everything happens for a reason. And then someone comes along and asks, “It’s random, isn’t it? Did you just pick a number out of the sky?” But I’ve put so much work into it. It’s not random. It’s a dynamic change that suits the rollercoaster of the song. Maybe the song has gotten a bit stagnant, where you’ve settled into your groove and it’s kind of been there for a while. People might start to lose focus.
One thing I find with the listening experience is if something happens for a little too long, it’s easy to start talking or fiddling with something in your hand. I don’t like that. I like to have my listener the whole way. Sometimes when I get to the end of a phrase, I’ll think that it’s time for a change. Sometimes I’ll deliberately put in a very dissonant note or a weird phrase to catch people’s attention. And then I’ll completely throw them off. It’s a dynamic journey.
Sometimes it might be a tempo that transitions into another tempo. But the only way it happened was just a pure feeling. And then sometimes it’s also created mathematically. It’ll be a triplet set up by a triplet fill. Or it’ll be a dotted-quarter-note fill that leads into a modulation based on the dotted quarter note, and it flows really well like that. Again, it’s all based on feeling and the dynamic of the track.
MD: How did you develop your technique?
Chris: I view practice as being completely nonmusical. And this is the only time I’ll say this, because drums are a musical instrument. Drums are about language and expression. But I view practice as training, like in an athletic sense. Drumming is physical. So for things like my kick drumming, I’ll isolate my kick drum, pedal, and stool. I’ll set a click track with a timer—maybe ninety seconds or two minutes. And I won’t be at my fastest speed. I’ll just be at my comfort speed. But holding it for that time burns. It makes you sweat, and it makes you out of breath. And I train, just like a runner trains around a track.
And a lot of people say to me, “Well, why the hell are you doing that? It’s not musical.” But if I don’t [do it that way], it restricts me. I have these musical ideas in my head, and I hear what I want to do. And if I get behind a kit and I can’t physically do that—if there’s a block, or a barrier restricting me from doing that, then it’s impeding my music. So I train it in a nonmusical sense, in an athletic sense. And then when I drop it back into the kit, I’m back into a musical frame of mind, and I can do all of the things that I want to do. The worst thing in the world is having an idea in your head and then getting behind the kit and being physically unable to do it because you can’t reach the speeds. That to me is kind of heartbreaking.
MD: Do you have any specific motions that you use?
Chris: I use heel-toe for our longer parts. But I don’t use a longboard or a trigger. I use heel-toe, and I hit hard. People ask me how I do heel-toe without a longboard, and I say that I have to put my feet in a certain position. They might say that they can’t do that because their feet are too small. And I’m like, “Try this position, or try that.” There are a million variables, which is why I say that I use my own little Chris Turner heel-toe or swivel-toe technique.
And my technique is loose. I use several different motions depending on the part. With technique, there’s no one method that helps you do everything. Different techniques serve different purposes, and it’s different for everyone. Everyone has different-sized feet that won’t fit on the same pedal boards, or different body types. Those factors change how you sit and can change everything.
It’s kind of hard to say, “This technique will work for you.” Because it might not. It’s all about who you are and how it works for you. It’s a lot of trial and error. When I’m teaching, I say, “These are the guidelines for this technique. This is loosely what you want to be doing.” But realistically you’ve got to put the hours in. All these little adjustments that only you can figure out will shape up over time, and it’ll be your technique that works for you.
MD: Do you feel that drummers are looking for shortcuts?
Chris: One hundred percent, and it breaks my heart. During lessons, I’ll show students something that I feel is suitable for their level. And they might sigh and say, “I can’t do that. It’s too hard.” And I think, You haven’t even picked up your sticks. You haven’t even attempted it. Just try. They just want to be able to do it. And if it requires a bit of work, they can’t be bothered. They want the instant gratification you get from having a smartphone or social media. But that’s not work. And people think that’s the case with everything. They’re growing up on this. And then they think that the rest of the world’s like that. But it’s not. And it’s just so heartbreaking.
And it drives me insane when people say to me, “We’re not all Chris Turner. We can’t just do it like you.” I think, What do you mean? Did you think that I just picked up sticks and could do it? That’s one of the most insulting things you could say to me. All of the ridiculously hard hours of work I’ve put in over the past ten-plus years, you’re completely writing them off. I put the hard work in, and I’m showing you how I did it. You’ve got to put the hard work in too. Just go and do it.
MD: Do you think it’s a question of someone’s “natural talent”?
Chris: That’s another phrase that I don’t like hearing. I’m a strong believer in hard work. I don’t actually believe in talent. I think that anyone can be talented if they want to be. If anyone wants to do this, they can do it. You just have to push. There’s no substitute for grind.
Chris Turner plays DW drums, Sabian cymbals, Remo heads, and Vic Firth drumsticks.