Talking Drums

Bill Stevenson Part 3: Tempo Maps

[UPDATED: July 21, 2014 - Be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2]

Bill Stevenson

Stevenson seems to naturally gravitate to musical experimentation. Take one of his favorite musicians, Ornette Coleman. “Ornette Coleman might be my favorite as a melodicist” Stevenson says of jazz artists. “With Ornette, he had three different careers. Those first two records he did, Something Else!!! the Music of Ornette Coleman (OJC Remasters), and Tomorrow Is the Question --those are really bebop records--but with this impending threat of him taking over the world a couple albums later, which he did. Those are some of the best be-bop records, because the melodies are so strong. Then he did that Skies of America record, where he got The London Philharmonic Orchestra to play with him--and he made them play way up high in their register so it almost sounds like a toy orchestra. That record is amazing. And then those science fiction sessions, a lot of that where there's two bands going at the same time." Stevenson continues. “Then there's all those Atlantic records. That's maybe his most accessible stuff after those first two, cause those first two--you can get them, even if you're not a musician.”

Bill Stevenson

Experimentation on Only Crime’s Pursuance was not limited to song construction--it continued in the studio as Stevenson recorded the album. On all three Only Crime records he captured the drums differently. On their debut effort, To The Nines, Stevenson recorded practically the entire record with the band playing live while he laid down his drum tracks (afterwards each member of the band went back and overdubbed their instruments individually). For their second album, Virulence, Only Crime recorded the final takes of their instruments together, live in the studio--everything except for vocals. For Pursuance, Stevenson captured his drum tracks by using the recording method that he typically uses while producing other bands, which includes the laborious task of creating tempo maps.

A tempo map is a type of computer program that's function is defined in its name. Basically, it's a grid of several tempos that fluctuate throughout a particular song, which Stevenson models after how a band is naturally performing a song. Once the tempo map is created, the guitars (including bass) record scratch tracks. The original tempo map track click track is then removed from the headphone mix, and Stevenson records the drummer playing along with just the scratch guitar tracks--hopefully capturing a more organic track.

For Pursuance it took roughly four to seven days, on and off, to capture the final drum takes. Stevenson prefers not to record for 12 hours at a time, which is luxury he can afford since he owns his own studio. But that's the easy part, for the drummer will be preparing for days before ever hitting the record button, both with his own projects, and while producing other groups.


Bill Stevenson Part 2: Only Crime

[UPDATED: July 21, 2014 - Be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 3]

Only Crime began writing Pursuance--their third full-length--back in 2007. Each band member lives in a different city, so they typically meet up for five days at time at Stevenson's recording studio, and generally flesh out three songs per meeting. Song writing often entails one person bringing in a tune or idea, each member contributing their two cents, then vocalist Russ Rankin working out his vocal melodies alone. Things get tweaked when singer Russ Rankin [of the band Good Riddance] returns with his part.

While there's no formula or agenda for an Only Crime song, Stevenson admits "sometimes I think with Only Crime that we meet convention half way. The verses will be a little more adventurous in terms of the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic landscape, but then the chorus will be something that is maybe a little easier to handle on the first listen. I don't know if that's conscious for us--but we seem to fall into that a lot. Throw them a few wrenches during the verse, but the chorus is not such a difficult thing to digest."

Tumors & Tempo Maps: On Bill Stevenson

[UPDATED: July 21, 2014 - Be sure to check out Part 2 and Part 3]

Bill Stevenson

If you had heard Bill Stevenson perform live between 2007 and 2009, his drumming would have sounded as solid as ever. But if you had been standing close enough to the stage to get a good look at him, you would have noticed that something was wrong. He looked tired. His bandmates later told him that they were worried he was going to have a heart attack onstage.

Looking back, Stevenson recollected that he thought he was just getting old. His vision was deteriorating, and his energy level was slowly decreasing. Doctor's appointment after doctor's appointment, the physicians failed to give him an explanation that felt right. None of this stopped Bill Stevenson from drumming. On the road he continued to tour the world with Only Crime and All. Off the road his life gradually became more sedentary as his health spiraled downward. He was spending less and less time at his recording studio in Fort Collins--The Blasting Room--a studio which has remained the most in-demand EpiFat punk rock studio for the past decade.

Things got worse. In addition to his vision problems, he experienced two pulmonary embolisms from blood clots in his heart, which then triggered sleep apnea, where he'd stop breathing while he slept. Stevenson continued to tour, performing tunes at the same break-neck tempos he played them at as a teenager with groups like Black Flag and The Descendents.

In Christmas of 2009 the doctors finally diagnosed his problem. They discovered a growing brain tumor that was literally pushing his eyeballs out of their sockets. The growth in his head was responsible for his health snowballing from one problem into another. His lack of vision and diminishing energy level had immobilized him all but completely, thus causing his weight to skyrocket, followed shortly thereafter by an array of pulmonary issues and sleep apnea. Fortunately, the brain tumor was benign. Stevenson had drummed through it all. "I guess there's the idea of the reptilian brain" the drummer said laughing, "I could do things that were habit to me, and still do them the same way--even though I wasn't in great physical condition. I could still play shows. I've seen videos of the shows. I sounded fine, but I looked horrible."

And so a simple craniotomy later, and his health problems all but disappeared, and a new Only Crime record surfaced after seven long years.

Yikes! Something went wrong. You should be seeing a video instead of this text.

Bill Stevenson with Only Crime on the tune "Life Is Fair."

Hot Water Music's George Rebelo On Recording Exister

  • By Eric Kamm
  • Published April 8, 2014
  • Exister

    Gainesville At 8:00 P.M.

    As I dialed George Rebelo's number on a Friday night, I accidentally interrupted him while practicing in his garage--a space that he converted into a drum room years ago. It's five P.M. on the West Coast where I'm calling from, so that makes it eight in his hometown of Gainesville, Florida. "It's not quite soundproof" he admits of the space, "but it muffles it a little bit. I can practice till about ten without pissing anybody off."

    Although Rebelo is a member of one of the most respected punk bands of the past twenty years, a group Alternative Press once said had "the tightest rhythm section in punk rock," he's far from complacent with his drumming abilities. He often practices by picking random tunes on his I-Pod and playing along to the music however he might be feeling at that particular moment. Sometimes he playing along to a Barry White track, other times it's Charlie Parker immediately followed by Coheed and Cambria.

    As Rebelo exits his garage and enters his home, there's a great deal of noise in the background as his door swings opens. What I'm hearing is the drummer being greeted by his two dogs, "John Bonham" and "John Paul Jonsey." About a year ago he and his friends had been out walking around they saw a homeless man dragging Jonsey behind his bike--a rope having been tied around her neck. Rebelo's friend ran up to the man and offered him fifty bucks for the dog. Jonsey has been living with Rebelo ever since.

    So as Bonham and Jonsey quite down, Rebelo and I begin discussing his experience recording Hot Water Music's latest release, Exister, and what it was like having the drummer of All, The Descendents, and Black Flag produce the album.


    Rebelo recalled a bit of nervousness entering The Blasting Room to record with punk drumming legend Bill Stevenson. "I remember walking in, and the first thing he said to me was 'Dude, I'm not arrogant enough to think that my ideas are always correct, so I want to listen to everybody's ideas."

    This was the first of three days Hot Water Music would spend with Stevenson narrowing down twenty songs into the fourteen they would record. Hot Water Music had flown to Fort Collins three days prior to go over their new material one last time before meeting up with Stevenson. In recent years the members of HWM have spread out across the country--therefore new songs require demos, and rehearsals are all but out of the question. On two separate occasions parts of the group managed to fly to the same town and jam for a few days. This was a big departure from how the band wrote their first five records (everything but The New What Next) when they were all living in Gainesville.

    "It used to be practice five days a weeks" Rebelo explained, "You'd write a bunch of songs, you'd beat a few songs into the ground and end up hating them, then something would click. You'd be practicing working on them everyday and getting on each other’s nerves. Doing what bands do." Passing demos around instead of collectively jamming out new material had a positive effect on the group. Rebelo said "this way we didn't even have time to get on each others' nerves. When we were all together in the same room, we all wanted to be there, and we were all being creative."

    So as Hot Water Music presented their new songs to Stevenson, he helped them sift through the material. "He wasn't a writing kind of producer" Rebelo explained, "it was more a 'my ears are bored' kind of thing, 'I'm gonna walk away till you guys come up with something cooler.'" Stevenson's advice proved invaluable in propelling the songwriting process forward. "It was fly by the seat of our pants sort of thing. We weren't sitting on parts and rethinking them over and over again--we were working with that we had, and trying to make the best out of it."

    On day four day at The Blasting Room when the songs were decided upon, Stevenson worked alone Tempo Mapping the tunes. Using metronomic software, he programmed a click track that fluctuated in tempo according to how the band naturally felt the song. For instance, maybe a chorus had to be programmed slightly faster than the verses--just to give it a little extra punch. As soon as Stevenson had the tempo framework set, he had the guitarists and bassist come in and recorded their parts over the Tempo map, thus creating a scratch track that Rebelo could play along with while recording his final drum takes. The beauty of this method is that there isn't just a click track in the drummer's headphones while he's trying to breathe life into a tune--because he's accompanying actual music he can play more organically. Butch Vig recorded Rebelo in the exact same way while producing Against Me!'s White Crosses album, and it's a method that Rebelo has found effective.

    The Next "What Next"

    In 2008 I interviewed Rebelo in Pomona, right after Hot Water Music ended their four year hiatus. When I asked about how it felt to be playing together again, he responded "you never forget your first love." Over the last five years it would appear that the group has carefully chosen their moments in regard to both touring and recording.

    It appears to be working out well for the quartet, because in every article I've read on the recording of Exister, the band has had nothing but positive things to say about the experience. "This record, in particular, was a blast" Rebelo said. "We hadn't done a record in many years, and it was great. There have been records in the past where we're all fighting. We've been a band twenty years come October so we've gone through everything. [Laughs] I mean every one of us has quit the band once at some point in time."

    Bill Stevenson & Jason Livermore

    Bill Stevenson runs The Blasting Room with Jason Livermore, who also happens to be an amazing drummer. Between the two of them, they utilize their two primary sound rooms, allowing them to work separately, but simultaneously, on any given day. Thus, neither producer, nor anyone in the band is ever sitting around at their studio. And surprisingly, when tracking begins Bill Stevenson doesn't even touch the drums--he oversees everything from a bird's eye view, but primarily focuses on recording the bass and vocals. Jason Livermore records the drums and guitars. Apparently the two of them have a great time doing it, and even derive a degree of satisfaction from stumping each other in the recording process.

    For example, Rebelo often found Livermore's input invaluable whenever he got stuck in a rhythmic rut. When a drum track was finished, it was, of course, sent right over to Stevenson and bassist Jason Black to begin working on it. However, if Rebelo and Livermore changed a groove or fill in a particular tune, and the new part was more challenging than the original, Livermore would laugh and say "let's see what they do with that!" before sending the drum file over.

    It took three weeks total to record Exister. Every morning they'd begin recording at 8 or 9, and call it around 9 at night. Since The Blasting Room supplies their clients with accommodations, the band didn't have to go far when the day was done. This was fortunate since they entered the studio in the middle of winter--there was snow everywhere, and deer were running around. Often Hot Water Music spent their evenings drinking wine and refining the vocal melodies that Ragan and Wollard brought to the table.

    By the time the three weeks were up, they left Fort Collins with a mixed and mastered full length in their hands.

    Exhausting All Possibilities

    While Stevenson rarely touched the drums throughout the recording process, there was one exception. "Pledge Wore Thin" was a track with a strong downstroke quarter note pulse--a rhythm that both Hot Water Music and The Draft use a lot (think of HWM's track "Swinger," or The Drafts "Hard To Be Around It"). Rebelo often feels locked into certain rhythms whenever the guitarists play these riffs. Since "Pledge Wore Thin" was Stevenson's favorite track on the record, the producer spent a little extra time working with Rebelo exploring groove possibilities. Rebelo understood Stevenson's concern with an oversimplified groove, and was equally enthusiastic about finding a new rhythmic approach to these types of tunes. After many attempts, Rebelo finally turned to Stevenson and said "Bill, I've been playing with this band for eighteen years, I promise you there's nothing we can do to this song without just doing this drumbeat. It sucks, I've been trying to re-write this kind of thing forever, I can't quite do it." Rebelo even asked Stevenson to get behind the kit. "Please try and play this!" he pleaded. Stevenson refused. "I'm not going to try and play drums" he said.

    Rebelo woke the next day and walked in the studio to find Stevenson behind the drum set, playing along to the track with bassist Jason Black. Rebelo recalled that as he walked through the door Stevenson "stood up, and gave me the sticks, and said 'you're right, I can't write anything else besides what you already wrote to it.'"

    Let's face it, the unexamined groove is not worth drumming.

    From A Distance

    It's been two years now since Exister was released. A couple months ago I asked Rebelo off the top of his head what his favorite Hot Water Music record was. He immediately responded "Caution for the songs, and Exister is my favorite."

    Not bad for a handful of demos, and three weeks in Fort Collins.

    Purchase Exister

    Unspoken Double Kick Punk Code

    Throughout life there are many unspoken rules acknowledged by everyone. For example, you always give a pregnant woman your seat on the bus, and you don't address your elders by their first name. I've even heard rumors that in the criminal underworld there are laws like no one ever touches attorneys in or outside of the courtroom--they're just understood to be off limits. And then there's that unspoken rule in the EpiFat punk genre--where every drummer has to play the Bomber Beat (straightforward punk beat) with a single kick pedal. There is, of course, one exception where a double pedal is permissible, and that's when playing drum fills. But, if you're going that route, those better be some mind-bending fills, and you must immediately move back to your single pedal for timekeeping. It's kind of like shooting the moon in the game of Hearts--it's an all or nothing deal.

    So lets go back to 1999. That summer The Warped Tour had a solid lineup, including the likes of The Bouncing Souls, H20, The Vandals, Jimmy Eat World, Blink 182, The Deviates, Dropkick Murphys, Pennywise, Royal Crown Revue, and Less Than Jake. Back then my friend was interning at Side One Dummy Records, so in addition to getting us into Warped for free, he also hooked me up with the Suicidal Tendencies's latest release, Freedumb. At the time, I had only been familiar with Suicidal Tendencies through their connection to Infectious Grooves--a funk sideproject fronted by the same vocalist, Mike Muir. I had been drawn to Infectious Groove's record Groove Family Psycho because of the funk beat played on the opening track "Violent & Funky.

    I had read the drummer's name in the liner notes to both records, but had never heard of him before. Both groups had elements that were extremely funky, aggressive, raw, but always extraordinarily technical. It was not music that you listened to in the same way that you did a pop-punk record, where pleasant melodies and harmonies are spoonfed to your ears. This music got right up in your face, and had to respected, whether you liked it or not. If you listen to Freedumb's third track "Scream Out," you'll see what I mean.

    So as Suicidal Tendencies took the stage that day a tall extremely skinny drummer sat down behind the kit. He bent forward over his drums, almost as if his upper back were leaning exactly 45 degrees forward. His posture was either like that of a skilled boxer mid-match, or a tall scientist bending over a microscope. His arms flailed in every direction, but looked completely relaxed while doing so--relaxed like Tiger Woods looks when taking a practice swing. The precision in which he took aim with those sticks was like watching a skilled surgeon use chopsticks at the dinner table.

    What followed was something that honestly has left an impression on me since. I will never forget the drummer's footwork that day. Every drummer can remember seeing things done on kit for the first time, where you say to yourself "I didn't know that was humanly possible." This drummer was playing some of the fastest fills I had ever heard before, and he was playing parts of them with just his feet. Now this was 15 years ago, so most of what's left of the memory is an overall impression of how he performed the tunes live that day. And I don't want to mistakenly describe someone else's style, so please don't quote me--but I have this vague recollection of these lightning fast call and response sixtuplets played between his hands and feet--where he'd play the first six notes on just his snare drum, then respond with six bass drum notes played simultaneously with crash hits. But, I'm positive that those forceful fills kept coming, and they certainly sounded improvised.

    To this day, that was the single greatest reason that I've ever heard live, or on record, for an EpiFat drummer to use a double-bass drum pedal. That drummer, of course, was Brooks Wackerman.