Tumors & Tempo Maps: On 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
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.
The Right Book
About three miles from my place there's a used bookstore that I've spent a lot of time in. I like this particular shop because they never have what I want--but next to what I'm looking for, I always find something else that looks good. Consequently, I've ended up reading a few different novels that I never would have opened otherwise.
The employees at this place have always been extremely friendly. As I'm buying my books, I learn a few things about the authors, or I get a good recommendation on other things I need to read.
About three years ago I walked in and a new employee was behind the counter. He appeared to be in his mid-sixties, and he had a sour look upon his face. He was playing good jazz though—something raw, but not too raw. Avant-garde, but not too avant-garde. There was structure and communication going on in that music. It was the kind of music that someone who listened to a lot of Coltrane Quartet would put on in order to keep his or her ears sharp.
Now most of the local bookshops ask that you check in your backpack before you enter the store. Fair enough. But never had I been asked to do so at this particular store—most likely because the entire shop is roughly the size of a large bedroom. So as I'm looking around the store for about five minutes, all of a sudden the man curtly asked me to leave my backpack next to the counter. He's not checking the bag in, mind you, or placing it behind the counter. He wanted me to set it down next to the counter, just leaving it there up for grabs. There was something valuable in my backpack that I wasn't about to leave unattended, so I inquired as to whether their policy had changed. It had not, he informed me. This was news to me. And so we were off to a rough start.
This pissed me off. I had given this bookshop hundreds of my dollars. I threw around the idea that perhaps I wouldn't be doing that anymore—especially if this guy was behind the counter.
As a little bit of time went by I became less indignant. Every few months I'd go in there looking for some book or other. When this guy was working, I'd always get the same cold response. What was this guy's problem? And what's he so bitter about, anyway? He's got good jazz. He's surrounded by thousands of books. What else do you want?
As I kept going in there, at a certain point I decided that I'd try to connect with the guy if the opportunity ever presented itself. After all, I like I jazz. I like books too. Why can't we break some bread? But, whenever I get to the counter, even if I ask him about what he's listening to or reading, all I ever get are curt answers with that sour look.
So last year my parents visit. My Mom's an English teacher and tutor in the inner city, and she is responsible for planting her love of books in both my brother and I (which she tries to impart to all of her students as well). She spends at least half her salary on books. Her entire garage is full of stacked boxes filled to the brim with books. I had to take her to this bookshop, because I knew she'd be in seventh heaven. Sure enough, she gets in there, starts browsing the shelves, and finds a book that my Grandfather's friend had given her as a small child. The copy she found was printed before she was born. She decided to purchase the book.
As she and my dad approach the counter, I stand off a bit so the guy behind the counter won't know I'm with them. I want to gauge his reaction with some other people. Now my folks talk to everyone, and I know this guy will be no exception. My Mom inquires about the book she is purchasing. With that same sour look on his face he gives her those same stereotypical curt answers. He rings her up coldly. As we leave the store I tell her about the employee. She's more excited about her new book than anything else.
So last week I woke up, and decided that it was time to read On The Road. I crawled out of bed, went to my bookshelf, grabbed a few books that had been sitting there for years—books I knew that I was never going to read—and headed out this other huge bookshop that does used trade. After selling back the three books and getting my used credit slip, I wasn't able to find a copy of On The Road that I liked. With books like that, I'm sorry, but you have to get the cover and font right. They had a new copy with some lame cover that embodied everything I understood the Beats to be not, so I decided to tuck the used credit slip into my wallet, and save it for a rainy day. When I left the shop it was a beautiful day out, so I went for a walk.
As I headed home I found myself a block away from the smaller bookshop. Why not go in real quick and see if they had the version I was looking for? I walk in, and there's that same curmudgeon, busy at work behind the counter restoring an old book, sour look upon his face, as always.
I go to the K section, and sure enough, there are 3 different used copies of On The Road. They, in fact, have the exact edition that I was looking for. Now, broke as I am in my current state of never-ending unemployment, I certainly don't have the cash to burn on this right now. But, you can't think about cash with these types of things. You could probably even steal this particular book and go to bed that night with a clear conscience. ("You know what President Truman said? 'We must cut down on the cost of living?'")
I took the Kerouac up to the scowling man in order to purchase the novel. The man put down the old book he was restoring, and took On The Road in hand to ring it up. His face lit up.
"You know when I was younger, after I read this book, my wife and I hitchhiked from here to New York. We hitchhiked back too—all in one week. That was back when hitchhiking wasn't as dangerous as it is now," he explained.
And so we began talking at long last. We discussed Kerouac. We moved onto to other subjects like Bob Dylan's autobiography. As I left the shop the man assured me that I was going to enjoy On The Road. We even exchanged names.
Walking home I finally understood what our problem had been—I had just never grabbed the right book.When not playing drums--punk or jazz--Eric Kamm is reading books.
Brad Morgan Gets To The Heart Of The Matter
Explaining His Drumming On "The Part Of Him" by The Drive-By Truckers
In August of 2013 Brad Morgan and The Drive-By Truckers spent two weeks recording English Oceans, their first album in three years. As usual, they were in their hometown of Athens, Georgia, with David Barbe, their producer whom they consider a member of the band.
When Morgan sets up his kit to record, they mic his tom-tom and floor tom. He rarely uses them. He only hits them, in fact, if he feels that the tune needs them. The tune rarely needs them. Necessity of the part is practically a band philosophy--they only care about the music. "Everybody's playing for that song" Morgan explains, "Not 'Oh, I learned this hot lick. Nobody gives a shit about that. We're all about the song."
The drummer spent part of 2013 touring behind Patterson Hood's newest solo release. They hit the road in a trio format with just Hood, keyboardist Jay Gonzalez, and Morgan. During a sound check Patterson first introduced the song "The Part Of Him" to the two others, and they started messing around with a structure. Things came together effortlessly, and soon enough they were opening sets with the song.
All of The Drive-By Truckers' music naturally develops in this way. While discussing the vibe in the studio, the drummer explained "We record real quick. We go in, we play the song, and we're out. We listen to it, add whatever needs to be added. It's rare that we spend an hour or two working on a song. If it's not working at that moment, then we'll just come back to it. We don't beat nothing to death at all. When I listen to it, I hear mistakes in my playing, but that's just part of the charm of those takes. It's the feel more than anything else."
And Morgan just felt the drum groove on "The Part Of Him." The beat is busier than many of his grooves, and this also developed out of necessity, because there was considerably more musical leeway in a trio setting. "That whole tour we pretty much didn't have bass guitar, so I was kind of just overplaying in a way, to fill the space."
Morgan tried to lay back while Hood was singing, and fill the instrumental gaps in between. This has become second nature to the drummer after playing with Hood for 15 years. "It came out naturally" he explained. "When I heard it played back to me, I heard that I dropped the kick drum real simple during the verses when he was singing, and then when he wasn't singing I would complicate the part a little more with that backbeat kind of thing. Then in the verse I jump back into that straight, solid part."
It says a lot that Morgan added a new level to his drumming on English Oceans by counter-intuitively removing even more from his already restrained style. “On a lot of the songs on the record, I'm not hitting the hi-hat on the snare beat, so that all you're hearing is the snare. It's a very Charlie Watts thing. It helps establish the groove with me a lot of times, so I understand why he does that." For those who aren't familiar, Charlie Watts is known for the fact that when he plays a straight rock beat, he doesn't hit his hi-hat when he hits his snare ("1-e-SNARE-ah!"). It makes the snare sound that much bigger, Morgan explained, which is why he used a similar approach to his bass drum playing as well.
Occasionally The Drive-By Truckers will demo tracks. And as it turns out, two of Morgan's demoed drum tracks were used on English Oceans--the songs "The Part Of Him" and "Grand Canyon." Morgan was able to lay down what the song needed the first time around.