Ben Cole of The Datsuns
Hometown: Cambridge, New Zealand
Previous Bands: Nouveau Riche, Pugnaut, Psyclops
With their retro-'70s rawk sound, The Datsuns rode the same early 2000s garage band wave as White Stripes, The Hives, and The Strokes. But the band's seeds were first sewn in 1997, when bassist/vocalist Dolf de Borst, guitarist Phil Buscke, and drummer Matt Osment formed the band Trinket while still schoolboys in Cambridge, New Zealand. After changing their name to The Datsuns in 2000, the band released its first single, “Super Gyration!,” and two years later became media darlings in the UK after signing with the British V2 label. In 2006, Ben Cole replaced Osmet after the release of the Datsun’s third album, Outta Sight/Outta Mind, and can be heard playing drums on the band's latest release, Headstunts, released on April 14.
How would you describe the feel of the new album?
To me it's a mix of pop hooks with the energy, sounds, and forward propulsion of rock and punk. There's a little bit of psychedelic prog in there too unless I'm much mistaken. There's some songs on it that are a pants-down race to the climax, but there's a couple of five minute slow burners, and there's some classic Datsuns riffage too.
What is your favorite drum part on the new album?
I really like the first half of “Eye Of The Needle.” I think it builds really nicely. It starts on the toms and slowly adds in snare, hi-hat, and cymbals, and then brings it up for when the big guitar riff comes in for the end half of the song. It's great fun to play too! That song came from a jam we were messing around with when we were writing the album. It started life as a half hour psychedelic noise-fest and we all loved playing it, so it got pared down to five minutes, and it usually closes the show these days. It's a great ending song.
Did you change your drum parts much throughout the recording process?
Yeah, I found when recording that just from listening back to the takes so much, we would all notice things that just didn't sit right and would need to be changed a bit, or I would play something off the top of my head that would make a part or a section perk up and take off. The same thing happens as the songs get played every night in the show as well. Everything is in a slow state of flux, being refined slightly by all of us, just a little bit at a time, all the time. It's not really intentional, it just happens. As we all change so do the songs, I guess. It's great when suddenly someone plays something that just takes off and we all run with it. It can make an old song new again.
You guys self-produced your last couple albums. Why did you decide to take that approach?
Everyone knows what they want in regards to songs and sounds, so it worked out best if we just did it ourselves. Scott Newth, who has been the bands live engineer forever, was the main engineer, which worked out great. He's heard the band more times than anyone, so he knew what would work and what wouldn't, and he really knows his stuff. He got some great sounds, and because we all knew him so well and vice versa, there weren't any clashes or misunderstandings. He was first in the control room at the start of the day, and the last to leave as well.
How prepared were you before going into the studio?
We had been rehearsing and writing in Germany for four or five months immediately prior to recording, so we were very well prepped and organized with structures and forms, which order to record the songs in, what kind of sounds we wanted for which songs, all that kind of thing. We wanted to go in and get to work, not waste time and patience with things that should have already been done. That allowed us to work quite quickly initially, so we didn't run out of time further down the track, when those unavoidable hiccups occur.
How long did it take to track your drum parts?
It ended up being about two weeks. We would get one or two done each day, usually in the morning, and use the afternoons and evenings for bass and guitars, guide vocals and such, and I think we ended up with 17 drum tracks in total. We used 12 for the album, and some for B-sides, and some of the songs kind of dropped by the wayside. We ended up having a little bit of spare time near the end, so we did a couple of extra tracks just in case, but we didn't need them in the end. They'll remain sitting in the archives somewhere, I guess. Lost tracks!
Did you record to a click track? How well did that work?
I did record with a click, and it worked out surprisingly well! I found it really comfortable and even comforting to have a click in my headphones. For the first drum track we recorded I didn't have it going, and we spent so much time when we were listening back to it with a metronome trying to decide if it was speeding up or slowing down – it was ridiculous! As soon as we had the click going, it was immediately clear if the tempo was changing, so it saved us a lot of time and tempers from being frayed. I could tell as I was recording if I got too far out as well, so I could just start again. Invaluable timesaver! I really enjoyed having it there.
Did you record your tracks with the entire band or alone?
I recorded almost all of the drums just on my own in the room, but with one of the other guys playing along with me in my headphones from the control room, doing a scratch guitar. We had played the songs together as a band so many times by then, I knew them inside out. There were a couple of songs which Dolf or Christian [Livingstone, guitar] recorded their parts at the same time in the room with me, but mostly it was just me. I really enjoyed doing it that way, with just a few low lamps going – me, a click, and a guitar. I could really focus and concentrate. Then it wasn't a chore to be up to take 12 and still have not got it down, because it was great fun just playing. It was like playing along to a favorite album you know really well.
Do you play to a click or samples on stage?
I don't play to a click on stage, and our songs don't have any samples in them, it's just four guys on stage, playing off each other. I think you can be less concerned with having perfect meter when you're playing live in a loud full-on rock band, and more concerned with putting on the best show you can. If it speeds up a bit, then that's part of it for me.
Describe your favorite aspect of touring.
Apart from playing, I would have to say getting to travel to parts of the globe I never thought I would, and seeing fantastic architecture and meeting great people. Hearing strange accents and reading words that you have no idea what they mean. Getting to experience what it's like to be the foreigner, the outsider who can't speak the language. But also, even though you can't have a conversation, you can always make yourself understood, you can still play music and make someone's night. Music is a universal language of it's own no matter where you are.
Do you wear earplugs, in-ears, or monitors with no earplugs?
I wear earplugs when I play live for protection. I never used to wear any, and as a result I've lost some top end off my hearing, so now I always wear them. They help me hear myself when I'm doing backing vocals too.
Do you play your drum parts onstage exactly the same way that you recorded them?
Initially I did, but as time goes by, I find that the songs are slowly changing on their own. The album version is the way the songs were when we recorded them, but the live version is however the songs are at that particular moment. There's no massive sudden changes, but there'll be different fills, different kick drum or snare patterns going on, different little things. I think it keeps it interesting for us and for the audience.
How much room do you have to improvise on stage?
As long as it's in the spirit of the song, I guess I'm free to do what I want, really. If I got too far out, I'm sure the rest of the guys would give me "the look", but I want to do what's right for the song anyway. There's a couple of songs that have jam sections in the middle that are semi worked out in regards to cues and such, so that's pretty much a 'do what you will' kind of time. There are other songs though that have a specific drum part or hook, and if that got changed it wouldn't be so great, so it's just down to making sure that the song as a whole doesn't suffer just so I can play something different.
How do you stay healthy while you're on the road?
There's such a temptation to stuff your face with everything on offer while you're touring. There's always delicious food and drink, not to mention all the alcohol that's around, but you just have to make sure you balance out anything you might overindulge in with a countermeasure, whether that be foregoing the junk food stop at 3:00 in the morning and eating steamed vegetables for a couple of days, or drinking loads of water and fruit juice instead of beers and whiskey. I'm a vegetarian, so in some of the more meat-centric European countries it can be really hard to get anything to eat that isn't bread and cheese. It's really good bread and cheese, but after five days of it you tend to feel like you're developing some kind of vitamin deficiency, so you've really got to grab that stuff with both hands when it shows up, and order the side salad with dinner instead of the fries. I just try to keep my food wits about me.
Do you warm up before going on stage?
Definitely. I'm not really a bendy kind of person, so if I don't do 20 minutes or a half hour of stretching before playing I tend to get really tense and just can't relax when I play. My shoulders and neck especially get really tight and it can give me bad headaches if I'm not aware of it. I think it makes my playing sound stiff and jerky too, which sucks. I want to come out of the gate with a bang and make the first song as good as the last one, and if I don't warm up, that's not going to happen. I don't like feeling like I have to ease into it because I didn't get myself prepared.
Do you mute your drums or tune them wide open?
I really like loud drums, so I much prefer to tune them wide open. But for some rooms that just doesn't work, so if I need to, I'll put a MoonGel on the toms and maybe on the snare too. The kick gets one of those pillow things you can buy, although I have been trying just a towel that touches both heads in there.
How often do you change heads?
I change the snare top every three shows on average, and the tops of the toms probably every five shows. I only change the kick when it breaks, and I change the resonant heads at the start of every tour. That keeps the tone nice, and it means they're easier to tune too.
Do you do your own tuning?
I do tune my own drums. Unless I've got a particularly horrible drum to tune, I actually really enjoy it. I like to know how the drums each tune up, and which lugs loosen off when they're played, and which ones are difficult and why. Just getting to know what works and what doesn't, so if Scott, our live soundman, says that the drums sound bad in a certain way, I know what to do to get them to sound better. It's part of the package of being a drummer. I'd feel like such a fraud if I couldn't even tune my own drums.
Do you use the same setup on stage and in the studio?
Yeah, pretty much. In the studio we tried out some different sizes of drums and different types of cymbals, but the basic setup of kick, snare, two toms, hats, ride, and two crashes was the same. I played a lovely old '70s Ludwig Vistalite on most of the record, and it sounded so great. It was so easy to tune in all kinds of ways, and it just sounded fantastic. I've got a Premier that I play live, and whenever I sit behind that it feels so comfortable to me, and I love playing it too. I've got to know it really well, so it's great to mess around with.
Do you use matched or traditional grip?
I'm a matched kind of guy. I've tried traditional, but it just never felt as comfortable to me. I guess you really need to work on something like changing your grip, but I just felt clumsy using it.
Do you feel perfect time is mandatory in creating a groove?
I don't think it's mandatory, but I'm sure it helps. Mind you, I've heard some people with perfect time play and have it sound stiff and totally un-groovy, and I've also heard some shonky timing that sounded great and really danceable, so I think it's totally up to the player. Saying that though, you've got a better chance of playing something that sounds cool if you're in time. Your band will have much more chance of being tighter too.
Do you practice when you're off the road?
I don't really, which is terrible. I'm in the process of rectifying that situation at the moment and setting up a little studio that I can go to and play whenever I want, which will be grand. I get crotchety if I don't play, and there's always so much room to improve, I want to get as much in as I can. There's not much time when you're touring to just sit down and play, unless you get the rare luxury of a long soundcheck, so I'm really looking forward to it.
Do you practice to a metronome?
When I was at music school here in Wellington I used to practice snare drum pieces and big band charts and stuff with a metronome, and I guess that probably helped me a lot when it came to recording with a click. I'd say it's a good habit to get into, and I like to play with one rattling along in the background, it's easy to ignore until it trips you up, and it keeps you honest about how good or bad your time really is.