Ben Horowitz: The Push And Pull

Rising New Jersey rock powerhouse The Gaslight Anthem played more than 400 shows during the past two years. In doing so they’ve built a passionate fan base and sharpened their musician’s blades down to diamond precision. With the exhausting road experience also came a nearly boundless confidence that permeates every note of their latest release, American Slang.

At the center of this powerful swagger you’ll find drummer Ben Horowitz, sweating his way through crushing rock/punk beats and holding the groove for his three bandmates. Horowitz is an all-in, gut-grabbing player, and when it came time to build the foundation for the new record he went with his newly matured instincts.

“I’m not really a trained musician,” says Horowitz, “so anything I do is always based on some kind of gut reaction based on what I’m hearing. If my process has changed at all I’d say it’s more cerebral now than it used to be. I’m a lot more conscious of the flow of the song and fitting in with other people, finding my place in the arrangement. I definitely think about that stuff a lot more. Working with producers probably opened my eyes to that level of song writing that I wasn’t exposed to before.”

For Slang the band again tapped Ted Hutt, the accomplished British producer who took the reins on their previous effort with Side One Dummy, The ’59 Sound. Horowitz takes much pride in crafting his own parts, but still leaves room for Hutt’s suggestions.

“He’s always listening for continuity and flow and groove between the instruments,” Horowitz says of Hutt. “I think that’s his greatest strength. When you’re a musician working on your parts while listening to other parts it’s hard to hear the entire thing, the whole big picture. Hutt has a way of understanding not only the whole song but the whole album.

“I’m pretty critical of my own parts and by the time I settle on one that I think should be there I’m pretty serious about it. And at first I didn’t take too well to changing things. But you have to trust the people you’re working with, and now I know to trust Hutt because his ideas are usually worth trying out even if we don’t use them. But it can be hard because for a drummer I’m very opinionated about the songwriting and every instrument’s part.”

The collaborative thinking paid off not just in the writing but in the drum sounds as well. For this record, Horowitz spent more time experimenting than he ever has in the past and inevitably things turned to the hefty and aged. “Basically the general rule was the more we messed around with drum sounds in the studio the bigger and older the instruments got.”

Tracking went quick and smooth. Horowitz doesn’t mind playing to a click – in fact, he prefers playing to only a click. As he’s grown more and more conscious of manipulating the beat forward or back, he finds the scratch-tracking of his bandmates quickly becomes too much clutter for the brain.

“I’ve started to really pay attention to playing ahead of or behind the click, trying to shift the dynamics and feel without shifting the tempo. And I can’t think of things like that with everyone else playing. It pushes and pulls me into too many directions. I prefer to just kind of go at it alone.

“If there’s anything I can do on drums that’s even remotely special it’s playing like that. I understand why people want to keep the same tempo through a rock song – there’s something about the way it feels with a nice continuous groove – but I don’t think a little slowing down and speeding up hurts anyone. It can really add to the power and dynamics of what you’re trying to do.

“And accomplishing that with a click is kind of my compromise. I’ll play to a click but I’m still going to keep that feeling of dragging behind or pushing ahead in different parts because I think it’s good for the power of the music. Peaks and valleys.”

Horowitz has come a long way since his middle school days of bouncing around the Jersey hardcore scene. It’s now sold-out shows, European tours, and even sharing stages with Bruce Springsteen. He’ll be the first to admit that he didn’t exactly do things the right way and probably took a much harder route than he should have, but when probed he will offer up some advice.

“Don’t be limited. Even if you don’t like something at least listen to it and try to understand it. You’ll be better off in the long run and you’ll make better music because of it. You can’t have good without bad. You can’t make good stuff without realizing what stuff is [crappy].

“I had very little training in drumming and I’ve gone back and tried to learn some of it because it is absolutely necessary. I now know that as opposed to when I was young and didn’t understand. But at the same time I’ve met a lot of drummers who are highly trained but don’t write their own parts or don’t think outside of the box and they also suffer because they don’t have the creativity.

“So you need both. Learn the fundamentals so you have the ability to play what you hear in your head. Then listen to a Led Zeppelin record and hear the natural groove and pocket. Then go try to play it.”