Blake Richardson: Precision & Power
Drum teacher Crutchfield had also introduced Richardson to the multilimbed magic of Terry Bozzio. “And that was incredible. I was 12 or 13 at the time, and I didn’t even know that stuff he was doing was possible – crazy polyrhythms and different time signatures on his hands than on his feet. That brought me into an entirely different world of drumming.”
Intrigued by what he heard in Bozzio’s ambidextrous rhythms, Richardson trekked to one of the drummer’s clinics to soak in some wisdom. “I learned how disciplined you need to be to be a drummer,” he says. “And that complicated rhythms can be counterintuitive and idiosyncratic, and involve such separation in coordination of your limbs.”
And that, giving drumming’s various technical challenges, time and patience are of the essence.
“At the clinic, someone asked Bozzio about one particular solo: ’The polyrhythms you’re doing, and the turnarounds that you do, then the way they keep changing and switching – how do you do it?’ And Bozzio says, ’Well, sometimes it’ll take me a week or so to get it down to a certain kind of power, and sometimes it’ll take longer.’
“When I heard that, I said, Shhoo! That’s incredible, that that guy had that much dedication just to learn one pattern for a solo. I guess that’s what it takes if you want to be a real drummer.”
So Richardson did the work, and then he did some more, and today he’s fully earned the right to call himself a real drummer. While he’s learned a lot from players in non-rock genres, he considers himself primarily a rock drummer, of the heavier variety. And like most of your metal-style rock players, he rarely messes around with traditional grip, other than to loosen up before shows or practice.
“You can’t play as fast with traditional grip, as far as I’m concerned, though I know there are guys that do it well – I mean, Virgil Donati! He can shred it.”
Robots Have Feelings Too
More like a fine wine than a piece of cheese, Richardson’s playing style has matured, he feels, growing into a relaxed and naturalistic way of playing far removed from the more by-the-numbers approach of his early days.
“I can tell by looking at my playing just three years ago,” he says. “When I watch all those old videos, I’m very stiff and I can tell I’m concentrating too hard. I’m thinking it rather than feeling it out. Now, I’m finally starting to get comfortable with my playing.”
Even so, he points out that a “robotic” style can be appropriate for heavy music, particularly in a live setting. “A machinelike quality to your playing can be good for metal drummers because you want to be very precise and concise.”
He differentiates that feel from his beefy but nuanced work with BTBAM, a band whose music emphasizes melody, dynamics, and understated harmonic texture. “You can’t be automated about it; you have to kind of vibe out and play what you need. We have to do everything with a little more feeling.”
Still, it’s a balancing act, because BTBAM’s grandly constructed opuses call for a lot of really crazy playing. “We do so many super-fast, frenetic riffs, and it has to be dead-on or it’s just going to sound like a process. But then 45 seconds later it’ll be a mellow, harmonically rich section, and it’s like a switch that you have to turn on and off. That’s one of the things I’ve struggled with, but I’ve got a lot better at it.”
Mental Muscle Music
In his practice studio at home, Richardson does even more of the work that needs to be done. Sure, he pulls out those trusty old rudiments, and he might do a little tinkering with some Latin grooves to add to his repertoire of licks and feels. Usually, though, he’ll run through the more difficult parts he’ll be called upon to perform on his band’s next live dates.
“I’ll sit down at the drums for about an hour a day just to keep my chops up,” he says. “A lot of times I’ll do a song or two to get the motor memory back. And I practice in order to remember to never overplay in live performance. While I’m rehearsing my parts, I’ve got to remember what the words to the songs are, ’cause there are a lot of times when the beats and times vary, and I work on pulling all those beats in line.”
What with his maxed-out touring and recording schedule with BTBAM, Richardson has little time to stray too stylistically afield during his practice sessions. “That’s one of the drawbacks to playing in a full-time band,” he groans, “you’re just so used to playing a style that you play every day, and it’s kind of hard to break out of that sometimes.”
While any drummer owes it to himself to investigate players outside his own field of dreams – and lord knows heavy-duty players like Dennis Chambers have made their mark on Richardson’s progressive/art-metal style – he feels he’s only now “just messing with the basics” of jazz, which just can’t be learned overnight.
“Jazz is a drumming style that you really need to sit down with,” he says. “Those real jazz players are real jazz players because that’s what they’ve been doing for years and years. You should put in the time to develop the brain for it.”