Blake Richardson: Precision & Power
Keeping it tight but loose describes Richardson’s pre-show chops-flexing routine, a warm-up that involves a series of rolls and double-strokes for five or ten minutes before the band hits the stage.
“But before that I do some stretching, which I like to do after I play, too,” he says. “And that includes my feet and legs. I get down on a couch or something, then sit upright, maybe do some patterns with my feet, just to get the blood flowing a little bit. Then I’m good to go.”
That stretching habit comes to the aid of the inevitable hand, leg, and foot cramps that have plagued drummers since the dawn of time. Well, it couldn’t hurt, anyway. “I’m drinking tons of water throughout the day just to try and avoid cramps, too, but oh, my god, the first song we play in our set is 15 minutes long! Sometimes I get a little cramping in the hands, but I try to play through as best as I can.”
Between The Buried And Me’s music is a beautiful thing, an amazing thing, and a very complicated thing, nowhere more so than on the new album. You stand there dumbfounded at the technical wizardry of it all, wondering how in hell they manage to assemble these devilishly difficult puzzles. It’s a process that fascinates Richardson, too, and presents him with some hairy challenges.
“Everyone brings in their own pieces and helps put it together in a way that we all think is suitable to make a good song. Tommy or Paul or Dustie might bring in a riff or sometimes a whole section that they’ve written out. Because the songs are generally between ten and fifteen minutes long, for the most part we record section by section.”
Richardson will choose a section at a certain tempo, and will play as much as he can at that tempo, then he’ll move on to another section. Thus, while all the takes on The Parallax II record were real (i.e., played in real time), over the length of a 15-minute song, say, the band whittled the song down and recorded it in 30-second parts to make it easier to shape the piece.
“We’ll do all these sections in order, then we’ll kind of tape the sections together. We’ll say, ’This section follows this section really well, and Tommy can do this here and that there,’ etcetera. It’s a group effort as much as individual writing, and it’s cool because everyone in the band inspires each other.”
In the studio or onstage, Richardson likes to keep things consistent gear wise, because he really does not like surprises when the pressure’s on. For recording he prefers thinner cymbals for a more “controlled” sound, and for both studio and live work his ride cymbals of choice are “anything that can stand up to an hour’s work day after day.” Onstage, those cymbals have to be the thickest, loudest possible, and Richardson’s live assaults also require drumheads that can stand up to some serious abuse and still span a broad range of sounds.
“For live I’ll use various double-ply heads like the Evans SST series to add a little bit of tone,” he says. “In the studio I’m much more concerned with tonality and low end, and I’ll use thinner heads for the toms.”
Richardson uses a rounded wood bass drum beater, with a little padding in the kick drums “to give a little more of a blast to it. And it helps for durability, too.” He’s a heels-up kinda guy: “It’s very precise, powerful playing, and I like to hit hard to control my kicks, because I don’t trigger. I feel like the harder I hit, the more full the kick drums are going to sound.”
And the question on everyone’s mind? You heard right – everything’s real when Richardson plays the drums live. There is no triggering off pads or the drums. In this, Richardson is in a unique class in his playing genre.
“I did try triggering once, but it just seemed like one more thing I have to worry about,” he says with a laugh. “But along with a click we will have occasional sample tracks usually involving percussion, and samples of keyboards or guitar harmony. But no vocal samples.”
Sure, if he were in the audience he’d rather hear the musicians play all the parts totally live, “but if we didn’t have the full spectrum of our records’ sounds in a live setting, it just wouldn’t be the same.”
In the studio Richardson keeps his drums tuned wide open, with the toms especially tuned as low as they can go within their respective ranges. “For a 10" tom there’s only so low you can go, and I like to capture a lot of that clarity on that low end. But for live I like to get a little bit more attack out of it. I use those double-ply heads to get more overtones out of the drums, and sometimes put a little tape on the heads, which also helps the house sound guys get a natural balance to the drum mix.”
Richardson is kind of picky about the mix he hears in his monitors during a live performance, but is resigned to the fact that a drummer just can’t always get his say about things like that. The BTBAM monitor mix is pretty simple – a little kick drum, a bit of snare, a click track, stage-right guitar and vocal. His main concerns are just being able to hear himself play, while at the same time safeguarding his valuable eardrums.
“If I could, I’d have more drums in the mix,” he says, “but then again I don’t like to hear a lot of drums – since I’m sitting behind the kit I can hear the drums fine. And I do like to have the overall mix volume low, just to protect my hearing, because with playing for an hour every day you really have to start thinking about that.”
Living The Dream
Onward and upward for Blake Richardson, the grunge kid with a dream who set his sights high and never looked back – except with fondness and respect for his teachers, colleagues, and fans.
“I remember the first show of our tour with Dream Theater years ago, in Mexico City. The show was sold out – 10,000 people! It was the very first show on the tour, and the biggest show I’d ever played in my whole life. Well, the Dream Theater guys said, ’You’ve got to play the whole Colors record,’ so it was like an hour-long opening set – we played the whole record!”
“Oh, I was nervous, I had the jitters. But that show was a turning point in our career: We were finally getting some deeper recognition for what we were trying to accomplish as a band. A lot of people who saw that tour didn’t know who we were, but they were very, very welcoming. And we got a lot of fans from that.”
Drums Tama Starclassic Birch/Bubinga (Dark Mocha Burst)
1 20" x 18" Bass Drum
2 14" x 6" Starphonic Brass Snare
3 10" x 8" Tom
4 12" x 9" Tom
5 16" x 14" Floor Tom
6 20" x 14" Gong Drum
A 14" HHX Evolution Chinese
atop a 16" AAX X-Plosion crash
B 14" HHX X-Celerator hats
C 18" AAX Metal Crash
D 10" HH Duo Splash
E 12" HH China Kang atop a 12" AAX O-Zone splash
F 20" AAX X-Plosion Crash
G 14" HHX Groove Hats
H 21" HH Raw Bell Dry Ride
I 19" AA Holy China