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Byron McMackin: Pennywise Hyper Drive

The intense hyperactivity residing deep in the guts of Byron McMackin comes through in everything he does, from brushing his teeth to having a conversation to ripping beats for Pennywise. So take a deep breath, because as you sit down for a talk with McMackin, it may be your last for a while. Just being near him — or even across the country from him on the phone — makes your pulse accelerate, your knee bounce, your breath quicken. Hold on tight.

Intensity is what drives the 38-year-old veteran basher. It’s what he built his career on, and it’s what sustains him every day. As the drummer for Pennywise, he’s survived 20 uncompromising years and 9 punishing records, having accomplished the impossible task of making a respectable living in the scrutinized world of punk rock. Every day is intense — whether that day is spent as part of a seemingly endless tour, or in the studio scrambling to make a record, or in an office talking business.

Scatterbrained is the wrong word. Even though he’s often talking about several things at once, he is not without focus. He’s more of an extreme multi-tasker — on speed. He’s lost none of his thirst for the music, not to mention his thirst for the scene and for the Pennywise message. Just try injecting a sliver of doubt concerning his band’s punk rock status, then step back and brace yourself.

“I’ve never paid any attention to any of that stuff,” he blurts out. “If anyone knows us then they know there’s never been a band that’s held back more and done more for the scene than this band. We’ve never done it for the money. Don’t get me wrong, the money would be great, but we’re more about trying to make a difference, trying to make a change. As long as we’re comfortable and can pay our bills and put food on our tables, then we’re okay.

“There’s always some backlash out there, but when do people not want to talk trash about anything and everything? You either love it or you hate it. People have talked trash about us since day one and they’ll continue to do so, and the fact is they don’t know what they’re talking about. Who cares? We know what we’re doing. We’ve been around long enough and done enough that all those people who want to talk [trash] can … well, they can bring it on.”

Controversy Magnet. The latest source of groundless “backlash” for Pennywise is their somewhat unorthodox change in labels. For their latest release, they parted ways with the legendary Epitaph label and instead went in a completely different direction with the newly formed MySpace Records. The most noticeable change in the move is the decision to give the new album away for free via Internet download.

“It’s something new and different,” McMackin explains. “We talked about ways to do thing differently and one way to do that was to give the record away for free. We thought it’d be cool. You could download it for free for two weeks and then after that you have to pay for it. That’s the real test.

“The cool thing is being able to use MySpace’s popularity and resources. We did like 500,000 downloads the first day. That’s pretty impressive. So obviously we’ve reached a lot more people and I’m sure some of that is because [the album was] free, but hopefully we’ve made some new fans who will want to come check out the show.

“We got the same financial deal with MySpace that we would’ve gotten with Epitaph. The difference is the ability to reach more people. Whether one more person pays for the CD or comes to the show or not, at least we’re more visible on the Internet and that’s what we thought we should do. We needed to reignite our career a little bit. Touring is basically our bread and butter. At this point, touring is every band’s bread and butter. Unless you’re like Jay Z or someone.

“We just want to be able to keep playing music and do what we love to do. And times are getting tougher. People aren’t buying CDs. And when you don’t sell CDs the record companies don’t have the money to pay you to make another record. Things are changing. CDs are almost obsolete now, and that’s just the way it is. I still love the old way of doing things, but technology is going to put all that to bed someday.”

With that day rapidly approaching, McMackin and Co. have made a seemingly wise, proactive move by jumping onboard the technology train before it leaves them standing at the station with nothing to hold but their defiant attitudes. And while parts of the move — like giving the record away for free — are very “punk rock,” other parts — like the inevitable corporate associations — are less so. Regardless, it seems an intelligent and necessary move, even for a band as established as Pennywise.

“Yeah, we’re established and all that,” McMackin laughs, “but we’re still just covering our bills. It’s not like we’re rollin’ Benzos and livin’ the highlife. We still have to tour our asses off just to make ends meet. This is our 20th anniversary and our 9th record. We’re not getting any younger and it’s a little more difficult to go out there and do it on the road.”

New Tunes. All this talk is wasted breath without a record — and a damn good record at that — to back it up. After all, you can give away a pile of crap for free and it’s still just a pile of crap. So McMackin and the boys set out to make a bruising follow-up to 2005’s The Fuse. What they got was Reason To Believe, one of their highest acclaimed albums to date. But, like all things Pennywise, it didn’t come easy.

“We’re so dysfunctional and disorganized,” McMackin groans. “That’s just the way we do things, unfortunately. I don’t know if it works for the best or not, I couldn’t tell you. We just work different from most bands. We’ll work on a song, get the basic meat and potatoes, then jump into something else. And before you know it we have like 70 or 80 songs and can’t remember the first one we worked on. We don’t even know where to start. So we go around in circles for a while, throwing stuff on the wall to see what sticks. Eventually we narrow it down to what we think is the best of the best.”

Their best of the best became the 14 tracks on Reason, including “The Western World,” the highest climbing single of their career. The album is pure Pennywise, with attitude, attitude, attitude, and then a little more attitude. And while their recording process may be abnormal and more chaotic than most bands, their songs are born in a familiar fashion.

“We pretty much all have our own home rigs with a computer or a four-track or whatever and we’ll bring stuff together and jump on it and try to mold it into whatever it comes to be. It’s cool to get excited about a riff or something and rock it out and next thing you know you could have something. Nothing’s totally finished until we all get to put our piece of something on it.

“When we first work on a song, I just try to get the vibe of the song and make it through all the way, hitting the choruses, the bridge, stuff like that. I’ve learned a lot the older I get. Sometimes I’ll be even more hyper than normal and be really stoked on a part and overplay it. Other times I’ll take a part home and really try to light it up and put all these crazy fills in, then go into the studio the next day and find that it really just takes away from the song. So there’s a lot less flair in this record and I think it flows a lot better.”

The improved flow is noticeable, with trademark Pennywise guitar riffs and rebellious vocal declarations ranting over McMackin’s powerful, concise hits. The album might not necessarily sound cleaner, but better and more open than previous Pennywise efforts. It was no accident.

“A big decision in making this record was, first of all, to take on Cameron Webb [Social Distortion, Motörhead] as producer, and then agreeing to actually let him do his work. We’ve had trouble in the past where we just disagree with the producer and shoot down all his input. This record sounds so good because we let someone who knows what they’re doing actually do what they know how to do. In the past, when we’d get instrument sounds in the studio we’d disagree with what the producer liked because the instrument on its own didn’t sound the way we liked. What we’ve finally learned is that that sound changes when you put all the instruments together. So you can hear every note on this record.

“We recorded the drums at NRG Studios, which was pretty mind-blowing for me because it was my first time in a ’real’ studio, like ’where the pros go.’ I was like, ’So this is how they do it!’ I was blown away. It was an amazing drum room and we were super psyched.”

While it’s strange to consider a player with McMackin’s experience finally cutting his “real studio” teeth nine albums into his career, what’s no surprise is the struggles that McMackin had in tracking his parts. As reported in previous interviews with DRUM!, McMackin has a severe case of red light fever. As soon as the ’record’ button is pushed, he freezes like … well, very unlike Josh Freese. Did he suffer the ailment this time around?

“I sure did! I pretty much suck in the studio. I’m amazed by the Josh Freeses of the world who can go in there and lay it down. I mean, those people go in there not even knowing what they’re going to play and still nail it. That’s amazing.

“I only had a couple days of real preproduction. It was only the second time I’ve ever played to a metronome. I just barely knew these parts. I was going first of course, and the producer’s in my face and all the other guys are in my face. It was pretty much a mess. I definitely let it get to me mentally numerous times. There were a couple times that I had complete meltdowns. The simplest things for me are sometimes the hardest.

“I’d come home at night just completely exhausted and mentally drained and have to get ready to do it all again the next day. We had five days to do 18 songs and we did it. It all worked out somehow. I don’t know how we made it through it but we did it. I tell you, I’ve never packed my drums up faster! I was ready to get the hell out of there and get on the freeway before they called and asked for something else to be done. It was pretty funny.”

Byron’s Beats. Overcoming all the demons living in that tiny, glowing red light, McMackin did finally succeed, once again, in the studio. And what he brings to the Pennywise sound is certainly invaluable. Instead of laying typical, straight punk riffs, he instead incorporates his rock drumming background and applies more groove than is common in the genre. The result is a deeper, more musical feel that gives the music extra emotion, swagger, and complexity without sacrificing its punk simplicity.

“In our very early stuff I would play a lot of extra hits, snare flams and doubles and stuff. I think it was just from being into more drummer-oriented stuff — Neil Peart, Phil Collins, Stewart Copeland, Bill Bruford — more technical stuff.

“I think I got my foot from Bonham. I always kind of studied what he played with his bass drum, which, to this day, is still some of the most amazing beats out there. The guy had so many weird, off-time, intricate, funky, rocked-out beats. It was a trip. And playing in that kind of style gives our music a little more personality over the totally straight-ahead punk stuff.”

Dysfunctional Bandmates. The real magic found in Pennywise’s music comes not from laborious studio work or unique bass drum patterns, but from good old-fashioned angst. These boys are fighters, and it seems to never stop. “We’re professional arguers,” McMackin laughs. “We’re really good at it. We’re all super strong minded. Of course, our guitar player — who is about 6'4" and 300 pounds — is the most strong-minded of us all. He tends to be the loudest.

“We’re 20 years deep so it’s a brotherly love thing. We yell and scream at each other and leave practice hating one another, then the next day it’s like nothing ever happened. That happens with us on the road, in the studio, everywhere. After 20 years there aren’t many bands, whether they’re still playing or have split up, who are still friends.

“But, whether you win or lose, at least you had the argument. At least there are thoughts and concerns and opinions being expressed and being focused on — things that mean enough to you that you’re willing to argue about it. And I’m wrong a lot of the time — most of the time even — but the cool thing is finding what being wrong can lead to. And after it’s all said and done and all the arguing and stress is gone, we made a kick-ass record.”

The Message. When they’re not arguing with each other — whenever that is — they’re arguing with the world. On Reason, Pennywise takes on all the usual suspects — celebrity, politics, apathy — with their typical fervor and intensity. It’s a fine line to walk between making a socio-political call to arms and whining about stuff you can’t control, and no one does it better than the veteran SoCal punks.

“The message [in our music] is super big. We’ve never been about anything else, really. It’s not like we’re out there preaching and telling people what to do, we’re just talking about things that have happened to us or our friends or things that we see going on. With the song ’Western World,’ our singer had three little daughters that were like huge Britney Spears fans, and now he doesn’t even want them acknowledging her. So we use the music as a tool to speak what’s on our mind and get stuff out there to maybe get people to think about things they normally wouldn’t. It excites me. It evokes feeling. Whether its happiness or rage, at least it’s something.”

Even with all the angst and arguing, McMackin and his bandmates manage to keep their heads on straight and their boots on the ground. There may be no better school in the world than two decades spent touring the globe in a punk band. It’s safe to say they’ve seen it all — the good, the bad, and the ugly, and especially the all-too-frequent fall from grace.

“I’ve learned a lot in 20 years. Mostly, I’ve learned how to treat people. You see these bands out there who are on top of the charts treating people like dirt. And someone can take that away from them in two seconds. I’ve seen it happen so often. Then their next record they’re off that pedestal and those stagehands, those caterers, those fans remember how they were treated. And it’s over. By being out there and seeing that happen, it just really trips me out. Who do they think they are?

“So the basic lesson is just to treat everyone the way you want to be treated, the way people should be treated, no matter who you are or what you’re doing. Every day we’re out there we’re learning something. Wake up and live. Every single day.”

Unfortunately, many people in the music business have yet to learn this simple, valuable lesson, including many record executives. McMackin and Pennywise have survived despite all odds and it’s no doubt due to the hyperactive involvement and undying energy. Not all bands are as lucky.

“You’ve got to watch your back,” he warns. “We’ve done things our way from day one and we’ll never change because we don’t have to. It’s pretty cut and dried. Love it or hate it. There are bands, usually young bands, someone finds them somewhere and packages them up and tells them they’re the next gods or whatever. And it could happen, but they have no clue what’s happening so they’ll get screwed in the deal and live this dream that’s really nothing. They end up with no bank accounts, no nothing. And once you flop in this industry you’re written off. If you don’t pay attention and learn the ropes and do things yourself instead of having someone else do it all for you, it’s pretty easy to get taken advantage of.”

So they’ll keep arguing, keep learning, and keep making record after record. McMackin has gone from a naïve, angry SoCal “surf rat” to one of the genre’s kingpin skinsman. Yeah, he’s still a freak, but he’s nonetheless an irreplaceable, indisputable, hard-hitting, life-grinding, self-respecting freak. And that seems to work. But for how much longer?

“As long as we can. It ain’t getting any easier. I’ve developed tendonitis in my inner arm that I deal with every day, and that’s no fun. But we do what we can to get by. We’re just really, really lucky. We’re still doing it and that’s what’s rad. It’s pretty incredible. We can argue and fight all day and then have an incredible show that night with people freaking out, and nothing else matters. That’s exactly what makes everything worthwhile.”

McMackin’s Setup

DRUMS Pork Pie (Maple Black Satin finish w/black hoops and lugs)
1. 20" x 18" Bass Drum
2. 13" x 6" Snare
3. 12" x 9" Tom
4. 14" x 10" Tom
5. 16" x 14" Floor Tom (hung from cymbal stand)

CYMBALS Zildjian
A. 14" A Quick Beat Hi-Hats
B. 18" Z Custom Medium Crash
C. 19" Z Custom Medium Crash
D. 20" Z Custom Ride

Byron McMackin also uses an Axis drum pedal, DW hardware, Remo heads, and Zildjian sticks.

Groove Analysis: Bombastic Byron Beats

Pennywise’s brand of frantic punk takes no hostages and hardly ever slows down. Byron McMackin is the V12 engine driving this southern California band and he plays like he’s fueled on nothing but Red Bull. He plays loud, hard, and fast and that’s exactly what they need.

DRUM! Notation Guide

“It’s Not Enough To Believe”

This high-speed song starts with a quick fill around the toms that every punk drummer should learn. If you try to play fast singles around the kit, remember that when moving to your left, lead with your left hand (and vice versa). By playing three notes on his second tom-tom McMackin quickly gets back to his snare where he uses three notes and returns the lead to his right hand for the descending end of the fill. The time gets a little loose between the fills, but they know where they are and the energy is ridiculous.

“All We Need”

McMackin’s slamming Intro to “All We Need” features the same kick/snare pattern used for the rest of the song, but this time he plays it on his floor tom giving the section a manic tribal vibe.

“Die For You”

McMackin plays a quick triplet fill (played RLRL) then rides his floor tom and throws a high tom note in on the ah of 2 and the ah of 4. For the verse groove, he chooses a straight-up rock feel with the snare on 2 and 4, rather than a punk groove with the snare on all the &s.

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