Well before the wonders of the Internet (or even the proliferation of CDs, for that matter), file sharing was known as “high-speed dubbing,” wherein the contents of one cassette would be transferred onto another at an extremely accelerated clip. During this expedited “download” process, the vocals invariably resembled Alvin And The Chipmunks, while the drums sped by in a blur of blastbeats.
In these ancient times, a skateboarder pal introduced me to the 1991 eponymous debut from a Southern California punk rock quartet called Pennywise. When the opening track kicked in, I interjected, “Can I listen to this at regular speed before you dub it for me?” My friend replied, “Dude, this is regular speed.” Needless to say, my prepubescent mind was sufficiently blown.
Even with present-day percussionists expressly seeking to broaden bpm boundaries, Pennywise drummer Byron McMackin’s torrid tempos seem impossibly fast. Equally impressive is the fact that – after a career of 20-plus years and 10 albums to his credit – the svelte 42-year-old attacks his kit with the exact same exuberance heard on his band’s initial offering.
The proof is in Pennywise’s latest release, All Or Nothing – a rock-solid collection of upbeat punk rock powered by McMackin’s punishing attack and surgical precision. “The name of the album says it all,” he explains. “We really felt the pressure to dig deep and deliver our best record ever, because the future of the band was in serious doubt.”
Said pressure stems from the departure of founding member and longtime vocalist, Jim Lindberg. Losing a lead singer is often a death knell for bands of Pennywise’s vintage, but McMackin, along with guitarist Fletcher Dragge and bassist Randy Bradbury, refused to admit defeat. They swiftly enlisted the services of Zoltán Téglás – frontman of Orange County hardcore outfit Ignite – and the results have been nothing short of spectacular.
“I’ve never been happier with a Pennywise record,” McMackin beams. “The drum tones are so fat, and the parts all lock so well. It’s a really focused effort from everyone involved. I’d say it’s a return to form, but it’s really better than we’ve ever been. ”
All Or Nothing finds Pennywise returning to Epitaph – the label that released their first eight efforts – after a brief flirtation with MySpace Records. And for a second consecutive record, the band tapped Cameron Webb (Motorhead, Social Distortion) to produce. “[Webb] really knows how to push me. I kind of suck in the studio so it’s great having a producer like that who can coax the best take out of you.”
Whether or not McMackin is being facetious about his lack of studio prowess, the final product is undeniably airtight. The title cut sets the tone with a whirlwind of sixteenth-note ascending tom fills – punctuated by crash cymbal swipes – that reach the snare before unfurling all the way back down again. “Revolution” finds McMackin riding a beefy floor tom before giving way to incessant eighth-notes on his kick drum during the bridge. (For the record, McMakin has never used a double pedal in Pennywise.) “Stand Strong,” “Seeing Red,” and “Waste Another Day” all boast scalding bpms and a non-stop barrage of fills – like the slick, syncopated single-stroke snare rolls that close out the latter two tracks and elevate them to face-melting status.
When asked if he was a hyperactive kid, McMackin laughs. “I didn’t need prescription drugs if that’s what you mean. I was just really stoked all the time.” How could he not be? Reared in the Redondo/Hermosa Beach communities of Los Angeles, McMackin’s youth was idyllically spent skateboarding, surfing, and, of course, drumming. He taught himself to play by mimicking the grooves and fills of classic rock’s finest – John Bonham, Stewart Copeland, and Neil Peart – before delving into the punk rock scene that had exploded in his own backyard.
“The first Bad Religion drummer, Pete Finestone, was a huge influence,” McMackin says. “Also Joe Nelson from Minor Threat. And Bill Stevenson [fellow Hermosa beach native and drummer for Descendents and Black Flag] is like the Neil Peart of punk rock – his parts are so technical and precise.”
When Pennywise formed in McMackin’s late teens, he claims they didn’t set out to become speed freaks. “Our first EPs sound quite different than what we eventually became,” he says. “But we really got a rush from playing just at the edge of s__t flying off the rails. In fact, I play even faster live. The others are always looking back like, ’Dude – slow down!’ But it sounds perfectly natural to me.”
So how does a guy of McMackin’s age manage to pull off such blistering material on a nightly basis? “It’s definitely different from when I was younger,” he confesses. “I take care of myself much better now. I stretch a lot more. I’m more conscious of diet and I never drink before we play. I spend most of my free time resting, just conserving my energy for the show.”
McMackin has also had to deal with a nagging bout of tendonitis in his left elbow in recent years. This has lead to a more ergonomic setup and an alternate set list the band can audible into whenever the crippling pain flares up. “It prevents me from doing so many things,” McMackin laments. “I can’t get around the toms as much, so there’s certain songs I just can’t even attempt.”
He also carries a medical kit with him on tour, full of heated wraps, ice packs, and even a portable electrolysis unit for when things get really bad. “After a show, I sometimes look like I just came out of a warzone,” he jokes. “But [the tendonitis] has been a lot better lately so I’m optimistic.”
Also slowing McMackin down ever so slightly these days is the recent birth of his son, Braxton. The first-time father apologizes when he has to conclude our interview to relieve his wife, Lori, of baby duty. He signs off by predicting the apple won’t fall too far from the tree. “Braxton’s going to be the fastest drummer of all time,” McMackin says with pride. “I can’t wait to get him started.”
He’s got some mighty speedy shoes to fill.