Warning! If your modern rock band is scheduled to record with a major label producer, expect your drums to be quantized, tempo-mapped, and adjusted to the grid via Pro Tools, to have the personality sucked out of the drumming you hold so dear. That is why Madina Lake’s third album, World War III, is such a surprise.
The Chicago based band’s earlier full-length releases, From Them, Through Us, To You (2007) and Attics To Eden (2009), glistened with digital perfection. Brawny guitars, hyper vocals, and buzzing electronic accents fortified their catchy songs. But drummer Dan Torelli’s punchy drumming sounded even better on the band’s demos, which fans would never hear. Fast-forward to 2011, and Madina Lake has found a home on indie label Razor & Tie; they’ve jettisoned the usual producer in favor of self-production; and recorded the energetic World War III largely in a local rehearsal space. Not only does the band sound energized, Dan Torelli’s drumming impacts the music like a bottle of lighter fluid exploding in your skull.
“This was the first time we made a record entirely by ourselves,” Torelli explains. “We recorded without any producer, and [guitarist] Mateo [Camargo] did a lot of the programming. And I was playing my own kit for the first time on one of our recordings. This time no one was asking me to make the drums more basic, or remove kick drum notes, or change a tom fill. I tried not to overplay, but I did feel really free.
“Once a record goes into mixing and production,” Torelli continues, “often the drummer is not there, and the producer always uses sound replacement samples, or they will quantize the beat or use a grid. So a lot of things you play, like ruffs, even sixteenth-notes, lose a little of the feel. Not having someone do all that stuff made a big difference this time out.”
World War III sounds like real life and definitely real drumming. Torelli’s edgy pocket and slightly ahead-of-the-beat groove is invigorating, as is the subtle way he injects personality into every song. Torelli’s fearsome floor toms, rocketing tom fills, and flowing hi-hat sixteenths (à la Neil Peart) fill “Howdy Neighbor!” thumping like mad dogs on attack. He displaces the beat and slips and slides the groove like lizard sex in “We Got This.” Robo drumming fills “What It Is To Wonder,” but Torelli’s liquid pocket (Copeland-ish hi-hat inflections, Bonhamish bass drum) makes it work. And he simply goes aggro in “Heroine,” raging from martial moshing to dance-groove system sounds. Throughout World War III, Torelli’s natural edge is evident.
“On our last record the producer saw that I pushed the beat, then he fixed it, and that removed that edge. But that’s a natural part of my playing. A lot of drummers play a little fast ’cause you’re excited. You’re playing to the click, but giving it that extra energy. It doesn’t screw up the song; it gives it a better feel. So why not keep it?”
The 29-year-old drummer grew up playing along to the records of Metallica, Dream Theater, and Rush, and he continues to play along with his heroes, including Will Calhoun (Living Colour), Chad Smith (RHCP), and Darren King (Mutemath – see preceding pages). Studying for four years with Greg Zeller in Westchester, Pennsylvania, Torelli went through Ted Reed’s Syncopation applied to drum kit.
“As we got more advanced,” Torelli recalls, “we’d keep 2 and 4 on hi-hat along a jazz ride-cymbal pattern then play the figures with the left hand on the snare drum, then on the kick drum; that helps with independence. We also went through a few pages of Gary Chester’s New Breed. Another book we did was David Garibaldi’s Future Sounds, which I love. That book is big on ghost notes and accents.”
Torelli qualified All State in marching band during his senior year in high school, counting rudiments as the building blocks of a solid technique. But that was then. These days he doesn’t run the rudiments or practice with much structure.
“Now I try to play different things than rock,” he explains. “I put on my iPod and play along with ?uestlove, or some jazz. I try to change it up because I feel like I do the same thing over and over in our genre of music. Even with the songs we play, I have been doing them for so many years I tend to do the same thing. I hate that. So to change it I have to totally step outside my comfort zone.
“I want to look back to the records in the future and not be embarrassed at what I’ve played.” Torelli adds. “I want to hopefully create something timeless. But I don’t have any crazy goals, I just want to put my own stamp on our music and have it last.”