Darren King: Odd Man In

Darren King

Many of the drummers we write about in this magazine hone their skills in Sunday-morning service, but for Mutemath drummer Darren King, playing as a teen in a traveling ministry in rural Missouri was a whole other thing. “It was pretty eccentric,” he recalls over the phone from his home in Tyler, Texas. “Like speaking in tongues, falling on the floor.”

One of the more enjoyable things those evangelical years provided was a letting go of musical inhibitions on the drum set. “They wouldn’t put you behind one of those sneeze guards. You could play as loud as you wanted … for hours.”

Though Mutemath’s star has steadily risen since 2007’s surprise hit “Typical,” on through to the positive reviews of 2009 sophomore record Armistice, the stress of “trying to get famous and evangelize at the same time,” split their efforts, keeping Mutemath frustratingly below the radar.

Then in the summer of 2010, the loss of a long-time guitarist Greg Hill shook things up even more. Now working as a trio, there was suddenly more creative lifting for King, singer/vocalist Paul Meany, and bassist Roy Mitchell-Cárdenas. To the band’s surprise and delight, Cárdenas turned out to be an ace guitar player. “It was like before Roy had been patiently waiting all this time while we figured stuff out,” explains King. “And then all this pent-up talent suddenly came out.”

The band sequestered themselves in a studio in New Orleans’ Warehouse District, and didn’t emerge until they had something that was, according to King, at least 90 percent Mutemath. “Initially we doubted ourselves far too much, doubted our own tastes. And this time we made sure that we at least made something that we would have a blast playing together live.”

Once you’ve heard King dig in on the ten new songs on Odd Soul, there’s no way he could not have a ball playing them. The album, a kaleidoscopic fever dream that at times recalls one of James Brown’s marathon jams, never lets its grandiose ambitions get in the way of a solid hook. The vibe might best be described as mid-’70s prog crossed with the Stax house band, the latter courtesy of Meany’s soul-drenched organ and seductive croon on top of Cárdenas’ busy bass lines.

But where Meany and Cárdenas like to zig, count on King to zag. Thankfully, the drum-istic paroxysms – a ferocious counterpoint to the other members’ atmospherics – complement rather than overpower. “Before there were certain songs that I felt like I could always count on to save the show if it was a bad show,” he says of the band’s approach in the past. “And so this time we just wanted to make ten of those.”

With drum parts this abundant and energetic, you wouldn’t think there would be room for much of anything else, beat-wise, on the album, yet King triggers plenty of sequences from a sample pad. Other times it’s Meany and Cárdenas triggering them from a keyboard or guitar, respectively. The dense layers of rhythms help to give the songs a sound that’s full to the point of bursting, and yet King’s überkinetic articulations between bass, snare, and hats, or utilizing the full kit, always punch through. On “All Or Nothing,” an ’80s whip-crack beat snaps along while King’s tom fills are so fast the sticks threaten to bury themselves in the heads, like they would on press roll.

Whatever idiosyncratic rhythms bubble up on Odd Soul, the common denominator is funked-up 4/4 or some variation on ’60s boogaloo beats. Fat-bottomed groove abounds on “Sunray”; the greazy rock of “Quarantine” is all chunky ba-bump on the kick; on “Cavalries,” the oppressive pummel is effervesced with a clave on his cowbell, a maligned accessory he also makes use of in “Walking Paranoia,” tapping it like a hi-hat in between the sampled hand claps.

It’s worth pointing out that King also edited Odd Soul in its entirety. Although he mostly used a click, he was not anal about laying down the perfect drum track because he knew he could always fix it later. “You can create performances that you didn’t actually play,” he says. “Plus, I can put as many fills in it as I want. [laughs] I guess that’s what happens whenever the drummer’s steering: He makes sure he gets his.”

If he occasionally mixes an album that exceeds his abilities (at that moment in time anyway), he relishes the challenge of trying to play what he whipped up in the editing bay. On “Heads Up,” that’s all right foot in real time. “It’s fine for the first two minutes, and then by the three-minute mark my calf starts to burn. That’s the song that’s taken the most practice for me just to get the endurance to play it.”

During the verses on “Blood Pressure,” he’s switching between one-handed eighths and two-handed sixteenth-notes, or so it seems. “No, I think I do that with just my right hand. That song is really fun, too. I can’t wait to play that one live.”

While King may be active in his church today, he’s no choirboy. After all of Odd Soul’s basic tracking was done in New Orleans, Mutemath tidied up the songs at Sunset Studios in Los Angeles. Working next door was none other than Jim Keltner, whose recording setup included a Brazilian drum tree, a complicated contraption whose piccolo snare sound King thought would be perfect for the track “Quarantine.” Late at night after Keltner was gone, he ran back and set up a mike into his laptop and recorded it. “I did a bad thing,” he says sheepishly. “The engineer came running in and said, ’Dude, that’s not cool, it’s not yours. I said, ’I know, but I just had to. It sounds perfect.’”

Coveting his neighbor’s percussion equipment shouldn’t be too much of a shocker. The gear fetish extends to his own setup, an enviable vintage Rogers kit and a set of Zigmar drums, an off-brand from Japan. In the majority of Odd Soul’s songs, you hear a heavily muffled snare. It’s an effect he achieves with lots of tape in the studio. It’s meant to replicate as exactly as he can the ’40s-era WSL snare used live. It might be antique but King hardly treats it like a museum piece. “That’s been with me for about four or five years now without any need for repair at all,” he says. “It’s such a tank. I love how durable that snare drum is.”

Aside from unusual equipment, exotic drum sounds, or the heavy spiritual baggage he carries around, maybe the one simple rule Mutemath adhered to while making Odd Soul – that it had to be “a blast to play live” – was the very thing that makes it awesome.

Of course, Mutemath didn’t know it would turn out that way; it was a leap of faith: “I don’t think we’ve peaked yet,” he says. “I think we’re just figuring out how to make records that we like.”