David Colvin of The Heartless Bastards

By Andy Doerschuk Published September 29, 2009

Age: 33
Hometown: Dayton, Ohio
Previous Bands: Wil Cope, Shesus
Cymbals: Dream Cymbals

Drummer David Colvin first played with The Heartless Bastards’ singer and songwriter Erika Wennerstrom in 2000, when the two played in the now-defunct Dayton, Ohio band Shesus. A couple years after they both left the band, Wennerstrom asked Colvin to record a demo for her new project – The Heartless Bastards. After the sessions, Wennerstrom put together a live band and Colvin moved to Austin, Texas to pursue a Masters In Jazz Studies and to explore the city’s vibrant music scene. In 2008, the singer called Colvin, who was surprised to learn that she had also moved to Austin. She asked her former drummer join a new version of the band, which she was assembling for a fall tour in order to warm-up for an already-recorded early ’09 record release. Since then, the band has appeared on Late Show With David Letterman and Austin City Limits, played numerous festivals, had the opportunity to open for such prominent acts as Wilco, Andrew Bird, and the Decemberists. The band is slated to begin touring with Wolfmother in October.

Do you play to a click or samples on stage?
In general, no, although there are a couple points where Erika will loop a rhythm guitar part or a keyboard part that I will need to play along to.

What do you like most about touring?
The playing aspect. Sometimes it seems like 90–95 percent of your time on the road is used up by traveling, sleeping, waiting around, and so on. It can be a real release to just get up there and play after all that stuff has been dealt with. Sometimes having to deal with so many non-musical aspects can help to make you more focused and motivated when it is time to actually make music.

Describe the worst gig you’ve ever played.
The worst gigs usually seem to involve stress felt among all four band members, simultaneously. This can involve crowd response, the sound onstage, or something non-music related entirely. If we’re all stressing out from one thing or another all at the same time, it can be hard to pull one another up, emotionally, with the music – not impossible, but tough. It’s always good to try and connect on a personal level before we have to play. That way, we can start the set from a good place.

Do you wear earplugs, in-ears, or monitors with no earplugs?
I almost always wear earplugs. I use them when practicing, performing, attending rock concerts, even mowing the lawn. My ears are my liveihood. Since we use monitors in the Heartless Bastards, things can get pretty loud onstage. I love the custom molded ones where the frequencies are all equally filtered out. They’re just a lot more musical than gun muffs or foam. I think the only time I don’t use them is on jazz gigs where the music can get pretty soft and subtle.

Mike McCarthy brought in his own musicians to produce the band’s latest album, The Mountain. Do you play the drum parts onstage exactly the same way Doni Schroader (…And You Will Know Us By the Trail Of Dead) played on the album?
Initially, because I had to learn the set as quickly as possible, I learned the drums parts exactly as they were on the record. On the road, playing the songs night after night, week after week, all of our parts gradually and subtly change to reflect who we are at that moment as a band. They have to, or else it’s just not music as far as we relate to it. The changes are rarely drastic, but just enough to make the songs come alive.

How much room do you have to improvise on stage?
Outside of a few moments where the drums essentially take the lead, there really isn’t a lot of room to improvise in the traditional sense within our current set. I do get a lot of satisfaction in finding subtly different ways to better play the same groove, or finding the exact right fill for a given moment in a song on a given night. Finding new ways to bring the same drum part to life night after night can be quite Zen, in a way. It is a very different approach than what I’ve been used to over the years as a jazz drummer, and it keeps things interesting and challenging for me.

How do you stay healthy while you’re on the road?
Any time we have a morning to ourselves, I get down to the fitness room in the hotel or go for a jog outside. Sleep, food, and alcohol "regulation" are very important. Due to the stresses of constant traveling, I think these things are even more important to maintain than when you’re off the road. I guess I’m not 25 anymore, eh?

Do you warm up before going on stage?
Yeah, I always try to run through a warm-up of rudiments, – singles, doubles, triples – stick control, etcetera. on a pad and with a metronome.

Do you mute your drums or tune them wide open?
The only muffling I use is a little felt strip on the front kick head. I like the drums wide open. The resulting resonance helps to "glue" the kit together and present it as a single instrument, thus making it sound bigger and fuller, hopefully.

How often do you change heads?
With the amount of performing that I’m currently doing with the Heartless Bastards, I change the batter sides about once every two weeks or so, depending upon how they sound. The resonant sides I change less often – maybe every four months or so.

Do you do your own tuning?
Right now, yes. I don’t have a drum tech. I spend quite a lot of time tuning. I’ve gotten good at getting the most from my kit by getting to know the best ranges for each drum in order for the kit to "sing" properly.

Do you use the same setup on stage and in the studio?
For the most part when I’ve gone into the studio, I’ve tried to stay with my live set-up as much as possible, whether it be my jazz or rock set-up, depending on the music being recorded. I’ve been trying to make the sound of my drums better and better with each live performance, and it doesn’t make much sense to stray too far from that. With live rock and roll, even though I always go for good tone, sometimes I have to make set-up choices due to durability issues. So in the studio I might choose a slightly thinner head on the batter sides of the drums in order to get more resonance and sensitivity. Also, I might use some thinner, darker cymbals instead of the slightly heavier ones I use on the road.

Do you use matched or traditional grip?
Matched. For me as a player, I have never had the need to extensively learn traditional grip. From my understanding, the steep angle at which the field drums of early marching bands hung made the invention of traditional grip necessary. We now have stands for drums that can keep drums level, and we no longer have to suspend drums from shoulder straps. Despite this, however, over the years, I have occasionally considered putting in more time with traditional grip. After all, an extensive jazz vocabulary has been developed by master players using that grip. At some point though, I saw a video of Bill Stewart performing with the Larry Goldings trio. Bill was swinging like crazy, with brushes and sticks, using only matched grip. It was at that point that I decided to end my traditional grip explorations, and just focus on playing exclusively with matched grip.

Do you feel perfect time is mandatory in creating a groove?
No, but good “group time” is essential. What I mean by that is that everybody should be on the same page with regards to where each beat will fall, even if it isn’t exactly metronomic. Like Elvin Jones – he wasn’t always metronomic, but the bands he played with always knew where he was in terms of the time. The bands that Elvin played in always had what I consider a very “organic” feel to them. The band Deerhoof is also a good example of sometimes imperfect metronomic time, but great group time. They’re amazing at it. It’s all about making music with the people you’re playing with.