Sitting across from Dino Campanella, it’s hard not to wonder what drives the stout 32-year-old. Eyes darting around the interior of a taqueria in Campbell, California, just around the corner from where he lives, it seems like he’d rather be anywhere else in the world right now besides sharing a booth with a stranger talking about, ugh, the creative process.
Seeing how the video shoot for the single “Upon Returning” ran till 3:00 this morning up in San Francisco, it could just be a simple case of sleep deprivation. The details are vague but during the shoot, Campanella and the other members of Dredg – Drew Roulette (bass), Gavin Hayes (vocals), and Mark Engles (guitar) – were at one point submerged in a freezing pool of water with a psychedelic swirl of colors enveloping them (you kinda have to see the video.)
After a few gulps of Jarritos soda while waiting on the enchilada plate, Campanella seems to remember why he’s here. “It’s weird,” he says. “When I play drums live, and when we’re writing, I tend to maybe do too much. Sometimes it’s just to keep myself entertained.”
He’s talking about how he evolved as the band’s drummer-keyboardist. If you’ve been to a Dredg show, you’ve seen the former pianist tapping out a melody on a keyboard to the left of his throne – oftentimes while still playing the drums. The setup has its roots in the Catch Without Arms sessions, when Campanella brought his keyboard into the studio, mostly as a compositional tool if he needed to write a hook on the spot. It eventually became so integral to the sessions he decided to bring it on stage. “It’s not like we wrote these songs and did some keyboard overdubs in the studio and then said, ’How are we going do this live?’ ’Well, I guess I’ll play both … I’ll split it up.’”
You’re not likely to be aware of, or even care about, this musical dualism while listening to Chuckles And Mr. Squeezy, a soft-bomb of cosmic sweetness and light. It’s a new aesthetic and a new attitude that resulted from Dredg’s exasperation with being a semi-improvisational band too pop-oriented for the jam-band circuit and not frat-boy enough for the Sublime/311 crowd. It also has to do with the production work from Dan The Automator (Gorillaz, Dr. Octagon, Handsome Boy Modeling School), one of the West Coast’s most respected hip-hop producers.
“Dan is the type of guy who doesn’t care at all about what kind of studio it is,” Campanella explains. “As long as it has six mikes for the drums he will make it work. He’s not into the polished, perfect-sounding drums; he’s into the garage-sounding drums, old-sounding drums. We did all these songs on our laptops at home while Dan was in Seattle. That’s why a lot of it was electronic beat—driven, but we knew it would be that way anyway because Dan was doing it.”
For Chuckles, Campanella tracked all the drums in one day on a ’70s stainless steel Ludwig kit chosen for its fat, open tones. Sometimes it was three takes; other times he nailed on the first try – a feat he was too nerve-wracked to pull off in the past. It makes him laugh to think about how he used to have a million cymbals and lots of drums when he was a kid compared to the stripped-down setup he favors today. “When I first got my drum kit, not knowing s__t about sound, I used to take a felt strip and put it underneath my heads so they were kinda compressed so it got rid of all the ringing.” He also modified his beaters to be clickier because that’s how the sanitized metal albums he listened to back in the day were recorded. “It was like a flat piece of wood against the Danmar [impact badge] because I was listening to Pantera a lot. You know Vinnie Paul used to have a quarter taped to them.”
You could argue that Dan The Automator was like a fifth band member on the latest Dredg record. The kernels of “The Tent,” “Sun Goes Down,” and the album closer “Before It Began” all started with the producer, but the band later reworked them in the studio. “Which is another thing that would never have happened on a previous record,” says Campanella. “It’s a collaboration. You trust the guy … it’s like, ’Let’s have fun.’
“We kept thinking, What makes a good song? Or a riveting book? Or whatever. That pushed us to write the best songs we could. [Dan]’s like, ’I’ll send you guys some tracks, too. You can mess around with them and whoever’s songs are the best will make it onto the album.’
It was a total no-ego thing.
By contrast, “Down Without A Fight” grew from nothing more than a basic beat, which Campanella had lodged in his head when he woke up one morning. “It’s just the bass patch on my keyboard,” he says excitedly, although he’s not a gearhead. “If you play one key then the other real fast, it pitch-bends, [sounding it out] WHRR ungh-ungh WHRR. Just between these two notes. I was deliberately trying to not go for some big key change.”
In keeping with this quick-and-easy philosophy, out-of-the-box sounds from an ancient copy of GarageBand were used for several of the new songs. “People are, ’That’s a $20 piece of software.’ It doesn’t matter; it sounds good. Just because you have the latest HD Pro Tools rig doesn’t mean that your stuff’s going to sound good. It’s all about how you use it.”
Campanella’s approach may sound cavalier, perhaps even careless, but the result is anything but. First single “Upon Returning” showcases the coiled power and roomy pocket we’ve come to expect from this heavy hitter. But it’s not enough to just say that Chuckles’ rhythmic feel is solid. The drums have soft contours that sucker punch repeatedly through the arpeggiating guitars, 5-string bass undulations, and sparkling synths undergirding Hayes’ peyote-in-the-desert vocals and otherworldly lap steel, a combo that rocks insidiously.
Overall, the beats are still the funk-inflected straight-ahead kind Campanella does so well, but on at least three or four songs the drums are run through a filter, making it sound far away or dirty in a cool, textured way. On “The Thought Of Losing You,” doleful jangles and gossamer synths would be flat without Dino’s subtle propulsion to give them a purpose. It’s the kind of balanced, sensitive approach he delivers track after track whether programming beats or bashing them out by hand. “Were trying to minimize overthinking and squashing the value out of the music,” he explains. “The idea for this was pure instinct and pure emotion.”