Muse’s Dominic Howard: Man Meets Machine

“That is another example of layering loads of stuff,” Howard says. “I love working that way. It’s sometimes quicker than playing live drums to layer sounds in a track. You can really control each drum and cymbal. When you break everything down and put it all together, you’ve got complete control over everything. Also, I like having completely different ambiences on the snare as to what’s on the kick drum, you can have electronic toms over an acoustic drum kit, or a really dry kick and snare and absolutely massive toms. I like mixing that all up. It makes a unique and interesting total kit sound. ’Big Freeze’ has a big hi-hat and a tambourine and loads of enormous toms all in one part, but it’s all been recorded separately.”

Dominic Howard

Howard’s Setup

Drums DW Jazz Series (custom Spiral Glitter finish)
1 22" x 20" Bass Drum
2 14" x 6.5" Collector's Series Snare (knurled black nickel over steel)
3 12" x 10" Tom
4 15" x 15" Floor Tom
5 16" x 16" Floor Tom
6 18" x 16" Floor Tom

Cymbals Zildjian
A 8" EFX
B 11" Oriental Trash Splash
C 14" K Custom Dark Hi-Hat
D 18" K Custom Dark Crash
E 22" K Custom Dark Ride
F 20" A Custom EFX / K Custom Dark EFX (prototype)
G 18" Oriental China Trash

Electronics Roland
H PD-8 Pads (triggering samples)

Percussion
I Mountain Tambourine
J RhythmTech Ribbon Crasher
K TreeWorks Classic Bar Chimes

With all this attention to sonics, what about the tempos? Did Muse grid every last drumbeat and tempo map every corner of every song?

“We did more tempo mapping on the last album, with all its tempo changes, than The 2nd Law,” he responds. “But normally in the studio we work hard on tempos, trying to find the right one. We will bump up choruses two bpm if it feels better. It’s always about what feels right. The bpm can really affect your perception of the tempo of what you play. So we do tiny little shifts within songs. And again, there were more obvious tempo shifts on the last album.”

The nearly operatic rock-to-dubstep epic “Follow Me” combines all of Howard’s approaches – electronic, acoustic, programmed, layering. It begins with tub-thumping toms under Bellamy’s gospel inspired vocal, then blasts into a demonic-sounding snare drum roll diving deep into half-time dubstep terrain, then a 4/4 stomp straight out of a techno rave.

“That’s a combination of electronic and acoustic kits, then I just played it,” Howard says. “The electronic samples we used there were remixed by Nero. They gave the samples a certain sonic quality, which we thought was great. And I created a programmed kick with a hi-hat on it to give it that metallic edge. A lot of classic snare drum sounds are created with electronic sounds. You just start with a fat snare, a handclap, and add some white noise and maybe a sample. I applied that approach to ’Panic Station’ and ’Madness.’ It’s no secret these days. Maybe tune down the snare, apply gaffer’s tape to the head, then sample that and add a bunch of claps. We used the Arp 2600 to produce white noise. Mix all that together and you’ll get a badass snare sound.”

Finding His Muse

Though Howard played drums in a grade school band, Gothic Plague, Muse was his first and probably last proper band. He admits being self-taught, but recent drum lessons with former Mars Volta drummer Dave Elitch have helped him decipher paradiddles from ratamacues. He’s also studying chart reading and linear drumming.

“I wanted to know more about R&B and gospel chops, different odd time signatures, weird stuff,” he says. “It opens doors to different ways of thinking.”

And of course, Howard always returns to one of all his all time drumming heroes, who might surprise readers, and Muse fans.

“Buddy Rich is still the best drummer in the world though, isn’t he?” Howard asks. “It’s still ridiculous when you see him in a video. He still blows your mind. He’s still so cutting edge. He was ahead of this time in the tones he got out of his drums, his technique, his proficiency. Drummers today are doing incredible stuff, but going back to Buddy Rich, what he is doing is so often equal to and above any current level you would care to examine. It does still blow my mind. On some YouTube videos, he even does a little rock and roll groove for a bar. You realize of course he can do all that as well. So I often go back to Buddy Rich. That’s what it’s all about, and that is who you need to look up to and where you need to go. It’s ridiculous, really.”

With Buddy Rich as the drummer’s goal and rock stardom as his lifestyle, what advice does Dominick Howard offer the aspiring drummer? Is it as simple as learning the rudiments and writing the perfect song?

“For us we always had play to music and be in a band,” he says, matter of factly. “Then we just stuck at it, really. Find players who you really like and resonate with. It’s hard to find people that are on the same wavelength as you. That’s important. What else? Keep open.”

Muse’s Matthew Bellamy is a rock innovator, practically a one-man band who sings like an angel, writes like a record label’s dream, and has enough generosity to include his bandmates in the production process. At the end of the day, is it all about finding your own Matthew Bellamy? And a healthy dose of luck?

“Yes, of course it is,” Howard admits, honest to a fault. “We all know what it is. It’s being at the right place at the right time with the right songs. It’s tough being a musician. But it’s an amazing journey and it can be so rewarding. So I say always ’take risks.’ We all quit college for this band. That is risky stuff. But with us it’s all we ever wanted to do. There was no other option: the band or nothing. And we have that same ambition now.

“I meet lots of great drummers who can play every style and really adapt to any situation, which are qualities I’ve always envied. I’ve played with the same band my whole life. I joined this band when I was 14 and we all stayed with it. But we’ve always challenged ourselves as musicians and pushed ourselves and had that yearning to be better musicians. I always feel the need to refine and learn to feel confident in my role as the drummer in Muse. So just enjoy it, that’s it. It’s a good job.”

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