Derek Grant: Expansive Punk

By Matt Bloome Originally published in DRUM! Magazine’s August 2008 Issue

To imply that drumming comes easily to Alkaline Trio’s Derek Grant would be like suggesting that swimming comes easily to fish. Grant was born to bang heads — in more ways than one. As Alkaline Trio’s fourth and likely final drummer, Grant, with his thunderous mastery behind the kit, brings the punk trio to life, a fact that can’t be denied if you’ve ever caught the band live. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Grant was such a natural that he can’t remember the first time he sat down behind a set. “There are pictures of me with drum sticks in my hands before I could walk,” the 31-year-old says. “I couldn’t reach the kick drum, so I used the floor tom instead, and that’s something I still do today.” But don’t be fooled by the fact that he’s using techniques he picked up by accident as a tyke — he was a rocker from the beginning. His dad, who was a drummer in a classic rock cover band, had a small Gretsch kit that the young protégé could easily hop onto whenever he felt the rhythm, which was apparently quite often. By the time he was six or seven, his dad was sneaking him into bars not only to watch the band play, but also to sit in on a few of the easier tunes. “They’d bring me up to play ‘Crosstown Traffic’ or ‘Tush.’ I was learning and getting my chops.”

By the time he was 17, Grant was playing professionally with several bands in Detroit. On tour through the Midwest, he would occasionally run into Alkaline Trio’s current bassist, Dan Andriano, who was active in the punk circuit with various Chicago bands at the time. “I was working in a record store when I heard that Dan was playing with Alkaline Trio. A bunch of the guys I worked with were really into them, so I started taking notice,” he says. “Then, when I was on tour with Face To Face [as a guitarist], Alkaline Trio opened up for us and I met Matt [Skiba, Alkaline’s guitarist] and it was on from there.”

The multi-talented Grant showed up on Alkaline Trio’s third album, Good Mourning, but says he didn’t feel comfortable messing with their style. He was still the outsider and the band had burned through a series of drummers up to that point — three to be exact, in as many albums. It would be fair to say that Grant didn’t want to be another transient piece of the trio, and now there isn’t a fish’s chance on the beach that the band could afford to replace him. The Wikipedia entry on Grant claims that Skiba was once quoted as saying, “If Derek Grant weren’t in Alkaline Trio, there would be no trio.” Of course, it’s a true statement regardless of Wikipedia’s lack of attribution, but if Skiba meant that the drummer is an irreplaceable brick in the wall, it would be hard to refute: Grant has been a member of the band for longer than any of the others before him, recording three albums with the trio and even penning a few tunes himself. On their newest album, Agony & Irony, released on July 1, Grant gets writing credit for a third of the album and says that the record is their best yet. “This time around we were a lot tighter,” he says. “It was a really cool, organic vibe where nothing was out of the question. We kind of jumped all over the place — five or six songs, move along, bounce to bass or vocals, and if something wasn’t working I’d pop back in and rerecord the drums, which was great for three guys with attention deficit disorder.”

ADD might also explain their tour schedule. The band embarked on a 44-city tour at the end of May, going from Vancouver to New York, hitting every major (and minor) city in between, and finally closing out the summer in Lawrence, Kansas after a stint on the West Coast. Asked how his sound on tour differs from the studio cut, Grant stumbles. “Man, I don’t know. I think — and I learned this from Bill Stevenson [of Descendents] — that if you can create an environment where you can play 75 percent of stuff by preserving energy and then use the other 25 percent to go nuts, you won’t burn out on stage. That’s important.”

That said, Grant is as clueless as his pining fans as to when that 25 percent might come in handy. Maybe not clueless, but he admits to winging it most of the time. “I don’t have to think about what I’m playing. There’s not a lot of conscious thought that I put into it, because it’s a lot of improvisation. I got that from The Vandals, they taught me to think on my feet.” Thanks for making us all feel horrible, Derek. And by the way, he doesn’t even have a drum set in his house. Not only that, he’s also started to play ambidextrously, left-handed on a right-handed set and vice versa. “Incidentally,” he says casually, “there were two left-handed drummers before me that were playing on right-handed kits, so when I was listening to them, there were some weird things that I couldn’t get a hang of. When I realized they were playing backwards, I started playing ambidextrously. A bunch of tunes on the new album I’m playing left-handed.”

Is there anything this guy doesn’t do? Well, yeah, but not behind drums. He’s been touring with hardcore punk bands since he was a teenager, so he’s begun to avoid the excesses that ruined so many drummers before him. Instead of weeklong benders, for example, he’s gotten into yoga. “People like to project an image onto Alkaline Trio because the early lyrics dealt with drugs and alcohol, and it’s had its place in our lives for sure, but we’re more concerned with playing the best show we can.” He quickly adds: “We’re not opposed to having a glass of wine before the show. Maybe some absinthe.”

VITALS

BAND Alkaline Trio
AGE 31
BIRTHPLACE Detroit, Michigan
INFLUENCES John Bonham, Peter Criss, Bill Stevenson, Mitch Mitchell
CURRENT RELEASE Agony & Irony
WEB SITES alkalinetrio.com, myspace.com/dgrantdotcom

ALL GEARED UP

DRUMS C&C
CYMBALS Sabian
STICKS Pro-Mark
HEADS Evans
HARDWARE Tama