John Boecklin: Devil Without A Pause

By Andrew Lentz // Photo By Dirk Van den Auweele Orginally published in DRUM! Magazine’s October 2009 Issue.

John Boecklin lies back on the sofa in front of the tube. In two weeks his band, DevilDriver, will be headlining Thrash & Burn, and couch surfing is part of the pre-tour ritual. Between bouts of trash TV, he’s been jogging three miles a day, eating right, and laying off the booze. Then there’s those bitch of a drum parts he has to familiarize himself with on the band’s fourth release, Pray For Villains.

“This is my most complicated record I’ve done,” he says. “I know the meat and potatoes of all the drum parts but sometimes I’ll be, ‘What exactly did I do back there? Break out the laptop, let’s do a real quick [analysis].’”

After hearing Metallica at age 13, all Boecklin ever wanted to do was play drums. First there was a solid year of beating on furniture before mom and dad bought him a kit. His first band, Malevolence, entered a battle of the bands with a cover of Slayer’s “Seasons In The Abyss.” Losing that contest only increased his determination to make an impression in the local club circuit. Before long, he ditched New England in favor of sunny Southern California.

Ten years into his career with DevilDriver, the drummer is still haunted by the little voice that says, still not fast enough, still not fresh enough. “The new philosophy [for this album] was just to beat myself up and become better, and get a bit fancier with stuff.”

Pray For Villains was produced by ex–Machine Head guitarist Logan Mader, a guy DevilDriver appreciated for his ability to keep a band’s natural sound intact. He also has rep for being easy to work with. Speed was part of the goal, but monolithic blasting from track to track wasn’t enough. When space permitted, Boecklin aimed to “fill the gaps with tasteful stuff.” Despite Mader’s laissez-faire approach, he had to jump in when he thought the drummer was getting too tricky. Boecklin didn’t take it personally. “You have to be open to ideas, otherwise why are you paying someone money?”

Bruisers such as “Fate Stepped In” and “Pure Sincerity” evince a love of intricate fills and Adler-style cymbal work, while “Back With A Vengeance” and “Resurrection Blvd.” demonstrate ever-increasing foot speed. If it’s between 165–175 bpm, Boecklin’s getting his full leg into the bass strokes. When he’s inching toward 220, the feet begin their southward migration. “When I’m going my fastest, my toes are three-quarters off the plate of the kick pedal,” he says. “And if I want to play a Tommy Lee beat, my toes are rubbing up against the chain.”

The drummer chuckles knowingly when I tell him that the easy-as-pie “I’ve Been Sober” seems highly technical. Recordings can be deceptive, and to illustrate, he tells the story of when U.K. metal mag Kerrang commissioned DevilDriver to cover Iron Maiden’s “Wasted Years” for a tribute CD bundled into a special issue. “I was like, ‘This’ll be no problem,’ because it sounded like rock beats, but when I got in there it was a nightmare.”

Boecklin has a strict no-triggers policy on the kicks. The evenness of strokes you hear on Villains is the result of practicing like hell before tracking. Unfortunately, staying even while increasing the speed usually means less power, especially when competing with guitar, bass, and infernal screaming. That’s when Mader might do a little sound replacement to up the levels.

Live performances are trigger-less as well. To make sure the bass drums cut, an SM 51 mike on top of a pillow close to the beater does the trick. There is also a Beta 52 outside the hole cut in the reso head. He records to a click, naturally, but the fewer music elements there are in his headphones, the better. While tracking, he prefers to hum guitar parts to himself that he has memorized to keep his bearings within the song. As for a metronome live, forget about it. “To hear tick-tick-tick-tick an hour a night I would just be thinking more about the goddamn click than I would having fun,” he explains. “Even though I do know that I play [better] with the click than not, it’s not worth it.”

Boecklin isn’t trying to be a rebel. He is simply doing what he has to do and living with the consequences — like pissing off his bandmates when the tempos get out of control. “It’s not as frequent as it used to be, but they’re still, ‘Hey, man, it’s a little too fast.’ Especially the older songs, which are now really easy for me to play.”

Then there’s that mother of a kit, nevermind it’s a Potemkin Village of 7-ply maple. “That second kick, its only purpose is for me to look cool,” he says without irony. The whole point of a double pedal on a single bass drum is so he doesn’t have to worry about mismatched tones. “I know it can hinder you in some elements of speed, but it hasn’t let me down yet. I can go everywhere I need to go with the double pedal.”

Boecklin constantly changes the angle and height of the drums, never able to settle on any one arrangement. The rule of thumb is to have the snare set at the height he would “eat his steak dinner.” Lately, he has been positioning his toms higher. The closer they are to the body, he reasons, the faster the fills. “The only complication of that is getting from A to B can involve a technique change, so that’s my daily battle.”

Boecklin’s thoughts leap ahead to the tour and why today’s metal fans can appreciate DevilDriver’s new spin on an old sound. “I think we’re a great band for a young kid who is just getting into metal. And I also think were a great band for someone who was into Metallica and Testament, and still is, because we definitely have that thrash element to us with old-school kind of rules.”

VITALS
Band DevilDriver
Age 29
Birthplace Hartford, Connecticut
Influences Vinnie Paul, Tim Alexander, Joey Jordison, Gene Hoglan Latest Release Pray For Villains
Web Site devildriver.com

GEAR
Drums Mapex
Cymbals Meinl
Sticks Vic Firth
Hardware Gibraltar
Heads Evans
Microphones Shure

Stoked on Gibraltar Double Click Pad