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John Humphrey On Tracking Seether’s Latest Opus

Seether’s John Humphrey warns aspiring drummers: “Be careful what you dream for, it might just come true.”

Since Humphrey joined South African based modern rockers Seether in 2003, the band has scored three #1 Active Rock tracks in the U.S. alone, toured the world incessantly, and sold millions of records.

“We’re very fortunate,” Humphrey says. “I dreamed of this when I was a kid. And I can’t complain.”

Seether’s lastest opus, Holding Onto Strings Better Left To Fray, features Humphrey’s pliant drumming, which alludes to his heroes in various and subtle ways. On one song, Humphrey channels Bonham’s bestial crunch, the next he’s dropping a slick beat ala Dave Weckl, after that his Everyman Liberty DeVitto influence takes hold, infusing Seether’s music with a working class humanity.

Your drumming is dead center in the pocket, and relaxed. How did you develop that sense of relaxation?
On this album it had a lot to do with the producer’s influence. Initially, the songs were in demo form. I listened to them a couple times, then we laid down the drum parts. I was learning the song as we went along and trying my best to support the song – get the transitions down, set up the choruses, set up the bridge and the pre-chorus. Brendan O’Brien worked closely with me on the bass drum patterns; he would make suggestions. In developing my part he really let me do what I wanted to do. He didn’t force anything. The sessions were relaxed, with no pressure. We would do three or four groups of songs at a time, rather than the usual method of tracking drums to 15 songs for an entire album in one sitting. This time we did three or four songs then stopped, and did guitar and bass overdubs. It was a great way to work.

Did you copy the demos or create your own parts?
I was creating my own parts, the demos tended to be drum machine. Often Brendan would try to change my parts from the demos to a more natural rhythm. The demos were basically just a reference so I would know the pre-chorus and the bridge. Other than that, I would naturally feel the song. Obviously, a year later you look back, you’re playing different fills live, and there are other things you wish you’d played on the album. But it was pretty instantaneous.

How do you play relaxed in the studio and with the pressures of a million selling group?
It has to do with the atmosphere. The album was done in sections, so I felt much more secure in just having to focus on the few songs at a time. I didn’t have to focus and freak out on 15 tracks. So each time we would do a group of songs we’d reset the session. Everything would be new so it wasn’t the same drum sound each time as well. It would change per session. We were in Nashville, which was a change for us. I am from Oklahoma, Shaun and Dale are from South Africa. So it felt like home to me, people were friendly. We were feeling good as a band. It was a healthy vibe.

Where is your drummer’s ego? Didn’t you want to create your own drum parts and not be dictated to by a producer?
I have copped some great drum parts from a guitar player who might make this crazy drum beat or who would show me what he wanted. I am pretty open-minded and I have a lot of respect for Brendan O’Brien. He has produced Matt Cameron, and Mastodon, everybody. He knows what he is talking about. So when he sits down and offers a suggestion there’s no ego from me. I got to be me, and he was really great about doing a couple takes, then he’d run back and say, “Try another take and throw us your DRUM! magazine fills man, go for it!” But for the most part there wasn’t Pro Tools with every beat. Brendan would take large sections and maybe he would pick out a fill and we’d do only three or four takes, maximum. He used big sections of different takes because he wanted the feel. He didn’t go beat by beat and line it up on the grid. He used analog tape with the drums, and from there into Pro Tools for editing, really. Brendan wanted it to be natural, using large sections of the performance and leaving my groove there.

Seether tours constantly. How do you maintain your chops on the road?
Well, we don’t play to a click live. I pride myself on keeping the tempo and the groove in the pocket. So I work on that. Audiences are used to the click now. It’s the condition of the world we live in. I come from the school of recording to a click to analog tape. You had to get it in the take. Otherwise you were replaced! Now albums are about perfection. Bands are performing to tracks and you suddenly hear instruments that aren’t even there. Where did those background vocals come from?

Are there peculiarities to your style?
I am a loud player, but people say I embody the classic rock style, like Keith Moon. I was a big fan of Liberty DeVitto, John Bonham, Dave Grohl, Dave Weckl, Tommy Lee, Steve Smith. All those elements come out at times. I played snare and marching band and jazz band in school. I learned my trade by stealing from other drummers and watching drummers growing up.

Seether is a huge success, sold millions of records, but personally are there any downsides to this level of success?
Being on the road all the time is tough. These days you make an album to support a tour. In the past you played a tour to support an album. It’s all changed now. I like playing live. And we do that a lot more than we did in the past. We only have three weeks off this year. Sometimes I really miss my kids but they know this is what I do to support them.

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