John Humphrey: Seether’s Ragin’ Road Veteran
Seether was seething. The hard rock songwriting guitarist duo of Shaun Morgan and Pat Callahan had a hit single, gold records, and a fast-growing fan base. But could they find a drummer that they could stand to be around? Nope — not until John Humphrey finally showed up around the end of 2003.
“Eighty percent of any professional gig is about getting along, and they were looking for someone without ego,” says Humphrey, 35, in his soft Oklahoma accent. “We all woodshed in the practice room and get our chops up, but this is a people’s business with human beings. If you live on a bus together and you can’t get along, or you’re in this to sign autographs, you aren’t going to win and you aren’t going to last long. They had some fine drummers in the band, they just point blank didn’t get along.”
While Humphrey may speak like a Southern gentleman, he’s a brute behind the drums, as evidenced by his precisely powerful playing on Seether’s new album, Karma And Effect. It all started, interestingly enough, growing up near Oklahoma City, where Humphrey was getting off on Kiss, Van Halen, and Mötley Crüe. “There was a lot of country around me, but I wanted to be in a rock band and play rock music,” he recalls. “My first year of college I had a scholarship to Berklee, which I stupidly blew off because I was in a band with a single, and we thought we were going to move to L.A. and be the next big thing. But the band that really got me off the ground was the group I joined in 1992 called the Nixons.”
A rock band that was doing its own thing when grunge was king, the Nixons had a decent following, one big hit single (1995’s “Sister”), four albums, and eight good years of employment for Humphrey. Along the way, he saw his drumming style evolve boldly, influenced by the likes of Dave Grohl, Dave Abbruzzese, and Matt Cameron. “I started riding on the crash — it was like bringing Keith Moon into it,” he says. “The guys I played with were influenced by the Sub Pop label and bands like Soundgarden, going from a regimented ’you’ve-gotta-do-it-this-way’ style to letting it all hang out. It contributed to a recklessness that I developed over time.”
In 2000, the Nixons were dropped by their label MCA and promptly disbanded, leaving the then-30-year-old Humphrey to wonder what the heck exactly was next. “You go home and say, ’Wow, now what do I do?’” says Humphrey. “I’m a drummer at heart, so I went back to doing weddings and playing in cover bands. I also had a side project, Huver, that tried to solicit a record deal, but things just didn’t work out. At the same time, the sound guy for Seether — who knew the Nixons — came up to me and said, ’I have a band that’s looking for a drummer on the down-low. I want to put your name into the hat.’”
It was October, 2003, and Humphrey hunkered down for two weeks of practice with Seether’s debut album Disclaimer before The Big Audition. “They had about five guys lined up coming through Dallas. I was the last guy — it was midnight and they were worn out, beat, in the middle of a tour. They started calling out songs and we were nailing them. Shaun looked up, winked, and said, ’I’m pretty much comfortable doing a show tomorrow with this guy.’
“We were a good match because I’m a hard, heavy hitter. The music is just straight-up rock. I like to think it’s Nirvana on steroids — it has a lot of power to it, and it’s just very melodic. It’s pretty straight ahead and there’s not a lot of odd time signatures. I’m meat and potatoes, and I think I keep it simple and add a lot of power and energy.
“I didn’t do the next show, but I did three rehearsals and the next gig was in front of 20,000 in Mexico City. I had done big shows before, but it had been about three years since anything like that. I was a little nervous to say the least.”
Not as nervous as he could have been, however. All-pro Humphrey has a cool tip for drummers who may get psyched out by a nerve-wracking gig. “You really treat it like you would a small club gig,” he counsels. “Mentally, sometimes I’m like, ’Okay, I’m in a classroom. I’m in front of 20 people.’ I have an iPod with all the music, we’ll talk about the set list, and I’ll go into the dressing room and listen to it, play parts. I’ll focus and go to that happy place — I’m in my practice room, my bedroom, whatever — and that’ll take the edge off the butterflies.”
While you’d expect a band like Seether to be meticulous in their preparations for the all-important second album, the recording of Karma And Effect was actually a welcome exercise in extreme spontaneity for Humphrey. “Usually you do pre-production for months on end, but in this case we went right into the studio and laid it down — a good handful of these songs I had played once or even not at all,” he explains. “I just went into the drum booth and went at it. They’d say, ’Do what you want, go with it,’ and that’s how it got put together. The song ’Truth’ we wrote literally in the studio. It was good because if you overwork a song to death, it can become sterile, or maybe you’ve got that fill of the week you’re trying to throw in there. This case was more off the cuff — it was an experiment, and I was pretty proud of the results.”
For a toughened rock band veteran like Humphrey, however, the true payoff for all the hard work he’s put into staying in business arrives at show time. “I love playing live,” he confirms. “With the music business and the tumultuous world you’re in — charts and how your record’s doing — the 75 minutes onstage is what you control. That’s your world. It’s impossible to describe the feeling you get, how addictive it is to play live. You go out on stage with a band like Seether and you say, ’Man, I have got the best job in the world.’”