John Stanier: High On The ‘Hawk

john stanier

“To me, it’s like, Bonham is just a monster,” he continues. “A lot of people are like, ’That’s such a Bonham beat,’ when in reality it’s a James Brown beat – it’s just played much louder with rimshots with a 26" kick drum, and [Bonham]’s maybe one of the first guys to capitalize on all those backbeats, whereas I think Bill Buford is way more angular to me – almost accidently funky. He’s not as, like, obviously funky.”

If you listened to the last few albums from Tomahawk or Battles, you would never guess they feature the drummer responsible for the massive, funky right foot in Helmet. Moreover, the several references Stanier makes to his drum corps influence are startling because he is not a fancy-pants rudiment-oriented player. Only after a while does it emerge that he is talking about tone, not playing style. “My Helmet snare sound, which I guess is what most people made the most fuss about, is a combination of Bill Bruford and drum corps – that’s all it is. Just as high as the snare can go, zero padding, and just have that really super crazy ring to it.”

The whole bass drum foot thing has taken a back seat in Battles, but in Tomahawk there are remnants of Helmet’s loping pulse on open hats and powerful kick. “I think I have an average foot, maybe slightly above average foot, but I’m by no means Zach Hill.” Recounting the time Battles played with Hill (Death Grips, Hella, Wavves, Marnie Stern) he remembers watching from the side of the stage, incredulous. “’There. Is. No. Way. You have to have a double kick.’ That guy’s foot is’ ... That is a foot.”

Unsurprisingly, Stanier has never used a double pedal himself. “I’ve sat down behind Iggor from Sepultura’s set, like, ’Duguh-duguh-Dughah-dugah, ha-ha’ but I always thought that either I would totally abuse it, like use it all the time, or I wouldn’t use it enough.”

He also refuses to let equipment innovations dictate his approach, which he insists come from the imagination, not manufacturer catalogs. “By the time I ever thought to consider double pedal, it was so late in the game it was like why bother?”

Plus, the idea of accessories and extraneous percussion on the kit bugs him. “I don’t understand the drummers with all the weird little splash cymbals and all those sort of things that you’re going to hit maybe twice in a set.”

Onweird And Upward

An instrumental trio, Battles work a feverish tribal-tech groove, bridging the acoustic and electronic worlds, a trend that started with 2009’s Mirrored and which got downright bananas on 2011’s Gloss Drop. The pulse is drum machine—esque but with enough accents and random fills to feel human. There’s also a 2012 remix album Dross Glop, featuring cutting-edge DJs chopping up Stanier’s drum parts – a fairly meta exercise when you consider that his beats already evoke the proto-industrial sounds of Krautrock drummers, acoustic kit players who themselves experimented with tape loops. Phew! “Drum-wise Gloss Drop is my greatest achievement,” he says. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to top that.”

Battles are on the UK’s premier electronic dance-music label, Warp – best known for IDM icons Autechre, Aphex Twin, and Square Pusher, as well as glitch artists like Prefuse 73. But in the last few years the label has broken out of the EDM ghetto to sign the likes of Grizzly Bear and Mäximö Park, the sorts of bands you wouldn’t associate with a dance music label. “The owner is the coolest guy in the world,” Stanier says. “He was just in our guitar player’s wedding in North Carolina – they’re fantastic people. Like, right after hanging up with you I could go prank call him.”

Stanier has put all his eggs in the Battles basket – a daring gambit when you consider how uncommercial its sound is. The hipsters may have embraced them, but you can’t cash coolness at the bank. Then again maybe listeners, more exposed to adventurous music than ever these days thanks to video games and other niche platforms, are ready for it. After all, Stanier doesn’t see Battles as being a martyr to his art – it’s a smart and serious career move. “With Tomahawk we hadn’t done anything in a really long time. We’d been talking about it for a long time, but it was always just like, ’Yeah, sure, let me know when you want to do something.’ So, yeah, Battles takes up all my time for sure.”

Stanier doesn’t even speak to any of the members of Helmet anymore except for the original bassist, Henry Bogdan. Even though the band technically still exists, it’s not the same as in its ’90s heyday when four preppy guys stripped metal of all its nonsense with the hard, angry sound of 1991 debut Strap It On; 1992’s breakthrough Meantime; and the ambitious Betty from 1994. As clean cut and conservative as they looked, Helmet was more playful than all the grunge bands with whiny lead singers. Aftertaste, the fourth and final record to feature Stanier on drums, is today dismissed by the drummer even though (we think) it’s still totally decent and sounds like Helmet, but yes, started to feel slightly like a retread. “That was half-assed,” he says of the album. “That record was kind-of embarrassing, actually, but I am extremely proud of the first three records.”

Needless to say, the chances of a reunion with the original guys are slim to none. “Is it just me or is it like so many bands are getting back together? It’s this in-vogue thing to do that’s become so common place. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I think The Pixies sort of spearheaded it. They were the first really big old band, and that really worked. I guess [a reunion] just never even occurred to me. It was an amazing time, but I don’t think everything has to come back. I think sometimes things have much more integrity if they’re left alone.”

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