John Stanier Remembers His Last Helmet Album
If you listen closely to Aftertaste, you can hear remnants of Stanier’s progressive rock influences whenever he attacks a fill or orchestrates a break. For instance, he punches through an absolutely wicked drum passage on “Harmless,” a track Stanier jokingly refers to as “the drum solo song” [see Ex. 1], then adds, “That wasn’t hard at all. It was really easy.” Okay. So which track did Mr. Smarty Drawers find especially challenging? “The bridge in ’Birth Defect,’” he answers [see Ex. 2]. “That was super-hard. I don’t remember how many takes that took, but we don’t do more than two or three takes. That was fun to do, but definitely a challenge.”
Stanier’s 1997 Setup
Drums: Tama Artstar Custom
1. 24" x 16" Bass Drum
2. 14" x 5-1/2" Snare Drum
3. 10" x 10" Tom
4. 12" x 10" Tom
5. 13" x 11" Tom
6. 16" x 16" Floor Tom
A. 14" K Hi-Hats
B. 22" A Custom Ride
C. 22" A Earth Ride
John Stanier also uses Regal Tip Quantum 3000 wood tip sticks and Remo heads.
Both examples demonstrate how Stanier can unleash the flash and finesse of the fanciest fusion drummers, yet he chooses to parcel out his technique sparingly, and rarely overplays, if ever. His strategy fits perfectly with Helmet’s. “I can hear when a drummer is overplaying, and that’s cool in some bands where it works,” he says. “But overall, I think a good drummer knows when to throw the little extra things in and when not to. And if a drummer can add those little extra things at just the right time, then it’s amazing. That’s when a song is really special.”
Speed-for-speed’s-sake doesn’t top Stanier’s priority list. Keeping good time does. “In the studio, tempo is definitely a priority,” he says. “We’ll do a couple of cuts and then we’ll listen to the playback, and if my parts are dragging or speeding at certain points, then I’ll have to concentrate more on those parts. Live, tempo is important, but not as much. It’s not that hard to get your tempos right live, and if you think too much about tempo, you’re more likely to screw it up.”
Beware! If you ever encounter Stanier in person, do everyone in spitting distance a favor and restrain yourself from asking if he uses a click track. We did, and got the following impassioned response: “Never! I hate click tracks! I’ve used a click track once, years ago, for about five minutes. That was it! I like it when a certain part of a song gets a tiny bit faster. I like hearing records that do that because that means that the band was getting excited. By the time some of our songs end, we’re just bursting at the seams, so of course we speed up. I like to hear that with other bands, too. Definitely.
“Another thing about a click track,” he adds: “My experience was that you pay so much more attention to this click rather than relaxing and playing along to the song. It totally makes the tempo the whole purpose of being a drummer. That is your first purpose, I guess, but it’s not the only thing you’re there for. That would be boring, musically speaking.”
True, and Stanier does pick up the tempo ever so slightly on “Diet Aftertaste” [from Aftertaste]. Was that an adrenaline rush or a deliberate choice? “It probably was not intentional. But unless the song is really slow, where a tempo change would be crucial, you won’t usually notice it. On mid-tempo or fast songs where it speeds up a little bit, well, it just happens. That’s just me admitting that I suck,” he says self-disparagingly. “I’m not proud of that at all. That’s a fault of mine, definitely. Maybe in certain parts I’ll speed up a little bit. If it’s super noticeable, then it’s really bad. But like I said, stuff speeds up, stuff drags, and that’s more human sounding.”
And to capture such living, breathing humanity on magnetic tape, Helmet records all basic tracks live, though they aim primarily at nabbing working drum tracks, then overdub guitars and vocals as needed afterward. However, for the Aftertaste sessions, producer Dave Sardy threw Stanier a curveball when he insisted that the drummer set up his kit and lay down tracks in the studio’s restroom. You heard right – sitting there next to the commode. Needless to say, Stanier wasn’t amused. “Sardy is pretty crazy and is always experimenting with stuff,” Stanier says. “We had this bathroom at the studio that was all tiled – walls, ceilings and floor – so it was a total echo-chamber. It was ridiculously loud in there.”
Stanier continues to explain that Sardy leaned pretty heavily on him during the sessions for Aftertaste in order to wring out his best possible performances. “I was the one Dave singled out for this record,” he laughs. “He really picked on me to get my drums right. He saw early on that the more he pushed me, the more pissed off I got, and in the end, the better I played. We change the arrangements constantly in the studio, and we’re used to recording things so fast that I tend to be kind of ’on’ in the studio. So I’m really ready to do my parts and just get things done right.”
We wanted to know exactly how fast Helmet records an album. We found out. In the time it takes most bands to sort out their drum sounds, Helmet has already completed tracking and is halfway through with mixing. “We do work pretty quickly,” Stanier says. “In fact, there was no preparation at all for this new record. We’re definitely a last-minute band when we record. We’re always changing stuff right up to the last second as we’re tracking. In the past, we’ve tracked our records over one weekend.”
In contrast, Aftertaste took a comparatively indulgent seven days to record. “This one took a lot longer because we did it in L.A., and we were working with Dave and with millions of mikes.” (Excuses, excuses!) “For this record – as well as the last one – there was a lot of pressure on me in the studio, because the songs are never finished until the last second. Then everyone turns to me and says, ’Okay. Now you have to play an amazing part for this section.’ We play it through once and then I have to record it. That’s something that I complain about, but I actually like, because it’s spontaneous.