Mark O’Connell On The Hot Seat!
Taking Back Sunday Discusses The Drummer’s Role
The Drummer Mark O’Connell, is being quiet and a little shifty, which seems out of character for him. He’s big, tough, with a gentle face, and he’s clearly uncomfortable. The setting isn’t the problem. Aboard his band’s air-conditioned tour bus parked behind a downtown Atlanta venue, watching hundreds of fans line up early to wait in the blistering heat, this should be his element, just one comfort rung below his pulsing drum riser. Yet he fidgets.
Then the slow, steady flow begins of his bandmates trickling onto the bus.
Matt Fazzi, the introspective guitarist/charmer, Matt Rubano, the shades-clad sarcastic versifying bassist, and Eddie Reyes, the huggable guitarist incarnation of Fozzie Bear, take their seats on the cracked leather couch. (Frontman Adam Lazzara is off somewhere doing whatever strange, unthinkable things lead singers do during daylight hours.)
Surrounded by his bandmates — and, presumably, his best friends — O’Connell strangely grows even more uneasy. Comically uneasy. Then the ribbing begins, raining down in thick sheets on O’Connell’s blushing mug. And as the recorder light illuminates red and the photographer begins saturating the space with spastic clicks and flashes, the ribbing never ends. As things turn to hilarity it becomes clear that O’Connell knew this was coming.
These guys are reveling in the moment, this rare opportunity to laugh their way through a public discussion on the skills and thrills of their unyielding anchor, their bulking buddy, and today, their target. It’s no wonder O’Connell sits uneasily, but if anyone can take the jabs, it’s him. The Long Island native is a hard-hitting pro with nearly a decade’s service time spent bashing his way through four studio albums and countless tours, not to mention a herniated disk. The back’s all better, though it’s about to take a few sarcastic whips, and judging by his work in the newly released New Again, O’Connell seems near his playing prime.
So join the laughter on the bus with the members of highly touted punk/emo/pop band Taking Back Sunday as we openly discuss what ingredients — and omissions — combine to make a great rock drummer.
DRUM!: Let’s start with some broad strokes regarding what attributes you guys think go along with being a good drummer in a rock band.
RUBANO: Definitely somebody who has all the fundamentals together, dynamics, and a super-solid clock. Another thing that’s important for this band is having a drummer who not only plays for the song but also provides this super-frenetic, unbelievable amount of energy in their playing. It sounds like I’m just [complimenting] Mark, but in the demo recording process for this record Mark had back surgery and we had to try out different drummers. We had some incredible drummers come in — totally prepared, charted parts, the works — but they just weren’t Mark. Not enough ferocity, intensity. Not enough cleanliness. Everybody contributes something that comprises the sound of this band, and I think it all really starts with Mark.
O’CONNELL: Thank you.
RUBANO: He has the fundamentals and the sensitivity to play for the song.
FAZZI: I think that pretty much covered everything!
REYES: Yeah, we good? All done? [laughs]
DRUM!: What about songwriting? Mark, what role do you serve in the process? And what expectations do you guys have for your drummer when it comes to writing songs?
FAZZI: Mark likes songs, so he always tries to do what’s appropriate and not overplay. Even the subtle little transitions, I notice that Mark is paying attention to the details and playing to them.
RUBANO: Mark also writes. I don’t know if it’s typical of most drummers to pick up the guitar and make a demo on their own, but having a drummer who is also a productive songwriter is a pretty cool thing.
DRUM!: Mark, can you touch on that a bit?
O’CONNELL: It’s just nice to be able to pick up a guitar and write something, create music on something other than the drums.
REYES: I have to say, behind a drum set you look killer. But when you play guitar you look sooo awkward. [laughs] You’re just such a big guy.
RUBANO: It’s like Andre The Giant playing a ukulele. [laughs]
O’CONNELL: I definitely don’t look cool.
FAZZI: He plays great guitar … behind the stage. [laughs]
DRUM!: Do any of you guys play drums?
FAZZI: I play a little bit.
RUBANO: I feel like Ed could be a drummer.
REYES: I’d need to practice some more, but I did want to be a drummer. Then I realized it’s more fun being in front. So I leave the drumming to Mark because he’s one of the most awesome drummers I know.
O’CONNELL: I feel so happy now that I’m getting all of these compliments. [laughs]
REYES: He does look super awkward with a guitar in his hands, though. Really bad.
DRUM!: When you guys are rehearsing, whether for an album or a tour, are there maybe some dos and don’ts that you’d recommend for a rock drummer?
REYES: I like to see a drummer who warms up backstage, hitting on the pad.
O’CONNELL: I’ve gotten better at doing that.
FAZZI: You handle your business, dude.
RUBANO: I think one thing a lot of young musicians miss is fundamental stuff. It sounds like I’m an old man talking, but a lot of young rock musicians are missing it. A drummer without good time is so useless that I don’t even regard them as a musician.
O’CONNELL: We’re all on the click now. And it’s nice.
DRUM!: Even live?
FAZZI: It’s pro, dude. It’s the difference between being amateur and being pro and coming out and killing your songs the best way possible.
RUBANO: And it’s too hard to hear in huge venues. It’s too scary to rely on monitors when you’re playing 40 yards apart from one another.
FAZZI: I find that a lot of younger bands just don’t listen to each other when they’re playing. They’re so focused on their own parts or looking cool that they’re not focused on being one thing. The rhythm section connection is so crucial and I think a lot of young bands overlook that because they’re focused on other stuff.
DRUM!: Mark, how did you come to the decision to play live with a click and how has it influenced the band?
O’CONNELL: I was definitely one of those guys who would start with the tempo where it should start and throughout the song get faster and faster and faster. I thought it brought more energy, but it really kind of just sucks for everybody. And I didn’t know I could play to a click until I tried it. It just makes everything so tight and you know exactly where you are. I love it.
FAZZI: It’s like a safety blanket. And if you’re really on top of it, it just kind of goes away.
RUBANO: I also feel like in the years we’ve been using a click it’s provided a certain confidence to open things up and be more free in certain sections where there’s room to do so. And I’ve heard Mark’s drumming expand a lot. He can play things he might not normally play because the groove is there. A certain freedom starts to prevail where you feel like you really own it.
REYES: Another thing young drummers can do: If you have a double-bass pedal … get rid of it. [laughs] Get one bass pedal and learn how to play it really good.
O’CONNELL: I was in a metal band in high school so I still had my double bass when I joined this band and I remember, like, the second practice they’re like, “Are you gonna keep that?”
DRUM!: What about live performance? What do you want from your drummer on stage?
O’CONNELL: For me, personally, I think it’s important to try to make the show as powerful as it can be. You don’t have to hit hard every single hit, but I can’t stand weak rock drumming. It’s painful for me to listen to and to watch. Accent when you need to accent and come down when you need to come down, but keep the emotion and the aggression and power.
FAZZI: When you have a crushing and consistent drummer like Mark you develop a confidence when you go out on stage. It’s like being on a soccer team and having a killer goalie. You just feel relaxed to go out there and murder. I’ve been on the other side where you’re nervous that your drummer is going to drop an arrangement and because of that you can’t be comfortable and get inside the songs.
RUBANO: As the bass player I feed off of that confidence, for sure. I perform very physically and I wouldn’t be able to do that if I felt like I needed to stand next to the hi-hat all night and stare at the drummer. Whenever Mark and I do look at each other it’s just to laugh and smile.
REYES: We get the confident nod a lot lately. [laughs]
RUBANO: It seems funny, but that’s the coolest thing when you’re playing and you feel right on top of it. That’s a nice thing.
DRUM!: Nice goalie analogy, by the way. Bonus points for Fazzi.
FAZZI: That’s totally how I picture it. I find goalies and drummers to be so similar.
O’CONNELL: You know what’s funny? I was a goalie.
FAZZI: Goalies and drummers are always the weirdest dudes! [laughs]
DRUM!: What’s the thing you guys hate the most? Like, what do you think drummers should not use?
RUBANO: I don’t want to offend people.
FAZZI: Gloves. [laughs]
RUBANO: But then I’ve seen Dave Grohl use gloves.
RUBANO: I’m also ready for the absolute death of the China cymbal.
REYES: Some jazz drummers use it very sparingly and it works.
RUBANO: Yeah, but that’s jazz. We’re not talking jazz, are we? [laughs]
DRUM!: Okay, okay. Let’s talk about the importance of personality and having a drummer who belongs in the band on a personal level.
all: [pointing at O’Connell] Weirdest guy I’ve ever met! [laughter]
REYES: Love the guy like a brother, but Mark is absolutely one of the most insane people I’ve ever known.
RUBANO: I’ve known Mark since his conception, literally, and from the time he was born up until now, there are few people who have provided me with as much laughter …
FAZZI: … and heartache. [laughs]
RUBANO: Yes, and heartache. But I’ve known him his whole life, watched him go through all the stages, and the relationship Mark and I have is definitely a big part of what makes us such a strong rhythm section.
DRUM!: Can you touch on that, Mark, the importance of not being a jerk?
O’CONNELL: That’s huge. Just last night, there was an after-show show and there was this one kid in another band with all the eyeliner and the [crazy emo] haircut going on. And I just thought, maybe the guys in your band deserve to make it, but you seem like such a jerk-off. You could tell he was such a cocky little jerk. Just keep your head on straight.
REYES: Don’t get ahead of yourself.
FAZZI: It’s easy to tell the difference between someone who is in it to play music and someone who is in it for everything that comes with being in a band.
O’CONNELL: You could tell this kid was just like, “I don’t play an instrument so I’m gonna be the singer and wear eyeliner and think I’m real cool.” I can’t stand that. Just be in a rock band.
REYES: For a kid who is in a pretty big rock band and is a pretty popular drummer, I would say Mark has a really good head on his shoulders. He’s really down to earth, and that’s very important to me.
O’CONNELL: There are bands that have a hit single and are gigantic overnight and you can see that turn, that change, happen in them right away.
FAZZI: When they change from being regular people to …
RUBANO: … believing their own hype.
RUBANO: And then we’ve seen it go away for those same people. Then they try to turn back into nice guys.
O’CONNELL: Yeah, and it’s like, Really?!
DRUM!: Can you recall any learning experiences that Mark went through as a drummer that you guys experienced with him?
O’CONNELL: I think getting on the click was a huge thing.
RUBANO: Yeah, that was huge for both the band and Mark. It became the great equalizer. There were no more conversations about if the song was too fast or too slow.
O’CONNELL: It saves me on occasion when people try to accuse me of rushing a song. The click does not lie.
RUBANO: So the click was a big step. Other than that, our process with writing and putting parts together has become much easier and much less stressful the more we do it. And that stems from learning to have a mutual respect for each other’s abilities and know what each person is good at. We all have weaknesses and strengths and once you accept that and lean on them you can start to put the puzzle together.
DRUM!: Mark, do you take input about your drum parts from these guys?
O’CONNELL: Yeah, if someone has an idea, oh yeah. Anyone can have a great idea. The last thing I want to do is shoot people down.
REYES: And remember when you came in with that demo song and you had put your own little drum solo in it. Remember that?
RUBANO: That’s a funny story. We loved the tune but it had a drum solo! [All begin drumming wildly into the air, beatboxing monstrous fills]
RUBANO: We were like, “Not to be jerks, dude, but, uh, I think we’re gonna pull the solo.” [laughs] And I think Mark would’ve cut it eventually anyway. One of those things that was fun to do in the studio, no one was around …
O’CONNELL: Hey, come on, I was kind of thinking Queens Of The Stone Age.
[More elaborate air drumming. Laughter.]
O’CONNELL: I’m going to leak that version on the Internet.
REYES: Featuring the Mark O’Connell drum solo. [laughs] It was a big chunk of the song too.
O’CONNELL: It was like four bars.