No one is entirely sure what emo means anymore (remember when bands and fans would sit down and have a good cry?), but ask Mark O’Connell what kind of player he is, and you’ll get a machine-gun mantra that leaves no room for sissy stuff: “I grew up in a hardcore scene. I grew up listening to metal. I can’t stand wimps behind the drums. I can’t stand light hitters … I just like banging the s**t out of my shells.”
Yes, O’Connell really is the drummer behind Taking Back Sunday, emo heroes and MTV2 darlings. You know the story: local New York band gets buzz, plays a lot of shows, lands contract on independent label, sophomore album sells 163,000 copies in its first week, girls scream and shout and throw underwear. Up until now, a good deal of the band’s popularity has rested on their ability to craft irresistibly catchy, teenage-angsty singles like “You’re So Last Summer” and “Number 5 With A Bullet.” And while there’s still plenty of those underwear-tossing hooks on the new album, Louder Now, it’s the band’s pumped muscles and newfound balls that are going to keep the appropriately named disc on your playlist. If anything makes you want to cry these days, it’ll be a drum punch to the gut.
O’Connell is unapologetic about the beefed up sound. “I feel like it’s the right step in our career as a band,” he says. “We make a conscious effort to not write the same album over and over again. I feel like a lot of bands do that, and that’s just … You don’t want to hear the same crap. Of course, you don’t want to hear a completely different version of the band – I don’t want to anyway – but I think a natural progression towards the right way is a smart thing to do. I think we definitely did it here with Louder Now. A lot of bands go the other route. They put out their experimental, slow, weird album. And we knew that we didn’t want to do that. We knew that we wanted to make this a hard rock, fun, fast, exciting album.” And then he gets right to the point: “This is our major-label debut,” O’Connell says, “We don’t want to come out sucking.”
The band’s tune-crafting talents were, of course, enough to keep the suck at bay. But enlisting studio-hardened producer Eric Valentine didn’t hurt either. The hitmaker behind Third Eye Blind and Queens Of The Stone Age quickly recognized that O’Connell, despite his self-professed ode to drum destruction, was an accomplished player who usually kept the reins on – and maybe not for the best. Valentine went to work by teasing out the skills he knew the slammer had. “That guy,” O’Connell confesses, “He pushed me to do things I’d never done before. He kept saying, ‘Show people what you have, what you can do.’”
So O’Connell let the chops hang out, making cleverly placed, speedy fills the order of the day. Take, for example, the disc’s second song, “Liar (It Takes One To Know One).” The driving 4/4 beat is punctuated with snappy snare work, slinky thirty-second-notes on the hi-hat, and even a quick roll that crosses over the bar line – not your typical Sunday drum stroll, and it’s all the more surprising because the cut that actually made it on the album came straight off O’Connell’s cuff. “It was just supposed to be a demo,” he says, “but we ended up keeping that take. That’s definitely my favorite drum track on the album. I love that song, and I’m really proud of the outcome of the drums.”
Once unearthing O’Connell’s chops, Valentine took care that they be heard for the best. “I don’t know how the hell he did it,” O’Connell says, describing the album’s punchy, in-your-face drum sound. “That guy is a genius. He had a bunch of crazy ideas that I thought were totally insane when I first heard them, but it came out totally great.” On “Miami,” Valentine had O’Connell record the cymbals and drums separately to capture cutting, crisp highs from the hats and thick lows from the toms. And for “I’ll Let You Live,” which starts off with a loud guitar part before surrendering to a softer and slower verse section, it took a little more ingenuity to get right. “I actually recorded that in the Chamber,” O’Connell explains, “A small-ass, little, dungeon-like room.” The drum part was then tracked 30bpms faster than the rest of the song and slowed down for a tight, compressed, lighter sound to match the mood.
Not everything, though, was about behind-the-boards, hi-tech button pushing. O’Connell discovered one of Valentine’s lo-fi secrets of getting a great drum sound. “I used the same set,” he says, still excited, “that Dave Grohl used on the Queens Of The Stone Age album [Songs For The Deaf]. It’s like this white, ugly-ass, old kit, but as soon as you put new skins on it and tune them up, it sounded like gold. I was living a dream when we were recording this album.”
But the dream could have been a nightmare because of Valentine’s preproduction process: rehearse and rehearse and rehearse. Do it until your wrists break and your fingers bleed. And then do it again. Though the results were worth it, that kind of rigorous approach to music making is risky business. Lesser groups or players crumble under the pressure, and all that drilling can drain the feel, the energy, the passion from a recording session. Doesn’t a slammer get sick and tired of playing a song for the thousandth time? “No. I don’t even feel that way about the songs on the first album,” O’Connell insists. “You can’t complain about being able to play music for a living. If I ever do get tired, I’ll be like, ‘Think about what you’re doing.’ All my friends from home are wearing suits and ties and going into the city and working these crap jobs, and I’m out here playing music and living the life. I feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”