Matt Byrne: Power And Precision
Photo: Robert Downs
He’s a high-octane performer with a tendency to vomit on stage (more on that later). But he’s also an articulate academic who studied to become a teacher for children with special needs. He’s industry savvy beyond his 30 years, yet he’s just learning to loosen up and “party more” with his bandmates. His key drumming ingredient is passion, yet he tracks all of his drum parts without a band. In his world no one beats Lombardo, but when it comes to inspiration it’s all Van Halen blaring from the car stereo.
He knows as well as anyone that there are great power drummers and there are great precision drummers. There are drummers with impeccable technical ability and those with a sweet signature style. Some have speed, some have pocket. Some rely on instinctual ability and others on guts and work ethic. But with most drummers — even the great drummers — it’s almost always one or the other; either/or and never both.
But occasionally we encounter that rare gem that has it all: the complete package. The list of these gifted pros is short — painfully short — but it’s about to get just a bit longer with the addition of a surprising hardcore powerhouse named Matt Byrne.
As the drummer for stomach-pumping underground metal band Hatebreed, Byrne needs every tool available to him. The music is everything hardcore should be — fast, aggressive, powerful, intimidating — yet Hatebreed’s sound is also something most hardcore music is not: legible. Through all the screaming and shredding there arrives a certain unexpected clarity that is by no means an accident. Despite his ferocious double bass and often-complex fills, Byrne manages to stretch out each menacing song, prying space into all the madness.
With the release of their fifth album, Supremacy, Byrne and Hatebreed tear into the flesh of the hardcore world with sharper teeth than ever. Supremacy is their first album on their new label (Roadrunner), and the excitement is palpable when talking with Byrne about the efforts and processes that went into creating it.
“Our approach for the whole album was, ’Let’s do Hatebreed, but let’s kick it up a notch,’” he enthuses from an indistinguishable stretch of highway between stops on this summer’s Ozzfest tour. “We weren’t going to put out any songs that didn’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand up and make you want to go out and kill somebody right away. If I was playing fast, I wanted it to be faster than anything we’ve ever done. If I was playing slow, I wanted to really add flavor to keep it from being straight. I just wanted the patterns to be tasty.”
Seek and ye shall find. The tempos, beats, and fills on Supremacy are Byrne’s best work to date. He’s crisp and strong throughout each scorching track, chiseling his way through the thick guitars and guttural vocals like a marble sculptor. It’s all the result of a somewhat elaborate process: a combination of preparation, perseverance, and pressure.
“This whole album process was kind of a direct combination of the processes we used with making our previous two albums, Perseverance and The Rise of Brutality. Perseverance came together kind of fast and the songs were already written. We did preproduction for a week, hit the studio and laid them down. I kind of played it straight just to get it done. Then with The Rise Of Brutality, we sat and wrote for a month before we even recorded anything. So there was lots of time to try different things and monkey around with each little part.
“With Supremacy, some of the songs were already written, most we wrote in the studio. We were living in a house next door to the studio so we could work on whatever we wanted whenever we wanted to. I really like to hash things out for a while rather than rush through it. Studio contract stuff would be fine to just kind of crank out on the fly, but with the Hatebreed stuff it’s my stuff, my baby. It’s how I’m known and how people will look at me as a drummer, so it’s important to me that it’s exactly how I want it before the public gets to hear it. But I still like being under the gun and being a little unprepared. It’s cool working under that pressure, almost like a rush.”
Working under the gun is an understatement for the way Byrne handles his studio sessions. When that red light flicks on, and all eyes turn to the man behind the kit, there’s a sound in the studio that is as rare as Byrne’s talents: silence. While almost all modern drum tracks are cut with a full band laying down a scratch track, the perfectionist in Byrne chooses a significantly different approach that is a true testament to his abilities as a thinking musician.
“When I record for an album, it’s just me alone with the click track. No scratch track at all — just me, a set of headphones, and a click. I prefer it that way, because if you play to a scratch track your parts can be affected by what the band is playing; and they might not be right on it since they’re just playing for a scratch track. It can throw you off a little bit, and the finished product may not be as good as you’d like it to be. But if you know your parts well enough and you know the songs well enough, it makes sense.
“The biggest compliment I get is when people listen to the album and think I’m playing live with the entire band.”