In an era of ever-shrinking album sales, live performance is all that’s left. And in a tighter economy, tour budgets are smaller. Oftentimes drummers have to do for themselves what ordinarily a sound engineer would take care of. Larkin illustrates the changing times by citing Wrath Child, a metal band he played in from 1989–’91. “Back then it was all big expensive studios,” he recalls. “You’d spend $200,000 making a record, but now you can make a better-sounding record for $50,000.”
Whatever effort is expended learning new technology, the knowledge has provided freedom. In Godsmack, where half the guys live in Boston, the bassist is in L.A., and Larkin’s down in Florida, the writing process is almost entirely virtual. “If Tony Rombola [guitarist] sends me a riff via Garageband, I can play along to that and record different ideas. And then I can be, Do I want to do a downbeat with double bass in this part, or should I click-cut it to half-time? I can experiment on all of those riffs like that before I have to waste anybody’s time in person in a room.”
Sometimes there’s a monetary incentive for drummers to take on more responsibility within the band. Except when there isn’t. “We haven’t really been affected by the economic situation we’re in,” says Drover. “So I haven’t had to become a carpenter on tour [laughs] or do any kind of multitasking.”
Additional responsibilities aren’t a burden for Wengren — he likes the challenge. Relying on the production skills of Johnny K to helm Disturbed’s previous discs, the band recorded latest album Asylum all by themselves, though still availing themselves of K’s gear at Groovemaster Studios in Chicago. The feeling among band members was that they have been exposed enough to the recording process over the years that they were confident to do it alone and save a little money. “I love being on the other side of the board as well, but I think [technology] is a bit of a double-edged sword,” he says. “We’ve always been the kind of guys who say if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”
Never mind the influences from the wider world of metal, some drummers have to battle the ghosts of members from their own band. For Wengren, the original Disturbed drummer, this is not an issue. Larkin is not the original Godsmack drummer but he’s played in so many bands his style is probably a composite of them all. It’s not so simple for Drover, who joined Megadeth on the heels of seven other drummers, including Vinnie Colaiuta. To learn ten previous albums, going back to 1985’s Killing Is My Business … And Business Is Good, and all the drum parts that go with them, mostly Nick Menza and Jimmy DeGrasso’s, is no small task.
Sure, there are now three Megadeth albums, including the new one later this year, with Drover’s rhythmic stamp on them, but it’s the classics people want to hear. “Our fans want the songs to sound very close to the original recorded tunes,” he says. “And to deviate from that would not be very well received. For no other reason, I try to play the original drum parts pretty close just out of respect to them and the legacy of Megadeth.”
We asked the guys to come up with a few essential skills any metal drummer needs for a long and prosperous career. It was harder than we thought (perhaps because elite drummers don’t sit around thinking about what they need to do … they’re already doing it). The normally loquacious Drover was caught off guard, and cutting our conversation short, he said he would think about it and get back to us. “Learn to be a team player,” he told us a week later in an email. “Joining an already established band like Megadeth, I knew going into this band that I needed to think about what works best for the band first — both on and off stage.”
Drover also cautioned against “runaway-train syndrome,” his term for rushing the beat on stage. “If you play metal, chances are a lot of notes are being played on guitar, which is tough enough at studio speed. Your bandmates will thank you for not playing the tunes 60 bpm faster live.”
Wengren considers timing a metaller’s greatest asset. “If you don’t have great meter, then you don’t have anything,” he says. “A lot of metal drummers, they focus too much on speed, and I think that’s important for ripping those thirty-second-notes, but try it with a click first. You’re a timekeeper. That’s your number-one job.”
Wengren also mentions creativity, but it sounds more like he’s talking about feel. “There’s something to be said for the AC/DC backbeats. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the most complex pattern.”
“You need to be able to do some fast double bass,” says Larkin. “Think of a true metal band that doesn’t use double bass and it’s hard to come up with one,” he says. “That’s definitely an attribute you need to go along with the guitarist’s right hand.
“What else do you need to be a metal drummer?” he asks himself aloud. “A big mullet!”
All jokes aside, Larkin was the only one to zero in on the main thing that separates a metal drummer from a mere rock drummer: endurance. He refers to his favorite Lars Ulrich anecdote. “Someone once asked him, ‘Do you see yourself still playing in Metallica in your sixties?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know. I remember Mick Jagger saying he would never be singing ‘Satisfaction’ in his sixties, and look at him. But Charlie Watts doesn’t have to play ‘Damage Incorporated’ every f__king night.’”