Mike Bennett Adapts To The Song And The Situation
Michael Bennett is a jack of all trades and a master of most of them. He's a drummer first and foremost, but also a producer, composer, programmer, and sometimes guitarist. He's embarking on a tour with Winery Dogs guitar hero Richie Kotzen (ex-Poison, ex-Mr. Big) next month, just another part of a busy career that has seen him specialize playing with Disney and teen stars such as Hilary Duff, and Sabrina Carpenter, lay down swing and jazz grooves with Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band, and use his pop chops to perform with Aliica Keys, Bruno Marsh, Slash, Jamie Foxx and many others. He’s gone on the road as a e-drummer/percussionist, acoustic drummer, and even guitarist. He's been on all the shows, from The Tonight Show to Jimmy Kimmell, and lent his composing and producing chops to Discovery, MTV, HGTV, Disney and half a dozen other networks. He's also co-owner of Music Evolution Studios where you'll find him laying down tracks when he's not on the road. In short, he's a working drummer working hard.
We talked to Mike this week about his upcoming tour, his oak drums, playing with teen idols, and some other recent experiences.
DRUM! You play in a lot of styles and kinds of bands. Tell us about your setup for the Richie Kotzen tour. How does it differ from what you've done previously?
Mike Bennett The setup with Richie is extremely small and simple. Your classic 4-piece kit with a ride, crash and hi hats. It serves Richie’s music best and I guess with too much stuff I get option anxiety! There are times as well where I even get rid of the rack tom just to keep my phrasing more focused.
All of the drums are Yamaha Live Customs and I feel really at home behind the kit. I can tune it inside of the band easily and they feel amazing to play. I go back and forth between having a hole in the head or a sealed kick drum depending on the venue. The tuning range is awesome with this kit and they are extremely flexible drums.
DRUM! So the kit is small, what about the cymbals?
Mike Bennett The cymbals are a huge thing for me and I have been experimenting on a lot of tours to find ones that get me a broad tonal palette. I just started using the new Sabian HHX Omni’s and they are exactly what I have been searching for. I can get a lot of sonic mileage out of them and they are still dark and gritty!
In the past some of my kits have been larger but I try to keep this small set up as much as possible. I feel the simplicity of it forces me to make smarter decisions behind the kit. I would rather focus on manipulating the sounds I have available rather than surrounding myself with lots of stuff, even on the pop gigs. I am also a huge electronics guy so on many of my tours I supplement the sounds I need with the Yamaha DTX stuff.
- Drums: Yamaha Live Custom
- 22" x 14" bass
- 12" x 8", 16" x 15" toms
- 14" x 6.5" Sensitive Snare
- All Yamaha hardware
- Electronics drums: Yamaha DTX
- Cymbals: 22" Sabian HHX Omni
- 19" Sabian HHX Omni
- 14" Sabian Paragon Hi-Hats (from one of Neil Peart's backstage practice kits!)
- Aquarian Drumheads
- Regal Tip 8A Drumsticks
- LP Percussion
DRUM! Richie is performing a career retrospective on this tour. How do you get ready to play these tunes that have been done by others before? Is he changing and rearranging them as well?
Mike Bennett Since my start with Richie we have always covered a broad range of his catalog but now we are digging even deeper. Richie has had some amazing drummers in the past but the little known fact is that Richie plays drums on most of his recordings. He’s great! Sounds like Simon Kirke! Being in the lineage of guys’ like Gregg Bissonette, Steve Smith, Lenny White and others who've played with him is still really flattering and keeps me humbled and focused.
Fortunately, Richie’s biggest concern is always that I sound like myself and develop my personal voice inside his music. That’s a real privilege that doesn't happen on most gigs. I learn the record versions but focus on the lyric and overall feel then find my way inside of it. When we’re being ourselves it lets us breathe as a band and then we find the way that this particular band is going to interpret each song.
With the success of The Winery Dogs I have been able to spend some time on the road with Mike Portnoy too and it’s been really cool to see how he interprets playing with Richie. They sound really great together.
DRUM! How did you come to be playing Live Custom?
Mike Bennett I was playing another company's birch kit before and they were great drums and a great company. I have always been a Yamaha fan though, and have a set of Maple/Birch Absolutes that I bought in college. I was having a hard time finding my drums backlined in so many countries outside of the USA and always asked for Yamaha Oak Customs as my second choice. It started becoming clear that Yamaha was my first choice and I am so happy to now be playing them exclusively. There is something about oak that is such a versatile shell. They tune up and down really well without ever losing their character or choking. I need drums that can adapt to different styles and situations and that also doesn’t make me constantly have to use a different set of drums from gig to gig. With the Live Customs they nailed it and made the kit I’ve been waiting to play.
DRUM! Are you changing heads frequently with Richie?
Mike Bennett Very rarely and I am hitting hard and using sticks with a small tip. I try to leave each head on as long as possible. Without sounding too creepy, I love it when the head starts to settle in and feels like its become one with the shell. I use my ears and not my eyes. If it still sounds and feels good then it stays!
The other side to that is that Aquarian makes a killer drumhead. The Response 2’s are a musical head that can take a beating and still be responsive at low volumes. I also played some of the Modern Vintage heads recently and those might be something I experiment with some more.
DRUM! When you're in Europe on a tour like Richie's how much downtime do you get? What do you do to keep healthy and excited on the road?
Mike Bennett Richie’s tours move fast so there isn't usually a ton of downtime, or at least at hours reasonable to go out and sight see. We try to find the time to get out when we can though and take advantage of traveling. I grew up never traveling so touring has been an amazing part of my life that has forced me to grow up and open my eyes to the world. I have been able to see some amazing places, eat great food, and make friends all over the globe.
Mental fatigue is the hardest part of being out on the road. Playing hard every night then quickly heading out to another city and show is really tiring. It can make things like being homesick become even harder. Fortunately Richie, Dylan Wilson (Bass) and I are extremely close friends. We care about each other and when someone is having a hard day the others pick up the slack both on and off stage. It’s easier when you know it’s ok to not be 100% all of the time. Your off day is somebody else's on day.
I also used to be able to eat and drink anything I wanted but that has recently changed. I completely cut soda out of my diet and started drinking water, which has been very hard! I also avoid bread and dairy when I can and eat lots of greens and lean meats. I hope this will give me more energy and keep me healthier out on the road. I am not sure how healthy this really is but so far it's working for me. Getting sick on the road is the worst. Lots of Vitamin C!
DRUM! You've appeared with everyone from teen stars to pop and hard rock acts. Can you talk about the challenges with some of them, and where the sweet spot is for you in each gig, whether it's a one-off or a full tour. Can you tell me what you played (drum set, percussion etc.) with each one and what you got from it?
Mike Bennett Hilary Duff: I started with Hilary as her percussionist for the first year. It’s great to do a big tour sitting on the other side of the fence. I had to learn not to try to be the drummer from the percussion chair and find the role I needed to play in the overall production. With anything in the pop game for me it's about translation and the big picture.
I eventually moved over to the drum chair and had to combine elements of both the drum and percussion world. It taught me a lot about designing my show. It’s painting fences, not pictures. My goal was to develop the best show I could and play it the same every night. It was a real test in focus and control. I love getting to be a craftsman just as much as a creative player.
Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band: I grew up and went to school as a jazz guy and oddly enough Gordon came from the same city and schools as I did. He actually went to school with my parents. His name was one of the first I heard when I got into music and he is a hometown hero.
I got called to sub for Brad Dutz on percussion for a few gigs and ended up going to Japan with the band. Playing in a “big band” like Gordon’s is very similar to a pop gig. You have your moments of improvising but it’s still about finding the best parts for the song and also interpreting the charts as best as possible.
The absolute best part of getting to play percussion with Gordon though was playing alongside the drummer, Bernie Dresel. He changed my playing forever. He’s one of my favorite drummer’s in the world and in my opinion the best decision maker behind the drums out there. It doesn't get much better than Bernie.
Sabrina Carpenter: I am the Co-Musical Director for Sabrina so there are a lot of things that come into the gig with both playing and running the band. Lots of emails, planning and programming that goes into it aside from just playing music. With Sabrina we have two versions of the band, one where I play drums and electronics and the other where I play a hybrid percussion/electronics setup and also guitar. Keeps me on my toes! Sabrina is a talented girl and I am excited to see the success she’s having both in music and television. She’s a 15-year-old singer that writes songs she will still be able to sing when she’s 40! We have been out doing promo and TV mostly with percussion setup but we leave next week on a tour across Canada where I’m behind the drums.
DRUM! I always thought Hillary had a lot going for a teen act, especially after she left Disney and was not lip syncing. But she's kind of put her career on low.
Mike Bennett When we wrapped the last tour Hilary got married and had a kid so everything including music went on hiatus for a while. She was always a total entrepreneur from a young age with music, acting, furniture lines, clothing lines, perfumes and more. She’s really smart and set a good example of how to be young and successful and still be moral and ethical.
She has been in the studio though so hopefully she will be back in action soon. Say what you will about teen pop music, but It’s crazy to see how much these kids accomplish at such a young age. They definitely work their asses off and sacrifice a lot to hit their goals. Sabrina Carpenter is a Disney kid and has a similar work ethic as Hillary so I am excited to see what kind of noise she can make. I spend a lot of time working for “The Mouse!”
DRUM! Did you take up guitar before or after drums? What do you see as the difference between thinking about fretboard patterns versus thinking about rhythm patterns?
Mike Bennett I am by no means an incredible guitar player but I can get by! I am more of a functional guitar player and have only been doing it more in recent years. I have fooled around with guitar since I was a kid but through my career drumming I have been around so many incredible guitar players and I always watch them and ask questions. Richie and I have major geek out sessions just talking about guitar tones. My studio partner Dave Wood is also an incredible guitarist and I get to hear and watch him play all day every day when I’m not on the road, so I’m always kind of picking things up from here and there.
Through producing records and writing TV music I have had to step up and apply everything in order to get the job done. It's also my main instrument for composing. On a few gigs I’ve just turned into the utility guy where if it needs to be done I’ll man up and do it. It’s fun too because it allows me to leave the drums for a minute and also gives me another challenge.
When I am playing guitar it is very similar to my approach with the drums. Get a good sound and play parts that are flattering to the song and especially the vocal. I practice learning guitar parts with the goal to make it feel good. Just please don’t ask me to solo!
DRUM! You're a fixture at the Sayers Club in Los Angeles. How did that come about?
Mike Bennett The Sayers Club has been my second home in LA. I have been in the house band from the beginning and have watched it become the go-to spot for live music in the city. Every Thursday at 1 AM we put on a show called “The Sessions” and the whole idea is that you never know who you are gonna see. The songs we play are mostly dictated by who is in the audience. You may see a great local singer or it could be Slash, Stevie Wonder or any number of big names. We usually find out who’s performing just as the audience does. You have to be able to jump into any song and style in a split second. There are elements of it that are similar to doing a TV house band and I am so grateful for all of the amazing music and memories we continue to make in this room. The second Sayers Club is opening at the new SLS Hotel in Las Vegas this September and [Shakira drummer} Brendan Buckley will be covering for me while I’m in Europe. He’s a badass.
I have been real fortunate to be constantly working with great artists and musicians as well as playing great songs. I am also appreciative to be constantly going back and forth between drums and percussion. I get to play alongside a lot of my favorite drummers and percussionists and experience what it feels like to be inside their groove. I learn a lot from it and it’s pretty amazing.
DRUM! That's great about Brendan. Phenomenal drummer. So will you be working in Las Vegas, too, or staying at the LA club?
Mike Bennett He’s a nice guy and dependable dude. There are a lot of great drummers but the reason guys like Brendan work is that you can always trust them to come in and get the job done with zero drama. It’s a plus that he also plays his ass off.
I will be at both the Hollywood and Las Vegas clubs doing The Sessions every week whenever I am not on tour. The coolest in town steady gig just got a bit cooler! I have the worst luck at gambling though so I will be staying near the stage and far away from the tables.
DRUM! If no touring were involved what's better, stage or studio?
Mike Bennett For me personally, the studio. It’s hard to get me to come out of my recording studio when I’m at home in LA. Doing studio work keeps you honest about your playing and also forces you to commit. What you do on a session date can and will live longer than you so you have to make the right musical decisions in an effort to make the recording timeless. Plus I love songs. I am not a fan of the sound of the drums by themselves but I love how they sound when playing music with other people. With the studio you get to catalog those moments, even if they happen in layers and overdubs.
I also love a lot of the problem solving that comes with doing sessions. It seems like the great session players are always being clever and fixing things, making all of the other parts in the song make sense. The attitude is always, “We’re gonna find a way to make this work and sound great no matter what.” When I started playing drums as a kid I was instantly drawn towards the session guys. I didn’t want to be in a band, I wanted to be in everybody’s band.