Just get over the name. Get over it. Everyone knows it’s a terrible band name. Even the members of the band know it’s a terrible band name. The Goo Goo Dolls. It sounds more like a bratty junior high girls pompom club than a chart-topping pop-rock band. It’s easily one of the top ten worst band names of all time (probably sliding in just above Dogs Die In Hot Cars), yet somehow these tragically misnamed musicians have managed to sell almost seven million – seven million! – records over the past 20-plus years. All under the tacky Goo Goo Dolls tag. What gives? Are they really that good?
Well, only you and your ears can decide that, but the undeniable truth is they must be doing something right. And while founding lead man Johnny Rzeznick gets most of the spotlight, drummer Mike Malinin has been there since 1995 – as the three-piece matured from thrashy melodic punksters to platinum pop alternative rockers – holding steady rock grooves through hit after hit, album after album.
He came to the band just before they launched up the pop charts with Dizzy Up The Girl. Malinin was the first and only drummer to audition after founding skinsman George Tutuska departed. “I think I was just the most available,” jokes an articulate Malinin from his Massachusetts hotel room. “I had no wife, no kids, no job. In other words, I could tour forever without any kind of hang-ups. Only in the music business is that a great resume: absolutely nothing going on. So I was the first and only one to audition, and it just went from there. They haven’t really said anything to me since then, so I guess I got the gig. It just sort of happened.”
An extreme distance runner (more on that later) and an avid baseball fan (if you can call the Florida Marlins baseball), Malinin is your quintessential “for the song” player, yet he manages to bring a sense of musicality to his instrument that so few can. His classic beats drive lush melodies, and his effortless transitions bring the listener from one addictive room to the next with such finesse that you’ll barely notice the migration until you look up and take in the sweeping panoramic view. It’s become almost formulaic for the veteran rocker but, as their latest album Let Love In demonstrates, an important part of the formula is its adaptability.
“The early reviews of Let Love In have noticed that we’ve stepped out of what they were considering ‘the Goo Goo Dolls formula.’ I hope it’s a step forward. It’s always going to sound like us, so we didn’t have to worry about experimenting too much. With the songwriting, I think Johnny was really intent on staying away from structures that were too similar to what we’ve done in the past. If there was anything weird about the last album [Gutterflower], it was that it sounded too much like the album before it.
“So all of us stepped out of the box a little bit and tried to approach each song a little differently. Hopefully it worked. I don’t think it’ll sound too different from what people have come to expect. But I have noticed, when we play live, there’s a noticeable difference between the old songs and the new songs. I feel like I’m playing them from a different approach. For example, there’s a song on the new album called ‘Become,’ and the entire song is on the ride cymbal – actually three different ride cymbals. So it’s just small, feel-oriented things like that that make it a little more musical.”
The Simple Complex. Simplistic originality is the biggest challenge a drummer like Malinin faces. After all, how many ways are there to support a rock song without getting in the way of the music? Not many. “One of the standard things you hear so many bands do when they try to keep the drums simple is they just play the same drum beat for every song. And that works, and it’s one way of not getting in the way of songs, but I think there are more interesting ways of accomplishing that. It’s inevitable that occasionally you’re going to overlap with some of the same grooves, but you have to make a way for them to sound differently.
“It’s really amazing how hard we work to create the simplest things. It becomes the challenge. Sometimes I sit there like, What the hell else can I play? But I like the challenge. The biggest compliment I could ever get is for someone to say that I play musically, which is what I try to do with this band. My focus is more on the thinking side rather than the playing side – just trying to keep it original.”
The bandmembers returned to their native Buffalo, New York (although Malinin is a Floridian) for the writing sessions and demo work. From there, they returned to the West Coast for more refined studio work. “We cut the demos in Buffalo, and a lot of the actual record is done over those demos. It’s kind of a different way of doing it. We started with those demos and slowly replaced parts. But there’s an occasional part from the demo that made it all the way onto the record. Like I noticed a tambourine part that I laid down in Buffalo that is on the record. And I only noticed it because I remember this really terrible sounding tambourine. It was like a six-dollar one that had lost most of its jingles. But it stayed in the track. It’s kind of cool.
“We do a lot of recording of demos, so in the very beginning I just play whatever pops into my head. Then I’ll step aside and listen back to it to see how it sounds. I’ll listen for everything − from if the ride cymbal sounds right to if the simplest fills fit. And I’ll listen to it from the song’s perspective. Sometimes you end up straying a little bit, then going back to the simplest thing.
“We pretty much always have the whole song completed before Johnny adds the lyrics, so I base my drums around the guitars mostly. I come from the school of locking in with the bass, so I usually go from there. Actually I think the only drummer I know of that played his drum parts around the lyrics was Keith Moon. I remember hearing a Who interview and Pete Townsend was sitting at the board playing back ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ and he said, ‘Notice that Keith is only filling when Daltry is singing, and when he’s not singing Keith is playing straight through.’ Which is really interesting. Moon is one of my favorite drummers of all time, and I had never thought of it that way.”
Pop Goes The Ballard. Alanis Morissette, Dave Matthews, Aerosmith, the Goo Goo Dolls. Producer Glen Ballard seems to create hit pop albums every time he sneezes. Having him produce your record assures you of two things: (1) You have an above-average chance of creating a smash hit, and (2) you know you’re in for a sonic journey unlike any previous studio experience you’ve had. “Glen Ballard is really interested in sounds, so it’s cool to sit with him and discuss possibilities of sounds, then go in the studio and experiment a little bit. He’ll be really critical of cymbal sounds, which I really like and appreciate. I usually agree with him and understand what he means when he wants me to track a song again with a different ride cymbal. If I didn’t like the way a song was feeling, we’d sit there and talk about it for a half hour, then go track it again. He thinks so musically.
“And one of Ballard’s best traits, and a trait of any good producer, is that he makes you feel very comfortable in the studio. We told him from the get-go that we wanted to experiment and make a great record. So we wanted to try things and then redo them if we needed to, and sometimes it’s hard to do that in a studio if you’re not feeling totally comfortable. Especially young bands. They go in a studio intimidated, and they just want to kick ass really quickly. That’s not always the best way to do it.”
And the almost ritualistic nightly dinners we’ve heard so much about? “Yeah, he likes to have a formal dinner every night. Again, it really helps with making everyone comfortable. Every night is a proper dinner with proper silverware and nice bottles of wine. It makes the whole experience a lot of fun. I had so much more fun in the studio with this album than I’ve ever had with this band. It was so relaxed. But at the same time Ballard is a working guy. He gets in there and he goes to work. Which is great. Musicians, of course, have no attention span whatsoever and things can take so long to get done, but Ballard is a great worker.
“Working with him allows you to try so many different things. In the song ‘Without You Here,’ I play a side stick through the first two choruses and I wanted to do something heavier later in the song. So Ballard and I started experimenting with different sounds and we ended up getting a 5" snare drum, turning it upside down, and playing the bottom head with Blastix. It gave us a cool tone to fill out the choruses a little bit. I’m still playing a side stick, but then there’s this weird little buzz you’ll hear over it. Neither of us had ever done anything like that, but somehow we came to it and it worked.”
Buy The Click A Beer. “My advice on playing to a click is the same advice I got 20 years ago: Get to know it. Practice as much as you can with a metronome. Most drummers rush their fills, and that’s why they have a difficult time with the click. And their band gets used to following them, but a click track won’t compromise. That causes a lot of people to get intimidated. You need to treat the click like an instrument and listen to it rather than ignore it and be afraid of it. Remember that the click is a machine so no matter how good you are you’re never going to be exactly on it. So it’s best to treat it like another instrument and play in and out of it. It ends up being a cool thing.”
Malinin’s mastery of the metronome is now reaching beyond the soundproof studio walls. “I’m actually playing to a click now with most of the songs when we play live. We decided it’d be a cool thing to try to help keep everything under control. There were a lot of songs (“Slide,” “Broadway,” etc.) that we didn’t record with a click. So we obviously don’t use a live click with those songs. Probably about half the songs are played to a click. And it works – it does help keep things more in check. It took a while for everyone to get used to it because I’m the only one hearing the click so they’re following me, no matter what. And after listening back to the board tapes I think it’s a good idea. A lot more bands are starting to do it.
“Sometimes it does sound slow because you’re fighting that natural adrenaline-driven tendency to play fast, but it ends up sounding right because you’re playing the actual tempo that the song is supposed to be played. And I tweak the live tempos a little bit from the tempos we recorded in; just to make them fit the live feel better. The best part of playing live with a click is that now nobody can yell at me for playing too fast.”
The Road, The Run, The Band. “I actually love touring. You get tired in phases, of course, but I actually love the touring lifestyle. As you get older, you have to be a little more mellow about it. I’m not out at the hotel bar until 2:00 in the morning any more. I tend to take advantage of the travel more now too. That’s something I’ve learned. No matter how tired you are, you need to get out of your hotel room and go do something in the city each day − because it’s a luxury that I get to see the world and I need to take advantage of it.”
Malinin isn’t talking about tooling around town in the backseat of a taxi, hopping from burger joint to ice cream stand to dive bar. He’d rather lace up the Nikes and pound the pavement – for miles. And miles. And miles. The distance running has to happen at least five times a week “just to keep me sane,” and the real running hits between tours.
“The last marathon I ran was the Rock And Roll Marathon in Arizona. I stopped and played drums with every band on the course, then we were the headlining band at the end of the race. So I played with 26 bands on the course, then we did a full show. [laughs] I played an awful lot of ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and ‘Brown Eyed Girl.’ The race director just told each band to stick to standards so I could play with them, so there was a lot of overlapping. I felt sorry for the runners who kept having to hear ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ over and over, but what can you do?
“I had a buddy of mine run with me as a pacer, so I was pretty much fine to play our show at the end. And I do a lot of ultra running now, so running a marathon wasn’t that big of a deal for me. I’ve run 50-mile races, a couple 100-mile races. It’s a weird sport, but I enjoy it because it’s such a totally separate part of my life. I run in silence. Whenever I’m out there, I’m a runner, not a guy in a band. The people that I run with, we don’t talk about anything but running. There are guys I’ve been running with for years, and I have no idea what they do for a living.
“They say when music becomes your profession you have to find another hobby. So running became my hobby.”
They also say that when music becomes your profession it probably won’t stay your profession for very long. Yet Malinin has persevered through an industry that makes Alaskan crab fisherman look like grocery baggers. Talent makes a great band. But chemistry keeps a band together, and the members of the Goo Goo Dolls seem to have a professional maturity about the way they handle their careers. It probably has a lot to do with their continued success. But then it all comes back to the music.
“Musically speaking, bands should be at least remotely on the same page. I know that sounds like an obvious thing but I know tons of people who play in bands and they don’t even like the music. They do it for a job. And that’s going to self-destruct eventually. The guys in this band, our music tastes have diversified over the years, but the roots are all the same. We speak the same language. And if you can get along musically everything else seems to work itself out. Of course when you tour for two years, there are going to be times when everybody gets sick of each other, but the respect is always there.”
Malinin makes it a point to acknowledge that knowing your space and your place as the drummer is another important key to success. Just like finding room in a song for your drum part, Malinin suggests adopting the same process with finding room for your personality in the band.
“As the drummer, you’re not there to be the center of attention. You’re there to make the song better. I remember talking to Gregg Bissonette once, and he was telling me how he completely changed the way he runs his clinics because most people who come to those clinics have no idea how to play with a band. They all grind on their chops so they’re the most badass drummer around, then you put them with other musicians and they can’t play. Some of that has to do with staying in time. A lot of it has to do with your ability to relate to other musicians.
“So play with as many people as you can. And play music you like.”
By Brad Schlueter
Lucky Mike Malinin has been the Goo Goo Dolls’ backbeat during the band’s most successful years and never fails to craft interesting and complementary parts for their songs. On the band’s latest CD, Let Love In, producer Glen Ballard co-penned the song “Stay With You” with frontman Johnny Rzeznik. This track opens with Malinin riding on his crash and accenting his snare on counts 1, the & of 2, and 4. In the verse, we see the subtle techniques that he uses to create his great groove. Accenting every other eighth-note on the hi-hat solidifies the feel. By occasionally moving his left hand to add a quick flurry to the hi-hat, he keeps the energy level high, while his hi-hat openings let the whole thing breathe. This is yet another great groove from an underrated drummer.
”Stay With You”
City Of Angels
Dizzy Up The Girl
Goo Goo Dolls
The Concert For New York City Various Artists
Gutterflower Goo Goo Dolls
Untucked Katrina Carlson
Live In Buffalo: July 4, 2004
Goo Goo Dolls
Let Love In
Goo Goo Dolls
Tama Starclassic Maple (in Blue Sparkle wrap)
Mike Malinin also uses Tama hardware, Pro-Mark sticks and stick wrap, Remo heads, and Sennheiser and Neumann microphones.