Speed. Volume. Complexity. These three attributes are the signature staples for what is considered heavy drumming in today’s heaviest music. Blistering bass drum work, devastating dynamics, and intricate polyrhythms saturate the metal drumming scene, calling to arms the world’s top shredders and bashers and inspiring thousands of young drummers to grab big wood and press the limits of their metronome. But there is a fourth component, one that sits quietly alone in the shadows waiting for its time to strike. Waiting for the noise to settle. Waiting. It is heavier than lead, quicker than lightning. It is … space.
Few current metal drummers appreciate the value of space better than veteran hitter Mike Wengren. After more than a decade and more than nine million albums sold with the Chicago-based metal band Disturbed, Wengren is in peak form, and nowhere is this more apparent than on Disturbed’s latest release, Indestructible. The band’s fourth studio album, Indestructible could be considered Disturbed’s most aggressive effort to date. And yet, despite the album’s increased antagonism, the songs remain open and crisp, no doubt thanks to the work of Wengren.
“Nowadays,” Wengren explains with a sharp Chicago accent, “when you think of heavy bands you automatically think of these speed guys, the thrash guys, the death and black metal guys where you can’t make a lot of it out because it’s just so quick. That stuff is amazing and I have all the respect in the world for it, but I personally prefer to slow it down a bit and be more dramatic with the hits instead of trying to play as many notes as I can in one bar.”
The musical drama comes chugging at you like a slow-climbing freight train. Every note causes anticipation for the next and the spaces left between allow time for contemplation and appreciation. Even in the quicker, busier sections of the album Wengren and crew manage to inject a refreshing, clean breathiness into the music. Each beat has its place, purely intentional and painstakingly considered.
“I can’t say [playing with space] is necessarily a totally conscious thing,” Wengren admits, “but we are aware of every single note, every single beat. There’s a lot of thought that goes into every little thing we do when we write and record a song. Everything that we do we do from start to finish. We preproduce a lot, sometimes changing pieces up until the very last second of recording. So there’s a lot of time and focus that goes into pretty much everything we do.
“Sometimes we do end up going back and thinning out some of the riffs, but not very often. We’re influenced from the old-school stuff – Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest – so that’s a big part of it. I think Sabbath is probably the best example of [using] space in between the riffs. They’re probably known for being one of, if not the heaviest band in the world, ever.”
As the founders of heavy metal, Black Sabbath was the first to incorporate dark space as a tool for making devilish, aggressive music. They established an iconic foundation for the genre, and while so many modern-day metal bands have strayed from that legendary formula and gone the way of speed/volume/complexity, Wengren and his bandmates keep the past alive with their take on classic metal.
“I actually got a chance to meet [Sabbath’s] Bill Ward a few years back and we talked a lot about jazz drumming and it was just mind boggling. Here he is known for being the drummer of one of the heaviest bands of all time and it turns out he’s a jazz guy. Another great example is obviously Bonham. He’s probably the god of using space in heavy music. I’m not trying to compare myself to Bill Ward or John Bonham by any means, but it’s that old-school stuff that influences my playing. I just try to add my flair to it.”
A Disturbing Formula. A big part of the openness in the Disturbed sound derives from the rhythmic inclinations found in each track they create. Where most bands stop at the drums and bass for rhythmic responsibilities, Disturbed goes one or two steps further. Guitarist Dan Donegan [see sidebar] plays so rhythmically he might as well be playing drums half of the time. His tight etches and syncopated stop-and-gos often sit seamlessly with Wengren’s drum parts, the two longtime friends seemingly attached at the musical hip. Even vocalist David Draiman works with a punchy, rhythmic, syncopated palate.
“Stylistically speaking, my main influence is my guitar player, Danny,” Wengren says. “At this point in our careers – we’ve played together for 15 years – we obviously know each other like the back of our own hand and our playing is a very natural thing. When one of us comes up with a riff or beat we both already have an idea of what the other guy will play. It just flows from there.
“Everything goes pretty much unspoken at this point. We play the same thing a lot of the time. We just really like the way it locks together. We enjoy playing tight like that and we think it’s a great element for us. It was years and years ago that we started doing that and we just kept with it and it became kind of our signature sound. We’ve always been into the syncopated, rhythmic riffs and beats and some of the tribal beats as well.
“For us, the vocals have always been another rhythmic instrument. On the first record David sang more rhythmically, on the second record he got away from that and wanted to prove he could sing more melodically, then on the third record he sort of combined both, but was more melodic. For this record, from day one, we decided to bring back the more rhythmic vocal style. I think he’s one of the best guys out there at doing that and we wanted to bring that back.”
By playing so tightly with Donegan’s guitar, Wengren (often subconsciously) creates some interesting drumbeats that manage to be unique without compromising their delicious simplicity. The rhythmic stylings of the guitar vary just enough to bring out slight variances in what would otherwise be somewhat standard drum parts. It’s a very natural and inspired nuance, and Wengren does it so well that he sometimes doesn’t even know he’s doing it.
“One thing I’ve developed over the years with my own style – I actually never even noticed it until other drummers on tour started pointing it out to me – is leading off with my left foot for some of the double-kick parts. I guess it started years ago with me trying to follow the guitar patterns. I like to play with my right foot on the downbeat and my left foot on the upbeat. And sometimes Danny will play upbeat or offbeat types of rhythms and it feels natural for me to start off on my left foot. Even the slow stuff that most guys would play with one foot, for me to feel like I’m really driving home the syncopation I play a lot of that stuff with both feet.
“On this record, probably more so than any other, it was a challenge to come up with new patterns and new parts that we haven’t done before. I’m always trying to grow beyond the tools we’ve already used, but at the same time I don’t want to go too far into left field and have it sound unlike anything we’ve ever done. So it’s an interesting dynamic, finding somewhere in the middle.”
Assembling The Puzzle. Wengren and Donegan handle the bulk of the songwriting, starting usually with a guitar riff and demoing a complete song from there before passing it off to Draiman for melody and vocal icing. Each piece is developed methodically and Wengren spends a lot of time considering every aspect of his drum parts.
“During the writing process of this record, I’d usually start off playing something a little more simple just to get an understanding of how the beat goes and what the vibe of the tune is,” he says. “Then I’d busy it up later on. There were a couple of times where I thought the song was good, but not great. I thought what Danny was doing was awesome, what David was doing was great, so maybe I needed to dig deeper and find a cool part that would drive the song home. What I was playing might have been good, but it just wasn’t a homerun.
“It’s hard when you write a new song and live with it for weeks on end, you start getting married to some parts and it’s hard sometimes to separate yourself from it and try to come from a different angle and come up with something totally different. So we did dig down pretty deep to come up with some new stuff we hadn’t really done before, and we’re really proud of ourselves with that.”
Hi-Tech Tools. For the sake of writing and recording demos of the new songs, Wengren relied on a couple of Roland V-Drum kits rather than his typical acoustic rig. “It’s just a lot easier for recording,” he explains. “Plug the V-Drums into a Pro Tools rig and you’re good to go. You don’t have to worry about tone or volume or anything like that. It’s a quick way to get your ideas out.”
All was well until it was time to head into the studio and track his parts on the acoustic kit he’s most accustomed to playing. “Well, obviously there’s a huge difference between an acoustic kit and an electronic kit. We got so used to the way the electronic kit sounded that when we went into the studio we found that some of the parts I had recorded in preproduction on the electronic kit didn’t translate well to the acoustic kit. Specifically, we had problems with dynamics and cymbal parts. So we wound up changing a lot of the drum parts because of the acoustic kit. I think it was a bit of a mistake on our part to rely on the electronic kit so much, but it wound up being cool because some of the parts we were married to wound up being even cooler once we tweaked them for the acoustic kit. It was pretty exciting.
“We don’t have the newer V-Drum kits that have ‘real’ cymbals that move like real cymbals and all that, ours just have the old pads. And those triggers don’t have the same feel, especially when you’re doing ride patterns and bell accents. I play a lot of China patterns and open crash patterns and open/closed ride patterns and those couldn’t really come into play until I was on the acoustic kit. If you play a quarter-note pattern on an open crash on an electronic kit you just don’t get the same vibe as a live kit. So when it didn’t translate well I had to dig even deeper and try to come up with even cooler parts that would move a little bit more.”
Search For Sounds. If the instruments aren’t tuned, calibrated, and recorded properly, all that savory space Wengren works so hard to include in the music gets buried in gooey sonic mud. Careful to cover every aspect of anything that could possibly influence either his drum sounds or the band’s end result, Wengren pays close attention to the sounds coming through the board.
“For the first time in my career I’m ridiculously happy with the sound of the toms on this record,” he says. “We spent a lot of time and put a lot of focus into making sure the toms stood out. In the past, when I’ve played tom patterns on top of an eighth- or sixteenth-note bass drum part they’d just get buried because they were too thud-y and didn’t have enough attack. It just sounded like mush and I was always very frustrated with that. So it was a very conscious effort to make sure the toms stood out on this record so the patterns could be heard.”
The solution to the tom challenge was a combination of innovative new heads, a change in ideology, and a patient and willing engineer. “I used the Pearl Masters Custom drums that I’ve had for years. I’ve used those drums to track every record so far, so we were really familiar with what the kit was going to sound like and what we needed to do to get the sounds we wanted out of it. But this time I used Evans Clear Hydraulics heads, surprisingly. I thought they worked really well at bringing out the attack of the toms. I didn’t want just attack, just all top end; I still wanted to hear the beefiness of the drum and be able to hear the drum sing.
“The song ‘Down With The Sickness’ [from 2000’s The Sickness], which has it’s own identity now, is a good example of some of the problems we had in the past. For that drum intro we used coated, 2-ply heads on the toms and it was really thud-y sounding. And that became a kind of signature sound that I’ve really been wanting to get away from. My drum patterns have developed over the years and I want the parts to be heard, and everything was just getting buried.
“Our engineer – Tadpole, he’s great – and I sat down early on and had a long discussion about the sounds I wanted from the drums, specifically the toms. So it became a team effort between the two of us to get the drum sounds we wanted. Sometimes he would go in the live room and play while I sat behind the board and gave feedback. It was great.”
Flying Solo. Missing from the studio experience was the band’s perennial producer, Johnny K. For Indestructible, the boys of Disturbed threw all their chips on the table and opted to self-produce. Some say that in these days of Pro Tools and basement studios it’s hard to justify the expense of having a producer on hand. Others believe that producers are like deodorant: You don’t realize how much you need them until they’re gone and everything stinks.
“It was the right thing to do at this point in our careers,” reflects Wengren. “We’ve been through the [album recording] process three times before this and felt really confident knowing the gear and the way to do things. Each one of us owns our own Pro Tools rig and we’ve each gotten pretty familiar with it through the years. So this felt like a natural progression for us. The worst thing that could happen was we’d miss the mark and have to bring in another producer to help us out, but that didn’t happen. We nailed it right from the beginning and kept going with it.
“It was a pretty daunting task at first. There was a lot of pressure, because obviously we want to maintain our success. We wanted to prove not only to ourselves that we could do it, but also to management and to the label as well. So we feel really proud of ourselves. And I would absolutely say that we look forward to self-producing our records in the future.”
Band Of Brothers. About the only place in Disturbed that is completely void of tasteful space is in the relationships between its members. The obvious point: For a band to be successful they must remain a band. But friendship and mutual professional respect go a long way in short-term projects as well. The band’s honest camaraderie played a significant role in Indestructible’s successful completion.
“We’ve been a band for so long and we really enjoy hanging out with each other,” Wengren says. “I know bands who have separate buses for different members and separate dressing rooms and when they come off the road they don’t really see each other. But we are actually friends. We actually consider ourselves brothers, like a family. When we’re on the road we go to dinner together and hang out on days off. When we’re home we call each other and do things together. We’re more than just a band. So that was a big part of deciding to self-produce.
“Rather than turning to someone from the outside to give us an unbiased opinion, we could count on each other for that. Who better is there? There’s no one I trust more than Danny or David when it comes to our music. When one person gets stuck with their part, someone – someone who knows them and knows what they do best – is right there to offer suggestions.”
This leaves us with more contemplative space – the space of the past and the space of the future. What began a dozen years ago with a couple of guys armed with amps in a rented storage space has evolved into one of metal’s biggest acts. It didn’t come overnight, but it did come. And, while Wengren and Disturbed will continue to create sound without filling it, what’s already been done is certainly good enough.
“Early on we would set small goals for ourselves and do whatever it took to achieve those goals – never taking no for an answer. A lot of bands right out of high school, they want a major label record deal and to sell millions of records. Well, sure that’s great, but it’s unrealistic in the beginning. If you set smaller goals that are more attainable at the time and you work little by little you don’t get discouraged when that big goal doesn’t happen right away.
“Now it’s been ten years and some nine million records and we’re still kicking ass. We feel very fortunate to have this great career. But ultimately, for me, it comes down to the simple fact that I get to play my drums to pay my bills. It really is a dream come true. Honestly, I could die today and know that I’ve led an amazing life. There isn’t much more I’m looking to achieve.”
Mike Wengren also uses Evans heads, Vater Signature Series sticks, and Pearl hardware.
A central part of Disturbed’s signature sound is the tight, syncopated collaboration between the drums and guitar. The two instruments are often so intertwined they seem to be one single beast, barking and chugging and eloquently smashing its way through the song.
Joining Mike Wengren as the second head of this two-headed monster is Dan Donegan, guitarist and founding member. The two go back some 15 years, and together they tackle the bulk of the songwriting, starting with a Donegan riff and meticulously building from there.
“We spend a lot of time trying to give each song its own identity without duplicating certain beats or riffs that we’ve already done,” Donegan explains. “We definitely beat the hell out of the songs until we find that one thing that brings out the riff and really drives the song. Between Mike’s style with the double bass and syncopation and my style of playing in with the riffs, we just find a way to complement each other.
“Even though we normally work well together, I do like the moments that occur where we might be on a different page. A lot of the times something really cool or creative may come out of that. It’s always interesting to have a different outlook on it.”
Theirs is a professional relationship, and a strong friendship, that began in the cold confines of a public storage space and grew through mutual determination and dedication. “In the early ’90s the band I was in rehearsed in a little public storage locker because we couldn’t find any other place that would allow us to play loud music. That snowballed into a bunch of local bands following our lead and soon there were maybe ten local bands rehearsing in these storage spaces, Mike’s band being one of them.
“And Mike was just like me. We would always be the first guys there, an hour or two before our rehearsals were supposed to start, just jamming on our instruments. I would hear him a few doors down wailing away on some double bass and working on his chops and I would be doing the same thing down in our storage space. “As each of our bands kind of [became] defunct, I always kept in mind that someday I wanted to play with Mike because of his similar drive and dedication.”
This song bursts out of the starting gate with drummer Mike Wengren playing a powerful bass drum-heavy groove in 7/4. For the verse, the bass plays in unison with the kick drum, making this section seem even funkier. And at first, you might think it’s in an odd meter. There’s a short ramp that takes us into the double bass part Wengren plays in the chorus. For this clever groove, his left hand plays the high tom and snare, while his right hand plays quarter-notes on his China cymbal. It’s very hard to hear, but it sounds like he’s also playing some or all of the &s on a lower tom with his right hand.
This song has another tasty double bass groove in the verse. It begins around the half-minute mark and Wengren plays quarter-notes on the snare while his feet emphasize the upbeats and hammer short sixteenth-note rolls underneath.
This song begins with a tricky intro that alternates measures of 4/4 with measures of 9/8 and 7/8. It always helps to count out patterns like this until you can hear them. Notice the funky double bass work that’s become a trademark of Wengren’s brand of catchy metal drumming.