Multi-Task To The Max: Drummers Who Sing Lead

Right Brain/Left Brain

Adam O’Rourke, Francis Mark, and Nick D’Virgilio Describe The Mind Of The Singing Drummer

It’s not like drummers don’t have enough to do without ever opening their mouths. After all, working toward total, four-limb independence is a perfectly reasonable life goal — one that, all by itself, has strained the overachiever meters of beginners and professionals alike since the advent of the drum set. For most of us, trying to cram vocals into the mix is like adding one too many chainsaws to an already precarious juggling routine. But with heightened difficulty comes heightened respect, and to most observers, a performance by a good singer/drummer, not to mention a good lead singer/drummer, is a display of almost unimaginable coordination, a manifestation of that mysterious, seemingly innate talent they only wish they could understand, much less possess.

So in an effort to provide DRUM!’s mortal readers with a chance to better appreciate the methods of the mutant multitasker, we popped the hoods on three such machines, otherwise known as Adam O’Rourke (of 2 Cents), Francis Mark (of From Autumn To Ashes), and Nick D’Virgilio (of Spock’s Beard), and gleefully rummaged around in the gray squishy stuff looking for the “make it look easy” microchip. What we discovered is that, while these three may be able to pat their heads, rub their bellies, tap dance, chew gum, and say the alphabet backwards all at the same time, they do appear to be human. So pull up a chair, break out the drum pad, warm up the vocal chords, and prepare to live vicariously through the experiences of these three unique singer/drummers as they describe how they’ve been putting their super powers to good use.

Finding Their Voice

“If there is a heaven you will find me there playing the drums naked while my girlfriend is [deleted] and I’m eating a Double Double from In-N-Out [Burger],” reads a line from Adam O’Rourke’s bio on the 2 Cents web site. More than just an admirable expression of his willingness to tackle several activities at once, the line pretty much captures the essence of the charismatic frontman, who describes himself as a heavy metal basher “with a punk rock heart.” Five minutes into talking with O’Rourke, it’s clear he’s a born frontman. But it’s his arsenal of vicious drum set chops that forces him to rule from the throne. “I’d always had a passion for writing lyrics and songs and I can play the guitar as well, but my first love was the drums,” he says.

When O’Rourke and his brother Adam started 2 Cents back in 1996 as a raw, punk rock experiment, they had one of their friends singing lead. He remembers the moment he decided to make the move into singer/drummer territory. “We were like, ’We’re singing it better, and we’re actually writing the songs, so why don’t we just do it ourselves?’ And at the same time, we were like, ’No one else is really doing anything like this and this is a way we can really stand out.’” Though he admits in the early days, his drum/vocal assault was pretty much unlistenable. “I love singing, but I’m definitely not a proficient vocalist in the sense that, I couldn’t sing you an A# off the top of my head. It more comes from being in the moment and the lyrics that I have.”

Nick D’Virgilio — who boasts a laundry list of performance credits that includes recording on a Genesis album (sitting in for the original poster boy of singer/drummers, Phil Collins), drummer and backup vocalist for Tears For Fears, a blossoming solo career as a singer/songwriter, and the lead singer and studio drummer for prog rock outfit Spock’s Beard — sings a slightly different tune. “I really love singing, and as far as I can take that, I’ll go with it,” says D’Virgilio, who took over as Spock’s lead singer in 2002 when founding member Neal Morse said goodbye to Spock’s and hello to Jesus following his abrupt born-again conversion to Christianity.

“I just decided, ’You know what, I want to be the lead singer, and I’m going to try to convince the guys that I should be the guy,’” recalls D’Virgilio. “I think there might have been some other ideas the guys might have had, but I was pretty adamant that I should be the one. It took a little bit of convincing, because they were used to me being the drummer. I definitely had to prove myself a little bit, which I was up for.”

From Autumn To Ashes’ Francis Mark has a conversion story of his own. Only he makes no bones about his being thrown into the spotlight against his will. At the close of 2006, singer Ben Perri’s increasingly erratic behavior and growing isolation reached a breaking point when he suddenly quit the band, leaving the other members stranded at the threshold of an important Australian tour. Mark, who had already been taking up most of Perri’s slack in the writing department, was the obvious choice to step up to the mike, for better or for worse.

“To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t necessarily welcome the extra attention that comes with it,” Mark admits. “It just makes me feel really uncomfortable. The drum set’s like a little security blanket that you have around you. It’s nice. The weirdest part is definitely talking in between songs. Everything’s great while we’re playing songs. I wish we could play an hour of solid music without stopping.” His voice breaks occasionally, betraying a shyness that stands in stark contrast to the gregarious personalities of O’Rourke and D’Virgilio, and that also belies an explosively confident, volume-intensive onstage presence. “It’s not something I necessarily wanted to do,” he continues. “Really I want to do whatever is going to generate the best music from us, and this dynamic seems to be working out the best. The chemistry in the band is really good. It’s just the way it evolved.”

Extra Stage Hands

It should be noted here that the main thing separating these three frontmen is that Adam O’Rourke is the only one who consistently plays drums at the same time he’s singing lead. When D’Virgilio and Mark moved to front and center, they retained their positions behind the kit in the studio, where vocals are tracked separately, but recruited touring drummers for the road.

For D’Virgilio, local session drummer Jimmy Keegan, a capable singer/drummer in his own right, backs him up on tour, singing vocals as well as hitting the skins in the spot D’Virgilio used to occupy. “He’s got a great voice and he sings very high, which was kind of important because he was going to be taking over my parts and I did all the high vocal parts in the past,” D’Virgilio says. “He was an easy fit. Kind of a similar style, and he can sing and play really well.” But D’Virgilio made it clear Keegan wasn’t going to just do his own thing. “Unfortunately he has to play all of my parts,” he says, laughing. “If there’s really signature fills or signature beats he plays those, and then I kind of let him have the room to feel stuff out. It makes it a little more fun for him.”

Mark, on the other hand, affords a lot more breathing room to his alter ego, Jeff Gretz. “I didn’t really want somebody who was going to come in and try to like, be a clone of what I did. I wanted somebody who would do something that I would have never thought of. You know, something that would make me say, ’I wish I thought of that; that’s a really cool interpretation of it.’”

Although Mark tracked the drums on From Autumn To Ashes’ last album, 2005’s Abandon Your Friends, it’s looking like Gretz is slotted to take over the throne permanently from now on. “He started out as just the touring drummer,” Mark explains. “But he’s awesome, and a really sweet dude, so now it’s permanent.”

But it would be folly to assume Mark and D’Virgilio have simply handed over the best seat in the house on account of some lapse in sanity (a fair assumption when a drummer appears to abandon his art). Because neither is willing to completely relinquish the sticks. “In the future it opens up a whole different realm of possibilities,” says Mark of his relationship with Gretz. “We have the option to do some double drumming, which I would really like to get into.” D’Virgilio and Keegan have already beaten him to that. “We always have two drum kits set up on stage,” says D’Virgilio. “We do the whole ’dueling drummers’ thing. But usually, [Keegan] plays most of the time, and I go back and forth.”

Another folly, a worse one in fact, would be to assume D’Virgilio and Mark enlisted help on account of lack of ability, as their multitasking mastery is already well documented. Both, after all, were the main backup vocalists for their bands long before landing the lead spot. And D’Virgilio still does a fair amount of singing from behind the kit with Tears For Fears. No, the decision to add a touring drummer was simply born of practical considerations.

“It’s tough, especially with this kind of music,” explains D’Virgilio. “I try to make it as showy as possible with our limited budget. Playing drums along with singing, it’s not as interesting visually. I could probably pull it off, but I wouldn’t be able to give 100 percent to either one. I’m glad it’s worked out this way.”

Mark, speaking for the metal contingent, agrees with that assessment. “I think, with our style of music, the show is really dependent on interacting with the crowd. And trying to do any of that stuff from behind the drum set would totally negate that element.”

So the question is; how has O’Rourke transcended these obstacles? For starters, by moving his drums up to the front lip of the stage and turning them sideways so he can, he says, “reach out and touch the kids.” He laughs. “Not like, emotionally, I mean I can literally reach into the crowd and slap them five.” But getting buddy-buddy is only part of the picture. Like any bandleader, O’Rourke’s job often has him playing Shepard as well.

He offers their last show as an example. At the start of one particularly aggressive tune, he called for a circle pit and no one responded. He stopped the song and addressed his minions like a reprimanding parent: “Look, I didn’t stutter; I spoke perfect English. I said I wanted a circle pit. Circle pit now.” When he cut back into the song there were three different circle pits going. “You can’t let [the crowd] control what you do,” he insists. “You’ve got to control what they do. Because at the end of the day, if all these people booed me off stage or if they hated me, I ain’t gonna quit, I ain’t gonna stop.”

Granted, O’Rourke may be something of a special case. After testing his metal playing at a whopping eight different youth correctional facilities, including one in which the audience members were chained to their seats and the band was prepped with tear gas drills should things get ugly, O’Rourke doesn’t see the problem in keeping the audience in check between cymbal crashes and howling choruses. Nevertheless, D’Virgilio and Mark can probably be forgiven for thinking this is too much to handle glued to a drum throne.

Balancing Act

Above all, a singer/drummer must become comfortable in that curious realm where the worlds of melody and beat collide, even when the two are performed separately on stage. “I think drumming has even had an effect on how I approach singing because my vocal patterns are probably much more percussive and rhythmic than most people would sing,” acknowledges Mark. “It’s just in my blood at this point.”

O’Rourke agrees: “I kind of just consider my mouth another drum. If everything is too synched up and too together, then it becomes really one-dimensional.” D’Virgilio, with his scream-free musical background, ability to read charts, and formal training at L.A.’s Dick Grove School Of Music under the tutelage of people like David Garibaldi and Louis Conte, is probably more of a “musician” in the classical sense than the other two. But he describes the same kind vocal-percussion approach. “Sometimes you can work it out where the words line up with certain hits,” he explains. “Instead of counting ’1-2-3-4-5’ or whatever, the words you say are the numbers, if that makes sense?”

D’Virgilio actually finds it easier to sing melody while drumming than while playing guitar. Interestingly, on the flip side, O’Rourke, who writes many of 2 Cents’ guitar parts in addition to his own drums and lyrics, feels the exact opposite: “When I sit down playing guitar I have a lot easier time singing melody because I’m dealing with melody on the instrument that I’m playing.”

But D’Virgilio grew up singing, and says his ability to sing and drum at the same time evolved naturally, almost inexplicably. “It wasn’t that hard; I don’t know why,” he says. “Playing easy pop tunes and rock tunes, I didn’t have to really think about playing the beat as much. It would just kind of come out, and I could concentrate on singing.” Even odd time signatures, he claims, at least when the 1 is clearly defined, pose no real problem for him. But, he admits, “When I play with Mike Keneally and bands like that, they do odd stuff that’s really, really, really hard. It goes over the bar lines and stuff like that where, if I don’t count, I’m lost, every time, no matter what I do.”

Screaming Good Time

D’Virgilio’s brand of progressive jam rock is arguably more prone to bouts of complexity, both in beat and melody, than Mark and O’Rourke’s metal. And while D’Virgilio’s voice seldom reaches the upper registers of vocal distortion that renders melody moot, Mark and O’Rourke estimate they spend at least half their time popping blood vessels in full-on, howling banshee mode. “That’s the way I always did it — I would just grab the microphone and with no regard for technique I would just scream like a lunatic,” says Mark. “And I was definitely hurting myself with that.”

On the Australian tour where Mark first sung lead, he threw his voice out after just a couple of days. He soon enlisted a vocal coach who taught him the finer points of shouting — how to get enough volume and emotion without risking bodily injury. “It took a little bit of getting used to,” he says. “Especially when you’re on stage in front of a lot of people and it’s a good crowd and you get really into the show and then you forget and all technique goes out the window; you get really caught up in the moment and you know, start wailing, and that’s when you start straining it. So I guess the hardest part is just keeping your composure.”

But Mark never wanted it to be all screaming all the time. From the start he was singing a fair amount of melodic backup vocals. “This is actually a bit of a reprieve,” he says of his recent separation of voice and drum. “Because I still sang a great deal when I was behind the drum kit. Drumming this style of music is exhausting in and of itself. Couple some vocals on top of that and it’s a real marathon.”

That kind of talk O’Rourke can surely relate to, but if he’s ever suffered the kind of vocal chord blowout Mark has, he’s doing a good job of hiding it. “It is way easier to scream, way easier to scream. I’ll tell you that right now,” he insists between mouthfuls of food. “But I don’t do it because it’s easy. I like to think that when I do it, it’s called for and fits the emotion of the music. I try to scream with purpose.”

O’Rourke, like Mark, understands the value of adding melody to the madness. “I love screaming to death,” he says. “It’s great, it’s wonderful, it’s powerful. But at the same time, what really makes a great song is the melody — that’s what people remember.” And despite his punk roots, O’Rourke displays surprisingly sophisticated melodic control, which gives form to 2 Cents’ obligatory angst, especially on their newest release, Lost At Sea, where O’Rourke shot for a lightly edited approach, a raw approximation of his harrowing, high-wire stage act.

And in this field of talented multitaskers, if the ability to run the vocal gamut while simultaneously playing intricate, interesting beats is the prerequisite, then that added element of risk, of audacity, is what can take the performance to the next level. When O’Rourke entered the singer/drummer’s elite ranks more than ten years ago he wanted to stand out from the crowd. If he has, it’s because of that willingness to seek out uncharted territory. “I try to challenge myself,” he says. “I try to push it in the sense to when we’re going into the studio, I probably couldn’t play it live. And by the time I’ve listened to it, done it, and practiced it a bunch I’ve actually come out on the other end being able to do something I wasn’t able to do before.” A little more practice and that might just mean achieving heaven on earth — at least the multitasking heaven he envisions.

Get the How To Tune Drums Minibook when you subscribe to our newsletter