Punk Drumming Grows Up
Originally merchandized as the artistic antithesis of pompous ’70s progressive rock and fleet-fingered fusion, the first wave of punk rock was the true DIY art form, where a sneer could draw more acclaim than burning chops. By comparison, today’s punk rockers are all grown up, and punk drumming in particular has become a spectator sport where players approach musicianship with the rabid conviction of X-Games athletes.
Travis Barker is a stunning example. Spin Blink 182’s monster CD Enema of the State, and you hear a drummer with energy and creativity to spare, who must practice incessantly to maintain the astonishing level of technique he unloads into every performance. Listen closely. Barker goes far beyond the double-time punk two-beat on the album, tossing in rhythmic references from a myriad of musical genres, many of which couldn’t be further removed from the original plodding punk beats of yesteryear.
The irony isn’t lost on him. While he tips his hat to the Clash’s Topper Headon and the Descendants Bill Stevenson, Barker doesn’t mince words when he says, “I can’t honestly listen to the Sex Pistols or Black Flag and go, ’Oh my God, that drummer kicks ass.’ Back in the day, musicians looked down on punk music and just went, ’Oh, it’s just a bunch of noisy crap.’ But nowadays, there are punk bands that can actually play.”
And Barker has played with a few of them in his 24-year existence. He was recruited by Blink 182 in 1998, while his former band, the ska-punk outfit Aquabats, opened a series of dates for the trio. When original Blink drummer Scott Raynor unexpectedly got ill and headed home in mid-tour, the other two members – guitarist Tom Delonge and bassist Mark Hoppus – brought in their first ringer: punk drumming wunderkind Brooks Wackerman, who (lucky for Barker) could only fill-in for one gig.
Fate slam-danced in. “They came to me, seriously, two hours before the show and they go, ’Can you learn 21 songs and play our set with us?’ I was like, ’Well, yeah, give me a tape really quick.’ I hadn’t actually listened to their new CD or anything. We had been on the last six shows with them, so I kind of got an idea of what they were doing, or what songs they were playing.
“I played that show with them and they were just going, ’Wow, we’re super stoked. We’ve never sounded this good. Would you be interested in playing with us?’ I went, ’Yeah, if anything ever happens and you ever need somebody, just tell me. I’d be more than happy to. I love your music.’ Then, about two weeks later, I got a phone call and they just go, ’We want you to be in our band.’”
It wasn’t a tough decision for him to make. Even though Barker enjoyed his time with the Aquabats, he couldn’t turn down the offer from Blink 182. “It was hard being in [the Aquabats] with ten people,” he says.
Hard to make a living?
“Yeah, totally, exactly. And at the time, the Aquabats were trying to get their own TV show. They kind of wanted to be like, I wouldn’t say the Monkees, but like, cool action heroes. That’s the whole thing, they’re super heroes, and it was really aiming more towards a TV show rather than being a band anymore. I was just like, ’I don’t want to be an actor. I want to play the drums. I want to be a musician and write songs and write music.’”
So Barker took the plunge, and immediately found himself swirling ’round the center of a tempest that would become only more turbulent. Just three months later Barker found himself punching together songs that would eventually become Enema of the State, a blockbuster release that sold more than four million units and sent Barker around the world several times over.
But first they had to write some songs. And they only had a meager two weeks to do it. Little did his bandmates know that Barker had his own agenda to satisfy during the Enema songwriting process. “All I wanted to do is make sure that not every song on the album had the same tempo and the same feel, like how it was on Dude Ranch,” the fast talking Barker says. “I wanted to have, like, a rock song, like ’All the Small Things.’ I wanted a mid-tempo song, like ’Going Away to College’ and ’Don’t Leave Me.’ We still wrote some super-fast songs, like ’Party Song.’ Tempo-wise, it’s the fastest song we’ve ever written. And then we wrote the slowest song we’ve ever written, ’Adam’s Song.’ I just wanted to have a variety of songs on there, not just like, your palatable punk song over and over again.”
So how did he pull that off? “Basically Mark and Tom write all the lyrics, come up with their guitar and bass parts, what key it’s going to be in, and then I sit there and I arrange everything. I put all the breaks in, like ’Don’t Leave Me,’ all the breakdown things in ’Going Away to College,’ everything. I’m learning how to play guitar right now, but I can’t sit there and write a rad song yet, so, I’m super into arranging songs and making sure parts sound good. That’s basically what my job’s been in any band I’ve been in.”
And when it came to writing drum parts, Barker has complete control. Most often he tends to stick with his first instinct when he’s introduced to a new song by Delonge and Hoppus. “I hear what they’re doing, and then I pretty much keep the first possible thing I can think of, because that’s what will probably most suit the song,” he says. “Then from there, I just add candy where I think it should be. I mean sometimes I’ll come up with three different parts I can play over a verse, three different things I can play over a chorus, and then I ask them, ’Hey, what do you guys think sounds radder?’ And Mark and Tom will mostly pick the most complicated things just because they think it looks neat or it sounds neat. But then I just go back and I listen to it recorded, and I go, ’Okay, maybe it sounds like I’m overplaying,’ or ’I’m doing something dumb there.’”
Barker had gotten a taste of professional studio experience the year before when he recorded Fury of the Aquabats, but it was nothing like what he would encounter with Blink 182. Besides the luxury of working with a major label and a fat budget, perhaps the biggest difference was that he found himself working side-by-side with Jerry Finn, the celebrated producer who has recorded punk bands such as Rancid and Pennywise, as well as more mainstream acts like Presidents of the United States of America and Goo Goo Dolls.
“Oh God, Jerry Finn rules,” Barker raves. “He’s not like a dork-producer. He can play every instrument, he can sing, he’s awesome. I was just kind of scared, because Jerry had worked with so many rad people. I didn’t know what to think. Then when I went in there, I would just go, ’Was that a good take?’ He’s all, ’God, that’s awesome.’ I would just go, ’I can’t believe Jerry Finn’s giving me any kind of props, you know?’”
Their happy marriage was sullied by just one little disagreement. “Jerry thinks Orange County Drum and Percussion snares sound like popcorn,” Barker laughs. “I love Orange County snares. I think they’re amazing. But Jerry likes a big, meaty, tough snare. In the studio, I’ll tune the snare drum down or I’ll do something totally different to make someone happy. But as far as playing live, I like a snare drum that just cracks and I can beat the hell out of it and I can hear it really loud and so can everyone else, you know?”
Sure, we know, but, predictably, Finn got his way, anyway. In the end, Barker used a total of 12 different snare drums on Enema, supplied by the notorious L.A. drum tech/rock star Mike Fasano (affectionately known by his clients as Sack – please don’t ask why). “We used a bunch of crazy snares, like the Guns ’n Roses snare they recorded ’November Rain’ and ’Don’t Cry’ on,” Barker says. “I didn’t mind it. I can understand from song to song, different songs have different moods and, ’This might sound better here, this might sound better there.’ The only song I actually used the snare I really, really love on was ’Don’t Leave Me,’ and that’s like, a fast, fast, fast song, and that has a higher pitch snare, which I’m totally in love with.”
Truth be told, Barker chose to be almost completely uninvolved with his recorded drum sounds. In fact, he wasn’t even in the studio while Finn tweaked his tones. “I hate that process of recording when, before you actually record, you sit there and hit the snare drum for ten hours. You’re just so amped, you just want to hurry up and play the song. So I told Jerry, ’You know what would be rad is if you had someone else do all that, and then when I get there, I just start recording songs.’ So Sack went in there and messed around, got everything Jerry needed to get done, and then I started recording. And it just made everything so much less stressful.”
The strategy obviously worked like gangbusters, because Barker practically set new Guinness records by cutting all 17 of his Enema drum tracks in a mere two days. “A lot of them are first takes,” he says, barely able to contain his pride. “See, I didn’t know. Jerry had worked with God drummers or whatever, and I was going, ’Am I taking too long?’ He’s all, ’You know, you’re way ahead of schedule. Most people only do a couple tracks a day.’ And I was like, ’But I’m fine, nothing sounds rushed or half-assed or anything, right?’ And he was like, ’No, I’m totally in love with everything.’”
Even more remarkable is the fact that Barker cut the majority of his drum tracks solo, without Delonge or Hoppus playing along. He didn’t even wear headphones. And the weirdest thing? Barker still was able to match the click track without actually hearing it. “There was a click track playing that Jerry Finn was listening to,” Barker explains. “He gave me the tempo, I put on the headphones, put the headphones back on the floor and played the songs. And my meter was good; I didn’t have to re-record anything very much at all.”
But why work like that? “I hate wearing headphones in the studio. I don’t want to listen to anyone else. I just want to listen to myself and make sure everything’s okay. So I record my drum tracks and then they come back and do bass or guitar or vocals. It’s easier that way. When I play live, I don’t use a monitor. I have nothing behind me. I just play my drums and they follow me. Just like in a jazz band. Everyone’s pretty much going off you. You’re the rhythm section. You’re the guy holding everything together.”
It’s a good thing Barker whipped through his drum parts with such aplomb, because as soon as he finished, he had to turn on a dime and head out on the road with another of his favorite punk bands: the Vandals. “The day before I went to go record [Enema] and start on my drums, the Vandals called and went, ’We want you to come on tour with us,’” Barker says. “I was just like, ’Oh, rad.’ I love the Vandals, it’s fun playing with them, too, because Warren [Fitzgerald, guitarist] writes the raddest stuff.
To cover the Vandals mega-velocity material, Barker invested in a double-bass pedal. It wasn’t the first time he played double kick, although he makes it sound like it may be the last. “When I was a kid, I learned how to do double-bass, like, the really speed metal kind of stuff because my friends were into it,” Barker remembers. “But I kind of got out of it really quick. As soon as I got into high school, I was just like, ’Gosh, this double bass thing is dumb.’ I didn’t really want to sit there and play sixteenth-notes on my bass drum and sound like a bad Motley Crue album or something.”
After returning home from the Vandals tour four weeks later, Barker was a little – but not completely – surprised to discover that his Blink bandmates had barely made a dent in the new album. “Jerry’s super funny, like, super witty,” Barker says. “You can sit there and you guys will have the time of your life, making fun of people and doing whatever. Mark and Tom are the same way, so a lot of stuff took a little while. They were just having fun, it wasn’t like they were stumped on anything, and then when I got home, they weren’t done yet.”
Because of the back-assward solo method Barker used to record his drum parts, one would think that he might have played some things differently if he had known how they would sound after the guitar and bass were overdubbed. “I would’ve probably done a bunch of new stuff that I do now,” he confirms. “Just little things, like, where I put extra fills. But then, it might’ve sounded like I was overplaying or something. I’m pretty happy. I can listen to the CD and go, ’Yeah, I love that,’ or ’I love this.’ But just like anything, you’ve probably played those songs maybe ten times, 20 times before you record them. Then you go on tour and you play them hundreds of times and then you go, ’Aw man, I should’ve done this there,’ or ’This fits perfect in here.’”
“Party Song” contains Barker’s favorite drumming performance on Enema “just because it’s fast and I think there’s some cool fills in there. I just like the way that song’s arranged. I like the way it feels, like, when it goes into the half-time bridges before the chorus, and then the chorus busts in and it’s half-time and it’s kind of like that happy, like, surf-punk beat or whatever.”
It turns out that “Mutt” is his least favorite song on Enema. “So much has changed from the track,” he says. “We recorded that for a soundtrack like a month after I got in the band. If I could change anything, I would change that song, just because there’s cooler drum parts now. It has a breakdown in the middle where it’s like, four measures long on the CD and it’s like, eight measures live. There’s this cool hip-hop kind of beat that I do in the middle. It sounds rad.”
For those who marveled at Barker’s paper-tearing snare fill on “Going Away to College,” the final answer is – it is a single-stroke roll. “I don’t do any double-stroke rolls, anywhere, in any song,” a suddenly emphatic Barker insists. “If you watch somebody do a double-stroke roll instead of a single-stroke roll, it’s going to be ten times weaker and harder to hear than a single-stroke roll. Even if your chops are totally up.
“Maybe if I had a big, fat, ugly sounding snare drum, and it was really loose and sounded like an old rock snare it would sound good, but my snares are so tight, like, you can pick up anything I do. Like, if I do a ghost note you’re going to hear everything. So if I did do a double-stroke roll on my snare drum, it would sound so wimpy, so I just kind of go for it live. The problem is, we play ’Going Away to College’ twice as fast as it’s recorded. It’s kind of hard. I haven’t choked yet.”
Time after time on Enema, Barker digs into his bag of tricks to demolish the punk drumming ethic. For example, he injects some humor into the bridge of “Dysentery Gary” by suddenly breaking into a fairly faithful bossa nova pattern [Ex. 1]. “We actually wrote that bossa nova part a couple days before we went into the studio. It wasn’t even supposed to be like that. I just played it as a joke one time during practice when we were writing the songs, because I just got bored of playing the same drum parts, and everyone liked it a lot, so we kept it.”
And on the breakdown of “Going Away to College,” Barker shifts into low gear with a halftime march groove on the snare [Ex. 2]. You might be surprised to learn that Barker’s inspiration came from one of the granddaddies of funky fusion. “There’s this Zildjian Day in New York video where Steve Gadd does a full solo, and for the first five minutes it’s all just on snare drum, like a marching beat. I always like the way that sounded, so that’s kind of why I put that in the middle of ’Going Away to College.’”
References to marching percussion? Steve Gadd? Bossa nova? Barker sounds less like a punk rocker and more like Berklee grad. And that’s because he’s a consummate drummer who never seems satisfied with his level of technique or expertise. “My chops probably wouldn’t stay up unless I practiced every day,” he says. “Out on tour, I practice all day, up until the time I play. And then I teach when I’m at home, so I always keep my chops up.”
It’s hard to believe that there was a time when Barker wasn’t nearly as obsessed with the percussive arts. Sure, he banged on pots and pans as a child, but by the time he was in elementary school his interests turned to skateboarding and BMX. “I kind of didn’t want anything to do with drumming,” he says. “But my mom kind of made me do it.”
More than any of the countless drummers who have inspired Barker along the way, his mother, Gloria Marie Barker, had the most profound influence on his drumming. While she wasn’t a musician, Gloria loved music, and introduced her son to recordings by Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa and Louis Bellson. The family lived in Fontana – “it’s like the ghetto of Southern California,” Barker says.
“She made me be in madrigals, which was like a men’s and women’s choir group. She made me take private singing lessons, when it wasn’t so cool to. I would be out skateboarding or riding my bike or something with my friends and then she would call me in. If I didn’t come right away, she would embarrass me and go, ’It’s time to go to singing lessons!’ I’d get so bummed out, I’d just go, ’Oh man, my mom’s wrecking me.’”
His interest in drumming grew incrementally in junior high, when he began jamming with friends who played guitar and bass and shared a mutual interest in loud, raucous music. But he finally decided to succumb to the drumming bug when his mother died. It happened the day before his first day of high school. “I just really concentrated on playing the drums then,” he says. “It was kind of just like going home from there. I was like, I’ve got to do this for my mom now.
“My mom kept this crazy photo album from the time I was in first grade until the time that she passed away. Every year, I would write about new friends I made or what I wanted to be doing when I grew up. And every one of those [pages] said that I wanted to be a professional drummer in a band. It’s crazy to look back on that and just go, ’Whoa,’ you know?”
Barker’s Basic Blink Kit 2000
Drums: Orange County Drum & Percussion
1. 22" x 18" Bass Drum
2. 14" x 6" 20-Ply Vented Snare
3. 12" x 10" Tom
4. 16" x 14" Floor Tom
A. 14" A Custom Hi-Hats
B. 18" Z Custom Crash Medium
C. 21" A Sweet Ride
D. 19" Z Custom Crash Medium
Travis Barker also uses Remo heads, Zildjian sticks and Pearl hardware.