Adam Carson: Where The Pocket Lies
Instead of indiscriminately maiming his kit like just any rock basher, AFI drummer Adam Carson has adopted a more refined way to bludgeon. Take the cymbals – or lack thereof – on “The Sinking Night” from new album Burials. “You can only hit the cymbals so many times before they stop doing their job,” he says.
Carson, the only AFI member who still lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, is in Los Angeles for the first day of rehearsals since recording Burials at East West Studios with Gil Norton (Foo Fighters, Pixies). “I was trying to have the hi-hat create a lot of the swells and that kind of excitement, just so when I got to the chorus and when I started beating cymbals, they actually still served a function.”
In addition to spending the last three years woodshedding and playing in classic-rock/soul band The Reckless Kind, Carson spent time listening to Quick Silver Messenger Service, Big Brother And The Holding Company, and other psychedelic blues-rockers from the ’60s, which as a kid he scoped in his father’s vinyl collection – mostly, he admits, for the groovy cover art. Feeling that this early link to music needed further exploring, he repurchased the albums of childhood memory and soaked them up.
The bands from that era have little in common with AFI, but drum-wise they trickled into Carson’s rhythmic subconscious. “It’s hard to listen to music and not listen to it from a drumming perspective,” he says. “Those guys were really expressive with cymbals, they were really dancing around the ride. Probably a lot of guys that grew up pre-rock [were doing that]. Musicians at that time were trying to find that line between their upbringing and training and this new, exciting way to play. It’s fresh sounding even though it’s 40, 50 years old at this point.”
The early stages of Burials’ writing process got off to a bad start for Carson. For starters, guitarist Jade Puget’s beat programming in the demos locked the drummer into a specific way of playing right off the bat. “For the purpose of writing songs it was necessary for him to do that, and instinctively I was against it,” he says. “I want to approach each song as a blank slate, and I don’t want to be influenced in any way.”
But as Carson made his way through the demos, he made an interesting discovery. “I was impressed with [Jade’s] ability to come up with cool drum lines. There are some things that I kept because I thought it was great for the song. And then there were other places where I had to rewrite in terms of what I want to listen to and what I want to play. So it was a fun process to sort of pick and choose what I liked, to learn how to do things that I didn’t know how to do, and just to completely change the things that I felt needed to sound different.”
Ultimately it was less about satisfying artistic needs than taking one for the team. “I wanted to make sure that I was doing things that I felt I was really strong at. And sometimes there were cool ideas [that Jade programmed] that I really didn’t know how to do, and I would sit around and practice working on it.”
In “Deep Slow Panic” the drummer revamped the kick pattern just a few days before recording, which may come to bite him in the ass. “That’s the one I’m a little bit worried about. I may need to dial it back intensity-wise because if I start the song too aggressively I’m going to be burning out half-way through.” Fat chance of that given how strong his right foot is. “That comes from ten years of playing in a garage trying to be louder than my band. [laughs] That’s probably Stephen Perkins’ fault.”
Coming up in the Gilman Street scene in Berkeley, California, along with Green Day and Rancid, AFI has graduated from three-chord punk ditties into a sprawling rock entity encompassing everything from gothic dirges to Queen-like bombast. Carson has seen his playing similarly evolve. There’s plenty of pop-punk gallop in Burials tunes such as “Greater Than 1984” and first single “17 Crimes” (the latter accompanying the end credits to the popcorn flick The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones). But overall the drums are huge sounding, super-dynamic, and if not musical, then downright hypnotic, echoing and thundering in a way that makes them seem double tracked when they aren’t supplemented with cascading tom loops (like the pipe organ—driven “The Conductor”).
With its sepulchral title and songs with names such as “I Hope You Suffer,” “No Resurrection,” “Anxious,” and “The Face Beneath The Waves,” it would seem that frontman and lyricist Davey Havok had all sorts of unpleasant topics on his mind during Burials’ writing process. That’s Okay with Carson, who readily admits it’s the band’s darkest record yet. “I’m not an angry guy, but I respond to angry music,” he says. “They might be his thoughts but I have no problem playing that music. So it’s really easy for me to emote when the songs have an intensity like that.”
Though he’s never been afraid of electronics in the studio, Carson won’t surrender to automation if he can help it. If digital sounds are called for he manually triggers them with a pad near his floor toms. “If I can perform it rather than run it to a track, I like to do that.” But as far as programming the actual sounds, it’s taken care of for him so he can just concentrate on the primitive pleasure of hitting things. “Reno [AFI’s drum tech] deals with that world,” he says. “He’s got the laptop open dialing in all those things on a song-by-song basis.”
Generally, a click is always used for recording but for the band’s live shows it is on maybe half the time. “The goal for me is to not have it super loud to where I’m really focusing on it, but to where it just kind of becomes part of the fabric of the song,” he says. “And sometimes I’m not necessarily on it entirely, but I’m consistently just off it, which I think is where the pockets of a lot of songs come from.
“There are some songs that require us to be really close to the original tempo and so we’ll all run it,” he continues. “Sometimes I have it so that halfway through the song I can turn it off, just so I have that reference. In other songs I keep it on through the whole track, and there’s some songs where we just kind of wing it and just let it go wherever it goes.”
Carson is left-handed in everything except the drums (he even crosses over like a natural righty). When he first took up the instrument, no effort was required to adapt to a conventional setup except in one regard: “When I do fills it’s most natural for me to lead with my left,” he says. “I have spent a lot of time in the past three years learning how to lead with my right. My entire career, something that should be really easy is challenging because I’m leading with the wrong hand, punctuating cymbals with my left instead of my right. So I have been trying to be a little bit more ambidextrous and to not get things twisted when I start trying to do fills and things.”
AFI’s longer-than-usual break between albums enabled the individual members to pursue outside interests. Carson got married. Puget started another side project (he also plays with Havok in the electronic-oriented Blaqk Audio). Closet-thespian Havok had a role in the Broadway production of Green Day’s American Idiot. “I was out in New York and saw him. It was fantastic,” says the drummer, who spent most of last month honeymooning in his wife’s native England.
Although tonight’s rehearsal is the first time he has been with the other members of AFI since recording, Carson reinforces that old chestnut about drumming, you know, how it’s like riding a bike. “Sometimes I can’t really remember how a song goes, but once we start playing it I find that my arms are just doing what they’re supposed to do. It comes back really fast. When we start touring, the record won’t actually be out yet, so we’ll probably only play three or four cuts from it, so it’ll definitely be enough older songs and relics that the crowd will really be into.”
For the rest of the year and through 2014, it’s going to be weeks and weeks of back-to-back shows, but Carson is staring down the tour like a modern-day road warrior. Crazy as it sounds, he doesn’t get to play drums as much as he wants to while on these treks: “The best thing about touring is for an hour every day I get to go on stage and do what I truly love doing. The worst thing is the other 23 hours.”
Current Release Burials
Birthplace Mountain View, California
Influences Armand Majidi, Stephen Perkins, Matt Cameron, Topper Headon, Josh Freese
Web Site afireinside.net
As a founding member of AFI, Adam Carson has lots of experience slamming down heavy grooves. The band’s latest recording, Burials, includes the catchy song “Wild” that features an insistent upstroke guitar pattern on the all the &’s. Rather than ape it, Carson instead lays down a relentless tom groove that’s focused on the downbeats, which serves to anchor the guitarist’s opposing rhythms. The drum sound is heavily processed, adding to its machine-like quality.
Alternating between heavy groovers and upbeat pop-punk anthems, Burials boasts a mighty foundation throughout, thanks to Adam Carson’s resolute performance behind the kit. At the top of oppressive opener “I Hope You Suffer,” the longtime AFI timekeeper pounds out tribal tom patterns that establish both rhythm and melody. As the track progresses, subtle embellishments are added – a triplet kick phrase here, a cymbal choke there – making for some choice air-drumming fodder. Proving he’s no punk when it comes to meshing with electronic elements, Carson dishes out danceable beats on “The Conductor” – a Muse-like head-bobber teeming with additional synthetic percussion. He ratchets up the bpm on triumphant numbers like “A Deep Slow Panic” and “17 Crimes” while simultaneously reigning in the complexity of his parts, allowing ample space for frontman Davey Havok to set the hook with his infectious vocals. It’s hard to believe AFI has been around for more than two decades. In the increasingly difficult quest for band longevity, having an unselfish drummer like Carson goes a long way.