Blake Richardson: Between A Rock & A Hard Place

blake richardson

Charlotte, North Carolina, can proudly boast of one rather spectacular prog-metal mini-orchestra in the form of Between The Buried And Me, whose new The Parallax II: Future Sequence is a 72-minute, 12-track concept album drawn in widescreen proportions of near-insanely detailed intricacy. Blake Richardson is the human octopus who’s been given the task of both propelling and hurling heaps of stutter-stepping, polyrhythmic bombs at the band’s grandly drawn futuramas of astral planes and dying planets. A mostly self-trained musician of frightening precision, power, and fertile imagination, Richardson joined the band in his second year at North Carolina State University, writing and recording the band’s third album, Alaska, and finally leaving school in 2005 to tour full time.      

For the former “grunge kid” Richardson, the opportunity to play the big stages in the big time was a childhood dream he felt certain he could make come true to life, if he just kept his eye on the prize. He recalls what set the whole thing off.

Wake Up And Smell The Drums

“My uncle had a drum set in his basement – it was the first time I’d ever seen a real drum set – and he was jamming and stuff. So he went upstairs, and I just sat behind it and tried to hash out something, and by the end of the night I got something down and somewhat solid.”

This 12-year-old kid wasn’t so sure that drumming felt like his particular thing, though, being obsessed at the time with soccer and karate, like any wee shaver his age would be. But the experience made him think that maybe he needed something different. Cut to the following Christmas morning – kid wakes up and there’s that drum set he’d been playing: His uncle had gifted him those ’65 Ludwigs with “a pearl finish! ... And I still have it,” he says with a laugh. “I’ll never sell it, ’cause it’s awesome. I still set it up, and they’re ready to play.”

Richardson started bashing those Ludwigs every day, flailing out his best Dave Grohl simulation to his favorite Nirvana tracks. All good, but his parents said if he dug it so much then he had to get serious about it and take lessons. They found him a local jazz and orchestral drummer named Robert Crutchfield.

“This guy was just super well educated, and I lucked out with him,” he says. “I got lessons that I still use, now more than ever. His specialty was jazz, but he was very good about showing the basics of as many styles as possible.”

Not the least of which were those essential rudiments. “He gave me the first 13 or so, sat me down in front of a snare drum and said, ’Once we get through these basics we can move on to bigger and better things.’ I’m glad to this day that I got that down, because they’re important. That’s what you want to do to be a really well-rounded player.”

Richardson studied with Crutchfield for four years, and had meanwhile begun to whack the tubs with other people on his own. When he was 15 he started a deathcore band called Glass Casket with current BTBAM guitarist Dustie Warring, an experience that really sunk into his head that being a musician was what he had to do.

“We started playing shows when we were 17 or 18,” he says. “Then there was a band in high school who needed a drummer, and the singer called me and said, ’We’re going to do this national tour with all these big bands,’ and I was like, ’Oh, yeah!’ But I wasn’t about to drop out of high school just to do a tour with a local band. So that was a bummer, and I turned that down.”

After high school Richardson got accepted at North Carolina State and was in his third semester there when he got a call from Between The Buried And Me, who’d been hearing good stuff about Richardson’s versatility – and brute strength – and asked him to be a part of the group.

“By now I was okay with leaving school and getting to play in a band as a professional,” he says. “Ever since I was a little kid watching Nirvana videos, I wanted to be in a band and tour all the time, so when that offer came up, it was really a no-brainer. I’d get to travel, see places I’d never get to see otherwise, get to do what I want to do, have fun.”

Bowing To Bozzio

When the time came for Richardson to hit the pro stage, he was fully prepared for the job, with well-honed chops and a philosophical attitude toward the drums gleaned from a vast array of percussion innovators.

“When I was really young, I was a grunge kid,” he says. “Nirvana, Alice In Chains – I still love them, but the guy I was taking lessons from would always show me new drummers, saying, ’You should just check this out,’ and I was like, ’I’m a grunge kid, but yeah, all right.’”

Richardson never left home without his treasured compilation tape of solos by his drumming discoveries: “Dennis Chambers was on there, Simon Phillips, Neil Peart – I was always a big Rush fan. Then a friend of mine showed me a band called Dream Theater, who had a record called When Dream And Day Unite. I fell in love with that record and I got all their back catalog. I was a total fan of Dream Theater, just great players.”

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Drum teacher Crutchfield had also introduced Richardson to the multilimbed magic of Terry Bozzio. “And that was incredible. I was 12 or 13 at the time, and I didn’t even know that stuff he was doing was possible – crazy polyrhythms and different time signatures on his hands than on his feet. That brought me into an entirely different world of drumming.”

Intrigued by what he heard in Bozzio’s ambidextrous rhythms, Richardson trekked to one of the drummer’s clinics to soak in some wisdom. “I learned how disciplined you need to be to be a drummer,” he says. “And that complicated rhythms can be counterintuitive and idiosyncratic, and involve such separation in coordination of your limbs.”

And that, giving drumming’s various technical challenges, time and patience are of the essence.

“At the clinic, someone asked Bozzio about one particular solo: ’The polyrhythms you’re doing, and the turnarounds that you do, then the way they keep changing and switching – how do you do it?’ And Bozzio says, ’Well, sometimes it’ll take me a week or so to get it down to a certain kind of power, and sometimes it’ll take longer.’

“When I heard that, I said, Shhoo! That’s incredible, that that guy had that much dedication just to learn one pattern for a solo. I guess that’s what it takes if you want to be a real drummer.”

So Richardson did the work, and then he did some more, and today he’s fully earned the right to call himself a real drummer. While he’s learned a lot from players in non-rock genres, he considers himself primarily a rock drummer, of the heavier variety. And like most of your metal-style rock players, he rarely messes around with traditional grip, other than to loosen up before shows or practice.

“You can’t play as fast with traditional grip, as far as I’m concerned, though I know there are guys that do it well – I mean, Virgil Donati! He can shred it.”

blake richardson

Robots Have Feelings Too

More like a fine wine than a piece of cheese, Richardson’s playing style has matured, he feels, growing into a relaxed and naturalistic way of playing far removed from the more by-the-numbers approach of his early days.

“I can tell by looking at my playing just three years ago,” he says. “When I watch all those old videos, I’m very stiff and I can tell I’m concentrating too hard. I’m thinking it rather than feeling it out. Now, I’m finally starting to get comfortable with my playing.”

Even so, he points out that a “robotic” style can be appropriate for heavy music, particularly in a live setting. “A machinelike quality to your playing can be good for metal drummers because you want to be very precise and concise.”

He differentiates that feel from his beefy but nuanced work with BTBAM, a band whose music emphasizes melody, dynamics, and understated harmonic texture. “You can’t be automated about it; you have to kind of vibe out and play what you need. We have to do everything with a little more feeling.”

Still, it’s a balancing act, because BTBAM’s grandly constructed opuses call for a lot of really crazy playing. “We do so many super-fast, frenetic riffs, and it has to be dead-on or it’s just going to sound like a process. But then 45 seconds later it’ll be a mellow, harmonically rich section, and it’s like a switch that you have to turn on and off. That’s one of the things I’ve struggled with, but I’ve got a lot better at it.”

Mental Muscle Music

In his practice studio at home, Richardson does even more of the work that needs to be done. Sure, he pulls out those trusty old rudiments, and he might do a little tinkering with some Latin grooves to add to his repertoire of licks and feels. Usually, though, he’ll run through the more difficult parts he’ll be called upon to perform on his band’s next live dates.

“I’ll sit down at the drums for about an hour a day just to keep my chops up,” he says. “A lot of times I’ll do a song or two to get the motor memory back. And I practice in order to remember to never overplay in live performance. While I’m rehearsing my parts, I’ve got to remember what the words to the songs are, ’cause there are a lot of times when the beats and times vary, and I work on pulling all those beats in line.”

What with his maxed-out touring and recording schedule with BTBAM, Richardson has little time to stray too stylistically afield during his practice sessions. “That’s one of the drawbacks to playing in a full-time band,” he groans, “you’re just so used to playing a style that you play every day, and it’s kind of hard to break out of that sometimes.”

While any drummer owes it to himself to investigate players outside his own field of dreams – and lord knows heavy-duty players like Dennis Chambers have made their mark on Richardson’s progressive/art-metal style – he feels he’s only now “just messing with the basics” of jazz, which just can’t be learned overnight.

“Jazz is a drumming style that you really need to sit down with,” he says. “Those real jazz players are real jazz players because that’s what they’ve been doing for years and years. You should put in the time to develop the brain for it.”

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Keeping it tight but loose describes Richardson’s pre-show chops-flexing routine, a warm-up that involves a series of rolls and double-strokes for five or ten minutes before the band hits the stage.

“But before that I do some stretching, which I like to do after I play, too,” he says. “And that includes my feet and legs. I get down on a couch or something, then sit upright, maybe do some patterns with my feet, just to get the blood flowing a little bit. Then I’m good to go.”

That stretching habit comes to the aid of the inevitable hand, leg, and foot cramps that have plagued drummers since the dawn of time. Well, it couldn’t hurt, anyway. “I’m drinking tons of water throughout the day just to try and avoid cramps, too, but oh, my god, the first song we play in our set is 15 minutes long! Sometimes I get a little cramping in the hands, but I try to play through as best as I can.”

Soundshaper

Between The Buried And Me’s music is a beautiful thing, an amazing thing, and a very complicated thing, nowhere more so than on the new album. You stand there dumbfounded at the technical wizardry of it all, wondering how in hell they manage to assemble these devilishly difficult puzzles. It’s a process that fascinates Richardson, too, and presents him with some hairy challenges.

“Everyone brings in their own pieces and helps put it together in a way that we all think is suitable to make a good song. Tommy or Paul or Dustie might bring in a riff or sometimes a whole section that they’ve written out. Because the songs are generally between ten and fifteen minutes long, for the most part we record section by section.”

Richardson will choose a section at a certain tempo, and will play as much as he can at that tempo, then he’ll move on to another section. Thus, while all the takes on The Parallax II record were real (i.e., played in real time), over the length of a 15-minute song, say, the band whittled the song down and recorded it in 30-second parts to make it easier to shape the piece.

“We’ll do all these sections in order, then we’ll kind of tape the sections together. We’ll say, ’This section follows this section really well, and Tommy can do this here and that there,’ etcetera. It’s a group effort as much as individual writing, and it’s cool because everyone in the band inspires each other.”

In the studio or onstage, Richardson likes to keep things consistent gear wise, because he really does not like surprises when the pressure’s on. For recording he prefers thinner cymbals for a more “controlled” sound, and for both studio and live work his ride cymbals of choice are “anything that can stand up to an hour’s work day after day.” Onstage, those cymbals have to be the thickest, loudest possible, and Richardson’s live assaults also require drumheads that can stand up to some serious abuse and still span a broad range of sounds.

“For live I’ll use various double-ply heads like the Evans SST series to add a little bit of tone,” he says. “In the studio I’m much more concerned with tonality and low end, and I’ll use thinner heads for the toms.”

Richardson uses a rounded wood bass drum beater, with a little padding in the kick drums “to give a little more of a blast to it. And it helps for durability, too.” He’s a heels-up kinda guy: “It’s very precise, powerful playing, and I like to hit hard to control my kicks, because I don’t trigger. I feel like the harder I hit, the more full the kick drums are going to sound.”

And the question on everyone’s mind? You heard right – everything’s real when Richardson plays the drums live. There is no triggering off pads or the drums. In this, Richardson is in a unique class in his playing genre.

“I did try triggering once, but it just seemed like one more thing I have to worry about,” he says with a laugh. “But along with a click we will have occasional sample tracks usually involving percussion, and samples of keyboards or guitar harmony. But no vocal samples.”

Sure, if he were in the audience he’d rather hear the musicians play all the parts totally live, “but if we didn’t have the full spectrum of our records’ sounds in a live setting, it just wouldn’t be the same.”

In the studio Richardson keeps his drums tuned wide open, with the toms especially tuned as low as they can go within their respective ranges. “For a 10" tom there’s only so low you can go, and I like to capture a lot of that clarity on that low end. But for live I like to get a little bit more attack out of it. I use those double-ply heads to get more overtones out of the drums, and sometimes put a little tape on the heads, which also helps the house sound guys get a natural balance to the drum mix.”

Richardson is kind of picky about the mix he hears in his monitors during a live performance, but is resigned to the fact that a drummer just can’t always get his say about things like that. The BTBAM monitor mix is pretty simple – a little kick drum, a bit of snare, a click track, stage-right guitar and vocal. His main concerns are just being able to hear himself play, while at the same time safeguarding his valuable eardrums.

“If I could, I’d have more drums in the mix,” he says, “but then again I don’t like to hear a lot of drums – since I’m sitting behind the kit I can hear the drums fine. And I do like to have the overall mix volume low, just to protect my hearing, because with playing for an hour every day you really have to start thinking about that.”

Living The Dream

Onward and upward for Blake Richardson, the grunge kid with a dream who set his sights high and never looked back – except with fondness and respect for his teachers, colleagues, and fans.

“I remember the first show of our tour with Dream Theater years ago, in Mexico City. The show was sold out – 10,000 people! It was the very first show on the tour, and the biggest show I’d ever played in my whole life. Well, the Dream Theater guys said, ’You’ve got to play the whole Colors record,’ so it was like an hour-long opening set – we played the whole record!”

He laughs.

“Oh, I was nervous, I had the jitters. But that show was a turning point in our career: We were finally getting some deeper recognition for what we were trying to accomplish as a band. A lot of people who saw that tour didn’t know who we were, but they were very, very welcoming. And we got a lot of fans from that.” 

blake richardson

Richardson's Setup

Drums Tama Starclassic Birch/Bubinga (Dark Mocha Burst)
1 20" x 18" Bass Drum
2 14" x 6" Starphonic Brass Snare
3 10" x 8" Tom
4 12" x 9" Tom
5 16" x 14" Floor Tom
6 20" x 14" Gong Drum

Cymbals Sabian
A 14" HHX Evolution Chinese
atop a 16" AAX X-Plosion crash
B 14" HHX X-Celerator hats
C 18" AAX Metal Crash
D 10" HH Duo Splash
E 12" HH China Kang atop a 12" AAX O-Zone splash
F 20" AAX X-Plosion Crash
G 14" HHX Groove Hats
H 21" HH Raw Bell Dry Ride
I 19" AA Holy China