Dan Whitesides: Pumping Power With The Used

Taye Drums

Back in junior high school, Dan Whitesides was pretty much a failure, a loser, a nobody with nowhere in particular to go. He couldn’t get a date with the ugliest girl in class. Food servers in the cafeteria laughed at his PBJ sandwiches. And when he tried out for the percussion chair in orchestra, of course, he failed.

“But I still played a lot!” Whitesides says exuberantly. “There was a point when I was in five bands at once and practiced ten hours a day. I would show up before anybody. I would watch DVDs. Everything from Dave Weckl to Tony Williams’ Lifetime to The Mars Volta. I would take what they did and sort of get inspired, really. I would watch or listen to great drummers, and catch the vibe more than what they were actually doing.”

No longer an abject failure, Dan Whitesides is the drummer for multiplatinum selling modern rock band, The Used. The band – which includes guitarist Quinn Allman, bassist Jeph Howard, and Whitesides (who replaced original drummer Branden Steineckert in 2006) – formed in Orem, Utah in 2001. The band has racked up one million or gold selling album after another, arriving at their latest release, Vulnerable.

Whitesides is the kind of drummer your geek orchestra conductor just wouldn’t understand. He plays it in the pocket, not quite polite, but totally foot-falling fast and demonstrative. He’s a classic rock pounder, his drums propounding deep power and warmth, which is also a trademark of his from-the-groin beats. And not confined by tradition, Whitesides plays with machine beats, robo synths, and programmed rhythms as easily as swallowing that PBJ whole.

There are sections in “I Come Alive” and “Hands And Faces” that sound like programmed drums. How did you get comfortable with those transitions?
Live, I just play over the top of it and turn the track down in my phones. In “I Come Alive” there’s a straight up electronic drum section, over which I play on my first tom and some double bass. I play a really quick robotic thing to match the electronic part. I am playing off it; I don’t try to replicate it literally. I try to hit when the electronic snare hits, and in between that I just do my own thing on the kick and snare. Even way back on the second album there are electronic drums. And I just sort of play over it. I play to a click on 85 percent of the songs live.

How did you become comfortable with the click?
Just knowing that I am a spazz and I can speed up any song at any time makes the click a lifesaver. I love playing to a click track and for some reason, it wasn’t hard for me to get used to it. In the studio you play to a click, so coming out live and playing to a click is easier for everyone really. For instance, if a song is at 130 we speed it up to 135 just to get more of a live feel to it. I count the songs off and control my click. I have a pad over there.

You play with a lot of volume and power but also smaller dynamics: cool rolls, things on the rims, you play with great dynamics. How did you develop those dynamic levels?
I honestly think it’s just paying attention to what the song needs and just the feel. I am heavy handed, that’s for sure. And I have a heavy foot too. I’ve been in 30 bands since I began playing. Country to rap to straight edge hardcore to everything in between. I’ve had people in the band say, “Hey, can you just lay back here or there?” I think it’s all feeling. You really have to feel what you’re doing. It doesn’t always call for major power.

Did it help you to play all these different styles?
It opened my mind. For a while I thought like a drummer: “I want to play the craziest things anyone has ever heard.” I want people to look at me. But after a while you realize you have to play what is best for the song. Now I pay more attention to the song, more than I ever used to. And that comes from being in bands that actually have songs with verses and choruses. It’s about paying attention.

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On “I Come Alive” as well as in “Give Me Love,” you play fast single stroke rolls and you’re very free with them. How did you develop those around the kit?
Wherever my hand is, I do the easiest way to get to the next drum. I train my left hand to do exactly what my right hand does. Normally people play with their right hand on the hi-hat. I switch it up and use my left hand, and the same with my left foot. I am not great with my left foot for double bass, but I can play a song with my left foot if I have to. I don’t need the right foot. So it’s trying to work both limbs equally. I could be a lot better at it though.

Do you practice that?
Yes, I practice it for sure. I don’t like it when my right pedal breaks, but it does – then I play with my left pedal. Great drummers can do everything ambidextrously. That’s an inspiration. I will practice rolls starting with alternating hands, back and forth. Instead of starting with my right, I will start with my left. I will do a roll with my left, then with my right, then switch it up. I bring a practice set out to gigs, I even use weights on my legs so my kicks will feel lighter; I don’t always do that though. I also play beats using every part of my body. The hi-hats and toms and snare and kicks are going at once. That’s helped me out a lot too.

You also play some really extremely syncopated beats in “Vulnerable” and “Kiss It Goodbye.”
It’s not straight 4 or 2 and 4, but very syncopated within the accents. That’s always a judgment call.

When is a syncopated beat the best thing for the song?
In “Kiss it Goodbye,” it sounds crazy, it’s not going to be on the radio. On songs like that I have more freedom to do whatever I want. The producer told me to go crazy there and I did. It launched the entire song. And you have to pay attention to the song and listen to everybody. If you listen to our last album, the B sides are a little crazy. But now with our own label we could do what we wanted. It wasn’t an issue.

You mentioned your general routine. How do you warm-up?
I go in an hour before we hit and practice on my pads with these huge marching sticks. I stretch with them too. Sometimes it’s hard, and I don’t feel like warming up, but most of the time I warm-up for an hour just playing super hard for ten minutes, then some light buzz rolls. I will always be somewhere warm. I just get my sticks and hit. I used to play along to songs but now I am more relaxed. I go in super relaxed and calm and warm up mellow. Just trying to keep it chilled so I am chilled when I get onstage, where everything changes. I will play paradiddles. I will do single strokes for ten minutes straight and you can really tell the difference. And I do lots of stretching of my entire body. I am all over the place so I try to stretch out my entire body.