Dennis Ryan: Infectious Grooves

dennis ryan

If you’re used to sanitized, predictable pocket, Deer Tick drummer Dennis Ryan will require an adjustment in your rhythmic expectations. The glorious garage-rock slop on previous Deer Tick album Divine Providence still drives the 24-year-old’s approach, he’s just managing the zone between tastiness and Zen simplicity way better on Negativity.

But Ryan isn’t as interested in reinventing the wheel as he is improving upon it. That was accomplished by being a better listener. “I guess it’s finding different hits that are highlighting but not trampling over melodies,” he explains on the phone from Providence, Rhode Island. “Maybe learning to play with the hi-hats a little bit more.” A great example of the latter would be the subtle sixteenth-note stabs on “Just Friends,” which fill the song’s wind-swept sparseness with just the right amount of tension. Hat work takes on a different meaning in “Mr. Sticks.” “I was messing around on the choruses for that one,” he says. “There was this John Coltrane record, Blue Train, and it’s Philly Joe Jones on the track, I forget which one. He flips it to eighth-notes so I guess the tempo becomes like a double time but it’s the same pattern. And I think that really interested me in the use of the left foot as a whole other aspect [of timekeeping], and that’s something that I’ve been working on a lot and couldn’t help but try to put some of that on the record, though I’m not proficient yet.”

As the album title, Negativity, suggests, what Ryan’s not doing is equally important, at least in “The Curtain” where he omits the obvious snare hit. “A drop in where [the snare hit] would normally be, just kind of sit out for a measure – kind of like a hip-hop drop – I really like that.”

Ryan stays out of the way of frontman Matt McCauley’s crusty croon, a must-do in Negativity’s Muscle Shoals—by-way-of-Memphis soul, especially on vocally dense numbers such as “In Our Time,” a duet between McCauley and Vanessa Carlton. The key difference is the drummer can embellish and be invisible. Or, as he says, “highlight musically what was going on while not necessarily being overbearing. Kind of choosing your battles.”

On Negativity, Ryan does a kind of reverse rhythmic illusion: sparse playing that’s slyly and subtly contoured. On the 12/8 of “Trash,” the beat’s ballad-like plod gets increasingly sophisticated and rock-y. Another example would be the Purdie-style shuffle in the verses of “Thyme.” “I like to feather [the bass] to a lot of vocal lines and I think that a lot of those [bass] thumps are almost a natural reaction to melodies. I like to highlight certain things a lot but then also, in the reverse of that, knowing when to tread on through.”

As organic as the drums are throughout Negativity, Ryan tastefully blends modern flourishes such as the echoing snare at the start of “Thyme” and the woodblockesque loop he plays to on “Mr. Sticks,” something he’d never attempted before. Sometimes, though, nothing else will do but a grand rock gesture such as the tough, swagger-y fills that open up “The Curtain.” “I guess that’s what I mean by ’choosing your battles.’” [laughs]

Ryan’s idiosyncratic means of mastering a time-tested jazz and rock vocabulary owes something to a formal education crossed with his own instincts. “One thing that was interesting about this drum teacher I had was [the way he put] emphasis on how I would do things naturally. And so a lot of that had to do with right-hand dominance … where the left hand was basically responding to the right hand. And so I got really interested in kind of mirror-image drumming or trying to set stuff up forward and backwards. It was Jim Chapin I guess who had all those circular rudiments which are really cool.”

Equalizing the strength of right and left hand, and producing a correspondingly equal volume from each, was a priority for the match-grip player who nonetheless complains that his right hand tends to have a semi-French grip. “I had a really funny conversation while I was painting the garage with my father,” he recalls. “I know that my left hand and right hand have very different grips but I’ve just been working on the fact that they sound good and that’s been working out for me right now.”

That same lack of symmetry applies to the feet. On the energetic right foot at the end of “Pot Of Gold,” he plays heel up. For the beginning part of “The Curtain” it’s heel down, he says, but the rest of the time it’s not a strictly either/or scenario. “It depends on what tempo, too, because then sometimes I can do a heel-toe type thing.”

Although Ryan was listening to a lot of bebop and Steely Dan during the recording of Negativity, it was the drums on Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall that spoke to his inner groove-monger: “J.R. Robinson’s drum lines are always dope and he has some of those feathering, extra thumps [on the bass drum], but then there’s times when he’s just boom-PAH boom-PAH straightforward as you can get but it feels so great.”

As is so often the case, it’s the tedious routines that help drummers the most. Ryan actually started practicing to a metronome since the new tunes were in the can. “It’s actually been a lot of fun,” he says. “That maybe helped with consistency.” Note that we said practicing to a click. The metronome was only used on a few songs during tracking in the studio in Portland, Oregon, because he wanted Negativity to have that honest-to-goodness human feel. But he’s now learned to internalize time well enough you would be forgiven for thinking that the click was used on all of them. “I got a new drum set recently too and so I’ve been trying to kind of revise my entire approach and part of that is getting comfortable with a click track.”

Practicing to a metronome is also Ryan’s way of hedging against the natural tendency to speed up live. Next time the band is 25 shows deep into a tour, he will be confident he can hold the band together without incorporating the click into live performances, which he considered but ultimately rejected. “Live, there is a lot more energy and if that pushes up the time a few beats that’s not necessarily a huge deal, just as long as it’s consistent [from night to night].”

The Deer Tick drummer is probably one of the few guys in music you could add the modifier “just” before his title and he will take it as a compliment. Subordinating drum artistry to the vision of frontman McCauley is not a problem. If he can bring that vision into sharper focus by underplaying here, accenting there, or trying a post-production trick somewhere else, then he is fulfilled. “Whoever’s bringing the song to the table will have a decent idea of what they want it to be and just have faith that the rest of us will let it breathe, and I think that this is the best effort yet of letting said stuff breathe.”


Band Deer Tick
Current Release Negativity
Age 24
Birthplace Pawtucket, Rhode Island
Influences Steve Gadd, Bernard Purdie, Elvin Jones, Jeff Porcaro
Web Site


Drums C & C
Cymbals Istanbul Agop
Sticks Vic Firth 5A, 7A
Heads Remo
Hardware DW, Yamaha

dennis ryan

Deer Tick

The opening track on Deer Tick’s latest twang-tastic effort is dubbed “The Rock” – which could also serve as a fitting nickname for drummer Dennis Ryan. On Negativity, the ox-like timekeeper establishes a commanding groove and locks in, eschewing superfluous embellishment. Case in point: the aforementioned number finds him sticking to kick, snare, and ride on a repetitive 6/8 stomp, his lone diversion being a solitary mid-song crash that explodes like a mushroom cloud o’er the hypnotic pattern. He continues to play it strong and spare on the Springsteenesque “The Dream’s In The Ditch” – a bittersweet pop hit surprisingly bereft of cymbals. Recalling the patience, weight, and certitude of Full Moon Fever/Travelling Wilburys—era Jim Keltner, Ryan holds steady on a chugging train beat, setting up choruses with powerful eighth-note builds. His simplicity clearly doesn’t stem from inability, however. On the cathartic “Pot Of Gold,” Ryan unleashes a wicked, kit-spanning triplet fill before exploring a bevy of feels during the penultimate number’s atomic, drawn-out climax – a satisfying conclusion to a resolute percussive performance.

Quick Licks

“The Curtain”

Dennis Ryan gets to show some of his chops on the intro of Deer Tick’s song “The Curtain,” soloing between hits and creating an exciting drum feature to start this song. His groove is pretty unorthodox. Here he uses a sparse linear pattern that makes great use of space and is vaguely reminiscent of Ringo Starr’s classic groove on The Beatles’ ballad “In My Life.”

DRUM! Notation Guide

dennis ryan