Jeremy Spencer: Fists (And Feet) Of Fury

Jeremy Spencer

With Five Finger Death Punch crushing all contenders for the top spot in the modern metal arena, Jeremy Spencer is content to kick back and enjoy the high-octane ride — from the fastest seat in the house.

As a general rule, blistering double bass equals Billboard-chart kryptonite — you can’t very well dance to it, so the masses seldom embrace it. While it’s true that in the past, brutal bands like Metallica, Tool, and Slipknot have had a go at pummeling their drum machine–driven competition into oblivion, these names occupy the rarest of air. But soon, they may need to make room for another…

Spencer doing his best Uncle Sam impression during Five Finger’s recent trip to play
for the troops in Iraq.

With the release of American Capitalist — the highly anticipated third offering from the cacophonously catchy Five Finger Death Punch — metal is making a ferocious comeback. The record’s first single, “Under And Over It,” debuted at #77 on the Billboard Top 100 in mid-August. To put this in perspective, the only other hard rock bands — not even metal bands, mind you — in the top 100 for that same week were reliable mainstays Red Hot Chili Peppers (#81) and Foo Fighters (#91).

“We could have gone with something safer for the first single, but we wanted to come out swinging,” says an amped-up Jeremy Spencer, the man whose legs are responsible for the stampede-of-elephants-sounding barrage propelling the big vocal hook in “Under And Over It.” “Those double kicks in the chorus are so loud in the mix. It’s kind of neat to hear that pumping on the airwaves — it’s not really typical.” No kidding.

One of the more affable dudes in metal today, 38-year-old Spencer is a breath of fresh air amidst the suffocating seriousness that often permeates the genre. The lanky shredder — covered in long, dark hair and sleeve tattoos from neck to knuckles — effortlessly treads the line between cocksureness and self-deprecation. Case in point, Spencer’s description of the drum kit he has waiting in the “wings” from Ddrum for the impending American Capitalist headlining tour:

“Our stage is going to look like Times Square, all full of billboards with sponsors like Coca-Cola, so I’m having [the drums] wrapped looking like Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets — every tom will be like the Colonel Sanders guy except we’ve replaced his face with our Knucklehead character [Death Punch’s “mascot,” à la Iron Maiden’s Eddie or Megadeth’s Vic Rattlehead]. And I turned the letters around so instead of KFC it’s FCK. Scott Rockenfield from Queensrÿche is wrapping it for me. It could quite possibly win the award for stupidest drum kit of all time — I’m so excited about it.” [FFDP has since dropped this idea, apparently as soon the potential legal remifications were considered. —Eds. ]

When rapping with Spencer on the phone from his Las Vegas home, it quickly becomes evident that the thrash-master not only possesses a wicked sense of humor, but also a genuine appreciation for his station in life. He’s grateful to have gotten this far and he’s enjoying every second of it. In the calm before the record-release storm, Spencer exudes the positivity and enthusiasm of a guy who knows he’s got something really good in the hopper. And he just can’t wait for everyone — metal and non-metal fans alike — to hear what he and his crazy cohorts have been up to.

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First And Ten

“I love studying it — I’m a total dork,” Spencer sheepishly admits. No, the percussive powerhouse isn’t referring to plotting out the perfect drum solo, or honing his blazing double bass technique to an even higher level (if that’s humanly possible). Rather, Spencer is referring to the one activity that rivals his passion for drumming — football (the American variety). He’s so into the sport, in fact, that he aims to coach someday. “I’ve bought books on it. I love the small details that nobody really sees, like blocking techniques.”

Just don’t look for Spencer himself to be grinding it out on the gridiron anytime soon. “I stopped [playing] before high school,” he confesses. “Everyone else developed real big in their body and I didn’t, so I was getting smashed. And I’m like, ‘You know what? I can be in a rock band and still get the cheerleader.’” Sage advice for any conflicted teens out there — choose drums.

In Spencer’s case, the drums chose him. He grew up in remote Boonville, Indiana — situated just north of the Ohio River and neighboring Kentucky. With a population of roughly seven thousand, Spencer is quick to quip, “Definitely not the hotbed of music, if you know what I mean.” Luckily, he had the good fortune of growing up in a musical family — Spencer’s mother was a music professor (and ex-drummer) and his father wrote country songs. As far back as he can remember, Spencer was certain of his life’s calling.

Like many young rocker hopefuls his age, Spencer was an early enlistee in the Kiss Army. Around age six, his Grandmother bought him his first set of drums — a $79 kit from Sears. It wasn’t long before the budding basher was performing for neighborhood kids — complete with Peter Criss Catman makeup. “It was important to me to be as authentic as possible,” Spencer laughs. “I was into it. As far as I was concerned, I was a member of Kiss.”

One such concert ended with an adrenaline-charged Spencer chucking his sticks out into the audience and hitting his ever-supportive grandmother square in the head. “Not exactly a cool thing to do to the person who bought you your first drum kit,” Spencer laments. Though he’s quick to add, “She’s still alive, actually, so it didn’t affect her that much.”

Stints in the school band and drum corps followed, and while Spencer never really took to reading music, he credits these experiences as being vital in honing his stick work and improving his Kiss-fueled flair for theatrics. “You learn how to do some really cool visual stick tricks being in the drumline — I still use some of that stuff now.”

Game Changer

Undoubtedly, the most indelible impact on Spencer’s musical trajectory occurred when he heard Lars Ulrich’s punishing double-kick work with Metallica. “Master Of Puppets changed my life,” he says. “I was like, ‘Wow, listen to what you can do with your feet — I never even knew that was possible! Hearing Slayer’s Reign In Blood with Lombardo’s playing, and Charlie [Benante] from Anthrax — all those records were like a whole new world of drumming. At that point my passion shifted towards double bass and I made that my goal.”

It certainly didn’t happen overnight. Spencer spent years woodshedding before he was able to replicate the dual-kick licks on his favorite records. “One summer it just clicked,” he says with a snap of his fingers. “Then I started playing to a click track and it kicked in to where I could play the shredding double bass stuff in time — with groove and feel. It made me a better drummer and that’s pretty much where I am now. I’m constantly playing to a click during our shows — it keeps everything solid every night, no matter how much my adrenaline is going.”

While he had spent his teenage years cultivating the talent to back a legit band, Spencer soon discovered that it takes more than sick chops to break into the music business. He relocated to Los Angeles after high school and beat the streets, playing in struggling groups and lending his skills on session gigs for lesser-known artists. The determined drummer eked out a living working various day jobs — everything from construction to telemarketing — while pursuing his metal muse.

After getting what he thought was his first real big break, Spencer was quickly humbled. “I was hired to do a European tour with W.A.S.P. I remember rehearsing with them and being like, ‘Wow — sounds like W.A.S.P.! This is pretty neat.’ But it became pretty obvious that they didn’t want to do the work that it takes to bring in a new guy. The old [drummer] was calling, saying ‘I wanna come back, I wanna come back,’ so I was out after about two weeks. I never got to play with them live.”

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Touchdown

All of Spencer’s hard work and dedication finally paid off in February 2005, when a fateful classified ad put him in touch with guitarist and kindred spirit Zoltan Bathory. “It’s one of those stories — like M...tley Crüe — where we met through an ad just wanting to make songs that we liked,” Spencer says of the duo’s instant chemistry. “We weren’t getting the music that we wanted to listen to, so we just kind of did what we wanted. It turned out that we had learned so much from our pasts that it was pretty much dialed in and focused. We started tracking the first record before we even had a band.”

Embracing the (then) newfound power of social media, Spencer and Bathory began to share their vision — big, beefy metal songs, succinctly written with ample space for catchy melodies. “[The music] had hooks and it was pleasing to the ear and everyone who heard it gave positive feedback. We started getting a fan base on MySpace before we had a label or management or anything.”

The band was christened Five Finger Death Punch — an homage to Uma Thurman’s coup de grace martial arts move in Quentin Tarantino’s two-part opus, Kill Bill — and Spencer and Bathory began to flesh out the remainder of the group. They identified their ideal vocalist in Ivan Moody, a Denver native who possessed the ability to deliver a tough, guttural growl as well as triumphant, soaring melodies. Following a mere handful of shows, Death Punch’s grassroots following had grown to the size of a small army.

When it came time to sign with major label Prospect Park, Spencer and his bandmates had earned the rare privilege of maintaining full creative control over their sound and image. The Way Of The Fist, Death Punch’s debut, was self-funded and self-produced, with Spencer even handling editing duties in Pro Tools — a skill he picked up by creating his own collection of double bass–based drum loops called Extreme Metal Loops.

“Zoltan was showing me demos and I noticed that the drum source he had was wasn’t exactly amazing,” Spencer says sarcastically. “He used a combination of hip-hop loops and rock loops and he was like, ‘There’s no metal loops out there with double bass — you should totally make one of those.’ So I took a shot at it. It was a great learning experience for me. It still continues to sell to this day and I’m very proud of it.”

Go For Two

For Death Punch’s sophomore album, the band tapped producer Kevin Churko — an understudy of the legendary Mutt Lange — to help bolster their already formidable sound. The collaboration proved to be a match made in hard rock heaven, as War Is The Answer debuted at #7 on the Billboard charts — a testament to Death Punch’s growing mainstream popularity. Songs like “Far From Home” and a cover of Bad Company’s (ahem) “Bad Company,” enjoyed phenomenal success at active rock radio, peaking at #2 and #1, respectively.

At least some of this success can be credited to Spencer’s, dare we say, pop sensibility behind the kit. “I try and make drum parts hooky and catchy — kind of like a lead vocal. The song is always the most important thing and I just try to enhance what’s there. I never try to be a hot dog or show off. Sometimes it requires it — and that’s when I go to town — but for the most part, I just want hooks. You’ve got to have cake — you can’t just have icing. To me, Dave Grohl is the greatest hard rock drummer ever, because he really focuses on the song. ”

Having a successful record means a long tour cycle, and Death Punch spent the majority of 2009 and 2010 promoting War Is The Answer — including a ten-day trip to play for troops stationed in Iraq. “It was probably the best tour I’ve ever been a part of, because they don’t get entertainment,” Spencer says solemnly. “They’re out there, sacrificing under brutal conditions that nobody has a clue about — they think they do through the media and stuff, but when you really see it and you’re there, it’s an eye-opener. One of the planes we were in got shot at once or twice — and that’s customary for that to happen over there.”

When Death Punch takes the stage, it’s all-out war, and Spencer keeps a vigorous workout and stretching routine to ensure his body will live to fight another day. “It’s almost like glorified yoga,” he explains. “I get these hard foam rollers and I roll my muscles out on those — it keeps all the knots out and keeps me loose. I don’t warm up on a [drum] pad because you’re basically using your muscles the same way that you do in the performance — I think you need to counter the damage that you’re doing and work the opposite muscles to balance yourself out.”

In regards to tuning his tubs for the stage, Spencer likes ’em loose. “I’m a just-above-the-wrinkles guy — I just like the feel of it. I like low, beefy, ballsy sounding drums, but I use triggers to get that high-end click to cut through — especially on the kick drums. I play off the triggers too. I don’t kill myself all the time. You’ve got to pace yourself. The people that do what we’re doing at that intense speed … you’ve got to kind of learn to play off the feel of the sound. I’m not fully slamming. I don’t hit like Dave Grohl. That just doesn’t really work for Death Punch.”

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Capital Gains

When it came time to start tracking American Capitalist, Death Punch was ecstatic to once again work with Churko. “He’s another member of the band, man,” Spencer gushes. “It’s an invaluable asset to have him on the team.” The group set up camp at Churko’s personal studio — The Hideout in Las Vegas. By this time, all the members of Death Punch had relocated to Sin City, making the recording experience a relaxed one — which is just how Spencer likes it. Who wants to be sequestered in some exotic locale for months anyway?

“I’d go in — just Kevin and I — bang my stuff out [to just a scratch guitar and click track] then go home and shut it out of my brain. I try not to live through it the whole time, because you tend to over-think things. I want it to be pleasurable. I don’t want it to take me over. I prefer just going in individually and being able to come home and be with my dogs on the couch after I’m done, you know?” Spencer considers this for a second before adding, “Though I wouldn’t oppose going to the Caribbean and making a record there for a few months. In fact, let’s try that next time!”

For American Capitalist, Spencer made a concerted effort to let his fists do their share of the talking. “On the first two records it was more about footwork,” he explains. “I incorporate a lot more toms on this one — even Rototoms! We were joking about how cool it would be to do one of those big Keith Moon–style tom fills and Kevin’s like, ‘I have more toms out in the garage.’ So I was like, ‘Cool — let’s set ’em up!’”

Look no further than the title track for evidence of this new approach, where Spencer delivers a tom-centric, face-melting finish. “There’s toms for days on those fills! It’s almost like a drum solo outro. It’s kind of an homage to Neil Peart — it’s something he would do in my opinion. It’s even got splash cymbals in there!”

The up-tempo “Under And Over It,” is teeming with high-pitched toms darting in and out of monster fills. Many of these are meticulously placed over the top of Spencer’s precision kick drum attack, engaging all four limbs in full-on shred mode. “That’s mostly being done for sonic purposes, for weight. I’m not doing it to impress people. It’s just really noticeable if that low end goes away during those fills. If you’re off even a little bit it starts flamming, so you have to be locked.”

“Back For More” is similarly brutal and anthemic, with a Tommy Lee–esque, four-on the-floor pounder of a groove giving way to chest-thumping sixteenths in the refrain. “Coming Down” has Spencer juggling eighths and sixteenths in the chorus in tricky fashion. “That’s a really challenging song. There’s a breakdown in the middle before the guitar solo that’s nasty — there are some bizarre fills going on.”

But the piano-laden “If I Fall,” may feature Spencer’s most difficult drumming to date. “There’s a lot of double bass chops underneath drum fills that are hard to execute on that one, man. I’m proud of it. There are some nasty, cool counter-rhythms going on and a really cool ride pattern in the solo. To me — if Ray Luzier heard that track I’d think he’d go, ‘Cool! Right on, bro!’”

In addition to committing the bevy of new tunes off American Capitalism to muscle memory, Spencer is hard at work writing an extended drum solo for the unprecedented number of headlining dates Death Punch has on tap. It’s something he’s done before, but not quite to this degree. “I’m going to target five to seven minutes for this one. You know, drum solos are usually the time when people go get beers — I like them, but not your average person really. I’m going to try and make it so they can’t leave.”

Final Score

Armed with a new album brimming with cross-over potential, Five Finger Death Punch is poised to reach even loftier levels of rock stardom in the near future — which means Spencer’s dream of coaching football may be on the back burner for awhile. As a bit of a consolation prize, however, the aforementioned “Back For More” received the high honor of being featured on the soundtrack to Madden NFL 12 — the latest addition to the astronomically popular video game series that Spencer plays religiously at home and on the tour bus.

Just how excited was the NFL überfan about this bit of news? “I was totally stoked,” Spencer says, sounding like a six-year-old about to rock out in his Kiss make-up. “I was like, ‘We have an opportunity to do this? We have to make it happen.’” Now at least Spencer can virtually call the plays for his beloved Arizona Cardinals — all while soaking in the sounds of his own big-time rock band. Who says you can’t have your cake (and icing) and eat it too?

Next page: Jeremy Spencer’s Setup and a transcription of “Under And Over It”

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Spencer's Setup

Jeremy Spencer

Drums Ddrum Reflex
1 20" x 18" Bass Drum
2 14" x 6.5" Dios Cast Chrome Snare
3 8" x 7" Tom
4 10" x 7.5" Tom
5 12" x 8" Tom
6 13" x 9" Tom,br /> 7 16" x 16" Floor Tom
8 18" x 16" Floor Tom
9 20" x 14" Gong Drum
10 6" x 18", 6" x 20" 6" x 22", and 6" x 24" Deccabons
11 6" x 6", 6" x 8", 6" x 10", and 6" x 12" Deccabons

Cymbals Paiste Alpha Metal
A 14" Hi-Hat
B 20" China
C 17" Crash
D 18" Crash
E 10" Splash
F 8" Splash
G 12" Splash
H 19" Crash
I 20" Crash
J 20" Ride
K 16" China

Electronics Ddrum
L Dd1 pads

Jeremy Spencer also uses Ddrum hardware and pedals, Ddrum Dd1 module and Ddrum DRT triggers, Vater 5B wood tip sticks, and Evans heads.

Spencer’s Gut-punch groove

Let’s face it, Five Finger Death Punch is just a great name for a metal band. Luckily, there’s more than just a catchy moniker. Their brand of heavy yet catchy metal has gruff vocals interspersed with melodic sung parts to create a much broader appeal for their music. This sound helped them achieve early success that continues to this day. Cofounder Jeremy Spencer anchors the rhythm behind FFDP with his direct and very powerful drumming.

“Under And Over It”
The first thing you’ll notice on this track is the drum sound is absolutely huge, with lots of low end on both the kick and snare, the latter of which has with a lingering white noise tail after every hit that almost sounds like the decay of a China cymbal. These are obviously samples so some of the cymbal parts in this transcription are educated guesses.
Much of this track has a four-on-the-floor feel creating a sort of heavy metal house-music vibe that’s not entirely dissimilar from acts like Rob Zombie. Many girls will be groped and many wallets, cell phones, and shoes will be lost as FFDP fans crowd surf to this tune. At the chorus, Spencer launches into a double bass groove under the memorable melodic vocal section. Following this, the groove returns to the strong quarter-note feel that permeates the track. The transcription ends with an over-the-bar-line syncopated fill that moves around his kit.

DRUM! Notation Guide

Jeremy Spencer