John Stanier: High On The 'Hawk

john stanier

When we talk about chameleon drummers – players who blend into any musical situation – John Stanier is the first to admit he is not one of them. If anything he is an anti-chameleon. That sounds suicidal for someone who lives off his drums, but for Stanier it’s more like an endless opportunity.

Consisting of refugees from Jesus Lizard, Melvins, Fantômas, Mr. Bungle, and Faith No More, Tomahawk is an experimental rock quartet with a penchant for ironical things such as dressing like ’60s-era NYC beat cops. The band’s weird and catchy sides come together like never before on Oddfellows, once again finding a perfect home on singer Mike Patton’s Ipecac Records, and featuring the wistfully beautiful jam “Stone Letter.”

As a preamble to the March release of Oddfellows, Tomahawk’s got a short but manic schedule in the coming weeks: first it’s Voodoo Fest in New Orleans then on to Austin for the Fun Fun Fun Fest before Soundwave in Australia and then on to South America. “We’re almost touring backwards,” Stanier says, sounding awfully upbeat for someone who just got off a transatlantic flight. “Australia and South America used to be always toward the end. Those are like the vacation tours.”

Stanier’s musical zigzagging trickles down to his living situation, too, which he divides between Berlin and Brooklyn. “The two B’s,” he jokes. We suppose Brooklyn wasn’t cool enough, so he had to go bicontinental with a pied-à-terre in Germany. Typical.

“No, it’s exclusively a girlfriend thing,” he protests. “She’s not even German, she’s Japanese. She’s a tattoo artist. This is kind of a blessing in disguise. I need to work abroad for one, possibly two years, so she chose Berlin and, well, because I’m just touring so much anyway I’m like, ’That’s fine with me.’”

The Odd Squad

Stanier hadn’t thought much about his fellow ’Hawkers until Denison decided it was time for a quadrennial meeting of the minds. “Duane’s just like, ’Hey, everybody. What’s up? Got a whole new record here, I’m going to send it to you right now,’ like, out of nowhere. So it’s just kind of ’Alright! Yeah, let’s do this!’” For Stanier, this meant more or less coloring inside the lines of the demos that Denison sent, figuratively speaking. But within those “more or less” parameters is a decent-sized arena for Stanier to voice his drums.

“Tomahawk is a very cinematic kind of rock band, but at the same time kind of formulaic,” he says. “So it’s not Gentle Giant—style, anything-goes improv, but at the same time it’s not Oasis. It’s a gray area in between the two. So with the demos that Duane has it’s pretty obvious what you would do with them. But, of course, I can do whatever I want. It wasn’t like me spending weeks and weeks, like, ’Does a 7/8 beat work better over this than a 4/4 beat?’ or something like that. I don’t think any of our records have ever been like that. It’s kind of just like here are the songs – the blueprint that he gives everybody – and then we kind of just show up and bang it out, really.”

From the kick patterns to the drum tone, Stanier developed a signature style with Helmet, the band that kickstarted the whole “alt-metal” thing in the early ’90s when grunge was king and hair metal was the uncoolest thing in the world. After Helmet wound down, Tomahawk gave voice to another side of Stanier’s playing, albeit one that has cropped up infrequently over a decade and change of the band’s existence. “Definitely the beauty of Tomahawk is that obviously everybody else has other things going on but we just at certain points will be lucky enough to stop what we’re doing and everyone’s schedule works out right. We meet up and do another record, then tour a little bit, and then everyone goes back to what they were normally doing.”

Oddfellows was recorded at Easy Eye, the Nashville studio owned by The Black Keys. Stanier likened the two weeks spent there to a slice of analog heaven. “Just the whole vibe,” he gushes. “The gear that they had there was ridiculous.” Including a Quad Eight console hand-built in Nashville in the late ’60s. “It was the most relaxed, easygoing record I probably have ever done. When we showed up, it was like, ’Which vintage drum set do you want to use?’ That kind of thing [see sidebar]. We’re not a bunch of 20-year-olds that are doing this for the first time, we’re all much older than that, and we’ve been doing this for the better part of all our lives. We’re all pretty much from the ’80s/’90s school of recording, and it’s nice that that [older way of recording] still exists.”

Getting into the Tomahawk mindset isn’t easy after recording and touring extensively, mostly in Europe, behind two Battles albums. The bands share a certain wacko sensibility, but in terms of counting and time – a fluid concept in Tomahawk – they are worlds apart. “Coming from the Battles environment back down to Earth to do something like Tomahawk was – a challenge is the wrong word,” he says before a pause. “I’m so Battles brainwashed. It was really strange, recording without a click [for Tomahawk]. In Battles we don’t need a click but there’s a constant loop that I’m listening to which functions as a click. I’m playing off what the master loop is doing for each song, so it’s that sort of mentality and that way of doing the music, which we’d been involved with for so long now that [in Tomahawk] it was kind of like, ’Oh, it’s just like bass, guitar, drums ... ’Nah, we didn’t need a click track.’”

In fact, the band tried a metronome for a few songs on Oddfellows but then abandoned it because it didn’t feel right. “I was really into it,” he says. “As far as the drumming [in Battles], I can’t think of a single song where I’m not locked into some sort of loop, that everyone is triggering and playing off of, but with Tomahawk, it’s the complete opposite of that, so it took us two seconds to slip back into that world.”

The bipolar dynamic of Stanier’s creative portfolio is one of the joys of being, well, Stanier. “Totally,” he gushes. “I feel like that makes me maybe a better musician somehow. Or it makes me just enjoy playing music much more. I’m glad that I’m not in another band that’s like Battles, or another band that’s like Tomahawk, you know? I think that’s really great.”

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Mechanics Of Boom-Bap

For Oddfellows it seems that Stanier went out of his way to avoid clichés or do anything he has done before in Tomahawk. But he won’t take all the credit for that because it’s not something he plans – it’s just the way things work out. Take the broken triplet on “Rise Up Dirty Waters,” a song David Lynch will probably be trying to license for one of his films in the near future. “That was the hardest track to do,” he explains. “Simply put that was the ’jazz’ song. [laughs] I was an orchestral percussion major in college but my drum set education is limited. I’m more drum corps and orchestral percussion and playing to Sabbath and Rush in my garage. I can’t even play a basic jazz 101 ding-dinga-ding beat. I can’t do it. I can’t keep any time on my left foot or play my bass drum like it’s a tom. That’s just a foreign concept to me. I’ve never learned how to do it – it doesn’t interest me. So that song was just like a can of worms, like ’A jazz swing song? Ugggh.’”

Not that Stanier didn’t want to challenge himself, but a big-band beat is not how he would have gone about it if he had had the choice, which he didn’t. “It’s sort of what Duane wanted,” he says. “It kind of makes sense with the bass line and everything. That’s the other thing: What else am I going to play? It’s obvious. It’s supposed to sound like a really bad jazz band at a Cincinnati Holiday Inn in 1962 or something. In my opinion the sound is almost like [a bunch of] hacks. Then the chorus is almost a gospel sort of vibe we were going for. It’s supposed to be really dirty, gnarly, and drunk sounding.”

Stanier’s description could be a catch-all for what you end up with in the treasure-hunt writing process of Tomahawk: vague directives from the bandleader via email, like a conceptual-art prank or being in a band by proxy. Either way, it’s about as unrock-and-roll a way of doing things as possible. Take the gradually increasing tempo of “The Quiet Few,” for example. “That was already definitely written in there on the original demo,” he adds. “Somehow Duane figured out how to program his drum machine to get faster and faster,” Stanier laughs. “Basically instructions for that were, ’Get faster. Get crazier.’

On “Waratorium” Stanier does a cool open-and-closing splash-beat on the hats where’d you’d least expect it in the phrase, which gives it a wobbly feel even though signature-wise it’s straight as an arrow. “I remember playing that and being like, ’Wow, that sounds really weird, but it’s so easy to play.’ And it was the first thing that I played. It’s almost like if someone were to say, ’Make the open hi-hat part on 3 instead of 2,’ I don’t know if I would be able to do it. It’s one of those really weird, super complicated – well, kind of complicated – beats that I can play really well for some bizarre reason and I don’t know why. If I had to change it up I don’t know if I could, but I don’t care. That’s why I would be a horrible session drummer.”

Funny Stanier should mention session work. Though he has always been the drummer in the band as opposed to a drummer for hire, he is still down to play in friends’ projects whenever needed, like the handful of albums he did with Melissa Auf Der Mahr (Hole, Smashing Pumpkins). But there’s a wide gulf between the indie world and big-budget bands, even if the latter are a dying breed. “I’ve never had a producer call me up,” he says. “I almost feel like there are two kinds of drummers: There are drummers that are great because they can adapt to any situation whatsoever, I mean they’re chameleons. You know, the master session drummers like Steve Gadd and people like that who can adapt to anything. Bossa nova? No problem. Change this? No problem, boom-boom-boom. And then there are drummers that are totally stuck in their own style, but that style is so influential and so incredible that they don’t have to do anything else. You hear them on someone else’s record and you know which drummer it is. So it’s two totally different worlds.”

john stanier

The Accidental Beatsmith

Asked about influences, Stanier is perplexed. A self-described Rush fanatic, it’s hard to hear any obvious traces of Neil Peart in any of the drummer’s bands. He ticks off major “likes” including Holger Czukay of Can, ZZ Top’s Frank Beard, Nicko McBrain, Chuck Biscuits, the drums on Barry White and Ohio Players hits, and so on, but he’s not at all sure they shaped his playing in a meaningful way.

After wearing him down, he admits that Bill Bruford is a big influence on his playing. The thing that bugs him about the “influences” question, though, is that the drummers he digs are a very different animal from ones who have influenced his playing. He digs Joey Kramer but not, as we assumed, because of that drum-tastic intro on “Walk This Way,” Aerosmith’s most famous song.

“That’s hip-hop 101,” Stanier says of a tune that was in fact sampled by ’80s rap legends Run-DMC. “It’s so strange that in 2012, 2013 it’s almost impossible to pinpoint an influence because it’s like you’re being influenced by the 20th generation of an [already existing] influence. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m trying to think of something I’m influenced by which doesn’t have its origin in something else, but who cares? It’s all about what you get out of it.

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“To me, it’s like, Bonham is just a monster,” he continues. “A lot of people are like, ’That’s such a Bonham beat,’ when in reality it’s a James Brown beat – it’s just played much louder with rimshots with a 26" kick drum, and [Bonham]’s maybe one of the first guys to capitalize on all those backbeats, whereas I think Bill Buford is way more angular to me – almost accidently funky. He’s not as, like, obviously funky.”

If you listened to the last few albums from Tomahawk or Battles, you would never guess they feature the drummer responsible for the massive, funky right foot in Helmet. Moreover, the several references Stanier makes to his drum corps influence are startling because he is not a fancy-pants rudiment-oriented player. Only after a while does it emerge that he is talking about tone, not playing style. “My Helmet snare sound, which I guess is what most people made the most fuss about, is a combination of Bill Bruford and drum corps – that’s all it is. Just as high as the snare can go, zero padding, and just have that really super crazy ring to it.”

The whole bass drum foot thing has taken a back seat in Battles, but in Tomahawk there are remnants of Helmet’s loping pulse on open hats and powerful kick. “I think I have an average foot, maybe slightly above average foot, but I’m by no means Zach Hill.” Recounting the time Battles played with Hill (Death Grips, Hella, Wavves, Marnie Stern) he remembers watching from the side of the stage, incredulous. “’There. Is. No. Way. You have to have a double kick.’ That guy’s foot is’ ... That is a foot.”

Unsurprisingly, Stanier has never used a double pedal himself. “I’ve sat down behind Iggor from Sepultura’s set, like, ’Duguh-duguh-Dughah-dugah, ha-ha’ but I always thought that either I would totally abuse it, like use it all the time, or I wouldn’t use it enough.”

He also refuses to let equipment innovations dictate his approach, which he insists come from the imagination, not manufacturer catalogs. “By the time I ever thought to consider double pedal, it was so late in the game it was like why bother?”

Plus, the idea of accessories and extraneous percussion on the kit bugs him. “I don’t understand the drummers with all the weird little splash cymbals and all those sort of things that you’re going to hit maybe twice in a set.”

Onweird And Upward

An instrumental trio, Battles work a feverish tribal-tech groove, bridging the acoustic and electronic worlds, a trend that started with 2009’s Mirrored and which got downright bananas on 2011’s Gloss Drop. The pulse is drum machine—esque but with enough accents and random fills to feel human. There’s also a 2012 remix album Dross Glop, featuring cutting-edge DJs chopping up Stanier’s drum parts – a fairly meta exercise when you consider that his beats already evoke the proto-industrial sounds of Krautrock drummers, acoustic kit players who themselves experimented with tape loops. Phew! “Drum-wise Gloss Drop is my greatest achievement,” he says. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to top that.”

Battles are on the UK’s premier electronic dance-music label, Warp – best known for IDM icons Autechre, Aphex Twin, and Square Pusher, as well as glitch artists like Prefuse 73. But in the last few years the label has broken out of the EDM ghetto to sign the likes of Grizzly Bear and Mäximö Park, the sorts of bands you wouldn’t associate with a dance music label. “The owner is the coolest guy in the world,” Stanier says. “He was just in our guitar player’s wedding in North Carolina – they’re fantastic people. Like, right after hanging up with you I could go prank call him.”

Stanier has put all his eggs in the Battles basket – a daring gambit when you consider how uncommercial its sound is. The hipsters may have embraced them, but you can’t cash coolness at the bank. Then again maybe listeners, more exposed to adventurous music than ever these days thanks to video games and other niche platforms, are ready for it. After all, Stanier doesn’t see Battles as being a martyr to his art – it’s a smart and serious career move. “With Tomahawk we hadn’t done anything in a really long time. We’d been talking about it for a long time, but it was always just like, ’Yeah, sure, let me know when you want to do something.’ So, yeah, Battles takes up all my time for sure.”

Stanier doesn’t even speak to any of the members of Helmet anymore except for the original bassist, Henry Bogdan. Even though the band technically still exists, it’s not the same as in its ’90s heyday when four preppy guys stripped metal of all its nonsense with the hard, angry sound of 1991 debut Strap It On; 1992’s breakthrough Meantime; and the ambitious Betty from 1994. As clean cut and conservative as they looked, Helmet was more playful than all the grunge bands with whiny lead singers. Aftertaste, the fourth and final record to feature Stanier on drums, is today dismissed by the drummer even though (we think) it’s still totally decent and sounds like Helmet, but yes, started to feel slightly like a retread. “That was half-assed,” he says of the album. “That record was kind-of embarrassing, actually, but I am extremely proud of the first three records.”

Needless to say, the chances of a reunion with the original guys are slim to none. “Is it just me or is it like so many bands are getting back together? It’s this in-vogue thing to do that’s become so common place. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I think The Pixies sort of spearheaded it. They were the first really big old band, and that really worked. I guess [a reunion] just never even occurred to me. It was an amazing time, but I don’t think everything has to come back. I think sometimes things have much more integrity if they’re left alone.”

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Easy On The Ears: Engineer Collin DuPuis

Since it opened two years ago, there’s been more than a dozen acts that have recorded at Easy Eye, the Nashville studio that has gotten red-hot ever since its owner, The Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach, cut a record there with New Orleans keyboard legend Dr. John last year.

Tomahawk is not the blues and soul stuff most people associate with Easy Eye, but the band had an in thanks to guitarist Duane Denison, who lives fulltime in Nashville, and wanted to lend the studio’s imprimatur to his own project. “He’d pop over every once in awhile to see what was going on,” recalls Collin DuPuis the studio’s full-time engineer.

Tomahawk’s love of earthy, dirty sounds made it a natural fit at the studio. “They were all easy to work with and it got tracked really quickly,” DuPuis says. “The mixing process was a little bit longer –12 or 13 days – and tracking was like six or seven days.”

Oddfellows was an exercise in time-tested recording techniques. After laying down guitar, bass, and drums – played live, all in the same room –DuPuis did guitar overdubs and then Mike Patton did his vocals. “There’s some bleed [of guitars] onto the drums but not a lot because John plays really loud – he’s a very powerful drummer. There was some bleed in the overheads but it just created ambience for the guitars, and Duane doesn’t play a loud guitar … it helps create the space around it, which is something missing on a lot of modern rock records.”

Speaking of bleed (or lack thereof), the same mike setup was used for every song: close-miking on toms and snare using both Shure and Electro-Voice dynamic microphones. For the overheads, DuPuis hung a pair of ’60s Neumann-Gefell RFT CMV-692s (“They look different but the internal electronics are basically Cam 84s<

Stanier tracked on a Slingerland/Ludwig mongrel of mismatched colors and eras for that pawnshop drum sound. The pièce de résistance was a 14" x 8" Leedy-Ludwig from 1949, personally owned by DuPuis who, not surprisingly, is also a drummer. “It’s all wood with gold wrap that I got for like 60 bucks 20 years ago,” he says. “I realized 15 years later what it was and was like, ’Oh, my god.’ It’s the best-sounding snare drum that I’ve ever heard … it records really well. For the more lower pitched snare sounds you hear on the album, it would be that one.”

The gear talk is ironic coming from a guy who downplays the equipment, or who on principle at least, intends for it to be secondary to the music. “As far as records, I don’t see the benefit in spending a full day on snare drum sounds. A lot of producers or engineers will do stuff like that, but the drummer gets bored. The other members get bored. They just want to play – that’s what they come here to do. I have a very old-school aesthetic of ’Hey, let’s cut this as quickly as possible and still maintain the energy and sound you’re trying to get at.’ Plus, it’s a lot cheaper for the band if we don’t spend all that time.”

john stanier

Stanier's Tomahawk Setup

Drums Tama CUstom Artstar II (Ol' Yeller Finish)
1 24" x 18" Bass Drum
2 14" x 8" Brass Snare
3 12" x 10" Tom
4 13" x 11" Tom
5 16" x 16" Floor Tom

Cymbals Zildjian K
A 14" Hi-Hat
B 18" Crash
C 20" Crash
D 22" Ride

John Stanier also uses Tama Iron Cobra pedal and hi-hat stand, Zildjian Session Master Sticks, and Aquarian heads (Coated Response 2, toms; Classic Clear tom resos; Superkick 10, bass; and Hi-Velocity or Triple Threat, snare).