Mind Over Matter: Billy Rymer

billy rymer

Pacing back and forth while trying to seem mellow, Billy Rymer can scarcely hide his disappointment that DRUM! already has a copy of The Dillinger Escape Plan’s new record, One Of Us Is The Killer.

The 28-year-old drummer was hoping it hadn’t been kicked out into the wider world just yet. Like a new parent, Rymer wasn’t quire ready to let go of this baby. “I’m my own harshest critic,” he says from his pad in the Washington, D.C. area, where he just moved with a girlfriend. “You can critique yourself until you go off the deep end.”

To prep for Dillinger’s upcoming tour, he has been playing along solo to all the stems from Killer several times a day during the last ten days or so. It seems like overkill. Having already committed 11 studio-caliber takes to pixels, how much more airtight can he get them? For the band’s resident mathochist, committing drum parts to memory is only half the battle. “There are things I want to change,” he says. “Stuff I already know I’m going to do differently. Like, I could have had some flair here or done this fill differently. I already know the song, now it’s just getting that intensity all the way through.

“Plus, there’s concepts I want to pursue that I should have gotten down with years ago,” he continues. “Like that whole Mike Mangini “ladder climb” four-way drumming, where it’s left hand/right foot, right hand/left foot, and played with accents in either triplets or fives or fours and just get fluid and comfortable with it. It really makes my mind tingle to do that exercise. Who knows where I’ll be with that in two months but hopefully I can apply it somewhere. Having said that my motivation now is practicing the s__t out of these songs so they crush live.”

Student Brofest

Touring the world leaves scant time for anything else, but Rymer refuses to be intimidated by a busy schedule: The more drum-related things he can cram into his daily existence, the better. He just started giving drum lessons via Bandhappy, the online platform recently started by a buddy, Periphery drummer Matt Halpern. Rymer is bringing two kits out on tour, one for the gig and another he can put dampening heads on to play in the trailer or somewhere in the venue. Lessons are paid for in advance through the website, and he can teach five or six students at once. It’s harnessing the power of the Internet but keeping the face-to-face model of instruction intact. “I’m really looking forward to teaching in person on tour,” he says. “I think [Bandhappy] is a great, organized service. It doesn’t create any awkwardness with money; that’s already sorted out for you. They do a direct deposit in your account.

“It’s well deserving of their cut,” he continues. “They’re putting a lot of time and money into this to make it the ultimate online music service that’s probably going to get pretty massive in the next ten years.”

We saw this coming. Rymer was giving lessons at the DRUM! booth on a Warped Tour stop a few years ago not long after we profiled him for the April 2010 issue. Sweaty and exhausted after Dillinger’s set, the drummer braved the scorching sun to deliver a scintillating demo of chops and trigonometric beats to passers-by and offering tips. But the impromptu lesson wasn’t just him doing us a solid – this is what he likes to do.

Parlaying downtime on the road into an educational and moneymaking opportunity is one thing, but Rymer is after something simpler: working with friends in a family-run business. When Dillinger shared the stage with Periphery during the band’s previous tour cycle, Rymer and Halpern hit it off, hanging in each other’s hotel rooms, swapping licks, and trying to out do each other. You’ve heard stories like this before, but what started out as a casual bro-down became a business model. “The cool thing about that whole time was that I have never been more warmed up before going on stage because we would just nerd out on pads. ’Check out this flam-a-macue.’ It’s exciting when you vibe with people like that.”

Then there are Rymer’s drum clinics, which have been more frequent in Europe than in the U.S., but that’s hopefully about to change with the help of a booking agent he recently tapped to help gin up steady work. Even so, clinics have to turn on a dime, taking place during a Dillinger tour on the day when the band is in town, preferably in the mid afternoon when kids are getting out of school and would be able to attend, yet leaving enough time for sound check later. Logistical nightmares that they sometimes are, Rymer is hooked. “I’ve learned more from [clinics] than most drum lessons I’ve had,” he says. “Hanging out and shedding, sharing ideas. I’m constantly like, ’Dude, what was that fill you just did? Hold on, I’m pulling up my iPhone. I got to get that.’

Crowd-sourcing the next drum phenom has been the paradigm for a few years now, but it’s also turning the education industry on its head, a development that Rymer finds it inspiring. He cites 23-year-old Matt Garstka and his YouTube video on beat displacement as one example of how the learning curve has gotten shorter and shorter. “That made me love that kid even more because at the time when I saw that video, I had been on beat displacement for maybe a month, and then I see him basically going through the exact examples I was.”

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Little Things Count

In the world of high-bpm drumming, volume takes a nosedive as the speed increases. Rymer was on a mission to defy the limits of human biomechanics for his second album with The Dillinger Escape Plan – or die trying. “After doing Option [Paralysis], I knew how I had to hit for this record, for it to translate, and for how Ben [Weinman, guitarist] works,” he explains. “There’s areas like, for example, in ’Understanding Decay,’ I had to make sure those ghost notes would have been heard on that middle section, and they are. But it’s like they’re pulled out a little bit heavier normally than I would. It’s a different technique than how I normally play ghosts but they’re heard and that’s the important thing. It’s more there. You’re going to hear it as it is.” Incorporating lots of snare hoop was another way he achieved cut. “A lot of those are rimshots,” he adds. “The have to be.”

It’s a little bit ironic that the drummer for The Dillinger Escape Plan urges his students to play as slow as possible. “Now, you might ask, ’What do you mean? You play such heavy, loud, fast music. Why would you be practicing soft?’ Just as a vocalist has to expand their vocal range, drummers absolutely have to do the same thing with their dynamics,” he explains. “It’s very important to go as loud as you can and as soft as you can and play everything within the couple of millimeters from the surface, whether it be a cymbal, a snare, or pad.

“Practice everything as if you’re in a restaurant and can’t bother people because they’re eating,” he continues. “When you do that, there’s a series of almost micro muscles that you develop that you’re not even aware of that utilize a specific function. When I would watch old-school Buddy Rich videos I’m like, ’Man, that dude had it.’ Playing so fast and precise and intense and yet be able to do it loud. By doing that, and by practicing soft and doing everything soft, it’s made everything loud that I do more controlled. Try doing a simple beat accurately and groovy at 50 bpm. Seriously, try that. It will drive you nuts.”

Breathing is another technique he emphasizes in his clinics. This yogic concept seems inappropriate for extreme metal. (How often do we see guys at the gym holding their breath while doing squats or lats?) But it’s a habit that any drummer who wants to increase stamina and control should learn to overcome, Rymer insists. “For instance, in ’Panasonic Youth’ [from 2004’s Miss Machine] there is one blastbeat at the very end that I have to breathe through,” he says. “I can’t hold my breath. It’s not going to come out the same.”

Musicians have to think big-picture, obviously, but Rymer’s job pushes him in the opposite direction: Inner space is where he finds the most potential for creativity. “I talk about recognizing the space in between the notes, and what it takes to get to those notes: There’s a kind of bubble around the click where you have freedom. The measurements are so small, but it makes a difference on how things land even though people think, ’Oh, it’s off the click.’ They look [at a ProTools screen] and they see a wave that’s right before the click. But then I’m, ’Okay. How does it sound?’ If it has a pocket, don’t quantize that.”

The Number Cruncher

Arguably the most well-rounded Dillinger record yet, One Of Us Is The Killer is chock full of the usual math-metal damage, a few mid-tempo bashers sporting singer Greg Puciato’s clean vocals, and even bits of EDM-style blurps such as the drum ’n’ bass intro to “Understanding Decay.” First single “Prancer” is particularly vicious. “We have to get the heavier songs out of the way before we do anything catchy,” Rymer says. “We put so much into 30 seconds. There are phrases and micro phrases and then nano phrases.”

Songs start with drum programming with Rymer and guitarist Ben Weiman plotting out exactly what happens beat-wise. Once they settle on the exact patterns, it’s tempo-mapped and gridded out. Only then does the drummer get guitar scratch tracks to start forging the blue print. “Sometimes it’s a total accident,” he counters. “People are like, ’Oh, they must have a formula,’ and it’s so funny whenever we hear that because there is absolutely zero formula to this band.”

Well, yes and no. Once Rymer and Weinstein start brainstorming it’s like a scene from A Beautiful Mind. “The very beginning [of the writing process] it’s Ben and I in a room, ’Okay, ’Now lets take off this first note, put the phrase here. Then it repeats there, but only play half the phrase over there, so the measure splits but it’s kind of similar to the first one,’” he says, illustrating Dillinger’s maddeningly intricate process, which seems random but isn’t really. “But that’s only how it would be with some tracks. I went to Ben with this one idea I had for ’When I Lost My Bet’ where I wanted to do this Glassjaw-meets-Meshuggah thing. It’s the most basic two-over-three polyrhythm – gak-dak-gagga-da-DAK, gak-gak-dagga-da-DAK – but just throwing in Dillingeresque accents. It’s just all these building blocks that accumulate. It can be painstaking but it works.”

Even so, there is still a lot of fusing together of different recorded scraps. “I make no apologies for that,” he says. “There’s definitely a good degree of coming in and grabbing certain things from different takes. I’m not shy about that at all because we want to get the best composite take for the record.”

It might be unrock-and-roll but the upside to the exhaustive preproduction with Weinman back in New Jersey is that the songs were basically done by the time they rolled into the studio in Los Angeles with producer Steve Evetts, who also produced the band’s previous album, Option Paralysis, as well as 2008’s Ire Works. Laying down the Killer tracks was like buttah in comparison. “When we were recording Option Paralysis, I felt like it was a degree of hazing,” he admits. “When we did tracks with [Evetts] before it was like, ’Do it again. Do it again.’ [laughs] I’m still technically the rookie, but this time he wouldn’t say anything and I’d be like, ’Is it okay?’ He’s ’Yeah, it’s good.’ And I’m like, ’Are you sure?’”

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Despite all the i-dotting and t-crossing in the studio and preproduction, a live Dillinger performance is a living, breathing, snarling, visceral thing. Counterintuitively, click tracks are used on the (relatively) slower songs. But for the staples of the live set, the really insane stuff like “Milk Wizard,” “43% Burnt,” “Gold Teeth On A Bum,” there’s no click at all. Depending on your point of view, this can be exhilarating or foolish. “Sometimes a train wreck is cool,” he says. “It’s just like, ’Whatever. That’s the end of the song. Goodnight,’ you know? The core of this band has always been a punk rock attitude, which basically means don’t give a f__k. There’s so many times that any rule I’ve ever tried to stick to far as technique is just thrown out the window when I get on the stage. At that point, it’s just survival.” [laughs].

billy rymer

Rymer’s Setup

Drums Tama Silverstar (Indigo Sparkle)
1 22" x 18" Bass Drum
2 14" x 5.5" Snare Drum (brass)
3 12" x 9" Tom
4 16" x 14" Floor Tom

Cymbals Zildjian
A 14" A Custom Hi-Hat
B 20" A Custom Crash
C 21" A Custom Hybrid Ride
D 19" Z3 China

Billy Rymer also uses Tama hardware including Iron Cobra Rolling Glide double bass pedal, Evans heads (Onyx series toms, ST Dry snare, Gmad Clear bass drum), and Pro-Mark 747B Super Rock wood tip sticks.

The same cavalier approach applies to kit configuration whether it’s deleting a tom, mounting a cymbal up high, or anything wacky. It all depends on Rymer’s mood on a given night. “Plus, I can’t afford to get used to a drum set that’s going to be set up the same way every time. Not when you have a bunch of monkeys in your band jumping all over your kit and throwing your cymbals off stage. Life’s too short. Why stress over that?”

Rymer Reason

Like its prog-metal peers The Mars Volta, The Dillinger Escape Plan is one of those bands that has a revolving door of drummers. First it was Chris Pennie, then Gil Sharone, both of whom have since become drum stars in their own right. As drummer number three, Rymer is hoping third time’s the charm. “I think I’m holding down the fort,” he says. “Overall that’s not up to me to decide, really. There’s never a perfect show, but then it’ll be better the next time. Ben will tell me straight up, ’What just happened?’ Not in a malicious way or anything, just like, ’Yo, nice one.’ And it hasn’t happened a lot, but it’s happened. In this band if you miss one note, it gets scary on stage. But it makes me feel better to know that it wasn’t just me. Just talking to all the band members I know that there’s been hairy moments with both the past drummers on stage. And they’re confident in me. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t be here.”

Playing in a band that requires such a consistently high level of focus and fitness, well, you kind of feel sorry for Rymer: Dude never gets to just sit back and groove – until now. The cheekily named North Korea is a totally random project that came together between the end of the last tour cycle and recording the new record. It started when a random musician in the neighborhood kept emailing the drummer music files, asking him to add some beats to it. The neighbor (who eventually became North Korea’s bass player) would do it again the next week, and the week after that. After showing the demos to a couple members of pop-punk band Envy On The Coast, things started rolling. “Before you know it we had an album, and then a show, then we’re signed to Triple Crown. It’s interesting how something that started out as an email chain could end up being a reality.”

Whatever genre North Korea is, it’s nice to have a break from the calisthenics – mental and physical – of Dillinger. “I can’t compare it to anything,” he says. “It’s a really cool sound. People will get it or they won’t.” North Korea have already sold out a show in Long Island and have another one lined up with a solid guarantee. Now it’s just a matter of juggling the extra-drumicular activities. “Working all this in and maintaining a relationship with my girlfriend is going to be challenging [laughs]. “I do feel some pressure but this is what I signed up for.”

Besides the headlining tour, Dillinger has been invited to perform at the VH1 Golden Gods with Metallica. You can’t deny a certain poetry in two generations of extreme metallers side by side at metal’s main awards show. For Rymer, it hasn’t quite sunk in. “That’s just weird to me,” he says, “but we take it all with a grain of salt.” The thrash-metal icons have their detractors, but in so far as athletic drumming goes, he feels a certain continuity with Metallica and his own band. “They started a movement,” he says. “That breakdown on ’One’ [from … And Justice For All ] – brrrh-dud-duh-DUH, brrrrh-duh-duh-DUH’ – that was the heaviest thing at the time. No one was doing that, so I’m definitely in the pro-Lars camp.”

Maybe today’s up-and-coming drummers are raising the bar at increasingly young ages, but Rymer knows the shortened learning curve would not be possible without the contributions of elder statesman such as Ulrich, Mangini (“He’s given so much to the percussion community”), or Buddy Rich.

If Rymer’s at the vanguard of the new instructor economy, a part of him hankers for traditional musician validation: “I’d love to go to Berklee if I could afford it.” At the same time, he has no interest in being a technician or, ugh, a pedagogue. The drummers who he connects with on a purely emotional level are as inspiring as the chopsmeisters. He was recently following drum forum threads bagging on Dave Grohl until he logged off in disgust. “It’s just some meme that’s going around. All I know is that I wouldn’t be playing drums if it wasn’t for Dave Grohl.”

Man With A Plan

Rymer is an advanced player in a cult band, rather than a good enough player in a commercially successful band (this is extreme metal, after all). But it’s a trade-off that he came to terms with years ago. “There’s enough money in the pool to keep going, but sanitation workers make more than us.”

And yet nothing could be more exciting that being in a band. “It’s just kind of like cabin fever right now,” he explains. “I’m dying to get on the road.” Option Paralysis? More like option kinesis for this well-rounded drum enthusiast. “I don’t know if I want to only be a drummer in the context of a band or just a teacher or what,” he says. “I don’t label myself any which way. I’d like to do it all.”

Outside of Dillinger, more solo and teacher-aided drum study is the primary objective. After that, audio engineering and editing, and, if he has the time or energy, film and video production. “I love making music and I’m going to do it regardless of who I’m doing it with, and I love who I’m doing it with. But I just plan on making music – even if no one hears it – until the day I can’t.”