We’re Talking Fast: Extreme Metal Roundtable

In the high-stakes world of extreme metal, how fast you are matters a lot. When we sat down with Matt Byrne of Hatebreed, Derek Kerswill of Unearth, Chimaira’s Andols Herrick, and Cannibal Corpse shredder Paul Mazurkiewicz, we knew these blasters would have a thing or two to say on the topic. Turns out there’s a lot more to the speed game than bpms. Read on to see how the fearsome four blew our minds.

DRUM! You guys can all play fast, obviously, but how did you achieve that kind of speed?
Herrick I made the horrible mistake of when I got my first double-bass pedal when I was, like, 13 I just instantly wanted to play along to Metallica and Anthrax CDs [pats thighs fast but awkwardly]. Absolute garbage. [laughs] So I kind of forced my way into catching up a little bit. But in the process of doing that you never learn control, and that really hurt me down the road. You never realize that when you’re young. You just want to rip it out right away and you don’t actually take the time to develop control. It can come back and bite you in the ass.
KERSWILL What I’m noticing with kids these days is they’re bypassing the fundamentals and going straight to speed. They’re so worried about speed and it’s, “Dude, this appeals to such a small contingent of people.”

DRUM! Live, there are guys who come charging out of the gate and guys who get faster later on in the set.
BYRNE Yeah, and I think everybody’s different. I just always gauge warm-up/preshow/whatever you want to call it by how much work I’m actually going to be doing, because it is a physical thing and a mental thing, and to kind of prepare and get yourself into that spot, you know? When we’re in a slot where we’re only playing 30—35 minutes a night I find by the end of the set is when I hit my stride. I just played 35 minutes and I barely broke a sweat. Whereas if you’re playing an hour-15, you really got to get the engine running, so by the time you start, you’re in your stride.
KERSWILL I feel that. Mental state and being as relaxed as possible is one of the most important things for developing speed.
MAZURKIEWICZ You have to be relaxed or you’re not going to make it through a whole show, let alone a song, so obviously you’re training your body to play the speed the way you have to do that, but it’s crazy. Getting back to what you were saying [pointing to Kerswill], I’d like to touch on that they’re starting running already. You got to walk before you can run, and all these drummers are starting running at full speed, you know?
KERSWILL Absolutely. One of the main things that he said [pointing to Herrick] about control. I tell kids all the time: proper meter, that’s the most important thing, because you can screw stuff up at 150-plus and no one knows. You screw something up between 60 and 80 bpm, you hear every fluctuation. BYRNE Yeah.
KERSWILL So you want to impress me? Play “Fool In The Rain” [from Led Zeppelin’s In Through The Out Door]. That’s 65 bpm. I bet they can’t do it. “Fool In The Rain” always gets people. That shuffle ...
BYRNEYep.
KERSWILL So, that’s where the baby steps come into play. [Pointing at Mazurkiewicz]. You didn’t just start playing fast. [Pointing at Byrne] You didn’t just start playing fast.
BYRNE No way.
MAZURKIEWICZ [To Herrick] It’s a good thing you mentioned the control thing because I’m probably a prime example of someone who was thrown into it, really trying to go beyond my abilities when I was younger and I learned control later on. I wish I would have started out trying to learn that control earlier but I was too fixated on the speed aspect, so I just worked on what I had to do to play fast, and like you said, you get into the bpms up there, you’re not going to tell the difference too much [if you make a mistake]. You can get through and you can fumble through, but it’s not good and I feel like it’s something I had to work on, especially for Cannibal when we started writing some slower stuff and it had to be solid, otherwise it’s just not going to sound right.

DRUM! Did click tracks force you to speed up or slow down?
BYRNE I think it makes you slow down, because with Hatebreed, the faster stuff, like recording when it’s just a click track and me, I know the parts and when I actually hear the click to what I have to play to, I notice that I was thinking way to fast about it.
KERSWILL Probably rushing it.
BYRNE No, not while I’m playing it, because then I’m locked in with the click. I’m saying …
MAZURKIEWICZ You were already ahead mentally.
BYRNE I’m already ahead mentally, because when I hear the actual click I’m supposed to be playing to, I’m, “Oh, this will be easier than I thought.”
MAZURKIEWICZ I think that’s key, to play to a click track. Something I wish I would have done ten years ago. If you really listen to the older CDs, we’re playing faster but it was this uncontrolled ... I’m sure there’s a lot of fluctuation.
KERSWILL Which is fine because it’s the feel. A good reason why we play drums is feel.
MAZURKIEWICZ Right, right – but when playing to that click and having to be so consistent and right on it was harder to play a little bit slower to that click track. I can play faster, but am I really having that consistency? That control?

{pagebreak}

DRUM! Is it important to develop certain muscle groups in order to play faster?
KERSWILL All I try to do is [work] my tibs a little bit, because that seems to be the portion that fatigues the fastest in terms of when you have to do really fast stuff. Other than that, like with the calves? I think that would be detrimental because you’re just adding weight. You want to target the ankles more than your legs. Your legs shouldn’t be moving that much at all.
HERRICK I think it’s better to just have your calves stretched out and relaxed since they’re kind of the antagonist muscle of your anterior tibialis on the outside and to have this [pats his calf] looser will make this [pats his shin] function better.

DRUM! I heard from a super-fast player that the bigger you are – I’m talking muscle development – the harder it is to move around the kit. Is that true?
MAZURKIEWICZ You don’t see that many big—shouldered guys that are going to be that nimble around the kit, but there are some big guys that are super fast. Tony Laureano [Nile, Malevolent Creation, Nachtmystium], Gene Hoglan [Dethklok, Fear Factory], these guys are big guys that – and they’re not big-muscle guys – they’re just big guys and they move. I mean, it’s unbelievable watching these guys, how fast they are, and how quick they are. You just don’t expect it to be that way. And I know both of those guys don’t to that much training at all. I know Hoglan used those ankle weights for a long time, but other than that …
BYRNE It’s a weird thing. It’s like heavyset guys are great drummers.

[group laughter]

DRUM! So foot speed comes from ankle and shin muscles, but where does it come from in the upper limbs?
HERRICK I think it’s a combination of wrist and fingers, and it transfers more to fingers the faster you go. But then again, that’s not true of everybody. I’ve watched videos of Derek Roddy blasting and it’s, like, just his hand moving. He says he’ll go back and forth – when his wrists get tired. He’ll go to his fingers. And from his fingers, back to the wrist. I can’t play that fast with just wrists, you know? And then you got guys doing the Moeller technique and other kind of hand techniques. That stuff I don’t know, really.
BYRNE Yeah, especially with Hatebreed, where your right hand is cranking the entire set on the hats, I found you reach this point where it’s just a stick-control thing where the stick is in your hand, but you’re not really gripping it. You’re kind of just letting it bounce off the back. You have your pivot point here and it’s just bouncing off the back of your hand and you’re just kind of churning butter with the rest of your arm.

DRUM! Do you guys all use triggers live?
KERSWILL Not me, I’m adamantly opposed.
BYRNE Well, it’s funny. The reason I started using them was because my singer, he seems to have trouble hearing things on stage. It’s more of a benefit for him I think because a lot of the Hatebreed stuff doesn’t really go over 170, I don’t think.
KERSWILL [pointing to Herrick] And I think that’s why you guys started using them, too, was for monitoring purposes.
HERRICK Monitoring’s big and it was just one of those things where the consistency was like a frat house band.
BYRNE There’s some stigma, and I’ve realized with playing around with them I take that back – I was just being ignorant. The guys that trigger, I see why they do. It does serve a specific purpose. It’s not like a cheat, because you still have to play.
MAZURKIEWICZ There are cheats, but you guys are using it for the right reason, you’re not trying …
KERSWILL There’s triggered drums I’ve heard: drdrdrdrdrdrdrdrd ... and there’s no power behind what they’re doing. No consistency at all.

DRUM! Conventional wisdom is that as strokes get faster they’re less powerful, but does that always have to be true?
HERRICK I think to an extent. I know there’s guys like George Kollias from Nile who’s all about hitting hard all the time. I’m not that guy. As I get faster I want to be relaxed and let the amp do the work on that end. As long as it’s clean I’m happy.
KERSWILL I’m getting the faster speeds and still play with consistency without triggers, but I just love natural tone. I don’t prefer the fakeness from a sound perspective.
DRUM! Does tighter head tension improve speed?
KERSWILL No, my whole thing is I want to dig in on the grooves and make them as heavy as possible. I can’t deal with the bounce. I want that attack.

DRUM! Matt and Paul, I know you have looser tension. Doesn’t that make you work harder to play fast?
MAZURKIEWICZ I’ve always had a looser tension and I guess my body is just … I’ve dealt with it. I’ve adapted to it.
DRUM! Andols, so you’re the only player here who plays tightly tuned heads. How come?
HERRICK We have a lot of parts that are faster – or start-and-stop stuff – and if my heads were too loose I wouldn’t get the response and I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. Like, we had a problem a couple shows ago over the course of the tour where my heads got looser and looser and I didn’t really notice it until we started playing. I’m like, “This feels like I’m hitting marshmallows.”
KERSWILL Yours [pointing to Byrne] were a little tighter than I expected. When I play a groove and I’m really laying in, I let it sit in the head.
BYRNE That’s what I was just going to talk about. Sorry, go on.
KERSWILL So I don’t want the bounce-back. I want to be able to have the natural feel, and sometimes when I’m hitting heavy grooves I almost stay in the head itself. So if it’s too tight it’s going to bounce back at me and I’m going to have less control.
BYRNE I do the same thing. And when you lay into it and leave the beater against the head you get that little bddrrrrrrr. And that feels weird coming from the pedal into your leg. Almost like a buzz.

{pagebreak}

DRUM Do any speed drummers do double-strokes with the bass beaters, like a roll? Like a short cut to high bpms?
MAZURKIEWICZ There are. There is a technique for that. Different kinds of techniques for getting a double stroke out of that. Foot to heel …
HERRICK Guys going upward of 200 bpm, I’ve seen them doing this [mimics fast heel-toe motion].
BYRNE It’s almost like a conga player.
KERSWILL That’s basically what it is.
MAURKIEWICZ There’s crazy techniques for double bass. That gravity-blast thing …
HERRICK That’s another “no power” thing. It sounds impressive. You bounce it off the rim.
BYRNE It’s basically a Johnny Rabb stick-trick-type thing, right?
HERRICK I forget who I saw. Some guy doing it, like, one-handed on a ride cymbal.
MAZURKIEWICZ Big Canadian thing. Lot of the Canadian bands seem to do that.

DRUM! Did Johnny Rabb kind of start that? Seems like a free-hand thing.
HERRICK I don’t know if he invented it . . .
KERSWILL It wasn’t being applied to metal then either. He was just doing it as an exercise. I think that dude just has so much time to be a drummer and develop things, where we’re like, ’Oh, we got tours. I need sleep.’ We’re driving thousands and thousands of miles. I would love to create some kind of technique for kids to get into.

DRUM! Do you think you’ll reach a point where you’re over speed?
HERRICK I’m not. I would love to be faster, but it’s just another tool to have in your arsenal. That’s all.
KERSWILL I wouldn’t say I’m over speed, but I’m over speed as the only element of your playing. Like, just concentrating on speed. We all need to play fast and improve on that. I’m fine with that. I need to do that and I’m a more confident drummer because of that. I’m just saying don’t use it as the only tool in your playing.
BYRNE I think it’s part of development, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you focus on. Like [looking at Mazurkiewicz], watching the DVD with your new album. The one tune you were tracking – I don’t recall – but it was like, “Yeah, this is going to be one of the first tunes where I’ve gone over 200,” or 210, or something like that?
MAZURKIEWICZ Yeah.
BYRNE So, for you guys who have been a death metal band, you’ve always been fast and so that’s like a milestone for you and you’ve been developing that forever. But there are guys now that are like 280 right away, and that’s all they want to do, so obviously that wasn’t all you always wanted to do.
MAZURKIEWICZ Yeah, exactly.
KERSWILL That same thing happened to me with the Unearth record [2008’s The March]. “I’m going to try to play 200 bpm. Like, okay, got to do it.” And I worked on it, and I did it.
MAZURKIEWICZ I think that’s the thing with a lot of the speed drummers – they’re so interchangeable. It’s like, who’s playing drums? You can’t tell. And don’t get me wrong, they’re phenomenal drummers, but there are many drummers that sound alike. They have no individuality.
KERSWILL One of the greatest things I ever read was when Bill Ward took lessons for, like, eight months when he was 42, and finally he got fed up with it – “This sucks, I hate it, I can’t do it. I’m done.” And the teacher goes, “Excuse me, but are you Bill Ward of Black Sabbath?” He’s like, “Uh, yeah.” Then the teacher goes, “Then just be Bill Ward from Black Sabbath. None of us sitting here play the same thing, and that’s a beautiful thing. I don’t want to be like any other drummer. Just be yourself.