Xavier Muriel: To Project And Serve

xavier muriel

With Confessions, Buckcherry’s most ambitious album yet, drummer Xavier Muriel is back to preach the gospel of real American hard rock. Despite the album’s heady concept, Muriel continues to deliver the pile driving beats he always has – and maybe a few surprises along the way.

Backstage at the Knitting Factory in Spokane, Washington, Xavier Muriel feels like a man waking up from a dream. Seems like just yesterday he was in the turmoil of the studio, trying a new beat here, and doing a retake on some track that didn’t have a name yet, just living in the creative moment. That in roughly two hours the 44-year-old drummer will get to sit down and play what only last week was a random bit of inspiration, is tripping him out – like reality finally caught up with imagination. “It was no holds barred,” he says. “I mean, it’s always been like that with this band but at the time my head space was like, ’Maybe if we change a kick pattern here, or if I did a sixteenth note thing there, I could make it better.’ I’d go back and listen to verses and choruses over and over and just try different beats to see if they work with it. It’s really weird, man, when you get really deep into writing a track, and I think that whole thing has been kind of lost lately in music.”

From Sinners To Winners

Buckcherry recall the best of the FM dial in the seventies and eighties, a guilty pleasure that evokes a summer night with a six-pack in the back of a Trans-Am with a pair of blown tweeters. No sooner is vocalist Josh Todd playing the gravel-voiced hellion, ready to do damage, than he becomes a soft-lit balladeer reopening his wounds. Confessions, the band’s sixth full-length release, is easily their most wide-ranging, veering from Aerosmithesque funk-boogie (“Wrath”) to dramatic soaring strings (“Sloth”). It’s the whole big-rock circus wrapped in an allegory based on medieval Christianity’s seven deadly sins.

And because the Cherry are a composite beast, it gives Muriel room to play with different drum feels. “When you create music and you go into a recording situation you’re always going to have varying opinions. ’Try this or try that.’” In Muriel’s case, it was Buckcherry guitarist Keith Nelson at the band’s studio in Los Angeles, and later, producer Marti Frederiksen, who did the drums in Nashville. Luckily for Muriel (or is it unfortunate?) Frederikesn is a working drummer and Nelson started his music career on drums so, uh, lots and lots of opinions were aired. ““It was kind of intimidating sometimes where I’d have two guys coming at me and I’m like ’Whoa, wait a second,’ you know? But that’s great, because all that does is basically push me to do the best tracking that I possibly could.”

Confessions’ heady religious themes, which Todd is adapting to a screenplay for an upcoming film, have no bearing on Muriel’s parts, but at this point in the band’s career the topic seems predictably grandiose: The fruits of success, show biz’s dark heart, blah-blah. Maybe the singer stepped back to assess the life he has chosen. Perhaps he even sees personal travails in Biblical proportions. Whatever it is, it’s Todd’s trip and Muriel is content to leave it at that. Ironically though, the music was jammed out first with Muriel and Nelson – the “seven sins” device only emerged after Todd got the demos. It is as if, Muriel posits, the dark, angry direction of the music put the singer in an existential state of mind.

The mood of Confessions is more nuanced, less party-rock-kick-it-to-11 like previous album All Night Long. Muriel wrote his drum parts accordingly. “Creative kick and snare patterns are everything,” he says. “That is what drives the song. The difference between the verse and then the pre-chorus into the chorus over the solo, etc., etc. And, you know, once you can really come up with those bitchin’ kick-and-snare patterns, then each individual song starts to really make sense.”

Whoever said a band isn’t a democracy? To have the main guitar player and songwriter be a co-producer, and also have a great head for drums, is a distinct advantage. “What you’re playing isn’t what somebody else is hearing. And what they’re hearing isn’t necessarily what you’re playing. So once you can get that relationship going, then it becomes a much easier process than trying to go, ’No, I want to play this part because it’s going to make all the drummers out there go, oooh.’ Well, that doesn’t really make a song better. It just makes you look like every other drummer blowing chops.”

Size Matters

Over the last few years, Muriel has turned into a tone fanatic. In the past he blindly followed the rock and roll credo of bigger is better when it come to shell dimensions (“I’m a child of the 80’s, a hard metal guy, hello.’ I always went for big drums”). On previous releases he was recording with 26" bass, 14" rack, 16" and 18" floors. This time he went with a 22" kick, a 12" rack, and 14" and 16" floors. (He reverts to the regular big-rock setup live.)

Muriel also experimented with a wide range of heads, coated, clear, multi-ply, black, CS snare head, whatever it took to manipulate the tone via shell-based acoustic science. “Smaller drums always produce tighter sound but if you find a proper head composition you can actually highten and lower that actual tone and pitch to where it becomes a deader sound or projects a little bit more in the midrange area. A lot of my friends that came down to the session were like ’Dude, you’re playing a 12" rack? That’s going to sound like a jazz kit.’ I was like ’Let’s go into the control room and you can hear what this ’jazz kit’ sounds like,’ and they were ’No way!’ and I’m like ’Yes way.’ Just smaller, tuning a little bit lower to keep the tightness and the point that I call the bulls-eye point of the actual note, and get these really great, warm notes.

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“And it’s weird because playing smaller drums like that makes you play differently,” he continues. “You don’t play with as much bombastic force as you normally would if you were playing a 26-14-16-18 because you don’t have to hit the drum as hard for it to project. When you’re talking about a 26" kick drum, you’re talking about a big drum, so if you’ve got a weak leg, forget it. It’s not going to work. So having smaller drums made me play a lot more fluidly, there was a lot more finesse to it. Because the drums are smaller, if you hit them too hard you choke them. I found myself playing not as ape-ish or as like Arrrgh! It was weird, but it was great because I didn’t overexert myself.”

Low-tech or resourceful? Whatever you call it, it’s a way to get different tones without a new snare one every track. “I’m not into that,” he affirms. “Once I find the drum that I like, that sounds naturally great shell-wise, then I’ll spend hours with different head composition and tunings. A lot of guys will have a drum doctor in the studio the whole time, holding their hand, ’Oh, let’s use this snare here. Oh, let me adjust that.’ No, I did everything myself.”

Push It To The Limit

Hard-smacking clean drums are a Muriel signature. Maybe it’s an age thing or maybe it’s where he comes from (his mother, also was a drummer, was into Ted, Nugent, and Kansas and Fog Hat. At the same time, Latin music was always pumping in the home in Texas growing up. He later was influeced by the simple great feel, the pure pocket of drummers like the ones from Chic, Michael Jackson, and The Babys — that guy was ridiculous, and he never got any credit. Mitch Mitchell and Bonum and Ginger Backer and all of that stuff, that was one realm. An entire other realm was disco and funk music, and I don’t mean disco music that was like a machine but true funk drummers. You hear that and you cannot help but move. And if you don’t move, then you’re dead.”

Muriels’s style is in the sweet spot between supportive and flashy – a sexy line he expertly walks. That’s not the same thing as being a risk-averse trad rocker, such as the stuttering foot of “Seven Ways To Die,” a track that delivers on the band’s so-called punk influences that Todd is always touting but which were never convincingly on the records. “That is all right foot I’m proud to say. When Keith wrote the riff he requested a punk type of feel, which we’d never had. So he was ’I want you to do whatever you want to do that’s going to make it a little edgier or angrier.’ So that was the template for me and then I just kind of went with it from there. If you listen to the whole opening part of it and even the turn-around before the verses, it’s all really simple, just flams with kick drums on quarters. But it’s so powerful that it fits that song. If you were to go and try to do something more technical you would lose the essence of what that song is about. I feel sad for a lot of the audience today because they don’t know what it’s really like to go and listen to what a great drum track is anymore, like the on “Toys In The Attic” or “Shoot To Thrill” off Back In Black. Those [kinds of] songs are where it’s really important.

“So is [’Seven Ways To Die’] simplistic in the verses? Maybe, but when it gets to that galloping part, that’s when I’m kind of like ’Now I can add a little gas to the fire. Let’s turn it up!’

And as any powerful kicker knows, d-beats are a gateway drug for double bass. In theory and practice, he hates the twin pedals but is smart enough to understand their occasional benefits, and so he reintegrated them into his studio setup after a lengthy absence. It wasn’t till a year and a half ago, touring behind All Night Long (the Nickelback tour as he recalls), that Muriel added double kick-pedal to his kit live. “I had never used one in the studio, and [until then] I hadn’t used one live, jeez, dude, for probably 15 years, because I was just thinking if everybody’s trying to get faster, I want to do the exact opposite. I want to lay down a stupid, greasy, funky backbeat. I think it was because I had gotten to the point where most of my fills were pattered after Bonham because he was the king of the sixes, you know? He had sixes down – right-left, right-left—two-kick-beats down – and so amazingly well that you couldn’t tell whether or not he was using his 18" floor tom or whether he was using a bass. So for years I labored over whether to get one again. I really wanted to use it, sparingly of course, or it gets old.

“I was watching Jimmy The Rev from Avenged Sevefold play – a sad, sad, loss – and remembering how in the ’80s I played a double kick, just like everybody else did – Tommy Aldridge and Tommy Lee and Randy Castillo and all of those guys – and I started to miss it. I thought, Well, I don’t want to change what I play for the song, because the song is the song. Buckcherry was never about the double pedals, never about doing sixteenths- and thirty-seconds. Even to this day I don’t do them. I refuse to because that’s what everybody else does. I only use it as a flavor because I felt that I needed to open up another chapter in the way I performed live. And when you have a fan that’s a drummer who’s been listening to that same song for nine years come up and go‚ ’Hey man, I heard what you did in the precursor to the middle of the solo, that was awesome.’ I’m like, ’Yes! Validation.’ But if you do it for the whole wow factor, I think that’s a poor choice because you’re already up there, people already paid to come to see you, you’re already on the record, you know? How much more ego needs to be fed?

“I’ve been asked this a hundred times, Do you ever get tired of playing “Sorry” or “Crazy Bitch” or “Lit Up,” and I’m like ’Uh, no. Have you ever asked Joey Kramer is he tired of playing “Sweet Emotion”?’ I’m sure there might come a day but right now, no. So if you’re able to keep the beauty and the simplicity of it but maybe just add a little something here and there to where you go‚ ’Oh, what was that?’ Then that’s awesome.”

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Stay On The Fast Track

Rock recording is a seize-the-moment proposition. It’s all about spontaneity, feel, and going with your gut. But when a certain budget is allotted, you’re at a high point in your career, and fans have definite expectations, relying on a hunch is easier said than done. For his part, Muriel was determined not to overthink the beats, doing 16 drum tracks in two days with Marti Friederickson in Nashville. “He’d go, ’Yup, that one’s done’ and he would take a big fat magic marker, and do a cross-hatch on the back of my right calf. It was a joke at first, but we kept doing it. And by the end, I looked down at my calf and I had fifteen hatch marks. And literally that day I went straight to the local tattoo shop. So every mark that [Frederiksen] put on my leg, I had the guy go over with a tattoo gun. So yeah, that’s kind of crazy but I was excited about that. I read constantly about guys that spend six months in a studio doing drum tracks, and I’m like ’What is that all about?’ That’s not the way we do things.”

xavier muriel

Muriel’s Setup

Drums Yamaha Oak Custom (Ozark Matt Black)
1. 24" x 17" Bass Drum
2. 14" x 6.5" Paul Leim signature Snare Drum (or Manu Kaché model)
3. 14" x 10" Tom
4. 16" x 16" Floor Tom
5. 18" x 16" Floor Tom

Cymbals Sabian
A.19" AAX Crash
B. 20" AAX Crash
C. 14" AA Sizzle Hats
D. 22" Mega Bell Ride
B. 20" AAX Crash
E. 20" HHX Crash
F. 19" AAX China
A. 19 AAX Crash

Percussion Toca
H. Pro Line Mega Bell

Xavier Muriel also uses Yamaha hardware, Flying Dragon direct-drive double pedal, and SubKick, Remo heads (Emperor Clear, tom batters; Ambassador Clear, tom resos; Powerstroke3, bass batter; Black Ebony, bass reso; and Emperor Coated, snare batter, and Diplomat Clear, snare side), Vater XD-5B with stick wrap, Buttkicker throne system, Audix microphones, and Randall May EA internal miking system.

As you might predict from this consummate showman, a cat for whom delivering time and time again is a point of pride, Muriel continues to use the click track on most of the songs. “Some of the tracks that I wanted a little bit looser in, say, the choruses, I wouldn’t [use a click], because Jimmy [Ashhurst], my bass player, is just such a natural metronome himself that it was easy to do. There are points on every record and even in live shows where I really focus on Jimmy as far as locking, because once we get started on a song you can’t move him. He’s that good. So I never have to worry about being pushed or pulled either way by him. But most of the time I sing while I’m playing – not vocally, not with a mike – but I sing to myself because that’s kind of the way I am. I follow Josh a lot. Rhythmically some of the things that he does kind of place me.”

Cueing off the singer is more of a ’70s approach because rock drummers were more jazz-oriented – or grew up listening to jazz – so following the vocal line was more ingrained. Also in that decade, the studio approach hadn’t gotten so gridded out. As always, Muriel has his own theory about this. “In the ’80s there were a lot of drummers that were so fixated on what there hair looked like and how many times they could thrown the stick up in the air and catch it. I’m not saying that I’m not a showman [laughs] because I am to a certain extent, but my job up there is to create the most solid foundation for everybody else to go off and be a little bit slinky and be a little bit loose and a little bit greasy. But that shouldn’t happen with drummers. If you’re loose and slinky and greasy, then you’re out of pocket and that’s not cool.”

Speak Truth To Power

Simply put there is nothing on earth that Muriel would rather work his ass off for. Band members at their level usually tolerate each other at best, but even with infrequent down time they get the itch to hang out, get food, whatever. Nelson, Muriel, and his drum tech are into building and riding Harleys but they don’t have the time to do that any more. “We still have a passion for what’s next,” he says. “We did ’Lit Up.’ We did ’Crazy Bitch.’ What else do we got?”

Wrapping the bandanna around your head (and occasionally a pant leg), donning leather jackets, and emptying out yourself every night is no shtick, it’s Buckcherry’s life. They’ve stuck to their glam-tinged ways for the better part of a decade, watching as nü-metal, pop-punk, metalcore, garage rock, and whatever else come and went. “When you’ve been told over and over, You’ll never be anywhere, you’re never get anywhere, no one is going to sign you, rock and roll is dead’ – and these are real things that people told us – when you have that much adversity facing you and you think about it and then you go back into the control room after a couple of days and you listen to what you just laid down and it makes the hair on your arms stand up, and you get that feeling the same way you had the same feeling when you put on “Back In Black” for the first time, that’s what it’s about.”

In the current industry climate, the chasm between mega-sellers and artists that must tour to survive gets increasing wide. Buckcherry sell a respectable amount of records (2.8 million overall sales as of press time) but the band’s heart lies in performance, averaging 300 days a year on the road for the last four tour cycles. “We pride ourselves on being a live band,” Muriel says. “I don’t think we could ever be one of those bands that only toured six months out of the year because that’s not how we started. When we got together we were, and still are, a gang. We hit stage and it’s war.”

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Game Of Thrones: Terry Gray

Sometimes an awesome drummer and an equally awesome drum tech do not mix. Just ask Buckcherry’s Terry Gray, who has knelt throneside by buddy Xavier Muriel since their high school days in Austin, Texas, drum key at ready. “We both have different ideas of what a kit should sound like,” Gray says from his room at the InterContinental Toronto Centre on a day off during the Buckcherry tour. “Xavier’s really funny about snares – he likes more ring in it, and I don’t. I’ll fit it a certain way and he’ll get up and then he’ll change it. Then during the show – and he’s one of those guys in between songs constantly tinkering with stuff – he’ll tweak it and he’ll hit and look at me with this face, and I’m like, ’I know. Sounds bad.’”

Vigilance is key. Gray’s position during performance is up close in Muriel’s left- and right-side blindspots, looking at every reflected head surface and moving piece of hardware and watching the drummer’s every stroke. “My biggest fear is like something going wrong with the kick drum and the kick pedal because you can get around everything else but if you don’t have that if everything else fails. And now he’s playing a double pedal again, so I always make sure those are working well.”

As house systems get more sophisticated, techs increasingly interface with the drummer via the sound man, but the direct approach serves Gray well. The tech advances the click for each song, but Muriel activates it with a start/stop pedal next to the hi-hat, so if the band is pushing or pulling he can turn it on and bring them back. “This band is really big on being tight and on time and stuff like that,” Gray adds. “Sometimes I stop the click on my own on certain songs, in breakdowns and things like that. But for the most part I’m just sitting there watching.”

The co-workers have even made a friendly game out of it. Sometimes Muriel will test Gray if he thinks the tech is getting complacent. A snare head swap during a song (in a part where there’s no drums) for instance. “He can’t wait 30 seconds for the song to end, he wants me to change it at the breakdowns to keep me on my toes.” [laughs] “It gets my heart racing.”

Gray wouldn’t call it PTSD, but in some ways the tech is battle scarred from the pre-Buckcherry days, when Muriel was drumming in a band called Saucer. “He actually snapped the beater shaft in half,” he recalls. “And the broken off stem slashed right through the head. Luckily he was playing a double pedal that day, so he was able to switch over and put his right foot on the secondary pedal. So he was still playing and I was replacing the beater and then I got around in front of the drum head with gaffer’s tape and I taped the gash in the head to finish the show. So ever since then I’ve been really leery about that.”