Daniel Couto: Getting Ill With It

It’s not easy being a nü-metal band in 2009, but that’s not Daniel Couto’s problem. His mission is to take the heavy riffs and down-tuned guitars of his band, Ill Niño, and give it Brazilian flavor.

When he was a kid in the Amazonian village of Belem Do Para, there was a big warehouse where all the drum parts for the samba were rehearsed during Carnaval. It was an excellent introduction to what became his drum of choice – caixa, the local version of the snare drum. “The surdo was too big for me,” he says, chuckling at the memory.

Not surprisingly, American and British rock struck a nerve with Couto after his family relocated to Newark, New Jersey in his mid-teens. Lessons were not in the family’s budget, so he snuck behind his brother’s kit whenever he could and played along on headphones to Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Smashing Pumpkins. In fact, Jimmy Chamberlin comes up many times in our conversation. “Oh yeah,” he gushes. “Amazing drummer.”

Unfortunately, there was only so much tolerance for the drummer’s newfound love of classic rock. “My mother, she used to be like, ’This music is too loud, you should play a little soft.’ So she actually used to put on Brazilian music too, so I could play for her while she’s cleaning the house.”

A Conguero Is Born. The years spent in Newark’s urban jungle made Couto long for the sounds of the real jungle. In fact, the passion for hand drums was starting to overshadow drum set, though he continued to play in metal bands around New Jersey. Through a network of friends, he got wind of the opening in Ill Niño after the original percussionist, Roger Vasquez, left the band.

They say the best way to learn is to throw the baby in the pool. Fortunately for Couto, he never knew he was in the water. “I came in and actually did the audition in the studio,” he recalls. “All of a sudden I see myself inside the room and they were tracking already [for 2003 album Confession], and they didn’t say anything. And then when I was done with the one song I’m like, ’What’s up? Can I quit my day job already?’”

The answer was a qualified yes. Though Couto’s passion for the music was obvious, the other Ill Niño members thought a three-week crash course in technique with a private instructor was in order before they hit the road. “They were just like, ’Okay, you’ve got to get the pop thing on the congas.’ Because I already had the caixa thing, the samba thing, the Latin grooves, but I didn’t really know how to use the pops.”

Let’s clarify pops for the non hand drummers, shall we? “The pop is when you hit the congas with the end of your hand, you hit on the rim and you let your fingers loose, but as soon as your fingers hit the middle part of the skin you kind of grab it,” he says. “And you just close your hand so it makes that pop. It’s mostly when you’re doing a lot of open tones, and when you close you go, duh-duh-dam-doom-POCK, duh-duh-dam-doom-POCK!”

The Confession sessions had moments that tested Coutos’ mettle in other ways too. Producer Bob Marlette (of Ozzy and Saliva fame) grilled him on consistency both in terms of timing and the strength of his strikes. Couto had used a click when playing drum set in other bands, but it was a new experience in the context of hand drumming.

“I had to get used to it right away because I was afraid they weren’t going to choose me for the band,” he says. “They just wanted to make sure I didn’t look like a beginner on the first tour.”

Interestingly, he jettisons the click on stage “because we use samples live, so the drummer, Dave Chavarri, and our singer [Christian Machado], they use in-ears,” he explains. “So actually Dave is my click.”

You probably wouldn’t characterize Coutos as a gear geek, but he knows exactly what to listen for on playback, and made no bones about communicating his needs with Eddie Wohl, the producer for Ill Niño’s latest album, Enigma.

“It was a very professional studio, but it was not only that, it’s the mixing too,” he says. “Not to put down the first record [Revolition/Revolución] but it’s very hard to hear the percussion. On the second record you can hear the percussion, but it’s still too low and I was always like, ’Man, the thing that makes us different is the Latin part – so why hide the percussion?’ When I listen to the record I’m like, ’Man, I busted my ass playing that part. Why isn’t it there?’”

The Song Never Remains The Same. On Enigma, Couto digs in hard. On the opener, “The Alibi Of Tyrants,” his fleet hands place notes wherever possible to drive the groove. On “Pieces Of The Sun,” the slaps are even more intense. The preponderance of drums – percussion and drum set – can be attributed to Ill Niño’s new songwriting approach. Instead of locking the guitar riffs and then laying the drums over them as the band had done in the past, the songs were built from the beats up.

“Dave said, ’I’m going to go all out on this record. I was like, ’Oh great! But, man, please give me some space [laughs].’ But every beat that he came up with was a challenge, every one he would give me I would try and already have something for it. I’m the type of person that when somebody gives me [responsibility] it’s not pressure to me. It’s just like, ’All right, man, you’re giving me something to work on and I appreciate that because I’m putting more into the songs.

“There’s parts that I was playing congas and bongos with one hand and using the left with a stick on 14" toms, just jamming like a totally other person,” he says, describing a kind of ostinato.

In a few instances, Couto’s parts come perilously close to busy, but then a self-restraint kicks in. Take “Me Gusta La Soledad,” where the tune’s space and quiet conjure rainforest cool instead of Latin fire. “The acoustic guitars are so out there that I didn’t want to do too much on the percussion, so I was, ’All right, I’m just going to lay back, close my eyes, and just follow the rhythm.’”

When asked if he reads music, Couto says “no” with just a hint of embarrassment. Truth is, this cat has so much natural feel that transcriptions would just get in the way. “Anything that I hear, it just comes from practicing and playing and knowing what I know. And anything you give me – it could be a death metal band – and I think I could fit percussion in there.”

Living For Live. Hand drummers’ hands are the sticks. You’ve got to take care of those mitts, so before show time Couto does a variety of exercises to avoid cramping and other injuries.

“With blisters, there is nothing I can do,” he says. “I see a lot of pros playing with tape [wrapped around their fingers]. It’s a special tape so you don’t get blisters, but I can’t use that because I don’t only just play with my hands. I use the stick too, and if I have tape on my hands I can’t hold the stick right.

“The only things you can do are build calluses, and it usually takes me a week and a half to get to normal. That’s after a big huge bubble of blood – I know it’s disgusting – but after that pops and it dries up you’re good to go for the rest of the tour.”

Hands aren’t the only liability on the road. “The first week of touring you always get ’rock neck,’” he continues. “You can warm up, you can do whatever you want, but that first week of shows, the back of your neck when you wake up hurts so much you can’t even move it from head banging.”

Expanding His Horizons. Not only has being a percussionist in a metal band made Couto a better player, it has fueled his appetite for hand drums from around the world, including dumbek, which figures heavily on Enigma. “I had never played it before,” he says, mentioning the smorgasbord of exotic skins Toca sent him. He also became acquainted with batá, a Yoruban drum that made its way from Africa into the New World via slave ships to Cuba, and is used in Santería rituals. “It looks like a conga, but on one end it has a smaller skin, a smaller size. The other side is a little bigger size so you play with both hands, one on each side. I just play in my lap. I love that thing.”

Couto readily acknowledges the icons of hand drumming: Tito Puente, Karl Perazzo and Raul Rekow, and Carlos “Patato” Valdes are among his favorites. “Giovanni’s sick too,” he adds. But it’s the rhythms of his homeland, like those of supergroup Bateria Da Mangueira, that keep drawing him back. He intends to pay homage with the cuica, Brazil’s “friction drum,” which is one of the main instruments in samba, the music he grew up on. Unfortunately, Couto wasn’t able to showcase the instrument on Enigma, but he promises it’ll be on the next Ill Niño record, after he’s had a chance to get comfortable with it. “When I grab a new drum I want to be able to play it the best I can,” he explains. “And the cuica, it’s not that easy to play.”

Still Just A Country Boy. Even though Enigma was released more than a year ago, Ill Niño is still supporting the release well into ’09 with a major European tour. Couto’s favorite place to play on the continent is Portugal, no doubt because they speak the mother tongue. “Mexico is amazing too” he enthuses, recalling a recent performance in front of 65,000 people. “We’re like The Beatles there.”

From scrappy kid running alongside the speaker-laden trucks going up and down the white-sand beaches during Carnaval to manning the skins for the biggest Latin metal band in the world, it’s been a wild ride for Couto. Funny how it’s the little things that always drive home this fact.

“When I go to a different country and I leave my bus to use the bathroom or something, and it’s like 10:00 in the morning, and there’s people there and some kid comes and says, ’Hey, Daniel Couto! What’s up?’ Every time that happens, it makes me think that the life that I lead is not that bad.”

Couto’s Congas

DRUMS
1. 14" x 12" Yamaha Stage Custom Tom
2. 14" x 5" Yamaha 6-ply Maple Snare Drum
3. 12" x 3" Toca Timbale Snare
4. 14" x 6.75" Toca Custom Deluxe Series Timbale
5. 6" x 3" Toca Mini Timbale
6. 11" x 30" Toca Custom Deluxe Series Quinto
7. 11.75" x 30" Toca Custom Deluxe Series Conga
8. 7" and 8.5" Toca Custom Deluxe Series Bongos

CYMBALS
A. 16" Zildjian A Custom Crash
B. 17" Zildjian A Custom Crash

PERCUSSION
C. Toca Contemporary Series Low-Pitch White Bongo Bell

Daniel Couto also uses a Gibraltar rack, Vater sticks, Remo heads, and Sennheiser microphones.