If the phrase “mini-epic” sounds self-contradicting, simply listen to the song “Out Of Breath.” Once you’ve experienced the nervously urgent closing track on Silversun Pickups’ new record, Neck Of The Woods, you’ll understand how something can be massive and compact at the same time.
“A song can have a lot of parts and be a journey, but it doesn’t have to be long,” says Silversun Pickups drummer Christopher Guanlao. “That’s testament to our producer, Jacknife Lee. He made sure we didn’t put unnecessary minutes into songs. For creative musicians who are artists, that’s the hardest part — to self-edit.”
Recording with his three other bandmates at Jacknife’s Topanga, California, studio, Guanlao created a fascinating listen for drummers with all 11 tracks of Woods. Each dramatic rock track is packed with rhythmic moments, but the 5:02 “Out Of Breath” drew us even deeper in for an closer look.
The song kicks off with a very tense intro, where Guanlao plays a confrontational pattern of double beats on the kick under Brian Aubert’s anxious guitar line. At 0:08, the kick beats are joined by spare hi-hat hits that walk an unnerving line between on-the-beat and syncopated. “The two kick placements along with Brian’s guitar just leaves it very on-edge,” Guanlao says. “Then the hi-hat comes in, and not in a normal place that you would usually have that. It’s all intentional, to leave you feeling uncomfortable.”
Drums C&C (Purple Acrylic with Yellow Sparkle inlay)
1 26" x 14" Bass Drum
2 14" x 6.5" Pearl Free Floating Snare (Black Lacquer)
3 14" x 10" Tom
4 13" x 3" Pearl Steel Piccolo Snare
5 18" x 16" Floor Tom
Cymbals Istanbul Agop
A 14" Traditional Medium Hi-Hat
B 22" Azure Ride
C 22" Traditional Dark Crash
D 20" Traditional Dark Crash
Christopher Guanlao also uses DW stands, Gibraltar TSS Suspension system for piccolo, Tama Iron Cobra single pedal, Remo heads (Coated Ambassador, snares; Clear Emperor, toms; Clear Diplomat tom resos; Clear Powerstroke 3, kick batter; and Clear Ambassador, kick reso), Pro-Mark Ringo Starr signature sticks, and DrumPlates drum mat.
Guanlao maintains this exercise in minimalism for a healthy stretch in the beginning, changing up combinations of the kick and hat playing together, playing with space as the tension grows. It isn’t until the 1:39 mark that the foundation starts to expand, as Guanlao adds four-on-the-floor toms that usher in the song’s next chapter. “The rumbling of the toms that come is a departure for me — that’s a very orchestral thing that I would rarely do,” he notes. “I’ve come to enjoy the drama of starting softly and delicately, then building up to this roar. That’s one of the reasons the song gets epic: It’s this rumbling, like the storm’s coming.”
At 1:47, things get hectic when Guanlao backs up a time change with snares that seem to shoot off in bursts around the beat. “That’s a very Silversun drum thing,” he says. “We do a lot of that in the previous records — those very precise fills that aren’t even really fills — they’re drum beats. We love that kind of shotgun/machine-gun fill. That’s very powerful, with everyone playing the part in unison.”
Get ready for a shift in storyline at 1:55, where a halting rock beat arrives to push things forward. “At that point we felt like, ‘Now we have to settle into a groove,’” Guanlao says. “We played around with a lot of different beats for that, then simplified the beat, and it worked. It keeps that edginess — the snare hits come sooner than you would expect, so it has that uneasy feel to it. It’s jarring, and there are no fills, so it has that drum-machine vibe.”
Not until 2:39 does the first chorus actually appear, propelled by another driving four-on-the-floor beat that kicks off that long-awaited section in surprising fashion. “That’s another Jacknife-inspired part; I would have never started with a four-on-the-floor because I feel like that’s something you do in the end, not the beginning. But he was like, ‘Do it in the beginning.’ It just changes the chorus up, and distinguishes the drums in the first chorus as opposed to the second chorus that comes later.”
At 3:14, pure space is in place, as a big cymbal crash precedes an essential drumming break that goes a long six seconds. “The Led Zeppelin–type guitar thing that Brian does there is so powerful, we thought, ‘It’s such a cool riff, we need to focus solely on that.’ That’s why it was so important for the drums to drop out there. In keeping with the song’s title, that’s an ‘out of breath’ moment. It’s like, ‘Hold on one sec, we have more to say, but let’s take a deep breath and come right back into it.’”
From 3:20–4:08 Guanlao rigorously maintains his machine-inspired main beat under the guitar solo and bridge. He conscientiously excludes obvious fills, instead mixing in subtle variations throughout the section, such as the slightly tighter hi-hats that come in around 3:46. “The drumbeat that’s following the riff is reeling in this out-of-control feeling,” Guanlao says. “Just closing the hi-hat is an important part — it changes the dynamic while still having that intensity. That’s definitely something we discussed. Being fans of The Pixies and huge dynamics, our tendency was always to be really quiet and then really loud, and we wanted to get out of that. That’s why things like tightening up the hi-hat are very subtle, but very important.”
The second and final chorus begins at 4:08, with Guanlao’s chorus beat pushing forward in unrelenting fashion, adding additional friction to the part as it steams urgently ahead. At 4:22, another drum dropout — an unorthodox pause smack in the middle of the chorus — is worth talking about. “That’s another Jacknife moment that worked out perfectly. It made sense that everything should drop out except guitar and vocals. It’s what makes the chorus a finale chorus, instead of just a repeat of the normal chorus. It reminds me of when a CD is skipping — it just skips, then catches up again.”
Shields up! Because the artillery beat returns at 4:33. There, Guanlao blasts mercilessly along with his bandmates to the end of the song, which also doubles as an extended and aggressive close of their third album. “We just go out — this is ending the record — with guns blazing,” he grins. “We like that kind of ending, rather than ‘Let’s put the mellow on.’ And it’s not one of those songs where we say, ‘Maybe we’ll perform it live one day.’ It’s part of the rotation of our set, and it’s one of my favorites to play.”