Don’t let the shaved head, bushy red Viking beard, and throttling speed-metal aggression behind the kit fool you – Justin Foley is a gentleman and a scholar. Or something like that. What we know for sure is that this soft-spoken chops monster holds two degrees in percussion performance – Bachelor’s from University Of Connecticut and Master’s from the University Of Hartford’s Hartt School. And judging from “Starting Over,” off Killswitch’s self-titled album from last year, all that student-loan debt wasn’t racked up for nothing.
Foley wrote most of “Starting Over,” beginning with some G-chord vamps on an acoustic guitar he had lying around the house. “I think on that song I kind of fell into the chorus first,” he says. I wanted to write something that wasn’t in C. So I wanted to write it in a higher key.
“I can play guitar, but I’m not a very good guitar player,” he admits. “So, for example, I kind of had a basic, very dumbed-down version of the gallop-y verse riff.” It came to life, though, once Foley passed it off to the band’s Berklee-trained guitarists, Joel Stroetzel and Adam Dutkiewicz, who “spiced it up like crazy and made it sound really good.”
His guitarists’ decision to turn what was otherwise a pretty straight part into a “gallop-y” feel inspired Foley to match their version on the drums. Check out the bridge section starting at the 1:26 mark, where the drummer lopes through a few bars, basically on his own, before the band comes back in at a full charge. “That’s tough to really play that tight,” Foley warns, “with the ride cymbal bell and getting the feet to [work properly]. For me, at least, that’s tough to tighten up.”
All in all, though, the drums proved less of a challenge for Foley on “Starting Over” than some of the other new material. “Normally, I’m doing the drums to whatever someone else had. But on this one I was so focused on the stuff that I was writing and getting the music right, that the drums just sort of fell in there.”
He did hit one obstacle, though, when he tried to translate the drum part he’d created at home on his electronic kit onto his acoustic setup in the studio. “In the middle of the chorus I play the two floor toms,” Foley explains. “And I think the reason it had that tom part in there is the way that [electronic] kit is set up – everything’s a little bit tighter. The two low drums on my live kit are 13" and 15", and the pads obviously aren’t that big, so [my hands naturally fell] right there. So it made me come up with that part I might not have normally come up with on an actual drum set.”
So, when it came time to record his drum parts at Southern Tracks in Atlanta with rock producer extraordinaire Brendan O’Brien, Foley had to change the sticking around to accommodate the switch to acoustic. “What I was originally doing was just playing [the floor toms] with the left hand because I was playing the crash cymbal all the way through [with the right]. But I actually found it to be easier on the kit to switch just for that part to the crash cymbal with my left hand and play the toms with my right hand since they’re right there. So instead of kind of doing a little cross thing it’s all open [handed] now.”
Aside from minor tweaks, though, the song turned out pretty much how Foley had envisioned it. “The chorus is basically just the way that I brought it in. The bridge is pretty close, but it’s a little bit different. But that’s how we did most of this record. We would all kind of do our thing for a week, get together, play everybody else’s stuff that we had put together, spend a week doing that – moving parts around, changing parts. I think it worked really, really well.”
What they also found worked well was to follow the advice of one of the most respected producers in the biz. “Brendan really strongly believes that drummers play better with everybody in the room. So I said, ’Yeah, we’ll give it a shot.’ We actually recorded the drum tracks with everybody else playing at the same time. Before we had done it with scratch guitar tracks and all that, but Brendan’s a big believer that the drummer plays a little differently when the other guys are playing with him.”
The band recorded to a click so they could still do some splicing, if needed. “On average, each song is maybe two or three takes put together,” Foley says. “There wasn’t too much real small, punch-in/punch-out stuff. Basically I blew through it a couple of times, we decided which one we liked best, and we left most of that one intact. Then, if maybe the bridge from take two was better than [the keeper track], we’d put the bridge in from take two.”
The end result, he says, is a sound that satisfied everyone involved – including the legions of Killswitch fans that have mobbed every show since the new album hit the streets. “We all want it to sound like a metal record and we understand that it’s got to have that kind of real tight sound to it,” Foley says. “But we don’t want it to go overboard as a group. I mean, we don’t like to have the crazy death-metal, clicking typewriter drums. I like natural-sounding drums.” Amen, Justin. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
Drums Yamaha Absolute Maple (Dark Blue Fade)
1 20" x 16" Bass Drum
2 14" x 6.5" Paul Leim Signature Snare Drum
3 10" x 9" Tom
4 13" x 11" Floor Tom
5 15" x 13" Floor Tom
A 14" K Custom Session Hi-Hats
B 18" A Custom Medium Crash
C 10" A Splash
D 22" A Custom Medium Ride
E 19" A Custom Medium Crash
F 19" K Custom Dark China
G 17" A Custom Medium CrashPercussion LP
H Gajate Bracket and LP Cowbell with Yamaha Pedal
Justin Foley also uses Yamaha hardware and pedals, Yamaha Mike Bordin signature snare drum, Pro-Mark Justin Foley signature (5B) sticks, and Evans heads.