In The Studio With Chad Smith & Rick Rubin
DRUM!: So it’s important to remain objective during the recording process.
Rubin: I always look for what’s right to do. You can never try to imagine what it’s going to be like. I think the Peppers and I have an understanding that everyone is open and willing to try anything, and if we try it and it works and makes the song better, then it’s better. And if we try and it makes the song worse, then we move on. It’s a work in progress. Sometimes it takes a couple of days in the beginning, because they’ve been working on the songs for a while, and then I come in. But when everyone is down to try stuff it becomes obvious when the songs get better or not.
DRUM!: Can a drum part be the hook to a song?
Rubin: Yeah. It’s the case all the time in rap music. It can definitely be part of it. One of the things I’ve seen from working with a lot of bands is that they focus on their own parts to the point where things don’t really go together. There’s a great drum part and bass part, but they don’t interact the way they should. It’s really great when you see a band where if one person changes their part, everyone re-thinks what they’re doing. It’s something you’d see in Rage Against The Machine, where if Timmy the bass player changes his part, somebody will always say, “What are we doing? Now the rhythm part is completely different.” It’s getting to where everybody is listening to what everyone else is playing, that’s the key. The Peppers have been doing it long enough to where they do it innately. But it’s important to get players to think about how their part fits into the bigger scheme of things, not just the individual part.
DRUM!: Chad, does Rick have a good drummer’s sensibility?
Smith: Yeah, he really does. I mean, his favorite drummer is Phil Rudd. He does not like fancy drummers. I’m lucky to get away with what I do. He’s really into good beats played solid. He thinks in terms of the song, and a lot of busy drumming distracts from that goal. So with him, the simpler the better. We’re not playing fusion. We’re not playing jazz. It’s a rock band. Rick will kind of scrunch up his nose if a fill is too much and go, “What was that? You didn’t do that before. Did you always do that?” [laughs] I’m trying to sneak something in.
DRUM!: If you do something like that on an otherwise happening take, would Rick sacrifice the take to fix the fill?
Smith: No, he probably wouldn’t sacrifice the take for one fill. You know what he would probably do? He’d probably say, “You did it right going from the second chorus. I’m going to take that one and put it there.” It can be something like, “Don’t brrrrup into that part.” Clean and simple. Sometimes it can be as little as opening a hi-hat too much. He doesn’t like things too washy. But I got to say, it does sound better. He’s usually right. Not always, but we’ve worked together enough where I have trust in his suggestions, at least to give them a try. The other guys in the band are the same way.
DRUM!: Rick, what do you think of Chad as a drummer?
Rubin: He’s super solid. He can play anything and it sounds really consistent and it really sounds song-like and it’s the backbone. You can’t have a great band without a great drummer. He really fills the job well. You know that whatever he’s going to play is going to sound good.
DRUM!: Have you seen Chad’s approach change over the years?
Rubin: He’s pretty much the same. He comes in, does good work, stays really solid. The key to Chad being so great is that he really listens to what everyone else is playing. The interaction between the players is what really makes it. There are some guys who are great drummers, who see their role as just to hold it together, or “everyone follow me.” Chad’s not that kind of drummer. He interacts with everybody. It always sounds like a song when he plays. Everybody in the band is like that – really interactive. You can tell the way they look at each other. They stay close and watch what each other is doing. A lot of bands face the audience, even in the studio.
Smith: I really have come to appreciate making a record, what a statement that is in your life and what you do. I’m really proud of the music that we make. I always want it to be the best it can be. I don’t want to just get by. Capturing the best feel and the best take of the song at that time is something to really strive for, so in that way you kind of put pressure on yourself. My job is to keep it together and make it sound like us. Luckily I’ve recorded enough where I don’t get the red light fever. I used to sometimes. I’m not recording three sessions a day like some of these guys who are used to it, but with every project you learn more. I think I’m a better player than I was when I started with the band.
DRUM!: What is the key to capturing a good drum performance?
Rubin: It’s really trying to document what they do the best I can. The difference in all the drummers I work with shows up because I try to capture their essence. I don’t try to give them a sound, but really give my best representation of them, and try to not get in their way. Instead of the drums they use live, we may discuss finding and trying a whole bunch of drums to find the absolute most pristine sounding drums. That’s more just to get the most out of what he’s doing.
Smith: If you try to get too fancy or too drummy, you get away from the song. Rick is not one to say, “That needs to be longer.” He’s usually cutting stuff out. He’s pretty good at that. Because we always start out with jams and we’ll go, “Let’s do that part eight times,” and Anthony will come up with stuff that fits that length. Then Rick will come in and cut it, which is rough on Anthony because he’s been working with the rehearsal tapes.
DRUM!: How do you know when a take is a keeper?
Smith: There’ve been times when we are playing and Rick goes, “That’s it, come on in,” and I go, “Really? I want to hear that.” But that’s the big thing about having that perspective across the glass. Sometimes you know – it feels really good.
Rubin: We can all lose perspective, and we have. It’s often good if you’ve been playing [a song] six or seven times in a row, we may say, “Let’s come back tomorrow and see if we got it,” and listen back and learn from those and go back to it again.
DRUM!: Do you save everything that goes down on tape?
Smith: You know the cool thing with Rick is when we do something and he’ll go, “Come in here and listen to that and tell me which one you think is the one.” We do that a lot. And we’ll even listen to it in the car.
Rubin: To kind of change the perspective.
Smith: Yeah, and Rick also has the confidence in me to be able to go, “Is that the one?” Especially from a drum standpoint, he knows that I know what feels good to me. We do that a lot, and it seems to work pretty well. I think we are pretty good at arriving at the right one.
Rubin: Sometimes a song can go in different directions. There’s been a couple songs on this record where there’s like a slower version and a faster version. Both are great, but they’re just different. We may work on both for a while until one of us says, “Oh, it’s the slow one.” Listening to them individually, it doesn’t sound too slow or too fast. It’s just when you hear them back to back, one is faster than the other, and it’s just a question of which is the one “forever.”
DRUM!: Has Pro Tools changed the way you make records?
Rubin: It really hasn’t changed things that much for me. The only thing it makes fast are things like comping. Like if we do vocals and do something ten times, it makes it faster to pick the best take and try it all different ways. Before when we were doing everything on tape it was much slower. But we don’t really use it in the ways other people do. We use it just as a way to facilitate things that we would normally cut tape with. It gives you more choices and you can hear it right then. With Pro Tools, you can make drums sound right, but you can’t make it feel good. All you can do is take two bars that sounded good and put them together.
Smith: I think it takes a lot of life out of music. It’s in time and in tune but it doesn’t swing and it’s not exciting. I think it’s okay for some types of music, or fixing little clams here and there, but the way we work is pretty natural and we like to keep the takes as they are as much as possible.
DRUM!: Do you feel any pressure during pre-production or recording to make an album as commercially successful as your previous work?
Rubin: No. It’s really just going for personal greatness. I like to look at the whole thing as an experiment. The fear comes when you feel like, “This is it,” but if it’s just an ongoing process, an experiment, then we’re kind of like scientists in the laboratory. And until we hear it and say, “Oh, there it is,” then we just keep doing it. So there’s no real pressure day-to-day because it’s just an unfolding process. And eventually we say, “Oh, that sounds like that’s it. Okay we have that one.” But from my perspective there’s very little pressure to get anything done. It’s just the process.
Smith: After Dave [Navarro] left the band and John came back, no one really knew what was going to happen. We just started making music again, and we knew it felt good to us, but we had no idea it was going to be our biggest selling record and how successful it would be commercially and artistically. If we had put that record out and nothing happened, it would be, “Oh well, whatever,” and we’d move on. The fact that it sold millions is just gravy on the mashed potatoes. Is that going to happen again? Who knows? You can’t concern yourself with that. You just make the best record you can. You can try to out-guess the public – “We need a slow song.” Things like that we can’t bother with. Whatever comes out, comes out. We pick the best songs and hope people like it. We’re getting better at being songwriters and maturing a bit as musicians and Rick has had a lot to do with that, making us think about writing songs, not just jams with raps. Songs have melodies and everybody wants to sing along with a song. We like working that way more and more. No matter what we do – fast, slow, hard, soft – it still sounds like us, which I think is a cool thing.