May. 15 2006

Sparta

TAMA : You are currently working on Sparta’s third full-length album, to be released this fall. How is the recording going, and what stage are you at in the process?

: Actually, this is day one. Today is our first day of tracking here in Seattle. We did pre-production in Los Angeles, we’re up here for two weeks recording, and then we go back to Malibu and finish the record. In a few hours, we’re gonna to start getting things going. But the process in general has been a pretty long one compared to how we usually do records. We usually get off a tour, take a few weeks off, jump in and write for 5 or 6 weeks, go back into the studio, and then the whole cycle flows again. This time we actually finished touring last April for our last record, and here we are now, about a year later. So it’s been a long, long process, but it’s been a great thing, and we wrote 27 songs for this record. So it’s been really nice to pick from those, and pick a strong 16 to record.

TAMA : So is all the material for the album already written?

: Yeah, everything’s written. We started writing in May of last year, getting together off an on, and then we went back to El Paso, Texas, our hometown, got a huge warehouse and rehearsed every day in October there and wrote a whole bunch of songs. And then we did some more in November and some more in February, and here we are. It’s been a long, long process comparatively, but it’s been neat to work this way.

Even though we’re only here for two weeks in Seattle, we’re not just gonna do drums, move on to bass, and move to Malibu after that. We track fairly quickly, and hopefully it will work out that way again, so we’re gonna go in and finish as much as we possibly can in these two weeks. If you know your parts and you’ve worked them out, there’s really no need to sit there and contemplate recording it for hours and hours. If you have a good producer and good engineer, you just work and your ideas should already be done by then.

TAMA : When you are recording, will you guys track everything separately or will it be more of a live environment?

: We’re gonna track live again. We tracked our whole last record live, and this one is gonna be less live than that record. There’s going to be more overdubs on this record for sure, because there’s a lot more layers on this record than we’ve ever had. But at the same time, a lot of the basics, including the guitars, are going to be pretty much live.

TAMA : Do you use a click while you’re recording?

: Yes, I do. I’m pretty good friends with the click (laughs). We use it live a lot, too, for our guitar player’s delays and because we play with backing tracks. For example, on the last record, we had songs that we recorded a string section playing along with us as backing tracks, and so I would have to play with a click. And to me, that’s just fun. It’s really cool to have that challenge of like, “this is a song that’s 203 BPM, but I’m gonna play with a click for last 10 seconds of it just to have the strings in it.” So if you’re off one click, there go the strings.

TAMA : You’ve played some very creative and unconventional drum parts with Sparta, and on previous works with At the Drive-In. When did you first pick up the sticks, and how did you learn to play drums?

: I originally started playing when I was 15, and I just kinda picked up the sticks because I was trying to be a guitar player and my brother had bought this $50 drumset. He’s 11 years older than me, and just wanted to do it for fun. This guitar player came to my house and could really play, and I couldn’t play whatsoever, so he said, “Why don’t you play drums?” So I was like okay, and that’s how I started learning. And I actually lost a lot of years after my mom passed away – I stopped playing drums completely, till I was almost 18 years old. So while a lot of my friends were playing shows and getting that experience at a young age, I was doing nothing of that sort. When I starting playing again, I really had to work a lot harder than anyone else because I felt I was so many years behind. So I did a lot of practice, and I try to make things unconventional but sometimes it’s not even on purpose, it’s just because I’m a left-handed drummer that plays right-handed. I didn’t know you could play left-handed. To be honest, I saw a picture of Lars Ulrich when I was a kid, and I saw where he put his hi-hat, and figured I should play that way.

TAMA : Do you play open-handed or cross over?

: I play cross over, exactly like a right-handed player, but I lead [fills] with my left. That’s the only thing. I just thought that’s how people play drums; I never saw a hi-hat on the right side. So I think that’s where some of the unconventional things come from. I have to flip arms sometimes.

TAMA : What kind of stuff did you work on to develop your skills? Were you playing along to records, working out of books, or taking lessons?

: You know, I tried lessons for about a month. And to be honest, my brother was raising me at that point, and we just really couldn’t afford it. He told me after a week that we just couldn’t do this. As a little kid, you kinda take it hard, but you understand eventually. So I just decided to start playing with records. I started playing along – as much as I could, obviously – to Master of Puppets by Metallica and all the Zeppelin records. My brother was really into Zeppelin, AC/DC, and Boston… those are the three bands I really remember. And I used to just try to either air-drum or follow it with my headphones and he was really supportive of that… you know, a loud, obnoxious little kid trying to play along with all these drummers. But yeah, that’s mostly how I did it. I just was playing along to records, and then I just slowly, slowly started building, and I eventually got into trying to learn my version of jazz drumming, which incorporates what I do. And I think I try to incorporate that more with the fills than anything else, not with the rhythms. And I constantly try to learn stuff, because you can never stop… there’s constantly somebody that influences you and makes you want to be better.

TAMA : Who were your favorite or most influential drummers?

: When I was a kid... I would have to say it was Tommy Lee, Lars Ulrich, and John Bonham. And then as I grew up, I used to listen to a lot of prog metal, and I got really into Scott Travis, Dean Castronovo and Bobby Rock. I used to listen to really, really progressive drumming. At that point, my god was Dean Castronovo, I thought he was incredible. He did a lot of solo records with Marty Friedman and Jason Becker, and this label called Shrapnel, that had very prog metal. I started learning a lot of that, and I became really obsessed with that stuff.

TAMA : When did you first join up with At the Drive-In?

: Well, I had never really listened to punk rock music ever in my life. I was just playing in all these other bands, and when I was in college, no one really wanted to give up everything and leave on tour. And I finally found this one band that was going to do it, and I got really excited, and then they broke up. And then, I heard that At the Drive-In, which was existent at that point, was looking for a drummer. And we kinda knew each other from the scene, but I didn’t really know everybody that well. So I got introduced, and then I pretty much got a mixed tape handed to me of different stuff… from Rites of Spring to Hoover, like the “new wave” of punk rock, the origination of emo I guess you could say… but in the real way, not what’s it called and represented by now. It was bands that were trying to push the envelope, and I listened to that kind of stuff, and I said, “oh my god.” You know, Hoover and Indian Summer, and all those bands I was introduced to… I was like, “what is this music?” Because I grew up on heavy metal on major labels. So I started playing with the guys, and it really worked out, and we all wanted the same exact thing. A few months later, there we were, giving up everything we knew. We went on tour, and did four months of touring our first tour together… and we played to nobody every single night. But we loved it and just continued doing it and so the fan base grew a little bit bigger and bigger.

TAMA : What is the setup that you are currently using with Sparta?

: Well, I add little things here and there, but my basic setup is an 18x24 kick, 9x13 rack, 14x16 and 16x18 floor toms. And sometimes on my left side, next to my hi-hat, I use a snare/tom that this drum tech I knew had kinda figured out. While we were recording our last record, we just put any kind of drum on my left side as an improv for every take. It turned out to be that sometimes it was a snare, and sometimes it was a tom. And I don’t like a lot of drums on stage, because it’s just too much for me. So I told Gene at Tama about it, and we created a kind of a 9x10 tom, with a snare bed and strainer on the bottom and a throw-off. So it sounds like an old-fashioned snare if you want it to, but then you have a tom right there too.

TAMA : What do you use for your primary snare?

: I own several, but mostly it’s a 5x14 Bell Brass. That’s mainly what I use in the studio and live. It’s just the one that cuts the most and has some weight to it, and doesn’t sound really pingy. I like deep snares. You know it’s a snare, but at the same time it has a lot of depth to it.

TAMA : You are a big fan of electronics, sequencers and sampling. What is your approach and philosophy on integrating these electronic elements in with your drumming?

: I think it’s about making it work. I’m a huge fan of electronic music. I became pretty obsessed with it about 7 or 8 years ago, and I wanted to program everything. I wanted everything to have programming in it. So it’s really just about balance. I started incorporating it with At the Drive-In years ago, when we all pretty much got bored of what we were doing. So that was one of the things that we added. We worked together to achieve a sound, and I got really good at getting a sampler or a sequencer and learning how to program on it. My philosophy more than anything is to create interesting beats with it. I guess my biggest qualm with electronics is if you’re creating a simple kick/snare pattern just to get a different sound. To me, you might as well just track it live and then mess with it with effects. So I always try beats that you can’t really pull off live. And that’s my philosophy with that, to try to do beats that are a little bit crazier that you can’t really duplicate as a human.

TAMA : What do you look for from your drums in terms of sound? Any specific tuning methods?

: With my toms, I tune very, very open. Even though sometimes I have to use a thicker head, like an Emperor – that’s like the middle weight that I have to use – I tune pretty low. I try to find the note that tom is going to resonate with, and I work on it from there. I don’t like tuning my toms high at all; I just try to figure out where the tom is supposed to sit. I like big-sounding toms, so that’s why I’ve never been into really small toms and tight sounds. I just try to find how the drum is supposed to breathe. I’ve had a lot of great mentors that I’ve learned from, who taught me how to tune. So, I’m pretty meticulous and I sometimes drive our tech crazy (laughs).

TAMA : TAMA: You have done some extensive touring and recorded many albums since you first found success with At the Drive-In. How has your drumming changed or evolved over the years? Are there concepts or ideas that you’re still working on?

: You know, I just hope to get better on every record, beyond anything. I just want to play tighter, and I want to push my fills in another direction, because you always have your standard stuff, you know? And sometimes my biggest problem is that my standard stuff really pisses me off. Because you always come back to it, and then you record a demo of something, and you’re like, “I’ve done that like I don’t how many times.” And that’s the stuff that is really, really frustrating to me. So it’s good having Jim [Ward, vocals/guitars] with me, who has played with me since At the Drive-In. He knows me like the back of his hand, so it’s always good to be like, “Have you heard this before? Have I done this? Because it sounds familiar.” I think I’ve only evolved in the sense that I’m really, really hard on myself and I’m constantly trying to get better. It’s not really about evolving; it’s about putting yourself in a better situation every single time you make a record, so that you’re satisfied with yourself. And if you’re happy at that point, then everything’s fine and you can move on to the next record.

TAMA : Are there any specific concepts or ideas that you have been working on lately?

: Yeah it’s funny, because lately I’ve been going back to playing along with records – 12 or 13 years later. I would go to practice by myself when we were on break, and then I would throw on Bitches Brew and I would just play along. And some of the stuff, I would have no idea what he was doing, and then I would slowly figure it out when I was driving home and come back the next day and work it out. And I’m trying to incorporate that into my drumming a little bit, if it’s like a heavy song or a very light song… if you add some of the feeling to it, that breathiness that those jazz drummers did, and Mahavishnu Orchestra, all those guys did… if you add that airiness to a very tight-sounding song, I think it’s really cool. And it gives it a different depth. So I went back to playing along with records, but kinda on a different level so to speak.

TAMA : There was some talk circulating about a solo project, called Nakia. Is that still alive, or are there any other projects you are working on outside of Sparta?

: Well, it’s actually such an old project. I started in like April of 2001, or a little bit earlier than that. And then a lot of things happened, new band, starting over… so I kinda put it on the backburner. Then I finally got some time and finished it. And what it’s really about is my obsession with electronic music. At that point, I couldn’t play drums because my tendonitis had gotten so bad in my right arm that I couldn’t even pick up a stick. So I decided to learn Pro Tools, and learn more samplers and sequencers in my time. I went out and bought Pro Tools and a few more sequencers and stuff, and got my manuals out, and would just sit there 8 hours a day and learn how to do the stuff. And I actually recorded 13 songs, but I released something about a year and a half ago that was only 6 songs, with no label or promotion or anything. By the time it came out, it was so old to me, that I didn’t really want to try to push it even the least bit. So I’m slowly working on a new record right now.

TAMA : And will that be in the same kind of vein?

: No… that’s the fun part about having a side project, you can do whatever you want. It will still have a very small electronic feel, but I think for the most part I’m going to try to make it my sense and my form of jazz, fused with a lot of rock. And I’m just going to get different players that I know that play guitar and trumpet and sax, and go a little more organic with it this time.