Weapon Of Choice
An Interview with John Stanier of Tomahawk
Most people who remember the early ’90s heavy metal band Helmet, remember that they were a unique group of hardcore dudes that all had really short hair and looked like bankers, yet they played the raddest, most mind-tweaking metal music around, next to Soundgarden. I mean, it was crazy stuff. Whenever I hear that big Helmet hit, “Unsung,” I feel like I’m on acid or something. Those were some good times. Helmet was together for ten years and recorded four albums before they broke up in 1999. “Four albums and bunch of crap,” says former Helmet drummer John Stanier, clarifying my estimated Helmet discography. Thank you, John.
These days, John Stanier is the drummer for a band called Tomahawk, which is led by Duane Dennison of the Jesus Lizard and also features Mike Patton (do I have to tell you who Mike Patton is? I hope not) and Kevin Rutmanis of the Melvins. Tomahawk released its sophomore album, entitled Mit Gas last spring. I think it’s number two or three on my top ten list for 2003. Last year I had the chance to interview John for a drumming magazine and I had about 3,500 extra words left over so I decided to use them here. This interview was conducted over the phone in April of 2003. I was freezing my ass off in NYC and John was lounging by a hotel swimming pool in Las Vegas, where he’d gone to escape the freezing ass cold of New York. In this interview John talked about his career as an accidental DJ, his drumming philosophy, what Mike Patton is really like, and how it feels to have been part of a highly influential band like Helmet.
I love this album and I think your drumming is my favorite drum performance of the year so far.
Really? Weird, wow. I’ve kinda got goose bumps from you saying that.
Could you give me a brief story of what you did after Helmet broke up?
Sure. Helmet broke up and basically it was a really bad break up. It left a bad taste in my mouth. I wanted to get into another band, but not right away. There weren’t really any [new gigs] popping up and from a combination of that and just wanting to take some time off, I accidentally turned into a DJ. I DJ’d somebody’s party once, and I didn’t know how to DJ at all. I’d always been really into hip-hop and I have a lot of hip-hop records, but I didn’t know how to DJ. But I did that and it was fun. Then I filled in for somebody for a night, then I got my own night and started actually getting paid for it. I started to take that really seriously, practicing every day and stuff. The next thing I know, I’m DJing six nights a week for a year and a half. Then I DJ’d out of state and I went to Japan… I don’t know why that happened, but I took that really seriously.
I had also broken my wrist, so that had something to do with me not playing drums for a while. I wanted to play but there just were no offers, at all. I was calling up every single person I knew, I was running out of money, and I felt like, “I’ve got to keep playing.” I was really trying to find a band and I just couldn’t find anything that was interesting at all. I did the Pitchshifter record; that was really fun. Then I joined this band in Australia called The Mark of Cain, which I’ve been doing for the past three years. They’re a really big band down there — but they only tour and release their records in Australia, because they’re kind of an institution there. They asked me to do the one tour and, the next thing I know, I’m going there seven times a year to tour. That was when Tomahawk started. There was a good year and a half to two years where, other than the Pitchshifter record, I wasn’t playing at all.
Maybe, subliminally, it was by choice. I was really into DJing but, honestly, I just really could not find a gig at all. I’m not the kind of person who will go tour with some band just for money. I’ve always had this weird credo that if this starts to feel like a job, I don’t want to do it any more. The whole appeal of being a musician in the first place is that I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do ever since I was five years old. I always want it to be fun and challenging and interesting. If I have to go on tour with Hanson — unless they offered me a million dollars a night, well then maybe — I’d just as soon not do it. I’m not a session guy. I’ve tried and I can’t hustle for that and I can’t play music that I’m not really into. I’m not good at faking it. I don’t like to think of drumming as a job, even though it ismy job. It’s my profession and it’s my lifestyle and everything…but I don’t like looking at it like that.
How did Tomahawk get started?
Duane Denison was in the Jesus Lizard and I’ve known him for years and years. The Jesus Lizard broke up and he was playing with Hank Williams III, but he was unhappy with that. He was going to come to NY and he was always talking about this solo thing he was going to do. I told him I was definitely down for it. I guess he met Mike Patton when Mr. Bungle went to Nashville, because that’s where Duane lives. They had a mutual friend or something, so they started talking and Mike was really into it, because Mike had always liked Duane’s style. Basically, those two got the ball rolling in 2001. Mike brought in Kevin from The Melvins and Duane brought me in and it all happened super fast. Duane writes all the music, so he wrote the first record and Mike threw all of his vocals and samples and shit on it. It was written through the mail, for the most part. I’d just get this CD of new songs in the mail every couple of weeks. Then we met in Nashville, rehearsed for two days and then recorded and mixed the record in a little under two weeks. It was the fastest thing I’d ever done. We had never even all been in the same room together before that, but we had all known each other. I had known Mike from Faith No More, because Helmet toured with them, and I had known Kevin from The Cows.
It was all very professional and it was really great. We did the first record and we toured everywhere in the US on that, plus we went to Australia and Europe. Then we toured the US again with Tool, opening for them for two months. We took six months off and then the exact same thing happened with the second record, working through the mail. We met in LA and I think this time we rehearsed for three days, then went and recorded for maybe two and a half weeks with Joe Baressi producing. We just banged it out. And there you go; there’s Mit Gas/ We did that in November and now it’s coming out May 6th , and this will be our first US tour.
The record just sounds so good.
A lot of that is Joe Baressi. He’s the man. A lot of it also is where we recorded, at the place called Grand Master in L.A. It’s this really big, funky studio with really weird shaped rooms. It was just awesome. I’m really impressed with how it came out.
As a producer, what did Joe Baressi bring to your parts?
What Joe did is just record my drums really well, for the most part. We tried out some stuff, where there’s this parking garage attached to the studio and we went and recorded me playing there. One time he recorded the stuff really fast — like double speed — on 2-inch, so that when you listen to it back it sounds like the drums are tuned way lower and sludgier. Then he did the opposite, where we recorded it slow, so on playback it sounds super fast. He definitely did some really cool stuff, but it was mostly his recording technique.
Is there any programming on the record? The songs “Mayday” and “Capt Midnight” sound like maybe there is.
On “Mayday,” that’s me playing Dale from the Melvins 1950’s drum set in this weird room. The mikes are feeding back or something. Then on “Capt Midnight,” that’s the demo version, so that’s Duane’s drum machine. But live, I’m playing that pattern. The very last song on the record [“Aktion 13F14”] is also the demo. We just wanted to leave it like it was. Mike is talking through a voice box and there’s all of this cool stuff on it, and we just really liked the way it sounded. On “Capt Midnight,” too… on the record there are a couple of drops that I do and then there’s the middle section, but for the most part that song is just Duane’s drum machine just going nuts.
Since the music on Mit Gas sort of goes all over the place stylistically and you cover an impressive range of feels, is it safe to say Tomahawk allows you a pretty wide berth to be experimental and to really stretch out chops wise?
Yeah, completely. I don’t think any of us really knew what was going to happen with Tomahawk. At first it was like “Let’s do this band,” and I respect all of the players in the band, so I was really up for it. But I don’t think anyone really knew what was going to happen. As it was unfolding… I think I have the mindset where each song has a totally different life of its own. I’ll use different drums on different songs or we’ll record each song in a different way, in different rooms and use different mikes, different snares, just to make it a little more interesting, where it’s not the same tones throughout the whole record. I like that, too. I mean, I like records where it’s one long song, basically, but this is definitely different.
A lot of the arrangements — and your parts — sound very progressive to me. Because of that I wondered if you had listened to any of Bill Bruford’s playing on early Yes albums?
Totally. I went through a period in junior high school where it was all about Rush, Bill Bruford, Bozzio with UK, and Carl Palmer, definitely. After that I got really into the fusion stuff, like Lenny White, and Return to Forever. And I really like Billy Cobham.
What’s your dynamic like with your bass player, Kevin Rutmanis?
It’s weird. We’re definitely the rhythm section, but that’s kind of a hard question to answer, because it’s not the typical thing that I’m used to. I’m used to really lining up with the bass player, but with Kevin [long pause], Kevin is almost more of like another guitar player, in a weird way. He’s not just playing bass, he’s changing his sound all over the place and he does a lot…Kevin is a real dominant person when we do improvs, and we do a lot of improvs. There’s two improvs on the record, and live, we usually do two improvs as well. Kevin has just tons and tons of samplers and pedals and stuff, so I almost consider him a melodic bass player, even though he’s not getting all “Jaco” [Pastorius]. He’s melodic in the sense that his tones are all over the place and he has his own voice. Of course, his signature is his slide — that’s what he’s known for. He’s incredible.
How would you describe the kind of music Tomahawk plays?
Cinematic Rock. That’s exactly what it is. All of us, especially Mike, are nuts for soundtracks. He’s really into them. If you mention a movie, he’ll be like, “Oh yeah, that score was composed by…” and it’s some rare, Italian movie. He studies film soundtracks; that’s his thing. I’m into them from a sampling standpoint, because I make beats too, so I sample a lot of stuff. I buy a lot of records, so I’m always checking out soundtracks as well. That’s definitely one thing that we all have in common and that has a lot to do with Tomahawk and why each song has a life of its own…because it’s cinematic!
What do you like best about being in Tomahawk?
[Repeats question to himself.] I’m trying to think of something funny to say… but I can’t. I’m a little slow today. It’s the sun and the tequila from last night. I like the fact that it’s so ‘by the books.’ I’m doing this with people who have been doing this for a really long time and it’s like, “Okay, we’re going to record now,” or whatever. Everyone is really opinionated and we’re four completely different people who are older and jaded, so that has its ups and downs, of course, but that’s a whole other aspect to it. I like the fact that this band is very professional and everyone is into quality — that’s what we all agree on, especially when we’re recording. There’s no drama or drugs and no one’s missing flights. It’s just professional, and that definitely follows with the music as well. Everything has its place. I personally feel like I’ve never been in a band like this before. To me, Tomahawk is like a pop band, when you really think about it, because each song is like a single. I don’t think that saying something is “pop” is bad, either; I love a lot of pop. I’ve never been in a band where I’m holding back a lot, because this band is all about control and pace. It wouldn’t sound right for me to be filling all over the place. It would sound stupid.
I did notice that you’re very restrained with your fills.
In Helmet it was like, “Ok, this is a riff and… just go nuts.” I could do whatever the hell I wanted: I could change the tempo, I could do fills the whole time. It didn’t matter, because it was just so rhythmic and Helmet was something completely different. It was a totally different entity unto itself. I think I know better by now [how not to over play], to me that’s almost the sign of a good player. When I was younger and just getting into drumming, if I heard a drummer who wasn’t doing any fills, I’d think, “Oh, this guy isn’t Neil Peart, so he’s not very good, because he’s not filling.” But I like a lot of funk guys, like the guy from the Meters, and he’ll just play a beat and do, like, one fill in a song — but it’s the craziest fill you’ve ever heard. Or it’s like just sick, the way he does it… really subtle and tasty. It’s not like anyone is saying, “Don’t do fills all over the place,” it’s just the nature of the music. On “Bird Song,” the first song, that beat is something I consider almost a fill, like the whole song is a fill. That’s really hard to play.
That song is killer. It’s very heavy and gothic sounding.
And now, that “Capt Midnight” song, the way we’re doing it live is the first part is the drum machine and then we do the loud middle part. Then the second half of it is where I’m playing the drum machine pattern with a single pedal — and that’s hard as shit, too. Then we’ll play the ballad song on the record, where I don’t do anything at all, but that’s fine. I don’t have to always be going crazy.
I know Tomahawk toured with Tool, what was that like?
They were great. They are super cool, really nice guys. Danny [Carey, Tool’s drummer] is awesome. I had met him a couple of times before but I had ever seen Tool play live. It’s weird, because Tool is from the same era as Helmet. They started right around the time we did, and so I look at them as being the “Survivors.” They might have even said that as well. They’re the last band of that era, because Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Helmet… all those bands broke up — except for Pearl Jam, but whatever — and Tool is like the “Survivor of the Class of ’92,” I think that’s what they call it. For some weird reason, Tool is the one band from that era that we never played with. I never saw them but I did meet them a couple of times here and there and they were always really cool. [When we toured with them] Tool would let me go on stage and play with them on their second-to-last song. They pulled out these roto-toms, so I got to go up and play. That was really fun. Danny’s crazy. His drums are made out of cymbals.
You mean the drum shells are melted down cymbals?
Yeah, they took all of these cymbals and they melted them down and made drums, so they weigh…his 13″ tom weighs 200 pounds. It’s crazy. He has a giant drum set. He’s really cool and a super good drummer.
I know you have a drum corps background. Because of that, do you consider your snare to be the center of your kit or the center of your “sound”?
Oh, totally, absolutely. I marched forever and then I was an orchestral percussion major in college. I never really took drumset lessons; I still can’t keep time with my hi-hat. And it’s like, why bother now? I would say that for most hard rock drummers, their kick would be the center of their drumset, but for me it’s definitely my snare, absolutely. I’m more hands-oriented than feet, and that’s from marching.
Because Helmet was such an influential band, have you had many people tell you that your playing has influenced them?
Yeah, that’s happened. Of course, I can’t even put into words how that makes me feel. My whole career is very storybook, almost, in a weird sort of way. It’s the stereotypical “childhood dream,” sort of thing. I’ve known that I wanted to play drums in a band, literally, since I was five. I’m not exaggerating. Then I went through the whole gradual process of starting out really small, touring in a van, crashing on people’s floors, [going from being] on an indie label to a major label to a bus, da da da. Then back down again. Then doing other interesting stuff and establishing a name for myself. It’s all very Hollywood storybook. It really, honestly means so much to me when a sixteen year old kid comes up to me and says, “Man, you really made me want to play drums”… and especially now, because Helmet is old now. A sixteen year old kid is going back to check out Helmet. Those records are old now. That makes me feel weird, but it’s true and I think it’s cool that people go back and listen to that shit. If what I’ve done is making other kids want to play drums, then I’ve literally achieved my goal in life and I can die a happy person. Because that’s what happened to me, and it still happens to me. I still hear shit that just gets me stoked to play and makes me really happy that I chose to do this. When it’s something that I did, it’s super humbling.
That must be how Neil Peart feels when every drummer in the world says they were most influenced by him.
I bet. Him and John Bonham. Those two, it just ends there. And I think Peart was even more influential because he took drumming… he just raised the bar. He took it to a completely different level. And I’m a fucking peanut compared to that guy. For me, it’s a really, really, really big deal when someone says they loved my drumming. And it’s a big deal if somebody says, “Yeah, I loved Helmet.” But it’s an even bigger deal when someone says, “You made me want to play drums.” That’s unbelievable. I don’t even know what to say to that.
What’s it like working with Mike Patton?
Mike is pretty normal. He’s actually really normal when he’s with another person. But… yeah, he takes a little bit of getting used to, because he’s somebody where all his other stuff is 100% him. In all of his other bands, he was the leader in every aspect. I don’t know, maybe Faith No More wasn’t like that, but it seemed like it was. This might even be the first band he’s been in where he’s not the leader, because this is definitely Duane’s band — 100% Duane. But we’re on Mike’s label and he has a lot to do with the arrangements of the songs. Anyway, he’s just this guy, I don’t know. He’s definitely pretty intense in the studio. I guess he just does this a lot. And it’s cool. He’s really, really, really talented.
I wondered if he was maybe a guy who always has to be “On.” Like, he might pour a beer over your head or something.
Yeah, [pause] he kind of is like that. He’s on or off, like a wind-up toy. But he’s really good at what he does and he’s awesome to play with. He has his hands in a million different things. Sometimes Tomahawk is billed as [adopts radio announcer type voice], “The latest Mike Patton project,” and I don’t really think it’s like that at all. This is an actual, real band.
And you have another band too…
My other band is called Battles and that is with Ian from Don Caballero. That’s really super challenging. It’s like three guitars, drums and a girl choir. That’s what I’ve been doing in the last six months. I feel bad about having disappeared for a year and a half while I was DJing, so I’m trying to make up for lost time, so to speak. It wasn’t necessarily by choice, but I don’t like blinking my eyes and going, “Oh man, a year has gone by and I haven’t done anything.” That’s not a good feeling. So right now I’m trying to stay as busy as I possibly can.
Ipecac Records: http://www.ipecac.com/