Mega-Drummer: An Interview with Jimmy DeGrasso of
Speed metal legends Megadeth finally got their grand pop cultural moment in the spotlight last Sunday, when VH1 debuted Megadeth: Behind The Music. As Behind The Musics go, this was an awesome spectacle of sleaze and debauchery: a soul-baring roller coaster ride through frontman Dave Mustaine’s decade-long drug bender, during which he still managed to put out an album a year and have the best hair in rock. You just gotta love Dave Mustaine. Of course, bassist David Ellefson was all over BTM too, because he’s been in the band since the beginning, has also sucked up enough drugs to kill an elephant, and spins a good rock and roll yarn. More power to David Ellefson. If you stuck around until the last five minutes of the show, you got to see new Megadeth guitarist Al Pitrelli — who joined the band around the time of last summer’s Maximum Rock Tour (with Motley Crue) — and drummer Jimmy DeGrasso — who hooked up with Mustaine and company on the cusp of recording their 1999 release, Risk — for about 30 seconds. That hardly seems fair, but hey, you gotta go for the grit on these things.
I can’t do much in the way of giving Al Pitrelli his props, but as luck and timing would have it, I spent about 45 minutes on the phone with Jimmy DeGrasso recently, and what I got out of it is a pretty killer interview. Jimmy has been playing drums since he was an egg, and spent about five years drumming with skate-punks Suicidal Tendencies, has toured with the great Alice Cooper, and gigged with metal goddess Lita Ford before he joined Megadeth. He’s a really funny and cool guy who knows his shit. Jimmy and I talked all about the recording of Megadeth’s upcoming new record, a return to metal power called The World Needs a Hero and he gave me his own version of what goes on behind the music of Megadeth.
When I hooked up with Jimmy at his home in Northern California, he had just received a new drum kit!
I was sitting by the phone and the doorbell rang and it was UPS. They just brought me a new drum kit and I was down in the garage helping them unload it. It’s this new Pearl Prestige Select kit that’s coming out that’s getting all these rave reviews, so they wanted to send me one. So I have one of everything (laughs). It’s good to have everything [for] when you want to use it.
There’s no such thing as too many drums.
You know, that’s what I keep saying, and unfortunately, around my house, no one seems to agree. I have them…there’s like drum remnants in every room. There’s just one room stacked with kits, and then there’s like this storage thing underneath the house that’s filled with drums. My wife’s actually pretty cool about it. She’s just like, “Is there a reason why we have 50 snare drums?” Well, they all have their own personality.
I met Dave Mustaine a few years ago. We went out to dinner and he was so funny, and so cool. After all the horror stories I’d heard about him, I didn’t think he was an asshole at all.
[Laughs] Well, I was waiting to get your feedback on [Dave], because you either get one of two things, you know; either, “Wow, he was really friendly,” or “I really didn’t care for him.”
I think I got him post-rehab enough that he was becoming the cool Dave guy.
I’ve known him for a long time and [pause, laughs] it’s interesting. He gets a bad rap sometimes. I understand why, because people take things he says out of context, and unfortunately, sometimes it backfires on him. But you know, that happens with everybody.
Absolutely, especially when you’re not afraid to not edit yourself.
No, he has no edit button [laughs]. That’s the first thing I noticed about him. From his brain to his mouth there is no interference whatsoever. It goes right out. I used to be that way, and I learned to try to be careful what you say, because some people will take it out of context at times.
How did you join Megadeth?
Basically, I got a call one day. I was actually on tour with Alice Cooper at the time. Dave called — I got the message on my machine to give him a call and I was in like Berlin or something. I called him back, because I hadn’t talked to him in a year or so. We were actually talking about sports, just BS-ing about hockey, and he says, “What are you doing when you get home?” And I said, “I’ll be home on Monday,” and he was like, “Do you want to play drums with the band?” It was sort of out of the blue. It was surprising, just a thing where he called me and said they were having some problems and they had a lot of touring to do that year and would I be able to help out. Somewhere along the way it just turned into a permanent situation.
Speaking of Alice Cooper, Dave’s voice really reminds me of Alice, especially on this new record.
Alice, really, I don’t think he gets the kudos he should sometimes. He really has been an influential force to so many. There’s the obvious people who have stolen from him or borrowed from him, but if you grew up in the ’70s listening to music, you’re obviously extremely aware of him, and people can’t help but mimic what they were listening to.
You know, before you called I was listening to Risk, which I think is a really good album, but I know that a lot of older Megadeth fans didn’t embrace it and thought it was too un-Megadeth-like or whatever. With that in mind then, coming into recording The World Needs a Hero, what was the band’s objective for that?
When I joined the band, we toured and they already had this idea to do Risk.. They wanted to do something that was really a huge departure from what they had done. They figured, “there’s no time like the present to try something really adventurous” — which it was, obviously. Unfortunately, [laughs] I wanted to join Megadeth and play Megadeth music. I didn’t really want to do this experimental rock album. I don’t even know what to call it, but Risk was what it was. The band played things that no one thought we could play and we wrote songs that no one thought we could write. It picked up some new fans but certainly alienated some old ones.
This time out, I think we had so much turmoil in our camp and surrounding us with other issues — obviously we changed a member this year, too — that we basically streamlined back down to what we are. The way most of the songs came about for the record, we wound up writing a lot of them during sound check on the Risk tour. That was basically just me, Dave, and David, because Marty obviously was leaving the band, so there was no reason for him to show up for sound check [laughs]. There was no [lead] guitar player [in the writing sessions] so that’s why, I think if you listen to the basic tracks on the new record, it’s just guitar, bass, and drums. There’s nothing weird on it, with effects or loops. It’s just streamlined metal again.
I guess we just wanted to do the opposite of what we did with Risk and go back to almost old school. There was really no preconceived notion, we just wanted to do what we felt like doing. My experiences in bands, when a band sets this huge game plan and contrives this, that, and the other thing, it almost becomes too much. You should just be what you are and let the audience come to you.
What’s the role of the drums in a Megadeth song?
[Laughs] I’m still trying to figure that out. It’s basically to just keep the whole thing together. The drums are the glue, I guess. You keep good time. A band is sort of like a racecar [laughs]: you kind of drive the band, you know when to drive it and when to slow it down. You know what? I’m just wingin’ these.
And doing so well! How has your own drumming style evolved since you started playing? And how long have you been playing, by the way?
Since I was two and a half• oh my god. You know, my very first drum kit was this drum kit called a Ludwig Standard. It was a weird beginner’s kit that was made from like 1966 to ’69, and it was my first drum kit that was any good. My dad bought it for me when I was like three or four. I saw one on eBay [recently] that was completely restored and I tried to buy it, but on the last day the bidding went through the roof. A kit that cost like $300 bucks then went for like $1300. And I know it sounds horrible [laughs], like [I was thinking], “I don’t know if I can pay that, to put it in my closet.” I’m sorry, what was the question?
That’s OK, it’s good to be free and spontaneous like that. The question is: How has your own drumming style evolved since you started playing?
[Pause, sighs] It’s always hard for me to talk about my drumming and what I do. I mean, it seems like my approach changes to accommodate the people I play with. It’s hard to describe, it’s like [struggling] in this band the guitar and the drums are the two most dominant sounds, so I guess I tightened up a lot more• wait• I’m trying to think on this one•
How about if I put it this way: How do you think being in Megadeth has allowed your playing to grow?
Hmmm. I think in some ways, it’s allowed me more freedom, as far as in some ways I get to play more than I normally would, but at the same time, I guess I’ve taken all the things I’ve learned in all the other situations I’ve been in and brought them into this. That’s what maybe makes the band sound a little bit different than it used to. Basically, the nucleus of the band is still Dave’s rhythm guitar, so it’s all about how the whole thing revolves around that.
Every song on The World Needs a Hero seems to have something different going on, drum-wise.
Al, our guitar player, was on the road with us for a couple of weeks before he actually started playing with us, because Marty was showing him songs. And Al’s been around a long time, he actually played with Alice Cooper and he’s done a lot of sessions and he was in Savatage for awhile. But when he was learning the songs, he said something real interesting, because he sat back and watched the shows every night. He plays with a lot of drummers, and he said that every time we play a song, I come up [with] something different or play something a little bit off, to where he can’t quite put me into one category, jazz influenced or rock influenced or whatever. I thought that was really interesting.
Since the band produced the record, or I guess it was mostly Dave, this time out, did you have any hand in the production end of things?
Dave produced it, which means he’s the guy that’s going to sit in the control room all day and listen to tracks. We all throw our two cents in, and when we listen to tracks, there will be certain things that’ll eek me that maybe he won’t hear. Or he might hear something that I won’t even pay any attention to. So, we all sort of have our hand in, like, making little changes, but at the end of the day, Dave is going to make the executive call on it.
“Disconnect” is a great track with some rad fills.
I know a lot of people, when they go into the studio, they either chart their fills out or they plan or they think about them and have this preconceived approach. But you know what, I just go, and whatever hits me at that moment, I play. It might be a really small fill or it might be this huge thing I just think of off the top of my head. There’s a fill at the end of “Return To Hangar” that’s, like, a four bar fill, which is all double bass drum, toms and snare, and it’s all countering back and forth. I just did that once in the studio. Then we went in the control room and the co-producer, Bill Kennedy, goes, “Hey, can you do that fill again?” And I•m like, “I don’t even know what it was [laughs]. Play it back and let me see if I can figure it out.” Because I just don’t really plan anything.
Would you say that you’re more of a song-oriented drummer than a technical drummer?
No, I think I•m both. My emphasis isn’t on technique, because [while] I think I’m a fairly technical drummer, I don’t need to be that way all the time. I guess when I have to, I can be. The song matters first, and then, if I can do some really weird kind of cool drum fill in there, I will, but it’s not a priority. There was this one fill I did that was so bizarre, it was like I put ten pounds of crap into a five-pound bag. It was so over the top, it was funny. It was an intro fill, and we heard the song and Dave was like, “Ah, can you maybe do that a bit more simply?” [laughs]. It was so distracting, I was like, “Never mind, I’ll do something else.” At times it works and at times [not]. I was sitting in the control room laughing because I couldn’t even believe I thought of it.
Are you playing to a click at all?
Yeah. In the studio we usually use a click, the reason being, what happens a lot of times is — especially with [a song like] “Disconnect” — that song actually got put backwards. What used to be a chorus was the verse and what was the verse turned into, like, a B section. [That happened because] after it was all said and done, it was like, “Hey, wait a minute, I hear this different.” When you have to start cutting pieces together, like, “We have to put the front of the song at the back,” etc., it needs to have one tempo going through it. I guess if we spent more time refining the songs before we did the record, we probably wouldn’t use a click. We’ve done demos where we wouldn’t even bother with it. But if you have to edit it down or change a section, it’s just easier if you make sure that you don’t have any weird tempo jumps or anything like that.
I find more and more that all different types of drummers are using clicks for all different reasons. More metal guys are using them and it’s less of a stigma.
Well, the thing is too, it depends on what reference you want to use it for. There’s people that want you to play dead-on with the click, and I mean dead-on, where it sounds like a drum machine. And you can do that, [but] that tends to get a little bit on the sterile side. We stay — it’s hard to explain — you can use the click a little bit loosely. You don’t have to be on it every nanosecond. The track can breathe over the click. It’s hard to explain to young drummers sometimes, “You have to be on the click, but you don’t want to be that on the click.” You can’t really make them understand it until they sit in the control room for days on end and listen to it and go, “Oh, OK, now I get it.”
I guess that goes with letting yourself feel things, and not thinking you have to be “right.”
Well, yeah. Music — I mean, oh my god! — music wasn’t meant to be that correct.
You know, I finally got to see Megadeth play, over last summer with Motley Crue at Jones Beach, and I was blown away. You’re a very exciting live band.
What did you think of the drummer? [Jimmy refers to Samantha Maloney, Hole’s drummer, who sat in for the ailing Randy Castillo of Motley Crue on that tour.]
I like Samantha, and I actually know her from when she was in her first band, Shift. I’ve interviewed her a couple of times. I think she’s a phenomenal drummer.
Yeah, she’s pretty good. She did a good job. It’s just weird to see Motley Crue with a girl [in the band]. I was honestly — because Randy Castillo’s a friend of mine — not sure what to make of it.
Well, she’s not Tommy Lee, and I’ve never see Randy play, but it was a really fun show.
They have a lot of hits, and god, there was a time when they were really on the radio non-stop, in the mid-’80s, maybe?
I still love all those songs.
Well, they’re great songs.
So anyway, I was impressed with Megadeth. And getting back to the record, “Promises” is the song on this record that’s sort of the departure from everything else, because it’s got the orchestra involved. It actually has an ELO/Sgt. Pepper kind of feel to it. How•s that song to play?
It’s funny, I never really knew what we were doing [when we were recording that] [laughs]. It was one of these things where we’re in the studio and Dave’s humming this thing to me and singing and asking me, “What do you want to do with it?” and I said, “It’s a really a straight pocket song, I’m not going to do too much with it.” Then, when I laid the drum track, it was only me and him and David — I think Dave might have been playing an acoustic guitar. The whole orchestra came later. Then, when I heard it, I went, “Oh wow, OK.” When you listen to the string arrangement, it’s pretty cool. That’s new for us. We’ve sort of toyed with it, to have a little string come in here and there, or a little section with some sort of sampled strings or something, but here we actually had real string players come in and do all that.
You know, from the time you have this inception of a song [to completion], it totally can go anywhere, and that’s what I’ve learned to accept. In this particular band, the way we do things, we write songs, and as the recording process goes on, as other people get their hands on it, it totally turns into something else from what you pictured at the very beginning. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. But you’re right, that song came out to be almost a Sgt. Pepper thing. It was cool.
One of my favorite songs is “Dread and the Fugitive Mind,” where you have all kinds of different drums feels going on — speed metal and a jazzy feel and stuff. How did you put that together?
All of the middle section wasn’t even there originally. It was really a straight-ahead song at the beginning, where it was just basically a stock beat all the way through. Then me and Dave started messing around at sound check, and he started playing that lick that goes “digga digga digga digga dah” [repeats several times]. So I started playing a beat over that, where I could play all the guitar rhythms with my bass drum and still play a beat. And he goes, “Wow, we could use that for something.” And — back to the songwriting process — in the rehearsal room we go, “Remember that lick we were doing back in April? Let•s put that in here.”
Do you have any particular favorite songs on the record?
I think “Moto Psycho” and [pause] I like the whole thing, for the most part. I don’t think there’s any clinkers on the album, which is a good thing. Every time you do a record, there’s always one track you hear and you go, “Ugh. What were we thinking? Couldn’t we come up with a better filler tune than that?” [laughs]. I like the phrasing on “Moto Psycho” because the drum beat and the guitar rhythm really don’t go together, but they do. Because if you listen to it, there’s a syncopated rhythm guitar going over a drum beat that’s like “digga digga digga dah dah,” and the guitar rhythm does something else. So, the two rhythms are different, but they work somehow. It’s kind of unorthodox, but it’s cool. It will be fun to go play [the album] live and see what works live. That’s where you find out where the meat of your album is, I guess. “Dread and the Fugitive Mind” we’ve been playing the last three or four live shows we did, and it seems to be working pretty well.
Following that, do you think the band’s live energy is well captured on this record?
Yeah, that’s one thing that’s definitely much better than the last record. Like I said, all these songs were written at sound check, and when you write songs — like, when you jam it at sound check before gigs, it’s a different feel than being in a rehearsal room. You have your full PA and your full sound and it’s a lot different standing on that stage where the guys are playing through big rows of Marshals and I have this huge drum wedge behind me and the bass drums are about 135 decibels. There’s a certain presence that that all has, where that inspires you to play much differently than when you’re in a rehearsal space in Arizona [with] padding all over the walls trying to deaden the sound, you know? It tends to be a totally different approach, and I think that lent to the fact that this is more of a live-oriented record.
This isn’t much of a studio record like, say, Risk, where we had access to all this technology in the studio and we were like, “Ooh, we have an eight bar section here, let’s put a drum loop with some weird synthesizers [on it] blah blah.” That’s not something you’d do at a live gig, but we had the stuff at our disposal, so we thought we should use it. And now that we’ve done that, we don’t have to do it again [laughs].
The World Needs a Hero will be released on May 15, 2001.