Steven Gillis Rocks Your Lame Ass
Steven Gillis plays drums for the band Filter. Steve lives in Chicago and is badass. We did a totally rad interview back in June, right before Filter went out on the road for a summer tour to promote their latest record, which is called The Amalgamut. I missed their New York City show because I was rocking out in Los Angeles, so that was kind of a drag, but Steve said not to worry, because I could catch them when they came back in the fall. Sadly, their fall tour had to be canceled due to “personal problems” being experienced by Richard Patrick, Filter’s lead singer (read: Rehab), so I never did get to see Steve play drums this year. Anyway, this is a really good interview and since I’m too brain dead to write an intro I’m just going to let Steve do all the talking.
How did you start playing drums?
When I was about five or six years old, my parents were invited over to dinner at a neighbor’s house. We were all sitting around eating dinner and somehow I was scouting around the home and went downstairs. There was a drum set in the basement — nobody told me that — and I started banging on these drums. It just zapped me, like, something happened. I knew from that point I was going to be playing music for the rest of my life, which I have. I’ve never had a day job in my life; I’ve made my living solely playing music, for about 16 years now. I’ve done every kind of gig you can ever imagine doing. Like, throw out a gig.
I’ve done that. I have done it all.
Who are some of the drummers who have influenced your style?
I have to say Tony Williams. You Know, Tony Williams started playing with Miles Davis when he was 17. The record that was recorded at Carnegie Hall, “Four and More” and “My Funny Valentine,” Tony was 17 [on those recordings]. I’m really into jazz music and jazz playing. I have my own quintet that plays in Chicago every Monday night when I’m home. To me, playing rock and roll drums…I grew up listening to rock and roll, I don’t really need to work at it. It’s just in me, from listening to the radio and listening to Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell.
Buddy Miles is one of my favorite drummers ever. He’s an incredible singer and an incredible drummer and musician. I used to watch him play here in Chicago. Actually, I met him, because I used to play with this guitar player named Dion Payton. Dion is good friends with Buddy and he used to come down and see me play at Kingston Mines on Halstead Street here in Chicago. So, when I was younger — 22 or 23 years old — I sort of had a little connection with him. He was the first guy I ever met that, when I saw him play the drums, and then he came around to see me, I felt really like he was almost a mentor to me. It’s not like we were super close, but Buddy would come around the gigs and we’d talk a little bit and he’d give me pointers. I’d watch him play and then he’d watch me play and smile from the front row — you could see his gold teeth. It was fun and a real encouraging exchange.
There’s so many drummers that I love. John Bonham [laughs], Steve Jordan, Charlie Drayton — another one of my all time favorites. Charlie and Steve Jordan, those guys…have you heard of the band the Expensive Winos?
Keith Richards’ band.
They’d be in the middle of a set and Charlie and Steve would swap instruments. Charlie would pick up the bass and Steve would play drums and they’d just switch off. It was just funky. I’m really influenced by drummers that don’t need all these drums around them; who, with a cymbal and a bass and snare, can just whoop your ass and play all kinds of great shit and really groove their asses off. In Filter, obviously, I’m playing a bigger drumset, but for years before I played with Filter I, literally, played a bass drum, snare drum, a 13″ floor tom and two cymbals and a hi-hat. When I’m carrying my own drums everywhere in my little Honda, that’s all I needed. I really feel like you need to be able to do a lot of shit on a bass and snare drum, hi-hat and cymbal. You need to be able to just lay it down and make it happen. All the other stuff, to me, is great, but if you can’t do it with [those basic pieces] then everything else is sort of a diversion.
For me, playing in Filter is awesome. I love it. I love the guys and I love the music. I really believe in the band and the music and everything. But I couldn’t just play in one band. I couldn’t just do one thing. The beautiful thing with Filter is that we work on our record, and we work during the day. Then, at night, I’m at home and I’m playing gigs all over town. Then we go on the road and I can just concentrate on Filter and it’s beautiful. I’ll have a year and a half concentrating on Filter and then a year and a half working on the record, and getting my brain into other things…working on my technique. I love it.
How did you join Filter?
I was playing locally in Chicago for years. I was doing maybe 300 to 350 gigs a year playing in about ten or twelve different bands. I’ve played with a lot of blues people, like Sugar Blue and Valarie Wellington and Charles Primer, a lot of Chicago blues people. I also played in different groups around Chicago. I played in this improv group called Sumo — it’s like a ten piece improv band — and that’s actually how Richard (Patrick) saw me first. We’d play every Sunday night at this club called the Elbow Room and it was just all improv, the whole gig. He’d come down and watch me play and then one night he asked me what I was doing and I said “Looking to play on your next record,” [laughs]. So that’s how we started working together, on Title of Record. First, I went in and played brushes on a version of “Miss Blue.” It snowballed from that, from me playing all of the drums on “Miss Blue” to me playing drums on “It’s Gonna Kill Me” to [me doing] the rest of the record.
So, it was almost like a slow audition?
Yeah, it was a natural process; one thing kind of rolled into the next. The next thing I knew, I was updating my passport to get ready to go on tour.
From Title of Record to Amalgamut, how has your playing been evolving?
With Title of Record, I had just joined the band. I was going in blindfolded, almost, and just kind of playing…sort of unrelated to how I might be playing now, after being on the road with them for a year and a half between those two records. It was more my gut instinct, what I felt. I wasn’t trying to sound like any other drummer. For Title of Record, I was just playing how I would feel it. With this album, we’d gotten a chance to become a live band together, so my playing on this record is more representative of me being a part of Filter, if that makes any sense at all. It’s just a little more seasoning, a little more time. Now I’ve been in the band for almost five years.
Along the lines of what you were just saying, the band bio that came with the record contains this statement: Amalgamut spotlights an increased creative role from all three band members originally recruited by Richard Patrick… What was your increased creative role?
I think what they mean by that is that the first record, Short Bus, was all drum machine. There was no drummer in the band. You know, Rich and Brian (Liesgang) used to be in the band, and so they programmed all of the drums on that record. Then, when they went on tour for a year or so for that record, Matt Walker was playing drums in the band at that point. He did that tour, then he jumped off to join the Smashing Pumpkins. Filter came back [to Chicago] and instead of Rich sitting down with the drum machine, he got me involved. So, it was me playing instead of him feeling like he’s got to be the drummer, the guitar player, the bass player…you know what I’m saying? Because that first record it was basically him and Brian playing all of the instruments. We’re all sticking our two cents into this one.
Did you do any of the writing?
I got co-writing credit on two songs, “So I Quit” and “Things Can Never Be The Same.” I wrote the chorus and the chord changes on “Never Be The Same” and then we all sat in a group and were rocking out and came up with “So I Quit” together. The other tunes, Rich will write the music and the lyrics, or Gino will write the music and Rich will write the lyrics, they’ll collaborate. Sometimes Rich will program some drums and then I’ll come in and we’ll erase the drum machine and I’ll do my version of it, and that becomes the song.
How were the drum tracks recorded?
Sometimes the drums go down first, but each song is a little bit different. It’s like the same way it was with Title…; Richard would have some basic drum pattern going on a drum machine and then I’d come in and overdub all the drums, for most of the tunes. Some of the songs, Gino and I would record drums and guitars, and build the tune from there, but there’s a little bit of programming in all the tunes. There are some loops and some window dressing, so to speak, where the drums break down. For example in the bridge of “Where Do We Go?,” there’s a little loop in the background, where I lay out and then kick back in at the pre-chorus. Filter has always been something other than just a straight rock band; I like to say it’s a rock band with electronic window dressing.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s programming and what’s live drums.
If you listen to “American Cliche,” that’s all live drums. But…in Protools, you can use this thing called sound replacer software. So, the kick and the snare [on “American Cliche”] are from the Short Bus days…those are old school industrial sampled kick and snare, and they’re mixed really high in the mix. It almost sounds like it’s a drum machine — sonically — but that was the vibe we were going for on that song, and that’s just using sound replacement software on the kick and the snare. Otherwise, it’s all me playing.
Filter gets almost automatically rubber-stamped as an industrial band when, really, you guys are just a rock band, playing a range of styles from hard rock and metal to softer, pop ballads. How do you feel about having the industrial label automatically follow you?
I think it’s not representative of the band at all. Maybe the first album [had an industrial flavor], just because Rich was in Nine Inch Nails. Most of the press is just going to put that stamp on there because it’s easy, “Oh, Richard was in Nine Inch Nails, so they’re an industrial band,” but it’s not true. If you listen to the records there’s great song writing in this band. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all about the songs. We do what we feel is necessary to represent the song. There’s a tune on this record, “Columind,” that we wanted to be as bludgeoning as possible (laughs).
It’s a take on the Columbine incident?
Yes, the song is about these kids that could just go into some high school — they don’t give a shit about anybody — and they’re blowing people’s heads off — and how irresponsible and unbelievable, how wrong and fucked up and crazy that is. This tune represents that [feeling of] “How dare you? You and your rich, suburban life, how dare you come around and kill innocent people?” It’s just terrible. Some critics may say that that’s passe at this point, because it happened, what, three years ago?
Yeah, but that kind of thing happens all the time and it continues to happen. So, yeah, why not address it in a song?
Yeah, the world that we’re living in right now, after 9/11, brace yourself, anything could happen. It’s totally unbelievable what’s going on in the world right now. You know, Rich was totally influenced and affected by [Columbine] and wanted to write a song that was as bludgeoning as possible, with the message that those guys were a bunch of assholes. When you come [see us play live] and you mosh to this song, we hope everybody knows what they’re moshing to. It’s like, this shit’s gotta stop, you know?
I don’t think that there’s any song on this record that’s heavy just for the sake of being heavy. “So I Quit” is our ode to Ministry — it’s just straight up rocker and will be so fun to play live. But every other tune on the record has something going on, there’s something being said. It’s not all fluff at all, we’re trying to have songs that say something, mean something, and that people can have their own relationship with and read into them in different ways.
I hear a distinctive, almost signature, buoyancy in songs like “Take a Picture” and “Where Do We Go.” Is that something that you bring to the arrangements or is that Richard’s input?
You mean a rhythmical thing? I think it’s a mix between the melody and the chord changes of the tune and of the rhythm and what’s being said lyrically. I mean, with Take a Picture it was just real smooth, very linear, and a great “highway driving tune,” as far as how I think about it. “Where Do We Go” is just a great mixture of melody and heaviness. It’s just a great rock tune, just a great song. I don’t know that the two songs are intentionally similar, though there may be a rhythmic similarity.
Being that Filter is a band from Chicago, and considering what we’ve already discussed about the industrial tag, do you feel that you have to fight any preconceived notions that the public may have about industrial bands not having “live” drummers or that the drums are all programming, keyboards or electronics?
Anybody that thinks along those terms, all they have to do is come see us live. I’m as “live” of a drummer as drummers get. I change things every show. I don’t play fills exactly like the record and I change things around and it’s just as live as it gets. I don’t want to mention certain bands [by name], but some bands have a lot of drums on tape, and that’s not Filter, at all. There’s a little bit of window dressing when I drop out, maybe some loops or something, but you know when it’s the drums (laughs). We’re a rock band, straight up.
So it’s not like you ever feel that something will be a challenge to reproduce live?
No, not at all. I don’t think about playing that much, I really don’t. That’s not to say that I don’t study drums. I mean, I went to Berklee, I spent many hours practicing, and I still do. I still love to practice when I get a chance. To me, it’s constantly about learning music and playing different styles of music — you know, playing a real Chicago shuffle, not some baloney shuffle — but also being able to rock my ass off at the same time. It’s just an ongoing thing; this is what I do. I’m 34 years old and this is my life, I love music to death. I’m living it; I’m not thinking about it. I go and play and that’s it.
On “Never Be The Same,” are you using congas or hand percussion?
The hand percussion stuff was programmed by Ray Deleo, he was our engineer that worked with us. He mixed that in with me playing the toms and the snare and then they fade me in, but on top of that is this programmed conga. Actually, you know what, it’s a tabla.
“You Walk Away” is a very cool song where you get a lot of different drum feels like metal and tribal and stuff. How was that song recorded?
That whole breakdown section, I’m not playing anywhere in that section. I’m playing in the middle part, where you can hear the drums are out, but there’s the intro, which is like another drum and bass style intro. Then we kick in with the full band and it’s me playing on the main body of the kit. Then we go into this breakdown and I lay out until we come in for that 5/4 section, and then we’re all kicking in there. Then it’s chorus, out, so basically, the way it’s recorded is that I played the tune straight through.
Do you ever double track your drums at all?
You mean do overdubs and stuff? I did on one song on the record, and that was the very last tune, called “World Today.” I overdubbed some drums because we all wanted a sort of tribal feel, where there was more than one drummer playing. I did a bunch over overdubbing on that. We didn’t use it all, but we used some of it so there’s certain points of that song where it’s me times three. Rich also plays one of the drum loops on that song.
Do you play double bass or a double pedal?
I’m mainly a single bass player but I play a double bass pedal live. I’ve spent a lot of time working on my right foot, but for certain things, like fast, single stroke rolls and stuff, I do that on double bass.
With your busy schedele, do you have time to attend clinics by other drummers?
I go see Dennis Chambers every time I get a chance. [Laughs] He’s one of my favorites. I mean, Blue Matter, have you ever heard that record? That record came out and I was like “What the hell is this?” That first record he did with John Scofield, it was like the baddest shit I ever heard in my life.
What’s your biggest strength as a drummer?
I think my strength is playing with singers… connecting with singers. I love playing instrumental music — and I play a lot of it, actually — but for me the drummer and the vocalist have a certain relationship that’s very unique. It’s like when two people are having a conversation. One person will say something and then the other person will have a reaction to that, or a statement back, or somebody tells a funny joke and somebody laughs really hard or loud in response…or whatever. With a singer and a drummer it’s like I’m listening to what that person’s singing and I can embellish that as they sing, and I can fill in holes [in ways] that accentuate that. For instance, when we play “Welcome to the Fold” live, Richie will sing a line in that tune, and I’ll totally respond to that line with some over-the-top, bar-long drum fill. It’s all about supporting and also embellishing what the singer is singing and the emotions that they have going on. Drums are a living, breathing instrument. I’m up there getting all sweaty and it’s really animalistic and [long pause] emotional, you know? It’s like, go up there and bleed, and do your thing. I love it, because I’m a real emotional cat. I need that, I need to feel like I’m feeding off that. If I’m playing behind a singer that I don’t believe in, it’s really hard to get your mojo going. You can make it happen if you’re a professional, but it doesn’t make it easy. It’s all about supporting the vocalist, and the musical relationship that I have with the vocalist in the group. That’s the crux of the issue, the most important part: the part that gets people in the audience to stop talking to each other and listen to you. It’s this magical thing that you’re going for every night.
Certain guys, like Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan, have stupid talent — where the talent level is just off the charts. But more than that, you’ve got to know that this is what you want to do. You’ve gotta feel it and desire to do it, because playing drums…to be a great drummer you have to be so dedicated to it and you have to be willing to be the first one to load in and the last one to load out, to sweat the hardest and take the heat when the band doesn’t sound good. There’s no way you can teach it, and you really can’t verbalize it. It’s a magical moment, and sometimes you get there, sometimes you don’t.