Re: 2 Drummers Who Can't Talk About Guns N' Roses (2001)
2 Drummers Who Can't Talk About Guns N' Roses
Here's a tale of an '80s hard rock band that clawed its way to the top, boozin' and screwin' and cussin' and druggin' every step of the way.
Hey, wait a sec - that profile describes practically every '80s hard rock band that ever stumbled onto a stage. But Guns 'N Roses was different. While the world's surplus of White Lions, Quiet Riots, and Ratts faded mercifully in the crushing onslaught of '90s grunge, Guns remained commercially and creatively viable when they released their two-volume Use Your Illusion opus in 1991 and followed up by touring the world several times over. With that powerful statement, they became one of the biggest bands in rock history...
Then everything got kind of goofy. One by one, the band's founding members peeled away to form other groups. In the end only the band's enigmatic leader Axl Rose remained to chart the course of the next Guns release. The world continues to wait while rumors endlessly circulate about Rose holing up in L.A. studios with various sets of musicians, all contractually sworn to silence, laying down track after track of material, much of which, it's whispered, has little resemblance to the rough and tumble Guns sound of old. In the meantime, Rose has spent zillions of bucks with nothing yet to show.
If you're like me, you just want to scream - Hey guys! A decade has gone by, already! Your old diehard fans have grown up into middle aged insurance salesmen. Your record company almost went bankrupt waiting for your next release. Everything inside and outside of the music business has changed so much that it's hard to say if a world obsessed with terrorists and techno will care at all about a new Guns 'N Roses album.
But we do - not so much because we're such big Guns 'N Roses fans, either, but because we're really, really nosy people. That cone of silence surrounding the Guns 'N Roses project is heavily fortified to keep looky-lous like us out, which, naturally, makes us want to penetrate it even more. That's why we covertly arranged to interview the two key drummers who have been involved with the project - former Primus member Brain and L.A. alt-rock session hero Josh Freese.
Neither could reveal anything directly related to the Guns experience, but they could speak in general terms about what it is like to find themselves working on an endless studio project with a bottomless budget steered by a controversial rock legend like Axl Rose. Of course, we knew that they knew that we were trying to squeeze information out of them about the album. So we all played the game. You'll need to play along, too.
Priorities change when a band transforms from a touring act into a long-term studio project, as Guns has. Among other things, the drum chair requires a different set of skills. We asked Freese what he brings to the table when he's hired to work with a new band in the studio.
"There's a market for people that work well and fast and can adapt quickly in the studio," he says. "I think a lot of drummers might be in a band and be great drummers, and what they do well is play that music. But they might not be able to step in and within an hour of meeting people, sit down and record a record and make it sound like a band. And make it sound comfortable."
Freese has no idea how many tracks he cut with Guns 'N Roses before having to leave to fulfill other obligations. When he did, the door swung open for Brain to enter the project on a referral by new Guns guitarist Buckethead, who worked with Brain in a number of different scenarios. Unlike Freese, though, Brain has always considered himself to be more of a band member rather than a hired studio gun.
"I like to join bands," Brain says. "I play better when I get to vibe with the people. It takes me a while to get into the vibe of it. With each situation I kind of have to become friends with the people, and as I become friends with them and get to know them and relax more, I play a lot better."
In fact, lucrative as they may be, Brain shies away from doing one-off sessions. They somehow make him fee... dirty. "I feel like I'm cheating the person if I just go in for a day, do a session, get paid, and leave," Brain says. "I did a session about two months ago here in L.A. It was for some commercial or something, and it took me longer to park the car than it took me to do the track. It was this little 30-second track, and when it was done [the producer] was like, 'Okay, that was great!' And I was like, 'Wait a second, I didn't get to put anything in it.' I felt like I robbed the guy. He was like, 'Oh no, that's all we wanted.' I was like, 'Let me try it again. Dude, I've got a better fill.'"
Freese knows what Brain is talking about, "There's that lack of identity and lack of your own creative angles on things [during many sessions]," he says. "You're just hired to do the work. The producer dictates most of it, or the band. There's definitely times where I've got to pay my rent, so yeah, I'll show up and play on that Sears battery commercial for two hours. It's very unrewarding, but at the same time it's really hard to say no when someone calls me and says, 'Will you come down tomorrow night and play drums and we'll pay you for it?'"
But working with Guns 'N Roses carries prestige, which made it vitally important for Freese to devise the kind of drum parts that would breathe life into Rose's new vision. It allowed him to flex his creative muscles, but also took some mind reading.
"There's definitely a need for people skills and figuring out what they want to hear," he says. "Someone might try to explain something and even though he's not explaining it well, just by knowing his music and by talking to him I can kind of tell what he wants. Especially having done it for so long and in so many different situations. It's feeling people out, for sure, and trying to get at what they're doing. Not just musically but emotionally -- their approach to it."
"I like to listen to the song as long as I can," Brain says. "If I can I'll ask for songs a week in advance or two weeks in advance, I'll live with them, and listen to the lyrics. Sometimes I'll write them down. Sometimes I'll think about it and go, 'Okay, what kind of energy do I want to bring to this?' The thing that's going to make me stand out from the other drummers who have been doing this is if I put my feel into it and my soul into it. So I feel like I've got to know where it's coming from and what it's about, so that will translate to tape."
After living with a new song for a while, Brain wants to keep his interpretation fresh as soon as the tape starts rolling. The last thing he wants to do is cut the same song over and over, for hours on end, until it becomes redundant and stale. Like so many other big-budget Hollywood productions, that practice had become a habit in the Guns sessions before Brain came into the picture.
"It was hard at first," Brain admits. That's why I say, 'Look, you get three takes and then I'm done.' I usually shoot for that first one, where I'm fresh. I've practiced the song in my brain and physically 30 or 40 times, and I come in and go, 'This is it. I'm going to play this. I'm going to give everything I've got for this first take.'"
The experience was uncannily similar when Freese was called in to play on Blue Moon Swamp, John Fogerty's 1997 album. Like the ongoing Guns sessions, Fogerty took his precious time to record the CD - almost a decade, in fact, during which time he asked practically every ambulatory drummer in Los Angeles to hobble in to record the same songs over and over.
"I got called to play on songs that Jeff Porcaro played on before he passed away," Freese says. "It was a groove and a beat about as tricky as tying your shoes. My mother could play it drunk and blindfolded. It was just the simplest of simple, just mid-tempo. So Jeff plays it and they don't like it. Then they called me and it's like, 'What the hell are you calling me for?' Jeff didn't do it right, Steve [Jordan] didn't, what the hell do you want me for? Those two guys do that better than anyone else."
It wasn't the first time Freese was called in to lay down tracks that had been previously recorded by another drummer. He's done it dozens of times, practically building his career upon his chameleon-like session abilities, but still isn't entirely comfortable with the process. "Producers call me and say, 'This is happening whether you feel bad about it or not.' Well, okay, I need to work and you guys are going to hire someone whether it's me or somebody else, so yeah I'll do it. But I don't want to feel like the hotshot studio drummer asshole who's coming in to step on his toes. Sometimes [the other drummer] will want to come down and talk [to me from] a learning standpoint and in a positive light. In that respect I'm more than willing to help out. But if the guy is there out of spite and he's pissed off, that's when it's weird. It's really uncomfortable."
This time the tables have turned, because strange as it may seem, in the last few months Brain has been asked to rerecord some of Freese's drum parts. While he's up to the challenge, Brain confides that he would prefer recording with the whole band at once rather than punching parts over existing tracks. "I always pretend that the band is right there," Brain says. "I haven't noticed a difference in my playing. The only thing I miss is the band isn't playing to my feel, so I have to convert to something that's already there. The way I play, it's interesting. If I'm playing the kick on 1 and 3, my third beat on the kick drum is always a little late. That's just my feel. It gives me just more of a laid-back feel, a heavier feel,. I can't do that as much when I record to an existing track, because I have to play to where their guitars are, or where their bass is. I still try to just play my feel and lay it back, but sometimes there are just conflicts. If it's a super busy part, it might be like, 'You can't lay back there, Brain. Check it out. It's flamming all over the place.'"
A recording studio can be an insular environment where time is flexible, and trappings of the outside world practically irrelevant. It can be easy to contact cabin fever after months and years of isolation. And musicians who were weaned on gigging can long for a live audience. "Yeah, I miss playing gigs," Brain says. "What I miss about playing live these days is just the interaction, I mean, I did play one of the biggest shows of my life, Rock in Rio, with this new situation, and it was awesome. It was one of the best things I've ever experienced. It was so huge and such a great experience that when I came back I was kind of depressed for a while, because I was kind of like, 'Wow! What's next?' I went to the tenth floor."
Brain has developed an unorthodox method to escape the doldrums and kickstart his creativity in the studio, "What I've noticed about playing in the studio for the last three months doing it, whatever you give, it comes out on tape," he says. "I could just say, 'I don't care. I just want to get my paycheck and do this.' It sounds like that on tape. When I give more and I feel like I'm into it and I have a vibe you can hear that, too. So I bring the vibe. I bring all my inspirations. Like I bring pictures of Bruce Lee, and hang them up all around the drums. For me it's everything. It just adds that extra energy. I remember when all I wanted was the 22" cinema display by Apple, so I actually had that poster, and I would carry it and bring it to the studio and put it up because I wanted that. It would give me energy. I'm like, 'Okay, I'm just going to shred. Look at that screen! It's ridiculous." And then I would play better."
Vibe is all-important to Brain. The word seeps into practically every sentence he utters. So when he got the gig with Guns, Brain decided to assemble the perfect kit to compliment the band's sound and attitude, and asked his drum tech, Gersh, to bring in drum sets from various equipment rental agencies in Los Angeles. "I had my drum tech bring in over 30 different kits from the Drum Doctor, Drum Paradise, and Drum Fetish," he says. "I literally slept in the rehearsal space for three days, looking at angles. I just sat there staring at the stage. I was on the ground looking at angles to see how the kids are going to be looking at it from this angle. And then I would climb up on the stairs and get on a ladder and look at it from above, and say, 'Okay, the people in the balcony are going to be looking at it from this angle. What's going to be the right vibe? What's going to work for this situation?'"
Ironically, he settled for a fairly standard five-piece setup. But that was only his starting point. At any time Brain can choose from an enormous selection of drums that he keeps on hand in the studio at all times. He alters his setup for every new track he records, customizing his kit to suit each song. Why does he do it? For the same reason that dogs lick their genitals - because they can!
"I have an idea of what I want when I go in," he says. "And since there are 50 snare drums and 40 kick drums, or whatever, you know it's kind of like, 'Well, this song would be great if we start with a 26" kick, 14", 16", 18" toms, because it's a huge sound - a very slow, huge, grunge-type of sound. Let's get some big hi-hats in there. Where's that really deep snare? Let's get a 7" or an 8". Let's try it.' It usually works right away.
"And sometimes we get bored and we're like, 'Let's set up in that corner up in the balcony and get a little baby kit. Let's get an 18", and a 12" snare, and 12" hi-hats, just for something to do. Let's put it in the chorus.' This is probably one of the most creative things I've been in, because I've just been allowed to experiment so much."
In comparison, Freese's approach to his studio gear is decidedly more conservative. "For the most part, 90 percent of the sessions I do are pretty much the same setup," he says, "I try and keep it very basic: a kick and snare, sometimes just a rack and a floor, other times two racks and a floor. But I'd say 75 percent of the time I use a kick, snare, rack, and a floor; a ride, two crash cymbals, maybe three. I brink a lot of different snare drums to all the sessions I do. Unless it's a different situation where I'm making a whole record with a band and we're going to be in the studio for two weeks. I wish I could sound like I was more involved. And if it is my own band then I will start experimenting because I have a lot more at stake and creatively I have a lot more room."
While Freese restricted his Guns contribution strictly to acoustic drumming, Brain took the opportunity to add some high-tech ideas to the mix. "I'm totally into using a computer-based sequence setup," he says. "I use Logic and Pro Tools, and I have a G4 titanium laptop. I have this bag where I keep a nice DAT machine with a nice mike, or I have those toy samplers that you buy at Toys R Us. And I just sit there after whatever session I'm in, whether I'm even at the rehearsal space or at the studio, and I just hit my drums, make weird sounds, make weird loops, and then I take them home. I get home at about 2:00 in the morning and from 2:00 until 4:00 in the morning I sit at my laptop, cut up all my beats, make more beats, more sounds, and then bring them into the producer and say, 'Hey, check this out. Are you into this?' That's what I spend most of my free time doing.
"What I've noticed with this situation is that I've kind of made it my own, tow here I'm getting what I want out of it and what I want to do. It's really been inspiring in that way. At first it was different. It was hard for me to get into this process. But I kind of turned it around. I said, "Wait. I've got access to the studio and to do what I want. I'm going to start calling the shots to say, 'Let's try this or let's do this.' I want to add what I want to this project. I'm looking at this as a musical education."
Just Plain Gersh
A Drum Tech's What If
What would it be like to drum tech for two of the hottest drummers of the day in the studio with Guns 'N Roses, one of the biggest rock bands of a generation? Well, we're not sure because Gersh (Sugar Ray, Rage Against the Machine, Pearl Jam), the man with that exact assignment, was sworn to secrecy as well. But nonetheless we spoke with Gersh and discussed what it would be like if he teched for Josh Freese and Brain in any similar situation.
"With Josh," explains Gersh, "I would probably bring in a sparkle Ludwig kit, a Gretsch kit, and definitely a stainless steel '70s Ludwig kit. Depending on what song it was, we would vary the top and kick sixes and the snare drums - I have a bunch of Black Beauties and Ludwig snares from the '20s and '30s. We'd swap out different kick drums and toms song per song.
"I would let Josh pick how many toms he wanted for each song and we'd do the changes accordingly. Some songs he would want two toms, some songs six toms. Josh actually likes a 10", 13", 14", 16" tom configuration. And I like the configuration a lot. It makes a lot of sense. If he wanted to use an 18" floor tom at one point, I would stay away from 18" for recording. I don't like the note. It's too low and it usually gets in the way of the kick drum and the bass guitar."
Sounds like a nice hypothetical situation. What if he had the opportunity to work with Brain in a similar setting? "With Brain I would bring in a lot of Gretsch stuff. All sizes of kicks and toms and we would vary everything song for song. We would have about 20 different snare drums there as well."
And surely the standard tracking room would be much too dull for this imaginary project. "We probably would end up taking a kick, snare, and hi-hat into this auditorium room upstairs. The room would be completely open and aggressive and sound great. So we might make that our tracking room. Then send up lines and put Brain on a video camera so we could have him in contact with the control room downstairs. That's how we would track.
"It would be a massive undertaking, but that's okay because Brain is the man. He would have to do a massive amount of studying and learning and recording different feels with the same song structure. He really would have to put his fingerprint on this thing and it would be a lot of work. He is a damn good drummer. So is Josh. Josh is amazing. Brain is a great groove drummer, whereas Josh is a very linear, straight-ahead punk rock session player. Josh is known for going in there, listening to a song, memorizing it immediately, and nailing straight to click. Brain is more of a hip-hop feel creative weird guy."