Last week, I caught up with drummer Jeep MacNichol to ask some questions about drumming and the new album by his band The Plates. The album is called “Blast” and is the third release for this Denver punk reggae band. We met at a tavern on Colfax and enjoyed a couple pints. These were his answers:
Tell me about the new album “Blast“. It’s your 3rd album release since 2014 and a bit of a new sound from your previous albums. I’m curious how it came about?
The idea for the album came to me last fall literally after attending two live shows in the Denver area. I saw Sizzla in September and Napalm Death in October. What grabbed me most about the two shows was the live intensity of the performances especially the drumming. In a 2 hour show, I would guess that Sizzla’s drummer maybe hit his hihat 2% of the time and spent the rest of the show slamming his crash cymbals, kick, and snare in a dancehall rhythm. It was raucous and heavy and really intense. Then watching Napalm Death from the side of the stage at the Summit Music Hall, I was able to watch these death metal drummers playing blast beats at a superhero intensity up close, and I was like “holy shit I gotta try that”. So in a nutshell, I retreated to the wood shed for the next couple months learning and practicing “blast beats” until i felt comfortable enough to lay some down in the studio.
What exactly is a “Blast Beat”?
Well there are a bunch of different one’s but its basically an extreme metal style of drumming where you play really fast single strokes on the snare drum with one hand while alternating with hits on the kick drum and embellishing with the other hand on the hihat, crash cymbals, or whatever. You can play single blast beats with just one foot on the kick or you can use 2 kick drums or a double pedal. I practiced both and used a little of both on the album. I think the blast beats that I used are technically called “single blasts” and “economy blasts“, at least in the death metal drumming lingo.
Was that easy to pick up or a challenge for you?
In all honesty it was NOT easy at all at first. It’s an utterly different approach to laying down a groove, so it required a lot of mental and physical changes to my coordination as well as discipline to put the time in to learn it. Even on the first day of tracking in the studio, I really struggled. I’d put in hours upon hours of training to get my beats, and coordination, and strength comfortable, and I felt great and confident in my studio at home. But when I went to lay down the first track in the studio, all of the the technique seemed to not be there for me, and I kinda flubbed the whole day. I think there was one take that I nailed and the rest were shit. I was pissed at myself, and the drums, and the weather haha, and I went back home and decided I needed to double up my practice time to really get my shit together….which is what i did. So the next month, I went for attempt number two, and I totally nailed the beats.
Were you happy with what you came up with?
Yes totally!!! Those beats I laid down had a real vibe to them and ended up being the foundation of the album. I wouldn’t say that I’d make the “a-list” for death metal drummers, but I think I came up with a cool way of playing the style because my beats sound kinda finesse-y if that’s a word. They sound more like a flutter of a hummingbird or bumble bee wing as opposed to the precision jack-hammer sound of the traditional extreme metal drummers. And there are different vibes on the album. “Government Bombs” is a combination of a blistering Blast Beat which then goes into a double time Speed Metal vibe and then into that “Sizzla Crash cymbal” dancehall beat….so it has a little bit of everything. “Future Sound” has just a Dancehall accented Blast beat and “Kung Fu Lazer” has kind of a Melvin’s-like sloshy blast beat in the chorus’s. What I decided to do after I laid down all the drum tracks, was to grab whole sections of the beats and write the songs over top. In other words, nothing was choreographed beforehand. The drum tracks basically wrote the tunes, if that makes sense.
How did the rest of the album come about?
Well after I got the drum tracks done, my goal was to focus on our singer Stero. I really wanted to capture his free style dancehall vocal ability on this album, so i gave him tracks in bits and pieces and had him lay down vocals on the spot. We had played some shows last year where the band started improvising at the end of our set with old school reggae grooves, and Stero would just start busting out amazing bursts of words and melodies off the top of his head. So I was like damn I wanna capture that essence on album. So when we started, I basically gave him the track with maybe just a few elements like live drums or click track, or maybe a bass line or sound effect, just enough to give him a vibe to feel. Then he’d listen to it in the parking lot or control room and lay down the vocal right on the spot.
So as a band you didn’t sit down and write the vocals and music before recording in the studio?
No. The tracks were basically performed on the fly which is what I wanted. There were a couple tunes that I threw a few lyric ideas, but Stero just laid them down in his own style and added his own flavor. The majority were off the top of his head in rapid fire time. I remember laughing with the sound engineer about the song “Freestyle” because it was tracked in like 12 minutes. Stero came in, heard the drum machine groove, jumped on the mic, and was gone from the studio in like 15 minutes. I think it had to be a studio record for the shortest vocal tracking session haha. The same went for the bass lines with Ian. I would throw him the track a week before or a day before, and he would just show up at the studio, take one quick listen to the song, and lay down his bass line right on the spot….and I would use his first take for every song.
There are a lot of other sounds on this album. What inspired the use of guitar distortion, robots effects, etc.?
Well with every album, I’m always bringing in sounds of things I’m into at the moment, and I like pushing the envelope expanding the color of what you hear. That sounds kinda artsy weird, but I think musicians get complacent in their sound. It’s really easy to regurgitate something you already know how to play or a sound that you know is going to work based on past albums, and I don’t really groove on that vibe. I love the sound of my fuzz distortion pedal as well as all things to do with “space retro” like lazers, Star Trek, etc….I guess i’m a sci-fi nerd haha….Anyway, it made sense on this album to throw in different sounds from the get-go since the vibe of the drums was so different.
This gets to my next question which you started to answer. Was there a conscious decision to make a new sound for this album or did it come together organically? Were you thinking about album sales?
Haha…. I definitely don’t think about album sales, but I’d say the album was a combination of both. The “conscious decision” was in the commitment to Blast Beats but then the “organic element” was in how everything came together on top. For me, every album is kind of a journey. It’s a serious relationship in my head, and it’s a chance for me to go deeper into myself and push my envelope. And it’s also a snapshot of where I am musically at THAT specific moment. In 2014, I was totally feeling the “Punky Reggae” vibe and our first album had that sound. Then in 2015, I was feeling more psychedelic and musically had an inclination toward the sound of “Earth Moon Version”….. And now I’m on the “Blast” sound vibe. As I said earlier, the two shows I saw last fall were really the essence of inspiration for using Blast Beats as the foundation, and I kinda just went for it. There’s no way I could’ve or would’ve wanted to record another “Punky Reggae” album”. It would feel like cheating myself of an opportunity to explore a new territory. Who wants to hike on the same trail every day ya know?
What keeps me excited about music is learning and experimenting and being a sponge to new ideas and experiences all the time. I don’t like feeling stuck or bored with any musical venture, so I create challenges either subconsciously or consciously in my drumming or overall musical expression to face and conquer, if that makes sense. In 30 years of playing and recording music professionally, there’s never been an album I’ve worked on that hasn’t presented some sort of challenge to my playing, and I guess I crave that lack of comfort. It gives me a goal to strive for, and I visualize it in my head like a boxer’s training camp. Even on the early albums I played with The Samples, for some reason I always created some sort of drum fill that I had to bust my ass to nail correctly in the studio. Drumming has always made me love being a student, and I thrive on the excitement of learning a new fill or technique and actually pulling it off. It’s funny because I could go through every single album and pinpoint every groove or fill that was a challenge to me at the time, and even when I listen to the music today, I still get a nervous flutter in my stomach when a certain fill or groove is happening….kinda like some weird psycho conditioning thing I guess.
Jeep thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Do you guys have any upcoming shows? And where can people find your new album?
Yep we’re playing on August 11the at Levitt Pavilion in Denver opening up for a band called 311. That’s all we have scheduled for now, but we’re also planning on shooting another music video at some point. the new album is available for free download on our website www.theplatesmusic.com as well as other free music outlets like spotify.