Strap It On

    Up and Coming: John Stanier of Helmet

by Ken Micallef




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John Stanier waves to me from across Broome Street in lower Manhattan. He's exhausted from recording Helmet's latest album, "Betty". Tall and sleepy-eyed, the drummer leads me into the labyrinthine quarters of their large studio, then dashes off for a quick shower. A Tama drumkit sits at one end of the room, amps at the other—a typical practice space. Hip hop blasts from a boombox. Iced tea bottles and empty bags of Doritos clutter a table. A Brazilian psychedelic poster on the wall announces "HELMET IN SAO PAOLO"—yet another corner of the world where this "alternative heavy metal" quartet sell a lot of records.

Helmet's unusual hard rock—as heavy as a hurricane but swirling with undeniable melody—was cast in iron on 1992's "Meantime". With Stanier and bassist Henry Bogdan lock-stepped against Page Hamilton's syncopated guitar riffage, Helmet resembles a nuclear-hot fission of shifting gears and oozing steam. Signs that the band were changing became apparent on two popular soundtracks: "Judgment Night" (with rappers House of Pain) and the mega-selling "The Crow". Noise, noise, and more noise heaped atop hip hop grooves and distorted vocals were the ethic. "Betty" solidifies that concept, with Helmet (now including guitarist Rob Echeverria) playing more funk, adding more noise, exploring weird, cascading guitar harmonies, and generally searching for a more experimental sound.

Stanier's staccato drumming is a Helmet mainstay. His style is the result of his combined love of punk, hip hop, and Neil Peart. Brought up on the disciplined, super-chops approach of drum corps, Stanier brings a street approach to Helmet's brainy brawn. His brutal-yet-funky groove is as important to Helmet as are singer/guitarist Page Hamilton's much-ballyhooed jazz credentials. Songs such as "I Know" and "Milquetoast" are pure Stanier, full of riveting beats and tom-toms on the verge of shattering under Stanier's rim shots. "Beautiful Love" is a study in destroying a jazz standard with free-noise-metal, while "Wilma's Rainbow" is bruised and ominous. With the assistance of T-Ray ("not really our producer; more of a spiritual guru"), Stanier's bass drum punches out front-and-center on "Betty", just like the sampled hip hop bass drum currently ruining your speakers at home. And Stanier's high-pitched, tweaked snare drum is still cutting through the fabric of guitars and noise. We begin our interview by letting John read Vinnie Paul's (of Pantera) disparaging remarks concerning his snare drum sound in a recent installment of Modern Drummer's "Impressions"...

JOHN STANIER: Hmmm. It's funny... people make such a big deal out of the snare drum sound. It's just rim shots and having the snare head tight. It's not even as tight as it used to be. I used to freak out because it was giving me shocks in my forearm. I was using those Falams heads; they're bulletproof. I can use one for an entire tour, but they go really flat. The snare drum turns into a pipe. My snare sounds weird on "Meantime" because [producer] Andy Wallace was mixing half my snare drum sound and then triggering in a wood snare drum sound. On "Betty" the snare is closely miked. In fact, the whole kit is really well-recorded. The bass drum is kicking—but I had to fight for that. I had a wooden beater and a pad on the bass drum head and I tuned the head really tight, so the sound is total attack. I've always considered the kick drum to be a drum. So many people view the kick drum differently. I just think of it as a big tom that you happen to be playing with your foot. In some really well-known bands you can't hear the bass drum. You can feel it, but that doesn't cut it.

KEN MICALLEF: "Betty" is a departure from "Meantime". What's the story behind that?

JS: First of all, we were really rushed. We'd been on the road literally for eighteen months. We milked "Meantime" dry. We didn't have any songs written for the new album, then all sorts of catastrophes started happening in the studio. I was going through some horrible personal things, too. I'm really surprised that "Betty" came out so well. It would have been easy to do "Meantime II".

KM: There are no fills on "Betty" like the ones you took on "FBLA II" from "Meantime".

JS: There is one—which I call "the stupidest fill in the world"—on "I Know". But I didn't know what else to play. I did it at first as a joke, but then I realized that it works. There are some Neil Peart ripoffs on there, too. I heard Rod Morgenstein say once that he rips off fills all the time. So why not?

KM: Are you particularly happy with any one performance on "Betty"?

JS: I like "Street Crab" a lot. That actually has a lot of drum fills, even though I did generally hold back on the fills this time out. I'm starting to learn more about the value of that. I used to go nuts; now I'm starting to learn the taste aspect. "Betty" is not as dark as "Meantime" overall. In fact, the whole album is full of inside jokes—like "Beautiful Love," for example. On that I was playing by myself without the band, then the other guys added their parts. It sounds like a traffic jam. Anybody who thinks that that song is a real interpretation of a jazz standard is a fool.

KM: Does Helmet write songs as a band?

JS: Page walks in with the structure. But I'm usually left to myself to figure out what I'm going to play. Page always says—and I agree—that we're just getting started. There is so much more in us as a band. This album is different for many reasons, including some weird subliminal ones. It's almost like a new band, with a totally different vibe. And we've become better players. But I was so rushed that I had to come up with most of my parts literally on the spot. I had never done that before. A good number of the songs were learned a day before we recorded them. And I hate being in the studio: the pressure is on and you have to be perfect with every note. This record has a lot of little flubs—which I think is cool, actually. I'm starting to hate these "perfect" drummers more and more. It's just flaccid.

KM: How do you reconcile your hip hop influences with the metal of Helmet?

JS: It's a combination of using things I keep in my head—I've listened to hip hop for a long time—and doing what Helmet does. With a band like Helmet, it either fits or it doesn't. The arrangements can be different, but it's still Helmet. It's almost like there are rules. I have a role to fill in the band.

KM: Is that role one of brute force or more an artistic one?

JS: It's kind of brute force—but not all the time. I'll admit, I'm not a dynamics kind of guy. When it all boils down I'm just a punk drummer. Playing really hard is what I like.

KM: And yet your biggest influence is...?

JS: Neil Peart. I don't care what anybody says and I don't care how unfashionable it is. People say they hear a lot of Bonham in my playing—and I loved Zeppelin—but I think Peart took drumming to another level that no one else has matched yet. But on the other hand, I hate double-bass; it's corny.

KM: While we're talking about style and technique, yours is partly a product of the drum corps scene, isn't it?

JS: Yeah, the Florida Wave, from Fort Lauderdale. But I never officially marched. I would always try out and get the spot—usually on quads or quints—but at the last minute I wouldn't be able to march. I'd learn the whole show then have to back out after three or four months. I also went to the University of Florida, which is the home of Sun Coast Sound, and they fueled my love of marching corps, too. Drum corps gets your chops killing. We'd do long rolls for forty-five minutes; our hands would be on fire. I'll admit that a lot of it—color guard, the uniforms—is really corny, and the judging is so anal-retentive that you'll get points taken off if your sticks are slightly out of unison among twelve drummers. But the drum parts are amazing.

KM: Do you still use those routines to warm up?

JS: No. In fact, I don't even warm up—which is really bad. When I think about what I'd do when I was growing up—the stretches alone... Now it's wake up and hit the stage. The first five shows of any tour are hell for me. I can't even move my neck, I'm so tight. My hands get butchered because I get blisters that don't have time to heal. I tape my hands with duct tape to cut back on the sweat.

KM: Have you had a chance to do any projects outside of the band?

JS: No. Helmet is like... life... it's all-consuming. [laughs] After playing with a band like Helmet—which tours so much and works so hard—when we have time off the last thing I want to think about is another band. I'm taking a break now, then we tour Europe, then the States with the Rollins Band, then back to Europe, then to Australia and New Zealand with the Beastie Boys, then Japan and Hawaii, then the U.S. again. Last year I got one day off for Christmas. Let's see if my parents still recognize me this year!


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