Finding a drummer
When Wrong Side of Dawn was searching for a drummer for the “Stay Awake” album, we started with our friends from high school, old bandmates with whom we used to play music. While we were wasting our time attending a liberal arts college and then law school, our friends went to music school and then become professional musicians. If we wanted to pack as much technical skill and quality into this album as we could, those full-time musicians were the obvious people to talk to. The first drummer we asked to record with us was my friend Camille Olivier, who is currently playing with TV/TV, but his time was already booked up recording a couple albums and touring the world with his full time band. (Big surprise, professional musicians are frequently busy, playing music.) I’m still glad we talked to him because his advice has been invaluable in helping us choose Portrait Studios and make other decisions while recording this album.
The next person we talked to was Anthony Santoro, who had been the drummer in Brian’s high school band Ohm. Santoro is now a sound engineer in Boston, handling the sound for live shows at the Hard Rock Cafe, and when he’s not engineering sound he plays drums with singer/songwriter Evan Michael. Thankfully he was available over winter break and he agreed to join us in the studio. Brian was slightly disconcerted by the fact that Santoro agreed to record with us before he even heard the music that was destined to be on “Stay Awake”. What if our music sucked? I guess Santoro just had that much faith in Brian’s musicianship after playing with him in Ohm!
Starting the recording process
Before Santoro or anyone else recorded a thing, Brian and I laid down some “scratch tracks” of guitar and vocals. Scratch tracks were recommended by The Indie Band Survival Guide to serve as a guide for the people recording so that they would know the basic song structure without having to memorize e.g. exactly how many times the chorus progression repeats and concentrate instead on playing great music. These scratch tracks were recorded quickly and were only a temporary framework or skeleton for the songs, to be replaced with real guitars and vocals once the rhythm section was recorded, and frequently they contained instructions to the musicians such as “Here comes the chorus! One, two, three, go…” instead of (or in addition to) actual singing. Sometimes our recorded instructions were inadequate, and we supplemented it live in the studio with instructions shouted into a microphone and piped into the musicians’ headsets, as Brian does in the video clip below.
We only got one full day of rehearsal in with Santoro and the full band, but everyone’s musical instincts seemed to serve them well and the songs were rocking hard by the end of a very long Sunday. Song charts were prepared, song parts were polished, and we were all on the same page. Recording started the very next day, Monday night, with Santoro being the first to step up to the plate. Santoro and Tom seemed to hit it off right away since they were both sound engineers and drummers, and together they got Santoro’s drums set up and miked very quickly. I helped hand Santoro things from the gig bag but my usefulness was rather limited in this phase. Later Santoro would record individual drum “samples”, hitting each drum and cymbal separately rather than as part of a song, so that Tom can drop in copies of Santoro’s drum sounds into our recordings to make them sound more awesome.
Tracking the drums
Santoro has a knack for making a track rock, but he seems to have a different philosophy of drumming than other drummers I’ve played with in the past. Whereas a drummer like Camille has no doubt that his drums are playing a leading role in a song and follows in the tradition of flamboyant drummers like Travis Barker from Blink-182, Santoro has more of a humble attitude and is always very concerned about stepping on other players’ parts, considering himself to be more of a background instrument, perhaps like Roger Taylor from Queen. This philosophy generally served him well, but when we wanted him to pull out all the stops and take the drums over the top it sometimes took cajoling and convincing. I’m happy to report, however, that once he understood that we *really* wanted him to demolish his drumset, he delivered some of the most intense drum solos it’s been my pleasure to experience. There were also some communication problems when we had very specific visions for the drum parts because Brian and I don’t really play drums, so the best we could do was make noises with our mouths and vague gestures with our hands, or sometimes refer to similar drum parts in classic songs (e.g. “Think the opening in Give It Away!”). Santoro was fortunately very talented at turning our incoherent instructions into real drum parts, and for that I must give him mad props.
Tracking snare and tambourine
I think it’s important to not always use a standard drumset, and while we didn’t experiment with more unusual percussion on this album we did depart from Santoro’s drumset on a couple of occasions. Rather using Santoro’s standard snare on some songs, we got a genuine marching band snare for the more march-y parts, which if I recall correctly includes the opening and end of “Out of Time”. We also used a lot of tambourine on the outro to “Where is Bobby McGee?”, a part which Santoro was initially reluctant to play, claiming he was no tambourine expert. I don’t think any of us could have played the tambourine better / more accurately than he did, and I’m glad we encouraged him to add “percussion” to his credits on the album rather than just drums.
The end result
Ultimately, I think that everyone involved was quite pleased with what we had accomplished. If you want to know what Santoro himself thought, just watch the video interview below!
Nelson: Here we have Anthony Santoro. Anthony, you have just finished tracking all the drums for this album, how does it feel?
Santoro: It feels awesome! … My voice is going out, it’s been a long grueling two days. I’m getting sick, battling the elements, I’m probably going to go get myself some delicious and satisfying McDonalds. I think most people after a big thing they usually go to Disneyland. I’m probably just going to go hit up McDonalds and Wendy’s, get myself some dinner… It’s quarter after 12 in the morning, got an hour and a half drive ahead of me… it’s good times.
Nelson: How are you feeling about the album so far?
Santoro: I think it sounds great! I don’t know who played drums on it, that guy was awful, everything else sounds great though on the album.
Brian: Too bad there’s nothing else [yet] on the album…
Nelson: What’s your favorite song so far, Anthony?
Brian: Or did they all just blend together at this point?
Santoro: I think Flight III was my favorite to track, Flight III was pretty awesome. It’s intense, it’s emotional… If you get the feeling that I wanted to throw my sticks through the window at the songwriter… I didn’t want to do that, you’re great guys.
Nelson: What was your least favorite song?
Santoro: Uhhh… Flight III! Not throwing my sticks through the window at the… Nooo, all the songs I think are great 🙂