From DRUM! Magazine’s November 2017 Issue | By Jake Wood | Photos By Steve Jennings
The road is a temptress who preys on the hopeful. She lures you in with promises of adventure, riches, and fame, and then she cruelly breaks you down emotionally, physically, and fiscally. For bands just starting to tour, full of dreams and puppy-dog optimism, she shows no mercy: engine problems, sleeping on floors, shady venues, gear theft — the damage factor seems endless, and yet, the road warrior travels on, gig after gig, tour after tour. It takes a certain type of musician, a resilient soul who has an iron constitution, to weather the spiritually eroding obstacles the road presents, and Drum got to sit down with two such robust gentlemen: Charlie Benante of Anthrax and Justin Foley of Killswitch Engage. Parked outside the legendary Fillmore in San Francisco, we huddled in the back quadrant of Anthrax’s matte-black tour bus, eager to hear some sage advice from the two sticksmen, both of whom have thousands of tour-miles under their belts.
DRUM: Let’s start at the beginning. How do you guys prepare for a tour in regards to practicing?
Benante: If we’ve been off for a month or more, I definitely have to prepare — especially the breathing aspect. That, for me, is the worst part. If I just come in cold, after the third or fourth song, I feel like I’m not acclimated. So it takes me a few shows to get that breathing down. The stamina, I always call it my breathing thing. And, of course, when you’re on it’s usually muscle memory.
Foley: There’s definitely show-shape. You’re either in show-shape or you fall out of it. I’d probably spend a week before a tour playing fairly hard. I can’t simulate the live setting and the live adrenaline, so I will just play longer at home. If we have an hour set, I’ll try and play two hours in a row every day. Since I can’t do the adrenaline thing I combat it that way, otherwise my hands will get soft and the calluses will go away, so I have to get those back up.
Do you do any non-drumming preparations before a tour?
Benante: For me, the most important thing is I want to know the hotels on a day off, and where we are. That’s really important because I don’t want to be somewhere in bumf**k wherever. I like to get out, enjoy the day, go shopping, hunt for stuff.
Foley: I do a similar thing with checking days off, mostly around sports schedules, and I’m always looking for a baseball game or something. I’ll always look where the days off are and compare it to the games.
Benante: We had a great day off in Detroit. Well, actually it was a show-day. During the day we went to the baseball game across the street. Then after that we went to see Bill Maher, who was playing next door to us, and then we did a show. It was a trifecta of the perfect day.
Are there any band field trips on days off, or do you all go your separate ways?
Benante: I always call it “getting away from the circus.” I like to do my own thing.
How about staying healthy on the road?
Benante: [Laughs, which then turns into a cough], as I cough my lungs up.
Foley: It’s virtually impossible. I was sick on this tour, and we’ve got guys on our bus who are sick. Look where everyone is sleeping [his upturned palm gestures toward the adjacent sleeping bay with all the bunks tightly stacked together]: One guy gets it and then you’re just screwed. Nothing you can do.
Benante: I missed some shows. I had bronchitis. I couldn’t get out of bed. I was f**ked. I still have it. That’s the hardest part about doing this, because what are you going to do? You’re sick. I physically can’t play tonight.
What about fighting illness with exercise?
Benante: I thought I was doing that, but what are you going to do? A germ is a germ. I try and go on walks. I go on walks as much as I possibly can, and then I do the exercise tonight, the cardio.
Foley: Yeah, I do the same thing: just walk.
What’s the hardest part about being on tour?
Foley: Just being away from home. I have cats. I miss my cats.
Benante: Just trying to maintain that same level of “I’m there, but I’m really not there.” And believe me, these things [points to his smartphone], as much as I hate them, they are also some of the greatest achievements, so I can FaceTime my daughter and talk to her and see how things are going and feel like I’m almost there. That was one thing that in the past couple of years has been getting to me a bit, because I’ve been doing this since we’ve been out of high school. And all of a sudden you look, and here I am, at this age, and then I feel like I spend most of my time making sure everyone else is happy. But when I try and look back, well, I think I need to be happier now, as I get older in life. So that’s my whole thing: trying to juggle being in a band and being your own person.
Are you guys aiming to tour more or less?
Benante: It’s funny, because I try and talk to these guys about doing less shows, and I feel like we do more now than we did back in the day.
Is there any reason for that?
Foley: When the demand is there, well, you always look at it and you think, “Well, we don’t really need to do this, but I guess we’ll do it.” It seems like we’ve agreed to do a lot of tours, and they’ve been good tours, but it seems like lately it’s been based off the thinking of, “I guess we can do one more. I guess we can extend the cycle another month.” And then, before you know it — oh, man.
Benante: Just squeezing the last drop out of the touring towel.
Is this from a label pressuring you guys to tour more?
Foley: It’s not really label-related in our case. It’s just us looking at what’s in front of us and saying we could pass up on really good stuff, or we could do it. And we’re always sort of like, “Well, I guess we should do them.” They always turn out great, too. And we’re always glad they do.
Benante: I just don’t know what it does, year-by-year. I don’t know how much more you grow or anything. There are these bands, and whatever they touch, it’s always the biggest. They could go away for years and then they come back and it’s way bigger than before they left. I don’t get this.
Foley: It’s tough, too. You can’t tour too much because then [fans] will get bored.
Benante: That’s my point! I try and tell them, “Let’s stay away for a bit. Let people want, create the demand.”
How do you cope with being on a bus all the time?
Foley: Getting off and going on walks helps. Just trying not to be on it all the time. Whenever you have time to spend that’s not on the bus, then mentally it’ll help you out a lot.
Benante: There are guys in the band that love the bus, and they will stay on the bus, but I’m not like that. As soon as I feel the bus stop and I know we’re here, I’m out — off and out. I don’t even come on the bus to chill. I’ve just been on a tour bus for most of my life and I just hate them. They’ve gotten nicer, don’t get me wrong, but I still don’t really care for them that much.
Foley: It’s a nice way to travel, but when you’re living on it? Then it just gets a little annoying. But, it really beats a van.
Speaking of which, is there anything you miss about van tours?
Benante: One of the greatest things that ever happened to us was doing a van tour. It was the beginning stages of the band. We had a different singer at the time, and we did a van tour, and we went across the country, and by the time we came back we knew who was going to be in the band and who wasn’t going to be in the band. And that was it. He was out. We got a new singer. Everything was great. It was because of that tour that all of us bonded and he was the only one that couldn’t hang, that couldn’t deal with it. And then we just knew. He had to go.
Foley: You learn a lot about people, about who is going to get along and who isn’t, pretty quickly.
Benante: Back in the day, we would always watch movies, all of us together. But when these things came along [points to phone], everybody just kind of did their own thing, and we didn’t really do things as we used to do together.
Foley: Totally right. Even driving in the van, everyone would listen to a record. You’d put it on and we’d all talk about it.
Benante: And now everyone just drifts off and does their own thing. I feel that it’s hurt the relationship in a kind of way, and of course everybody has families now and that kind of hurts, too, because your personal time goes to that.
Do either of you find time to practice while you’re on the road?
Benante: In the dressing room, I’ll just sit by myself and zone out. I’ll run through exercises I know mentally. I need to do this. Things I make up, coordination type of things. It gives me time by myself. Last night the dressing room was just a mess. I was trying to warm up in there and people were just screaming and it was nuts.
Foley: I do real similar stuff to that when I do the warmup, but apart from the warmup, during the day, I don’t get to practice.
Benante: I love getting up onstage during the day and just zoning out and playing. Do you ever have shows where this great fill will come to you, and then you remember it the next day, and you play it and it’s like, “I’m going to put that in tonight, somewhere?” I love when that happens.
Foley: Yeah, I love it too! And then I get really mad that I didn’t think of it when we did the record. You’re always figuring out something — it’s amazing. Play a song a thousand times and you’re still figuring something out.
Do you play live with a click or do anything to keep tempos close to their original recordings?
Foley: We have our front-of-house guy record all of our shows, and he calls it the “accountability report.” That way you can go back and check it out. I like to do that to make sure I’m at least in the ballpark, because we don’t do a click live.
Benante: I like to pull things back so that I know I’m definitely not ahead of it. We have this one song called “Evil Twin.” I start it and it has this side-stick hi-hat thing. And then by the time Scott [Ian, guitar] comes in, that thing is pushed so far ahead. Do your guys do that too?
Foley: They’re all right. I think I’m the one that’s doing most of the pushing. I think that as a group, if we don’t check it, we’ll let things get into a really weird spot. When we’ve been playing something for a long time . . . I’ll go back and listen to something and be like, “Whoa!”
Benante: Like, how did the song become that? I always say that when you’re rehearsing the song, when you’re writing the song, right there, it’s the best, and to keep it that way. Because that’s how you thought of it, and that’s how everybody got it. And then sometimes I find that if we record it later on, it just doesn’t have that same rehearsal vibe. Something is missing. Why doesn’t it feel the same as before? What’s happening? It’s too fast.
Foley: We like not using a click. It just seems like certain shows are at a certain level, and we happen to be going here or there. No click tracks, it’s just five guys making noise.
Benante: I don’t know how bands play with a click track live. For me, it’s that human thing that we do and it should just be you. It shouldn’t be restricted. Why does the song need to be perfect if it’s live? Shouldn’t it have some pushing and pulling, some mistakes, this and that?
Foley: That’s the same mindset we’re into.
Benante: Punk rock.
How frequently do you listen back to the accountability report?
Foley: It varies. If there’s a song we haven’t done in forever, or a new song, I’ll go back and listen quite a bit. And if we’ve been doing the same songs in that set for a long time I’ll go for a long period of time thinking, “Ah, it’s fine.”
Benante: It always sounds normal when I’m playing it, and then if I hear something back it’s like, “Oh my God — why?”
Is it true you skipped sound check today?
Foley: We don’t do them that often once we get into a tour. And plus, like I said, FOH [front-of-house] is recording everything, so he does a virtual sound check where he’ll run the show from the night before through the system to get a sense of everything. And the guitar players and bass player are on Kempers [profiling amplifiers] now, so a lot of it is the same. It’s just a much more consistent thing for FOH. The main reason to do a check would be to make sure our in-ears are working, but we haven’t been doing that too much lately.
Benante: We tend not to do sound checks. Today I did one personally because I had a terrible mix last night. I trigger my kicks; he doesn’t do that in front-of-house, so my kick drum sound should be the same at every show. Last night it sounded like someone farting in a box and pushing the level all the way up.
Have you guys learned anything from watching opening bands you’ve been on tour with?
Foley: Yeah, absolutely. I always like watching guys play. Everyone is a little different. You sit there on a stool with a snare in front of you and everybody is going to hit it a little bit differently, or maybe you can pick up some weird fill somebody did. And every now and again we’ll see a band that’s really dedicated to what’s happening onstage in the moment, and since we’ve been doing this for a long time, we might be in the middle of a tour and feeling down or whatever. And you watch somebody playing at a festival that goes out there and kills it, and it’s like, “Oh yeah, that’s what we should be doing.” So maybe it’s a little kick in the ass now and then from other bands.
Is having a drum tech as amazing as the rest of us imagine it to be? Have all your techs been great?
Benante: I’ve had some doozies. I’ve also had some really good ones. I like the ones who take it really seriously. Francis Ruiz, who’s been with me for a while, tonight is his last gig with us. He’s leaving because he’s got more work and we’re winding down. He’s awesome. Great tech. He knows how to play, he knows how to tune the drums, and his eye is great.
Have you ever had a drum tech who wasn’t a drummer?
Benante: I had a drum tech who lied and said he was a drummer when he wasn’t. I’ll never forget — it was his first show at a festival, and one of the other techs comes screaming into the dressing room: “Dude, he’s taking everything apart!” He was dismantling the whole rack system, and this was before the gig. He opened the case, and decided, “If I’m going to be doing this, I’m going to be doing this my own way.” It was just terrible. He was gone after that day.
Foley: Our guy, Jason Fitzgerald, he’s awesome. He’s actually the drummer from Overcast, our bass player’s band before Killswitch. He’s a killer drummer and he’s ridiculously dedicated to getting everything right. He’s probably been with us about seven years, and in those seven years he’s probably made about two mistakes. I remember, one time I had somehow inverted a hi-hat, and so I shifted my playing to another cymbal, and while he’s fixing it, I see him trying so hard to get it to bend back, using his knee and what not, and then I see him slam it over his head and it fixed it.
Benante: Use your head.
Tips From Techs – A Drum Tech’s Perspective
By Jake Wood
A national touring band is a hulking machine with lots of moving parts, and everybody involved with it needs to be on point, from the lead singer all the way down to the bus driver. An integral cog in the machine, the drum tech spins on a variety of gears, constantly working to keep the engine purring. The techs from Anthrax and Killswitch Engage, Francis Ruiz and Jason Fitzgerald, respectively, demystified their myriad tasks in discussing their roles with some of metal’s most elite drummers.
While setup and teardown are always big parts of a tech’s job, there’s more to it than that. They are also responsible for maintaining the kit, which includes changing heads on a regular schedule. Fitzgerald typically replaces the rack tom head every two shows and the floor tom heads every four, unless he sees pitting in a head’s surface sooner than that; then, he swaps it out immediately. Meanwhile, Ruiz changes all the heads every three shows and sometimes replaces the snare batter head after a single gig. These guys get to tune brand new heads more often in a year than most of us will in a decade! “Drum teching is only a third of my job,” Fitzgerald notes, as he also keeps busy ensuring the guys have a good show, bringing them the daily information they need. And most importantly, Fitzgerald is the “stage bartender.” Having worked for Killswitch Engage over the last seven years, he’s also become the liaison for all the endorsement reps, ordering new gear for upcoming tours. That’s no small task, as Justin Foley goes through cymbals like a barbarian. Fitzgerald says, “We’ve done less than 20 shows, and he’s broken four 18″ crashes, two 19″ crashes, two Chinas, and one 17″ crash.” For those of you without a calculator handy, that’s roughly one cymbal every two shows.
Ruiz details a tech’s life on the road, noting, “Sometimes you’re a drum tech and also a stage manager. Sometimes you’re their personal assistant, their therapist, their best buddy, their go-to guy for everything.”
Both techs are also drummers (Benante and Foley sang their praises as excellent musicians), and Ruiz, who’s been a drum tech for big names since 2000, laid down the drum tech creed simply and succinctly: Tech the way you would tech for yourself.
Read more about Justin Foley from the pages of Drum Magazine: