BY JOHN PAYNE | FROM THE SUMMER 2018 ISSUE OF DRUM!
If anybody deserves to be considered this generation’s answer to the late Freddie Gruber — the revered teacher of some of the biggest names in drumming history — it would be this stylistic chameleon who is just as happy to spend time perfecting a backbeat in the privacy of his teaching studio as blasting monster chops onstage in front of tens of thousands of fans.
Ultra-eclectic drummer and educator Dave Elitch can play with just about anyone, and he has, in an astonishingly diverse career spanning heavy prog rock with The Mars Volta to the poppy realms of Miley Cyrus and Justin Timberlake, with numerous blockbuster film scores thrown in for good measure. But he’s also in high demand as an advanced studies teacher for some of the top touring and studio drummers, to which he credits his lifelong exploration into roots of his own diverse musical taste.
“It’s like that Yogi Berra quote, ‘If you don’t know where you’re going, how are you going to get there?’” he laughs. “Knowing your past is a big part of that, and it’s really important to give credit where it’s due. I think a lot of how certain drummers helped improve and deepen my own playing. For example, Matt Chamberlain, who I recently did the Logan soundtrack with, is how I got into playing on film scores. Well, when that Brad Mehldau Largo record came out in 2002 with Matt’s drums on it, man, that record completely changed my life; it was like a complete paradigm shift. And I spent a ton of time playing along to John Mayer’s Continuum record with Steve Jordan on it. ‘What does the snare sound like? How rattly is it? Let me tape the snare,’ sitting there getting the snare and kick exactly like Steve Jordan had them.
“A lot of those people don’t get nearly enough credit, like Toss Panos [Sting, Dweezil Zappa] or Gary Novak [Chick Corea, George Benson]. Those are two of the baddest mofos to ever touch the instrument. You see those dudes playing and it’s like someone punches you in the stomach. And when I hear Deftones or Pantera or Meshuggah, that makes me want to run through a wall, so that’s a big part of my playing too — I want to make someone feel like they’re going to run through a brick wall. If you’re not getting that reaction, then what the hell are you doing?”
Heart’s Where The Home Is
Elitch’s roots trace back to the small, laid-back town of Sebastopol, about an hour north of San Francisco. He grew up in a family that didn’t play musical instruments, but his dad was an avid jazz fan who’d take his son to see piano trios at a little coffee shop in town. It was a thrilling, resonant experience that inspired the kid to eventually pick the sticks.
“Since my dad would always be playing jazz around the house, I was playing jazz at a very young age,” he says. “I would come home from school and be playing along to Buddy Rich and Billy Cobham, Dave Brubeck, Art Blakey, and Max Roach — then Slayer, Pantera, Meshuggah, and Tool. And I was really into Phil Collins.”
This mishmash of musical worlds inspired the mind-stretching that he now advises younger players to adopt as soon as they can. “When you’re just starting out, you can’t really understand what is appealing to you,” he says. “You’re just going by what’s getting you a visceral reaction, and you don’t have the tools to know what or why that’s happening. I was blown away for the same reason that everyone else is blown away by Buddy Rich: his articulation and cleanliness, his natural kinesthetic awareness and kinetic intelligence is unmatched. And that high-pitched, articulate cranked snare of his? I liked Billy Cobham and Phil Collins a lot for the same reason. You were never, like, ‘Wait, what’s going on?’ It was very clear what they were trying to do. It was like they were talking to you.”
Even the way drummers looked onstage made a big impact on young Elitch. “Billy Cobham, man,” he says. “Just his rig alone — the giant Fibes kit with those North toms that would sound horrible, but he was just going for it. That’s still really important to me. There’s nothing worse than seeing someone sitting there just tapping stuff out, phoning it in, especially in a heavier band. I get really pumped up watching someone like Yogi Horton [Luther Vandross] or Shannon Larkin [Godsmack] or Morgan Rose [Sevendust], because those guys put on a show without being corny. Or like Abe Cunningham [Deftones], where he’s just putting everything he has — psychically, physically, and emotionally — into that rimshot.”
After taking lessons in foundational technique from age 10 to 12 with local teacher Eric Weidenheimer (“I did the Ted Reed Syncopation stuff, all the Alan Dawson stuff, the Gary Chester New Breed stuff”), Elitch played in middle school and high school bands before studying with another local teacher, Rob Matteri, who got him hyped on former Berklee College Of Music Percussion Department Chairman Gary Chaffee. It was a revelation at a critical point in his drumming life. “Chaffee’s concept of phrasing was really new and different,” he says. “I was drawn to more progressive things at a young age, because I really wanted to be different and unique, and have an identity and a voice.”
This included the prog rock drummers of the day, who seemed to know no boundaries. “The amount of time I spent playing along to Tool and Meshuggah is insane — thousands of hours, maybe,” he says. “Neil Peart in Rush is the perfect example of someone working within the perfect incubator for him to do things that were really outlandish and probably wouldn’t have worked musically in any other setting. With Rush, there is some cool stuff that is difficult to play when you’re a beginning drummer. Neil is great at applying polyrhythmic concepts in a musical setting without being nerdy about it — you can tell he’s like, ‘Okay, I’m going to put this five over this four,’ but that he knows what he’s doing and he’s not ruining the part or ruining the song. It’s still musical.”
Elitch concedes that younger fans are often drawn to prog rock for superficial reasons. “When you’re young, you go, ‘Oh, progressive rock is different, all these odd time signatures are different, and all this stuff on the surface level is different,’ just because of how it’s made instead of why it’s made.”
Yet prog in its manifold variations taught Elitch what is to him the most vital drumming lesson of all: The importance of finding a genuinely personal approach to the instrument, and making it work within the context of the song.
The assured facility that has defined Elitch’s flourishing career — and the satisfying creative rewards it gifts him — emanate from his ever-widening palette. “It was really important to me to not get pinned down as a prog rock guy,” he says. “And in fact, my goal at a young age was to be a multi-man like Vinnie Colaiuta or, say, Josh Freese, who’s like a chameleon. So like when Loïc [Maurin] from M83 asked me to sub for him on a tour, I said, ‘Oh man, this is perfect: French synth pop, four-on-the-floor disco’ — you couldn’t get farther away from the metal stuff I’d been playing.”
His eclectic schedule kept him busy: An “interesting” tour with actor-singer Juliette Lewis; recording and touring with Antemasque, a new band with The Mars Volta compatriots Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodríguez-López; and playing with Killer Be Killed, a metal super group featuring Dillinger Escape Plan singer Greg Puciato, Sepultura guitarist Max Cavalera, and Mastodon bassist Troy Sanders.
Elitch had also been teaching Miley Cyrus’ drummer and musical director Stacy Jones on and off for years, a situation that led him to join Cyrus’ band for her Wrecking Ball TV date performances on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon and Ellen, as well as a few months of the Bangerz tour.
The tour was a fabulous opportunity, but a bit of an insane situation, as Elitch was at the time simultaneously working on both the Antemasque and Killer Be Killed records during the day and preparing for the Miley live sets at night.
“It’s one of those scenarios where you show up to the arena, run through the set once, and you’re off,” he says with a pinch of pride and lingering amazement. “It’s unbelievably stressful. You wake up in the middle of the night, like ‘Agh! How does that bridge go in that one song?’ Because you can’t mess up, especially on something like that Miley Cyrus tour, which was 25 songs, two different stages, people on stilts and, like, Muppets and dancers, like a Broadway show.”
Elitch had a mere three weeks to squeeze in his preparations for the Miley tour. He set up a full DW kit exactly like Jones’, complete with practice pads in place of the Simmons pads used in the show, and played to the videos and a board mix the Cyrus team had sent him, making notes as he practiced the songs “a ridiculous amount of times.” Stressful, sure, but it all went well, and as a bonus he got to blow his metalhead compatriots’ minds with his seemingly contradictory taste in musical styles.
Elitch’s work with Justin Timberlake came about when he worked on a record with songwriter/producer Rob Knox, who had also coproduced some of Timberlake’s material. Years later, Timberlake was doing the soundtrack for the hugely successful film Trolls, and called Elitch to supply the drum work. He came calling again for drums on the score to the 2017 drama The Book Of Love.
While most drum teachers would advise young students to prepare to cover the widest possible array of musical genres, and it’s certainly brought success in his own career, Elitch knows it’s sometimes a good strategy to let things go.
“Some people don’t want to do that, and a lot of people can’t do that,” he says. “I myself, for example, grew up playing a ton of double bass drum, but I got to a point a few years ago where it just takes me so long to get my feet fast, to get my sixteenth-notes up to 180 or 200 [bpm], which isn’t even fast anymore. And I was just like, ‘I’m just gonna let that go.’”
Even so, he believes it’s important to absorb untried, unfamiliar music, even if it doesn’t come easily. “Part of doing this is having a really wide net and stealing from diverse sources, and making whatever you stole into your own thing. If you stole from three people, it’s really obvious who you’re stealing from, especially if you don’t flip it and make it your own thing, whereas if you steal from a huge variety of people and then make it into your own thing, you’re going to come up with something new and unique.
“Which is the whole point of doing this,” he emphasizes. “I don’t want to hear someone rehash someone else’s stuff. That is just the ultimate waste of a life. I don’t want to hear a bunch of ’80s dudes at the Bonzo Bash at NAMM. No one’s going to play that better than Bonham did. Don’t drag it through the mud.”
Art & Craft
These days, Elitch spends much of his time teaching private lessons for young, developing drummers as well as more advanced training for a variety of touring and recording professionals. It was at the Australian Drummers’ Weekend in late 2016 where his meeting with Gregg Bissonette led to the pair’s current teacher-pupil partnership.
“For Gregg, it was a lot of phrasing stuff,” Elitch says. “He said, ‘I hear a lot of people play and I thought the way you phrase things was really cool, but I couldn’t figure out what you were doing.’ You know, Gregg Bissonette doesn’t need teaching, but he loves drumming and loves improving, and just watching him go, ‘Oh man, that’s it!’ is priceless. He wanted to learn more about double bass work, so we’re doing all this over-the-bar phrasing, [Gary] Chaffee-type stuff, which we’re combining with some Meshuggah stuff like ‘Bleed.’ And it is amazing.”
According to Elitch, while most professional drummers get by on the technique they’ve developed, they often either injure themselves or tell him they can’t play what they want because they keep getting in their own way. “They’re great players,” he says,“but for one reason or another they hit a wall.” Recent Elitch students include Nashville session king Chris McHugh, Death Cab For Cutie’s Jason McGerr, session veteran Jeremy Stacey, Mario Calire of The Wallflowers, Muse’s Dominic Howard, and Stevie Nicks/Alanis Morissette session man Blair Sinta.
Elitch’s work with these pros focuses primarily on body mechanics and technique, including, as he describes it, “getting out of the way” of energy. So, for example, gravity is a type of energy that wants to pull the stick down, and rebound is another form of energy that wants to send the stick back up. You should avoid doing anything that inhibits either one.
“I’m just being as lazy as possible and developing a deep knowledge of energy,” he says. “It’s about ergonomics to a certain extent, but it really all comes down to rebound, and developing a deep sense of energy. This is a very external approach, where you let the stick do everything. In fact you don’t manipulate the stick at all — the stick manipulates you.”
And yet even Elitch, the eternal student who never stops learning everything he can about drum technique, needs to clear his head of paradiddles and flams every now and then. “It can all work and it can all not work,” he says. “Some people just need to leave their phone in their car, sit down in their drum rooms, and get to work on all their fundamentals and new techniques and styles they want to learn. But for them, quite often, an hour’s gone by and they haven’t gotten much stuff done. Some drummers need to take a break from drums, to not even listen to music, and go on a hike.”
In his case, Elitch finds rejuvenation in the visual arts, whose core mysteries trigger in him resonant feelings that are directly applicable to his own music. “I got into art as an escape from drums and music,” he says. “With drumming, I’ve devoted my whole life to knowing every aspect of it, and I know a lot about it, so I’m always expected to know the answers to everything with drums. With art, I’m allowed to approach something instinctually and say, ‘I don’t really know what that is,’ and I either like it or really hate it and don’t have to give any reasons why. That really appeals to me. It’s just a complete escape.”
He extrapolates this idea beyond graphic arts. “I’ve been teaching the comedian Bill Burr for about a year, which is really fascinating because he’s able to apply all his high-level conceptual comedy stuff and carry it over to drums. I’ll be explaining something and he’ll be like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s exactly like this.’ You can relate all these artistic endeavors to each other in some way.”
The Big Picture
Elitch’s love of visual art has also led him to be far less concerned with the technical, and increasingly fascinated with the conceptual.
“Technical ability has always been extremely important to me, but it’s interesting that that’s not really necessary in art,” he says. “Someone like painter Gerhard Richter appeals to me because his early stuff was really technically proficient, but as he progressed, it got more and more abstract. And now he’s doing these giant squeegee paintings where he just smears paint across the canvas. Then there are musicians like Steve Jordan, who was very technically proficient at a young age, just a ripping drummer, and then he progressed to the point where he was playing solid time and getting great tones, and that’s sort of where he lives now.
“When you’re 23, you have to prove yourself, and I feel like I’ve proved myself in that aspect of my playing. Like, I have chops, I can play a lot of things that a lot of people can’t play, maybe.”
“And who cares? To me, it’s about playing musically and playing really good songs, and serving the song.”
Dave Elitch has been teaching since he was 15 years old, and he still gives lessons between gigs. Recently, he’s been sought out by established professionals like Gregg Bissonette, Chris McHugh, and Benny Greb, among others, to help fix lingering issues or improve their technique.
“A lot of these dudes I’m teaching are really good friends of mine,” says Elitch. “That being said, it’s like, if you’re going to do this, let’s do this. My teaching hat’s on and we’re diving in deep. Generally speaking, I don’t treat anyone differently from anyone else.”
For every one of his students, whether amateur or professional, Elitch stresses that technique must be so ingrained that it becomes second nature. “If you think about technique when you’re playing music it completely defeats the purpose of technique,” he says. “In a perfect world, I want you to be thinking about nothing.”
And it’s good to check in with a teacher, every once in a while, to make sure that what you’re not thinking about is the right thing. “When you’re going to a therapist,” says Elitch, “you don’t know what you’re doing wrong until you have someone go, ‘Hey, do you notice that when this happens, you tend to do this?’ And then you’re like, ‘Holy sh*t, I do do that!’ You would never know unless you had a professional on the outside looking at you and picking you apart.”
His passion for teaching has culminated in the video lesson series he just launched on daveelitch.com. It’s like an instructional DVD in download-only format, with over five hours of material gathered from his years of teaching about hand and foot technique, phrasing, timekeeping, and other subjects. “The bottom line with all this stuff is I want to help people,” he says.