BY AJ DONAHUE
Dan Bailey stays busy. The Los Angeles native has supported an array of rock and pop acts through a career that began nearly 20 years ago, and is one of the lucky few still holding down steady work as a touring and recording drummer. For the last four years, he’s been the touring anchor behind the expansive indie ensemble Father John Misty, a gig that’s grown to not only involve Bailey in the band’s songwriting but given him an opportunity to record the band’s third album, Pure Comedy. And—because who would want just one job—he’s opened a remote studio where he fills his off-Misty circuit time with session work.
Bailey is an extremely versatile and capable player, but that’s only part of what’s kept him working for so long. In our interview he offered a tremendous amount of insight into what’s needed to carve out a drumming career today, though he’ll be the first to point out that luck and knowing the right people played almost as big a part as anything else. Here, he talks about his career, getting the FJM gig, and why he decided to invest in building his own studio. And then we talked a lot about gear.
Drum!: What was the early part of your career like?
Dan Bailey: A lot of my career had been recording and subbing for friends of mine, including on some big pop tours. Father John Misty was a little smaller when I first came on, but it’s become one of the bigger things I’ve done.
How did you start playing with Father John Misty?
I got the call back around the middle of 2014. I’ve played with Eli [Thompson], the bass player, for years in a band called Everest, and on a bunch of records he’s produced. I also knew Dave [Vandervelde], one of the guitar players, previous to Misty. They had another drummer in mind, but it didn’t work out. My name came up and it worked. When I first joined, I was getting thrown into tour prep and had to learn quick. There were 22 or 23 songs to learn almost overnight. It was a lot of charting and hunting through the parts to find landmarks.
What’s it like playing with a frontman who is also a drummer?
Josh [Tillman, Father John Misty founder, singer, and songwriter] is a such a great drummer. [Editor’s note: Tillman previously played drums for Fleet Foxes and Demon Hunter, among others.] I find it’s way easier playing with artists who are drummers. They have a vocabulary, and worst-case scenario, they can sit down and say, “Play it like this.” There are a couple of parts where things need to be a certain way, but there’s significantly more freedom than people might assume. Josh trusts us to do our thing.
Why did you invest in a home studio?
I’ve been working with producers and songwriter friends of mine for a long time. A lot of them are into TV cue writing, and they’ll get a call requesting a 50-second piece of music that replicates a particular artist or feel. So when you need 50 seconds of drums, you can either program or outsource to someone with a remote rig. So much of the work now is single songs or a couple of quick cues. It’s way easier on everyone’s schedule and budget for drummers to be able to knock these pieces out without renting an expensive studio.
A lot of the learning process is getting familiar with your DAW and other software. I’ve been on probably a thousand sessions in fifteen years, and after a while I started shadowing the engineers to learn about mike placement, EQ, gain structure, and how they would approach all of that. So when it was time for me to jump in with both feet, I had a pretty good knowledge base.
I wish I would have known where to put money. With a certain amount of money, I think we’re prone to prioritizing things that aren’t as important. Looking back, microphones should always be a priority. Interface should always be a priority. Preamps can come in third after that.
How many and what kind of drums do you keep in your studio?
If you want to be in a position where you can play on records regularly, you kind of have to have a lot of drums. It’s not cheap. You can have a Ludwig Supraphonic and a Noble & Cooley Alloy Classic that are both great in the own right, but totally inappropriate for each other’s thing. Right now, I have probably seven or eight drum kits and maybe 20 snare drums. I’m fairly sure that two of the drum sets and five or six of the snare drums get almost all of the work, but you never know what you’re going to need.
As much as you have to get into what kind of playing is right for the song, you also need to get into the right sounds. Having a significant selection of drums helps find the right feel, and it helps you make engineering decisions as well because the drums are already going to sound a certain way. A modern 22″ x 18″ maple bass drum isn’t going work on a Bill Withers-type thing, and a shallow vintage bass drum isn’t always going to cut it on a radio pop kind of track. There are always exceptions to those rules, but it’s worth making things as easy on yourself as possible.
One of the really nice things about having my own studio is that I always have that stuff at my disposal. If I’m going into a professional studio, there’s only so much I can bring, even if I have cartage and all that. And as often as I’m confident I’m bringing the right drums, I still run into situations where I don’t have the perfect drum for a track, so I have to force another drum to sub for that sound.
What’s the difference for you between choosing gear for live and studio settings?
In the studio, you have a chance to get a lot more specific. But for live work, you need to find gear that can do a lot of different things. Maybe the hardest part of the Misty gig is cymbal and snare drum selection. If you listen to those records, there are different sounds on every track. So I have to find drums that can approximate a bunch of different sounds with just a couple of lug turns or something.
What’s your go-to gear for recording and touring?
I think it’s important to have the following: a vintage kit from somewhere between 1950 and 1970 in standard sizes, and then a modern kit with good, sharp edges. That’s really critical for getting the right sounds, but for touring as well. If you’re playing for an artist who’s doing festival dates, your drums are going to be baking in the sun for eight hours before or after you play. Modern, well-made drums are just better equipped to deal with that kind of thing.
As far as snare drums, you can realistically get away four options: shallow wood, shallow metal, deep wood, and deep metal. That will cover a lot of ground, and should be enough if they’re well-made.
I’ve been working with Istanbul Agop to find the right ride cymbal for like five years. At one point on a Misty tour, I was switching ride cymbals between songs. But that’s just not practical. Rides are tough because they have to be crashable, but also have enough stick to be heard, but not be too loud, but also not get lost. One of the things I’m seeing a lot is drummers playing really thin, dry, dark cymbals, and that’s a great sound, but you just can’t hear them. So, a lot of drummers end up playing way harder than they should to get more volume, but the cymbals are choking and breaking. I’ll bet every cymbal on my setup is just a notch heavier than most people would think. They just project more. That’s what translates better, and that helps me make sure I’m not overplaying the ride too much.
DAN BAILEY’S FATHER JOHN MISTY TOURING KIT
- Q Drum Co. maple drum set, 20″ x 14″, 12″ x 8″, 16″ x 16″
- Q Drum Co. Gentlemen’s Aluminum or Ludwig Supraphonic snares
- Istanbul Agop cymbals:
- 15” Traditional light hi-hats
- 20” Mantra crash
- 22” Mantra ride
- 22” Traditional crash-ride with two rivets
- Tama hardware
- Evans drumheads
- Vic Firth sticks
- Roland SPD SX (2)