BY JARED COBB
It’s a cursed blessing. After a couple of decades starving your way through anonymous thrash bands, you finally hit it big drumming for an established, multiplatinum metal band. You catapult from the rusty van to the sparkling tour bus, from the rusty van’s floor to the posh hotel bed, and from the dark abyss to the Billboard charts. It’s Shangri-La, at least for a while. Then, slowly, you begin to notice. Something’s missing.
Who put out the fire?
In Shannon Larkin’s 30 tumultuous years as a staple skinsman in the duck-and-cover business of heavy metal, he’s seen just about everything. He cut his major-label teeth with Wrathchild (later Souls At Zero) and Snot before getting picked up by Ugly Kid Joe in time for a taste of their zenith. As that run ended, and he was just moments from calling it quits for a career cutting hair, the golden catapult called on the phone — Sully Erna needs a drummer for Godsmack. It’s the big-big time, baby.
Larkin was stepping into a sticky situation with Erna and Godsmack, and no one knew it better than him. Erna, himself a drummer of considerable talents, has a reputation as a controlling perfectionist and Larkin knew he’d be the “second drummer” in the room. What Larkin didn’t know, what he couldn’t know, was how much this backseat beat-making would effect his play and how far he would eventually reach to hammer the life back into his drumming.
Perseverance and patience were the keys to Larkin helping Godsmack pump out two — two! — platinum records (Faceless and IV) in his first three years with the band. The process was meticulous and grueling for everybody, and eventually took its toll on the band, especially its creator and frontman.
“The band was approaching its ten-year anniversary,” recalls Larkin, expressive and passionate in his tone. “Sully came to us and talked about how he’d had fun and made some money but never had time to enjoy his life because it was always record/tour, record/tour, record/tour. So he wanted us to take some time off — two years off! Well, it ended up being only one year. So we have all of 2008 — while Sully takes a well-deserved break — to do this Another Animal project.”
ENTER THE ANIMAL
During the IV tour, the non-Erna members of Godsmack (along with ex-Godsmackian and Dropbox guitarist Lee Richards) began tinkering with rhythms and melodies in the back of the bus. Things came together quickly as the musicians enjoyed not only playing more to their roots and influences, but also stretching themselves away from the best-selling Godsmack sound. Recruit Ugly Kid Joe singer Whitfield Crane and you’ve got not only a ripping rock band, but Another Animal all together.
One last step remained: Someone had to tell Sully Erna.
No problem. Where’s the drummer?
“Sully was very insecure at first,” Larkin explains. “He told me it felt like egg on his face.”
So Larkin sat him down and explained how this wasn’t a kick in the groin, or the end of Godsmack, just some friends wanting to make music together while they had the time to do so. There was an undeniable itch they all needed to scratch and now was their chance. Erna came around to the idea. Once again, the drummer talks the singer off the ledge.
“Drummers almost always end up being psychiatrists. I think it has to do with us being back behind the drums and typically getting the least attention in the whole band — besides maybe the bass player,” he laughs. “And a lot of times guitar players have egos that almost match the singers’, so therein lies the problem. That’s when the drummer steps in and smoothes things over between the giant clashing egos. Every band I’ve ever been in, I’ve always been really tight with the singer — for whatever reason. It’s an ironic thing because it’s the most publicly viewed guy being friends with the least publicly viewed guy. The yin and the yang.
“The thing Sully was really worried about was us stepping on Godsmack’s toes with the release of singles and that stuff. He didn’t want us competing with ourselves. So that’s why we waited almost a year and a half to release this. It worked out perfectly because we’re also releasing a ten-year anniversary album under Godsmack that will keep the Godsmack name out there while we tour with Another Animal. So it’s a great world right now for me.”
UNDER THE MIKES
The greatness began the minute Larkin and friends entered Boston’s Mad Oak Studios during a break in the IV tour. Before even picking up the sticks, Larkin understood just how special this situation was for a veteran drummer like himself coming off a gig like Godsmack.
“In Godsmack, Sully is the producer too. It’s all Sully Erna. He always has the producer’s ear on everything. So it’s a much more exacting process, down to every drum fill. He’s a drummer of 30 years, just like me, so he has his whole vision of how the drums should be, even what fills to play and what cymbals to hit in those fills. He’s just a man who is full of ideas.
“With Another Animal, the band was producing. And I was the only drummer in the room. In fact, none of those guys could even hold a beat on the drums, let alone tell me what kind of fill to play,” he laughs. “So for me it was a very liberating experience to just play from the heart without any kind of outside influence. It’s the first time I’ve been able to do that since my first band, Wrathchild.
“Don’t get me wrong, Sully gives me freedom in the studio and digs a lot of what I do, but since he’s such a drummer and producer, it ends up almost being a dual drum record. I’m playing all the drums but he has a big hand in it, as he has a big hand in everything Godsmack. I love playing drums for Sully and Godsmack. If you ask me which one I like better, well, it’s two different disciplines. It’s like two different pasta dishes, each sauce is completely different, but they’re both delicious. I’m having my cake and eating it too.”
And the cake tastes like freedom. The veterans spent three weeks recording Another Animal and it all went way too fast. “At one point,” Larkin laughs, “I realized I had to slow down [the process] or we’d be done with the record in three days. And I wanted to make it last. It was like sex, man — I had to slow down to make it last and enjoy it!”
The fun-loving atmosphere was a stark contrast to the business-like regimen of a Godsmack session. Larkin and his bandmates let the music come to them, and welcomed it with open arms … and banging heads.
“We went about things a lot differently than we do with Godsmack. We were going more for performance than for perfection. We tracked the drums, bass, and one rhythm guitar together live. And we tried to keep that one rhythm track together as much as possible. We really made a point not to second-guess ourselves. If it sounds killer and our feet are tapping and our heads are bobbing, then it’s on fire and it’s a track. No second-guessing.
“And in an effort to go to a more old-school style of drumming — Keith Moon, Mitch Mitchell style — we tried to go first-take, with no cutting. Instead of doing three, four, eight takes and cutting it together to make the perfect track, we had the freedom to just play the track a few times and pick one that felt like it was on fire. We really kept the Pro Tools to a minimum. Out of the 11 songs on there, eight of them are complete first-takes with no messing around with the drum parts at all. Since we play so much together and we were in the middle of a tour, we were just on fire as a band at that point. It was a magical thing.”
Tight enough to run naked, click-free, through most of the songs. The dying art of clickless recording gives albums like this one an unmistakable life. The ebb and flow of the music prevents it from leaning too much toward Nickelback and keeps the groove anchored a few decades back, where it feels so damn good. The click, however, did rear its head once or twice during those three weeks in Boston.
“We’re all pros and we’ve done lots of records, so there were a couple songs that we thought may be singles and that we should use a click on,” Larkin explains. “Because, in the end, the click is your friend. I think of the 11 tracks on this record we used a click on only two. ’Broken Again’ and ’Fade Away’ were two songs that we thought could really do well on radio, and we understand how radio is and how fickle program directors are. They do look for perfection in a song and we didn’t want to get screwed at radio. Obviously, radio is probably the most important thing for a new rock band coming out. If you don’t get yourself on the radio then you won’t draw bodies at the clubs and you won’t sell records.”
The result is an eclectic heavy rock album ranging in feel from Stone Temple Pilots and Alice In Chains to Sabbath and Black Flag. The arrangements are classic and straightforward, with some toothy guitar work, some strong vocals over frequently thin lyrics, and some of the best drumming to ever smash its way into Larkin’s bulging portfolio.
“We didn’t try to go for one direction, we just took a group of songs that we all loved to play in the room, just looking at each other and playing. And when everybody got big smiles on their faces in a groove, that was the song that would make the record. Whether it’s a quirky punk song like ’The Thin Line’ or something slow and beautiful like ’Fade Away’ or a ’90s-style rock song like ’Left Behind’ and ’Broken Again’ or retro Sabbath-sounding riffs like ’Before The Fall’ or ’Amends’ — I think we covered a wide spectrum of music that all leads back to our influences.
“We’re not young men and we wear our influences on our sleeves, from Zeppelin and Sabbath to Steely Dan and Pink Floyd. We didn’t have a vision of what Another Animal would sound like, we just knew that each of us loves and respects the same sounds that we grew up with in the ’70s.”
Like a kenneled dog off its leash, Larkin revels in his freedoms with Another Animal. Chase squirrels, bite mailmen, hump the poodle, or simply lay down in the shade — this dog is master of his domain and loving every minute of it. “It is the greatest feeling,” he howls. “As you get older and play in this business for as long as I have, it becomes make records/tour, make records/tour, over and over again. So you never have time to sit down and practice your instrument. You’re more of a songcrafter than a drummer. With Another Animal we had all this time all day long to sit down and just jam. We’d actually jam like, a jazz-fusion lick for two hours, over and over again.
“I had almost forgotten how to play freeform, where somebody starts a lick and everybody jumps in and starts jamming and it morphs by itself. And Another Animal brought that back to me as a drummer, as a passionate player of the drums. Now I’m back to being able to play off the top of my head. I can go to a bar and just get up and jam with some band and do it with confidence. After the first five years of Godsmack I lost that kind of playability where I could just throw down at the drop of a hat. It goes away and you become formulaic, thinking of song structure and a bunch of other stuff you weren’t thinking about when you were a teenager learning to play drums in your garage. It’s a pure form of drumming to not have to think so much about the big picture.”
STATE OF THE INDUSTRY
The “big picture” in the music business can suffocate even the purest of players. Any time art, money, and ego collide there’s almost a guaranteed perfect storm scenario, with nothing but loss and devastation left in its wake. Another chain-breaking aspect of the Animal project is the lack of expectation, and therefore the lack of pressure. While they remain on a major label (Universal), they don’t have the history of extreme success to judge themselves against.
“We got to do this by ourselves, without the record labels and management breathing down our neck,” Larkin says. “We live in a world of high expectations in a vicious business so it was nice to just let the music happen organically. It’s really cool to not have any expectations from the label and management. Everyone just kind of let us run off and make the craziest record we wanted to make and have fun. Fun and easy, that’s our motto. It shouldn’t be hard.
“If all your records sell a million copies then your next record better sell a million or everybody’s going to be bummed at you. But if it’s your first record and nobody has any expectations and you sell 5,000 copies the first week they’re like ’Hey, good job!’ If Godsmack sells 5,000 copies the first week we’re … well, we’re looking for a new label.
“So there’s a lot of pressure being in a multiplatinum band to make a masterpiece. Every record we go into it like, ’This is going to be our masterpiece! We must make ourBack In Black!’ And that’s how high the bar is set every time. You’re not supposed to let it get to you but as a band what we do is try to make every record better than the last one and sell more copies than the last one and play in front of more bodies than the last tour. It’s about achieving your dreams in the biggest way possible.
“Nobody ever makes a record and says, ’Yeah, I’d be happy if this thing flops.’ All the independent bands can cry so loud about bands like Godsmack and Disturbed and other successful metal bands out there, but in reality everyone wants to sell records. The American Dream is to be able to do what you love and make a living at it. So I am blessed.”
Blessed is he with the veteran knowledge of the industry. Larkin’s been around the block, and back around again, and has his own process for creating art within the pressures of the industry. Yet even for him, some of the stress will never fully retreat from his rhythmic mind.
“You have to seclude yourself with your band guys and make yourself unavailable to labels and management for at least a couple months. Then you can start to formulate some sort of vision on tape. You’ll start to get a vibe for what your record will become. Keep yourself away from the scary part of the business — the suits and ties telling you what you have to do — and turn off the phones and try to forget about everything other than making the best record you can. And you can’t let yourself get caught up in the partying either. You have to focus 100 percent.
“But at the end of the day it’s always in the back of your mind: I hope this sells. I hope this sells. And the only reason it’s like that is because you don’t want it to end. Like if the record doesn’t do well then half the time the band breaks up. Then there’s this thing, this wife or something — gone. I’ve been through it and it’s painful.
“Everything could end at any moment. Any musician will tell you that. It’s a fickle business where timing is almost as important as talent and you never know what’s right around the corner.”
SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL
The rebirth, like all growth, doesn’t come without its bumps and bruises. The label wasn’t offering much support until recently — when they caught the powerful live show. Before that they just expected their Godsmack boys to get this out of their system so they could go back to making hit records. And playing as the opening act in club shows is a far cry from the usual sold-out arena. It’s still a tour bus but now there’s the full crew to share space with. In short, it’s not Godsmack. And that’s okay.
“Vinnie Paul gave me a tip,” Larkin recalls of a recent conversation with the umph behind Pantera, Damage Plan, and HellYeah. “He told me that with Another Animal nobody will care that I’m in Godsmack. They’ll see me on the street and want a picture and an autograph because I’m in Godsmack, but they won’t go buy Another Animal CD because of it. You have to think of this as starting over.”
And staring over may be just what the animal ordered for a weathered musician with his unconventional rise to success. There’s a lot to be excited about if you’re Shannon Larkin.
“It’s the feeling of something brewing — that’s what’s exciting. I’ve never felt that. When I joined Godsmack they were already platinum, same thing with Ugly Kid Joe. I’ve never felt a band go from nothing and score a hit on the radio and watch it bloom, so I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that this thing will catch on. It’s definitely humbling.
“When you do this for so long, and you get some success, that’s when you start to question yourself. When I was fighting my way through thrash bands playing metal and partying, I didn’t really care. I was king of the world. Then once I got some success, that’s when I started being insecure and wondering about my ability and second-guessing myself. There’s no second guessing with this.”
SHANNON LARKIN’S HUGE BEATS
While Shannon Larkin may be one of the most visually entertaining hard rock drummers around, his drumming stands quite well on its own and is always slamming, rock solid, and perfect for the songs. Since Another Animal’s first release is comprised of some of the 30 songs leftover from the Godsmack IV writing sessions, comparisons to Godsmack are unavoidable. The good news is that fans of Godsmack and drummer Shannon Larkin’s take-no-prisoners style of hard rock will surely not be disappointed. This band rocks plain and simple, yet still creates some powerful melodies and songs with lots of rhythmic twists.
“Before The Fall”
The intro fill may throw you off if you don’t hear the triplet feel, and it makes good use of Larkin’s Ice Bell, crash, and China cymbal. The first groove is a variation on an Afro-Cuban pattern with bass drums falling on beats 1, ah, 2, ah, &, 4, and ah (counting in triplets). The snare lands solidly on 3, giving the pattern a powerful half-time feel. Larkin plays his hi-hat on every other note giving the pattern a three-against-two feel. His chorus feel is played on his ride and he plays a straighter pattern, but still outlines 3 against 2 with his bass drum at the end of each bar.
“Black Coffee Blues”
Larkin plays a lot of cool drum parts on this disk, and this tune has a few worth checking out. It starts as a slow hard-rock blues tune, and for the intro and verse, Larkin plays the sixteenth-notes very straight, but throws in the occasional triplet fill to keep the blues feel intact and move the time feel back and forth. Around the three-minute mark, the song seems to end, but then unexpectedly starts up again, this time at a faster tempo and in 4/4. Larkin plays a couple of awesome yet odd grooves that place the snare drum on 1 and just about every other place you wouldn’t think would sound good, but which fit perfectly with the guitars.
DRUMS: Yamaha Birch Custom (Black Sparkle)
1. 24″ x 18″ Bass Drum
2. 14” x 6.5″ Mike Bordin Snare Drum
3. 14″ x 12″ Floor Tom
4. 14″ Toca Timbale
5. 12″ x 10″ Tom
6. 13″ x 11″ Tom
7. 16″ x 16″ Floor Tom
8. 10″ X 8″ Tom
A. 14″ Paragon Hi-Hats
B. 12″ AA Splash
C. 20″ Paragon China
D. 18″ AA Rock Crash
E. 12” Ice Bell
F. 22″ Powerbell Ride
G. 20″ AA Medium Crash
H. 20″ Paragon China
I. 10″ Paragon Splash
J. 13″ Paragon Hi-Hats
K. 20″ Vault Crash
Shannon Larkin also uses Vic Firth sticks, Remo drumheads, and Yamaha hardware and pedals.