BY BOB DOERSCHUK | PHOTOS BY SAYRE BERMAN | FROM THE SUMMER 2018 ISSUE OF DRUM
For many professional musicians out there, the prime directive is: Play the song. This is the paradox of drumming. You want great chops. You wouldn’t mind winning the next World’s Fastest Drummer competition. But when you’ve got an audience staring at you, or when the red light goes on in the studio, all that gets set aside. All that matters is how the group works together to make a show or a record that no one will soon forget, and in those moments chops don’t seem to matter. Barry Kerch, longtime drummer with Shinedown, knows this well.
“I play to service the songs,” he declares. “It’s never about the drummer; it’s always about the song. And I enjoy playing simply. I don’t have any interest in showing off. That’s not my thing. There’s a time and place for that in clinics but not in Shinedown.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” he continues. “I mean, anybody could play basic things where you don’t need lots of notes, like on a modern metal record. But fundamentals do help when you’re playing to a click in the studio. You want to keep your volume consistent and hit the snare with precision. A lot of drummers who don’t have the fundamentals down can be very inconsistent.
They’ll get ‘red light fever’ in the studio because they know they don’t have that precision, which means they’re not confident.”
Confidence is the bottom line. Kerch does spend most of his time playing pretty straightforward stuff on Attention Attention, the latest album from Shinedown. He will depart from the pattern occasionally, but generally adheres to the “less is more” dictum — which here and on countless other great albums might be rephrased as “less rocks more.”
Kerch is correct: Anybody can lay down a 2 and 4. But when those beats come from years of practice, building formidable technique and connection with other musicians, they seem to hit harder.
Passion Always Wins
The first step on this journey often begins in childhood, on pots and pans strewn across the floor by parents with a lot of patience and a possible hearing impairment. So it was with Kerch, who grew up in Florida, first in Gainesville and then in Panama City after his father was posted to Tyndall Air Force Base.
At first, other interests competed for his attention. “We lived in a beautiful home, overlooking the canal and the East Bay,” Kerch recalls. “I spent most of my time outside, swimming or boarding or trying to catch fish. Also, my father, being a very educated man, passed his respect for education on to his sons. He was a history buff, so of course I came to love the idea of studying different cultures and histories. I still do; I’m reading a book these days called The Frontiersman by Allan W. Eckert, which is filled with fascinating historical stories.”
By the time he’d earned his anthropology degree from the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Kerch was ready to devote his life to the environment, beginning with a job that involved eradicating invasive weeds in the Everglades. “I landed a basic biology-chemistry job with a company called Lake Doctors. My job was to go to different lakes, retention ponds, and other water features and spray for feral weeds without harming the environment. These weeds can choke out the water systems and keep the water from getting into the aquifer. It was fun to work out in nature with the snakes and alligators.”
He might still be down there, boating and spraying, if not for those pots and pans. “Like many kids, not just future drummers, I banged on them,” he admits. “I was just six or seven when my grandmother told me, ‘You’re going to be a drummer.’ I reminded her of her brother, whom I’ve never met. He was a jazz drummer in Chicago. Shortly after that I got a CB 700 beginner snare drum. It came in a hard-shell case with a stand, sticks, and a practice pad. I fell in love with it. The deal was that my parents wouldn’t give me a full drum set until I’d used that snare to learn my rudiments and focus on the basics. I’m thankful for that to this day.”
When he finally received his white Tama Swingstar kit, Kerch and his older brother Chad, a guitarist, decided to put a band together. “I was a sponge at that time,” Kerch remembers. “I’d listen to whatever I could, but mainly my brother and I were metalheads. Drummers were huge for me: Tommy Lee and Neil Peart, of course, but also Nicko McBrain from Iron Maiden, Tony Luccketta from Tesla, and Rick Allen from Def Leppard, just to name a few. Nicko was especially big because he didn’t play double bass but he had such a fast right foot. I couldn’t afford a double bass setup and double pedals were in their infancy at that time, so I studied him a lot.”
While the band never attained its ambition of becoming the next Van Halen, Kerch did immerse himself in performance throughout and beyond his high school and college years. “Drums got me through those years,” he says. “I was kind of a shy kid. And my father and mother had taught me early on that being a musician isn’t always an easy way to support [yourself].”
But after meeting Brent Smith, passion got the better of sensibility.
The Shinedown Saga
“This was back in 2000 or 2001,” Kerch says. “I had moved to Jacksonville for that gig with Lake Doctors. My brother had become program director at the alternative station there, Planet Radio. He and I both knew Steve Robertson, who was living in Orlando. Chad said, ‘Hey, man, Steve is working with this Brent Smith kid, who’s putting a band together. I’ve got his demos. Why don’t you listen to them? He’s got an amazing voice.’”
Kerch checked out the demo, which included early versions of “Lacerated” and “Leave A Whisper.” Intrigued, he contacted Smith; they set up a meeting along with the band’s original guitarist and bassist at Hooters. A few beers and a lot of conversation went down, after which an audition was scheduled for the following day. Everything clicked, and the day after that Kerch joined them in the studio for his first Shinedown session. Schlepping his kit, complete with cracked cymbals and worn-out heads, down from his Jacksonville apartment, he cut his initial tracks with the group. More intensive sessions followed in Los Angeles, leading to the release and explosive impact of their Platinum-selling debut, Leave A Whisper.
Over the past 15 years Shinedown has released two albums that have gone Gold and another, The Sound Of Madness, whose sales have shattered the Platinum barrier twice over. More important, the band has tightened as a unit while continually challenging themselves to top what they’ve done before, all the while pursuing that primary directive of honoring the song above all else.
“We’ve matured as players and songwriters,” Kerch points out. “We’ve had a lot of experience with producers, songwriters, legendary studios, and all of those things. You learn from that. You’re not going to all of a sudden be really good in a professional studio setting without having done it a few times. Because of that, we’ve become better musicians. We’ve also been playing together all this time, so we know how to react to each other. We know where the pushes and pulls are. We know how to use the talents and weaknesses within each one of us to make each other better.
“On top of that,” he adds, “we’re no longer afraid to take risks. We don’t go, ‘We’re a rock and roll band, so is it okay to try something different?’ Instead, if we want a keyboard or a drum loop sample, a pop feel or a heavier feel, we’ll try it. Accepting who we are as a band is one really big difference between what we were doing with our early stuff and what we’re doing today.”
I only play fills when they service the music and support the band.
All of these factors came into play as they began work on Attention Attention, along with an even more intense emotional undercurrent than they’d tapped previously. “There was a sense of urgency about not waiting as long as we did between doing Amaryllis and Threat To Survival. To have been off for more than three years, we almost lost our minds. I went into a deep depression. Eric [Bass, bassist] went into a deep depression. Brent went back to his addictions. Zach [Myers, guitarist] did solo stuff just to keep playing. It was not a good time. We couldn’t allow this to happen again.”
So they started writing a little bit earlier than usual in an album cycle, while on the road. All four contribute to the process, though because Kerch doesn’t play a melodic instrument he usually is less involved at the top. Starting with a riff or a lyric, they put together a demo, which is often set to a basic drum machine beat. At this point Kerch starts to intuit his part, whether to pare it down to essentials or tailor something specifically to the music and lyric.
On most of Attention Attention Kerch opts to build the groove on a straight-ahead backbeat and occasional fills. As a result, listener attention focuses on Smith’s performance while allowing space for Kerch to make the kick patterns more effective.
“That’s what we did on the first track, ‘Devils,’” he agrees. “It could have been simpler, with a four-on-the-floor, or whatever. But the song is so aggressive and vocally rhythmic that to play off of that with some syncopation makes you nod your head. It pushes the audience a little bit more. And slower songs like ‘Attention Attention’ would just be monotonous without a rhythm pattern on the kick.”
When it comes to kick patterns, Kerch draws more from funk than metal. “I’m a rock drummer but I feel more like a funk drummer,” he says, with a laugh. “When I started getting into funk as I was growing up, Parliament-Funkadelic, Clyde Stubblefield and Jabo Starks from James Brown’s band, Tower Of Power — these guys broke into my soul and blew my mind. Sometimes that finds its way into my music, too. It’s not intentional, it’s just how I play.”
Other situations led Kerch to switch his attention more to the cymbals, which also have room in more elemental grooves to speak with more impact. He points to “Evolve” to illustrate. “The beginning is so aggressive. I really needed to tuck the sound of the hats and cymbals into the mix to keep it from becoming too harsh because cymbals can slice your head off when they’re too loud and distracting. But when it broke down to that half-time chorus, I wanted almost a jazz kind of a feel. Obviously, this isn’t jazz, but that tonality that the great jazz players get with cymbals can smooth everything out and put that sizzle on top of the mix without being obtrusive.”
Maybe the most unusual construction comes on “Kill Your Conscience,” which features a dramatic roll in place of one of the snare beats. “The demo had this electronic percussion part, kind of like an Imagine Dragons thing, with a lot of in-the-box drumming. It sounded great but when I went into the studio with [drum tech] Mike Fasano, I said, ‘It might be cool if we treated this as more of an orchestral piece and put some drumline marching snare in there.’ We had a lot of crash cymbals going on, so this made it more intense and driven. ‘Kill Your Conscience’ isn’t a drum song.
Instead, the drums accentuate it.”
With most of the drum parts stripped down to essentials, Kerch could also tweak the sound of the kit more subtly. “We experimented a lot with the snare drums and the whole set on this record,” he says. “I was lucky to have Mike drum tech with me again. He’s one of the best out there. When we did the first half of the album, we had just come off tour. I didn’t have any of my toys with me, so I said to Mike, ‘What have you got?’ He showed up with this Gretsch Modern Broadkaster kit, an old Ludwig 1960s gold sparkle jazz kit, a concert bass drum, some personal snare drums, and other options. We used a lot of Keplinger snares, old Tama Superstars, Ludwig Black Beauties and Supraphonics, and stuff of that nature.”
The next Attention Attention sessions happened in Charleston, South Carolina, which allowed Kerch to make the four-hour drive from Jacksonville with his own drums. This time, Fasano only brought a few percussion items as Kerch recorded on one of his Pearl reference kits, his 1960s Ludwig kit and some Slingerland gear. “I am a big Slingerland collector,” he says. “My snare collection includes vintage and new stock stuff — even an ’80s brass, which is my pride and joy. I also brought a couple of marching drums, a Leedy from the 1950s and a modern Cooperman. I used both of them quite a bit. In fact, one of this record’s secret weapons is this amazing wine barrel bass drum, which my drum road tech had sold to Eric. It’s literally a dry wine barrel with 22″ heads on each side. It sounds huge. We used that on quite a few of the bigger, open rock tracks.”
Whichever direction he takes, it’s critical that the drums underscore Smith’s message. “I know how Brent writes lyrics,” Kerch says. “He writes real stories. It’s about a person who locks himself in a room and comes to terms with his stuff, whether it’s drug addiction, depression, or whatever. He asks himself questions as he writes: Is this hereditary? Is it just me? If it’s just me, how do I stand up and get over it? Is it okay to be me? Is it okay to be scared?”
At the same time, Kerch observes that “this whole record is also about the four of us. Basically, Attention Attention is the story of the four of us and what we’ve been through in the past few years.”
Writing fearlessly, with brutal candor, Smith offers each song as if it were a snapshot whose significance reverberates far beyond the moment. He shifts perspective, sometimes singing in first-person about himself, at other times addressing a third person. One song expresses elation, another levies furious judgment. Yet fragmented as they seem, each track is also a chapter in a longer story, best appreciated in the full album context.
“This record is meant to be listened to in its entirety,” Kerch explains. “I know that sounds crazy in today’s single-driven market, but it’s what we wanted and is best for this record. It starts with ‘Devil,’ where you’re scared or shaken up over your personal devils until you have no choice but to confront them. Then you continue to ‘Black Soul,’ where you feel like you’re a horrible person but you have to deal with looking within. On ‘Kill Your Conscience,’ your conscience tells you it would be easier to just go back to getting messed up or depressed or whatever. But you know you can’t do that again and survive.”
At this point, a different perspective begins to emerge. “Is it your fault? Is it heredity? That’s what ‘Pyro’ addresses. Then on ‘Monsters’ you finally face the issue and begin to assume that this is who you are, that your ‘monsters are real and they are trained how to kill.’ The middle of the record is about accepting this and knowing it’s okay, but you have to deal with it. Up through ‘Monsters’ Brent is aggressive. It’s just the band, with no strings or orchestra. But beginning with ‘Darkside’ the vocals become less harsh and more positive. We start using strings to be more uplifting. Finally, with ‘Evolve’ and ‘Get Up’ it’s time to pick yourself up and get back to being alive.
“I can see how the song ‘special’ might be misinterpreted,” Kerch concedes, nothing that the title is intentionally in lower case. “It’s negative. It tells the audience that they are not special. Really, though, it’s the person in the story talking about his issues, that they aren’t special and having to let go of all those problems that hold them back. That’s where your life actually begins. Then you get to ‘Human Radio,’ which is about all the connections outside of the room telling you it’s okay, you’re okay. The end of the record, ‘Brilliant,’ is the exclamation — the marching orders, if you will — to be you, to go out and be brilliant.”
Kerch’s current mission is to make each song hit home as hard onstage as it does on Attention Attention. In this respect, he cites the late Jeff Porcaro as an ideal and an inspiration. “I remember watching an interview where he said he had never done a drum solo in his life. All he wanted to do was play time. That sums up my feelings as well. To be honest, in my early years as a drummer I have been guilty of playing more for [myself] than for the band. All that happens is that nobody could dance to it because I was just playing a bunch of nothing. So I learned my lesson. I don’t do drum solos. I only play fills when they service the music and support the band. That is the most important thing a drummer can do. Period.”