By John Payne | Photography by Neil Zlozower | From the April 2017 Issue of DRUM!
It doesn’t get more Hollywood than this. We’re tucked away in the cramped corner office space of a photographer’s studio near the old Capitol Records building. Between walls tacked with a thousand autographed pics of iconic glitter, hard-rock, punk, and metal stars, the cluttered space is strewn with teetering piles of rock-biz memorabilia, lighting equipment, sundry auto parts, gleaming motorcycles, harried label reps, and nosy journalists. And it’s all for this mild-mannered, lanky, and, well, normal-looking fella facing me. Could he really be the new drummer for metal mayhemmeisters Avenged Sevenfold?
Indeed, he could. Lest we forget that looks can be deceiving, come now as we examine the case of Brooks Wackerman, whose clean jeans and unripped T-shirt may belie his growing fame as the baddest-ass heavy-rock drummer on planet Earth, but whose pedigree with a legion of raging punk and metal bands stakes his claim with no bloody room for argument.
Wackerman joining Avenged Sevenfold wasn’t the first time he’s been the new guy in the band. Bad Religion was well established as one of L.A.’s longest-lived punk combos when he joined in 2001, and he never forgot the juggling act he performed to find the right balance between that band’s former drummers and his own voice and persona.
He’s revisited those lessons more than once while settling into his new gig with Avenged, a partnership that didn’t exactly look like a perfect fit on paper. I mean, a punk rock drummer in a metal band? How did that happen? “The guys from Avenged were looking for a different option for the drum chair, and asked if I was interested,” he says. “Being a fan of the band and knowing the guys from playing festivals and the Warped Tours together, I was very much interested.”
Wackerman was proud of everything he’d accomplished with Bad Religion, but had begun to feel restless. “At the time when the Avenged guys asked me to join, I was looking for a different style, or at least a new adventure,” he says. “They were familiar with my work, so I was honored they even asked me. We met for a steak dinner and talked about our common ideal goals for the band, and then the stars aligned: We got together a couple of weeks after and jammed, and it felt right, and we made a record.”
He admits that filling the shoes of a beloved drummer in a high-profile band whose death left behind a legion of ultra-loyal fans was a bit stressful — but he was up for the challenge. Even better, he relished it. “If I didn’t feel uncomfortable, I wouldn’t be caring,” he says, “especially with Avenged and what [former drummer] Jimmy Sullivan brought to the table. His drumming is so detailed and so prominently featured, it’s really a main force of the band. So yeah, I was feeling pressured, but I also knew they wanted to hire me for ‘me,’ to bring a different element into the band.”
It took about a week for Wackerman to begin feeling comfortable playing the Avenged set, and it definitely brought its share of hurdles to jump. “There are just so many creative paths to go down,” he says, “but it was a matter of honoring what Jimmy achieved and then finding pockets where I could bring my own voice and signature into the band.”
Wackerman isn’t really what you’d call a chameleon who can jackhammer punk at Travis Barker’s Musink fest one night, then throw down a fusion set at the Baked Potato the next. Instead, he’s more of a master adapter who’s been successful incorporating his powerful style into a genre-eclectic variety of bands. But Avenged’s metallic maelstrom is his least punk-oriented gig to date — at least in his adult life.
“Before I discovered punk rock, I was a metal drummer,” he says with gleeful pride. “At age 12 or 13, Tommy Aldridge was my guy; and Tommy Lee, Alex Van Halen, Terry Bozzio. My roots are more progressive music, metal, hard rock — and then I got into punk rock.”
Making the transition from Bad Religion’s raw bombast to Avenged Sevenfold’s more commercial alt metal was made a little easier by Wackerman’s upbringing, growing up amid a famed family of musicians, and absorbing their many musical proclivities. The Orange County, California-based Wackerman clan includes big brothers Chad (Frank Zappa, Allan Holdsworth) and John (Kazumi Watanabe, Bunny Brunel), alongside Brooks and bassist brother Bob. The family’s patriarch is respected music instructor Chuck Wackerman.
“I just thought everyone played drums, because this is what my family did. I started sitting up when my brothers threw drumsticks in my hands and started playing Buddy Rich records under my crib.”
“And my mom played kettle drums,” Brooks says with a hearty laugh. “I’ve always been a drummer. I just thought everyone played drums, because this is what my family did. I started sitting up when my brothers threw drumsticks in my hands and started playing Buddy Rich records under my crib.”
Daily garage jams with his bros were invaluable for the burgeoning Brooks, as were seven years of private lessons with legendary drum teachers Chuck Flores and Murray Spivack. It all led to Brooks’ first paying gig at age 12, in a performance at the SoCal theme park Knott’s Berry Farm with a band called TNT, which included Josh Freese’s brother Jason on keyboards (who is now playing in Green Day). “I made 250 bucks and bought a guitar with it.”
Meanwhile, brother Chad’s tenure playing with Frank Zappa hit Brooks like a ton of bricks. “It was like, ‘What is this?’” he says. “This was weird and awesome, and the musicianship was unlike anything I’d ever heard. All the top-tier drummers were in that band, and I had never heard a band that tight, that eclectic. Just how iconoclastic Zappa was — the guy’s brain, and how he thought — really resonated with me. He was someone who could play a symphony and then also debate a political team on CNN. It’s like, ‘Wow, I want to be him!’”
The constant presence of his all-star brothers was never tarnished by silly sibling rivalries. “My family is the most supportive family in the world,” he says. “There was never a sense of competition, or, ‘I did this gig so you have to beat that.’ A bar was never set, it was just, ‘If you’re enjoying this, take it seriously, be diligent.’”
“I think it’s crucial for every musician to learn the basics of drumming. You don’t have to go deep into it, but just learn the basics, if only so you understand where the drummer is coming from when you’re playing together.”
While his brothers built reputations playing with legit fusion acts, Brooks was typecast as a punk rock drummer right out of the gate. Following a brief flirtation with the teenaged glam metal band Bad4Good in the early ’90s, his first gigs were mostly with thrashing punk combos, including Suicidal Tendencies, Infectious Grooves, The Vandals, and ultimately Bad Religion. It just so happened that he took on the most challenging one of the bunch first, which, strangely, primed his chops for the others that followed.
“For me it was kind of simplified because I was in Suicidal Tendencies for five years before joining Bad Religion, and Suicidal was just hit-the-ground-running, playing incredibly fast tempos,” he explains. “The biggest challenge for me with Bad Religion was how to pull back, because a lot of the Bad Religion songs are punk, but more midtempo punk, similar to Social Distortion, who’re known for a nice mid-tempo feel.”
The impact of Wackerman’s wide-ranging musicianship on Bad Religion’s music soon extended beyond mere beats and fills, and into parts and arrangements. “I was throwing what I call ‘fruit’ at them, like, ‘What if we try this?’ Or, ‘Let’s not play this pattern for this long; we can go into this halftime feel,’ or whatever.”
According to A7X guitarist Synyster Gates, Wackerman didn’t hesitate to provide similar input into the band’s new material during songwriting sessions for The Stage. “He really did help to inspire so much creativity in this writing process that he gave us really refreshing energy every single day,” he told Blabbermouth last December.
Double Bass Ace
During his metalhead phase in the late ’80s to early ’90s, Wackerman began developing his now quite-fearsome double-kick chops. But, he says with a chuckle, you just don’t see drummers playing massive double-bass kits in punk bands. It’s not considered very punk rock.
“I’ve always been a double kick drummer,” he confesses with a shrug. “It’s probably considered sacrilege in the punk world to bring the other half of the pedal to the gig or studio. But, yeah, no matter what gig — Tenacious D, The Vandals, Suicidal Tendencies, Bad Religion, Avenged Sevenfold — I’ve always had the left side of the pedal with me.”
Wackerman’s transition from Bad Religion to Avenged required a rethinking and rejiggering of his setup.
His much-praised facility on double bass drums took its original cues from the metal and heavy-rock drummers he loved as a lad. “My intro to double bass playing was Terry Bozzio,” he says. “So once Chad turned me on to the Bozzio-era Zappa, and the Missing Persons phase, that’s when I really got into it and started imitating what he did. For example, on solos he would play something on his hands and mimic the same pattern on his feet, and I thought his syncopation was really creative.”
He credits Tommy Aldridge’s late-’80s Hot Licks video for his development of inventive kick combinations. “Tommy is another guy who’s got great syncopation on the kick, and from him I also learned how to work up patterns while not overdoing it — doing it in a musical way,” he says. “Tommy and Terry were my two main influences as far as double kick drum goes, and then I would just kind of twist and turn what I learned from them.”
The Studio & The World
Turns out our interview at this particular locale is a nice little homecoming for Wackerman. It was in this very studio where his teenaged band Bad4Good had their first publicity photo shoots done in 1991. He smiles at the memory. What goes around comes around, then goes ’round again.
We begin talking about recording with his new kit. Wackerman’s transition from Bad Religion to Avenged required a rethinking and rejiggering of his setup. With Bad Religion he played a single kick with a double pedal, a snare, and two toms up/two toms down. He opted for a bigger footprint for his new gig with Avenged, and worked hand-in-hand with producer Joe Barresi to fine-tune his new setup for maximum metal musicality.
“Because there are more toms, we homed in on a good range of discrete tonality between all the toms, which are tuned pretty open, with maybe half a [RTOM] MoonGel here and there. As opposed to how some guys tune all their toms very low, I like tuning the racks higher for articulation, and for them to sing a bit more. So we zeroed in on getting each drum its own voice and finding the timbre in each drum.”
No triggers were used while tracking the new album; however, Wackerman is no Luddite and isn’t opposed to them in principle “if it’s called for at the gig or for the style of song. I’m a huge Bowie fan, and there are a lot of great Bowie songs with triggers on them. I’m working with Yamaha now to see if I can incorporate some pads, because we have a lot of ethereal sounds on this record that need to be emulated.”
Inspired by the writings of Carl Sagan and Elon Musk, the ambitious The Stage is Avenged’s power-widescreen look at the looming future sprawl of technology and artificial intelligence. The album was recorded at United Recording on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, the site of the former Ocean Way Recording and, prior to that, the original United Recording (which opened in 1957), whose legendary recording sessions fairly seep out of the walls. “Oh man, the history there,” Wackerman marvels. “The Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac, Frank Zappa, Frank Sinatra! And actually, my first record, with Bad4Good, was tracked there as well, so it was nice coming home after so many years.”
Producer Barresi (Tool, Kyuss, The Melvins, Queens Of The Stone Age, Coheed And Cambria) had previously worked on five Bad Religion records with Wackerman, so the pair shared an easy rapport while dialing in the drummer’s sound in his new musical context. “We wanted to get a very natural sound on this record, with no samples, no triggers, just the tones we got in the room,” Wackerman says. “We aimed to transfer what we were hearing in the live room into as close to the final product as we could.”
Besides having two or three mikes in each kick, the drum microphone arrangement was typical. A few Neumann room mikes were used to add depth, an effect heard on the album’s slow jam “Angel,” where the drums are slightly distorted, lending some grit to the track. All songs were recorded live, with the entire band together in the room, which gave Wackerman the option of tweaking his parts after the fact. “We’d do two or three takes of a song, and if I wasn’t happy or Barresi wanted to try something different, I’d just go back and do another take by myself with the scratch tracks.”
Mixed by veteran studio engineer Andy Wallace, the album’s towering, majestic sound owes more than a little to Wackerman’s hands-on influence over its slamming sonorities. “I mean, we were in United Studios for two weeks,” he says. “I’ve never been this involved in the mixing and the whole process as I have with this record, and I’ve definitely never spent that long on drum tracks; usually it’s two days and I’m outta there. But I wouldn’t want it any other way, because I was raising this baby for the last two years with the guys, and it was crucial for me to make sure it was presented in the right way.”
Brooks’ Book Of Changes
“Hey Brooks, how much more time do you need for the interview?” The publicist is champing at the bit, but mellow Mr. Wackerman just smiles and gives him a polite but firm, “Ten minutes.”
Ever accommodating, he’s also a powerfully low-key dude whose longevity as a rock drummer is built on a foundation of deep knowledge and mastery of craft. He’s never stopped reexamining his chops and musicianship. “I’m a YouTube addict,” he says. “I’ll check out and discover new drummers, or watch drummers that I’ve always admired. If I’m watching JoJo Mayer or Mark Giuliana, or Abe Cunningham from the Deftones, I’m inspired by those guys, and I never run out of ideas to practice. But that’s not to say I don’t have dry spells. If I do, I’ll take a little break from my art. I do yoga weekly, and I enjoy doing that because it clears my mind. And I have twin six-year-old boys who are like two Power Rangers around me. It’s hard not to be inspired around them — their energy is contagious.”
A daily practice schedule is part of the regimen, a routine that changes with each session. “The other day I found a book on independence in my dad’s attic that I’ll start working on in the next two weeks. And there are always song ideas that I have rhythmically that I’m constantly tweaking. I’m already coming up with ideas for the next Avenged record.”
Also a gifted guitarist, Wackerman uses the guitar as a songwriting tool, often coming up with riffs that he senses will work well with his drum parts. “I think it’s crucial for every musician to learn the basics of drumming. You don’t have to go deep into it, but just learn the basics, if only so you understand where the drummer is coming from when you’re playing together. Every instrument, whether it’s brass, woodwind, string, needs some sense of rhythm in order to play the part.”
The deafening roar of admiring crowds can’t hold a candle to the eardrum-shredding assault of A7X’s stage amplification. So Wackerman protects his hearing with in-ear monitors, which also immerse him in a perfectly balanced band mix. “Especially at festivals, without in-ears I’ve tended to play a lot harder that I should, because I can’t hear myself,” he says. “In-ears give me a good gauge of where I’m at. In my ear-mix, I always have all of me: kicks, toms, snare, a little bit of overheads. The rest is a nice blend of everyone else in the band, and I have vocals very hot, because I like to play off what our singer Matt is doing lyrically.”
Wackerman developed the idea of interacting with and being swayed by the vocalist’s phrasing, in part, with Big Talk’s Ronnie Vannucci (whose main job is being the drummer for The Killers) on the pair’s 2015 album Straight In No Kissin’. Wackerman took cues from Vannucci’s vocals to the point of actually varying tempos to match the melody. “Listening to Keith Moon and the accents that he would hit and accentuate with Roger Daltry planted the seed in me to do that,” he says.
Expect Avenged Sevenfold’s upcoming live shows to be an ongoing revisualization in the shape and sound of The Stage. “One of the benefits of this band is they really took me out my comfort zone,” Wackerman says. “I’m never comfortable per se, because I constantly want to push the envelope. But they almost had, like, a stick and they were poking me with it. Like I was the bear, and saying, ‘Come on, you can do better, think differently.’ It really made me think outside the box.
“I certainly hope what we’re playing live with the new songs isn’t what we’re going to be playing a year from now,” he says. “I hope there’s some augmentation and difference in what we’re doing, even if it’s just slightly different. I think that, live, the songs should progress past what you recorded on the album. At least that’s the type of player I am.”
Brooks’ Buds Are The Best
Nice guy, I think to myself. And a helluva drummer. The photographer beckons. Brooks gives me a brisk handshake and a few parting words on gratitude and people power.
“You know, I’ve been very fortunate to work with such varied musical projects,” he reflects. “I did six records with Bad Religion, and when I joined that band the songwriting just blew me away. To work with Brett Gurewitz and Greg Hetson really changed me as a musician –– not as a drummer, but as a musician. Then joining Avenged was the biggest milestone, as far as being creatively involved. Just to be around people who are on the same page as you are, whether it’s making the live show better, whether it’s crossing a song off the set list because you know a different song ought to be in the show; just to have those conversations is really refreshing. When you’re touring a lot, and you’re with people that are just great company, and you eat dinner with these people and you share stories, that is to me the crux of happiness as a touring musician.
“I’ve known the Avenged guys for two years and I can honestly say they’ll be my friends for life.”
Chuck Wackerman: Father Knows Best
Let’s take a moment to thank all parents whose kids play drums. That goes triple for Chuck Wackerman, father not only of this issue’s cover story artist but also of his three older siblings, two of whom are world-class drummers in their own right.
Fortunately for Dad, another son, Bob, decided to become a bass player. But first there was Chad, who survived a run with Frank Zappa and earned imposing credits as a leader and session ace. Then, after Bob, came John, whose work with Maynard Ferguson and other major acts led him to a steady gig in Las Vegas and an annual drum festival that bears his name.
Brooks completes the lineup, so figure maybe 30 years total of lessons, practicing, and needing to be driven with their gear to gigs as teens; that’s way beyond any reasonable expectation for any parent.
Chuck, however, is no ordinary parent. “I never minded doing all that,” he says. “It was never a pain to help these guys out. I enjoyed every moment of it.”
Obviously, he loves his kids. Actually, he loves kids in general: At age 86, he teaches music and leads student ensembles in California’s Los Alamitos Unified School District, a gig that began 60 years ago. He founded the Jazz Educators’ Band, comprised of fellow educators who have performed together since 1973 to help fund public school education. His honors are too numerous to list here, but odds are he would count the success of his sons as foremost among them.
“Brooks started really young,” he recalls. “He was still in kindergarten when he started playing congas in my jazz band at school. In first grade, he started playing drums. He heard his brothers practicing all the time and picked up a lot from that. They also showed him all kinds of stuff. There was never any competition between them; they were determined that Brooks would be a drummer too.”
Chuck, however, made it a point not to appoint himself their teacher. “They were all fortunate to study with Chuck Flores and Murray Spivack,” he says. “When you’re working with someone else, you work harder. If you study with your parent, you might feel you don’t have to practice that much. When you go to another teacher, if you don’t practice, you know you’re not going to be there very long.”
Fortunately, that was never a problem. “All I did was expose them to music and give them opportunities to play. They took it from there.”
Joe Barresi: Dialing-In Wackerman’s Double Kick Kit
When it came time to record The Stage, Avenged Sevenfold knew what they wanted: a colossal sound zeroing in on the spectacular skills of drummer Brooks Wackerman. To achieve that, Wackerman called on his longtime Bad Religion producer/engineer Joe Barresi.
“Bad Religion and I did a bunch of records together, so I was familiar with how he played and how to record him,” says Barresi. “For this record, though, they wanted to let Brooks run loose and do whatever he wanted to do. The only challenge was to try and figure out how to mike up the kit.”
The Stage was tracked at United Recording Studios in Hollywood in a huge room with a high ceiling featuring an umbrella-type mechanisim on a motor that can be raised or lowered over the drum kit to make it sound more ambient or tighter.
Barresi and Wackerman figured that Brooks’ metal-band-modified drum setup required new thoughts about miking. There were two kick drums, recorded with a Sennheiser 421 inside each, with Neumann U 47 FETs on the outsides, and a single snare using Shure SM57s on top and bottom. “We ended up adding an extra tom on the day of recording,” Barresi says, “so that made Brooks think outside the box as well.”
Wackerman’s kit now includes five toms, which presented a challenge for Barresi “because he played so fast, and there are so many fills; we tried to keep some definition on the toms, and to keep the cymbals out.” Experimenting with various high tom mikes, they chose punchy, right-angled Shure Beta 56s and Shure Unidynes; for the floor toms, Barresi’s trusty 421s did the trick. Because there were so many cymbals, capturing a stereo picture was tough, so Barresi used a technique he’d employed on Tool’s 10,000 Days album, placing just three Neumann U67 mikes overhead; for the smaller, spot-focus jobs like hi-hats and rides, he used AKG C451 or C452 and Neumann KM84 microphones.
“There were some songs where we were looking for a Soundgardenish-type sound,” says Barresi. “So in that case I would set up a stereo mike in addition to the three overheads, dead center over the kit.” He then dialed in that sound so Brooks could play to it — which made all the difference in Wackerman’s studio performance, and made Barresi feel pretty good, too.
“As long as the drummer’s comfortable playing and happy with things, I’d say that’s the ultimate drum sound.”