BY BOB DOERSCHUK | FROM THE SUMMER 2019 ISSUE OF DRUM!
Many military veterans sum up the orders they received during basic training as “hurry up and slow down.” It turns out there’s wisdom in that old oxymoron, especially when applied to the prog-metal phenomenon known as Periphery.
In the 10 years since their album debut in 2009, these five guys—especially drummer Matt Halpern—have proven beyond doubt that no tempo is too fast for them to master. Even as they reach Mach 1, you can hear every note on the guitar and every double-bass hit clearly.
However, the pace was positively mellow in recording their latest album. From the first stage of songwriting to the last minutes of mastering, Periphery IV: Hail Stan took an entire year to complete. This was intentional, and according to Halpern, it paid off.
“First, it made this project much more exciting,” he says. “We’d written other albums with deadlines set by our record label. As much as we do work well under pressure, we wondered sometimes if this was stifling our creativity at all. Looking back, I think it did, because with that weight lifted we found that our creativity flowed further. We all breathed as much life into it as we could, which means we ended up with something that made us all extremely happy.”
A pause, and then Halpern laughs. “The truth is, there’s always someone in the band who doesn’t get down with every song on the album. But not with this one.”
Recording for the first time on their own 3DOT imprint, Periphery could include time off in its schedule to allow for more concentration when at work and more perspective during breaks.
“Because we weren’t in a studio for two or three months, we could work for a week and then have two or three weeks to let the music sink in,” he explains. “Then we could decide, like, ‘I don’t feel this is the best part we could come up with,’ or, ‘Hey, here’s a new idea,’ or, ‘I’ve been sitting on this song and, man, it’s perfect. I don’t think we should change anything.’”
For this band, writing is a collective effort; the credits for the music always read “Periphery,” with lead singer Spencer Sotelo noted as lyricist. This means that everyone has input into everyone else’s parts as arrangements begin to coalesce around a new song. Always, though, the process begins with guitarists Misha Mansoor, Jake Bowen, and Mark Holcomb getting together on their own for one or two writing sessions. The next step involves Mansoor, who also plays drums, programming a basic, skeletal beat for each song.
This is where Halpern steps in. “Misha and I work together to program every idea we can possibly come up with in our heads for the drums,” he says. “We keep it as realistic as we can because you obviously don’t want to program something that’s not humanly possible to play. Half of the time I can’t even play what we come up with, so once we have it all down, I take it to the kit. It’s an amazing experience to work with parts I might not be able to play right away, but know that I will when I put in the work. With every new album, I get better as a drummer because we all push ourselves to write better parts.”
Halpern’s approach goes beyond just replicating the sequenced material. “I always start by internalizing and memorizing all the melodies of the song,” he notes. “I get the form and the arrangement down to the point I can sing back all the guitar and vocal parts. I also memorize the lyrics, so I can get to know the whole intent of the song. From there I’ll spend a lot of time tapping out the rhythms on my pad or even with my hands on the steering wheel when I drive,” he continues. “Once I get the rhythms internalized with my hands, then I can transfer that to my feet and get the four-way movement down.
“The more I’m moving, the more I’m grooving.”
“So that’s the process,” he sums up. “Memorize, listen, sing it back, tap it out. Play it a lot on the kit. Start really slow, identify the tough parts, and grind through them. Get them committed to muscle memory. Then gradually speed them up to tempo. That’s what I do for every song we record.”
For Halpern, playing the internalized parts slowly isn’t just a matter of technique. It’s also understanding more fully what he’s doing within the song. “You can memorize parts by playing them fast,” he acknowledges. “But if you learn something slowly you’ll be able to play it back slowly and identify which details are maybe not so important and which ones really hit.”
It also enables him to preserve some of the subtleties of his performance when played at full speed. “I play a lot of nuances throughout Hail Stan,” he points out. “They may not be extremely easy to hear or super audible, but for me, when I play these songs onstage, being able to fill in spaces with dynamic changes or ghost notes adds more movement, more fluidity. And that translates to the band, as well as the audience, because the more I’m moving, the more I’m grooving.”
With a year budgeted for Hail Stan, Halpern devoted eight weeks to finessing his contribution to all nine tracks on his basement kit. By the time the band actually got together to cut the tracks over nine days in October, each member had nailed every note down in even the most demanding passages. This perhaps makes one afterthought from Halpern more understandable.
“I love Periphery. I hope we stay together. But,” he muses, “at some point I would love to play for a much different gig. It would be such a fun departure. I love the challenge of finding the right thing to play, even if it’s the simplest music in the world. So John Mayer, if you’re going on tour and you need a drummer, give me a call!”