Mike Wengren of Disturbed, Shannon Larkin of Godsmack, and Shawn Drover of Megadeth Weigh In On Metal’s Evolution

Mike Wengren

With Ozzfest a distant memory, the Rockstar Mayhem Tour is the new yardstick by which today’s young metal fans measure all that is loud, fast, and aggressive. Except for the fact that all three headlining bands are anchored by kit-dominating badasses, Godsmack, Disturbed, and Megadeth don’t have much in common.

In truth, the energy drink–sponsored festival is merely an excuse for DRUM! to pick the brains of three key witnesses to the genre’s evolution over the last decade and what it all means for aspiring bashers.

Shifting Landcape

With Mayhem’s kick-off still a week away, we rang Shannon Larkin in New Orleans, where he had been catching a few z’s in his hotel room after a night of recording with Ugly Kid Joe for the band’s first new record in 15 years. It’s a homecoming of sorts for the Godsmack skinsman who played with the MTV staples in the ’90s. Larkin has seen both sides of the mountain, which perhaps explains his combination of nostalgia and amusement when surveying changes in metal drumming over the years. “Topically, it’s not all about Satan and doom and death anymore, you know,” he says, still groggy. “Take a band like Megadeth, or even Disturbed. David Draiman [singer, Disturbed] writes some really prolific lyrics on different issues. Some of the black metal bands, Dimmu Borgir and stuff, started putting more atmosphere on their records — keyboards and stuff like that. I watched it evolve in that way, too.”

Metal drumming’s learning curve has gotten shorter and shorter: Today’s players get better exponentially faster. “Twenty years ago I was in my garage trying to learn [Slayer’s] ‘Angel Of Death,’” he continues. “I’ve seen some monster drummers over the last few years like Moose from Bullet For My Valentine and The Rev,” he says referring to the A7X’s Jimmy Sullivan, who died in late 2009.

Still, it’s as if metal drumming hit its high point around 1989, Larkin implies. “Dave Lombardo, Gene Hoglan … how can you get any better than those guys?”

When we finally caught up with Shawn Drover, who less than 24 hours ago was in San Diego recording Megadeth’s new album, he did not seem the least bit jet-lagged. The 45-year-old has way too much energy for someone this early in the morning, and the vibe is like he’s wearing a Bluetooth during a conference call while practicing tai chi. As basher extraordinaire for one of thrash metal’s Big Four (the other three being Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax), Drover has a privileged vantage from which to assess the evolution of metal drumming. “You still try to nail your performances as well as possible,” he says in a business-like clip from home in Atlanta. “I can’t speak for anybody else, but I don’t take any approach to anything differently than I would six, seven, eight years ago.”

At 39, Mike Wengren is the youngest of our panelists, and yet he feels like a dinosaur in the crop of blazing new extreme-metal drummers — and he’s okay with that. “To a certain extent you’re almost trying to create your own identity,” says Wengren on the horn from Milwaukee while tending to 14-month-old daughter Eva. “I guess as the years progress and more bands come out, it’s gotten a bit diluted. There are not as many standout artists.”

Easy for him to say. When Disturbed dropped debut album The Sickness in 2000 it was the last nail in nü-metal’s coffin. Wengren dispensed with faux hip-hop-isms and reintroduced the metallic basics of power, precision, and speed. “I’m not patting myself on the back,” he continues. “Some of the newer drummers can run circles around me, but to me a lot of the playing sounds very similar.”

The idea that modern metal has gotten same-y is indisputable. Always one to see the bright side, Larkin argues that showmanship is one of the things that drummers can do to make up for it. “I remember seeing tons of the early first-wave thrash bands and a lot of drummers back then it was just, put your head down and go,” he says. “If you see me play, man, I’ll be throwing sticks left and right, trying to put on a show also, and make people not just watch the singer the whole show.”

Shannon Larkin

Adapt Or Die?

Before he joined Megadeth in 2005, Drover played with Canadian power-metallers Eidolon for 15 years. It made for a smooth transition to the baroque if somewhat old-fashioned style of Megadeth. When we asked if he feels any pressure to match today’s young speed demons, we could see his eyes rolling from 3,000 miles away. “I’m from the Tommy Aldridge, Neil Peart generation,” he says. “Aldridge was about as fast as you could play back in the day. If you’re looking for crazy double bass and stuff, he was right at the top of the heap as far as I was concerned.”

Today’s bands with their ludicrous speeds are losing sight of the music, he implies. “They go, ‘I can play 250 bpms.’ I only heard the phrase ‘bpms’ like two years ago,” adds Drover. “I really marvel at what these guys can do but I don’t aspire to do any of that because none of that applies to Megadeth, so why would I spend years to master an art form I wouldn’t use anyway? I’m quite content with how fast I can play.”

Larkin seconds that emotion. “The pressure and competitive nature of drumming kind of left [me] when I became successful,” he says. “My thing is if I go into the studio or walk onto the stage, I can play what I want. I’m at the stage where I’m comfortable in my skin.”

But Larkin is game if someone wants to throw down. “If I’m in the studio and somebody said, ‘I want you to do this double bass pattern at this speed,’ I might have to say, ‘All right, give me 20 minutes of practice to get it down, but I can do it.”

Wengren is a bit more equivocal on whether he feels the pressure to adapt. “I am very confident in my abilities; I am very confident in my band and what we do,” he says. “But, you know, I like to be on top of things. Some of these guys today come out and they are just so ridiculously quick, it’s like, is this a human being … ? And then you go out and see them [live] pulling it off. It’s pretty intimidating.”

Metal Does Not Exist In A Vacuum

When you tour the world as widely as Megadeth, you can’t help but have the latest drum methods rubbing off on you. If old dogs can’t learn new tricks, Drover never got the memo, and if he did he’d wad it up and bin it. He recently observed the newer players’ tendency to keep the foot as close to the pedal board as possible to achieve high velocity, whereas for old-school guys it’s always about using a lot of leg to get a similar result. “I sometimes think, How can I play this longer with less effort put into it? That’s kind of where I’ve adapted that to a very small degree.”

Drover has also taken note of that ubiquitous swerving motion on the pedal he likens to a pendulum. The first guy he saw do it was Raymond Hererra, then playing with Fear Factory. “I was looking at him at several shows, and thought, ‘That’s interesting.’ For the new album, there were four or five songs, pretty speedy stuff, and for the first time in studio, I adapted that kind of dancing-on-the-pedal approach,” he says, adding that he practiced the heck out of it before tracking. “The results were quite good; it was quite pleasing.”

For Larkin, it’s not so much that he is influenced by what other players do as he is entertained by it. It’s a constant (and encouraging) reminder that what might seem like an undifferentiated pummel has subtle differences of flavor. “I’ve probably seen all the great metal drummer gods, from David Lombardo to Chris Adler to Danny Carey,” he says. “Everybody’s got some little thing they do behind the kit that is unique. If they didn’t, then they wouldn’t be making records. I’ll think, ‘That guy’s got something, but it’s his something.’ I don’t try to rip it off.”

Wengren, a no-b.s., precision player, is unlikely to be impressed by new-fangled licks or tricks. “There isn’t a whole lot of stuff that has necessarily influenced my playing, but I’m always trying to learn something from anybody, whatever genre. It doesn’t matter if it’s new or old.”

Drummers these days, especially the extreme-metal crowd, treat their cymbal setup like mini percussion orchestra, accenting every other stroke, even playing musical notes. Wengren isn’t busy like that, but he has that tendency more than the other guys in our study. (He’s especially partial to his Sabian Mike Portnoy Signature Stackers.) “Cymbal intricacies like maybe a little hi-hat fill or a little splash accent or something — I like little tasty stuff like that.” The Disturbed drummer’s kit echoes today’s trends in other ways too: “I like everything to be very symmetrical,” he says. “I think it just looks proper to me but also especially from the field perspective. If I’m feeling like doing a cymbal accent on the right, I want to be able to do it in just the opposite position.”

Larkin suggests that if you have a confidence in your style, unique flavors will present themselves no matter what time, place, or gear you use. There was one instance a few years ago when he was loading gear backstage and happened to overhear a certain someone sound-checking. He couldn’t see who it was at that moment but he had a pretty good idea. “As soon as he hit the snare I was like, ‘Wow,’ and before I looked up I knew it was Chad Smith,” he recalls. “It’s the way he hits the drum, and no machine can ever replicate that.”

Mechanics Of Style

One of the most critical issues facing today’s metal drummers is the increasing sanitization and dumbing down via Pro Tools, Beat Detective, and other killer apps. Is today’s climate of increasingly easy-to-use technology fostering a race to the bottom? Or will there be a return to a more innocent time when flubbed notes, stray resonance, and all those other delightful imperfections made it into the mix?

Drover is no Luddite in the studio. Hell, there are bass drum triggers on the upcoming Megadeth record. It’s a first for Drover, who was sold on them after discussing it with the sound engineer. “You want to make the performance on a record as good as possible because it’s something you’ve got to stand by for the rest of your life,” he says. “But having said that, I don’t necessarily agree with making it to the point where everything is 100 percent perfect. We don’t do that in Megadeth. I mean, we’re a pretty organic band for the most part.”

In a refreshing twist, Larkin hates hipster drummers with their stripped down setups and vintage kits bought for way too much on eBay. “There’s always going to be these renaissance movements where everybody’s like, ‘Screw technology,’” he says. “There will always be dudes like, ‘Man, you need a ’63 Ludwig,’ or whatever.”

In any case, he acknowledges you can’t stop recording advances. He respects a producer’s request to slot in a specific snare sound or other sample. Having done session work (Glassjaw’s Worship And Tribute) and drumming in at least one other commercially successful band besides Godsmack, Larkin has long gotten used to being flexible on this point. “But what sucks is when you see a band live and the dude’s up there tapping and they sound like thunder. Then I think he’s used electronics as a crutch.”

Wengren relates the story of his wife’s teenage cousin, an aspiring drummer who, understandably, wants to impress his rockstar-in-law. When the kid finally worked up the nerve to pass along a demo, Wengren was stunned at the overall slickness of it. “I was like, ‘It’s really cool but it doesn’t sound like you,’” he recalls with a chuckle. “Sure enough he got himself a little Pro Tools M-box and they sat in the basement and edited the s__t ouf of it. I told him, ‘It’s cool if you’re trying to be a little more perfect, but you are losing some of the human element of it. You’re losing the rawness of it.’ The younger generation definitely embrace the technology, but I think you got to find a happy medium.”

Shawn Drover

Drummers Who Do It All

In an era of ever-shrinking album sales, live performance is all that’s left. And in a tighter economy, tour budgets are smaller. Oftentimes drummers have to do for themselves what ordinarily a sound engineer would take care of. Larkin illustrates the changing times by citing Wrath Child, a metal band he played in from 1989–’91. “Back then it was all big expensive studios,” he recalls. “You’d spend $200,000 making a record, but now you can make a better-sounding record for $50,000.”

Whatever effort is expended learning new technology, the knowledge has provided freedom. In Godsmack, where half the guys live in Boston, the bassist is in L.A., and Larkin’s down in Florida, the writing process is almost entirely virtual. “If Tony Rombola [guitarist] sends me a riff via Garageband, I can play along to that and record different ideas. And then I can be, Do I want to do a downbeat with double bass in this part, or should I click-cut it to half-time? I can experiment on all of those riffs like that before I have to waste anybody’s time in person in a room.”

Sometimes there’s a monetary incentive for drummers to take on more responsibility within the band. Except when there isn’t. “We haven’t really been affected by the economic situation we’re in,” says Drover. “So I haven’t had to become a carpenter on tour [laughs] or do any kind of multitasking.”

Additional responsibilities aren’t a burden for Wengren — he likes the challenge. Relying on the production skills of Johnny K to helm Disturbed’s previous discs, the band recorded latest album Asylum all by themselves, though still availing themselves of K’s gear at Groovemaster Studios in Chicago. The feeling among band members was that they have been exposed enough to the recording process over the years that they were confident to do it alone and save a little money. “I love being on the other side of the board as well, but I think [technology] is a bit of a double-edged sword,” he says. “We’ve always been the kind of guys who say if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

Got Baggage?

Never mind the influences from the wider world of metal, some drummers have to battle the ghosts of members from their own band. For Wengren, the original Disturbed drummer, this is not an issue. Larkin is not the original Godsmack drummer but he’s played in so many bands his style is probably a composite of them all. It’s not so simple for Drover, who joined Megadeth on the heels of seven other drummers, including Vinnie Colaiuta. To learn ten previous albums, going back to 1985’s Killing Is My Business … And Business Is Good, and all the drum parts that go with them, mostly Nick Menza and Jimmy DeGrasso’s, is no small task.

Sure, there are now three Megadeth albums, including the new one later this year, with Drover’s rhythmic stamp on them, but it’s the classics people want to hear. “Our fans want the songs to sound very close to the original recorded tunes,” he says. “And to deviate from that would not be very well received. For no other reason, I try to play the original drum parts pretty close just out of respect to them and the legacy of Megadeth.”

Tools You’ll Need

We asked the guys to come up with a few essential skills any metal drummer needs for a long and prosperous career. It was harder than we thought (perhaps because elite drummers don’t sit around thinking about what they need to do … they’re already doing it). The normally loquacious Drover was caught off guard, and cutting our conversation short, he said he would think about it and get back to us. “Learn to be a team player,” he told us a week later in an email. “Joining an already established band like Megadeth, I knew going into this band that I needed to think about what works best for the band first — both on and off stage.”

Drover also cautioned against “runaway-train syndrome,” his term for rushing the beat on stage. “If you play metal, chances are a lot of notes are being played on guitar, which is tough enough at studio speed. Your bandmates will thank you for not playing the tunes 60 bpm faster live.”

Wengren considers timing a metaller’s greatest asset. “If you don’t have great meter, then you don’t have anything,” he says. “A lot of metal drummers, they focus too much on speed, and I think that’s important for ripping those thirty-second-notes, but try it with a click first. You’re a timekeeper. That’s your number-one job.”

Wengren also mentions creativity, but it sounds more like he’s talking about feel. “There’s something to be said for the AC/DC backbeats. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the most complex pattern.”

“You need to be able to do some fast double bass,” says Larkin. “Think of a true metal band that doesn’t use double bass and it’s hard to come up with one,” he says. “That’s definitely an attribute you need to go along with the guitarist’s right hand.

“What else do you need to be a metal drummer?” he asks himself aloud. “A big mullet!”

All jokes aside, Larkin was the only one to zero in on the main thing that separates a metal drummer from a mere rock drummer: endurance. He refers to his favorite Lars Ulrich anecdote. “Someone once asked him, ‘Do you see yourself still playing in Metallica in your sixties?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know. I remember Mick Jagger saying he would never be singing ‘Satisfaction’ in his sixties, and look at him. But Charlie Watts doesn’t have to play ‘Damage Incorporated’ every f__king night.’”

Larkin’s Setup

Drums Yamaha Absolute Birch (Black/Red Sparkle Flames)
1 24″ x 18″ Bass Drum
2 14″ x 6.5″ Snare Drum
3 6″ x 12″, 6 x 15″ Quarter Toms
4 12″ x 10″ Tom (on stand)
5 13″ x 10″ Tom (on stand)
6 14″ x 14″ Floor Tom
7 16″ x 16″ Floor Tom

Cymbals Sabian
A 14″ Paragon Hi-Hat
B 12″ AA Splash
C 20″ Paragon China
D 12″ Ice Bell
E 20″ AA Medium Crash
F 22″ HH Power Bell Ride
G 18″ AA Rock Crash
H 10″ Paragon Splash
I 13″ Paragon Hi-Hat (closed)
J 20″ Vault Crash

Electronics Yamaha
K TP 120 SD 3-Zone Snare Pad

Shannon Larkin also uses Yamaha hardware including 800 series for hi-hat and boom stands; 950 snare stand; 930 x-hat stand, and 9500 double-pedal; Vic Firth American Classic Rock (Heavy) sticks; Remo heads (Pinstripes on toms, PS3 on bass drum, and Coated Ambassador “white dot” for the snare), Yamaha DTX module and Yamaha SKRM-100 SubKick (internally mounted), and Pintech triggers.

Wengren’s Setup

Drums Pearl Reference (Chrome Mirror Wrap)
1 22″ x 18″ Bass Drum
2 14″ x 6.5″ Steel Snare Drum
3 10″ x 8″ Tom
4 12″ x 9″ Tom
5 14″ x 11″ Tom
6 16″ x 16″ Floor Tom
7 18″ x 18″ Floor Tom
8 6″ x 12″ Rocket Tom
9 6″ x 15″ Rocket Tom
10 6″ x 18″ Rocket Tom
11 6″ x 21″ Rocket Tom
12 7.25″ and 9″ bongos

Cymbals SabianA 14″ AA Stage Hi-Hat (top), 14″ Metal-X Hi-Hat (bottom)
B 8″ Mike Portnoy Max Stax Splash
C 14″ Mike Portnoy Max Stax Crash
D 8″ AA Metal-X Splash
E 18″ Paragon Crash
F 19″ Vault Holy China
G 19″ AAX X-Treme Crash
H 19″ AA Rock Crash
I 19″ AAX X-Treme Chinese
J 20″ AA Rock Crash
K 18″ AA Rock Crash
L 23″ Jimmy DeGrasso Override
M 15″ Metal-X Hi-Hat (closed)

Mike Wengren also uses Pearl hardware and pedals, Evans heads (EC2 on all toms [Hydraulic on 18” floor], EMAD2 on kicks, EC Reverse Dot on snare, and Power Center on Rocket Toms. Resonant heads: Glass 300 on snare; kicks and toms are “custom chrome” skins); Vater Mike Wengren Signature sticks, Ddrum 4SE module, Hart Dynamics triggers, Vater Mike Wengren Signature sticks, and Sicskinz bass drum art.

Drover’s Setup

Drums Ddrum USA Series (Silver Lacquer)
1 22″ x 20″ Bass Drum
2 14″ x 7″ Custom Dios
Maple Snare (17-ply)
3 10″ x 7″ Tom
4 12″ x 8″ Tom
5 13″ x 9″ Tom
6 16″ x 14″ Floor Tom
7 18″ x 16″ Floor Tom

Cymbals Sabian
A 13″ Paragon Hi-Hat
B 18″ HH Chinese Brilliant
C 18″ HH Rock Crash Brilliant
D 20″ HH Heavy Ride
E 16″ HH Medium Thin Crash Brilliant
F 16″ HH Rock Crash Brilliant
G 16″ HH Medium Dark Crash Brilliant
H 18″ HH Medium Crash Brilliant
I 20″ HH Dark Chinese

Shawn Drover also uses a Gibraltar rack system and hardware, Yamaha pedals, Evans heads, Pro-Mark sticks, Buttkicker transducers, Ddrum triggers, and Alesis DM-5 module