BY NICOLAS GRIZZLE
Talk about a sleeper hit. It was a full two years after The Revivalists released Men Amongst Mountains in 2015 that “Wish I Knew You” hit #1 on the Billboard Alternative charts. The fact that it landed there eight months after it reached #1 on the Adult Alternative charts showed the band had staying power, but the fact that the band had been making music since about 2007 had already established that. It seemed that maybe the rest of the world just took its sweet time catching up to the genre-defying, New Orleans–based, high energy musical combustion that was The Revivalists.
Their latest single, “All My Friends,” immediately went to #1 on the Adult Alternative charts, and the album, Take Good Care, released in November, saw drummer Andrew Campanelli sharing duties with a second drummer and percussionist—and longtime friend—PJ Howard. The recording took place at Nashville’s famed RCA Studio B, with both kits being recorded live, simultaneously, with no baffling in between. We caught up with Campanelli and Howard at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, California, to ask how they captured the vibe and still left space for the music to breathe, and how they keep from playing over each other live and make sure nothing gets too cluttered in the eight-piece group that also includes bass, guitars, keyboards, organ, pedal steel, saxophones, vocals, and a variety of special guests on any given night.
Check out the kit tour video above to see what they play, and to hear and see a demo of how they play together live.
DRUM!: Your latest album, 2018’s Take Good Care, has a different feel to it than your previous efforts. What do you think was the biggest change from your previous work to this new album?
Andrew Campanelli: There are two big differences. One, this is the first album where PJ and I were in the studio together. We made the last record (Men Amongst Mountains) before PJ was in the band. And we had a percussion player on that record—Mike Dillon (Garage A Tois, The Dead Kenny G’s) played all over the record. We had all these percussion parts, and as we grew into bigger and bigger rooms we really needed another person to play those percussion parts. PJ was the right guy to fit the bill mentally, and personally, and that we could be on the road with and hang with. We were friends from years before. We would always play with his band in Chicago and they would play with us in New Orleans, so we knew him for a long time. He filled in for me one time when I had to get surgery, so the band had played with him and we knew that he was a good fit for the music, and a good fit interpersonally, so he started playing with us live. We went into the studio and it was the first time we were kind of stripping back what we do live for the studio. There’s a philosophical difference between the way you play in a studio and the way you play live.
Did you have these songs worked out in a live arrangement before going into the studio?
A: Some of them, yes. And some of them, no. We worked with multiple producers on this record who we had never worked with before. The two previous records to Take Good Care, we did with our friend (Galactic saxophonist) Ben Ellman producing, and he was kind of like a member of the band, older brother–type character, who could weigh in, settle differences, have good ideas, and we made some records that I’m really proud of with him. After making two, we decided to go in a new direction, so we went to Nashville and recorded at RCA Studios with Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, The Highwomen) for two weeks. He has a different approach. Where with Ben, everybody is working together and he’s another voice, with Dave we went into it like, Let’s see what happens when we give the reins to somebody else. I like to look at it like you’re painting a picture. With Dave, it was like we’re the paint, and the paintbrush, and the subject matter, but he’s the painter. So, we would kind of let him guide certain songs to go in different directions that we would have never taken them in. Being a band for 10 years at that point, having gone into the studio four times together, we were ready to make some kind of a change in that way. We also worked with Andrew Dawson and Dave Bassett, who were all different styles from each other but also new styles for us. I think that’s a big part of why it sounds different. It’s easy to fall into your comfort zone, and after making a bunch of records together we wanted to get out of our comfort zone.
PJ, what was it like for you working with a producer who says, “I need this color here.” How much say did you have in coloring in the sound?
PJ Howard: It was really flexible. Everybody has a feel of how things should go. If he says, “Hey, PJ, I want you to try this here,” my hands and my ears are open to everything and anything. I’m never married to one specific percussion part. One of the main things about playing double drums is being open to anything and everything.
Did you guys play drums at the same time?
A: We played drums at the same time, two feet away from each other, with no sound baffling in between.
So, what I hear on the record is two drum sets?
A + PJ: Sometimes.
A: Not every time, but, yeah.
A: “Got Love.”
PJ: “Oh No.”
A: “Hate To Love You,” “Celebration.”
PJ: Oh, man, that was one of my favorites. “Celebration” is one of those songs where you get up, put your hands in the air, and just party. The drums are always pushing, boom, boom, boom. And I have another drummer with me, so instead of having four limbs, we have eight. So now, I can play everything that I couldn’t play. If Andrew’s laying down a [plays air drums] dat-da, dat-da, dat-da, dat-da, dat-da, I can give you a [plays air shakers] cha, cha-cha-cha, cha-cha-cha, you know? I can add little subtle entities to propel the groove a little bit more.
A: That one was also really cool because it was one of the earlier days of the session when we did that. It was a good experience in getting to know how Dave Cobb wanted to work. When you hear that recording, that is us in the big room at RCA studios, nothing in between us, Dave’s vocal going through an SM57 roaring into the room through a giant speaker, bleeding into every mic, none of us have headphones on, and Dave Cobb is just standing in the middle of the room playing shaker and we’re all just playing it live. It was just—we had a party in the room in the moment, and that’s how that song sounds. We didn’t make every song on the record like that, but it was a good chance for us to get to know him as a producer, the way he likes to work. We’re not cutting things and building them one by one here—we’re playing together and getting the right vibe, and that’s the take.
You guys play parts of the same kit together onstage. How does that dynamic work for you? How do you guys play together?
A: There are definitely parts where we hit the same cymbal at the same time but I wouldn’t say it becomes a problem [both laugh]. There are parts in the song “All In The Family” where I’m playing parts on the pandeiro on the left, which is my super sub [woofer], and if I want to play on the floor tom, rather than going all the way over to hit my floor tom on the right I just hit his floor tom because it’s right next to my pandeiro. We haven’t really run into issues using different parts of each other’s kits, and we have a pretty good synergy. There will be times where he’s playing the tambourine on the backbeats, and he’ll go to hit the cymbal swell and I’ll hit the tambourine on the 4 and he’ll come back for the 2. We had one day of rehearsal before we started playing like this on the road, so we really worked it out live. I’d say there were times in the beginning where we were like, Okay, maybe we ought to clean that section up, but we had to figure out where they were on the gig. It forced us to develop our listening ears more in real time. There are people here who paid to see us, so we’d better be really focused on locking in with each other, and that requires you to step back. With this band we always talk about, Check your ego at the door. You’ve got to serve the music. So, you maybe step back from what you can do because you want to provide space, because there’s eight of us and two drummers. The effort and the heart of wanting to serve the song and the music comes across. What people are reacting to, I think, in a live setting, is these energies combining onstage to create something that is greater than any one part. And with eight of us, we need to be sure that these energies—our hearts, our spirits—are combining onstage.
PJ, it looks like you agree with this. Is that hard to do when you’re got a whole drum set and all those extra percussion toys to play with?
PJ: Andrew hit it right on the head. First of all, this is my friend. Everybody has to give people space to express themselves, and then we find a common ground. In drummer’s terms, that’s the groove. Somebody sets that foundation or groove, then you just flow off that. But in order to feel that synergy, somebody’s got to feel that space. Andrew lays down the groove. I listen to what he’s doing, and I know how to play a groove too, but I listen and say, Okay, what are some of the things I hear that if I was just playing drums by myself, I can play now. Sometimes it’s a shaker, sometimes it’s a tambourine, sometimes it’s just for me to lay out and add a vocal harmony.
So, Andrew, you usually lay down a groove, and PJ, you’re playing on top of that, generally?
A: Yes. It’s also important to note that night to night it’ll be different. We wanted him, when we brought him in, to feel free to express himself in a very true way and not be put into a box of, you have to do this, you’re here to do this. We had this conversation a few times at the beginning, [we said] We got you specifically because we want you to be you. If we wanted just a tambourine part on this song, we could have gotten a guy who can do that, or even put it on an SPD-S track and it would be exactly the same. But we don’t want that. We want it to be live, we want your spirit to come out through these songs, as well.
You have used electronics live in this band in the past. Do either of you use them now?
A: Not now. We were using it for one or two songs, and over the course of a bunch of conversations with our sound man—like, “Hey man, that kick trigger really just sounds like low-end feedback, can you change the sound?”—I was like, “How about we just don’t use it anymore?” And there were one or two songs where we had elements, but those were kind of a vestige of when we had just me. We weren’t using electronics on anything from the new record when we had PJ, so now we’ve just developed those songs and instead of using the electronic elements we were using, we now have PJ do that.
PJ: So, we can dive into the archives of sounds. Having Zildjian with all these different cymbals and timbres, and different sizes, we can come up with different combinations that will suit it. I don’t want to give an electronic sound, I want to give an authentic, one-of-a-kind tone. Now that we have two drummers, the sky is the limit.
Have you guys started thinking about arrangements that you didn’t write together?
A: Absolutely. We’ll do that at sound check sometimes. We’ll open up a song that the entire band hasn’t played in a while. It’s funny when you play a song that you wrote eight years ago, that you haven’t played in four years—we’re all different as musicians from four years ago. What can we do that’s maybe different, but still serves the song but brings a new energy to it? The guitar player’s doing that, everyone’s doing that, so we’re doing that as drummers on any of the old stuff. Specifically, the song “Gold To Glass,” was one that we were using electronics on. Just last week was the first time that we had PJ do it instead of using the electronics. I think that’s the spirit and the goal of this band, is to play with a renewed energy, dare I say, a revived energy [laughs], so that when we get onstage it feels fresh. To go out and play the same songs every night for 10 years, if you’re just doing it robotically then it could maybe get a little—people have asked, do I get tired of playing “Soul Fight,” which we’ve been playing since 2007. The answer is no, because you still have to wrangle all these energies into a cohesive group. You’re still focusing on providing that groove with the best feeling possible for how the bass player’s playing tonight, how the guitar player’s playing. Sometimes the bands real excited and we’re pushing ahead, and we need to play to that. Sometimes the bands’ been traveling for four days and we’re a little tired and we need to play to that.
So, you keep it organic in the moment. Do you play to a click track?
A: Some songs we do. I’m the only one who can hear it. PJ has it but he’ll drop it out. We don’t want the band to sound like it was trying to play to a click. I use it as a reference.
Do you use backing tracks?
A: No backing tracks. I just use the click as a reference. I notice, after touring for 12 years, sometimes I want to start a song a little faster than it should be, or a little slower, based on whatever it is that night. Oftentimes I’ll turn it off in the middle of a song, and I’ll turn it back on after a long jam section, and we’ll be right there with it. Nobody else can hear it because we don’t want anyone to feel like they’re stuck to a click.
PJ: That’s the main thing: It’s about feel. We want people to feel something special. We’re not out there playing music just for ourselves, we want you to feel our hearts beat. I enjoy when people coming to our shows and they leave feeling amazing and happy and rejuvenated.
A: We want you to feel something on a musical level that is intangible and indescribable. That is where our whole perspective as a band as artists is coming from. We’re trying to expose things that we really feel, in a way that is relatable, to let people feel them as well. That flows through to every part of our band, and our entire purpose for being a band. We came from New Orleans. We all met in New Orleans, we love funk music, we love a lot of the music that comes out of that city. We learned to be a live band by touring with Rebirth Brass Band, and seeing all those guys, but it was never really our goal to be a funk band. I don’t mean that in any negative way—it wasn’t necessarily where our skill set lies. And it wasn’t our goal just to have these ballads, or rock songs, not any sort of genre. We take the song wherever and however it comes. We want to be versatile enough as musicians to play different kinds of songs in a heartfelt way.
PJ, before joining this band, had you played in a two-drummer setup?
PJ: Never ever.
What was the learning curve like for you?
PJ: Thankfully, there was no learning curve. First, drummers’ number one thing, we just need to worry about keeping time. Keep time and have good feel. You keep good time, you develop good feel. But to get all those things into one, the philosophy of it comes from listening. When you listen, you take yourself away, you take your ego, the things that you want to get out of the music and you put them to the side. Here’s a question all of us drummers need to ask ourselves: How may we be a contribution to the music? When you approach music in that way, you develop an attitude to play with space, to play for the music. Just like you said [motions to Andrew], it’s not about me, it’s not about what I can play. How can I elevate this, how can I take it to the next level?
A: I will say, though, one thing that is about him [motions to PJ], is that he says there is no learning curve. But that’s because of him. He is so good at listening and he is so good at adding parts that thicken the groove. Either they double the groove when it’s necessary or they add another element to it. I mean, he was able to come in and seamlessly integrate into a band that had been around for 10 years, and that’s a testament to his listening. But that’s a separate skill than drumming. That’s an important skill for any musician. Especially at the beginning, I was trying to provide the groove for the song because I wanted to give him something to play with. And we started to grow and change together. But in the beginning, he was listening and filling in, providing elements that weren’t there in a very mature way, which I’m very grateful for.
PJ: Thanks, man! [they hug, it’s a very touching moment].
Do you guys get to solo?
A: Not a lot, no.
PJ: You know what? We need to change that [laughs].
A: There’s elements, but there’s not like a drums-in-space moment in our show.
PJ: All that stuff is good, but we like playing for the music. If that time comes where it’s like, PJ and Andrew, go ahead, give it to us, then cool.
A: There will be like 45 seconds in the beginning of a song where we do that kind of thing, but I don’t really consider that soloing. We’re just grooving, providing a drum-based moment.
More like a “give the drummer some” rather than a drum solo where people go see how long the beer line is.
A: There’s a few drummers that I really love to watch solo. Like Sput [Searight, Snarky Puppy]. When Sput solos, he’s singing. He might as well be playing keys. That is a personal goal, something that I want to improve on as a drummer. No matter where you are, there are always things that can make you better. And always looking for those things to inspire yourself to be better is the only way to move forward as a musician. Being on the road as long as we are sometimes, that can be tough. But it’s important to keep your mind right, to keep yourself inspired, so you can go out there and provide something for these people who are giving their hard-earned money and time to come see you play music. If you’re not giving them an inspired performance, you’re not doing your job.
The Revivalists’ latest radio single, “Oh No,” follows the single “Change,” which also went to #1.