posted January 2010 (dated October 2009)
by Jerome Marcus
Chris Pennie has become one of the most talked about drummers around today. At 31 years old, he’s had a long journey so far and now sits in the drum seat for modern day progressive outfit Coheed & Cambria. However, he first found recognition as the former drummer and co-founder of mathcore band Dillinger Escape Plan. Recently he made his first appearance as a drum clinician at ‘Drumfest ’08 – 10th Anniversary’ in the U.K. along with artists such as Terry Bozzio, John Tempesta and many more.
His style can only be described as a fusion of quick fire machine-like sequences of rudiments with jazz-inflected expression. He adds triggering effects and loops to embellish his rhythms resulting in a unique delivery of his overall sound.
What made you pick up a pair of sticks and what was your inspiration?
I started when I was twelve and had my first kit as a Christmas present and started playing along to records.
What inspired me to start playing the drums was watching the Metallica video ‘One’ – I was watching MTV and that video was kinda dark and there was something about that particular video that I made a real connection with, so much so that the album ‘And Justice For All’ is one of my all time favourite records. At the time there was a lot of glam rock about but that was fading out and Metallica were coming in. Growing up, my dad also rolled into the house with Iron Maiden’s album ‘Maiden in Japan’ when I was four years old and shared that album with me and exposed me to a lot of music at a very young age. My mum was also a fan of Kool & The Gang and Billy Joel, so as a kid I was surrounded by a lot of different music.
How did your parents cope with you playing your drum set in the house in the early years?
On many levels my parents were very supportive but before I get into the drumming thing let me say that I was really a big in sports and my dad was really a huge advocate of me doing sports. Soccer, American football and baseball – I was pretty decent in baseball and I really made a push for that. It was great and fun and I sometimes miss doing that. But when I picked up a pair of sticks and when I got the kit and stuff, the drums and the music had me consumed.
It hit my dad pretty hard and it came as a disappointment to begin with, he really wanted me to do sports but he came around and was very supportive after we had a good talk about it. My mum on the other hand, now that was a different story, she needed more convincing and we did have a few battles.
I would come home from work and I’ll play for about 5 hours straight. I remember this one time when we were working on the first Dillinger record and I was playing consistently even taking days off work at times to work on material. Eventually it all came to a head and she said “we need to have a talk; you can’t be doing this all the time”. I would fight back and say ‘one day you’ll understand; I know it’s hard right now but just be patient with me’. It took her to go to a news stand to pick up a magazine and see with my face in the magazine to make her understand like “Wow – something is happening”. From that moment on both my mum and dad have been fully supportive and proud of my achievements, it’s all cool.
Did you go to Music College?
Yes, I went to Berklee for two years. I received private instruction there but I originally went there to be taught music synthesis. My goal was to go there for something other than music performance. As I said I went there for music synthesis but it’s kinda ironic that with the whole music software explosion, most of that is now pretty obsolete. My teachers, Stu Miller being one of them, were pointing me in the direction of Steve Gadd, Vinnie Coliauta and Dave Weckl and also to the Pattern series book by Gary Chaffee’s and stuff; I kinda knew them but my background was the rock thing and a lot of this information was coming to me from the left of being self taught and from listening to a lot of records and jammin’ with a lot of other kids and students.
With so much information, was there a moment when you decided ‘this is the direction I want to take’?
Yes, there was a lot of good information for sure but my thing was after learning this stuff was how and where to apply it and whether there was a proper outlet for it. Like if I was to steal something (in a good sense) for example from the Gary Chaffee books and I remember going through some polyrhythmic duet solos and arranging it for kick, snare and china and that became one of the parts for a Dillinger song. The coolest thing about that band was there was a forum for me to release a lot of ideas and immediately interject into something where I could get instant feedback – that was huge for me. It’s also hard nowadays and you’re preached upon and expected to listen and cover a wide variety of styles. In reality as a working drummer, you’re expected to cover many styles for example if you’re a ‘rock’ guy and you’re expected to cover a jazz gig and stuff but in the best way it evolves you as a player. That’s what happened to me as I was growing up where I could throw in these elements and get it infused into the material – that was pretty satisfying.
Growing up my influences were John Bonham, Stewart Copeland, obviously Lars Ulrich, Dave Lombardo and that’s going from rock to metal. In addition, and in this same timeline, there was Sean Reinhart and what impressed me is this guy had tremendous speed and awesome control and more impressively he had incredible variety in his playing; he was playing in a metal band called ‘Death’ and there was this track called ‘Demons’ at the time. He was ‘the guy’ and a turning point for me – he blew the doors open for me ‘cause he had the double bass drum chops of Lombardo, the finesse of Stewart Copeland together with the fusion chops of Vinnie Coliauta and Chad Wackerman – if you haven’t checked him out, it’s a definite recommendation if you want to explore the experience.
Another guy has got to be Nicko McBrain – Iron Maiden was huge to me when I grew up and started me playing drums. The inspiration took me to check out guys like Dennis Chambers, Vinnie Coliauta and drummers in that genre; I stayed with that for a while.
Then about a year later, Tomas Haake made his appearance with Meshuggah and this was totally a revelation – this guy was and still is amazing, he just continues to get better. ‘Destroy, Race and Prove’ is my favourite Meshuggah record and I must say that was another defining moment before I started playing for Dillinger. Tomas has tremendous rhythmic vocabulary with great feel and soul together with the band applying it in a heavy context; he was doing it like these fusion guys were and that made it very appealing to me and certainly came across to me as a clear musical statement.
I then when off in a different direction and started listening to programmed music like Squarepusher, Aphex Twin and Nine Inch Nails and that was yet again another whole learning curve. I was interested in how the music was made and how ideas got developed with guys like DJ Shadow on his album ‘Entroducing’ – no one plays drums on it but he was topping the beats and taking those drum samples and cutting them in the track and for me that was huge ‘cause that was stepping away from the drum hero thing and dealing with production. And the thing was that many other drummers who were listening to him too and for me it took my drumming and musicianship to another level. I was learning more about what goes into song structure and that was also a memorable point where I recognised that I was moving on and growing yet again.
‘The Fragile’ by Nine Inch Nails – man, from a production standpoint there was so much going on in the mix and the incredible vocal ideas; I was totally blown away, it really did and that shaped my head for a couple of years and that had nothing to do with drumming but that transition gave me better insight and influenced me as a drummer. Together with Metallica’s ‘And Justice For All’, Nine Inch Nails ‘The Fragile’ is up there as my most favourite albums.
Here we are talking about drumming but another thing I neglected say is that I’m a huge fan of good melodic song writing in general and I have musicians that I look up to like Billy Joel, Sting – these guys write great songs and melodies, they last forever.
How did you get the gig with Dillinger Escape Plan?
Basically, I had a couple of friends in a couple of bands that I played with – it was cool and fun and nothing really ever came out of it. I put an ad in a music store just before I left for Berklee, but for me playing guitar not drums. This guy named Ben Weinman answers the ad a couple of hours later. We practiced and he had no idea I played drums so we went to my house and I started fooling around on the drums and he got that my main instrument was drums. He had another band and asked whether I wanted to be the drummer in that band – this was an opportunity for me to play out. I had other bands that I was with who wanted to be original and ambitious but never played out but with Ben I had that connection and the opportunity was on the table. We played on weekends a few times then I split and went off to Berklee and started studying there.
At college there were these amazing musicians but back home these guys were writing their own material and really they had something to say. Personally, I was pulled back and forth and finally left after two years I decided to leave to return home. Ben and I then got together to form something new and incorporated some other members of my own band and suddenly the whole thing fused and blew up. The combination Ben’s playing with the other guys just was something and the chemistry was so evident and lead to something worth exploring. We self-managed the band to begin with and did a lot of gigs and it snowballed into success.
How difficult was it to make the change from Dillinger Escape Plan to Coheed & Cambria?
On a lot of levels it was difficult and different. It really was a huge challenge to step out from something you’re comfortable with and thrust yourself into something else with all new people and a brand new situation. It felt like natural musical transition and everything was pointing me in that direction at that time. It was a tough call but the time was right to make the decision. Coheed & Cambria is a heavy and a progressive band and the interesting thing here, in a musical context, is that we were borrowing from the same pool of inspiration that Dillinger was but different in a sense of having a lot more space without cramming a lot of notes in the song composition. Learning to feed off the bass player to compliment the vocals in Coheed was just a different world to me and introduced to me a different mind set. I felt I didn’t have to be unleashing licks or start blowing fills in the spaces but to compliment the groove and play for the song. I’m still learning and with every show we get tighter and tighter and there is the learning of the band’s bag of tricks, their phrasing, their strengths and connecting with their inspiration – it’s an exciting time.
Is Coheed & Cambria a song writing band?
For the new upcoming record, it’s been pretty much a band collective. For example, a riff would come up and the band would jam on it. We work on material at sound check and we have about a half hour to work on it but the coolest thing was when the band were on tour with Linkin Park I actually had a V kit and I would have that set up in the hotel room and that enabled me to flush out ideas. Even on the last record everyone was flushing ideas unlike working with Dillinger when it used to be just Ben and me writing and presenting it to the band – it’s a different process, it’s fresh and it’s cool and I’m looking forward to it.
I was told that you don’t have a drum-tech and you’ve continued to set up your kit at every gig even today, is that true?
It’s true and I love it, getting involved with the whole aspect of setting up only brings me closer to the instrument. As a kid part of the whole experience of the drums is getting the drums and putting it together to make it sound as good as possible and fine tuning it to the point that it represents me; that’s where I’m at. The angles of the toms, the bass and snare and all the other intricacies that go with setting a kit up – it’s a buzz and I just love it. More importantly, when things go wrong I know who to blame.
I also teach and I see it in certain students of mine and at the studio I work at where there are many great drummers but I have to say their attitude really sucks. It really sours me and, don’t get me wrong I’m not trying to be judgemental, when I hear it ‘cause there is a huge difference between drummers who really love drums and others who are approaching it for the wrong reasons for example doing it for a sense of entitlement and that to me is completely the wrong approach and if you take that path you sacrifice your respectability and integrity to a greater degree. For me, I’m amazed that I’m still here doing it, living the dream and progressing through the pathway that leads me to be a better drummer.
You’ve got to earn the respect and if that means keeping your mouth shut and let your playing do the talking then that’s what you got to do. In this business there’s so much crap that’s being thrown around and goes wrong all the time and you just got to take it and learn from it. In my experience you have two choices, you can either shoot your mouth off or let it ruin you or you rise above it and let that experience make you the richer for staying in the business. Don’t beat yourself up but learn from your mistakes.
If you talk to guys like Peter Gabriel and Elvin Jones, they would say, in a musical context that some of the best things that have come out for them are from their mistakes and that applies to the business side too – if you can see it as a good thing then you’ll always move forward.
The other thing is to believe in your perseverance – you can have a lot of people beat you down and beat you down and you really have to have the resilience to pick yourself up and move on up – this will make you a better person and serve you better in your business.
As a drum clinician do you have any influences in this area and what do you hope to achieve?
During the past six or seven years guys like Terry Bozzio has been a huge influence and by some way of osmosis he’s influenced me now more than ever – he truly is amazing!
Thomas Lang and Marco Minneman have taken the drum kit to a level of an ensemble instrument and Terry is the innovator and lit the torch. There is also a backlash of it being too technical or there’s an argument that it’s not but for me it’s simply a form of artistic expression and it’s pushing musical and rhythmic boundaries. Whether it’s the simplest thing or the most complex thing, the bottom line is that the messaging is clear. It speaks volumes in that world and it is fun to play – it’s a different attitude, a different discipline and a different mind set. I know I’ve got a lot to learn and a long way to go but I humbly hope I’m able to play my part in the contribution as a clinician. At this moment in time, I just want to be in a position to share and run with the ball but most of all I’m having a real blast doing it.
Where is Chris Pennie going from here and what are your aspirations?
For me it’s always going to be musical aspirations and they are the defining challenges in different styles of music I hope to cover as time goes by.
I am very, very happy with where I am and the people that surround me are really challenging me – it’s all a good thing and keeps me on my toes. With this new record with Coheed & Cambria, I want to make something awesome, so far it’s sounding pretty fierce.
We are currently kicking off a US tour with Heaven and Hell as of now. I also have a few projects I am working on. One is called Return to Earth, we are finishing a record called Automata, which will be out early next year. Also another project with former members of Dillinger called Lion Tamer. Working on a record due out next year as well. Also composing and starting a production company – it’s all go!
In my spare time I still want to go back and take lessons, keep riding the wave and continue developing.
As a drum clinician, there’s a lot ahead to learn and a lot to share with the drumming community.
Drums: Mapex Drums
For more information: www.myspace.com/chrispenniemusic
original location: http://www.mikedolbear.com/story.asp?StoryID=2051