Drumhead Magazine September/October 2008

 

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WHEN YOU WERE YOUNG
Ronnie Vannucci began playing drums while still in single digits. His parents were very supportive of his musical interests, even to the point of buying Louie Bellson's ping ride right off of the kit at a drum clinic. He credits his family with nurturing his love of music. "My parents' record collection was my record collection for my first fifteen years," he says. "They exposed me to great drummers like Art Blakey, [Papa] Jo Jones, Louie Bellson and Buddy Rich. Grandma introduced me to the great show drummers, while dad always had the deep cuts. Early on it was much more difficult for me to play backbeat than to play some wild, off-kilter stuff. All of the African influences that those drummers were playing translated into a sort of audio pig latin that I was able to recreate. I just didn't fully 'get' where they were coming from. Now I have much more respect and understanding for what they were doing." After a few years of playing and listening, it became the drummers of Steely Dan [Gadd, Porcaro, Purdie] and the legendary rock drummers [Bonham, Mitchell, Baker] who began to influence him. Ever the open minded and eclectic listener, he began to take an interest in punk and brit pop in high school.
The summer following high school graduation he played in a Ska band called Atta Boy Skip. "It was kind of an accident that we even played shows," Ronnie continues. "We were just jamming, and one of the guys had a tape and got us a gig opening for some bands. There wasn't even a real band at that point, so we scrambled to get some friends of ours to play with us. We played the show and went over huge. It was actually a very popular band. I learned about just having fun again. We weren't worried about making it or anything. About two or three years after that Ted [Soblay] and I were in another band together called Expert On October. We were young with lots of ideas. It grew into a band that really thought a lot about how to make the music great. I learned so much from being in that band. I wouldn't ge the player I am today if not for that situation. It was a way to learn what to do and what not to do."
Recognizing his need and desire to grow even more, Ronnie enrolled in the music department at University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV). He fondly recalls his peers and instructors there. The "studio" (the group of students known as the studio) was never about blazing singles, although there was plenty of technique and discussion of its us. Ronnie says, "It was always about being musical. It was interesting to me to see students like myself struggling with their sense of identity. Whether to become mesmerized by technique for its own sake, or to use it to serve the purpose of the music."

MR. BRIGHTSIDE
It was during this time that Ronnie met some local musicians and formed the band The Killers. Leaving UNLV was difficult, but some unexpected support made it easier. "I went to talk to [Associate Dean of the College of Fine Arts and Director of Percussion Studies at UNLV] Dean Gronemeir and tell him I was leaving. I told him I was in this band and that we were going to make it. He said, 'Vannucci, step into my office.' I played the tape we had (the four song demo that would become the foundation for Hot Fuss). To my surprise he agreed and said he thought we could do it. He wished me well. I left his office with a new respect for educators. I still have a great relationship to this day with the people in that department because of their attitude."
Dr. Timothy A. Jones (currently serving as lecturer in Percussion Studies at UNLV) vividly remembers a young Ronnie Vannucci when he studied at the university. He remembers Tonnie as being easy going, yet very energetic and with a lot of motivation. "He seemed unphased if something unexpected happened or he was thrown a curve ball. One day all his sticks and mallets were stolen out of the back of his jeep. He said, "Oh well, it was time to get some new stuff anyway.' He just hoped the person that took them got some good out of the stuff." recalls Jones.
Jones continues, "Ronnie was very supportive of his classmates. He always had a compliment or constructive thing to say. That can be rare in the academic world. A lot of times there is a competition with people feeling that they need to be better or put the other person down so that they feel good about themselves. That was never Ronnie's way. He would always say, 'that's great' or 'show me how you do that.'" He saw the talent in what different players had and wanted to learn from that. Of course, he wasn't lacking in the talent department himself." Jones states that even then Vannucci had a meticulous work ethic. "If he had to do multiple takes, over and over, it didn't matter. His attitude was what you had to do whatever was necessary to get it right." Although the student always came across as confident Jones says that Ronnie would be the first to admit his own shortcomings. "I remember there was this four mallet thing that wasn't quite there and he knew it, but he knew that he was headed in the right direction."
What did the college years Ronnie Vannucci sound like? Jones says, "There was an energy in his playing. There was always this sense that the listeners were waiting when he performed because they knew that it was going to be different. He was always a dynamic player. You knew that you weren't going to see someone just 'walk through' a piece of music or performance. Ronnie injected his personality into any situation whether it was a solo or ensemble performance. There was always a surprise, sometimes intentional, sometimes not. Either way he could roll with it and make something good happen. It's easy to get stressed out in some of these orchestra situations but not for Ronnie. If things went left he'd go left. If it went right he'd go right. You could always rest assured that he'd get everyone through it all right and make it impressive along the way."
Jones also notes that Ronnie's theory, composition and reading skills were top notch. In April of '08 Vannucci played at a marimba festival at UNLV. Dr. Jones proudly remarked that his former student still plays and sight reads very well. When he heard Ronnie's plan to leave school in pursuit of the rock'n'roll dream, his reaction was quite different than Gronemeir, but Vannucci's cool composure won the educator over. "I asked if he was sure he wanted to leave for this rock band. Ronnie was one or two semesters short of graduating. He said that he'd take a semester off and see where it went. If nothing happened he could come right back and finish school. He was so relaxed and cool about it that it didn't seem so crazy. I think it's working out." (laughs)

WHAT'S THE BUZZ
That was 2002. Six years later the band has sold over 12 million records, done many world tours and has one of the most recognizable (and copied) sounds in today's music scene. In a world or pop idols and hip hop artists that rule popular radio, that is no small feat. Being the "odd man out" is not new to The Killers. When the demo for Hot Fuss created a serious buzz in the U.S., the band was courted by many major labels. "We were taken out to a lot of nice dinners," Ronnie says. "It was an odd situation. I got really tired of seeing all these A&R guys in the crowd texting on their Blackberries and looking around to see who was into us. The labels were interested but unsure because our sound was so different from what was going on with popular music. We finally signed with UK indie label Lizard King [now Marrakesh] because they believed in us. To their credit, Island Records here in the states got on board as well."
Being the unpopular kid who suddenly becomes popular is mirrored in Vannucci's drum career as well. "When I was in school," he continues, "I was using these old, big K cymbals that I'd played forever. I love the sound of a dark 24-inch ride. At that time smaller, bright cymbals were in style. People would look at me like what are you doing? It was the sound I wanted to hear, so I stuck with it. I just recently gave a quote to Zildjian for a 24-inch ride. Now it seems cool to like that sound, but I've always thought it was cool." Turn on rock radio and you'll hear bands copying The Killers sound the same way drummers are being influenced by Ronnie's sonic presence.

BONES
Hot Fuss, the first Killers release in 2004 introduced the band's neo-retro sound. It gained notoriety and critical acclaim for the band. Sam's Town (2006) was a more adventurous recording that attempted to capture the ferocity of the live band. The band recorded Sam's Town with producer Flood at the helm. It was recorded quickly and released "warts and all." It was a situation that Vannucci in particular was uncomfortable with, at first. "I was uneasy," says Ronnie, "I thought people were going to hear the mistakes and think I was terrible. I've learned to like the uneasy tension. It helps the music. At the end of the day you're not making a drum solo record. It's about whatever is best for the song, even if that includes mistakes."
In preparation for their third release, The Killers continue to shake things up from the status quo. They started with taking more than five months off after they finished the tour supporting Sam's Town. With producer Stuart Price (Madonna, Missy Elliott, Gwen Stefani, Seal) overseeing the sessions, the band got together even while they were apart. The band took advantage of current technology to have "virtual band practices". While taking some time to decompress in different parts of the world, the members could listen to what someone else had done and critique or add to it. Vannucci loved this process, "It was a great way to work. I would demo stuff at home in my bedroom studio and then post it. It would be a raw track. I might go on a day or two later and Stuart or one of the guys would have done something to it that would make it sound even better. By the time we got together in the same room we had all of these individual demos that we could record as band demos."

THIS RIVER IS WILD
When it comes to actually writing the songs Vannussi says that there is no one way that the band approaches new material. Each member is allowed input with the understanding that what's best for the song is paramount. This applies even to the drum parts. While some drummers may be guarded about what sounds "right" or presents them in the best light, Ronnie welcomes outside input. "A lot of times someone who doesn't evem play drums will have the best ideas," he says. "They haven't been trained to think like a drummer, so they don't have all of that "stuff" getting in the way of what would be the most appropriate thing to play." Even though he loves hearing great drummers, it's not about the drums standing out. "When you're in a band you shouldn't be playing like a solo artist. You're in a band! Sometimes a part can be fun to hear or watch as a drummer but it's not what's best for the song. The real gift as a musician is bringing to the table something that makes the song better. I'm a drummer, so how am I going to make this song recognizable to millions of people, not just the drummers. How is it going to propel the song? That's everyone's job whether they're a singer, guitarist, whatever."
What can be expected from the new material? The drummer jokes that fans of the movie Arthur will appreciate the saxophone on the new record. "We're definitely pushing some boundaries. We've all become better songwriters and I think it really shows. Out of everything that we've created, I feel like we've reached a milestone. I'm so proud of what we've done on this one!" Ronnie exclaims. His approach to the drumming on this one has been one of hearkening back to those early influences, listening to bands like Steely Dan and Spyro Gyra. "We might lose some fans, but those who appreciate a good song, and the occasional tenor saxophone, will love it," he laughs.
According to Vannucci, Stuart is a big reason for the way that the drums and the band sound the way they do on this record. "He's such a creative guy. He has so many ideas about how to get sounds. He makes this experience exciting and fun. It almost seems like the rules don't apply, it's whatever gets you there. I used to think that the studio is the place where the board and all of the gear, etc. is. Stuart has really helped me open my eyes to what the studio is: it's where you get the sound and vibe happening. It's the creative recording process, not the building. It might be a huge room or your bedroom or a closet. Part of the reason that Hot Fuss sounded so great was that it was a demo. We started out with four songs to get gigs. There was an energy in those demo recordings that wasn't overly thought out or perfected. That's what is great about music, that energy."
The whole approach for this recording is that antithesis of what most would consider standard operating procedure. He says, "Brandon [Flowers, vocals/keyboards] and I were going to eat lunch one day and turned on the radio. Everything we heard was so dead on perfect. There wasn't any give." While most bands and producers are using Beat Detective or Pro Tools to perfect the drums tracks, Vannucci and Price are taking great lengths to distance themselves from these methods. Price feels that you use these tools if you have a musician that can't get a good take, but ONLY in that instance. Ronnie states, "There's an overuse of things like Beat Detective. Some people use them because they're lazy. When you get everything lines up perfectly it changes the sound, makes it thinner. That's not a good thing unless that's what you're going for. Some flamming between different parts of the drumkit make it sound bigger. For example if the kick and snare are a little bit off, it can make the whole thing sound much bigger. Of course it's easy to just use your software and line it all up and tell yourself that that's the way it's supposed to sound." Both Vannucci and Price laugh when the drummer states that the scariest words in the studio are "we'll fix it later." Stuart also works very differently when it comes to rooms and milking. Instead of using a ton of mikes, he'll use only a bare minimum. "It's not overkill. Sometimes we'll record in the big room and sometimes in a tiny little room. Believe it or not you can get a really big sound with close mikes in a small room in you know what you're doing," says Price. "I also think that the reason that the band and I work so well together is that we don't have certain attachments that other artists might have. The Killers can use influences and sounds from twenty years ago without being intimidated by them. I've worked with artists who feel the need to avoid that because they have an emotional attachment due to their age or whatever. The Killers find new and interesting ways to use these things without feeling any negative vibe."
Ronnie eagerly agrees, stating that he ans always had an interest in electronics/drum machines and integrating these sounds with organic drums. Listening to the tracks one hears a blending of organic drums with processors (to sound more electronic) and lush, big drum sounds. There is quite a range on this record for The Killers. While some songs sound like Hot Fuss, others sound like '70s tock ("Spaceman") and even dance influenced ("Vibration"), not in a Timberlake/Timberland way, but in a "what if Steely Dan and Duran Duran formed a band" way. The band and their drummer are definitely stretching their reach.
The end result did come quick but not easy for Vannucci. True to his word, instead of relying on Price to fix a track he would do as many takes as needed to get the right vibe. The lion's share of the recording was done in just over two weeks in Las Vegas. Start to finish. It doesn't get more old school rock 'n' roll than that. Whether it was the right part or the dynamics, Ronnie insisted that he make it happen on the kit. He didn't want to ride the faders to pull things out. "As a drummer you have to make it happen yourself," he says. All of those great records that I grew up listening to were just a bunch of people in a room making music. Those guys had to make that sound, they didn't have somebody to cut and paste it together for them. That's one of the reasons that Steve Gadd is so great. If you stick one mic in front of him, he'll get that sound that he's known for. It's not a producer that makes him Steve Gadd, it's because that's what he sounds like." The same mantra applies to the sonic qualities of the drum sound on this record. Everything from filtering the sounds of the acoustic kit through an old Simmons unit and randomly twisting effects knobs, to taping a diaper to the snare drum batter head, to Ronnie's signature dark cymbals and 18-inch (yes, 18-inch) hi-hats were part of the drummer creating the drum sounds, not software.

READ MY MIND
Ronnie Vannucci is pretty fearless. To illustrate this point simply check out the clips on YouTube of him breaking the news to fans at a Denver concert that Brandon's voice was gone and the band would be unable to perform that night. He states that the band felt awful and, "There is no feeling in the world like being booed by 10,000 people." Viewing the clip you are hit by the man's bravery and honesty. So what does scare someone with that kind of courage? Drum Clinics!
Ronnie attended clinics by respected drummers like Louie Bellson and Steve Smith as a youth, but states that he is not comfortable with the idea of performing them. "There are guys like Jojo Mayer who both teach and play very well, but they're a rare breed." In 2006 when UNLV asked him to perform as part of the P.A.S. Nevada Day of Percussion he was apprehensive. At first he thought, "I'm the wrong guy. I've been to clinics. I didn't know what I could contribute that would be new." After contemplating it, he remembered how inspired he had been by the way that Steve Gadd had been so open at a drum clinic. The way that Gadd discussed and displayed his famous grooves and concepts of playing songs spoke to Vannucci.
"I thought, I could do something like that. I could talk about the drummer/bass player thing and my approach to playing for the song. I had a friend playing bass with the Steel Band at UNLV and he had some free time. I asked him to play with me. It went over very well," states Vannucci. "The questions that were asked actually taught me about myself. People would ask what I was thinking when I came up with a part for '[Mr.] Brightside' or 'Natalie'. I learned that I really don't think that much about it. It's not cerebral for me. It's like dancing to the music."
Playing is much less of a thought process and more from the heart for Ronnie. There is no studio versus live chops for him. Anyone who has seen him play live can tell that he's a fiery, passionate player. There is a focus that he gets that is difficult to explain to students at a clinic. He says, "Drums are a transparent instrument. If you're really immersed in the music, it's difficult to not look like a complete spaz. I sometimes get embarrassed when I'm recording. I'll finish a take and stare at the glass. It takes a minute for me to come out of my rock-coma. It's about losing yourself and finding the music. I never wanted to rule the world with my flam fives. I just wanted to make great music." It's a concept that is very difficult to relate in a clinic setting.
Although he considers his one (and only) foray into drum clinic a success, he isn't rushing into a clinic tour. He prefers to leave it to the masters. ("Simon Phillips is great, he has more talent in his fingernail than I have in my whole body.") and concentrate on playing in a band. He states "The guys I really relate to are great in band situations. The four that I really love right now are Charlie Drayton, Steve Jordan, Ahmir Thompson [Questlove] and J.J. Johnson [John Mayer]. All of those guys are ridiculous drummers, but it's their musical sense that really inspires me. Drayton doesn't get nearly the amount of coverage he deserves.Maybe it's because he plays bass so well (laughs)/ The new Al Green record that Questlove did was a big source of inspiration for me in my approach to this new Killer record. There are also guys like Stephen Perkins who I listened to growing up and Brooks Wackerman who is Kind of a contemporay of mine. All of those drummers are great, but it's what they do in the context of making music in a band that inspires me the most."

VIBRATION
While Vannucci is being affected by great drummers, his band, The Killers, is influencing some of the biggest bands on the planet. Both U2 and Coldplay gave the band a nod when they lifted the line "I've got soul but I'm not a soldier" from the band's song "All The Things That I've Done" in concert performances. "I didn't take that as a sign that we'd made it. It was more of a 'you're doing well, now don't screw it up'." says Vannucci. Still, it's great when you get that kind of recognition. Ronnie recently experienced the same thing when Zildjian asked him to perform at a ceremony in London honoring the great Mitch Mitchell. He explains, "Mitch is one of my all-time favorites. I love that lead drummer style that he has. It was very influential to me early on. I'm actually pretty uncomfortable with that kind of recognition." Considering all the accolades he's been getting it's funny to hear Ronnie Vannucci say, "I don't think of myself as having a huge impact on drumming and music. I'm just a guy from Vegas that can play some drums."

GEARBOX
Drums
Craviotto Drums Solid Shell Walnut or Maple.

24" X 14" Kick
13" X 9" Rack
16" X 16" Floor
18" X 16" Floor
14" X 6.5" Snare Brass Diamond
14" X 6.5" Snare Mahogany (30 degree bearing edge)
14" X 6.5" Snare Walnut (30 degree bearing edge)

Cymbals
Zildjian

24" K light Ride
22" K Con Med Low Ride w/ 6 rivets
22" K Con Med Low Ride without rivets
18" K Con Crash as Top Hi-Hat
18" Breakbeat Ride as Bottom Hi-Hat

Hardware
DW

Heads
Remo

Racks & Floors - Vintage A Tops / Ambassador Bottoms
Snare - Vintage A
Kick - Suede PS3 / Fibreskyn PS3

Sticks
Zildjian

Ronnie Vannucci Model

 

 

 

 

http://www.thekillersfansite.com