Part two of our interview with Craig Smilowski, from the July 2010 issue of Sick Drummer Magazine.
By: Noel Smart
SDM: What do you think, being an old-school death metal drummer, of all the new brutal death metal drummers out there playing gravity blasts and reaching insane double bass speeds of 300 bpm and up?
Craig: To me, being from the old-school, the new drummers of today do some really amazing things and it’s almost inhuman that someone can play so fast, but at the same time I am more about power than speed, and I enjoy hitting the drums hard and powerful, and you can’t accomplish such speeds with all that power. I feel that’s why many of these drummers are using triggers, for you can hit very light, play super-fast, and get that hard power sound, and to me playing fast to play fast gets redundant at some point, no matter how many crazy fills and high bpms you can do. It was never all about speed for me, it was the feeling, the anger, and atmosphere that created the tempos and playing fast for fast’s sake just seems pointless. As for gravity blasts, that’s a drum roll on one hand, I have seen that years ago on a DVD drum lesson, I don’t remember from whom, but it was first brought to my attention as a one-handed drum roll, just renamed, and unless you can pull off those bpms with your feet, opposite hand on the hi-hats or ride, not just the snare, it seems unnecessary and counter-productive. What really impresses me is not how fast you can play, but what you can play and how you carry yourself as a drummer. I believe strongly in atmosphere and feeling. Again, there are so many really amazing drummers, some are just unbelievable to watch, and I have the utmost respect for drummers with this ability, but when all you do is play fast, that’s what you get, speed and not much atmosphere or feeling or groove. I think it’s more enjoyable to create an atmosphere than just an all-out speed zone. Besides, I like to actually hear the drums resonate and decay, and let them breathe and not be choked out by speed or triggers. But that’s just my opinion.
SDM: What can you tell us about the Vic Firth custom autographed Craig Smilowski stick? How long has it been out and is it still available?
Craig: The Vic Firth autographed stick is just a ROCK nylon model that I had made personally for the Incantation tour. I remember using Vic Firth sticks since the beginning. I tried some other brands and they broke instantly. All their designs in my opinion are well crafted, and the entire staff at Vic Firth are very helpful and supportive of all the endorsers. I will only use Vic Firth. If people would want a stick with my name on it, that’s a compliment and humbling; if anyone out there would like this autographed stick, they are available for sale directly through me. Just contact me via my MySpace for the details.
SDM: What inspired you on “Here in After” to play so dynamically? How did you develop all of those tom rolls? Did you listen to someone specifically?
Craig: Well, first, let me give credit where it’s due — Bob Vigna created the opening drum beat in “Nailed to Gold”. But with that said, I guess you can say I was inspired by the obscure riffs that he wrote and with thinking of what to come up with, my playing evolved into more complexity, since I was practicing almost all day long and at night as well, with only some breaks to do the Immo fan mail. The rolls were just a natural progression that happens with repetition. I have a habit of never really being satisfied with what I play to some degree, so I find ways to make it a little more interesting for me, to keep changing or adding things until we get in the studio, and I really did not listen to anyone specifically at the time for inspiration.
SDM: Have you heard Christ Denied’s cover of Goreaphobia’s “Demented Omen of Masochism” taken off of their “Drink the Blood” album?
Craig: I think I have heard that on a split CD promo that I have. It was flattering for Goreaphobia to have another band cover one of their songs.
SDM: How has your kit changed over the years since your time in Immolation, Goreaphobia, and Incantation?
Craig: During the Immo/Gore days I had my eight-piece Yamaha stage series kit, which I have long since sold. As for Incantation, the kit used during the tour in Europe was a Mapex. Currently I am the proud owner of a seven-piece Sonor Designer Series kit, along with the Sonor Signature Series Horst Link edition snare drum (Ferro Manganese steel and chrome) — total perfection in design, sound, and versatility. I really am proud to own such a kit, I have the utmost respect and appreciation for such craftsmanship. These drums are incredible. As for my cymbals, they are all Zildjian Zs — hi-hats, three crashes, with two Zildjian high and low china boys and one splash. As a matter of fact, I still use the same ride that I recorded Dawn of Possession with; that ride has impressed me since the day I bought it.
SDM: When you recorded Here in After, how long did you have to record the drums? Did you play to a click track or guitar tracks? What did you have isolated in your headphones when laying down the tracks?
Craig: The time spent on the drums to the best of my recollection was no more than four or five days. I would practice with a click track that Bob had mapped out the tempo changes for on a drum machine, since there were many fluctuations and varied tempos it was great to have this while rehearsing. In the studio, I used the click in my headphones and the guitar tracks, too, but for the title track I only used the click and nothing else.
SDM: How did you manage to pull off so many different drum patterns on “Here in After” and keep them in order? When you played these songs live, did you keep them the original way that was on the recording, or did you add things or play less?
Craig: The patterns I did on Here in After were due to the riffing. I like to interpret/mimic the guitar through the drums, so to speak, so the riffs tend to give me ideas on what to do on the drums. As for keeping everything in order, that was all due to repetition and lots of practice. As for what songs off Here in After that we did play live, I kept true to the actual recordings.
SDM: On the inside sleeve of Immolation’s “Dawn of Possession”, it says thanks to “Charles Leinhauser for teaching Craig”. I was wondering who was this guy, and what did he show you?
Craig: Charles Leinhauser is a great friend of mine, who was taught by a very experienced drummer named Joe Ramano, of a band called Able Kane. We met in high school and he was known for being an experienced drummer, so when I first met him I told him I was a drummer too, and he said, “why don’t you come to my house and show me what you know?”. At the time I really had few skills and was like, “great, I am busted”, but I went to his house anyway, and once there I confessed that I really was not too skilled at all. He just said, “no problem, I will teach you how to play”, and he showed me three basic drum beats, simple 4/4 measures and how to count and identify the beats with the counts, and learning to separate my hands from my feet while playing. For instance, to learn how to do a double with my foot like in Kashmir from Led Zeppelin, Charles had me practice this song, then we moved on to the Immigrant Song, and so on. I really have to pay homage to Charles, for his skills and knowledge paved the way for the drummer that I have become.
SDM: Also, on “Here in After”, whose drum kit did you use on that recording? What was your setup like?
Craig: The drum kit I used on Here in After was my longtime friend Randy Burbage’s Tama Superstars. I am pretty sure they’re Superstars (this kit once belonged to Mick Brown of Dokken)… that was a ten-piece with 24″ inch bass drums and eight cymbal stands, booms, et cetera. I also used a Sonor bubinga signature series snare on that recording.
SDM: Did you ever use any triggers with Immolation or Goreaphobia? Do you use them now with your playing at shows?
Craig: I am not a fan of triggers, and don’t ever plan on using them if I can avoid it, but there was a situation where I was told we have to use them because of a technical issue with the PA system, and the gates were set too sensitive and were going off for no reason, screwing up the song. And one other time with Immolation in Puerto Rico — I mean, if there is a blend of the trigger with the natural sound being more dominant, I guess that’s OK, that’s what was done here and there during the Incantation Euro tour, but whenever possible I was not using them. I think it’s very impractical to use only the triggers and mask the natural sound of a drum. If you tune your kit properly — and any drum can be tuned to sound very good — personally I don’t prefer triggers. I think it’s funny when people get endorsements with drum manufacturers and claim these are the drums for them, then they slap triggers on their drums?! What’s that all about? If you’re gonna trigger, why not use buckets or anything else for that matter that you can attach a trigger to? I am a firm believer in hearing a drum in its purest form; to me nothing beats a well-tuned natural drum sound, but to each his own. Due to my personal experience with triggers, they are not for me.