Spineshank's Tommy Decker on his approach to drumming and reconvening with Jonny Santos
Spineshank (due Sunday, October 2, at 3 Kings Tavern) started in 1996 as a band that fused industrial sounds and ideas with elements of thrash. With the release of its 1998 debut, Strictly Diesel, Spineshank caught the attention of a wide audience with its blend of melody and hard-edged musicianship. Although the group became associated with what some have since called "nü metal," its sound never seemed to hybridize hip-hop and rock.
In 2004, singer Jonny Santos left the band and Spineshank effectively remained silent to the public at large for four years, even as the rest of the band worked for two more years with another singer. But in 2008, Santos returned, and Spineshank has started playing its first shows in a good long while with a new album due out in early 2012. We recently had a chance to speak with drummer Tommy Decker about his role as a drummer, the importance of chemistry in a band and the part the grieving process had in shaping the new album, Anger, Denial, Acceptance.
Westword: How did you get started playing drums, and what were you early experiences playing out like?
Tommy Decker: My uncle actually played drums, and he kind of turned me on to it. Back in like '84 or whatever, Motley Crue and Def Leppard -- all those bands were out and kind of overtook my life. It was something that fascinated me, so I dove in head first. I met Jonny Santos in junior high, and we used to play backyard parties. We started this really bad punk band, because we just sucked. We couldn't play, and we had no talent, but we just started playing those parties, and it was a lot of fun.
How would you characterize the music you did with Basic Enigma and its inspirations?
Oh, wow, I haven't been asked that in a while. That was a learning process for us. We learned everything not to do in that band. At the time we were really inspired by Pantera and White Zombie, Slayer, that kind of stuff. We were paying our dues during that time. That record lead to Spineshank, and after that, things just started kind of happening. That's where we found everybody for the band, everybody except Rob Garcia.
What was it about Fear Factory's Demanufacture and that band in general that had such a deep influence on what you've done in Spineshank?
You know? I think that whole thing gets overplayed a bit. There was a point when Demanufacture came out... It was one of those records that was an eye-opening thing for me where, "Hey we need to kind of step it up guys. There's music like this out there being made." We kind of took a new approach. Before then, we would just get into a room together and write our songs and practice.
After that, we got a cassette four-track and stared to write the songs and record them before we actually played them in the band. It was something that made us realize we needed to change the way we did things. I think that was the catalyst that made us who we are now. I think it's pretty cool that eventually we ended up being friends with those guys and touring with them. It was kind of surreal.
As the drummer, I assume you've been integral in creating electronic loops and samples and triggering them. Is this true, and how did you get into doing that sort of thing, and how has that aspect of your songwriting and performance evolved over the years?
I actually kind of screwed myself with that whole thing. I don't like playing a tape. I think being in a band is supposed to be rock and roll and live and there's supposed to be mistakes and things like that. I have more drum pads than I do actual drums. It is a pain in the ass, but we did our first show in a while last night, and it's kind of my signature now.
Everyone that sees is is like, "Wow, that's kind of crazy the way you do that."It's been the same for the past ten or twelve years.I don't play the click, but I'm still on with the samples. Like I said, I still kick myself in the ass for every starting this. But at the end of the day, I'm proud of the way I do things.
When we did our first record, Amir Derakh from Orgy, those guys were doing the same type of thing, turned me on to it, and I thought it would be a cool way to keep it still dangerous and rock and roll. In the studio, I love playing to the click, but live, I like to keep it little dangerous.
When your band was nominated for a Grammy, did that create any pressure for you as a musician and for the band itself that helped to contribute to that first breakup?
No, because you know what? The thing is we broke up and the Grammy thing [happened] during the same week. Things were already in motion, and it was already kind of over at the time. I mean, we were burned out. It's weird because it never set in, and we never got to be "Grammy-nominated Spineshank." It was like, okay, we got this nomination and we're done.
It was a cool thing, it's something I never thought would happen and it's something I'm proud of. It's something my mom and my dad can understand, you know what I mean? We can go to Europe and sell out shows and do all the things we do. But when you say, "We're Grammy-nominated," my parents get that.
How did you come to reconcile with Jonny Santos, and have you had to compromise at all in going for a heavier sound with him back in the band?
It's funny, the reason we broke up in the first place, a big part of it, was that we wanted to go heavier, and he didn't. It's always been about heavy but we're smart enough to realize what we're good at. I met Jonny in 1989 in junior high. So it was a matter of time. We still fight. There's good, there's bad, but overall, the things that we've accomplished together is just like, "Wow!" When I look back on my life, every milestone and everything that we've ever done, he's been there, you know. And the same for him. When we had kids, we're there at the hospital.
It works. He's a great singer. Like I said, last night, we played our first show in a long time, and it was awesome. It's this weird thing where you're almost thinking the same thing. You can predict what each other is doing. It's meant to be, and unfortunately for us we're stuck with him, and he's stuck with us. It's bigger than the sum of its parts.
The new record should be out early next year, and it's the heaviest stuff we've ever done, and at the same time, there's some of the most mellow, catchy stuff we've ever done. You can be heavy and heavier, and it just gets old. Oh, wow, cool, you're stuck at one speed? I think the fact that we can do different things makes the heavy stuff that much more heavy in my mind. The variations and dynamics, that means a lot to us.
Presumably you have continued to work on your technique as a drummer. What sorts of things do you do to become better and what have been the biggest challenges for you as a musician that you've overcome that maybe people who listen to your music may not know about?
The kids nowadays? Holy shit, man. Their feet are like hummingbirds. They're just so fast. That's the new thing; they're so conscious of their speed. The double bass has to be so quick. To me, it's more about songwriting. Playing for the song, playing the right dynamic and the creativity. As far as being a drummer's drummer, I'm not really that guy. I'm more of a songwriter.
There was a time when I was like, "I'm going to take lessons, I'm going to learn all my rudiments and do this and that." Now, I accept where I'm at and try to put my heart and soul into it and try to put a lot of energy into it. One of the things I think that sets me apart, like I was telling you earlier, is my nightmare of those goddamned samples. It's weird because I'm not just playing drums, which is why I don't sit there and concentrate on, "I've gotta get my BPMs, my sixteenth notes, at 180 quicker.
I gotta set this loop off, I gotta hit this drum pad with my left hand, so I gotta hit my cymbal with my right, things like that. I don't think people realize what goes into the sampling and doing that at the same time. It's kind of a whole different thing. I can't think of any other drummer out there doing the same type of thing. I'm actually thinking of doing one of those drum videos kind of showing how it's done. I don't think people get it, a lot of people just think we're playing the tapes and we're not. It's all live. It's my nightmare but it works for us.
On your new album, it sounds like a lot of those songs were fairly personal. Anger, Denial, Acceptance you've said in other interviews is part of the process of grieving. What made that process so compelling to you that you decided to name an album after that concept and to perhaps write songs in that vein?
It was a rough year. A rough couple of years since we did the whole breakup of the band. I got married and got divorced. A lot of people have died on us. We're getting to the age where family members and people are getting old. It's just a part of life. That's what happened. We were at a point where it wasn't exactly a happy time for everyone in the band. It just made sense. It was something that kind of spoke to us.Mike [Sarkisyan] came up with that title and it fits everything. You'll hear it in the album.
A lot of stuff people won't be expecting from us. One song that's pretty much acoustic guitar, and it gets really powerful, it's kind of a sad and depressing thing, but it's what we felt. We don't follow trends; we don't worry about whatever the cool thing is. This is what we felt; this is what the four of us came up with. If you like it, great, if you don't, no apologies. We are who we are. We never fake anything. That's why we haven't put a record out in so long because we had nothing to say. We finally had something to say again.