The grand whacking Tim "Herb" Alexander is a foremost expert on rhythm. When he sits down and bangs those drums, he truly becomes Shaka Zulu! After seeing Herb play, drummers say "I can do anything, man!" He knows what he wants. If he can't get it, he'll karate chop any pachuco with his jujitsu, because he knows he can.
Herb wants a helicopter! He's lookin' like Marlon Brando at the end of Apocalypse Now. He's remaking Apocalypse Now for his new instructional video. (His has an ending!) He likes pool, golfing, batting cages and the Ultimate Fighting Challenge. He loves to have Ultimate Fighting Challenge parties. He's a killer softball player, but he's afraid to admit it. He's not a loudmouth palooka, nor is he a quimbee. He doesn't need Cindy Crawford's workout tape. He gets his buns-of-steel from his athletic double bass drumming. He can play the double bass faster than you can play a Flamparadiddlediddleratamacue. If he couldn't, he'd swear he'd shut up -- but he can. His drums are bigger, better, cooler then Ricky Rockett's.
Do you want to know more? He's no recluse, but he lives alone in the Berkeley hills, enraptured with Dolby Laboratory's Mega Bass Quadraphonic Surround Sound System. Do you want to hear about his bands? Primus just played on Letterman and has a new album called Tales From The Punch Bowl, and they SUCK! Laundry, his other band, has an album out entitled Black Tongue. They play rad odd time signatures and sound like a cross between King Crimson and Shldavichvonshplipdanouff's revolutionary etude in A flat. Herb and I became friends in '89, while we were on tour together in Europe.
Andy asked me to Interview Herb for DRUM!, so we decided to play pool. Herb and I met at Chalkers, a posh pool hall in Emeryville, California, and this is what happened.
Brain: Herb, you shaved your head!
Herb: Yeah. You know, I got tired of the long hair thing.
Brain: You probably shaved your pouch, too.
Herb: Yeah, right.
Brain: Where's the stuff you put on the tip. Okay let's see if this works. Hey, hey, hey -- are you going to be able to hear this? We gotta rent a whole recording thing-a-ma-jigger.
Herb: I got a DAT.
Brain: Yeah, like a portable DAT machine. Well, we might be in trouble. I don't think you'll be able to hear us talking over the sound of the balls cracking together. I'll get home and listen to the tape, and it'll go like, "Let me tell you the secret to my drumming. The secret to my drumming is BLAT BLA BLA BLA BLA BLA BLA BLA BLA!"
Herb: Yeah, I'd like to say two words: "Aaagahchaah kaaaaaah?"
Brain: I hope I can hear this okay. Oh, where's the stuff you put on the tip?
Herb: Here's the stuff you put on the tip.
Brain: The chalk, cool, so what do I do here? I never play pool, it's for people who can't snowboard.
Herb: Okay, so you're stripes. So you want to make all your stripes.
Brain: In where?
Herb: Into the holes. Sink 'em, and hit your balls, first.
Brain: So I have to hit the stripes, do I have to call it out?
Herb: Nah, you know, just go ahead and play. You don't have to call a thing.
Brain: Is this how you hold the stick?
Herb: Sure, you're doin' good. I take my first shot.
Brain: Ah man, I suck.
Herb: That's all right...close.
Herb takes a shot.
Brain: You're good.
Herb: Yeah, I'm good.
Brain: So you don't have to ever call out the balls in this game?
Herb: Nah, you can if you want, but . . . ahhhh...you don't have to because . . .
Brain: But dude, if we were playin' professionally, you would have to call it off, right?
Herb: Yeah, I think so. But in nine ball, it's just slop, kind of like, you know, the way you play the drums.
Brain: Get out of here, were playin' slop pool. Slop doesn't count.
Herb: Slop does count. That could be the theory behind this article.
Brain: Yeah, is that what you're into, slop?
Herb: Well, controlled slop.
Brain: So, is that how you approached this last album? Slop counts?
Herb: I think every album is kind of like that, because when we're recording, we don't know how the song goes. You know, we got the idea and then Ler, Les [other members of Primus] and I start playing and recording it, we just run the tape. So when I'm recording, I don't even know really what I'm doing, or why I'm doing it, you know? I have ideas, but the spontaneity is what makes it real.
Brain: Real live sounding? Or more jam oriented?
Herb: Well, less thought-out. What I'm doing is really what I do naturally, because I don't have a lot of time to think about it. I can't sit there and prepare all these crazy drum fills, you know?
Brain: Right, I was listening to the album on the way up, and it sounded more live to me than the last ones.
Herb: What do you mean?
Brain: You know, some of the songs sounded like they were a first take, or recorded live on stage.
Herb: Yeah, there's a couple that are like that. Les, Ler and I kind of had an idea where we were going, but we didn't really know how the songs were going to end or . . . that's a dead rail.
Brain: What's a dead rail?
Herb: The rail on the pool table, it's not working.
Brain: What do you mean? Oh, you mean the rail doesn't bounce. Wow, that's out.
Herb takes a shot at the rail.
Brain: Wow, it is dead!
Herb: Yeah, we gotta remember that.
Brain: So anyway, how did you record this last album? Did Les start with a riff, and then you and Ler just joined him? You know, did you guys just jam, and he added vocals later?
Herb: Pretty much. There was only one song where he had lyrics going with a bass line already. But there also was one song, "The Parrot," the one that's in seven. That one started with my drum part. I played, then Les and Ler joined me, and we worked it around the drum thing.
Brain: Yeah, that's kind of a cool double-bass thing. How'd you come up with that part?
Herb: Just jammin' on the drums. That's how I come up with most of my ideas. I was wanting to come up with a different double bass pattern. While trying to work out something, I ended up doing this double-bass thing in an odd time, and it sounded cool.
Brain: Speaking of seven, so I gotta hit the seven?
Herb: You gotta make the seven now.
Brain: I'm gonna beat you right now.
Brain: God! I suck! I can't even get that retarded ball in!
Herb: So, you just lost.
Brain: I lost? Have I won anything yet?
Herb starts a new game of nine ball.
Herb: You just lost again!
Brain: What do you mean, I just lost?
Herb: I hit the nine in, that means I won.
Brain: What! I gotta rack it again?
Herb: Yeah, that was a nine ball on the break.
Brain: So, did you guys produce the album on your own?
Herb: Why you always asking so many questions?
Brain: Because we're doing an interview!
Herb: Yeah, we were at Les' house. We call it "Rancho Relaxo." We brought the drums and everything up there, because the vocals usually go on last. It would be easier if we recorded there, so Les could work on vocals and bass lines when we weren't around. We just left everything until the whole thing was done, just in case we wanted to change stuff.
Brain: Wow, doesn't Les live like way up in Sebastapol? How do you get psyched to play? You know -- inspiration, getting into it?
Herb: It was hard, because Ler and I had to drive an hour an a half to get there. We're also doing other projects, like I'm doing Laundry, Les did Sausage, and Ler's doing stuff with his friends. We were just ready to make a new album, start touring, and get out of town for a long time. So that was pretty much a lot to get psyched about. This is something we had to do. You know, the time comes, and it's been two years since Pork Soda.
Brain: What's up with your jujitsu Ninja Turtle stuff? You still doing that?
Herb: I use it as a way to get a work out, so that I can be strong on tour. It's good, because it has nothing to do with the drums, so it gives me something fun to do besides just playing.
Brain: So you don't do it specifically to get flexibility or endurance on the drum set?
Herb: No, jujitsu is a little different. It's made to hurt people. (laughs)
Brain: It looks like you're going to hurt somebody when you play the drums, especially with that bald head.
Herb: Yeah, you know.
Brain: Is that what you're into, hurting people?
Brain: Well, you're into that Ultimate Fighting Challenge male-bonding thing, though?
Herb: Yeah that's the greatest. Everybody should watch that.
Brain: I hear that you're into that Royce Gracie dude, the undefeated champion fighter.
Brain: You live for him, don't you? You'd probably have sex with him if you could.
Herb: Definitely. Ohhhhhhhhhhh! Here's your chance.
Herb misses and sets me up to win a game.
Brain: What? I can beat you?
Herb: The nine ball's hangin'.
Brain: All right, this is it. I'm gonna win, and that means you have to rack 'em, right? This is a good game. I can sit down, do nothing, and just win in the end. I guess that's why they call it slop. This is the slop article. I don't think we've said anything that's made any sense yet. I know, let's call it the jujitsu article, that makes sense.
Herb: Yeah, jujitsu is cool. There's a lot to jujitsu in terms of being relaxed. In order to move fast, you have to learn to be relaxed, and use your energy in a smart way. You know, I've watched some people playing drums and they're sweatin', and they're so exhausted.
Brain: Why you lookin' at me? Is that how I play?
Herb: No, other people. Like, why do people have to play like that? It's just unnecessary. Maybe they're just way into it or something, but it doesn't take that much effort to play the drums. You're just moving a little stick around. I don't get it when people have cymbals 50 feet up in the air, and they're sitting on the ground. I like to have my drums set up close, because it takes less time and energy to get to a closer point than when you've got big huge drums, and they're all spread out. That's why I cut down to one bass drum. Having two there was making the whole set go way out to the left. And I don't like having anything up there that I'm not gonna play.
Brain: Yeah, you used to have a whole huge rack.
Herb: It's a smaller rack now. It's different. I use Tama drums.
Brain: That's right, you changed from Porkpie. How many kits do you have? Can I get one? I just had to pawn my snare drums for a chicken taco. So I gotta break this, and if I get the nine in, I'll win?
Herb: Don't count on it.
I shoot, drop the pool cue, and look up at Herb.
Herb: So for everyone reading this article: If you drop a stick, you don't have to look up and let everyone know that you dropped a stick, you know what I mean?
Brain: Herb, you're getting a phone call.
Herb: It's my chicks. All my chicks are waitin' for me.
Brain: Yeah, right. Herb's on his cellular phone, like a big rock star.
I wait until Herb's off the phone with his girlfriend.
Brain: Herb, maybe we should go bowling after this.
Herb: You know how to bowl?
Brain: Not really. Bowling's for people who don't know how to skateboard. Well, maybe you can show me. You're like Joe-Pro everything.
Herb: That's because when I was little, my Mom worked in a bowling alley that had pool tables. Instead of having a baby sitter, I'd go to work with her, and I'd just bowl, shoot pool all day, and play. I played on little boxes, couches, pots, and pans. You know, whatever, I never had a drum set.
Brain: You never had a drum set?
Herb: Still don't.
Brain: You don't have a drum set, you have five drum sets! You know, the first time I saw you play was at the Omni, and you had this old beat up kit with a stick across the toms. What was that all about?
Herb: Oh yeah. Oh man. It was a big bamboo stick, and I was tryin' to use it instead of a hi-hat or something. I mean, why not? You know, it sounded good. I was using it in the song "Mr. Know It All" in rehearsal and live, but I didn't use it on the recording. I didn't have a way to set it up, so I used to just duct-tape it to all the stands.
Brain: What's up with your kit these days?
Herb: The toms setup are pretty standard. It goes from small to big. I also have the Octobons to my left, and I added another hi-hat to my right, because I hated crossing my hands all the time to play them. I like the hi-hats lower, but you can't get a lot of power with them low. So when I'm doing some kind of a stick pattern where both hands don't come up together, I can't hit the snare that hard because my right hand blocks the left. So when I want to hit hard, I use the hi-hat on my right. I like to set up
my drums as symmetrically as I can. You know, so I don't have to twist my body around. The kit splits in half, going in two directions. Most stuff on the left side gets used by the left hand, and the right gets used by the right hand. I don't like crossing over.
Brain: You were talking earlier about being relaxed when you play. Do you consciously think about it, in order to play that way?
Herb: Yeah, I'm always going to play relaxed. I don't know how hard I hit physically, but I know how to get the strength out of the drums, just by being relaxed up until you hit the drums. When I was watching Dave Weckl's drum video, I was into the way he was demonstrating how to set up the drums in a good, strong striking position.
Brain: What do you mean?
Herb: Well, in order to figure out where things should be set around the kit, you raise your arms without lifting your shoulders and remain relaxed while you drop your stick. For example, your floor tom should be at arms length, and you drop your arm down, to find out where the tom should be placed. That's going to be your most powerful spot, because you're not stopping the range of motion, high or low. If you raise up the toms too high, you're going to cut the range of the motion down, and it's the same problem if you have the drum sitting too low.
Brain: Yeah, there's a lot of wasted energy there. So you consciously set up your kit that way so you don't waste any energy?
Herb: Yeah, the drums should be played really relaxed and really tight, and everything should be within reach. You shouldn't have to over-stretch for anything. I like to try to play fast sometimes, do real fast fills, so I need everything to be right there. But Faith No More's drummer, Mike Bordin, has a weird set up. He has huge toms, they're set flat, they sit at face level, and he has to reach over the top to hit them. For me, it would take so much energy to get there. I guess he's comfortable like that, but I could never play like he does. I would never be able to do anything fast, because there's so much distance to travel, that it could screw up my timing. A lot of timing problems come from how people set up their drums. As soon as they start reaching further for something, that means they have to pull and push further, and have to do all this in time. That's pretty tough, if they're trying to be a consistent time keeper.
Brain: How do you work on your timing? Do you practice with a metronome?
Herb: I do on tour just to keep up, because when I used to listen to tapes and see videos of our gigs, I'd find spots where I was dragging, and I found out why. A lot of it has to do with the fact that I wasn't wearing earplugs when I was on stage. I'd hear the resonance of the drums and reverbs, so I'd start allowing space for that, and then I'd start dragging. Then I started wearing earplugs, and all I would hear was the impact of the drums. I didn't hear all that extra space anymore, so it made me want to play a little faster, and I was tighter. So there's so many factors involved when it comes to timing.
Brain: A problem I have is making a smooth transition going from verse to chorus. Let's say you're on the hi-hat for the verse, and the chorus comes up, you go to the ride, and you're timing's off.
Herb: Yeah, I think that could be a tonal thing. It's probably a hearing problem, with all of that ringing going on when you're on the ride. The hi-hat creates a space which is tighter. Then you've got the ride cymbal which is ringing all over the place and that creates more space between the notes. So the timing is stretched a little. You know, when most people learn drums, they start with a hi-hat, snare and bass drum, and they get so comfortable, that any other positions aren't that comfortable. They can't naturally whip it out like it's nothing, you know?
Brain: Let's talk about that for a minute. That's something that you do differently. You don't just play the traditional 2 and 4 with the hi-hat, kick, and snare. You know, like most producers say, "Give me that FAT BACK!"
Herb: Sometimes if I do, I still try to keep it interesting. Like in that song, "The Beaver," that's out right now off of Tales From The Punch Bowl. It sounds like it's just the 2 and 4, but there's bass drum triplets going on. Then the hi-hat groove, I don't know if you can hear on the radio, but it's double strokes right before . . .
Brain: You mean like a five-stroke roll on the end of 4?
Herb: Yeah, but it's real subtle. That's the little stuff that I do just to keep myself interested, because otherwise, I just sit there and get kind of bored keeping a simple beat.
Brain: Have you always approached the drums like that, always trying to keep it exciting for yourself?
Herb: Always. Are you bored?
Brain: Who me?
Herb: It's weird talking to you about serious stuff, because it's like, "What do you care?" Because we usually hang out and talk about stupid stuff. That's why I keep thinkin', "This doesn't feel natural."
Brain: Yeah, like in the middle of our serious conversations today, sometimes I just want to laugh. But I'm actually learning some cool stuff, especially the tonal and timing thing. Do you think of your timing differently in Laundry than you do in Primus?
Herb: Yeah, in Laundry it's pretty wide open, so I just play how I feel. Usually their tempos are fairly consistent. But in Primus there are a lot more tempo fluctuations, and we've been doing it for so long, that if one person isn't playing the right speed, then it messes everybody else up. We all know how the tempos are supposed to go, so if I slow down, Les has to slow down, and it doesn't feel right to him. In Primus I don't let loose as much, because I've built my own limitations on how crazy to get. In Laundry it's kind of the point of the band to let loose and mess everyone up. So I try to go way out.
Brain: Like slop it up?
Brain: I should call this the "Slop Article." Hey, I heard you're doing drum clinics now, right? I know you're not the clinic type of dude, but what are you planning to teach?
Herb: That's the hard part right now. I'm trying to figure that out, because I don't want it to be a means to just whack off, you know? I don't have all of these crazy chops to get out, because I get to play a lot of the stuff I'm into in Primus, and I have some real basic rudiments that I try to use in all different ways. As far as the clinic, I guess I'll just go and play, and then let them ask questions. I'm I trying to let the clinics help me find a specific thing to teach. One thing I definitely want to tell people
is, "You don't have to play the same way that everybody else in the world does. There's more to the drums than just a snare, bass drum and a hi-hat. That's not the only thing that feels good." So, that's what I want to tell drummers to work on.
Brain: Now I want to ask some serious questions: How long have you been playing?
Herb: Well, all my life.
Brain: What kind of sticks do you use?
Herb: Vic Firth.
Brain: What kind of drums do you use?
Brain: And who's your favorite porn star?
Herb: Ummmm. Favorite? I don't know if I have a favorite. Wait. I think there could be a favorite. Nina Hartley has the best bottom.
Brain: I'm talking about guys!
Herb: I knew you were. There's some dude, I don't know his name.
Brain: You mean Rocco? The Italian Stallion?
Herb: No. You're supposed to bring me all kinds of porns. I want to tape them.
Brain: I'm not going home tonight, but I can tell you where to rent them in Berkeley.
Herb: Which one should I get?
Brain: Sodomania Eight, Ten and Eleven are hot!
Herb: Hey, how late's that porn shop open?
Brain: Until 12:00 midnight, I think. What time is it now?
Herb: Quarter to 12:00.
Brain: Dude, forget this. Let's go have some real fun.