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In this episode, Carl King talks to Travis Orbin, a complicated metal drummer.
1 – Home recording workflow
2 – Abilities like audiation: does he have PERFECT PITCH?!
3 – Strangest place he has toured
4 – Working out on the road
5 – Specific musical inspirations: Lars Ulrich, Dennis Chambers, Virgil Donati
6 – What do his songs mean?
7 – Patreon questions
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SHOW NOTES / LINKS
Travis Orbin on Bandcamp
Travis Orbin w/ Pete Peterson / Bugz
Travis Orbin w/ Pete Peterson / Eigenvalue
Travis Orbin – Blame Session / III
I get a LOT of prog-metal and math rock drumming questions here. And the question I get more than any other is: “Why is Travis Orbin?” So this week, since I have NONE IDEA, I’ll finally answer that question, with the help of Travis Orbin himself. Here we go.
I’m Carl King, and this is The Carl King Podcast, where EVERY WEEK, we learn about music, filmmaking, and creativity. If you like this show, head over to Patreon.com/carlking, and join for just $1 or $5 per month.
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Quick shout-out to my music endorsements: Vienna Symphonic Library, Fractal Audio, Ernie Ball Strings, Toontrack, and Millennia Media. Now let’s get this episode Beginned!
ABOUT TRAVIS ORBIN
Before we officially get beginned, here are Three things to know about Travis Orbin.
1 – Travis Orbin is a drummer and human and lifeform who records his own outrageously complicated musical albums. They’re divided into series-es, called Silly String I and II, Finite I and II and III, Dotty Ditties I, II, III, IV, Projects I, II, III — you get the idea.
2 – Travis Orbin plays in the east coast metal band DARKEST HOUR. And I can confirm that Darkest Hour is the LOUDEST sound I have ever experienced in my life. Back in 2017, the day of our previous interview, I had to physically leave the area during their soundcheck because my entire body couldn’t handle the intense soundwaves. The best way I can describe it is: being in a continuous car accident.
3 – I have my own slogan for Travis Orbin, which I tell to people who are having drummer problems: “Travis Orbin: Problem Solved.” He played most of the drums on my Grand Architects of the Universe album, which is a 45-minute piece of music. And it was incredible to drop his drum tracks into the album project, and realize they were flawless.
Everything was in place, everything performed correctly, every tempo and dynamic change, and with great energy. It was by far the most efficient and easy drummer experience of my life. So if you have a drummer problem, call Travis Orbin: Problem Solved.
I’m going to put a link to a few of his videos, in the description below, so please go and check them out. And now, let’s hear what words he has to say.
CK: I am here with Travis Orbin. Thank you for being here.
TO: It’s a pleasure.
CK: Someone recently asked me, “Who’s Travis Orbin?” And I described you as, “All he does is lift weights and sight-read.” Did I leave anything out?
TO: That wraps it up, man. Beautifully done. Thank you. That seems to be a misconception actually, the sight-reading. Every piece that you’ve probably seen me play, audience, has been thoroughly rehearsed. I’m not sight-reading.
CK: That’s a good distinction. You do a ton of recording from your home studio, as you mentioned. I’d like you to walk me slowly through your process of doing a drum recording session for an artist. Once they hire you and send you materials, what do you do?
TO: As you have already pointed out, I do request a demo, but it may be somewhat comical to touch a bit on the demos that I receive, because … Well, there’s one in particular that’s pretty funny. I remember receiving this demo from a guy who voice memo’d himself playing drums in a garage to convey ideas, which is pretty great. But the demos that I receive-
CK: I’m sorry I did that.
TO: Yeah. BLEEP! Carl. So, yeah, the demos that I receive can vary anywhere from a Guitar Pro file or a MIDI file to an acoustic guitar, maybe a guitar with a scratch vocal, all the way up to a fully realized production with pristinely engineered guitars and bass and programmed drums with really modern samples, kind of like what you sent me for the Architects record. Once I receive the demo, usually it has programmed drums. The occasion that I get totally fresh canvas to work on is kind of rare, but I savor those. But it usually has programmed drums and I will regard the drums as, “This is the general feel that I should adhere to per section,” and then I kind of just grab the artistic bull by the horns for everything else and I will reinterpret the cymbal orchestrations, maybe I’ll pepper in some ghost notes or some additional bass drum hits, maybe some toms.
CK: Can we zoom in more on that process there? How are you actually doing that? How are you executing composing those drum parts? What are you doing there?
TO: So, I utilize a program called Guitar Pro, the very antiquated fourth edition, because it’s just so user-friendly, and it seems like it’s steering more and more towards being a mini-DAW like GarageBand and that’s just not why I use it. But anyway I use Guitar Pro 4 and I will sit with a demo, listen through it all the way through, and then I’ll start working on the parts and I will visualize myself playing them as I’m typing in the numbers in Guitar Pro.
CK: And once you have that Guitar Pro demo, you send it over to them maybe as MIDI, which you did with me, so I can then import it into my DAW and hear what you intend to do.
TO: Correct. I will send the Guitar Pro file, a MIDI file. I will also send an export of the MIDI converted to a WAV just because sometimes some of the nuances get lost, like for example crash mutes, and I will also send my sheet music, which is exported straight out of Guitar Pro. So, it resembles Guitar Pro sheet music but I arrange it so that it looks similar to traditional drum sheet notation.
CK: Do you arrange it just for them to see the notation or do you arrange it for yourself?
TO: I arrange it for myself, because that ends up being ultimately the chart that I use to attract the song. If there’s any revisions, then we will go back and forth and I will tweak whatever they have highlighted until we arrive upon an interpretation that they’re 100% happy with, and once we reach that point, then I get the other half of my payment, to bring logistics into this, and then I will begin rehearsing the material, and then once I feel comfortable enough to where I’m not sight-reading it, like we talked about earlier, and I’m not totally zoned on in the chart, I can kind of get a little bit more lost in the performance. I’ll send them a tone test. I’ll get my recording drums ready and I’ll pick out a batch of cymbals that I think best complements the music, and I will hit everything. Maybe I’ll play a section from the music and I’ll send them that test to ensure that they like all the tones, the cymbal selection, and if that’s a go then I track it.
And then after I track it, then I make any edits that are necessary and I send them my own stereo wet mix, which I run through my plugins and my master bus compressor and I send them the multitracks.
CK: Now, I don’t recall when we were working on Grand Architects, I remember being very worried in advance because I just didn’t have control over what was going to happen and I couldn’t be there, and it seemed very scary to just hand over a whole album to someone and say, “I guess drum on the whole album and we’ll see how it goes,” but you were able to send me demos, and I don’t recall if I really requested that many changes. I think maybe there were a few. Do you recall anything about that?
TO: No, that seems accurate. I actually can’t remember a specific instance.
CK: Yeah, I don’t remember going back and forth much. It was just kind of like, “Wow, okay.” And then I actually plan to … I remember I intended to fly out there and be there in the room while you were doing it, just because that whole idea was so scary, and then it turns out when I got the tracks back from you, I inserted them and I couldn’t believe how flawless … like it was exactly what I wanted, and more. So, thank you for doing that. Thank you for somehow … It’s a miracle, you know? It’s unheard of.
TO: Well, it’s still an honor to have been associated with you and to have contributed to that record. It’s still a lot of fun to listen to, and yeah, thanks.
CK: And you record in Pro Tools, correct?
TO: That is correct.
CK: The other interesting thing that I found out when working with you is that you focus so much on the drum parts that you have … You have it so worked out and coordinated that when you record, and I don’t know if you still do this, but when you recorded my stuff, you just recorded to a click track playing off of your iPhone into headphones. You didn’t actually play along with the music, which is amazing considering that Grand Architects record is like 45 minutes of nonstop tempo changes and dynamic shifts. It stops and starts so many times. Is that still what you’re doing regularly?
TO: Yep, yep. The only instance that I can think of that I play to any sort of thing that resembled music is usually my own solo material. If I am constructing a song that has, let’s say, a drum solo over a vamp of some sort, then I will export the vamp out of Guitar Pro and I’ll layer that under a click and then I’ll put that on my iPod and I’ll track to that. But usually it’s just my dry, sterile DB-90 or if I need a custom click, which I needed with Architects because of all the tempo changes and whatnot, then I’ll make the custom click in Guitar Pro, export it, convert to WAV and put it on the iPod and I’m good to go.
CK: That’s amazing. Very unusual, I think. Have you ever heard of anyone else doing that?
TO: Yeah, I think I vaguely remember … No, I might be conflating it. It’s either Jason Bittner from Shadows Fall or Travis Barker. One of those two guys. I think I remember an ancient Modern Drummer interview in which they said that they prefer tracking to just the click.
CK: The thing that would scare me about if I were doing that myself is, what if I interpreted the count-in as … What if you’re one beat off, one click off, and you don’t somehow hear that first click, and then you record the whole thing and towards the end you’re like, “Why is this not lining up?” How do you distinguish the count-in clicks from the metronome click?
TO: I don’t really need to.
CK: Well, I mean if a song is all one tempo, it doesn’t matter.
TO: No. Yeah, exactly.
CK: But if there’s a bunch of shifts, that’s just something that popped into my head, like, “Man, I would hope that I’m not one click off later on.” I remember recording … I was shooting a music video with Mike Keneally and Marco and Bryan Beller and Phi Yaan-Zek, and we were trying to play the song with the click through an iPhone running into an amp. And because it was an MP3 or something, it would sometimes skip the first click because it was at the very first frame of the audio file or whatever, and so the band would start playing and it would be, “Aw …” Anyway, that was just a thought.
TO: Yeah, I don’t seem to have an issue with that. When I encounter pauses or when the drums are tacit, then I’m just counting in my head the number of beats or the number of bars so I know when to come back in with authority.
CK: Okay, but that’s with a click still happening, right? The click doesn’t just stop for four bars and you’re not counting for four bars in your head.
CK: Okay, good. Thank you. Thank you that you’re not able to do that. Speaking of your abilities, I wanted to ask you some of your sort of latent music abilities. I’m curious if you can hear a note in your head and sing it.
TO: Yes, I can do that.
CK: You can?
TO: Initially I thought you meant if you could name a note, if I could then recreate that pitch, and I can’t do that, but I’m getting better at that because I’ve been shedding vocals with a tuner. But I can recreate a note that I hear in my head. Yeah, that’s no problem.
CK: So that leads me to ask, can you think of the first note of a popular song like Epic or something, which is an E, and can you hum it and get it right?
TO: Let’s see.
CK: I don’t have a way to check an E right now where I am, but …
TO: When my voice has settled after I wake up, because it’s deeper when you wake up, after it’s settled, it tends to stay at an E2. So I would just have to …
CK: But I mean, are you hearing that E in your head or you know that your voice settles there?
TO: I’m also hearing it in my head.
CK: Really? So you might have perfect pitch.
TO: No. God no.
CK: I mean, you might have the ability to do that. If you can hear the first note of a song and know what it should be and then sing that note …
TO: But isn’t it still relative if you’re referencing something in your head? I thought perfect pitch was you can hear a note and then you can say, “Oh, that’s a G5.”
CK: I think that would require the training to distinguish what all those notes are and maybe remembering what they are, and it might be easier when you’re younger. I don’t know, but I just know that a lot of people, I think, typically can’t think of a song and then sing the first note of it from memory. I don’t think that they can.
CK: I could be wrong. That’s interesting. I tried it with Mike Stone and he got pretty close on some of them, which kind of scared me, because I definitely don’t have that ability. Now, I heard recently that … or I discovered recently that Mike Patton supposedly has perfect pitch, according to Trevor Dunn, which also explained a lot of things. So that’s interesting. I would explore that, if I were you, because if you have perfect pitch or have the ability to develop that, that would be pretty powerful. Pretty powerful tool. Especially as a drummer, but you know, as a musician, that would make life so much easier.
TO: Well I will certainly continue shedding and certainly continue working with the tuner, because that has bolstered my confidence.
CK: And how would you rate your musical memory, honestly, compared to other people you’ve played with? Are you the guy in the band who always knows every single change perfectly, or do you ever get lost? Because I’m the one in the band who’s always lost. I need notes in front of me. I need people to cue me when … When I played in bands, the drummer was always reminding me, “Here goes this part.”
TO: Well, in my band in particular, it’s kind of like a jazz band. I have the clicks and I count them in and they follow me, the push and pull and everything, which not all of our material has push and pull, but some of the earlier stuff was not recorded to a click, so it does have push and pull, and I program my clicks accordingly to have that, to reflect it.
CK: To recreate your earlier albums, you added a push and pull on your click that you play with.
CK: That’s interesting.
TO: So, to give myself a rating, I don’t know, I guess an eight out of 10, because I need to see my charts to refresh my memory, but once I see them, I feel pretty confident.
CK: And how is your bass playing coming along? I saw in the past couple years, you’ve started seem to be seriously practicing bass to record your own parts.
TO: Yeah. It’s interesting, I could never see myself playing bass in a band, but I kind of regard myself as … well, brings to mind an old Zappa interview in which an interviewer asked him how he thought of himself as a guitarist, like if he thought he was any good or whatever, and his response was, “Well, I’m a specialist,” and I kind of feel that way about my bass playing. It’s like, I couldn’t play anyone else’s material, but I can play the hell out of my own stuff.
CK: What’s the current hardest piece of music you’ve ever played or recorded on drums?
TO: Okay, so I divide this up into different categories. Sessions, it’s still a two-way tie, Pete Peterson’s Bugz, which a Z, and the song Eigenvalue, and then I would say-
CK: Wait, what’s the song Eigenvalue? Is that his?
TO: I think it’s on his only full-length that he’s released. And then runner up would be … Okay, so I did a programming session, I just programmed the drums, for this crazy Ukrainian tech metal band called Blame, B-L-A-M-E. At one point I was kind of feeling somewhat crestfallen because I was writing all these insane parts and I knew they were physically possible, but I was like, “I couldn’t play this BLEEP! right now. I don’t have the facility. I would have to really work at it.”
And so I kind of formed a bone to pick for myself and made myself learn one of the pieces, and it’s simply called III, like the Roman numerals, III, and yeah, I record myself playing my own parts that I program, which the programmed parts will be on the record, but I just wanted to make that to prove to myself that I could still do it, I guess. So yeah, that took two weeks of daily drilling.
And so that’s the session stuff. I also occasionally dabble in covers/interpretations. I don’t like to because with the YouTube copyright stuff, it’s kind of a roll of the dice whether or not you’ll get something through, and I don’t want to put a bunch of work into something and not have it come to fruition.
CK: Not only that, do you worry about actual strikes on your channel? Like what if some publisher came through and decided, “Oh, you have three songs that we own and we’re just going to strike you on all three of them and delete your account,” or something, could that happen?
TO: Yeah man, it can be treacherous. Thankfully I don’t engage in any sort of political discussion, so I can’t be flagged for if a bot interprets something that I said as, I don’t know, hate speech or medical mis-advice or something. I don’t have that worry, but yeah, the whole copyright thing is pretty crazy. I have two videos which they comprise an entire record. They were divided … they were the halves of the record, the front and the back half, divided in two posts, and those are completely removed even though I’m the session drummer and I have complete express permission from the people who hold the copyrights to use it. The distribution service or label, whatever it was on, they won’t hear me out.
TO: So, I don’t know if that will ever be able to be viewed by the public again. And then I also had a … I did a Dillinger Escape Plan medley, three songs from their early material, and that’s also been removed, and I worked really hard on that as well, as you can imagine. I have qualms dabbling in the covers, but there’s one that is still up, thankfully, because I put so much work into it. It is a cover of the Miles Davis song, Dr. Jackle, from the record Milestones, so that would certainly fall under the hardest piece of music that I’ve played or recorded.
And then next would be my solo material, which, God, there’s so much difficult stuff sprinkled throughout everything. But I would like to highlight two parts in particular. On Finite III, the first track, Cosmocrator, there’s a bridge in which I’m pedaling 16th note quintuplets on my two hi-hats for two bars and orchestrating various subdivisions on top between snare, floor, rack tom, and then on the third bar, the feet switch to eighth note eleven-tuplets with a dotted eighth on top and then a 16th note quintuplet. And that builds in intensity. The pedal-hat ostinatos are continuous but the orchestrations change to match the music.
So, the second instance I would like to highlight would be a song on Projects III. It’s called Florid Celerity Toppled by Turbulence, and in the B sections I’m playing a repeated pattern of three eighth notes on the right side between the bass drum and floor tom, and then the left side orchestrates eighth note triplets between the … I think it’s the rack tom and the pedal hat and then I think there’s one snare hit in there to illustrate a backbeat. And so that’s pretty tough, and when that B section reprises later, I play the same thing but the left side is now playing eighth note quintuplets against the regular eighth notes on the right side. So that is quite a brain warp.
CK: Yeah, it sounds easy.
TO: I mean, give it a shot.
CK: Okay. On the topic of touring, is there a strangest place you’ve been on tour, whether it’s a town or a country? Strange to you, that you thought, “This is a different experience for me.”
TO: Okay. I was going to ask what the qualifier is. I guess maybe Jakarta, Indonesia. We played a festival there called Hammersonic, I believe, and yeah, it just kind of felt otherworldly. It’s like this tropical climate and everyone’s speaking a different language. But, being an American, pretty much everywhere feels strange because you’re so entrenched in America when you’re here. You can drive 20 hours and still be in America. You can drive half that and be in a different country in Europe, where they’re speaking a different language. So, I guess Jakarta is the answer, but everywhere is the real answer.
CK: Now, from what I know, you live a pretty solitary life, so when you’re touring, how do you adapt to being outside of your solitary routine? Is that an easy transition? And I’m curious if you ever get overstimulated being around people and need to take time yourself each day? How does that work for you?
TO: Well, I feel pretty fortunate in that regard. It’s never been particularly difficult for me to transition. As long as I can figure out the whole weightlifting apparatus situation, then I’m okay.
CK: And yeah, so I want to ask you about that, because I know you have a … part of your day when you’re touring is a workout and also a practice warmup routine before shows, so can you walk me through that? And I’m also curious, how much do you actually need to work out to look like you, per day?
TO: I don’t work out with the same amount of gear, I guess, that I use when I’m at home. I have a home gym. When I’m on the road, usually I will wake up early and utilize the hotel gym and maybe that’ll be my workout for the day, but occasionally I’ll have to bring my own weights, which I will bring a few sets of dumbbells and a flat bench from home, or if we’re not starting the tour on the East Coast, I’ll buy a weight set or just a couple dumbbells, a flat bench, or maybe just dumbbells. I’ve done that in Europe as well. I will buy a weight set and then sell it to one of the opening bands at the end of the tour.
TO: Yeah. I’ve done it like three times.
CK: That’s amazing. Do you autograph them or anything?
TO: I think I’ve autographed one set of weights.
CK: So you don’t just, at the end of the show you don’t throw them out in the audience like drumsticks? Like, “Here’s a rack of weights, here’s a bench, here’s a Bowflex.”
TO: Unfortunately I think that would result in some sort of lawsuit, so I refrain from throwing weights at the audience. I either work out in the hotel gym, I bring a weight set or I buy a weight set.
CK: Okay, so how many hours a day do you actually commit to working out?
TO: It’s only about an hour. If you subtract stretching, then it’s probably more like 45 minutes.
CK: See, that’s what I end up thinking is people probably think to look like that, you probably need to work out five or six hours a day. I think that’s maybe what people have in their minds, people who don’t work out, but you actually just do it an hour a day. All you have to do is not look at TikTok for an hour and lift weights instead, and be in incredible shape.
TO: Pretty much it, man. Have at it. I started as a really skinny person. I’ve had a low percentage of body fat all my life, so it’s been tough to put on the size. That’s really where I’m at now, just maintaining the size, because I could very easily just not eat as much and probably shrink down to what I weighed before.
CK: Have you ever had a surprisingly big turnout or positive reaction in an unexpected place? I just mean a surprisingly big, positive reaction where you didn’t think that many people were going to show up in this certain place, or “didn’t think that people would be that into us here”?
TO: Not that it was an abundance of people but we did this tour with Machine Head in 2014 and at the end of it, we were flying home and we had what’s called I think a stopover. It’s longer than a layover. It’s 24 hours or long. So we had this stopover in Iceland and my band mates were still in contact with a promoter who was still putting on shows, and he managed to whip up a show in some bar in Reykjavik. And so we land in Iceland, the promoter picks us up, and we go to this dingy basement bar and it’s just shoulder to shoulder. It’s a really small bar, so maybe like a hundred people, but it just looks so filled out. We’re wading through the crowd with our gear, and it was a lot of fun. The crowd was awesome.
After we played, there were several people, more than any other gig that I can recall, that were familiar with things that I did, like projects outside of the band, and they were very kind and they bought me a lot of alcohol. It ended up being a really fun night.
CK: Before this interview, I had asked you in advance to pick out three key moments from other drummers that expanded your possibilities, and I asked you to pick out some specific beats or fills or musical moments we could talk about, and your first example was Lars Ulrich. So, tell us about that.
TO: So, I vividly recall seeing the Enter Sandman video when it was on MTV, and then my father seemed to also have been taken by the music, because he went out and purchased the record, and I would listen to that with him all the time. But then I saved up some of my own money and went backwards in their catalog and got the …And Justice for All cassette, and it was then that I felt compelled for the first time in my life to air drum along with the music. Prior to that, I had kind of aimlessly beat on things, like I would beat on desks in school and get in trouble all the time. I had nothing to inform this feeling, and then I guess I found drums through a love of that record and Lars’s playing.
CK: And you picked out a specific fill. Can you talk about that?
TO: Yeah. Well, it’s really the music as a whole and the vibe and the aggression that it conveys, which, that’s really what struck me, but yeah, as any drummer would know, or any metalhead would know, I will always point to the sextuplets in One, and then the endurance test that is Dyers Eve. But there’s also a fill in a song called The Frayed Ends of Sanity that always drove me wild as a tweenager. I think it’s like four minutes into the song, something like that, but it’s just really quick, I think there’s 16th note triplets played between two toms, or maybe it’s one tom, and the bass drum. And it just sounds so smooth and clean, and everything drops out when he plays it, so there’s just so much emphasis on the drums. It’s spotlighted, or spotlit so hard. Yeah, I just love that little moment.
CK: You’re talking about this little moment where everything stops and Lars does this little … or something like that, this little frantic …
TO: Yeah, and I forgot to mention, yeah, he also caps it off with two really fast crash chokes, which is awesome.
CK: Yeah, I think that the playing on that album had a nervousness to it that I really liked. I didn’t hear that nervousness again on one of their records until one of the very recent ones. I don’t remember what it was, but it was produced by Rick Rubin, and they seemed to capture that nervous energy again.
TO: Yeah. I think that may have been Death Magnetic?
CK: Yeah, maybe.
TO: I haven’t listened to that one all the way through, but I do remember liking some of the material.
CK: And the second example of a drummer who expanded your possibilities was Dennis Chambers. So, what can you tell us about that?
TO: The year was, I believe, 1996. I had been playing drums for less than a year. I had some money saved up and I went to a local instrument store, and I was just kind of browsing, and I saw that there were instructional drum videos, and I didn’t even know that such a thing existed. And then for whatever reason, Dennis Chambers’s Serious Moves was calling out to me, and on a whim, I just purchased it and I popped it in, and the first song, the one that opens the video, is a John Scofield number called Trim.
To this day, the way that he plays it, it’s still one of my favorite drum performances of all time. It’s just utterly amazing. He plays it with such aplomb and conviction. That whole video is just … it’s a ride. It’s a performance video. There’s very little actual instruction. It’s mostly like Dennis’s anecdotes and his own playing philosophy. There’s a few tips sprinkled in, but it’s mostly a performance video.
CK: Is that the one where he recommends to play on something such as a “pillah”?
CK: I always thought that was so funny. It stuck with me forever. Me and my friends used to joke about that saying.
TO: It pays off, man. You become independent of rebound and you get those giant forearms like Dennis has.
CK: I’ve got to take a moment and tell my quick Dennis Chambers story, because that guy really freaked me out, too, when I was younger. I was always kind of a drum nerd groupie even though I didn’t play drums as my main thing, but I was always fascinated by drummers. And so I went to a lot of drum clinics back in the day, and Dennis Chambers came to somewhere in Tampa, Florida and did a clinic. He came out and this is not the important part of the story, but I remember he had a cigar in his mouth, and he handed it to someone as he was going up there, like the promoter. He had only smoked half of it, and he handed it to the guy, and then he turned back around and said, “Don’t you throw that out now.” And everybody kind of snickered.
And then he came out and he just did a solo that seemed to go on … it may have been like 40 minutes, honestly. I don’t know. And it got more and more intense. And he was a big guy, you know? Like had a big belly and everything, and I remember he was all sweaty towards the end and he was kind of grunting and he was doing those sweeping doubles across the kit, and spinning them all over the place, hitting cymbals, these double … what does he call them, drags or something? Or a sweep.
TO: Yeah, he calls it the sweep.
CK: Yeah. So he’s doing that everywhere, and this big crescendo, and then he ended with that kind of Dennis Chambers thing that he does at the end of solos where he runs off the end of the kit as he’s doing this … with those crazy singles, and then he runs away at the end. Have you seen him do that? He stands up and he runs … he falls off the kit and runs into the background as he’s playing. He did that and the audience went crazy, and he just sat back down at the kit and he just said, “Any questions?” And people kind of laughed, and finally one guy was like, “Yeah. How do you do that?” And somebody laughed again, and he’s like, “Any serious questions?” And somebody was like, “Yeah, what are you thinking about when you’re playing like that? Are you thinking of a beat or …”
Dennis Chambers seemed to get a little bit irritated, and he’s like, “No, I’m not thinking about a beat. I’m not thinking about anything. I’ve been doing this since I was a little kid. You think this is hard for me? I’m thinking about having a sandwich.” And everyone’s just like, “What is going on here?” And someone asked him, “How many hours a day do you practice?” He’s like, “I don’t practice. I have a drum kit at home in my basement and I only see it when I walk past it to do laundry.” It was just like one of those ridiculous savant moments where you’re like, “Wow, this guy is just insane and doesn’t know how he does what he does.” Anyway, it really stuck in my mind, so when you said Dennis Chambers, I was like, “Oh, I totally share in that.”
TO: That sounds like classic Dennis Chambers right there, the responses and … yeah. I have seen I think it’s called Zildjian Day in London, something like that. I think it was shot in the mid ’90s. It’s him and a couple other drummers. I think Simon Phillips is another one. But yeah, at the end of the solo, he did a blistering single stroke roll across the whole kit and then he just got up and kept walking, but he didn’t walk completely off the stage.
CK: The third example of a drummer who expanded your possibilities was Virgil Donati, and there’s actually a specific double kick song both of us were blown away by. Can you tell us about that?
TO: So my first exposure to Virgil was the Modern Drummer 1997 Festival highlights video. It was just extremely alien playing to me at the time, but I was still quite struck by it. And then I really connected with him on Planet X’s Universe record. I believe it came out in 2001, and there were a lot of standout moments on that record. It’s like quintessential Virgil listening material, but yeah, the tune that you mention is called Dog Boots, and he sustains an inverted double stroke roll on the bass drum for almost the entire duration of the song. There’s like a one-bar break and then it’s right back into the double stroke roll, at 200 beats per minute.
CK: Now, hold on. Inverted? Because I-
CK: Now that sort of, I think … if I understand this, that means that the strokes are sort of interlaced, where it’s the right and then …
TO: Not interlaced, that would be flams, but instead of starting with two rights, it’s a right followed by two lefts, and then it repeats.
TO: Or, right, left, left, right, right, left, left, right, right.
CK: Oh, I see what you’re saying. Okay, so it’s just staggered. It’s moving the whole pattern over one 16th note, right?
CK: Okay. So instead of … because I’ve heard of the inverted doubles where … Oh, I see what … I was thinking of that inverted doubles with the hands and feet where you’re going right tom, right kick, left tom, left kick, really fast. That weird thing.
CK: What is that called? That’s called a …
TO: I’ve heard people refer to that as inverted singles, but-
CK: Okay. Okay, okay. You were freaking me out for a second. I was like, “How would he possibly be interlacing the doubles? Like putting the doubles in between each …” But okay, go ahead.
TO: Yeah. And you can do that fill in particular in a variety of ways. I usually start the foot … the first bass drum stroke, I usually start opposite of the hand, so if I start that … No, not inverted singles, I’ve heard it referred to as linear singles, and so yeah, if I start my linear single run with the right hand, I will follow up with the left foot on the slave bass drum pedal. I believe the purpose of the inverted doubles … His reason for playing inverted doubles, I think it’s an acoustic purpose because usually when you play quick doubles with the foot, at least the way that he plays them when you actually play each note and you don’t do heel-toe where you drop the heel down and just kind of fart out the second stroke. You actually play each note. When you play it like that, the second stroke has more emphasis, and so rather than creating this strange dynamic pattern where there’s an emphasized second 16th note at 200 beats per minute, why not move the whole thing over and emphasize the downbeat?
CK: Okay, but here’s what I don’t understand. You’re talking about … you had explained earlier that most drummers that play double strokes on the kick utilize that heel-toe, duh-duh, this kind of bounce, or … wait, is it toe-heel? Duh-duh? Like that?
TO: Yeah, well it’s not so much a sliding motion, because that’s an actual technique that works well, as well. But the heel-toe is like you drop the whole leg with your heel slightly elevated, and so you’re hitting with the ball of your foot, and then you just drop that heel down to get the second stroke.
CK: Okay. So what is he doing differently than that?
TO: He’s doing more along the lines of what you mentioned, that sliding motion.
CK: Okay, okay.
TO: So he’s hitting it and then following it up with the backside of the foot. But it’s a motion that is … it’s quite different from heel-toe, and I can’t really put it into words. You just have to experiment for yourself. But drummers know what I’m talking about, the difference. I’ve tried to learn heel-toe, and I just like … that sliding motion is so embedded especially in my right foot from doing the Virgil style exercises for so many years. It’s really hard for me to phase that out and hone in completely on a heel-toe thing.
CK: Honestly in all these years, I don’t know that I’ve actually heard of heel-toe. Maybe I’ve seen Thomas Lang do it, because I think he does a lot of heel-down stuff also, which is strange. But that’s interesting. I had never considered that.
TO: And I would slightly amend what you said-
CK: Wait, so what you’re calling heel-toe is really like leg-toe, right?
TO: Or leg-heel.
CK: Leg-heel. Yeah, okay, okay. Interesting.
TO: And it’s not … I would say not most drummers play heel-toe, I would say most modern metal drummers, at least. There’s a lot of guys in these crazy tech metal bands that utilize that technique.
CK: On that Planet X record, you’re talking about Universe, there’s a song called Clonus, and there were a couple of moments in there that you mentioned. What were those about?
TO: Yeah, there’s … I think it’s a bridge section, or there’s a guitar solo happening and it kind of resembles a bridge, but yeah, there’s an interesting buildup into a drum break where he’s playing a double bass pattern that has accents in it, which I’d never heard prior to that record, and then it leads nicely into this drum break, which I honestly couldn’t tell you what he’s playing, because I have not sat down and transcribed it for myself, but it sounds like 16th note triplets orchestrated in a variety of ways across all of his drums. There’s something about it that … it just sounds so greasy. I just love the way it sounds. It kind of had the same effect on me that The Frayed Ends of Sanity did, but in a different way, I guess.
CK: Some of my own thoughts on Virgil, I’ve done a bunch of stuff with him as far as video-wise. I did a bunch of video production for him over the years and got to know him, and it took me a while to realize that Virgil actually has a looseness to his playing, and he’s actually not metronomic, and he’s also super dynamic. He recorded some tracks for me for a rerecording of that song, Broccoli, and I think I called it Cabbage Worm Eggs for Sale on the Grand Architects record. And it was then that I just realized that Virgil is so dynamic with his playing. He plays so lightly sometimes, and then when he … by default, and then when he hits a kick really hard, it is super powerful. And that was surprising to me because I never realized that until I actually had his tracks in front of me.
And another thing about Virgil that I want to point out is that years ago I shot this live-in-the-studio session with Virgil and his band, and it was at Simon Phillips’s place, and they did some unbelievably completely improvised pieces from start to finish, and he had keyboardists and a couple of guitarists and a bassist, and they had never played this stuff. They would just start playing, and it was so hard to believe that these guys are making up all of this complex jazz music on the spot. And it was flawless. It had intros, middle sections and outros that … it was just like, how did they just do that on the first take? I’m not sure that the full set is available publicly, but I know that there is at least a trailer for it on Virgil’s YouTube, and he called it On Impulse. Have you ever seen anything about that?
TO: Yeah, I’ve seen the trailer, but nothing … no other material, I don’t think, no, unfortunately.
CK: One of those unbelievable things that a lot of people might not know about is that he plays to that level of improv creatively in the moment with musicians that can create a whole song in the moment. It sounds stupid to say that, because, “Oh yeah, my brother can just pick up the guitar and he can just play anything.” That’s one of those sayings, you know? It sounds cliché, but to the level that they did it, this Allan Holdsworth style jazzy fusion was just like, how are they doing that in front of me, right now? How did this just happen?
TO: Yeah, Virgil … and I don’t like making declarative statements, but in my lifetime, he’s the last person I’ve seen come along to wholly elevate the entire craft of drumming. There’s so much to take, so much to digest, consume from his playing. I could gush about him for days. He has my perpetual respect.
CK: Yeah. I remember in an interview I was shooting with him, he said something about he’s always in search of the ideal performance, I think is what he said, the phrase. And it sounded almost like a life philosophy, like everything in his life, he’s such a Olympic athlete and mentally focused about making his whole life is about that ideal performance.
TO: It’s beautiful.
CK: Yeah. Do your songs have meanings to you or does the instrumental music represent things beyond the music?
TO: Some songs that I’ve written, the meaning is pretty blatant. Like I just put out a song called Hauling Ass, or Haulin’ Ass, on Dotty Ditties 4, and it’s pretty obvious if you read the lyrics, it’s just about trying to catch a plane, but some things that I write, I find that the meaning isn’t that blatant. It requires me to record it and release it for it to mean something to me, and then even that meaning can then evolve with my life, and so … but yeah, everything has an inherent meaning, because there’s an inherent impetus behind it to manifest it.
So that answers the non-instrumental material. As far as the instrumental stuff, that same original drive is there, but I feel myself being pulled more towards vocal-driven music because I feel like my musical education is not at the level that I would like it to be, to be able to write instrumental music that has as deep of a feeling or is as deeply emotive as vocally-driven music is, and that will be something to work on in the years to come.
CK: Okay, so if you sit down with your laptop and you’re on a couch somewhere on tour wherever you are and you’re like, “I have an hour to work on some music,” what is motivating you to open up the laptop and type in your rhythms? Does it symbolize something to you or are you purely thinking about the notes? Are you like, “Oh, I want to express what it’s like to be angry,” or, “It’s about this person I knew, I want to represent them musically,” or is it purely sounds?
TO: There are a number of things that can strike that initial match of inspiration. Recently I’ve been voice-memoing myself singing melodies and then I’ll then recreate those while holding a tuner so that I know what the notes are, and then I will flesh a song out either using the notes as part of a scale and then imposing limitations, only use those notes within the scale, or I will see how those notes coincide with a certain key and what that key … the inherent mood or vibe of that key, what it represents. But yeah, that’s how I tend to use theory, is really to impose limitations rather than know what the boundaries are. I think that’s probably because I just don’t use it enough.
CK: All right, I’d like to move on to some very strange Patreon questions from my Patreon supporters. The first one comes from Modiak and he asks, “If and when humanity makes contact with intelligent alien life, what kind of music would they share with us? Specifically what sort of drum rhythms and patterns would alien cultures use considering a different perception of timing and range and hearing? Thanks for answering my weird questions.” Travis Orbin, tell us how that’s going to play out when the aliens arrive.
TO: I think we’ll be able to taste rhythm. That will be the gift that they will bestow upon us.
CK: That’s really actually a great answer and we’re going to move on. Thank you, Modiak, for the very easy question. That was a softball question. Let’s try a little harder. Dan Rainone asks, “Would Travis ever consider playing his music live either with a band or just playing along to his laptop?”
TO: Well, the laptop situation would be more like a clinic, I think, which I would do. As far as a live band, I have no idea who would play in it and if I would be able to afford such an endeavor. But if my music ever finds a big enough audience, I wouldn’t rule it out.
CK: And the third Patreon question is from Dusty Grimm, and he asks some background questions such as, “Did you start drums early in life? Were there other instruments you tried or learned back then? Do you play other instruments now? Also, did you have a supportive family? Did they play music as well? And what age did you play in your very first live band?” But I want to read between the lines here, and I think that Dusty might be asking about learning music in your childhood and the effect that that has on your playing. Could we maybe sum it up as that one question? Did you have an early start in some way with music in any way, and do you think that helped you?
TO: I didn’t start playing the drum set until I had just turned 13. As I mentioned earlier in the interview, rhythm was always this intrinsic interest of mine. I would randomly beat on things with my hands, and then I heard …And Justice for All and I was like, “Okay, I want to try drumming, actual drumming with drums.”
CK: You’re like, “Well, I’ve been beating on things. Let’s put drums there and I will beat on them.”
TO: The building blocks are there, so let’s give me something to actually acoustically make sound. Once I got my kit and started playing, there were … I think, yeah, there was one quick little phase that I went through because I wanted to join a band, but the band teacher was like, “You should play trumpet,” probably because they had a dearth of trumpet players, or trumpeters, and I gave that a shot and I just stunk horribly at it, and so I quickly abandoned that and I was on the straight and narrow with drums. And my parents, they listened to music but they were not instrumentalists. They weren’t musicians in any way, shape or form. No musicians in the family.
CK: So you didn’t grow up even as a little kid having any sort of little piano stuff, anything like that, that was steering you towards paying attention to music?
TO: Nope, it was really just the joy of listening to music and I definitely experienced that early on. I have vivid memories of listening to music with both my parents, but there weren’t any apparatuses in particular that were like, “Play me as an instrument.” It was just that very primal, rhythmic force and then that found a way to express itself with drums.
CK: Well, that’s a message to all you out there, you don’t have to start playing when you’re very young, if you started at like 13 on drums. That’s pretty amazing that you got so far, because I think when you hear about players of your level, you tend to find out, “Oh yeah, they started when they were three or five or something,” and so 13, there’s hope for the rest of the 13-year-olds out there, or the rest of us.
Travis Orbin, thank you for being here and for taking the time away from eating as many calories as possible.
TO: It’s been an absolute pleasure. It’s an honor to be a part of the podcast. Thank you for all the questions to the Patreoners, Patreonage people, and I look forward to potentially working with Carl again in the future.
CK: Okay. That’s the end of this episode of the Carl King Podcast. Remember to subscribe on Spotify, Apple, YouTube, or anywhere else you listen to these dang podcasts. And if you like the show, support the creation of more episodes by joining my Patreon for $1 or $5 a month. That’s Patreon.com/CarlKing. Or send a tip through PayPal or Venmo to username CarlKingdom. And as always, special thank you to my $51-a-month patrons at the special illusionist level, Chewbode and Hank Howard III. And thank you to all of the very good friends of Carl King for listening. And as I always say, Travis Orbin, problem solved.