A Gretsch Abroad — Exclusive Interview with Rival Sons Drummer Michael Miley, Part 1
“Did you hear ‘Do Your Worst’ just made it to number one on the Mainstream Rock chart!?” I was fortunate enough to be hanging out with Rival Sons in March 2019 when I overheard guitarist Scott Holiday saying this to drummer Michael Miley. They were both delighted, but not in the way that someone getting lucky and winning the lottery is delighted, but rather in the way that a soldier is delighted after a long and difficult campaign. You see, the success that Rival Sons enjoys today is 100% earned. Although they may have picked up a few “purple hearts” in the music business along the way, they never stopped fighting for their dreams and they never gave up. Since their first album Before the Fire in 2009, Rival Sons has released a total of seven albums and toured virtually non-stop around the globe. They have gradually built an international following of die-hard fans and have established a musical momentum that is an undeniable force. Their sound, like their work ethic, is profound and robust; testosterone-fueled rock that has been brilliantly re-invented. After a night of experiencing their set list, a masterclass in tension and release, one becomes an instant fan of their paramount sound…A sound driven by the syncopated propulsion of athletic drummer Michael Miley, a drummer that really gets THAT GREAT GRETSCH SOUND. Michael likes cranking his toms up and mixing in some fancy footwork on his bass drum to create his own unique signature sound. We recently caught up with Michael to talk drums, music, and life!
Lucas: Rival Sons is seemingly on tour almost all of the time. Can you talk a little about your work/life balance?
Michael: My wife is from Estonia, and when we first met we both wanted kids, and we agreed that she would be a stay-at-home mom because we didn’t want our kids to be raised by daycare or nannies. We built a house on her parent’s property in Estonia, so her mom, her dad, and her little sister help out a lot when I’m gone. Rival Sons has toured Europe every summer since 2011. We stay in Estonia during the summer and being based in Estonia makes it really easy to travel to the tour and back. The other people in the Rival Sons band and crew have a 15-hour flight back home or whatever and I only have a 2-hour flight.
Lucas: So how many kids do you have?
Michael: Two kids. A five-year-old boy and a two-year-old girl. In California we live close to my mom so she helps out a lot when we are there. That’s the kind of pragmatic side of things, but the emotional side of things can be really difficult. It’s a catch-22 because I want my kids to see their dad going after his passion and winning, but the price for that–the other side of the double-edged sword–is that it is tough being away. Every day is a formative day. My son is picking up guitar; he is taking two guitar lessons a week. I took two drum lessons a month when I was growing up, but that’s not enough for my son. He plays “Smoke On The Water,” “Iron Man,” and on the bass he can play “Another One Bites the Dust.” It’s really amazing. I just really miss home. Some days are harder than others.
Lucas: Do you think it’s possible to go after your passion as a musician, and to be winning, as you say, and simultaneously be a good parent? Is that even possible?
Michael: Yeah because I think in the long run, it’s important for the kids to see dad going after it and getting after it. Whether you are in construction, music, acting, or law, it’s a historical fact that a lot of career-oriented dads have been neglectful. In any field you can be neglectful. Music kind of comes with a lot more downside though. You are on stage for 90 minutes. Then there are 22-and-a-half other hours of the day…to be a good person, to not be a jerk, to get along with your crew and bandmates. This is Rival Son’s 10th year. We’ve worked really hard for a long time for peanuts. Now we’re finally in a position to make a living and I am very grateful for that. It has taken its toll on our friends and families. If you want to make this a career you have to know for sure that this is what you want to do. You have to realize there is no other alternative. I tried quitting drums two major times in my life. But each time after I quit it just kept haunting me. I have to play music, it’s just something I have to do. There’s no other alternative. God forbid my hand got cut off or something. I would probably try to get a prosthetic hand and figure that out. When you know there is no other alternative, only then can career advice begin. You have to know you want this because it is so hard. There are going to be months where you don’t make a dime, and you’re working another job. That job is taking away from your practice time, or you have a two-week-long tour coming up and you have some day job. It’s only a two-week tour but if you do it you’re going to get fired from your day job. It’s a constant juggle. As a drummer I stuck to my guns and it’s finally paying off. I wanted to be in a band, I wanted to be part owner of a band, not just a hired gun. I did a lot of hired gun gigs living in Hollywood and Long Beach. You can get some nice tour gigs that last maybe five or six weeks, but in those last two weeks you have to be hustling up the next job. It’s a constant hustle, so I wanted ownership.
Lucas: One thing that impresses me about Rival Sons is the discipline you seem to have with the releases. You’ve released seven albums over the last 10 years. How important is it for a rock band today to keep releasing albums at a brisk tempo without taking these long breaks?
Michael: Right off the bat we wanted to do an album a year. But our albums turned into 18-month cycles with all the touring we did. We wanted to be prolific because all of our favorite bands were prolific. In the 60s and 70s bands would do an album a year. The Beatles did 14 albums in 8 years. Jimmy Hendrix’s career was like three years long. Cream was together for two years.
Lucas: Can you talk about a teacher in your life who has influenced you the most?
Michael: I first started in Seal Beach, I went to Los Alamitos High School. The teacher there was Chuck Wackerman, father of Chad Wackerman, Brooks Wackerman, John Wackerman, all of those Wackerman ninjas. I used to skateboard with Brooks. Chuck was the director of the jazz band in high school. I played American football for two years and then I hurt my ankle. That sophomore year in high school was kind of a definitive moment for me. I had to make a choice. So I auditioned for the jazz band and got accepted so I quit football. Chuck Wackerman was the band director and he is a great drummer himself. I started learning how to set up figures in band and to play swing. I started listening to Miles Davis and Frank Zappa. When you get into jazz band you get together with all the other music nerds. You find out who is listening to the cool, cool stuff like Miles Davis. Doing the jazz band just changed the whole trajectory of my life. Then I went to Fullerton Junior College which was known for having a great big band. Then I went to Long Beach State and got a music degree. During my time at Long Beach State I studied with Chalo Eduardo who was Sergio Mendes’ percussionist for 15 years. The director of percussion at Long Beach State was Dr. Michael Carney (God rest his soul). From there I studied with Randy Drake. Also Chuck Silverman (God rest his soul), he was really into playing Latin rhythms on the drumset. Through him I studied with Clyde Stubblefield (again, God rest his soul). I went on tour with Mickey Hart’s band. During that stint David Garibaldi was his drummer. I had a manuscript book full of Tower of Power grooves that I transcribed from the record. I would then go to his hotel room and he would take a red pen to my transcriptions. Most days they would let me sit behind him and I would just watch him play. He is really strict about the twelve-inch accent and the one-inch ghost note. I also studied with Roy Burns (God rest his soul), the founder of Aquarian drumheads. I furthered my jazz band site reading, reading figures, snare drum etudes, and all that stuff. Now since 2015 I’ve been studying with Dave Elitch, notable from the Mars Volta days.
Lucas: So you are still studying?
Michael: I am still studying. When you ask who is my most important teacher, its like “Gosh, I’ve had like twenty teachers.”
Lucas: How do you find time to study these days?
Michael: In 2015 I was having a lot of problems with my joints and my arms, and I thought that getting some proper instruction might be something I need. When you are playing and touring so much, you don’t really practice so much. I was pulling muscles in my shoulder and I had to do a lot of physical therapy. I always warm up with resistance bands as pre-hab as opposed to re-hab. With Elitch it’s like one lesson a month. He has a lesson series now called Get Out of Your Own Way. You see so many drummers driving the stick into the drum with this sort of downward technique, but it’s going to catch up with that person eventually. The drumstick is meant to bounce, just like when you drop a basketball. You don’t jam the ball into the ground, you let it bounce. If you just loosen your wrist and have the right technique, you can dribble the basketball for hours with little effort. The same applies to drumming. The last lesson was all about sitting up straight. We barely did any playing, we just talked about posture the whole time and how to sit at the drumkit. That’s not stuff you teach a 12-year-old who is trying to learn paradiddles at 200 bpm.
Lucas: No, its more like drum lessons for old men, he he.
Michael: Yeah! Rival Sons has become an international business and there is a spotlight on us, a spotlight on me. People compare me to John Bonham and Ian Paice, so that puts pressure on me to get my act together if I am going to be in the vernacular and in the conversation. I take it very seriously and I’ve always been an eternal student. I always dive in 100 percent whatever it is I do, whether I am training for a marathon or doing cross-fit, being a dad for my kids, being a husband for my wife. You’ve got to be full-on in everything you do. The fact that I have a career doing this, I am trying to give back and show gratitude by trying to get better. I was a late bloomer too. I wasn’t the guy who got all those studio calls when I lived in Hollywood. I think I am known more for having a unique style, which is cool if you think of the grand history of all the great drummers. I’d rather be that guy people remembered for his feel, a guy who could bury the click track, and go in and out of the studio in three hours because he is good at playing parts and can play the same thing consistently. I never consistently play the same anything! It comes from jazz. When you study jazz, the modus operandi is to never repeat yourself, you’re totally unhip if you repeat yourself. A jazz song is a constant evolution. Listen to Art Blakey, at the beginning of the song he is playing at one tempo and by the end of the song he is playing 5 or 6 clicks faster. A lot of those guys sped up over the course of a song. The song has breath, it has life. Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, John Bonham. Those guys sped up and slowed down. Mitch Mitchell was all over the place with the tempo, and it wasn’t that he sucked, but he knew he was making the music breath. With Rival Sons, our list of ingredients is including more Small Faces, Led Zeppelin, The Who. The Who called themselves maximum R&B; we call ourselves Rock ‘n’ Roll. I always loved the maximum R&B moniker because it’s black American music turned up. That’s what rock ‘n’ roll has always been.