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 had 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 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: 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?
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: 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.