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A Gretsch Abroad — Exclusive Interview with Rival Sons Drummer Michael Miley, Part 2

A Gretsch Abroad — Exclusive Interview with Rival Sons Drummer Michael Miley, Part 2

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. Michael Miley, a drummer that really gets THAT GREAT GRETSCH SOUND, 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!  Here’s part 2 of that exclusive interview. . .

Lucas: Do you use click track in your live performance?

Michael: I have a set list with all the tempos from the album, which I use as a reference.  If I am counting off a song, I’ll reference that list and click off to the tempo from the album.

Lucas: And then you let go of the click, you drop it?

Scott Holiday with Gretsch Penguin made by Stephen Stern of the Gretsch Custom Shop. Photo: Rick Horn if_films

Michael: Yeah, and if something feels squirrelly or if I am worried that I am behind or ahead, I have the click right there blinking. I use the Zebraq metronome app, so I can visually see where the downbeat should be landing. If you’re playing too slow you can see the metronome progressively speeding ahead of you. In those situations, obviously, I don’t just jump to the right tempo abruptly but I think to myself, “OK, I’ve got four bars to catch up to the right tempo.”  I try to allow the music to sit behind the beat and keeping it on. It’s tension and release the whole night. Jay sings behind the beat a lot and Scott plays ahead of the beat a lot. So I am like the bridge connecting those two guys, and Beste (Rival Sons bassist Dave Beste) is the glue. Beste has a lot of low end so his sound is like glue filler, it fills up the gaps, while I try to just land it right between those guys. There’s a lot of room to breath. We are playing triplets, we’re playing straight 8ths and no one is married to a particular feel. Songs will have their feel, like if you listen to The Who’s “My Generation,” the guitar and bass are swinging, but Keith Moon is playing straight 8ths on the bell. It’s the fight between the swing and the straight that gives it the angst, that gives it the confrontation feel. The Who were like the first teenage boy on the block who’s pissed. Getting your frustrations out through music. The Who were like the first guys to ever do that.

Lucas: If you were to lose all of your musical talent and connections in the music business and had to start over in something that wasn’t music related, what do you think you would do?

Michael: I’d probably be in the healing arts. I’ve gotten so much body work from osteopaths, physical therapists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, massage therapists, I would probably be a multi-modality healer. I would probably go for a degree in osteopathy or chiropractic; I would also get multiple licenses in different types of massage techniques.  Through gymnastics, strength training, cross-fit, and all this stuff I’ve done, I feel like I could help get somebody back into shape who has been injured or has bad posture.

The Who (with Pete Townsend on a 1959 Gretsch Chet Atkins 6120 guitar!)

Lucas: Do you get stage fright? 

Michael: No. On the road when you are playing something like 26 shows in 32 days, consistency is a huge part of the game. I have a one-hour warm-up where I prepare. I have resistance bands, I have a practice pad kit, jump roping, boxing, Filipino martial arts. I get my body ready. I played a lot of sports as a kid, so I approach the drums like a sport. I take ice baths. I’m like a soccer player coming off the field and jumping into an ice bath.  I do cold showers after the show. If we had a little more budget I would make sure there was an ice bath waiting for me every time after a show. Sometimes when you play an arena there are real bathtubs backstage. I know the music so well, we have been playing for ten years together. I don’t get nervous about the music or the playing. I get more nervous about how the ticket sales are going. Or why we have only sold 1,200 tickets in a 1,700-seat venue, I worry more about that stuff. When you book a tour you are just praying that it sells out. I get more nervous about if we are going to jump to the next level.

Lucas: What’s the worst experience you have ever had on stage? 

Michael: In Portland, Maine I went and got lobsters with some of the crew and band. It was happy hour so they were giving free oysters and they had Tabasco and horseradish and they were really good. I had like 15 of them probably. I think one of them must have been contaminated because when I was warming up before the show, I couldn’t do any of my normal exercises because I was cramping up. I had that feeling where you think you might throw up but you’re not sure. I went on stage and made it through five songs and before we started playing “Faith of Light,” I said to my drum tech Mathias, “Please get me a bucket, now!” He found one and put it by the floor tom and by the second verse I just puked while I was playing. We had a film crew traveling with us and they were filming that night so you can probably find it on YouTube or something. I told the guys there was no way I could keep playing, but the crowd was chanting “Miley! One more!” so we played one more but then we had to stop. So we ended up playing only 45 minutes. . . so, Portland, Maine, hopefully we’ll come back and give you a full show . . . just don’t feed me any oysters!

Lucas: Can you talk about the time you quit playing drums?

Michael: In the early 2000s I had a record deal with Immergent Records when I was in a band called Bird 3.  We toured with Veruca Salt, the Cult, Monster Magnet. Then September 11th happened and the whole music industry kind of paused, then we got dropped from our label. I was also playing in Jay’s (Rival Sons singer) solo band. He was getting a record deal lined up and he got his old drummer back. That was what sealed the deal for me, I was like “OK, I’m done.” This business can really debilitate you.  An artist has a reliance on emotion and passion and the right brain side of things.  When the left brain reality kicks in with money and paying the bills it can be a challenge. So I had a taste of the music business but I thought it wasn’t for me. I loved playing the drums but I hated the business. So I sold my drums, and sold a box of CD’s to the local record store and used the money to live off of for a while. I also waited tables and bartended for a while. A few months later, I got a call from Fleetwood Mac producer Richard Dashut who had also produced some stuff for my band Bird 3. He asked me to come and play drums for the New Zealand artist’s album. I was completely broke at this point and really needed the money. The recording session turned out to be in Christie McVie’s studio. Her Grand Piano was like twenty feet away from me. I remember we did twelve songs in three days and at the end of the last song I put my headphones down on the snare and thought to myself “This is where I am meant to be.” I then had to resurrect my relationships in the music business because I had been gone for almost a year.

MIchael, Lucas, and Scott goofing off!

Lucas:  If you were able to talk to the Michael Miley who just graduated from Long Beach State, what kind of advice would you give him?

Michael: My advice would be to buy Donald Passman’s All You Need to Know About the Music Business and read it twice. He’s an entertainment attorney and he wanted to write a book to let musicians know how publishing works, recording, showing up to gigs on time, etiquette, I mean everything is in that book. Not enough people know about the business, and it’s a tough business. Making money is supply and demand, Economics 101.  If you’re playing a kind of music that is not high in demand, you are not going to make a lot of money. A lot of people play these real niche styles of music. Roy Burns, my teacher in college, saw that I was studying jazz and trying to be like Vinnie Colaiuta. He asked me “You want to make money in this business? You want to buy a house and get married and have kids and provide for your family?” I was like “Yeah.” He then took my sticks and sat down at the kit and played a straight 4/4 rock beat and when he was done he exclaimed, “Doing THAT pays the bills!” Then my friend Scott Devours who plays with Roger Daltrey, asked me one night, “Would you rather be Vinnie Colaiuta or Ringo Starr?” The real question being would you rather be the greatest session player ever or in the greatest band ever?  This thinking opened the doors for me in learning about the business. My learning curve was steep. I learned everything the hard way for like ten plus years. When we put Rival Sons together everyone in Rival Sons had already had a record deal. Everybody knew what to look for in a contract. When you get screwed over from a record contract or screwed over by a label who shelves your album after you put a year’s worth of work into it, it’s like someone turns the knife after they stab you. It’s a death nail to your creativiy, to your ego.  Most musicians are not doing it half-heartedly, most musicians are not just phoning it in. If you are making a record, its because you believe in it and you have sacrificed a lot for it. To then have someone just shelf your album is heartbreaking. It’s happened to me a number of times.

Lucas: But you have success with Rival Sons now, so does that sort of cynicism towards the music business fade away with success?

Michael: Definitely. The business is fickle. We are in a place right now where people want to be around us. But we could release another album and it flops, and people then want nothing to do with us. But we are in a place right now where we are getting a certain amount of respect and people are returning our calls. We could take a five-year break right now and come back in five years and still sell out a whole tour in Europe. We’re over the hump after ten years of brutal hard work. Sharing a van, sharing hotel rooms, sharing food, splitting burgers, sharing everything. I have an attitude of gratitude right now. Rival Sons is at a point right now where there is no turning back.

(Enjoy Part 1 of this exclusive interview with Michael.)

— Lucas von Gretsch