Citing influences as diverse as the Police to Meshuggah to Dream Theater and starting his musical career on the piano, Dan Torelli, drummer with Chicago alt rockers MADINA LAKE had plenty to say about his craft when we sat down with him recently to talk about his drumming career, influences and set up.
Read on to get an insight into Torelli’s career…
Roadrunner UK: What was the first instrument you started playing?
Dan Torelli: The piano when I was probably 6 or 7 years old. It was the traditional parents make you take piano lessons type thing because I didn’t want to at the beginning I don’t think? From what I remember they just signed me up you know! And then I really, really, really enjoyed it and I took lessons from when I was about 6 or 7 until 9 or 10 or something like that, it was a few years of piano lessons. So that’s where I learned just basically how to read music and timing and things like that. That was my first introduction and then I stopped when I got a little bit older, like when I went to school but I still played to fuck around I think. And then finally I met the drums, we went to a party of a friend of my parents, I was still young maybe 9 or 10 years old and my Dad’s friend had a drum set down in the basement. I went down in the basement, where like all the kids were running around playing and I just started playing it (the drum set), beating the shit out of it and I stayed down there the whole night driving everybody crazy at this party but couldn’t drag me off it. Then it finally came to the end of the night and I finally had to stop playing it the guy said ‘you know what, you guys can take it!’. I mean he hadn’t played it in so many years and it was just sitting there collecting dust, which was awesome! I mean what a cool gesture saying ‘you can have it!’ so he gave me the drum set and that’s how I started.
RR UK: So that’s how you got started?
DT: Yeah, probably like 10. For the first couple of years I played, I would put on headphones and just play, I don’t even think I was doing anything right I was just having fun just wailing on them you know. And then finally then I started getting a little bit older and into music- my parents listened to a lot of music and stuff like that, my Dad used to play the drums when he was a kid and he can play like rock beats and stuff like that which is awesome. So, he started coming down after he realised I was really into it and showed me basically how to set the whole thing up and how to play a really simple rock beat – snare drum, 2 and 4 pattern and stuff. Then I started taking drum lessons after he pretty much showed me what he could show me. After a couple of months, it wasn’t too long after that, I started taking lessons in our drum shop in Westchester. It was a music store and in the basement they gave lessons and that’s where I took lessons, probably from 7th grade for four years.
RR UK: Tell what was that first drum kit like. What was the set up?
DT: A piece of crap! It was awesome! [laughs] I think the company was called ‘Kingston’ and I’ve never seen or heard of it ever again- and I always look cos it was like the first I had but I’ve never seen another one; no ones ever heard of it! Apparently the history, (not to nerd out on drum history) but after World War II, like when rock and roll started like coming over to America and stuff like that, there were millions of different brands of drum sets that came over from Japan. They would make them over there, like make these shells and then all these different companies would just simply buy them, put a sparkle wrap on them, and put another name on it. So there were all these tons of kits that were pretty much the same kit but there’s just hundreds of names of drums from that era. And actually the cool part of that story, to me, is that years and years and years later after I’d already gotten three drum sets since then and was playing in high school, playing in rock bands and stuff like that, those friends of my parents had a son who was a little bit older than I was when it happened to me, about 11 or 12 years old and we still had that thing he (the Dad) had given me sitting in a closet and so we gave it back to him and then he (the Son) started playing on that kit which was kinda cool!! Like that’s the best, giving instruments like that. You have no idea what you could be doing for somebody by you know handing them an instrument to make music with, it’s cool!
RR UK: Who would you say were the first drummers that got you really excited?
DT : The very first was Lars Ulrich. The first CD I ever bought was ‘And Justice for All’ (Metallica) because I saw the ‘One’ video on MTV. I think everybody liked Lars at that time, like he was sitting behind that huge, white, Tama drum set with the double bass pedals and like, all his shit. And that was it for me- that’s why I had to have a Tama drum set and that was my first one- just ‘cause Lars had it! I think that’s why subconsciously I still like that brand today, he made a really, really, really big impact on me. So the first music I really started playing was kinda like that, metal because Metallica and Lars Ulrich was my door for that stuff.
RR UK: So who else would you say you really admire?
DT : There’s so many millions of them right now but early on, starting with Lars and then…when you play instruments there are guys that are really good and intrigue you and I remember somebody showed me Dream Theater along the way, so Mike Portnoy was definitely, definitely one of the early ones that was actually playing stuff that I couldn’t play. I’d sit there and try and figure it out and that helped me get better. At the same time I was listening to Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Will Calhoun from a band called Living Color. Also Stuart Copeland of course, Police. My Dad used to listen to a lot of Police records so that was cool. ‘Cause that was hard to understand too, like being a drummer starting out you know it sounds awesome but he’s not playing typical beats ‘cause it’s like that weird reggae weird punk weird stuff, so that was cool trying to figure that out! [laughs]
RR UK: So what kinds of music do you think have influenced you over the years? You seem to have quite varied musical interests.
DT: Yeah, it’s been everything! I just love music, you know? I don’t think it really matters what it is as long it’s genuine and legit…the style doesn’t matter. I played in orchestras and concert bands and marching bands and shit in high school, and I really enjoyed it a lot of the time. I was one of the few kids who was there, I mean, we’d rehearse this thing for months and then give a concert and I was like ‘Man, I love this song, or composer or whatever’, I really, really enjoyed playing that. I got into the jazz bands and things like that which led me into a lot of jazz which I think is amazing too. I listened to that a lot, I mean I guess it depends on what your mood is. But that music is amazing, it is without a doubt to me the ultimate in expressive-ness, musically. The songs are so loosely written. Most of the way they work things is a very loose structure and the rest is just complete like solos. I appreciate that part about jazz. I listen to a lot of hip hop, rap and things like that- again it’s the drums. I love grooves, I like long repetitive things. I was really into Dream Theater for a while, and Meshuggah, and I still appreciate that, but I like groove players, it just feels good to do.
RR UK: Are there any new drummers coming that who’re exciting you?
DT : Yeah, Darren King from Mutemath- he is awesome. Really, really good on record. I haven’t been able to see him live yet- when they’ve come by we’ve been out of town- but Iv’e heard through other people that he’s just incredible live, too.
RR UK: Was it through mimicking other drummers that has helped you develop your style?
DT: I think that’s the best way to create your style – based on whatever combination of people you’re listening to. The first thing anybody does on any instrument is to try to figure out the songs they like, but that’s really important ‘cos that definitely shapes your style. You do want to have your own way of playing your instrument, I think that’s the ultimate goal – to have your own sound. Anybody can learn to play any instrument if you sit down long enough and slow things down, but it’s more impressive and fulfilling to develop your own sound. I’d say listen to as wide a variety of music as possible, because that’s what shapes you.
RR UK: Can you tell us about your current kit?
DT: I just got a brand new drum set that I really, really love. It’s a Tama Star Classic with Bupinga Birch Shells, which is awesome. They just started making them. They were making Star Classics with Bupinga for a while, which is really expensive – it’s a dark wood with really deep lows and resonance. It’s really boomy. We had to rent a drum set one time and that’s what came, and it sounded amazing. I didn’t even have to tune it. Mateo turned round and was like ‘Oh my God, that sounds amazing!’ They started making kits just out of birch too, and that’s the complete opposite, they’re the ultimate ‘rock’ drums, all the bands in the eighties used birch drums because they’re really loud – like huge attack, then it dies. So they mixed Bupinga and birch together and it really is the best of both worlds, I love it.
I use a 22” kick drum, 18” x 22”, an 8” x 12” rack tom and then two floor toms. The sizes depend on what I’m using. The set I’m using at home right now has 14” and 16” floor toms, the set I’m using over here on our UK tour has 16” and 18” floor toms. I don’t really prefer one over the other, it’s fun to mix things up.
The snare drum I’m using right now is a Stuart Copeland signature snare, and I also use a Kenny Arnoff one. They’re really similar, they’re both 5.5” x 14” brass snare drums, which I love. Brass is super-loud and super-ringy, and when we play these shows it’s really useful that you can hear it across the stage. I mean, I hit it hard anyway but that sound can get lost with some snare drums.
I’ve been playing Sabian cymbals forever, I love their cymbals a whole lot. My set-up right now is a set of 14” AAXcelerator hi-hats, a Mike Portnoy signature MaxStax 12”/14” crash/china, which makes a really quick accent noise, then 18”, 19” and 20” AAXplosion crashes. I have a 21” HHX dry ride, and a Neil Peart 8” Paragon splash, which is cool. Then, on my right, I used to have a china but now I use a Sabian 20” Ozone crash, which is the one filled with a bunch of holes which makes it sound trashy and gross, but that’s great for accents.
The sticks – Vic Firth, awesome. I started working with Vic Firth a while ago on my own stick which is basically a AAA wood tip. The heads I use are Evans, my favourites are Codeine G2s – I put them on everything but my bass drum, which is an Evans EQ3.
RR UK: You’ve been known to use one of your cymbals vertically – what’s that all about?
DT: Yeah, that’s something I got from Chad Smith from the Chili Peppers, years ago. I think I started setting that up before I realised why I would do that! I only really use that cymbal for accents and to wail on it really hard, but it makes sense because I could hit it as I moved from the ride to another part of the kit. I’ve since changed it up for something else but I’ll probably bring it back. Drums are cool that way, it’s really easy to switch things up and all of a sudden it’s new. It inspires you to do new shit. I’m also setting my kit up differently now – instead of two floor toms on my right, I now have one on my right and on my left, which actually stemmed from a wrist problem I’ve been having for a lot of years due to bad technique – that’s why you should take lessons! I started to realise I could only turn my body so far with my feet on the pedals and it was causing me to bend my wrist at an awkward angle. I needed to figure out a way to keep it in front of me, and even though it makes it more difficult to play traditional rolls, it’s made it something new. It’s really important to work on your technique at the start, cos that stays with you forever. If you’re doing it wrong, you can only progress so far before you hurt yourself, and it’ll put a ceiling on your ability. Get the basics then just listen and watch – it’s great that we have YouTube. This is the first generation of drummers who can go online and just watch drummers and not just listen to it, which is amazing, and there’s actual drum lessons on there too – so use it!
Dan joins a long line of our artists who have discussed their instrument of choice in our Gear nerd series, and you can check out the others (which include Gene Simmons, Warren DeMartini, Daniel Adair and willie Adler to name but a few) at this location.
Madina Lake will be back in the UK to finish off their touring cycle for current album Attics To Eden this coming August, kicking off with a performance at this years Sonisphere Festival. Check out the full list of dates HERE.
Pick up Attics To Eden online at this location.