Mike Byrne talks Smashing Pumpkins, rabid fandom and click tracks
Back in 2009 the drum world waited with baited breath as Smashing Pumpkins prepared to announce who was going to take on the mammoth task of replacing Jimmy Chamberlin.
It's fair to say there was a dollop of surprise when the chosen sticksman was revealed to be Mike Byrne, an at that point unknown young drummer who had been working at a fast food joint to pay his way through music college.
Three years on and the world has seen what Billy Corgan spotted in the now 21-year-old sticksman. Not only has he wowed audiences with unnervingly accurate interpretations of those classic Pumpkins tracks, he's also proved his worth in the studio as the band entered a purple patch, the result of which is the huge Teargarden by Kaleidyscope project.
Now, as the band are about to drop new album Oceania, we spoke to Mike all about the crazy last few years.
You were a surprise pick for the Pumpkins in 2009. How did you get the gig?
"I was perusing the internet and saw they were holding open call auditions for the band. At the time I was working in McDonalds saving up to study at Berklee College Of Music. I sent over a video and got an email back from management saying they wanted me to go to Burbank to audition. I did a couple of cartwheels in the house and flew out and had a half hour audition."
How did it progress from there?
"I went to the audition, the next day they called me saying they were interested. On paper hiring a 19 year old kid that you've played with for 30 minutes and has absolutely no background in anything, that seems like a pretty healthy way to commit career suicide. I went down there and we had a two week period where I played with the band and everything clicked. The last two years has been cool. There's such a big learning curve to playing this music. You have to get stronger and faster. We had a name plan, it was, 'Ok. You're going to join this band but you have to do x, y and z so when we tour you hit the ground running.'"
Presumably you were a Pumpkins fan before getting the gig
"I was what you would call a rabid fan. At 11 years old a friend of mine had a mix tape with '1979' on it and within the span of a year I had every single Pumpkins record, all the b-sides and a bunch of stuff I found on the internet. I was hugely influenced by them so it was weird for a decade later to come play with the band."
"I saw they were holding open call auditions for the band. At the time I was working in McDonalds..."
Were you apprehensive about taking on such a big gig?
"I don't think apprehensive is the word because when an opportunity like this comes at you if you're going, 'Well, I don't know', at that point you're kinda dumb. But initially it was nerve-wracking. The fans of this band expect a level of proficiency that is above and beyond. They expect the drummer of this band to be able to nail things that other bands just can't do. Even though it's straight ahead aggressive rock there's so many elements in there. I was super nervous when we started but the more we play together the band has a really natural discourse that alleviates that stress."
Tell us about the new album, Oceania
"The band as a whole worked on that on a creative level. Billy and I have been making music since I got hired. We're working on the overarching project Teargarden by Keildyscope which is the free 44-song deal. Billy and I have been making music since I got hired. I'd never been in a real professional studio so I had to learn the ticks of the trade and make it sound articulate like Jimmy was capable of doing."
Were you using a click?
"We did the whole record click free. There's stuff that's programmed but any time you hear acoustic kit is all click-less, which was a real interesting challenge but it makes the pockets seem much more natural. I'll be honest there were moments I was banging my head against the wall but I think the overall feel of the album benefits from it. I enjoyed having a freedom and pocket on the record, it's got a Zep-vibe in that way."
You'd already been in the studio with the Pumpkins recording tracks for Teargarden by Keildyscope, how did Oceania differ?
"When we got into the studio this last time it was more interesting in that it was a whole different set of information. There was a whole different set of ascetics on this record that made it seem much more natural."
"As a rule this band is bored of the traditional system of drop a record, play behind the record, same old song and dance"
What kind of kit sound were you going for?
"We went for a very consistent kit sound. Typically we dance between kits because we have an extensive collection of vintage kits out there. Recording on Vistalites sounds like a weird move but they sound so distinct. We landed on a Grestch USA Custom and used that through the whole recording along with a variety of snares. We spent three days dialling in the core set of sounds."
Do you have any favourite moments from the album?
"At the beginning of the record we have a real one-two punch with real furious drumming. We a song called 'Quasar' which has flam fives all over the thing. We spent all night honing the parts and didn't do a single take, just ironing out every fill. The next day we came in and did the check your tones take and by the time I was finished they called me into the control room and we'd done it on the first take. That was the happiest surprise of the three weeks. We did the whole record click free. There's stuff that's programmed but any time you hear acoustic kit is all click-less, which was a real interesting challenge but it makes the pockets seem much more natural. I'll be honest there were moments I was banging my head against the wall but I think the overall feel of the album benefits from it. I enjoyed having a freedom and pocket on the record, it's got a Zep-vibe in that way."
What's on the horizon for the Pumpkins?
"We have this record dropping in March. As a rule this band is bored of the traditional system of drop a record, play behind the record, same old song and dance. Around March you'll start seeing us again, we're not sure how exactly we'll promote the record but it'll be something extravagant."
For more from Mike pick up the February issue of Rhythm.