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World Exclusive - Interview with David Elitch - The Mars Volta

David Elitch

World exclusive interview with new ďThe Mars VoltaĒ drummer David Elitch

After the shocking news on October 23rd that The Mars Volta had parted company with their drummer Thomas Pridgen just minutes before the doors opened to that nights gig, many fans thought that the tour was over. Who could come in and learn such a demanding set? A few high profile drummers were approached before newcomer David Elitchís name came to the forefront. I had the opportunity to do a world exclusive interview with the new The Mars Volta drummer who I found to be very open and relaxed back stage at their recent London date.

Big gig, how did this come about?

Yeah, it came through mutual friends. Juan (Mars Volta bassist) called a friend of mine to do the gig and he couldnít do it so he gave him my name. When Juan called, I was actually in the middle of doing a session. I was walking into the studio and he called me and was like, ďHey, I need a drummer for this Mars Volta tour weíve got coming up.Ē I was like, ďAre you kidding me?!Ē I had heard rumours about Thomas not doing it anymore but they asked if I could get it together right now. I was like, ďIím doing a session.Ē So I did the session all day and then Juan and I met up at my studio that night and jammed for 3 hours. I knew their first album, De-Loused in the Comatorium, fairly well so we jammed mostly on that. After the jam he asked me if I wanted to do the gig. 

Over the next two weeks, he came over to the studio several of times a week where we jammed, went through songs and I eventually went down to Omarís house in Mexico. Omar, Juan and I rehearsed for about 5 days and then came back to LA.  At that point I hadnít even met Ikey, Marcel or Cedric! When we got to Amsterdam, it was the first time Iíd met the whole band. We had two rehearsals with the entire band, went through all the songs twice and that was it.  Then we were playing the first live show. I had to do my homework and just know the songs backwards and forwards and just show up and play.

Whenever I get a call for anything I always write out charts. Basically itís usually just counting bars, marking verses and choruses - itís just a map to navigate through the tunes

What did you do to learn the songs?

Whenever I get a call for anything I always write out charts. Basically itís usually just counting bars, marking verses and choruses - itís just a map to navigate through the tunes.  That helped me out a lot on the earlier Mars Volta material because the arrangements are really weird. Omar, who writes all the material, isnít schooled per-say, so he just writes what he feels which is why the music is the way it is. There is a song called Inertiatic E.S.P. where the first chorus is 15 bars with a 2 beat fill and the second chorus is 24 bars with a 2 beat fill. When youíre rocking out in your car to it, you donít notice, but when youíre learning it, youíre like, ďWhatís going on here?Ē So itís stuff like that - when you take the time to write it out you can SEE the shape of the song, which helps tremendously. Literally if I wasnít teaching, I was in my studio practicing; if I wasnít practicing I was listening to it constantly.  There wasnít a moment when I wasnít listening to it or working on it.

Had you done anything like this before?

I was in Manhattan last year doing a clinic at The Collective (aka The Drummers Collective). While I was out there, I got a chance to jam with Ben and Liam from the Dillinger Escape Plan. I had to learn about 6 songs for them and that was one of the hardest things Iíve ever done - really difficult.  We had a great time, it went really well but it didnít work out for a variety of reasons. It was similar situation in that you do your homework and show up ready, or you just arenít going to make it out alive!

Did you feel rejected?

No, sometimes it just doesnít work. We got along really well, the guys were cool and we had a good time hanging out. We got done jamming and I kind of knew after we were done that the vibe just wasnít right. Chris (Pennie) is a good friend of mine and he was a huge influence when I was growing up, so that was a trip to be playing all his parts. I hit really hard, so I was going in there, trying to break drums in half and with the added adrenaline of being there, I think I freaked them out a little bit because they were like, ďCan you hit a little softer?Ē Hahaha! Sometimes it just doesnít work out and thereís nothing you can do about it. I was really bummed out about it, but what are you going to do? Youíve just got to move on. If you canít take rejection in this business youíre not going to make it - itís all part of the game. 

I was a big fan of that band, but certain songs they had me do, I literally sat down and wrote out every single note to get it right.  The first song I learned was ďFix Your Face.Ē I hadnít heard it before because I hadnít heard their new record and it took me two full days to write out two 2 minute songs. I was just constantly rewinding it and writing it (and erasing!). After doing that, I really felt I could do anything. Even though it didnít work out to do the actual gig, just playing with them and jamming was a great experience.

For your first gigs with the Mars Volta, did they do a short set or did they do one of their long 3 hour sets?

Well, we were playing for 2 hours so itís not short but itís also not like 2Ĺ/3 hours. I think, for a number of reasons, they kind of wanted to distance themselves from what they did previously. Also, because I was familiar with ĎDe-LousedÖí and ĎFrances The Muteí, we were doing a lot of songs off those records. They are long, but I love all the songs and there are enough songs in the set where I can chill out, relax and catch my breath.

So the first show was fun! There were a couple of minor things here and there but it was just surreal. I kept waiting for a moment where it was going to register.

I donít believe that!

There are definitely times when Iím tired but the last band I was in, Daughters of Mara, was a really heavy band. We rehearsed 6 hours a day, 6 days a week in LA and I was just pummelling the drums. Big drums, big sticks, big cymbals. The guitar players each had VHT full stacks, so I had to compete with those! That really conditioned me mentally and physically. Pacing yourself is CRUCIAL! I would throw up at shows, throw up at practice. That situation was completely different because every single hit was calculated and pre-meditated; I didnít do anything improvised in that band. So this band is a really new approach for me because every show is different. You can jam and go into some super left field shit - it can be whatever. This is the first gig Iíve done that I can remember where I get to jam. Itís really exciting because you donít know whatís going to happen, but youíve got to go for it. Iíd rather go for something super out and not quite make it then not even try.

Do you remember the first gig and did you have the charts with you on the stage?

So I printed out all these notes. I was going to have an extra floor tom on my left and tape the notes to the drum with a light on there so I could see everything while we were playing. We got to rehearsals and I set the notes up and Juan was like, ďWhat are you doing?Ē  I was like, ďI was just going toÖÖĒ and he said, ďNo, get that shit outta here! You donít need that!Ē  So the first show was fun! There were a couple of minor things here and there but it was just surreal. I kept waiting for a moment where it was going to register. I was sure there was going to be some moment when it was going to be like, ďWhoa, Iím playing on the Mars Volta in Europe. Well this is crazy!Ē It never happened because all the guys are so funny and cool that it was just easy. No drama. Theyíre the kinda guys I would chill with anyway so I couldnít be more stoked on that.

So you can really be yourself in the band, but how about on the stage, you havenít had to copy the previous drummers?

Ya know, I love Jonís (Theodore) playing and I fell in love with that first record so I knew a lot of his stuff anyway. There were a couple of things I had to work out such as a song called Roulette Dares. Thereís a weird tom part in the bridge I had to sit down and work out. The parts are so perfect, I really want to just do them justice and make it as close to the record as possible. I just try and walk the line between Jon and Thomas because I think thatís how I play anyway and itís the best thing to do for the music at this point in time. So Iím trying to accomplish that by just keeping it just really solid, where the guys can feel comfortable and when I have a chance just play out and do some chops I will.  But thatís not my priority.

How do you prepare yourself mentally to take a gig like this or do you not even think about it?

Iím a neurotic Jew - I canít help it! Itís in my genetics - mums from Queens, NY. I canít help but be neurotic about it. I was practically born with lox [Jewish salmon dish] in my mouth! Hahaha! I was totally freaking out the whole time I was getting ready to go. I was working on the material for about 5-8 hours a day. The way I mentally prepared myself, I guess, is by rehearsing and practicing as much as I can so that when I get to the gig, I would say to myself, ďYou could not have worked harder so donít worry about it.Ē  Thereís a certain security in that because it sucks when youíre like, ďShit, I didnít work on this stuff enough.Ē Then, youíre uncomfortable, but if you work enough and being as neurotic as I am, I know Iíll be comfortable if I put in that time.

From what I hear in the Mars Volta Fan forums, a lot of fans didnít like Thomasí playing.

I think a lot of people who arenít musicians didnít like it because he wasnít playing the old songs correctly; he was just doing his own thing over everything.  To me, the song is the most important thing and Iím just trying to play the songs right.  As far as the fans go, this band has some of the most dedicated fans ever! I started looking at forums online for the first couple of days and I started having all these people hitting me up like crazy. It started getting kind of out of hand, so I donít look at anything anymore. I donít go on YouTube and I donít go on any forums; I donít look at any of it. As long as Omar and Cedric are happy, Iím happy. If the fans like it, then thatís icing on the cake.

I donít go on YouTube and I donít go on any forums; I donít look at any of it. As long as Omar and Cedric are happy, Iím happy. If the fans like it, then thatís icing on the cake.

Why do you think you got the gig?

Well, being a fan doesnít hurt! I think I just happened to be what theyíre looking for right now at this point in their musical journey. I said it previously, but Iím really trying to be a combination of all their previous drummers. I love the music and I love the guys, so it worked out to be a perfect situation to walk into. Hopefully I get to do the next record so I can put my own stamp on it.

Give us a little bit about your background

I grew up in the Bay Area, California, in really small town called Sebastopol. I was really fortunate to have a good music program all throughout middle school and high school. I got my first drum kit on my 10th birthday and had a teacher from when I was 10 until 12 years old. He got me started but he couldnít really teach me anymore when I turned 12, so I just played along to records endlessly every day until I was about 16 or 17. 

I had intermittent random lessons with people but nothing really worked out. There are not an awful lot of people out there, so it was tough. Then I met up with Jason Gianni who teaches at The Collective now in NYC. He and I really clicked and he was my mentor until I was about 21. I moved down to LA when I was 19 but I continued to study with Jason whenever heíd come down.  Then after that, Iíve had random lessons with all sorts of people. I tried to study with a lot of different people, just pick peopleís brains. Iíd see people play, if I donít get it or just get mystified by it, Iíll ask them to get together for a lesson or a hang. You really have to put your ego aside, and just do it. Itís about learning and you can learn something from anyone.

I also studied with Frank Briggs right when I moved to LA and he kept saying, ďYouíve got to see Toss Panos play.Ē About a year ago, I finally went and saw him play and lost my mind! I went to his house a few days later and hung with him for a while. Iím STILL trying to wrap my head around it! I was trying to get together with Nate Wood from Kneebody but our schedules didnít work out. Iím drawn to people have such a unique voice. I think that the most important thing in music is having an identity.  So when I see someone like Toss who doesnít sound like anybody, or Nate Wood, youíve got to just be like, ďI want that!Ē So, whenever someoneís playing hits me hard, I try to get together with them if possible.  Drums are life or death - thatís really how it is to me. Nothing else matters.

Mentally weíve talked about how you prepare yourself and youíve talked about you hitting hard, so physically do you need to warm up?

Yeah, the warm up is crucial. When I was starting to play out a lot with Daughters, I had to start going to the gym again.  I didnít go to the gym for years because I had a shoulder injury which is the most painful thing ever. I had to start going to the gym because I needed to rehabilitate my shoulder. Playing with Daughters was really exhausting, so I started running and working out. Then, about a year ago, I met up with one of my students and good friends Sam Upton whoís an AMAZING personal trainer. So, when Iím back home, I go to the gym 6 days a week. Itís really important to me. I think thereís a direct correlation, not just physically but mentally, of staying healthy. I could definitely eat a lot better, not just on tour, but trying to stay as healthy as possible is only going to help you out. 

Youíre still in your 20s I guess?

Yeah, 25, so I donít want to get big enough to where Iím going to slow down. I donít want to get to be like Arnold Schwarzenegger but it definitely helps me hit harder. I have people all the time asking why I hit so hard. The harder you hit the drums, the better they sound and thatís why. I have a certain goal in mind when I think about tone.

Iím a huge fan of the way Tomas Haake and Abe Cunninghamís snare drums sound, so thatís what Iím going for ideally. Tone is a huge part of your identity and if youíre not going for something specific Ė what are you doing? Someone put up a video of us playing our first show in Oslo and someone told me that people were like, ďWhy are his arms so high in the air?Ē People need to spend some time checking out Shannon Larkin! Heís the greatest live drummer of all time and not enough people give that dude props. Daughters did a tour a while back with his band Another Animal and Alter Bridge and Shannon is one of the coolest people Iíve ever met. Canít say enough good things about that dude.

Iím a huge fan of the way Tomas Haake and Abe Cunninghamís snare drums sound, so thatís what Iím going for ideally.

Do you video yourself?

Yeah, I did it every night. I have a camera I put up behind me so I can see how everything actually sounds. Itís such a learning experience because sometimes youíll think, ďThat shit was KILLIN!Ē and then you watch the tape and itís definitely NOT the case! Haha! Other times, itís the opposite too. Itís the same as when football teams go over tapes of the game after words to learn form their mistakes.

What about warm ups before a show?

I just do an exercise where itís double, singles and paradiddles without stopping at the same rate, so you want to try and get it to sound seamless. Itís not really about what youíre playing - itís about the end result. If Iím warmed up and Iím out there, then itís cool. Sometimes people get stuck into doing a routine and forget that the point is to WARM UP and not work on technique. I have to be warm when I go out there. I read an interview with Thomas Lang years ago, and when they asked him about warming up, he said, ďI donít like to warm up because I get sweaty real quickly.Ē I always thought that was strange because it takes me forever! If itís a gig where Iím doing a lot of double bass, then I run stairs with a hoodie on  and that helps a lot.

So is The Mars Volta gig now officially your gig?

When youíre a kid you just want stuff for free, you donít care what it is and people donít realize that the relationship is more important than anything - sometimes more important than the gear itself.

I donít know to be honest. We havenít had that talk yet, but right now Iím just doing the European tour and the Australian tour and then theyíre going to take a break because itís the end of the tour cycle. Omar directs a lot of his own movies so heís busy doing that. Weíll just have to wait and seeÖ

Have you found that since youíve been doing this gig your relationships with the companies have changed?

Ya know, Iím fortunate enough to play everything Iíve always wanted to play and Iím such a gear nerd! I have 4 kits from DW that I love and I think Iím up to 24 snares right now, but that is always changing. All my A&R guys are awesome which is so important. When youíre a kid you just want stuff for free, you donít care what it is and people donít realize that the relationship is more important than anything - sometimes more important than the gear itself. Iím really lucky that I have the relationships I do and I donít take it for granted for one second!

David plays...

DW Drums
Sabian cymbals
Vic Firth Sticks
Remo drumheads

Check out this YouTube clip

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