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Chad Gracey: Breathing Life Into Live

By Matt Peiken, Modern Drummer, July 1994

Chad Gracey doesn't consider himself a drummer's drummer. He doesn't read music, doesn't practice, avoids contact with the technical side of the instrument, and says he'd go into the medical field if his current band -- the only band he's ever been in -- dissolved. But in the only sense that really matters -- to the ears -- Gracey is every bit a player's player. The rhythms throughout Live's critically acclaimed Mental Jewelry and on the band's triumphant follow-up, Throwing Copper, reflect such soul and emotion that they often carry the music. Much of it comes from Gracey's refusal to play anything that bores him. The rest, he says, comes naturally. It's that natural element, though, that has both baffled and awed those outside the band's circle. The York, Pennsylvania quartet formed as each member picked up his instrument for the first time -- during eighth grade. New York City showcase gigs and a major-label record deal came before high school diplomas, and the band recorded two albums before leaving their teenage years. But these young artists are far from silver-spooners. Rarely do even seasoned groups write such lyrically and musically expressive material. Gracey, now twenty-two, still doesn't know where the secret lies. He just enjoys playing with his hometown buddies more than he enjoys playing itself. That, he says, might be the elusive trait behind his drumming acumen: the band's approach to music and any success that comes from it.

MP: Has your band's musical diversity opened it up to a variety of performance opportunities?

CG: We've got a really interesting thing coming up called "Revolucion '94," where we'll be playing with Adrian Belew, Redd Kross, and some Mexican bands. And we were just in Brazil, where we opened for Sepultura at the Hollywood Rock festival. We'd never played for a thrash metal crowd, but we went over well because Mental Jewelry did really well down there. And we did the MTV 120 Minutes tour last year. Nobody can really peg us into a certain category or style, and that opens a lot of opportunities for us to perform -- and for different people to hear our music.

MP: Is diversity something Live has always tried to achieve?

CG: We never really discussed it much; it just kind of happened. We'd been together for six years before Mental Jewelry came out. We started the band when we were in eighth grade, with Patrick [Dahlheimer, bassist], Chad [Taylor, guitarist], and myself. Ed [Kowalczyk, vocals] came along about six months later. Chad and Patrick had started messing around with guitars. I'd always wanted to play the drums, but I never had until the eighth grade, when I found a trap set for $150.

MP: Where did you develop the world beat influences that come out so much in your playing?

CG: I'm not a technical player at all. You hear about rock drummers who've learned every Neil Peart beat, but I was never one of them. But one of the things I think I do really well is listen to the song, play the right beat to it, and try to fill in the gaps. Sometimes Ed or Chad will play me the basic guitar part and I'll just give it a simple beat. But when we start playing together, I just start to feel that something needs an accent here or I need to put a tom hit there. It might take months for the band to get a song to the point where we're satisfied and ready to record it. It's just a natural process of song development, and what you hear on the record is probably the result of just playing the song as we've been rehearsing it for the past couple months. Other times, though, I'll be playing a song a certain way and a new part will come to me, just like that.

MP: Impressive as your playing is on Mental Jewelry, the new record seems to have more rhythmic and dynamic turns.

CG: The main difference in the overall sound of the band is that Ed had picked up electric guitars and started playing them with loud amps, which has given us a little harder edge. But a lot of it just comes from the natural development of the band. Even though we've been together a long time, we're still very young and we're still discovering a lot of things about ourselves. One of the first songs we ever wrote was "Good Pain." That song and some of the other more powerful songs have come more easily to us than the softer songs -- mainly because they came from just jamming together. But nothing on the new record came together easily for us. [laughs] We came off our summer tour in '92 and sat around until October, then went to Brazil, came home, and sat around some more. We played more shows in that year than in all the other years we'd been together combined. It was really hard to get used to, and one of the things that hurt us was that we stopped writing music on the road. We didn't know how to do it. Songwriting has always been a very private process for us. Some of us weren't comfortable with writing at soundchecks, with other people around and all this stuff going on to distract us. We've kind of pushed ourselves past that now, but writing for this record was pretty stressful because it took us a while to get into a comfortable flow. We weeded through hundreds of lousy ideas to come up with the songs that made the record.

MP: Was it hard for your band to accept the travails of international touring and the other things that go along with being full-time musicians?

CG: Not at all, because that's something we'd always wanted for ourselves. When we were called Public Affection, we did an independent album called Death Of A Dictionary, which eventually helped us get signed. And after we graduated high school, we had set the goal of getting a record deal. We showcased at CBGB's in New York twice a month for about two years. But even before that, around when we were in eleventh grade, we'd decided this was something we were all going to take to another level. And when we were seniors, we made the decision to do the band and not go to college. We'd all been in college prep courses and had applied to colleges. But in our minds we knew we weren't going. We'd talked about it for a while, but we decided as a group that this was what we were going to do. The toughest part was telling our parents. We said we were going to defer for a year, but we felt confident enough in our material and ourselves that we knew we'd get a record deal and probably never go to college. The funny thing is that getting signed probably was the easiest thing that's happened for us. Meanwhile, it was pretty hard on my dad because he'd always wanted me to go to school. He was a carpenter and he didn't have the chance to go to college, so he wanted me to accomplish something he hadn't. That was hard to work through.

MP: The musical and lyrical maturity of your band is remarkable, especially considering that none of you had any formal training. What do you attribute that to?

CG: Growing up where we did, we were basically cut off from the rest of the musical world. There's no scene in Pennsylvania. We listened to records, but we really put those influences aside early in our band life. I can't really tell you why we sound like we do or what makes our music so "mature," as you put it, except that our style came easily and naturally to us. Nothing was thought out or planned.

MP: Does that also go for your drumming?

CG: Yeah, in the sense that I just developed on my own. One of the reasons I've shied away from taking lessons is because I want to remain untouched by the technical side of drumming. Sometimes I feel like I should take lessons, just to pick up a technique I'm not familiar with or to master a neat fill. But then I'll sit down at the kit and just teach myself something new and figure that I don't need lessons.

MP: Are you still using the same $150 drum kit you started with?

CG: No, but it was a long time before I got something much better. [laughs] The kit I used for Mental Jewelry was actually only the second kit I've ever owned. It was an old budget kit, and I wasn't really happy with the drum sounds I got. Not that it was all bad, but we really didn't have as much creative control in the studio as we would have liked. I mean, the drum sounds were set when I was told they were set. [laughs] I got a Pearl BLX Studio Series kit just before going into the studio this last time -- and I also had much more input into how the drums sounded.

MP: How much input do you have in the songwriting?

CG: I'm not very inclined that way, but I'll help with the arranging -- and I'm probably the one who really decides whether a song makes it or not. That's because I'm the most critical person in the band. If I don't like a song or I just can't come up with a beat to what they're playing, I don't want any part of it. Ed and Chad might be really into an idea and they'll really get pissed off at me when I don't like it, but it usually works out for the best. There were a lot of ideas they had for new record that I just wasn't into. And there have been times when I haven't been into something, but I'd come back to it later and it would work out. But we ended up with songs that everybody likes and that we're very happy with.

MP: Did your approach to drumming for this record differ from how you went into the last record?

CG: With Mental Jewelry I was deathly afraid of playing straight-ahead parts. I didn't want to play any extended 8th-note or quarter-note patterns. There's a part like that on "The Beauty Of Gray," but it fit. Otherwise, I always wanted to approach things a little funkier or different. For the new record, Patrick was playing a lot more straight-ahead, which brought out some more straight-ahead playing and heavier beats from me. I think that made some of the songs a little more aggressive than anything on the last record.

MP: Do you practice much on your own in the band's down time?

CG: I don't. I used to when I was learning how to play, but now I just play when I'm touring or rehearsing with the band. Part of it is that I don't have as much time for it anymore and part of it is that I just don't feel like sitting at the drums and playing by myself. I am training myself to play straight 8th-notes on the hi-hat with my foot, though. It's just something I want to do. It's something I've heard and that sounds good in music. I can already do the quarter-note thing, but I just want to be more independent with my left foot. And if I just keep at it, it should happen eventually.

MP: Live is the only band you've ever played in. Is it the only band you ever want to play in?

CG: Definitely. If we dispersed tomorrow, I probably wouldn't play drums in another band. My desire to play with these guys exceeds my desire to just play the drums. It's something we've all talked about, and I think everybody else feels the same way. We're really comfortable with each other. We've grown up together, and there's a unique chemistry. None of us is very religious, but we can't help but thing someone had something to do with putting us together.