“Keeping It Different” with Dave Witte
For a subsection of metallic hardcore fans, River Black feels like a homecoming. The band, who released their self-titled debut in July, are the seminal hardcore act Burnt By The Sun in all but name, featuring guitarist John Adubato, singer Mike Olender, and drummer Dave Witte together for the first time since 2009’s Heart of Darkness. River Black picks up where Burnt By The Sun left off, continuing their progression towards an aggressive mid tempo churn with air-tight musicianship.
In the intervening years, Witte has kept himself busy with a multitude of projects. Witte, who earned a reputation as one of the most punishing extreme metal drummers in America with his work in Human Remains and Discordance Axis, is notoriously prolific. On top of playing in retro-thrash act Municipal Waste, Witte has teamed up with saxophonist Bruce Lamont and bassist Aaron Dallison for the avant-garde doom band Brain Tentacles, has done session work for Soilwork, and still has time to record powerviolence with No Faith.
I spoke to Witte over phone while he was on the road with Brain Tentacles, and our conversation jumped rapidly between each of his projects, along with digressions into his drumming philosophy and vegan food.
Are you in full on Brain Tentacles mode right now? Or are you balancing all those bands at once?
I’m balancing everything.
How do you keep track of all that, if you don’t mind me asking?
Well, there’s no really easy way. You gotta make it all happen, you know? I like to be creative. I like to play with people who are creative so it pushes a lot of good sets out of me. And, you know, for the right music, you just gotta play it live.
So you just take it like one band of the time?
Well, yeah. I don’t know, man. I’m trying to make everything happen at once and I’m pretty good at it. If something comes up, you just gotta do it. We were doing this run. It’s 14 days, a bunch of stuff with Inter Arma and some pickup shows. And then we end in Chicago with Mastodon for the “Hope for the Day” campaign, the anti-suicide suicide prevention organization. It’s gonna be a great show.
So the River Black record; you’re playing with a bunch of the Burnt By The Sun guys again. Do you view it as sort of a continuation of that band or is it just something entirely new for you?
Well, I consider it an extension and also a new endeavor as well. I mean, there’s three-fourths of us there so we all know how one another operate, we’re comfortable with each other, and we know what to expect from one another. You know, I guess we grew a little bit. We fine tuned a bit, a little more streamlined it so to speak. So we wanted to make it more focused and more heavy and angrier than Burnt rather than relying on like a speed or spastic element, you know?
Streamlined was one of the words that I was thinking of too. It feels like you’re picking your spots a bit more when to go faster or when to bring in some outside element. But it’s all about that sort of really crushing like mid-tempo approach on that record.
Yeah and, you know, we’ve done that. We’ve touched that. We’ll use it here and there. That’s what John really loves to do. John writes all the riffs and he just brings it out of me and everybody else. So it was easy to keep going with that direction.
Outside of just streamlining it, do you have like a different approach for it compared to the way played drums with Burnt By The Sun? Or do you just go in there and do your thing?
Well again, it’s about John. John brings a bunch of stuff out of me that no one can the way he does. So it makes me approach the drum set and look at things a little bit differently. I’m always able to come up with some interesting stuff due directly to him. The process wasn’t too far removed from the Burnt stuff because John and I wrote most of that. It’s usually just him and I in a room but like I said before, I wanted to focus on just making it heavier and more mid paced. You know, we did all the fast stuff and that’s great. That’s fine, don’t get me wrong but all right man, we did that already, you know?
Right, you don’t want to repeat yourself.
It’s a new chapter. We went through various name changes, various vocalists. And you know, when Mike [Olender] was interested and decided to hop on board, everything that we had laying around popped into place. He really poured the gas on the flame, so to speak. He brought a lot of stuff to life that we thought was just okay. You know, him and Ken involved, it really made it as best as it could be, I suppose.
The records sounds like a lot of those songs were written with space in mind for a vocalist.
You know, it’s funny because, we don’t really think about that when we’re writing. Mike’s always good at figuring stuff out. When he signed up we all sort of moved things here and there and extended some parts here and there for vocal patterns. So we adjusted to him.
There’s that one moment on “Haunt” with clean vocals. It totally pops on the record because you guys didn’t overuse it. It’s the same thing with the string section. It’s like you guys really carefully selected where to do that stuff.
Yeah, we’re not that type of band man. You know, a lot of people do the sing and the screaming thing. And that’s cool, that’s good for them and some of those people do it well. But we were never that band. We’re driven to do what we do. So a little cherry like that, it’s pretty well placed and it’s nice little departure for the record. For the strings, we had this girl Jessica that I know that I worked with down in Richmond. She’s a great player and it just came to me one day that that song would sound great with a string section. And it just happened to work out.
You do a lot of 16th note riding on the bell. But then every once in awhile you throw in these little patterns that are really different and not what you’d expect. Like there’s that bit on “Everywhere” where you’re alternating between a four tom and a high hat. Is that something you thought of in the moment or do you write the basic form of the drumbeat and then embellish it later?
Again it goes back to John. For some reason he just gives me these riffs which enables me to turn something else out of my brain and think outside the box. I start with patterns and just elaborate on it from there. I guess that’s one example of a polyrhythm. I know what you’re talking about there but I like a simple approach. It’s like a painting or so to speak. So I’ll have a simple approach to the beat and when I’m looking at it and going down the line, I try to have every fill in be different and be more intense and work with the next part. I try to arrange everything that way.
I feel like one of the drummer’s jobs in a band, especially a band that’s so guitar oriented is you have to dictate structure a lot of the time, you know? You’ve got to set up the next section and make sure that the energy is going correctly from one part to a next. That’s something I really liked on the River Black record.
Oh thanks, man. I think it’s super important to know when to not play and to know when to play for the part of the song, you know, be a part of it.
What’s your plans for River Black going forward?
We have plans to do another record.
Touring on it too?
I mean it’ll be selective. That’s not gonna be a full-time thing. We’re gonna play, we’re gonna make it special. We’ll do what we can. Everyone else is really busy with life and other bands and stuff. So when we get to do it, we try to make it as fun as possible. We will play more. But we’re gonna be highly selective on what we do, you know? That’s just the way it has to be with that band. (editor’s note: two booked dates are listed below.)
Since you play in so many other bands at once, do you see things that you pick up from one act bleeding into the other bands? Or do you try and separate between them?
Totally. I try to keep everything different but every once in awhile…that’s the best thing about doing other projects. It makes you think differently and come up with new patterns and do fills and stuff like that. Then you can start cross-pollinating. Something you would have never thought of working in one band might after taking a little detour with another music project.
Of course, it’s gotta be contextual too because the super groovy ghost note stuff that you’re doing on Brain Tentacles, that wouldn’t fit on Municipal Waste, you know?
That’s why I have multiple things going on because I have a lot in me that I can’t get out in one spot.
Is there anything in you that you feel like you still need to find like an outlet for in terms of how you play drums?
I need to learn more. I mean, you can never know enough, you know?
What do you feel like you need to work on now? Like what’s the thing that like is challenging you at the moment that you want to improve on?
Well, I’d like to work on more four-way independence. More rudiments in general and building skills back up. You get so busy and you tour so much it’s hard to focus on like moving forward learning because you’re locked into playing those songs all the time. Sometimes you’re playing so much you need to break some plans and it’s hard. I don’t know. It’s a never ending battle to learn stuff because there’s always someone out there that comes up with something new that relights the flame to inspire and learn more. That never ends. There’s this great Instagram site called “Play This Beat” I recommend for anybody that wants to learn some more stuff. It’s a bunch of guys playing beats and everyone does their interpretation of it and puts it up. It’s a really good resource.
I was gonna ask like who, what are the places that you’re finding inspiration from lately?
Well, there’s this guy Carter Mac that I’ve been following. He’s the drummer for The Lion King, does a lot of New York session stuff. That guy’s a monster. He’s such a great drummer. I’m surrounded by people that enjoy music and are highly talented. So everyone has a wide range of tastes. It’s easy to find out like who’s pushing the envelope forward in a bunch of different circles. What’s good is you can recognize creativity and sort of judging with greatness. It’s totally inspiring. I don’t necessarily go out and seek it, I just have it genetically because I have so many different friends that play. “Oh have you heard of this guy yet?” Like, “Oh no. Oh wow, I didn’t even know he existed. He just blew my mind.” So I passed it on to some other guys. There’s this other guy named George Hooks. He’s a klezmer drummer. There’s like a link of him on YouTube playing a bar mitzvah or a Jewish wedding or something, I forget what it is [Editor’s note: we found it].
He’s like an older dude, is that right?
Yeah, the video’s a few years old but he killed it. He’s like almost a metal drummer. It’s pretty fun to watch. There’s this other guy, Dafnis Prieto, that I really love. He’s this Cuban guy, big afro, monster jazz player. He’ll be doing like the clave pattern with the cowbell and changing the tempo the whole entire time while his body solos over the rest of it and that’s changed tempos sometimes too. It’s crazy.
Those kind of like latin jazz players have like I think probably the most limb independence of like any genre. It’s unbelievable.
Yeah, those guys have forgotten stuff I haven’t even learned yet. They’re like next level.
If you could pick up more of that limb independence, where would you want to apply that in a current band that you’re in?
Probably Brain Tentacles. Brain Tentacles is pretty free. Sometimes it’s very liberating too.
Brain Tentacles feels like the limitations are really wherever you set them because it’s so different. Something like Municipal Waste on the other hand, you’re going for a specific genre.
Yeah, that’s what it is and that’s what it always will be, you know? With Brain Tentacles, there’s only three of us. It’s just endless possibilities to stretch out as far as you want or reel it in. You know, keep it tight. It’s cool. It’s exciting every night.
Are you guys working on any new music or is it still just mostly the record you all came out with last year?
We’ve actually planned a new one for this trip. And we’re trying it out. It’s going over pretty well. It’s a lot of fun to play it too.
Where have you guys taken the sound on the new album?
I don’t know. We’re stretching out this one. It has a little more speed and heaviness to it. It’s a little more dynamic. It’s fun. I mean, we’re just figuring it out. It’s gonna develop while we’re out. What’s cool about this band is that everything was put together quickly and recorded and then when we went out and played it everything’s evolved and it came to life. The personality of the songs were flushed out on the road.
Going back to Municipal Waste. You mentioned that it is what is it and it’s always going to be going for that sound. How do you personally keep that fresh for yourself? How do you find like new ways to approach that sound like on each record?
Oh, you just listen to some old stuff and you listen to some new stuff. I guess the biggest factor is that this time around is we added another player. He was able to bring some cool stuff to the table. We should have did it years ago. Now all the harmonies on the old records are totally coming to life. It’s just fuller, heavier, more focused. When you got another guy in the band, you gotta really be on your “A” game and keep it precise. There’s no leeway because the guitars have to totally be in tune with one another on time. It forces us to look into a little harder, you know?
You’ve gone out of your way to work with so many different artists, it makes sense that you would be inspired more in an older band by bringing in someone new. Having different people to work with seems like one of the drivers of your creativity, at least from the outside.
Yeah. And it’s a never-ending cycle too. There’ll be a young band that comes up. You’re like, “Wow, these guys are doing something cool.” you know? It makes you work a little harder. It re-inspires you to play what you’re doing, you know? Oh, holy shit.
What just happened?
Oh, nothing. Just someone’s driving like a dumbass up ahead.
Are you generally the driver when it comes to tour or you guys switch it up?
No, we switch it up. Aaron’s driving right now.
I had a drum teacher for a while that compared driving and drumming because they involve using like all your limbs and all of your senses all at once.
You know what’s funny? He’s right because I talk to people about learning drums and I ask them two things. Do you know how to dribble a basketball and do you know how to drive a stick shift ? Because they’re both very similar.
Are you a big basketball guy?
No but, you know, when you bounce the ball, you want it to come back to you. Same principle when the stick hits the head you want it to come back.
You’re totally right that it’s all playing with rebound. But also the drummer is like the point guard of the band. You’re setting everyone else up, you’re passing to them, you’re making sure that they’re getting their touches so to speak.
That’s true. I never thought about that. It makes total sense. You’re steering, you got the pedal and the brake and you got the clutch, and then you got the stick. It’s totally like drumming, just a different way of doing it.
You’re setting the tempo for everyone else. You’re responsible for keeping everyone is that car safe.
I know that you’re a big foodie and beer guy. Do you relate those outside interests to drumming or do you like to keep your passions separate?
I mean, I don’t know. I never really thought of it that way but I guess it’s just all one big thing, you know? Everybody likes all kinds of stuff. And I guess the one thing about having good food and beer especially on tour is that you’re stoked to try all this stuff and then when it’s really good, you know, your body’s happy and then your mind becomes happy and it just leads to a better performance. You’re like, “Oh man, I just had this great meal and I had this killer beer,” and you’re all excited about it and then you go play and you’re in a good frame of mind. So, you know, you apply yourself in a different way I think.
I went through phases. First, it was all about eating the craziest thing I could find and then you know then it was like trying to find the craziest beers. Then it was drinking the sickest roasted coffee and I’m totally nuts about chocolate and always looking for crazy chocolate. But over the last couple years, it’s been vegan and vegetarian cuisine because it’s come so far. It doesn’t really matter even if you’re a vegetarian or not, it’s just good food. I actually opened a food truck with my girlfriend. An all vegan food truck.
Are you vegan or is it just something you’re interested in at the moment?
I’m not vegan. I just love the food. My girlfriend’s vegan. I don’t eat as much meat as I used to. I’m just doing my own thing. I’m helping in my own way, you know?
The best thing about playing music is you’re exposed to all these things that you’d, you know, never come across normally and so much information and inspiration. And you can try and apply it. You know, find some killer recipe and try it out at home.
I’m glad you brought it back to music because I see a similarity. You’re talking about going through these kind of phases of trying the most extreme coffee that you can find or the best chocolate. I feel like that’s what you do musically too. You bounce around from all these different projects. On one side there’s Discordance Axis where it’s the fastest, craziest grind that you can get into. Then you’re also working on doing Burnt By The Sun which was alternating between super fast and the slower, heavier shit. Now with River Black it’s all about that midtempo crunch.
Yeah, totally. Yeah, it’s like going to the buffet all the time.
Where do you think you like picked that up, as like a person?
I was raised in a meat and potatoes household you know, in the suburbs. My mom would make the same 5 meals and rotate it every week or every other week. When I met Joey Capizzi and Xavier and Eddie Ortiz, these New York guys, that was my first exposure to vegetarian and veganism back in the day. I found out about like Indian Cuisine, Thai food, you know, Korean food, all this stuff I really didn’t know about. Of course, I knew what Italian and Chinese were because they were super popular, you know? I was exposed all this ethnic stuff I didn’t know existed. I just started trying stuff. That was the gateway. Those guys gave me the gateway to try all that stuff. Then just from traveling so much, just picked up so much stuff from around the world. Why not try it?
Musically, was it kind of the same thing? Did you grow up in a particularly musical household or was it the same kind of like meat and potatoes thing for music too?
Same thing. My uncle was a drummer though. He gave me drumsticks when I was a kid. He’s a great blues drummer. He’s got the meanest shuffle in the game. But, you know, same thing with those Staten Island guys I just mentioned about the cuisine. Those guys taught me how to play really heavy. They played really heavy music and I was just all about being fast and precise. I learned the heavy dynamic with those guys. You pick things up from, you know, people along the way and just start applying them in other places.
Was there ever a particular band that you feel was a turning point in terms of becoming the drummer that you are today?
Human Remains, for sure. Steve and I had a really good relationship. It’s Human Remains, and Discordance Axis, and then Burnt by the Sun. Those were like the building blocks for everything. They made me think outside the box, you know? All those bands were unorthodox, did their own thing, people didn’t understand it. I know that sounds lame but it forced me to be more creative and try new things. So right off the bat, I was totally just getting pushed, you know, to work differently. I think that was a huge advantage.
I would say just from an outsider’s perspective, it seems like Brain Tentacles is the thing that’s like really pushing you in a similar way now because it’s allowing you to apply all those different like skills that you’ve learned.
Everything’s there, it’s a blank canvas with Brain Tentacles. So there’s a shitload of colors I can put on it, you know what I mean?
River Black have two upcoming shows, including an opening slot at Saint Vitus with Tombs.
River Black — 2017 Tour Dates
SEP 15 @ Kung Fu Necktie, Philadelphia, PA w/ Artificial Brain, The Longest War
SEP 16 @ Saint Vitus, Brooklyn, NY w/ Tombs Slow Death, Longest War