Diving Into Drowning Pool

Drowning Pool bassist Stevie Benton talks with Pollstar about the band’s new singer, how the group’s sound has evolved and why he’s always thinking about how they can improve their live shows.

If ever there was a band that faced adversity right out of the box, it’s Drowning Pool.  A little more than a year after releasing its debut album, 2001’s Sinner, original singer Dave Williams succumbed to heart disease.  Jason “Gong” Jones stepped into the lead vocal spot in 2003, but left after one album.  He was followed by Soil frontman Ryan McCombs, who stayed for two albums before returning to his old band in 2012.

Benton and his bandmates – Moreno, guitarist C.J. Pierce and drummer Mike Luce – recently welcomed singer Jasen Moren into the Drowning Pool family.  Formerly of The Suicide Hook, Moreno sang on Drowning Pool’s latest studio album, Resilience, which drops April 9 on Eleven Seven Music.

Benton talked about the different singers in Drowning Pool’s history and how each one influenced the band’s sound.  The bassist also described the business behind the band, how the group creates its music, and how he and his bandmates have managed to stay together through good times, bad times and four lead singers.

Is this the first tour with new singer Jasen Moreno?

The first extended tour, yes.  We’ve done little one-week runs here and there. This will be the first hardcore … a good solid six weeks of shows.  His first real test of endurance I guess you could say.

Do you mean his first test of endurance regarding life on the road, or his first test enduring life with Drowning Pool?

He’s got a lot to endure, for sure.  I don’t know if he knows what he’s got himself into. We tried talking him out of the gig but he refused. He’s stuck with it now.

Drowning Pool has experienced personnel changes over the years. Do you and your bandmates have any hazing rituals for new members?

I think the worst thing we did to the poor guy was [we] just took a long time to tell him that he had the gig. We put it off so long, it was torture for him.  Of course, it’s going to be a big life change for him to suddenly be in a touring band and be away from home.  I think we were already making the record before we told him, “Yeah, you have the gig.  So relax.”  He was doing such a good job writing songs with us and we didn’t want him to get too comfortable too soon.

What about the business back end when it comes to changes in the band?  Is Jasen a full-fledged member of Drowning Pool?

When the band started, we were all equal partners, we all owned the name, all owned every thing.  Then Dave passed away.  Since then when new members come in – Mike, C.J., and myself … still own the name [and] everything, and we always pay the new member an equal share. 

They’re partners, they make the same as the three of us, but they’re not signed on to the Drowning Pool LLC.  We’re not keeping anything from them or holding anything back.  It’s all business, you know.  There are a lot of gray areas there.  Imagine what it would be, after Dave passed away, if we had made Gong a legal full-fledged member?  Wherever he is now, he would get a quarter of everything. That’s not a wise move.

[People] don’t realize all the things that are involved with signed acts. They think you just get in a fight with a dude, he quits or you kick him out, and that’s the end of it.  [There are] a lot of entanglements.

With so many singers, is it hard to keep the core Drowning Pool sound?

Yeah.  You change the voice of the band, that changes a huge dynamic.  Every singer has some really good things they do and some weaknesses.  You have to get in there when writing songs and learn what those are and write to their strengths.  It’s going to change what you do ever so slightly, but we are mindful of not straying too far from where we started.  It’s kind of a strange circle in that with Jasen, as far as the dynamic of his voice and the way he writes songs, it’s very similar to how we started with Dave.  So it’s kind of relearning to write songs like that again which is a whole new weird experience.  Here we are 10 years later going back to a formula that worked for us once before.  Hopefully we can fall back on instincts from now on and write from there.

Photo: William Parks
“We tried talking him out of the gig but he refused. He’s stuck with it now.”

What can you tell us about the new album, Resilience?

Since Dave passed away, we didn’t want to stray too far from where we were but we didn’t want to be carbon copies of our former selves because that would put so much pressure on a singer to try to take Dave’s place and do what he did, which no one could ever do.

With this record, maybe because it’s far removed, it felt more comfortable and natural to go back to that sound we had on Sinner and the way we constructed songs on that record.  I think a lot of people after listening to the record, they’re not going to say, “Oh, this is Sinner Part 2.”  But I think you will definitely see similarities and some elements thrown in there that haven’t been on the previous Drowning Pool records.

For longtime fans will the new record feel like coming home?

Yeah.  If you’re just a fan of the Sinner record, then this record will be something that you might be into.  Now, if you’re a huge Ryan McCombs fan, this record might sound foreign.  People are going to listen to it and decide for themselves, I guess.

The famous Friedrich Nietzsche quote – “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” – does that apply to Drowning Pool?

Luckily for us, we started out as a band that was really, really focused on the live aspect of the whole thing, not so much the videos or the business side.  All we ever wanted to do is put on a live show.  There has been so much turmoil all these years and all we’ve ever tried to stay focused on, one night to the next, is having a good show.  I think keeping your head down and focused on that has really kept us together and maybe shielded us from a lot of the things that have happened.  It could have easily had us sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves, a lot of self pity and things like that.

That still continues today. I woke up this morning in Atlanta and all I can think about all day is how can we make tonight’s show great.  Not looking too far ahead or too far back has really kept us focused.  If you looked at the timeline of the band and see all these bad things that have happened to us, you would think we’re all alcoholics by this point.  But staying focused on the task at hand and staying busy has kept us together and kept us sane.

Has surviving the band’s misfortunes tightened the bond between you and the other original members?

We’ve been through this much this long.  I read about bands all the time breaking up, or I have friends in bands, they get in a fight and break up.  I see these young bands fighting over the smallest things and it kind of makes me chuckle.  At this point the three of us have been through every thing there is to happen.  Personally, from a business aspect, on the road there are no surprises.  There’s nothing that could faze us at this point. We’re as tight as we ever were. We fight like brothers at times, but that’s just the way it goes.

You’ve talked about the live show being the ultimate priority.  Do you see Drowning Pool as a band that makes records and then tours to support them, or is the band a touring act that also makes records?

We definitely see it as touring first. Even when writing a song, the first thing I think of is, “How will this react live?”  … The whole record side and all that kind of stuff, we have zero control over that. I can’t waste my time worrying what the label’s marketing plan is or if downloading is affecting our sales.  The only thing I can control is can I write a song that we’ll play live and people will react and we have a great show and a good time. So we try to stay focused on that.

How does Drowning Pool’s music originate?

Everyone definitely gets their say at one stage or another.  Most songs start, basically, in someone’s house.  Each of us have our own little studio setups –  Pro Tools, a Mac and that whole thing.  With me, I’ll sit down and build a structure and a blueprint of a song.  I always start with what I think is a good chorus idea.  I’ll pass it around to everyone and [they] throw in their two cents.  I think everyone within the band does it.  One little line, one little riff, one spark, sending it out to everyone gets it going.  Then we have our full-on band rehearsal and work out every detail live in the room. 

We’ve been rushed before and had to write a song from scratch. … Even if the song, oftentimes, turns out really good, there’s still no substitute for rehearsing the song as you’re writing it for hours and hours.  For whatever reason it’s osmosis or something.  That particular song is always going to feel more natural to you than the one you just pieced together on the fly.

Photo: William Parks

You said you always consider how a new song, or a song in progress, will transform to the stage.  Do you have anyone outside the band helping with the live presentation?  Someone who might advise you as to how the band should look or act, while playing, essentially plot the visual aspects of the show?

No, unfortunately, we don’t do any of that.  What we try to do is work up a frenzy, a storm, and let pieces fall where they may, live.  Obviously … on some nights you’ll play a song and it will fall flat.  It will seem like you can’t do anything right.  But there are definitely nights where you don’t plan it and it feels like you’re on top of the world. You can close your eyes and play it perfectly. All the stars are aligned, the crowd’s going crazy and all is good in the world. It’s an amazing thing that the same song from night to night can vary that much.

I know there are a lot of acts, especially your top acts, where the whole show is plotted and planned.  Maybe I’m just lazy and that’s too much work.  Maybe I like my theory better because it plays to my disposition.  We just kind of wing the live show, really.

After a show on those nights when all the stars are aligned, the adrenaline must really be flowing.  How do you come down after an experience like that?

That is something that you really have to learn over the years.  When we first started … we weren’t angels back in the day, I’ll say that.  We got ourselves in a lot of trouble, went crazy … destroyed dressing rooms. Just because we were young and didn’t know how to deal with that emotion.  Suddenly you’re on top of the world and indestructible.  We would just party hard, drink our asses off, chicks running around and all kind of crazy stuff.

Now, we’ve learned that even though it happened that night, you got to reign it in a little bit afterwards because you don’t want the next night’s show to suffer.  You don’t want that lag, be hung over or sick.  I can’t tell you how many shows I’ve played hung over. And I always feel bad.  I know last night was great and tonight the people deserve just as much.  I don’t want to let them down.  Even if there’s a bucket on the side of the stage to puke in, you have to give them 110 percent.

Now we’ve learned that.  Hey, have your fun after the show but at some point shut it down and start thinking about tomorrow’s show.

Photo: William Parks
Mike Luce

Which bass players inspired you?

It didn’t take me long to figure out the bass player in a band was always my favorite guy.  I don’t know, maybe it was their disposition, maybe it was their instrument, something always drew me to that.  Paul McCartney and the Beatles, Cliff Burton and Metallica, Steve Harris and Iron Maiden.  I didn’t even know the difference between the bass and guitar, but for some reason that guy was always my favorite guy in the band.

I started playing and fell right into the bass.  I’m not going to imagine myself playing anything else.  It suits my personality. 

When writing, you talked starting with choruses and such.  As a bassist, do you also start with rhythm and the beat?

It’s always kind of a chorus/lyric idea that’s the first thing to get me going on writing a song.  Then a rhythm on top of that.  The riffs come, I’d say, third, for me, typically.  For me, it’s always that one line.  You could be saying something or singing something and the melody could be just absolutely killer and badass, but if you’re saying something that’s so cliched and overplayed, for me that just ruins a good song. For me it’s always that one thing different that makes one particular line stick out or saying something in a completely different way that hasn’t been said before, that’s the one thing that always gets me motivated to write a song.

Our new single, “One Finger And A Fist,” for weeks that was the only thing I had for that song, one line, “One Finger And A Fist.”  It wasn’t until we got into the studio and everyone started putting things together that it finally became a song.

That’s really interesting.  As listeners and fans, sometimes we’re under the impression that a songwriter starts with the first line of a song and writes the rest of it in the order we eventually hear it.

Even my wife to this day thinks that when I write a song that I walk into the studio, sit down and write the whole thing in its completion.  “Hey.  I just wrote all this.” 

If you’re outside looking in, you want to think the musician had an epiphany and boom, this song appeared.  99 percent of the time there’s just hours and hours of painstaking labor that goes into it.

A writer never knows when they might have an inspiration for a song.  What are some of the stranger locations or situations you’ve been inspiration suddenly struck?

Well, you know, being on the shitter is a good place.  In the shower.  I don’t sing in the shower. I stand there and let the water run for like 30 minutes and I’m spaced out thinking about a song.  Also on the treadmill.  I do a lot of thinking and songwriting on the treadmill.  Going about your day there’s always something going on so those are like private times when you can sit down with your thoughts.

Since you brought up the treadmill, does working out help you survive touring?

Absolutely.  When you get fatigued, doing anything, it starts to affect you … concentration and things like that.  Once you start getting tired on stage, your playing is definitely going to suffer.  We’re a hard rock band playing a high-energy show, so I have to be in shape.

I have a lot of friends who have moved on from this genre and have either pop or country gigs.  Sometimes when I see them I get very jealous.  “Man, look at you.  You just get to stand there in the spotlight … and don’t really have much to worry about. Man, you got it made.”  At the end of the show I’m completely drenched in sweat.

Is the title of the new album, Resilience, a reflection of where the band is right now?

Pretty much.  We wanted something that summed up everything we’ve been through, a new singer.  We’re still here even though there’s been a lot of drama and hard times.  We’re still kicking and going strong.  It’s where the name developed from.

What advice could you give a teenager picking up a bass or a young band just starting out?

Always take every opportunity to play.  When we first started out we never turned down a gig.  We would play one show at one club, pack up our stuff, drive down the street and play another, anywhere we could.  We had a lot of friends in bands who would not play a show because the bar wouldn’t give them a $20 bar tab.  To me that was always counter productive.  You want to do this, you want the dream, you want to be in a rock band but yet you’re arguing over a $20 tab.  Just get out there and play.

Of course you have to learn the bass sitting around by yourself just so you can join a band. But once you get there you have to get out on stage.  To me, you just can’t get that live experience unless you’re paying your dues.  Even the worse gig you play, someday it will pay off because you spent that time playing.

Photo: William Parks
“I started playing and fell right into the bass.  I’m not going to imagine myself playing anything else.  It suits my personality.”

Touring with Flyleaf, upcoming shows for Drowning Pool include Asbury Park, N.J., at the Stone Pony March 1; Silver Spring, Md., at The Fillmore Silver Spring March 2; Lancaster, Pa., at Chameleon March 4; Cincinnati, Ohio, at Bogart’s March 5; Cleveland at House Of Blues March 6; Fort Wayne, Ind., at Piere’s Entertainment Center March 7; Grand Rapids, Mich., at The Intersection March 8; Detroit at St. Andrews Hall March 9 and Chicago at House Of Blues March 10.  Please visit DrowningPool.com for more information.