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Heikki Malmberg – Exclusive OnlineDrummer.com Interview

“Finish what you started, especially if you’re Finnish!” This phrase might describe the master plan of Heikki Malmberg who is on his way to become one of the leading drummers in the heavy metal arena. Let´s see if I can elicit from him some of his secrets.

Do you regard yourself as a drummer or as a musician?

Heikki: Definitely as a musician. I’ve always wanted to make music.  Even back when I couldn’t play any instruments besides drums, I tried to compose music. Of course in order to play melodies on drums and cymbals, you need a lot of them. If you have a melodic instrument with only three pitches you’re gonna run out of stuff to play pretty fast, so I arranged my drum kit to have a rudimentary pentatonic scale with three different sounds, them being the drums, (crash) cymbals & spoxes/chimes.

Later on I learned to play the guitar, which I tune in fifths like a violin or a cello rather than in standard tuning. I picked up the tuning technique early on from a friend of mine who was a total guitar nut named Masi Hukari. First, I had a 6-stringer tuned like G,D,A,E,B,#F, but just a year or so ago I stumbled on Robert Fripp’s New Standard Tuning, which is basically the same tuning starting from C and having a minor third between the two highest strings. I employed that to a 7-stringer, and with that one extra string the tuning is F,C,G,D,A,E,G. It has a stunning playing range of five octaves and a whole step. That’s a trifle more than a basic guitar and bass combined. So, in a nutshell; I’ve always made music, and never restricted myself to be a drummer in the time keeping niche.

Who are your favorite drummers, and who are your favorite guitar players?

Heikki: My favorite drummers would include the one and only Terry Bozzio who made the drum kit something it had never been before, a melodic instrument. Mike Mangini who wrote some of the best musical books ever; Rhythm Knowledge 1&2, introduced the “Open-Stance” kit and mastered polyrhythms possibly better than anybody else in the solar system. Simon Phillips who made me realize that you don’t always have to lead with your right hand. And, hats off to Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich and their peers who brought the drum kit into the limelight.

My preferred guitarists would include Fredrik Thordendal who has made polymeters an art form in itself and has a playing style so easily recognizable that it’s unfair. Steve Vai who is a master composer and has vast knowledge of polyrhythms, scales and everything that has anything to do with music. Robert Fripp, who introduced the New Standard Tuning and is a pioneer in the polymeter department (at least in modern western music). Derek Taylor w ho is outta’ his effing mind and uses utterly venomous sounding symmetric scales in his playing. Of course there are countless others, but these cats came to mind first.

Do you think playing a melodic instrument is helpful for a drummer for a better understanding of the interactions in a band?

Heikki: No, not by itself not. There are lots of guitarists and keyboardists and what not out there who don’t have a clue about the workings of a band. But, writing and arranging music helps to take notice of what works and what doesn’t in the scheme of things.

Do you also write music?

Heikki: Oh yeah, all the time. As I touched on earlier, I’ve always made music. Mostly I compose for a basic rock combo having two guitars, bass & drums, but I have some classical piano stuff lying on my hard drives, too, and some jazz arrangements of my music. Most of it incorporates lots of polymeters and polyrhythms, and the adaptation of the New Standard Tuning that I use makes most of the stuff heeeeaaaaaaavy as hell.

So are you planning to release a solo album or a DVD someday?

Heikki: Absolutely. But I’ve got some other plans before that. I’ve been working on putting up a band to play the heavier stuff that I’ve composed. The band is called Section 8. I already have the musicians for it, and we’ve even started practicing, but the music is so hard to play that we want to take our time with it before stepping out into the public. So far, I’ve composed all the music by myself, but I consider it to be a real band with members who can collaborate too, so I don’t think of it as a solo outing for myself. And besides, If I’ll ever release a solo album, it will be a crossover mess of everything, which this band isn’t.

You are a technically very advanced player – can you give us some tips for practicing odd times, beat displacements or linear drumming in an efficient way?

Heikki: As far as practicing odd times and beat displacements go, counting is crucial. You’ve got to count the odd meters until they feel natural. Basically, your brain will count everything you play, but you can hasten the process by giving it a solid counting pattern which is always the same regardless of the pattern being played (as long as the time signature is the same). Of course every odd meter has its own counting pattern which you should learn. Click track in conjunction with counting helps immensely with beat displacements and for linear drumming.  You should practice a helluva lot of different permutations of how each limb can follow another, and make the permutation chains, if you will, longer n’ longer with time.

How can a drummer improve his/her four way independence?

Heikki: I think a good way to start is to pick a simple ostinato for the feet and sight read something elementary with the hands. You should start with reading that incorporates nothing but quarter notes and rests, and then work your way through eighth and sixteenth notes. Morris Goldenberg’s book, Modern School for Snare Drum makes for a good reading.

Do you teach drums?

Heikki: Yes.

Did you develop a special teaching concept?

Heikki: Not really. I try to introduce the practice routines that I’ve found to be efficient to my students, but what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another, so I have to take different ways of learning into account. But, I’ve been teaching for so long that I’ve learned how to make things work for different students.

Do you think it is important to develop an individual playing style?

Heikki: Without question, yes. The world’s filled with musicians who sound alike. The way I see it is why should anyone want to hire you if you don’t have something in your playing that the other guys don’t have. In my mind, the biggest compliment a musician can get is when somebody hears half a bar of their playing or music and goes “ah, it’s THIS guy…”

Your drum kit is set up symmetrically in the Mike Mangini way – what are the advantages of this concept?

Heikki: Actually, I’ve played a regular five piece for a year now, but I’ve been thinking of switching back to the symmetric set up. The biggest advantage is the way the toms are set up descending both ways from the center. It’s much easier to incorporate melodic tom phrases to your playing with the open stance system. And, of course, you force yourself to play more with your left foot which is usually the weakest limb on any drummer’s body.

Would you please describe the brands and sizes of the drums and cymbals you are playing?

Heikki: I play a Pearl Master’s Custom MMX set with 10″x8″ & 12″x8″ rack toms, a 14″x12″ floor tom, 22″x18″ kick and a 14″x6,5″ Free Floating System maple snare. The bigger kit I used before had extra 8″x7″ rack tom and a 16″x14″ floor tom. Cymbal-wise, I’ve just started using Sabian cymbals, so I’m still feeling out the models that I’m gonna use. They’re making so many good sounding cymbals that it’s nearly impossible to restrict yourself to just picking the ones you really need.

Please tell us about the bands you are playing with.

Heikki: At the moment I’m only in Diablo and Section 8. I guess I told about Section 8 already, so let’s jump to Diablo right away. Most of the music’s made of heavy chunking guitars combined with Marko’s (Utriainen, guitar) leads with the occasional clean parts here ‘n there. The vocals are kinda harsh, but without ever degenerating into the cacophonous screaming that’s so customary with metal bands these days. It doesn’t sound like the most original concept, but most critics and journalists have had a hard time trying to label us. I resigned from all the other bands some time ago to gain more time to concentrate on bringing Section 8 alive.

Isn’t it confusing a little to play with different bands at the same time?

Heikki: No. I’ve been active with up to four bands at times, and I actually think It’s better than to play in just one or two bands. You get different ideas when you play reggae as opposed to metal. And most of the time those ideas are usable in any other style of music and you get something fresh sounding in the end.

The last album of Diablo is very eclectic: There are hints of Yngwie Malmsteen, Iron Maiden, Queensryche, Death, Coroner, Machine Head, Fear Factory and Testament. Doesn’t this mix confuse many listeners? (Icaros crashed when he wanted to fly too high…)

Heikki: I don’t know about other people, but I wouldn’t consider our music to be eclectic. All the acts you mentioned played in the same sandlots. The reason why our music might sound eclectic is that most people don’t listen to music, they listen to a genre of music or in some cases to a sub-genre and exclude perfectly good music just because it’s not “blackened death metal” or something like that.

Who composes the songs for Diablo?

Heikki: Marko, our lead guitarist.

How important are the lyrics by the way?

Heikki: Depends on the song. A good song doesn’t need good lyrics, but they certainly can enhance it. And, good lyrics can make a crappy song worthwhile too.

Many of the Diablo grooves are very tricky – how do you come up with your drum parts?

Heikki: Actually, Marko writes most of the drum parts. He’s a talented composer with a vision of his own, and I don’t want to piss on it, so to speak. There are moments here and there where I’ve taken control over the drum parts to make them sound a bit more natural, but most of the time Marko does a good job with them. He has actually asked me to mess with the parts more than I do, but if it’s not broken, why fix it?  And, his parts give me new ideas from time to time, too.

Do you like soloing?

Heikki: Yes, but sad to say, I find most drum solos boring. I usually try to make them musical with at least some kind of melodic phrases and song-like structures. Unfortunately, most people just want to hear meaningless jumbles of thirty-second notes.

Which plans do you have for the next twelve months?

Heikki: Hmmm… I want to get Section 8 off the ground, make myself a better guitarist and composer than I am at the moment, continue teaching the drums and possibly get all the Diablo material notated for a book release. How’s that for starters?


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