As the current go-to hard-rock session ace, Will Hunt is seemingly everywhere these days. But his return to Evanescence has reminded him what being a real bandmember feels like, and left him wondering if any one gig could ever be better than that.
Seeing Will Hunt onstage with Evanescence, or hearing him lay down big beats on the band’s new, self-titled album, it’s easy to conclude that this guy has earned a strong measure of success. And he wouldn’t disagree, except to add that there’s something in this gig that’s not so obvious but just as important to him.
For years, Hunt has been perhaps the top hired gun in the business. Like Josh Freese, he has become the go-to drummer for a number of headline acts. Among many others, he’s recorded or toured with Blood Simple, Black Label Society with Zakk Wylde, Crossfade, Dark New Day, Eye Empire, Mötley Crüe, Staind, and one of his drumming idols, Tommy Lee, both in and out of Lee’s Methods Of Mayhem. Getting to know and work with so many great players and outfits is an opportunity most musicians dream about. Here, too, Hunt would agree.
What makes his current affiliation with Evanescence feel different is that it’s giving Hunt something a lot of his colleagues might take for granted: a long run with his band, where he has historical, personal, and musical connections, as opposed to a filling in for someone else or being picked up just for a tour.
“It wasn’t by design,” Hunt admits. “With Evanescence, it took a long time and a lot of stuff to get to this point where we’re at right now. But I do realize that this is my home right now. I like being here. These are all my friends, including Amy [Lee, lead singer]. If we were all in the same town together, this would probably be the band that we put together.”
The Elements Of Rock
It is one of the more unusual affiliations in Hunt’s résumé. Best known as a solid rhythm generator, he puts his chops to use strictly to drive the music; his fills are utilitarian push rather than distraction from the groove. His predecessor in Evanescence, Rocky Gray, drew more from a thrash/metal background. With Hunt, the band feels more anchored. This is obvious throughout the new album: “What You Want” and “The Other Side” both open with a straight beat, in effect announcing that the drums are here to drive the performance. As “What You Want” unfolds, Hunt’s playing becomes gradually more complex, with military snare patterns, and shifts into half time. Yet always the beat is there – sometimes articulated only on the hi-hat, but persistent enough to never lose momentum.
As if to further underscore the power of Hunt’s playing, producer Nick Raskulinecz keeps the drums high in the mix. They thunder and boom with an almost ’80s sonic intensity, which not only adds muscle to the louder passages but provides an intriguing contrast with more delicate elements when things quiet down. Check out “My Heart Is Broken,” which opens with solo piano, mirrored a few seconds later with a mournful cello motif. When Hunt makes his explosive entrance, the shift in focus emphasizes this fragility in a different way while also clearing space for the crunchy guitar riffs that follow.
This is polished but elemental rock drumming, pared down to its core. Everything Hunt adds to these basics escalates their impact. This approach guides him on all his milestone recordings, butEvanescence might offer its clearest presentation. “I’m proud of this,” Hunt says. “I just focused on playing big beats to make the band sound heavy and powerful. It’s a bruiser!
“It would be very easy to overplay on Evanescence because everything is so open,” he continues. “But one of the first things I learned in making records is that you don’t want to step over the band and you certainly don’t want to step over the vocal. And for this band, the vocals are everything. My whole purpose is just to make it sound big and have this stupidly ridiculous deep pocket. It’s just power, man. It’s a different combination from what Amy has had before. Rocky comes from a different school; he’s really into Dave Lombardo and he can play super fast. I can’t play like that. I don’t want to. For me, it’s about pushing.”
Chasing The Dream
Hunt began to shape his aesthetic from his first contact with drums – or, more accurately, a drum. Born in Gainesville, Florida, he was five years old when he was given a snare and began taking lessons. “For five years, I was just doing rudiments,” he says. “For any kid, after a while, that’s so boring. My whole thing was that I wanted to be in KISS, and what rudiments had to do with things blowing up was beyond me.”
When his father, a psychiatrist, left to Topeka, Kansas, for his internship, Hunt went with him and spent a year there. Though he was just nine years old, he quickly learned of the area’s thriving punk scene, partly through his next teacher. Willie McNeill was gigging at the time with Abuse, who Hunt remembers as being “like the Sex Pistols but a little faster.
“Willie was a really good drummer. He grew up as a military brat and played in drum corps. Seeing him play with Abuse, they were pumped. It was high energy. It was really cool to hang out with them. And he was the first guy I ever sat down with at a drum kit.”
McNeill’s lessons were a vital first step in Hunt’s creative journey. “Even though Willie had all the technique in the world and could play rudiments in his sleep, he brought a level of energy to the kit that was really amazing. Technically, one thing that never seemed to click with me was that in doing rudiments like double-stroke rolls, as simple as that is, I could never figure out how to go fast with it because it was all wrist technique. My first teacher never really taught me how to control the bounce with my hands. But when I got to Willie, he was like, ’You can do this, but you’re not doing it right. You’ve got to learn to bounce your sticks.’ Once that happened, it was like light bulbs went on. I’d been struggling with this for two or three years, but in just one lesson with Willie, it all clicked.”
Technique was half of what McNeill brought to his young student. The other half came from the endurance and furious energy he summoned onstage with Abuse. As Hunt remembers it, this was not so much a question of chops as it was of attitude – an attitude he learned from working with and watching McNeill play, which he maintains to this day.
“When you’re younger, it’s just pure adrenaline and excitement,” he explains. “The first time you’re on the stage, I don’t care if there are ten people out there and they’re all your friends, there’s still a sense of urgency that you get from that. But let’s say you’re a year into the tour and you’ve been playing the same set; then it’s got to come from someplace else. I don’t think that anyone is excited to play the same song for the 900th time. So it becomes psychological. You have to think, ’Okay, what was this like the first time we played this?’ I think that’s where being a kid mentally comes into play.”
Once Hunt internalized this mindset, the challenge became one of combining it with the technique he had also picked up from McNeill. Fortunately for Hunt, this wasn’t a problem, largely because the drummers he idolized at that point had been down that same road and found their own ways of achieving that goal.
“I’m a power guy,” he says. “People I was really into growing up were power players like John Bonham, Tommy Lee, and, later, Vinnie Paul. To me, Vinnie Paul is the guy that fused the gap between being an all-out groove basher and adding all this speed and technique. Dave Lombardo is another guy like that, although I would say my style is more like Vinnie’s.”
What these influences had in common was that they each had their own way to push the groove. “It’s really important to remember that it’s about the song,” Hunt notes. “It’s the sum of all parts. Being a drummer, you’re just one of those parts. You don’t want to step over everybody else. It should never be an ego competition: ’Listen to me! Listen to what I’m doing!’ We’re all a little guilty of that at some point, particularly if you’re improvising in a live setting. But it’s most important to look at the big picture. What does it sound like? Is me playing all this crap over the riff going to make it better, or is it going to take away from how cool it is? Sometimes there’s a lot of beauty in simplicity – does AC/DC ring a bell? ’Back In Black?’ I think that sums it up.”
Before reaching this level of enlightenment, though, Hunt went back to Florida to live with his mother in Tallahassee. There he connected with the second of the two teachers who were instrumental in developing him as a drummer.
“I took private lessons from Rick Weathersby there for three or four years,” he says. “He was another great teacher, but it got to a point where he was like, ’You’re wasting your money as far as what I can teach you because you just want to be a good rock drummer and you’re starting to be that. So just keep going.’ I could have gone either way, because he was just really good. He was amazing at sight-reading. But I was just interested in playing in a band, and he offered levels of encouragement.”
Hunt began playing in bands in high school, doing local shows of little consequence. That changed during May of his senior year, just before graduation. He was cutting tracks with one of his groups at a local recording studio, whose owner came up to him with an interesting bit of news. One of the circuit bands he managed, Eli, was looking for a drummer. Would Hunt like to audition?
“I told him, ’Well, let me ask my mom,’” Hunt says with a laugh. “Circuit bands played, like, arena shows in clubs. They would bring in a full light show, full P.A. – the whole nine yards. And they toured through different states all year. This band toured 300 days a year, playing three to four sets a night, doing the popular music of the time, which was a lot of hair metal, Zeppelin, and all that stuff. They had a road crew, a 120-can light show, and a big P.A. The plan was for me to go to college, but instead I auditioned for this band. I was 17 and these guys were all, like, 25 or 28. And I wound up getting the gig.”
Right after pocketing his diploma, Hunt set out on the road with Eli. Soon after that, he picked up another bit of insight that proved crucial to him as a player. “I totally overplayed when I was 17 and 18,” he says. “So one day the sound guy from Eli came up to me and said, ’You know what you sound like, man? You sound like shoes in a dryer.’ I’m like, ’Huh?’ I thought he was joking. But he said, ’No, I’m not kidding. Why are you playing all this crap over an AC/DC song? What are these fills? Why is there double bass in everything?’ This just crushed me; it literally put me in tears.
“The next day, I walk into the club, and the sound guy goes, ’Hey, man, I was moving some mikes around, and the mike we use for your second kick drum fell and hit the ground. It’s broken now. So you don’t have a second kick drum. You can keep it up there, but it’s not going to be miked.’”
That little ploy forced Hunt to trim down his kick patterns. And a short while later, when he broke the index finger of his left hand after tripping on hotel stairs and dropping his snare on his hand, it had the same economizing effect on his snare work. For six weeks, he had to play with a stick taped between two fingers, which dragged him somewhat reluctantly to the epiphany that just playing the beat can usually make everybody sound better.
Many more gigs followed with many different outfits. In 1996, he passed an audition to join Stuck Mojo, one of the pioneers of rap/metal fusion. He toured Europe with them in October, November, and part of December that year. As much as he loved what they were doing musically, Hunt came back to the States with a new plan: He wanted to put a band together himself. Hard rock and metal had lost some popularity in the States at the time, so since that’s what he enjoyed playing, Hunt decided his group would focus exclusively on performing in Europe.
More than that, this band, Skrape, would become what Hunt had always wanted: a band that would be his home base. Signed to RCA, they put out a couple of albums – New Killer America in 2001 andUp The Dose in 2004 – before they stalled due to what Hunt describes as the label not knowing what to do with them. “I would have been very happy just being in Skrape to this day,” he muses. “I still love that band. I think it was ahead of its time.”
In place of a steady commitment to one group, a series of circumstances led Hunt from that point to a number of opportunities with other artists. The first of these was perhaps the most transformative, when he was tipped off that Tommy Lee was trying out drummers for his solo project. Fully expecting not to get the job, Hunt auditioned – and was picked from among nearly 40 applicants to get the gig.
“You talk about energy? Tommy’s got this amazing energy, both as a person and a player,” Hunt says. “Mötley Crüe did a self-titled record without Vince Neil; they had John Corabi singing on it. For me, that changed the ballgame because it was like the John Bonham of that day, the way the drums sounded. And he was just killing it, with badass fills and killer grooves. That album was my Bible – and here he was, showing me these songs from his new record. It hit me that it was just me and him in a room, like, ’Man, I’m sitting in here with Tommy Lee, just me and him. I could never have dreamt that!’ So he would play and say, ’Is that cool?’ I’m like, ’Play that again, man’ – not because I hadn’t learned the part. I just wanted to watch him play!”
Still working with Skrape, Hunt passed another audition and was picked up by Static-X. His plan was to parlay that connection into a deal where both bands would be signed to the same label. When that didn’t pan out, he left Static and hung on with Skrape until it became clear they’d hit the end of their road. So he helped launch another new band, Dark New Day, with Clint Lowery of Sevendust and Cory Lowery of Stereomud, while also hitting the road for a while with Slaughter. Additionally, he subbed in Mötley Crüe and with Vince Neill before accepting another temporary assignment, this time with Evanescence to play the last part of their 2007 tour before singer Amy Lee began a sabbatical.
Feast And Famine
Then, suddenly, all this juggling stopped and Hunt found himself in serious straits. “I didn’t have a gig for a year and a half,” he says. “Dude, it turned my life upside-down. That’s the reality of rock and roll today. I’ll be honest about it. I’d just been playing in front of 85,000 people in Europe with this huge band, Evanescence. And then it stopped. And I lost everything. I mean everything. I lost my house. I lost my truck. I lost all of it, including my wife. I thought about swan-diving off a building a hundred times, but my kid and the hope that things would get better kept me going.”
Hunt was able to save his marriage; he lives now with his wife Danielle and their ten-year-old daughter Laila in Orlando. And he managed to hang onto his most prized possession throughout these rough times. “My drums are my friend,” he explains. “Other than my wife and my kid, they’re my best friend. Those are the three most important things in the world to me.”
His luck changed when Hunt was called to rejoin Evanescence after Lee had finished her time off. He found them more open than ever to what he could offer. “Amy had been writing with the two other guys,” he recalls. “Sometimes we had sessions together with all of us. I was just playing how I wanted to play and seeing where it would go. We came in with riffs and things, and it was like, ’Man, I don’t know if Amy’s going to go for this. It might be too much.’ Like there’s a song on this record called ’Never Again’ that’s super heavy. I thought for sure she was going to go, ’That’s too much.’ But she embraced it, although if she’d said ’I don’t feel that,’ I wouldn’t have taken it as an insult. I would have said, ’Let me try something else.’”
This applied especially to Hunt’s application of emphatic beats to lighter sections of their songs. “The thing I did was not to focus on it being a ’party,’ with lots of fills and things like that,” he says. “It was more like, ’What would John Bonham or Tommy Lee do if they were in Evanescence?’ That’s the mindset I took. It’s a push-and-pull thing. You’ve got her angelic voice singing so emotionally over this bed of music that’s played with the same amount of emotion. That’s the whole thing, just getting into the headspace of what she sings, her lyrics, the way that she talks – it’s so emotional. I just listened, opened myself up to it and tried to project it in my playing.”
Emotion goes hand-in-hand with Hunt’s philosophy as a drummer. “My whole thing with music in general is, if you can’t f__k or fight to it, I’m not interested,” he says. “I don’t care if it’s pop music, dance music, or whatever; that’s my credo.”
This also has a lot to do with how Hunt figures he can get the most from his technique. “I’ve always looked at drums. It’s like how people wear their jeans this year. In the early ’90s it was all about slow and sludgy, like Alice In Chains and Soundgarden. Now it’s all about how fast you can play. I mean, Joey Jordison is amazing. I’m fascinated by how plays. And Tim Yeung of Morbid Angel is insane. I’ve met him a couple of times; he’s a sweetheart guy. What he does is unbelievable, as far as speed. But I don’t want to do that. I can’t play that fast. I would have to really change the way I play to be able to do that. And I do work on that, because it’s challenging to me. I do love it and it’s exciting, but it’s not where I live.”
Drums Pearl Masterworks (matte black; gloss black hardware)
1 26" x 16" Bass Drum
2 14" x 6.5" Reference or Ultra-Cast Snare
3 12" x 9" Tom (mounted on stand)
4 16" x 16" Floor Tom
5 18" x 16" Floor Tom
Cymbals Zildjian Z3
A 14" Hi-Hat
B 18" Medium Crash
C 12" Splash
D 18" Rock Crash
E 21" Mega Bell Ride
F 19" Medium Crash
G 19" Thrash Ride
H 18" China
I PD-8 Pad
J FD-8 Pedal
Staying On The Level
Hunt varies his setup depending on what works best for the particular artist or show. But perhaps the first thing audiences will notice about Hunt’s kit is that the drums are all positioned flat, almost parallel to the stage, in the style of Travis Barker. “That started because I saw a picture that my dad had of Cream,” he notes. “Ginger Baker played completely flat, and I’m like, ’That looks cool!! You see a lot of drummers like Vinnie Paul – God love him, he’s one of my favorites of all time. But when you’re sitting out front, you can’t see him! You see his head just above the toms and that’s it! For me, playing everything flat and getting it really low came to me because when I was 19 or 20 and playing in bars, I wanted people to see me. Then it became a part of how I play. I rimshot the snare all the time when I’m playing rock. It’s just natural now.”
Perhaps Hunt has found that permanent band situation he’s always wanted. That doesn’t stop him from thinking ahead, both in terms of career and personal life. “As a father and a husband I have to think about that,” he admits. “My goal is to be like Tommy Aldridge. I want to be killing it when I’m 60. I turned 40 in September, so if I take care of myself, I think I can do that.”
Would he consider reaching that goal a sign that he has achieved even greater success in the long run? Hunt laughs and answers, “Success, if you want to call it that, didn’t come until I was 32 or 33. And I’ll tell you, I’m broke! My daughter goes to a school where most parents are lawyers or doctors or whatever, and then there’s me. People assume because I’ve had some success that I’m this rich guy. Well, we have one car in our family. We live very modestly. I grew up very poor. My father and mother were divorced, so I had a single mom. If you measure success by how rich you are, then you’d better find another line of work.
“But what are the chances that this little kid who idolized Tommy Lee could grow up and not just meet the guy but play in his band? Mötley Crüe was my favorite band growing up other than KISS, so what are the chances that I would play with them? They’re a million to one. I’m blessed to get to play music for a living. I’m blessed that I have enough money to take care of the bills. I’m blessed because Amy has believed in me enough to bring me into this. There are so many things to be thankful for.
“So what do I say to kids? Believe, man. Don’t ever give up. Amazing things can happen.”
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Online since October 27th 2011
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