BY ANDY DOERSCHUK | FROM THE JULY-AUGUST 1994 ISSUE OF DRUM!
Sad but true—it isn’t always the easiest thing to be in a cult band. Just as John Hernandez about the 16 years he has spent perched in the drum chair with Oingo Boingo. Although the group has enjoyed great critical acclaim, plenty of video exposure and has become a mainstay of alternative rock radio, they have yet to score the kind of hit single that can make them all fabulously wealthy. Possible even more frustrating is the fact that the band’s front-man, Danny Elfman, has indeed become fabulously wealthy several times over from his movie soundtrack work—something which reflects only indirectly on the success of the band.
Nevertheless, the 42-year-old drummer not only manages to keep a positive attitude, but also retains an infectious, goofy perspective on the world -something that surely comes in handy in a band as offbeat as Oingo Boingo. But don’t let his bizarre sense of humor throw you, because Hernandez takes his drumming very seriously.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Hernandez was brought up in a musical family, that “did the whole weekend get-drunk-and-sing kind of thing,” which exposed him to the sounds and rhythms of mariachi and salsa music. He began playing drums at the age of 14, when he formed his first band, Los Primos, with one of his cousins who had just started to learn guitar. “That band is still together,” he says, “and they still don’t play swing! That’s why I got fired two years later. I said, ‘Hey, why don’t we learn some swing tunes?’ ‘Get out of here, go play swing!’”
Growing up in L.A.’s Latin-American community during the 1960s, Hernandez proved himself to be a cultural misfit. While the other kids in his neighborhood were bopping to the Midnighters, Hernandez was stealing licks from John Bonham of Led Zeppelin, Greg Errico of Sly And The Family Stone and Bobby Columby of Blood Sweat & Tears. “I remember one time in my neighborhood I was buying a Hendrix record,” he says, “and some vato came by and said, ‘Hey man, you’re Chicano, man. You can’t be listening to that guy, man.’ And I’m like, ‘What?’ ‘Yeah, you got to listen to Chicano music!’ So I was always into a mixed bag.”
Despite the peer pressure, Hernandez became increasingly obsessed with all styles of drumming. After graduating from high school, he began to study with Bob McDonald at L.A. City College, took lessons with the legendary Freddie Gruber and played classical percussion with various local orchestras. He aced his first professional gig at the age of 23, when he began touring with singer Helen Reddy, which eventually led to the position as house drummer on The Midnight Special, a ’70s rock and roll television show that was hosted by Reddy.
However, by ’78 Hernandez had grown tired of being a faceless sideman, and was searching for a band to call his own. By chance he had seen a performance by the Mystic Knights Of The Oingo Boingo at a music fair sponsored by KPFK radio. At that time the ensemble was more of a performance art group than a rock band, incorporating a variety of stage props and costume changes. Little did Hernandez know that Elfman had already admired his drumming while he had done a series of gigs with singer/cheerleader Toni Basil. As fate would have it, Hernandez got Elfman’s phone number, and called up to offer his services.
“We used to do five or six outfit changes,” he remembers. “We’d march out in monkey suits, and then we’d go into ‘Avalon.’ It started from there and then we did calypso tunes and all these funny theatrical, multimedia things. But by then Danny and the rest of the guys had gotten tired of carrying all the props around, so they decided to be a rock and roll band. So for about a year, we just kind of sat around and worked on stuff. And we started playing Madame Wongs downtown. I remember the third time we played there, we made five bucks. I’m going, ‘I carried my trap case up these stairs for five bucks! This is last time!’ My first wife didn’t like that one at all.”
Even though the band has been through various stylistic and personnel changes over the last decadeand-a-half, Hernandez has remained one of the few constants in the line-up, delivering a no-nonsense, straight-ahead groove to Elfman’s surreal flights of pop fancy. And these days, there are a number of significant changes afoot: The band has streamlined its name to Boingo, dropped its horn section and released its latest album, their most accessible effort yet, titled Boingo, on their new label, Giant records. Naturally, Hernandez—who never seems at a loss for words—had plenty to talk about.
DRUM: Have you always written your drum parts, or did Danny have a lot of input into what you were playing?
Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez: Well, he had a lot of ideas. You know, he’s a frustrated drummer and a very good percussionist. He studied gamelon at Cal Arts, so he had a lot of rhythms in his brain. And [guitarist] Steve Bartek, who was the orchestrator, would write out these parts. And I would go, “Wait a minute, man. This isn’t a song. It’s a medley!” It was just unbelievable. So at the beginning I had to weed things out and really work the parts to turn them in to my parts. And that was cool, because he pretty much laid out a basic rhythmic idea of what he wanted, and as the years went on, he learned to write for drums. And still now, sometimes he’ll come in with a specific idea and we’ll play it and sometimes he just doesn’t know.
One of the reasons I have always enjoyed Oingo Boingo is that the writing is really progressive and always moving.
Boingo has always had such a unique sound. Did you have to invent a new style of drumming when you first joined the band?
Yeah, I’ve always felt that with any situation I’ve ever gone into. Each ensemble is different, each group of people is different, and each situation is completely different and deserves a unique respect and a unique identity and a unique approach. You learn technique and you learn about intonation. And when it comes time to play, you throw all that stuff out the window and go deep inside yourself and you go with your intuitive feeling and you perform something that is unique to that situation. So that’s exactly what I did. I’ve never played in any other band the way I play with Oingo Boingo. And now it’s evolved into a style.
You have a reputation for working constantly, and taking all kinds of gigs.
True. Because I get bored easily. One of the reasons I have always enjoyed Oingo Boingo is that the writing is really progressive and always moving. I had all these influences. I enjoyed playing salsa music. I enjoyed playing with the country house band at the Palamino, drinking Jack Daniels in the back of a Chevy. I enjoy doing all that stuff because it’s really honest and it’s very real. And why sit around at home telling people how great you are? That’s crap, get out and do it. You’re only as great as your last gig.
Making the most natural drum sound without having to use EQ is usually the best way to go.
Do you use any sort of formula for tuning?
Yeah, I do. I’m playing DW drums, so I’m into the whole timbre-matching thing. The fundamental of the drum is always paramount to the sound. Don Lombardi and I both studied with Freddie. He understands the way I play and he understands my tuning and my tom and the way I can bash and kill. I can destroy when need be. I’m really into tuning the drums to where they’re supposed to go, and filling a room. And the pitch of the cymbals is extremely important. So I keep a list of cymbals and the size of the drums I use track to track in the studio. Sometimes a certain bass drum won’t cut through. Sometimes a snare drum doesn’t work. I never just sort of go in and go, “Well, that’s a good drum sound, let’s go!”
So do you always tune each drum to a specific pitch?
Well actually, I tune them to themselves and the room. If I can’t get that marriage between the drum coming alive and the room coming alive, then I don’t use the drum. I put it back in the case and I go to another drum. Every room has certain pitches and certain fundamentals that resonate more than other notes. A really great room will allow you to get down to the lowest fundamental of all, your bass drum, with clarity and presence, and some rooms won’t. We’ve used rooms at Sunset Sound that are really great working rooms. A&M has a big room where I could live, raise a family, move all my crystals and a pyramid and I’d be happy for the rest of my life. Making the most natural drum sound without having to use EQ is usually the best way to go. Because when you start EQing the drums, you pervert the drums electronically which just adds noise and makes the drums sound smaller. What I generally like to do is tune the drums with all the frequency modulations mixed properly so that when you hit a drum, the next one doesn’t ring. Everything’s got to have its own unique pitch and its own unique sound. I’ll play for a couple minutes and lay down some tape. I’ll go out and listen to it, and talk to the engineer. I know which frequencies are missing. I know what it needs to get. I’m a snare drum lunatic, so I have 30 snare drums. I’ll look for that one drum that will crack and sing, have enough bottom and bite, and do everything you need it to do.
Do you often change snare drums from song to song in the studio?
Yes, I generally always do. Every once in a while I’ll use one snare on two or three tunes. But each tune is so completely different, that’s what’s really bizarre and interesting about the psycho acoustics of music. Even though I’m changing drums and doing all that stuff, when it comes down to the final production it sounds like it all works, like one big great-sounding set.
If you’re not getting the bottom and clarity in the booth, it’s generally your fault because you tuned the drum wrong.
Do you have a lot of input into the way your drums are actually produced?
Oh yeah. The longer we’ve been together, the more screaming I have to do.
Do you think it’s the engineer’s responsibility simply to record the drums as the drummer hears them?
Yeah. Generally that’s his job. Most of the engineers that I fire don’t do that.
Have you actually done that?
Yeah. We were notorious in the earlier days, everyone kind of knows about our reputation now. You might be a big producer. You might come and talk with us and stuff, but we might fire you if we don’t like you. And you have to have an engineer that really understands how you work, and what you want to pull out of the sound. If I was really inexperienced and didn’t know what I was doing, of course I would want him to tweak the drums. But I can record and play. I can do anything. So you have to go back to what the music needs. Like, “Well, John, we had to put a little bit of bottom in it.”
“Well, why don’t you take that little bit of bottom off, mister, and let me put a little bit of bottom on my drum.” “Oh, you can do that?” “Yeah I can.” That’s why studying is so important. If you’re not getting the bottom and clarity in the booth, it’s generally your fault because you tuned the drum wrong.
You were one of the first drummers to use the May Miking System. Are you still using it?
I haven’t been using that for a while. I was using the May Miking System inside 811 concert toms padded down to trigger electronic stuff. That lasted about two years in the mid-‘80s. We did that because we thought the drums just didn’t sound as cool live as they did on the record. So after we would do a track in the studio, I would do a sample. I refused to play anybody else’s samples. We had tons of MIDI crap back then. We were always kind of in electronic hell. We’d show up at a town, get to sound check early and start wiring up, and of course there would be a big short, which we’d have to find.
And then by the time we got ready to finish the sound check at like 5 PM, everybody was losing their mind and pulling their hair out. It was like, “Can we have more kick drum?” I would just turn around and turn the volume up. Finally I said, “Hey, don’t you remember how good I used to tune the drums?” And then when [bassist] John Avila came in about ten years ago, he said, “Man, you ought to let John play real drums, this sucks.” Of course, I had to pay John Avila 20 bucks to say that!
Do you play heel-up or down?
I play both. When I really want to sound like a cannon and blow people’s heads off I use my whole leg. I play Freddie Gruber style, where you’re actually floating all over the pedals and at any given moment you can use the whole weight of your leg. I don’t really flam my heel, I touch my heel on the heel-plate. Just the weight of the leg and that contact is enough to rip a hole through a bass drum. When I want to play really fast I use my toes, but generally we don’t play anything that fast, because it still is a rock and roll band. I get most of my strength from the heel-down position.
What kind of grip do you use: matched or traditional?
I go back and forth. My first drum teacher was a rudimental teacher, so I just played traditional when I was in high school. I studied traditional grip and matched grip with Freddie Gruber. It’s actually kind of the same thing. If you hold your hand in a traditional grip and then just lift up those two fingers to support it, it slips into the crotch of your fingers and goes right down into matched grip. As long as your stick is centered in the center of your hand, your hand is going to follow along in a natural pattern. I’ll flip back and forth between matched and traditional. If I’m playing a jazz thing or blues and shuffles, I’ll go to traditional, if it’s really light. But if everybody starts turning up past about 120 watts, I definitely have to go to matched. Maybe traditional is unplugged, and matched is plugged. [laughs]
Do you warm up before gigs?
Yeah, but I figure by the time you get to the gig you have to have everything ready to do the job. You know, practice at home and do all th.at stuff. So my warm ups consist of warming up my whole body, stretching, rubbing, making sure I have total communication with all my appendages.
How much do you practice?
I practice every day. I normally work on staying loose, and I work on a lot of patterns, a lot of movements, and a lot of things that sometimes aren’t musical, but are fun to practice. [laughs] Like when guys play too many notes and it doesn’t really fit the music. You’ve got to save that for home, because if you aren’t making music then you’re pretty much getting in the way. I never got into music to do that. I like soloing, but I don’t like stepping all over everybody.
Do you have any particular goals for your drumming?
I don’t think about which direction to go anymore. I have a constant dialog with the instrument at all times, and I enjoy all the different voices. I’m into a lot of percussion voices. I have djembes, I have Greek drums, Colombian drums, African drums. I have quite an extensive drum collection, so I’m constantly talking to those spirits. I love playing Latin music. I love playing African music. I’ll go out there and groove with King Sunny Ade. I have some really good mambo records. I love Peruvian music, with the hand flutes and little hand drums. There’s so much out there and so much for me to constantly consume, that I’m just always getting better at what I do. For me getting better is just being able to feel free and relaxed and confident, and knowing that I’m able to perform anything that needs to be performed at any moment on any different song.
Do you get any opportunities to play your hand drums in front of an audience?
Well, no. I’ve always done those as overdubs in the studio, because I don’t have the hand endurance to play them live. I’m good for four, five, six passes. I can get a really good sound and I can jam and stuff. But I don’t have any of the hand facility to really play out on a job. You can hear my stick drumming 20 miles through the jungle. The hand drumming masters in this town like Luis Conte—who I work with and run around with a lot—they can be heard the same way with their hands, and I could never do that. I’m courageous enough and know enough about drumming that I can do it in the studio.
Let’s move on to the new record. How would you describe it?
Well, it’s completely different, once again. It’s Danny’s writing, once again. It’s where he feels the direction of the band should go. It has a lot of interesting moments. A lot of it was written in the studio at the last minute. The most last-minutewritten album in the history of Oingo Boingo. Most of the time we would do an album very quickly, by doing a lot of pre-production, which I recommend to any band. Pre-production is the key to getting all the arrangements down, getting all the sounds down. But with this one… Danny has a lot of influences and I think he has been affected by a lot by them, and a lot of them are orchestral. Trying to figure out how all those sounds work in his head made this a little bit longer to record, but we came out with some very interesting approaches and ideas. There is a 40-piece orchestra on it, but you can’t really hear them. That was kind of an interesting experiment.
Since you actually wrote the music in the studio, how did that change the process of learning songs and working on material?
Well, we actually did quite a bit of pre-production, but decisions weren’t solidified until long after the recording process. It’s Danny’s writing, so he mainly has the final say on what he really thinks should happen. So everybody might think they just laid a great track down, and then Danny will go, “I don’t know. Let’s try this.” So we did quite a lot of that this time. We actually recorded in January, then in June and again in December. The first place we recorded I didn’t like the sound at all. The drums sucked. I really feel that the drums have to be recorded on the ground floor. The drums cannot be recorded on the second floor. You never get their full range.
The performance was not bad. It was just the sound of the drums. So that’s where you have to be in that situation. You have to be ready to perform at your best, and always be ready to change your mind. Nothing is written in stone. On this album, it would be like, “Okay? Go: one, two… okay, don’t forget this time we got two bars before the chorus. Okay? Okay! Here we go, one, two… okay, and don’t forget to drop that last beat. Cut off those cymbals, Hernandez. Ready? One, two.” And you’re like going holy nuts. What are you going to do?
Why did the band drop the horn section?
Well, Danny’s the chief writer in the band. He’s the only writer in the band. He’s a workaholic. He’s writing all the time. And the bulk of the music he wanted to play and go out on the road with was an interesting and viable direction for the band, but didn’t include a lot of horns. There wasn’t a whole lot of horn playing on the album, so we decided not to tour with the horns.
Does that change what you’re playing at all?
It changes it a lot. Of course, because it’s taking it out from the orchestral realm and starts to allow me freedom to play a little more. For instance, our new single, “Hey,” that’s been one of the first times I’ve ever gotten the chance to open up. Everything’s been pretty much four-on-the-floor. There’s still enough room in the playing to outline a lot of things, but I’m getting a chance to play a little bit more. There’s more dynamic room. Playing for an orchestra and playing for a small group are two completely different animals. One’s a big charging elephant and the other one’s a napping tiger. Either one is deadly.
Back when you were touring with horns, was part of your responsibility accenting the horn parts?
Everyone needs to make everyone else in the band feel comfortable. Sometimes if a drum fill was a certain way, or if I could set up something that would help the horns, they would let me know. And I in turn would make sure I made it easy for them. Also, from a producer’s standpoint, you also don’t want to put too much out there, because people can get confused. You don’t want to be playing over horn fills or play conflicting drum patterns that don’t make it. So that the horns can shine and you can shine and [singing] everybody’s got to live in the sunshine! Man, I’m in a goofy mood. This is weird Friday.