Sick Drummer Magazine

Mike Heller
Saturday, 06 October 2007 16:00


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Mike Heller


Mike Heller was born on January 17th, 1982 in Brooklyn, New York.  He began playing drums in middle school, and eventually joined the school band.  He quickly earned a name for himself as a dynamic player with command of many different styles.  In 2002, Mike played session drums for local pop-punk bands Steamed Yak and Average At Best, and in late 2003 joined technical death metal band Malignancy.  With Malignancy, he began defining his own style in the death metal context and became an in-demand session drummer, working with New Jersey's Kalopsia, and New York's Disembowel, among others. Not content to just play in death metal bands, Mike played with a jazz band while in college, as well as other local bands ranging from progressive rock to country.

In 2006, Mike recorded his first full-length album with Malignancy entitled "Inhuman Grotesqueries" on Willowtip records which was released worldwide in August 2007.  Over his career, Mike has studied with session great Tommy Igoe, progressive metal icon John Macaluso, and latin-jazz great Richie Morales, and wishes to continue working with these legends once time allows.  Today, Mike can be found playing all over the world with Malignancy, as well as doing session work in all styles, completing his Bachelor's degree in psychology, and teaching locally out of his home in Westchester, New York.


Mike Heller Interview: How old were you when you started playing?

Mike: I started playing in middle school, which would place me around 13 or 14.  Unfortunately I wasn't able to get serious about my drumming until around 2003, when I was actually able to devote some real time to practice. Did you play in a school band or any drum corps?

Mike: I played in the middle school and high school bands, where I was one of a few drummers.  I had to play things like "Take Five" and Santana's "Europa" because I was the only one who could get my head around odd meters and simple coordination.  I had no real training at that point, so I just played along to the best of my limited ability at the time.  I REALLY wish that my school had a drum corps because that would have allowed me a structured environment to learn rudiments and proper technique.  I wasn't really able to get into that stuff until a few years ago, when I began taking "real" lessons. Who are your top 5 influences?

Mike: That's nearly an impossible question for me, as I have so many influences, but I'll do my best.

Marco Minnemann - for everything from his phrasing, to his independence (interdependence), to his musicality, to the humor in his music.

Vinnie Colaiuta - for the confidence he puts into absolutely everything he does, be it jazz, funk, pop, rock, whatever.  Plus, he's from another planet.

Dave Weckl - He and Colaiuta are sort of in the same boat, but definitely don't have the same style.  He's a guy that put so much work into his craft, and tried to make absolutely everything musical.  I recently went to one of
his masterclasses and I learned so much just from being able to jam with the guy.

Steve Smith/Dennis Chambers/Billy Cobham
- I know I know, unfair, that's three guys. but to me they've all had around the same impact.  I spent hours trying to work out parts that they've played, and they continue to make incredible music.  Believe it or not, I took parts from all three of these guys and put them directly into Malignancy songs. - I did that with AJ Pero from Twisted Sister too, but nobody believes me.

Rick Colaluca - Nobody seems to have any idea who this guy is, but he's the drummer from Watchtower, one of my two favorite metal bands of all time. (The other being Confessor, who have another incredible drummer, Steven Shelton).  Watchtower is the band that initially showed me that metal didn't always have to be straight forward.  People talk about all of these technical death metal bands, and I don't think that there's a chance in hell that any of them have the technical ability to play any of Watchtower's songs!  Rick was (and hopefully still is) just incredibly jazzy, and that's what I love!  I would consider myself a fusion drummer, and Rick pretty much taught me how I could get that influence into metal. (You'll hear this on a few songs on the new Malignancy record, and definitely all over everything that's left to come).



Mike Heller Assuming that influences doesn't mean favorites, who are your favorites?

Mike: Well, definitely Marco, Vinnie, Dave, Steve, Dennis, Billy, and Rick, as well as Elvin Jones, Buddy Rich, Omar Hakim, Joe Morello, Thomas Lang, Tim Alexander, Jack Dejohnette, Akira Jimbo, Billy Ward, Steven Shelton, AJ Pero, Tony Williams, Steve Gadd, Chris Coleman, Gerald Hayward, Aaron Spears, Jim Chapin, Carter Beauford, Jojo Mayer and so many more! Let us know 5 CD's that are in your current rotation

Mike: Karizma - Document Live (Vinnie Colaiuta)
Marco Minnemann - Golden Orange (and all his other solo records)
Akira Jimbo - his Brombo Project CD (amazing acoustic jazz CD)
Steve Smith and Vital Information - Vitalization
Mahavishnu Orchestra - Inner Mounting Flame What do you do to warm up before a show?

Mike: I'm usually practicing the rudiments on a pad slowly to fast for as long as possible throughout the entire day of a show.  I'm one of those guys that LOVES to improve, so I'm always practicing on that pad.  I don't really have a set routine, but I like to get everything in there. singles, doubles, flams, drags, everything.  I really like doing swiss army triplets and the pataflafla a lot, because those really seem to help loosen up the fingers. If I'm lucky enough to have my pedals and a practice kick pad, I'll work on independence exercises.  One of my favorites is from Mike Mangini's book, and it goes like this: (for this purpose, right foot will be F, and left foot will be S)


The focus is on making the transitions between parts effortless and smooth. I do this pretty slowly, and never really do it that fast because the purpose is to do it 100% clean.  This really helps get me loose and ready. Then I'll stretch a little bit and get on stage. Can you remember a night you think was your best playing ever? If yes, when and where?

Mike: It's kind of strange but shows seem to keep getting better and better for me. I used to be very nervous before gigs, and I would always worry too much about what gear I was using, or what the audience would hear, but lately I've just been able to relax and enjoy myself.  Like most things, if you think too much, you screw things up!  The last few shows we played would probably be some of my best playing.  These include LA, Fresno and Alameda, California, as well as Merida, Mexico.  I played really well, though when you're in an underground band like Malignancy, you're lucky if the sound is anywhere near acceptable, so you might be the only one to notice you're playing well!  I wasn't using my own kit for any of these shows, and cymbals were falling over (especially in Mexico), but I just went with it and had a blast. The thing is, I have a video of that show from Alameda, and I'm
really happy with my playing, but the triggers were misfiring a bunch, so it won't be on youtube!  That's what you get for using a friend's gear!  I don't like using triggers anyway because I play with a lot of dynamics, but it's rare when anyone can hear the kicks without triggers at a death metal show, so it's pretty much required.  The kick drum I was using at that show didn't have a hole in it for a mic anyway!



Mike Heller Do you have a favorite brand of drums or cymbals?

Mike: Turk Masters cymbals are the most amazing sounding things I've ever heard.  I'm not saying this just because I'm endorsed, they sound incredible, and you'll hear it too when you hear them!  They're just phenomenal, and I got to custom design all of my own cymbals, so they're built to my specifications.  GO CHECK OUT TURK MASTERS CYMBALS!  As for drums, I'm really partial to these kits that I build.  I got Keller maple shells (same thing that Spaun and a bunch of other custom companies use) and hardware online, drilled holes, and put them all together.  I'm experimenting with different sizes right now, and I really like having the freedom to do so (read: it is way less expensive to build a kit that sounds amazing than to buy a name-brand kit that sounds pretty similar).  On the other hand, I really like DW hardware, and I absolutely LOVE Trick's Pro 1-V pedals. If you could give one piece of advice to young drummers, it would be...

Mike: Learn the basics first, and learn ALL styles!  Okay, that's two things.  It's so important to have a good sense of time, a great feel, good technique.  So many drummers overlook this and end up struggling. (I know I did!)  If I could start all over again, the first thing I'd do is get with a teacher who could help me to learn GOOD habits, instead of constantly working to break bad ones.  Also, so many drummers ask me questions about how I do what I do, and my answer is always that I don't play death metal! I don't even listen to death metal in all honesty. I listen to every other style I can possibly get my hands on, and I try to learn everything I can. I think that's one of the most important things that you can possibly do as a drummer.  Don't limit yourself simply to the style you are currently playing, open yourself up and take influence from absolutely everything you possibly can, be it something from a Miles Davis song, or something you accidentally hear on a salsa station.  Also, it's one thing to say you can easily do what you hear on that pop song, but to be able to convincingly do it with consistency and great feel is definitely another. Who gave the best live performance you've ever seen?

Mike: Chick Corea in NYC in 2004 I think.  He had Frank Gambale on guitar, John Pattitucci on bass, and Dave Weckl on drums.  It was just so incredible to be there right behind Dave's kit, being able to watch how he interacted with the band.  It was just the most incredible gathering of musical minds I have ever witnessed, and I'm beyond excited to go see Chick again with Weckl and Victor Wooten in December!  On the other hand, Twisted Sister gave the 2nd best performance I've ever seen, eleven out of the twelve times that I've seen them!  I first went to see them as a joke because I had a Stay Hungry tape when I was four years old, and I left with my mind blown.  They were just so amazingly incredible live, I couldn't believe it.  Aj Pero is the most underrated drummer who has ever existed, the man played with an effortless mastery of the kit (which is how he explains it I guess), and they put on such an amazing show!  The twelfth time I saw them was for their worthless Christmas album. they came out playing "I saw mommy kissing santa clause," and I stayed for about three more songs before I was so furious that I walked out.  I was SO incredibly disappointed. but aside from that once, they were absolutely phenomenal! If you had to stop drumming, what would you want to do with your life?

Mike: I think I can honestly say that I'd be completely lost. My life revolves around the drums now (jamming with a rock band tomorrow, Malignancy show the next day, jamming with a jazz band the next day, day off to practice, Malignancy show the next day, etc.), and if I were to be forced to stop I'd hope that I could start playing bass!  I have to say that I admire Jason Becker than any other human being on the planet, the man is truly my hero!  I'd hope that if I had to stop drumming, that I could have even half the courage that Jason has to keep going.  (Plus, Perpetual Burn is an amazing album that EVERYONE should own!)  I guess that I'd have to get some sort of psychology job as I am a year away from my degree. hopefully it would involve music therapy or something of the sort.  Other than that, I'd probably have to work with animals.

Thanks so much for your interest, and I'd like to add that anyone who would like to can feel free to contact me via my myspace account,


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