Big Shoes to Fill: An Ode to Michael Batts
I’ll never forget the first day I jammed with Michael.
About two and a half years ago I was in the middle of auditioning drummers for the Pseudo Cowboys and was feeling really bummed about the prospects. Truth be told, I’ve been spoiled. I grew up playing in a band with an anomalously good drummer, Luc Valcourt, who even at the tender age of 15 (when we were just starting to play and I could only clunk around on a guitar) was playing Rush, Primus, and Tool tunes like a pro. Most likely to the dismay of any drummer I’ve played with since, the bar for drummers was set high for me. And thanks to my experiences writing around Luc’s ability, I think ‘percussion’ as much as I think ‘lyrics and melody’.
Annoyingly, I tend to be as choosy as an upper-crust socialite who thinks very highly of herself when looking for the right drummer. All of the fellas trying out for the band at the time were fine individuals, fun, friendly, and eager to rock. Some were even great players, but there was a certain element missing from the chemistry that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It was a ‘feel’ issue more than anything. There’s something indescribable about the way a player hits the drums which determines whether or not their style fits in with heavy guitars and bass. It’s as if each person has a unique voice that comes through when they play their instrument, and that voice has to simultaneously shine on it’s own while supporting the other instruments in the mix. It’s an odd balance.
Peering down critically upon the hopefuls, a camcorder videoed each drummer so that I could afterward compare each drummer side by side and see how they looked while playing with the band. As much as I hate assessing a musician on those grounds, it’s just awkward as hell to have one member of the group (or all of them for that matter) not look like they belong. It’s the too-often overlooked part of creating live visual chemistry. People listen with their eyes, musicians jokingly like to say.
And it was painfully obvious that the pieces weren’t fitting. Frustrated, I called a friend who has been well-connected in the Raleigh scene for years and asked if she knew of anyone who’d be a good fit. Without hesitation she said: “You want to call Michael Batts. He is a ROCK drummer, and he’s not playing with anyone at the moment.” Just by the way she said the word ‘rock’ made a smile grow on my face like when the Grinch who stole Christmas finally found he had a heart…my hair might have even curled up like his… or does it just do that naturally?
The following day or so I set aside a minute to call Michael and made sure I was in the right head space. I’ve always been nervous about being frank for the first time with musicians. I don’t do drugs or drink heavily and so I make it clear that when we’re working as a band (gigging, practicing, in the studio, etc.) we’re not going to be all messed up out of our heads. It sucks to kill a person’s enthusiasm with that caveat, but I don’t like to waste time. That’s a deal breaker for a lot of guys, unfortunately, but I like to go ahead and get that issue out in the open.
So I took a big breath and dialed his number. A very upbeat, very southern voice answered, and truly from that moment I really liked the guy. He was easy to chat with and had a kind warmth in the way he conversed. I gave him the run down on what I was looking for/expected, sent him some of my music to rehearse, and set up a practice date.
On the day of the audition, he showed up on time (a rarity among musicians) and started unpacking a green Premier drum kit that looked a lot like one Luc used to use. The familiarity felt promising. Having never seen what Michael looked like before I was struck by his handsomeness. He had this young Harrison Ford/young Cary Elwes thing going on that was hard not to appreciate. But what struck me even more was his playing. He came prepared. It was obvious that he’d thoroughly rehearsed the songs I sent – and believe me, I threw in some of the trickier ones at him just as a test. We set up, cranked up the amps, and from the down beat of first tune we played he owned it.
I was tickled. Suddenly, things were locking in and it all became easy, whereas jamming with other people felt like swimming through molasses. And he hit those drums hard! To see someone committing and delivering the songs with passion each time we ran through really resonated with me because that’s how I like to play. The feel was finally there.
Shaking hands after our practice, I waved goodbye, and when his car was finally out of site I looked at GQ (bass player at the time) and we both shared a satisfied expression of relief. While it was obvious enough already that this was my guy, the icing on the cake was when I got home and reviewed the footage from our practice. I noticed that when Michael hit the kick and snare it was so powerful that it was made the camera shake like Godzilla was stomping nearby. Put side by side with the previous auditions, it was clear his drumming was a force to be reckoned with.
We’ve had a good run together since that audition, played some great shows at the Pour House in Raleigh, Oak City 7, and even were a part of a Spinal Tap tribute band called Goes to 11 last year. Thanks to his patience and work ethic, I’ve improved dramatically as a musician (and probably as a person too) over the past two years. I’ve never been more impressed with someone as a human being. It takes a man of true character to work as hard as he does at his day job, have a family, and then still make time to play music. I can only imagine what it’s like after fulfilling all of his top priorities, showing up at the stuffy climate controlled storage unit I call a practice space and listening to me awkwardly try to be a band leader… although, it’s got to be a bit humorous an entertaining.. there’s a lot of hand gestures and frizzy mad scientist hair involved.
I feel blessed to have had his friendship while we’ve both endured some challenging life-altering events in recent days. It’s amazing how much can change in such as short amount of time. Getting to know him and his lovely family has restored my faith in humanity a bit. Genuine people are hard to find and I’ve never met a more genuine group of folks.
And so it’s with a touch of sadness that I’m writing to announce Michael’s departure from the Pseudo Cowboys. Michael’s not only a great drummer, but also a talented songwriter and he has decided he wants to commit to finishing his solo work. I’m stoked to hear the final product and hopefully I can lend a hand if he needs me when he decides to play his material out. Stay tuned for that. He’s got great musical influences, many of which I’d never heard of until he introduced me to them.
Our last show scheduled show with Michael will be 9/6/14 during the Hopscotch day parties at London Bridge Pub (set time tba). Let’s make it a great send off and rock hard one more time with one of the best I’ve ever shared the stage with.
Now I’m really spoiled. Thanks, Michael. Whoever has to fill your shoes now has definitely got their work cut out for them.
Any drummers out there up for it? After all that bro-mancing I’m sure you’re just dying to jump in there after him. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org