Some have called him the “Drum Killer.” Others have named him the “Rhythm Nazi.” In the recording business he’s simply known as Michael Beinhorn, best known for his work on Soundgarden’s Superunknown. With a resume featuring over 20 albums by big names like Ozzy Osbourne, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and Herbie Hancock, it goes without saying that the man knows his way around a recording studio. I have no qualms about his talents as a producer; it’s his track record of firing drummers that irks me.
I first learned of his megalomaniac ways from the documentary Hit So Hard: the Life & Near Death of Patty Schemel. The film chronicles the life of former Hole drummer Schemel and her struggles with drug addiction. Early on, the film establishes her talents as a drummer, showing how she became a fixture in the Seattle grunge scene of the early 90s. At one point, Courtney Love goes so far as to suggest that Schemel was Kurt Cobain’s first choice to replace drummer Chad Channing (this of course could have simply been another Courtney-fied dig at Dave Grohl). Since Love wore the pants in the relationship, she told Kurt that she wanted Schemel in her band instead.
Things went sour for Hole when they began work on their sophomore album Celebrity Skin. With Beinhorn at the helm, Schemel’s drum-work was put in the cross hairs. The film chronicles the daily grind put upon her, often with Beinhorn sitting next to her banging the beat out onto a music stand like a senile band director. When it came time to record, he tried to wear her into submission, asking her to play the track again and again and again, eight hours a day, until her muscles were aching and her mind was reeling in confusion. One story related by studio tech Chris Whitemeyer tells of Beinhorn going so far as to mute Schemel’s track during the recording process so he could read the newspaper, only taking a break to say, “Do it again.” Whitemeyer goes on to confess, “He wanted Patty to give up.”
When Deen Castronovo of Journey fame was finally brought in to record the tracks, he told Whitemeyer, “I’ve been waiting two and a half weeks for this girl to go” (Castronovo also happens to be Beinhorn’s go to replacement drummer in firing situations). All of the tracks on Celebrity Skin would feature Castronovo, a fact that caused Schemel to quit the band. This portion of the film had me curious as to what other drummers he’s fired over the years. After spending some time scouring the internet, I was able to come up with a list of verified replaced drummers from Beinhorn projects:
1992: Soul Asylum, Grant Young – Grave Dancers Union
1995: Ozzy Osbourne, Randy Castillo – Ozzmosis
1996: Social Distortion, Chuck Biscuits – White Light, White Heat, White Trash
1998: Hole, Patty Schemel – Celebrity Skin
These are the only firings I can substantiate, although Beinhorn himself has bragged, “I’ve fired drummers on roughly 20-40 percent of the recordings I’ve produced.” That averages out to around 5-10 drummers let go under his watch.
In recent years, Beinhorn has taken to the internet to defend himself saying, “Have you ever had to fire someone? I personally don’t recommend it.” In several other rants he emphasizes how much he dislikes firing people. I would call him a liar due to his habit of dumping drummers, but based off his passive-aggressive methods of firing musicians (i.e. trying to get rid of Patty Schemel by destroying her confidence), I’d say he is actually being honest on this point.
Beinhorn put Marilyn Manson drummer Ginger Fish through the same routine as Schemel while recording Mechanical Animals. Before even starting the recording process, Fish was told he would need to prove himself before being allowed to appear on the new album. Everyday Fish arrived to the rehearsal studio to run the gauntlet, but Beinhorn never came once to check out his drum work. In this rare case, Fish survived the test by refusing to give-in to Beinhorn’s spineless efforts to eliminate a drummer without actually confronting him. Fish recalls the experience saying, “So here I was – three years in the band, I’d done two albums with the band and now I’ve got to audition for this producer because he’s going to end up firing me. It’s like, why doesn’t the producer come in and just make the band sound as good as it can?”
With Soul Asylum, Beinhorn took a different tact, convincing Dave Pirner and Dan Murphy that Grant Young was holding them back. The band eventually took Beinhorn’s advice, but they now look back with regret on the events that broke up their 10-year relationship with Young. Murphy said in an interview, “I’ve seen Grant a couple of times since then and we’re not comfortable at all, which is kind of sad. I spent a lot of years with that young man in a band together. I think that that incident marked our band in a way. Like, we were getting too big for our britches [because] we got a studio guy.”
Both Fish and Murphy hit on one of my biggest arguments – bands (in most cases) are a family. They often join forces in garages and learn their instruments on the fly with varying learning curves. They share a vision; they share joys; they share heartaches. When one of those founding members is ripped from a band, no matter how lacking their skills, something is lost in the process. Bands come to Beinhorn to help them make the best sounding record with the members they’ve got, but he seems to put little value in the relationships they’ve established. What he’s done to bands is akin to being given ingredients to make chicken salad and opting to make egg salad.
There’s also something else lost in the process. Beinhorn describes the drummer as the “backbone” of a band, but I’d argue that the drummer serves as the soul of the band. They are the spirit of the band, the heartbeat. Hole’s Eric Erlandson captured it best when he said of Schemel’s firing, “We lost some of the band’s soul. What the fuck were we thinking?” If you compare Hole’s raw debut Live Through This to Beinhorn’s overtly sheen Celebrity Skin, it’s pretty clear that something has been lost in the absence of Schemel. Sure, the drums are precise, but there is an authenticity absent from the entire record.
An even better example of the “soul” a drummer brings to a project is evident with the latest Black Sabbath album 13 (produced by Rick Rubin). While there are definitely some great nostalgia-based tracks on the album, there is one glaring absence throughout: the drum-work of Bill Ward. Don’t get me wrong, Ward was far from a perfect drummer. Listen to any 70s era Sabbath album and you’re likely to hear an errant snare hit or inadvertent bass drum kick. But you’ll also hear something else – that definitive, jazz-influenced soul that Ward brought to the table. Sabbath started out as what they described as a “blues rock band” and despite getting darker and heavier, Ward’s drums kept that loose spirit alive and well throughout the decade.
Would Ward have lasted a Beinhorn led recording session? What about Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason? How would Beinhorn have dealt with Keith Moon’s penchant for partying? Or the oft-maligned Ringo Starr? We’ll never know these what-ifs, but take comfort in knowing that Beinhorn didn’t produce/suck-the-life-from any albums in the 60s and 70s. Also, be thankful that Beinhorn isn’t your boss.