February 23, 2009
By David Hayes
Drummer misses fame with Alice in Chains; creates class for next generation of aspiring rockers
Looking back at the burgeoning Seattle music scene in the early ’90s, drummer Jeffrey McCormack, while not bitter, can’t help but wonder, “What if?”
McCormack’s tale is somewhat a replay of Pete Best’s. Before The Beatles shot to super stardom, they jettisoned Best in favor of Ringo Starr.
McCormack left on his own accord to pursue other musical interests, leaving a group of musicians that went on to grunge acclaim — Alice in Chains.
McCormack was an assistant manager of The Music Bank Rehearsal Studios in Seattle. In a rare convergence of talent, he began jamming with guitarist Jerry Cantrell and vocalist Layne Staley. When the other two came off their glam metal days in Diamond Lie and started taking their music in the direction that led to the signature sound of Alice in Chains, McCormack parted ways.
“Jerry’s music started getting a little dark,” McCormack said. “I was among those who were fighting this new sound emerging from Seattle. I was staying true to real heavy metal. I thought it was just a phase, this ‘grunge.’”
So, once sporting “hair down to here (pointing to his knees) and up to here (holding his hand a foot above his head)” McCormack quickly joined a traditional hair band he thought was on the rise, Nightshade.
“Karang Magazine compared us side-by-side on their cover next to Pearl Jam,” McCormack, recalling another Seattle band on the rise. “Then, they got huge, and for us, nothing.”
McCormack, now 41 and a veteran of more than 40 albums as a drummer getting gigs where he could, recently spotted an opportunity he wouldn’t pass up this time.
After teaching drumming lessons for three years at the Kaleidoscope School of Music in Issaquah, he was chatting with fellow bass guitar teacher Masa Kobayashi and discovered their mutual love of heavy metal. Thanks to the video games “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band,” a new generation of teens was getting exposure to the type of music McCormack and Kobayashi grew up on, from Iron Maiden to Aerosmith. Sensing a golden opportunity on their hands, they decided to offer the school’s first heavy metal class.
Of course, if the idea had hinged upon McCormack’s own prowess on the digitized drums, it may have been a nonstarter.
“On ‘Rock Band,’ I was trying to play the real version of ‘Run for the Hills,’ by Iron Maiden, like Nick McBrain and Clive Burr,” McCormack said. “But in the game, you have to play to these bars on the screen that aren’t necessarily on the real beat. I was rushing every bar and doing terrible.”
So, he threw down the sticks, giving up in frustration.
But it’s the heavy metal class, “Metal Shop,” that has him excited. He teamed with Kobayashi, 33, a Japanese transplant who had to drop out of the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle because he was missing too many classes due to his own heavy metal band.
Their project invited teens under 18 with no prior experience necessary to learn the makings of a good heavy metal rocker. The course includes classes about heavy-metal history, clinics regarding musical equipment, visits by local metal heroes and ends with a concert performed by the students at a popular Seattle rock club.
Hunter Pierce, 12, a Maywood Middle School student, has been playing drums the last couple of years after watching others on TV, including Tommy Lee from Motley Crue and Jo Jo Mayer from Nerve. He jumped at the opportunity to learn the metal ropes from McCormack and Kobaysashi.
“It seemed interesting, and I like metal,” Pierce said, adding that after just two sessions, it’s “been very fun. Plus, it’s cool listening to Jeff tell stories until he feels old.”
The 10 students have been split into two groups (one already has the name Trauma Queen) and each has to learn three songs to perform at the end of the eight weeks as an opening act for a real band.
As for McCormack, he’s recently formed his own heavy metal band, Screams of Angels, and is in the process of planning a European tour.
“It’s funny. Heavy metal kind of died down in the U.S., but it always remained big in Europe and Japan,” he said.
He keeps busy living the metal dream, whether it’s in front of a screaming crowd or passing the torch in his class to the next generation of rockers.
Reach Reporter David Hayes at 392-6434, ext. 237, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment on this story at www.issaquahpress.com.