Day in and day out, Toronto-based musician Mike Sleath has one of the coolest gigs on the planet: laying down drums for Shawn Mendes. A solid drummer with great time and a steadfast practice routine, Sleath has performed with the likes of Autumn Hill, Victoria Duffield, Cody Simpson, and Francesco Yates leading up to his current gig with international superstar Shawn Mendes. Since joining Mendes' band, Sleath has played SNL, The Tonight Show, MTV Unplugged, numerous award shows, and some of the most coveted stages in the world, including Madison Square Garden and Wembley Stadium.
I had the opportunity to sit with Mike and talk about his experiences as a drummer…
CM: Describe your process for learning a song.
MS: I begin by charting out the song and writing down all of my parts. I develop ideas on how I can bring out my drums in the right places. When we are learning songs for Mendes, I receive the songs in Dropbox. At rehearsal, the band dives in deep, paying attention to form and structure. We can spend up to two days working on a single song. We create live arrangements and transitions between songs with shots. Rehearsals are also spent focusing on intros and transitions. We will rehearse for one month leading up to a tour and a lot of that time is spent creating multiple versions of each song, including unplugged versions. The challenge is then to remember all of the different versions!
CM: What skill set do drummers need?
MS: The ability to adapt to change is necessary. You have to be open to ideas and go with what someone else wants to do, and then remember what they want. For example, the music director or the artist may ask for a particular drum fill in certain parts of the set. These days, a drummer has to know how to run tracks on Ableton. I have learned how to use Ableton through a process of trial and error. You’re always learning and that’s what keeps it interesting.
CM: How did you come to perform with Shawn Mendes?
MS: I had been performing with many artists, including Francesco Yates and Autumn Hill. Around that time, I had met guitarist and musical director Dan Kanter, who asked me if I wanted to audition for the band he was putting together for Shawn Mendes. I had a successful audition.
CM: Describe the challenges of drumming on a big tour.
MS: Challenges include switching between playing on live drums versus on electronic drum pads. Physically, between songs, toss towels on a drum head in order to create a muted tone. As I said, remembering different versions of songs. Also, keeping up momentum. You have to keep coming up with ideas and adding ideas in rehearsal that will eventually be performed on stage.
You are on tour with between 70 and 80 people, so you want to have a good vibe with everyone. It’s important to remember that you are all part of a team. Everyone has an important role. The food you eat is prepared by someone on the team. The instrument techs make sure everything is ready for the show. So, it’s important to be nice to everyone. Mendes’ band has a team work ethic. The band will work out together at the gym, usually at 5 pm. One of the biggest challenges has been a lack of sleep. You are travelling so much that you may be tired but you have to come up with your best performance every night. You have to “be on” and at your best all of the time.
CM: Describe your practice routine.
MS: Normally, I work on stuff I can’t do. I work on independence in my right foot and left foot. I play paradiddles on snare but also using combinations of toms and foot pedals. I work on dynamics and my groove. I play along with songs as well as create unique fills.
CM: How important is it to maintain your practice routine as a musician?
MS: I think it’s very important. There’s a quote I really like by violinist Jascha Heifetz that goes: “If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.” We’ve been on the road for most of the year and it’s not always easy to practice but I have a practice pad that I carry. I’ve been going back working on exercises. It’s important to pick up your instrument and play for even 15 minutes a day in order to keep your groove and chops at their best.
CM: What makes a great drummer?
MS: A great drummer makes it “feel” and sound good. You have to set and keep a steady tempo. A great drummer also knows where to place drum fills depending on the situation and follows what the vocalist wants.
CM: Name some of your influences on drums.
MS: John Bonham, Travis Barker, Chad Smith, and Tony Royter Jr.
CM: Describe some of the highlights of touring with Shawn Mendes.
MS: Playing Wembley Stadium, MTV Unplugged, and SNL. Travelling has been a highlight, and playing to a big crowd every night.
CM: What equipment do you use?
MS: Yamaha Drums, Sabian cymbals, Drum Dots, and a Big Fat Snare Drum. I am building a new touring rig for the 2019 tour. I am assembling my own DW maple mahogany collector’s series kit and I can’t wait to share it on the road.
CM: What are some of your career goals?
MS: I’d like to do more clinics and land a spot on Drumeo. I just want to continue to learn as much as possible on my kit and improve my craft. I will keep building my portfolio.
CM: What advice do you have for other drummers?
MS: You need a strong work ethic. You are only as good as your last rehearsal or show. Be able to work well under pressure. Always aim for perfection and the best performance you can give. Take every gig you can. Meet as many people as possible. This will open doors. Often, you will get recommended for a gig. You need to do the groundwork. Have as many drums and electronic gear as possible. Know how to run the technical equipment.
Jeff Gunn is the author of the Hidden Sounds: Discover Your Own Method on Guitar, guitarist/musical director for Emmanuel Jal, and the composer of his upcoming solo effort Sonic Tales, expected in 2019. Follow @jeffgunn1 on Instagram and Twitter.
Photos by Josiah Van Dien, @josiahvandien