Published Sep 01, 2004In the Sadies he's known as the Snake, but Mike Belitsky has appeared in many guises since he and his drums first showed up in the Halifax punk scene of the early '80s. He has played, at one time or another, with the Jellyfishbabies, Jale (later the Vees), Neko Case, the Pernice Brothers, and done countless other sessions during stints living in Toronto and New York. All the while, he has had his trusty 1964 Ludwig Ringo Starr tortoise-shell kit; after years of punishing roadwork, it's become as much a trademark of the Sadies' vintage sound as Dallas and Travis Good's twangy guitars and Sean Dean's standup bass.
The Mel Bay School Of Drumming
Like most young drummers, Belitsky was in demand almost immediately after word got out that he could swing sticks. "I was about 16 and there were no drummers in Halifax at that time," he says. "This punk band called me for a gig, and I said, I've only been playing for a weekend.' They said, It doesn't matter, just show up at the Grafton St. Cafe at ten o'clock.' That was the only show I ever played with them, and after that I started getting serious, and studying a lot of instruction books. The night I got my first really good kit, I slept with my head in the bass drum. That's how obsessed I got." That first gig was an early lesson in being versatile, something Belitsky fully embraced after moving to Toronto, where he found a mentor in Glenn Milchem, now the long-serving drummer in Blue Rodeo. "He must have thought I was weird, because I'd go see him every Wednesday night when his band the Garbagemen played at the Cameron House. I was basically stalking him, until I finally got up the courage to ask if he would give me lessons. It wasn't so much learning specific things from him as catching some of his vibe. I think the best way to learn is just by watching and listening to someone as closely as you can."
The Missing Rack Tom
Although Belitsky has grown meticulous with his Ludwigs over the years, he can never play them without a small sense of loss. "This is the third kit I ever had and I got it from a guy in Halifax who played in a cover band. It had a bit of a history, so I've always felt an aura about it. That's why I still feel bad about losing the rack tom. We were doing some recording in Montreal with the Vees, and it got left at someone's house and we never saw it again. If anyone has it, I'd be willing to buy it back."
Belitsky has searched in music stores all over North America but has never found the exact match. "Drums are just as unique as guitars. It's hard to find many that sound alike, and you can get as picky about different eras as guitar players are. I don't mind other people playing my kit, but at this point I like to have everything set up the same at every show. I don't even like playing on risers because I need to feel the bass amp coming through the floor."
One of the few changes Belitsky has made recently was on the kick drum head, which formerly sported the Sadies' logo painted by Rick White of Elevator. "It looked great, but I guess Rick used oil-based paint so it was beginning to crack. I didn't replace it, but one night we were playing in Las Cruces, New Mexico and a guy came up and said, I noticed you didn't have anything on your bass drum,' and he gave me the head that's on there now."
The Medicine Bottle
Belitsky says that experience has also taught him the value of using other percussion instruments to augment a song. Apart from a badly abused shaker egg, his weapon of choice is a bottle of aspirin. "I was really into four-track recording at one point and trying to squeeze as many things into songs as I could. I didn't have enough percussion tools, though, so it just occurred to me to try the aspirin bottle. It ended up sounding really good, and the best part is it's really easy to handle." Of course, having medicine readily available on stage also serves a dual purpose, a perfect example being the night in Chicago when the Sadies were backing up Neko Case. "I'd gotten food poisoning right before the show, but we were only doing an opening set so I kept telling myself to hang on for a half hour. But just as counted in our first song, I threw up right on the kit. That's probably the most damage I've ever done to it on stage." The Sadies' latest album, Favourite Colours, is out now on Outside Music.