FLOTSAM AND JETSAM's KEN MARY Is 'Okay' With Artists Using Backing Tracks 'In Certain Instances'

July 31, 2023

FLOTSAM AND JETSAM drummer Ken Mary has weighed in on bands who rely heavily on pre-recorded tracks during their live performances.

In recent years, more and more artists have been given a pass for relying on pre-recorded tracks, drum triggers and other assorted technology that makes concerts more synthetic but also more consistent. For better or worse, pre-recorded tracks are becoming increasingly common for touring artists of all levels and genres and they're not just used in pop music — many rock artists utilize playback tracks to varying degrees.

During a new appearance on the "Rimshots With Sean" podcast, Mary — who has also played with such artists as ALICE COOPER, HOUSE OF LORDS and ACCEPT — stated about some bands' reliance on pre-recorded tracks (as transcribed by BLABBERMOUTH.NET): "Well, honestly, you're probably not gonna like my answer, but I'm okay with it, depending on the artists. There's certain artists that, let's just face it, as a singer, there are very few singers, when you get into your seventies, that are gonna even sound like they did back in the day. Look, I, you know, I grew up hearing all the Elton John songs and I saw some of his recent footage. He's over 70. His voice doesn't sound the same. To me, it doesn't even sound like the same singer. So, if you're talking about an artist, like for instance I saw KISS, I saw their final, farewell tour. This was right before COVID. And I knew that some of the vocals were on tracks. And, to be honest with you, I'm okay with it, because I just wanted to see 'em play the songs, I wanted to remember the way it was when I saw 'em the first time I saw 'em, and you wanted to remember your childhood heroes the way they are. I'd much rather hear a track than hearing some horrible performance or something where they're just not able to do it anymore. So I'm okay in certain instances, and I know that young people are too. I talked to… I can't remember… I mean, this is probably 15 years back, but I remember talking to somebody about Britney Spears, and I was, like, 'Well, you know that, you know all that she's doing, it's all on track. And they were, like, 'Yeah, it's okay because she's dancing so much that that's okay.' And I'm, like, 'All right. Well, if you know it and you're okay with it, and you're just there to see the performance, I think sometimes it's okay.' I think if it's something where it's maybe a more, I don't wanna say more serious kind of music, but maybe a music that it's more, I don't know, not necessarily geared as much on the show, then for that kind of thing, I would probably not be okay with lead vocals being on tracks."

Ken went on to say that fans have the option to voice their displeasure about artists using backing tracks by simply not buying concert tickets to see those bands perform.

"Well, yeah, it's one of those things — if you're not okay with it, don't go see it, don't pay the money to go see it," he said. "And that's the whole thing. Like, for me, seeing KISS, I was aware that there was gonna be some 'magic' going on, and I was totally okay with it. I wanna hear those songs the way they were. If the whole thing was on tracks, then I might have a problem with that. I did hear some things about another band where supposedly the whole thing was on tracks, and I'm just, like, yeah, that's probably a bit much, a bit far to take it. I guess I'm in the middle of the argument — I think sometimes it's okay and sometimes it's not okay. Sometimes you're gonna wanna see your artists, and especially if they're young and they're healthy… But when you start talking about artists that you start getting into your late sixties or seventies, they might need a little bit of help now and then, maybe just on the high notes or whatever, maybe somebody's gonna sing the high part or… And that doesn't… for me personally, it doesn't really bother me."

KISS frontman Paul Stanley, who has been struggling to hit the high notes in many of the band's classic songs for a number of years, has been accused of singing to a backing tape on KISS's ongoing "End Of The Road" tour.

Back in 2015, KISS bassist/vocalist Gene Simmons slammed bands who used backing tapes for not being honest enough to include that fact on their concert tickets.

"I have a problem when you charge $100 to see a live show and the artist uses backing tracks," Simmons said. "It's like the ingredients in food. If the first ingredient on the label is sugar, that's at least honest. It should be on every ticket — you're paying $100, 30 to 50 percent of the show is [on] backing tracks and they'll sing sometimes, sometimes they'll lip sync. At least be honest. It's not about backing tracks, it's about dishonesty.

"There's nobody with a synthesizer on our stage, there's no samples on the drums, there's nothing," Gene continued. "There's very few bands who do that now — AC/DC, METALLICA, us. I can't even say that about U2 or THE [ROLLING] STONES. There's very few bands who don't use [backing] tracks."

This past March, KISS's longtime manager Doc McGhee defended Stanley's vocal performance on "End Of The Road", explaining that the "Star Child" "fully sings to every song" at every concert. He explained: It's enhanced. It's just part of the process to make sure that everybody hears the songs the way they should be sang to begin with. Nobody wants to hear people do stuff that's not real, that's not what they came to hear."

When McGhee was asked to clarify if he was "actually saying there are backing tracks that [Paul is] singing to," Doc said: "He'll sing to tracks. It's all part of a process. Because everybody wants to hear everybody sing. But he fully sings to every song."

In March 2020, SHINEDOWN guitarist Zach Myers said that "90 percent" of rock artists use at least some pre-recorded tracks during their live performances. He told Rock Feed: "It bothers me that it bothers people. I'm, like, 'Why does this bother you?' It's the way it is. People have been doing this since the '80s. And we want the sound to be the best it can be. Could we go up there, just the four of us, and put on the best rock show ever? Of course. But that's not how we wanna do it."

Former SKID ROW singer Sebastian Bach has previously said that he is "one of the last people" who are still not using pre-recorded tracks at their live shows. "I don't know how much longer I can say to you that I don't use tapes onstage, because I don't, and I never have," he told Consequence Of Sound. "And I still don't. When I have opening bands, and they're using tapes, and then I come out and I don't use tapes… sometimes, it makes me feel stupid, because I'm like, 'What am I doing, when all these kids half my age can come onstage and do all of my moves, but they don't have to warm up for an hour before the show, or weeks, before the first show?' Sometimes, I'm like, 'Why do I even bother, if the public is so used to this other way?' It's becoming very rare to come see a good band that's actually a real band — that's not miming or doing silly moves while a tape is running. It just becomes more rare as the years go on."

In 2019, IRON MAIDEN guitarist Adrian Smith said that he doesn't "agree" with certain rock artists relying on pre-recorded tracks during their live performances. "I tell you what, I see it with a lot of younger bands, and I don't think it's a good thing at all," he told the New York Post. "I mean, the music is getting too technical now. You have computerized recording systems, which we use, but I think we use them more for convenience than because we need to. We've toured with a couple bands that use tapes — it's not real. You're supposed to play live; it should be live. I don't agree with using tapes … I think it's a real shame."

One musician who has been open about his band's use of taped vocals during live performances is MÖTLEY CRÜE bassist Nikki Sixx, who said: "We've used technology since '87." He added the group employed "sequencers, sub tones, background vox tracks, plus background singers and us. [MÖTLEY CRÜE also taped] stuff we can't tour with, like cello parts in ballads, etc.... We love it and don't hide it. It's a great tool to fill out the sound."

In a 2014 interview, MÖTLEY CRÜE guitarist Mick Mars admitted that he wasn't comfortable with the fact that his band used pre-recorded backing vocals in its live shows, claiming that he preferred to watch groups whose performances are delivered entirely live. "I don't like it," he said. "I think a band like ours… I have to say '60s bands were my favorite — '60s and '70s bands — because they were real, like, three-piece bands or four-piece bands, and they just got up there and kicked it up. Made a mistake? So what? Sounded a little bit empty here or there? So what? It's the bigness and the rawness and the people that developed and wrote the songs and made them and presented them. To me, that's what I really like. I mean, I could put on a MÖTLEY CD and play with it all day long. I don't wanna do that."

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