Pvris’ sticksman on keeping the big live gigs
Touring at a professional level can be both exhilarating and frustrating. On the one hand you get to experience the world with a certain degree of luxury and play to thousands of devoted fans; on the other, there are hours of press, photoshoots, business meetings and flesh pressing to contend with.
For Pvris live drummer Justin Nace, the latter doesn’t cause him any headaches. It’s singer, guitarist and songwriter Lynn Gunn [aka Lyndsey Gunnulfsen], guitarist/keyboardist Alex Babinski, and bassist/ keyboardist Brian MacDonald who feature in the trio’s promo pictures, do most of the interviews and record the music. Yet since 2013 Justin has been a vital element of the band’s live shows, adding a sonic and visual boost that elevates their dark, grooving, synth-fuelled pop rock.
While this means Justin is a relatively anonymous part of Pvris, that didn’t stop him earning a nomination in Rhythm’s 2015 end-of-year polls in the Best New Drummer category, proving you don’t need to be on the frontline to make an impact. Following up the band’s 2014 breakout album
WhiteNoise, which featured unforgettable hits including ‘St Patrick’ and ‘My House’, Pvris released their new album All We Know Of Heaven, All We Need Of Hell in August. Both albums feature the bold playing of rock session drummer Chris Kamrada, but it’s Justin’s job to nail both the epic sound and unique feel of the band’s music on stage – a role he takes incredibly seriously.
With the new album released and a string of November UK dates, we wanted to find out what it takes to land – and keep – a high-profile gig as a live drummer, and discover how Justin was able to inject his love of a famous wizarding world into his set up...
What’s your drumming story pre Pvris?
“I started drumming at a pretty young age. I got a kit when I was about six years old from my parents. I grew up with music. My dad played guitar in bands. Seeing his drummer was something that always really fascinated me. I used to play around with the drums a lot, but I never took it seriously until I was about 12 or 13. I’m left handed and that was one thing that deterred me when I was younger. I went to take lessons when I was eight. The guy said he probably wouldn’t teach me unless I switched to right handed. Being eight I was like ‘ugh’. From then on I taught myself. I used to play to CDs. When I was growing up I listened to Nirvana, AC/DC – basically music from the ’60s to the ’80s, the stuff my parents listened to. Now I wish I had taken lessons, but it’s just one of those things. At the time I wasn’t super keen; being young I didn’t fully understand what the benefits would have been.”
Did you play in bands?
“My brother and I started a band way back when we were in high school. We did that for almost seven years, until 2011 or so. We won Battle Of The Bands competitions to play the Vans Warped Tour. Then we had some mild success in our local Philadelphia/ Pennsylvania area. In 2011 I got a call from Pvris’ current management who were working with a band called VersaEmerge. They were on Fueled By Ramen records and they had their first album out. I was supposed to play drums for them and tour with those guys. There was maybe a year and a half of things starting up and falling by the wayside, and schedules getting changed. It fell through, they decided to drop off their label and things just flattened out with that. That was a real bummer actually because it was my first proper opportunity to hit the road and play some music.”
The realities of the industry! So how did the Pvris gig come about?
“I was actually down visiting [producer] Blake Harnage who did the first Pvris record. I was on vacation down in Florida and he happened to be doing Pvris’ first album the following week. He said to me, ‘There’s this band and I’m working on their record. I don’t think they have a drummer but you should do an audition video and see how it goes, I’ll talk to management.’ I did that, they loved it and I’ve been with Pvris ever since! I started at the end of 2013 and the first tour I did with them was beginning of 2014. It was before the first record [ WhiteNoise] came out.”
So you joined when WhiteNoise was taking shape?
“The first album was written but a lot of the stuf wasn’t actually finished, it was still in the demo process. When we started playing shows, everything we were learning was pretty much the older songs and the stuff off the EP prior to that first album. We would play one or two of the new ones that weren’t finished. I remember ‘St Patrick’ was one of the first songs that we played live before the record even came out.”
When you heard those songs, did you have a sense that the band was destined for big things?
“None of us knew any of this was going to take off like it did. Every day we’re blown away and very thankful for where it’s gone. When I first auditioned and they said they wanted me in the band I had run into different friends – either mutual ones they knew, or people that had come across them – and they were like, ‘Those guys are gonna be huge, it’s gonna be awesome, their stuff sounds so great’. Putting out the album I know all of us had a lot of anxiety. I remember back in 2014 when we got the CDs for the first time, we were sat outside the van looking at them and going, ‘Alright, this is it. We’ll see where this goes, this could go awesome, or it could go south.’ But we’re doing what we love, we’re playing our hearts out every night and that’s all we really can do. It’s gone tenfold compared to what we thought it would have the ability to do.”
Drums are a key part of the Pvris sound. Do you feel the weight of responsibility to get the sound and feel right on stage?
“For sure. Chris Kamrada played drums on the albums and he totally smashed it. [Drums] are a big backbone of Pvris’ music. There are plenty of layers that go through all the songs with different synths and electronic parts, but a lot of the feel that you’re getting and the drive from many of the songs is based on the drums. That’s kind of the driving force behind it. I just do my best every night to try and hold it down and give it my all. When I’m playing I’m feeling it.”
How much practice do you do away from the band to stay on top of your game?
“I do a pretty decent amount. We spend a lot of time on the road, but while the new record was being done we had a couple of months off. I was able to really sit down and play as much as I could. Most days if I’m home I’ll sit down and play for between an hour and two hours. When we’re on the road constantly I have a practice pad. But when you’re playing the same set every night you don’t get a whole lot of opportunity outside of a quick soundcheck to sit down and play. You can feel like you hit a plateau when you’re on the road because it’s hard to progress. When I’m home I try to take advantage of that, sit behind the drums and play different styles and push myself.”
When you do solo practice, do you find your playing has improved once you get back on tour?
“For sure. Most of the time I’m following what was on the record, but more recently we’ve done a couple of songs where we tune it up a bit. It’ll be like, ‘Hey, maybe this time in this chorus, instead of playing on the drum pad we’ll play it live and you do something.’ I’ll go off on it and do my own thing and it allows me to express myself a little bit more. When I’m home and I get to play around with stuff it’s nice to come back fresh and have some ideas that I can play around with.”
You have to be a decent groove drummer to play Pvris songs.
“It’s nice because it is groovy and it allows me to emphasise that side of my playing. I don’t consider myself a super-mathematical or technical drummer. It’s tough to be super-mathematical with the way that I’m playing because I’m flailing around and swinging my head around and stuff. I’m feeling the song and the music and I’m enjoying myself, and that’s the kind of energy that I like to put into it. That allows me to really get into it and have more of a feeling and connect in with Brian on bass.”
“If there’s a time when we don’t play for a while, when we come back after that first show I definitely have a solid bangover”
Have you ever an suffered injury because of the way you play?
“I might not have the best posture while playing drums. I’m going at it full force as much as I can and I’m bent over a lot, but the main injuries I’ve had is whacking my knuckles! That just happens every once in a while. I try to focus as much as I can and I’m always stretching. That’s one of the biggest things I do before going on stage. I know it’s one of those things that I have to be smart about and pay a little more attention to as I get older.”
How do you stay in shape on the road?
“Most of us in the band like to run and work out regularly. If there’s a time when we don’t play for a while, when we come back after that first show the next day I definitely have a solid bangover. After the second show I’m usually pretty good, but after that first show I might wake up a little sore.
“I’m a vitamin guy. My brother is a personal trainer back home. He’s big into it and he makes me look bad! I try my best to eat healthily. Sometimes it’s tough when you’re constantly going and you’re travelling a lot. I have a vegan supplement called Protein & Greens. It gives me a full serving of vegetables every day and it means I get protein after a workout.”
The new Pvris tracks have a pretty big drum sound. Have you had to change your set-up for the live shows to match?
“Tuning-wise nothing too much. Personally, I like to have low-sounding toms, snare drums with a nice fat tone and a good crack. There are certain settings that myself and our front of house guy will talk about. Sometimes tuning them up allows them to cut through the mix a little bit, but my set-up has stayed fairly similar. One thing I did change up was my cymbals. I was a big A Custom guy with a lot of brilliant cymbals. I love them because they cut through the mix well, but they are very bright. I love to have nice clean, brilliant-finish cymbals and on the road I’m cleaning them constantly, but on the nights when Lyndsey spits some water up in the air that’s it done for the night!
“I switched over to primarily K and K Custom cymbals, so more of a traditional finish. They definitely help with the live mix because they’re
not as abrasive and they can get better tones through the front end in terms of front-of-house. They’re not so piercing to the ears and they don’t bleed so much into other microphones. I’m super thankful to Zildjian for taking care of me and always helping me out, letting me try out different cymbals to get the right sound that I want and that works for everyone else as well.”
What about electronics?
“We don’t do any kind of triggering. The only electronics I have is the SPD-SX. On this new record there are so many layers and there’s so much involved with each song, but we as a band play everything live that we can. We don’t want to throw things on tracks.”
Do you play to a click?
“When we first started out I was the only one that had the click so everyone was depending on me. I used to use my iPhone with the click tracks on there. It’s caveman-esque, but that’s the way we got through it in the beginning! Now we have a system where everybody’s on in-ear monitors, we all have our own mix.”
You’re not an official member. It must be satisfying to experience touring the world at a high level without the added pressures experienced by Lynn, Brian and Alex?
“I definitely have a little less stress when it comes to that. Some of their press can take hours and it just gives me a little more downtime to work with. It’s nice getting to meet fans that come out to the shows and appreciate what I do and show me love when I’m not on the meet and greets and whatnot. It’s very humbling and means the world to me. I’m thankful just to be out here getting the opportunity to play drums, regardless. I’m getting to do what I love and I’m with great people, everybody’s very humbled and it’s nice to be surrounded by those guys. We’re with each other for 10 or 11 months of the year. Sometimes it’s tough to spend that much time with the same people, but we really don’t have any problems because we’re all best friends and enjoy each other’s time. Getting the chance to see the world is more than I could ever ask and I’m thankful for that opportunity alone.”
Pvris has quite a following in the UK...
“I’d say that England is my favourite place to tour. It’s like a home away from home. I grew up loving everything there is about the UK – not just because I love Harry-Potter (see boxout) – but the culture, the buildings, the history. Myself and Lyndsey are big fans of the architecture. We walk around and check out the old cathedrals. The shows are always amazing, the fans are insane and we have such a good time. The BBC plays our stuff and that’s awesome. The fact that you have such a great radio culture and that the kids come out and support us is totally awesome.”
“I’m getting to do what I love and I’m with great people, everybody’s very humbled and it’s nice to be surrounded by those guys”
“It is groovy and it allows me to emphasise that side of my playing,” says Justin of Pvris’ music
Justin’s frenetic playing style has, surprisingly, resulted in no injuries – except for grazed knuckles
Justin’s SJC maple drums in off-white finish and Zildjian cymbals, plus custom SJC Harry Potter-inspired snare