JASON MCGEN

The Death Cab For Cutie drum­mer on driv­ing the sound and style of the band for 16 years

Rhythm - - CONTENTS - Words: Chris Barnes photos: Will Ire­land

“We’re the an­chor and if I don’t feel right as a. drum­mer, es­pe­cially in a record­ing en­vi­ron­ment, then. I don’t think that what I’m play­ing is very be­liev­able”.

How many drum­mers can you name who play with au­then­tic­ity and truly dig deep to cre­ate their mu­sic? There are count­less play­ers with amaz­ing fa­cil­ity and tech­ni­cal mas­tery, but of­ten these skills are used for show­boat­ing rather than any­thing mu­si­cal. Watch­ing Death Cab For Cutie’s Jason McGerr sound­check be­fore a sold-out gig at Lon­don’s South­bank Cen­tre, eyes closed and feel­ing his way through the band’s lush in­die rock, is both a priv­i­lege and con­fir­ma­tion that he is op­er­at­ing on a dif­fer­ent plain. In the flesh, his metic­u­lously con­sid­ered drum parts shine – per­fectly driv­ing the feel of each song, whilst pep­pered with enough tricks to make drum­mers sit up and take note.

Jason im­mersed him­self in drum­ming from a young age, years be­fore join­ing the Amer­i­can in­die rock band. Prac­tice time was ded­i­cated to bru­tal per­sonal chal­lenges across a huge spec­trum of styles and tech­niques. Once the call came to join Death Cab in 2002, he was fully equipped to han­dle the work of the pre­vi­ous three drum­mers (in­clud­ing Gib­bard), and make his mark on fourth al­bum Transat­lanti­cism.

Sub­se­quent Death Cab For Cutie al­bums have served as prime ex­am­ples of Jason’s ap­proach to drum parts. From big rock beats to metro­nomic grooves un­der­pinned by pro­grammed loops, his style is both eclec­tic and per­fectly placed for this band. But bril­liant drum parts aren’t much cop with­out the right drum sound. Thank­fully, Jason – who opened his own com­mer­cial stu­dio in 2007 and now has a pro home stu­dio – thrives in the in­tense, ex­per­i­men­tal world of the stu­dio.

Death Cab’s new al­bum ThankYouForTo­day is one of their best – piled high with driv­ing grooves, crisp son­ics and de­lec­ta­ble melody. Record­ing ses­sions saw Jason step­ping fur­ther out of his com­fort zone, for­go­ing the usual large, open drum room, for an iso­lated, glass-lined space. Of course, he was more than pre­pared for it, and the drum­ming on ThankYou ForTo­day is per­fect down to the last ghost note.

Ear­lier in the sum­mer, prior to the al­bum’s re­lease, Rhythm took the op­por­tu­nity to catch up with Jason dur­ing a short stop in the UK. The deeper the con­ver­sa­tion, the more we re­alised that he en­cap­su­lates ev­ery­thing a mod­ern band drum­mer should be. Ready to step into the mind of a mas­ter? Let’s go...

We’ve just watched you sound­check ‘I Will Pos­sess Your Heart’ from the al­bum Nar­rowS­tairs and that sub­tle off­beat stepped hat in the main groove is in­spired. You must put a lot of thought into sculpt­ing your parts?

“I try. I think that stems from want­ing to do so many cool tricks. It’s not that I want to im­press other drum­mers. I have the fa­cil­ity and I want to use it, but I also un­der­stand who I’m play­ing with and sup­port­ing and I have to be re­ally taste­ful about what I sneak in there. Beyond ghost notes I try and do things that change the feel of a stan­dard groove. That’s usu­ally dy­namic things or some­times it’s lit­tle sub­sti­tu­tions or leav­ing some­thing out.

“One could ar­gue the point that a drum­mer has melody or not, it de­pends on the size of your kit, I sup­pose. I think that there is melody, but for me per­son­ally that melody is de­ter­mined by the dy­nam­ics and tex­tures of how we play. You can hold sticks tight and get a more choked sound, or re­ally be loose and have a more open sound, but I think that it’s a deep art. Any­one that’s not try­ing to spice up the sim­pler stuff with lit­tle things like that is

miss­ing a pretty big op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate a sound and feel that’s unique.”

Did you have to work on this ap­proach or did it come nat­u­rally?

“When I was first start­ing out play­ing drums I had this goal that every time I sat down I’d play some­thing I hadn’t played be­fore. I chal­lenged my­self to play back­wards, lead with the left hand or start re­ally quiet then play loud. Some­times it was very generic choices, but it was to find some­thing; a groove, a pat­tern, some short solo that had an arc and form to it, that wasn’t sim­i­lar to what I did the day be­fore. I was al­ways try­ing to be cre­ative, I guess. But, like I said, at the end of the day I play in a band where I have a sup­port­ive role to keep time and play mostly back­beats.

“Some of it came from that cre­ative process early on, then some of it came from in­de­pen­dence ex­er­cises, like when I in­sert my hi-hat foot in time. It could be a dot­ted eighth pat­tern within the groove that my left foot’s do­ing, but that comes from an in­de­pen­dence ex­er­cise that I’ve been work­ing on for years and it just found its way into my play­ing.

“The more we study the vo­cab­u­lary, whether it’s rudi­ments or in­de­pen­dence ex­er­cise or dif­fer­ent styles of mu­sic or drum­ming, it’s okay to cre­ate a col­lage. If we put on a [Death Cab] track now and you pointed to some­thing and said, ‘What’s that, where’s that come from?’ that might be one bar from a much larger ex­er­cise that I worked on years ago and it just hap­pened to fit into a con­tem­po­rary song.”

What’s your process for writ­ing drum parts.Are you in a prac­tice room, pro­gram­ming on the com­puter, writ­ing with the whole band?

“Gen­er­ally I need to tool it out, in the stu­dio usu­ally with ev­ery­one play­ing so I can hear what they’re do­ing. I think about ev­ery­body’s parts, whether it’s lyrics, a guitar part, a bass part and I tend to want to fill holes and not get in the way of what’s be­ing said or sung or played by some­body else. For me it’s a lot of land­scape in­ter­play. If you’re look­ing at a piece of mu­sic, where is there room for me to in­ter­ject the lit­tle things that I like to do?

“First I try and land on a feel for a song. That is largely de­pen­dent on tempo. I’m a real tempo czar. If a song is not land­ing for me I will ques­tion ev­ery­one else and chal­lenge whether we can do it a lit­tle faster or slower. We’re the an­chor and if I don’t feel right as a drum­mer, es­pe­cially in a record­ing en­vi­ron­ment, then I don’t think that what I’m play­ing is very be­liev­able. Un­til maybe some­one says, ‘No it sounds great, why don’t you come in here and lis­ten.’ Some­times, you’re miss­ing the per­spec­tive, you’re too close to it. Some­times I will go in and lis­ten and be like, ‘You guys are right, I need to work harder to get this song to land.’ But largely I like to work out my parts once the song is com­pletely writ­ten and ev­ery­one knows what they’re play­ing.”

You like to work with loops and write a lot of tight, ma­chine-like beats. Where did that in­spi­ra­tion come from?

“I love pro­gram­ming. I’ve worked with drum machines and I’ve also been us­ing a sam­pler since maybe around 2002. Even be­fore then I was pro­gram­ming on dif­fer­ent plat­forms. I’m a big Rea­son user. I use Able­ton, I en­gi­neer on Logic. I have a lot drum machines. I feel like you should keep your friends close but your en­e­mies even closer. Keep­ing tabs on drum machines, or trig­gers and sam­ples, even though I don’t use a lot of them, is im­por­tant, and it’s in­spir­ing be­cause you never know what you can cre­ate with­out phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tion. You’re not re­ly­ing on the dy­nam­ics of what’s hap­pen­ing with a stick in your hand to cre­ate a cer­tain feel.

“It’s im­por­tant to know that stuff. I don’t think that you can be a ses­sion drum­mer these days and at least stay very busy if you don’t have some knowl­edge or the abil­ity to not only pro­gram, but play with pro­gram­ming. There’s a lot of pro­gram­ming on this [new] record, us­ing older ana­logue machines that have their own feel. They’re not per­fectly on the grid. My job is to re­ally dig in and land with those machines so it doesn’t sound like two dif­fer­ent peo­ple but one per­son.”

Your drum sounds are al­ways im­mac­u­late, but they def­i­nitely dif­fer be­tween al­bums. Do you rel­ish the op­por­tu­nity to ex­per­i­ment in the stu­dio?

“There’s no one drum sound, right? I was a teacher at a mu­sic school in Seat­tle for a long time, and we were as­signed dif­fer­ent rooms to work in. You’d show up and be like, ‘Okay, which room am I in to­day?’ Each of these rooms had two or three dif­fer­ent drum sets in and none of them were kept up. The heads were pit­ted, the cym­bals could be cracked, ten­sion rods had fallen on the floor. But, when you sit down and play dif­fer­ent in­stru­ments, it’s the ana­logue ver­sion of scrolling through a sound bank on an elec­tronic kit and hav­ing all these dif­fer­ent op­tions. It just in­spires us to come at it from a dif­fer­ent an­gle, whether [the sound] re­minds you of Sly Dun­bar, or Steve Gadd or Lars Ul­rich.

“There are so many things that you can dis­cover about your play­ing and your abil­ity to come up with cool parts if you’re not afraid to tweak your drum sound. I have never been afraid to let the en­gi­neer or the pro­ducer come out if they’re hear­ing a thing, put a mic some­where weird where I have to work around it, or de­tune a drum, or put down the towel, the tam­bourine, the keys, the wal­let, any­thing. I think that when you can find those in­spir­ing mo­ments and you get the mi­cro­phones, the com­pres­sion and ev­ery­thing to work, your key is to look in the con­trol room be­hind the glass and see if there’s a phys­i­cal

re­ac­tion to the sound that other peo­ple are hear­ing. We ‘wreck’ drums to get them to sound right. And not just by way of pro­duc­tion or squash­ing or de­lay­ing. Some­times it’s how ring-y can the drum be. There’s a whole bunch of per­cus­sion I played on this record that were drums on the floor – weird Keplinger metal pieces and bro­ken tam­bourines, claps, and a lot of hu­man el­e­ments that came from found ob­jects placed all around the kit at times to just help layer the groove and make it in­ter­est­ing.”

You must have to con­sider this breadth of drum sounds with your live set-up?

“This time out I’ve got some trig­gers that are be­ing lay­ered with my kick and snare on maybe a half dozen songs. Be­fore the last al­bum cy­cles the SPD-SX was run­ning a bunch of one-shot sam­ples. No trig­gers. And also run­ning some se­quences, I was split­ting out a guide track that I would fol­low and some sub-outs for other peo­ple in the band. This time around we’ve off­loaded all that into an Able­ton play­back rig. That’s to split out the lay­ers and to have them sound a lot more lush. With the SPD-SX you can only load so many sam­ples and they’re mono qual­ity.

“We wanted to make the pro­duc­tion of the band sound big­ger and bet­ter, so that stuff went into the Able­ton world. The SPD-SX, other than be­ing a trans­port to start/stop, scene ad­vance or re­verse and a cou­ple of trig­ger sound, I have used it more elab­o­rately than that. But for now that’s what I’m do­ing on this tour, which is nice be­cause I just re­ally want to play drums and think about the things that you just said, which is how can I make a cat­a­logue of songs from over two decades sound unique.”

You also have the styles of ear­lier Death Cab drum­mers to em­u­late too?

“The first three records were three dif­fer­ent drum­mers, so I have to get in the mind­set of those play­ers and their ap­proach. Of­ten what that de­mands is be­ing very loose. I feel like if I play a song like it sounds on the record, push­ing, pulling, speed­ing up, for a re­ally die-hard fan that’s what they’re used to hear­ing. I have this imag­i­nary ta­ble with hats that I put on. Nathan Good the first drum­mer, I put on his hat. I re­mem­ber see­ing him live and how an­i­mal-like he would hit the drums, his at­tack, his ap­proach in terms of tech­nique. Then I think about record num­ber two, I put on Ben’s hat and the way he would play cer­tain songs. Then the same thing for record three with Michael Schorr. For me it’s like the cover drum­mer men­tal­ity of how can you make this au­then­tic. “Then, when it comes to all my parts from

Transat­lanti­cism on, I just try and put my­self in the ex­act space that I cre­ated or wrote the part. For in­stance, ‘I Will Pos­sess Your Heart’ is a song I played tra­di­tional grip on. I largely played matched up un­til this al­bum cy­cle. Every time we play it live I switch and play it tra­di­tional. Or the end of a song called ‘What Sarah Said’ from Plans, the front half was matched and the back half of the song was tra­di­tional. Some­times, I’ll tighten the wires for the end, be­cause that’s what I did in the stu­dio.”

How has your ap­proach in terms of play­ing and sound evolved on Thank You For To­day, com­pared with the last few al­bums?

“We recorded with a pro­ducer named Rich Costey who has a stu­dio down in Santa Mon­ica. Typ­i­cally, we’ve tried to book time in larger rooms with a high ceil­ing, a lot of space, a lot of air and res­o­nance. For this al­bum there was a smaller wood and

.“I have a lot of drum. . machines. I feel like you. . should keep your friends. . close but your en­e­mies. . even closer”.

cloth room that has a much dryer vibe to it. I used a 1950s Gretsch Broad­kaster, which is a wrap kit and it’s dry and quiet in it­self, but what was re­ally nice was that the drums weren’t so pow­er­ful that they over­stated the room. It made me play a lit­tle qui­eter and a lit­tle more dy­nam­i­cally. I re­ally leaned on mon­i­tor­ing the com­pres­sors and the pres and how they re­acted to how hard I hit. If you were to see a video of me track­ing some of the songs that sound re­ally big, I’m not hit­ting re­ally hard be­cause we’ve set the com­pres­sors and the out­board gear to re­act to how I’m play­ing so that it can sound big.

“I think that a lot of it sounds right in front of your face, dry and in­ti­mate. You can hear re­ally sub­tle rolls and ghost notes, ar­tic­u­late cym­bal and hi-hat hits and what hap­pens af­ter I hit a drum.”

That def­i­nitely comes across on the new songs.

“But here’s the most alarm­ing fact about the record. This room that I played drums in had glass on both sides! The glass didn’t cre­ate harsh sym­pa­thetic cym­bal re­flec­tions, there were big thick vel­vet cur­tains pulled in ei­ther side. If you pic­ture this, I’m in a lit­tle box and I can’t see any­body. Four of the guys in the band are in the con­trol room with the pro­ducer, only mon­i­tor­ing through the mains and as if they’re lis­ten­ing to a record off a stereo. I’ve got cans on, in the dark, can’t see any­one. All I’m do­ing is lis­ten­ing in­tently. It’s the first time I’ve ever made a record where I haven’t made eye con­tact with any­body. Back­ing up to me talk­ing about play­ing to the dy­namic of what’s hap­pen­ing in the con­trols of the mic pres and com­pres­sors, [this ap­proach] al­lowed me to re­ally hone in on that and re­ally get things to land in a space that felt re­ally good. There’s a lot more em­pha­sis on mak­ing the drums sound close, but hav­ing them feel­ing re­ally good for the record.”

You play to a few loops on the al­bum too. Did that present any chal­lenges?

“The song ‘Gold Rush’, our first sin­gle, was a loop from a Yoko Ono track called ‘Mind Train’. Jim Kelt­ner was the drum­mer and he’s play­ing along with the bass player and the guitar player. It’s this full band

ar­range­ment loop that’s run­ning un­der­neath the song. Be­cause it was a sam­ple from a vinyl record that was recorded to tape, if you try to time it out, the begin­ning and the end are dif­fer­ent tem­pos. So when I was play­ing, in the dark es­sen­tially, I had to lis­ten and fol­low Kelt­ner’s feel so we sounded like one drum­mer to­gether. I don’t think if I was on a live stage or in a big, bright room look­ing at ev­ery­one, that I would have used my ears as much as I did in the process of mak­ing this new record.”

Are you most in your el­e­ment in the stu­dio, or do you pre­fer play­ing live?

“I re­ally en­joy the stu­dio but live is a whole dif­fer­ent spir­i­tual thing. I close my eyes most of the time be­cause I want to some­how heighten all my other senses. I just want to rely on the res­o­nance that I’m feel­ing from the drums and vi­su­alise my band­mates around me play­ing. It is im­por­tant to make eye con­tact, of course, but I re­ally try to lis­ten as much as pos­si­ble to where ev­ery­thing is land­ing.

“There are some songs that I play to a click, but I’m the only one that hears it. I don’t want any­one else to hear it, I want the band to play to me. If I play to a click it’s be­cause we have some kind of a se­quence or part that will come in later that we need to be in the right place for.

“To me there are three dif­fer­ent worlds – there’s the stu­dio, live and then there’s your prac­tice space, your cre­ative zone. To be a com­plete drum­mer I need to spend as equal time as pos­si­ble in those ar­eas. If I was just a live drum­mer I’d prob­a­bly have a lot of bad habits. If I was just a stu­dio drum­mer I’d prob­a­bly get ner­vous and not re­ally un­der­stand about play­ing on­stage in front of peo­ple with your band and the po­ten­tially ad­verse sit­u­a­tions of bad in-ears or mon­i­tors. But you also work out your tools and get them ready in the prac­tice space. And if you didn’t prac­tise I think you’d re­ally fall apart be­ing a tour­ing drum­mer.”

You joined Death Cab For Cutie in Oc­to­ber of 2002 and you’re still rock­ing the drum seat. What is it about you or your play­ing that has kept you in the gig for so long?

“They asked me to fill in a few times and I was ei­ther too busy, or young or pride­ful or stupid, to take the op­por­tu­nity. When it fi­nally came time I think I re­ally wanted to be there and I pre­pared as much as I could. I wrote charts and showed up with the cat­a­logue all writ­ten out. There was an im­me­di­ate click, a lot of chem­istry. I think that chem­istry is re­ally the an­chor to it all. My role has been con­stant be­cause I think what I bring to the band is a real re­laxed, fo­cused foun­da­tion that keeps ev­ery­body from run­ning off the rails. I’m speak­ing metaphor­i­cally, emo­tion­ally, mu­si­cally.

“Great bands last be­cause of chem­istry. Whether it’s the Stones, Pearl Jam or U2. You have to roll with the punches and al­ways com­mu­ni­cate and work it out but, most im­por­tantly, you need to show you’re pre­pared, both emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally. I think we’ve all done that, ever since I joined the band. There is no se­cret recipe other than al­ways talk it out. Make sure you dig deep, and you’ll ar­rive at the place that ev­ery­one agrees upon.”

There are so many things that you can dis­cover about. your play­ing and your abil­ity to come up with cool. parts if you’re not afraid to tweak your drum sound”.

Death Cab per­form a set of im­mac­u­lately-crafted in­die-rock at Brix­ton Academy

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