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