On Tuesday, August 23rd, Seattle based indie rockers, Death Cab for Cutie, will bring their heartfelt melodies and power anthems to Colorado at Red Rocks Amphitheater. And drummer, Jason McGerr, is stoked. “In the whole country, there are only 4 or 5 venues that we really look forward to and Red Rocks is one of them.”
Originally a side project for lead vocalist/guitarist Ben Gibbard, Death Cab for Cutie got its roots in 1997-98 with the release of a studio album called Something About Airplanes. Named after the 1967 song featured in The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour and performed by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Death Cab for Cutie originally consisted of Chris Walla on guitar, Nick Harmer on bass, and Nathan Good on drums, in addition to Gibbard.
However, after Good’s departure in 1999, and drummer, Michael Schorr left in 2003 over creative differences, the group landed McGerr, a Seattle Drum School instructor who had played with Nick Harmer before Death Cab’s formation. And collaborated with Matt Nathanson, Tegan and Sara, and pop group, Smoosh.
With McGerr’s arrival, the band achieved an even greater level of creative freedom, a more polished, multi-layered sound, and an ever growing, worldwide fan base, following the release of albums like Transatlanticism (2003), Plans (2005), and Narrow Stairs (2008). With hit songs such as “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” “Soul Meets Body,” and “I Will Possess Your Heart,” the Grammy nominated rock quartet found their rhythm and secured pop status as one of the most creative and exciting bands performing today.
Their latest album, Codes and Keys (May 2011) continues to push and explore all kinds of musical boundaries. And with McGerr as the heartbeat, the band couldn’t be happier. Said Gibbard, “This will be the last drummer we’ll ever have. It makes more sense having him than it has anyone else that’s ever played with us.”
From student to teacher to drumming sensation, Jason McGerr is ready to rock the Rocks.
Where did your love for music come from? Growing up, who inspired you?
I didn’t realize it until after the fact. Like, I could tell you who my inspiration was when I was twelve or fourteen, but before then, it was unknown to me that a lot of 80’s music was inspiring me and forming my ideas about what makes a good song.
Hall & Oates, David Bowie, Robert Palmer, Madonna, Tears for Fears, Crowded House, and all these bands that were on the radio all the time. The Breakfast Club soundtrack was huge for me.
My parents had a record collection, but I didn’t spend a lot of time with the vinyl. I didn’t realize the significance of the White Album, Rubber Soul, Sgt Pepper, and Sticky Fingers growing up – all this music that they listened to as kids. Because when I was a kid, they didn’t have time to do anything other than turn on the radio. And the only thing on the radio was 80’s hits. The drummers played straight back beats. Duran Duran was on and that’s what I began air drumming to early on. And from there, I discovered Zeppelin and started going from the late 60’s forward.
It’s awesome how you’ve come full circle, studying drums at the Seattle Drum School and then becoming an instructor there. How essential has the school been to your education as a drummer?
It’s been great because I drew a lot of inspiration from the students who came in and got a thrill out of playing the simplest beats. As a student of anything for over 20 years, you have a tendency to dive way into the scientific and the philosophy. And it’s like the black belt that wants to go to Japan and study. It’s easy to get so far into your study that you forget about the one thing that appeals most to the audience.
Full circle for me is like going to the top of the mountain and studying with a Zen master and then dropping back down to hang out with the guys at base camp that drove the ponies in. I’m not saying that my band or my genre of music or anything is beneath or below the level of study that I attempted, but what it did was validate how important pop music and basic drumming is.
It doesn’t matter how much, how fast you can play, how complicated, or how many different styles of jazz or whatever you play. The most important thing is that you sit down and down play something that communicates with more people than less people. What resonates with the larger body of people is for me, the most important thing to understand and to study.
And the drum school taught me that there’s a great vocabulary out there that you can have at your fingertips as a drummer. But, all you really need is a few key words to be a poet.
You spent a great deal of time with John Fisher and Jim Kilpatrick, world drum champions, and focused on Scottish drumming. What’s so unique about Scottish drumming?
Practicing Scottish drumming was mostly a vehicle for me to better my technique and better my hands. All they have is a single drum and a single surface to convey all their dynamics, their feel, swing, and mood. And there’s a lot of emphasis on that single surface and that one approach.
In a band, you have a whole group that can create a vibe, have dynamics, and can compose and arrange music. But when you’re a single drummer, you have to work really hard for subtleties and nuances.
For three years straight and 6-7 years off and on after that, studying with John Fisher, I think we played a drum set once. And that’s news to anyone, I suppose. It’s as if you went to study with a great painter and you only touched the canvas once. All you did was work on brush strokes in the air? But that’s what we did.
It’s all about the basics. All about simplicity. I never put on a kilt. I never competed in the Highland Games. I’ve got some Scottish in me and some Irish, and I’m inspired by that world. But I was kind of a thief. I snuck in and got with the other side, learned some of their techniques and applied it to my rock and roll music.
All you really have to do to be in a rock band is look cool, be cool, hang out with people, and write good songs. That’s kind of the only formula. That, and stay on the road all the time. It doesn’t have anything to do with spending three years being dedicated and really refining your technique on a practice pad.
You came to Death Cab after they had already gone through a fair share of drummers. What challenges did you face in gaining acceptance from your new band mates, in particular, asserting your own style?
I think the biggest challenge was that Ben, Nick, and Chris had been on tour with drummers already and had gotten so used to playing with them, in terms of muscle memory, float, and feel. I mean, before I showed up, their songs had a lot of push and pull, where they would speed up or slow down in a very true, ‘live band’ sense.
And if you go through the history books of great live bands, you’ll see the same thing – all kinds of arguments over tempos. Zeppelin was notorious for it. And The Police. I mean, you could see it in the concert footage. Sting was constantly turning around, screaming at Stewart Copeland to slow down.
For me, the biggest challenge was coming from a music school, playing to clicks, and being as consistent as possible and having to adjust to their style, which was “we just piled out of the van and have been doing 200 days a year on the road and our bodies are somewhere in outer space.” Time and feel was a loose thing.
So, when I first sat down to play with them, they were asking me to push and pull in a lot of ways that weren’t very comfortable to me because of who they had been playing with. There was never any, “You’re not playing the part right,” because I had transcribed everything, they had given me some live materials, and I knew how their songs had changed a little bit.
Also, it was easier than going to an audition for a band that I had no history with and didn’t know. Nick and I had played in a band together three years prior to Death Cab. And I had been around with Ben and Chris over the years and the friendship was already there. So, it was just learning how to work together in a live setting that was probably the most difficult thing. But it happened really fast because we were just excited. It was this chemistry that had not been there before and we just knew, “This is going to work. This is going to be great.”
Codes and Keys is noticeably brighter with less focus on guitar, more on keyboards. How was your approach toward Codes and Keys different from Transatlanticism?
I don’t think there’s a song I could play on Transatlanticism that uses one stick, but there are several songs on Codes and Keys that I could play with one stick. It’s just a testament to being mature enough to play less, and be cool with it. To know that you can come up with a part that is supportive, yet confident.
Nick and I both have a lot more presence on Codes and Keys as a traditional driving rhythmic section than, say, Transatlanticism or Plans. Transatlanticism is very much a guitar driven record, and like you said, there are noticeably more keyboards and textures and the guitar is more of just a splash of color on Codes and Keys with the exception of “You Are a Tourist” and “Doors Unlocked.”
Chris’s whole philosophy was that he didn’t want to approach Codes and Keys as “Let’s put all of our usual instruments in a room, walk over pick them up and make a record.” He wanted natural roadblocks. Like, let’s put something in front of you that you don’t normally play, i.e. “Nick, let’s have you play keyboard bass instead of bass” or “Let’s have you play guitar.” Then Chris would have a keyboard just show up in the mail that he got off of eBay in Japan and it would be something none of us had ever seen and he would plug it in and say, “Well let’s see what you do,” and this sound would come out of it that was super rad and freaky and we would say, “Let’s put that in the song,” and it would redirect where things were going.
There was a lot of experimentation with building keyboard sounds – keyboards that would be triggered by what I was playing. So, I would trigger the baseline with my kick drum part that the keyboard is playing on the record. That was fun and new and different. And for us, it was a total reaction from Narrow Stairs, where we just got in a room and picked up those instruments and played songs like we were onstage.
We’re really excited that you guys are coming to Red Rocks. The Beatles have played there, U2, The Grateful Dead, etc. What are your thoughts on the concert? Do certain venues get you extra pumped up?
Yeah, absolutely. And Red Rocks is no exception.
Not everyone gets to experience the walk backstage where you can see the pictorial history of what’s happened at Red Rocks. It’s amazing. And it’s just one of those venues that when you’re a kid and you first start playing music, you’re thinking, “Someday, I want to play there.” And when you finally get there and you get to walk out on that stage, it’s an incredible feeling. A monumental place.
And everybody who’s in twice as good of shape as you is jogging the stairs while you’re setting up for the day trying to catch your breath (laughs)!
I don’t need to tell you or any of your readers – it’s just one of those venues that makes you play better and reach for different things. In the whole country, there are only 4 or 5 venues that we really look forward to and Red Rocks is one of them. I just hope I can play there for many, many years to come.
“You Are a Tourist” – Death Cab for Cutie
“Soul Meets Body” – Death Cab for Cutie