“For those about to rock, we salute you.” – AC/DC
I was 5 years old when my grandfather sat me down on an old Rogers drumkit and showed me how to do a basic beat on the hi-hat and snare. I couldn’t reach the kick pedal. Since then I’ve been the drummer of five different bands and played drums on nine records.
In Chicago, as we were driving to the rehearsal space to meet up, it began to sink in that this would be the first record I’ve been involved with where I wasn’t the drummer. Now, don’t get me wrong, when John said that Chris would be into playing drums on the record, I had been nothing but excited at the notion. However, it’s a whole different animal when you walk into a jam space after 20 years of being responsible for a specific instrument and walk over to a guitar stand, mic and keyboard and think “Ok, so this is where I’ll be working then.”
This was to be the band’s first and only practice. I dug this concept. Sink or Swim. Feast or famine.
We all arrived at Electronical around noon. Eric and Allen were already setting up the room. John, Joe and I stood around, trying not to get in the way and watched the room take shape. After Chris arrived, we casually discussed what we should play and how he wanted to work out the day. Since John, Joe and I had jammed a couple times, this was more about Chris getting the chance to work through the song arrangements, as the next day would be the real thing. Once the room was ready to go, Allen said we could make as much noise as we wanted until midnight.
We all took our instruments. In addition to me being displaced (by choice) off my familiar instrument, John was also diving into an unfamiliar world. John decided (called?) to play bass for seven of the songs on the record. Let me tell you a little about my friend John Agee….that dood is a super talented guitarist and even MORE talented singer for the band Sundiver. John was somewhat apprehensive about how all his talents would translate into playing bass on this record. I’m sure I didn’t help his apprehension, as I would occasionally say things like “Really, the hooks in these songs are actually rooted in the basslines, and the guitar is somewhat of a role reversal that serves as the rhythmic filler.” Well, I can say without hesitation that you can add fantastic bass player to John’s repertoire. He really did an amazing job on this record.
I looked around the room and took it all in. It was an odd feeling, as I was still stunned that it was actually happening. The previous evening at Longman & Eagle, Chris was talking to us at one point and mentioned that the song ‘Mousetrap’ was his favorite from the demos. It’s a mid tempo rocker, so I suggested we start with that. The room came alive with the sound that we’d all been hearing for the last 8 months on laptops and earbuds. I couldn’t contain my smile. Joe, John and I exchanged looks at one another as the song played out. It sounded like a band, a real band. Perhaps an unrehearsed band, but a real one that played with power and had songs that demanded some attention. After we ran through ‘Mousetrap’ (listen for his absolutely monster fill in the third chorus when the record comes out) with no real issues, we consulted with Chris on which songs he wanted to do next. Given the fact he had just recently moved from Kansas City to Chicago within the last 3 weeks, and The Life and Times had been touring through August and September, he didn’t have a ton of time with these songs. So we worked with the songs he had a chance to chart out.
It was very interesting being on the other side of the drum kit. Chris is a “Pro’s” Pro, and me being a fan of his style and trusting in his execution, just let him do his thing. I’ve occasionally been in jams where for fun, I’ll grab the guitar during a break and another member of the band with play drums. Usually during the course of such moments I’ll have to stop myself from being “that guy”…you know the guy that’s all positive, but within the same breath, stops whoever is drumming and say “That’s cool, but maybe try it a little more like this…” During our previous evening talks at the bar, Chris had mentioned he was making an effort to back off from using crash cymbals. He wanted to make hitting a crash an event, and not over do it (like you’d hear on most rock records). His logic was that it should be special when the dynamic reaches that apex, and when a drummer over plays on a crash it sonically washes out other frequencies.
He’s right about this. I remember during the recording of Goodnight Myopia, driving back to Eric’s place one night after tracking, he and I had a similar discussion. As we talked, ‘Kashmir’ was playing on the car stereo. He turned it up and we analysed that song as it played. It’s true if you listen, there are large gaps between the moments that Bonzo actually moves from the relentless driving beat and drills a crash cymbal. This conversation was also topical with a documentary I had just watched on Peter Gabriel. He was discussing making the melted face record. In the Doc, he said he purposely had all the drummers not ever hit the crash cymbals during the making of that album (which is heavy and intense). His logic was the same as Chris and Eric’s. Cymbals wash frequencies out and you can still have explosive dynamics without relentless bashing of crash cymbals.
I was all on board with this. I will say the concept from a drummer perspective (from the other side of the kit) takes a second to wrap your head around. The next song we did was the newest, or last one to be written for the record. In May/June I thought the record was missing a song. As a result I wrote a song called ‘Revenge For Nerds’. I got the impression that Chris didn’t have a chance to really dive into this one. Well, let me tell you, this ended up being one of the surprise songs on the album. See, there are always songs that make themselves obvious, even in the demo stage of recording/writing. You just know they are going to translate well. Conversely, there are others, that when listened to by anyone who wasn’t intimately involved in creating them, can’t quite grab the listener from a first pass. ‘Revenge For Nerds’ was potentially one of those songs. I dug it, but I was biased. After we jammed it as a band, it grew up into a “big boy” song.
We continued to make our way through the songs. We all marvelled at Chris’ deft touch on the kit and truly enjoyed witnessing our songs take a new step. There were a couple tricky ones: ‘Moving The Needle’, with it’s odd timed pre chorus (that plays out an extra half measure) It fucks with your head as you want to make the jump to the chorus a beat early. But for the most part, everything came together beautifully. Songs like ‘Little Creatures’ and ‘Foxtrot’ were especially fun to jam out and watch Chris’ reactions. There would be this moment where he stopped thinking about the arrangement and found his pocket and came up with something perfect, and you could tell the song clicked into place for him, giving him a chance to hear the song beyond the drum parts. ‘Little Creatures’ was like that. When we broke for dinner, I commented on how great of a job he was doing, and that he seemed to be really digging the songs on a different level. I mentioned ‘Little Creatures’ as an example and his eyes lit up. It’s somewhat perfect for a drummer as it has a very overt groove and tempo, with tonnes of space to fill in with interesting swing type fills (which he did).
Working that evening with Chris also had a fantastic effect on Joe, John and I. It afforded us the luxury of feeling out our own dynamics better and finding our own space. It was really cool watching John and Chris work out the two minute outro for the song ‘In The Other Room’. It has a Bass and Drum driven outro. There is a lot of space to create some syncopated Bass and Drum. John had mentioned it to me in Kansas, and once he and Chris started jamming it, they both stopped and discussed amongst themselves how to execute the fills, and the spacing of them. Joe and I just sat back and watched.
I was surprised to see it was almost midnight. We had just wrapped up the ninth song (‘Suckerpunch’) and we were all fried. There was still one song left, and Chris mentioned how he really hadn’t had much of a chance to listen to it, let alone figure something out for it. The song in question was a slower, album closer called ‘Your Ex Knife Set.’ It is an odd tune, very piano driven with sparse, minimal drums for the first half. Recognizing we were all completely fried, and we could use the rest, I suggested we call it. I figured when the time came we could figure out that song on the fly. Everyone was on board. We packed up stood outside the space and smoked. We talked about how good it sounded, and how surprised we all were about that. It really couldn’t have gone much better.
Joe, John and I got into Joe’s car and headed back to the Condo. All the while from the backseat the displaced drummer (me) would call out to the two very tired front seat passengers: “Holy fuck, did you hear that fill he did in (insert song here)?!!” “Did you think that it would sound as good as it did when he did (insert some amazing thing he did on the drums here) that? I mean fuck, man.”
We were all stoked. But none as much as the former drummer of Vast Robot Armies.
Best decision I ever made was to hand over the sticks and let someone else drive the bus for a change…
Bring on the real thing.
Words & Photos: Jason Thomson