Death Cab For Cutie's Jason McGerr Discusses His Favorite Drummers and Defining His Style

Interviews, Local Music
07/16/2018
KEXP
photo by Morgen Schuler

In celebration of the 20th anniversary of Barsuk Records and Death Cab For Cutie’s KCMU Live Room session on July 11, 1998, we’re looking back at key moments in both the band and label’s history. Follow along for more features, interviews, retrospectives and more here.


Interview by Owen Murphy
Transcription by Emily Harrop

Jason McGerr began playing in Death Cab For Cutie in 2003, making his debut on the band's fourth album Transatlanticism. And what a way to make an entrance. Over the past 15 years, McGerr has become a key fixture in defining the band's sound. McGerr is a drummer who revels in subtlety; knowing what he can do and measuring against what the song needs. If you've watched him perform live or have sat down with a DCFC record with your favorite pair of headphones, you'll hear exactly what we're talking about. It's no surprise that McGerr's influences are vast and far-reaching. From the pummeling forces of nature that are Led Zeppelin's John Bonham and Soundgarden and Pearl Jam's Matt Cameron to the underrated prowess of names like Toto's Jeff Porcaro and Critters Buggin's Matt Chamberlain, McGerr is an obsessive listener and constantly learning from his peers. KEXP caught up with McGerr prior to his appearance at the recording of the Trap Set Podcast in our Gathering Space, talking through his influences and the drumming philosophies that have served him most as a musician. 


KEXP: So what do you think makes a drummer really good at what they do? I'll give an example. I've been watching you play live for the last couple of hours in various concert videos on YouTube. And you always seem like you're in the pocket, but you'll kind of jump out a little bit with fills and things, and so it's artistic but tasteful. It adds, it doesn't get in the way. And I'm curious where that comes from or what you think makes a great drummer. 

Jason McGerr: Dynamics I think make great musicians in general. If you're having a conversation with someone and it is a purely monotone conversation and you don't have anything to add other than the exact same delivery and pitch with everything then it really ends up being kind of boring. So by little embellishments, I think what I'm trying to do is breathe, you know? I'm trying to let people know that I'm back there and when I'm inspired, when I'm sad, when I'm upset, when I'm mad, you know, all those things. I mean music is a reflection of what we're feeling, obviously. And sometimes it doesn't always match the lyrics, sometimes music can be really powerful and fast and up, and the lyric is incredibly sad. It can be a dichotomy, but I think that the same thing that comes from each individual musician is you need to be emotional and cathartic back there on your instrument. Otherwise, you're not going to be felt, you know, as a player, you're not going to capture people or their attention. And, I mean, the drummer's role is supposed to be a little more machine-like. You've got to keep time for everyone. But like I said, I like to embellish a little and let you know that I'm there and have, what I like to think of, as multiple layers of a presentation, not just the surface. That's what these four limbs are for. 

 

I don't think I had heard you guys until you appeared on Saturday Night Live. I think I kind of stopped following music then, as I was working for ESPN then and I just stopped listening to music sort of, creativity went other places. And what grabbed me about you guys was you! You reminded me of besides, I think it was "Soul Meets Body," which is an incredible song but your playing grabbed me. And I can't find a video online, so I can't really remember exactly what it was about that, but it reminded me of the Dischord drummers, like the drummer from Fugazi, Brendan Canty. Or it reminds me of Zach from Jawbox as a matter of fact. I don't know if you know Jawbox at all, but you remind me of how Zach plays as well. 

Man, those are huge compliments right there. Both those guys influenced me, big time. You know, it seemed like there was a time when I was in my formative years where there was a certain amount of production that hid dynamics. You know a lot of producers and engineers were triggering things and gating drum sounds. Everything had the exact same attack and feel, and when I was a kid listening to records like Fugazi, they didn't have that budget, they didn't have that technology. And so I think what you heard is a very honest performance. You heard Lou's performances, you heard all of a sudden a rimshot that was louder than the previous one. You just heard things that came out of the music, and to me, that's what we all fell in love with the birth of music. And so I think when I heard that in my development as a player I was like, "Well, this is what it's supposed to sound like. This is how I'm supposed to be. Not perfect every time." I mean I do like big produced records. But at the same time, the ones that have more character built into me, where you close your eyes and you really see somebody back there, are the ones that I've always gravitated towards. So I hope that's what you're hearing, an individual back there and not just a machine. 

I'm just hearing great grooves. I don't know. I mean honestly, I'm hearing great drumbeats that grab my attention and made me want to shake my head. 

Thank you. I mean the word chameleon comes into my mind all the time, and I'm not talking about Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon." I just mean in general I would love for any listener of our records to not be sure if it's the same drummer playing on every song. I'm influenced by all kinds of music. I mean I don't know if the first song I learned how to play note for note was "Master of Puppets" or "Tom Sawyer", but also it was "A Love Supreme." You know, like Coltrane, and "Vitamin C" by Can, and "Aja" by Steely Dan. There's just a lot of music that's influenced me. And I think too because I don't have melody per se, I mean, I can't structure chords — although you could argue that a particular shape or pattern on the drums forms a chord — but because I don't have the same sort of melodic tools as another instrument I think that the way that I try and use dynamics and textures in my playing is the way that I make up for not being able to have the same sort of melody. 

You just reeled off a full list of varying different types of music from the very clean '70s production, to Steely Dan to free jazz, John Coltrane. And I'm a huge fan of the song "Tom Sawyer" and I know you're not supposed to be, but I am. 

No, those guys are rad! Come on! Look I was talking with a friend, sorry to cut you off - 

That's all good! 

I'll make a quick point, historically there's been artists that have copied other artists. There was some documentary about famous painters that painted famous painters, and not being able to tell the original from the copy. Like people that copied Van Gogh or Picasso. And then there was a debate about who's the better artist? The one that could do it just as well with the same brushstrokes, or the original artist? And to me when we're talking about "Tom Sawyer," those guys, they were the original artists, right? They painted their own canvas. No matter how much you listen to prog, or try and be a prog band today, you never going to be Rush. The same way that I don't think PJ Harvey listened to many people before her to try and emulate them exactly. Or the Beatles. You know they did their own thing at the time. So I've always moved forward with that same sort of idea, or sort of goal. I've never wanted to sound like anybody other than myself as a drummer. 

You listed all these artists of different styles and textures and genres. What was your childhood like? Where does all this come from? How does it happen that you know this stuff? 

My mom's parents were big dancers. My grandmother used to tell me about how when they were really bad, quote-unquote, they would as teenagers get on top of tables in the gym, and dance, and have dance competitions. They would listen to Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, really old stuff which most of anyone who's listening is not going to know what I'm talking about, but you do. Anyway, I think that I was I was exposed to a lot of music early on because of my mom's family and all her siblings. We would dance during the holidays. There would be The Commodores, Earth Wind and Fire, The Moody Blues, The Bee Gees, and Fleetwood Mac. And that was sort of my early introduction, and then I became a young teenager, like 13, 14, and started hanging out with friends of mine who had older siblings and it was sort of like an "Almost Famous" vibe. They were listening to Zeppelin, and Creedence, and Black Sabbath and all these '70s bands. And then in the middle of that hearing the Beatles, my mom and dad were both Beatles fans, and The Mamas and The Papas. So I was just around a lot of music, but I think really what made me dive into music was that — I mean, I can tell exactly the story. My parents divorced when I was 10-years-old, and it wasn't long after that my — I was living with just my mom, an only child, and had a lot of isolated time, and the music was just there for me as a comforting soundtrack. And I was in sixth grade, and a friend of mine who I enjoyed around in the woods and fishing with up in Bellingham said, "You should play the drums. And besides, if you're in the back of the room the band director doesn't pay any attention to you, and you can just goof off all day long." And I was like, "Great. I'll give it a shot." And I was kind of immediately hooked.

At the time I was in sixth grade, which is maybe 11 years old. So from 11-13 I played just snare drum and had a little bit of time playing drum set. And then for a jazz performance played "New York, New York". I'll never forget it. The whole family came up, looking from the balcony, embarrassing, shouting, but it was a big moment for me at 13 years old. And then when I got into high school I finally got my own drum set, and ended up meeting some other kids that wanted to play music, and just got a real taste. And the whole time I think that because of my being more introverted and feeling like I needed a place to escape, the drum set was there for me, which really helped me to put in the hours and time to make it something that seemed feasible. Not to mention living so close to Seattle. Because when I was in high school all the big Seattle bands. We all know them, I don't even need to mention it. I mean, But I will. Soundgarden, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, Mother Love Bone and they were all just down the street. And The Posies were from Bellingham. And so for me being a musician wasn't as farfetched. It would be like a kid that gets to go to Safeco Field and gets to see a baseball game and says, "Well, that's where I'm supposed to play baseball." For me, seeing that there were bands out of Seattle that were making cool music, that were also being recognized all over the place, made it seem feasible that I could do this for a living. 

You mentioned your parents divorced when you were 10. I'm sorry. For those next few years, what was the soundtrack? Is it the prog rock, the rock you described? Is it punk? Like John [Richards] on the air, he's always talking about The Pixies. The Pixies kind of saved him, and there are lots of bands that have saved him, and I have my list that's a mile long too. What about you? 

Zeppelin was the band that cracked it open for me. I'd never heard anyone like John Bonham, that had a sound, where huge sound meets great groove, and also had a very musical approach to the instrument. I mean it was just a mess. I will never forget where I was when I heard "Black Dog". 

 

Where were you? 

I was in a field off of the Mount Baker highway, under an apple tree, and I was 14-years-old. I was with my friend Josh, and we thought that somehow if we left a plastic carton of apple juice underneath a tree for a week it would ferment, and we'd turn it into alcohol. Sorry, I probably should say that. 

No! My wife just said the exact same thing! In boarding school, they used to hide apple juice underneath their beds so they could have it ferment later. 

Isn't that amazing? 

Just yesterday we had this conversation! 

I think that we actually had a sip and it was awful. But anyway here's the other scene. Like I said, it was like Almost Famous. Just down the field, there was a barn where his two older brothers were in their early 20s and were constantly working on a Camaro that I never saw drive. I mean it was such a scene, right? And all I could hear was "Black Dog". So that was like, holy shit, this is what I want to do. And my grandparents, to back up a little bit, my grandparents gave me cassette tapes of Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, and that was the first time I heard a drummer be that forward and present in music. Not long after I heard Joe Morello, and Dave Brubeck, "Take Five". So what was cool is some of some of the older generation was hipping me to real musicianship and seminal music. But it was my discovery of Zeppelin. So by the time I was 14 for my birth I wanted the entire catalog, I wanted everything they had to offer. And then it became more of a regional haunt for what was happening around me. But that was the real kicker. That whole catalog. 

It's funny. I got to interview Steve Jones of The Sex Pistols. I got to say to him, "I remember the first time I heard you. You turned my head around!" It was his guitar sound that really grabbed me. Are there other seminal pieces of music? 

Yeah. Desert Island Records basically is what you're talking about, right? I mean of course I was a Beatles fan, but I wasn't as much of a Beatles fan, because everyone else was a Beatles fan. I was at that independent age and I was like, "I need to find my thing." So a lot of major influences came out of Chicago. June of 44, Shipping News, Billy Dolan, Heroic Doses, Tortoise. 

Well, The Jesus Lizard was it for me from Chicago. 

McGerr: Yeah, of course. Shellac, Slint which is actually not Chicago. Well, they have a Chicago connection or vibe. 

That's Louisville. The song "Mouth Breather" is about one of them trying to break into a studio and he can't so he takes the door down, ruins the house. 

Amazing. So, those were big records for me. American Football. But again, the Seattle thing was like, in high school, seeing Screaming Trees and Nirvana at Western Washington University as a kid as a surprise. Nirvana as a surprise was huge. Having Mudhoney play outdoors in Red Square as a kid. You know, where I'm fresh. Not even out of high school. It was right there. Everything was right there, and all I had to do when I was 19 was move to Seattle. Then I got to meet people, like William Goldsmith from Sunny Day Real Estate, and Dave Grohl would come into the drum shop I was working in, and sit down and play drums. Everything around me was pointing to this is a community that you could be a part of if you worked hard enough. 

Yeah. That proximity is interesting because it makes you feel like you can get there. 

Absolutely. 

I was talking about Scott MacDonald. I used to sit at the 7th Street Entry, sit directly behind him while they were playing live and just hang out. 

Such a good venue! 7th Street Entry, I mean, you go there, and you play those venues, and you play better. You just do. I mean, for me, I go on that stage and I'm like, "I'm here because I'm supposed to be here." I earned this spot, so I'm going to make sure that I keep it. Same thing with The Fillmore in San Francisco. There are venues - not just when you get to be on the same bill or share a stage — I mean I'll never forget being at the Gorge and playing with The Cure for Sasquatch a number of years ago, and seeing Robert hanging out answering some e-mails backstage. You tell me how I'm supposed to go on stage and perform poorly when you're with that kind of royalty? So it's getting to meet Peter Buck, another big hero, like there's a lot of watermarks that every time I walked up to them — it's like you realize that you've reached a certain level, and you have to be thankful, and respect it, and also make sure that you continue to work hard to stay at that place. 

I made my list of favorite drummers in no particular order. You're on it. Of course, you are on it! Don't be silly! 

Thank you! 

And then Scott MacDonald, Todd Trainer, Zach from Jawbox, Mitch Mitchell.

So good!

And I stopped there, and I'm sure there's more I could add to it. Of course, you have John Bonham. Do you have a list of people you admire that you think did it better than anybody else? 

There's a ton. I mean, there's there's a lot of new guys too that are incredible players. Justin Brown, who's playing with Thundercat. I mean, when I was a teenager I discovered Modern Drummer magazine. Super nerdy. But I suppose if you're into cars you read AutoTrader, right? Or Cigar Aficionado if you smoke cigars. 

I'm handsome, that's why I read GQ

There you go. 

Yeah, thank you. 

You know, I didn't want to make it weird in here, but there you go. So Modern Drummer magazine. Any drummer that's ever been on the cover, or graced the pages of Modern Drummer, has certainly earned their position. All of the studio greats from the Los Angeles area, like Vinnie Colaiuta, Steve Gadd, Peter Erskine, JR Robinson. 

Well it's funny, you're listing a bunch of names, and I'll be candid, I've never heard of. I only heard of Steve Gadd today because I was listening to a podcast where you were in an airport chatting with him, otherwise, I have had no idea who he was. 

So these are all behind-the-scenes guys. 

So are there songs they've played on? You must have grabbed on to some performance they've done. 

 A lot of these guys, like Jeff Porcaro, do you know that name? 

Yeah, he was in Toto. 

So Toto was a band of studio session musicians in L.A. that started a band, and they're all hot shots, and they had it big with "Rosanna" and "Africa". There's a bunch of stuff that has no cred with Northwest musicians or bands that I have listened to over the years. Maybe someday it will. When my bandmates were listening to R.E.M., I was listening to Steely Dan, when my bandmates were listening to The Jesus Lizard, I might have been listening to Coltrane. That doesn't mean I didn't listen to Jesus Lizard, because I was still there, and when I discovered Slint we were on the same page. 

 

You know, you could listen to both Jesus Lizard and John Coltrane and it's okay, it's fine. 

Well, I think it's really interesting where we put our influences from. My wife, whenever we're driving down the road and we can't decide whose phone to listen to, you know, whose iTunes library. I put mine on shuffle, and she only lasts like three songs before she has to skip, and then skip, and skip again. Something will come on, like some country record, and I'm like, "But do you know who played on this?! This amazing! This is Matt Chamberlain, who's one of my favorites!" I don't know if you know that name. 

Matt Chamberlain, locally, was in a band called Critters Buggin in 1996 in Seattle. They put out a couple records on Stone Gossard's label Loosegroove, but they were all kind of session guys. Matt went to North Texas State and left school early to play with Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians. He also played with Fiona Apple on two of her records, he played with The Wallflowers. And then he's gone on to be one of the greatest session drummers of our – of my time. Like maybe what Steve Gadd was in the '70s, '80s, and early '90s. So I follow musicians and people, even producers and engineers in a way that a lot of my bandmates don't. And in the way that people that love bands and songs and music don't. So like I said, if you get back to my wife skipping and passing tracks, it's because something will come on that really has no continuity or flow like you guys would throw it out it would not be part of the Morning Faithful playlist whatsoever. Well, it's an education for me, it's like a writer that reads, you know? 

It's funny, that thing with The Morning Show. If you every now and then toss on Journey or "Africa" by Toto, it sounds amazing actually! It's all about the context, it depends on what you put it next to. Because some of that stuff can sound cheesy but in the right...

No, it can be amazing. It's interesting to me because I've really been trying to study and better myself as a musician from the beginning. And a lot of bands have become successful, whether it's overnight, or through blue-collar hard work, and just try to be good bands. Write good songs, get in a van, tour, and travel the world. But seldom do they actually work on their musicianship. But the people that work on their musicianship never get a chance to get in a band or tour. There's a big separation to me between super music nerds that can play really well and people that just write great songs that are really successful bands. I'm not saying that there aren't great songwriting bands or artists that are also good musicians, that definitely happens. But it's a funny thing to navigate my world and know who I can and can't talk to about certain records or artists. And there are telltale signs when you're talking to someone if you really want to go deep about music. But I'm very sensitive to the fact, and this comes into my playing, that I need to not just be appealing to the musicians that are listening to my band, but the people that could care less about how fast or how complicated the things I play are, and they just are looking for a good hook, and a good melody, and something that they can register and put into their own life and context. 

But the cool thing with you is... so most drummers would just play a straight 4/4, right? Almost a Ringo beat. You add little nuances you elevate the music. 

That's for the musicians. And to me, it's an invitation for people that are not listening to Coltrane's "Ascension" or some weird '70s fusion record from L.A. that no one's ever heard of. It's me just throwing a line, like, "Hey, everybody, this is out there too." Like, yes, I'm influenced by Asia. So it's a whole lot of fun for me. Like I said, it's like a writer who reads several different genres of books to help influence their writing or to inspire that writing. I love playing four on the floor and backbeats when it's right for the song. But if you give me a really long leash, and throw the keys away to drum jail, and say, "Go for it!" Then it is full-on prog fusion. It gets gnarly. And sometimes that works, and sometimes it's a terrible idea. And thank God that I found Death Cab because Death Cab came along at a time when I maybe was going a little too left and needed to bring it back to center. Like so what if you can play odd times, and fast and intricate patterns, polyrhythmic this or that? Nobody cares. Unless you're a full band of that, like Rush, or Dream Theater. But I wanted the music that I played to be resonating with as many people as possible. 

Have you seen that internet meme where someone's asking a famous drummer about playing 8/11, or 11/16, or something like that Have you ever see this? 

I think so but continue on. 

I don't remember exactly how it goes. But it's something like, "I don't give a fuck about 11/16! I play 4/4 four to pay the bills you dumbass!"

Absolutely. Yeah, I get it. It's like if someone came to you with a problem, like say you're a psychologist, and all you did know in response was instead of listen and say, "I understand," you just threw a whole bunch of medical terms and just didn't allow them to get a single word in. That's the equivalent of someone who plays too much. I remember a little comic underneath a music school that I was used to teach at called Seattle Drum School – it's still here in town, I just don't teach there anymore –but there was a comic of a drummer, and it looked like bee swarms all over this illustration of this giant kid, and someone just like playing a tornado of notes. And there's a suit standing in front of him and his comment bubble says, "You are amazing!" And it says, "Auditions" above both pictures. The next one is a little dude going, "Boom, boom, bap. Boom, boom, bap." And the comment bubble says, "You're hired." So to me, I always want to be hired. I want to provide for my own lifestyle and my family. But I also want to be respected by people that can play circles around me, and I like to hang with them, and I like to be inspired by them. But the most impressive players to me, this kind of brings me back to the John Bonhams and the Mitch Mitchells, are the players —men and women — that have an incredible facility and impeccable taste. People that can play over the moon but choose not to. 

Yeah, or choose a point where they will play a little bit, and bring it back. 

Rev the engine a little bit. Yeah, for me I try to do that more live than on records. 

You know, it's funny tonight you're going to share a stage with Matt Cameron, a guy who does crazy shit. 

I'm a huge fan. 

What do you think makes him unique or great? 

Matt plays with amazing intent. He's got great sound, which is another thing. To back up, you were asking me what makes a drummer great. Sound is paramount. If you hit the shit out of the drums and don't let them breathe, and you dig into them too much, then they sound like crap. 

What does that mean exactly? 

You can play into the head or off of the head, to put it in simple terms. If you put your hand over your mouth and speak your voice is muted. If you speak clearly and into the air you have a better tone. 

Well, you're making a choice when you play. I notice that you don't wail on it. You're not Dave Grohl on the drums. You're hitting it, but you're not killing it. You're hitting for tone, I would think. 

Well, I mean I love to visually watch somebody kill it, quote unquote. But tonally there is a point where the drums don't sound better, they sound worse. I know plenty of guys that can play circles around me that think that the only way to hit is like as hard as you can. But I think that to let some air and breathing happen and dynamics, for there to be a range, I think that there's a threshold that I try not to cross until I need to. There are moments during a show when I really do want to get on it and feel like I'm about to break my hands and back folding over to crash the cymbals, and there are times when I want to feel like it's just a total whisper. 

 

So Matt Cameron, what makes him great? 

Oh man! Matt is just incredibly creative. A great part writer, good songwriter, great tone, good technique. I remember hearing "Jesus Christ Pose" and it was like, "Who is that?!" It sounds like a bulldozer back there. And then "Spoonman", bringing it to mid-era Soundgarden, the sound of those drums were just massive like. Like a Bonham presence. And so I found out everything I could about that record. I wanted to know what drums he used, who made that snare drum. (Gregg Keplinger.) I wanted to know which studio they recorded in, what the microphones were. Who the producer was, who the engineer was. But really what it boils down to is that when you get to meet Matt, and you stand next to him, and see him play, that's all your answers. He has this wall of sound as a musician. Several years ago he and I played the Ballard Jazz Festival together. Very few people tell this, but he and I both played double drums on the stage together, and we opened with a really long extended double drum solo piece. There is some footage out there somewhere and I might add the multitrack if I look hard enough. But then we also, he played guitar and I played drums. And then I played guitar on one song, the one and only time I played guitar on a live stage, and he played drums to my song. And that was amazing! That was so much fun. But, I mean, Soundgarden was my "Get Amped" music before doing anything that required energy. 

And we lost Chris Cornell last year. Yeah. When you think of him and what he's created, what are your thoughts about that loss? 

He did not get enough credit for his voice and lyrics. Incredible lyricist, just incredible singer. So tragically sad. And I remember we were doing a couple of one-off shows, and one was in Memphis, and I looked on the calendar at the airport on the way to Memphis and saw Soundgarden had played the day before. And I was like, "What was I thinking? Why did I not go see the show?" And I texted Matt just as soon as I landed and said, "Hey are you in town still?" And he was like, "No, we already moved on. We're in Texas now." And I was like, "I'm so bummed. I should have flown out a day early. How's it going?" And he said, "Amazing. Sounds incredible." And this was less than a month before we lost Chris. But I have seen him since. I mean I'm not going to speak for Matt, because you're going to have him in here soon, but I know that for him it's still like each day, he's still got to come to terms with the loss of one of his best friends. But it really hit home when I revisited that catalog. As we all do when we lose somebody, whether it's Prince, or Petty, or Cornell. You realize what these people brought to the world, to your life. And it really makes you view and play your instrument differently. That's for sure. And I know that Matt is definitely playing different these days. 

In what sense? 

I just think, I mean, he's always been a deep player, but even more so now. He's just thankful to be up there and able to do that, and making sure that everyone around him is OK, you know? 


[ Revisit Death Cab's 1998 KCMU Session ]

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