Chris Cester of Jet
The band Jet has released what many consider to be one of the best rock records of the year, Get Born, which features the hit single (and Apple iPod anthem) “Are You Gonna Be My Girl.”
by Billy Amendola
Drummer Chris Cester, along with his brother Nic, Cameron Muncey, and Mark Wilson, have melded ambitious, rambunctious classic rock with a fresh sound, and the result can be heard blasting from radios and TVs the world over.
The boys from down under have been touring for eighteen months straight, with no plans of slowing down. MD Online recently had the opportunity to speak with Chris on one of his rare days off.
MD: Congratulations, the CD is a smash here in the States.
Chris: Thanks a lot. It’s definitely running away from us, isn’t it?
MD: How is the tour going?
Chris: We’re always on tour. [laughs] We’ve been touring for eighteen months now, and it’s going great. We recently sold out a bunch of shows in England. And we added a keyboard player, which has brought us up to a new level. We’re kind of meandering off into jams during the set now, which is great.
MD: What are some of your favorite songs to play live?
Chris: I really like playing “Get What You Need.” We’ve been opening with it lately because it has an organ intro – which we can do now. I wanted a big groove on it. I don’t like cymbals much. I only use one cymbal when I play.
MD: Your style does seem to be more tom-oriented and tribal.
Chris: That’s what I’m really into. We’re all coming from the Motown kind of school – maybe not in the same way as the White Stripes, but songs like “Get What You Need” definitely reflect that.
MD: How did keyboard legend Billy Preston wind up playing on “Come Around Again” and some other songs on “Get Born”?
Chris: It was an idea that our producer, Dave Sardy, put to us. We just looked at him and said, “Are you joking?” But he said, “No, Billy’s in LA. Let’s give him a call.? So we sent him our stuff and he agreed to come down and play on the record. We also played in New Orleans with Alan Tousaint [another keyboard king], and there’s talk of us recording with [reggae giants] Toots & The Maytals as well, because Toots is a big fan of the band.
MD: I read that you want to start working on a new recording after you get off the road, and that you’ve already written some songs.
Chris: Oh, yeah. We’ve written a bunch of songs while we’ve been on tour, but I don’t want to make a “touring record,” so I’m a little bit wary of that. You’ve got to kind of get yourself out of gig land, you know? I can’t talk for other bands, but we look at playing live very differently from recording. Some bands tend to just re-create what they do on the album, which I think is utterly boring. We make the experience as different as possible, because that’s what people are paying for.
MD: Are you involved in the songwriting process?
Chris: Yes. Pretty much the songs with all those tribal drum bits that you were talking about are my tracks – “Get What You Need,” “Last Chance,” and “Get Me Outta Here.” I also wrote some lyrics for “Move On,” and I wrote “Timothy.” I definitely pitch in; I played the guitar before I played the drums. You sort of have to play guitar or piano to be able to write a song and a melody.
MD: Who is Timothy?
Chris: Cameron Munsey, our guitarist, had a brother Timothy who died before Cam was even born. So that was a song I wrote for him and his family. I sing lead vocals on the song.
MD: Do you sing lead on any of the other tracks?
Chris: That’s me on the first track, “Last Chance.” I sing lead on “Move On” too.
MD: “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” appearing in the iPod ad was great for your notoriety in the States. How did that come about?
Chris: Our record company and management pitched the song to them. It was a really good way to break in America.
MD: Let’s go back to when you first started playing. What made you want to play drums, since you were already playing guitar?
Chris: Well, there was always a guitar laying around the house, because my brother Nic played. I wasn’t very good then, though I’ve gotten pretty good now. The drums was just one of those little kid things, where I wanted to be different from my brother. [laughs] And definitely listening to Led Zeppelin records got me into it. We were listening to them a lot when I started playing drums. If you’ve got any sort of rhythm in you, the thing about Zeppelin that attracts you first is John Bonham’s playing. And those drum sounds kill you. As a kid you kind of sit there and wonder, “Has he got ten arms?”
MD: What else were you listening to?
Chris: Abbey Road was one of the first albums that we heard. It was one of the only good records in our dad’s collection, which Nic, as a really young child, managed to weed out from the rest. [laughs] A lot of people have the misconception that we grew up on these classic rock ‘n’ roll records. Not true at all. We found all those great records on our own. Nic liked Abbey Road, Paul McCartney’s Band On The Run, Cat Stevens’ Tea For The Tillerman, Stevie Wonder. Our dad’s still got the collection, and from time to time I shake my head and wonder how this ever happened.
MD: So Nic would turn you on to these records.
Chris: Of course, because he was a couple years older, and you just look up to your older brother that way. And then it’s just like a ladder after that. Once you know about The Beatles, you start to hear other names like The Kinks, and the further into it you get, the more obscure your influences become. We’re listening to this band The Shocking Blue at the moment, who that did that song “Venus” years ago. They have a song called “Send Me A Postcard,” which has the most amazing drum sound for its time. It sounds so modern, like it could be from Get Born.
MD: Did you take lessons at that point?
Chris: I had lessons during high school for a year. But I think if you’re really going to do it properly, you’ve got to work it out for yourself, because then you develop your own style rather than having some old geezer going, “Let me show you how to be a rock ‘n’ roll star.”
MD: How old were you when you started playing the drums?
MD: And you’re twenty-one now?
Chris: That’s right.
MD: Being on the road all the time is the best practice you can possibly do. But if you sat down to practice, what would you do?
Chris: I don’t really practice that often because, as you say, I play a show every day. It’s more about picking up stuff. If you hear the Shocking Blue record you’ll understand: The drumming has snappy little drum fills that are just really tasteful and aren’t overbearing. I find there’s a lot of stuff that I’m really getting into now, like French covers of American R&B songs from the ’60s. They would tighten everything up. So if I’m sitting down at soundcheck and waiting for the band, those are the kinds of things that I run over in my head and try to figure out.
MD: Are there any drummers who you particularly like now?
Chris: Yeah, there’s an amazing drummer in a band called The Stands, from Liverpool. Their drummer is phenomenal. He plays in a more minimal style, but what he’s capable of is out of this world. He does a drum solo at the end of their set every night that just takes your breath away.
MD: What gear did you use on the recording?
Chris: We used exciting vintage stuff. Ross Garfield, the Drum Doctor, set me up with all these different drums to make one complete drumkit. There’d be a floor tom from a ’67 Ludwig and then a rack tom from a late ’50s Gretsch. I couldn’t tell you exactly what I used because every track was slightly different. I can tell you that the bass drum was the same on every track except “Get What You Need,” and that was an old 26″ Slingerland.
MD: Why did you use vintage drums?
Chris: I just think they sound better. They were hand-made back then, too, so you’re never going to get the same kind of sound with new gear. Another reason people still play them is because they last. I hate it when some guys have vintage kits but never take them out on tour. It’s like, the reason they’re still working, mate, is because they’re built strong.
MD: Did you tune your own drums during the recording?
Chris: No, that was all Ross. He was brilliant. Everyone from Charlie Watts to Ringo Starr has wanted to take him out on the road. Everybody knows he’s the best.
MD: Greg Fidelman, the engineer, also must have had a lot to do with the sound, though the drums have to sound good before they’re recorded.
Chris: Oh yeah, that’s the way Dave Sardy likes to record: get all the sounds right first, that way you don’t have to do much work in the mix.
MD: How did you cut the tracks?
Chris: I did all the drum tracks live, and then we did guitars and vocals and whatnot.
MD: What was it like working with Dave Sardy?
Chris: He has his own way of doing things, so there were a lot of confrontations at the start of the record. But we’re all really good friends, so it was never anything personal. He does know the importance of getting a good drum sound on a record.
MD: As I run down some song titles, tell me what pops into your head. “Last Chance.”
Chris: That starts with me going, “Can you just give me one more try?” Sardy felt that Nic should sing that song, but I thought my voice was more suited, so he let me have a go at it. He was trying to kick me out of there quicker, though. But I nailed the final take and he left it on there.
MD: “Are You Gonna Be My Girl.”
Chris: That happened very quickly. After a couple of takes to get into the groove, it was easy.
MD: “Rollover DJ.”
Chris: There’s a section in the middle where I do my little thing for a bit. That part used to be a lot longer and crazier – kind of more Keith Moon-esque – but we chopped it a bit.
MD: “Look What You’ve Done.”
Chris: That kind of reflected a Beatles influence for me.
MD: “Get What You Need.”
Chris: That track was the most fun to record, and it’s the most fun to play live. I can remember saying to Dave Sardy that I wanted the drums to be right up front on that one. I just love all the different grooves and stuff that I can get into.
MD: There’s no drums on “Move On.”
Chris: Yeah, but I sang lead on that track.
MD: How is singing live and playing?
Chris: It’s easy for me. I wouldn’t have written the song if I couldn’t sing it from behind the kit.
MD: “Cold Hard Bitch.”
Chris: That’s just stupid words from stupid teenage kids. We wrote that song five years ago, and now I’m paying for the mistakes of being naive and green. [laughs] You’ve got to be a little bit dangerous or else you’re boring, aren’t you?
MD: “Come Around Again.”
Chris: Nic and Cam wrote that together. That was one that Billy Preston played on, so I had drool coming out of my mouth when I played on it.
MD: Billy’s played with both The Stones and The Beatles.
Chris: Yeah, and they’re my favorite bands!
MD: What do you like about Ringo’s drumming?
Chris: I love that hokey style of drumming, which I kind of use on the track “Lazy Gun.” And I love the way he sweeps over the kit; he makes the longest fills of all time. Very tasteful, though.
MD: Kind of what you do – play for the song.
Chris: Exactly. He also had some of the best musicians of all time in the studio with him telling him how to go about making records. When you’ve got people like that behind you, it’s hard to make a crap drum track.
For more on Chris’s playing, check out “Off The Record” in the June ’04 issue of Modern Drummer. Buy print back issues here.