Ira Elliot: Caught in the Web
Nada Surf is one of the smartest, freshest-sounding rock bands of the past ten/fifteen years. And like they say, behind every brilliant band is an equally crafty drummer. Kit man Ira Elliot is as sharp as they get.
Before hooking up with fellow New York scenesters Matthew Caws and Daniel Lorca, Elliot had spent years slogging it out on the tough New York rock scene, including a stint in legendary garage band The Fuzztones. In 1994, intrigued by Caws and Lorca’s new material, the drummer agreed to join their new band. Ira’s intincts proved spot-on, and Nada Surf was quickly signed by Elektra. They even had Cars leader and famed producer Ric Ocasek itching to record their debut album, High/Low.
The uniquely stirring “Popular” single provided an immediate buzz for Nada Surf. The band soon went through a tough period, though, when Elektra Records didn’t hear a single from their second album, The Proximity Effect. The group eventually bought the album back from the label and released it on their own, but the experience proved tough on the bandmembers, and they took some time off to regroup. Ira used the opportunity to get involved with some other projects, including recording Ocasek’s solo album Troublizing. (The drummer has since left his mark on albums by America and matt pond P.A., among others.)
Several years passed before the release of Nada’s 2002 album, Let Go. The band’s loyal fans acted like they’d never stopped, though, and Let Go received glowing reviews, as did 2005’s The Weight Is A Gift. Their killer cover of The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” in 2006 was widely heard due to its use in a Chase credit-card commercial, and other Nada songs appeared in feature films and on TV shows like Six Feet Under and The O.C.
Today Nada Surf is as buzz-worthy as ever, touring the world behind their latest masterpiece, Lucky. MD Online caught up with Ira Elliot during a whirlwind period that saw the band playing late-night TV shows, short tours of Europe and The States, and the ever-popular SXSW convention in Austin.
How did you meet the other guys in Nada Surf?
In ’83, ’84 I was playing in a garage rock band, The Fuzztones. Daniel and Matthew are about five years younger than me, and were fans of that band, so I met them through that. They were, of course, terribly impressed with my drumming prowess. [laughs]
What was your playing like then compared to now?
I was a very hyper, speedy, aggressive player at twenty, and garage rock is a great way to burn off some teenage rock aggression, which luckily for me is something that’s never in short supply. But I was a speed demon, a fill-rusher, which was something it took me years to get under control. Nowadays I’m moving toward a more Stan Lynch approach to playing—power and simplicity. And style.
How did you eventually start playing with Matthew and Daniel?
I had already been through playing with hundreds of bands—local bands, cover bands—so I was pretty experienced compared to them. They started Nada Surf around ’94 with another drummer, and did some recordings. Then he left and they said, “Let’s call Ira.” They had stepped up their game enough to where they felt comfortable calling me. I had actually been working as a roadie for The Smithereens, because I’d become tired of playing in bands. So they called me up and gave me a tape. This was late ’94, and I joined the band in January ’95.
You must have been moved by their music to “come out of retirement.”
I loved their stuff. They were coming from a background that I didn’t really know, like The Pixies, Pavement, and Sonic Youth. That music was kind of a revelation to me. Daniel and Matthew came from a different sort of mindset. I thought, This is really interesting, and of course I liked them; they were nice guys and we got along really well. And the chemistry was really good. I was excited to play their songs, and they were excited to play with me. And it just took off.
What were the early shows like?
They were amazing. I couldn’t believe the energy that was being created by the three of us, flying into space. The energy was so good that by the time we played our tenth show, we were signed to Elektra Records. I mean, I hear stories like that, and I rarely believe them. But when it happened to us…. But, you know, we lived and played in New York, and if you happen to play in front of the right people, shit can happen. There were guys from Elektra at one of those gigs, and before we knew it, we were up in their offices taking a meeting with the A&R guys. By December we were in the studio with Ric Ocasek, making our first record.
How did you get hooked up with Ric?
We had been playing a show on 16th St., and at soundcheck Matthew and Daniel went to see a friend at The Knitting Factory. Ric was in the bar and they gave him a tape, and he called back a few weeks later. We were shocked! But he had a meeting with Matthew and said he really liked the stuff and that if we were going to go into the studio to re-record the songs, he’d like to be there to produce it. And it wasn’t more than two or three weeks later that we had our first meeting with Elektra, coincidentally, and I remember the A&R guy’s face when we sort of dropped on him that Ric Ocasek had expressed interest in producing the record: He went white. [laughs] He couldn’t believe it.
So that was a really good time, a series of amazing coincidences. The shit just clicked. We were feeling confident and strong, the material was good, and we were in the right place at the right time. And then we had a radio single with “Popular” the next summer. It was wild. I mean, I had played in a band in New York for seven years, and we had done an aborted record that luckily never came out. We all had gone through hell and high water. In fact, we were all like, Let’s forget about this music-business bullshit and just play music, because we just enjoyed playing. And once we let our guard down and stopped worrying about getting signed, that’s when we got signed.
Talk a little about the making of the new album, Lucky.
We had about a month of rehearsal this time, which was a month more than we had before the previous two albums. So we spent that time working on arrangements and such. We don’t like to force ourselves, sof we hit a wall, we just say, Okay, let’s come back to it tomorrow.We had seven or eight things that were pretty finished, others that were in parts, and a couple things left over from the last record that were good but unfinished.
Then last March we went to Robert Lang Studio in Seattle and recorded. It was a beautiful environment—on the water, steely gray skies. After a month we had twenty-two, twenty-three songs that we narrowed down to ten or eleven on the album. We wanted to keep it nice and concise. We didn’t want to overstay our welcome. You worry about these things—in the age of the iPod, how many songs can people sit through? Ten or eleven seems like a pretty good number.
Five on a side.
Actually, yeah, we thought about that, because we’re pressing the album on vinyl too. So we did at one point separate it between an A side and a B side.
Let’s talk specifics about your drumming. You’re quite deft at transitions. For instance, the tune “Nothing,” from Karmic, has a cool section toward the end where you shift in and out of different feels/tempos. Any tips for making those types of transitions smooth?
Over the years I’ve found that the less you do when you make any kind of transition in tempo or dynamic the better. Even something as simple as not hitting a crash and just moving straight to the ride with no fanfare can make a big difference. It lets things breathe a bit.
I’ve actually been training myself for years not to do fills. It’s a very difficult thing to do. I come from a basic ’70s classic rock background, which, you know, is crash on the 1 and fill every four bars, with a little comment here and there. I’m one of those people who’s always talked about minimalism and “less is more”—that Ringo, Hal Blaine school. You go back and listen to those Ringo recordings, and what he did was almost orchestral.
I found that the less you do, the more interesting it becomes. If you force yourself not to do a fill where you think it’s gonna be, or not to hit a crash cymbal on the 1, and instead of transitioning with a fill you just go right from the hi-hat to the ride during a chorus, and just change texture, it’s really interesting. And it’s hard to do because we’re trained to go from part A to part B with a flourish. We drummers like to call attention to ourselves. [laughs] We feel on some basic level we’re not given the respect we’re due. So I think we’re always trying to call out a little bit. But switching between sections without a fill makes a nice clean line, and you don’t really learn that until you make a recording and hear it back and go, Oh wow, “nothing” works better than “something.”
“See These Bones,” the first song on the new record, really seems to be about this.
That’s an older song, and we had done it in sections. Then we did a new version where we realized the way to do it was to, when it goes to the chorus, have me just playing kick and snare. There’s no 8th notes on the ride cymbal or hi-hats, which gives it this nice space.
But, yeah, that was a hard lesson for me to learn, because I want to fly and be free. And I still have this problem in the studio, where I have that red light fever when the tape is rolling. Psychologically it’s different when you have headphones on and the tape rolls. I’m still trying to break myself of the “This has to be the perfect take” kind of thing. The magic happens when you stop thinking. I call it “The Marquee Moon Effect.” The title track from Television’s Marquee Moon album was a rehearsal take. That thing where it sort of falls apart and then comes back together? Well, the band didn’t know the tape was rolling. The psycological aspect of that is tremendous. You know, it’s like when you’re playing alone and then one person walks in and is watching you, and everything is now like a performance? It’s a mental game as much as anything.
Tell us about another song from the new album, “The Fox.”
That was a long, brewing thing. I like to call that the “Daniel” song on the record. Whereas “Beautiful Beat” is the “Ira” song on the record, because it’s about a drumbeat, “The Fox” was a Daniel pet project. He was a champion of that dark riff. So we messed with it, and after hours of rehearsal, we came up with this weird, sideways drumbeat.
I recorded like ten minutes of that beat—with a ride cymbal, without a ride cymbal, with a hi-hat, without a hi-hat—plus fills. We pieced it together with [producer] Chris Walla for the previous record in San Francisco, but we didn’t finish it; there were no words yet. Then we edited a drum track together based on an arrangement we’d worked out, and Matthew finished it. It’s one of those Frankenstein tracks. And now I find I have to go back and figure out how to execute that. The accent falls just before the 1, and the ride cymbal comes in during the middle of the fourth phrase—it’s very confusing. And there’s a low harmony that I have to sing. But it’s a weird beat, and kind of reminds me of “Making Plans For Nigel” by XTC. I’m very proud of that song.
The 12/8 feel of “Weightless” is really solid. What would you work on to develop the kind of bass drum independence you play while keeping the quarter notes steady on the hi-hat or ride?
Thanks. And I sing background harmony at the same time. Sheesh. Man, I don’t know…practice to Sunny Day Real Estate records. And sing while you do it. That’s actually something I wish I had done more when I was first starting out—singing or even just counting out loud while playing. It’s definitely the best thing for developing coordination.
There’s an interesting unison accent part at the end of “The Plan,” from High/Low. Was that difficult to nail as a band, and how would you rehearse moments like that?
That was written and arranged before I joined Nada Surf, so I just kind of played what Aaron Conte, the first drummer, played on the initial recordings. That’s a weird arrangement because it starts with a real fast part, breaks down to something slightly below half time, goes back to the fast part, and then breaks down again but above half time, which seemed really bizarre to me at the time. Typical control-freak drummer, I kept trying to straighten it out. Sometimes drummers need to stop thinking like mathematicians and start thinking like painters. We played everything pretty fast and furious back then, and the wired-up stop/starts were pretty effortless as I recall.
What’s the toughest lessons you ever learned in the studio and onstage?
When we began making Let Go a few years back, things weren’t going very well. I was really trying to excel, but when I listened to the playback everything sounded forced and uncomfortable, and I started to spiral down in a cycle of frustration. The harder I tried to play well, the worse it got. After a day or two of hating everything and being in an awful mood, I had succeeded only in making everyone else frustrated and angry as well, and I realized that I would sink the whole ship if I didn’t get it together. So when I went to sleep that night I simply decided to just relax and start again in the morning as if nothing had happened, and approach what I was doing calmly and musically. The recording went very easily after that. Really, it’s just hitting things with sticks to make rhythms; don’t make yourself nuts.
But beside that, apart from simple self-consciousness, headphones have always been my worst enemy in the studio. Having to perform comfortably and naturally in a false stereo environment has always been an issue for me. If I can do it headphones-off or with just one ear on, I find that’s a major improvement. I become less uptight.
And live I’ve been training myself away from playing across the rim of the snare all the time. It’s natural for me to play that way, and it feels good, but it doesn’t always sound right. So I’m learning to play, well, like a normal drummer I suppose, and just lay the rimshots in on the occasional chorus. Singing while drumming is still my main challenge onstage, though. I’m going to try in-ear monitors this year and see how it goes.
What are the main elements of your drum sound, and what are the most important tools you use to get your sound?
I’m basically a classic rock guy, so I aim for that kind of sound—warm and punchy. Just a nice cracking snare and a punchy kick that’s not too muffled. I try to keep stuff unmuffled if I can, but then sometimes I’ll throw towels over the toms to get that Abbey Road/Ringo kinda sound. I’ve been using an old Ludwig 61/2″ Supraphonic as my main snare for the past six or seven years. It’s really the perfect snare drum. Listen to Led Zeppelin’s “Down By The Seaside” on Physical Grafitti—that’s the snare drum right there. I’ve also been using Paiste Giant Beats and 2002s for the past two or three years, which I really love. Other than that, it’s the quality of the room and the mic placement.
Actually, in an attempt to have a consistent sound night after night on the road, I bought two things that have made a tremendous difference. First, I bought a bunch of Audix mics—a D6 for the bass, an i5 for the snare, and some APS-910s for the toms, which all sound great. And then I got myself an Auralex Hoverdeck, which is a sound-isolation platform that you put between your kit and the stage. It just makes the drums sound fantastic. I can’t get over how great that damn thing is.
Do you think about distinguishing the drum performances and sounds from album to album?
Honestly, I try not to think about the drum parts too much as we’re recording. I just get a handle on the arrangement and try to work simply and without too much clutter. I suppose I should spend a bit more time on these things, but that’s the way it seems to go. I do like to get a couple of big crazy fills in there somewhere.
As for sound, I just get it sounding good in the room and let the engineer do the rest. I don’t try to craft the sound apart from my mad obsession with tuning, which is an ongoing obsessive-compulsive disorder. My kit has gotten bigger over the last few years, so that’s a bit of a difference, and by that I mean my bass drum and toms have increased in size. I’m not getting older, I’m getter larger.
Let’s go back in time a bit. Where and when did you start playing drums?
I grew up in Rego Park, Queens, and on the morning of my tenth birthday a blue sparkle snare drum magically appeared by my bedside. That was 1973. I took a handful of lessons from my elementary school music teacher, but I learned almost everything I know by playing along with the radio and records. I practiced alone in my basement for at least five or six years before joining a neighborhood cover band. Quest, we were called.
Who was your number-1 drum idol when you were thirteen years old, when you were eighteen years old, and today?
At thirteen I suppose I would have said Buddy Rich, even though at that time I only knew him by reputation. Occasionally he’d show up on Johnny Carson, but that was it. But by eighteen I was a committed Stewart Copeland junkie. I was coming out of my Neil Peart phase and it was a short jump over to Stewart. Really, I was out of my mind. My room was a shrine to The Police. I saw them play thirteen or fourteen times. I kept hoping Stewart would do a Keith Moon and collapse in exhaustion, and then Sting would come out and ask if there were any drummers in the audience, but it was not to be…. Today I mostly go back and forth between Bonham and Ringo. And Charlie Watts. And Keith Moon. The four riders of the apocalypse. I’m a big Joey Castillo fan, I love William Goldsmith of Sunny Day Real Estate, James Lo from Chavez. Grohl, of course. I tend to gravitate toward drummers who don’t call that much attention to themselves, ones who blend in organically—Jason McGerr from Death Cab For Cutie, Pat Spurgeon from Rogue Wave. I’m really enamored of the drummer in Dr. Dog, Juston Stens—the perfect drummer for the perfect band.
A couple quickies: Who’s the first drummer that comes to mind when you hear the words “tom-toms”?
Keith Moon. I’m sure you’ve seen that picture of Keith behind his white Premier kit with the two bass drums and the fourteen toms. That motherf**ker loved toms.
How about “crash-riding”?
Russell Simins from the Blues Explosion.
Big choice: Look good onstage, or feel absolutely comfortable?
Ha! Well, it has to be both doesn’t it? I mean I only feel absolutely comfortable when I look good, so…. I mostly keep it to jeans and a T-shirt onstage, but I think if I had my druthers I’d dress like I was in The Faces. My kit is my best accessory, though. Really, it’s a sexy beast.
What are your favorite pastimes on the bus between gigs? DVDs? Forty Year-Old Virgin, The Big Lebowsky, and tons of rock videos. I just got an awesome Roxy Music comp.
Never. Enough with the music already.
George Martin’s All You Need Is Ears, The Led Zep bio Hammer Of The Gods, The Boy Who Cried Freebird by Mitch Myers, This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel Levitin. Mojo magazine is always good.
I like to sleep as much as possible. That’s really my favorite thing of all. I love bed.
Finally, how’s the touring going?
Pretty great. We’re on an American tour now and recently came back from three weeks in Europe. It’s gonna be back and forth straight through until the fall, I believe, probably until Christmas.
I just took delivery on a new C&C kit a few days ago, which is really spectacular, and I keep a beautiful Ludwig kit in Europe, so my life is a pleasure cruise. [laughs] I’d like to thank Todd Trent at Ludwig and Bill and Jake Cardwell over at C&C for enabling me—and the folks at Paiste and Audix, while I’m at it. Thanks, guys. And thank you, Modern Drummer.