Preparing for Takeoff: Jack Irons on His Current Approach to Moving Solo Tracks to the Stage
Jack Irons always has a number of interesting projects happening. These days the drummer, who was a founding member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, toured and recorded a number of seminal albums with Pearl Jam, and focused many years on the highly regarded group Eleven, is working with a new band, Arthur Channel, featuring his longtime musical partner Alain Johannes, Wallflowers bassist Greg Richling, and vocalist Jonathan Greene. Simultaneously, Jack’s working out the details for presenting his solo material, including tracks from his new solo EP, Blue Manatee, in a live setting. MD Online recently spoke to Jack about the process, including the making of the video for the track “Outer Space Dream.”
MD: When you recorded “Outer Space Dream,” were you thinking about making a video for it?
Jack: I’d always had the idea, but the reality of pulling it off didn’t come until later. I started experimenting, and had Alain quantize a song or two for me. We’d take the drums out, line things up to a click so I could play to it, and then I would rerecord the drums over that in my room. I also videotaped myself to a green screen to see if it was interesting enough to watch for a half hour. My friend Sophia Deininger and I have been working together on this for a few years, devising a live performance concept.
MD: What will you need gear-wise to pull this off? Will you have to bring in your own video equipment, or rely on the club’s gear?
Jack: That’s a good question, and I did a lot of research. It seems that it can be done both ways. There are some clubs that can accommodate something like this. They might have a couple big screens on the stage, or I could bring a screen. You can be creative with what you do, even if it’s a simple setup on a laptop with the track loaded into a Final Cut file. It could even be a QuickTime file and an iPod, but there you get into mono issues, which I don’t want to deal with.
MD: Will you work with Sophia live too?
Jack: I think so. She’ll have her laptop with everything loaded, with the correct mixes. The sound guy will get some of that without a click, and I’ll get a version with a click, and I’ll just play like I’ve been playing. I’ve been rehearsing these tracks all the time because it’s fun practice for me, and I want it to be really natural. When I get a show off the ground, hopefully toward the beginning of next year, I want this under my belt. There’s a precision that needs to happen. Some of these songs are a challenge. “Earthquake” is my biggest by far, because it’s drum-intensive and the nature of lining it up and having it feel a certain way…I’m chasing that a bit. It’ll be there, I’ll get it nailed—but even yesterday I was dealing with tempo and quantization issues…it just goes on. [laughs]
MD: How did playing along to a quantized version of your music work out?
Jack: I like to play, to breathe—you know? You do a fill and there’s that millisecond of human-ness in the groove…but you have to follow the click or you’re going to sound like you’re rushing or dragging. I do think it works for the tracks I’m doing. I have to be pretty spot-on in my performance to not notice certain variations. But I’m working on it enough that even if I’m being human, it’ll be forgiving enough to not make it sound wrong. But the more precisely I can play, the better it sounds.
MD: Is the video we’re showing here close to what you’ll be going for live?
Jack: Yes, that’s pretty much how that song will look live at the first show. Without visuals, a solo drum performance would be more like a clinic, and I’m not really a clinic guy. I wanted to do more of a concert or a club-show thing.
MD: How did you pick the tracks to do visuals for?
Jack: I liked “Sonic Tonic” and “Outer Space Dream” because they were simple, they don’t have a lot of tracks, and they’re not too long. Same thing with “Earthquake,” though it’s not quite as simple. To me the only really complex track on this EP is “Repercussion.” That song has a lot going on, and it won’t be something I do live. “Deep and Dark” is another sort of simple one.
MD: The tracks on Blue Manatee were originally mixed by you, then you brought Alain in. What were your thoughts there?
Jack: I keep trying to get better at mixing. I even originally had the EP mastered. Then Alain and I hooked back up while doing some other work, and I realized just how great he is and how okay I am. [laughs] The credits on the record say that it was mixed by Alain and me, because he used my mixes as a template. My mixes were maybe sixty or seventy percent there.
MD: What specifically did Alain do?
Jack: He expanded the sound field a lot. He used the sort of blends of instruments I was going for, which probably made his life easier. Getting percussion music to stand out on a record that doesn’t have guitars and powerful instruments is not easy. It’s a bit tricky to find the right effects and processing to make things sound musical and stand out the right way.
MD: You record at your home studio. What kind of setup do you have?
Jack: I record most of my stuff on an IZ Corp RADAR, which is a twenty-four-track hard-disk recorder that works like a tape recorder. You edit manually; there’s no tricks to it, it’s just a good quality recording device.
MD: Why did you choose to do an EP this time?
Jack: Because it takes me so long to do this, especially when I was trying to tackle the mixing, and I just didn’t want to wait another six or eight months to be done with the record. I have a new band coming out, Arthur Channel, and I didn’t want to lock myself away. I wanted to start to purpose myself to do live stuff.
MD: You have very good control of your dynamics, even within a busy drum part, like in “Outer Space Dream.” The accents really stand out, but it’s not like you’re just pounding the whole time. You recognize these different dynamic levels within your performance. Is that the kind of thing you think about, or is it the natural way you play?
Jack: Thank you. I think it’s been an evolution in terms of just playing a lot. I’ve been playing like thirty-five years. I think the dynamic approach kind of opened up with my playing out a lot back in the ’90s with Pearl Jam. They had a lot of songs, and it went from the highs to lows dynamically, and I think that I started to change a bit back then and it sort of evolved. You realize that making music is making music, and if there are times to pound it, you pound. Other times it’s time to feel it. I kind of hear myself in the music these days rather than just sort of try to lead the way with force. The pounding thing really started when I was coming up in the ’80s. It just seemed that the calling was to hit drums harder. But I think as a player, that really wasn’t who I was.
MD: How do you approach composing at the drums?
Jack: I like to take things that would normally be licks or big fills and make music with them. I try to kind of make the most out of what I have at my disposal. There are some players who are so good and can do anything well. I don’t consider myself one of those guys. I try to make the best out of what I can do well and make music that I can groove with. So I try to take these licks that guys might do at the end of a song or whatever and do a bit more with them, make a groove and a song with it.
MD: What drums are you playing now?
Jack: It’s a Masters of Maple kit—9×12 rack tom, 16×16 and 16×18 floor toms, and 16×22 kick. My snare is a 6×14 Type-M model. I also have a 6×15 from their Neo-Classic Series. The wood grain is Mappa Burl with a Lavender Storm finish. And the hardware is hand-finished Satin Nickel.
MD: Masters of Maple is a relatively new company, right?
Jack: Yeah, it’s kind of getting off the ground. But the owner/builder, Sahir Hanif, has been building since he was thirteen years old. He has this handmade process, and he goes for these unusual woods and combinations of things. He’s very studied on old and new drums, and he really knows how the different woods resonate and what they do. It’s very custom. The set that I have, I love the tone of it. It takes up a space sonically. Alain came over the other day and was getting this huge tone out of a bass amp I have, but when the drums kicked in there was no volume problem, because the tone of the drums occupied a space that just cut through.
MD: What drums did you play before?
Jack: Before I played this kit, most of my time I played stainless-steel drums. I’ve had a DW kit in the past, and I enjoyed it. I played that on Pearl Jam’s No Code. But most of my career I played Vistalites and stainless steel drums, because I like the cut. I grew up playing those old Pearl fiberglass drums, so I sort of molded my sound to that tone. I didn’t get into wood drums until I started playing Pearl a few years back. I liked it, they made some good drums. But then I started playing Sahir’s drums and it went in this other direction that I really dug. It’s a fine set and it looks really cool. He said he actually crushed up lavender in the finish. [laughs] He does stuff like that.
MD: What’s your approach to getting drum sounds in your studio?
Jack: One of the things I like to do when I come up with a drum thing is to mix it a certain way, effect it in a way that stands out. I mix it, do some reverbs and other stuff, and then I create on top of that. I really like that process because you need less instrumentation, because the drums themselves all of a sudden sort of create a piece of music. They’re not just drums waiting for music. It takes you down a certain road…it’s more abstract. On this record, “Repercussion” was like that, “Earthquake” was like that,” “Deep And Dark.” And “Outer Space Dream” does that to a certain extent—it’s more straight-ahead.
MD: Composing from the drums is not a usual way to do things in rock music.
Jack: Playing drums by themselves, trying to create an inspiration, something you can build off of, is not always easy. Drums don’t tend to be that kind of instrument. You know, sometimes listening back to myself just on drums is no fun. [laughs] “Man, there’s no melody.” So the inspiration has to come where you think, “Hey, something happened.” It takes a form—it has a beginning and an end, some parts are repeated the right way, it flows. And that just doesn’t always happen.
MD: Your music definitely has an identity. How did you find your composing style?
Jack: Not everybody is going to be good at doing everything. There are obviously guys like Billy Cobham and Dennis Chambers who are outrageous. Anything that they want to do, they can do; they’re so advanced in how they hear and interpret music. I always tell drummers, if you’re the kind of guy who has a desire to be great at every form of music, and you feel you have that potential in you, then that’s what you should do. But me, growing up, I knew I wasn’t like that. I was into playing rock. We would go see Billy Cobham, or Lenny White with Return to Forever, and I’d think, “If I have to be that good to be a drummer, it ain’t gonna happen.” [laughs] But I listened to radio and records, and realized that not everybody has to play like that. So I decided to try to make myself as good as I could at what I can do—and this still is how I go about it. Whatever you do, you have to put your full heart into it. So it’s really important to discover what you can make your music with. Some of my solo stuff has fancier drum stuff. But at the end of the day, really putting your feeling into it and committing to the groove and laying down something with feeling—that’s the most important thing.
“Outer Space Dream”
Click here to see the second video in the series, “Sonic Tonic.”
Click here to see the third video in this series, “Doubloons.”
Jack’s Website: jackirons.com
Jack’s Facebook: facebook.com/jackironsmusic
Jack’s Record on iTunes: itunes.apple.com/us/album/blue-manatee-ep/id466079460
Photos by Tamarind Free Jones; Video by Sophia Deininger.