by Stephen Bidwell
Pioneering San Diego post-hardcore band Drive Like Jehu made an indelible musical mark during its original active period between 1990 and 1995, influencing many hardcore and indie bands in the two decades since. The group reunited in 2014, not for a huge festival paycheck as is often the case these days, but to play their songs with a giant organ. More specifically, their (free) reunion show was in Balboa Park in San Diego, with a renowned concert organist playing on the world’s second largest outdoor pipe organ in front of several thousand people.
While Mark Trombino may not be the most well-known drummer of the 1990s, you have more than likely heard his production work with bands like Jimmy Eat World and Blink-182. Since Jehu’s breakup in 1995, Mark got so busy producing that he hadn’t played the drums much in the time since. But the reunion show prompted a round of festival dates, and Drive Like Jehu is curating the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Wales this April. We spoke with Trombino shortly after their last show of 2015 at FunfunfunFest in Austin, Texas, about drumming, producing, and his DIY donut business.
MD: The crowd in Austin at FunfunfunFest was genuinely floored by the Drive Like Jehu set. How did the reunion shows come about?
Mark: Going back to last year, I got word of it when John [Reis] was approached by a friend who oversees the Balboa Park organ pavilion [San Diego has the second largest outdoor pipe organ in the Spreckels Organ Pavilion], and they had an idea about Drive Like Jehu playing with the resident organist, Carol Williams, and everybody was way into it. It was sort of a one-off opportunity to play with this organist. There wasn’t much talk before that, it was just an opportunity that we couldn’t pass up.
MD: So the one gig in San Diego got the conversation started about some more shows?
Mark: Basically, yeah. I think all of us were a little apprehensive about doing it at first, like whether Jehu would be relevant or how it would be received, or if we could even do the songs any more. But when we started rehearsing, it was immediate that we were going to be able to pull it off. Then the response from the show, and the turnout, and the fact that we did okay…and it was fun. After that we were like, “We should do some more of these,” because people might like to see it.
MD: Had you been away from the drums a long time when this opportunity came up?
Mark: Yeah, like twenty years. After Jehu broke up I recorded an album on drums and played a show with a band called aMiniature. That was around 1995, and that was the last time that I’d played drums at all, almost. I would maybe sit on a kit while I was producing a band and play a bit, but seriously playing? It had been almost nineteen years.
MD: So had the muscle memory disappeared?
Mark: It was all muscle memory. The surprising thing to me was how all the familiar stuff came back. It’s a weird dichotomy: after not playing for twenty years, improvising or playing anything I don’t know isn’t doable because it’s not in shape. But all the old stuff is better than ever. I feel like I’m playing those songs better than I did back in the day, but don’t ask me to play anything new, because I don’t have it any more.
MD: What was it like re-learning these songs? They’re not really conventional verse-chorus-verse type forms, and they can be lengthy. Are there set numbers of repetitions, are things cued…?
Mark: Both. A lot if it’s set, but on some songs there are drum cues or guitar cues. It was surprisingly easy to get back into it. There were some songs where I had to relearn how they went, but for most part I just remembered them.
MD: What drums are you playing on the reunion shows?
Mark: When we decided we were going to do a show, I didn’t have a kit. I still had a Black Beauty snare, but nothing else. Initially I thought I wanted a Gretsch kit. But as I was thinking about it I figured finding a good vintage kit was maybe more of a hassle than I was willing to commit to, so I opted to get a new kit. I came across those Ludwig Legacy drums with the three-ply shells, and I’m super stoked on it. I got it on eBay and didn’t know what I was going to get, but I love it, it’s the best kit I’ve ever owned.
MD: Did you end up shedding a lot on your own, or did you mostly rehearse as a group?
Mark: I had to practice on my own, because I’ve got a little more of the physical part of the work and I needed to get my endurance up. I haven’t done enough, but I have a lockout room that I go to a couple times a week just to keep up on it.
MD: So how did you first come to the drums?
Mark: When I was a little kid all the neighborhood kids would get together in some friend’s garage and play air-band, pretending we were KISS or whatever, and I’d always be Peter Criss. We would talk about playing real instruments one day and being in a band, but I was kind of the only one who followed through. That’s what got me to drums.
MD: Did you take lessons or play in school band?
Mark: I took lessons; I went to a local music shop and my parents rented me a snare drum, and I did rudiments on it for a couple years. Eventually I got a real crappy drumset, and I took lessons for like two years, and I would just play along to records. Then I did school band. I was really into marching band and eventually drum and bugle corps.
MD: Where did you march?
Mark: In Anaheim, Velvet Knights.
MD: You marched VK? Do you remember what year?
Mark: It was probably ’83 or ’84. I played quads. I think they were dormant and this was maybe their first year back? So they were going for this whole SoCal kind of vibe and wearing Hawaiian shirts, Vans, dumb hats. So cheesy but so much fun.
MD: The clown princes of drum corps indeed. So how did you get from that to the post-hardcore scene in San Diego?
Mark: It was just a transition from one thing to another to another. I did marching band and all of that in high school, and then I started a punk band, which carried over to my first few years of college. I grew up in Orange County, but I went to college in San Diego. I was still coming back on weekends to play in my punk band, but that fizzled out and I joined another band in San Diego called Night Soil Man, which became a pretty respected band in San Diego. When that broke up, the bass player and I started Drive Like Jehu with the guitarist and the singer from Pitchfork.
MD: What brought you to engineering and production?
Mark: I was going to school at UCSD and studying electronic music, and there was a studio there. It wasn’t so much an acoustic recording studio as it was a digital studio. They didn’t have any kind of recording infrastructure, or any microphones, for example, but I also worked in the theatre there. I started just learning how to record in that studio and bringing bands in at night, including my own, and I’d go get the microphones from the theatre and just work all night long making demos or 7-inches or whatever, and that’s kind of where I cut my teeth. Then when Jehu was looking to do Yank Crime, we decided to start the record in Los Angeles but finish and mix it in San Diego. We found a studio there called Big Fish that we ended up working out of. It was this rad home studio that was completely available. I talked to the owner and convinced him to let me start bringing bands there. That’s the studio where all the records from San Diego that I love were done.
MD: What were some of the first records you did other than your own?
Mark: I did all the Heavy Vegetable records, Boilermaker, Tanner, No Knife. Then bands from out of town started coming in: Boys Life, Mineral, Blink-182, Jimmy Eat World….
MD: How did you make the jump from making this angular, mathy, post-hardcore music to working with more accessible bands like Jimmy Eat World and Blink-182?
Mark: Well, Jimmy Eat World were fans of Drive Like Jehu, so they approached me. They’d just signed to Capitol and asked me to do their 7″ with them, and we enjoyed working together, so I went on to do more stuff with them. Blink-182 is an interesting story to me; they wanted to work at Big Fish and they already had another producer lined up. They came by with this producer to visit while I was working with a band called Fluf, and the guitarist and singer of that band knew those guys, and I told them to tell Blink-182 to work with me because I knew the studio. They wanted to, they were already fans of that Jimmy Eat World record, but I kind of stole that record from another dude.
MD: What are some of your must-haves as far as getting drum sounds?
Mark: For me the most important part of a drum sound is the room the drums are in. I was always careful about the studios that I would pick, because I use a lot of room mics, and I just love real-sounding drums. I try to make drums sound like I hear when I’m playing them—I like hearing the room, and I like getting some feedback from the space around me. So to that end I need a good room and enough mics to be able to capture that room. I’ll throw them all over and in some weird places. Other than that, great drums. I always loved recording Gretsches. I love Ludwig snares—Black Beauties or Acrolites.
MD: Do you have a particular favorite drum room?
Mark: I used to. There was a studio in L.A. called Cherokee, and I just loved the way that room sounded. It was an old-school L.A. kind of place. It had lots of different wall treatments, and you could move the kit around and really dial it in just based on where you placed the kit. They also had a great Trident console that I enjoyed working on. Other than that I really enjoyed working at Big Fish.It was a smaller space, and all wood, so it hard to not get the room into the drum sound.
MD: Are there any drum mics you always go for?
Mark: I used to always use an SM7 or SM57 on the snare and some sort of condenser underneath, ATM25s on toms, and a D112 on the kick. For overheads I would just use whatever was around. Because I moved from studio to studio so much, I kind of had to adapt to whatever they had. I wasn’t working in the raddest studios in the world, so it’s not like they had a million microphones to work with it.
MD: From a producer’s standpoint, are there any records you can point to as an example of how you think a record should sound?
Mark: There was a record that made me want to make records, and that was Spiderland by Slint. When I heard that record, I heard real acoustics on the drums; they weren’t dry and recorded in a dead space, and they sounded really natural. Up to that point I hadn’t heard drums sound like that. That was it for me, the record that made me want to be a record producer. I’m sure there were lots of little things I was influenced by, but I can’t point to any one thing like I can to that one.
MD: What’s your main mission when someone asks you to produce their record?
Mark: I feel like it’s my job to help a band make their record. I get hired by the band, and it’s their vision, not mine, and I have to do everything I can to help them realize that vision. Usually it starts with a lot of dialogue about the kind of record they want to make, and then it’s a job of trying to keep things on track. A lot of times you’re in the studio and you can get sidetracked or lose focus. You start looking at the small things or whatever, and you need someone like me there to keep the ship sailing in the right direction. The bulk of my contribution happens in pre-production while we’re going over songs and working on arrangements.
MD: So I gather you’re taking a break from production work to make donuts? [Mark is the proprietor of Donut Friend, a popular Los Angeles donut shop.]
Mark: Yeah, I’ve been doing the donut thing since 2012, so for about three years I’ve been making donuts instead of records.
MD: What was the inspiration for that?
Mark: I just had the idea for a DIY, build-your-own-donut shop. I started thinking about combining a yogurt shop and a donut shop, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought, “This has to exist!” I didn’t want anyone else to make it happen first, so I just had to see it through. I thought it would fail and I’d be back to making records, but it’s actually been going really well, so, who knew?
MD: It’s great that that’s working out, and that Drive Like Jehu has more shows coming up. You guys really were the highlight of the weekend here in Austin for a lot of people.
Mark: That was probably one of our best shows of the year. I thought the Riot Fest set in Chicago was pretty great, but after the Austin set it felt like the crowd was just there. It didn’t feel like a festival thing, it felt like we played a show. We had all these people on stage, and a good crowd in front of us, and it felt so good. It was a great show to end the year on.