Whether he’s focusing on pianissimo in intimate club settings, slamming home the backbeats in arenas with Tegan and Sara, or replicating the studio sophistication of Joey Waronker in every type of room in between, this Los Angeles–based drummer studies the situation, decides what needs to be done, and does it good.
Story by Ilya Stemkovsky
Photos by Alex Solca
Adam Christgau is a rare breed. His résumé boasts film, TV, and soundtrack work and commercial jingles, and he’s a versatile studio and road dog, lending his skills to all sorts of indie pop, hard rock, and electronic weirdness. But he’s also got a remarkable jazz feel, which isn’t something the “rock” guys are supposed to have. It’s obvious he’s studied, because he can really swing. Usually players who grow up playing jazz stay on that path, but Christgau moved organically into the pop and rock world like he could simply will it.
Of course, you’d never really know any of this by watching him at work at his day job since 2013, laying it down for the Canadian indie-pop duo Tegan and Sara. (You might know them from their Oscar-nominated version of “Everything Is Awesome” from The Lego Movie.) With Tegan and Sara, Christgau takes an unassuming approach, never drawing too much attention to the drums, supporting the vocalists, and making everything feel right with minimal flash. Hang in long enough, though, and you might get a taste of his rock power, his well-developed chops, and a maybe a bit of that jazz magic seeping in.
MD: What kind of music were you listening to growing up?
Adam: Both of my parents were musicians, and my dad studied guitar with John Scofield and Chuck Loeb. He’d bring home Loeb bootlegs from Seventh Avenue South in New York, with Peter Erskine or Zach Danziger on drums. Zach was only sixteen or seventeen at the time. I was around six and would listen to him, thinking, Oh, my God, he’s a teenager, and that’s when I really decided that I wanted to play drums. If he could do that when he was sixteen, then I could too. Zach was a huge influence.
MD: So you’re six years old and listening to Erskine and Danziger? Not whatever was on the radio?
Adam: If the radio was on, it was my mom playing the Police or Stevie Wonder or Neil Young. [Discovering] Stewart Copeland was another defining moment, specifically a live Police video. Later my dad would play me Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, and at around fifteen I discovered Mahavishnu Orchestra, so Cobham became a big thing. Will Kennedy was in there too.
MD: What about the Beatles or Zeppelin or normal kid music?
Adam: [laughs] By the time rock came around for me, it was Dave Matthews Band in high school, along with Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, and Soundgarden. When I finally got my ears together, it was everything across the board. I was a huge Ol’ Dirty Bastard fan and also freaking out over the Meters.
While at Purchase College I played singer-songwriter gigs and studied jazz with John Riley and played around town in many groups, including Ray Vega’s Latin Jazz Quartet. Eventually I got to play straight-ahead bebop with Scofield in a trio setting, and it all seemed to click for me then. But after that I decided to focus on playing with singers and touring. I wanted to travel and play for bigger crowds.
MD: Was your jazz touch essential in your being able to play sensitively behind singers?
Adam: One hundred percent. I was playing a lot at Rockwood Music Hall in New York. One show every couple of months turned into four to six shows a week, with a bunch of different artists. I always joke that somebody at Rockwood heard that I could play quietly. So I kept getting hired to play behind singer-songwriters, which I loved doing at the time. Whatever you could do to not blow up their monitor—putting towels on drums, playing with brushes or broomsticks or with your bare hands…
MD: How did the Tegan and Sara gig come your way?
Adam: I was touring with Australian singer Sia, and her guitar player called me to sub for a gig with the Killers’ Brandon Flowers. I did a short few weeks with him. Sia’s bassist, Jasper Leak, put my name in the hat for Tegan and Sara. Jason McGerr was drumming for them before I was on the gig, and was also recommending people. I must have answered the right questions, because I got the audition and the gig. And I had been listening to Jason with Death Cab for Cutie quite a bit coming up through college, so I was very familiar with his playing. To take over the gig from him was a huge honor.
MD: Talk about playing parts live that were recorded by studio guys.
Adam: The bulk of the record [2013’s Heartthrob] was recorded with Joey Waronker. Ironically, he played on Sia’s record too. I was pretty familiar with Joey’s playing, through the Beck era, and Atoms for Peace at that point too. But a lot of it was heavily programmed by producer Greg Kurstin. Other tracks were done with Victor Indrizzo. I haven’t met Joey, but I want to so badly, because this is the ninth record that I’ve had to learn his parts for. The challenge for me was to figure out a way to blend this new pop record with the old, more indie-sounding records. Joey plays so quietly on record and his sound is very tight and dry, and Jason hits really hard. So finding that blend between the two guys was pretty rough at first. I think I’ve finally dialed it in.
MD: How’d you prepare for the tour?
Adam: They gave me close to a month to learn the tunes, and then we had two or three weeks to rehearse in New York. I had to pick drum sizes that would best reflect all the recordings, hoping the front-of-house guys would be able to do some after-effects live on the board to create a couple of different sounds on the record. And then I needed to figure out how to play everything and make it all congruent.
MD: What sizes and materials worked in the end?
Adam: Initially I thought it would be better to go with a slightly more vintage sound, because I know Jason was probably tracking older drums on the earlier Tegan and Sara records. And I know Joey was probably playing older drums. So I decided to go with mahogany drums with coated heads for more of an older Ludwig sound, but, to compensate for the deadness, I also went with bigger sizes than I normally had. So it was C&C 24″, 13″, 16″, 18″, with a 6.5×14 snare. The snare was an aluminum shell, like an Acrolite but in a 6.5″ format.
Eventually, though, the set was so electronic heavy that about eight months into the gig I thought I needed something more punchy, so I switched over to maple/poplar/maple shells for the last year of touring, with a chrome-over-brass snare, all in the same sizes, and that was the move. The conclusion was that the vintage-sounding kit wasn’t cutting in the larger venues. We were opening for Fun and Katy Perry, and if I’m hitting those types of drums really hard in a 10,000-seat venue, they’ll just start to choke. They weren’t singing as much or punching through the mix.
MD: Are you into the throwback, 1970s muffled thing?
Adam: I’m into it. The LCD Soundsystem record is a super-dead, concert-tom, one-mic-in-a-tiny-room kind of sound. Whatever suits the music best is fine with me. I love Deerhoof, and Greg [Saunier] plays whatever is available and makes it work. That exploration of showing up to a kit that should sound horrible, and then that fight of trying to make it sound good, is one of the most fun things to do.
MD: Is playing TV a challenge?
Adam: I’ve played the Today show a couple times, and that’s brutal, because the call time is four in the morning and you can barely function, and then the light goes on and before you know it the song is over. I’m generally good with stage fright, but there’s been a couple times where there’s no feeling in my hands until the second verse. That’s the struggle: How can I feel the most normal on TV? Trying to be as present as possible. You do some camera blocking and then you’ll have a six-hour break in between rehearsals and taping. Now I’ve done it enough where it feels like just another gig.
MD: What about playing the big gigs? Are you changing anything up in these arenas?
Adam: Absolutely. I never considered myself a loud player, but I noticed some hand and arm issues happening because I was overextending. I sat down with my buddy Michael Iveson [Gotye], and he explained that I wasn’t using my Moeller technique at all. The arm was going straight up and down, no whipping, no shoulder, so of course I was overworking. So every night with Katy Perry in these arenas, my main goal was to put my bass drum through the back wall of the arena and produce the biggest sound possible with the least amount of energy physically, and to play with power and volume but still have some musicality attached to that. Which notes to simplify. Turn 16th notes into 8th notes. There’s a tune where I feather a lot of ghost notes with my left hand, but it’s still an integral part. It’s meant to sound like a shaker is happening over the snare part. In the arena, I had to almost play full-on 8th notes with my left at forte and play 2 and 4 at fortissimo. I really noticed it when we went back to club shows and my drums were louder than they’ve ever been, and I was confused.
MD: So, is everything actually awesome?
Adam: When we would play that song every night, Katy’s audience would freak out and realize who we were. I’ve never even seen the movie.
MD: What’s been happening since the last Tegan and Sara tour ended?
Adam: I’m basically employed full time by an artist named Joy Williams now. She was half of the duo the Civil Wars and has just begun her solo endeavor. It’s a completely different headspace, playing-wise. The record is definitely adult contemporary, and I’m playing basically half electronics, half acoustic drums. Not nearly as much freedom as the Tegan and Sara show, but I’m finding my way around it.
MD: Is a life of rocking and swinging possibly in your immediate future?
Adam: Cindy Blackman and Brian Blade are toeing that line, playing jazz and also being in the pop and rock worlds. I’d like to get back into playing jazz and fine-tune that muscle. Some movie work is in the future. But upward mobility is the key. I don’t want to stop until I get a McCartney kind of gig. Maybe it won’t happen, but it doesn’t mean I’m not going to keep trying.
Drums: C&C with maple/poplar/maple shells
A. 6.5×14 chrome-over-brass snare
B. 9×13 tom
C. 16×16 floor tom
D. 16×18 floor tom
E. 14×24 bass drum
Cymbals: Istanbul Agop
1. 15″ OM hi-hats
2. 20″ Alchemy Sweet crash
3. 22″ Traditional Dark ride
4. 20″ Traditional Medium crash
Sticks: Vic Firth 55A wood-tip sticks and T1 mallets
Heads: Evans Genera HD Dry snare batter, coated G2 tom batters, and EQ3 bass drum batter
Electronics: Roland SPD-SX sampling pad