Jason Smay was destined to hold it down for throwbacks like the roots rocker JD McPherson and the Mexican-wrestling-mask-wearing, surf-rock instrumentalists Los Straitjackets. Growing up just outside Rochester, New York, Smay leaned heavily retro in his tastes. He loved vintage hot rods and motorcycles (he remains an avid collector and tinkerer) and old-school jazz, R&B, and rock. Once he picked up the sticks, Smay obsessed over Ringo and Earl Palmer, big band icons like Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, bop giants like Philly Joe Jones and Art Taylor, and more obscure players like Woody Herman’s tub-thumper Dave Tough, whose economical style made a huge impression.
“As much as I loved Buddy and all his crazy solos, I see myself more like Tough,” Smay explains. “He served the song, and he served the band by laying a foundation. I want to let the actual solo instruments go without having someone say, ‘What the hell is that guy doing back there on the drums? I don’t feel 2 and 4.’”
On McPherson’s excellent new album, Undivided Heart & Soul, you can definitely feel Smay bringing the 2 and 4, whether it’s on a sweet ballad (“Hunting for Sugar”), a taut shuffle (“Lucky Penny”), or a swinging groove (“Let’s Get Out of Here While We’re Young”). You can also feel Smay stretching beyond his comfort zone as McPherson and coproducer Dan Molad, drummer for the band Lucius, stretch the definition of what “roots rock” can sound like circa 2017.
Smay’s roots still show when he swings those dotted 8ths, chugs along on the snare to double the quarters he’s playing on the cymbal, or fills melodically around the kit. Filtered through Molad’s cut-and-paste production techniques, his snappy snare licks are transformed into hooks and his backbeats become deconstructed bedrock upon which McPherson’s songs pulse and shimmy. The end result is a beautiful fusion of technology and Smay’s trad-grip/tilted-snare sensibilities.
“It’s not 1962 anymore, and I have to get past that,” Smay says with a laugh when talking about Molad’s approach to capturing drum tracks. “It’s not really how I think or work, but I didn’t mind doing that. I play the way I play—for better or for worse. It’s still me drumming on a roots-based record. But it doesn’t sound like one JD’s written before.”
MD: As a drummer with a pretty retro background and tastes, how was the experience of making a record with a drummer/producer coming from more of an indie background?
Jason: There were overlaps in what he likes and what I like. But then there’s other things where he’s like, “Try this beat from this drum break or this breakbeat thing.” And I’m like, “Dude, you either gotta play it for me or pull it up on YouTube. I don’t relate.” [laughs] Then I’d say something like, “You know that song where Earl Palmer does this…?” and he says, “I’ll look it up.” It was two guys that come to the same place from totally different streets.
MD: You play some standout fills throughout the record. The breaks in “Lucky Penny” have those flams and triplet-y figures between the toms and the snare. Did you map out those parts in advance?
Jason: Those flam-type fills are my interpretation of Ginger Baker drum breaks. We were messing around with the song one day and I was playing flam-type fills like he would play, but I figured I’d get it together in the studio. And I showed Dan some of my ideas and he said, “Great, I want options.” He wanted tracks of fills to choose from. So I played the groove to a click, and then I played fills for the breaks. He wanted me to do one where I go completely crazy. So I do these insanely fast rolls all the way around. He’d say, “That’s cool, but it’s not you—do a different one.” So I did those fills that end up on the song, and he said, “That’s it—that’s the one I’m using.” If Dan hadn’t been there, I probably wouldn’t have done drum tracks just with breaks.
MD: The fills are pretty integral to some other songs too. You repeat them to the point where they become hooks. Like that Hal Blaine–y five-stroke snare roll that repeats throughout “Crying’s Just a Thing You Do.”
Jason: Originally I probably played it half as many times as what ended up on the record. I try to be really minimal. Especially on a record—it’s forever. I don’t want to listen back and go, Why did I do that extra fill? I just played it and JD said, “Do that, but do it more.” He liked the way it felt as a repeating part, and Dan wanted to make it part of the hook.
• 5×14 snare
• 8×12 tom
• 14×14 floor tom
• 14×20 bass drum
1. 15″ Bliss hi-hats
2. 20″ Bliss crash/ride
Sticks: Vic Firth 7A wood-tip
Heads: Remo Coated Ambassador batters
MD: You mention that you try to play more minimally on record. But since you’re such a hardworking road band, is it tough to get out of that balls-to-the-wall “live drummer” mode once it’s time to make a record?
Jason: We’re the kind of band that once you get in road mode, you stay in road mode. And then your management says, “Come up for air, guys. And, by the way, when you take your break from the road, you’ve got to write a new record.” So I guess that’s how I go into studio mode. [laughs]
For this record, we tried going into a studio quickly after getting off tour, with some ideas JD had, and thought maybe we’d catch lightning in a bottle. And it was sort of there, but there’s that thing where you think, Should we be paying to write the songs in the studio when we could take another month to think about what we’re doing?
So JD came up to my place a couple of times, just to knock around a couple of ideas, and we just started recording. We took the ideas that we had already fleshed out, and fleshed them out some more. I try to be the guy in the studio that, even if I’m dog-assed tired, I never let it show. I try to be the cheerleader, I try to be the comedian—I try to be the guy that’s rallying everyone. It doesn’t always work. [laughs]
MD: There’s a great YouTube clip of you taking a quick solo during your Los Straitjackets days. [Search “Los Straitjackets—Jason Smay solo.”] At one point you’re doing a buzz roll on the snare and you bring it down to a whisper, yet you articulate each stroke so well. What kinds of exercises do you do to achieve that kind of stick control?
Jason: I obsessed over Buddy Rich and his left hand. Watched all the videos, measured my drum seat to 24″ because that’s where he was at—and that’s where I’ve always stayed! I tried to learn as much of his stuff as possible.
As a kid I would sit and practice with 2Bs or marching-band sticks on my thigh and play rolls, trying to control the sticks. I can still do it to a degree. It totally builds your strength. I just worked really hard trying to play snare drum stuff like Buddy Rich. Whether I can or not, I’m not going to be the judge of that.
MD: Even though you’ve made your bones playing in, for lack of a better term, roots-rock bands, you’ve always tapped into your jazz background. You took a fair number of solo breaks and covered things like “Sing, Sing, Sing” with Los Straitjackets, and there’s been plenty of shuffling and swinging with JD McPherson. Is there a part of you that still wants to be a jazz drummer?
Jason: I wanted to be a jazz drummer, but it didn’t work out. I found my true love playing roots music. But I tried my damnedest to be a jazz player.
MD: But coming up playing jazz has given you skills that have made you very effective at the style of music you did end up playing. Shuffles are a real blind spot for a lot of drummers, but you play them with conviction.
Jason: The shuffle kind of got me going. There were a few really amazing jazz drummers in Rochester who got all the gigs. And I wanted to gig. I was hanging out a lot at this great old jazz and blues club in town, Shep’s Paradise. One night this blues guy was in there and said, “Hey man, you’re always here hanging out—why don’t you sit in?” So I did. And I’d always loved rhythm-and-blues music, so I started playing a shuffle and they go, “Whoa, how’d you learn to shuffle like that?”
Then I started getting blues gigs, because I could shuffle and I like to shuffle. I’m not a drummer that shuffles for two minutes, then starts playing fills. I’ll shuffle all night long and I’m fine with it. So I started getting gigs doing that. Then this Western-swing guy saw me playing and said, “You’ve got a really mean shuffle—you ever play country music?” And I said, “No, I’m not really into country music.” So he said, “What about Western swing?” And he tells me it’s a little jazz, a little country, a little rock ’n’ roll. I figured I could be down with that. So he said, “Learn this CD. We leave tomorrow on tour.” I said, “What?” I was just out of high school! But that was my first taste of the road. I’ve been going ever since.