Most of us would be perfectly content to play in a Grammy-nominated rock band, make an album every couple of years that’s consistently beloved by fans and critics, and go on huge tours the world over. After fifteen years in Death Cab for Cutie, Jason McGerr is apparently not one to simply coast through these milestones. When not on the road, he wakes at 5 a.m. to hit the shed for a few hours before his family wakes up. When he spoke with us from the road in August of 2018, he’d gotten off the tour bus early that morning, sat in the stands of a Wyoming baseball park where the band would be playing that night, and “put the metronome on and practiced moving different groups of accents in five played as 8th-note triplets against quarter notes with my feet.”
One can presume this math equation happened after coffee, but does it have anything to do with playing a Death Cab show that night? “It doesn’t really,” says McGerr. “It’s just yoga. I think that independence and deep technique practice brings you that much closer to the internal drumming space that you should be in when you’re playing with your band.”
McGerr says this as a player who has clearly put a great deal of thought into all aspects of his craft. Death Cab’s new album, Thank You for Today, brings many changes: new gear, new lineup, and a new direction in technique for the drummer. But you might not ever notice any of this unless you were looking for it—and that’s the whole point.
MD: You worked with producer Rich Costey once again on Thank You for Today.
Jason: Yes, he’s the same producer we used for our previous record, Kintsugi.We recorded just about the whole thing at his Neon Lights studio in Santa Monica. It had taken about a year and a half to two years’ worth of writing to come up with the core group of songs that we felt were worth chasing down and whittled those down a ten-song record. It took about three months of active tracking to record it.
MD: I gather your tracking setup in the studio was a bit unconventional.
Jason: I was in this little box in between control rooms; it was like a privacy cabin. The downside was that for the whole record, I didn’t make eye contact with anybody. But the benefit was that I was forced to listen more than I’ve ever listened before. I really focused on exactly how my drums sounded in terms of dynamics, on when they hit compression too hard, or on certain harmonics that react with a lot of outboard gear.
It really helped me [in terms of] listening to what the rest of the guys were doing, because a lot of the time we were all playing live, or along to some old analog drum machines. More often than not I’d end up playing really quietly, just because there was a super cool thing happening between room mics and close mics being super squashed. So it was an ear session, not an eye session.
MD: Was there any particular gear that had a big impact on tracking this record?
Jason: You know, I picked up a great 1950s Gretsch Broadkaster kit from Wood & Weather Drum Shop. I hadn’t ever had a real vintage Gretsch. I play modern Gretsch drums, and they sound amazing, but I went back and forth between a vintage Broadkaster and the new Broadkaster for the new record, and I’ve got to say that I totally get it—I get the vintage Gretsch vibe. I think that that instrument really helped in terms of feeling inspired by my sounds.
MD: What was the cymbal setup like for this record?
Jason: I have some older As that go with me; but the K Custom Special Drys are really amazing in the studio, so dynamic. They do this explosive thing if you barely hit them, which is cool. If you’re really playing light, the rides are super sticky and smoky. There’s kind of a vibe when you hear them played back; it sounds like tape slowed down.
The last track on the record is called “60 and Punk,” and I’m playing this 23″ K Custom Special Dry, and when I hit it, it just sounds like half-speed tape: just poish, this crazy response from barely playing it.
I usually show up with five or six full sets of cymbals, because I never know what the room is going to be like unless I’ve been there before. This particular room wasn’t very big, and the ceiling was quite low. I always want to be able to throw up a set of cymbals that don’t oversaturate the room and have a good balance with the drumset. In this particular studio, having those K Special Dry series, and Keropes, and older Zildjians from the ’60s, made for a nice, buttery pairing with what we were trying to do.
MD: The song “Your Hurricane” sounds like it might be a nod to an earlier Death Cab record. [Death Cab singer and songwriter] Ben Gibbard played drums on some of the early albums—do you still get demos with him playing drums on them?
Jason: If he demos stuff with drums these days, he’ll grab a loop. He’s infamous for just pulling a krautrock beat, like dun-dun-dun-Dat-dun-dun-dun-Dat. That’s like his writing tool. So I’m always trying to get out of krautrock jail. “Hurricane” was all of us kind of working on our parts in a space together; the demo was pretty bare bones.
In the past sixteen going on seventeen years, I’ve had enough license and space to develop my parts. But to answer your question, there is definitely a throwback vibe on the album, “Hurricane” specifically. I’ve seen a lot of press around the album referring to it as a rebirth, so I think that there’s a lot of semblance musically to what we’ve done in the past. But we’re still embracing a lot of contemporary music and moving forward as much as possible.
MD: It does seem to tie a lot of old and new threads together; you still have this core vibe of a guy in his bedroom trying to make a power-pop masterpiece, but with all the tools of a well-equipped studio. On that subject, what gear did you use as far as electronics and other textures?
Jason: A combination of older machines, a Roland 808 or SH-101, or a Linn LM-1. And Zach [Rae, keyboards and guitar] had some modular pieces that ran percussive loops. I programmed a bunch of stuff in my Native Instruments MASCHINE, and a little in Reason; it’s just a combination of layers.
I look at contemporary music and drumming this way: the drums should be forward; you should hear and feel me playing the drums, with a little bit of support underneath, like a percussion ensemble. Sometimes there was programming or analog drum machines with me playing over the top, and sometimes I recorded a whole bunch of percussion. There’s a track on a record called “You Moved Away,” and for that one I just emptied the box of percussion, from broken tambourines to Keplinger metal pieces, and I did handclaps and stomps, and we recorded me brushing my clothing. Sometimes I’d do another pass with brushes on a snare drum through a Shure Level-Loc or some gnarly compressor. It was about trying to create a percussive orchestra “bed” without being too much.
MD: How you find a balance between playing parts that are satisfying as a drummer and still serving the song?
Jason: That is the loaded question. It’s hard, because…look, man, I could be one of those drummers that works really hard at being a burning-chops guy, and have myself forward, being a bandleader. I really admire those guys; however, if I tried to do anything like that in my band, I would not be employed. It’s not possible. I think some of that has to do with, dare I say, everyone’s comfort level as players on stage. People don’t want you outplaying them or overplaying them, so it’s a chemistry or blend thing, right? Like, I can’t show up to a wedding with my wife and wear a really loud pinstripe suit if she’s just wearing black.
My role as a drummer, in terms of having some amount of facility and independence, is on a very sort of obscure level—to be as much of an “artisanal” drummer as possible. In other words, what I want to come through to the ears of other drummers is that there’s some stuff happening, like, “Listen to that weird little pickup ghost note, or that left-foot hi-hat interjected in there,” but I want it to be more felt than heard to the public, or the songwriter. But if I don’t try to keep it interesting and orchestrate parts that have layers of dynamics and groove, then I think I’d be a pretty sad panda. It’s not my thing; I need to inject a little bit more.
That said, I feel like with each record there’s one or two tracks where I get to pop a little bit more of a wheelie. But the majority of what I end up playing on Death Cab records [are] very supportive, simple parts. The depth of those parts to me is more about what’s happening with the sticks and the feet, and what kind of resonance is going on with the stick, and how much tone am I getting—what is the choice of my drum sound? You could technically challenge the world, or you could musically challenge the world—really investigating tones and feel, how things are reacting to microphones and compressors, going for a different level that has nothing to do with the speed or the complexity of how you’re playing.
MD: It’s clear you’ve done a lot of work on technique and independence. Do you have any particular sources?
Jason: I studied with a guy named Steve Smith who lives in Seattle. He’s the owner and founder of the Seattle Drum School. A lot of his curriculum is going to be in a book before too long. I’m really excited about that, as I feel it’s truly applicable to having independence that works well in being a supportive backbeat drummer. A lot of it is just dotted-8th patterns and shifting 8th notes around. A lot of that stuff in my left foot comes from playing dotted 8ths in my left foot while playing time with the rest of the kit; that’s where that “Grapevine Fires” hi-hat foot came in. I also studied with a Scottish drummer named John Fisher, who turned me on to a Scottish rudimental book called The Maestro by Alex Duthart. That book and Steve’s curriculum program for independence are really…if you want to do everything that I do, just look in those two places, and you’ll find all the pieces to the puzzle. I mean obviously I’ve worked out my own concepts and stuff in the last twenty years or more, but those are the pieces.
The culmination of my study of all the Scottish stuff is that this is the first time I’ve abandoned matched grip, which I’ve used for thirty-three years—I completely set it aside in everything I’ve been doing and switched to traditional grip. It took twenty years of playing a pad and really trying to investigate what’s going on with that stick position in the left hand for me to get comfortable enough to sit down and use [it] in a touring environment, and so far so good.
MD: That’s a huge change. What’s the reasoning?
Jason: Over the last ten years I’ve been feeling like, in touring life, you just end up where you can’t help but be fatigued all the time with the jumping all over the country, or countries, and you just can’t always sit down and be relaxed and have everything at zero. Sometimes you’re just tired, and the body doesn’t want to cooperate physically. So I think that over the years I’ve been edging towards more bad habits, maybe hitting harder than I should. I even went through a phase of bending beaters. I think from an outside perspective I don’t look like I’m hitting hard enough to do that, but I was really hitting harder than I should have been.
Through some investigation in terms of trying to reel it in dynamically, I took a couple lessons with Dave Elitch, who was helpful in discussing efficiency, but it was playing traditional grip when I found I was the most relaxed. I had the thought of, Well, if I just switch to traditional grip, won’t every other part of my body relax the same way? My bass drum foot lightened up, my overall sound and tone lightened up in the microphones, and everything else started doing the work for me. I used my switching to traditional grip as sort of a vehicle to bring everything down a little bit. Now I think that throughout the course of the next year or two of touring, it will all come back up again, but I wanted to reset my overall dynamic range.
It’s been a real challenge over the years, finding a way to feel the same on a big stage outdoors, or in a giant hockey arena, as I do at home in my own studio. It’s always a rude awakening to go from that environment, where I feel like I’ve got total control of musicality and dynamics, to like, jumping into a NASCAR and racing around the track. It’s jarring. So like I said, coming out with traditional grip this time I think has limited me to a certain range of…not limited like I can’t play my parts, but it just made me look at it from a different angle and have a different approach, which has been truly valuable. This far in, I needed that.
MD: So the grip change had nothing to do with injuries or fatigue?
Jason: No, I never had any problems, though my right foot was getting fatigued because I was just smashing the bass drum. I feel very good about my hands—they’re healthy; I didn’t switch to traditional because my left matched was bad. It was just more of an emotional change, just how to play differently. Matched grip has always been like, Here are your hammers, here are your nails. Go out and build something. [laughs] I can play both ways, but I’ve never had any hand issues that have been bothersome. I pride myself on being a pretty relaxed player, just so I don’t run into that problem. I can’t imagine that happening. Like, your job is in jeopardy because, what, you didn’t investigate it? Hand pain is a real problem. That’s what a lot of my students come to me for. Specifically, how to make sure that I’m not holding the stick too tight, and that I’m letting the stick do work. That’s it, and I could go down the investigative path of hands, and I will, for the rest of my life.
Drums: Gretsch USA Custom in Satin Blue/Gray Duco finish
• 6.5×14 Solid Aluminum snare
• 9×13 tom
• 16×16 floor tom
• 14×22 bass brum
• 15″ New Beat hi-hats
• 18″ K Sweet crash
• 23″ A Sweet ride
• 19″ K Sweet crash
Sticks: Vic Firth HD9 Wood Tip
Hardware: All DW 7000 Series, except for a DW 5000 Turbo single bass drum pedal
Heads: Remo Emperor snare batter, Ambassador Coated tom batters and resonants, and P3 White Suede bass drum batter and Ambassador Fiberskyn front head
Electronics: Roland SPD-SX sample pad (occasionally Roland kick and snare triggers)