The Brooklyn-based drummer has made himself indispensible to hitmakers like Ingrid Michaelson by getting deep into the mechanics of every songs he touches.
In 2010, Elliot Jacobson was voted the top Up & Coming drummer in MD’s Readers Poll, based largely on his sterling work with indie-pop singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson. Jacobson has worn the hat of producer, songwriter, engineer, and of course drummer with a bevy of other acts as well, including Regina Spektor, Elle King, Jenny Owen Youngs, and Emily Kinney. This year he’s as busy as ever, appearing on the debuts of the buzz-worthy popsters Jay Stolar and Vérité, on Is There Anybody Out There? by the New York duo A Great Big World (the single “Say Something” features Christina Aguilera), and on Michaelson’s fifth album, Lights Out. When he’s not on tour, Jacobson resides in Brooklyn, where he’s an in-demand studio cat. On all of these gigs, the drummer is valued for his intense energy, solid time, and talent at building parts that keep a song moving without losing its center, skills that are especially prized by the producers who hire him—and that transfer well when Jacobson takes on that role himself.
MD: Drummer/producers often have incredible ears. Why is that?
Elliot: As a drummer I’m always listening not only to other drummers but to all the musicians. I learned how to be a better drummer and develop a better sound by listening to myself on recordings and by playing parts that fi t into those of the other players around me. And I learned how to fit into the musical context. Being a producer now is just a natural evolution.
MD: What are some specific things you do in the studio to help get the “perfect” sound?
Elliot: My idea of the perfect sound changes depending on the song. Both the drum sound and the drum part have to complement the song. Regardless of the sound we’re going for, I mix myself at the source by hitting the drums very hard and going light on the cymbals. I also like to use thin ride cymbals as crashes, which produce a controlled, darker sustain. Often I track drums and cymbals separately so that we can use a lot of compression on the drums without the cymbals getting in the way.
Personally, I enjoy a wide, somewhat gritty, aggressive, and compressed sound, which means the studio live room and the room mics are especially important on those sessions. [Producer/film composer] Dan Romer really helped me get my drum sound and part-writing chops together in the early days.
MD: What strengths as a drummer do you carry over into production?
Elliot: Arranging, for sure—as a drummer you really need to build your parts based on the song. I believe that’s the key to a great production, so I produce that way, where I build the song from the drum arrangement up. The right part for the right section of a song is key.
MD: How about live—what are your strengths in that setting?
Elliot: Probably my sound and my feel. I’ve always been meticulous. And I try to draw from other drummers and influences as well.
MD: Like who?
Elliot: Mike Levesque [Candy Butchers, David Bowie] is a dear friend that I’ve known for years, and his influence is always there. I also really admire Zak Starkey from the Who. I don’t really play like him, but for certain moments I draw from that vibe. But [contemporary country drummer] Chris McHugh is definitely the biggest influence on me. I think about him when I’m playing every show—I’m literally thinking, What would Chris McHugh do?
MD: What about McHugh particularly inspires you?
Elliot: Chris has such a powerful sound. His tone is slightly dark and gritty but still punchy. The feel between his notes is precise without being mechanical. Everything he plays is for the song—even his “flashy” moments add to the music.
MD: Do you have any guilty-pleasure drummers?
Elliot: I’m obsessed with the Who, and I used to try to play like Keith Moon, but I found that doesn’t really work in the professional realm. I get away with what I can, but I really had to undo a lot of that. He changed the way I approach and listen to music and understand drum parts. I also love Lindsey Buckingham’s solo music, specifically some of the stuff from the ’80s. It’s all overproduced and everything kind of sounds like he missed the mark a little bit, but I love it. He’s a brilliant guitar player and underrated as a musician, but his solo stuff is out there.
MD: How does living in New York City affect you as a drummer?
Elliot: I’ve never lived in Nashville or Los Angeles, but I’ve worked and spent a lot of time in both of those cities, and New York has some grit to it that you don’t get in other places. People are watching every gig you play, even in rehearsal. Everybody talks, and there’s a bunch of communities swirling around each other. Those communities interact with each other all the time, so even if you’re running around in one circle and you’re killing it—or not killing it— everyone finds out. It’s hard when you’re starting out, because you’re immediately making some kind of impression on people. It makes you work really hard really quickly.
MD: What does playing the drums mean to you?
Elliot: The physicality of drumming brings me so much joy. One of the best feelings in the world is hitting the snare drum like I’m aiming for the floor. My high school band director, Mr. Craig Fattey, once told us, “If you’re not sweating after you’ve played, you didn’t really play.” I think drumming matches my personality too. It’s a supportive role meant to elevate the other musicians around me, the song, and the listeners. I appreciate the fact that people depend on me to work quickly in the studio and be consistent on stage.
The Who “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (Keith Moon) /// Tower of Power “Soul Vaccination” (David Garibaldi) /// Jay-Z “Big Pimpin’” (production by Timbaland) /// Soundgarden “Blow Up the Outside World” (Matt Cameron) /// The Police “Message in a Bottle” from Live! (Stewart Copeland) /// Led Zeppelin “The Ocean” (John Bonham) /// Nirvana “Scentless Apprentice” (Dave Grohl)
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Jacobson plays Yamaha Live Custom drums in black shadow sunburst finish, including a 9×13 tom, 15×16 and 16×18 floor toms, and an 18×24 bass drum, plus a 6.5×14 steel snare. His Sabian cymbals include 15″ HH Dark hi-hats, a 10″ Chopper, 20″ and 21″ HHX Legacy rides (used as crashes), and a 22″ Vault 3-Point ride with a custom raised bell. His Evans heads include a Heavyweight Coated snare batter and 300 snare-side, Onyx tom batters and Resonant Black bottoms, and an EMAD Onyx bass drum batter. He uses Vater Power 5B wood-tip sticks, Monster brushes, and retractable wire brushes; Shure mics and wireless in-ear monitoring system; Protection Racket cases; and Gator racks. Electronics include a Roland SPD-SX sampling pad, Ableton Live software, a MOTU UltraLite-mk3 hybrid interface, an Apple MacBook Pro laptop, and JH Audio custom in-ear monitors. His accessories include Vater Slick Nut Skulls, a Roc-n-Soc throne, Cympad Moderators, Big Fat Snare Drum mufflers, and DrumClips, and he uses Yamaha hardware and LP percussion.