Rabid fans of Modest Mouse were relieved to see the band return with a new album and tour in 2015. The drummers among them got an especially big bang for their buck.
Story by Stephen Bidwell
Photos by Paul La Raia
Twenty-two years is a long time to be part of any group activity, let alone something as intimate and demanding as a rock ’n’ roll band. Jeremiah Green, who met singer/guitarist Isaac Brock while he was still in junior high school, is now thirty-eight years old, which means he’s been working with his Modest Mouse bandmate for more than half his life.
It’s been a productive and unpredictable journey. Green founded Modest Mouse while still in high school, and by the late ’90s his largely self-taught timekeeping skills had powered the band out of obscurity and into college-radio notoriety. By the mid-2000s Modest Mouse had become not only that rare band that can enjoy the perks of being considered critical darlings while having chart-topping albums, but one that can also recruit a legendary musician like Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr as a full-time member.
This year Modest Mouse released the highly anticipated album Strangers to Ourselves, its first in eight years, which was recorded in a new studio built by the band members. Layered into the music were enough percussion and sonic textures to warrant taking not one but two additional percussionists on tour. It’s as detailed and wide-ranging a percussive onslaught as you’ll find in modern rock.
Jeremiah Green was born in Oahu, Hawaii, while his father was stationed there in the army. He spent his early years in Moxee, Washington, and in 1989 he and his family moved to the Seattle area. The drumming urge seemed to be present from the start.
“My family was not super-musical,” Green recalls, “but it was a given that you had to take up an instrument. I think I just always wanted to play drums. I got a ukulele when I was a kid, but I played it like a drum. I didn’t want to really play the piano [either]; I’d beat on that thing too. By the time I was twelve or thirteen I was like, ‘I want to play punk rock.’ I didn’t have the patience for studying. I did for a moment—my mom made me take lessons—but I had no fun. I didn’t have a very good drum teacher when I started; he wasn’t inspired and I could tell.”
Green’s lessons lasted only three months, but immersing himself in the Seattle music scene served well to prompt his growth. “I joined a band and just started playing and listening to music—going to shows at night and watching people,” Jeremiah says. “Back in the day I’d go to pretty small shows, and I could fit behind the drummer and actually see what he or she was doing physically. When you’re only listening to music, you don’t know what kind of movements people are doing.”
Regional bands like the Treepeople and Hammerbox had a big impact on Green, as did the D.C. punk legend Fugazi and the British alt-rock institution the Cure. “Fugazi was probably my biggest influence as far as wanting to start a band,” Green says. “It was really great music and just sounded like something I could possibly do. The Cure was my first favorite band, though. The drumming on records like Pornography is pretty awesome.”
Green was still in high school when he began his touring and recording career in earnest—in fact, he got course credit for it. “I went to what they would now call a charter school,” he explains. “Anybody who was kind of odd went there, and I chose to go. I wouldn’t have done well at a regular high school. I was in a band called Red Stars Theory and I was also in one called Satisfact. They actually let me out of school for like a month at a time. I know that sounds totally crazy.”
With Modest Mouse, Green showed an interest in incorporating percussion and electronics early on, and both have had a steadily increasing presence in the group’s sound. Early recordings reveal Green executing Moe Tucker–esque patterns, employing shakers and tambourines on toms, as on “Custom Concern” and “Beach Side Property” from 1996’s This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About. Some dub trickery can be heard as early as the Calvin Johnson–produced K Records releases, like The Fruit That Ate Itself and The Lonesome Crowded West, both from 1997. And electronic percussion is an important part of the mix on tracks like “Fire It Up” and “Missed the Boat” from the 2007 album We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, the group’s first to debut at the top of Billboard’s album chart.
Big-label budgets meant more polished recordings, but, just as important, more money allowed for more time to dabble in experimental sounds, particularly in terms of percussion. Building a studio between the last two records led to greater experimentation, like the layered thumb pianos on the outro to “The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box.”
“Five or six of us got in the studio,” Green recalls, “and we tuned all the kalimbas to the same key. Isaac, [Strangers to Ourselves engineer] Darrin Wiener, and I have a bunch of these electric kalimbas made by David Bellinger. He came by our studio recently and we bought a few, but he’s not making many right now, because he had a stroke. His website isn’t up right now, but Darrin and I are going to try to help get it back up.”
As the role of percussion in Modest Mouse has increased, so have the challenges of pulling it all off live. “We’ve always used a lot of electronics [in place of percussion in concert],” Green says, “but at one point we were like, ‘We should just try to re-create this shit live.’ It sounded cooler, and we also wanted to bring extra friends with us on tour. That was Joe Plummer for a while, and now it’s Davey Brozowski and Benny Massarella. Davey plays piano on a couple of songs and handles the electronic drum parts and loops on Roland sampling pads, and we can sort of move around and speed up if we need to.”
With all that percussion and three or four multi-instrumentalists out front, one wonders what Green’s monitor mix must be like. “I have the guitars and bass,” he says. “I don’t usually put the percussion in my monitor. I hear it a little bit, but I mainly play along with Isaac and [bassist] Russell Higbee.”
Though Green can’t recall playing along to records much during his formative years, today he finds himself shedding with electronic music and drum machines when he’s not on the road. “I listen to a lot of electronic music—that’s pretty much all I listen to these days,” he says. “I like A Tribe Called Red and Cashmere Cat. Those guys program some crazy stuff, which is impossible for me to play, but I guess that’s why I like a lot of it. I don’t play along with a regular metronome, but I like to play along with a drum machine. My favorite is the Zoom Streetboxx. It’s kind of cheesy, but it’s simple and cheap, and the sounds are just as good as the fifteen-hundred-dollar drum machines they come out with.”
Green’s interest in electronics has also come to light in the experimental psych-pop project Vells with Tristan Marcum and Ryan Kraft—which Green began while on hiatus from Modest Mouse around 2003—and a subsequent collaboration with Marcum, the more electro-oriented Psychic Emperor. And for about fifteen years he’s worked with Darrin Wiener in World Gang, a sound design company that produces music for television and film and which has put out a handful of releases, including one built around Green’s breakbeats, appropriately titled Drums.
Despite all of these diversions, Modest Mouse remains Green’s focus, and a close look at the band’s catalog presents the clearest picture of his growth as an artist. “The biggest difference between [when Modest Mouse started] and now is that we’ve gotten more comfortable on our instruments, the way you naturally would if you’re self-taught, like we all are,” Green says. “I was in tenth or eleventh grade for that first full-length record, and I honestly didn’t know what I was doing at that point.
“Sometimes,” Green adds, “I feel like I was better when I was eighteen and didn’t know what I was doing. I listen to some parts of those records, and they’re kind of sloppy, but I think I was maybe more creative because it was all new to me.” This could be a matter of the changing nature of memory over time more than actuality; you can decide for yourself by listening to the exclusive Jeremiah Green playlist we’ve compiled on Modern Drummer’s Spotify page—and by keeping up with future releases from the ever-inquisitive musician.
Davey Brozowski initially came to Modest Mouse as a drum tech, but he was asked to fill in last minute—unrehearsed—at a show in New Zealand in 2011. Readers may have heard his drumming with the Washington bands the Catheters, Black Whales, and Tall Birds; he’s also recorded drums and percussion for upcoming releases by Cayucas and Ra Ra Riot. “A Modest Mouse show is never the same,” Brozowski says. “Isaac is the conductor, Jeremiah is the engine, and those two have been playing together for almost two decades, so their ability to read each other is uncanny. Jeremiah’s playing is incredibly dynamic and explosive, and he usually plays the same thing night after night, but rarely is it delivered in an identical manner as the night before. It’s a skill not all drummers have. It forces me to focus not only on what he’s doing but how he’s playing, his mood—is he behind the beat or pushing it?—and so on. I have to play with enough force to be present, but delicately enough to not step on toes. And sometimes it flips. There are songs where I can see him lean on me for a solid 16th-note tambourine part to bring things together, or lay down a loop with drum samples for him to play to. That interaction is what makes the layers of percussion work together.”
The son of a Chicago jazz DJ, Ben Massarella has been around music his whole life and has an impressive résumé outside of Modest Mouse. He first encountered Jeremiah Green and Isaac Brock when his band Red Red Meat shared bills with Modest Mouse in the late 1990s. Some members of Red Red Meat later formed Califone; that band built a studio where producer Brian Deck worked with Modest Mouse on the releases Night on the Sun, The Moon & Antarctica, and Everywhere and His Nasty Parlour Tricks, and Massarella was tapped to play percussion on a few tracks. He also appeared on Iron & Wine’s Kiss Each Other Clean LP and toured with that group for four years.
With Modest Mouse, Massarella travels with nearly ninety percussion instruments, many with pickups and contact microphones run through a chain of effects pedals. (See Tools of the Trade sidebar.) Ben describes his role as “adding the icing and the sprinkles…it’s a lot like painting. With eight to ten players, there’s plenty of melody and rhythm already, and you need to respect the space.”
Tools of the Trade
Jeremiah Green plays a C&C Player Date II set, including a 14×24 bass drum with a walnut outer ply, a 9×13 rack tom and 16×16 floor tom with wood hoops in yellowtail abalone finish, and an 8×14 black-chrome-over-brass snare drum. His Istanbul Agop cymbals include 16″ Traditional hi-hats, a 22″ Traditional Medium crash, a 22″ Traditional Dark crash, and a 24″ 30th Anniversary ride. He uses a Roland SPD-SX sampling pad and Ableton Live software, Promark 747 and Super Rock Shira Kashi oak sticks, Remo heads (including Clear Powerstroke 4s on his toms, a Powerstroke 3 black dot on his bass drum, and a Coated Emperor on his snare), and DW hardware.
Ben Massarella describes his array of acoustic percussion this way: “I have eighty-seven percussion instruments that I travel with. They include a Bison snare drum, a Ludwig floor tom, Paiste cymbals and a variety of broken cymbals [by other makers], a ribbon crasher assortment mounted on a Rototom frame, a set of five woodblocks, African double cowbells, wicker shakers with bells and beads, sleigh bells, tambourines, cowbells, maracas, shakers, pots, pans, buckets, metal sheets, goat hooves, guiros made of horns, jingles, noisemakers, a ton of found objects, wooden tongue drums, a propane tank with six tone bars cut into the top, a kalimba, and a smattering of other toys.”
Massarella’s non-acoustic instruments include a Keeley phaser and White Sands Luxe Drive, a Malekko Spring Chicken reverb and Ekko 616 analog delay, a Catalinbread Belle Epoch Tape Echo, a Boss digital Space Echo (“I used to bring a Roland analog Space Echo on tour, which I still use in the studio”), and a Boss RC-20 Loop Station. “All of the instruments with contact mics go through an Alesis six-channel mixer to the pedal chain and through a Magnatone amplifier,” Massarella adds.
Davey Brozowski plays a C&C cocktail kit in satin duco finish, a 16×16 Player Date II floor tom/bass drum with wood hoops, an 8×12 Player Date I tom with wood hoops, and a 6×14 C&C maple or 6.5×14 Keplinger six-lug stainless steel snare. His Istanbul Agop cymbal setup consists of 12″ Turk hi-hats, an 18″ Xist Ion crash, a 16″ Trash Hit, 6″ Traditional and Alchemy bells, and an 8″ Mini China splash. His DW hardware includes 6000 and 7000 series stands and a reversed 5000 series bass drum pedal. His percussion includes an LP mounted tambourine, black and blue Jam Blocks, and Compact bongos, plus vintage bar chimes, a Remo cowbell, Keplinger’s “the Thing” Rototom Crasher and Open Air cowbell, a 12″ brake drum, Englehart agogo bells, and miscellaneous metal plates, goat hooves, and bells. His electronics include a Roland SPD-SX sampling pad run through Space Echo and tremolo pedals and an Index Drums Shoebox.