With all of the rock ’n’ roll self-help books, articles, and websites available at the click of a mouse these days, it can be strangely comforting to learn that a musician can still land a dream gig armed with not much more than a healthy obsession for the artist and music in general.
Of course, having solid skills on one’s chosen instrument is a must as well. And on Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks’ latest album, Sparkle Hard, Jake Morris more than proves that he’s got the goods. Whether it’s navigating the controlled chaos of “Rattler,” laying down the perfect Russ Kunkel–inspired thump on “Middle America,” or providing an appropriately skewed groove to the 7/4 skip of “Future Suite”—and then elevating the song’s unique arrangement by playing a countering straight 4/4—Morris seems to be operating with an intrinsic ability to render Malkmus’s songs with just the right amount of power and panache.
“Stephen doesn’t really have a schooled approach,” says Morris, who replaced former Sleater-Kinney and Quasi drummer Janet Weiss in the Jicks following the release of 2011’s Mirror Traffic. “He’s got this sort of galloping style that goes with his guitar. It’s really flow based, which is pretty cool. I was a big Pavement fan, so I always felt like I kind of got it, though I didn’t really know why. Especially live, when jams start to happen or things go a little sideways, I think I can instinctually go there, where a lot of other drummers might not be able to. Especially if you’re really schooled or a heavy reader…there’s not really a lot of explanation. It’s sort of based more on having trust in one another.”
Digging into Morris’s body of work and chatting with him about his reading and listening habits, a picture emerges of a musician who’s uniquely prepared to support the tunes from the Jicks’ seven albums—not to mention Pavement’s distinguished catalog, which Malkmus has increasingly dipped into on recent tours. Like Ween’s Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo, or Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker before them, Malkmus and his former bandmates were famous for perfecting a simultaneously wry and reverent approach to decades of music history. Morris’s immersion in music biographies and penchant for subtly toying with rock ’n’ roll convention fit perfectly with that understated aesthetic, and all of it adds to his appeal as a player. We began our discussion by digging into that concept.
MD: Stephen’s music has always betrayed a deep knowledge of rock history. I couldn’t help but notice your front bass drum head. Is that a takeoff on the original Yes logo?
MD: That’s awesome, especially since the later Roger Dean logo became the iconic one.
Jake: I love that earlier era. I saw some old footage from that time period and thought, “Oh, my God, that would look so cool.” My brother is a graphic artist, so I was like, “Make this for me.”
MD: Then the cover of Solid Guild from your previous band, the Joggers, is a Buffalo Springfield takeoff. Obviously you’ve got a good feel for music from the ’60s and ’70s, which could be a clue to your ability to work so well with Stephen Malkmus.
Jake: There’s probably something to that—I hadn’t really thought about it that way. I’m forty-three, and my parents were really into music from that era. To me the ultimate drum tone is from the Linda Ronstadt cover of “You’re No Good.” [Multi-instrumentalist Andrew Gold played drums on the track.] Hearing that song is one of my earliest musical memories. That rack tom is what it’s supposed to sound like to me now. I’m just chasing that sound. When I was in this band French Kicks, whenever I was driving I played my mix tapes, and one time the bass player said to me, “Every song on this tape has the same drum sound—what’s your problem!” [laughs]
MD: How about when you’re not driving the van? What are your reading habits like, for instance?
Jake: I just read music biographies, which is really sad. [laughs] I’m like halfway through three different ones now. But I think the ultimate one is Quincy Jones’ book Q, because it covers so much. Recently he did these long-form interviews where he told all these tabloid-y stories. That book is like fifteen, twenty years old, and it has just as much of that stuff. He was childhood friends with Ray Charles…you really can’t put it down. It’s like a history of America.
I recently read Stewart Copeland’s autobiography and was like, I do not want to hang out with this guy. I mean, he probably was as influential a drummer as anyone. And I responded to the Police so much because of him, and have stolen so much from his playing. And he’s still great. He just seems so manic.
And I’m almost through Bill Kreutzmann’s Deal. It’s really cool, like hanging out with him at a bar. He sort of remembers stuff…until he doesn’t. In my mind, he’s always the Dead drummer. To me the years without Mickey Hart were the best ones.
It’s really stupid, though; I’ll be in the van, on tour, reading about a band on tour. Like, how lame is that? Get a life. [laughs]
MD: Let’s talk about the new Jicks album, Sparkle Hard. It sounds great.
Jake: Thanks, man. We made it here in Portland. There were a lot of drum ideas that Steve had demoed on his electronic drums, which happens a lot. I have to come up with something that he likes and that’s in the spirit of what he was going for, and then put my own thing on it.
With a few of the songs, like “Difficulties,” his drums are in there and my drums are on top of them. We did a few experiments like that. I did a lot of double tracking, which I’d always wanted to do. The studio where we recorded, Halfling, is a really cool, state-of-the-art, hybrid sort of place. It has a design studio, a skate bowl—we actually set up drums in the skate bowl and did overdubs. I had toms and a snare and a ride, and we got this huge sound.
MD: “Future Suite” is an interesting song, with its odd-time approach.
Jake: Yeah, that’s one of the songs that I practiced the most. You have to kind of zone out and do your own thing. That was definitely from Steve’s mind, that juxtaposing of the odd time against the straight time.
MD: Even with the experimental elements, there’s always a nice live feel to the performances. Did the rhythm section record at the same time?
Jake: We did a lot of the basic tracking live. Bassist Joanna Bolme and I were in a different room, but the studio was pretty nice so we could all see each other. Everything was pretty straightforward old-school as far as getting the basics. There was some editing here and there because there were some elements that were still being fleshed out.
MD: Can you talk about where you’re from and how you and Stephen hooked up?
Jake: I grew up in Rochester, New York, and started playing drums around fourth grade. I had a band throughout high school that covered every song under the sun. This was in the late ’80s, early ’90s. I was singing a lot then and went to Ithaca College School of Music for voice, because I couldn’t read music very well and had the dumb idea that I could fake it. Strangely enough, I got in. But it was really intense, kind of like that movie Whiplash. I was in way over my head. I tried out for the jazz band, but I hadn’t been playing drums at all, and before me in the audition there were some of the greatest drummers I’d ever heard. I freaked out and went in there and played AC/DC beats. I ran out of the audition, threw my sticks in the woods, and was like, I’m never playing again. But I got it together and then went to a regular state school and just kept playing in bands.
When I was twenty-three I moved west. In 2008 the Jicks invited the Joggers to open a tour for them. I think that gave them an idea of what I could do. And then Stephen and I played softball together for like seven years. So when Janet Weiss decided to leave the band, he reached out to me and gave me a shot.
MD: How do you see your musical role in the Jicks?
Jake: I feel like my job is to bring a fresh energy, keep people out of their normal playing habits. Joanna and I clicked right off the bat. I’ve been a huge fan of hers since when she was in Quasi, and I played with her with Rebecca Gates and in other projects. She’s such a lyrical and improvisational bass player, and we got locked in right away. She’s been Steve’s right-hand woman all along. Maybe it was over-confidence, but I’ve always felt this musical kinship with Stephen’s style, so I feel super lucky to be able to get in there and explore with this band. That’s not lost on me.
Jake Morris plays C&C drums.