Goodbye Jazz School, Hello Pop-Punk Heaven

Lia Braswell of A Place to Bury Strangers compares notes with the drummer, who recently joined up with one of the freshest bands around.

California native Drew Thomsen has been holding down the rhythm with garage pop sweethearts the Regrettes, featuring singer and guitarist Lydia Night, guitarist Genessa Gariano, and bassist Brooke Dickson, for enough time to make a statement of purpose for all who come to rock out at their shows. With a highly anticipated new record, How Do You Love?, finally dropping, and a super-busy tour schedule, Drew’s barely had time to think about what his decision to leave jazz school for the rock life means.

MD: When did you first get together with the Regrettes?

Drew: It happened about a year ago. It was finals week at CSUN. Their producer called me at school and said, “Hey, their drummer just quit. You want to come to the studio and learn some songs?”

MD: Are you still in school?

Drew: No, I dropped out of school immediately. I was in the jazz program there. It wasn’t really my thing anyway. It was good, but it was not a fit for me.

MD: Is jazz your background?

Drew: Yeah, I started when I was nine or ten. My hometown had a jazz revival program when I was a kid. So I did that, and I was in rock bands all throughout high school. But when it came time to go to college, I thought about what would make sense. With jazz you could go to school, so I thought it would be cool. But music school isn’t my thing. It takes the fun out of it for me. It feels like a competition, and it puts a lot of emphasis on aspects of drumming that are superficial, in my opinion. It makes you value flashiness that other music students care about more than the average person. I would rather just play for people to dance to or serve the music instead of the competition. It’s a self-serving thing, but to go to school for that is a little much.

MD: Did you play with other people to find your groove with drums outside of the music program?

Drew: Yeah, I was in the high school jazz band, and I also had a band with my two roommates back then. We’d play in bars on the weekends. We did a lot of classic-rock covers. Mixed it up with that and jamming. It helped us develop confidence.

MD: Playing live helps with that.

Drew: Totally. It was the perfect place to do it because there are still people watching you, but they’re also just having a good time.

MD: Did any drummers in particular influence you?

Drew: Yeah, definitely. There was this one guy I knew, Brian, who was one of those people who teaches kids how to love music first. My piano teacher was very classical, imposing that “you’re gonna do this right” attitude. Brian was more about having fun as the most important part of it and then figuring out the rest later. My other teacher, Rick Water, helped with technique and getting good at the instrument itself.

MD: Is touring something you saw yourself doing?

Drew: Yeah, I mean, it’s the little kid dream. It’s what I wrote in my yearbook when I was eleven: “Play drums in a rock band. Go tour.” It’s just crazy that it still exists and you can actually do it.

MD: Is it everything that you thought it would be?

Drew: Definitely. I think because my band is so cool. I like them, and we’re not killing our bodies out on tour. It’s pretty ideal, honestly. It’s hard to be out for that long and not see your family, not see your girlfriend or boyfriend or whatever, but when you have a good group it helps.

MD: Being around a community that keeps you in a good space is key. You can’t really bring them down because they’re always getting you up.

Drew: Definitely.

MD: Do you have any tour routines or rituals?

Drew: I always try to get some sort of workout thing going. I started a program that I can do in hotel rooms. I’m going to try to start that on the next tour. I also bring Stick Control and try to [play through] that to a metronome every day. I try to do at least a whole page. That usually takes a half hour, depending on how fast I do it.

MD: What’s your schedule like?

Drew: Pretty much every day we wake up at eight, get to the venue by four, and soundcheck by five. Then we’ll have six to nine to chill and get dinner. Sometimes we’ll hang out after the show, but almost always we get out as soon as we can and get to the hotel so we can be well rested for the next day.

MD: I guess that’s all you can do! Some people have this idea that musicians are just raging all night.

Drew: Some of them do! I’m so impressed by people who can go to bed at four in the morning and wake up at eight.

MD: You wonder how long that can last.

Drew: Waking up at eight in the morning after going to bed at midnight is brutal enough.

MD: What’s your setup like?

Drew: I have two toms. I used to play with three, but I decided I need to get way better before I earned the third tom, so I got it out of the way. I felt a little too Neil Peart. [laughs] I have two crashes. I like having both depending on where I end up [at the end of a fill]. It’s nice to have both. Then just a ride, snare, kick, and hi-hat.

MD: Do you find it challenging to keep the same setup?

Drew: It’s a constant source of frustration for me. I feel like I missed the lesson on how to tune your drums and how to set them up right. I’m always messing around with it. Sometimes it works and I think, This is how it needs to feel every night. Then with the same kit the next day I’ll think, This feels terrible. I need to take some time to figure that out.

MD: Are there any drummers that you particularly like right now or that you’ve been inspired by?

Drew: John Bonham—he was the first drummer that I thought, I want to sound exactly like that. Steve Jordan is also one of my favorites. He’s a huge inspiration as far as pocket goes. Nathan Followill from Kings of Leon. He’s the epitome of, I’m just gonna play the song. Don’t even look at me; don’t worry about it. Same with the Strokes; I consider playing along to their songs as metronome practice.

MD: Do you play with any electronic elements?

Drew: I’d like to. Apart from this band, I play around with gear with friends at home. I don’t have any pads, but I’ll trigger different sounds by putting a microphone into a kick drum and run it into a vocoder. If you turn the release up a little bit, someone else can play the chords in time with you, which is really fun.

MD: What was recording the new Regrettes album like?

Drew: It was amazing! We did most of it in Nashville at the Sound Emporium. Working with [producer] Mike Elizondo is amazing. I feel like I get better every time.

MD: Did you guys record live together?

Drew: Yeah, for a lot of it. Playing with Mike was crazy because he’s so freaking good.

MD: Do you prefer recording to touring?

Drew: For being proud of what I played, recording, since the adrenaline isn’t influencing or pushing in any direction. But playing a show is the best thing ever. I’ve had some gigs that I would show people, but more often than not, it’s a show more than a musical thing. There are things I could do live that I can’t do in the studio.

MD: Do you play to a click live?

Drew: No. After spending a lot of time in jazz school, I play to a metronome any time I practice. School makes practicing simple beats to a metronome feel below you, which is silly. You get in this mindset of, I need to be learning these crazy solos and transcribing. To be humble and to practice humbly are where I think good feel comes from. That’s where I’m at now. I’m getting into playing simply, repetitively, and in the pocket with the Regrettes. Every snare drum hit has to be perfect, which is way harder than playing fast.

MD: Are there any shows that you remember as being particularly amazing experiences?

Drew: Yeah, when we were opening for Twenty One Pilots. We played two nights at Wembley Stadium. There was one night where I was super comfortable. It’s really hard to get comfortable with that many people looking at you. You worry about things you would never worry about in a club, like dropping a stick. I never, ever think about that. And up on that riser, I thought, I cannot drop a stick…I cannot mess up. That night, I didn’t think about that at all.

MD: Did anything bad happen during one of those shows?

Drew: Yeah, the rental drumset was terrible. The shells were great, DW, but the hardware was ancient. Shit would just fall. My crash would fall off the riser, and there was one time where my floor tom leg collapsed. You have to look over to the side where [a tech] is and say, “Hey, can somebody come help me out with this? I play this drum in the next song!” But it didn’t interrupt the song. I never had to stop playing, which is crazy as a drummer, because you can’t stop. You don’t have to worry about being out of tune, but you can’t stop for a second.

MD: I think the things that aren’t meant to happen at the show are what make it human. It’s that much more rewarding when you’re able to overcome that fear, or that chaos.

Drew: When you do it as a group, too. Most club shows, if something crazy happens like the bass amp stops working or we forget about the chorus, it’s fun to look around, and if everybody’s in the right mindset, think, Dang, we made it through that! [laughs]

MD: I just played a sold-out show at the Fonda Theater. We were using in-ears for the first time on this tour. The last six weeks we’d had the best shows. All of a sudden at the biggest show—a sold-out hometown show—as soon as we started playing the in-ear mix started crackling. I played the whole show with this happening. What was cool about it was that after the show everyone was like, “That was awesome! Didn’t notice anything at all!”

Drew: I love that! That’s my favorite part about shows sometimes, where you get off stage and you’re like, “Darn, I’m sorry, you guys,” and they’re like, “What?” [laughs]

MD: Yeah. Do you feel like you get to that point a lot, or are you in touch with your bandmates?

Drew: I definitely think I’m in touch. I’m just really hard on myself. I’m a harsh critic of my own playing. That doesn’t always line up with what everybody else hears. They don’t feel it since they’re not playing it. It’s interesting to mess up and realize that only you heard it. Just because you’re thinking about it, it doesn’t mean anybody else is really worried about it. I’ve played and thought I really messed up, but everybody else said it sounded great. You’ve been performing, so you haven’t been talking. It’s happened a couple of times where I’d had the best show of my life and then they’ll be like, “Eh, not that great,” and vice versa. Being on different parts of the stage can influence what you feel or what you hear. You can only guess from people’s body language and go with what they’ve been saying on the mic about how they feel.

MD: Have you ever gotten sick on tour?

Drew: Oh, hell yeah! I mean, I’m not happy about it, but we played at the Chapel in San Francisco after getting back from Paris. I was jetlagged and super sick. I felt so bad. I threw up before we got onstage. We played the whole set. It was brutal, but I pulled it together. Right after the last song I went off and threw up again in the bathroom. Then I hear them say, “Hey! They want an encore!” And I was like, “Alright!” [laughs] It’s crazy if you watch the video from that show; I just have my head down the whole time.

MD: Did you have a bucket onstage?

Drew: Yeah, somebody brought me one. Thank God I didn’t puke onstage. It sucked because it was the show all of my family could come to. It was rough.

MD: When I would get sick as a young girl, my first drum teacher would tell me, “You need to play! You need to sweat this out! It’s going to make you feel so much better if you do.” Every time I played while I was sick I would totally feel better. There’s something about going through with it and pushing your body out of that weakness.

Drew: I haven’t gotten sick on any tours recently, but the first tour I ever did, when my body was getting used to touring, I got sick, but during the show it felt like the sickness almost went away. You breathe, you feel great, and then as the adrenaline starts to fade you realize that it’s not over yet.

MD: Do you all eat healthy?

Drew: I think that’s one of the best things about this band. Our usual meal is a Whole Foods hot bar in every city we go to, which is amazing. You don’t get sick, you feel good at every show, and it feels like your health is improving on tour. It’s rad to have Lydia spearheading that.

MD: There’s a strong physical exertion that you put into your shows in particular.

Drew: It’s like a sport—especially in these hot clubs, which I’m sure you’ve experienced. Basically every show we play in a club, you almost pass out.

MD: Do you think about these things when you’re playing?

Drew: Yeah, when it gets extreme. Especially when venues are underground with no windows. The first show of the first European tour we played was the hottest show of my life. It feels like a different kind of hot. It’s like heat stroke!

MD: How long are the sets generally?

Drew: Thirty to fifty minutes. It’s not a two-hour set, but every song is intense, so I use up almost all of my energy two-thirds of the way through. Then the last third I have to really dig deep, especially when it’s a good show. When the kids are falling over the stage and crowd-surfing, you just have to go for it. There’s always a moment in the set where I have to take a song that isn’t as thrashy to breathe and loosen up. I’ll get to that point where I’m holding the sticks wrong and thinking, What am I doing? This is so bad for my hands. I catch myself doing that a lot.

MD: No matter how much you practice beforehand it still feels like there’s another muscle you use that you can’t actually exercise beforehand.

Drew: I just try to ride my bike, run, and swim as much as I can when I’m home because it’s a cardiovascular exercise. There’s not enough oxygen in my blood when I’m playing a show like that.

MD: Do you ever talk to people who are inspired to drum after seeing you?

Drew: Yeah, definitely. It’s cool to have experience now, because I feel like I know some things about the drums now. Now I can tell someone else the specifics of how to do something. For instance, how to play fast hi-hat beats using the Mueller technique. I have things I can give people to go and do.

MD: Do a lot of girls tell you that they want to play drums?

Drew: Yeah, totally, which is the coolest thing ever. I have a little sister and our fan base is her demographic. Female drummers are underrepresented, so it’s great to see this whole generation of people that watch Lydia, Genessa, and Brooke, and say they want to play drums. It feels really good to say, “Heck yeah! Do it. Also here are some things I know that can help.” There are a couple of younger bands that cover our songs that have come to our show before. They’ll say, “I learned your song, but how do you play this part?” And I say, “Rad, I can tell you because I do this every night!”

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

Thomsen plays a DW Classic kit with a birch and bubinga snare, a 14″ rack tom, a 16″ floor tom, and a 22″ bass drum, Istanbul Agop Xist series cymbals, and Vater sticks.