by Adam Budofsky
If you subscribe to the ancient Chinese philosophy of yin and yang, then you’ll need very little convincing that somewhere on our planet lives one chronically dimwitted, arrhythmic, humorless, mumbling, unemployed fellow. This hapless chap serves the purpose of balancing the existence of the singularly intelligent, groovy, sharp-tongued, booked-solid drummer and humorist known to music lovers as Jon Wurster and to indie radio and comedy fans as, among other things, Philly Boy Roy, the Gorch, and Ronald Thomas Clontle.
Grasping the idea of cosmic balance is, indeed, at the heart of understanding Wurster’s career. For not only has Jon spent the better part of two decades playing decisive, hook-filled drums with an all-star cast of indie-rock heavy hitters, including former Hüsker Dü/Sugar leader Bob Mould, Guided by Voices mastermind Robert Pollard, Mountain Goats honcho John Darnielle, and the influential band Superchunk, but he has also been at the center of some of the smartest, funniest, and strangest humor to creep onto our airwaves and laptops. Wurster’s slacker doppelgänger would have to absolutely freeze on camera, for our hero has contributed hilarious onscreen appearances to music videos by Mould, Aimee Mann, and the New Pornographers, as well as skits with his longtime collaborator Tom Scharpling, creator of the Best Show on the well-known, independently run New Jersey radio station WFMU.
The guy is funny. Really funny. Like, give-him-his-own-series-on-FX-already funny. And he plays the kit like he damn well means it. Modern Drummer sat with the amiable yet thoughtful Wurster on the eve of the release of Superchunk’s bracing and tuneful new album, I Hate Music.
MD: You have such a multifaceted career. How do you balance it all?
Jon: I’m lucky in that everyone I play with is at least my age. We’re all in our forties, which is old enough to know what’s an achievable goal and what’s not. Another thing is, all three of my main bands—Bob Mould, the Mountain Goats, and Superchunk—are on the same label. We all know each other, so scheduling-wise everybody can talk and make it work.
MD: Even though it isn’t as active as it once was, Superchunk is still an ongoing concern. It’s impressive how the band has adapted to everyone’s needs.
Jon: We all agreed to not break up and to just do stuff when we can, and let other things come first. But we’re in the great, unique position where two of the people own the record label, which has become incredibly successful. [Merge Records, founded by Superchunk singer-guitarist Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance, has released such hit records as the Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible and The Suburbs, Spoon’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, and She & Him’s Volume Two.]
MD: And at the same time you’ve enjoyed this alternate outlet in comedy and writing. How does that fit into everything else you do?
Jon: I remember that when I was touring with Marah in 2004, the only way I could afford to play with them was by being able to write in the back of the van. At the time, I was writing these funny commercials for MTV. I’ve also done some writing for Adult Swim shows like Squidbillies. But I work on the radio show The Best Show on WFMU as often as I can. Writing is a great way to use another part of your brain.
MD: Did you have aspirations to do comedy when you were young?
Jon: No. I always liked comedy, but I came into that through the back door. In ’92 Superchunk played at the Ritz in New York with Pavement and My Bloody Valentine. Tom Scharpling, who had a fanzine called 18 Wheeler, had written an early story about Superchunk back when they were still known as Chunk, so he knew Mac and came to our show. He and I hit it off, talking about comedy, and we became best friends after that. He was a longtime writer/producer for the TV show Monk, and he got me into writing an episode. That was a cool experience, just seeing how that world works.
MD: You’ve been playing with Bob Mould for several years now. How did that association start?
Jon: Toward the end of a tour with the Mountain Goats in March of ’08, I got a call from Jason Narducy, Bob’s bass player. A few years earlier, Jason and I had been in Robert Pollard’s band together. We stayed in touch for the next couple years, and he was calling to tell me that they were having problems with their current drummer, and would I finish their tour of the States? I was a huge Hüsker Dü fan, so I knew that material, and I knew some of the Sugar stuff and his solo songs, and I said, “Send me the list of songs you’re doing. I’ll download what I don’t have, and I’ll just live with it for the next few days.”
The Mountain Goats played Philly that night and D.C. the next day, and I just had the earphones on the whole time. Then I drove to North Carolina, showered at my parents’, and flew to L.A. that night, and we met and played the next day in San Diego. We did soundcheck, and Jason would give me big cues, and it worked.
MD: Bob’s music is intense. How do you react to the different energy levels among the people you play with?
Jon: That’s what I’m so excited about. I’m exactly where I’d hoped to be when I was a kid. I assumed it would have happened in my twenties! [laughs]. But it’s great, because I can really appreciate it now, especially since I’ve been sober the past few years.
It’s definitely different between bands, though. Superchunk is pretty rockin’, and Bob is just full on. But the Mountain Goats is a whole different thing. I play brushes most of the time, and I love that, though it was a steep learning curve. The Mountain Goats has taught me a lot about space and when not to play. Bob is the opposite. He’s on 11 most of the time, and that keeps me in the best physical shape of my life.
MD: The years can catch up to rock ’n’ roll musicians. But if you’re healthy…
Jon: …you can do it forever. When I started doing all this touring with the Mountain Goats and Carl Newman, I was still drinking a fair amount, and that got to be a problem. So I had to make a decision: Am I going to be healthy, or am I going to try to get by while still partying? So I just made a commitment. And it helps so much. The drinking takes away a lot. I remember in the ’90s sometimes getting so drunk after a show that I’d still be hungover at showtime the next day.
MD: So did you just cut it out of your life?
Jon: Yeah, it’s been more than three years, and I love it. I’m having so much fun.
MD: What about playing with the force necessary for Bob Mould?
Jon: I’ve been training for the Bob stuff for months—I go to the gym every day; I do yoga. And it’s about letting the sticks do the work and learning economy of movement. You can create the illusion of giving a thousand percent in the first song but actually conserve energy for the whole show.
MD: Bob Mould’s band isn’t the only gig you’ve had relatively little time to prepare for. But that hasn’t stopped you from taking the plunge.
Jon: I have this thing where I don’t want to regret not doing something. In 2010 Aimee Mann called and said, “Can you play with me on Jimmy Fallon in a couple days?” She’s a friend, but I’d never played with her before. But I was like, “Let me see if I can do this.”
MD: What specific challenges have you had playing with the various leaders you’ve been associated with over the years?
Jon: With Jay Farrar I really had to learn to lay back. I’m more wired to be on top of it—so with Bob Mould there’s two guys pushing. He likes everything faster, or much faster, than it is on the record. It’s easier for him to play and sing like that.
In November of 2011 we did this show in L.A. at Disney Hall that was a celebration of Bob’s music. Jason and I were the drummer and bassist for these other artists who would come in and do a couple of Bob’s songs. That was really cool, because we got to play with Britt Daniel of Spoon, and he’s got his own thing that we had to kind of fall in with, his own style that’s unmistakably him. So I’d think, How would I play like Spoon drummer Jim Eno, but still make it Bob and still make it me? Dave Grohl played a set of Hüsker Dü songs with us, so I was soaking up his thing. He and I switched on one song—I played guitar and he played drums, and I got to really see what he does.
MD: Some famous leaders have a surprisingly sketchy meter. Have you ever experienced that, and if so, how do you deal with it?
Jon: I don’t think John Darnielle, the leader of the Mountain Goats, would mind if I said this, but since he came up playing and recording a lot of his own music without drums, he has a very personal sense of timing. Sometimes songs would move around tempo-wise, but it works within the songs, so I have to move with him. But he’s worked on his time and has gotten good in that sense.
MD: As drummers we’re trained to be the anchor, but maybe sometimes there’s a higher power to serve. You listen to Velvet Underground albums, and there’s proof right there that time is relative.
Jon: It’s so great that you say that, because that’s definitely where I’ve had to get to in the last five years. I used to obsess about songs speeding up or whatever. But all the best records have these things in them. There are going to be mistakes—that’s rock ’n’ roll.
MD: What’s your general approach to supporting songwriters?
Jon: I sometimes think it’s a good drum track if I kind of don’t notice it. If there’s a great fill, that’s awesome, but “I Wanna Be Sedated” has like one drum fill. Or “Sitting Still” by R.E.M. I like stuff like that. I kind of don’t want the drums to catch my ear unless it’s something really cool. I like the song more than I like crazy drumming.
MD: Let’s go back to your early life as a drummer. When did you start playing?
Jon: I grew up outside of Philadelphia, though somehow my whole family ended up migrating to North Carolina. But I started taking lessons on a pad when I was around ten, for about six months. That’s so unsatisfying for a child, and I stopped. I took lessons again when I was fourteen, on actual drums, and learned about jazz and stuff, but I was also getting into the Clash and new wave and playing along to records.
MD: Do you remember the first album you played along to?
Jon: Squeezing Out Sparks by Graham Parker. No one in my family played an instrument, so I’m so grateful that they allowed me to do this, and that my neighbors were cool. I’m glad I stuck with it. Otherwise I would have ruined everyone’s lives for nothing. [laughs]
MD: What were your first serious bands like?
Jon: In 1981, when I was fourteen, I was in this band called Hair Club for Men. Everyone else was older; the oldest guy was twenty-eight. We played parties and stuff. I graduated high school in ’84, and by then I was into R.E.M. and hardcore punk and Hüsker Dü and Paisley Underground stuff. It was a great time for music.
After high school I was playing in this band called Psychotic Norman. We played on the punk rock scene and were sort of like the Fall, the Minutemen, the Ramones…. But it was obvious that it wasn’t going to be a full-time thing. Meanwhile, I’d seen a review in Trouser Press of this band from North Carolina called the Right Profile. [R.E.M. producer/Let’s Active leader] Mitch Easter had produced their record, and I ordered the single and kept in touch with the band.
One day my brother, who was in college at Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, called and said that he knew the guys in the Right Profile and that they were looking for a drummer. And the call came on a day when I was not pleased with my band. We used to rehearse at the bass player’s house, and he didn’t show up for rehearsal that day—at his own house! So that night I called my brother and said that I wanted to try out for the Right Profile. My dad gave me the money to fly down there. I tried out, and I got in the band. And three months later, in April of ’86, we were in Clive Davis’s office getting signed to Arista Records. I was nineteen. And it all went downhill from there.
MD: What happened?
Jon: We got signed to this record deal, and we had the same management as the Replacements and the Del Fuegos, two bands we really liked. But with Arista, the amount of red tape was insane, just to get the go-ahead to make a record. We were constantly making demos of songs to send them. Sidebar: One of the two main guys in the band, Stephen Dubner, went on to write this incredibly successful book called Freakonomics.
Anyway, we got halfway into making a record with Jim Dickinson at Ardent Studios in Memphis. He’d just done Pleased to Meet Me by the Replacements and a Green on Red record. This was summer of ’87, a time when there were really big production sounds happening. Everything was crushing and really not swinging at all. It was a weird thing in that Dickinson wasn’t that kind of producer, but he wanted to give Arista what he thought they were looking for. And so it was done with this early sampling synth called a Fairlight. I was always reading magazines in the studio, and once I was reading Modern Drummer and Jim said something like, “You can tell your drum magazine people that this is as close to playing on the record as you’re going to get.”
Jon: Right. It was those early days of editing on a computer. So it ended up sounding really stiff. We cut bait on the record and then just lost all our momentum. Thankfully we eventually got cut loose from Arista. But it took so long. We signed in ’86 and didn’t get off there until at least ’89. And then we changed the name of the band to the Carneys and got a publishing deal through this woman at Warner/Chappell. She said, “I have this guy I want you to record with,” and it was Steve Jordan. So we sent Steve some demos and he liked them, and we came to New York to work with him, which was just magical. He never said “Try this” or “Do this”; you just soaked up his thing. That was life changing for me, by far my biggest drumming experience.
MD: Was Steve already doing production work at this point?
Jon: He hadn’t done much yet. The first big thing he was going to do was the Soul Asylum record And the Horse They Rode In On. Our thing was right before that. So we went to the Hit Factory in Times Square, and we were really excited that we were going to experience some of this guy’s mojo. It was him and Niko Bolas, who had just engineered Neil Young’s Freedom record. So it was all these magical people, and we were just these rubes. Niko even thought of us that way—he paid to have hay bales brought to the studio, which was ridiculous but funny.
MD: Did Steve’s agreeing to work with you make you feel more confident?
Jon: It was that, but also at that time I was having some personal problems. If I had focused on the fact that this was like the greatest drummer in the world and I was twenty years old, I would have been incapacitated. So I was lucky that I was losing my mind in another way at that point.
A cool thing happened one night. I was upset that I wasn’t going to get to see Joe Strummer play at the Palladium. It was the Earthquake Weather tour. We just didn’t have any money then. So Steve goes in his wallet and hands me twenty-five bucks and says, “Just go.” And it was one of the top five shows I’ve ever seen. I remember coming back afterward, and while I was gone, Steve wanted to have a drum hit happen at the beginning of one song, but since I wasn’t there, Charley Drayton dropped by and played it. So he and I were on it together, one of my all-time favorite drummers.
So then that got shopped around, but nothing happened. I ended up moving to Chapel Hill in March of ’91. I got a job washing windows, and one of our customers was this local record store where Mac from Superchunk worked. I’d met him a few years earlier when I’d go to shows at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey, when the Right Profile had moved to New York as a band. We did that just to be closer to the record label, which was a stupid idea. Mac was in New York at the time, going to Columbia University.
Anyway, the Carneys did this terrible last-ditch tour in the summer of ’91, and when we got back to Chapel Hill, I literally had two dollars to my name. The day I got back I drove to where my brother worked, and he said, “Mac from Superchunk called.” I was like, “Please let this be what I think it is!”
They had their first album out on Matador, but their drummer wasn’t working out. They’d just recorded their second album, No Pocky for Kitty, so I did the tour for that. We’d been courted by a couple major labels, mainly Atlantic, but Mac and Laura had plans to do it on their own. Having gone through the experience with Arista, I was into that. And it turned out pretty terrible for all those indie bands that ended up getting signed based on the hope that they could sell like Nirvana, or Smashing Pumpkins, or one of the
three other bands that managed to break that big.
MD: Times have changed, huh?
Jon: It’s funny—I think today is great. I’m excited that all these bands like Superchunk and the Mountain Goats can make records and tour and make a living at it. Back in the ’90s, unless you were one of those bigger bands, you were barely getting by. So now I feel like we’re getting our just rewards.
MD: Between when you joined in 1991 and when the band went on a hiatus in 2001, Superchunk toured relentlessly and put out half a dozen extremely well-received studio albums, plus several comps of singles and unreleased material. Why did things slow down?
Jon: We went on tour right after Here’s to Shutting Up came out on September 19, 2001. The world was in a horrific state at that point because of 9/11. A lot of bands canceled their tours, but we didn’t and went straight to Japan, then Europe, then America. We wanted to do it as quickly as possible, which was a bad idea. Turnout wasn’t great, and at the end we were like, “We don’t really want to do this anymore.” We did go on tour with the Get Up Kids in the summer of 2002, but that wasn’t any better. It looked good on paper: opening for a band that was really big and that cited us as an influence. At a show in Florida I remember thinking, These kids are gonna dig us! But we didn’t make any sense to them, and that was kind of the end of the first run of Superchunk.
MD: Before the break, you’d worked with a few other artists, like Ryan Adams, Rocket From the Crypt, and the Connells. But during the hiatus you were able to focus much more on your freelance work, playing with Marah, Caitlin Cary of Whiskeytown—you even did an R.E.M. Christmas single. One of the more demanding gigs was with Guided by Voices leader Robert Pollard.
Jon: I’d played one show at Irving Plaza in 2001 with Guided by Voices when their drummer couldn’t make it. Because of that, I was considered a former member of the band, so I got to play a song with them at their final show, which was at the Metro in Chicago on New Year’s Eve 2004. Knowing the band was over, I sent Robert a written letter afterward: “If you need a drummer…” And he wrote back: “Yeah—you be my drummer.” [laughs]
The band was me, Jason Narducy, and Tommy Keene and Dave Philips on guitar. For about a year we played shows with Bob, behind two of the Merge records he did [Coast to Coast Carpet of Love and Standard Gargoyle Decisions]. That was really cool, because there’s a lot of prog in his stuff, which I don’t know anything about. I tend to take offense if someone gives me a song that has a weird time signature or something. “Why are you doing this to me?” [laughs] But with his songs I didn’t mind, because they’re so weird and it actually serves the songs. Listening back to some of the shows that we did, I have no idea how we counted this stuff. But somehow we were able to make it work. So that was a great learning experience.
MD: What would you rely on to learn complicated songs like these?
Jon: Charts, notes, and just repetition and polishing. The cool thing about stepping into a situation like that is you get to learn somebody else’s thing and take from that what you like or what you can pull off. Sometimes you can’t pull off stuff. It hurts to admit that kind of thing, but some guys are just wired to be able to play a certain way.
MD: In 2009 you started planning the first Superchunk album in ten years, Majesty Shredding.
Jon: I was living in Brooklyn at this point, so I’d fly back to Chapel Hill, stay with my parents, and record three or four songs at a time for the album, and then go back out on the road. Mac would send us demos and I’d listen to them. I’d never play them until we’d rehearse the day before the recording, which is great, because you don’t think about them too much. And that’s why I think that record is so good.
MD: Why did you move to Brooklyn from Chapel Hill in ’08?
Jon: I thought I was going to come up here and write comedy, but that’s when all the stuff with Carl Newman and Bob Mould and Mountain Goats started happening. All these people I met over the years needed a drummer at the same time! Somehow the universe decided: “You should be playing music.”
MD: Today, if you could talk to your twenty-year-old self, what would you say?
Jon: It all seems so life-or-death when you’re young. “If this doesn’t work out, it’s over!” So I think what I would tell myself is, “Something else will come up.” And that’s what happened. I found that once I stopped trying to make stuff happen, things started progressing. It’s weird—when you try so hard and push at something, you can keep it from happening. But once I kind of let stuff happen, more gigs started to present themselves.
I’d also say, “Don’t burn any bridges.” I think that’s one of the reasons I tend to get work. A lot of the wildly gifted musicians I know, the social skills are not really there. And that’s really sad, because there are so many musicians who are great but just can’t get along with people, so they never get the success. I was never really a jerk to anyone, and I’m pretty sane. I might not be the greatest drummer in the world, but I’m good enough to do it, and I’m easy to get along with. I know how all of this works at this point.
Mountain Goats Setup
1. 15″ Twenty Medium hi-hats
2. 17″ Dark Energy crash
3. 22″ Twenty Light ride with four rivets
Hardware: DW 5000 bass drum pedal with oversize soft beater
Percussion: Meinl hi-hat tambourine, Rhythm Tech Live shaker, LP maraca
Heads: Remo Vintage A snare and tom batters and bottoms, and Coated Ambassador bass drum batter
Sticks: Vic Firth 5B wood-tip sticks and T1 General mallets, Regal Tip Ultraflex nylon brushes, Pro-Mark Thunder Rods
Bob Mould/Superchunk Setup
Drums: C&C maple 7-ply with light-brown pearl finish
A. 6.5×14 Ludwig Black Beauty snare
B. 9×13 tom
C. 16×16 floor tom
D. 14×24 bass drum
1. 15″ Twenty hi-hats
2. 18″ Signature Power crash*
3. 19″ Signature Power crash*
4. 22″ Twenty Full ride
*Pictured: Paiste 18″ and 19″ Reflector series crashes
Heads: Remo Coated Ambassador snare and tom batters for recording (coated Emperors live), Ambassador snare-side, Coated Ambassador tom bottoms, and Coated Powerstroke bass drum batter
Hardware: DW 5000 bass drum pedal with round beater
Sticks: Vic Firth 5B wood-tip