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Blood, Sweat And Cheers: The Art Of Playing Live

With Tony Thaxton Of Motion City Soundtrack, Erin Tate Of Minus The Bear, And Aaron McVeigh Of Foxy Shazam

Minneapolis in mid-December isn’t the warmest place to be — unless you’re inside First Avenue, the legendary music venue immortalized in Prince’s Purple Rain. On long, dark winter nights, the windows in this old converted Greyhound station routinely fog over and condensation oozes from the jet-black walls as masses of sweaty Minnesotans make heat the old fashioned way — by packing in tight and getting their groove on.

Fortunately, lack of body motion isn’t an issue when Tony Thaxton of Motion City Soundtrack, Erin Tate of Minus The Bear, and Aaron McVeigh of Foxy Shazam are laying it down on stage at the first-ever Popsickle Festival. Strictly judging by the temperature in tonight’s sold-out room, these three drummers are on fire. Somehow, each manages to simultaneously propel and anchor the off-the-rails energy of his respective outfit — be it airtight pop-punk, dance-based space jams, or over-the-top arena rock, respectively.

Legendary live skills don’t develop overnight, however. These journeymen have logged more miles than the fleet of buses that used to inhabit the very building they are dominating on this frigid eve. So, just what does it take to be a successful road-dog drummer? We sat down with Thaxton, Tate, and McVeigh at the end of a very busy year to pick their weary brains on the topics of touring, performing, and simply surviving the rigors of the endless road.

DRUM!: Did you guys have mentors or favorite drummers when you were coming up who taught you how you play for the stage?
THAXTON: My dad played in a cover band on the weekends so I saw him play a lot. I kind of picked up on it over the years just from being around. Later on I was super into Damon Atkinson who was in Braid [and Hey Mercedes].
TATE: When I was younger, I quit playing for like a year or two and really just listened to rap and R&B. Then I heard Diary by Sunny Day Real Estate. Listening to William Goldsmith just blew my mind and I was like, “Alright, I’m going to play the drums again.” He’s just so creative and he hits the drums harder than anyone. As an older guy and a haggard touring guy — like I am now — I couldn’t imagine. Dude gets into it like no drummer I’ve ever seen.
THAXTON: He’s one of the sweatiest drummers that I’ve seen when they’re done, too.
TATE: He’s nuts. Also, Adam Wade, who was in Shudder To Think [and Jawbox]. He was the first drummer I saw where I was like, “Okay, so you don’t just have to, like, count to four.”
McVEIGH: I saw Tool live and Danny Carey is obviously just an incredible drummer. Slipknot — their live show blew me away, too, watching everything that Joey Jordison does. Green Day ...
THAXTON: They were big for me in high school.
McVEIGH: I also really like [Zach Lind from] Jimmy Eat World. He’s an awesome, solid drummer who does exactly what the song needs.

DRUM!: Do you do any warming up or stretching before playing? Any pre-show rituals?
THAXTON: Stretching is big for me. If I don’t stretch, I feel awful. [Pulls back fingers on hands to stretch wrists.] My hands and behind the back … I just kind of get loose, ’cause otherwise …

DRUM!: [To Thaxton] You threw out your back once right?
THAXTON: Yeah, we were in the UK. I bent over to adjust one of my cymbal stands and something just “went” in my back and I dropped to the ground. It was before the show. They played acoustic without me that night. [laughs]
McVEIGH: I have a pretty insane stretching ritual. About 30 minutes before we go on I try to stretch my whole body out. Our shows are very energetic and theatric. I make really huge movements [swings his arms high, elbows out]. I just try to be as “big” as possible. Also, I have these really thick Vic Firth “ScoJo” drum corps sticks — they have rubber tips so you don’t need a drum pad. I warm up with those because they’re so fat and heavy. Then when I get on my kit, my sticks feel a lot lighter.
TATE: I stretch my wrists a little bit. I never used to do it, but I just started in the last year or two.
THAXTON: It’s that “getting old” thing. [laughs]
TATE: It really is. As far as pre-show rituals, the band started doing this huddle-up thing. Before we play we put our hands together and sing that Seal song where he says “We’re never gonna survive unless we get a little crazy.” We refer to it as “Sealing it up.” [laughs] I don’t know how or why it started, but we do it.

DRUM!: Do you still get nervous before going on stage?
THAXTON: The first time we did arenas in Europe with Blink-182 in 2004, we flew overnight, arrived in London in the morning, and played Wembley arena to, like, 13,000 people. That was mind blowing. I was nervous before that.
TATE: We played a couple arena shows with the Foo Fighters that I was nervous for, but I think it was more like a playing-the-drums-in-front-of-Dave-Grohl kind of thing. [laughs]
McVEIGH: Oh, man, I bet!
THAXTON: I had that once. We were playing at Irving Plaza in New York and Max Weinberg’s son [Jay Weinberg, who has also played drums for Bruce Springsteen and currently tours with Against Me!] is a fan of ours. Max came with him that night and it occurred to me during the show that he was watching. Right at that moment, I totally f__ked up the song. [laughs]
TATE: On our second tour ever we were playing a show in New Orleans and there were only, like, 15 people there. The Fire Theft [featuring ex-members of Sunny Day Real Estate] was in town and I’d met William Goldsmith at that point and he was like, “We want to come to your show.” So William came, along with Adam Wade, and Bobby Drake from The Hold Steady, who’s also a fantastic drummer. So I had to sit and play in front of these three absolutely amazing drummers with, like, nobody else in the room — I f__ked up all over the place. [laughs]

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