Joey Zehr: Clicking In
Maybe it was the matching suits, the ones that, for a while, the band wouldn’t be seen in public without. Or maybe it was opening for such delightfully pan-able acts as Ashlee Simpson (after her Saturday Night Live voice-track snafu) and the reinvented Backstreet Boys (ten years after anyone had thought about their first invention). Or maybe it was the music itself, that kind of Brillo-polished, effervescent cheer-pop that, when performed without irony, triggers a Pavlovian sarcasm reflex in anyone who proposes to take music seriously. Whatever the culprit, it was pretty easy to dismiss The Click Five (or The Click, as they were originally known) when they busted onto the scene two years ago with their branded identities.
Of course, those were real instruments played by real musicians — Berklee-trained musicians no less. And while, sure, songs like “Just The Girl” and “Jenny” probably won’t be anthems for the next revolution, they’re really damn catchy — to the point of being hard not to like. But the real clincher, the crucial X-factor that elevates The Click Five above the din of
TRL sound-alikes and flavor-of-the-month pop troubadours, is (what else?) the drums. On the band’s sophomore release, Modern Minds And Pastimes, the introduction of the mean, surprisingly raw brutality of Joey Zehr’s drumming is enough to smash through the candy coating and grab the attention of even the most jaded of hipsters. “The drums on this record, every time I listen to them it just blows my mind,” says Zehr, who was looking for a fat, organic sound on this album that more closely reflected his aggressive approach on stage. “I always think I look funny trying to dress classy, but then when I get behind the kit I’m just like a big ape,” he laughs, hinting at the reconciliation that must take place when one wishes to unload a copious supply of raw musical passion within the limits of the acutely fashion-conscious pop music scene. “But the big selling point in music is that people want to know that you’re actually into what you’re playing, that you’re feeling what you’re playing,” he says.
It helps that Zehr’s musical education has been one big reconciliation of disparate elements, particularly the collision between a classical background that at one point had him playing timpani with the Indianapolis Symphony, and the raw-energy explosiveness of his ever-present need to rock. Having studied jazz and timpani throughout high school, Zehr remembers the moment he crossed over the divide. It was junior year when he visited the studio of Dan Clark, John Mellencamp’s drummer, inquiring about lessons. “I thought I had the world by the nuts,” says Zehr. “Nobody else had a jazz combo in high school.” But Clark took one look at the cocky 17 year old, made him swap out his jazz sticks for a pair of Vic Firth Metals, and told him he wasn’t allowed to leave the room until he broke both sticks. “I remember sweating my ass off, like, ’this guy can’t be serious; this is crazy.’”
But those sessions with Clark helped unleash the grittier side of Zehr’s playing, which he honed a couple of years later at Berklee playing with hard-edged indie rock outfit, For Reasons Unseen. It was here he would share a house with Joe Guese, Ethan Mentzer, and Ben Romans, who played together in an alt-country band at the time. Pretty soon, the four friends, plus lead singer and high school buddy Eric Dill (who was just recently replaced by another Berklee alumnus, 20-year-old Kyle Patrick), decided to form The Click. “I think we all felt this was the common ground that would take us somewhere,” Zehr says of their conscious plunge into the world of pop. “I was stuck in this world of like, indie rock that has a feeling. And they were stuck in this world of alt-country that has a feeling, and we were like, ’let’s combine these and put them in the middle and just come up with some really strong pop songs that could have a wide appeal, and just hit the road.’”
The boys quickly picked up a guy named Wayne Sharp as their manager, who helped them define their image and sound with the kind of slick, dollar-conscious management approach that seemed from the outside to be the stuff of young musicians’ nightmares. Zehr is quick to clear that part up. “It’s funny because our relationship with Wayne is, he’s one of our best friends. And it’s always been a group kind of effort,” he says. “I feel like the big thing that people always looked at was the suits. But really, we did that because we wanted to pay tribute to a lot of our favorite bands. I like to reference The Stones a lot for what I would like to look like because I think they always looked awesome, and I think it’s cool to look awesome, you know, look like a rock star. But it’s hard being a drummer and looking awesome because you sweat your ass off.”
During the boys’ senior year at Berklee — preoccupied with visions of The Beatles at the height of their ’60s popularity, and with Wayne Sharp’s help — they quickly defined their sound, released their first hit single, “Just The Girl,” written by Fountains Of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, and landed a record deal with Lava Records, an Atlantic imprint. “That’s like, the big thing for every musician,” Zehr admits. “Even though you’re told — especially at a place like Berklee — you’re told how horrible record deals are. But it’s unavoidable. As much as you say you don’t want it, you still do. So when that finally comes I don’t see how anyone could not just be totally humbled.”
Zehr’s genuine enthusiasm for being a pop musician is downright infectious. He’s aware of the kinds of criticisms that can follow a band that so shamelessly and deliberately chooses to pursue broad-spectrum popularity. But at the same time, it’s clear he’s just there to play drums, and the image concerns are really not his. “Our kind of approach to all that stuff was, ’hey man, we want to do whatever we can to get our stuff there.’ And we always enjoyed playing with all these different bands. As far as some of the cheesy stuff we did, I could have seen people giving us an even harder time. But I think the music speaks for itself. I think people are always surprised when they come see us live,” he continues. “I think they expect it to be kind of a s**ty, put-together kind of a thing. And really, we’re just a bunch of musicians up there having fun.”