John Wicks: Drummer On The Run

john wicks

John Wicks steps outside the front door of his home, surveys the snow-covered landscape before him, and takes off.

As he falls into a familiar rhythm, the Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs that flank his path streak into a malachite blur. The crisp, 30 degree air fills his lungs. His pulse quickens. His mind empties. It was tough to find the inspiration to run this morning. Then again, it always is, particularly at this unforgiving time of year.

Suddenly, elevation. Wicks quickly weaves his way around the rocks, over the ruts, and beyond the boulders that would fell a more inexperienced runner. For him, navigating switchbacks is best left to muscle memory; he has already run this route 35 times this year, perhaps a hundred times since he moved to Montana. He promised himself that he would try to run this trail – which leads to the highest point in Missoula – every day, if he could. Day job permitting, of course.

The microspikes that Wicks has attached to his running shoes keep his stride stable as half a foot of soft snow compresses beneath them. There are signs that several runners have made it up Mount Sentinel before him this morning, even at this early hour. Despite the grade, Wicks is running at full bore, his arms pumping as his lungs expand and contract in metronomic harmony. The packed snow provides cushion for his knees as they move with piston-like precision.

The snow is falling heavily now, accumulating in Wicks’ eyes as he makes his way up the mountain, repeatedly forcing him to slow down and wipe it away. The gesture throws his stride off balance. But there’s no way he will build up to his mileage goal of 50 if he takes breaks every time it snows in Missoula.

Abruptly, the gentle curvature of the white-washed mountain gives way to the true horizon, a deep blue vista punctuated by wispy clouds, tiny outlines of buildings in the distance, and mountains – craggy, dark veins that surround the town like castle walls – for miles. Wicks stands at the summit, looking down over the snow clouds that tortured him so on his hour-and-a-half trek up here. From this spot, they seem benign.

There are many more miles to run, the last of which will lead him down from this place and into the kitchen of his warm home where a strong cup of pour-over coffee awaits. But now is all that matters. “The thing about running on trails is that you have to be present, right there in the moment,” Wicks says. “You can’t space out because you’ll fall on your face. It’s one of the few times where I’m not up in my head. The only other place I find that is when I’m playing drums.”

There are many parts of John Wicks’ life where he enjoys the admiration of others – as a 42-year-old whose idea of fun is an ultra-marathon; as the father of twin four-year-old girls; as the drummer for Fitz And The Tantrums, the brassy Los Angeles-based lounge act that puts the “arty” in “party.” But here, at the top of this mountain, with no one else around, he feels like a god.

Wicks never expected to move to Montana. Then again, he never expected to last in a Los Angeles band, either. He moved to the sprawling city nearly a decade ago with the goal of cracking the studio session scene and making a name for himself. “When I went to L.A., I didn’t know anyone,” he says. “We moved there just thinking, We’ll give it a shot for a year and see how it goes. That year turned into eight years.”

It also turned into a record deal (with Dangerbird Records), hit album (Fitz And The Tantrums’ Pickin’ Up The Pieces) and chart-topping single (“MoneyGrabber”), not to mention sideline gigs playing for Bruno Mars, Cee Lo Green, Me’Shell Ndegéocello, and George Clinton.

Though Wicks has recently relocated to his wife’s serene hometown, a five-hour flight away from the bright lights of Los Angeles, his music career couldn’t be busier. Fitz And The Tantrums is preparing for the release of their second full-length album, More Than Just A Dream, and their first on a major label (Elektra), recorded in a short stint at Sound Factory in Los Angeles.

“This is the first record where we used an outside producer, Tony Hoffer, who’s fantastic. He worked with Beck, and mixed M83’s record. He’s phenomenal and like-minded, the perfect fit for Fitz and myself. I’m not a purist as far as drummers go – I love drum machines, playing with them, against them, whatever – and Tony was nervous when he came to me and asked me if I was comfortable playing on top of drum machines. We incorporated layering my drums with vintage drum machines. I was done after three days.”

That’s about as brief as it gets for a six-piece band in the studio, but Wicks says much of the work for the new album was done in advance. “We came to the table with close to 40 songs that we had all written. Tony helped us whittle them down to 13 of the strongest. We were all in our respective home studios, writing away. We kind of learned them as we were recording them, really. I was lucky enough when I lived in L.A. to do a lot of jingle sessions – when you walk in there, you’re supposed to be done in 15 minutes. I got good at doing things that way, being quick at it. Jingles really paid off as far as me getting session work.”

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