Tony Thaxton: Them's The Breaks

“It was not fun,” says Thaxton over the phone from bitter-cold Minneapolis, unofficial home base for his band.

It’s especially not fun when you’re supposed to be recording your fourth album instead of lying around with tubes up your arms. The other bandmembers, who interrupted the recording of My Dinosaur Life while Thaxton convalesced, eventually went back into the studio with producer Mark Hoppus to finish tracking without the drummer, laying down their parts around a programmed beat.

Once Thaxton’s arm healed and he got ready to overdub acoustic drums, he listened to his bandmates’ recorded parts with mixed feelings. Sometimes the programmed beats were close to what he would have done anyway. When they weren’t, he stifled the artistic urges and simply rolled with it. “It wasn’t that I felt I couldn’t change it,” he says. “I guess I got used to hearing them that way, and my brain will get into a little bit of a rut. Sometimes it just needs to stay simple. Some of those songs, that’s how they should remain.”

For a self-described “straight-ahead drummer,” Thaxton sure is hard on himself. He has gone so far as to divide his parts on My Dinosaur Life into pre- and post-arm-break songs. “Maybe it’s me overanalyzing things because I know which songs are which, but I feel the ones I play a little simpler on are the ones that are written afterwards.”

Maybe so, but that doesn’t apply to the Bonhamesque kick on “History Lessons.” And the hat work on “Hysteria” – a post-arm-break tune – is far from simple. “I got a copy [of the demo] and I played along to it on my iPod to a click, and it immediately was fun to play – just little Copelandesque things to throw in there. I’m really excited to play that one live.”

Tasty accents aside, the chasms of space between boom-y kick and wappy snare are the most appealing feature of his playing. “A lot of that is also due to the mix. It took awhile to get there, sending [sound files] back and forth, but everyone was adamant about having big, loud drums present in the mix.”

Whatever you say about Thaxton’s drum parts, it’s the big picture that concerns him. The steadily intensifying march on “Skin & Bones,” climaxing with frantic fills, bring to mind an arranger painting in Technicolor strokes. “I’m playing the full beat like that, then at the end of the song is just a snare overdubbed on the top of that. I think there’s some shaker in there too. We just wanted to be a little crazy.”

If there are signs of famous drummers in his playing, Thaxton is reluctant to cite influences. “Instead of picking out drummers that I love it’d be easier for me to talk about songs that I love drums on.” As a kid, he absorbed all the moves of his dad who banged skins in various cover bands. Armed with three years of private lessons upon graduating from high school, he immediately enrolled in Virginia Commonwealth University’s music program. “A lot of it was classical percussion stuff and I don’t really like that,” he explains. “I’m just more of a rock drummer. That’s where my heart is.” He dropped out after two semesters.

A few months later, Thaxton was playing in a local band that ended up supporting Motion City Soundtrack on their way through Richmond, Virginia. Backstage he struck up a friendship with frontman Justin Pierre, who after several email exchanges offered him the MCS drum chair. Thaxton accepted, but he was suddenly overcome with doubts and immediately reneged. He pursued other projects while still living in Richmond – singing and playing guitar in one band, drumming in another that was “slow and artsy.” Just when he started to kick himself, Pierre renewed the offer in 2002. Two weeks later Thaxton and the band entered Black Lodge Studios in Kansas City to record their debut, Movie Of Your Life, with Ed Rose and financed it themselves. The rest is indie-rock history.

In addition to My Dinosaur Life, Hoppus also produced Motion City Soundtrack’s 2004 release, Commit This To Memory. Because of his history with the band, the Blink-182 bassist has a well-developed sense of when Thaxton wants his input and when he doesn’t. “He had little notes for me here and there, like, maybe he wants a bigger fill in a certain spot. Maybe he wants me to switch to an open hi-hat here instead of closed, but that’s about as specific as he gets. It’s mostly my world there.”

Although Thaxton has always recorded with a click, playing with one live is a recent development. It makes sense given how much stuff he has coming through his in-ears. “I do sing a little bit, so a lot of my voice [is in there], because it can be hard to deal with trying to hear that. I get hints of everything else, but drums and bass and my vocals would be the loudest things.”

Now at a major label, making more money, and enjoying an arm that’s working as well as before he broke it, what’s left for Thaxton to do? Plenty, at least drum-wise. “Weird as it sounds, I don’t think a lot when I play. I feel I may do certain things too much, like maybe I bring back a fill [that I’ve done] plenty of times before, where I could maybe get a little more creative. But that’s one of the things I’m trying to change.”