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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(Above) Tony Thaxton

DRUM!: So even the pros struggle when you’re playing in front of your idols?
THAXTON: I have to not think about it. If I see them watching it sort of gets me excited and probably hitting harder — getting into it a little more. Usually, though, I’m best just going into autopilot mode. If I start thinking about what I’m doing, that’s when I screw up.
McVEIGH: I totally hear you. There’s like this place where you go where you do it without thinking about it — it’s all muscle memory. Once you start over-thinking or worrying about screwing up or who’s watching you … look out.

DRUM!: How much input do you have into constructing the set list?
McVEIGH: I write pretty much every set. I have a really good idea of what songs should go together, what songs we should go straight into, when we should take breaks. Eric [Sean Nally], our singer, does a lot of banter. If I let him, he’ll speak between every song and he’ll just go on and on. I like to be really hands on with the flow of the set.
TATE: With us it all depends. We have to base our set around sampling. We’ll play two songs and then take a break while our guitar player, Dave, builds riffs and samples on his pedals. Also a bunch of songs are in different tunings and all that so I often don’t really have a lot of say.

DRUM!: How do you handle pacing yourself on stage so you keep the energy up and avoid injury?
THAXTON: I try to pace myself, but every now and then I let it get away from me and I’ll come out a little too eager and I’ll regret it by the third song. That’s one of the things I really try to be conscious of. I prefer to open with a mid-tempo song and ease into the faster stuff if possible. We’re opening with a fast one tonight, though [“Attractive Today”].
McVEIGH: Yeah, it depends on the set. If you’re opening with a fast, ballsy song you kind of have to bring it. We’ve been opening with this slower song [“The Only Way To My Heart”]. It gets insane at the end, but I get some time to work up to it, which is nice.
TATE: I always try to play as hard on the last song as I do on the first one — no matter how tired I am. I definitely do burn myself out early sometimes, but then I just psych myself out by pretending there’s, like, a gym teacher on stage yelling at me.
McVEIGH: [in an authoritative voice] Hit that snare harder! [laughter]

DRUM!: Do you change your parts when playing live or are you pretty faithful to the recordings?
TATE: I try to stay pretty faithful. When it gets to the live setting I’m like, “I wrote this part for a reason.” But there are songs on our record where I wasn’t exactly confident when we were recording — it sounds fine, but after we were done I was like, “Aw, I should have done this instead.”
THAXTON: Yeah, I feel like that’s the only time I change stuff. I stay pretty true to the recording, but every once in a while you have that feeling of “This could have been better,” and it just sort of comes to you one night and goes from there.

DRUM!: Aaron, being that you didn’t record with Foxy Shazam, how do you approach performing the songs live?
McVEIGH: Obviously, guys like Josh Freese and Thomas Pridgen [who played on Foxy Shazam’s 2010 self-titled release] know what they’re doing. But yeah, night-to-night I kind of do things differently. I feel as long as I keep the integrity of the song — the beat, the tempo — I can kind of do what I want. Daisy, our bass player, locks up with me on the stuff that I’ve changed so it still makes sense. I really enjoyed learning the Foxy record. I wish I had played on it, obviously, but it kind of took me outside of my own little box that I was in.

DRUM!: Which do you like better — playing new material or the hits?
TATE: I don’t know what you mean by “hits.” [laughs] There’s something to be said about the excitement you get from the crowd with older songs, but man, playing that song that’s on your first record that you’ve been playing every show for the last ten years gets a little boring.
THAXTON: Yeah, but if there’s that moment where you can hear people singing the song back at you, it makes it more exciting. That doesn’t get old to me. That always feels good.

DRUM!: You guys all play to a click track live. Do you like it or do you view it as a necessary evil?
THAXTON: I thought I’d hate playing to a click live, but I love it. I used to hate seeing a recording of us playing and everything was way too fast. I like knowing that’s not happening.
McVEIGH: Yeah, no one in the band can look back at you and yell, “You’re playing the song too fast!” [laughs]

DRUM!: Do you match the tempo of the recording?
THAXTON: We bump it up a hair. It’s generally, like, two bpm faster.
McVEIGH: Same here. It’s all about how it feels to us when we’re in the room practicing. I’d say on 99 percent of the songs I play to a click. We do a Misfits cover that I don’t play to a click. That wouldn’t be too punk rock. [laughs]
TATE: No one else in my band likes the click, but I love it. It’s become so second nature now that I don’t even listen; I just know I’m on it.
McVEIGH: You only really notice it’s there if you fall off coming back from a fill or something. It’s kind of this thing that’s always going on in your ear, but you don’t even really pay attention to it.
TATE: It’s tricky with sequenced parts, though, because if you’re one beat off and a vocal line comes in late … That makes me really nervous. But I try not to think about it.
THAXTON: [to Tate] Does everyone in the band hear click in their ears?
TATE: Oh, yeah. I make ’em. You?
THAXTON: Yeah, because some guys aren’t exactly great with tempo. [laughs] Any time there was a moment with no drums I would sit there and count it out.
TATE: Yeah, if there’s like 30 seconds of just guitar or something, I want a drink of beer — I don’t want to sit there counting off for some other doofus. [laughs] Plus, you don’t want to hear some dude hitting his hi-hat to count off songs. It just sounds so much tighter if everyone’s on it.

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(Above) Aaron McVeigh

DRUM!: You all must use in-ear monitors as well.
McVEIGH: I have Ultimate Ears — like, the molds. I love them. They have a negative-24-decibel rating. It cuts all stage noise out, which is awesome. I don’t really need to hear anybody else and I get a cool drum mix in my ears.
TATE: I hated it the first week or two I had them, but now…
THAXTON: Have either of you had to play overseas or fly dates where you have to use wedges again? It sucks going back once you’re used to the in-ears.
McVEIGH: We did that last night and it was so hard. We’re spoiled now.

DRUM!: Do any of you use a ButtKicker on your throne to get that kick drum “thump” that the wedge usually provides?
THAXTON: I do, yeah. I love it. At first it’s like “What’s the point?” But then you get used to that feeling. Every now and then it’ll cut out and it seems like so much more went wrong than what actually did. I thought I broke my kick head once when that happened.
TATE: It’s the best thing ever. I was like, “I don’t want to spend that much money on one,” but we played with one once and everybody was like, “That’s the best you’ve played in a long time” and I’m like, “Oh it’s from this thing.” Then they were like, “Maybe the band will just buy you one.” [laughs] It makes a world of difference.

DRUM!: Do you all have drum techs?
[Thaxton and Tate nod]
McVEIGH: I don’t. Actually, I do — it’s just me. [laughs]

DRUM!: Do you still tune your own drums?
THAXTON: The less I have to deal with any of that stuff, the happier I am.
McVEIGH: Can’t wait.
TATE: I can’t tune my drums to save my life. I can hit them until I think they sound good … I respect the s--__t out of those people, though. It’s amazing.
THAXTON: Agreed. I can make drums sound good, I think, but there’s no method to it for me. To be totally honest, I don’t really even pay that close attention to my gear. Some days I’ll walk out and be like, “Oh, new heads.”
TATE: The snare drum that I have sounds so much better with new heads so every four or five shows I’ll be like, “Put on a new head.” But the toms … I don’t really hit that hard so it’s not like they’re thrashed or anything.

DRUM!: Do you get blisters or cramps or any other tour-related injuries?
THAXTON: I’ve never really been one to get blisters. But I definitely get sore. I have to get massages quite often. I’m getting very creaky in my old age.
McVEIGH: The only time I get blisters is when I go home for a couple weeks and get lazy. I try to get my back-up kit set up at home and practice a few times a week. You can’t let your calluses get “girly” — that’s how you get the blisters again. I get sore too. And the other day I actually fell going up the stairs.
TATE: Funny. I fell down the stairs the other day — twisted my knee.
McVEIGH: Yeah, I bent my finger back and it still hurts. I don’t skateboard any more. There’s certain things you can’t do when a touring band is counting on you, you know? Just the littlest thing and you could fall and break your arm.
THAXTON: Yeah, I know all about that. [Thaxton fell and broke his arm leaving a New Year’s party in 2009.]
McVEIGH: You’ve got to be aware of your surroundings — don’t do stupid s__t when you’re drunk. [Everyone looks at Thaxton.]
THAXTON: What the hell, man?! [laughs]

(Left) Erin Tate

DRUM!: Any advice for dealing with tour burnout?
TATE: Get plenty of sleep. That’s the most important thing.
McVEIGH: Yeah, I take melatonin to help me sleep while we’re moving. It’s all natural. Also, going for a walk or having a meal by yourself to clear your head. Playing “Angry Birds” …
TATE: I’m addicted to that game, man. I love it and hate it. [laughs]
McVEIGH: That’s a big deal — the whole mental-stability thing. Some people can tour and some people can’t. That’s all there is to it. I find that if I do my own thing and get away from everybody that helps me a lot.
THAXTON: Definitely.

DRUM!: How much longer do you think you can do this for?
McVEIGH: As long as it works in my life and until I’m completely fulfilled I guess. Just keep on chasing that dream, you know?
THAXTON: Yeah, if it gets to a point where it’s not fun anymore, then I guess it’ll be time to stop. In the long run I’d love to be more of a studio drummer and not be on the road all the time.
TATE: Absolutely. That’s the dream right there — sit at home, play drums, and get paid. [laughs] I like playing live better, but I can’t imagine going out and doing what we do now at 50 years old or even 40 — and that’s only eight years away! It’s just so hard on your body and every year gone by and every nine-and-a-half week tour with no days off just makes it harder and harder.

DRUM!: It accelerates you through life, though, doesn’t it?
TATE: It really does. I’d like to go and maybe wait some tables some day. That could be fun. [laughs]
McVEIGH: Work in a factory?
TATE: Be the president?
McVEIGH: Now we’re talking.