Tony Thaxton Makes Motion City Soundtrack Go!
Motion City Soundtrack’s Tony Thaxton makes a big case for little ideas. Repeatedly on the bands’ fifth pop punking album, Go, the 33 year old drummer takes what should be typical drum parts and makes them unique showcases for clever ideas, finding small turns of phrase or the perfect fill to push the song forward and set his drumming apart. Thaxton is a master of personalizing his parts, making the songs the primary focus yet adding rhythmic cues that are far beyond ordinary.
Thaxton plays with punch, panache, and high energy throughout Go, finding seams to exploit, bar lines to cross, and odd meters to make smooth. From galvanic opener “Circuits And Wires,” where his drumming pelts your head like a hailstorm, to coiling slo-mo groover “The Worst Is Yet To Come” to gleeful pogo closer, “Alcohol Eyes,” Tony Thaxton plays natural grooves laced with a powerful wallop and inventive ideas.
From your drumming with Motion City Soundtrack, it sounds like you’re well trained and very practice-friendly. You’re very creative in drum parts that ultimately propel the songs forward, but also create a unique, signature style.
Thanks. I am trained but it’s also a lot of me just trying ideas. So a little of both. I started playing at a very young age because I grew up around it and my dad played drums in a cover band. I started playing drums and I can’t even remember when. I always had a drum set around. I was self taught for a long time and then in high school I met an instructor who taught me rudiments and how to read music. That’s when I began learning more about technique. I briefly studied percussion at college, I was a classical major, but that wasn’t me. I realized I am much more of a rock drummer.
What else did you focus on in private lessons?
Things like independence, we went through a lot of books. I knew how to play but I didn’t understand what I was doing technically.
Who were your heroes then?
TT: I grew up in the ’80s listening to bands that people would laugh at now. To this day, I think Huey Lewis And The News is an amazing pop group! I listened to a ton of that, and their drummer Bill Gibson was really underrated. That band was full of great musicians, and Gibson was very subtle. He played tasty fills and a lot of ghost notes. And I liked Ringo, of course. As I got older I drifted to Nirvana, Green Day.
You play unusual accents or add drumistic things that really work. Your band must give you a lot of freedom.
My favorite drummers are guys that don’t overdo it. There’s a fine line between stupid and clever, as they said in Spinal Tap. There’s some guys who play it super straight and that’s honestly more the way to go than to overplay. There’s that fine line between being too simple and then being too busy.
How do you determine where that line is in songs where you play cool ideas like in “The Worst Is Yet To Come,” “Circuits And Wires,” “The Coma Kid,” and “Timelines?”
A lot of that comes down to the melody of the song. The song is the most important thing. Sure, you want to play something cool and interesting, but overall the song is the most important thing. The melody is the main thing about the song that people are going to remember. It might be tough for drummers to admit that, but it’s true. So if there’s a spot where the song is building, and maybe there’s a spot where the melody drops out for a second, that might be the time for the big fill. A lot of it just comes from gut instinct. If I am wondering if a drum part is too busy, then it probably is. If you’re questioning a part or a fill, that’s a good time to ask your bandmates what they think.
And when you come up with an interesting pattern or idea, such as in one song where you play a pattern that recalls The Beatles’ “Ticket To Ride,” or in another song where you play a snare drum roll to push the end of the bar, are you following another band member or playing something to contrast their part?
A little bit of everything. Again, it’s about the song. We don’t have an exact way that we always write our songs. Sometimes someone will come in with an idea that is pretty well fleshed out and we know where it will go. Other times we barely know what the song is at all. We might just have a barebones skeleton of the song, and it comes together with all of us playing together. I might do something that someone else catches on to, and then we may adjust the song accordingly.
You breakdown your groove in “Time Turned Fragile” on YouTube. That’s a really great drum part.
Thanks. That happened when I went to our rehearsal space and was just playing alone and trying to come up with things that I thought sounded cool. That pattern came from messing around. Damon Atkinson, the drummer from Braid, who I really admire, that’s derivative of things he would play. The song starts with an intro that I copied from something he does, but then it turns into something else. Mark Hoppus, who produced that record, asked me to do the craziest thing I could think of, and that was it.
Photo by Anthony Saint James
Can you take me through a few songs on the album? You do creative things that add a lot of spark to the songs. In “Boxelder,” you play an interesting hi-hat-snare drum push at the end of the phrase.
That is a weirder song. It’s in seven, and for the sake of it being weirder, I thought it might be cool to keep the drum part simpler since it’s in seven. The kick pattern is just quarter-notes, and then every other measure there’s that fill, it’s actually two different fills. The first is a snare and a open hi-hat struck together, the second one is more of an actual fill. It was just that thing of the song being in seven then doing a simple quarter-note part, and it needed that little something to drive it. Playing in seven can feel cool, but it can also feel awkward, and throwing that little thing in there sort of emphasizes the fact that this is going to be a beat shorter than you think it will be. It’s right before we return to the 1.
In “Circuits And Wires” you play a really fast triplet roll around the kit — really fast. It’s like a part you would have to play if you were in a cover band. Why that roll instead of a more broken-up pattern?
Our bass player wanted a big fill right there, because it’s a quiet chorus. But then when it kicks back in it gets a lot bigger at that moment. So we felt like it should have a nice big fill right there, and it starts right when the vocal ends and then the big fill happens and everything kicks in.
Then in “The Coma Kid,” you’re playing a ride pattern on some sort of rim. It makes the drums stand out.
Actually, it was written with me playing on the snare rim, then in the studio we used a metal rod sticking from a mount and I played it like a hi-hat. I wanted to try things out on this record. On previous records, I always just wanted to nail the song, in as few takes as possible. I looked at as a challenge, and as a matter of pride. I can do this. Nail the song in a take and move on. I tracked without much coming from Pro Tools. But this time because the songs took shape in the studio, we had a minimal scratch track and I would play a guide, then we fleshed out the songs. Then as the songs took shape I would figure out my part.
Your drums sound very natural as if they weren’t heavily gridded in Pro Tools.
On some songs I recorded a section at a time so we could use different drum sets. In “Happy Anniversary” there are three different drum sets all being played at the same time and overdubbed one set upon the other. We wanted a really driving drum part. But we don’t grid the drums heavily. We do like a natural approach.