Since the world did not end a few days ago, anyone who writes about music and popular culture will now have to review the past year and tell us all who’s best.
In the world of The Best Drummer In The World , it would be hard to find a better wrap up for the year than declaring Jon Wurster Drummer Of The Year 2012.
Factually, this title could have been bestowed upon Jon for any of the past 20 years as he has played great drums on great records and toured with great bands for the bulk of these past 2 decades.
Through the heyday of indie rock Jon recorded and toured relentlessly as the drummer of Superchunk to the point where even I refer to him as “Jon Wurster of Superchunk” But this title has become too narrow a moniker for Jon.
As of 2012 Jon Wurster of Superchunk is also (very much in no particular order) Jon Wurster of The Mountain Goats, Jon Wurster of Bob Mould band, Jon Wurster the comedy writer, Jon Wurster playing with Ben Gibbard and Jay Farrar, Jon Wurster recording with Spl:t S:ngle with Jason Narducy and Brit Daniel (Spoon, Divine Fits). Giving Jon 35 “days off” in 2012.
I spoke with Jon a couple of weeks after seeing my first Mountain Goats show at the Fillmore in San Francisco.
The Best Drummer In The World: With so many projects, was there a point where you decided to become “The indie rock go-to drummer”?
Jon Wurster: “It just kind of happened. After Superchunk kind of ‘went on hiatus’ in 2002 I played in a couple of bands that were very different than Superchunk…more like ‘roots rock,’ which is the kind of stuff I played before I joined Superchunk.
In Jan of ’86 I was living and playing in bands near Philadelphia. My brother was in college in Winston Salem, NC and I auditioned for and got a gig with this band from there called The Right Profile (named for the Clash song of the same name) who were a sort of cross between The Band and Exile-era Stones. I liked that kind of music when I was younger but by 1985-86 I was really into Husker Du, Replacements, Minutemen, R.E.M., that kind of stuff. I was 19 and within 3 months of moving down there and joining the band we were signed to Arista by Clive Davis.
In the summer of 1987 we started making a record with Jim Dickinson and that kind of went south halfway into it. It just wasn’t sounding the way we, or JIm, for that matter, wanted it to sound. We ended up getting dropped and in the fall of 1989 we did a session with Steve Jordan producing, which was kind of the defining drum experience of my life. I learned so much from him.
When the band was on its last legs we did this kind of ‘death march’ tour to LA to ‘get signed’ in the late-summer of 1991. By then I’d moved to Chapel Hill, NC where I had a job as a window washer. One of our clients was the record store where Mac (McCaughan of Superchunk) worked. When I came home from the L.A death march I stopped by my brother’s office and he said ‘Mac called while you were gone’ and I kind of had a feeling of “maybe they need a drummer” -and it turned out they did.
I felt lucky because even though I’d been playing in this roots rock band I loved punk rock. So I already had that in my consciousness; I loved the songs, so it was an easy thing for me to slide into. And that’s how I ended up in Superchunk.
TBDIW: Ok so, fast forward to 2001-02 when Superchunk goes on “reduced schedule hiatus”
JW: Around this time I played on Jay Farrar’s first 2 solo records after Son Volt. Then I played with this crazy band of brothers from Philidelphia called Marah.
Then I played with Robert Pollards solo band after Guided By Voices called ‘The Ascended Masters’ with Tommy Keene and Jason Nardcy who would later bring me in the Bob Mould Band, on bass.
Pollard, and The New Pornographers, who I played with in 2007, those were the hardest things I’ve ever had to do because the songs were so tricky. Dan’s songs. Carl’s songs. Pollard’s songs they were all these parts that only happened once or half a time. It was crazy.
And all during this time I had kind of a second career as a comedy writer. I would write funny promos for MTV shows like the MTV Movie Awards and things like that.
In the fall of 2006 I was out with Robert Pollard and our tour was booked around this one-off Superchunk show: The Daily Show 10 Year Anniversary Party at Irving Plaza in NYC. Also on the bill was The Mountain Goats, who at this point didn’t have a drummer.
They had a few songs on their records that had drumming, but there was no full time drummer in the band. My memory of how we actually got talking about playing together is that John Darnielle was living in Durham, NC by this point and at lunch one day I said ‘If you need a drummer for the Daily Show gig we’re doing together let me know’. So I learned a couple of songs, we did the show and had a blast. John said they had a tour coming up and asked me it I wanted to do it.
Then towards the end of that Mountain Goats tour I got a call from Neko Case asking me if I could play on The New Pronographers’ upcoming tour because their drummer Kurt (Dahle) was having a baby and he needed to be home. As a result of that I ended up getting to play on Carl (AC) Newman’s record (Get Guilty) and doing the subsequent touring for it.
Around the end of The Mountain Goats tour around March of 2008 I got a call from Jason Narducy asking if I would be able to do a European tour the Bob Mould Band had coming up. They were on the road in America at the time and having issues with their current drummer. It just wasn’t working out. The Mountain Goats had 2 more shows left on the tour we were doing and a couple of nights later in Philly Jason calls back and says ‘Could you finish THIS tour we’re doing?’ Amazingly, earlier that day the Mountain Goats agreed to cancel this Australian tour we had coming up in a week. So I had the time to do the Mould tour.
So, I was feeling kind of lucky at that point and said, “Yes, I think I can do it.” We finished the Mountain Goats tour in DC the next night. Drove back to North Carolina the next day, I showered and went to the airport and flew to LA and met Bob and the band. The next day we went to San Diego, never rehearsed, did a soundcheck and played that night. And that was it.
I think we’ve rehearsed 2 times since then in 4 years.
TBDITW: Amazing. So is it that you feel you are just familiar enough with the songs where you can just fall into that kind of a gig?
JW: Yeah, those Husker Du songs are just part of my DNA. I loved Sugar. When Bob’s solo stuff came out I worked in a record store, so I absorbed that stuff. And without sounding like an asshole or arrogant…..
TBDITW: Ha, remember you’re talking to a website called The Best Drummer In The World, being arrogant is not a problem here….
JW: I feel one of my gifts is that I can learn songs fairly easily and retain them for a long time. In 2010 I had a crazy stretch where I had a big tour with Bob Mould and right from there I went right from that, the next day into a Ben Gibbard/Jay Farrar tour and right from there to a big Mountain Goats tour and right into a Superchunk Tour of Japan. And somehow that stuff was all able to stay in my brain. I still can’t believe it works that way.
I’m not able to remember where my car keys are, but…
TBDITW: Well, that gives us an insight into how you’re able to shift gears in on the touring side. Tell me about working on the creative side and how you’re able to shift gears with each of the different songwriters involved?
JW: Bob had sent us demos about 2 days before we were supposed to start recording his latest album, Silver Age, so we didn’t really have any time to really learn anything. We just took it one song at a time in the studio. The demos had a drum machine on them so there was a vague outline of what the drum part would be, but the songs are very direct and it just kind of made sense what you would do
What’s interesting about that record is that the day before I was to fly out San Francisco to start the record I snapped the tendons in my middle right-hand finger. I did this putting my pants on. I couldn’t make that up.
TBDITW: You did that record with a broken finger???
JW: I only told Bob about this 2 months ago because I didn’t want to shake anyone’s confidence while we were making the record. Thankfully he never noticed the splint!
TBDITW: Ok, how about when working with Superchunk?
JW:I find a lot of times, I don’t know if it’s a Zen thing, but it’s ‘First idea, best idea.’ And I definitely had that in Superchunk when we made Majesty Shredding (2010).
Mac would just send me his demos. I was on tour with The Mountain Goats and AC Newman at the time and I would just kind of absorb the songs as I was walking around with my headphones. I would never play them on drums at all before we’d do a rehearsal session the day before recording them. We would just go in and get 3 songs done in a weekend or something and it just really worked. I’d just play what I thought was cool and it would usually work.
This was different from the way we wrote kind of ‘by committee’ from ’95 through 2001. I feel I really overthought my parts on those records. When I listen to them now, they’re pretty good, but I can hear myself thinking.
But with this way of doing it, you’re flying by the seat of your pants and you don’t have a lot of time to overthink it.
So with Majesty Shredding and the one we’re working on now which will hopefully be out next August, its the same thing. You hear the demo, you play what you think makes sense and you’re off and running and it sounds fresh.
And it was the same way with Bob. He would basically let me do what I wanted and it would usually be close to what he wanted. And we did it the same way on his Life And Times record.
With The Mountain Goats, John will write the songs and we’ll get together and rehearse for a couple of days…. although on this latest record (Transcendental Youth) we played the songs live on tour before recording, which we had never done before. We toured through the south and got the songs in shape live before recording, and I think you can tell. I think it sounds the most cohesive, band performance-wise, of the Mountain Goats records I’ve played on.
On that record I would pretend I was other people and kind of think ‘What would Charley Drayton do here?’ Or on Spent Gladiator I was pretending I was Rick Marotta. So I’ll do that when I need inspiration.
Like, when I played with Bob Pollard I think he just kind of trusted the band to do what we needed to do.
TBDITW: Do you feel you bring your own personality to the people you play with?
JW: I do. I remember when I was doing that recording with Steve Jordan and he had just gone to see the Ramones and he said they were great and said ‘there’s a lot of things that guy can do that I can’t do’. So everyone has their own thing that they bring to the table that no-one else can do.
That’s what makes everyone unique.
TBDITW: And that’s my question is ‘How are you able to bring your thing to so many different projects?”
JW: I do think a big factor in my success or whatever you want to call it is, I’m pretty sane! There are thousands of better drummers but many just can’t be in a band. They can’t function in that world. They don’t have people skills.
That’s more than half the battle. There are these people who are genius musicians and can play many different instruments but they go out with a band and get a reputation of being a crazy flake and they don’t work again. Even though they maybe can play better than anyone else.
TBDITW: And the key to staying sane?
JW: About 3 years ago I quit drinking. And its easy to fall into alcoholism in a band because you’re around free alcohol all the time. But I just got to the point where I didn’t want to feel like crap. I like to take care of myself. I do yoga, go to the gym, meditate, go to therapy. It all really helps.
And I’m lucky that the bands I’m in now don’t really play crummy dives for the most part. That can be super depressing. You end up feeling like you’re wasting your life sitting in these awful bars waiting to play for an hour. So luckily, knock wood, I don’t really have that in my life, which I am so grateful for.
TBDITW: Sound advice, Jon!
JW: Thank you
Watch for Jon on tour with Bob Mould, Ben Gibbard and The Mountain Goats….and obviously more. Look for all these great bands in all other 2012 best of lists, and remember the drummer.
So, the world didn’t end in 2012 so lets make a new years resolution to be sane.
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January 7, 2013
Nice article – and well done Jon – about bloody time!