Studio Time with Jason McGerr of Death Cab for Cutie

Jason McGerr is the drummer with Death Cab for Cutie and a producer, engineer, writer, and all-around creative person.

Jason McGerr

Tell us about you as an artist and how you’ve evolved over time.

I’ve always considered myself an introvert who welcomes company. To put it differently, by choosing to be a drummer, I get to be involved in group settings without having to say much. I just listen, lay a foundation and try to be supportive. I’m sure it has a lot to do with being an only child and content with solitude, but I always look forward to working with others when the opportunity arises.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve paid attention to how my bandmates work with the equipment they use, the session musicians I’ve met, the producers, the engineers, and their studios. All because I’m interested in the whole process. That exploration, education, and constant gear talk have helped me contribute more and more to the big picture, not only as a drummer but as a writer and an engineer.

What mediums do you work in? What draws you to them?

When I was a kid, I loved to design and build things. Lego bricks, sticks in the woods, a new instrument, or just a pencil and paper – just the concept of creating something from nothing, or with whatever you had on hand, was inspiring. Even as an adult, I still love to imagine and construct ideas in mental and physical forms, and the more creative the better. Balance, patterns, mechanical reasoning, symmetry, asymmetry, texture, landscape, dynamics – solving the puzzles and patterns of life has always kept me focused and helped me to recognize the importance of personal growth.

When the things you build bring people together, it’s the best feeling in the world. Whether you’re a teacher sharing knowledge with a student, or you’ve assembled an audience at a historic venue to play sounds and songs created with your friends, that’s an incredible gift and will always be a part of my continuing education.

Which of your works best represents your past, present and future selves?

Any of the Death Cab for Cutie albums from “Transatlanticism” (2003) when I joined the band to the present day, Tegan & Sara’s “The Con” or “Sainthood”, Matt Nathanson’s “Some Mad Hope” or “Modern Love”. More recently a trio side project I’m a part of called The Overstory released an EP, and the latest Death Cab releases, The Blue EP and The Georgia EP, the second of which I tracked all the drums for at my home studio. All are good examples of what I do.

Where do you work?

When I’m not on tour with Death Cab, I usually work from my home because all the instruments I own are within reach. If I have a snare sound in mind, I’ll grab one of the 20 or so drums from the shelf, or swap kick drums, cymbals, or even pick up a guitar, a bass, sit at the piano, or whatever I’m inspired to play.

Obviously, I’d always rather be in the same room as whoever I’m working with, but having my own space is really beneficial. Not to mention, I trust 100% of the sounds I’m getting will translate my intentions, whether I’m sending out raw files or mixing drum stems or a full song. It’s also easy enough to jump online in real-time for a pass or two with the other musicians or producer to talk about approach or swap out drums while sending my studio audio for reference. If I need to be in a studio space in Seattle it’s a short drive, while LA and Nashville are easy flights.

What’s your studio like?

I have an elongated 400 sq ft room in the basement of my house. The walls, floor, and ceiling are 50% concrete and stone, 50% floated THX QuietRock, and the surfaces are heavily treated with a combo of diffusion and absorption, making it as flat and even as possible. My desk and outboard gear are in the middle of the room with two kits set up in different places; a bigger kit having 12 mics in a more open section of the room, and a tighter, smaller, drier kit with 3 mics in a narrow section of the space.

I also have a single-mic cocktail kit with percussion around it for overdub ideas. The room provides plenty of low end in the kick and toms, with just enough ceiling height so that the cymbals and snare drums aren’t overbearing. There’s also a door to a concrete utility room at the far end of the studio that makes for a killer natural reverb chamber – you could say it’s my AMS-NonLin-Boiler-Room-Plate-Flavor-Du-Jour! I often re-amp drum sounds through guitar cabinets in that utility room for extra depth.

Every instrument is always mic’d up, patched, with session templates ready to go. My outboard is a combo of tube and solid state, vintage and modern, with just enough knobs to have flavor choices, but not enough to create option anxiety. I leave the rest to plugins and the mix phase. All I have to do is walk in, sit down, open a session, and hit “Record”.

I firmly believe the fewer obstacles one has, the easier it is to capture the purest moments of inspiration and creativity. Workflow is key!!!

What would your dream studio look like?

Maybe a seaside Pacific Ocean perch like Tony Stark’s house? No, seriously, my dream studio wouldn’t be much different in terms of layout, with a single medium-sized tracking/mixing room, but I’d like to have higher ceilings and a little more old wood in the construction and to be tucked away in the trees somewhere. A detached building would be ideal for those days I’m inspired to make noise before the sun rises or my family wakes up! I do have the option to put a building on my property, so someday I might build out, but hopefully, I won’t lose any of the mojo or good vibe I’ve already got!

What are your favorite tools/instruments?

I have a lot of instruments in my studio, but mostly drums and cymbals, ranging in age from the 1920s to modern day, each with their own special “thing”, but to list favorites would be difficult. I can say the things that weren’t my favorite have been sold or traded over the years, but the current collection is all very usable to me.

I had an 8 channel Quad Eight sidecar built from some leftover channel strips that’s pretty special. It has an 8 slot 500 series rack built-in and also a master section, making it a stand-alone 16 channel console if need be. Those Q8 preamps and EQs sound killer, not to mention it’s a really unique piece to have in the studio. Some of my other favorite things are the Overstayer Stereo Modular Channel, a pair of Spectra Sonics c610’s, my JFL Audio MP-F4 (Frank Lacy) tube mic preamps, some rare RESLO ribbons, and a sweet old AKG D-25 mic that I recently picked up.

Is there a tool or instrument you would invent to aid in your work/inspiration?

Maybe a second brain? Hahaha! A studio clock that I can use to travel back in time to give me HOURS of my life back? Or an invisible intern that could magically move every microphone to be perfectly in phase with one another and allow all my faders to be at unity, no matter how light or hard I play? That is possible, right?

Actually, I think that having the right amount of wrong is where inspiration and creativity come from, as well as having limitations and time constraints.

How do you start a project? What happens next?

Death Cab songs usually start with a fairly realized demo from Ben (Gibbard) or just a musical bed from somebody else in the band that we’ll pass around. Even though each of us is capable of engineering and playing all the instruments, we’ve learned to leave room for each other’s ideas. A song might get passed around for a few revisions, but the goal is to get it to a place where we can all be in the same room knowing the arrangement; at that point, it’s about documenting the best sounds and performances.

If I am tracking drums for somebody else, I always start by asking for a few stems, one for music and one for whatever rhythmic component, track, or idea that’s been suggested. Sometimes I will ask for individual audio files or layers to have better control over monitoring and mixing roughs, but as long as I can hear how to best fit into the big picture. Additionally, I’ll request a playlist or production references so I don’t waste my time chasing ideas that aren’t going to work, especially if I’m not in the same room as the client.

Another way I’ve started projects is by creating folders of drum loops, at various tempos, varying in sound design and vibe. These are analogous to building blocks you’d drag and drop to help create a template for writing, or at least use to hang a song or riff on. Obviously, there are a number of content and loop libraries out there that sound great, but this all goes back to my being a kid and being inspired by creating something out of nothing. Sometimes it is an idea that starts at midnight by routing a Korg Volca through the Valhalla Delay LoFi-DirtyLooper preset, which leads to additional programming or opening Kontact, picking up the bass, the acoustic guitar, and sitting at my drums last…finishing at 4 am. Because when there’s a spark, you gotta chase that fire. Don’t second guess yourself!

Do you notice consistent phases in your work process, or is it different every time?

The recording process is pretty much the same whenever I’m working solo, or in the ways I’ve just described. Sometimes I write around a drum hook or search for a creative processing vibe, routing through pedals, amps or plugins, to arrive at something that feels inspired and fresh. Sometimes I work really fast within a set time limit, or if I don’t have a lot on my plate, I may keep a track open for a full week and continue to tweak it each morning with fresh ears until I feel like it’s done.

When it comes to practicing my instrument, that definitely has phases or seasons. I often put my head down and commit several hours a day for weeks at a time, challenging myself with new exercises or studying with somebody who inspires me. But then there are inevitably periods of rest when I’m less concerned with clocking in hours on the drums and instead would rather spend my time doing other things.

What do you do when you need to create something but aren’t feeling creative? How do you get unstuck?

Whenever I’m in a rut or not inspired in the studio, I find a few things always help.

The first thing is to revisit those formative albums that have had a major influence on my playing or production choices. Nostalgia is useful when you’ve lost perspective, so it’s ok to go back, not just to the Beatles, but to the records you first fell in love with and wore out as a kid, even if they sound dated to you today.

The second thing is to reach out to other musicians I haven’t talked to in a while and ask what they’ve been practicing, what they’ve been listening to, or whether they’ve done any recent deep dives as players or engineers. Sometimes they’re just as stuck as you! This can be comforting, to know you’re not the only one, and sometimes you can help each other out of it.

How do you know when something you’re working on is done?

That’s a tough one. The right answer to that question feels like it should be, “listen to your gut”, but I’m very guilty of continuing to hear how things can be presented differently. I’m a repeat offender of black hole expeditions, the sun going coming up and going down before I know it and option anxiety settling in. Honestly, though, I look to my bandmates or other musicians to let me know when things are done.

Any best practices to recommend?

Practice saying “No” to multiple takes and over-editing yourself. People usually want to hear and feel a real human being, not the computer’s idea of a human being. If you truly know a song well enough BEFORE you track, you should have a fairly inspired take in the first 3 tries. And lastly, create a broad style reference playlist for your studio, something you can look to for those times you’re “lost in the woods”

Who or what was your first sonic inspiration?

Led Zeppelin, without a doubt, because John Bohnam left such a massive footprint and impression on me, not to mention the band’s raw energy was incredible too. Closely followed by Talk Talk’s “Laughing Stock”, because of how that record was recorded, how it sounds and feels with regard to minimalism. Thirdly, I owe so much to the sound and vibe of CAN’s “Ege Bamyasi”, a band way ahead of their time in my opinion.

What are your current sonic inspirations?

I love mixing acoustic sounds with electronic production, especially when a solid bed of music is paired with somewhat loose playing or dynamic performance. Thankfully, music is a melting pot of ideas these days, without boundaries or categories. I try to record drier, natural sounds whenever possible and then audition plugins and outboard to create more depth and interesting production, to blur the lines between what the original source was. Vahalla’s VintageVerb, Plate, and Delay are all excellent to use when I need space, air, layers, and imaging to fill out my sounds.

When you’re burned out, how do you get inspired again?

The cure for my feeling burned out is to switch gears and do something else until I find myself inspired again. If you’re lifting weights, on a long bike ride, or on a challenging run and you feel tired, your body is trying to tell you something. It’s the same with your brain and inspiration. It’s the same with my hands, feet, and ears. “Burn Out” translates to “Take a Break” or simply, “Time to Rest”. Recognize diminishing returns and chill out. Whether that’s 5 minutes, 5 hours, 5 days, or as long as you need.

My threshold for long days, weeks, or months of intense work varies so I just try to listen internally to when the best time is to step away and when it’s time to push up my sleeves again. I do realize not everybody has that luxury, so there are times on tour when I need to push through and not judge myself too harshly, but the longer I do this, the more I realize inspiration can come from several places outside of music.

What percentage of your work is inspiration, and what percentage is perspiration?

Everybody has to make an investment in perspiration to get to a place of efficiency, or to maintain the physicality of playing their instrument. I guess there’s also mental perspiration to consider as well, the stress of deadlines, auditions, or the feeling of being in the hot seat. Of course, all that stuff makes you stronger, but after that, it’s about finding a balance and looking for inspiration to carry you onward, to draw from a source that reduces discomfort and stress. Charting your progress after years of repetition and sweating is hard to do, so that’s where the benefits of rest come in.

What inspires you outside of music and sound?

I do love music and living this life, so much so that it’s hard to see it as work, but exercise, being physical in general, travel, spending time in the water, the trees, fly fishing, or really, anything new I can experience with my family and friends to create memories – all those things help me find inspiration and stay positive.

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