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December/January 2017

by Ben Barter

Get Yer Kit Off: Jimmy Mac

by Ben Barter

Get Yer Kit Off: Jimmy Mac

Throughout 2014 James McDonald performed all across the globe with Lorde, playing not drums but synths and electronics. Late last year Jimmy Mac surfaced back home in Auckland under the guise of Scuba Diva, a “hi-fi alt pop” act. Happily back behind the drums he promptly won the 2016 Critics Choice Award. NZM thanks Ben Barter (Lorde, Kingston, The Wyld) for agreeing to do the GYKO interview honours.

So first up, how did you feel about winning the Critics Choice Prize? Will it be valuable to you above and beyond NZ On Air’s $10K video funding?

It’s an interesting buzz, the musical sports kind’a thing. But super grateful for it, and it will help us put some new music out for sure. Yeah, gave me a confidence boost, I guess, that my music didn’t sound rubbish.

How did you get into music at a young age?

My parents both played music. Mum was a conductor and music teacher in Singapore. My dad played in a jazz band and a brass band too. So it was always around. Dad would take me to shows to see drummers coming from overseas. Mum started teaching piano and drums when she moved to NZ and I’d have to go along as a kid. So joined in eventually.

Were there any bands or teachers that you think shaped your playing the most?

Lance Phillip was my drum teacher throughout high school. He’s an amazing teacher one of the ones that would make you go away after a lesson and immediately want to sit down on a kit and practice. I had this teacher, Matt Swain, in Paraparaumu. He kind of got me into transcribing Ringo beats and getting more into the drums in a band setting as opposed to a solo instrument, and writing drum parts instead of just playing along to something.

What inspires you musically and what drummers perhaps influence your playing now?

I really like the old drummers like Billy Cobham and Steve Gadd. Gadd is killer how he plays the simplest stuff but it sounds unbelievable. I think generally drums sounded cooler in the 1970s – before they got over-processed in mid ’80s studios. I’m into the technology of where drums are headed but still like the simplicity and sound of drummers like Harvey Mason. Right at the moment I have been listening to a lot of ’70s Japanese stuff like Haroumi Hosono and Hiroshi Suzuki.

You have a solo project called Scuba Diva and the drums have a very nice specific sound, what was the process of recording those?

Yea I just recorded those with one mic, an SM57 going into a Neve pre-amp a friend let me burrow. I’d read something about a lot of the time in older recordings it was the horns’ mic or just a room mic picking up the drums and was trying to emulate that. I don’t really like ‘studio’ sounding drums like Foo Fighters or whatever. I used my Ludwig Vistalite. I like the kick, it doesn’t sound too subby.

gyko jimmy mac diagramme

What kind of sounds do you look for in a kit and cymbals when recording?

Oh yeah, I like all the K dark stuff. Especially the high-definition ride. There’s hardly any decay on it and I think that’s good in the mix. Especially live, not having some rank washy sound over everything can make a huge difference. I’ve heard some bands play with bad cymbals and really effects the overall sound of the band. It’s quite important.

For Scuba Diva stuff I like the sound of a tighter sounding snare and a bit more of a longer decay in the kick and toms. I usually dampen the snare with a tea towel.

Mixing-wise I do like the more vintage sound so cutting a lot of the super lows and super highs kind of emulate that to an extent. Down-sampling and cutting the highs out of the reverb too making the reverb quite dark. I like the sound of spring reverb on drums and percussion.

How did the Lorde job come about for you and what was it like touring at that level?

I knew one of the managers at the time and asked to audition. I originally auditioned on drums – as you know. But you deservingly got the part. Which was embarrassing because I remember telling someone I could “fuck you up on the drums.” Which I also remember somehow made its way back to you. Is this why you’re asking this? But I think because I was using Ableton to trigger the samples then I got the job to do the Ableton side of things from there. Worked out for both of us. Sorry about the rocky start to our relationship. My fault.

How did you cope with the pressure of playing to large audiences like TV and award shows, or big festivals?

Well we always take Rescue Remedy. I don’t know if that helps though. I think just being prepared as much as possible and going over scenarios of possible things that could go wrong and having backups is key for mental peace. But having a bit of nerves is a good thing. Just means you care about what you’re doing. I think awards shows are the most terrifying. It’s usually a room with a lot of musicians and it’s going to be on the internet forever.

I can remember how scared I was playing Splendour in the Grass? There were about 10,000 people and it was like the sixth show with Ella and we’d pretty much just played Galatos. We had all this new gear and our leads that we used to hardwire to each other didn’t reach on the big stage.

But at the same time we’ve played much bigger crowds and I’ve been much less nervous. Remember that Chanel thing at the MoMA? I remember looking up and seeing Bowie watching. That was messed up. I don’t know if there’s a right way to cope with it. I should meditate. I think it depends what I eat too. Bananas are good for nerves.

Do you think being a drummer has affected the way you approach your set up for Lorde?

100%. A lot of what I play is pretty percussive. It’s usually one hand playing a synth part and the other on the drum pads hitting samples. That seemed the most natural way to approach it, but probably not what a keyboard player would naturally think.

Playing for artists that are really electronic heavy what’s important to you in relating their albums to a live setting?

Yeah it’s different to having a rock band for sure. But I think replicating the sounds well and getting good samples are pretty top priority. If you don’t have the right sounds I feel like it could lean towards sounding like a covers band. When an audience hears a sound on an album and then come to a show and they hear that sound through a big PA there’s an immediate connection. So if those sounds on the album they’ve been listening to don’t translate then I feel like you lose that connection.

Imagine going to see Rihanna and they play Kiss It Better and the guitar tone doesn’t sound like the record – I’d feel so ripped off.

I’ve started being quite a punisher to producers if we can’t get one shot samples of stuff. Like making them take screenshots of the VSTS and effects sends and shit, haha. Just makes things faster when you can see all the parameters and wave shape in front of you. It’s easier to work out rather than trying to sit down for a day working on some evolving pad or some shit.

Bass sounds are generally pretty easy to replicate but leads and pads can get quite tricky when there’s over three oscillators and multiple filters and mods. It’s not like the ’70s where you could just dial up a sawtooth and go have a jam, haha.

What bands have you seen do the electronic thing live really well?

I like Caribou, they seem to have a cool hybrid going on. LCD Soundsystem are incredible. It’s great they have so many people on stage that can play stuff and use pretty simple sounds that can be replicated on the hardware synths. Those bands that kind of self-produce generally tend to be really good at it. Disclosure are a great example.

How do you think electronic music can be approached better on drums/samples etc. so it’s just not all getting thrown on backing tracks with a live drummer or an out of place shredding guitarist on top for example?

I’m all for how you roll it. Getting the one shots and assigning them to your triggers and SPDS pads. It really kind’a changes the approach on how we look at drumming in this era. So often pop acts just have some choppy drummer playing triplets over the top of a backing track. I personally think that’s a bit lame. It’s cool having the samples and gives you the freedom to change stuff live.

That’s my opinion. I just don’t think shredding is really that impressive and that’s not where music is headed. I’m into using technology. It lets us do things that we never could have before. I know there’s some forum dudes that would probably have a different opinion to me on this topic, but all the bands I love for example The Beatles, were taking advantage of modern technology at the time and doing something creative with it and I’m into that mindset. It’s easy to get caught up being all like, “It’s not what it used to be, music isn’t music anymore,” but fuck that.

Have there been drummers you’ve come across overseas who have stuck out to you?

Stella Mozgawa from Warpaint always has interesting parts, but still keeps it simple.

What bands are you most stoked on in NZ right now?

There’s so much good music in NZ at the moment. Bozo, Peach Milk, Kane Strang, Purple Pilgrims…