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December/January 2015

by Andrew Gladstone

Get Yer Kit Off: Jason Johnston (Jakob)

by Andrew Gladstone

Get Yer Kit Off: Jason Johnston (Jakob)

Jakob. It feels like they have been around forever, but that could just be because it’’s been eight years between their last album, ‘’Solace’’, and 2014’’s well-received ‘’Sines’’. A variety of injuries, including one to drummer Jason Johnston’’s right hand, have been to blame for much of that delay. Around since 1998, the Hawkes Bay post-rock trio have earned a kind of cult status here and toured extensively on the back of their last record, twice invited to tour throughout Australasia with U.S. prog-rock heroes Tool. Fellow Napier drummer Andrew Gladstone  (Golden Curtain, Garageland) volunteered to ask Jason to get his kit off.
AG: How and when did it all start for you?
I have vague memories of setting up Tupperware containers and playing them with spoons at the age of three. My dad was musical and played bass and guitar and one day he took me around to his cousin’s house and he had a drum kit. I was pretty taken by this kit but I actually started by learning guitar and bass as there was always a bass guitar and an acoustic guitar in the house but no drums – drums was what I aspired to though.
Mum and Dad saw that me and my brother were starting to get into playing so they would take us to the country music club in Napier every Sunday. This did my head in because I just wanted to go out skating and riding my bike with the boys. Still, I stuck with it and learnt to read chord charts and I was a country and western bass player. I saved all the money I made playing country bass and bought my first drum kit.
So what was your first kit?
My first kit was a Mirage. It was a cheap heap of crap, but as my first kit, it was like gold. I carried on playing bass with Dad’’s band at RSAs and the country music club, but my passion for drums meant I would take the money earned from these gigs and buy cymbals and stands. A stand would take me weeks to pay off and the cymbals were totally the wrong sounding cymbals for me, but they looked flash.
Did you take lessons or were you self taught?
I took lessons for a couple of years when I was about 11 or 12 and then later, at high school, I had lessons for about a year with Cameron Budge. To be honest that was just to get out of a boring class and go and hit the drums for an hour instead. Other than that I learnt by ear and playing along with songs I liked.
You’’ve played loads of gigs all over the world. What’’s your most memorable drumming moment?
Walking onstage at a capacity Brisbane Entertainment Centre when we supported Tool was amazing. We half expected to be booed but the whole crowd went silent, I could hear my own footsteps on the stage. The crowd were really responsive when we played though. Later on one of Tool’’s techs asked if I knew their song Lateralus, which I did of course, and he explained that Danny Carey [Tool drummer] wanted me to get up on stage the next night in Melbourne and join him. So during the performance the techs set up my kit on the stage and about halfway through the song it breaks down to a drum solo between me and Danny Carey with Jeff Friedl (A Perfect Circle) on djembe – a sort of drum-off! That was a real career highlight. That and playing with Tiki Taane and the NZSO at St Pauls in Wellington. That was awesome.
And a worst drumming moment? 
In 2001 Jakob played at the bFM Music Awards at the Bruce Mason theatre. It was a pretty big deal for us and as the curtains opened and the lights came on I completely forgot what I was supposed to be playing – I froze. It was like a dream where you turn up to school naked. Jeff and Maurice played for what seemed like an age before I could get it together. I guess it was stage fright.
By now most readers will know the story about your hand, the pumpkin and the knife. How did you recover from that and has it forced you to alter your playing style?
Yeah, it has. I did quite a bit of tendon and nerve damage to my right hand and the surgeon had to cut through my palm to repair the severed tendons. I was out of action for three months and it took another month or two to get to a point where I could play more than one song. Hitting anything would send a rush of blood to my fingers and they’’d get pins and needles and hurt like hell. I double wrap the stick for that hand so it absorbs some of the impact. It’’s much better now but I still can’’t close my little finger and ring finger properly so I’’ve had to get used to gripping the stick a bit differently. I may look a bit cack-handed on the right side when I play now as I rotate the wrist inside about 70 degrees or so. I’’ve adjusted and I don’’t think it’’s affected my playing much.
Did the injury change the way you or the band approached recording ‘’Sines’’, or alter the sound, do you think?
The main drum tracks for ‘’Sines’’ were all recorded before I cut my right little and ring fingers. The issues obviously came once I was going through the rehabilitation stages and building the strength back into my forearm and hand strength. Constantly getting physio on my hand and trying to get movement back in to my hand again… mostly my two fingers that had the tendons and nerve re-attached. I spent three months in a half cast, so not to over-extend and snap the tendons and probably two months after that before I felt confident with my hand to play shows again.
Just playing one song at rehearsals my little finger would go numb and tingly, hurting that much I’’d need to stop playing. Rather frustrating. I double stick-wrapped my signature drum stick to help absorb the impact it was having on my right hand and slowly was able to play for 30 minutes… about four or five Jakob tracks.
So then we get contacted by Tool to support them on the Big Day Out sideshows in Australia. We were totally into it but I wasn’’t sure how my hand would hold out. ‘Fuck it, let’’s do it, we’’ve  already turned then down once before in the States, can’’t do it again.” Back on the throne again, first big show back… Jakob supporting Tool at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre… then a few nights later in Melbourne at the Sydney Myer Music Bowl. I could fill a whole page in NZ Musician telling the Tool /Jakob story.
Tell us a bit about the album. Does it mark out any new territory for the band?
Once the drum tracks were done I had very little to do with the rest of the album. Sitting in on extra sessions at a friend’s studio in Napier was it for me. Guitarist Jeff Boyle spent a lot of time editing and mixing the album. There were a few drum tones/sounds I wanted to change but the source files couldn’’t be altered enough to satisfy my ears. At the end of the day the album is out and people are loving it.
Do you ever use click tracks?
Recording ‘Sines’ we used click for the album excluding Darkness which was recorded in our rehearsal room with three mics on the kit, two on the guitar cabs and one on the bass. Having clicked the drums in Roundhead made editing and adding new parts later on down the track easier. Playing live I use clicks for Harmonia because I can’t hear the timing for the guitar/strings samples, so it locks everyone into me.
You can’’t do an interview with a drummer in NZM without talking about their gear. So tell us about your set up.
My kit is a Tama Starclassic Bubinga Omni-tune that Tama supplied to me from Japan. I could choose the kit I wanted from the catalogue so I opened to page one and didn’’t bother going any further. Everyone knows the best stuff is at the start of the catalogue and the cheaper stuff goes down the back.
The first kit on page one caught my eye and I decided that was the one I wanted, complete with the cool paua inlays in the shells. The only custom part of the order was changing out the Omn-itune lugs which are clever but heavy and not ideal for touring. I use Paiste cymbals except for my hi-hats which are 14”” Zildjian New Beats that I’’ve had for years. They are like an old pair of shoes, nothing else feels quite as comfortable.
gyko jakob jasons kit nzm158

click to enlarge

Drummers often have a good perspective of the dynamics of a band, so what do you think is the secret to Jakob’’s success and longevity?
We’’ve always had day jobs since day one which has meant the music is a passion rather than a job. If we’d been in it to make money we’d have given up years ago. There are no expectations to live off our music and we’’ve always done what we’’ve wanted to do. Also, coming from a small town like Napier you really can’t afford to have an inflated ego or act like a rock star, the sort of stuff that creates a toxic band environment. We have jobs and kids and we’re good mates – seems to be a good recipe.