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February/March 2014

by Richard Thorne & Silke Hartung

On Foreign Soil: Jimmy Mac

by Richard Thorne & Silke Hartung

On Foreign Soil: Jimmy Mac

Jimmy Mac is an Auckland drummer who in recent years has kept time for an impressive diversity of local acts including Popstrangers, DHDFDs and Ruby Frost. These days he plays keys for one of the world’’s pre-eminent female solo artists, the former TGS student now known as Lorde.

On January 27 this year Jimmy Mac played in front of 28.5 million television viewers, on a circular riser in front of the Staples Centre main stage, with quite probably dozens, if not hundreds, of his own musical heroes watching intently from the stalls. Jimmy, and his band mate Ben Barter, might not have the fame of Lorde or Joel Little, but they are certainly sharing the wild ride. He very kindly offered to share his experience at the 2014 Grammy Awards ceremony with NZM.

It was May last year when Jimmy Mac got the call up (as they say in Hollywood) to play keys with Lorde, and despite her star being firmly in the ascendancy, nothing at all could have prepped him for the wild ride he has been on since.
“I don’’t know what I expected. All I wanted was to be on tour. If I could have enough money to survive and be on tour, that’’s all I wanted. Which is hard in NZ as tours generally last for about two or three days!””

Taking up the offer to join fellow drummer Ben Barter and Ella Yelich-O’‘Connor on stage did mean putting aside his main instrument in favour of one he is considerably less than confident with.

“My mum was a piano teacher growing up, and I learnt a bit of it at jazz school, so it wasn’’t too foreign. There’’s no other instruments I can really say I play other than knowing a few chords. I can’’t even really call myself a keyboardist. I’’m a drummer firstly. I find Ableton, the software that we use, quite percussive. I think Ableton is an instrument in itself and it’’s going to become essential for bands in the future. I use the drum pads on my keyboard as well, so I guess I found the independency quite easy.””

Jimmy had been to the States a couple of times previously with Ruby Frost, once for CMJ and again to do some recording. He was there again in early December last year when Lorde played at the Grammy Awards Nominations ceremony, a big affair in itself, also held in LA.

lorde band

They found out then that Lorde was up for two Grammys and that she might get asked to perform, which was confirmed around Christmas time. Asked what emotions that news brought, Jimmy answers, “all sorts””.

“I think for me, playing in a lot of bands, there’’s a lot of people that talk to you condescendingly for thinking that you’’re trying to play music full time, or think it’’s stupid to try and do that in NZ. There were people that tried to stop me from doing this too, which always made me wonder if I was making the right decision. But I felt like this was a giant, ‘’fuck you’’ to all those people. I was proud of myself and so thankful for the people that helped me to be part of the team.””

Arriving in LA well ahead of the Sunday Grammy Awards ceremony, the band took up a suitably rock’’n’’roll residence in a hotel near the Viper Room, off Sunset Boulevard.
“It had a rad rooftop pool. I’’m not to sure who else was staying there – a lot of people came to our hotel for parties because we had such a good rooftop set up.””

Their first pre-Grammy soundcheck happened a couple of days before.

“The biggest challenge I think for me, and I know the others found it hard, was we were playing in a stage in the middle of the arena, and there was a delay coming out of the front of house speakers compared to what we were hearing in our ear monitors. That made it pretty hard to concentrate on what we were playing along to. They wouldn’’t let us run our monitors like we usually do, so it made it pretty hard, but we got there in the end!

“I remember laughing at how advanced and precise it all was, but my cue to start was just some guy comes and taps me on the leg. He had a silver ponytail, some thin oblong glasses and was a bit cross-eyed.””

They were back late morning on the day for a full run through and performed (their VNZMA performance version of) Royals around 5.20pm. Butterflies?

“I think it’’s less nerve wracking playing arenas, because you can’’t see people’’s individual faces looking at you. Everyone’’s in the dark. Sometimes I have to tell myself that I’’m not going to die, [but] I’’ve learnt to deal with it better the more I do it. I think being nervous just means that I care about it, and if I look at it as exciting, instead of scary, then that helps me. Ben and I take Rescue Remedy. I think it’’s about 70% alcohol, but either way it works.

lorde live

“That morning when we got there I was feeling like, ‘Why do I even do this, what’’s the point?’” [But] it wasn’’t too bad. We played a few pre-Grammy parties that week in front of some musical freaks, so I feel like all our nerves were out of the way by then. We got a lot of encouragement from a lot of musicians and performers that we respect during the week, which gave us a lot of self-confidence. My main fear is gear going down and we had a chance to check it all worked before walking up there, so I felt okay.””

As with the soon-to-be global star herself, he was very happy not to walk down the red carpet.
“Haha, it would be the first time I’’ve seen a session musician walk down the red carpet. I don’’t really care about that, I don’’t see the point… Plus I might have ended up in the ‘worst dressed’ in Women’s’ Day or something, and nobody wants that! I find paparazzi weird. I don’’t see how you can be a human being and do that for a living. There’’s a lot of people that want photos with her. Most of them are so lovely and excited.” ”

In the event, their performance went as rehearsed and as big as it was in terms of profile gigs for any Kiwi muso, he doesn’’t much rate it as a performance experience.

“We played a private show in New York late last year, and I could see Bowie sitting there watching us, which made me just about die. There’’s been a lot of situations like that over the last year that have been stupid. Ben and I constantly look at each other and shake our heads, but now I feel okay about that stuff. I think if you’’re involved in something you’’re proud of it makes a lot of difference. I would hate to get up there and play some bubblegum shit in front of those kind of people I couldn’t handle that.

“I mean playing TV things isn’’t that enjoyable. It’’s hard to connect with people, and there’’s not as much vibe. I much prefer playing to real people. I’’m most excited about Coachella in a couple of months.””

So what was the first thing any of them said after leaving the stage?

“I don’’t remember, we all hugged each other. Me and Ben went for a cigarette and did numerous high fives. It was cool. I think everything Ella does is so opposite to what everyone else that plays at the Grammys is all about, and people respect that. She’’s an amazing performer.””

He describes the Grammy’s backstage scene as “super respectful”.

“Most people are super encouraging and lovely. It’’s kind of weird, I’’ve met musicians over the last year and I’’ve completely hated their music, but you meet them and you’’re like, ‘Oh they’’re alright!’’ Haha. Our own backstage stuff was left to our tour manager Pete. He makes shit happen. If you need a razor Pete Yozell will get you a razor.””

Seems like it you want a silver suit he’’ll get that for you too.

“Ahh. I heard Pharrel and Robin Thicke both wanted to wear my silver suit, but couldn’’t because there was an exclusive that ‘Jimmy Mac’ was wearing it,”” he laughs.

As much as our own media ‘on the ground’ were talking up the post-Grammy party scene, Jimmy, Ben and the rest of the Lorde team apparently played it pretty cool.

“It is a bit of a blur, I feel like I need to start writing everything down. There’’s been so many crazy moments last year and this year that they’’re all blurring into one. I didn’’t actually go to any after parties – our whole team kind of just went back to the hotel, hung out and got in the pool.””

A few sleeps later they were winging their way back home, sharing the plane with a number of local music industry types returning from the NAMM Show, also on in LA that week.

“Playing Auckland was amazing. I think I enjoyed the experience a whole lot more than the Grammys. It was amazing to have that support from people at home, and it was the first show that felt like a proper show we’’d played in five weeks or so. It was cool for my family to finally see the show as well.””

Jimmy now expects to be on tour basically all year. Of course there are perks to playing with the biggest star in the world right now, though he does miss his drums.

“I get free keyboards – now that’’s pretty great. I love travelling and to be able to do it with your favourite people is amazing. I feel like everyday doing this is experience that not many people get, so I’’m trying to keep learning as I go and pick up as much as I can. I think when Ella writes her next album I’’d love to do what I’’m doing with some other artists. I’’d like to get back into playing drums. I haven’’t played in a long time and I miss it.””

So how do you adjust to all of a sudden being a peer to international superstars and playing those big stages?

“Well first you need to buy longer leads! I don’’t know, we’’ve been working on making it more of a show and linking the tracks together as opposed to just playing song after song. It’’s going good so far. We definitely felt like a few hillbillies coming from NZ and suddenly having to sound as big as the best in the world. I’’ve learnt a lot just by seeing band set ups backstage at festivals and seeing how they run things.””

And finally, how does he kill time when they are travelling so much?

“I am constantly asking myself what to do with all this time in between. I feel like if I put my mind to something in all the time I have to wait around at shows or in airports or hotel lobbies I’’d be a genius at it. Ben buys a lot of sneakers.””