Canadian Musician


CM Talks Drums With The Tragically Hip’s Johnny Fay

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

Johnny FayBy Michael Raine

Kingston, ON native Johnny Fay has been the drummer of The Tragically Hip since the band’s formation in 1983. The Hip has released 13 studio albums, including their most recent effort, Now For Plan A.

You can read more from Johnny and our  other panelists in the CM 2013 Percussion Panel feature in the November/December issue of Canadian Musician.

CM: What is in your kit and how do you like it positioned?

It’s kind of changed a little bit over the years and various people I’ve been taking lessons from would say, “You need a 13-in. tom just as a transition between your 12 and your 16.” Then cymbal placement kind of moves around a lot but as a I get older, like in jazz drumming, the ride cymbal really conducts the band and so if you have that where you need it for time, that’s sort of key. So I’ve moved that over the years. I would say I’ve gone between a five-piece and a four-piece kit.

CM: That’s keeping it pretty sparse…

Yeah, there’s some of the drum gymnastic guys who but Vito Rezza will tell you, “Steve Gadd; 7,500 recording, one bass drum pedal.” Think about that. You do have a job in the band so you keep that in mind and it has always, always, got to be musical.

What is your job or role in the Tragically Hip as you see it? Do you see yourself as the backbone of the band as Gordon Downie has called you?

No, I don’t. In fact, if you listen to the early Hip records, the drums are always pretty straight down the middle. We worked with really, really great producers over the years and never spent more than two records with one producer and I think that has to do with just, you know, we kind of are interested by other engineers’ sounds or other producers and what they can bring to the table. The feeling is you’ll never really take The Hip out of our music and the elements of what makes us and I think number one, the most important instrument is the bass. It kind of is always dictated and so [bassist] Gord Sinclair and I, and he’s a really good guitar player too, so he’s really both those elements.

Then the guitars, they’re usually panned right and left and the drums are pretty much straight down the middle and, of course, Gord Downie does his thing so well. I think that that is where our sound is and we have always done it that way. You can introduce something in the band and it’s not a Hip tune unless everyone gets onboard.

CM: You mentioned that you’ve haven’t worked with a producer for than two records. As a drummer, what relationship are you looking for with a producer?

Yeah, I was thinking about this and we worked with a great guy in the studio on a song called “Little Bones” [off the 1991 album Road Apples] and his name was Don Smith and he spent more of that record with me, kind of tweaking me and getting me to do certain things, leave things out, because when you’re young and you’re wanting to go for it and he had to pull me aside and tweak me a certain way. Even to this day, I can’t play “Little Bones” because it’s like studying for an exam and then executing it.

He tried to get Gord and to hit that punch at the very beginning, which is a little splash cymbal, and we just kind of launch into it. We rehearsed that for a week and we could never get it and then he turned the tape machine on and we got it. It’s reverse red light fever. We actually rose to the occasion. We were really happy about getting that and to this day when we play that song live, I’m thinking of him and wish I could talk to him and listen to those raw tracks because he really dialed me in for that take. He knew where he wanted it to go. Of course, tempo,  you don’t have groove unless you have the tempo and he would take it up a little bit or bring it down and the whole afternoon he kind of found a sweet spot and he got me where I was comfortable, which is what a great producer will do. They won’t take you too far out of your element and use the tools they have and get it down on tape or digital.

CM: What is your practice regimen on tour?

You know, instead of hanging out at the gig, because I find there’s all this other stuff floating around, one thing I don’t do during a day now is open a lot of doors. Not meaning I have people opening all the doors for me [laughs], but I’ll go to the hotel and I’ll just stay there because if you’re playing a festival or something, you go on and off the bus and you’re opening those doors and they’re heavy. Going into a trailer and hanging out and talking to people who are in a completely different head space than you are. So to stay focused I really stay away from the gig until I have to be there.

I stay at the hotel and I have a practice pad and I have these bungee cords that I put around my legs. You know, drumming is muscle memory and balance and if you keep your muscles warm during the day, and being a little bit tired is not too bad I don’t find, because you’re going to get up there and if you’ve got all this energy and you go for it, that’s when I think you really do the damage, or at least that’s when I do the damage to myself. That’s when I over play. Getting into your pocket right out of the gate is a good thing and for me, what I’ve learned over these many years is to just go and do the job at the venue and then get out of there.

CM: Is this much different than your early days with the band?

Yeah, because you’re like a Tasmanian devil [when you’re young]. Let’s face it, we’re drummers and you want to experience it all. But I think as time goes on you got to pull back a wee bit.

CM: Since the late ‘80s the Hip has had a remarkably consistent album release schedule with a new album every two or three years and tours in between. How do you avoid getting in rut or relying too much on the same old tricks when you’re playing that much with the same group of guys?

You do fall back into those same old habits. When I’m in the studio, what I used to do kind of build the studio up to be way more than it is. For drummers, it’s an often told story where the drummers are under the microscope and a guy is constantly looking at how you’re hitting the bass drum, what your pattern is, and then it kind of falls apart from there. You can be as well rehearsed as you want and then it cannot come together and then you’re at the mercy of the headphones and the studio.

You’re mixing the mix in the studio and also, it’s taken me a long time to get my live thing together and what country drummers do is they use a lot of overhead and a little bit of snare drum and a little bit of bass drum and then mix everything in tucked underneath that. I think when you do that live, it’s good for the ears because it gives you a much broader spectrum.

But what I used to do in the studio is I would use a drum set live and I would have it sounding great and then I would just build up this kit in my mind as to what I was going to take into the studio – an old Ludwig bass drum and a ‘67 Supersonic or whatever it is. I would put everything together in my mind and then I would get into the studio and it would sound terrible. Then that kind of plays with your mind, too.

We worked with Hugh Padgham and he produced the two big Police records and he was telling me that Stuart Copeland would come in with the same drumheads that he had recorded his last record on, toured the world, and then come back in. He said they sound like little tin cans because he’d torqued them down so much but he just never changed his heads and that was his sound. So he was very comfortable, obviously, and he is one of the most influential drummers around and he knew what he needed to do in the studio and so you kind of take a little piece of that. So yeah, you’re live kit and what you feel most comfortable with is the one you should probably be using in the studio.

Do you ever try to get away from the band and do something to refresh your musical palette?

Well, I am blessed man in that by hobby is my job. I started in The Hip when I was in grade 11 and I could’ve made the decision to go to university and I stuck with this. I’m constantly studying with different people and getting on to what they’re interested in and that is what keeps me motivated. Some days it’s hard to get on the drums, you got to keep playing and when you’re finished on the tour, you still got to keep playing, even if it’s for five minutes a day. You got to play ride rhythm and you got to get your feet going and that kind of refreshes you.

CM: Who were your early inspirations?

I had a bunch of guys. I used to hang out with these two guys, brothers in Kingston, and they got me into Yes and got me into live music. The records that we would listen to are [Rush’s] All the World’s a Stage and [live Yes album] Yesssongs.

So I listented to [Yes drummer] Alan White and as I got to know his playing and where he came from, I really kind of have little flashes of him in my life. Stewart Copeland, obviously, is someone who, as a live drummer, I don’t think there is anyone better. These were guys who just showed so much restraint. A third and fourth guys that I pulled on were [former Sly and the Family Stone drummer] Andy Numark, who just had four drums and he really knew how to lay it down, and then Micky Curry, who is one of the most beautiful players around. He plays with Bryan Adams but before that he played with Hall and Oats and he’s a beautiful player and has a great sense of foundation with his feet. He’s sits really nice and low and lets you know where the number one is.

What key lessons did you learn early on?

My parents were very supportive and they didn’t by me anything. For Christmas, I would always ask for a hi-hat or a bass drum pedal and I never got that. It was really a good thing because if I wanted that stuff, I had to work and so I worked as bus boy. I remember buying a snare drum and a hi-hat one summer and it just gave me a sense of, “Wow.” I really worked at it and then it made me think, “Wow, the hi-hat really is an incredible little instrument on its own.” Then I ran out of money and I would use my mother’s knitting needles because she wouldn’t give me money to buy new drum sticks. I think those kind of lessons about “don’t take any of it for granted” and if you’re going to do something, just go and do it.

You can have all the talent in the world and no drive and I had a lot of drive. I didn’t have a ton of talent but I knew if I stuck at something that I was going to get to where I wanted to be.

CM: Obviously you did becomes very good and very accomplished. What did you do to get there?

I have my way of showing it on the drums. A drummer in Toronto said to me, “Your number one determines where your number two is.” You know, your bass drum, the way you hit it physically determines where you’re going to hit the snare drum. We’re all different in that way and I thought of it that way. It is different. So I sort of honed in on a few things and I have a routine that I go through at off times and it’s sometimes really painful to go through it and it’s also simply working on a drum pad. It’s working with just the bass drum pedal and getting that. There are things like that that I do that make it easier.

Drummers are really hard on themselves. At any given time you can be playing and then two weeks later it’s not the same. I think because we have four limbs moving around, it’s difficult because it’s that much more real estate that you have to take up and if you over play, people notice that. You’ve got to be a band player and you got to fit into a band. I’ve always been very conscious of music and I’m in a band with great, great players and they take up a lot of area, which if you were playing rolls over would really take away from it. It’s very simple, what I do, but it has kind of got to be that way.

CM: Is there a way to practice getting into the groove and the proper mindset on stage?

Being a good listener is a big part of it. When you’re onstage with other people, it’s known. If you’re not in the pocket, it’s not grooving and everyone else is looking around. So, I’ve always found that if you’re really conscious of your hi-hat, if you listen to those early Beatles records, the hi-hat really drove the band and whether that was the way that [Beatles producer] George Martin put the microphones or the way that it was mixed or whatever, but hi-hats are very important and they’ll drive the band in the right way. So you got to make it really clear and not clouded. You don’t want to make it washy.

So for me, if I’ve got my right hand, I’m a right handed player, on the hi-hat and I’m laying into that, everyone knows where the one is and I’m keeping it simple. You can tweak it as the evening goes on but you want to be firing right out of the gate and make sure you’re letting everyone hear that hi-hat.

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