Interview: Drummer and Comedian Jon Wurster

Michaelangelo Matos gets on the line with the indie rock funnyman.

Drummer jokes are a dime a dozen, but drummers with jokes are a treasure to behold, especially if they’re Jon Wurster. The Philadelphia native began his career in rock with the Durham, North Carolina indie band Superchunk, which issued eight albums between 1990 and 2001, not counting singles compilations – an important part of the story for a band whose most iconic recording was the 1990 7-inch “Slack Motherfucker.”

By 2001, when they released Here’s to Shutting Up, Superchunk was ready to hibernate for a while. But Wurster – who’d been booking rock shows since he was a teenager, well before joining the band – did the opposite, picking up gigs with everybody from alt-country siren Caitlin Carey to San Diego punks Rocket From the Crypt to once-and-future Guided by Voices leader Robert Pollard. “Slack Motherfucker” featured the refrain “I’m working, but not for you,” but Wurster worked with seemingly everyone. He also began flexing another artistic muscle with greater frequency. In 1999, he began making in-character phone calls to The Best Show on WFMU, the three-hour Wednesday-night program on the New Jersey public radio station hosted by comedy writer Tom Scharpling. (It ran from October 2001 to December 2013 and was revived last December as a podcast, titled simply The Best Show.)

The Scharpling calls were scripted but loosely structured, and featured Wurster playing a number of characters who start out seeming fairly normal and over the course of the segments – anywhere from five minutes to an hour – reveal themselves as unsavory or worse, such as Timmy Von Trimble, a two inch-tall man who lives in a dollhouse and is, oh yeah, a neo-Nazi. Two of the best are, naturally, music related: Corey Harris, the clueless singer of Mother 13 – a withering parody of the sound-alike alt-rock bands that littered American modern-rock radio in the late 1990s; and Ronald Thomas Clontle, native of Lawrence, Kansas, and author of Rock, Rot, or Rule, which he describes as “the ultimate argument settler,” meaning it assigns hundreds of bands a rating (one of the title phrases) with no other explanation or context. Among Clontle’s convictions: British 2-Tone band Madness “invented ska,” despite one listener after another calling in with evidence otherwise. The best of these calls were issued on a series of CDs on Wurster’s tiny label Stereolaffs and gained he and Scharpling a cult following – particularly among other musicians.

In the past few years, Wurster’s juggled three main projects. In addition to Superchunk – which capped a handful of occasional shows through the 2000s with 2010’s career peak, Majesty Shredding – Wurster became a full member of the Mountain Goats, with singer-guitarist John Darnielle and bassist Peter Hughes, in 2007, and has the same role with ex-Husker Du and Sugar frontman Bob Mould’s band. And 2015 may be his busiest year yet. The Numero Group is issuing a 16-CD Scharpling & Wurster box covering their WFMU arc (only a fraction of it – the calls are long and many), and in April the Mountain Goats release Beat the Champ, the most musically wide-ranging album of their career, with a new Mould full-length in the offing as well.

Michaelangelo Matos spoke with Wurster over the phone during a rare spare minute in February.

Superchunk - Slack Motherfucker

You’re one of the busiest musicians around. What was your last day off?

It was yesterday! [laughs] That was my day off, yesterday. There really aren’t days off. There’s always something going on, which is nice. I’m planning things that are going to happen in September and October right now, so it’s a lot of planning at all times. Superchunk isn’t really doing a lot right now – we have one show with the Replacements coming up in May. [In April], the Mountain Goats’ album comes out and we tour behind that. I’ve got some stuff with Bob Mould coming up. In the fall, there’s a couple things in the pipeline I can’t reveal right now. And things always come up, which is really nice.

That’s what I like about not having a super-set job/life. Because of the nature of what I do, there’s usually time to accommodate them. Somebody will ask, “Can you do this?” And hopefully it will fall into that one five-day free block I’ve got, and it works. There’s been a lot of that in the last five or six years.

You’re like the Questlove of indie rock.

[laughs] I’ll take that.

When Superchunk went into remission in the early 2000s, was going out and playing as much and widely as you do now something you intentionally pursued?

You get burnt out on it. That’s what happened with me and Superchunk: Through the ‘90s, you’re in album-tour-album-tour mode, over and over again. I think Laura [Ballance] was in the same spot, where it just wasn’t really fun anymore. There were no new horizons anymore; it was almost a glass ceiling, where that’s as far as you’re going to get. You’re playing the same clubs over and over again. It just wasn’t exciting or interesting.

I thought all this [recent success] was going to happen 20 years ago. It’s nice that it’s happening now, when I’m actually mature enough to deal with it.

On hiatus, the first thing I did was this tour with a woman named Caitlin Carey, whom I played with in Whiskeytown, with Ryan Adams – we did a tour with them in ‘98. That was straight-up country. That was a great learning experience. At the same time, I was also just getting into writing funny commercials for MTV – a friend recommended me for this job, and I got it. That was a great experience too. I was figuring out how to write for comedy. Nothing got me a lot of money, for sure; I was really eking out a living at that point. It’s nice to be at the point now where I can turn down a few things if I don’t want to do it. I’ve been really lucky – almost every offer I’ve ever gotten to play with people has been something I really wanted to do. But for that period, I would get one pretty-good paying gig a year, and the rest was just scrambling. That pretty much went on from 2002 until 2009.

I thought all this [recent success] was going to happen 20 years ago. It’s nice that it’s happening now, when I’m actually mature enough to deal with it. In terms of being able to do a lot of different things, it’s what I always hoped I’d be doing. Superchunk was a constant thing, which wasn’t bad. But it didn’t allow for a lot of time to do other things.

Did you see playing straight country with Caitlin Carey – beyond the people involved and the money – as a way to stretch your chops?

Yeah. I wanted to see if I could do it. I have probably grown more as a drummer with the Mountain Goats than anything, just because there’s so many avenues that John’s songwriting goes down. I play brushes at least 50 percent of the time with the band. It took me a couple records to figure it out – how to do it and do it well.

Jon and Peter listened to the Scharpling & Wurster CDs in the car on tour and said: “Wouldn’t it be great if this guy was in the band?”

When did you begin playing with them?

The first time I ever played with them, Superchunk and the Mountain Goats were playing The Daily Show’s ten-year anniversary show at Irving Plaza in New York. At that point it was just John and Peter [Hughes, bassist] – there was no drummer. I sat in for a couple songs and we just hit it off. The first tour was in 2007; then we made a record that late summer. I didn’t know a ton about them. It’s funny how I got in: Jon and Peter listened to the Scharpling & Wurster CDs in the car on tour and said: “Wouldn’t it be great if this guy was in the band?” They both knew Superchunk, but I think the connection was more, “This guy will be fun to be around.” [laughs]

Bob Mould and Superchunk are both known for their lyrics, but with someone like Darnielle, I imagine you have to pay especially close attention to what he’s singing to know what to play.

That is the tricky part. You want to be interesting and help the song and put little cool flourishes in. But no one’s listening to Mountain Goats records for the drums. [laughs] The lyrics are the thing. It’s tricky to put your stamp on things, but also know the lyrics are the number-one priority.

Beat the Champ is really a departure for the Mountain Goats – instead of being straightforward the way a lot of his albums have had since the early 2000s, the arrangements are really wide-ranging. Was it fun to make?

Yeah. This was the most enjoyable record to do with the Mountain Goats. We’ve been together long enough there’s a built-in confidence – that maybe wasn’t there as strongly on previous records – in our abilities to stretch out and try things we may not have tried before. And what you’re hearing usually is the take of the band playing; there’s not a ton of overdubs or punch-ins. You’re always aware when you do a take in the studio with John that you’re probably not going to be able to fix anything. What’s appealing to him is the feeling and the overall picture of what’s been recorded. If you make a mistake, he’ll probably like it. [laughs] Even if you don’t.

What’s an example?

On the previous album [2012’s Transcendental Youth], I used these brushes that have a wooden handle. Often, the handle would hit the rim of the drum, [which] I didn’t really like and thought was really distracting. Of course, John was listening to the overall picture and the feeling that he’s getting from a take. It didn’t even register with him. I wanted to fix some of that stuff, and he said, “Nope.” It’s probably for the best, too – it’s taking away from what needs to be experienced with the song.

Tom Waits - Straight To the Top [10-5-88]

Beat the Champ reminds me a lot of the more atmospheric Tom Waits stuff, and in a few places your playing struck me as Michael Blair-ish.

Ooh! I was just thinking about him yesterday. Thank you. I love that. I didn’t take it as far as he does, with playing on objects. [laughs]

Like tuned bottles full of different amounts of water?

Colanders. [laughs] But there’s definitely an element of “Let’s make this a little less traditional than normal. Let’s go for a sound and a feel, as opposed to a perfect, traditional drum sound.” There are a couple songs – more than a couple – where there’s a tambourine taped to all of the drums. It gives it this weird sound. Or playing the drums with two small brooms taped together. [laughs] Instances like that are very Blair/Waits-y.

The Mountain Goats laugh constantly; the Bob Mould band, too.

One record you played on that I’m curious about is Rocket From the Crypt’s Group Sounds.

Yes! Superchunk had toured with Rocket a lot, and they were my favorite band we had toured with. They were just great guys; I loved their music. I always kept up with them, and then Adam [Willard, AKA Atom] left the band and John [Reis, guitarist-singer, AKA Speedo] called. Their plan was to have a different guest drummer on every song, and that didn’t happen. I went out and rehearsed in San Diego a bit, and we made half the record in Sound City in L.A. and the other half at Easley in Memphis, and that was really fun. By that point they’d already gotten Mario [Rubalcala, AKA Ruby Mars] to commit to being the drummer. He’s on several songs, too. That was a great experience, making a record with a different bunch of guys. I always loved doing that, just seeing how other bands worked. We all had very similar senses of humor, too, so that really helped. That’s always a great thing. The Mountain Goats laugh constantly; the Bob Mould band, too.

When Superchunk made Majesty Shredding in 2010, it sounded really refreshed. Was that a matter of falling back into a comfortable, familiar place, or was it more that you’d expanded beyond that band’s confines?

It was both. I felt really confident because I’d done a lot of things over the course of those eight years. But it also felt like home. I think that’s what was great about those last two records: We got back to what we do best. I think every band goes through that – you want to branch out and experiment. And that’s great. But I think every band has a thing they’re really good at. And we weren’t especially great at what we were doing on Here’s to Shutting Up, the album we kind of stopped with. There are a few moments on that I think are great, but otherwise, I think the fact that we don’t play anything from that record probably speaks [volumes]. I think there’s a feeling of, “This band is doing what they’re great at and they’re having fun,” when people listen to that record. That’s why those records did well, too.

Tom Scharpling & Jon Wurster - The Gorch

We tried to throw in as many weird things that people maybe didn’t remember – certainly, we didn’t remember.

The Scharpling & Wurster box set is 16 CDs long. In one way, you could ask, “Why so much?” But in another, you literally had days’ worth of material to wade through – you could also ask, “Why so little?” How did you cull it all together?

It was a torturous, hopefully never-to-be-repeated again process. [laughs] We did these calls for 13 years, basically. We had so many in the archives, in the vault. When we would put a CD out in the 2000s, [I’d] pick five or six things. But other than that we never listened to our work, ever. We didn’t really know what should be included or not, other than people coming up to us and saying, “I love this particular character,” and we wouldn’t have any memory of it.

Thankfully we have our vault keeper, Omar. We asked him: “What are 100 calls we should consider for this?” I think from May until September or so he would send us these MP3s, and we would sit for hours listening to these things, making notes on what we did and didn’t like. Finally, we got it down to . . . I don’t know how many hours it is . . .

16 CDs, so 24 hours.

Yes. And there’s four extra hours on the USB drive, too. It was whatever made us laugh, whatever were the crucial characters who needed to be represented. We tried to throw in as many weird things that people maybe didn’t remember – certainly, we didn’t remember. I would never have remembered that Philly Boy Roy’s wife called in. [laughs] It helped us when the relaunch of Best Show happened in December to know what worked and didn’t work with calls. I think our writing process is way more streamlined now.

By Michaelangelo Matos on March 9, 2015

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