Going through my collection of drummer interviews over the years, it will be quite a while until I’m caught up. In the meantime, I’m uploading some interviews that have already seen the light of day. This one is a product of 2014’s Pickathon, with The Pain’s drummer Scott McGhee.
I’m here with Scott McGee of Ural Thomas and the Pain, for an interview with a focus on the drums. First question: How long have you played drums?
I started playing drums when I was 22.
And do you play any other instruments?
I can, not very well. A little bit of keyboard, a little bit of woodwinds, some ukulele, and I love playing tambourine. Hire me to play tambourine and I will be a happy man.
Before we get into some technical questions, why drums at 22? What makes a 22 year old want to pick them up? I started when I was 10 after seeing this weird Encyclopedia Brown video.
I never thought of myself as a musician as a young boy or teenager, but I loved music. But I moved to New Orleans when I was 19, and I worked at a nightclub that had a shit hot band. These were like New Orleans veterans playing Motown, Chitlin Circuits soul music. All I knew at the time was that I enjoyed listening to them. One time I got up on the drummer’s kit, he said I could mess around, and he heard me play, and he asked me how long I had played, because I was keeping time to the CD that was on. I told him that was the first time ever, and he told me I was a natural drummer and that I should get myself a drumset. I was doing things that wouldn’t be capable for someone who was first starting out. It didn’t seem special to me at the time, it just seemed like what to do.
Were you ever trained or did you ever take lessons after that?
I got into it really quickly after that. JoJo was the drummer in this band, and he was incredible. So after he told me to get a set, I was in a band within months, and that band demanded that my technique get better, so the leader of that band convinced me to take lessons. Since then I’ve gone to school to study jazz for a couple years, here and there over the course of the last 20 years I’ve gone back and forth, but mostly its just a feel thing.
So let’s do this. Favorite drummer, alive or dead.
Earl Palmer for this kind of music and just in general, he kind of created the back beat. He’s on so many recordings that I love. As the grandfather of funk and soul and R&B, I love him. I also love Robert Wyatt, I love Stewart Copeland. I’m a huge Bonham fan, and Ringo Starr. For some reason, people disagree about if he is one of the greatest drummers of all time, and I think he’s just so tasteful and beautiful, anyone who would say otherwise, I think they’re a poser.
There are a lot of Ringo haters, for sure.
Ringo is beautiful.
I don’t know, I play flams a lot, because I can do them. I’m not a very rudimentary trained drummer. I try to do double strokes, usually with my left hand on the snare. I’m sure if anyone who knew what they were doing was watching they would say “I should get this gig cause I’m better than this guy.”
How is it being the band leader from behind the kit?
It can be a challenge, because they are in front of me, so they have to look back at me. I don’t like it when they have to look back, because then the audience can tell that there is some tension.
Is there tension?
Tension in the sense that they have to look backwards for cues, its unnatural, you want to look forward. I like things to be smooth on stage, so no one can tell when we are wondering when to end a song.
Is that up to you?
A little bit. We’ve arranged things in rehearsal, and Ben, our keyboardist, is my co-band leader, because he’s up front, so when he raises his hand they can see it, whereas if I raise my hand and they have their backs to me they won’t see it. As far as not on stage, choosing the material, it’s a dream come true. Its been a challenge but also a lot of fun.
Hi-hat or ride cymbal?
Hi-hat, always hi-hat. Just open them up a little bit.
You prefer the semi-open hats?
You know, you’re going to the 2nd verse, you open them up a bit. I’ll play a little bit of ride too. I try to simplify every year more and more, play less stuff.
You ever cut your drums down from a 5 to a 4?
I play a 4-piece, I’d probably never play a 5 or more. I’m not a fill guy, unless I’ve been drinking a little bit.
We’ve already covered individual drummers, but do you have a favorite drumming song or even a favorite fill in a song?
There’s some weird soul stuff I’m into, these New Orleans guys that have a really beautiful touch. There’s this guy who has played on bunch of Barbara Lynn’s records, I don’t even remember his name. You’ll hear him do this grace note on the snare or even the faintest ghost note, but it is so well placed, I just want to listen to that instead of “YYZ” or anything like that. It expresses so much personality, you can get a sense of who the drummer is, not just how hard they work. I would say just listening to obscure, weird soul records, there’s a million things like that. I’m not sure I can pick one moment.
Is that how you would describe what you strive for? Minimalistically expressive?
If I’m at my best, then yeah. I’d hope that would be what people notice. “He didn’t even hit a crash that entire song.”
Do you consider yourself a session drummer then? Or are you just the drummer for Ural Thomas and the Pain.
I’m a session drummer if I know you and you have a connection to the music, and maybe we have a rapport together. I’m not getting hired in the studio very often. I’m a live drummer. Occasionally I’ll go in, but I’m not sure I’m versatile enough to really nail it.
I know Ural Thomas has been part of Portland soul for a long time, but recently there has been a lot more attention paid to his music. As the band leader, did you have a major part in that? Or was that his decision?
It was our decision together. I approached him and said “I think you’re amazing.” And in my mind, I didn’t say this, but I knew that no one had really attempted to help him present what he can do in a way that would be impressive and that would really reach people. And I thought I knew the people that could do that, and sound like a real soul band. Horns, backing vocals, rhythm section. The whole idea is that he was in obscurity. Here in the Northwest we have a dearth of soul music, I thought we could fill that gap immediately. It’s been happening since the first show, people have been losing their minds. I attribute it all at the end to the power of Ural’s energy, but we are there supporting him, for sure.
Moving away from drumming for a second, are there any politics you have to deal with? The politics of being in a soul band given the Northwest’s relationship with African American music?
None that we’re aware of. It’s never come up once in the press. We don’t feel it, so no. If someone wants to throw that out into the world, that’s another thing.
The follow up question is, do you feel like you are connecting with that community?
With the black community in Portland?
Sure. Portland is not the most diverse city, but we feel like anyone can come out and enjoy our music. Ural has lived in Portland since 1943, and has family and friends. Everyone knows what we’re up to, and we’re open to everyone to come and check us out. It’s a positive thing.
I think the question that I want to ask is something that Ural might have to answer, because I’m wondering if there is any pressure to be a representative of that community or to speak to the community as a musical artist.
I wouldn’t specifically know, we are just getting on stage and playing our music.
Okay. We’re going to get back into drumming questions now. What is the biggest crash you will crash?
I mostly play two 22 inch rides.
Two 22 inch rides?
I crash my rides. Lately I’ve been playing a crash, a cheaper Istanbul, but it sounds great.
Istanbuls sound like butter.
They have a new line, entry level pricing, $150 versus $300, you know, and I got one. But I was just watching Bobby Patterson, and his drummer didn’t have a crash cymbal, and I’m like “I don’t need one of those either, all I have to do is hit with the shoulder of my stick.” All my rides are thin. I don’t use anything modern, all my cymbals are old and thin, they have a lot of give.
Do you have a brand preference?
I don’t, whatever I end up with is what I play.
What kind of hats were you playing?
Old Ks. Real thin.
Ks are dirty. Nice and dark.
I love them because I can wail on them and they won’t get loud. They have that good “chk” sound, and a good personality to them. They can hide, unlike these modern cymbals which shine through. I hate new hi hats.
Recording them or playing on them?
Both. They are just so present, and that’s not the style of music I play.
One last question: straight eighth notes or triplets?
Man, I think I mostly play them straight, but I hope I can swing.
I think you can, there was some swinging going on in the barn.
Several archived interviews are going up in the next couple days. Enjoy!