Indie rock is a genre that constantly seems subject to redefinition. Young the Giant’s 2011 debut put them on the map as indie rockers with hits like “My Body” and “Cough Syrup.” The band quickly became a staple in the American festival circuit, and huge audiences would sing their lyrics back to them. Now three albums later, it’s evident how the SoCal-based five-piece has refined their unique brand of “indie” music. Their latest album entitled Mirror Master presents thoughtfully arranged compositions paired with poetic language surrounding ideas of belonging to a global community.
Drumhead had a chat with the band’s drummer, François Comtois, about a month before Mirror Master was released. François is a multi-instrumentalist committed to his personal development as a player–he sings, plays guitar and drums for his other band, American Pets. Sitting in his sunny townhouse by the beach, we spoke about his role in Young the Giant’s creative process, and how his career with the band has changed his perspective overall.
CW: I’m very excited about the new album! When were most of the new songs written?
FC: We started working on this album two years ago. That’s about how long it’s taken us to make an album, but we’re trying to shorten the distance between records. Some of these songs were written and we felt like they were ready to go maybe a year and a half ago…it’s tough nowadays, because we really love albums–we try to put out albums. There’s something about putting out a bunch of singles that kind of detracts from that, but that’s also kind of the world we live in. We’re realizing that if you have something that just feels good and organic and cool, just put it out. You don’t have to be precious about it. But yeah, it was about two years–we wrote maybe 50 songs or ideas for it, and we’re down to 12. Our second album took us three and a half years from the first album, so we’re getting quicker but still not where we’d like to be.
CW: What got you into music initially, and how did you start playing?
FC: I was just always one of those kids who loved bands. We moved around a lot when we were kids. I have three siblings…and music was always a constant as we moved from place to place. As soon as I realized you can just pick up an instrument, you might suck, but you can learn it. The first one I started working on was guitar because my Mom is a classical guitarist. My brother and I were so in love with the idea of drums, we pooled our birthday and Christmas money and we bought this junker set. I think it was a Kima Empire, or something like that. I don’t even know if they make them anymore. It had one cymbal and it sounded like the top of a trash can. Then we got another kit and we made a nine-piece double bass drum kit with one cymbal still. We had that set up in the garage for a while, and we’d come home from school and put on music and play with that. So for a really long time that was the extent of the drumming I did. Then I joined The Jakes, what Young the Giant used to be called, and I was actually playing bass. Once we recorded our first EP and were looking at doing some shows and little West Coast tours, our drummer, who’s this ridiculous jazz dude, went to go study jazz performance at Manhattan School of Music. [He said to me,] “Well you kind of know how to play drums, so why don’t you move over to drums for a bit and we’ll figure it out so you can go back to bass.” And so that was ten years ago, and it hasn’t happened yet. I think I’m the drummer now. But it was a great opportunity to start taking it more seriously, and I started to seek out teachers and thinking about technique, and what would make me a better drummer. I’m definitely happy it happened.
CW: What kinds of things have helped you become a better drummer?
FC: YouTube is my biggest teacher at this point, but I’ve taken a couple of lessons with Dave Elitch. He’s a technique guru–it’s really humbling to go in there, because it’s like ‘yeah I know how to play drums,’ but no, Dave makes you break it down. I haven’t spent enough time with him. I’ve taken some lessons with Nate Morton, who plays for The Voice. What a sweet guy. He’s more of the mindset that ‘you already do something, your sound is already a part of your band, so let’s work on making that better. We don’t need to necessarily build it from the ground up.’ … But I watch a lot of videos to help me with rudiments and technique–things that were not necessarily my focus early on. I’m working to expand my rhythmic vocabulary. And honestly just playing as much as possible.
CW: You were born in Canada. How did you end up in SoCal and how did that influence you as a musician?
FC: I moved around a good deal. I was born in Montreal and I moved to North Carolina, which was weird. And then we moved to France, and back to Montreal, and I moved to Orange County when I was 15. That was the first time I realized that kids who were 14, 15 could be part of a “scene.” There were kids who were playing instruments that were pretty good, and they were recording stuff, and I had never been exposed to that. It was so exciting. From that moment on I knew that’s what I wanted to do. That’s where we all met, the guys in Young the Giant, and American Pets. We all came up together, playing battle of the bands, and acoustic nights, playing in different bands and filling in for one another. It’s been kind of a big family thing for a while. I’ve been making music with the guys in American Pets for as long as we’ve been making music with Young the Giant, and it’s always tough because obviously Young the Giant is the main gig, and that takes up a lot of the time, but we try to make time because [Eric and I] love writing and playing with American Pets.
CW: How did the first successes with Young the Giant start to change your mindset as a player?
FC: There was definitely a moment where it was coming in a little hot and heavy. By the time things got started it had been maybe six months since our first major studio experience. We did the first album with Joe Chiccarelli, who’s an incredible engineer and producer and has worked with some of the best musicians on the planet. So you show up and you’re like ‘I’m not 100 percent cool with my skills right now!’ That was a really fast and profound learning experience, being there with someone who was Frank Zappa’s dude, and has worked with so many musicians. You don’t want to screw it up. He wasn’t mean about it, but he said “You need to work on this a little bit.” I took that as a challenge and I’m happy I did because right after that we started touring almost immediately and started doing TV shows and stuff like that, and I wanted to be sure my playing was up to snuff. The first couple of years was a lot of work, and recently I’ve been digging back into getting that technique rounded out. And in between, it’s finding, style-wise, what it is that’s turning me on and what it is that’s making me want to keep making more music. There’s a whole world of drumming that I hadn’t even tapped into, and all of a sudden, I’m trying to learn as much as possible about that.
CW: What’s grabbing your attention these days, musically?
FC: There’s a lot of this Sun House stuff…these jazz guys are able to write melodies on their drum kits. Nate Smith…I just follow so many drummers on Instagram…something about chops. I love Aaron Spears and Tony Royster and all those guys. Those guys can play for days and have so much feel and pocket. Chris Dave is another guy I really look up to. But also, for the style of music that we write, guys like Phil Selway from Radiohead, and Jim Eno from Spoon, are really all about writing the right part for the song. For me I think I’m trying to find a way to merge the two schools–to keep things interesting and to maintain a solid feel, that adds to the song. Sometimes you hear people playing on records and it’s like ‘we hear you, we know you’re there,’ but maybe it’s not what’s right for the song, if it’s taking away from the storytelling or the melody. We all write everything for Young the Giant, so if Sameer or Jake or Eric have a drum idea, I’ll take that and try to have it make sense in the song. But in the same way, I help to write melodies and lyrics and chord progressions. We see it as this joint project.
CW: How do you balance your different musical projects? I know American Pets has recently come out with new music.
FC: We released a seven-song EP in February, and it’s been hard to make a whole lot of time for that. We had a lead up to the release of that and played a show at the Moroccan Lounge, and put out a bunch of content, and then it’s like ‘oh, now there’s a whole bunch of Young the Giant stuff.’ You realize by the time you put in all this work on the song and the music video, any extra ideas you have, you kind of run out of juice to push those. At least we function that way. It’s not our strength. I wish we were able to devote more time to American Pets. It’s a really different project in that it’s for individual songwriters who mostly just write their own stuff and we bring it into the group. For the most part, the songs are written by individuals, which is a really different experience than with Young the Giant. I think that can only make you a better musician, to try songwriting in a bunch of different ways.
CW: Do you find that you’re meeting a bunch of drummers when you’re out on the road?
FC: I met Aaron Spears a few months ago, and I was so star struck. He’s one of my favorites. My wife works for Live Nation and she was working on the Ariana Grande tour, and I saw him come out, and I didn’t realize he was playing on the tour. So my wife brought me backstage because she knew the tour manager, and I just got to chat with him for a minute. …
We used to play this club in Hollywood called Cinespace. They used to do a weekly night where it was free drinks until 10 p.m., and we were all underaged, and there was a little backroom we would hang out in. There’s this guy named Elmo Lovano, who now runs Jammcard, which is kind of like LinkedIn for musicians, so he’s got a bunch of connections throughout the drum world. I don’t consider myself a drummer in that way, or on that level, so when I meet some of these guys, it’s really intimidating, because these are guys who’ve been playing since they were 5 or 6 or younger and have put so much time into their craft, whereas I came into it more as a means to an end to write our songs. Overtime I’ve gotten more comfortable with my chops and that stuff, but sometimes you meet these guys and it’s like “I’m not worthy!”
CW: Are you being asked to do additional work? Session stuff?
FC: Mostly friends–I’ve played on a couple of songs with local Orange County artists. We have a good friend named Jon O’Brien, who runs his own studio called Music Box in Fullerton, and I’ve been a guest producer on a couple of projects over there. I’ve told him that if I’m in the area and he needed me to come in, I’d do it for free, just to help keep that community going. But nothing too official. I think it’d be fun at some point…I do feel confident in the studio as a drummer. I think it’s where my feel is most solid, and my touch is something that I’ve worked on for a long time. There’s certainly a difference between what it sounds like when you play live versus what it sounds like when you’re all mic’d up in the studio. So I’m open to it, or if there’s ever a longer than one or two month break with Young the Giant, I’d probably explore it a little bit more.
CW: How does your playing change from the studio to when you’re on stage?
FC: In the studio you feel like you’re in your own little cave, and it’s so insulated, and it’s a few people. You’re focusing on the details and you try not to do too much editing, so ideally you just get the part right and have it feel really natural. So there’s a lot of focus on making sure I’m hitting the drums very consistently, in the studio. Live, there’s that element of showmanship that doesn’t exist in the studio. You’re hitting harder live, and I’m singing live as well, so that’s another wrinkle in the process. But just the shear adrenaline makes for such a different experience. You go from two in the afternoon where you’re chillin’ and then it’s night time and there’s people screaming at you, so just as a human being reacting to stimulation, it’s a different animal. But they both have their benefits, and I think if you can focus in on what it is that makes them different, you’ll become a better player all around.
CW: Was there a period when you were nervous to perform live?
FC: Oh I’m nervous every time. The first few songs, or right before you go on…it’s not like I’m dreading the nerves, but they’re there. You feel that in your gut.
CW: I don’t imagine it’s a worry that you’ll screw something up?
FC: No, it’s hard to describe…I think there’s something about stepping out in front of all those people. There’s a lot of energy there…the first few songs of the night are always a very intense experience. But in a good way. I honestly feel that if I weren’t getting nerves before a show I’d be a little worried that I was too complacent, or that I would have lost some of the appeal. You want to make sure it doesn’t become a problem, and I meditate before shows to be as grounded as possible. People who have been doing music longer than I’ve been alive tell me to hold on to that. The nerves are what make it special.
CW: How have you incorporated your singing with playing the drums?
FC: I started doing background vocals on the first Young the Giant album. The only instrument that I was properly trained in was voice. I did musical theater and a bunch of choir and solo stuff in high school where I was taking lessons through the school. Music theory and all that. All my theory training has pertained to vocals, really. I was always comfortable doing background vocals and harmonies. I think there’s something really cool about bands that can utilize a range of different voices. There’s something cool about the way voices blend that you don’t get if you’re just stacking up one vocalist’s tracks.
Then that thing happened with Young the Giant where we started playing the songs, and it was like “You’re going to sing, right?” I hadn’t thought that far ahead. So that took a lot of practice. The trick for me is you just have to subdivide everything. It’s just like adding another limb– ‘where does this syllable fall within the beat?’ And that’s how I break it down, and eventually it becomes muscle memory. There are still songs with syncopated or complicated patterns where I say “I don’t think I’ll be able to sing on this one guys.” But it’s something I’ve really enjoyed and the challenge has been fun. Unfortunately I have to rock the Justin Bieber mic now on tour…I either have to have the mic in my face, which limits motion on the kit and it would mess with my balance, or if the stage is hollow and it’s bouncing all over the place, and you’re trying to catch up with the mic. So we said let’s see about using this headset, and it felt a lot better. Then I saw a picture of myself and I thought “I look like such a tool.” But it was a utilitarian thing and I’ve gotten used to it. Phil Collins did it too okay? [Laughs].
All three of us have different colors to our voices which is why I think it does work, but we’ve also been singing together for years, so there’s nothing that’s too out there. If you hear the three of us sing, I think it sounds cohesive. Eric and I sing in a way that aims to support Sameer, so we’re not trying to have this crazy timbre or anything. It still needs to fit.
CW: What have been some of your most memorable experiences playing drums?
FC: The one that comes to mind is from our last tour, the Home of the Strange Tour, where we played a lot of boutique amphitheaters and such–some of the biggest rooms we’d ever played. We played Red Rocks, and I think we sold it out. Apart from Red Rocks being a historic venue, and being located in this beautiful part of the country, the audience is so “steep,” like the stairs are right up on you. You walk out there and you’re like “Oh my god.” It looks like people are going to fall on top of you from the top of the bleachers. But when we got settled in, it was just so cool to be in a venue of that size but still have it feel so intimate. You can almost see the people in the back, which for a 10,000-cap venue, that’s something I’d never experienced. It just sounds amazing, and you walk through the halls when you’re getting ready and you see all the pictures of iconic shows that happened there… It just felt like a culmination of a lot of work we’d put in, and that tour, a lot of work had gone into the production and rehearsals, and the album itself had been a labor of love. It was special.
CW: What keeps you fresh when you’re away from playing?
FC: I think running and mediation are really connected. You have to listen to your body. For me it’s really easy to push out a lot of the extraneous thoughts that creep up. When I’m home I’ll either be doing that or upstairs working on music. Running and meditation serve as a great counterbalance to making music. There’s a million different ways to do it, and you want to try all these different things, there’s all these thoughts, and I need those methods to help me unplug. And then just practically, it’s easy to feel like crap on the road. There’s pizza every night, there’s as much beer if you want to drink it, and so especially as we’ve gotten a little older, we understand we’re not 21 or 22 anymore. We’ve tried to be more cognizant of our wellbeing on the road. And it’s great to be able to explore different cities. You’re there for a day or two max, and you have a bus, so you’re not driving around, so if you want to explore you have to do it under your own power. I’ve gotten to know a lot of these cities just by running through them.
CW: Young the Giant has been known to perform for certain charities or causes. How do you decide what to play for?
FC: If it’s the right cause and we feel strongly about it, we’re all for that. For the Bernie campaign, for example, them just asking us to do anything–we just figured out how to get there. We try to be mindful about charity and philanthropic opportunists. I think it’s important to pick a couple of things that you feel really passionately about and not over-dilute yourself so you can be really effective in promoting those things. So for us, education and environmental awareness have both been sticking points for us. Even going to do a beach cleanup, or something like that…if [the organization] is able to attach Young the Giant to the project, that’s easy for us. We’re happy to something like that. Raising money for music or art education in particular, because that tends to be one of the first things to go with budget cuts, and I would argue that it’s probably one of the more important subjects that are taught. If it’s the right cause, we’re all about it.
CW: What are you using for gear these days, and how has the sound of your drumming progressed?
FC: I endorse Zildjian, Vic Firth, Sunhouse and C&C—I love to play with the pallets that they’re able to create. For a really long time I was playing a maple/poplar/maple kit from C&C, and that’s the one I have at the rehearsal space right now. It’s really warm and beautiful, and it records well. On the last album I wanted something that smacked a little harder, so I ordered their acrylic Coke bottle green kit. I had been pining for that one for a long time. It looks so good under lights and there’s something so visually appealing about it, but more importantly it sounds incredible. That one is a 22” kick, whereas usually I play 20”. So being able to feel it through the sub, it’s a whole different animal. Cymbal-wise, I really love the K series that Zildjian makes. The K Sweet Ride is something I’d like to acquire. I tend to prefer darker cymbals, I think they’re set back and a bit more out of the way in the mix, which pairs with my philosophy for recording drums. Snares, I have a couple Black Beauties. I have a George Way, Dunnett chrome snare that’s based on a 1970s Black Beauty. The new Black Beauties are fine, and they do one thing really well, but if you play an old Black Beauty, you’re like ‘why don’t they sound like this anymore?’ This guy, Ross Garfield, who’s “The Drum Doctor” –He’ll supply us with a lot of extra pieces and comes and techs the drums. For the song we just put out, “Superposition,” we wanted that Clyde Stubblefield “funky drummer” sound, and Ross came with this sixty’s Gretsch, and he tunes it, and goes “Does that sound about right?” We barely had to do anything and I knew it was exactly “it.” But he turned me on to the George Way stuff, and said “If you really like the Black Beauty, and you want it sound like one but you feel terrible about bringing it on the road, try this one out.” And I’ve been super happy with it. I’m not a crazy gearhead, I don’t have a room of drums, though I wish I did.
And I love electronic drums. Being able to incorporate them into how I play…I have a few drum machines, and I love to pick off the samples, make them myself, and run them through the SPD-SX or trying to figure out a way to incorporate them with acoustic triggers, which I’ve used in the past, but the technology nowadays allows you to map the drumhead. It used to be the trigger would react to a certain threshold, and now it maps the entire drumhead into different zones, and each zone can do something different. Different velocities will do something different. I was always jealous of guitarists and keyboard players who have all these crazy options at their fingertips, and now I see this area starting to be explored a little more with drums. You start to see the drums as more of an instrument that can just keep a beat, and it’s nice to have that flexibility. But I never want to become too dependent on trigger sounds. I know bands that use the exact snare sound from the record for each song, and I think that can sometimes be distracting to the player if you’re going for something that sounds alive and is dynamic. So there’s a line I’m trying not to cross, but it’s fun experimenting.
Something we did for the Home of the Strange drums is we would run them through these crazy tape machines, and our producer was essentially live flanging them…so the tape would be going through and you take a little piece of tissue paper or whatever, and you push on the tape and it’s going through the machine, so you’re getting that flange effect, which sounds so bonkers. Then you run it through really heavy compression and there’s a lot of that on the record. I think probably the best example of it is on a song called “Jungle Youth.” If you listen to the drums on that one, it sounds like they’re breathing, and that’s just how hard it’s hitting the compression, and it’s messing with the relationship between the kick and the hats and the snare, and each is having its moment to shine, until it’s squished out of the mix by the next one. So I think if you’re open-minded to that type of stuff, there’s so many ways to approach recording drums that will produce something cool without feeling too gimmick-y. That’s been something we’ve tried to implement with the fourth record, and definitely something we’re going to continue to work at.
CW: For the fans who’re reading, they’ll know about Young the Giant’s In The Open sessions, where the band performs a stripped-down version of one of your songs in a natural space and publishes it to YouTube. Is there anything like that in the works for the new music?
FC: We need to figure that stuff out for this record. That’s one of my favorite things about Young the Giant, is that it’s so fun to take a song that you made in the studio, and you have to figure out how to play it live, and then [for In the Open] you’re working to create another iteration and ideally make it look cool. It’s a super collaborative project.
Alex Shahmiri, he’s the guy who started it, and is one of our friends from high school. He was one of our first tour managers. He was an awful tour manager, but he was free and he said he would take pictures, so we brought him out and that’s how it [In the Open] came about. We were driving in the van through the Bonneville Salt Flats, and thought “This looks cool, let’s just try a song.” It sounded kind of crappy at first but people really responded to it. So as the years have gone by, we’ve tried to keep it fresh. We don’t want to do the same exact thing every time, but also keep it true to what it is. And then getting a couple more people involved, like our friend Josh Stein has started to help with editing…so yeah, we’re starting to have conversations about when we can do that this time around.