Joe McMurray is a guy who appears to be comfortable in his own skin; so much so that he’s performed in front of thousands of people in just his own skin.
If you’re familiar with the music of Mac Demarco, you’re aware that it doesn’t require the drumming chops of a seasoned session artist, nor does it call for anything too surprising or out of the ordinary. It’s safe to say that most folks who call themselves drummers could play along to the beats on Demarco’s studio records. But what is required for the position of drummer for Mac’s live show, is a relaxed personality, a level head, the ability to listen and the willingness to let go.
Joe McMurray has been the man behind the kit with Demarco since Mac started releasing music under his own name in 2011. The two met organically in Vancouver, where Joe was playing drums in local bands, and Mac was performing with his Makeout Videotape project on the same circuit of gigs. Joe explains later in the interview how his gig with Mac came to fruition.
When Drumhead met up with Joe before the third night of sold-out performances at the Terragram Ballroom in L.A., McMurray was as cool as a cucumber as we chatted about his life on the road with a modern indie icon. The gig has taken him around the world, although at the time this interview was conducted, the band was on the tail end of a three-month break. McMurray had been enjoying the downtime, but he’ll be the first to tell you how grateful he is to be part of the ride when things are at their busiest for Demarco and crew.
CW: How have you been spending your time off?
JM: I’ve been doing a little bit of recording. My friend is in a band called Mr. Elevator, and he runs a studio in LA, and occasionally he’ll get me to come track drums if he needs it, so I’ve been doing that. Beyond that, not much, going to the beach, playing tennis, just taking it easy. I’m moving into a new apartment in L.A.
CW: When did you start playing?
JM: When I was ten-years-old. In the fourth grade, at my elementary school, they get everybody into a room and they ask if anyone would like to join the concert band. So I put my hand up, and the teacher said “Okay it’s time to pick instruments.” They went around the room asking if anyone wanted to play the trumpet, or the flute, and finally they got to the snare drum and for whatever reason I just put my hand in the air and volunteered. I liked it, and shortly after that my Dad got me a drum set and I started taking private lessons. I took lessons from the time I was ten to when I was about sixteen. I played in the high school jazz and concert bands. My brother is a bass player, and he picked it up at the same time I started, so we’d play and practice and learn songs together.
CW: Where did you grow up?
JM: I grew up in Canada and I went to school in Vancouver.
CW: How often do you get back up there?
JM: A few times a year, I go home for Christmas. My family is up there, my Mom, my Dad, my Grandmother and my two brothers…as often as I can, but it can be hard with all the traveling. I miss my family so it’s always nice to get up there.
CW: Are you still involved with your old musical projects in Canada?
JM: Kind of. Another band that I play in called Walter T is kind of on a hiatus right now, but the two other members of that band are both in Vancouver. For the last few years I’ve been going up there to record or to tour or work on material with those two guys.
CW: What was your first kit?
JM: My fist kit was something called a Maxwin. It was some off-brand…my dad got it for really cheap.
CW: What first got you excited about playing?
JM: The first songs I learned to play on the drums were “Heart Shaped Box” by Nirvana and “Airbag” by Radiohead. I listened to a lot of that kind of music, like alternative rock from the nineties, so all of that kind of music was a big influence for me. Dave Grohl was a big first influence for me. Anything that was “alternative” and on the radio was an influence for me.
CW: At what age did you start gigging and at what capacity?
JM: I started playing in bands pretty young, around 12-years-old. The music school where I was taking lessons had a combo set up, and they would get kids in from the neighborhood and put on little festivals that I’d play, and they’d do recitals. It’s hard to say. I’m not sure if that constitutes as “gigging” in the normal sense, but playing in front of an audience, I started doing that pretty quickly.
CW: Was Mac the first mainstream artist that you’d played with?
JM: I started playing with him in 2009, or 2010. He moved to Vancouver from Edmonton. I was playing with Walter TV at the time, and when he moved to Vancouver he had a different project at the time called Makeout Videotape. That band, and Walter TV and a bunch of other bands in Vancouver were playing together all the time and so I met Mac that way. I would occasionally play shows as the drummer for Makout Videotape, and did a few tours with him. Then we all eventually moved to Montreal and in 2011 he started releasing music under his own name. I was around, and we were friends, and I just was able to fill that role.
CW: How do you feel behind the kit in front of thousands of people?
JM: Pretty good. I’m pretty comfortable. It’s not so much the size of the crowd…I mean I get nervous like anybody else. It’s a performance anxiety but it’s not so much to do with playing in front of a large audience, it’s just about performing and delivering a good show. Mostly it’s about a sense of responsibility to Mac and to the other players in the band and to the audience. It’s more about playing well then it is about a big crowd. In fact, the larger the audience, the more sort of distance you feel. It’s this huge mass of people and it’s not as personal. It’s easy to look out at a huge audience and feel a little bit more detached.
CW: Are you involved with Mac’s writing process? How do songs come together for the band?
JM: Mac writes and records all of the songs, so he’s responsible for writing the parts and recording them. And when we get together and rehearse, we try and make it sound as close to the record as possible, but I think it’s difficult to do that, so it’s more of a process as far as figuring out the parts and figuring out what’ll work live, and minor arranging quirks, or ideas. If the studio version needs to be adjusted, we’ll come to an agreement.
CW: What’s been your typical schedule since you started with Mac in 2011?
JM: It’s been really busy since 2011. The most time we’ve had off in any consecutive way, has been a three month stretch. Since 2011 we probably tour six to seven months out of the year, but it’s kind of broken up in a way that it feels like we’re always on tour. We’re a very busy band. Lots of time on the road, punctuated by brief periods of time off. And Mac is super prolific as well, so he’s responding to the demands of putting out records more frequently, and once the record’s out people will want to hear it, so we’ll tour on that for a year or two.
CW: What’s your favorite part about being so busy?
JM: I just feel so fortunate to do something that I’ve been doing since I was ten. I feel lucky to perform with such a successful act, and with people who are my friends. I’ve traveled around the world a bunch of times now and that’s pretty cool. Sometimes I just sit and reflect that it’s pretty rare and special to be able to do this for a living, and to be involved in something that’s so successful.
CW: In 2017 you played Primavera Sound, and you played the entirety of your set totally naked. Anyone meeting you for the first time would never guess you’d do something like that! What inspired that choice and how did you get away with it?
JM: Aw man, the first time I ever did that was in Germany. It was spontaneous, and we were doing an encore, and we went out on stage and someone yelled at me to strip, and I thought ‘well I’m in Germany, probably no one cares,’ so I stripped and did a drum solo, and the response was extremely positive. It was super fun and everyone got a kick out of it. So we were in Primavera, and I don’t know, something just got into me. I knew there’d be a ton of people watching and there’s these big jumbotrons…I just thought it’d be funny. We cleared it with the festival organizers and they said “Yeah go for it.”
CW: What did that feel like playing naked in front of thousands of people?
JM: It felt fine! It was like an hour set. The first time I did it, it was for like five minutes. It was funny, suddenly 20 minutes goes by and I’m like ‘wow I’ve been nude on stage for 20 minutes.’ It started feeling a little bit surreal in my own mind, to be up there naked for so long, but I enjoyed it. It was fun.
CW: Would you say you become a different person when you’re on the kit, or is that who you really are?
JM: I think it’s easy, when you’re onstage, it’s easy to, not necessarily become a different person, but to let your inhibitions go. First of all, people like to see that, not necessarily nudity, but people like to see things that are out of the ordinary. They like to see a performance. I think people like to see when performers aren’t taking themselves too seriously, or there’s room for humor…it’s an opportunity to allow yourself to do that stuff. If you have that opportunity, why not take it? Sometimes it’s more difficult, but if you catch that feeling, you might as well just go with it and allow it to express itself.
CW: There are a few videos out there of fans coming onstage to play a song on the drums, or guitar. How do you guys incorporate that into the set?
JM: Any opportunity for us to be entertained onstage, we’ll take, whether that’s through our own antics, or through some crowd participation. Any opportunity for some fun or light-heartedness, we’ll take. The people coming to the shows are aware of that, and there’s a sense of spontaneity that comes with that. People might not know what to expect. It’s just looking for an opportunity for something different to happen, and allowing it to happen, and having that be part of the show. And it’s not like a routine. It’s not like I get naked every show, or we allow someone to get on the drum set every show, or do the same covers every show, it’s about being in tune with a sense of spontaneity and allowing things to happen.
CW: Has it ever gone terribly wrong?
JM: Shows get weird all the time for whatever reason, but we roll with it. I think no matter what, whether you’re doing an extremely clinical performance or a very crazy performance, there’s always going to be something that goes wrong. It seems at least more fun to allow things to go wrong in an unexpected way as opposed to like ‘oh the monitors aren’t working,’ or ‘someone f*cked that part up.’ And that stuff still happens, but if something goes wrong when we’re doing something spontaneous, it’s part of it, and it’s fun. Like a happy accident.
CW: Could you describe your drumming style? What do you aim to contribute to Mac’s music?
JM: I’ve always been, not totally adverse to chops, but like somewhat. I got to a point with drumming where I felt ‘okay I can play the drums now,’ and I became confident and proficient in different styles of music. I became able to play the drums as an instrument, from a musical point of view…but with chops, there’s always going to be someone that’s better than you. That was the case in my high school band. There was this guy who super good at rudiments and playing really fast, and I felt like I didn’t want to spend my time trying to become better than that person, but I was always good at listening to what was going on around me, and playing effectively without trying to do too much, and playing in a way that matched what was going on around me, sort of matching the energy or the tone of the music. I’ve always been more inclined to play in a way that complements the music without putting too much pressure on the technical part of it.
CW: Did Mac have any requests for the sound of the drums when you started with him?
JM: He’s a drummer as well, and he’s also a recording engineer. Drumming is really important to him. When I first started playing with him it was a floor tom, snare type setup, just very straight ahead, and that was cool. Then when he started becoming a more complicated songwriter, he became more aware with what was happening with the drums. … The thing about being a drummer, something I think is one of the most important qualities in a drummer, is the ability to take instruction, whether that’s playing faster, quieter, simpler…Mac has a particular style of drumming, and while I can’t copy it, I can kind of achieve a similar feeling. He likes groovy, tight sounding, simple, straight forward and tasty.
CW: I want to ask about the side projects you’re involved in; Walter TV, ~j~, and your collaboration with guitarist Hayden Pedigo, Dumas Demons.
JM: I haven’t met Hayden yet. I talk to him quite regularly. I haven’t had any kind of setup in a long time so I’ve been on a bit of a break, but I’m hoping to, in the next few months get a studio set up, and then once I have a place where I can record and rehearse, I’ll do all kinds of stuff. Hayden seems like a pretty prolific guy when we’ve worked on stuff. He’s enthusiastic and likes to make weird stuff, and I’m into that. We put out a tape on a tape label here called Driftless. … It’s about being inspired by what’s around and applying what you make to what’s around. I’d like to start making experimental music with acoustic instruments. I think it’d be interesting to make experimental music that’s not entirely dependent on electronics.
I’m open to any opportunity for creative expression. Through playing music with all these people I’ve suddenly acquired skills that I otherwise wouldn’t have, like for recording, and access to equipment, and spaces and people and ideas that I can put to use for my own purposes. Mac is writing pop songs that are meant to be performed in front of an audience in a particular way–I don’t have that responsibility, but I have all this knowledge and these ideas that I can apply to doing basically whatever I want. So I make freaky music in my bedroom and I happened to show it to a friend of mine who’s on a label that releases that type of music. When I make that stuff it’s mostly for my own enjoyment, but having been able to release it, it’s kind of cool to know that if I wanted to I could sit down and make whatever composition I like, with the potential to release it, where there’d be an audience for it.
CW: Do you ever record drums for other artists?
JM: Nick, who’s the primary songwriter for the band Pond–he was in LA and is putting out a record of his own material, that’s not Pond. He needed someone to play drums so I went in to do that. This year I did some recording with Ariel Pink. I played a few songs on the last Drug Dealer record. I don’t have anything consistent that I do outside of Mac, but one thing that’s worked for me as a drummer is just to say “yes” to anything. I tell people, “If you ever need a drummer, just let me know,” and I’ll do it. It’s a casual approach to getting session work.
CW: I’ve noticed that you often sport a bucket hat. I’ve never seen anyone rock one so well. Do you have a certain admiration for them?
JM: I do like bucket hats a lot. A few years ago, I found one in Detroit at a gas station. And I’ve always liked them, but this one I found in Detroit was the most perfect bucket hat and I had it for a few years. And then somehow, I lost it, and ever since I’ve been kind of like on a mission to find that bucket hat. I come across them all the time, but none have been as good as that one I found in Detroit. It’s been a quest to find a bucket hat of that quality. But we’re going back to Detroit in a couple weeks so hopefully I can find it again. … It just fit really well! A lot of the time they’re too tight, or the shape is wrong, but this one fell perfectly on my head, and it was able to hide my eyes. It felt kind of like a security blanket. There was something very comfortable about it. They’re fun to wear.
CW: Are you really into any drummers in particular at the moment?
JM: The drummer from Mile High Club, his name is Matthew Roberts, and he’s pretty incredible. There’s a lot of really talented drummers especially in Los Angeles. Ryan Moutinho, and Nick Murray are really talented. The drummer from Deafheaven is insane.
CW: What’s the future looking like for you?
JM: I think having the ability to drum is pretty special, and now there’s so much available in terms of recording, that I think it’s important for me to, and because music has been so good to me, that I have an opportunity now to pursue that in a broader way. I’d like to get more into recording and engineering. I’d like to do more session work and continue to play live. I just want to do as much music and as much drumming as I can while I have the opportunity. But yeah, we’re booked with Mac through next year. I feel totally grateful and blessed to be a part of it. I’ll continue to do it for as long as I can.