Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Drumming up doses of music, life lessons and laughter with Jon Wurster / Feature story

Jon Wurster with the Bob Mould band in Seattle in 2014. (Cat Rose photo)

By Andy

Sometimes it hits you right away.

Even at the tender age of 10, Jon Wurster knew he wanted to be a professional drummer. A Plan B simply didn't exist for the Harleysville, Penn., youth. Like all musicians, it's about locating the right people to help bring their dreams to fruition.

Many years have since rolled by for the steady, strong-armed and upbeat 53-year-old skinsman, who found top-notch musical comrades along the way while carving out a successful career upon the drum seat for countless gigs and studio sessions. He was right all along with his early aspirations, and now Wurster finds himself cemented behind the kit and in the thick of social change on Bob Mould's riveting "American Crisis" single that dropped into our chaotic world last week.

Part of the lyrics in the video scream: "World turning darker every day / In a fucked-up USA/ Can you look in the mirror and tell me everything's alright? / This American crisis keeps me wide awake at night."

"Oh yeah, Oh my god, this is the greatest," Wurster said of the lyrics over the phone from his home in Chapel Hill, NC, on Monday. "Unfortunately, it's the perfect time for a song like that. I just think people are rightfully taking to the streets, and I think it's a great song for the times."

People in Wurster's circle of friends have identified with the scathing lyrics.

"I can't tell you how many people I heard from who I haven't heard from in quite a while who loved it and people who I didn't think even liked rock or loud music have been saying, 'Oh my god, this is great, this is the time for this song.' And I love that people have been saying, this is the last guy (Mould) of that era who's really doing it at this level," he said.

Mould (guitar, vocals), Wurster and Jason Narducy (bass, backing vocals) finished recording the upcoming "Blue Hearts" album -- set for release Sept. 25 on Merge Records -- not long before the COVID-19 virus outbreak in the United States.

It's Wurster's sixth consecutive Mould album and the fifth straight for the trio, which delivers songs like a wrecking ball to the skull during its live shows.

"The great thing about playing with Bob is, because it's so intense and it's so physical, I had to train to tour," Wurster said. "So I'm already in good shape to tour, and then the touring is just like an Ironman challenge. So by the end of that, I'm in the best shape of my life. Luckily we do it fairly often, so I have to maintain my health, which is a great byproduct of the gig."

From Mould's solo tunes to Husker Du nuggets, Wurster has a blast from the first wallop to the final chord.

"Luckily Husker Du was in my DNA, 'cause I knew the songs well enough to just kind of jump in. So for me, playing with (Mould) is for a guy my age, it's like playing with John Lennon. And Jason's a great player, great singer, great to hang with," said Wurster, adding that "In a Free Land" is his favorite Husker song in the set. "The toughest one is always 'New Day Rising' just because it comes at the very end of the night, so I'm completely tapped out" (laughs).

Playing the songs that were powered and finessed by former Husker drummer Grant Hart -- who passed away in 2017 -- is an honor for Wurster.

"(Mould) always said, 'Don't feel the need to imitate anything. Do 'em the way you wanna do 'em.' I try to be true to what Grant does, but for the first several years, I just couldn't really do those (signature) rolls even close to the way he was doing them. I feel like I've gotten a lot better at it now. He's just the master of that," Wurster said.

Narducy, Mould and Wurster in Seattle in 2014. (Cat Rose photo)


Growing up in the farmlands of Harleysville, there wasn't any pop culture to latch onto, said Wurster, who remembers his mother playing her two Isaac Hayes albums and tuning his radio to the hits of the day.

"I loved AM radio, I loved listening to the hits of the early '70s and whatever was happening, The Raspberries, the Hues Corporation 'Rock the Boat' was a big one," he said. (Editor's note: The first single I bought with my own money was "Rock the Boat," which I still own.)

Wurster went from just a listener to a player as well when he noticed the drummers in bands. They were fun to watch and his parents indulged in their wide-eyed son's new fixation.

"It's the worst instrument for a parent to have to deal with, and I stuck with it, so they got me a drum kit. My neighbors, I feel guilt to this day that they had to put up with me, but I feel good that I stuck with it and kind of got where I hoped I'd go," said Wurster, who took some lessons and played on a drum pad at home before receiving his first kit -- a four-piecer with blue sparkles -- for this 12th birthday.

Wurster later graduated to a Slingerland kit that he used in his first two bands, Hair Club for Men and Psychotic Norman. He joined Hair Club at age 14 in 1981 -- playing with older guys, including a 28-year-old, he laughs -- and they barreled through originals with a slight Specials and new wave influence along with songs the Ramones covered like "Let's Dance" and "Do You Wanna Dance" and the Plasmatics' take on "Dream Lover."

Norman came into play a few years later and sounded like an amalgamation of the Fall, the Minutemen and the Ramones with Kermit the frog-like vocals. They opened for the Minutemen about two months before D. Boon died, and also played with Die Kreuzen, Suicidal Tendencies, Rat at Rat R, Useless Pieces of Shit and more. 

Wurster with Psychotic Norman in 1985 while opening for Suicidal Tendencies. (Courtesy of Jon Wurster)

Early on in Wurster's foray into punk and hardcore, he befriended drummer Dean Clean of The Dead Milkmen, who rehearsed about 20 minutes away from his home. Wurster notes with a laugh that he was given production credit on the band's debut album "Big Lizard in My Backyard" for pressing the record button on the cassette machine for two songs. Wurster was later mentioned in the band's song "Stuart."

It was Clean who accompanied Wurster to his first punk gig in 1983 at Zadar in New Hope, Penn.

"Could it be any uncooler, for my first hardcore show to have been the Dead Kennedys maybe two days after watching the punk episode of 'Quincy,'" he said with a cackle. "First band was Autistic Behavior from Jersey, and while they were playing, a little slam pit started, 'Oh, I'll join in on this,' (laughs) like first show ever and, of course, I'm just like on the ground. What was I thinking?"

Another memorable gig a year later was when Wurster skipped his high school prom to attend a show across the street that featured the Meatmen, YDI and the Obsessed. He learned later while reading an interview with the Meatmen's Tesco Vee that Glenn Danzig was "manning the cauldron or the pit" by shoveling dry ice for the rock smoke show.

Those experiences got the musical ball rolling for Wurster, who later performed with roots rock band The Right Profile in 1986 before hooking up with Superchunk, who he still plays with to this day along with The Mountain Goats.

Some high points of Wurster's career have been drumming on Nick Cave's version of T-Rex's "Cosmic Dancer" at Village Recorder in Santa Monica and performing in a band with Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Seth Meyers for their "Documentary Now!" spoof of the Talking Heads' "Stop Making Sense."

The Cave session was a "monumental experience," said Wurster, noting that the late music producer Hal Willner invited him to perform on the Marc Bolan tribute project.

"I've been so lucky that I've been around for random great things like that," said Wurster, who has also played on an REM Christmas single, joined Narducy as the rhythm section for the Pretenders one night and played with Charlie Daniels in a television commercial, among heaps of other performances.

While Wurster could name his most influential drummers for days -- Hart, Chuck Biscuits, Earl Hudson, Reed Mullin, George Hurley and John Bonham (even though he hates Led Zeppelin's music) are a few -- it's Steve Jordan, formerly of the David Letterman Band and Blues Brothers, who fills the No. 1 slot.

After The Right Profile became the Carneys, Jordan produced their five-song demo tape at The Hit Factory in New York City's Times Square in 1989. Wurster was especially stoked to be playing on the same vintage drum kit that Jordan manned during his "Saturday Night Live" performance with Neil Young for "Rockin' in the Free World."

Wurster said that Jordan brought a human side to the session along with connecting emotionally to the music.

"He was such a guiding light during that whole time, and I was having childhood issues coming up during this whole period, so I felt like I was losing my mind in a very dark place, and he was just great. He never actually showed me how to do anything, but I just kind of soaked up his vibe. As we'd do a take, he'd play the tambourine with us out on the floor, so we're all kind of like playing as this one organism," Wurster said.


Whether he's drumming or hanging out with his bandmates, there are life lessons to be learned. It's not just setting up, ripping it up and packing the gear up for the night.

There are times when you need to put yourself in other people's shoes to put your finger on the pulse of a situation.

"A big thing is because you're around people 24-7 on the road, you realize when someone's not having a good day, when something has just happened that is really a big deal for this person, but not for anyone else, or for you and not anyone else," he said. "You have to see it through their eyes. You have to say, 'Oh, this is a big deal to them and I'm gonna do what I can to either stay away or help them if they want help.'"

Band life has also helped Wurster deal with his short annoyance fuse. If a rental drum kit isn't what he requested, he challenges himself to nix the worries and play through them. If a flight is late or cancelled, there will always be a next one.

"I don't take those events as personally as I used to," he said.

And then there's laughter. Plenty of it.

Wurster teams up with Tom Scharpling on the The Best Show, an internet radio call-in comedy program. It's a huge part of his life and he's proud of the mammoth box set, "The Best of Scharpling & Wurster on The Best Show," that the Numero Group released in 2015.

"It kind of works hand in hand with the music thing in a way because most of the ideas that I get for the calls that we do come straight from being on the road. Like reading a sign wrong or just meeting somebody who I thought was just insanely great and weird or just situations that come up that are insane, they all get funneled into 'The Best Show,'" Wurster said.

The comedy creativity is akin to writing songs, he said, and it's a major plus to gouge away at Trump ad infinitum.

One of Wurster's funniest moments came while hanging out with Mould and Narducy before a gig in Toronto.

"You're just kind of sitting there looking at your computer or your phone and it's dead quiet, and it's the three of us and probably our tour manager, and Bob just goes, 'Oh, nooo,'" Wurster begins. "Jason and I look at each other and we're like, 'Oh, no, what's going on?'... and (Jason) goes, 'What's wrong, Bob?'... and he goes, 'This rabbit suit I wanted to rent for Halloween isn't gonna be available.' That was it (laughs). It was completely true. That's one of the funniest things I've ever seen anyone say."

Wurster in Seattle in 2014. (Cat Rose photo)

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