Collateral Deep Dive-A conversation with Drummer Jason Thomas

Sitting behind his kit, drummer Jason “JT” Thomas has a strong, commanding presence. His playing, as powerful as it is expressive, reveals the discipline he learned playing at church from age 7 to 18 and then from playing multiple nightly sets in professional cover bands all over Asia. A meticulous, studious player, Thomas has recorded and toured with some of the greatest figures of the Texas music scene, including the late Roy Hargrove (RH Factor) and New York-Texas jazz ensemble extraordinaire, Snarky Puppy. Fans of Phillip Phillips were introduced to Thomas when he joined Phillip on tour in 2013 and then in 2014 during his extensive time on the road in support of Behind the Light, an album he also recorded. In 2016, Thomas came back to the studio to play the drums on Collateral, Phillip’s third album. Under producer Ryan Hadlock, the results are warm, rich and crisp sounding drums that make each song and the story it’s trying to tell that much more beautiful and memorable. Currently, JT splits his time recording and performing with Snarky Puppy, his band Forq, and guitarist Mark Lettieri, who has also toured with Phillip. At PhillPhillcom we are huge fans of JT, and it was an enormous pleasure to talk to him recently about his music and career and his work in Collateral. We are extremely thankful to JT for sharing so many stories and for doing so with such warmth and humour. Below are some excerpts of our conversation.

PhillPhillcom: You are both a recording and a touring musician. How much of your time is spent on these two? Are you mainly on the road or in the studio?

JT: It varies. Probably the ratio of travelling versus studio is probably still more travelling than recording; it’s probably like 70-30. The majority of what I do is still on the road, travelling. Studio work […] there isn’t much these days because a lot of people just aren’t really recording records with live musicians that much anymore; it’s kind of far and few between. Phillip, luckily, he still likes live musicians. Every single song we did on [Collateral] the producer or the writer that co-wrote with him or produced with him pretty much had full drums programmed into it, we just kind of recreated it. But every now and then I still get a project that randomly just comes to me as a referral that I have no idea who the artists or musicians are and I just do my part and go home. The majority of the time these days it’s been with guys I work with or know or that we’re all on the same project together.

PhillPhillcom: Take me back to the time you started playing with Phillip Phillips. How did you connect with him? You toured together heavily for three, four years; how was that experience?

JT: He had a break in his tour back in 2013, he was the opening act for John Mayer’s Born and Raised Tour. His drummer at the time had to pull out of the tour, so they had to find someone asap, as they only had a few days break before the next string of shows started. They had three or four shows they were doing in Boston where they were going to stay in a hotel, drive out to the show and come back to the hotel. So they had one week where they were going to be in one place and had to find a new drummer in the couple of days off and get him ready for the show. I had a couple of friends playing in the band, the main one was Bobby Sparks on keyboards. His friend who got him on the band was the guitar player, Errol Cooney. I knew Errol Cooney, but we had never worked together. Everybody in the band basically submitted either friends they knew or the drummers that they knew. Phillip got all these names and literally went up to YouTube and watched videos of everybody and came back down and told them he wanted me.

Errol called me that day, it was on my birthday – I will never forget that day for the rest of my life, it was August 15, 2013. My phone kept ringing off the hook and Bobby also called med. It was also two days after I had met who is now my wife. I had met her two days prior and my birthday was supposed to be our second date. And our second date turned out into her taking me to the airport [laughs]. They were basically like, “Phillip wants you and if you want the gig, it’s basically yours and the only thing you is your flight leaves at seven tonight. If you want to do the gig, you will probably need to head to the airport.” That was really what happened. So I got pulled in into that so quick, and within 24 hours of the phone call, I missed my second date with my now wife, flew there, I got there at midnight, I stayed up all night, wrote out all the songs. I went to a rehearsal at 8:00 in the morning because we had a show that night the same day. Bobby knows how I am and pretty much knew I would probably stay up all night and write everything out so I could play the songs perfectly, that’s just how I am. And that was the start of it.

JT Thomas performing with Phillip Phillips. Photo credit: Elvan McMillen.

PhillPhillcom: In Collateral, some of my favourite musical moments are drum parts: that crisp snare drum roll on “I Dare You,” that beautiful cymbal at the end of “Sand Castles,” the snappy snare on “Miles.” Actually, one of my favourite parts in the whole album is when you do that crescendo before the chorus on “Miles,” it’s so simple but it’s just so beautiful. When you are creating a drum part for a song, how much do you look at the lyrics or try to tell a story with your drums? How do you build your performance on a song?

JT: It’s actually funny. This is usually what I build off of, but a lot of times with most artists I’ve worked with, usually when we’re recording my part in any of the rhythm parts, there aren’t any vocals or any lyrics. We just record the instrumental parts. So, we literally kind of have to imagine what’s going to happen at those points. But a lot of times we don’t even get that much direction. So, you kind of just have to go with your instinct: “Okay, this is the second time we played this chorus, we might need to give it a little lift the next time.” Otherwise it sort of sounds like a machine, so basically, give it some human emotion. You almost have to treat it like you are writing a story, every little section has to go somewhere.

The good thing about Phillip is, all the songs that we recorded, he did have lyrics and there weren’t too many songs that he didn’t have almost completely done. Even his vocals, even though they were kind of scratched demo vocals, he pretty much had them. The bones of every song were pretty much complete [and] when he handed us the demos of those songs for that record, he pretty much just handed us a record that was done. It was just done with programmed drums, which he really doesn’t like at all. But the ideas were extremely developed, the only thing is that it was a machine and a lot of that, like little things like you just described, the little lifts, is not that you can’t do those things with a machine but is really hard to pull off. Those little things are the things that me and JJ (Smith) and Errol kind of had to add our own little flavor to it. So, if the vocals are there, then the lyrics [will tell you] and usually the artist will tell you “When it gets to this chorus, I need it to be big.” At that point, it’s just literally just following what the song is telling you to do and just finding the biggest supple feel that you can do without it sounding too technical, like a drum solo. And with Miles, that whole song was about, I guess, imagining somebody in the car just driving.

With “I Dare You,” that song in particular, I pretty much copied the demo all the way to the point where it had a different drum sound–like a different drum set–on the verses versus the real big huge drums on the choruses. I basically said, “I want to recreate that to a T,” so we set up another drum set in another part of the studio. I did all the verses on that kit, a smaller little tighter sounding drum kit, and then on the choruses I used the big huge kit that I played on everything in the main room, so that song was fun.

PhillPhillcom: For Collateral, you had the chance to play some of these songs quite a bit on tour before they were recorded. How much of your performance of the songs live went into the album version?

JT: Phillip still likes to kind of organically write certain things where he just likes to come up with stuff on stage and we’ll just keep playing with it. A lot of [the songs on Collateral] he was writing with those guys in Nashville and in New York, he was going back and forth, but he would hand us the demos when they were complete, and we would just start. He wanted to kind of just use soundcheck as rehearsal sometimes before we went into the studio, just so he could see how they would feel live. And then some of them, he was just kind of testing them to see how the audience would respond to them live to see if that song was really going to work or not. But the other part was him just wanting to play it, see how it would feel and you know, come up with some different things. That’s how “Trigger” came about from Behind the Light. We literally had the intro riff. He would just play that at soundcheck, he just kept doing that for weeks during soundcheck, like a year before we recorded that record. And we just kept going through it. And then we actually started doing that on the first few weeks I went out with them in 2013. He just started playing this riff during soundcheck […] and I came in and I started playing that drum pattern that I did in the beginning. I just started playing that behind him. A couple of soundchecks went by and we had that developed and then, a couple more soundchecks, we went into the chorus. I think when we actually got to the studio is when he had written the bridge, but everything else we kind of made up during soundcheck.

Another song that has what we played live in it is “My Name.” That song we did probably about six or seven months before we recorded it. Phillip came down to Dallas in the summer before we recorded it and he had some demo stuff in his head. And we played through some things he wanted to just bounce off of us and see what would happen. And then he had one part of that song finished and then he didn’t have anything else for it and when our other guitar player [Nate Mercereau] heard it he was like, “well, I have a song that I wrote like two years ago that I think will fit perfect with that that I never finished.” So that song kind of came about with us not particularly on stage, but we had a big writing session for like four or five days in Dallas where we just got together and played and beat up stuff and tried different things for a week and the song came about because of that […] We played the full first half of that song the way it is on the record, that’s what he had on the demo, where he just played his acoustic guitar and it stopped right in the middle where the big guitar break starts and that’s Nate’s part; it literally fit perfectly. We kind of found that out from just messing around with different things at rehearsal that one day in Dallas. So for Collateral there was only maybe two or three songs, like “My Name” and “Magnetic” that we’d already started playing live, but everything else pretty much was handed to us a demo: “here are the songs, learn them and we’ll see you in the studio.”

PhillPhillcom: I remember listening in an interview that you are very methodical about sort of fitting the part of the music and about studying the music a lot to try give the song what it needs.

JT: Yes, absolutely, that’s the most important thing. I know a lot of drummers when they get to a certain status and you hire them, they kind of bring their thing to the table and that’s great because they developed that thing, and that’s what they’re famous for and what they get hired to do. But a lot of the ones that are that famous, they’re probably on records that you would never ever think that’s actually them playing because they switch to whoever the artist they are working for, whatever the song needs, that’s what they play. And those are the guys that I’ve kind of learned from and noticed that I’ve listened to this guy on five different genres of music and you never knew who it was.

PhillPhillcom: For Collateral, even though you had the demos and you wanted to replicate that, did you have an idea of the sound that you wanted to produce on the album? For example, coming from Snarky Puppy to play with Phillip, do you switch up your gear or your kit depending on who you’re playing with?

JT: With Phillip, I still go with more of the traditional, I guess you could say, pop sound. So, for drummers, that’s more of a general drum sound. My average kit with him would be a 22-inch kick drum, my right toms would a 10 and a 12-inch and a 16-inch floor tom and a couple of snares. The biggest switch between someone like Phillip and Snarky Puppy would be my cymbals. With the drums, my tuning and things like that are pretty much around the same ballpark that it would with Snarky. Except for the studio, song to song, it could drastically change just depending on what we’re trying to get across. But in a live performance, with Snarky I use a smaller kick and snare-wise, Snarky has this infatuation with this big deep snare thing; I don’t use that really with Phillip. My left snare with Phillip is more tight, but the cymbals is probably the most drastic change. With Phillip, I used a lot of big, I guess you would say more traditional cymbal crashes, kind of bigger cymbals. With Snarky I use really dry cymbals. They like their cymbals to decay for like negative two seconds. They don’t want to hear any sustain on the crash cymbals at all. Any way you can deaden the cymbals as much as possible by either putting another cymbal up, under it or whatever. They don’t care. They just want a completely dry cymbal sound because their drummer at that time, Robert Searight, that’s the way he had his drums. He played with a lot of crash cymbals and he would stack cymbals and it would just make everything really dry and tight. They got so used to it and they started writing their songs to that effect. So, it was kind of weird when I was touring with both bands because I literally had to have two different cymbal bags. There was nothing from my cymbals from Phillip [that I could use] with Snarky. It was literally like going from a car that has completely dark tinted windows to a car that has no window tint at all.

In the studio, with Phillip, I didn’t do it as much on Behind the Light with those songs. There was a few songs where I used some extended drums that are set up for percussion stuff, I did a little bit of that. But on this last record it got crazy. They had a bunch of different drums in the studio and Ryan [Hadlock] was pretty much “do whatever you feel like it.” So, if it had different things in the demo, I was doing all kinds of crazy stuff […] just to reproduce the bigness of the demo. I would basically just start pointing around the room, “yeah I can recreate that, just give me those, give me those…” And so I had drums set up everywhere. At one point I think for “Into the Wild” we kind of had those African, big tom sounds. He had that on the demo, and I said, well that’s got to be there because that’s a big, huge part of the song. At first, they were just going to keep what he used on the demo but I [knew I could recreate] it. And the producer, Ryan, came out and started grabbing drums and mixing them. I know I had like four or five, a couple of toms and floor toms set up in the middle of the room. And I went out there and banged out that part and I stacked in a bunch of toms, so it sounded like 30 drummers. If I have the freedom and the equipment to do that, I’ll do that. So for Collateral, I was swapping out toms, I was swapping out a bunch of different cymbals, I was using a bunch of different snare drums. It got fun. Ryan had a lot of gear there and when I see that I’m kind of like, “okay, I’ll get to have some fun.”

PhillPhillcom: So how long were you at Bear Creek recording?

JT: We recorded for six days straight and luckily the songs are so well written and the demos, arrangement-wise, that was pretty much how it was going to be. So once we learned them and played them, we had some time to mess around with doing the overdubs. Especially for me, that’s the only bad thing about drums, is [that] to do all the extra things, it’s kind of time-consuming because you’ve got to move stuff around and reset up microphones, etc. A guitar player can just connect a new pedal and he sounds like a completely different guitar player. It takes a lot of time and thankfully the producer and Phillip were cool with that: just with these little eight bars, it might take me an hour. And 45 minutes of that is maybe just set up.

PhillPhillcom: Well, it paid off because it’s such a beautifully sounding album and the drums are so distinct. I feel like a lot of the time when you have a pop record that includes real instruments, not just electronic instruments, that the music can wash out and that’s not the case with Phillip at all. The songs are well written but the music behind is distinct and memorable as well.

JT: Yeah, he’s always wanted to do that with his records, he didn’t want such a huge drastic change in between what we sounded like in the studio versus what it sounded like live. Because most pop artists, is all done with computers and everything else. So the way you hear it on the record, it usually sounds nothing like that live. They try to, which unfortunately makes a lot of those artists, to have to play with tracks and backing tracks, which Phillip detests; he can’t stand playing with tracks or any kind of metronome, he can’t stand any of that. So that was another rarity, that a pop artist like him, he didn’t want what most of what those guys do. He wants it to be as organic and free as it can be. A lot of times we play these songs live and they just kind of take a life of their own live and he’s all about that. He liked having that freedom. In the studio, he knows that the producers want a package and got to keep it under a certain timeframe and there’s got to be a nice, packaged deal on these songs, but within that three to four minutes, he still wants it to be as live and organic as they can possibly be. So for me, that was fun. That means that gave me the green light to do what I wanted to do. And the producer, Ryan, he’s one of those guys too, so once we knew we were both on the same page, we both just had a ball. And [Bear Creek] that’s his studio, so he knows that studio inside and out, so he knows exactly how to get certain sounds. That helped a lot. That studio sounds amazing, but it’s even more amazing that his family built that studio, so he’s been in that studio since he was a kid. So he knows every square inch of that room and knows what sounds great where. So if I wanted to do something, he was like, “yeah, put that drum there, that’s where it will sound great.”

PhillPhillcom: Any song that you listened once the album was ready that became your favorite, like, “oh, that turned out pretty good, I love what we achieved here”?

JT: Probably “My Name,” “Miles” and “Don’t Tell Me.” That’s just kind of naturally the way we would play from our background from the R&B, and funk and jazz, were able to pull from those [genres] for those songs. They were fun to record too because of that. But I do like “Into the Wild” I think just because I got to bash around with a bunch of toms, I also like that song because it has a certain waltz [tempo] and Phillip sounded really good on songs like that, and my drum part for that was fun. It’s a lot of fun to play live, so I like playing that song as well. We were doing that song in a couple of shows before we actually recorded it and that song, he was kind of using as a test: “Let me see what this song is going to sound like live” and the audience responded really well to it every time we did it.

“Dance with Me,” he would only play it by himself. But just for the record, he recorded it with a full band. I did not [play on it] because I think he kept going back and forth with that. So even when I asked him if he was going to record it, he didn’t know if he was going to put it on the record or not. He didn’t know if he was just going to keep that as a special song just for that moment- he wrote it for his wedding-and not put it on the record and just do it as an encore song as we would do live and just leave it at that. We kind of convinced him, and the label and everybody else was like, no, you actually need to make sure you put that one on the record because if you ever get a chance to put a good strong wedding song on a record, is not a bad thing. I was surprised he recorded it with a full band because we’d never played that song live before. He always did it solo. It came out really well.

PhillPhillcom: Do you have any favorite memories from recording the album or playing on tour with Phillip?

JT: A memory for that record is definitely just Bear Creek. That’s an amazing facility and it sits in a huge property and they also have, about a half a mile from the house, not even half a mile, a tree house studio. And it wasn’t until I started watching HGTV a lot that I saw these guys on a show called Treehouse Masters and it was just a crazy dude that just went around the country building tree houses. And then come to find out when we saw it, the owner of the studio [told us] “this was one of the ones featured [on the show]” And they took us up into this tree house, it had to be probably 20, 25 feet off the ground. It was literally big, huge oak trees and it was a fully functional recording studio. I will never forget going up in there and walking through there and one of the engineers was actually doing edits while we were recording another song. This is really a functional, real life studio in the middle of this tree house. That was a lot of fun seeing that and being in it.

Tour wise, and I think we did it in the first two weeks that I toured with him, it was the first time when we played Red Rocks. That is just an unforgettable, amazing, legendary place that I’d never thought I would see, much less perform in. And the first time I got to perform there was with him. That place, you really can’t describe it with words, you have to see it. Everything about that place is just amazing. Anytime I get to play there now, it never gets old. It’s always like the first time you played there because it’s just so beautiful. Yeah, out of all the things that I’ve have done with Phillip, those two experiences, it was a trip for me.

JT performing with Phillip Phillips at Red Rocks. Photo credit: Lea P.

PhillPhillcom: How has playing with Snarky Puppy and playing with all those jazz bands and at church helped you to play with Phillip? What can you bring from that world to Phillip’s world?

JT: Phillip Phillips didn’t want to be the typical pop artist. So he had a lot of extended jams or extended instrumental portions in his live show which was really rare for a pop artist to do. Most of them never do that. He did it as much as he possibly could. And a lot of it would be worked out, stuff we were working on. But he would let me take drum solos, or he would let us trade solos off with each other or interact with each other as if we were playing in a jazz band. People that would come and see our live show would joke with us and say, “you guys are actually kind of a pop artist/jam band.” Because we would just go off into these instrumental rants for two, three, four minutes sometimes on one song and we would do that on as many songs as we could. So technically, a pop show in an hour or seventy-five-minute set, they would do 12-13 plus songs. We might get in nine or ten because some of the songs would be so long with us doing all this extra stuff that we would come up with. That was fun because I never expected that. The first time I played with him he sent me the live show, so I heard some of that, but it wasn’t as much because he was only doing 45 minutes in front of John Mayer. It wasn’t until 2014 when I became his full-time drummer and we would do a 75-minutes and 90-minutes shows that I found out that he just likes to go. And that we were going to do this on almost every song. Like the audience really isn’t going to know what we’re doing because they don’t know what that is. They dance around and they are having fun and we’re just playing a bunch of stuff that they have no clue what we’re doing because we left the song a long time ago. I guess because he knew we had that background, and he’s always been kind of a Dave Matthews fan, he kind of patterned his band kind of after that, he pulled on our background because he knew we could go there, and he would let us and encourage it as much as possible.

PhillPhillcom: For me personally, that’s my favorite thing about Phillip’s music. I mean, he’s a great songwriter. I love his writing and I love his songs. And then he matches that with spectacular live playing. Because sometimes you have bands that have amazing live playing, but you might not have a connection with a song necessarily. And I have a connection with Phillip’ songs and they mean something to me and then I go out to the live show and I’m surprised and delighted every time because there’s always something new pushing the limits. And I think the audience has grown to expect that from Phillip now.

JT: Yeah, they do. When they come see him live, it became a big reputation for him that his live show, that’s what you wanted to see more so than even his records because it just sounded so much better live. His energy live, people want to see that. When we did the tour with John Mayer, his people would always tell us “we’ve never seen an opening act draw this many people before the main act plays. Normally with these kinds of shows, nobody shows up when the opening act starts.” When we were touring with John Mayer, it was the opposite. He would almost have a packed house just for his set before John Mayer would even come up. And that was purely off of the fact that the live show was so strong. He had a really strong band and he let us play, even if it was just for that 45 minutes, we stretched that to, you know, exactly 45 minutes [laughs] to squeeze in as much music as we could at that 45 minutes as possible.

PhillPhillcom: As a music fan and a listener, thank you so much for that. That is why we go out to listen to music, to be engaged and to be surprised and to be respected as an audience, because that shows some respect as well, “you can take this, you can take this music,” which is rare.

JT: Very.

PhillPhillcom: I know you’re going to be touring with Snarky Puppy in the spring of next year. Will you also be working with Forq? Any other projects that we should look forward to hearing from you in 2019?

JT: I will be playing with Mark Lettieri as well. All three of us, we all have new projects coming out in 2019. Snarky’s record will come out in early spring; actually there’s two projects coming out, one from a live recording and then the last studio recording. Mark’s record should be out sometime in late spring. And then with Forq as well, we just finished our record in December, and it should be up somewhere between late and early spring as well. So all three of those projects have new music coming out and I’ll be on tour with all three of them all year. I’ll be bouncing back and forth between all three groups pretty much for the spring and the summer. It’s going to be a fun year full of completely new music, and some back and forth between all those bands, which is always fun.

Follow JT on Instagram and check out Forq’s upcoming album.
And visit Phillip Phillips’ official site to listen to Collateral!