Mister Heavenly (due tonight at the hi-dive with WATERS and ManCub) came together when Ryan Kattner approached his friends Joe Plummer of Modest Mouse and Nick Thorburn of Islands with some songs he'd been working on in a kind of doo wop style and asked if they'd like to help him work them out.
Without really trying to form a band, the trio nevertheless fleshed out those songs and more throughout 2010 and performed an early tour with actor, and it turns out talented musician, Michael Cera on bass. Since then, the band has recorded and released its debut album, Out of Love on Sub Pop.
Jokingly calling its music "doom wop," Mister Heavenly has maintained its playful spirit from its beginning, even as the project became much more of a serious entity than perhaps it was initially conceived. In advance of his band's show at the hi-dive tonight, we spoke with Joe Plummer about his musical background, the various projects in which he's played and the most important lesson he's learned about being a drummer.
Westword: What kind of music did you grow up hearing when you were a kid and a teenager?
Joe Plummer: My dad was into the Outlaw scene. So I heard a lot of Willie Nelson and stuff like that. My mom liked The Beatles. My older brother listened to Devo a lot, The B-52s, Led Zeppelin and Kansas, which was kind of a pretty crazy mix for the early '80s. That the first kind of stuff I listened to because that's what was around the house.
I slowly discovered punk music. SST bands, mostly. More like The Minutemen and Saccharine Trust and stuff like that. But that was back in the day when record label catalogs were very intriguing. I'd buy records, there would be a catalog in there and I'd spend weeks looking at the catalog and then order stuff. Probably the same with a couple of Rough Trade records I got, so I got into some British punk, as well.
What initially sparked your interest in playing drums?
My cousin was a drummer. I'd seen him play quite a few times. He was quite a bit older than me. It sounds cliché, but people like John Bonham, of course. I think I sat down at my cousin's drum set when I was visiting once and liked it. I was fascinated with it. I studied drums a little bit in school early on. I took some music classes, but I didn't retain much of that technical knowledge.
What kind of bands did you play in when you were starting out, and how did you end up meeting and coming to play with Blackheart Procession?
The first bands I started playing in was crossover bands -- punk metal bands. That's what I was doing at about fourteen in garages in northern California and Seattle as well. Then my band opened for Three Mile Pilot, and I got to know Pall Jenkins in Seattle. Me and Pall just became friends. I moved to L.A. and I had played with them a little. One time Mario Rubalcaba couldn't play a show, so I drove down to Portland from Seattle and filled in for Mario. That was in '99. Then I moved to Los Angeles, and it was easier for me to play, and I started playing with Pall and [Tobias Nathaniel].
How did you meet and start playing music with John Atkins?
Just living in Seattle, me and John were really good friends. We were in separate bands at the time. A lot of times we'd spend Sundays together. I forget why. We just hung out. Eventually we wound up going to his practice space, making up silly songs. He had the band name, the Magic Magicians, ahead of time. It's kind of a story somewhat. He couldn't remember the name...He'd seen a Spin Doctors' video and to a mutual friend of ours he said, "Man, I saw the most ridiculous fuckin' band." "Oh, what was it called?" "I don't know, the Magic Magicians or something stupid like that."
You played with and still play in Modest Mouse. How did that come about?
Portland. Isaac Brock and I hung out a lot, and there was a point in between Benjamin Weikel and Jeremiah Green coming back and they didn't have a drummer, so me and Isaac talked about me playing drums. Somewhere in there, Jeremiah decided to come back, and Isaac still wanted me to play. So I just kind of stayed in there and played percussion and eventually drum kit on a couple of songs. Eventually, me and Jeremiah started playing the drum kit together.
How do you feel Johnny Marr changed the sound of Modest Mouse, and what is it like working with him?
Everyone's going to change it a little bit. But the real Modest Mouse sound is Jeremiah, Eric [Judy] and Isaac, the original dudes. I don't think you could change it. When they play together, not even Johnny Marr can really change it. Johnny added to it. It was nice working with him. He's nice, and we became friends pretty quickly. Our friendship overshadowed it a little bit in the early part, but once me and him were just playing because no one else had showed up yet, I then realized, "God, this guy's a good guitarist." Stupidly. "This really nice guy is pretty good at guitar, too."
Why did you and Ryan Kattner [Honus Honus] and Nick Thorburn decide to start a band together, and did you have any ideas that guided the kind of music you'd make?
Ryan had been working on some stuff and it was kind of doo woppy and he was sending it to me. I would record drums over it and send it back to him. Ryan would start with this 50s kind of rhythm in mind. None of us really had these plans for Mister Heavenly. It just kind of fiddled together.
How did Michael Cera come into the picture?
Nick's friends with Michael. They were just friends that fiddled around and played music. It dawned on Nick that, "As crazy as this sounds, maybe Michael should play bass for us." So he asked me and Ryan. I didn't know Michael, and neither did Ryan, I guess. So we were just like, "Well, sure, I mean..." Nick said he was a great musician and that's when he came up here to Portland, he played, and it worked out. He's not in the band regularly. He's got a schedule.
Ryan said in an interview with The Horn that he was glad this band didn't sound like any of your other projects. What do you think you do in this band that makes it especially different from the kind of music you make or have made in your other bands?
The way it came together, there's a lot of freedom in the band. There was no pressure for us. We were just messing around, seeing what it sounded like if we played together. It was a new canvas, I guess. It was a little bit like the symptom of a new band -- you don't know what it's going to be like.
Whereas your other bands have kind of an established sound.
Yeah. If I went and started playing with Man Man, I would be referencing Man Man, but this was new. There was freedom to do whatever we wanted to.
I realize this is a tongue-in-cheek term, but what inspired the title "doom wop," and why do you think that's as good a way to explain your music in short?
"Doom wop" is definitely tongue-in-cheek, but the catchphrase does describe us because it's kind of silly. There's a '50s rhythm, a little bit of a doo-wop rhythm, so there's that part, and then the lyrics are really dark, doomy. What they sound like, if you listen to them, is a love story, like a '50s pop tune. But if you listen closer, they're a little bit darker than you would think. It's combining the idea of doo-wop and '50s pop stuff and just sort of adding a darker element about love and death.
Drummers aren't often given the same level of attention as the singer in a band. That having been said, have you ever benefited from being in a high profile band in an unexpected situation and have you had to deal with the downside of being in a widely popular band?
I imagine. I'm sure that's happened and I'm sure the things I've been attached to catches people's attention. But when it comes down to it, people don't really know who I am. They're like, "Oh yeah, Modest Mouse! Which guy are you?" I guess there's some sort of glamour to it, and I probably unconsciously celebrate all of that, but I try not to pay too much attention to it, because you can't rely on that kind of thing. You still have to do what you're doing. So I sort of turn a blind eye to that kind of stuff.
What's the most important thing you've learned about being a drummer that you really had to learn on your own?
I think actually practicing. Actually knowing your parts. You can learn all the ways to practice and you can read the book about when you should practice and how you should practice and how often you should practice. But actually making yourself do it is the thing you have to do. So I just kind of think being diligent and learning what you're supposed to learn so you can back everyone else up.
And showing up and being solid in what you're doing. I play in a few different bands, and it gets confusing sometimes. So I have to, I call it "drummyoke," but I just go in my practice place and practice songs that I've played for years because I have band practice, but ahead of time, it's practice by myself. The short answer is, it's kind of boring, but it's just actually being disciplined and making yourself practice.
When the drummer's not good, it's obvious.
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If the drummer cuts out, it sucks. It fuckin' sucks.