Keeping the beat

Jim Casson gets in a few beats at his studio. SAMUEL PICCOLO PHOTO

Jim Casson’s life in music

BY SAMUEL PICCOLO
The VOICE

In 2014, Jim Casson turned 50. His wife, Sabine, and his children, Max and Nigel, asked him what he wanted for his birthday. “What everybody wants for their fiftieth birthday,” he said. “A gorilla suit.”

Casson is a professional drummer, and he has released two albums of solo material as well. Two years ago, when the second record was released, he took stock of how things had changed since his career began some 30 years earlier.

“You need to have a visual representation of your music,” he said.

This was a challenge on that record, as its songs are an experimental mix of drumming, vocal recordings, and other, disembodied sounds.

“The songs aren’t really about something. Or really, they could be about anything. So that was the difficulty in coming up with a video.”

Casson was having trouble with one song in particular, “Waterloo Clyde.” The song’s structure is simple. Casson drums a steady beat on a basic kit as a tuba toots a catchy riff, all the while a man reads context-free punchlines from a series of jokes.

“What’s the stupidest thing that I could do for this?” Casson asked himself. The answer was obvious: use the gorilla suit.

In the cherry orchard behind his Fenwick home, which has been in his family for decades, Casson set up a drum kit and put on the gorilla suit. It was not a comfortable experience.

“It was a hot day, and the thing is made entirely out of rubber. I was just dripping in sweat the whole time—it was disgusting,” he remembered.

But the video turned out well. It is a perplexing thing to watch. In addition to the drum kit, Casson also used a forklift to the carry an old Steinway piano up between the rows of cherry blossoms. During the four-minute song, he alternates between drumming, plinking on the piano, and dancing while pretending to play the tuba.

“Drums stop, now comes the bass solo,” is the last punchline read as Casson’s playing ends, and he is shown on screen, in the gorilla suit, slinking away bigfoot-like into the woods. The song—and much of the album—is clever, almost meta-music that you wouldn’t necessarily expect a life-long drummer like Casson to produce.

“I was going to record a blues album, but, you know, everyone has one of those. So I wanted to do something a little bit different,” he said.

Casson does have a blues record out now, too. His most steady gig is with the Mighty Duck Blues Band, a four-man group made up of old pros. After more than a decade of playing regular live shows, this year the band finally released its debut album.

Casson produced the album, as he did his solo records, in the basement studio at his home. The studio, which doubles as a rehearsal room, is man-cave worthy of the descriptor. There is a solitary window, through which very little light enters the ten-by-fifteen foot room. Casson has two drum kits set up, and over one of them hang microphones connected to the Macintosh computer across the room. There are drum skins affixed to the walls, and cymbals hanging from nails. There are drums stacked on shelves and there are other drums, standing on their own, throughout the room. Beside his studio, Casson has another storage room full of drums.

Next to the computer is a keyboard (Casson’s first instrument was keys), and next to the keyboard is a trombone (he was made to play trombone in high school), and next to the trombone is a nylon-stringed guitar. “I only play around on the guitar,” he said. “It doesn’t really make sense to me.”

Casson is a presence in any room that he occupies. He has a deep, resonant voice, and he laughs often as he speaks, both at his own jokes and at those of others. Aside from his eyebrows, the only hair above his neck is a snow-white tuft that extends from the bottom of his chin, a true goat-tee.

At 53, he is the youngest of the four permanent members of the Might Duck Blues Band, who among themselves have close to two centuries of musical experience. The band is predominantly known for playing live shows, during which they are fronted each week by a different special guest. For more than a decade they played every Saturday at The Golden Pheasant, an old drinking hole for General Motors employees in St. Catharines. The Pheasant, a thoroughly unpretentious place, was usually just called “The Duck” (this is where the band got its name) and saddened many when it closed last year.

“It was kind of gross there,” Casson said. “You never knew what a smell might be, and didn’t want to ask. But it had character.”

Last year, the band moved their Saturday gig to The Bar Upstairs, at the ball hockey rinks near Highway 406. The Saturday before Thanksgiving the band played to a sizeable crowd. The guest was Lance Anderson, one of Canada’s most respected organists and producers. Typically the band plays three one-hour sets, and near the end of the first one Anderson and Casson locked eyes.

“Well, Jim,” said Anderson. “We really have to thank everyone for coming out on this Thanksgiving weekend. So why don’t we…take these people to church. Give me some of that double-time.”

Casson kept his gaze on Anderson as he sped up his drumming, moving faster and faster until he had finally achieved the pace that Anderson had envisaged and the rest of the band came in. The Bar Upstairs is cleaner and more modern, surely, than the Golden Pheasant. While the band played, two flat-screen televisions that were showing golf and college football were ignored by everyone in the room.

Most of the crowd stared attentively at the band, while a lone couple skidded across the floral-print carpet, impressively managing to keep up to Casson’s formidable beat. When the song was over, Anderson announced that they would be taking a short break, and Casson laid down his sticks and wiped his head with a nearby towel. The crowd, which was overwhelmingly grey-haired, checked their phones, and when the patio doors were opened, a rush of tobacco smoke came in on the cool air.

Casson spent the first intermission sitting outside, cooling off, and looking down at the hockey rink where a father was practicing one-timers with his son.

“Lance—he’s really good at calling songs,” Casson said. The Mighty Duck Blues Band prides itself on having a vast repertoire and being able to assemble shows on the fly.

“We’ll get to a juncture in a song, and I’ll think, ‘He could go two different ways here.’ I’ll try and guess, based on past experiences, which way he’s going to go. Sometimes I’ll guess one way, and the bassist will guess another. Whoever’s wrong will have to jump back in a hurry. But ninety-five percent of people don’t notice, anyway. It’s all part of the fun.”

The band demonstrated this flexibility soon after returning. Anderson turned to them and said, “All right, we’re going to do this song. And it’s going to be in C7, and then move to F minor, and then B flat. Jim, you can do that shuffling thing at the end.” The band all nodded, and after Anderson led them in, pawing at his keys, they played a seemingly seamless rendition.

During the band’s second set, Casson for a few moments closed his eyes and looked as though he were striking a pose, but then he re-opened them again quickly and locked on the leader. When he plays, he bops his head from side to side and holds his sticks lightly, in the tips of his fingers, as if he is preparing to carve a delicate material.

At one point, Anderson remained at the bar as the band played a few songs from its new album, Duck Soup.

“This is a Dave Curry tune,” the bassist said, pointing at Curry, the band’s guitarist, who winced as he raised his guitar strap over his head and then sat down again.

Though he didn’t have a microphone, Casson shouted out that it would be the first time that the song had ever been played live. “So we’ll see how badly we mess it up,” he said. The band played Curry in, who made several false starts on the vocals. “C’mon, let’s go,” Casson shouted again, encouragingly. Finally, Curry began the bluesy chord sequence and started to sing.

“Can’t take a drink, can’t have a smoke, can’t do anything fun no more. I gotta be good, ‘cause I can’t be bad. Or they’ll be knockin’ at my door. Everybody’s talkin’ about them do-gooder blues.”

The crowd clapped as the band slowed down and Curry finished singing. If anyone noticed the package of cigarettes lying on the stool beside him, they didn’t point it out.

Casson gives drum lessons in addition to his playing, and drills his students heavily on rhythm and focus.

“I’ll often have students say, ‘Keeping a steady beat—that’s easy.’ But then I’ll put on a metronome, without the strikes in between, and see if they can keep to it. After a few minutes, they realize that it’s incredibly difficult.” Subtlety is often the most important thing for a drummer to know, and even Casson took some time to learn this.

“I’ve been fired from a lot of jobs,” he said.

Many of these firings occurred when he was a young drummer, hired by bands because of his ability, but let go once it was decided that he was too showy. One of his first steady gigs, when he was in his early 20s, was with a ‘50s cover band popular in Niagara.

“All of my friends and family thought that I’d really made it, since I’d gotten the job with this band. And then I was fired,” Casson remembered.

The problem, as he sees it, was that he was playing the drums, not playing the song. Now he says that it’s most important that a drummer be a chameleon, always able to adapt to the type of music or what the specific song requires. Many drummers, especially young ones, are eager to show off their chops, but to Casson, this eagerness is misplaced.

“Knowing how to solo isn’t all that impressive. Keeping the beat, playing the song, and going on a riff when the time is right—that’s real chops,” he said.

Drum kits also tend to exist in the service of ego, too. Casson uses a very simple set, with just five or six drums, and feels that this configuration is enough to do about anything that he needs to.

“I used to have the cymbals way up high, so that it looked cool when I had to reach for them. One day, I raised my arms up to hit them and I realized that it hurt—and I realized that there’s no reason, other than for show, that cymbals need to be up there,” he said. “That stuff is just a penis-measuring contest.”

Apart from his shoulders, Casson’s ears are the only part of him that has sustained permanent damage during his career. In conversation, he will often ask others to repeat what they have just said, and when he is talking he rarely hears anything that is said simultaneously. Hearing loss is something common to most drummers, he said, though he attributes this as much to other instruments as to the drums.

“I don’t know if there’s science to back this up, but I’ve always believed that as a drummer, your ears can prepare themselves for the strike,” Casson said. “Whereas with a big loud guitar amp that’s right beside the kit, you just have no idea what’s coming.” He doesn’t yet have hearing aids, but expects to need them before long.

Several days before the Mighty Duck Blues Band played on Thanksgiving weekend, Casson was sitting in his studio, thinking about his musical career. He has never had a day job, and for this, he is especially thankful.

“I’ve been really fortunate to be able to do what I do,” he said. “There’ve been times when the phone calls were not coming in for gigs, but I always seemed to find something when I needed it.”

He looked over to one wall of the studio, where posters from some of his bigger gigs had been plaqued and hung on the wall. One, in particular, caught his eye, from one of his first gigs, at the “Pelham Harvest Concert” in 1979. The others were evidently professionally designed, with photos and impressive graphics, but this poster was a simple typeface on orange paper. It advertised that the music would be accompanied by a “Corn Roast,” and a small map in one corner gave directions to the Pelham Arena, the event’s venue.

“Years later, I played with one of the headliners from that show,” Casson said. “I thought that there was no way that he’d remember playing the Pelham Arena, but as soon as I mentioned it, he said, ‘Oh yeah! There was a corn roast there!”

After taking drum lessons as a kid and music all throughout high school at E.L Crossley, Casson studied music at Mohawk College. Upon graduating, he initially resisted what most musicians from Niagara inevitably feel they must do: move to Toronto.

“I was scared of moving to Toronto,” said Casson. Eventually, however, he moved downtown and grew accustomed to city life. For years, he was able to play gigs almost every night of the week. This was doubly convenient, since a clause in the rental agreement for his apartment stipulated that he wasn’t allowed to play the drums there—without the gigs, he wouldn’t have been able to practice.

While in Toronto, Casson met his wife, Sabine, who was working in the civil service at the time.

“Toronto is a great place when you’re young, and you don’t have a family,” Casson said. When their daughter Max was born, the two decided to move to Fenwick. According to Casson, it was as much Sabine’s decision as his, even though she herself grew up in Toronto.

The move was difficult for her at the time. The couple had just one vehicle, which Casson would often take to Toronto for gigs, while Sabine was at home with the two young children. Even the relative silence and darkness of Fenwick affected her at first.

Things were not easy for Casson either.

“Within the first four months of moving back home, I lost every steady gig I had,” he said. He thought that he’d destroyed his music career. The September 11 attacks of had just happened too, and the turmoil in the world only compounded Casson’s anxiety.

“I said to myself, ‘I’ve left Toronto, I lost every job I had, the world is going to hell, and I have two babies. What have I done?’”

But then, in January 2002, he received a call offering him a weekly gig in Toronto, and being there, every week, allowed Casson to get back into the game.

Now, he averages fifteen or so shows a month. Sabine recently returned to school to attend teacher’s college, and this fall started working full time.

As Casson sat on a drum stool in his basement, the house was silent. When he is not off playing a gig, school days are often like this. Sabine is teaching, while Nigel is at school and Max works full-time. Casson has a lot of alone time, to practice, to work on production, or to just enjoy the farm, which he is trying to learn more about—farming as a backup to the music career.

Nigel is not into music like Casson is, but Max does hope to pursue a career in the business. Now that he’s finished with the Mighty Duck Blues Band’s album, he will be starting to work more on his daughter’s songs, a prospect that he clearly relishes.

“I was talking to Max about it recently,” Casson said. “And she said to me ‘You’re my producer, aren’t you? And I said, ‘No, even worse. I’m your record label.” He laughed at the memory. Casson knows first-hand how difficult it is to make a living playing music, and, speaking as a father, said that it’s tough to think about how hard it will be for his daughter.

“But then I have to look at myself,” he said, gesturing around to his studio. “Who am I to keep her from her dreams?”

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