Ian: I’m here with Francois Comtois, is that right?
Francois Comtois: That was really good!
Oh, thank you! The drummer for Young the Giant, who formed back in 2004 as the Jakes and skyrocketed to success shortly after signing to Roadrunner Records and changing their name in late 2009. That’s correct, right?
This is all from Wikipedia, so…you never know. They now have three hit singles, including the Portland radio regulars “My Body” and “Cough Syrup.” So, Francois: you rose to fame and huge success in seemingly very little time, at least from my perspective. I remember hearing “My Body” on the radio a little over a year ago and having no idea who you guys were and now you’re huge and one of my favorite current bands, to be honest. So did it seem to happen really quickly for you as well, or was it a long, exhausting road?
There were definitely times where it was exhausting and confusing and kind of all over the place. I think we get a lot of perspective in that we’ve done a lot of opening for bigger bands. That’s kind of how we got to this point initially and that was a lot of the touring experience that we had. So we heard about these guys who spent ten years in a van or trailer and all the normal stuff you have to do to get to this point. And I think we experienced a fair bit of that; we put in like a hundred thousand miles that first year of touring and that was just all us driving pretty much all the time. So yeah it definitely got to the point where it started to happen very quickly.
So it was kind of like a long, slow build-up and suddenly you woke up one morning and you were huge!
Exactly. It was like an “s”-curve type of thing.
So it was all worth it then?
Of course! All right, well great! So when I listen to your music, there’s a number of things that are striking to me. The vocals, first I have to say, Sameer—that’s his name, right?—he’s an incredible singer. He just blows me away. As a singer myself—I mean I grew up singing my whole life and his control and everything… One of the biggest things, though, is the influential diversity, and your influences apparently, from what I hear, I mean I hear sort of a pop melodic sensibility almost reminiscent of 1950s doo-wop in songs like “I Got,” which is one of my favorites from the record, and “Strings” which is another great one. And then, you know, hints of anthemic rock, which we hear on your singles, of course, and also “Garands”—which, I love that song too…great guitar riff. And then also, you personally—your drumming is really interesting to me in that you kind of alternate between driving rock beats and then more syncopated polyrhythmic stuff. It’s very eclectic and I really enjoy that. So tell me about your influences on drums and in general and how they compare to the influences of your bandmates.
I mean, for the most part I would say we have, very similar influences. I think the reason why you see that diversity is because we’re trying to come to terms with what those different influences mean to us—especially in the early portion of songwriting. Like “I Got,” for instance, was our attempt at some sort of doo-wop, sort of Motown type thing.
And you sing backing vocals, too?
Yeah, that’s great, you guys are great, man. I mean that back-up vocals are definitely almost as striking as the lead vocals, and they really complement it well, I think.
Cool. Yeah, so it’s just trying to get comfortable with those influences. I mean, personally speaking, I take some influence from Phil Selway, who’s the drummer from Radiohead—it’s just his ability to be appropriate at all times. Questlove, obviously, The Roots drummer, for his sense of timing; Levon Helm from the Band—you know, just one of the quintessential singing drummers. Definitely a huge influence for me. But yeah, it’s just kind of like taking those influences and putting them through our personal filters and seeing what comes out on the other end.
Great! Cool, so once again, I did a little research on Wikipedia, and, you know, that can be…you never know. But it said on there you took over on drums after Jason Burger moved to New York. Is that correct?
Okay. So what did you play in the band before that?
I played the bass. I actually was approached initially as a temporary replacement for the bass player.
There were some line-up changes and I thought that was just gonna be a few shows while they figured out what they had to do. We ended up recording a record, or an EP, which I played the bass on. And then, as we were about to start touring, Jason Burger, who was our drummer, decided he wanted to go pursue jazz performance drums at Manhattan School of Music. So we were left without a drummer like three weeks before our tour was going to start. I had played drums—you know, messed around with my brother playing drums in the garage.
Oh, so you hadn’t been super practiced in it or anything?
No, I mean I’d never really taken lessons or anything. I guess the singing -- I did choir and stuff in high school. But I figured, I’ll do drums for a little while and we had our friend Payam, who now plays bass. We said he’ll come on temporarily as bassist and I’ll play drums and we’ll figure it out and I’ll come back to bass…and it’s been almost four years now and it’s kind of just something that I got more comfortable with.
Yeah, well you seem to have really learned how to do it pretty well. Did you play any other instruments besides bass and drums and vocals?
Uh…I played trumpet very briefly in high school.
Oh yeah, I used to play trombone…I don’t touch the thing anymore.
Yeah I mean I had a bunch of early kind of forays into music and nothing really stuck with me until I started to kind of mess around with the guitar and the drums when I was in like 8th and 9th grade.
So this is for my own selfish interest, because I recently decided to take up the drums a little bit myself. Any advice for beginning drummers?
I think it’s kind of the same thing as with anything: just practice as much as you possibly can.
How did you start? Did you start with a practice pad or did you pretty much go right into kit?
Pretty much right into kit; my brother and I pooled our birthday money.
You shared a drum set?
This really terrible, like $150 awful broken Kima Empire or something. But it was so exciting and I would just, like, blast Nirvana and try to imitate and emulate Dave Grohl.
So I guess just practice. And I mean, the nice thing about drums is you can do it wherever.
That’s true. I was practicing my polyrhythms yesterday on the way home from school, walking home from the bus stop.
Exactly. Then if you can do it on your lap, you know, your feet, your hands they’re all the same. So if you can just kind of wrap your head around that then everything starts to get much easier.
Cool! All right, well I’ve got a few more questions for you. Tell me about the most exhilarating show you’ve ever played, if there was one that just stood out.
There have been a couple that stand out recently. On this tour, we did two nights at the Wiltern in Los Angeles, which is a pretty historical venue, and which was huge for us because we grew up in Southern California for a really long time. A lot of great bands that have played there…that we were able to sell it out and have all our friends and family there for us was pretty special. And then Austin, actually, where we had done ACL (Austin City Limits) before, which was really, really crazy.
And you did South by Southwest as well, right?
Yeah, South By last year was a lot of fun.
I’ve wanted to go there for a long time. I’ve heard it’s a good time.
This last time around we did two nights at Stubb’s, which is another super historical venue.
You know, just walking out on stage, sometimes it’s very hard to not just look like a jackass and smile wide-eyed looking out at the crowd, it’s so surprising and joyful, so yeah, probably on this last run those are the two that stood out most for me.
And have you played in Portland before? I’m sure you have, I just don’t remember seeing or hearing about you guys coming.
Yeah we played at the Crystal Ballroom.
Was that a couple of years ago?
No we did Crystal Ballroom a few months ago I think with the Kooks.
Oh wow, I didn’t even hear about it. I would’ve been there!
It was the Christmas stuff that the radio station puts on…you know, like seven nights of...
So we were one of those. We’ve done the Crystal Ballroom a couple of other times. Played the Doug Fir Lounge…
Is this your first time at the Roseland?
Actually the first headlining tour we ever went on as openers was for Minus the Bear and we ended at the Roseland.
So when was your first headlining tour, then, like for you guys as headliners?
This is like the first real headlining tour where we have legitimate production. We did a headlining tour, technically speaking: early 2011 we did kind of like, two months but it was all, like, 200-capacity venues—200 to 500. Actually the first time we played the Crystal Ballroom was during that run and that was the one show that was, like, 1500 people and everything else was like 200 people and we finally got here and it was one of the first times we had ever played a headlining show to that many people. So it’s got a pretty special place in our heart.
So I thought this was interesting: I also read that you received praise from former Smiths frontman Morissey, who called you one of his “favorite new bands.” Are you a Smiths fans? Have you met Morissey or seen him at your shows?
We have not met him. As far as the first question I think, as much as a Smiths fan as anyone who does music. We’re not, like, super Morrissey worshippers or anything like that.
Yeah, same boat. I just read that he’s pretty critical of modern music. So I guess that’s a pretty good thing for you guys.
Yeah, it’s nice, you know it just came around as we were starting to get a lot of reviews of the record and some of the reviews were really nice and some of them were not so nice. So it’s good to have someone who’s made a big mark on music come out and say that he enjoys our music was definitely a boost. But then again we try to not take too much from what people say about us. That has to be applied to both sides, where you can’t get too bummed out when someone says “This sucks.” You kind of have to let it pass through you. On the other side you also can’t say “Oh, Morrissey thinks we’re awesome, we’re doing it right! Let’s just not work hard.”
That’s very mature of you guys. Well I guess my last question, then, is what’s next for Young the Giant? What can we look forward to in the next year?
Well, directly speaking, Sunday we’re going home for 10 days.
Just going to relax, take some time off?
Yeah, just like 10 days, then we’re doing another couple weeks in the States and a couple weeks in Europe. And then, kind of just playing shows here and there, doing a good deal of festivals and as late summer comes around and early fall we’ll try to do the next record. We’ll get into the studio around September or October. Hopefully come March 2013 or Spring 2013, we’ll have a new record as long as the world doesn’t end.
Well apparently they got it wrong. I heard they didn’t account for leap days. That’s the news right now.
I took a Mesoamerican anthropology class and we only understand their calendar system to within, like, plus or minus 30 years, so essentially 2012 could’ve been anywhere in the last 30 years, or anywhere in the next 30 years. A little off-topic, but…
All right, well, you heard it hear first on KPSU, Francois Comtois says the world is not going to end, or may have already ended, or may end in the future.
That’s right! I hope it doesn’t end before our next record.
Yes, yes, me too, me too! Well it’s been an honor and a privilege, and thank you so much. Enjoy your ten days off, and thanks for coming to Portland!
Yeah, thank you!