Avid Dancer’s Jacob Summers on the Marines, Drumming + Christian Rock
As Avid Dancer, Jacob Summers makes harmonious, folksy psych-pop that isn't afraid of the occasional keyboard or looped groove. His forthcoming debut album, 1st Bath (out April 14 on the Fat Possum imprint, Grand Jury), is an impressively put-together affair, but the man's musical journey to now has been, well ... all over the place.
Raised in a cloistered Christian home, he started out as a drummer without a single secular influence. He went on to grab top honors in one of the world's biggest drumline competitions, found himself a home with the Marines and at last moved to the west coast with dreams of becoming a rock star. We sat down with Summers in a field in Austin to talk history while the sounds of SXSW boomed in the background.
How'd you start drumming in the first place?
I lived in Mississippi when I was in eighth grade and my next-door neighbor left some drumsticks at my house. We ended up moving to Alabama and they came with me. When I was a freshman in high school, I signed up for home-ec so I could be around a bunch of girls, but the first day, I was like, "F--- this, no way." So I went to switch electives and the counselor said, "Well, the electives are all closed off unless you're in band. Do you play an instrument?" I was like, "Yeah, I have drumsticks." So I went to band and they figured out in a second that I wasn't really a drummer, but instead of kicking me out, they put me in a practice room every. Halfway through the year, I'd become section leader of the drumline. It was one of those things. It just felt natural and I would obsess over it. I'd practice four or five hours a day. I would draw stick-figure drumlines on my folders and write out the names of the players where I thought they should be -- like, "If Ben comes back next year, he'd be sick for snare."
Whoa. Like a fantasy sports league type of thing.
Exactly. It was basically fantasy drumline, but I was the only player.
You are a champion drumline drummer. What does that mean?
There are a couple activities you can do outside of school -- one is Drum Corps International, which includes horns, so it's like what you see on the football field. Thanksgiving weekend, you go and audition with hundreds of other kids for a few spots, then you rehearse all winter, and compete in the summertime. It's a huge deal -- every major drum and drumstick company is involved -- but it's a real cult-y activity. I've thought about doing a TV show about it. I mean, these are the best drummers in the world and they're all under 21. After they're done, they just finish being a frat kid, graduate college, then have kids and do whatever and that's it.
Did that carry over to the Marines for you?
Yeah, I was in the Marine Drum & Bugle Corps in Washington, D.C. I did boot camp. I went to combat training. Ultimately, whatever you do, if World War III happened, I'd be fightin'. We have to do everything a normal Marine does, plus music. Our combat element was D.C. protection in case of invasions. So if anyone attacked the Capitol, there'd be a bunch of band people fighting. That would be cool. Well, not cool, but I mean ...
So you were in D.C., a Marine, and then suddenly you're in California smoking weed and playing in rock and roll bands. What changed exactly?
I always had rock star dreams, from the time I started drumming. Freshman year I was in a Christian band with my high school friends. And when I was in the Marines, I tried writing my own songs, which is when I picked up guitar. It wound up being too much Marine stuff though, so I moved to Los Angeles to be a studio drummer. I was trying to do that and kept writing songs just for fun, and then ended up getting a record deal with those songs, which is crazy. I mean, it probably took the last two years for me to even accept that I'm a singer in a band. It felt kind of silly.
And it was failing drum auditions that finally got you to do it on your own?
Yeah, a lot of my first auditions for bands in L.A. were like, "Yeah, you're really good, but you're not, like, tall and skinny." This was probably 2006, so everybody wanted this slender, Brit-rock, dark clothes vibe. Which is great, but I am not that. There was one band who I seriously thought was the coolest band I'd ever seen. But they'd say, "We want to do an Interpol thing here," or a Beatles thing, and I would honestly not know what they were talking about. They'd ask, "What are your influences?" and I'd be like, "DC Talk," which was true. That, and whatever band I'd just learned about.
So did you go home and bone up on the Beatles?
No, because, you know how if you listen to Christian rock or Korean pop -- anything you just don't normally hear -- it just doesn't sound like real music? It took me a long time to get to the point where listening to non-Christian rock and roll sounded right. Most of the music I listened to was about glorifying God, so I didn't know what they were singing about. Now if I go back and listen to that stuff, I'm like, "Oh, there's a Smiths vibe here, or a '90s snare drum there," and I can put the pieces together.
Is that fading tattoo of a Marines insignia being removed from your arm?
No, actually. I was a corporal, and one of my roommates after I was in the Marines was a really weird dude. We ended up building a tattoo gun off of something we saw on YouTube, where you have a little motor and you bend a guitar string and stick it in the top of an eraser so it can spin. Then we made ink and I was like, "Tattoo me." I get a lot of people who are like, "Dude, I can fix that," but just as many who are like, "No, man, that should never be fixed. You tattooed yourself with your buddy? That's the tattoo. That's the story." It got infected, though, and I swear to God I thought I had herpes or something. About a month after, I went to the VA, because it's free, and I was like, "Test me! I don't know what the f--- I did to myself!" I was clean.
On "All Your Words Are Gone" you sing, "Just be who you are." You grew up cloistered, were a Marine and now this. Is identity hard to pin down for you?
I don’t know. I dress differently now, or whatever, but I just wasn't introduced to much before. I drummed in the Marines, and I was a drummer before that. Being a Christian, that was my childhood -- I moved away from that but that was all me. That lyric, it's more that like everybody, I have things I don't like about myself -- anxiety or whatever. It's just me reminding myself, "Don't worry. You are who you are. Just be that. Don't let what other people say -- that you could be cooler, or that you're a dork -- affect that. You can be a better person, and change your habits, but you shouldn't be sitting at home wishing that you were taller, or that you were a better singer or that your life had turned out differently. Just be happy with who you are.
Avid Dancer's 1st Bath hits the streets on April 14 via Grand Jury Music. You can pre-order the album here, and grab the band's full tour schedule at this location.