Interview: JT Bates talks about drumming for Taylor Swift

JT Bates talks with Jill Riley about drumming for Taylor Swift. (MPR Video)

Twin Cities drummer JT Bates talks to The Current's Jill Riley about what it was like to play drums on several tracks on Taylor Swift's new album, Folklore.

Watch and listen to the interview above, and read a transcript below. If you'd rather watch the video with captions, confirm your YouTube settings are set to display captions.

Interview Transcript

JILL RILEY: You are listening to The Current's Morning Show; I'm Jill Riley. And so I have to admit, I was out of town recently, I was on a camping trip with the family, and I tried to cut myself off from the news and social media as much as I could, except at night, I would allow myself a couple minutes of time to catch up on what I'd been missing, and as it should turn out, Taylor Swift's name was coming up a lot in my social media feed.

And further, it should turn out that she released a surprise record with some very familiar names playing and working on the record; familiar to Current listeners, and musicians that are really in The Current wheelhouse.

And the record is called "Folklore," and it's a really surprising sort of departure for Taylor Swift, and she called on Aaron Dessner of the National to work on the record with her, and as I was looking at the credits, Justin Vernon's name popped up, of Bon Iver, and also a local Twin Cities drummer, and that would be JT Bates. JT, how are you doing?

JT BATES: I'm pretty good.

How did you end up on a Taylor Swift record?

Well, because of Aaron [Dessner]. You know, I've worked with Aaron for the last couple years, in Big Red Machine, Lone Bellow, various other sessions he's been hiring me for.

And I've done a few things for him since COVID began; we've been, you know, we're always texting and talking. He's a very inspiringly creative person who just is really constantly making things, and it's pretty incredible.

So he, yeah, contacted me at some point and was like, "Hey, I've got this special, fun little project going on here; can you record some drums on a few songs for me?" Because obviously, we're all recording remotely at this point.

So yeah, it was very hush-hush, the whole thing, and obviously not really letting out any information as to who this person was or anything like that, and so yeah! You know, you do these things and you send them off, and you don't really know what it's going to end up being or what it's going to be like, and then, sometimes, I guess, apparently, it's a Taylor Swift record.

So was there some kind of code word, like "Operation blah blah blah"? I mean, did you even know that it was a Taylor Swift song when you started recording?

No. I didn't.

So what did you get? You got a like a music track?

Yeah.

OK.

You know, I mean, that's how they set it up. I mean, obviously, there's … whatever! There's a lot of reasons that would be set up that way; I don't need to go into that. But anyway, yeah, so he just said, "I can't really tell you who this is." But you know, I know Aaron pretty well; he's become a close musical brother in a lot of ways in the last few years, so I know when he sends me things, I've learned his aesthetic — not that I always know what he's going to do — but just that I can give him some things that he's going to — I know which things I do that he likes, so then you just, you know, like, yeah. I mean, there's a lot of this going on; it's like, someone sends you a song, and normally, we'd be hanging out in a studio talking, and maybe I'd even be listening to the artist sing the song while I'm, you know, maybe not a finished vocal, but like, something's there; you know, when you're at the studio, usually there's something to play to or something like that. So this was a really different experience!

But really fun. And then he contacted me very early in the morning on Thursday [July 23] and was like, "Buddy, it's Taylor Swift." And I was like, "I can't believe…" (laughter)

Taylor Swift portrait
Taylor Swift surprise-released her album, Folklore, on Thursday, July 23. (Beth Garrabrant)

My 15-year-old and my wife were both, you know, aware that I had done this something for Aaron for somebody that's, you know, we're not allowed to know who this person is, whatever, and they were like, "Oh my gosh, what if it's Taylor Swift? That'd be so cool." And they were right.

That's great! I love hearing the insight on that because, you know, I have seen you as a live drummer with a number of bands and artists. But kind of to get that inside view of what it's like to be a session drummer, and it's not unusual for you to get sent something or just called into a studio. Or you get something sent to your studio, and it's like, "Hey, can you play on this?" I mean, that's not a totally unusual thing in your world.

No, it's not. And I mean, honestly, during quarantine, you know, for anyone out there wondering how their favorite artists are still putting songs out and still releasing music, that's how it's happening. That's how it's all happening. I mean, I have a handful of friends who I know have gone to a couple studios and done actual physical sessions, but it's really interesting. It's really fun. There's some really fun parts of it for me, because I can sort of be here and I can spend all day, you know, whereas maybe normally that would be wasting someone else's time; I can really kind of get lost and go down a rabbit hole trying different things. Sometimes it just happens instantly, and I can't even believe how quickly I'm sending something back to someone.

And then specifically with Aaron, yeah, it's just like I know that if I've sent him like three or four takes of a song, he's going to grab what he likes and get what he likes, and if he doesn't, then he'll be like, "Hey, can you try this or that?"

Lately, I've been incorporating a lot more FaceTime into it, just personally, because, like, the first couple months of COVID, doing a lot of this was really fun, and then now, I'm really kind of seeking that conversation, because it's just, you know, it's just such a different thing from the live thing and feeling people's energy and feeling the energy of a song and being able to ask a songwriter while you're at the studio, like, "Hey, what's this one about? Where's this coming from?" and all that.

And then also, just the musical, the technical information, too. So yeah, it's really fun, but I've been able to do a bunch of work for a bunch of different, fun people during this, and like I said, it was just sort of, I still kind of can't believe it. (laughter)

We're talking about Taylor Swift's new record, "Folklore"; I'm talking with Twin Cities drummer JT Bates about playing on a couple of the tracks, so "epiphany," "seven" and "the last great american dynasty" are the songs that you play on. So when Aaron Dessner sent you those tracks, what kind of direction did he give you? He probably knows you well enough where he's like, "Hey, can you come up with a couple different things on this?"

Yeah. It was a little different. I mean, I don't know how familiar you are with the Big Red Machine stuff, but on that record and a lot of that music that I play on, he's got so much drum programming going, that a lot of times, from me, he's looking for the opposite of that; sort of like the more live activity, "action" sometimes they call it, or smearing things, where I'm not maybe trying to play exactly — you know, because there's a machine playing the beat, so maybe I can be more of a color, more of a texture, things like that. But he did say, kind of out of the gate on this one, "This is going to be more of a poppy sort of thing, so not really looking for the Big Red stuff." And so, like, on "the last great american dynasty," he was like, he just really wanted me to kind of get in; there's a beat that he programmed, and I'm basically just doubling that, just to have, it kind of fills it out in a different way when there's live drums.

[On] "seven," that one he definitely was like, "You'll know what to do on this one." It was kind of a straightforward thing. But then, you know, texturally on that one, we did a little back and forth of trying out different dynamics of the drums, you know, because — and again, that's stuff that, if we were all in a room, would be like a five-second decision, but this was like, I do something, I email it to him; he texts me back. You know, it's like, whatever.

And then, "epiphany," he was like, "Yeah, I'd just like a little bit more of an orchestral sort of thing," so I did a couple different things and then they ended up just using actually just one part of it, but used it throughout.

And that's an interesting part about working with a lot of modern producers, is it's so easy to grab just a certain part that they like or something that grabs their ear, and then, so you might do a lot of work, and then they might just use one little part.

Just like a little… (laughter)

But that's fine, too. And that's something that I've learned: How to be really comfortable with [that]. And it's a really great, unattached feeling, you know, to just be like, "Well, here's a bunch of stuff; you're going to use what you're going to use anyway, so if you want something more specific, you'll tell me." That's the great part about Aaron; that's like how he included so many of his good friends and collaborators and our other good buddies on this recording, and friends and family of his and stuff. You know, it's like he knows, he sees people's strengths that way and understands how they could be an asset to a certain song or to a certain vibe or a texture or something like that.

I'm talking with Twin Cities drummer JT Bates, who plays on a few of the songs on the new Taylor Swift record, and you mentioned friends and family, and I'm really impressed by Aaron Dessner's ability to keep a secret from you, because when it comes to my close friends, I just feel like if I was pushed even just a little bit, like, "Come on, Jill; what is this?" I'd be like, "OK, here's what it is, but don't tell anyone!" But that's pretty impressive.

There's, you know, yeah. You want to get called back for more of these things.

Right!

So there's partly that, there's also just, you could tell he felt funny, when he did call me, I mean, he was like, "Oh, man, I can't even…" Obviously, there's contractual stuff for him, so it's like, he's not going to, you know, anyhow. So and then, of course, I was really curious, but I know Aaron pretty well, and he's a kind of to-himself sort of fella, and so he's not someone I would bug like that anyhow. But yeah. I mean, I was definitely curious, but I'm also good at, I've learned over time, just waiting for surprises or whatever…

All will be revealed. (laughter)

It's like, "He just worked with Michael Stipe. Let's see… who could it be next?"

That was another crazy one! I played on that song too for him, and it was like, "OK, man, I guess we're playing with Michael Stipe. Great!" You know?

Great!

Yeah. Thanks, Aaron!

Related: Michael Stipe and Aaron Dessner talk about "No Time for Love Like Now"

We're talking with JT Bates. Now you've talked about some, you know, kind of having a lot of time and space during the pandemic to either work on session work for other people, but you, this makes more sense probably for the sake of this video, but is this your studio that I'm looking at behind you?

Yeah, this is my studio. You can see, there's my drums.

Wow!

It's a beautiful room, and I actually, I split the studio with Holly Hansen, and so it's been great for us because she, previous to the quarantine, was producing a lot of bands and recording them, and they would have been normally set up in this room, where I am, and she has the control room through the door, and so she obviously is — bands aren't getting into studios and recording, so I was able to, it's just been a real win-win for us, because I'm able to help her keep her spot and not have to worry about all the rent, and then I have a spot, because I normally was recording some drums at my house, but now everyone's at my house, and if you live in a house with a drummer, well…

Right! (laughs)

Anyway, so at some point I was like, "Maybe I'll find a place" — anyway, it's just really worked out well, and so I've been here a lot and working on a bunch of different stuff for a bunch of different people. Like I did A Flock of Dimes, some tracks for Jen, and I got to play on this really fun track with this band called Folk Uke, that's like Amy Nelson and Cathy Guthrie; they made this track called "Small One," and I got to play on that, and then we did the Michael Stipe thing came out, which we had actually tracked that before. And then, yeah, just working with a bunch of different people. And then also working on some of my own music, too, which is great. So to actually have a dedicated spot, I'll work on some music for others, and then I'm here and I'm like, "Oh yeah! I can work on my own music."

So what are you up to as far as your own music?

A bunch of different things, but mainly the thing I'm most excited about, and that is finally getting finished now, most people are kind of surprised usually, but I make a lot of music that has no drums at all, like just ambient music. So very drone-y, like kind of coming out of the Brian Eno school of things, just very minimalist; it's music that's really important for me, just in a sort of mind-clearing, head-clearing space, like just that music in general; I'm not talking about my own music! I was just saying I love that music and I feel like, you know, if you're listening to jazz music, you're trying to kind of analyze what's going on there; and if you're listening to lyrics, you're wondering what this other person was thinking about. Sometimes it is a while before you get around to kind of getting into your own thoughts while you're listening to music, which is, I think, is a pretty important part of music. There's a meditativeness for people there. And so, yeah, I'm working on this ambient record; or it's like an EP, I guess, like six tracks or something, so my friend Huntley Miller, who's an amazing mastering engineer, he's going to master it in the next couple weeks, and then I'm not sure if I'll — I'll probably just put it out on Bandcamp myself; I mean, it's not exactly a Taylor Swift record, you know?

Sure.

But I'm really excited about it, and it's one of those things that, you know, I'm sure we all have, you know, there's been so many struggles and so much intense stuff happening and continuing to be happening during the quarantine and with social justice, and in particular in our city here, but also has been really, at the same time, the quarantine for me, personally, it has given me some time to work on some things that I would normally not feel like I had as much time to work on; there's always running from one thing to the next, or leaving town, you know, just all that kind of stuff, and it's that slowing down of the Earth for a little while there, at least for me, was pretty amazing in that I finally got to say, like, "Oh my gosh, I'm going to finish these tracks." I've had this folder of tracks that I've been staring at for — some of them, when I started, I realized the other day that I started almost five years ago. So it's nice to, if nothing else, just put a period on that stuff, get it out in the world, and hopefully somebody likes it at all, and then you know, see what the next thing is. Now that I'm here at the studio all the time, I'm finding myself starting to create more stuff on my own. So that's another great benefit of this. It's really fun.

You wish that the circumstances were different, but maybe the blessing in it is that we can be a little more present and slow down. You know, maybe that's the lesson, and I've found that myself of just to slow down and kind of re-evaluate what's important in my day. You know?

Absolutely. I mean, there's, you know, I know it's not everyone is lucky enough to have that, but I definitely feel like those of us who do, should take a moment to be grateful for that and hopefully learn about some reasons maybe why we are in that position or whatever. And so, yeah, there's a lot to think about, but there's also, it is nice to feel like everyone kind of, and especially in the Twin Cities, I feel like everyone kind of, a lot of people got to know their neighbors a lot better in the last few months, and a lot of people have had conversations, you know, just walking around my neighborhood, I've had so many. There's just some of that stuff that, like, how else was that going to happen? I'm not sure.

Are you going to put that music out under JT Bates, or do you have a name for that project?

Well, my longstanding electronic-music alias is Seven Dollars, but I'll just probably put it out under my name because no one knows what [Seven Dollars] is, and, I mean, it'll just be on my Bandcamp page, I'm sure.

OK.

Unless somebody, for some reason, becomes interested in releasing it, which I'm not sure. I haven't really even tried, I honestly haven't looked into that much. But actually Aaron and Justin had put out a couple of my ambient tracks on their 37d03d label that they have going, so I don't know. Maybe that's a possibility. I'm not sure. But yeah, anyways, it''ll be on my Bandcamp page, and the other thing that I did recently that's on there, if people want to check it out, I'm very, very excited about, I have a band with Dave King that's called Real Bulls, just two drum sets. And so a few years ago, we opened for Trampled By Turtles at the Mainroom, so we played improvised drum set duets at First Avenue, which was just incredible. Just kind of amazing. And anyways, our good friend Jay Perlman, amazing sound engineer about town, he clicked "record" and recorded it, and so we actually put that out a couple months ago, so that's also on there, and people can check that out if they want.

Dave King portrait
Drummer Dave King. (Nate Ryan | MPR file photo)

All right. JT Bates, Twin Cities drummer, he's played with a ton of people around town, national acts as well, session drummer and has credits on the new Taylor Swift record, "Folklore," and if your daughter gets to return to school this fall, she's going to have a reason to brag about her dad. Of everything that you've ever done, now she's going to have a reason to brag about her dad.

The one cool thing I did, yep!

(laughter)

That's really how it goes!

Yep!

All right, JT Bates, thanks for checking in with The Current's Morning Show, all right?

Awesome. Thanks for having me, Jill.

External Links

JT Bates - Bandcamp

Taylor Swift - official site

37d03d Records - official site

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2 Photos

  • Pieta Brown performs in The Current studio
    JT Bates performs with Pieta Brown in The Current studio. (Nate Ryan | MPR)
  • Phil Cook 8
    Drummer JT Bates performs with Phil Cook in The Current studio. (MPR photo/Nate Ryan)