Music Industry Q&A with Josh Trager
by Robert Flis / December 22, 2021
As 2021 comes to an end, the Sincop8ed Noize Foundation is happy to close out this year’s Rockalypse Music Workshops with a Q&A session with one of Canada's most prominent drummers. Montreal-born Josh Trager is best known as the drummer of the platinum-selling Sam Roberts Band. He is also an alumnus and scholarship recipient of the Berklee College of Music, and was a member of Mahogany Rush from 2001-2005. Josh has shared the stage and recorded with members of numerous legendary bands over the years. He is a contributor to Canadian Musician, DRUM!, MD blogs, Drumeo and Yamaha’s Y440 Sessions series. Recently, he spearheaded the unprecedented The Keepers Of The Backbeat: “We’re All In This Together” multi-drummer video for the Unison Benevolent Fund which featured 14 high profile Canadian drummers. We were fortunate enough to sit down with Josh and get to know about his beginnings as a drummer as well as some insights into what it’s like being a member of one of Canada’s most well-known rock bands.
Origins As A Drummer
Josh had been interested in music from a very young age, having taken piano lessons and dabbled in other instruments before discovering the drums. “I started drumming at 11 but I was pretty obsessed with drumming a year or two prior to actually getting my first drum set,” he explained. At around 10 years old he first heard Guns N’ Roses which immediately appealed to him. “It wasn’t even the drum beat that lured me in,” Josh continued. “It was more just the big powerful tom fills for whatever reason. It just sounded really cool to me and I haven’t turned back since.”
Biggest Musical Influences
“I was into Guns N’ Roses and Metallica, which pretty much every human being on earth was in 1992 - they were the biggest bands in the world,” Josh recalls. “But my horizons were broadened fairly quickly by some of my first teachers.” Josh remembers hearing one of his teachers playing songs by the legendary Bay Area funk band Tower of Power and being floored by the complexity of the music and the overall feel. “That was like a lightbulb moment for me,” Josh explained. “From there I was inspired to get into different types of music, which lead to more improvisational music like jazz.” Album wise, Josh was particularly inspired by Rush’s Moving Pictures album as well as Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage, with Zappa’s drummer Vinnie Colaiuta becoming his all-time favorite drummer to this day. As Josh continued to broaden his musical scope, he discovered the jazz album Chick Corea Akoustic Band – “Live From The Blue Note Tokyo” which also featured Vinnie Colaiuta on drums and is still one of his favorites.
Studying At Berklee College of Music
Josh’s main reason for wanting to go to Berklee was to follow in some of his heroes’ footsteps. “A lot of the musicians that I loved and admired, namely Vinnie Colaiuta, went there,” he explained. “Most didn’t graduate. If you had something ‘special’ going on, you usually didn’t stay there because you were just too damn good and someone would snap you up, or you would go on to try to make it in New York or LA, which is still the case today.” Josh attended Berklee for two semesters (after which he himself got “snapped up”) and remembers it as being the best academic year of his life. That being said, he did experience somewhat of a culture shock coming from a town like Montreal where he at the time felt like a fairly big fish in a small pond. “It was just an eye opener being there, seeing firsthand and hearing these incredible young musicians from all over the world that were just handing my ass to me,” he explained with a smile. Josh recalls feeling “useless” after trying to keep up with some of these prodigies during jams, but he never let that feeling discourage him. “It kept me hungry and it kept me trying,” he said. “It was never negative. It was always positive encouragement.”
Introduction To Sam Roberts Band
There’s nothing like jumping into a situation headfirst. Josh joined Sam Roberts Band in 2005 and was thrown right into the action. One of his first gigs with the band was in front of a crowd of some 150,000 people. “I broke out in a rash, because it was just such a huge life changing moment for me,” he remembers. More excruciating than the pressure of his first huge show was the four-month wait between when he thought he might be joining the band and when he actually did get confirmation that he was in. At the time, the band was heading to Australia to record their second album and they had already found a studio drummer to record with them, leaving Josh waiting on the sidelines for months, not knowing if they would decide to move forward with him or not. When they did return, they gave Josh a call and set up a jam. At that time, they already had all their summer gigs booked with more last-minute shows coming in. One of these shows was Live 8, a string of globally televised benefit concerts that coincided with the 20th anniversary of the now legendary Live Aid concert. Another was a Canada Day celebration on Parliament Hill, which is where the band played to an audience of 150,000. To this day, those are two of the biggest concerts Josh has played, serving as quite a memorable way to kick off his tenure with the band.
Playing In Mahogany Rush From 2001-2005
Prior to joining Sam Roberts Band, Josh was the drummer of the Montreal-based classic rock group Mahogany Rush. “I started playing with Mahogany Rush and Frank Marino their guitarist right out of my first semester at Berklee,” he explained. “Coming from an educational institution and into the world of Frank Marino, that kind of ended up being my real education. That was like sink or swim.” Frank had booked a whole summer of shows and was looking for a local drummer. Josh fit the bill, so they got together and started gigging. This was his first time playing in a truly established band that had long-time fans with certain expectations, so the pressure to perform was higher than anything he had experienced before. “Over the first 3 weeks or so of the first leg of our tour, my playing went through a whole metamorphosis because it had to,” Josh recalled. As great as a place like Berklee is, it could never had offered him the same learning experience that touring with Mahogany Rush did. Working with a veteran like Frank Marino taught Josh a lot about the music industry and was a privilege that is not common for young musicians just starting out in their career. “They say timing is everything and at the time I was still really young and green and excited and ambitious”, Josh remembers. “It was just the perfect time and I consider myself really lucky.”
Staying Motivated During The Pandemic
Like most musicians (if not all), the past nearly two years have provided their share of challenges and obstacles. Like many, Sam Roberts Band made some adjustments that allowed them to stay active during this time. They began doing livestream shows in 2020 which had a bit of a learning curve and took some getting used to. Josh described it as uncomfortable at first, but they eventually got more comfortable performing without a live audience in front of them. The band was also fortunate enough to play a few drive-in gigs as well. “Being on a stage with real production felt like a regular gig which was a nice feeling,” Josh explained. “It was a nice escape at the time.” Josh also emphasized his gratitude for having had the opportunity to perform at all. It’s been difficult for performing artists all over the world and many musicians have not been fortunate enough to get the chance to take the stage at all. Outside of music, keeping motivated and inspired wasn’t really a huge challenge for Josh. “It was kind of great for that,” he said. “Things felt like they went on pause and it was kind of a relief because the regular grind came to a halt.” This gave him a chance to delve into some other interests like video editing (a long-time passion of his) and even tap dancing, something Josh had long been interested in trying because several of his favorite drummers, like Buddy Rich, were also great tap dancers. The ability to take virtual lessons also made it much easier and less intimidating for Josh as he didn’t have to work up the courage to go to lessons in person.
The Keepers of the Back Beat: “We’re All In This Together”
Something else the pandemic afforded Josh was the ability to put together his multicam drum video project, The Keepers of the Back Beat. At the time he was seeing a lot of multi-cam videos where each musician had a square on the screen, but it occurred to him that nobody was doing it with just drummers, which surprised him because the drumming community is generally so active and supportive of one another. Josh got together over a dozen of Canada’s most prominent drummers including Pat Steward (Bryan Adams), Tim Oxford (Arkells), Danny Miles (July Talk), Glenn Milchem (Blue Rodeo), Sekou Lumumba (Big Wreck) and others to record a cover of the Sam Roberts Band song “We’re All In This Together.” The result was an amazing medley bringing together so many great talents from across the country for a united cause.“The title of the song just made sense in light of the pandemic, so I wanted to do something with it,” Josh explained. Profits from the song went to the Unison Benevolent Fund, an organization that provides help and support for people in the Canadian music community.
Speaking with Josh, it was clear that he has nothing but gratitude in his heart for the musical opportunities he’s had throughout his career, and his advice to up and coming musicians reflects that. “Go back and try to see the lineage of your instrument,” Josh insisted. “We wouldn’t be where we are now without all the amazing people that came before, so it’s important to pay your respects and learn from these amazing music makers of the past.”
Aside from educating yourself and honing your craft as best you can, Josh also recommends trying to play with as many different people as possible. “It’s important to play different styles and be open minded,” he continued. “Branch out from your bubble and be open to different people. You never know what doors might open.”
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