With Bobby Alt of Street Drum Corps
There was a lot happening for Street Drum Corps at the time that we made our version of “Happy Xmas (War is Over).” It was just a magical moment in time.
The Inspiration Behind Our Version:
It was actually picked by our friend Bert McCracken from The Used. He became best friends of ours and we’d been touring with him for years. Kevin Lyman, the owner of the Warped Tour, was putting together a Christmas compilation called The Taste of Christmas. It was on Warcon records, which was the Warped Tour and Bob Chiappardi from New York, who owns Concrete Marketing. The Street Drum Corps signed our very first deal to Warcon Records. We were on the Warped Tour and Kevin told me he would love for us to do a Christmas cover for this compilation. He had $200 for us. We said, “Well, alright.”
We started thinking about things we can do. We thought about “Little Drummer Boy,” which we ended up doing a few years later since we are a drum group, but we ended up checking with Bert. We didn’t have a singer at the time so I called Bert and asked him if he would be interested in doing the Christmas song with us for Kevin. He said sure, and right away suggested “Happy Xmas, (War is Over)” by John Lennon. He thought we would create a great version and wanted to ask John Feldmann to produce it. He had produced all The Used albums.
I brought the idea back to Kevin and he couldn’t believe it. It all got approved and we went into the studio with John Feldmann, who ended up playing some guitar. We also brought in Quinn Allman from The Used, Airin Older from Sugarcult, of course the Street Drum Corps and Bert on vocals. It came out so well that they asked us to make a video for it. We found a director and he wanted to shoot it in New York. So, we flew everyone involved into New York to be in the video. We ended up doing it in Morris Town, New Jersey at a label executive’s house. Before we got the video released, we had to clear it with Yoko Ono because we changed some of the lyrics. Not only did it get approved, but Yoko liked the song so much that she asked us to be her special guest in New York City — to fly in and perform in honor of John Lennon at a big Grammy event honoring Howard Shore and Puff Daddy. Jay Z and Quest Love were there and it was incredible. Yoko Ono loved that I used chains in the video. I was slamming chains against an old propane tank.
Putting the Song Together:
We went over to John Feldmann’s studio and loaded in all our crazy drum equipment to record the percussion parts. We then got into an acoustic vibe, the arrangement and simply started playing. We wanted to honor the original song and the layout. It’s a song that starts off so sweet and then it ends as serious as you can get. It sounds like a hundred drummers at the end. Finally, Bert laid down all the vocals and we all went in for the “Queen Style” background. It was so beautiful. We had such a short turnaround, but we nailed it and got it in on time.
It’s always a challenge for the Street Drums Corps to take on a pop song, especially involving lyrics and being a cover song. We try to come at it thinking, “What would we do naturally?” That always helps us to not overthink it. We find the instrument that sounds best, start grooving on it and with the help of great engineers, we chop it up into parts so that we create something more than just a jam. There’s a science in putting together a good track for us because we don’t want everything to just sound like a drum loop. You also want to honor the original song, but make sure that it’s different. Why put out a cover that sounds just like the original? When you have someone like Bert in the mix, who’s a very unique and original singer, you want to let him do his thing. You have to make sure the drums are tuned to the singer. We were very in tune with Bert so that really helped. The team you bring in to play with Street Drum Corps is very important — having Airin’s baseline added a crucial element.
Keeping it within the Christmas feel, we didn’t want it to be too aggressive, but did want it to sound like a hundred drummers. We had to get sweet enough with our parts to enhance the lead vocal and enhance the beautiful background vocals that were in there. We didn’t think too much about what the overall theme was, but we knew how we wanted it to sound.
As soon as Bert mentioned “Happy Xmas, (War is Over),” it struck a nerve with me in a great way. I had this adrenaline rush through my body because John Lennon is my favorite songwriter of all time. Also, I love Christmas time. It’s very special to me. Growing up on the east coast, Christmas meant a lot to my family — just getting together and celebrating. I remember the love. That song nails it on a universal level. John Lennon was so prolific. It wasn’t just your ordinary Christmas song, the song means something. It’s about unity. John Lennon was always trying to bring people together and I think when you do bring people together that’s when we are most powerful as human beings.
It’s funny, my Grandmother will call me and say she heard our song when she was at Target. It’s probably the Lennon version, but I think she thinks it’s ours. Our whole family loves that song and it was a really great choice.
What It Meant For Street Drum Corps:
When our version came out, it felt like everything was happening. We had our best friend on the track, it was for Christmas, part of a label, part of the Warped Tour movement, it got us on major radio stations and the video went viral. As a young kid, those are things you dream of. It introduced the Street Drum Corps to an even larger audience with Bert, the Warped Tour and the label. It all came together. Being on a compilation was also an incredible honor because all the fans of the other bands on there got to check out Street Drum Corps as well. The impact that it had for me was that time gave me more belief in the power of hard work, dedication and following your vision all the way through. It can make you feel really great.
We have our place on that record and it is now a great video that we have in our catalog forever. It marks a time in our lives where we were all best friends. It was very special, we were making great music together.
I’d like to take this moment to thank John Lennon and Yoko Ono and this incredible Christmas song that means so much to us.
Article in collaboration with Jeff Gorra — Artist Waves.