Audeze chats with drummer and producer John Merikoski

John Merikoski is a Chicago based drummer and multi-instrumentalist. He attended the University of Illinois on a full ride scholarship for jazz drum studies, and after finishing joined international touring act, The Way Down Wanderers. John has been touring and recording all over the world for nearly a decade and has gotten to work with Grammy-winning engineers and producers. John is also an accomplished producer and mix engineer in his own right. He has recorded and performed with a variety of great artists including David Hyde Pierce, Yvie Oddly (RuPaul's Drag Race winner), Marquis Hill, Jenni Eddy Jennings, members of the Ray Charles Orchestra, and many more.

 John Merikoski with his Audeze LCD-X headphones

"My mixes are translating well on other systems and I’ve never been less afraid of the dreaded ‘car test’ than I am after working a mix on my LCD-X’s." - John Merikoski
Here's our talk with John:
Can you pick out any highlights from your work that you're particularly proud of?

I’m extremely proud of The Way Down Wanderers’ last record, “More Like Tomorrow.” We got together in the middle of the pandemic with legendary producer David Schiffman (Johnny Cash, Rage Against The Machine, Tom Petty) and spent two weeks at the amazing Shirk Studios in my hometown, Chicago. I was especially proud because it felt like all odds were against us getting together and making it happen and it was a bit of a diamond in the rough of the pandemic. We were blown away to receive a positive writeup in Rolling Stone and we have been having a ton of fun touring on the record all year. I truly believe it’s our finest work yet.

How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?

I wear quite a few hats which I think has become more and more necessary in the music industry. My first love is always the drums. Through drums I found my way into production and mixing. There are times where I just come in and play drums on a record and won’t hear it until the release. There are other times where I’m helping all the way from the writing process up through the recording and mixing.

How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?

My dad grew up in Europe and had a pretty eclectic taste in music. Even as a young kid I could sing just about every word to any Frank Zappa, Iron Maiden, or ABBA song you put on. I really wanted to play clarinet in the school band but my parents insisted I had way too much energy and should try the drums. Despite how I felt at the time I can’t thank them enough for pushing me towards it. From there I branched out to piano and guitar and started seriously studying jazz. I was very fortunate to get a full scholarship to the University of Illinois in Champaign to study. I left U of I after three years because the band I had joined, The Way Down Wanderers, had found quite a bit of success. Since then I have toured all over the world and gotten to work with many of my heroes, I feel so unbelievably lucky.

Can you name any factors that influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?

One that comes to mind was a few years back. I was out in the U.K. doing a few weeks of shows and I ran into my absolute hero, the legendary Stewart Copeland of The Police. I’ve been obsessed with his playing and his music for as long as I can remember. The Police was the first show I ever saw and my first drum kit had to be the same color as his (blue). I remember asking him for advice and he told me to be more than just a drummer, be a musician and an artist. I was a bit confused at the time but I’ve really come to learn that every facet of music informs the others.

Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?

I was down in Texas making a record at the legendary Sonic Ranch early in my recording career and had quite a humbling moment. I was sitting in the control room with the producer and engineer and trying to do everything I could to help. I was giving any thoughts, opinions, ideas, frustrations - I just cared so much. A couple days into the project the producer pulled me aside and said, “John, you need to trust me. I know your heart is in the right place but we’ve got too many cooks in the kitchen.” This was incredibly hard for me to hear, and also embarrassing, especially because it was an amazing producer, Mike Marsh, who is a hero of mine. I was so humiliated that I spent the rest of the day sitting in my room in a bit of a daze. I realized that in music you need to be whatever is necessary, and that if everything is going well that might mean you need to sit and smile and just be a good hang. I’ve really come to learn how important it is to read a room and be exactly what the situation needs. Sometimes that’s the person that is giving tons of input, ideas, critiques, and sometimes that’s just someone cracking the occasional joke and telling a person that they sound great.  

Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?

I’ve been so lucky to be surrounded by a whole bunch of talented friends who have helped me in the ongoing journey of gear and tools to make music. I absolutely adore my early 70s Camco drums that I’ve been touring on lately. I bought them at a great shop in Chicago right before the pandemic and within an hour of buying them the owner of the shop (Drugans Drums, John Drugan) called me and told me that Jeff Tweedy had called and told them not to sell the drums because he was going to buy them tomorrow! I told John to let Jeff know he can borrow them any time, I hope he takes me up on it one day!

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?

Try any gig once. I don’t care if it’s mixing a live polka record, recording a high school choir, mixing a death metal band, just try it. There were so many things that I never pictured myself doing early on that I have found pure joy and passion in. I actually met The Way Down Wanderers through a Tuesday night cover band bar gig I used to play, you just never know.

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?

I love using monitors but as a heavily touring musician I find myself often needing to get work done on the go, from hotel rooms to backstage. Without the right headphones, I have a lot of trouble trusting my mixes or making any serious moves in a mix. I always had to wait to get home to double check them. When I’m on the road or in new studios I love the consistency of a trusted pair of headphones. They really help inform me on the sound of a new room’s monitors as well, as they are a great check in spot. Even when I’m mixing on my monitors I still am often checking on headphones.

How have your Audeze headphones affected your work?

For the first time in my life I can actually trust mixes I do on the road. As a full time touring musician, I used to have to tell clients to wait until I got off tour to finish any mixes- not anymore! My mixes are translating well on other systems and I’ve never been less afraid of the dreaded ‘car test’ than I am after working a mix on my LCD-X’s.

Do you have any additional comments or stories you want to share?

This is pretty random but I figured you might get a kick out of it- I’m actually a pretty serious spoons player. I’ve been playing them for many years, and since The Way Down Wanderers are rooted in bluegrass and Americana, I always felt it was a bit of a tip of the hat to where we came from. I actually gave a Ted Talk last year on how to play the spoons!

John Merikoski's Audeze LCD-X headphones in his studio