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Mystic Debris: Justin Gradin’s New Beat 

The musician turned graphic novelist shares his all-time favourite drummers on the heels of his latest artistic adventure. 

by Gregory Adams

Justin Gradin’s surrealistic debut graphic novel, Mystic Debris, is a vibrant, astral planes-hopping tale starring Whizbang, a down-on-his-luck, anthropomorphic monkey percussionist who has just been booted out of his metal band, Fascinator. You could draw parallels between the character and its creator — both have bashed out plenty of beats from behind a drum kit — but Gradin’s CV is decidedly much more artistically adventurous than the book’s anti-hero, who begrudgingly ends up taking on a factory job to make ends meet, as his old band ascends to rock stardom.

With respect to Gradin, the multi-disciplinary artist tells RANGE that he briefly held down a job at a Vancouver Toys “R” Us in his early 20s, but he’s primarily spent his adult life navigating the arts. This has included stints drumming in noise-punks Mutators, or the no wave-inspired Female Health and Doktors projects he formed with Gossip guitarist Nathan Howdeshell (a.k.a. Brace Paine) when the latter was living in B.C. in the early aughts; more recently, Gradin has crafted grunge-informed artcore as the guitarist-vocalist of Rinse Dream, who delivered their debut full-length, Spaces, in 2022.

Outside of making music, Gradin started up and co-ran legendary underground punk venue the Emergency Room in Vancouver’s downtown Eastside in the late ’00s. Around that time, he started producing cut-and-paste album art for White Lung, which led to him directing a series of awesomely oddball music videos for the punk group; he’s also made clips for the likes of Louise Burns, Black Mountain, Lighting Dust, and more. A few years back, Gradin was also developing a TV series with former roommate and feted songwriter Tobias Jesso Jr., though this has since evolved into a multi-volume biography series on the Grammy-winning Adele collaborator called Oh Hell No, which will feature illustrations from Gradin. When RANGE reaches the artist over Zoom, he’s actually in the midst of packing up for L.A. to work on the project full-force.

Rewinding slightly, Gradin got his start on drums at the age of 10. What he really wanted to play was the saxophone, though. “I had a crush on my friend’s cousin — she looked just like Jennifer Connolly from Labyrinth, and she played the saxophone,” Gradin recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh, dad, I’ve got to play saxophone.’ I thought that’s where the girls were, I guess, [but instead] my dad was like, ‘No, you can play the guitar, the bass guitar, or the drums. That’s it.’”

Gradin cut his teeth playing surf music with his dad, but developed his rhythmic chops while inspired by the worlds of primeval grunge, danceable European post-punk, and Devo’s most mechanical man, “human drum machine” Alan Meyers. Eventually, he’d begin promoting his bands by playing gigs and booking tours, just like Mystic Debris’ Whizbang.

Justin Gradin’s Mystic Debris is out now via Fantagraphics.

Unlike his cartoon counterpart — desperate to escape the drudgery of life through reality-shattering trips along the astral plane moving away from the drums wasn’t as dire a proposition for Gradin. While some projects have fared better than others, in a financial sense, he’s endlessly curious and creative. Nevertheless, a few disillusioning autobiographical details have crept into Whizbang’s journey.

“I had an ex-girlfriend from long ago who used to say, ‘Oh, you’re going on another tour? You should probably quit the band and get a real job,’” Gradin reveals. “Personally, I wouldn’t have chosen what [Whizbang] chose in the book, because I’m always making art. I’m moving to L.A. in a month, and all I’ll be doing is drawing…for [my] job! It’s interesting to see what happens if you keep doing something [artistic].”

Mere days before making the move to California, and ahead of Mystic Debris’ June 16 release date through Fantagraphics, Gradin drummed up a few details on the heavy hitters that inspired him — and possibly Whizbang — to get behind a kit.


When I first started playing drums, my favourite drummer and my favourite drum sound were Dale Crover and Melvins’ Houdini. I still love Dale Crover. The drums on that record sound so heavy [and] sound so thick, like he’s just smashing them. There’s so much weight to every hit. And there’s just something about the way he chooses to play. You can really tell when he’s playing the drums. One of the craziest tracks on that album is “Honey Bucket.” The intro to that song is a drum masterpiece.


I also love Don Bolles from the Germs, he’s got such a scrappy, punchy style. When [Germs guitarist] Pat Smear joined Nirvana, no one [really] knew who he was. But my brother had bought a Germs live CD from some record store. He had gone in and asked them what’s punk, and he said, “My brother listens to Nirvana, Sonic Youth, and Melvins.” They said, “Oh, you should buy this CD, this is the guy who’s just joined Nirvana.” It was a live CD, so it was absolutely horrible. It sounded terrible, but I think they might’ve put the seven-inch [1977’s Forming EP] at the end of the record, or something. I thought that was pretty good, even though Don’s not on that. Eventually my friends and I found the What We Do is Secret 12-inch, and that record was just mind blowing. Then, of course, you find GI [the Germs’ 1979 debut album]. [Don’s] style is just so fast, and so punchy. It just feels like something exciting is happening every second he’s playing the drums. I would listen to those records a lot, [and] when I was a kid, I would learn some of those songs.



Lislot Ha’s the drummer of Kleenex — after Kleenex [a.k.a. tissue makers the Kimberly-Clark Corporation] sued them, they became Lilliput. They were a Swiss punk band. Lislot Ha’s drumming is so good; she makes every song fun and danceable. There’s something unique about the way she plays [that] adds to jangly sound of Kleenex. The single, [1979’s] “You,” is one that a lot of people [know, but] one of my favourite songs is as song called “Hitch Hike.” Great fucking song.



He was another guy who just sounded like a heavy hitter; [he’s] really pounding it. I like all the guys that sound like they’re really hard-hitting, or that sort of weird, self-taught sound. Like, Don Bolles is self-taught; Lislot Ha was probably self-taught

Did you ever take lessons, yourself?

I went to a couple lessons when I first started [playing drums,] but I hated it. It would be like, “This is a paradiddle,” and I’d be like, “I don’t think I’m ever going to use a paradiddle.” It just seemed kind of useless. When I was a kid, I would just watch music videos. And if you’d watch the drummer at certain points, you’d learn how to do a flam. I think the best way to do it is to listen and play. Especially now, where kids with an electronic drum set can just hook up their headphones and play along.



I mean, his nickname was the human drum machine. That guy was absolutely on-a-dime. He’s so efficient, you know? I can see why he quit Devo, when they wanted to start using drum machines in the 80s. Why would you replace a guy called the human drum machine with an [actual] drum machine? There are so many Devo songs I love, but “Gut Feeling” is probably my favourite.

Mystic Debris is out now via Fantagraphics. Gradin’s band Rinse Dream perform Friday, June 16 at the Toast Collective in Vancouver, BC | MORE INFO