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A powerful partnership 25 years in the making
Credited on nearly 300 studio albums (and not credited on at least one), Josh Freese has displayed the kind of versatility you just can't teach, and a level of go-with-the-flow professionalism you won't find in a box. From turning pro at 12, and playing with Dweezil Zappa and the Vandals at 15, to recording and touring with bands across just about every genre of popular American music (Nine Inch Nails, Guns N' Roses, Weezer, Sting, A Perfect Circle, Paramore, and a hundred or so more), Freese thought he had seen it all. Then, he had kids.
"Having four kids, I can't do anything except fight to get time enough to go out and work and then come back home," Freese says. "I've got gear in boxes I've never opened. And one day I'll open it, learn how to use the equipment. But for now, I'm changing a diaper and picking someone up from school. Non-stop craziness."
Freese grew up in a musical family, with his father being the conductor of the Disneyland Band, and his mother being a classically trained pianist. He recalls the life of a musician from his earliest memories. But with his oldest son at 11, and the youngest at just one year old, skipping town for a tour comes with an entirely new set of challenges. "Touring with a family is becoming increasingly difficult. Every day I'm trying to find some sort of balance with that. I really loved playing with Nine Inch Nails, but we just toured so damn much that it got to a point where I had to bow out in 2009," Freese says. "If I didn't have kids I'd be gone all the time and I'd probably be in ten other bands, but they make you slow down, which is good, too."
This summer, with the kids out of school, Freese says he's excited to put together his first family tour, in order to spend more quality time with his kids. "I'm going to get my own tour bus for a few weeks, and spend an arm and a leg just to get them out there to hang out," Freese jokes. "I'll have the whole gang along, all four little ones. So it will be pretty intense."
While many musicians, actors, athletes and celebrities sell their endorsement to the highest bidder, Freese says he's proud to be a part of a second family with DW, a company he's looked to for incredible gear since he turned pro at age 12. "I started a pedal endorsement with DW when I was playing in the Top 40 band out at Disneyland every weekend. I guess it was a novelty thing for them because I was so young," Freese says.
At that time, in the early 1980s, DW was making incredible drums in a relatively modest facility, offering exquisite custom kits, but making only a few dozen kits a year. While they had kit endorsements with only a handful of drummers at the time, the pedal endorsement had Freese looking forward to playing more DW gear. "It was such a mom-and-pop operation they couldn't really endorse anybody at that time, but I met Don and Bardy and his son Chris and John Goode and all those guys when I was about 11 or 12, and I've had, I guess you would say an endorsement since then."
At age 15, with Freese moving on from the Top 40 band to playing with Dweezil Zappa, he was able to get a deal on his first DW kit. That's right. Josh Freese, the wunderkind who no doubt had a slew of drum companies knocking on his door, chose to buy a kit from DW over taking a freebie from another company. "It was my first DW kit and they gave me a great deal," Freese says. "They weren't in a position to give any gear away yet and I probably wasn't in a position to have anyone give me a bunch of free gear, but man, it was awesome. They had a great reputation, and they weren't easy to find at that time. They were still working on getting one kit on the floor of Guitar Center Hollywood. They were still this really cool boutique—even smaller than a boutique company."
Freese admits that while there are other companies that make great drums, the quality of his DW gear and the relationship that he's built with the company mean more to him than seeking out a more lucrative endorsement deal. "I guess I didn't feel like I needed a kit endorsement right away, and I didn't care about free stuff. A lot of guys are out to grab as much as they can grab, and hold out to see who's going to give them the most free stuff. It wasn't and isn't about that for me. I really value the relationship that I've had with them. I've been with DW for over 27 years—almost my whole life."
As one-of-a-kind as Freese's playing is on the kit, his gear demands and his trust for DW mean that everything you've seen Freese play can be purchased off the shelf, whether it's a high-end DW Collector's Series kit or gear from Pacific Drums and Percussion, aimed to please even the most cost-conscious working drummers. "I know there are some guys that call DW with crazy wish lists or requests and demands about gear. I'm like, as long as they're good drums," Freese jokes. "Even the more affordable Pacific drums. I asked John Goode for a Pacific kit to take to Vandals gigs and not care if they get knocked over once in a while, and they're great."
Freese's playing of a PDP kit with the Vandals resulted in tremendous, albeit unintended promotion for DW's sister brand, Pacific Drums and Percussion. "The first time I was on the cover of Modern Drummer, I'm playing Pacific drums. It was a Vandals gig at the now Avalon, up on Vine Street. They sent a photographer down. I had kids writing me asking, 'don't you play the top-end stuff?' I'm like, these drums are great, too. And I wasn't even trying to do a big ad for Pacific. I was just playing these little drums that I kick around a lot and they sound great. If they didn't sound great, I wouldn't play them."
For someone who plays in as many bands and works as many studio sessions as Freese does, his day-to-day kit selection process is remarkably straightforward. "To be honest," Freese says, "with the different artists that I play with, I use different setups. None of them are that elaborate. I don't have any big Neil Peart kits. I don't have tons of toms and tons of cymbals and weird gadgets. It all starts from the basic 'Ringo Starr drum set,' with a rack and a floor, ride and crash, maybe a second crash. That's what I use in the Vandals and that's what I use in a lot of session work. "From there it's real simple stuff," Freese says. "Like with Devo, I add a second rack tom and there's no ride cymbal. There's just three crash cymbals. Then when I work with Sting it's a little more elaborate. It's like three rack toms and a floor, maybe four or five cymbals instead of two or three cymbals, but I don't show up with a jungle gym. It's never a big, elaborate, crazy drum thing."
With a variety of DW gear packed up and ready to go for even the most last-minute studio calls, Freese doesn't stay up all night worrying whether the gear he's bringing to the session is going to be right. "It's at a point where it's such a part of my everyday life, and has been for 25 years, that I know the gear works and I'm not showing up usually with something really odd and strange. It's usually the five-piece kit, give or take a rack tom or a second floor tom or whatever. I don't have any bad gear," Freese says, "so I can really tell my guy that does my drums, 'Bring whatever you want tomorrow,' and it's going to sound good. The people that are hiring you want to know that, for some reason if they're not digging the snare that you've got, you can try another one. I usually end up using the first one I put up. I hit it a couple of times and the engineer says, 'Man, that snare drum sounds great.'" While Freese admits he doesn't have a favorite snare, in recent years he's gravitated toward his DW bell brass snare and a pair of DW Craviotto snare drums. "The bell brass and Craviotto snares are fantastic. DW snares have always been great, but I've got to say, in the last few years I just feel like I can throw almost anything up and I'll be more than happy with it."
For Freese, what separates DW from the rest of the pack is their commitment to improving every facet of the company, from the sound of the drums to the materials and manufacturing techniques they use to build them. "They really do care so much, and not that other companies don't, but I'll go up there and I'll sit in John Goode's office or talk to Don Lombardi. They'll show me all the new stuff they're still working on. They're constantly trying to be better," Freese says. "And to me, their stuff's been great ever since I was a kid. As far as I'm concerned they don't have to change a thing and it's going to be fantastic. Still, they're very forward thinking in their design and their continued quest for being the best company out there. There's a certain level of craftsmanship and quality that I expect from them and they've never let me down."