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Thomas Pridgen of The Mars Volta --
The Prodigal Son

At a Guitar Center in Oakland, CA, way back in 1993, Thomas Pridgen set ablaze a trail for what is now a legendary tale. At the age of nine, he won the coveted 'Guitar Center Drum-Off Grand Champion' title. The next year, he became the youngest Zildjian endorsee ever. At the age of 15, he was the youngest student to have received a 4-year scholarship to the Berklee School Of Music. Now 24, Thomas travels the world playing with The Mars Volta, a rock outfit whose influences, recordings and live shows are as much mystical as they are creative.

We caught up with Thomas while he was on the road with The Mars Volta in Norway, fifteen years after he told his grandma he was going to win Guitar Center's Drum-Off, and did.

Guitar Center: You won Drum-Off when you were 9. What was that like?

Thomas Pridgen: I entered at the Oakland (California) store, before it was Cerritos, and it was my second year entering. I looked in Modern Drummer and they had the Pearl Master Series drum set and my Grandma said: "The Drum-Off is coming up and guess what the prize is?" I'm like, "What?" She's like, "This nice-ass Pearl drum set." I told my grandma from the gate, "I'm going to win that drum set." You don't understand how bad I wanted that drum set, bro... I just gave it my all, really, and I won. I was nine so it was like I was living a dream.

Do you think an opportunity like that helped elevate your career, and did it make you strive to get even better?

Oh, my God, I think so. I think every time I got a new snare drum, every time I entered a competition, every time I got some kind of scholarship to a jazz camp or Berklee, it super made me hungry. 'Cause, you know, if you're doing some good and you love doing it and you're getting good results out of it, it makes you want to keep doing it. It was a positive thing because everything good was coming out of it. There weren't any negatives. And even now there's not really anything negative I get out of playing drums, other than like my hands hurting or missing my family for months, and stuff like that. Other than that, I got a dream job.

I was pretty much meant to play the drums, dude, so everything that happened when I was young, it was like God put it there. It was just in place in some weird way. When you tell people, it sounds like a far-fetched story, but it's seriously something I live. I just love the drums. I was getting nurtured by my grandmother, she was always saying "You want to play? You want this snare drum? Well, if you do this, get good grades, I'll get you the snare drum." And I'd get the snare drum and now what am I doing? I'm playing the snare drum. You know? Kind of weird.

How does what you do on a day-to-day basis allow you to continue to get better, get more creative? How would you define that process?

I think I've been playing so long now, with me, I'll be mad at somebody and play the drums, and you probably won't know I'm mad, but I'll play better that night 'cause I'm mad. My emotions characterize the way I play. And I copy everybody in the magazines, everybody who's in videos, I copied something from all those guys. At the same time, I'll change it up, you know. I'm a good mimic. I can look at Dennis Chambers and mimic his style. That's from learning in church. I get better just by being around a lot of different environments. For a long time, when I was young, I was just emulating styles. I loved Will Kennedy, so I'd play left handed. That hella added to my style. I can play all kinds of music because I listen to all styles of music. And all the drummers that I love, they all play various styles of music.

When people hear me play different styles of music, they're like, "Damn, he blends all kinds of styles" 'Cause, yeah, I listen to hella Tony Williams. Then I got my own thing because I went to church. And I didn't grow up like Tony Williams, so we're going to be different.

I'm just a fan of musicians, period. I admire how Herbie Hancock just plays one chord - like he can sit and play one chord, and you'll just cry, bro. I apply that to the drums. Sometimes less is more, so let me play one lick that's going to make you feel it.

So, for you, understanding the dynamics of so many different kinds of music at a young age was important.

For sure.

How important is it for a drummer to know when to pull back, really explode or do nothing at all?

Super important. The Mars Volta is a nine-piece band, so if I'm playing all night, going crazy, nobody else is going to have a good time. We're the support system, but at the same time, we're like the heart of the music, too. We need to just pump. I had to learn how to control that at an early age, too. And when you're young, you don't understand that shit. You're just like, "What? What are you talking about? I like what I play." But it's not about you all the time.

Tell me about your experience going to Berklee.

Berklee was crazy. It would be early in the day and I'm playing in jazz band, playing all these jazz standards that everybody knows, then at night time, I'm playing drum and bass at a club. I was playing so many kinds of styles of music, 'cause I was playing for everybody. I learned hella stuff from the students. But I was also learning about people.

How did you end up playing with The Mars Volta?

Juan, the bass player, found me through his bass teacher, who had seen me in Gospel Chops. He told Omar about me and we met up in Ohio at a show they were playing with Red Hot Chili Peppers. I came through backstage where everyone was just hanging out and there was a kit set up. Omar asked if I wanted to jump on, so I did, then we just started banging out a groove, for like 30 minutes. At the end he asked if I was ready. I was like "For what?" and he said, "To play tonight." That was my first show with Mars Volta, a groove in front of 30,000 people.

No rehearsals other than that?


And what's it like now with the band?

Those guys are like family now, I can't explain it. Drums are a catalyst for my happiness and now I'm in this band with dudes I love. I am living the dream. Like, if I didn't get paid to do this, I would still do it.

Seems like your life experiences, including winning Drum-Off and Berklee, are totally paying off.

That's super-true, man. It's just like the other day I'm trying to beat the door down to get in the club. Now, they're like, "Oh, come on in. You're playing with The Mars Volta." I've had people walk up to me and cry right in front of me. I'll just be like, "Dude, I'm so normal. Bro, like, I feel you, brother." The moment I met Tony Williams, when I was nine years old - shortly before he died, I was like, "I love your style man," and almost broke down like kids break down in front of me. Everything is coming full circle.

For young people trying to live out their dreams by playing drums, what can you say to them?

Don't ever stop. Don't ever quit. If you got a dream, stick with it, 'cause it's going to pay off. Be a dreamer.

You speak a lot about Tony Williams. What was it about him that inspired you?

I've learned different things about Tony Williams in stages. When I was younger, there were only a certain amount of people that I knew who could turn the snares off and do a tom and snare solo, like a mellow solo. It would leave you silent. Even when I watch him now, its like he's living such a deep life through the drums without having to even play hella notes. He did it all. He played jazz and rock. That's the thing that's got me right now. He was a pioneer in so many ways.

With The Mars Volta, you're able to apply all your influences in so many different ways.

Yes. Were all like that. Omar, he loves reggae and he loves Latin, then he's got a punk influence in there. Everybody I'm around listens to all kind of stuff.

What was the studio experience like with The Mars Volta, how long did it take you guys to track the record?

We kind of do it in stages. It took about two weeks to do all the drums. It went fast. We did some songs where we all tracked together, and then we did other songs where it was just me and the bass player, me and Omar and the bass player, and then everybody else came in later. So the whole time I was recording, I didn't know what Omar was doing. Like I'm used to being in sessions with people that work in a certain way. This dude worked backwards. Like he won't tell you anything that's going on. That's what was so crazy about it. That's why I was getting so depressed and frustrated, it was really wearing down on me like crazy. He works totally different. Like he knows what he's trying to do in his head without telling you. He won't tell you. I honestly didn't know most of the stuff that was going on until I heard the record, and then we re-learned the record.

Even dating back to their "At the Drive-In" days and seeing "De Facto," their dub band, you can understand that those dudes understand music on a whole other level. It's almost unexplainable.

I think doing it the way Omar does it is way more fun, also. 'Cause it's like you're on a roller coaster. You never know what's going to really happen. It's like, all right, bust it. Let's go. I've learned to really be like that, just whatever... let's do it. He actually told me that that's the reason that he even hired me since the first day when he met me, he was like, "We're going to play this song tonight in front of all these people," and I was like, "All right!" I was down.

Interview: Kyle Rogers
Photos: Hadas

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