Consistently rated by the press as one of the top drummers in the country, many consider Josh Freese to be the best drummer in the world. THE VANDALS discovered Josh in Walt Disney's Tomorrowland Terrace where he starting playing publicly at age 12. With numerous credits as varied as Devo, Guns N' Roses and A Perfect Circle, Josh Freese recently completed work on a truly "solo" release (KUNG FU RECORDS "The Notorious One Man Orgy" - in stores now), playing most of the instruments himself. Recently, Guitar Center's Dustin Hinz sat down with Josh to discuss the past, present, future, and the secrets behind a one-man orgy.
GC: What can you tell us about your latest project?
Freese: A Perfect Circle is a thing that started off kind of low-key. We were all so heavily involved in other bands and busy working on other projects. I met Maynard in '97 on Lollapalooza when I was playing drums with Devo and he was singing with Tool. We hit it off and became friends. About a year later I started working with Guns & Roses in their studio. One of their Pro Tools engineers, Billy Howardell, told me that he was roommates with Maynard and that, "Maynard says hello and you should hang out sometime." So we started hanging out. Billy was kind of quiet about the music he was writing, but Maynard pulled me aside one day and said, "Man, you know Billy writes these great songs and I'm gonna try and write some lyrics to them. You should come down and do some recording with us." So we started recording, and slowly but surely, a year-and-a-half later, it started becoming more of a priority. As the songs took form and as we recorded we realized how into this project we were. It was no longer really a side-project. We were like, "God, we've got to do this full-time." So we got a good deal with Virgin, and they've been great to us. We got a three record deal. A lot of people think it was a side-project, just like a one-off thing, but we're definitely making more records. We were able to finally get to the point where we were able to figure out a schedule where we could leave our other things we were doing for a while and concentrate on this. With that in mind, we had to utilize the time that we have with Maynard, so we've been on the road almost five months solid. We're basically trying to get almost a year's worth of touring crammed into just under six months. We've been super-busy and everything is going great. We're having a good time.
GC: Do you think you could settle down with a band or do you think you'll always be a studio guy?
Freese: Well, I would like to. Right now I'm settling down with this band in the respect that I've taken myself out of the loop of being at home. In the last five years I've gotten really busy in the studios and with a lot of different people. It's kind of sacrifice and a risk by leaving and doing this full time. For example, the Vandals is a band I've been in for ten years. But there are times that I take little temporary leaves of absences from them. We've got enough good drummer friends, like Travis from Blink, Adrian from No Doubt and Brooks from Suicidal Tendencies, that luckily we can call up last minute and ask if they can go to Europe with the Vandals for two weeks because I'm doing other things. None of us in the Vandals really do the Vandals thing full-time to make a living. We all have other "real jobs" and being a studio drummer is kind of my real job. Being with A Perfect Circle does feel like settling into something, even though when I do get home, I'm going to be doing work with other people. I'm going to be doing some recording with Perry Farrell and miscellaneous session stuff and some shows with the Vandals. I love doing that. I like staying on my toes all the time and keeping busy.
GC: What kind of drum kit do you have and what do you think of it?
Freese: I think it's great, or I wouldn't be playing it. It's a DW drum set with a couple of rack toms and a couple of floor toms, one bass drum. Pretty simple. It's all black, nothing too exciting or too extravagant. Just a good basic drum set.
GC: Why do you choose DW Drums, Zildjian cymbals, Calato sticks and Remo Heads?
Freese: Because they're the best. DW and Zildjian have endorsed me since I was twelve. So I've been with them for fifteen years. It's a nice relationship that I have with both those companies. Remo and Calato I've only been endorsing for about five years. They're great!
GC: Did DW make you a custom set, or do you use a standard set?
Freese: Every time I get a set built they're just built from scratch and custom to a degree, but there's nothing too out-of-the-ordinary aside from me ordering the sizes and the colors. You could get that exact same drum set if you called them up and bought one.
GC: The same with Zildjian and Colato?
Freese: Yeah. I'm pretty easy to please. I'm not really into customizing or anything.
GC: What do you want to get next? What's on your wish list?
Freese: A microwave. Right next to the hard-hat. I think it'll be hard to work with musically, but I'm sure I'll figure something out.
GC: What's the coolest recent addition to your drum set?
Freese: An ashtray. Seriously, a little Velcro thing that I can put my lighter on. I've got a lighter that's Velcroed to the hard-hat stand that's pretty cool.
GC: Is your approach to playing and the equipment you use different from a live situation to a studio situation?
Freese: To a degree. When you're in a studio, not only are you going for pure precision when recording a song, but you know whatever you perform it's always going be on that record forever. That's the way people are going to listen to it over and over and over and over for years to come. Live shows come and go. Plus, when you're playing live, it's more of a performance. They're definitely different. But at the same time I don't just go out live and try to show-off. I'm still concentrating and trying to do a good job. But in the studio I sit there and stare at the same room and concentrate super hard and look like a dork.
GC: Do you ever use electronic gear?
Freese: Sometimes. I haven't in a long time, but I actually have been thinking about it. I started off when I was twelve years old. I was the "poster boy" for Simmons electronic drums. I'd play at Namm shows for them, and I did a couple of commercials for them that ran on MTV and Nickelodeon. I started playing at Disneyland when I was thirteen and was playing only on Simmons drums. By the time I was fifteen, I was playing with Dweezil Zappa and the Vandals and wanted to get as far away from electronic drums as possible. I wanted nothing to do with them. Now it's been about ten years and I'm kind of thinking, "Yeah, maybe I can work some electronic drums in my set-up." So I'm interested in doing that. I just haven't had the time, and when I do, I end up being too lazy about it. But one of these days, yes.
GC: You've played on a number of amazing records. How do you approach playing in such widely varied situations? How do you get into different equipment for different projects?
Freese: Sometimes I use different equipment. I'll do different projects. I'll play with someone like the Indigo Girls, and then I'll turn around and play with someone like Suicidal Tendencies or Chris Cornell or somebody. So it definitely varies, but I don't necessarily play classical things. I never play tympani or xylophone. My playing is always going to revolve around the drum set. As far as adapting to different situations, you have to be able listen and understand where that particular artist or songwriter is coming from. You have to listen to a lot of different kinds of music to be able to adapt to that to make it sound like what they need. I've played on Ricky Lee albums before and most people have no idea it's the same guy playing on punk rock records because they're so night and day. I take pride in my adaptability - or when I need to be a comedian I can be. I have tried to find my own style to a degree. Once in a while someone will come to me and say, "Man, I heard this song and I thought it was you, and I looked on the back of the album cover and it was you!" That is the best compliment I could ever get. It sounded like me and not just a programmed generic studio guy.
GC: What are some of the most far-out people you have ever played with?
Freese: Far out? I don't know. To me far-out is playing with like Ricky Lee Jones, The Indigo Girls, Stevie Nicks, Meredith Brooks and John Fogherty. That stuff to me is far-out because it's so different than the world that I'm usually in. People that are normal for me to work for are people like Devo, Chris Cornell, A Perfect Circle, Suicidal Tendencies and groups like that.
GC: Do you have a Home Studio and if so, what's in it?
Freese: Actually no, because in this day and age everyone has got such amazing home equipment, and it gets to the point where you can make records at home. Most people do, and do it for relatively cheap. But if I started really getting an amazing studio together, I would end up spending all my money and I'd probably never do too great of a job. So I'd spend all my money and do an almost amazing sounding demo and then have to go to a real studio and make it sound better. It would almost be as hard to do it that way. Its called "beat the demo," which every musician or songwriter can relate to. But I've got this really nice machine, just a basic Roland VS 1680, which you can make records on, but it's really small and portable. It's like a mixing board, and it's got on-board effects built into it. Pretty simple, but it's pretty great; I definitely don't have a lavish set up at home. I haven't even set up a drum set at my house in over ten years. I don't normally play at home. I'll set up a drum machine and play guitar at home. But I really don't have like a drum room. I have a couple of friends that have home studios, and I'll do things at their place. I need room for my cats to run around in.
GC: How do you write? Could you describe your writing process?
Freese: Basically I'll write mostly with guitar, or once in a while I'll come up with a bizarre drumbeat and that kind of inspires a song. Or I'll be humming a melody in my head and I'll be in my car, and I'll pick up my cell phone and call my home machine and sing the melody into my machine so I'll remember it later. My song writing can come from different ways, but mostly comes from playing guitar.
GC: When you get into a situation - for example, A Perfect Circle - do they say "We want you to play exactly like this," or do they sit back and let you do your thing?
Freese: Perfect Circle is more of a band, so I had more of a say in how things were going to go down. It varies. Maybe one day I could be making a record with someone really particular, and I'm just going to be recording with them for a day or two. I'm not in their band and they hired me because they know I can do what they really want me to do. They'll say, "We really want you to do this." So we'll do it. Or sometimes I'll come in and they'll say, "Do whatever you want, man. We hired you for you, tell us what we should do on this song." Or sometimes we'll meet halfway in the middle: "This section we want to be like this. We're really married to this idea, but on the bridge or the outro do whatever you like, go crazy." Either that works, or they'll go, "Okay, don't go that crazy, bring it back three notches." It just depends on how open-minded the producer is.
GC: Say I already have a basic drum set and I want to expand. What should I get next?
Freese: I'd say a microwave, or a snow cone machine. I don't know. It depends on what you want to do. If you want to build a big crazy drum set, go out and get something funky. Go get some Roto Toms or some Octobons. I'm real into Roto Toms and Octobons because right now they are so not cool; they've been so not cool for so long they're almost really cool to use again. It's almost like a retro thing you can actually utilize in the right way.
GC: What's your advice to a young drummer who might want to model their career after yours?
Freese: Listen to a lot of good people. Listen to a lot of good music. Listen to a lot of good drummers. Work hard and drop out of school. You can't sit on the couch watching TV.
GC: And live with your parents, right?
Freese: Exactly, exactly. And get a rich girlfriend.
GC: Do you warm up before performances?
Freese: You know what's funny? I never have in my life. I've toured for over ten years and just about a week ago I sent my drum tech out to grab a practice pad. There's been like two times in the last week where I picked up sticks for about 5 minutes before we went on stage and kind of messed around on the practice pad. I don't have a regimented schedule thing that I go through or a particular routine. I kind of loosen up a little bit, try and stretch. I'm realizing that I'm not eighteen years old anymore, which I think that I am. My body keeps telling me I'm twenty-seven - closer to thirty than eighteen. So I kind of have to stretch and stuff like that. I've never been good at warming up before shows.
GC: Do you practice regularly?
Freese: Unfortunately, not really. Well the fortunate part is that I play so much. On the average, I play every day. It's really weird. If I'm at home and two days go by where I don't play, it's real bizarre. So since I play so much I'm keeping it up. But it's hard sometimes if you're in a recording session to experiment with new challenging things because you don't want to be wasting everybody's time and fucking up all over the place. So that's actually one of the things I want to do when I get off this tour - go in and practice for the first time in years.
GC: Have you shopped at Guitar Center? If you have, what do you think?
Freese: Yeah, I shop at Guitar Center. I've shopped there since I was fourteen years old. I grew up in Orange County, so my dad used to drive me to the Guitar Center in Santa Ana on Main Street when I was like eleven or twelve on a Sunday afternoon. That was seriously like going to Disneyland. I was so excited. I'd go and check out all the drums and would talk drums to the guys that work there. I was so into it. The older I got and the more endorsements I got, the less I had to go there. But the guys at the Hollywood Store always laugh at me because I've had a stick endorsement for ten years, but I always forget to call the company when I'm running out of sticks. So I'm constantly going in there to buy sticks and they say, "Don't you get these free?" I'm like "Yeah I always forget to call those guys." I don't even know their phone number right now. So I'm constantly going in there buying stuff. Guitar Center is great. Guitar Center is great in the way when you go on tour around the world, the same way McDonald's is great. You could be in the middle of Germany at two in the morning and know exactly what you're going to eat. You can go to Guitar Center anywhere around the country and know what you're going to get. Guitar Center is reliable.
GC: Tell me about your latest solo album.
Freese: It's kind of a fun power pop, obnoxious, lighthearted record that I made at a friend of mine's garage up in Laurel Canyon. Just some songs I wrote. I play all the instruments on it and sing. I've got a few "real" guitar players that step in and play a solo here and there because I can't play a guitar solo to save my life. But I play all the rhythm guitars on the record. Stone from Pearl Jam plays on some of it, Warren from the Vandals plays on it and Mike Ward from the Wallflowers also plays on it. My little brother Jason, who plays keyboard and sax for Joe Walsh, plays on some of it. Other than that, the drums, guitars, bass and vocals are all me. It reflects more of the stuff I grew up listening to, which is everything from the Pixies to Ween and Devo and the Butthole Surfers and the Replacements. It's a fun power pop, punk, quirky kind of thing. I enjoyed making it. It was fun to do. It was hard to find the time to do it, but I did it with the little chunks of time I had open here and there over the year. I made it for cheap, put it out on an indie label, and hopefully a couple of people will want to buy it and enjoy listening to it.
GC: Are you going to put together a tour to back up your new release?
Freese: As of now? No. Due to the fact that I'm too busy right now. And that I haven't worked up the guts to sing and play guitar and front a band. But I'm thinking that when I get home I'll do a bunch more recordings and maybe put out another record by next summer. After Perfect Circle is done touring next spring and Tool goes out in the summer, maybe I'll play some shows. That way I'll have two albums worth of material to play from.
GC: Who are some of the drummers or bands that you grew up listening to?
Freese: Vinnie Colaiuta was a big impression on me, as was Terry Bozzio. When I was around seven or eight, and before I knew about people like Vinnie and Terry, It was Alex Van Halen. The older I get, the less I've been into the drummer's drummer like Vinnie and Terry. Although one guy that walks the fine line is Stewart Copeland. I love Hunt Sails who played with Iggy and David Bowie. Charlie Draton, and Steve Jordan who played drums with Keith Richards. Allen Meyers from Devo. Those guys are great.
GC: In the studio do you read charts or just go off the top of your head?
Freese: 97 percent of the time I go off the top of my head and no charts. I listen to the songs a couple of times, rehearsals once or twice and start doing takes. Very rarely in the circle of musicians that I do sessions with am I shown a chart. I'd say out of a few thousand sessions I've done in ten years or more doing this, I've been asked to read a chart four or five times.
GC: Finally, who or what is your favorite artist/band to tour with?
Freese: On one hand I'd say the Vandals because it's my hometown and the guys are three of my best friends. It's always fun and the most comfortable thing for me. On the other hand the two most rewarding people I've played with are Paul Westerburg from the Replacements and Devo because I grew up listening to both Paul and Devo and being huge fans of theirs. So getting to work with Paul and Devo were probably the two most rewarding things I've ever done in my life.