Sit Down Series: Josh Freese

Josh Freese is one of the absolute most skilled drummers in the game today. He has a resume that includes working with Nine Inch Nails, A Perfect Circle, Guns N’ Roses, Sting and countless others that make up the eclectic listing. On top of that, he is currently a full-time member of The Vandals, Devo and Sublime with Rome. Throughout all the bands he’s been involved with in one way or another, there are many stories to tell and much ground to cover. Prior to performing with Sublime with Rome recently, I sat down with Josh and learned more about the man behind the drum kit and the guy off stage. We discussed everything including early memories of Sublime, Disneyland, Nine Inch Nails, Queens of the Stone Age, networking, staying humble and more.

How do you feel about Bud setting the tone for the songs that you play on drums on stage with Sublime with Rome?

I’ve heard these Sublime songs for years. I watched them as a band in a van playing other people’s backyard parties up and down the coast in California. I watched their whole rise and the abrupt halt to their career. I listened to those records when they came out and before they came out. (laughs) Being from Long Beach and having known these guys for a long time, I remember hanging out with them and seeing them a lot along Long Beach. I played in The Vandals and they looked up to The Vandals, we played gigs together and stuff. Anyways to answer your question, I listened to those records forever and I’ve always dug Bud’s style. I’ve always thought he was a cool drummer. He had a unique sound and approach to fusing reggae and punk rock. And not even meaning to, it just came naturally with the way he played and the way the band steered themselves towards due to their wide variety of influences. I don’t think they ever sat down and said “Let’s be a reggae band and a punk band.” They just liked all that stuff. Then there were bands like Bad Brains that already did that naturally a bit too. Bud always had a good groove, but also a cool recklessness to his drumming that I like. He definitely had a fire.

Aside from their blending of genres, with you feel contributed to them getting big so fast and their legacy continuing to stay strong to this day?

I think that it comes down to songs, having great songs. Styles and fads will come and go, but the people that have great songs, whether it’s The Beatles or The Carpenters or Black Sabbath, it will carry on from generation to generation. Great songs are always going to be appreciated by kids coming up, even if it’s not their cup of tea. It might end up being their cup of tea because they’ll go out and find the rest of the songs and listen to the whole record. Maybe something that would be sought after normally would be sought after because a song or two strikes a chord with them.

Which band were you skeptical of at first, but once you really started listening, you couldn’t put the CD down?

(laughs) Probably most bands! That’s a good question, I’ve never thought of that. This is an interesting answer, I’ll answer with Sublime. When I was younger I wasn’t a big reggae or ska fan, but I’ve come to appreciate it more now as an adult than I did as a teenager. But when I was a teenager, I was really into punk rock and rock n’ roll and some weird jazz stuff, but never into reggae. I’m around the guys in Sublime’s age and The Vandals were a few years older. I was the young guy in the band. But to make a long story short, me and Dave, the singer of The Vandals had a house together and Brad used to come over. Dave was one of the first cheerleaders for Sublime in Long Beach. He was like, “Oh these guys are great!” I asked who that deadbeat kid showing up to our house playing these reggae demos was. I was totally, totally not interested at all. He’d come over with a cassette, this was like in 1992 or something. He’d play stuff for Dave, he’d play him more demos of his reggae band. I never paid much attention. I trusted Dave’s opinion and he was always like, “Oh man, that kid is great. He has great songs and his band is cool.” I’m like, “Really?” Then I’d go and see them play. What I liked about them is that you’d see them one night and they were horrible because they were all just drunk, then you would go see them the next night and they were fucking awesome. To me, I’ll take that over the band’s that’s just kind of pretty good every night. It becomes a bit boring. They had a cool rock ‘n roll element to their unpredictability. That’s what I liked. I remember The Vandals being on tour in listening to the Robbin’ the Hood record. I thought it was so cool and I got really, really into it. Even with the slow songs where Brad’s just doing it with an acoustic guitar and you can tell it’s not in a fancy studio, it’s in the bedroom with one or two crummy microphones on a 4-track. Songs like the acoustic version of Pool Shark and Boss D.J. I wore the shit out of the cassettes and the CDs when I was younger. That’s when I first started really paying attention and going, “Shit, I shouldn’t have blown them off a couple years ago. This is really awesome.”

Getting further into your early years, you started out with a gig at Disneyland. What was Disneyland like during that time period?

It’s a little different, but it’s funny, it’s not that different. There’s a few rides that are new. A few rides that have come and gone, new rides have been brought in. But all the classic rides are still there. I literally grew up at Disneyland. I was born in Orlando. When they opened in the early seventies, my dad conducted the Disney World band. They moved to California when I was a year old. So I literally grew up going there every weekend to see the big band play and then of course, we’d talk our parents into taking us on a couple rides. We go on rides and be out there all the time during the summer. By the time I was twelve, I was playing drums there. I worked there for three years, every weekend during the summer. I loved it. It was really, really great. By the time I was fifteen, I never wanted to go there again. I had spent every day there. “God…Disneyland…get me out of here!” And I didn’t go there for years. I’d have to go there once a while for something obligatory like my dad getting an award for my dad’s having some special thing. Once I became a parent, I kind of rediscovered it. I like it now more than ever. The problem is that you try and pick a weekday to go there during the school year when you figure no one’s gonna be there and it’s always so crowded. I didn’t want to go there anymore, it’s a bummer. (laughs) I call it recession-proof. Everyone’s freaking out out and no one’s got money, but you go there and everyone’s paying twenty bucks for parking on a weekday at 10 AM. It’s crazy. But I love it.

What’s your favorite ride there?

There’s classics like The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean. One that some people don’t dig, but I like a lot, it’s more of a show, The Tiki Room. I love that. I love all the shit in Tomorrowland and Fantasyland. My kids love It’s a Small World. But I really like stuff like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and Peter Pan, stuff like that.

So there’s an interesting connection with you and Pete Parada, another interviewee of JOAF. He’s filled in for Devo and you’ve done some recording with The Offspring. What’s that all like?

I’ve known the guys in The Offspring for twenty years. When they parted ways with their original drummer Ron in 2003, I recorded a record. But I was already in eighteen other bands, I couldn’t join the band and go on tour. Dexter liked the way we worked in the studio, he’s really particular about stuff. With my experience of working with a vast array of producers and bands, I’m able to adapt quickly in the studio. He liked that I could pick things up and change on the fly. We made the record and I think it was around that time that Pete started playing with them. Dexter’s such a brainiac. He’s a USC grad, he’s a pilot, he’s not just some dumb singer up there. He’s into formulas and stuff too. So he’s like, “Okay, were making another record. I’ve gotta call Josh again!” (laughs) So we made another record in 2008. And Pete played a bunch on the last record. Yeah, I’ve just seen Pete from running into him. He’s filled in a couple shows with The Vandals at one point. He was also in Face To Face, if I recall. There was a certain tour I couldn’t do with Devo four or five years ago, he played with them for a short while. But Pete’s a cool guy, I like him.

You have long-term gigs, but you’ve also done one-off appearances on various albums. On that note, have you heard about the Hired Gun documentary? Seems pretty interesting.

I have. I think it’s cool. They contacted me about doing something, but it just didn’t work out timewise. I’m not involved in it, but I knew they were doing it.

How did you hook up with Queens of the Stone Age?

Oddly enough, I didn’t play on that song. I cowrote that song with them. My name comes up a lot and I’ve got no problem with it because on the fan of theirs and I think they’re great. And not just from being friends with them, but also from a technicality standpoint. Through a list of credits that gets thrown around on the internet, I’m forever linked to them professionally because I cowrote the song. It was In My Head. How that came about was I made a record with Josh Homme and Troy Van Leeuwen when they were called The Desert Sessions in 2003 with a bunch of different musicians. Dean Ween played on it and PJ Harvey sang on it. My buddy, Jeordie White, Twiggy from Manson’s band, played on it. He’s played with me in a couple different bands. I brought the riff in and it basically started as my song. We were out in the Queens of the Stone Age studio in Joshua Tree and we recorded it. When Queens went in to make their own record six months later, the song that I wrote, the riff sounds like a Queens riff. Josh sang on it and all of a sudden, I go “This sounds like Queens of the Stone Age!” (laughs) He puts his voice over that riff and it sounds like Queens of the Stone Age. And they’ve done that before with another record they made, a song that they kind of covered. It was the first song off of the Songs for the Deaf record, comes from The Desert Sessions. Anyways, we cowrote that song together and it appeared on the album. People get excited I played with Queens of the Stone Age, but it’s not quite like that. Just like with Guns N’ Roses, I wrote for two years with them and you can only hear one recording of me playing with them. It’s from a soundtrack. I don’t even know what soundtrack it was, but I know Arnold Schwarzenegger was in the movie. But the song was called Oh My God. Once again, I brought in the song and they finished it, but I wrote the music for the song Chinese Democracy. Even though I didn’t end up playing on the album because I quit and they brought in another drummer, I wrote the song, Chinese Democracy. So my name is forever linked with that album. Whenever you look at Wikipedia or the credits, it’ll say Josh Freese. People will assume that I played on this or that, but I think it’s actually cooler that I didn’t. I love writing music and I wish I got more of a chance to do it.

How do you feel about the cover of Imagine by A Perfect Circle?

I liked it. I like it more now than I did then. When we did, I didn’t think much of it. As a matter of fact, I didn’t think much of that whole record. As time went on and we did a tour in 2010, we played a lot of the songs off there and it was kinda cool. I liked the cover.

On the topic of live performances, what is it like being on stage for a Nine Inch Nails show?

I’ve seen the show as a fan out in the audience, on the other side of the stage. I’ve watched the show before and it’s incredible to watch. The years I spent playing with Trent, I’ve never seen anyone else throw themselves so heavily into something than anybody else I’ve ever worked with. And I’ve worked with some really, really great people. I’ve worked with some of my biggest heroes, bands like Devo and The Replacements. Devo’s got a bunch of conceptual stuff happening, but they’re not working on the scale that Trent gets to work with. Trent has more money to play with so he can put on bigger things. Devo is conceptual, but it’s still kind of funny, quirky and some of it goofy and weird. Trent’s real serious. Being part of his team and part of his machine was really cool, it was a great experience. Every aspect of the live show, the sound and the look and the production and the lights and the video and everything, he’s very involved with it all. It shows with every gig.

Through spending time with him, did you get any particular advice or insight that stuck with you?

He reaffirmed my belief that if you put the time in and worked hard on something and stay focused and driven, you can get great results. He’s a good example of that.

It’s undeniable that you’re very skilled drummer. Would you consider Buddy Rich to be one of your influences?

Oh yeah. I got to see Buddy Rich play three or four times when I was a kid. I got to meet him a couple of times. As matter of fact, I got a funny picture up on Instagram of me and my brother with him when I was like eight or nine. There’s so many great drummers out there, there’s so many great drummers that I never had the time to listen to and research. There’s some drummers that are just famous for being famous and I won’t name names, but the poster guys. “Who’s the greatest drummer?” And they’ll say a name, but it’s like “Well…he’s okay.” or “He’s had moments, but he’s not the best.” There’s no such thing as the best, no such thing. But as far as being someone head and shoulders above the rest, Buddy was one of those guys. I still watch YouTube clips of him. His technique and his stamina and his command of the instrument is phenomenal. I got to see him play three or four times at Disneyland when I was a kid. He played these big band concerts every summer there and it would just blow me away. I was eight, nine, ten years old and it just blew me away. Just phenomenal.

Seeing as though we are at Mohegan Sun, one of the bands the performance here monthly is Rick K and the Allnighters. The drummer of that band was featured in the viral video “this drummer is at the wrong gig”. What do you think of that video?

It’s funny. I mean it’s hilarious. That guy, his name is Steve Moore and he emailed me on Facebook when the video came out. I think he was trying to figure out what he could do now that his video went viral. He was looking to branch out or maybe use it as a platform to get involved with some other bands. People call me all the time about gigs and there aren’t any other gigs going on. People assume that just because I work with a lot of people, but that’s not always the case. But that video, it’s hilarious. (laughs)

You’ve stated in the past that networking is important to you and you’ve taken a lot out of it. What was an early example that you benefited from?

I always tell people this when they ask how to break out into studio drumming or how to become successful, there’s no one formula to do it. Of course, it is a combination of hard work, natural ability and being at the right place at the right time. I might be the world’s greatest drummer living on a farm somewhere in the Midwest and never get off the farm, so I’m never gonna have the chance to meet other people. You could also be at the right place at the right time and if you can’t deliver and that might’ve been your one shot, your perfect opportunity to shine, if you can’t deliver in that moment, then you blew it. It’s a combination of all those things. I worked hard and I have the natural ability. There’s plenty of times where I was trying to network in a situation where it wasn’t yet the right time. But put yourself in that situation enough times or get out there and hang out and go see other bands and meet whoever you can meet. Do it without crossing that line into pest territory. You don’t wanna be the guy with people go “Oh god, there’s that kid again that’s backstage at every show kissing everyone’s ass.” You don’t wanna be that guy. You gotta walk this line of being present and showing your face and showing up. I always tell people to play on whatever you can play with in the beginning. If someone calls you for a session or a gig, even if it’s not your favorite band or even if the artist isn’t that great, go do it anyways. You’re gonna meet a room full of other musicians and engineers and studio owners that are like-minded. Even if it’s the worst session of your life and let’s you’re doing it for free or next to no money, you might be doing a good job and maybe the studio owner or producer grabs you afterwards and goes “Hey, what are you doing next week? We’ve got a Sheryl Crow record we’re making here and you’d be perfect.” If you hadn’t shown up and done that crummy session for fifty bucks, you wouldn’t have gotten to play on a Sheryl Crow record. I’m just using her as an example. It’s just good to get out there, man. There have been times where I’ve done that session. It wasn’t an overnight thing for me, that’s the other thing. It was years and years and years of being persistent and pushing forward and staying determined and working hard and not being lazy and not saying no to things. That all got me to where I am now. I do say no to things sometimes and mainly because now I’m a parent and I’ve got kids. I don’t just wanna work day and night, I wanna work a lot and I have to work a lot because I’ve got so many damn gigs. And I like working, but I don’t do every single gig because I’m not twenty years old anymore. I used to do that and sleep on people’s couches up in LA with my drums in the back of car. Have drums, will travel, show up and play with whoever. Do three sessions a day: rehearse in the morning with so and so, record with someone else and play a gig with someone else at night. Just doing that constantly. Some of them were cool artists and some of them were horrible, but it’s just cutting your teeth.

For the one-off appearances on various albums, did you end up appearing in any of their music videos for songs off the record?

I was playing around with so many bands and I was becoming a drum slut for hire. That’s okay, I’m fine with that. To me there’s a difference between being in the studio with the band for a day or two and then going out and playing gigs and going out in public and supporting it in putting your face up there and saying “This is what I’m doing. I slowed down a long time ago doing it where “You want me to show up to a studio and slut around behind closed doors, totally cool.” And obviously people know my name’s on the record, that’s all good. Albums are different to me because they’re time capsules and hold on forever where shows kind of come and go. I didn’t want to take photos and be in videos and play gigs unless it was a band that I had more invested in personally or artistically, rather than just showing up and banging something out one afternoon in the studio. I remember in the late nineties, there was this little indie rock band from Athens, Georgia called Magnapop. I made a record with them. I remember them going, “Hey, can you play two shows with us?” I was doing a lot of gigs and playing around town a lot and garnering a reputation for myself. I figured they wanted to play a couple clubs in LA and I didn’t want to do that because it was just another band I’m playing with that’s cheapening what I do with the other bands, it makes them not as special. I was trying to be nice about it and polite about it, I didn’t want to just say no. “Well, I think that maybe uh…” And before I could finish what I was saying, they go, “Well they’re over in England for both nights. One show is forty thousand people and the other is for sixty thousand people. We’re opening up for R.E.M. at soccer stadiums.” That’s different than playing The Whisky and The Viper Room. Shit…okay, I’ll do that. It was definitely more of a special thing. Six or seven years ago, right before Nine Inch Nails rehearsals, we were starting back up and I got called to play one gig with Glen Campbell, a country legend who I recorded with. There was this one really big gig, this thing called Stagecoach. It takes place the weekend after Coachella on the same fairgrounds. So it’s like yeah, he’s a legend, not just any old guy. He’s a big time dude and he’s a legend. He’s not gonna be around much longer and it’s this one show. So I did it. I just wanted to do it to kind of add it to my résumé and say that I played this gig with Glen Campbell. But to get back to the topic, I’m not really in music videos. I think I used to maybe a little bit, but it’s been years.

In closing, what would you say is the importance of staying humble and true to yourself throughout it all?

Looking around and seeing other people that weren’t humble and it was a turnoff to me, kind of gross. Everyone from my parents to some mentors of mine and people that I’ve looked up to when I was younger always reminded me to stay humble and be cool. Even if there’s moments where I’ve gotten a little bit cocky growing up, it’s good to get knocked around a little bit and knocked down a time or two. That humbles you as well and makes you appreciate stuff. I pride myself like that in a way. I know guys aren’t even near halfway the musician that I am that are barking at everybody and bossing everyone around and acting like a big rockstar. It’s such a turnoff and it’s so fucked up. I look at it and I know I never want to be like that. Ever. I want to go out of my way to be cool with people and try not to be high maintenance about all that stuff because no one wants to be around that. (laughs)

I agree. I’d love to thank you so much for your time and a great interview.

Absolutely! Right on!

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