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No rest for Oakland drummer after Grammy win
OAKLAND -- Don't let his free spirit fool you. Thomas Pridgen is as hardworking and dedicated as you can get.The Oakland drummer is spearheading his own rock band after winning a Grammy Award in 2009 with the progressive rock band Mars Volta.
Though only 26 years old, his achievements date back over a decade. Pridgen's accomplishments extend on and off the stage. He has worked and recorded with more than 100 artists and producers since he was a teen.
He is a multigenre drummer who has pursued a wide range of roles -- from session drummer to musical director to drumming for gospel, rock and R&B bands.
Pridgen received his first drum set when he was 3 and hasn't put down the drumsticks since. He grew up in a single-parent home, in which his grandmother, Addie Thomas, took a dominant role in supporting his dreams of pursuing a drumming career. She took him to Berkeley Mt. Zion Baptist Church, where his love of drums took hold.
"My grandmother saw that I took an interest in playing the drums and she just nurtured it," he said. "And in the church everybody played the drums. I was 4, already taking lessons, and I would be there looking at all the people that could play. There was always an energy coming from music that I liked."
His focus intensified as he grew up, and with the help of his grandmother he began to study with a long line of professional drummers. One of his first teachers was Curtis Nutall, a session drummer
out of the Bay Area. Pridgen met Nutall at a Guitar Center Drum-Off competition in the East Bay in 1992, where Pridgen's grandmother reached out to him for lessons.
"He really wanted to win this drum competition," Nutall said. "He did the homework. He worked very hard. ... If I had one thing to say about him, he is a hard worker. I would show him something, and he would play it better then I did. He would take that idea and embellish it."
Pridgen won the Guitar Center Drum-Off when he was 9, and for the next couple of years he would record on various gospel records and train with a variety of mentors. Some of these stints included time with professional drummers Dennis Chambers and Walfredo Reyes Sr.
"I enjoyed coaching him, because he is himself," said Reyes, who has performed with Tony Bennett, Milton Berle, and Wayne Newton. "He has personality behind the drums. Tommy still comes around."
Not long ago, "He showed up at my door and said 'Let's play.' We played for two hours," Reyes said.
Pridgen nurtured his talent by joining the Jazz Ensemble at Berkeley High School and started going on the road with a couple bands, including The Coup, a political hip-hop group. He earned a scholarship at Berklee College of Music in Boston while playing for the school band at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
"I used to see Berklee in all the drum magazines and I wanted to go there because all my idols went there."
He was at Berklee for two years before he decided to return home. He was the music director for R&B singer Keisha Cole and was a drummer for R&B singer Goapele, among others.
In 2006, he joined the Mars Volta, with whom he recorded two full records, toured the world and won a Grammy.
He left the group in November 2009 and a month later formed his own band, The Memorials, by reaching out to guitarist Nick Brewer of Charleston, S.C., who he met at Berklee College of Music, and singer/songwriter Viveca Hawkins of Berkeley, who he has known throughout his career.
"The challenges have been making it happen," Pridgen said about starting his new band. "But we have been having a lot of friends help us out and its been a smooth ride so far."
Brewer and Pridgen recorded the 13 songs of the band's debut record in seven days at Petting Zoo Recording Studio in North Oakland. Hawkins then came in and laid down vocals in the next couple of weeks.
"I had no idea what was going to happen, but we ended up making amazing music," Hawkins said about starting a band with Pridgen. "We work very well together."
The Memorials self-titled debut album is set to be released on the band's own label, Blood Thirsty Unicorn, in November.
After a decade of fine tuning his craft, Pridgen's hard work is starting to pay off.
"I'm not an overnight success," he said. "I have worked hard."