Man, I just tried very, very hard to be a musician. My mom would take me out on date-nights and we would just go to like Kimball’s East in Emeryville. She would take me to see a lot of musicians. I don’t know, I was always into the music. I met a lot of musicians really early that were famous and some of them were rich as fuck. They never had a job. I always wanted to play music and I never could see myself getting a regular job. Everybody growing up would be like, “I want to be a doctor,” and I’d just be like, “I want to play drums!” I just always wanted to be on the drum set.
You won a drumming competition early on. How did that go down?
It wasn’t about beating the other people. It was more about me than it was about them. I really wanted the drum set that was being offered. My grandmother didn’t have the money at the time to be able to afford the drum set. So, it was almost like my only way to get that kit was to win it. I wanted it so bad. I told my grandmother I was going to win. It wasn’t about anything but the drum set for me. I never necessarily wanted to be in a drum competition or show people that I could whoop ass or anything like that. I just wanted that drum set.
What’s your favorite equipment to use now?
Right now I’m still using my DW’s, still love them. My friend Andrew is building these kits called Thump Drums. They’re made out of fiberglass. People were calling them kits made out of recycled surfboards. It’s the same material, but he’s not using surfboards. So he’s using that material, painting and wrapping it. I have one of those kits. Zach Hill also has one. There aren’t too many of them around. I’ve been partnering with him because I really want him to get to a point where he’s selling a lot of drums. But I’m still playing my Zildjians and all of the same stuff as usual. It’s all stuff that holds up. I’ve been with Zildjian since I was ten. They’re like family to me. I like the tradition as well. So many people I look up to use this equipment. Also DW is in LA and I like that I can go to the factory and go hang out with them. Even if I’m not picking anything up I can still just go hang out and talk drums or look at new stuff. Sometimes when your endorsement company is in like Japan, they make assembly line drums. You can’t really get them custom or ask them for different things.
You’ve had a pretty diverse career thus far between going to Berklee and doing the jazz thing, and then moving into the rock arena. How did you become so in-demand in every genre?
Well, when I was younger I was playing in church and I was practicing a lot of hip-hop and R&B styles. I was about to go to high school, but in my high school they only had jazz. I wasn’t used to playing a swing pattern with the high hat clicking on two and four or whatever. I basically had to learn how to play jazz. It kind of humbled me because I wasn’t really good at it instantly. Just doing that and having people around me, especially my grandmother, saying like, “You need to learn all styles of music. If you want to do it, you need to really do it.” So learning all different styles of music and getting into a place where I could apply them. Like when I got into the Mars Volta, it was really easy to apply all of these styles I had. Before that, I was applying only one style at a time. I was not able to flourish in the way I constantly am now. With the Mars Volta it was real cool because I got to really dive into it. They were doing a lot of Latin stuff and then a lot of heavy stuff, I got some funk grooves in there and we’d go into some dub-step parts, then some actual dub and some ballads. So I got to showcase my talents a lot more than I have before.
And then I didn’t really get to play any fills as much. In R&B and church they kind of try to dumb you down. They’ll be like, “Oh don’t play that; people don’t want to hear that.” Or I’m playing jazz where it’s strictly improvisation or some other crazy shit. I never got to be able to reel it in and then play my Latin stuff and then play my rock stuff. So after seeing how people respond to that, it’s crazy. I didn’t know I could do all of that and the crowd would go nuts. Like, I knew that my friends went nuts, but I didn’t think normal people would. So after that it was no holds barred. I’m going in on every level.
What was the studio situation like with the Mars Volta, I’ve heard that it is pretty tough?
It was a situation where someone is trying to get you to do something, but they can’t explain it. When I got into the Mars Volta, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was in a fucking roller coaster of madness and chaos. I just did it though. I was like, “Fuck it, this is what it is.” So when we got in the studio, it was crazy because it started dawning on me what band I was in. And instead of letting me relax and play a record the way I hear it, it was more like, “We have no time and I want you to play all of this crazy shit that drummers don’t play.” They never made anyone else play this shit, so I was like, “Why me?” He was asking me to play shit that doesn’t exist in drummer world, much less in anyone else’s world. On that level I think it was hard just because I wasn’t used to it. But I’ve done four or five records with Omar, and after the first one it was easier because I kind of knew what he wanted. I had a thought pattern of what he likes in a drummer and what he likes me to play. If you listen to it, every drummer plays completely different over that music.
From my personal experience, maybe on the record, maybe off the record, it’s just really hard to have somebody put their name all over the record, call the album Omar’s Volta and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez Production, Omar everything. Omar produced it, Omar wrote it, Omar played the guitar, Omar played the shaker. At that point, when a motherfucker is playing his ass off and that shit ain’t on all of the records, you’ve got to put Thomas Pridgen in that motherfucker one time. Put Juan [Alderete] in there. I felt like those insecurities made the whole situation fucked up because it makes people weird. You’ve got to treat people like it’s a family if you want people to share with you.
Now with your own band, The Memorials, how are things going for you?
I got out of the Mars Volta and I wanted to do some even crazier shit. I felt like in the Mars Volta, people weren’t as inspired as me because I was the youngest dude in the band. So I got out of the band and I wanted to make music with some more young people. The first person I could think of was Viv [Hawkins] because I’ve known her since we were twelve and Nick [Brewer] because I played with him at Berklee School of Music. We had a band together also. The first thing we did was we went into the studio and I was so used to making records so fast that we made a record in about a week before we even played a show. We made the record, mixed the record, finished the record and started playing shows. Then we toured for like two tours. Amid all of that, we decided to do another record. That record just came out on June 5th and that is the first record as a real band I’d say. To me it sounds hella awesome. We never had a legit, stick-around bass player or keyboard player for the simple fact that it’s really hard to keep people who play at such high levels around all of the time. You know, I got out of the Mars Volta and I had some reason and some money to be able to hustle. I never had a job. Most people I know have a job. Most people I know play with other people. If they play and they’re dope, they’ve got a gig. So I’m trying to play with these awesome people and I can’t always get them. So sometimes we have to sub out a keyboard player or whatever. And then Nick had to stay home because it was hard for him to do the gigs, so we had to get a new guitar player to tour.
How did the music evolve between the first and second records?
I worked my ass off. I wanted the first record to come out so bad that I didn’t have time to work on certain things that I really wanted to work on. Usually when people have a first record or second record, they spend all of their life trying to do one record instead of understanding that people might not even check the first record, so you might as well keep doing music. I wanted to play shows and I knew that we could have a better sound, but for me it was like, lets get this first official thing out and make it the first of many. So on this new record I got to take my time. I had my boy Dave Jackson on keyboards. He’s like a virtuoso; he can play drums, he can play all this other shit and play keys. So playing songs that are in 11 aren’t hard for him. Within two minutes he’s got the count. I’m playing with virtuosos on this record. John killed all of the bass stuff he did. Trying to get someone to learn it is really hard. It’s John shit. I’m just starting to understand that the people you bring around you are stars. They have their own way to shine that you can’t always do. I just did an electronic festival with Thundercat and Flying Lotus and everybody from Brainfeeder. That’s the one thing I was saying to myself. It’s cool to hear all of these people making music, but it’s really something to have other people to feed off of and influence you. I’m watching people start dancing before the music even comes on. I’m like, “This shit ain’t even hot yet and they’re dancing!” The ways of listening to things is changing, but I’m just really happy to have these people around me.
What’s the songwriting process like? Coming out of Berklee, do you have a strong compositional background?
I have a strong compositional background from growing up in church and playing on records. If you play on church records, you’ve got a week to learn the whole record and then you have a day at the end of the week to play the whole record in front of a crowd. If you fuck up, you’re in front of a crowd. At this point I can make records because I’ve been on other people’s records. I’ve sat with producers who have been like, “No we should put another hit here,” and whatever. It was stuff I didn’t understand until I heard it later. Or dealing with Omar who has a totally different way of approaching it. I’m learning from everybody.
In fact, I’m actually stealing everything. All of the drum fills I play…stole all of that shit! Stole everything in the compositions. It’s all coming from my influences. I just hear it that way. I’m also dealing with time constraints as well as my own constraints. Like this album was supposed to have strings on it. I have a ProTools rig, but all of the songs were over 100 tracks. I can’t run over 100 tracks on my home ProTools rig and then add 50 tracks of strings. So it’s a lot of shit. The moment I get like Trent Reznor where I can buy everything and everything comes to my house for free, the music will get hella crazier.
Who are some of your top influences that you like to “steal” from?
Well, I had a week of not listening to anything except electronic music. I just got a new computer so I downloaded Ghost and I download the new Deftones, which isn’t so new. I downloaded my record just to add some more sales to it [laughs]. But I’m listening to lots of things. I’m really into this dude right now, DJ Rashad, because he’s doing like Miami Bass music. He got signed in London, but he’s from Chicago and that shit just reminds me of hood shit. He’s rocking crowds like Skrillex though. It’s hood shit though. It’s completely stripper music. I’m still learning by all of these people who seem to be coming out of nowhere onto the scene. I feel like I don’t know shit.
What’s in store for the next couple months?
I did a record with Doug Pinnick and Eric Gales. I’m touring with Thundercat still. He’s supposed to be doing some opening shows for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. My band goes on tour July 27 through September 22. Then I also did a record with Eric McFadden and Norwood from Fishbone that is supposed to come out after I get home. After that, my band goes to Europe in October. I’m just trying to do as much as possible. I just want to keep playing with cool people and getting to see cool cities. I love playing in my band because, all of the things I see people miss, I get to do. I’m having fun branding myself, because I don’t know who I am. I don’t know what anything is. I’m being fully creative and not giving up on anything.
What’s been the defining moment in your musical career?
The defining moment would probably be getting to play on Dave Letterman. I always got to see like Buddy Rich on Johnny Carson. Buddy Rich would be playing on TV and he would act like the cameras weren’t even there. He played on so many TV shows that he didn’t care. Where as a lot of my friends go on and play with mainstream artists and they’re in the back with a hat. You can’t even see them! It’s not really cool, where as I got to be cool and do what I want on TV. That was pretty awesome.
What is your vision for The Memorials going into the future? Do you have plans to get more of a solid line-up or keep the collective going?
I just want people to do what they want. If they want to play, cool. I really want to get to a point where everyone sees how fun it is. Sometimes when you’re grinding it out, people can’t see it. Some people just won’t see it and that’s cool, but I’d like to have people who ride it out with me. Musically, I just want to keep making music as a collective. I think it’s the most fun and the most non-stressful. I’m a beat-maker, I know how to produce, but there is something about having all of these people around me. I get bored by myself. I’m an only child as it is; I get bored already.
Is there anyone you really want to work with?
Hell yeah, there are like 20 people I’d like to work with. But there are two keyboard players, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, just because those are OGs. I don’t have to do a tour, nothing. We could sit down and play at a jam session and I’d be happy. I’d probably want to play with Prince at a jam session too, just to say I did and also to see him in some high heels playing. That would be awesome.
All the young cats too. I’d be down to do something with Justice or deadmau5. I’ve been talking to Flying Lotus about doing some shit. Mainly I would like my band to tour with different bands. I just want to have shows with people because it’s fucking fun. I would like to sit in the studio with Trent Reznor to see how he makes shit, because he’s a weirdo. I saw his show from the stage and just by how meticulous everything was I could tell he was a strange dude. I would play with some of the rappers I like, you know, but if I die without playing with Tyler I won’t cry or anything. Whoever though. I’m down to play with anybody. I like to keep it fun and experimental. I don’t want to do some stale shit. Even if I got the call to do a stale record with like Stevie Wonder, I’d say yes, but I’d be thinking like, “Damn, this sucks.”
Having played so many different styles of music, how do you adapt to playing on someone else’s gig? Do you wait for their cues or do you give your own input and style?
I initially let them lead it. I hear what they have to say first. Some people don’t have anything to say, which are the weirdest ones. Even Omar had a certain direction. I like people who know what they want. A lot of times even if they’re like, “Put your shit here,” I’ll put down what’s on the record anyway. It’s easy for me to play my own shit over everything, but it takes away from the music. I also wouldn’t learn as much if I did that. I would learn less because I would only be in my own head. Like when I play with Thundercat, he tells me he loves me because I listen to his record. A lot of his record is not real drums, it’s programming. I’m trying to cop the sounds from these programmed drums. For the first couple gigs they were alright. By the last two gigs, people were like, “That drummer sounds like a fucking electronic drummer!” They don’t know that it’s real drums. It helps me too, because when I go to play with my own band, I’ve already played some shit that doesn’t sounds real so I can go even crazier with it sounding like electronic drums. I’ll make everything on one part of a song sound like electronic drums. I’m constantly playing with all of this because I don’t have no damn job. I don’t have a label telling me what to do. I don’t have a manager saying, “ Go play with Dream Theater.” It’s just me! I can do whatever I want creatively.
Grab a copy of The Memorials’ Delirium Now!
Interview by Eric Sandler