Back in July, Queens Of The Stone Age ventured down to Australia for this year’s Splendour In The Grass festival, playing a sideshow at Melbourne’s Festival Hall mere days before their much-loved Splendour set went down. And it was at this mid-week side show that I had the honour of interviewing Queens Of The Stone Age drummer, Jon Theodore, who has also kept some damned solid time for The Mars Volta and One Day As A Lion in the past. Having a candid chat with Theodore back stage prior to Queens set, we discuss his past with The Mars Volta, his relationship with them now, writing for ‘Villains’, the nature of practicing, playing what you truly love, covers, his thoughts on being included on Rolling Stones’ top 100 drummers list, what said lists can mean, and what he feels are the core elements of drumming.
Honestly, with a few other exceptions from this year, this has easily become one of my favourite interviews for 2017 so far. Have a read below!
Last year, we ran a feature with Of Mice & Men’s drummer, Valentino Arteaga, and one thing that we asked him was what he thought were the three core pillars of drumming. For him, Tino said the three core elements would be gear, understanding that you are the drummer in the band, and finding the right groove. As a drummer myself, I’m inclined to agree with him. Is there anything that you would personally add to or take away from, Jon?
I would agree with that, I think. Obviously, yes, your gear is important and you’ve gotta sound great for whatever music you’re playing; what different sizes you have, how they react differently, and so on. Adding to that, also the knowledge that there are microphones there as well. There’s this transformation from your hand to the stick to the drum to the mic to the PA. Understanding the nature of amplified sound can really go a long way, as altering your playing to the room you’re in based on how it reacts is a sidebar for gear. I think that understanding that you are indeed the drummer is a good pillar – I don’t know if I’ve had put it that way, though. If you’re in a metal band, then yes, you can have a pretty narrow window of things you could do. But I wouldn’t say that to a jazz trio, you know? So yes, understanding your duty on whatever musical situation you’re in is very important to deliver the right kind of accompaniment to the band.
As for that last one, groove? Yeah! That’s essential – that’s what we do!
And that’s exactly what Tino said too! I mean, while I don’t necessarily love a lot of the Red Hot Chili Peppers music, Chad Smith’s drumming is a great example of what great groove can do for a song.
Oh, he’s a great example of that, man. He can play anything but he sticks right into the meat and potatoes of that band to get it done, and it serves them so well. He’s such a great player too.
Agreed! I’ve got a couple of his books and DVD’s and man, he goes real hard sometimes.
[Laughs]. He really does! And I mean, being in a band with Flea, you kinda have to be.
For sure! Just quickly on the gear, what are you rocking lately gear wise for your drum kit?
Oh dude, I just got some new tubs. I got some new Ludwig’s. I had the DW kit for a few years and then before that, I had the thin-shell jazz series – some of the few wooden drums that I like – but these new ones are the first time I’ve played wooden drums in like 15 years. It’s a big transition and I just couldn’t get comfortable, as I just love projection and attack. So getting to play a new set of Ludwig’s now, I jumped at the chance and they sound fucking fantastic! I had an old Krillic 5 set back in the day, as I loved Billy Cobham’s set from the 70’s. So I had those in the early Mars Volta days, but these new Ludwig’s are great. And they’re blood red – super badass!
Well, hey, the only thing better than a good sounding kit is a good looking kit.
And let’s be honest, man, how they look is two-thirds of it. [laughs].
[Laughs] pretty much! Just to spurn discussion, I recently saw a studio vlog from a drummer called Ryan “Legs” Leger, the guy used to play in Every Time I Die for years. Anyway, in this little video piece, he said something very interesting and that was with his new band – Hundred Suns – he was now playing what he always wanted to play; what he loved to play when he practiced or jammed at home.
You know, that’s so interesting man, what that Ryan cat said is exactly how I feel now. I have always been a cosmic surge with my drums, as I never really play beats. Especially with The Mars Volta, it’s just real full-tilt. Playing with Queens has been a great opportunity and I listen to plenty of music that’s got great beat. When I’m by myself, I don’t listen to bands like The Mars Volta, so it’s an awesome thing for me to do the opposite evolution of most drummers; whereas most people start out basic and then get more complicated. But it’s cool as it’s informed by the idea that you can play everything… but you don’t. I think that’s so much more powerful than just barfing everything out at once. There is something great about wild, unchecked music but there’s also something really captivating about seeing something that you know is incredibly crafted and poured over. It’s a great opportunity for me as I’ve never been that great at playing mere beats. Especially in this band, as there are four other drummers in this band [laughs]. Everyone’s timing in this band is impeccable – it’s like a motor, like a piston.
The only other thing I will say is that these new tunes may seem pretty simple, but they’re pretty complicated when you dig into it. It does have the best of everything for me and as a middle-aged man, it’s great to also have a challenge now.
Well said! In terms of the challenge you mentioned, you only played on one track from the last Queens record, ‘…Like Clockwork’. So, this time around on ‘Villians’, you wrote and played all of the drums, yes?
Yep, I did the whole thing! Just like a real band [laughs].
Sweet, so with having four other drummers in the band as you said, was that tricky for you to step into that role at first?
No, it was totally liberating, also with having Mark Ronson in on the album, as he’s a beats guy too! I always say that I am the master of my own drum ship; I go to any cosmic heights and take any twists and turns wherever I want. But to be in a situation where people have really strong opinions and where they all hear very well, elevated me to a level that I wouldn’t get to if I was left to my own devices. So I really welcomed it and my ego is all still intact. As I’m here for the same reason as everyone else. If anyone had any ideas they wanted to me try, I was thrilled, as I was able to step out of my normal approach. And, as I’m sure you know how it is when you’re in the “trenches”, there is that gap between what you think is happening and what’s actually happening is sometimes very fast. You’ll think “Man, I’m really holding it down today” but everyone else is just holding their nose [laughs].
[Laughs] I can imagine that that’s a very Mars Volta-like scenario?
Oh yeah! All bets are off in that band, dude.
That doesn’t surprise me at all! And hey, on The Mars Volta, and with seeing that Cedric said the worst thing they ever did was fire you, what’s your relationship with those guys nowadays?
We’re all good now. And that is a very beautiful thing for him to say, though, he might have been just trying to get right with himself. But when that happened, when they kicked me out, it was the best thing for us both.
That’s also what he said in the interview I heard, actually – that both parties were at odds with each other.
Yeah, that was it. They took control, and I was told to leave, and it hurt; it was painful, man. It was messy like any kind of divorce. That was probably years later when he said what you just told me, so he’s probably had years to think about it, but we’re all good now. I love those guys and hey, I wouldn’t be here talking to you if it wasn’t for them. We’ve left a real legacy. I do see Cedric from time to time. In fact, we played with At The Drive In in Quebec at a festival, like three weeks ago, and it was awesome to see them all. We’re all adults and we’ve all moved on.
As someone who adores the crossover of At The Drive In and The Mars Volta, that’s great to hear, truly.
Another question, Jon, and one that’s kinda weird. If you Google your name, one of the first pages that comes up is this 2016 Rolling Stones article of the 100 best drummers of all time. And you’re number 88. Have you seen that and do you have any thoughts on that list?
[Laughs] Yeah, I have seen that. My mom actually sent that to me as she was super thrilled about it. But honestly, those lists are kinda horse shit. Like, there are 600 other people that should be on the list instead and the number one spit is usually one of the same handfuls of drummers.
Yeah! It’s either your John Bonham’s, your Buddy Rich’s, or your David Grohl’s.
Exactly! That being said, I am excited that I was included. I don’t wanna sound all ungrateful. I’m glad I’m on it rather than not being on it. I was also stoked to be sandwiched right between George Hurley (The Minutemen), who I love, and Bill Stevenson (The Descendants), and I was glad to see my parents so happy about it. But all of that stuff has no real bearing outside of that for me, you know?
I get that. The thing is, in another few years, there will probably be another Rolling Stones list of the 100 greatest drummers of all time and it will be a very different list.
That’s right! And who knows, I may not be on it. Or I may even move up a couple notches. I’m really wary of those lists because it’s like a small science experiment with a controlled field; it just doesn’t really address the vastness of what’s possible with music.
Agreed! Now, regarding ‘Villains’, I’ve already seen a few drum covers pop up online of people covering the new singles. Have you seen any of them or do you ever look up covers of your own work?
No, I haven’t seen any actually. I do see them pop up in my feeds occasionally, and just I think “Why would I watch that?” I don’t have any interest in watching that stuff. However, that is also pretty awesome, so maybe I’ll have to check them out one day! Cause a lot of the time, I’ve met a few of the other guys who played in Volta after me, and they’d ask me, “How did you do X part” and I couldn’t even remember. But when I would remember I’d tell them what I did and they’d respond with “I did it like this instead”. And I just thought “Wow, that’s so much easier!” [Laughs].
With drumming in The Mars Volta, you gotta be really economical at times with your playing!
And I wasn’t, man! I just took a whole lotta drugs and every note felt like there wouldn’t be another one after it. We didn’t hold anything back in that band. We were a lot younger then and we lived every second of every day like it would be our last, which is the only reason it worked. You can’t be conservative about music, or else it doesn’t come across as well. It has to be all or nothing, otherwise…who cares? That music in The Mars Volta was not about being safe or trying to save yourself; it’s about everything, all the time.
Which is why I – and many others – loved the band so much; that insane sense of urgency and in-the-moment emotion. To wrap up now Jon, with my own drumming regiment I had, I’d run through certain songs, certain backing tracks and certain tempo’s when I’d practice. Do you have any sort of drumming session “schedule” you use to maintain your chops? Whether they be Queens songs, random exercises or so on?
I do all kinds of stuff, but I don’t practice as much as I should, honestly. We were so focused on writing ‘Villains’ that there wasn’t much time for practice other than practicing what I was writing for it. Before that, by myself, it would depend on how inspired I was. As I’d often just sit and play through my bag of tricks – just really try to capture my mind and soul into the practice stream and being open to whatever comes out. Occasionally, I do go over the fundamental stuff, and if I can’t go to the practice space, I just use a practice pad at home. A lot of times, I just put my headphones on and play along to an old Miles record. Though, I’d rather just jam with people all the time. But now that you’ve brought it up, I do need to make a new practice routine, for sure.
Personally, I always love to plug in my phone and alternate my playing between different styles of songs; from something proggy, to something out of a cheesy drum pattern book, to something fast but simple, to something slower and dynamic.
See, I can’t really do that as the only music I keep with me on my phone and such is really rare stuff. Like really weird African shit, to Bolognese business, to really old rock records. So I don’t carry anything on me that’s about various angles or techniques, more so just whatever inspires me. And the further away from the drum kit, the better it can be.
Very true dude! And on that note, that’ll be us, Jon. Seriously, thank you so much for your time tonight, this has been such a great chat.
It was my pleasure man, thank you!
Queens Of The Stone Age’s new album, ‘Villains’ is out this Friday, August 25th. Pre-order it here.