Josh Freese of Devo and the Vandals Is the Blue Collar Freelance Drummer to the Stars
The drummer-for-hire has played with everyone from Nine Inch Nails to Guns N' Roses to... uh, he can't even remember who else at this point.
Josh Freese may take a tongue-in-cheek tone when he calls himself the “freelance drummer to the stars,” but that makes the description no less apt. Whether or not fans are familiar with his name, they’re likely familiar with his work. Freese has been a mainstay behind the kit for Devo for nearly two decades, has played with his buddies in the Vandals since 1990, spent roughly five years with Trent Reznor in Nine Inch Nails, helped found A Perfect Circle, served as longtime drummer to the Replacements’ Paul Westerberg, and somehow found himself spending two years in the studio with Guns N’ Roses.
And those are just some of the big gigs Freese has had over the course of his career, in which he has racked up more than 500 total recording credits and countless shows—by his own estimate—working with everyone from the Offspring to Paramore to Weezer to Avril Lavigne and a whole bunch you and I have likely never heard of and even more Freese doesn’t remember. He has also found time to release some solo work and tend to a family of six in southern California.
So you better believe the guy has some stories to tell. And considering he hasn’t updated his website since 2012, we decided to sit down with him backstage at a recent Devo show, to record just a few of the stories from his early days in music, get some behind-the-scenes info on his biggest gigs and find out what he’s up to next. Yes, we also asked him what it was like working with Axl Rose, though the answer may surprise you.
Noisey: When you were getting started in music, why drums?
Josh Freese: I always say—half-joking but serious, too—that when little boys are day dreaming of cool-sounding jobs “when they grow up,” that being a drummer is right up there alongside of astronaut, baseball player, fireman, etc. My dad conducted the Disneyland band since I was born, and I was around big band music a lot. There was always a bunch of instruments around our house, and I noticed there was a drum set up in our attic. I thought there was no chance in hell my parents would let me take it down and set it up for me, but somehow they went for it. My dad played me the most elementary Rock ‘n’ Roll 101 beat, and I sat down and immediately played it. I fell in love instantly and then spent the next few years playing along to Van Halen, Devo, Police, and Queen records before taking formal lessons.
And you got your start professionally at Disneyland, right?
I can pinpoint when I started playing professionally very easily, because in 1985, when I was 12, I got a job playing in a Top 40 band out at Disneyland. I had to join the musician’s union. I started getting paid to play the drums and having to pay taxes on that money. So I’ve paid taxes every year since I was 12 from drumming income. Other than a paper route I had for about six weeks when I was 10, this is the only job I’ve ever had.
So ‘85, I worked out of Disneyland for three years. I started making records and touring when I was 15, first with Frank Zappa’s son Dweezil. When I was 16, I went on tour with this cheesy soap opera star. But he had the number one single in the summer of ‘89, so I got to go on a big tour bus and do all that stuff. Around that time, I was still playing with Dweezil, and I met the Vandals ‘cause I lived in Orange County. They needed a drummer, and I was ready, willing and able to do whatever I did to play with whoever I could play with.
Is that willingness a key to your success as a freelance drummer?
That’s a piece of advice I give anybody, young or old, if they come up to me and say, “How’d you get to where you’re at? I’m thinking about moving to LA. What should I do?” First of all, I tell them, “Don’t move to LA, at least not right now.” The music business is so upside-down and screwy; it’s tough for anyone to make a living doing it. I always tell people, “Play with as many people as you can play with, without burning all bridges or fucking things up for yourself.” You’ve got to be sensitive to people’s schedules and treat them all like they’re the most important one. Get out there and play with whoever you can. You’ve got to play for free; you can’t demand money. Play with everyone for free and just get out there, because you never know between making connections with others—not just musically but personally. I say “no” to more things these days because I’ve got four kids and I’m busy enough playing with people I like and making enough money. Being a freelance musician, there’s still part of me that feels like whoever calls, even if I’m so incredibly busy, I’ll go “Yeah, yeah. I’ll do it.” Cause I figure, “Oh, man. If I say ‘no,’ the phone’s going to stop ringing.” And there’s part of me that feels so fortunate enough to be in the position that I’m in that I go, “God, in the name of all the out-of-work musicians, I should say ‘yes.’” What, I’m going to say “no” to this guy who wants to pay me a bunch of money to play tomorrow night in a recording studio?
When you say “yes” to so much, do you still feel a creative connection to all of these bands?
When I was younger, I’d play on a record, and whether it was good or bad, I’d listen to it and be like, “Oh, man, this is me. I’m on a CD.” And after you’ve played on 500 records, and you’ve gotten to play with your biggest heroes and some pretty cool people, and then some pretty uncool people... I couldn’t tell you the names of tons of albums I’ve played on. Not only do I not own them, but I don’t know the names of them. I’ve got to pick and choose what records I want to listen to.
Not only do I need to make a living playing drums and feel fortunate—so I’ll say “yes” to things I don’t necessarily like—but also, I’ve been on projects where you go to a project and maybe the music’s pretty goofy, but maybe the guy who’s engineering that day at the studio pulls you aside and goes, “Hey, man. I’m working with David Bowie next week. You’d be perfect.” Just by getting out there and doing it. Or the bass player is like, “Dude, I’m going to do something with the B-52s. Do you want to come do something with the B-52s next week?” Fuck yeah! They lead to other things, and that’s the snowball networking thing.
I’m like the blue collar freelance drummer to the stars. [Laughs] I’m not slumming it playing at the Holiday Inn in a cover band, or at the state fair with some really cheesy band, but it’s like I feel fortunate to do what I do, and I make just not enough of a lot of money that I feel like I do need to take work to support a family of six and live in Southern California.
When that’s how most of your career has worked, what’s kept you with bands like the Vandals for so long?
The cool thing about the Vandals—I’ve said it in a million interviews, I’m going to say it again, because it’s my go-to line, and I love it, because it really sums it up: The Vandals are a labor of love. Meaning none of us are rich doing it. None of us even barely make a living doing it, but we do it because we love doing it and we’re really close friends. Those guys are probably my closest friends in the world. The line that my dad said once, he goes, “You know what, Josh, some guys go fishing, and some guys play poker on Friday nights, and you play in the Vandals.” That’s like my fun time—hanging out with the guys in the Vandals. I can be on the private jet with Sting, and come home and get in a van with the Vandals and drive to Vegas for the weekend and play at some crappy punk rock club and have a great time. I’ve had an open-door policy with them for a long time now. They know I make my living being a freelance drummer, and I’m a really busy one.
You spent about five years with Nine Inch Nails. What was that experience like?
The reason I’ve played with some of the bands I’ve played with for those long amounts of times are those are the bands I really love and can stand behind. In the almost five years that I worked with Nine Inch Nails, I took a lot of pride in playing with Trent, working with Trent. He makes everyone else look amateur. Unbelievable.
I played drums on a few records—not full records, because he still really likes programming, and there’s a certain sound aesthetic to it. But as far as being someone that works their ass off, and is so dedicated, and the end result is really great, he puts a lot of time, a lot of energy and a lot of money into what he does. Going on stage with him every night and playing those shows, I take a lot of pride in that, and I stand behind him and what he does, and when I was working with him, what we did every night—the sound, the look of the show, the production—it was so fucking first class, all the way. There was no room for anyone who wasn’t on their A-game, whether it was a musician on stage or the crew of lighting people, the crew of video people, any of the techs. Everyone was just fucking on-point. I’ve never seen anything like it on a production of that scale.
What brought your involvement to an end?
It kind of broke my heart when I stepped away from it. And I left for a very noble reason. I left because, at the time, I was the only dad in the band. Trent in the last five or six years had two kids. At the time, he didn’t have any kids, but I had two. They were getting older. He was touring his ass off. He was newly sober. He was throwing himself into work and just kicking ass. You’d tour with him, we’d get home and have a few months off, then we’d go back on tour for a long time. Then we’d come home and whip out another record. Then we’d go on tour again. There was so much of it that at the end of , giving him about four months notice, I said, “You know, my wife and I are going to have our third child, in January of 2009.” And I knew he wanted to be out. He was going to do a full-blown thing in ’09, from February to fucking September, basically. I was like, “Man, I can’t do it. My two boys are getting older. We’re having a third kid. My family’s going to fall apart.” I’ve got nothing lined up. I had faith I was going to work still. I left for a very noble reason. He was disappointed that I had to leave, but he fully got it and never faulted me or got mad at me for it. Did he want me to quit his band and have to audition to find drummers? Fuck no. That’s no fun. But I wasn’t leaving it because some shitty band dangled a carrot in front of me and said, “Hey, man, we’re going to pay you twice as much as Trent is. Come play with us.” I merely left because I couldn’t be on the road for that amount of time anymore. And I missed it, and I still miss it. But I loved doing it. I’m on good terms with them, and that was a fucking great experience with Nine Inch Nails.
You were part of Guns N’ Roses during what has now become the infamous Chinese Democracy debacle...
One of my favorite strange feathers in my cap that I have is that whenever I walk into a room of people and they’re talking about [whispers] Chinese Democracy, just this whole debacle of a record that took 100 years to make and cost a million dollars—I’ll walk into a room full of people and go, “What are you guys talking about?” They go, “Chinese Democracy,” and I raise my hand and go, “I wrote ‘Chinese Democracy,’” because I wrote the music to the song. I didn’t write anything else on the album. I wrote a couple other things that didn’t make it on the album. When I left, there were still another seven or eight years before the album came out. But it always makes me laugh. It’s not like I wrote Track 10 or something; I wrote “Chinese Democracy.” Some people told me I shouldn’t brag about that. Actually, I like that song. And it’s not just because I wrote it; it’s because it’s a really dumb, simple, dirty guitar riff. It’s cool. I think it’s one of the better ones on that record.
How did that come about, though?
I got a call from their now-ex-manager in 1997 saying, “Guns N’ Roses is auditioning drummers. They’d like you to audition.” I was busy at the time playing with Devo, and doing lots of Vandals gigs, and working with Paul Westerberg—my hero from the Replacements. I was already really busy not being a rich-and-famous rock star but being cool—being cool, working with people I loved and really stood behind and making a good living. I wasn’t filthy rich, but I wasn’t broke. So, I was like, “I’m good, man.” And I had a conversation with the manager, and he said, “Why don’t you just come down and meet Axl?” I said, “I don’t know.” And he said, “Listen, who knows if you’d even get the gig, and if you get the gig, you don’t have to say ‘yes.’ Just come down.” I think, “What have I got to lose?” At that point, no one had seen Axl in five years. You heard rumors, “I heard he’s 350 pounds.” “I heard he lost all of his hair.” You hear all these things. I was like, “I should go down. Does he drive himself or does he take a limo? Does he show up with his sister? Does he show up with the porn stars? Does he take a helicopter? Let me see how this dude rolls.”
So, I went down and met him, and I really liked him. He was really nice. He was talking about Devo, and instead of throwing out “Yeah, I used to like ‘Whip It.’” Instead of saying something like that, he started naming other songs. “Dude, ‘Uncontrollable Urge’ is great. ‘Gut Feeling.’” And I’m like, “This guy knows.” He’s not just saying he likes Devo and remembering that one hit from 1983. He knows his shit. He does like Devo. He’s like, “I want someone to come down here and write with me. I don’t want you to just be the drummer.” I was like, “I’m going to check it out,” and I had a lot of friends begging me not to do it. I had people going, “Dude, what are you doing? That’s insane.” I have to say, to Paul Westerberg’s credit, Paul Westerberg’s the one guy who said, “You should do it. Go do it. It sounds totally wrong; go do it. What are you going to do, be in some totally cool alternative band? Are you going to join the Foo Fighters or something obvious? Go play with Guns N’ Roses. Nobody knows what they’re doing. There’s all these weird rumors about him. You should go do that for a minute.”
What was the experience like?
I did it, and I don’t regret it. I was on a two-year contract with them, and by the end of the second year, I realized they weren’t going to leave that studio or that room anytime too soon. But going back to Axl, everyone wants to hear a crazy Axl story. Obviously, there’s been a lot documented about him. But me, personally, I never had a bad experience with him. I never saw him blow up. I never saw him do anything unfair. He was nothing but cool to me, and I saw a guy that wanted to have fun and wanted to come down to the studio with the guys and write music and stuff. You hear the other stories—just like me or you or anyone on the street that’s looked at the internet and said, “Oh my God, he did what to so-and-so? He trashed this? He wouldn’t show up to the show?” You hear crazy stories. Maybe if I was around that shit, I’d tell you a different story. I personally never witnessed any of that stuff. I was also in our personal, private bubble. I wasn’t out playing gigs and sitting backstage hearing, “He’s not even in New York yet. And the opening band’s off stage and he’s still in Philly, refusing to come here.” Then I might go, “Fuck, man,” and it would drive me crazy. But we were on our own schedule in a studio out in The Valley. There was no real big consequence if we were late or if he didn’t show up one night. It didn’t matter. I really liked him.
And I felt bad when my two years was up and I decided I was going to go start A Perfect Circle, because it seemed like a more tangible thing that was really going to happen. These guys aren’t spending a million in the studio. They seem like they want to start a regular band. They want to write and record a record and go on tour six weeks from now. It all seemed very realistic. When I put in my notice, I didn’t want him to take it personally, which I know he probably has with other guys who have left his band or been fired or whatever, because I really do personally like him and always got along with him. When anybody ends a relationship, even if it’s business, some people go, “Don’t take it personally; it’s business.” People still take it personally. You get bummed out. I felt bad about leaving, but I had to do it. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Axl. [Laughs]
You mentioned Paul Westerberg and the Replacements. What was that like last year, leading up to those reunion shows at Riot Fest?
Amazing. I’ll go on the record as saying my two favorite bands are the Replacements and Devo. So for me, it’s been a huge success, more so than being a rich and famous rock star guy. To be able to play with the bands that you really, really, really love... I used to sit around and dream of meeting the guys in Devo. Now I open the door when I hear my name and say, “What’s your problem? Get out of here.” [Laughs] Westerberg will call me, I’ll see his number on the cell phone, and I’ll go, “Nah, I can’t talk to him right now. I’ll call him back.” Send it to voicemail. But when I was 15, I used to dream of meeting him. He was my favorite songwriter. I thought he was the coolest dude on the planet. And I’ve worked with him for over 20 years now. At the tail end of him finishing his first solo record is when I met him. So I only appear on one song on his first record. But I did his first solo tour when I was 20 for six months in ‘93. I’ve worked with him on and off for 20 years—mostly off, because he spent a lot of years just not doing anything. He’ll go five, six years without putting anything out, and then, when he does, it’s him in his basement playing drums.
There were times when they were hinting a few years ago, “Maybe we’ll do the reunion thing.” They’d always kind of chicken out and step back from it. I was like, “Paul’s never going to get off his ass and do this. Tommy [Stinson] wants to do it, but I don’t think Paul’s going to do it.” Then he’d say in an interview, “Yeah, maybe we’ll play again together sometime,” even though I know Chris [Mars], the drummer, hasn’t touched drumsticks in years and has no interest in it. They’re on good terms. They had a falling out a long time ago, but they’re on good terms now. He’s just like, “Hey, man, no offense, I really don’t want to play drums. That was a lifetime ago. I was a drummer in a band. I don’t want to revisit that right now.”
So I kind of knew it, because I’m good friends with Paul and Tommy, and they know what a fan I am, and I’ve worked with both of them. I knew that if the Replacements did something and they didn’t call me I’d be pissed. Who else is going to play drums? They called a little bit over a year ago—May or June of last year—they said, “Hey, we’ve got these three Riot Fest gigs: Toronto, Chicago, Denver.” Paul called and left me a message. I saved it for a long time. He called and said, “You know, we’re doing these shows, and to be honest, I don’t want to do them unless you’re the drummer. You’re the guy.” It was nice to hear, because he’s my favorite dude, bar none—as far as songwriter, lyricist. For me, personally, there’s none better. Westerberg’s lyrics make me cry, man. Time and again, over and over, his shit makes me cry on probably a weekly basis when I listen to his stuff. It’s incredible. No one does it better, to me, than he does. That meant so much—my work with him and getting to play alongside of him. I guess I couldn’t be prouder of working with anybody.
I worked on Bruce Springsteen’s new record. I didn’t really care. I didn’t grow up listening to Bruce Springsteen records. I didn’t grow up, sitting at home, dreaming of meeting Bruce Springsteen one day. I don’t listen to his lyrics and go, “Fuck, these are the best lyrics ever written.” I’ve never had those moments. Is he a legend? Sure. He’s an American rock ‘n’ roll legend. Is he great? Yeah, he’s great. Do I listen to his records? No, I never listen to his records. I’ve heard his records, because I leave the house and I walk through grocery stores and I go to sporting events. But Paul, I’m still pulling for Paul, because he was an underdog. Bruce Springsteen’s not an underdog. Bruce Springsteen sold 300 million records. There’s still part of me that loves Paul because the rest of the world will never know about him, meaning there’s a small pocket of the cool people who know who he is and then no one else does. That’s still part of the fire inside of me that fucking roots for him and pulls for him, is because he’s got this hopeless existence. He’s never going to sell a bunch of records. And he’s doing these shows and they’re great. Even Coachella—there’s 4,000 people in the front who are stoked and 15,000 kids with glowsticks, scratching their heads. First of all, the Riot Fest shows were fucking great and they’re all fans…
I was going to say, with Riot Fest, I remember the internet going insane when the Replacements were announced.
It was great, right? Coachella was a weird one. I think it was a big payday for him, and it was a weird one, but he didn’t belong out there, and he knew he didn’t belong out there. The second weekend was more fun, but the first weekend, the night before, the manager said to me, “Do you think this is going to be weird tomorrow night?” And, of course, I forget that the whole world doesn’t know who the Replacements are and the whole world doesn’t love the Replacements. People love them. They’re not a teeny tiny band, but they never sold one million records. So the night before, I’m thinking, “Are people going to like it? Is it going to be crickets out there?” I don’t know. I want to say, “Everyone’s going to love it.” But fuck. I’ve heard of nine bands out of 90 that are on the roster this year. Luckily, it wasn’t their comeback show. If that was the first show they had played in 22 years, you probably never would have heard from him again. He probably would have gone home and never played another show, because it was weird. It was lackluster. I think we played well, but it was a weird vibe.
The three Riot Fest gigs were so great. For him to come back and get his feet wet doing those gigs gave him confidence. Everyone was abuzz about it on the internet. They all went great. The Coachella show was tough, man. I’m back there playing drums. I’m not the star of the show; I’m the new guy playing drums. He’s up there singing. I know what it’s like for him to leave his house in Minnesota and go do something that he doesn’t want to do. As much as I think I’m out of the loop, that dude hasn’t even heard of Outkast. He doesn’t know what the fuck’s going on out there. So we’re playing, and I’m going, “Oh my God, this is a crime, because I love this dude so much, and deserves so much more than what he’s getting back from these people, and I don’t want him to get too bummed.” We walk off stage, and we’re getting on a golf cart to go back to our dressing room, because it’s all sprawled out, and I just walked up to him and gave him a big hug. I said, “Man, I love you, and you don’t belong here.”
After playing with these heroes of yours, do you have any dream gigs left?
There are some, yeah. I want to go on record saying a few. One band that’s pretty tangible—I’m not out looking to take his gig, but I’m such a fan and friends with the guys—if David Lovering ever fucked up his leg, I’d love to go play with the Pixies. I’m buddies with all of them. Butthole Surfers—which, they’re probably not going to play anymore shows, but I recently became friends with Paul Leary, and he’s an awesome guy. This one, I’d probably say “no,” because they’re so scary—I’m scared of them, and they’d probably eat me up and spit me out all over the stage, but—Steely Dan. And I’m being dead serious. You know who’s a huge Steely Dan fan? Bill Stevenson of Black Flag and the Descendents. He and I share a closet Steely Dan obsession. Westerberg’s into Steely Dan, too.
Any other solo work on the horizon for you?
My solo stuff goes unnoticed, like a tree falling in the woods, which is fine. I don’t expect anyone to pay attention, buy it or care. Who’s got the time, right? Shit, I hardly do. But it’s in my blood and something I will always do, regardless of it making money or not. I love writing conventional rock ‘n’ roll songs, but I’m going to release something soon that is far from conventional. It’s been in the works for awhile and is pretty abstract and weird, but still fun and hopefully not alienating—more of a nod to influences like the Residents and prank phone calls.
Bill Jones would write for Guns N' Roses if they asked. Follow him on Twitter - @billjonesink
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