I had such a fortunate situation to be able to find my passion at an early age and have it exposed to me through music programs in public schools, starting in fifth grade through junior high and high school. I think it’s important and it should be every child’s right to have arts in school. And it shouldn’t be an elective. It should be part of the core curriculum. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing, if I didn’t have that opportunity. I never took private lessons—I played in schools and got into all the bands. I always loved playing music and I still do.
Which drummers influenced you during that time?
I was exposed to my brother who is two years older than me. He played guitar and had a record collection of English rock and hard blues bands of the late ’60s and ’70s. So I listened to drummers from those bands—Ian Pace of Deep Purple, Bill Ward of Black Sabbath, John Bonham from Led Zeppelin, Keith Moon, Jerry Shirley of Humble Pie, Dale Griffin of Mott the Hoople, Roger Taylor of Queen, Ginger Baker of Cream, and Mitch Mitchell. I would put those records on and sit down on the drums and pretend like I was in the band.
Can you point to any specific elements of your style that you got from them?
I guess I would say the thing I picked up from those guys is the way that they swing on the drums.
They sponsored eight schools that were some of the worst schools in the country, and implemented arts and music programs into the schools and taught the teachers how to do it and how to get the kids involved. These are places where the kids didn’t have hope about anything. I was just at Savoy Elementary school [in Washington, DC] recently and they are doing great. Their attendance is up, the parents are involved, the graduation rate is up, and the kids do better in other subjects. They just feel better about themselves and that’s a great thing for a young mind.
I have “adopted” a school outside Monterey, California, [Greenfield School] and I’m going to be involved with them.
When you began playing with RHCP back in 1989, did you ever think it would last this long?
Not at all. Rock bands usually last five years or so. We’ve been so fortunate. We found each other—guys that have the same goals and love to grow and change and get better. When we play together we have a special chemistry and the music that we make is pretty powerful. People love it, and most importantly, we love it! We are playing music for the right reasons and we still love and respect each other. If you keep working at it, good things happen, and we are still working at it.
How, if at all, has your role as drummer for RHCP evolved over those years?
Playing the drums in a rock band, I see as a supportive role, as an instrument in the group. But it’s always important to be able to rise to the occasion and be a creative musician. I think lots of times drummers, because we don’t play melodic instruments, tend to kind of sit back and play a beat and not have a lot of input into songwriting and arrangements. Everyone in our band has equal say and we encourage everybody’s input. We are very open about making suggestions about music. I think that’s really healthy for a drummer, especially to feel I’m not just the guy in the back. Everyone in the band kind of has roles or things they are better at. Mine is arrangement. I think drummers, in general, have a good sense of song structure, dynamics, and tempo and know when a song is feeling good.
A lot of ideas come from improvising. We just kind of get in a room and play together and take notes out of the air, kind of like jazz musicians. Other times people will come in with ideas—not fully formed songs, but chord structure or a musical idea—and then everyone jumps in and we bang away. It really doesn’t become a song until everybody adds their personalities to it. I think that’s why we have a more identifiable, unique sound, because everybody’s input and everybody’s thing on their instruments is very strong and I think that’s great.
Is there usually a premise or central theme behind an album when you begin to put the songs together?
It’s not till we get together in a room that it starts to take shape. There are no preconceived thoughts about the music. I think that’s very good and maybe even helps our longevity, our growth. We write songs for however long—six or nine months—and then we record those songs. So it’s a real good snapshot of where we are as a band and as musicians at that time. I think that’s key to staying fresh and growing. Everything is very in the moment.
Once you’ve launched a new album and begin a tour, playing the same tunes night after night, how do you keep your performance fresh? To what extent do you play off the vibe from the audience?
The songs evolve when you play them live. Of course, we are not ones to play note for note or anything like that. I think that it is important; it’s natural that we find things that work and that are exciting or different with all our songs. It’s exciting to play the new songs when we first start out on tour; those are the ones I really like to play to see how people like them or react to them. When we play the songs we feel the energy in different ways. We are very cognizant of what’s happening in the audience.
That was one of the highlights for sure. Growing up, my dad couldn’t play, but he loved music and Johnny Cash was in our home and played often, along with Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. [Back then] I thought that was old peoples’ music. I wanted Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. But as I grew a little bit older and matured a bit, I understood how great those artists were. Rick Rubin called me up and asked me if I wanted to come down and play with Johnny Cash. It was pretty cool. We had a nice night together. He was an amazing man, an amazing musician.
I think when you are in a group it’s really important, healthy to have opportunities to play with other people, so I do as much as I can. When you come back to your group you are refreshed a little bit and you’ve got some other ideas. I want to play with other people that are good listeners and want to have fun. That’s inspiring to me, just as a person, so I always look for those opportunities.
Tell me about the other two groups you play in regularly—Bombastic Meatbats and Chickenfoot. Do they allow you to explore an artistic angle that’s different from what you experience with Red Hot Chili Peppers?
Well, there’s nothing I can’t do with the Chili Peppers, it’s a very rewarding musical situation for a drummer. We do all different kinds of styles and types of music. There’s nothing off limits to us, which is great. But the Meatbats are an instrumental group, so right there, not having a singer, there is more opportunity to stretch out musically because you don’t have to worry about staying out of the way of the vocals and melody and stuff. Chickenfoot is like me at 14 years old. I just love that kind of rock music. It’s sort of classic rock, but we are doing it in our own way. It’s also an opportunity to play with guys from Van Halen that I grew up on. That’s a lot of fun and musically it’s different. We have a lot of different experiences together. We have a good time when we are together, but it is hard because we are not all in the same place at the same time.
What is your drum kit setup like? How has it evolved?
My drumset is a pretty classic setup that’s been used since the modern drum set evolved, like in the swing era I guess, with Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich and those guys. It’s one rack tom, two floor toms, kick drum, snare drum, a couple cymbals. I have a very simple drum set that I play and record with. I used to have more at the beginning because I think you just want to hit more stuff and it looks cool. But, for the music I play, this is all that I really need, the essentials. It’s nice to have the other voices on the drumset—the other things and cymbals and side snares for musical choices—but in general, if push came to shove, I wouldn’t need much more than that very simple drum set that people have been using for 80 years.
It seems like RHCP takes a pretty relaxed approach to producing albums. When will your next album be out?
We are writing songs and recording. The album will be out some time next year. We are not in any hurry. We want it to be really good. I don’t want to put a timetable on it.
And finally, the question that’s on everybody’s mind: will there be another drum-off with Will Ferrell?
I would drum-off with Will again because I feel I was kind of gypped, kind of cheated with this whole cowbell thing. I think we are going to do something in the early part of next year. There’s a project I’ve been talking to Will about. Obviously, his charity [Cancer for College] and mine [Little Kids Rock] have really benefited. So we might do something next year. I don’t know if it’s going to be a drum-off, but it’s going to be something of epic proportions, as only Will Ferrell can do.
I thought this [the drum-off on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon] would kind of quell the whole thing … ok, ‘so we’ve seen them in the same place together, they are not the same person. He can’t play very well, and yeah, the cowbell.’ It was on national television, millions of people, but now it’s worse. It’s just like it’s only fueled the fire. I’m not Will Ferrell!
It’s all for a good cause; it’s fun.