Atom Willard: The Clutch Man
T Is For Technique (And Taste)
“I feel like I’ve got one arm tied behind my back,” Willard says with a laugh. “There’s a whole new generation coming up that thinks that that guy on that heavily Pro Tooled re- cord actually played it like that. So they just practice and practice till their feet can do what the Pro Tools made the guy do. Kids don’t understand the concept of, ’Oh, they completely cleaned up that drum take and triggered every kick hit,’ but it’s like a blisteringly fast double kick. And some guys do do it, but a lot of guys are getting helped out. And then the kids are like, ’I have to be like that!’”
He laughs. “And I was just trying to play Minor Threat songs – that was fast enough. I was like, ’Holy s--t, the kick drum and the floor tom are alternating, what do you do?’”
Willard fell in thrall of punk rock when he was 14 years old, and from then on veered sharply away from all the above-mentioned technically hot bands, and indeed anything that even gave the slightest whiff of instrumental prowess. For Willard, punk rock trashed all that.
“You know, Rush obviously had chops, and Van Halen and Crüe’s Tommy Lee had a lot of soul and emotion in those early records – it really was like a living, breathing thing. But punk was that times ten, because there were so many mistakes on the records and the recordings were so bad. But there was this attitude, and the songs were just intoxicating to me, maybe because of their very lack of technical proficiency.”
Willard applied his newfound punk drums style in his first band, called Crankshaft, whose gigs at parties and shows around San Diego quickly earned him a rep as a tubwacker to watch. Among the oglers were local arty-punk heroes Rocket From The Crypt, who invited the 16-year-old Willard to join their crew. The band commenced touring upon Willard’s graduation from high school at age 17, traveling by box truck all over the U.S. for up to eight weeks at a stretch, sleeping in fans’ houses or in the truck.
It was a formative experience for Willard, not least for the development of his hard-hitting playing style. “I started getting louder and louder by necessity, and it was incremental,” he says. “Whenever somebody saved up enough money to get a new amp, it got that much louder in the practice space. The room was 10' x 10', and it was the five of us in there, just as loud as you can imagine, and I just started playing louder and louder to hear myself.”
At the time he was way into Dale Crover of The Melvins, because Crover had those really big drums, like a 28" kick drum and 20" floor toms mounted high, just huge mutha things for ultimate max power and loudness. Thing is, says Willard, those big-ass drums looked loud but really weren’t all that loud.
“So I’m beating the crap out of this stuff trying to hear it,” he says with a laugh, “but it’s so big and the notes are so low. And that’s where I built my chops. Just to be loud enough dictated a lot of my style, because the drum beats had to be simpler to make them audible. It couldn’t be little fast things, because I was playing against two half- stack 100-watt Marshalls and a huge SVT cabinet, and it’s all pointed at me and I can’t hear anything but that. And then over the years I realized, Hey, if you go smaller and you rimshot a 13" tom, that’s way louder than a 16" rack tom. It speaks way more.”
Adapt Or Be Adapted
Willard’s time spent with The Offspring in 2002 exemplifies how a drummer wisely learns to play drums for the song and not necessarily to assert at all cost his favored flourishes into the mix. It can be a tricky thing to negotiate.
“The Offspring was a thing where I had to develop both my chops and my adaptability,” he says. “It was the fastest stuff I’d ever played, and I had to learn to play faster while maintaining my volume level. It just made me stronger.”
It also made him more flexible artistically – but let’s call it a hard-earned pragmatism. Until his first meeting with the band’s head honcho Dexter Holland, Willard had figured that The Offspring’s music contained a lot of room for individual interpretation, drum-wise.
“I went into the audition and did my own thing, and really kind of went off,” he says a bit ruefully. “And the manager called me a couple days later and says, ’The guys want to play with you again, but I just wanted to let you know that Dexter writes all the drum parts on all the records, and he kind of likes to hear what’s there.’ I’m like, oh ... I always thought that the drummer had written all the drum parts, and this was my opportunity to say, ’Look at what you’ve been missing.’” He laughs. “Well, no.”
Holland liked to say, “Stick to the script.” While Willard and Holland did discuss putting more of himself into Offspring drum parts, it wasn’t meant to be. Which, he’s quick to point out, is not as bad as it sounds.
“I was eager to do the right thing, wanted to do right by them, and realized that these are huge songs that’ve sold millions of records. It wasn’t my job to come in and say, ’Let me do it this way.’”
It was an epiphany for Willard. On tour with the Offspring, though, he had a hard time playing the same thing every night. “You know, you hear something and you just go for it. And 50 percent of the time I’d get ’The Look.’” He laughs. “’Oops, not gonna do that again!’
“But right or wrong, it’s how Dexter runs his thing, and he runs a very successful band. If the Angels & Airwaves opportunity hadn’t come up, who knows, I might still be there with Offspring. I didn’t have a lot of creative input, but I wasn’t a bandmember, I was an employee, so when I had the opportunity to be part of a band and have 25 percent creative input, and 25 percent financial output, that was very attractive.”