Atom Willard: The Clutch Man
Do The Work
And a few percentage points more creative input was also exactly what Willard got when he got the call in 2005 from Blink 182’s Tom DeLonge to form alt-rock super-group Angels & Airwaves, with whom Willard recorded three albums. His departure from the band six years later was amicable, he says, and owed mainly to DeLonge’s commitments to his re-formed Blink 182. Willard, you see, needed to work.
“When Tom started doing Blink again it was a hard thing for him to continue to do Angels with focus. We weren’t working and touring as much, so there was a lot of down time. I went and did Social Distortion, but it was still me coming in to someone else’s band, which I love to do, but if I have the opportunity to do my own thing, I always want to do that.”
While Willard understandably likes to have as much creative input as he can in any music he’s involved with, he also see himself as a working musician who likes to keep busy; his post-Angels work includes collaborations with a wide variety of artists such as Melissa Auf der Maur, Danko Jones, Alkaline Trio, Moth, and Weezer drummer Pat Wilson’s The Special Goodness.
His recent work with Against Me! has found him in his best yet position to artfully detail music whose politically charged thrust is challenging, to say the very least. The title of the band’s new Transgender Dysphoria Blues album gives a hint of the complexities involved. The band’s singer/guitarist Laura Jane Grace, formerly known as Tom Gabel, has earned Willard’s undying respect, and taught him a lot about how to drum a passionate life force into some seriously dark, negative-energy music and lyrics. In songs with titles like “F--kmylife666,” “True Trans Soul Rebel,” and “Dead Friend,” he applies himself with a positive empathy, simultaneously acting as a balancing agent and fully stoked engine for the songs’ near-overwhelming anger and confliction.
“I’m trying to add life and lift to everything, and I’m always just moving,” he says. “It’s just energy, and if I can make you dance with a four on the floor and just keep it going, making everybody just move your shoulders a little bit, that for me is a win.”
The album’s reflective “Two Coffins” tells a corollary tale, however. Originally written as a solo acoustic song, the question was whether it needed drums at all.
Drums DWJazz Series (Chrome)
1 24" x 18" Bass Drum
2 14" x 6.5" Thin Aluminum Snare Drum (or “Wrinkle” aluminum shell)
3 12" x 8" Tom 4 16" x 14" Floor Tom
A 15" K Light Hi-Hat (top)/Mastersound (bottom)
b 19" A Medium Crash
C 24" K Light Ride
D 20" A Medium Crash
E “Torque Converter” Bell
Atom Willard also uses DW 9000 series stands and 5000 single bass drum pedal and hi-hat stand, Remo heads (Vintage Emperor Clear, tom batters; Ambassador Clear, tom resonants; Emperor X, snare; Powerstroke3, bass), Vater Power 5B sticks, Meinl hi-hat tambourine, Tama 105 Rhythm Watch click track, and Ultimate Ears in-ear monitors.
Willard added sizzly cymbals and mallets, and opened up the muffling on the toms a little bit. It was a way to differentiate the two parts of the song, to make it shift from the verse to the chorus; along with a waltz beat, this keeps the verse in sight, and the backbeat of a floor tom supports the chorus. “That’s all I try to do in any song: cruise on the verse, and if there’s a pre-chorus, add as much tension as you can, and then release into the chorus – and everything just goes ahhhhh.”
Willard recorded his Against Me! tracks alone in the studio, a working method he likes. “All of these songs were pretty much already written, and I knew the structure of the songs, where Laura’s vocals were going to be, what the chorus melody was. That and the overall direction of the song is the most valuable stuff for me to know, before I can feel comfortable to stretch out.”
Live and in the studio, Willard’s drumming directly plays off both the sound of Grace’s voice and her lyrical substance as well. Specifically, he’s sensitive to her cadence and sense of meter. “I’m not just going to sit there and play a beat,” he says. “No, my thing is a part within each section that interacts with the vocals and creates dynamics and moves it along.”
On the album’s “Osama Bin Laden As The Crucified Christ,” Grace was specific about the sound she wanted to hear from Willard: “She said I want you to go crazy the whole time. And I was like, ’Whoa, I’m not going to Keith Moon on your song. It’s not what comes naturally to me.’ So I had to develop a part that gave her that feeling of running off over hills, of uncertainty, this unpredictable, could-come-off-the-hinges-at-any-moment type of feeling. I’m such a structured type of guy that it took me a little bit to figure out how I could reach that and still stay true to myself.”
On the title track and the following “True Trans Soul Rebel,” when Willard does his fills, it’s very much by design; he’s thought about it beforehand and parcels them out sparely; the placement of each fill seems crucial.
“I really like to have each section be itself,” he says. “And even if I’m playing the same root part each time through that section throughout the song, well, it’s a gradual build. So the fills will change a little bit as you go through the song; there’s kind of a similar feeling, but it will evolve within itself.”
A Guiding Hand
What’s the best thing about being a famous rock drummer? Flying in private jets? Dining at the Ritz? Entire stadiums of fans pumping their fists and chanting your name to the heavens? Well sure, all that stuff is pretty damn nice, no doubt about it.
“But for me,” he says with a grin, “some of the most amazing moments have happened when a kid writes me and says, ’You inspired me to play the drums – and now check out my band!’ That’s the coolest thing ever. You feel like you’ve been able to say something that resonates with people. If I can inspire people to play, and get people excited about music, that’s really something that I’m very proud of.
“And you know what? It’s because I’m not a chops guy, it’s not about fills and flourishes – it’s about not being a selfish drummer, it’s about playing for the song, and not for yourself. So, if that’s recognized, I’m pretty happy about that.”
Against Me - "Unconditional Love"
Against Me - "Dead Friend"
Against Me - "Transgender Dysphoria Blues"