Joey Castillo: Walking The Walk

  • By Don Zulaica
  • Originally published in the April 2005 issue of DRUM! Magazine

Some musicians talk a lot about how good they are. Some don’t have to.

Joey Castillo is the latter.

He looks like he should be the fifth Ramone, snarling at everyone on his way out of CBGBs. The hair. The stubble. The leather jacket. On first glance the image screams East Coast.

But this isn’t New York. This is Southern California. And some first glances aren’t worth a damn.

His actual demeanor carries no thread of machismo, but rather a quiet confidence. When he anchors a band such as Queens Of The Stone Age, or Danzig, or early-’90s rockers Sugartooth, he knows there is a job to do: to hit the song upside the head and make it beg for mercy. To never let you forget about the numbers 2 and 4. To pay respect to the drummer’s shoes he’s filling -- like a Chuck Biscuits or Dave Grohl -- while throwing his own signature into the mix.

Because of his humility he’s loath to admit it, but he’s one of the unsung heroes of the Los Angeles rock scene. In fact, his eyes often turn downward when discussing landing his more noteworthy gigs, as if he doesn’t want the attention. As much as we’d like to think so, he didn’t pay his dues to be on our cover. He did it because he knows nothing else.

He doesn’t need to talk. He’s too busy doing it.

30 Seconds To Queens. It was late 2002 and Queens Of The Stone Age had just released its third album Songs For The Deaf, which put one Mr. Dave Grohl back behind the drums (and famously complicated the subsequent Foo Fighters record), and promised to be the band’s biggest release. The problem was, well, Mr. Grohl was still a Foo Fighter, so Queens needed a drummer.

Meanwhile, Castillo was busy wrapping up another tour with Danzig, the band he’d been backing for six years. He’d grown a bit weary of the on-again, off-again Danzig schedule, but hadn’t found the right situation to jump into. The drummer was an unabashed Queens fan, and at one point had even crossed paths with them in Europe while filling in for openers Goatsnake.

As legend has it, fresh off the aforementioned Danzig tour, a friend alerted Castillo to the fact that Queens was looking for a drummer to join them to support Deaf. “So I left a message for [vocalist/guitarist] Josh [Homme],” Castillo remembers, “and said, ‘Hey man, it’s Joey. I’m back in town. I heard you were still looking, give me a call.’ Finally we touched base, and he told me what was going on. They had somebody, but he wasn’t sold on the guy. They knew in the long run that it wasn’t going to work out, but they were going to have to begin this run with him, because it was starting on Monday.”

Scheduling snafus pre-empted an initial jam session. Thinking nothing of it, and that the position was essentially filled, Castillo picked up the Deaf CD. “Then I got a call on Friday night from Josh and Mark Lanegan to see if I could make it down,” he continues, “and I was, ‘Make it down where?’ ‘Make it down to rehearsal. We’ve just got to play together,’ because Josh was convinced that if we didn’t play, it was going to eat him up. He’d be wondering if we should have at least played together, to know if it would have worked or not. On the phone I said, ‘I really appreciate the call, and understand what’s going on, but I’m so … not prepared at this moment.’ I wasn’t going to make it to him in time from where I was, so I asked if he could do it on Sunday, because he couldn’t do it on Saturday. So we agreed to meet on Sunday.

“I got there in the afternoon, and I sat behind the kit that was there, and started playing the first song, which was ‘Avon,’ off the first Queens record. We started the song, and about 30 seconds in we came to a point where we made a mistake and had to stop. And Josh was like, ‘Hold on a second, I’ve got to make a call,’ and he walked out of the room. I figured he’d come back and say, ‘Thanks,’ or whatever. But he came back and said, ‘I just fired the drummer. The tour starts tomorrow. We’ve got to go to San Francisco to do the first show, then we’ve got to do an in-store at Amoeba, and then at Tower in San Diego.’ I was like, ‘Uh, okay.’ He asked me, ‘Give me an hour, and I’ll meet you back here. I’ve got to call the rest of the guys, call management, and make some changes.’”

Paralyzing Lullabies. It wasn’t an illusion. In about a half-minute, Castillo had impressed Homme enough to hop on the trial-by-blowtorch Queens tour, which -- after Castillo promptly parted ways with Danzig -- lasted from late 2002 until January, 2004. During the tour Homme started penning songs that would end up on the new Queens album Lullabies To Paralyze. The early pre-production started out in the California desert, Joshua Tree to be precise, and then further rehearsals occurred in Los Angeles, before the proper tracks were recorded at Sound City in Van Nuys. Production duties were shared by Homme and Joe Barresi (The Melvins, Bad Religion, Hole).

Lullabies traverses several terrains, from shuffles like “Burn The Witch” (with ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons guesting on guitar), to the paradiddle-heavy “Someone’s In The Wolf,” to the dynamically varied “Everybody Knows That You’re Insane” (starts with a slow 3/4 feel before hitting the gas in 4/4), to all-out up-tempo slammers like “Medication.” Whatever the feel, Castillo instinctively digs out the appropriate drum parts from what Homme (who has been known to bash skins himself) composes.

“When he gave me ‘Medication,’” Castillo stresses, “I instantly knew what to do. Because I knew, from what he was playing on guitar -- and it was on an acoustic, but still I could hear exactly what the song was, and the way the drums needed to be played. It’s like, [the guitar is] all these downstrokes that are almost rigid and stiff, that’s why that song is really tight. The hats are closed tight, there’s no openness or splashing looseness about it at all. Most of the time I can almost hear exactly what he wants from a rough. He’s a great songwriter. And he loves the drums.

“The thing about it is, me and Josh have a really strong working relationship. I understand his language when it comes to writing music. He’s definitely been one who has really pushed on me to not always do things the way it ‘should’ be done. I love some of the drum ideas he comes up with, because with The Eagles Of Death Metal -- a band that he plays drums in -- he does some really good things. With songs, he is a hook writer, and when he writes drums, he writes drum hooks. I know that’s what he hears.”

Another song, “Tangled Up In Plaid,” opens up with some brief snare ruffage in the opening, before settling into a lumbering 4/4 groove with absolutely booming tom and kick drum sounds (“That’s Joe Barresi, man.”) that magnificently fills up the space, and emphasizes Castillo’s ability to ebb and flow around the tempo of the guitars.

“That was a part that Josh had,” he says. “When we went to do pre-production, we established the body of the song, the push-pull thing, and that was it. The rest of it, we did when we came to Los Angeles and started finalizing all the songs. That one, more than anything on the record, I remember we recorded it a couple times one night, went home and slept on it, came back in the next day and took a couple more stabs at it … and I think on the last time around is when we nailed it. It’s a song that’s interesting -- again, it’s real rigid on top, but the kick is a little behind in a way. Along with the crashes in the chorus, from the tom to the snare, they’re on the back of the beat. That one was tricky, feel wise.”

Big Drums And Split Duty. The big sound on Lullabies is hardly accidental, and not just attributable to Barresi or Homme. For one thing, Castillo used some big-ass drums and cymbals, including a 26" x 20" bass drum (hello Bonham!) and a 26" ride. You heard us. “I used a 26" Paiste 602,” he laughs, “which belonged to Mick Fleetwood. Mike Fasano [who teched for Castillo during the sessions] brought that one. I used that on most of the record, to be honest with you. Live, I’ll probably use 15" hi-hats, but on the record, on a couple songs, I used 17" to do some different things -- on ‘Medication’ I was using 17" hats. They were 17" Paiste Traditional crashes.”

With Fasano in the house there must have been plenty of options, but for snares the drummer stuck with a tried-and-true first love. “We used one of the oldest snares that I have,” he gushes, “which is a maple 14" x 6 1/2" DW snare that I got from one of the first kits they gave me years ago, when I was in Sugartooth. It’s the only part of that kit that I still have -- I sold the rest of it to a friend of mine. I use wood hoops on it, so it gets a nice crack, with a really warm sound. We used that thing on every song. There are a couple little intros, like on ‘The Blood Is Love,’ we used a little Pacific 10" x 6 1/2" snare. Live, I use a 14" x 7" DW brass snare. That thing’s amazing. It weighs as much as my car.”

Even more interesting than the gargantuan equipment, was the actual recording process: Castillo recorded live with the band, playing drums only. The cymbals were recorded separately, later, and overdubbed on top of the original live group tracks. “It’s a technique that Josh has used for quite a while now,” he explains. “We put the cymbals on top of everything later, which isolation-wise, is amazing. It’s very controlled. What I got out of it was a much more focused understanding of what the song parts were. For a lot of people, I could see where it could be hard, because you’re playing on no cymbals.”

You mean, playing eighth-notes in the air? “Some of it was like that, yeah. It could be difficult for some drummers, because some people lean on the cymbals for swinging -- it’s a natural instinct. I asked Dave [Grohl], who recorded the same way with Queens, how he dealt with it. Just before I was getting ready to do cymbals he came by the studio and he asked me how it was coming along. But really, I didn’t have that hard of a time with it. I think because I have a pretty solid meter, that helped. I know it could be hard for some people, but I really enjoyed it.”

“For cymbals, I went in and set the cymbals up, with no drums, and played to myself. It’s a little tougher with improvised parts, obviously, because you have to go back and recall what you played on drums. But the majority of the parts were sorted out. The luxury of recording this way was to actually try to do different cymbal patterns, which was cool.”

Happy Accidents. The Torrance-borne, Gardena-raised Castillo admittedly started playing late, at 15, on a neighbor’s drum set. No lessons. No real concept of how to play, except for maybe seeing a few bands on TV “and being fixated on the drummer.” That, and being called a “tapper” by his mother.

“I went over to check out my neighbor’s kit,” he says, “sat behind it, and it was weird, I just started playing a beat I heard in my head. He actually asked me, ‘Do you play the drums?’ I was like, ‘No.’ We kind of messed around, and I played again, and his mom came out and said, ‘Do you play the drums?’ ‘No.’ And she was like, ‘Well maybe you should.’ I messed around for maybe a summer, and then my neighbor moved away and took his kit, and I didn’t play again for a while. Then another friend of mine, his brother started playing the drums. And I remember he got bored with it, and I asked him if I could borrow them. I brought them home and drove my parents crazy.”

In the early years, Castillo was fed a steady diet of soul music, Al Green, War, with some Led Zeppelin thrown in for good measure. But it was the radio that introduced the youngster to punk rock in the early ’80s, “and then I started going out to Hollywood fairly young to see bands like Black Flag, Fear, Circle Jerks. I met a couple of these kids who were older -- they all drove -- and we were checking out shows in Hollywood. It was funny, three or four of us were drummers, so we all used to mess around and play together. We were all punker kids, and one time we went out to Disneyland to see Buddy Rich play. I remember getting his autograph, he was looking at us, these spiky-haired kids, and he said, ‘What are you guys doing here?’ He knew that we were there only to see him. I had to have been 16 or 17 at the time.”

A self-taught punker who’s into Buddy Rich? It’s here where we discover the secret behind Castillo’s milestones and successes, from his neighbor asking, “Do you play the drums?” to the Queens audition: not just natural ability, but a hunger to learn from any worthwhile drummer he heard.

“I was into punk rock and all that,” he says, “but the guys I hung out with, everybody was very well-schooled into what was good, musically. I was never one to shun something because it was different. If it was good, it didn’t matter. Seeing Buddy and watching him do what he did, he’s one of those guys who either makes you want to quit or work harder. He was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. I was into a lot of different players. Hearing Bonham and finally realizing what he was about, was important. Everybody thinks he was just this big basher, and he was so the opposite. He had such a touch, and the way he approached what he did. It sounds simple, but we all know it’s not.

“The punk drummers that really influenced me would be Spit Stix from Fear, who was an amazing player, probably one of the greatest unsung heroes out there. He’s one of my absolute favorites. Chuck Biscuits, who was in D.O.A., The Circle Jerks, Black Flag, was a big influence. Rat Scabies of The Damned, he had a certain thing to his playing, I’ve always loved him. Lucky Lehrer from The Circle Jerks, Robert Gotobed from Wire, Ron Asheton from The Stooges.”

Career-wise, the first happy accident happened in 1983 with Wasted Youth -- friends in the band asked him to try out after original drummer Alan Steritz left, “Next thing you know, I was on the road.” When that learning experience went south around 1987, Castillo, with a distaste for hair metal, stepped away from the drums for a couple years and worked at the L.A. Airport. Then in the 1991 he got a call from a band called Sugartooth. “Again,” he explains, “through a friend, I heard they needed a drummer, so I started playing with them around Hollywood.” Geffen picked up the band and put out a couple albums, including Sounds Of Solid.

The drummer’s fondest memory of those years was, “‘All right! Cool! Bands again!’ It wasn’t about makeup and hair anymore, it was about players. I started playing with Sugartooth around town, we got signed to Geffen, did a record, went on the road, did van tours for forever. I’d say from the end of 1992 to the end of 1995.” Eventually, due to “management problems, label problems … typical internal band problems,” Castillo didn’t feel too secure.

That’s when, in mid-1995, he received a phone call alerting him to an opening in Danzig. Initially, since he was still in Sugartooth, he declined, but then that mysterious “a friend” popped up again and “called the band and set up a tryout for me without me even knowing. So I came home, on a Friday, was checking my messages, and there was a message from Danzig’s management company, giving me a time to go to an audition. I was like, ‘A time? For what? This is weird.’ So I called back and they said, ‘We’d like you to come in on Sunday.’ I said, ‘To be honest, I didn’t even know that I was coming down. I’m a bit unprepared, I don’t have any Danzig records.’ I knew Glenn from The Misfits, and loved The Misfits, but I didn’t really follow Danzig.”

You can probably guess what happened next. “Unprepared” Castillo impressed Glenn Danzig and nailed the audition (sound familiar?), and after some rather awkward splainin’ to Sugartooth -- “They were pretty pissed” -- he went on to bigger and better tours with the ex-Misfit. Which basically takes you to his most current happy accident, the 30-second litmus test that landed him the gig with Queens Of The Stone Age.

Prepared or not, Joey Castillo has proven, time and time again, that he’s got the goods, will do what is necessary to make a song or band sound its best, and look like a rock star while doing it. Only, don’t tell him about that “rock star” part.

“I never strived to be a rock star or anything like that,” he stresses. “To me, I wanted to be a drummer, a musician. And a good one. And do things that I could live with, that I would be proud of. I always loved what I did, and never expected anything. I never said, ‘I want to buy this and this, and a house,’ or whatever. That wasn’t my goal in life. My goal is to be happy and playing music I love.

“Coming into the Queens has just given me the opportunity to make a great record with a great bunch of guys. A lot of the time I ask myself, ‘Who would have ever thought … ?’ I didn’t come from a musical background, never took lessons. I don’t want to say that things fell in my lap, because it wasn’t like I wasn’t working hard. But to me, it doesn’t seem like work. It’s what I do, what I love.”

Castillo's Kit

Drums: DW Exotic Spider Pine VLT In Blood Red Stain Lacquer
1: 26" x 20" Bass Drum
2. 14" x 7" Brass Snare
3. 13" x 10" Tom
4. 16" x 14" Floor Tom

Cymbals: Paiste
A. 15" Dimensions Medium-Heavy Crunch Hi-Hats
B. 19" Dimensions Power Crash
C. 24" 2002 Ride
D. 20" 2002 Medium Crash

Joey Castillo also uses Vic Firth wood-tip 5A Extreme sticks, Remo heads, DW hardware and pedals, and LP cowbells and woodblocks.

Josh Homme On Castillo

We mentioned that singer/guitarist/songwriter Josh Homme has been known to inflict drum damage of his own, particularly with another band called Eagles Of Death Metal. But his face clinches up in annoyance if you ask him if he's a drummer.

"Joey is a drummer," he admonishes. "I think I have a special place for that word. To me, there are people who are playing drums, and then there are drummers. Dave Grohl is a drummer. Claude Coleman is a drummer. Joey is a drummer."

That said, Homme is someone who knows what he wants out of a timekeeper, and he heard it from Castillo in that first jam session. "By the time we got to the fourth note, I knew," he smiles. "There's something that's different when it's right. The minute it shows up -- there it is. His background, a drummer who understands punk rock, and then chooses to not let that be the ceiling of his learning and scope … I actually swore that I'd never play with another drummer who didn't play another instrument, because they seem to be too drum-focused and not song-focused. Fills? I don't live in a world where people are like, 'Man, those dude's fills were crazy.' Good songs are what we're trying to do. It's a kick-and-snare relationship, the push and pull of it all."

Another thing Castillo excels at is Homme's habit of recording the drums (without cymbals) live with the band, and then overdubbing the cymbals later, a method Homme employed five years before the first QOTSA album.

"It was something that I kept secret all the time," he says, "because I didn't want anyone else to do it. I love the studio, the secrets, the little magic tricks. Sonically, you can do things with the drums that are otherwise impossible, without using Pro Tools, without cheating."

Homme's admiration of Castillo is especially palpable when he recounts the initial jam session, and offering the drummer the gig.

"If someone said to me, 'Would you like to be the fifth drummer in band that's got some respect, and the last drummer was Dave Grohl, who hasn't played drums since he was in Nirvana, and we leave tomorrow,' I would be like, 'Well, you should definitely f--k yourself.' [laughs] It's just not a god idea. But from where I come from, I had to ask. And he was [confidently], 'Yeah.' And he pulled it off. I was prepared for the worst, and I never had to use my preparations. It's awesome."