Jon Theodore: Good Vibrations
When conversing with Jon Theodore, the topic tends to veer out into places you never dreamed. He is also incapable of adhering to anything resembling a schedule – all part of his bohemian beach-bum charm, we suppose. After multiple missed connections we track down the drummer for Life Coach – and, as of just three weeks before our print deadline, Queens Of The Stone Age – and former The Mars Volta basher while walking his labradoodle and pitbull along the Santa Monica beach boardwalk at sunset. He occasionally puts us on hold since the hounds keep getting in fights with other dogs.
Alphawaves is Life Coach’s second album but only the first to feature Theodore’s drums. When band mastermind Phil Manley sent out an email blast to potential contributors last fall, Theodore was living in Malibu, where he had just finished completing a drum room crammed with recording equipment. “At the time Phil sent me the tracks I was right in the sweet spot,” Theodore says. “I just, like, went out there literally that day and I started working for him.” Life Coach’s first album didn’t have real drums, he says. “Just some glossy machine beats.”
Rather than a conventional band audition, the drummer approached Life Coach more as an opportunity to hone his production chops. “It also helps me play better when I think about it in terms of ’the mikes are listening.’ So it’s not just what’s happening in your brain and your heart; it’s like actually what sound is coming across, so listening back is helpful.”
After Manley got a taste of Theodore’s fat, juicy drum tone it was game on. Minor stuff – staying on the hats for a chorus instead of going to the ride – were the only suggestions. “Also, I think what happened was I was the first guy to actually respond,” he adds with characteristic modestly. “My deadbeat friends were too busy or too lazy and no one sent anything back. And so I had already done almost everything by the time anyone had even responded. So then it was like, ’Okay, you’re in the band!’”
A rhythmic hybrid, Alphawaves splits the difference between the wet groove of go-go funk and Krautrock-style motorik beats. It’s driving and intense but never obvious. Unlike many drummers in two-person bands, Theodore doesn’t overplay to compensate. “Phil’s got that uncanny thing where he can play one note and it is still captivating,” he says. “There’s so much gravity in everything I don’t feel the need to fill the space. It’s so heavy that I don’t think about that when I’m with him.”
Artsy email-driven projects often get no further than the Internet, but Life Coach is a touring machine. “We’re in this SUV and we’re just, ’Alright, let’s go,’ and then it’s like, ’I’m kind of burned out, let’s stop for coffee.’ You only have to ask one guy. Or it’s like, ’Man, I don’t want to drive anymore, let’s see a movie.’ We get to stop in cool towns and catch up with old friends and play really fun shows with people we like. It takes us five minutes to set up, and because it’s a duo we can still kind of play anywhere even though it’s ridiculously loud. So we plan on keeping it going just because it so easy and so low key. So it’s been really, really fun. It just feels like a road trip.”
Since leaving The Mars Volta around 2005, Theodore played in the post—Rage Against The Machine project of Zack de la Rocha called One Day As A Lion. (“Nobody rocks the mike like Zach.”) The band released an EP in 2008 and a full-length follow-up has been on and off in the making.
Then there’s Giraffe Tongue Orchestra, an experimental supergroup featuring bassist Eric Avery of Jane’s Addiction and Nine Inch Nails, singer Brent Hinds of Mastodon, and guitarist Ben Weinman of The Dillinger Escape Plan. As it did with Life Coach, GTO came about through music file sharing and email exchanges.
We can’t forget Dam Funk, who Theodore toured with late last year. “My kit is pretty basic anyway but for [Dam Funk] I only had hats, kick, and snare to work with,” he explains. “It was an awesome opportunity just to lock in and kind of groove with guys who feel it so strongly. It was really liberating in that respect once I got over the nakedness of not having all the cymbals and drums around.”
If you think Theodore’s music career is a beatnik-style cross-country ramble with whatever project that catches his fancy at the moment, think again. Rent-paying gigs include drumming on an Apple commercial that came out last fall as well as session work with Puscifer, Sweethead, Golden, Maximum Hedrum, and Spinerette, the short-lived but critically acclaimed band from Distillers frontwoman Brody Dalle. “Everybody’s a session musician in L.A.,” he says, barely concealing his contempt. “It’s a very specific talent. Some people are sort of born with it, but you can’t really practice it. It’s just this weird thing and everything is so kind of last minute. I’m a little hesitant if I’m not sure if it’s going to be a home run. I don’t just get blind calls for sessions, but if somebody’s making a record and they specifically need me to play drums on it then I’m always happy to do it.”
As far as the leaving The Mars Volta, it’s a story Theodore is not keen on reliving. Suffice it to say the things his ex-bandmates were saying in the press hurt him. He’s equally reticent about Queens Of The Stone Age, on whose new album, …Like Clockwork, he provided a few drum tracks along with Dave Grohl and former Queens drummer Joey Castillo, a fact he conspicuously omitted during our interview. Unfortunately, videos of the band at Lollapalooza Brazil with Theodore manning the drum kit already went viral. (“Well, it looks like the cat’s already out of the bag in a big way,” he concedes.)
You can’t blame Theodore for being wary of the press, so it’s a pleasant surprise when he invites us up to Lucky Cat studio in San Francisco (“best drum room in the city!” he gushes) where Life Coach is shooting a video for the title track from Alphawaves the following weekend. But then we learn the location might change to Berkeley, and it’s all up in the air, etc., so he rescinds the offer at the last second. “Sorry to hang you up like that.”
The following Monday he sends a text, proclaiming that he is reconnecting to drums and rhythms on a level deeper than ever before. It’s a totally random note, but inspiring all the same. An hour later there’s another text about how he’s lately been listening to the Grateful Dead to the exclusion of all else. “It’s almost bordering on obsession,” he wrote. “It feels like a summer sunrise every time I put it on and my heart lifts and sings with the universe!”