Josh Wills: Going On Instinct
By Dave Constantin Originally published in DRUM! Magazine’s March 2010 Issue
Josh Wills is draped across the circular couch in the lounge at the back of Story Of The Year’s tour bus, looking relaxed to the point of sedation. The movie Rock Star with Mark Wahlberg plays silently on a huge flat-screen TV in the corner. But it’s not for inspiration — just what’s on. In a couple of hours, Wills and his bandmates will take the stage for a blistering half-hour set at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz, California, another pit stop on the tour to promote their fourth album, The Constant. And this down time is Wills’ anti-ritual before the gig. “If I didn’t have to stretch or anything, I could sit here like this, walk on stage, and be fine and be stoked to play and have all kinds of energy,” he explains. “The music itself just kind of does it for me.”
Wills isn’t bragging, it’s just that drumming has always come easily for him — easily enough to have brought him this far pretty much on raw talent alone. “I learned how to play drums by playing air drums, with no sticks,” he laughs. “My dad was a guitar player, so he was always trying to make me play guitar when I was little. And, you know, when you’re six years old and your dad tells you to go sit in your room for an hour and play, you don’t want any part of it.”
Things changed in ninth grade, when he witnessed a friend playing along flawlessly on a drum set to a bunch of rock albums. It was his “ah-ha moment.” He bought a kit and got hooked up with a few emo bands around St. Louis — one of which featured future SOTY guitarist Ryan Phillips — where he earned his chops the old-fashioned way.
“Not having training I think hindered me for quite a while,” he admits. “I’m kind of ‘drum-dumb.’ [laughs] I don’t know technical terms. I couldn’t tell you if, like, something went into a weird time signature, what it was. I kind of just play to what sounds good.”
Luckily, his instincts were right on from the start. His choice of friends didn’t hurt, either. When Story Of The Year formed in 1995 (initially under the moniker Big Blue Monkey), Wills lent his drum kit out to Dan Marsala, who started out as the band’s drummer. But when Marsala moved to vocals, in 2001, he asked Wills to take his seat at the kit.
Wills’ relationship with Marsala has been key to his success in the band. “Dan’s just one of those dudes that’s good at everything,” Wills says. “He’s my filter. Because sometimes guitar players and bass players can’t talk drum, and they’re trying to explain something to me, and he knows how to play guitar, so he can kind of filter it and look at me and go, ‘Don’t listen to them. This is what they’re saying to you.’ So it definitely helps.” After nine years, though, Wills has learned to trust his own instincts. “This last record, I did everything in, like, two days, all 13 tracks. So I’m flying through the songs, just changing fills and making up fills as I’m going.” But the lack of formal training remains an obstacle, and he’ll often have to “relearn” his parts by playing along to himself on past albums.
This time that process was made easier when bassist Adam Russell asked producer Elvis Baskette, at whose Bavon, Virginia beach house the band recorded this (as well as their previous) album, to reserve a mix of just bass and drums for them to use as study aids. “With all the other music on top of it, sometimes it’s hard for me to pick [a drum part] out and go, ‘Okay, I did that there; I hit that tom. So, having that drum-and-bass thing really, really helped me.”<>But Wills shows no reservations when SOTY takes the stage at the Catalyst and launch straight into their short set. Head down, limbs in perpetual motion, his white drum gloves flash in controlled arcs around the unorthodox configuration of his Oyster Pearl PDP kit — his ride cymbal is angled sharply away from him and his snare drum sits so low he keeps smacking his hand against his thigh on the backbeats.
But it quickly becomes clear that this is one band where the drummer might just have the least-physical job of anyone. At least he gets a seat. The other four members hurl themselves around the stage like acrobats, with guitarist Philip Sneed amping up the “wow” factor with spin kicks and back flips off the Marshall stacks. Dan Marsala’s natural charisma and full-fury vocals are infectious enough to take the few hundred kids packed into this intimate venue from 0–100 in no time, spawning a full-floor circle pit by the end of the set.
Wills holds it all together with tasteful cymbal work, tightly controlled double-bass explosions, and a powerful groove. It’s only later I find out he was battling a faulty monitor the entire time. For somebody who describes himself as “drum-dumb,” it’s a pretty brilliant recovery. “I kind of figured out a while ago that I’m not going to be the world’s flashiest drummer,” Wills says. “I’m just going to play what the song requires” — offering proof that pure musical instinct is often the most important skill of all. That’s the story of Josh Wills’ success anyway, nine years and counting.
BAND Story Of The Year
CURRENT RELEASE The Constant
BIRTHPLACE St. Louis, Missouri
INFLUENCES Abe Cunningham, William Goldsmith, Tim Alexander, Danny Carey, Carter Beauford, Dave Grohl, Ben Lythberg
WEB SITEM storyoftheyear.net
DRUMS Pacific Platinum
CYMBALS Zildjian STICKS Pro-Mark