Thomas Pridgen: Everyone’s Favorite Weirdo
Drum Cover SynDrome
It’s safe to say that Pridgen has mixed feelings about celebrity and pop culture. Uppermost among his beefs are the way many commercially successful drummers today are becoming brainless muscle. In the ’60s and ’70s, you had Mitch Mitchell and Ginger Baker, guys for whom the drums were as much about music as keeping time. Even with the obsolescence scare from electronic drums in the ’80s, Terry Bozzio, Bill Buford, and others made the trigger pads complement their acoustic rigs, not substitute for them. But as Pridgen sees it, modern pop is slowly killing drummers, or at the very least, dumbing them down.
“It doesn’t matter what you do – [there’s] a click track going on at the same time, which makes it so that anybody can be replaced and anyone can be playing in there next week. And it is because of how we put ourselves out there. We have made it where we don’t have a creative voice. Our only voice is to play behind somebody. That is kind of what The Memorials was for me. I don’t want to be like, ’Hey Mr. Justin Timberlake, what do I do next?’”
Last spring Pridgen tracked drums with Lauryn Hill, when the singer’s tax evasion troubles were going down, and just last summer, played with Snoop Lion. Point being, he knows what it’s like to be a sideman to boldfaced names. “If I was sitting there like, ’I will just play with Snoop and that’s it, that’s all I’m going to do,’ I would be a karaoke drummer for a DJ, you know? That’s weak. That’s pretty much what we are seeing, and musicians are completely proud of it and not working on anything else.”
By Pridgen’s definition, the karaoke drummer doesn’t even delete the existing beat of a song “With Snoop Dogg you are playing over the actual Dr. Dre beats.” [laughs] “That’s what makes it funny, when someone says I played with 50 Cent. ’Okay, bro, you are playing over the CD. Half the time he doesn’t have you coming over the PA anyway. Snoop doesn’t give a f--k if you are tuned up.” That’s not the case with many of today’s hip-hop acts that use live drummers, but for the ’90s-era Snoop Dogg cuts, the drum stems made by producer Warren G are lost. “Rappers don’t have no damn files,” he says.
Pridgen may not consciously hustle money gigs, but they still come his way. You get the feeling the self-described “weirdo” does it mostly for the wisdom gained from outsize personalities. “You didn’t come on this interview because I was playing with Snoop, you did this interview because I did a creative record with some people who are creative,” he says of PGP. “People don’t call me to play the Garth Brooks record; they don’t call me to go play on the Miley or Taylor Swift record and play four on the floor. They don’t. Every time I do get calls, I’m in the studio playing some weird-ass time signature. Or I get calls to make something sound better than the program. And half the time people hear me, they are like, ’Play a solo.’ That’s not my fault – I would love to not solo. I used to talk about it in The Mars Volta. I used to be, ’Why am I playing through the verses? They want me to play through the verses. That’s the kind of music I’m playing.’”
If art or commerce is the only choice, Pridgen does not believe it: You can be true to yourself and still get paid. “Travis [Barker] did not grow up playing drums with the rest of us and he got more money than all of us, and why is that?” he asks. “The reason is because he concentrated on doing something creative, and then he left that and went on to another creative venture, which was clothes. And at the end of the day he is winning.”
Tear Down The House
Association with Gospel Chops early in a drum career ought to be a positive. Tony Royster Jr., Aaron Spears, who wouldn’t want to be in such distinguished company?
For Pridgen, who was featured in one of the company’s early DVDs, it’s an uncomfortable subject. Berkeley Zion Methodist was a crucible for his early development. He’s still friendly with the people he played with there, but he isn’t joining them on Sunday mornings mostly, he admits, because he’s on the road so much. “I don’t think I am going to play at church any time soon.”
A clinic he just did in Argentina, where the other guys on the bill were doing Gospel Chops— style tracks, only made him more wary of the industry pigeonhole. (To be fair, Gospel Chops is currently trendy in Latin America). “Chris Dave said it worked against me,” he says, referring to the former M’eshell Ndgeocello and Adele drummer. “Yesterday he told me that it works against you – people are scared to hire you because they know nobody will come after you and be able to play that.” [laughs].
Earning a full scholarship at 15 to Berklee College Of Music – the youngest drummer in the school’s history to do so – is equally conflicting. Grateful for the experience, he is quick to point out that a degree from the prestigious institution is not a magic wand. “I met all kind of people with different points of view. People who were going to be the baddest drummers in the world. But they don’t teach creativity. Even for $15,000 a semester, no one can teach creativity.”