Tommy Clufetos: The Final Zombie Interview

Tommy Clufetos doesn’t believe in metal. He doesn’t believe in Rob Zombie, his iconic rock employer. This Detroit-bred, L.A.-based drummer may not even believe in the drums. He really just believes in two things: the music, and Tommy Clufetos.

Those beliefs have served him well. At the semi-tender age of 30, Clufetos has already been on the international stage for over a decade, recording and touring with the likes of Ted Nugent and Alice Cooper. Now his second album with rock’s reigning undead ruler has arrived, and expectations are high for Hellbilly Deluxe 2 and its 11 fierce tracks.

Looking at the ladder of his career so far, Clufetos schooled DRUM! and then some on what it takes to be a hired drum gun in 2010. If you seek advice on how to nail sixty-fourth-note double bass polyrhythms, flip elsewhere in this issue — but if you seek the keys to a life well lived behind the drum kit, stay planted on the next few pages.

Metal Pro. “For me, the only way to network and go on to the next level is this: Every chance you get to play the drums, you’re prepared 100 percent,” Clufetos says. “Someone who has seen me play the drums leads to what the next thing will be.

“You can’t plan in this business. You can have hopes and dreams, but the only way for me is to give it all I’ve got. I’ll play the drums, and hopefully someone will respond to that. I’ve gotten, in a way, to worry less about my career. You can’t force it.”

To the casual observer, it would seem that Clufetos indeed has little to worry about. One big gig has always led to another for him, and the world stage awaits him and his Zombified bandmates. But while staying committed to his current situation is most certainly his style, getting comfortable in it most certainly is not.

“I’m a lifer — my musical career will go on until I can’t physically play drums anymore,” Clufetos says in his disarmingly direct manner. “I’m not a ‘rock guy.’ You have to evolve into something else. You have to think wisely, think about your career, and be ready for any opportunities as they arise. I’m always working on myself and being ready for what’s coming down the pipeline.

“But I try not to overthink it, because it’s meant to be fun. I still have the same motivation as when I began playing drums at seven. When I did it in bars in Detroit I loved it, and when I play the Staples Center arena today, it’s because I love it. As long as you keep that same attitude as when you were a kid, you’ll enjoy what you’re doing. If it’s about being famous, or being on MTV, or dating this hot chick, or the Mercedes, you’ll end up being disappointed. If it were about that, I would have become a doctor.”

Zen Of Zombie. Clufetos is technically a freelancer: gigs with Slash, drum clinics, and recording dates/random jams are ever-present. But the way he sees it, Zombie Inc. is the office where he, guitarist John 5, and bassist Piggy D have been happily reporting on a daily basis since the release of 2006’s Educated Horses.

“It’s become much more of a band since the last record,” Clufetos says of his unit’s evolution. “When everyone’s more comfortable with themselves, it comes out in the music. The result is a dramatic progression from the last record — Hellbilly Deluxe 2 has so much more flow from top to bottom than the last one. It’s more of a complete journey when you listen to the whole record, and a lot of albums today aren’t like that.”

Multiple listens to HD2 definitely bear that out. From the get-go, tracks like “Jesus Frankenstein,” “Sick Bubblegum,” and “What?” sound simultaneously fresh and instantly familiar, unwinding as a long-player that you’re loathe to interrupt.

Throughout, Clufetos’ drumming brings it on. It’s a bronto backbone in “Sick Bubblegum,” a gritty pop driver on “What,” the picture of deliciously patient propulsion on “Virgin Witch,” a ’70s-style tom-and-kick combo proviso for the start of “Mars Needs Women,” and the star player in the flanged-out drum solo that graces the closer, “The Man Who Laughs.”

“I work for Rob Zombie, but the real boss is the music — I always try to serve the music,” Clufetos says. “If there’s ever a moment where I say, ‘Oh, I’m going to do this cool drum thing here!’ I don’t do it. Instead, I’m asking, ‘What’s the best way to make the band sound great?’ If it gets the guys grooving, that’s what I’m going to do.

“I tend to operate on feel and attitude now, more so than practicing technical things. At this point in my life, I am the drummer that I am. I’ve developed my own vibe and sound to some extent, and if it works for who I’m playing with, great. That comes from playing as selflessly as I can, and putting the music in the best regard. It sounds goofy, but for a lot of guys who are in charge of their bands, that’s what they want.”

Zombie Tracks. As is often the case, the seeds for the songs on HD2 were sown on tour, with riffs turning into full-blown tunes when road time was over. True to form for a record with the word “Hellbilly” in the title, the write/record process often moved at a breakneck pace. “We’d write a song in the day, record it that night, and do one or two songs a day that way,” Clufetos says. “We finished the whole record in a month. Rob knows what he wants. He knows when he hears it. That makes things a lot easier.”

And while there’s always something to be said for being incredibly ready to hit the studio, we weren’t shocked to learn that Clufetos doesn’t arrive for a tracking session with every note meticulously charted. “Once we have the structure down, then I just do it,” he says. “I don’t like to think about what I’m doing. I like to go in and cut once after I’ve heard the song, preferably when Rob is cutting vocals. It’s so much more organic than tweaking everything and spending two days on a snare drum sound. Drums should sound like drums: You record, and that’s it. It’s kind of a moment in time.”

True to form, the epic drum solo of “The Man Who Laughs” was a last-second surprise that Zombie sprang on Clufetos when the studio engineer hit “record.” “Rob turned to me and said, ‘I want you to do a drum solo,’” Clufetos recalls. “I said, ‘Okay.’ I’m winding it up, and then he motions, ‘Keep going, keep going,’ for five minutes. He was listening to a lot of Iron Butterfly, so I took that approach and tried to do my version of Ginger Baker-meets-Mitch Mitchell-meets-Ringo Starr. It’s very much that 1960s, throwback, artsty kind of drum solo. To have something like that on a hard rock, heavy metal album is very bizarre nowadays.”

Unsurprisingly, a technical breakdown of every beat, groove, and fill on HD2 is not forthcoming from Clufetos, but he’ll clue us in to his feel of choice. “What I’m most concerned about is the head-bob factor. It’s got to have that flow and that groove. If it’s got that, that’s all I’m interested in. Great songs have a great feel that make you get up and move. It doesn’t sound very drummistic, I know, but that’s my approach.

“When it comes to knowing where that zone is, what I played has to make me move when I listen back to it. Live, I never set that head-bob zone based on what the audience is doing — the audience goes after me. It’s your job to get the audience into it. It doesn’t matter if you’ve had a horrible day, and you haven’t slept, you go in there and kill it. If the audience isn’t into it, that’s your fault. That’s how I feel.”

Living For Live. Speaking of playing live, the stage is the unquestioned epicenter of Clufetos’ highly focused existence. “I love it. I crave it. If you’re a musician, you should want to go on tour, play live, and get up there every night. You don’t want days off — days off are for wimps.

“It doesn’t matter if there are 20,000 people or 20 in the audience, it’s the same approach. I love what I do. Every time I’ve gotten up there since I was a kid, it’s the same feeling: It feels like where I’m meant to be. The things that people hate about what I do — the long bus rides, living out of a suitcase — it’s a whole package for me and I love everything about it. I love sound checks, makeup rooms, traveling from gig to gig, getting on the bus after the gig and getting in your bunk. I love the roadies and I love road cases. I dreamed about it since I was a kid, and I’m so appreciative because I know it doesn’t work out for everybody.

“Whether or not it’s a big-time gig, I get the same enjoyment since when I was ten years old. That’s the only way to get to the next level and be able to say, ‘This is what I do. This is how I do it.’ Just because I’m making more money doesn’t mean I put more or less effort into what I do. You have to give it all you’ve got, or you don’t show up.”

Art Of The Drum Deal. Think Tommy Clufetos sounds like some corny motivational speaker? Go ahead and snicker at his straight edge — just remember, he’s laughing all the way to the drum riser on the Planet’s big stages.

“My parents taught me morals and values — if you want to do something in your life, you better work your ass off,” he says. “It doesn’t take a genius to realize why some people don’t make it to the next level: They don’t know the songs. They’re high on dope. They’re fat and out of shape and they don’t really do the work. So you can beat out everybody by just not being a total idiot. Just by being semi-professional you’ll beat 95 percent of the people out there.

“To all the drummers out there, I’ll say: Keep your head on straight. My approach when I go to drum clinics is that anybody could learn the drums on their own. The important thing is not about how to play a beat — the important thing is that there’s so much more to playing the drums. That’s my biggest mission, is to have your life together.

“I mean, it’s about drummers and drums and blah blah blah, but there’s enough articles from qualified drummers who can talk about that better than me. It’s about being a professional musician. It’s not about being in a big-time band, it’s about continuing. Success is: No matter what, you’re doing it. At the highest level you can. At all times.”

Keep On Rocking. It’s funny. As cool as it looks to be Tommy Clufetos, none of it could be happening without one of the most serious outlooks you’ll find in rock right now. Call it focus, call it keeping your eye on the ball, call it a Spartan existence, call it what you will — it’s an outlook that ensures the best in the business keep calling on him.

“Whenever somebody asks me what I’m doing next, I just say, ‘More of the same,’” he says. “I could never have written down on a piece of paper what I was going to be doing.”

And neither could Rob Zombie’s longtime publicist, Nancy Sayle, when she left a frantic message on the voicemail of DRUM!’s editor-in-chief, Andy Doerschuk: “Uhhh, Andy, we need to talk. Right now. It seems that Tommy has taken the gig with Ozzy Osbourne. Rob Zombie is already auditioning new drummers. Ummm, what do you want to do?”

Well, seeing that we’re a matter of days away from putting this issue to bed, we’re going to leave it up to Mr. Clufetos to sum up our plans: “I just go out there, rock and roll, and hope for the best.”

Sounds good to us. Break a leg, rock star.