Josh Eppard: Return Of The Prodigal Son

josh eppard

Coheed And Cambria drummer Josh Eppard has hit the wall. Not literally. It’s just that doing six things at once all day after no sleep is finally catching up with him. “I’m dragging ass, man,” says the 32-year-old sitting in the back of a van en route to dinner with the rest of the band.

Coheed just wrapped a seven-hour rehearsal in a gorgeous historic theater that the band rented in Eppard’s hometown of Kingston, New York (and the local media has been making quite the fuss). It’s been two weeks since they got back from the UK’s Reading Festival, so before hitting the road again, the drummer wanted to work the kinks out of new release The Afterman: Ascension.

A prequel to The Amory Wars, lead singer (and graphic novelist) Claudio Sanchez’ sprawling sci-fi epic chronicled over the band’s six-album discography, The Ascension is part one of a two-album opus (The Descension hits in February 2013). With nine tracks clocking in at a little over 30 minutes, The Ascension is a prog adventure for pop attention spans. Each of the new songs is so different from the other it could be three different bands.

That sort of dynamism hasn’t always been present in Coheed And Cambria, which started out as a post-punk band that drew comparisons to At The Drive-In. However accurate that may or may not be, the generic sound suddenly evolved into wide-screen prog-pop à la Rush with 2005’s Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through The Eyes Of Madness. That’s about the time Eppard started developing a serious drug problem. Serious enough that he was kicked out before the end of the tour and his tech had to take over the remaining dates.

During the six-year hiatus that followed, the drummer eventually got himself cleaned up. Along with other music refugees, he joined Terrible Things. Despite a Universal Music recording contract, Terrible Things struggled to make an impact. “It was one of the guys from Taking Back Sunday and one of the guys from Hot Rod Circuit. It was very much that kind of stuff – really straight kind of pop-rock thing. It just made me miss playing with Coheed. No disrespect to those guys, but it’s the truth.”

If he didn’t know it before going down the rabbit hole of substance abuse, it slowly dawned on Eppard that Coheed And Cambria had been the perfect band for him – and that he had blown it. “I have their gold records hanging on my wall and for years it was tough to look at them and be like, ’Yeah, now I play at the local tavern on the weekends.’”

With Eppard gone, Coheed lured Chris Pennie away from Dillinger Escape Plan as a replacement. Due to a legal dispute, Pennie was prevented from doing the actual tracking, so Coheed borrowed Taylor Hawkins from Foo Fighters to cut 2007’s Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume Two: No World For Tomorrow. Pennie’s recorded parts can be heard on the 2010 follow-up, Year Of The Black Rainbow.

Jam-packed with musical drumming, Ascension picks up where From Fear Through The Eyes Of Madness left off. “Key Entity Extraction 1: Domino The Destitute” is a crash-riding bruiser that showcases a powerful right foot. “Vic The Butcher” boasts bass drum notes just fast enough to be taken for a double pedal, an erroneous assumption that pleases Eppard. “In the interest of full disclosure, it is a single pedal,” he says in a mock anchorman’s voice. “I’ve never used double, but that’s cool you thought it was one.”

Parts that are deceptively simple (and sometimes simply deceptive) are another of the drummer’s specialties. Take the march in the first half of “The Afterman,” which increases in volume and notes before climaxing into a brief rocking-out and then reverting to snare, bass, and hats (he dislikes the idea of a standard march beat): “It’s actually pretty syncopated there.”

Nothing on Ascension beats “Evagria The Faithful” for drummistic furor. “I basically just did my best Jerry Marotta impression,” he says, referring to Peter Gabriel’s longtime drummer who, incidentally, lives in the area. “It’s not necessarily about how slick you can be, but a melody that percussively carries you through.”

For that particular track, however, Eppard is currently experiencing studio regret. “Coheed And Cambria’s music is very dense, and sometimes I do wish on that song that it maybe just breathed a little more. There’s these ghost notes that carry through on that first groove that are basically nonexistent on the record. But that happens – I’m still thrilled with the way the song sounds.”

If Ascension is Eppard breaking new rhythmic ground, “Evagria The Faithful” is the album’s bellwether. “That’s something that Coheed hasn’t done before; that kind of almost tribal drumming but it’s also Police-y in a way.” As for the time signatures? “I’m not sure, man,” he says with a chuckle. “I didn’t really count it. I just felt it.”

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The recording process consisted of buckling down for a few intense days on a handful of tracks, walking away, then coming back with specific ideas for the next batch – a refreshing change from the assembly-line approach of today’s big-ticket rock albums. “It was a really fun way to make a record,” he explains. “When you track a song three weeks later, you could be coming from a different spot internally with what you’re bringing as far as the groove.”

Eppard, who was in the studio the entire time, used a variety of kits. A sense of home added to the creative vibes during tracking at Applehead Studio, a state-of-the-art facility his father built. “It took years to finish and is the last big studio left in Woodstock, New York,” he says. Eppard senior was the lead designer and carpenter during the construction. Although Ascension is Coheed’s first album since being released from their Columbia contract, the longtime team of Michael Birnbaum and Chris Bittner are back on production duties. No World For Tomorrow and Year Of The Black Rainbow were helmed in Los Angeles separately by Nick Raskulinecz and Atticus Ross, respectively.

Like they say, you can never really come back home. In a paradoxical twist, Eppard now has to fill the shoes of a drum star in his own band. In the early stages of Ascension, he worked with demos that Pennie had made just before he left. Despite the presence of foreign drum DNA, Eppard gradually imbued Ascension’s songs with his own sensibility. “Chris Pennie’s one of the best drummers in the world and I’m a big fan of his,” he says, “but I think maybe it was just right [to part ways]. Chris needs to let his wings spread and do his thing. Maybe Coheed wasn’t the best vehicle for that.”

Even as his bandmates tease him from the back of the van, Eppard just can’t stop feeling like the luckiest guy in the world. The upcoming tour includes 3, a Metal Blade recording artist fronted by his brother Joey (and in which Eppard drummed for a minute). Adding to the excitement, the band signed a deal with Leverage (the studio behind Boardwalk Empire) to explore turning The Amory Wars novel into a feature-length film. Actor Mark Walberg has expressed interest in producing. “I’ve got my fingers crossed,” Eppard says. “A Coheed And Cambria movie would surely be cool.”

He even thinks the unfortunate detour he took during his first stint with the band has benefited him in some weird way. “Maybe I got to see Claudio’s vision in a clearer way after not being a part of it,” he says. “Which only compounded my regret – like a lot of people who went down the road I did. So having a chance to atone for that is a really wonderful thing.” 

“Key Entity Extraction 1: Domino The Destitute”

josh eppard

Josh Eppard is probably a bit more groove-oriented than his interim replacement, Chris Pennie. However, his love of groove doesn’t mean his parts are simple or unimaginative. At the drum entrance of “Domino The Destitute” Eppard plays a polyrhythmic beat striking dotted quarter-notes on the hi-hat against the 6/4 time signature, making for an interesting and very groovy pattern.

DRUM! Notation Guide

josh eppard