Thomas Pridgen: Everyone's Favorite Weirdo

Thomas Pridgen

You better listen close when talking to Thomas Pridgen. Whether it’s the 30-year-old’s latest band or the subject of drumming in general, the seasoned pro’s mind moves a thousand miles an hour, jumping between subjects, going from one trenchant insight to another. He’s either a complete crackpot or a total genius. As of noon on a Tuesday in early December, Pridgen is making adjustments to a drum set in his Oakland studio where he teaches between tours and sessions. He doesn’t have any students till the afternoon so he was able to kill a few hours speaking to us about the latest installment of Pinnick Gales Pridgen, the blues-rock supergroup consisting of guitarist Eric Gales, King’s X bassist/singer dUG Pinnick, and of course, Thomas on drums.

The trio released its debut last summer, but is already about to drop Part Two. “I got to be a lot more myself on this album,” he says while swapping heads on a 5-piece. “I was just holding back this first time.”

It sounds like boilerplate artist quote until you let it sink in. With its muscular grooves, carpet-bomb crashes, and sudden, explosive fills, PGP is borderline busy. By default, PGP2 is unabashedly drumistic. By “holding back,” the drummer is speaking figuratively as well as literally. Not a week before recording the first album, Gales’ wife committed suicide. The tragedy, combined with the guitarist’s history of substance abuse, was a one-two punch that nearly ended PGP before it started. “That we even got that album recorded was a miracle,” Pridgen says. “That whole time in the studio we were walking on tiptoes around Eric.”

For much of that time, Pridgen and Pinnick just jammed. The guitars, whenever Gales managed to track them, were added later. As for taking the act on the road, the guitarist was in no shape to tour. “It’s scary to have someone like that on the road with you,” Pridgen says. “You want everybody to be happy and for me it was like I was just ... I wanted him to be okay.”

Talking Trash

After leaving The Mars Volta in 2009, Pridgen founded The Memorials, fronted by Viveca Hawkins with guitarist Nick Brewer and Pridgen on drums. The Memorials’ funk-thrash was an unexpected stylistic turn, but also therapeutic: venting, metal-style, about his frustration at the way things ended with the Volta. Pridgen shouldn’t feel bad though. Has any drummer lasted more than 18 months with that band? “I say, ’I need royalties,’ and they say no,” he says. But he’s philosophical about it now: “Some people who you are not even playing solos on their record, they just give you royalties because they are nice. It all depends. I am not a drummer that plans on getting robbed, but I am sure everyone has their stories about it.”

The initial enthusiasm around The Memorials was strong at first, with favorable reviews in this magazine and others. But the project fizzled after Brewer, the guitarist, “went off to find himself,” as Thomas puts it. At that point Pridgen began touring and recording with critically acclaimed 15-string guitarist Thundercat, followed by a gig with hardcore band Trash Talk. “I started talking to them on Twitter and telling them about how all black people care about is how many cars they got and there is no angry black music going on anywhere. They said, ’Well, come listen to us,’” he says referring to the one-half African-American band. “They said, ’Do you want to play?’ I said ’Yeah!’ I didn’t even hear their music. I didn’t care. People say, ’Do you think you can play blastbeats with Trash Talk?’ I don’t know. But I want to prove to myself that I can.”

As it turned out, the Trash Talk episode was less about having a job and more about research into music genres and the corresponding lifestyle. “You can play mediocre music and as long is the singer is screaming people are go- ing to jump. I said, ’Damn – that’s amazing to know.’”

Enlightening as it was, the stint was short lived. Though beneath his abilities, Pridgen gave 110 percent. It was Trash Talk that didn’t take it seriously. “I am telling Thundercat I couldn’t go on tour and I would find out that half the [Trash Talk] tour was being canceled when I was in the van. So to them I was, ’Hear me out: I love you, but I can’t do that.’”

For every time social media has furthered Pridgen’s career, it’s worked against it. Or so he theorizes. “I have people that can watch a bad-ass video of Thomas Pridgen and still hit the ’unlike’ button.”

Then there was Giraffe Tongue Orchestra, the avant-metal experiment featuring members of Dillinger Escape Plan and Mastodon. Apparently the whole thing started as a drunken rant by Mastodon guitarist Brent Hinds. “Me and Brent have been through a lot so he is automatically thinking about me, and about how I would like to be in his band. The next thing you know they said Jon Theodore [another ex-Mars Volta drummer] is going to do it.” A few weeks later Thundercat, with Thomas on drums, was on the same stage as Dillinger and proceeded to totally upstage them. Call it poetic justice. “It was hilarious,” he laughs. “That for me is better then a paycheck half the time.”

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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.”

Thomas Pridgen

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.”

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If Berklee was beneficial, it’s because the drummer made it so. “I did get a lot of technique there,” he continues. “But a lot of that just came from me sitting down in the library. I would just go look for something I didn’t know about and burn it on to my computer. ’Man, I am never going to find this Tony Williams record ever. Let me get it now.’ Or, ’Today is Brian Blade day.’ And then I was like, ’Today is Dennis Chambers day.’ Even now I teach my students to be excellent listeners. When I can learn 21 songs to play on a record, I’m only able to do that because I’m hearing what’s going on. Growing up in church that’s pretty much how the majority of us earned, so I never lost that technique.” We should add that big eyes are as important as big

ears when it comes to expanding your abilities. “My thing is, I can watch you. I can see what you’re doing and I just approach it like that.”

Speaking of watching, a guerilla-style film of Pridgen playing in public spaces around the San Francisco Bay Area is currently in the making. The idea is to play only junky, makeshift kits so that if the cops come he can just ditch them. (“On one of them the wrap was coming off.”) Plus a different kit every shoot keeps him resilient. (“I have to adapt on some random kit.”) Needless to say, the film style, heavily influenced by skateboard videos, and shot primarily on his iPhone 5, is not your typical instructional DVD.

“I don’t want to be Mike Johnston, dude. I don’t want to be a drum lesson guru. I feel like if I do music and do what comes natural to me, it is already showing people without forcing it. I want to do a video about some real sh-t and not have it about doing a paradiddle. That’s corny, dude. If I was a new drummer, that’s the last thing I’m going to watch.”

Still he loves teaching, at least the old fashioned way with human beings in real time. Taking on everyone from beginner to advanced players, students hit him with the perennial questions: “’How do I play fast? How do I go around the kit? How do I get a gig?’ It reminds me of questions I used to ask. It’s cool.”

Regardless of winning the Drum Off at 12, sitting in with Dennis Chambers’ band Grafitti at age 10, etcetera, none of it would have been possible without the bond that came from his grandmother, Addie Thomas, who bought him his first drum set, took him to NAMM shows, sent him to drum camp, and so on. “I always have to be apologetic because everybody didn’t have a grandmother nurturing them when they were kids.”

No Excuses

The recording of the new Pinnick-Gales-Pridgen album, once again produced by Mike Varney of Shrapnel Records – the “guitar shredder” label that introduced the world to Yngwie Malmsteen – took place in the scenic town of Cotati in California’s Sonoma County. (Varney also owns PGP’s label, Magna Carta). “I was saying to them I’m about to go crazy on this,” Pridgen says of the drum parts. “I was more excited for this record than anything I have done before. Ever. This one is just a lot different. I feel like with the writing, we were all there and we all had a talk about things going on, and doing shows, going out on the road. The first [PGP album] almost didn’t happen. So to be able to come back and do it again was a big thing for us.”

Pridgen’s involvement was greater on the new album in terms of both drumming energy and creative input: He has four songs credits this time. But that’s not why he’s excited about PGP2. “I don’t know if you ever saw him play, but Eric is a beast,” he says. “He is the closest thing we have to Jimi Hendrix. He is the guy. If you ask any of these guitar players right now who is the baddest dude they are going to say Eric Gales.”

Pinninck Gales Pridgen came about when dUG Pinnick of King’s X started jamming with Gales a few years ago. Adding Pridgen to the lineup seemed like a good idea since the drummer had played separately with Gales before. And Thomas knew Pinnick after hollering at the bassist to give vocal lessons to The Memorials singer Viveca. “It wasn’t that she couldn’t scream; she was scared to scream,” he says. “I brought dUG to her because he screams all the time.” The Memorials have officially reunited and will be touring this summer.

PGP is the modern version of the fabled power trio, where each member is a virtuoso on their own, but together make real magic. They also cover Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love” and Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” just to drive the point home. But whether it’s the 2010s or the late 1960s, playing with an axe-hero is always a delicate dance for a drummer. “There is some [music] I wish wasn’t in there,” he says. “I told Mike it has a guitar solo every damn song, but that’s Eric’s fans’ [expectation]. That is what makes his sound so bluesy. That [element]’s always going to be there.”

Every band that Pridgen has been in was because he thought it would step up that band’s game. It made him step up his own too. “The moment you forget that and think it’s all about them giving, or just you giving, then you’re tripping. Even doing The Memorials, man, it takes everybody: the people playing, the booking agents, the managers of these clubs. And honestly that’s the blessing in doing this is all the people you meet and the experiences you have with these people who have nothing to do with you.”

But the drummer isn’t satisfied; he’s still looking for that dream gig. Until then he’s just going to keep doing what he does: Grind. When we called Pridgen’s cell a few days later, he was in a car on Interstate 5 headed toward Los Angeles to play a session. “I don’t even know the guy’s name,” he said in a sleepy voice from the passenger’s seat. In the meantime, he’s on what he calls “cruise control.” “I was on like five or six records this year. I don’t have time to be thinking about how I’m feeling.”

And a lack of cheddar hasn’t stopped him from doing exactly what he wants to do. “A lot of my friends who also play music, but aren’t necessarily in an artistic situation, I’ll go to them, ’Why aren’t you being creative?’ ’Well, I don’t have the money to go have this amazing studio to do anything.’ It’s like, ’Bro, that’s an excuse.’”

Thomas Pridgen

Pridgen's PGP Setup

Drums DW Jazz series (Rasta finish)
1 24" x 18" Bass Drum
2 14" x 7" Snare
3 12" x 8" Tom
4 13" x 8" Tom
5 15" x 12" DW Custom
6 16" x 13" Floor Tom
7 18" x 14" Floor Tom

Cymbals Zildjian
A 19" Z3 Thrash Ride “Hi-Hat”
B 20" A Crash
C 24" A Medium Ride
D 16" A Medium Thin Stack
E 19" K China

Percussion
F Timbero Mambo Cowbell

Thomas Pridgen also uses DW hardware, ProMark Thomas Pridgen 510 sticks, Evans heads (Black Chrome, tom batters; Resonant Black, tom resos, EMAD Onyx, bass; and G2 Clear, snare), Ahead Armor cases, and Audix microphones.