BY JOHN PAYNE
We’re having coffee and muffins at Aroma Café in Studio City. Atom Willard clutches his helmet. “I’m on the Ducati today,” he says. “She’s super-loud, a lot of fun when she’s in a good mood. But she’s occasionally not in a good mood. My bike has a drag clutch, so the clutch plates are rubbing together. Sounds like a coffee can full of bolts. It’s so obnoxious. I love it. It’s my 24″ ride cymbal in bike form.” Willard’s not a motorcycle collector as such, more like an enthusiast. “I have a couple of them that I ride, and one that I’m working on, but I don’t feel that ’collector’ is the status I’ve reached yet. I feel like ’collector,’ you have so many that you couldn’t ride them all in a week. Anyway, I have too many other interests to dedicate to just two wheelers. You’ve got to diversify, you know?”
Broadening horizons is something this versatile “alt-punk”—for lack of a better term—drummer is all too familiar with. Since the early ’90s the veteran skin basher has been called upon to grace a wildly varied batch of punky rock bands, from Rocket From The Crypt to The Offspring to Social Distortion, to his superstar project with Blink 182’s Tom DeLonge, Angels & Airwaves, and most recently with aggro-politico way-way-alt band Against Me!
Willard’s drum-formative years were spent in Denver, and later San Diego, where as a high school student he got his first paying drumming job with local alt kingpins Rocket From The Crypt. He didn’t exactly come from a musical family, though his parents were supportive—he was always banging on stuff around the house, like wallpaper-covered cans in descending sizes that he’d spread out and beat on with spoons. At a mere four years old, he got his first drum set.
“It was a tiny Silvertone from Sears,” he remembers. “It had spring tensioners that held the top and bottom heads on, so you couldn’t really replace the heads … one cymbal coming up off the kick drum … but it was 5-piece, and I played that thing to death!”
While his parents didn’t force lessons on Atom, they did suggest it. “But I just never responded to it. For whatever reason I didn’t want to commit or apply myself that way. I started lessons a dozen times, but it never really stuck.”
There are drumming fundamentals he now wishes he’d learned in a formal way, but he doesn’t lose sleep over it. “If I could sight-read music, that would be awesome,” he says. “When I do charts for something I’m learning or going to do, no one else could read my charts—I write notes and dotted eighths and this and that, and I don’t know what it means to anyone else.”
Willard’s basic training came from playing drums in the church and at school talent shows, and then in fifth grade he got his first live band together. “My friend’s older brother, he was in high school, said, ‘You play drums?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah!’ So he came over, and we jammed, and he gave me a tape of ten Iron Maiden songs and said, ‘Learn these!’ I said, ‘Okay!’ So I ‘learned’ these Maiden songs, then he brought three more guys over and we would play those songs.”
By this time Willard was kickin’ it on a 6-piece Ludwig with “Ringo” finish, 24″/12″/15″/16″/18″, with no bottom heads but bottom lugs, because somebody had taken them off. “I have pictures of me playing that thing till I was older,” he says. “But I didn’t realize it was what it was, and I sold it for, like, a Pearl Export kit, because it had all the pieces, the bottom heads and all.”
He laughs. “You live and learn. I wish I still had that kit.”
Like a lot of our parents, Willard’s mom and dad were heavily into The Beatles, and Atom’s first memory of music that really floated his boat was “Hey Jude,” which he played over and over, singing/banging along on his trusty Silvertones. Down the road he got into music that featured a little more detailed drumming, and more importantly, had a sound he could relate to.
“I was always affected by production values, so if the drums sounded good, and they sounded like real drums, I was like, ‘That’s cool,’ regardless of what the song was. And it worked both ways – it could be a great song, but you couldn’t really feel like they were real drums or a tangible thing. Like I never really got into Def Leppard because it sounded different, like, ‘My drums don’t sound like that.’ And you’d see them playing and it was like, ‘Well, that looks like a normal drum set but it sounds so … Mutt Lange.’”
He attributes many of his current stylistic and compositional predilections to his exposure to these early-teen, decidedly pre-punk influences, such as his fondness for a heavy hi-hat sound, which he got in part from Alex Van Halen.
“And with Neil Peart and the Rush album Moving Pictures, everything was fast and rad, but more than that, there’s a part there. Even without knowing it I learned to design drum parts for songs, and not just keep a beat. That transcended everything I did later on. At this point it’s so important to me to have dedicated parts for songs. What I do isn’t technically difficult, but I can come up with parts – individual ideas – for songs that help make the song unique.”
T IS FOR TECHNIQUE (AND TASTE)
“I feel like I’ve got one arm tied behind my back,” Willard says with a laugh. “There’s a whole new generation coming up that thinks that that guy on that heavily Pro Tooled re- cord actually played it like that. So they just practice and practice till their feet can do what the Pro Tools made the guy do. Kids don’t understand the concept of, ’Oh, they completely cleaned up that drum take and triggered every kick hit,’ but it’s like a blisteringly fast double kick. And some guys do do it, but a lot of guys are getting helped out. And then the kids are like, ’I have to be like that!’”
He laughs. “And I was just trying to play Minor Threat songs – that was fast enough. I was like, ’Holy s–t, the kick drum and the floor tom are alternating, what do you do?’”
Willard fell in thrall of punk rock when he was 14 years old, and from then on veered sharply away from all the above-mentioned technically hot bands, and indeed anything that even gave the slightest whiff of instrumental prowess. For Willard, punk rock trashed all that.
“You know, Rush obviously had chops, and Van Halen and Crüe’s Tommy Lee had a lot of soul and emotion in those early records – it really was like a living, breathing thing. But punk was that times ten, because there were so many mistakes on the records and the recordings were so bad. But there was this attitude, and the songs were just intoxicating to me, maybe because of their very lack of technical proficiency.”
Willard applied his newfound punk drums style in his first band, called Crankshaft, whose gigs at parties and shows around San Diego quickly earned him a rep as a tubwacker to watch. Among the oglers were local arty-punk heroes Rocket From The Crypt, who invited the 16-year-old Willard to join their crew. The band commenced touring upon Willard’s graduation from high school at age 17, traveling by box truck all over the U.S. for up to eight weeks at a stretch, sleeping in fans’ houses or in the truck.
It was a formative experience for Willard, not least for the development of his hard-hitting playing style. “I started getting louder and louder by necessity, and it was incremental,” he says. “Whenever somebody saved up enough money to get a new amp, it got that much louder in the practice space. The room was 10′ x 10′, and it was the five of us in there, just as loud as you can imagine, and I just started playing louder and louder to hear myself.”
At the time he was way into Dale Crover of The Melvins, because Crover had those really big drums, like a 28″ kick drum and 20″ floor toms mounted high, just huge mutha things for ultimate max power and loudness. Thing is, says Willard, those big-ass drums looked loud but really weren’t all that loud.
“So I’m beating the crap out of this stuff trying to hear it,” he says with a laugh, “but it’s so big and the notes are so low. And that’s where I built my chops. Just to be loud enough dictated a lot of my style, because the drum beats had to be simpler to make them audible. It couldn’t be little fast things, because I was playing against two half- stack 100-watt Marshalls and a huge SVT cabinet, and it’s all pointed at me and I can’t hear anything but that. And then over the years I realized, Hey, if you go smaller and you rimshot a 13″ tom, that’s way louder than a 16″ rack tom. It speaks way more.”
ADAPT OR BE ADAPTED
Willard’s time spent with The Offspring in 2002 exemplifies how a drummer wisely learns to play drums for the song and not necessarily to assert at all cost his favored flourishes into the mix. It can be a tricky thing to negotiate.
“The Offspring was a thing where I had to develop both my chops and my adaptability,” he says. “It was the fastest stuff I’d ever played, and I had to learn to play faster while maintaining my volume level. It just made me stronger.”
It also made him more flexible artistically – but let’s call it a hard-earned pragmatism. Until his first meeting with the band’s head honcho Dexter Holland, Willard had figured that The Offspring’s music contained a lot of room for individual interpretation, drum-wise.
“I went into the audition and did my own thing, and really kind of went off,” he says a bit ruefully. “And the manager called me a couple days later and says, ’The guys want to play with you again, but I just wanted to let you know that Dexter writes all the drum parts on all the records, and he kind of likes to hear what’s there.’ I’m like, oh … I always thought that the drummer had written all the drum parts, and this was my opportunity to say, ’Look at what you’ve been missing.’” He laughs. “Well, no.”
Holland liked to say, “Stick to the script.” While Willard and Holland did discuss putting more of himself into Offspring drum parts, it wasn’t meant to be. Which, he’s quick to point out, is not as bad as it sounds.
“I was eager to do the right thing, wanted to do right by them, and realized that these are huge songs that’ve sold millions of records. It wasn’t my job to come in and say, ’Let me do it this way.’”
It was an epiphany for Willard. On tour with the Offspring, though, he had a hard time playing the same thing every night. “You know, you hear something and you just go for it. And 50 percent of the time I’d get ’The Look.’” He laughs. “’Oops, not gonna do that again!’
“But right or wrong, it’s how Dexter runs his thing, and he runs a very successful band. If the Angels & Airwaves opportunity hadn’t come up, who knows, I might still be there with Offspring. I didn’t have a lot of creative input, but I wasn’t a bandmember, I was an employee, so when I had the opportunity to be part of a band and have 25 percent creative input, and 25 percent financial output, that was very attractive.”
DO THE WORK
And a few percentage points more creative input was also exactly what Willard got when he got the call in 2005 from Blink 182’s Tom DeLonge to form alt-rock super-group Angels & Airwaves, with whom Willard recorded three albums. His departure from the band six years later was amicable, he says, and owed mainly to DeLonge’s commitments to his re-formed Blink 182. Willard, you see, needed to work.
“When Tom started doing Blink again it was a hard thing for him to continue to do Angels with focus. We weren’t working and touring as much, so there was a lot of down time. I went and did Social Distortion, but it was still me coming in to someone else’s band, which I love to do, but if I have the opportunity to do my own thing, I always want to do that.”
While Willard understandably likes to have as much creative input as he can in any music he’s involved with, he also see himself as a working musician who likes to keep busy; his post-Angels work includes collaborations with a wide variety of artists such as Melissa Auf der Maur, Danko Jones, Alkaline Trio, Moth, and Weezer drummer Pat Wilson’s The Special Goodness.
His recent work with Against Me! has found him in his best yet position to artfully detail music whose politically charged thrust is challenging, to say the very least. The title of the band’s new Transgender Dysphoria Blues album gives a hint of the complexities involved. The band’s singer/guitarist Laura Jane Grace, formerly known as Tom Gabel, has earned Willard’s undying respect, and taught him a lot about how to drum a passionate life force into some seriously dark, negative-energy music and lyrics. In songs with titles like “F–kmylife666,” “True Trans Soul Rebel,” and “Dead Friend,” he applies himself with a positive empathy, simultaneously acting as a balancing agent and fully stoked engine for the songs’ near-overwhelming anger and confliction.
“I’m trying to add life and lift to everything, and I’m always just moving,” he says. “It’s just energy, and if I can make you dance with a four on the floor and just keep it going, making everybody just move your shoulders a little bit, that for me is a win.”
The album’s reflective “Two Coffins” tells a corollary tale, however. Originally written as a solo acoustic song, the question was whether it needed drums at all.
Drums DWJazz Series (Chrome)
24″ x 18″ Bass Drum
14″ x 6.5″ Thin Aluminum Snare Drum (or “Wrinkle” aluminum shell)
12″ x 8″ Tom 4 16″ x 14″ Floor Tom
15″ K Light Hi-Hat (top)/Mastersound (bottom)
19″ A Medium Crash
24″ K Light Ride
20″ A Medium Crash
“Torque Converter” Bell
Atom Willard also uses DW 9000 series stands and 5000 single bass drum pedal and hi-hat stand, Remo heads (Vintage Emperor Clear, tom batters; Ambassador Clear, tom resonants; Emperor X, snare; Powerstroke3, bass), Vater Power 5B sticks, Meinl hi-hat tambourine, Tama 105 Rhythm Watch click track, and Ultimate Ears in-ear monitors.
Willard added sizzly cymbals and mallets, and opened up the muffling on the toms a little bit. It was a way to differentiate the two parts of the song, to make it shift from the verse to the chorus; along with a waltz beat, this keeps the verse in sight, and the backbeat of a floor tom supports the chorus. “That’s all I try to do in any song: cruise on the verse, and if there’s a pre-chorus, add as much tension as you can, and then release into the chorus – and everything just goes ahhhhh.”
Willard recorded his Against Me! tracks alone in the studio, a working method he likes. “All of these songs were pretty much already written, and I knew the structure of the songs, where Laura’s vocals were going to be, what the chorus melody was. That and the overall direction of the song is the most valuable stuff for me to know, before I can feel comfortable to stretch out.”
Live and in the studio, Willard’s drumming directly plays off both the sound of Grace’s voice and her lyrical substance as well. Specifically, he’s sensitive to her cadence and sense of meter. “I’m not just going to sit there and play a beat,” he says. “No, my thing is a part within each section that interacts with the vocals and creates dynamics and moves it along.”
On the album’s “Osama Bin Laden As The Crucified Christ,” Grace was specific about the sound she wanted to hear from Willard: “She said I want you to go crazy the whole time. And I was like, ’Whoa, I’m not going to Keith Moon on your song. It’s not what comes naturally to me.’ So I had to develop a part that gave her that feeling of running off over hills, of uncertainty, this unpredictable, could-come-off-the-hinges-at-any-moment type of feeling. I’m such a structured type of guy that it took me a little bit to figure out how I could reach that and still stay true to myself.”
On the title track and the following “True Trans Soul Rebel,” when Willard does his fills, it’s very much by design; he’s thought about it beforehand and parcels them out sparely; the placement of each fill seems crucial.
“I really like to have each section be itself,” he says. “And even if I’m playing the same root part each time through that section throughout the song, well, it’s a gradual build. So the fills will change a little bit as you go through the song; there’s kind of a similar feeling, but it will evolve within itself.”
A GUIDING HAND
What’s the best thing about being a famous rock drummer? Flying in private jets? Dining at the Ritz? Entire stadiums of fans pumping their fists and chanting your name to the heavens? Well sure, all that stuff is pretty damn nice, no doubt about it.
“But for me,” he says with a grin, “some of the most amazing moments have happened when a kid writes me and says, ’You inspired me to play the drums – and now check out my band!’ That’s the coolest thing ever. You feel like you’ve been able to say something that resonates with people. If I can inspire people to play, and get people excited about music, that’s really something that I’m very proud of.
“And you know what? It’s because I’m not a chops guy, it’s not about fills and flourishes – it’s about not being a selfish drummer, it’s about playing for the song, and not for yourself. So, if that’s recognized, I’m pretty happy about that.”