“He said, without hesitation, Brooks Wackerman,” actor and musician Jack Black recalls of the endorsement several years ago. Tenacious D needed a drummer, someone good enough to fill the shoes of Dave Grohl, their studio guy, on the road. And so the recommendation came from friend and guitarist Warren Fitzgerald of The Vandals, who had toured with Wackerman and thought he would fit well with Black and bandmate Kyle Gass’ performances.
“We knew instantly that he was in fact the greatest drummer on the planet,” Black reflected in December, hours before a Tenacious D show for Spike TV’s Video Game Awards. “Let’s face it: Dave is a thunderous force to be reckoned with, but Brooks is like the Itzhak Perlman of rock drummers. And when he’s behind you on the kit, you have superpowers. He just elevates the band, immediately, to another level.”
In a sense, this greatest drummer on the planet – known mainly for his work with Bad Religion over the last decade – grew up an only child in Long Beach. Though two of his three brothers also play drums, 17 years separates Brooks from his oldest brother Chad, who joined Frank Zappa on the road in the early ’80s by the time Brooks picked up his first pair of sticks. John, older by 12 years, has supported artists like Slash and Lindsey Buckingham.
Today, at 81, Chuck Wackerman teaches a jazz ensemble class, a subject he has instructed for more than 50 years. Early on, the left-handed drummer started three of his four sons – the other, Bob, plays bass and produces – on a kit in the family’s soundproofed garage, facing them from behind his Slingerland set. “The Wackermans were kind of like this famous family in Orange County,” remembers drummer and lifelong friend Josh Freese. “Brooks was always studying.”
Recent family photos exhibit the similar spirit, coupled with the physical differences among these men who wear the warm and wide Wackerman smile: Chad’s salt-and-pepper cut and chiseled jawline, John’s shoulder-length locks and dark shades, Brooks’s blonde hair and bright eyes. “We’re very supportive of each other,” Wackerman said. “There’s never been any machismo or competitive nature.”
Though drums were Brooks’s first love, he remembers buying a B.C. Rich Warlock guitar with the cash he made from his junior high band’s first week of gigs – he was a big Mötley Crüe fan, and wanted to learn another instrument. It would later serve him well in his own bands, including Kidneys, which he fronts as guitarist and singer.
“That’s another thing that Brooks and I share,” Freese said. “We’re both guitar players and we both write wacky rock music and have made our little records that not a whole lot of people know about.” One such record was One Step Closer To Broadway, a fun rocker from another of Wackerman’s bands, Hot Potty, on which Freese played in 2003. The album includes song titles like “A Prostitute Named Vicky” and “My Favorite Migraine,” a sort of foreshadowing to the antics Wackerman would eventually bring to Tenacious D.
By this time Wackerman had already become a bestselling name – he replaced the injured Bobby Schayer of the California punk group Bad Religion in 2001. That year also marked founding member Brett Gurewitz’ return to the band, and the result, The Process Of Belief, rapidly topped Billboard’s Independent Albums chart. It was, in many ways, a renaissance.
“He’s the most amazing musician I’ve ever worked with. He’s absolutely a star at what he does,” Gurewitz said. “When he came in it was sort of like the difference between victory and defeat. For the first time we felt like, Wow, this is what our songs can sound like.”
Listen for it on his fifth album with Bad Religion, True North, on abrupt numbers like “Vanity.” Clocking in at one minute, this fastest song of the band’s 30-year career bursts halfway through the album with Wackerman’s throbbing doubles on the single-kick pedal dominating the track. Similar footwork stomps through the record’s (slightly) slower cuts, like the tom-heavy “Dharma And The Bomb.” Wackerman’s advice: Stretch your leg, and often.
His knack for transitions – switching from rock to big band to reggae to punk to swing, depending on the project he’s supporting – reflects his appreciation for diverse music. “You can find Fiona Apple and Slayer on my iPod, and I’m proud of it,” he admits. Wackerman might have his fingerprints on your own iPod, with his many work credits including Suicidal Tendencies, Infectious Grooves, and The Vandals.
Wackerman said scattered Bad Religion and Tenacious D dates this year will allow him to rekindle live shows with Kidneys. His vocal evokes flairs of David Bowie and Billie Joe Armstrong on songs like “Battles” from last year’s album, Hold Your Fire. As a father himself, Wackerman added that he is encouraging his sons – 3-year-old twins – to explore music, as his dad had similarly pushed 30 years ago.
“They’re already doing Mama-Daddas on the snare drum, so look out,” Wackerman warns with a laugh, referring to his sons’ command of the double-stroke roll. “I’m trying to raise Alex and Eddie Van Halen, because two drummers in one band is just not going to work,” he added.
“The great drummers, it’s not just technique – it’s instinct for a song,” Gurewitz notes. “Brooks is a great combination of both.”
That keen instinct inspired a surprise during soundcheck with Tenacious D last year. While warming up between songs, Wackerman began to improvise, jazz-style, worlds apart from his brand of speed. His bandmates watched, and followed his lead. They realized they had something, “a new direction for The D,” as Black called it. Soon the band took this experiment to the stage, unleashing jazz breaks and Black’s scatting vocals on an unsuspecting crowd. They booed. But The D played on, provoked by the absurdity of their own live tangent. “And then we made the Jazz album,” Black said. “And it’s really all because of Brooks and his weird sense of humor and incredible talent.”
Current Release True North (Bad Religion)
Birthplace Long Beach, California
Influences Terry Bozzio, Josh Freese, Stewart Copeland, Tony Williams, Matt Chamberlain, Dave Lombardo
Websites badreligion.com, kidneys.bandcamp.com
Drums DW VLT Mahogany/Maple
Hardware DW 9000
Sticks Zildjian Brooks Wackerman Signature
Cases Protection Racket
Fueled by Brooks Wackerman’s pithy drumming, True North is Bad Religion’s most blistering and succinct offering since the band’s 1989 masterpiece, No Control. While the one-time wunderkind could easily have made chop suey out of his parts, Wackerman faithfully adheres to the austere template established by BR beat keepers of old – meaning the bulk of the record is flush with evenly meted single-stroke rolls, abrupt stops, and bouncy, syncopated kick patterns. Such is the case with the terse title cut, as well as the debut single, “F__k You,” which builds tension with foreboding tribal tom work in both intro and bridge. Thankfully for us drum nerds, Wackerman does embellish a bit more than his forebears (e.g., monster fills to kick off and conclude “Robin Hood In Reverse” and double bass beat downs in the impossibly fast “Vanity” and “In Their Heart Is Right”), making the listen that much more enjoyable for those who prefer a bit of panache with their revolution.
“Robin Hood In Reverse”
Brooks Wackerman comes from a great drumming family, and if older brother Chad’s approach is more brainy, Brooks’ style is definitely more brawny. His opening fill is particularly tasty, with a nice bass drum triplet to lead things off followed by an unexpected open hi-hat bark. His punk groove is busy for this tempo and he makes it even more challenging by adding fast bass drum double strokes and single-stroke fills to keep it all amped up.