BY ANDREW LENTZ | FROM THE FEBRUARY 2014 ISSUE OF DRUM!

There’s a reason Josh Freese plays drums on some of your favorite albums, and a whole lot more besides. But whether he’s at a recording session or filling in for a tour, the unassuming 41-year-old has mastered the art of learning songs, intuiting sensei-like the kind of beat a song needs, how much to dole out, what feel to give it — and as his blocked-out work calendar attests — music producers know this. Herewith his Dude-ness holds forth on that elusive song-learning steez and how you can get some of it in seven easy steps.

1. GEAR UP

In the world of song learning, “well-equipped” does not mean a spare kick pedal and stick bag, but the various software programs, listening devices, and decoding methods an aspiring session great needs. “In the old days you had to just lean on the needle of the turntable to hear what the drummer was doing,” Freese says laughing.

The drummer is hanging in his Orlando hotel room a few hours before a sound check with Sublime With Rome, a last-minute sub gig. We’re guessing he downed a triple latte before we called because he’s talking a blue streak. “I’ve never slowed anything down to learn a song [like with The Amazing X or Amazing Slower Downer programs — Eds.] but I know now there’s a million different programs that you can probably get for a dollar on your iPhone.”

Cruising the freeways in and around Los Angeles in his Volvo SUV either with CD player or docked iPod blasting away is the Josh Freese version of deep-immersion song learning. “There’s no real big method to it,” he says. “I don’t want to let anyone down but it’s the truth! But that’s cool because I think that humanizes you a little bit so hopefully [my non-technical method] is refreshing to hear.”

If learning songs were a matter of following instructions, Freese’s job would be easy. But you’re not hired to have your hand held — you have to deliver. “It’s a case where you’ve got to make the call, ‘Do I make the beat more in the background or the star of the song?’ If anything, I start real basic: Less is more. I try to remember that they’re hiring me for my own personality and instincts of how I’m going to approach it.”

Freese’s routine is to get an artist’s music a week or two before going out with a band or meeting up in a studio to not only hear what’s going on beat-wise, but listen to all the instruments. “That way when you get into the room with them and go, ‘You know how you extend it on the second chorus? The one that goes da, da, dee?’ And they know exactly what you’re talking about.

“There’s times when my wife and kids listen to songs when we’re spending all day at home or hanging in the kitchen, and it’s just background music. And then there’s times I go, ‘Okay, now I’ve really got to figure out exactly what’s going on at the end of this verse, and how he switches it up in the second verse.’ You have to listen differently at different times.”

josh freese drums 2014

Johs Freese’s 2014 session rig

2. BE CHART SMART

There seem to be two schools of thought on sight-reading. The first: Know the chart like the back of your hand. The second: Ignore it. Freese is educated enough to be in the first camp, and lucky enough to fall in the latter — most of the time. “The charts that I make look ridiculous, like a fourth grader did it,” he says. “I’ll post it [on my web site] and sometimes people comment, ‘That’s exactly what I do!’”

By Freese’s reckoning, he spent a year and a half in the very early part of his career learning how to read music, back when he was an eager teenager soaking up everything related to his instrument. But as he quickly realized in the SoCal punk world, music notation was overkill. “Reading is something I haven’t had to do, because when I started making rock and roll records people never stuck it in front of my face. I was never getting to apply it, so I stopped being good at it.”

There are exceptions. “Once in a blue moon, I’ll get a Japanese session and they’ll hand me some charts and it’s fun to go, ‘Oh, hey, I can read this!’ But I’m not being asked to play ‘The Black Page.’”

Freese recently worked with Hans Zimmerman on the soundtrack to Man Of Steel with a host of drum stars, including Matt Chamberlain, Jim Keltner, and Danny Carey, to name but a few. It was an illustrious gathering, but it was more akin to a Woodstick event than a painstaking session. By contrast, a job with film composer Danny Elfman a couple years ago required him to read. So the drummer went back to some of his old books and spent the next few days shedding his way back in that educational headspace.


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On recording day, Freese walks into the studio and is greeted by a stack of charts with 15 or 20 different cues, some are 30 seconds, some are a minute. “So I go up there and they put the first one up and I look at it for a minute or two before we started. I’m thinking, ‘This isn’t too hard.’ So I put the charts up and I basically play note for note. And I’m thinking, ‘Yes! I can do this.’ And then Danny comes on the talkback, and he goes, ‘Hey, you know the notation out there? You don’t have to follow that stuff so much. Just play for the beat.’ And I was kind of let down. [laughs] Here’s my big chance to show off my sight reading and they say forget it.”

When it comes to learning songs, 100-million-dollar comic-book film adaptations and small-budget rom coms are worlds apart. “I do a lot of film stuff where it’s like making a record — just me and the producer or the composer with a ProTools rig. ‘Hey, let’s cut 30 seconds of this.’ But it’s not a whole lot of pressure if I screw up. We stop, go back, no big deal.”

3. GET THE GIST, THEN THE DETAILS

Freese never listened to million-selling emo band Paramore until they called him. Original drummer Zac Farro had just been let go in the weeks preceding a major tour of South America, and so the band sent their temporary replacement the soundboard feeds so he could get a sense of Paramore’s live energy.

It turned out to be the worst thing the band could have done.

“[Zac]’s a very well-rehearsed, gifted young drummer, but geeez, this dude’s playing all over the place. He’s going for it the whole time,” Freese recalls. “They had a lot of change-ups too. The second verse is a totally different pattern. They’re really working it — every four bars is this big drum fill. I was listening to it going, ‘Oh my God, do they really want this, or is it because they’re used to it?’”

It’s probably best not to belabor any single drum part even when recording. Devo’s last album is an example of a song-learning process that for Freese was drawn out to a stupefying degree. “It was like, ‘Are we really going to record that song a 14th time?’”

The drummer showed up at Paramore’s rehearsal space in Nashville after settling on a compromise approach: YouTubing official Paramore videos and using the board feeds only as a reference. “I didn’t play as hyper as Zac played. Obviously I wasn’t going to come in and have them be looking at each other like, ‘What the hell’s going on behind the drum set?’ I knew that they were used to the kind of [drummer Farro was]. It’s not that far off from how I would normally play in that situation anyways. I just toned it down. So fills every eight bars instead of four [laughs].”

The takeaway is that for a one-off date, Freese learns the nuts-and-bolts details to be safe. In a situation where he will be living with the band for weeks at a time, however, he allows himself to grow into the parts. “I don’t sit down and make notations on the actual patterns yet. You can dig into the nuances later, but in the beginning I just try to get it embedded so it’s just part of my muscle memory — and depending on the song, whatever grabs me: ‘This is a great bass line,’ or whatever. And then the song hopefully has a good melody that you can hum in your head… whether you like it or not.”

It’s probably best not to belabor any single drum part even when recording. Devo’s last album is an example of a song-learning process that for Freese was drawn out to a stupefying degree. “It was like, ‘Are we really going to record that song a 14th time?’”

4. NAIL THE MONEY BEATS

There is a Michael Bublé song, “Just Haven’t Met You Yet,” that you probably have heard at an airport, on television, or at a sporting event. It may strike people as ironic that Josh Freese, punk rocker (Vandals, Offspring, Social Distortion), new-waver (Devo), alt-rocker (Guns N’ Roses, Perfect Circle), jazzercise sideman and rivet-head (Cher; Nine Inch Nails) — would place the groove he laid down on this sappy tune above all the others he has recorded. “It’s like the closest I’ve come to like playing in Steely Dan,” he explains. “Finally I sound like a pro. It sounds expensive. It sounds clean. I’m not shredding all over the place. It’s the pop and the feel of it. Whenever it comes on the radio I go, ‘Damn, I love this track.’”

Sure, Bublé is big star and the job paid well. But “Just Haven’t Met You Yet” represents a chops test the drummer finally passed. “When I was growing up, I used to have a complex about playing shuffles,” he explains. “I’m a dorky white kid from Orange County. How am I going to ever play a real shuffle?” Wouldn’t you know it was The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg — one of Freese’s heroes — who burned the shame into him. Josh was putting together a promotional flyer and he needed to get testimonial from past clients. A few days later a manager e-mails him back with Westerberg’s quote: Josh Freese is the greatest drummer I ever played with but he can’t play a shuffle. “I wanted to punch him through the phone. He can’t just say something nice? But Paul’s a notorious wiseass. He was just being a punk rocker.”

A tour with Sting was the turning point. On the flight over to The Police singer’s villa in Tuscany for rehearsals, the drummer was thinking about how it was funny that even though he got hired for the tour, Sting had never actually heard Freese play — and the drummer started to freak. When they practiced “The Hounds Of Winter” from Sting’s 2009 solo effort If On A Winter’s Night, it boosted his confidence, but it was that groove that Vinnie Colaiuta played back on “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You,” from 1993’s Ten Summoner’s Tales, that was the litmus test. “I was [thinking of] Vinnie — just the cool shuffle he lays down on that,” he says when they started to practice this concert staple. “And Sting was like, ‘That was unbelievable how good that was.’ I was finally like ‘Yes! I can play a shuffle.’”

5. THINK ON YOUR FEET

Even the recording engineers who tell you what to play still expect you to bring your own feel into it. Freese says there’s usually a run-through of the song. “Even if there’s no time to prep, there’s three minutes to prep, you know what I mean? While whatever light [rigging] or putting up a couple mikes or the bass rig or something, you know? It’s never just blindly play.” He recalls a time where he had to fly to San Francisco to cut a single track with Westerberg. The song didn’t end up making the album and Freese was dejected. The following day, he returned to the studio on the way to the airport to retrieve his cymbals. When he got there Westerberg was in the corner strumming his guitar. “He says, ‘Hey could you play something real quick for me?’”

As far as laying down drum tracks it doesn’t get any more spontaneous than that. Freese could have frozen up, but he trusted his gut. “I will bet you a hundred bucks after four bars whenever he looks at me here [pauses for effect] that that is the verse and I’m going to close the hi-hats. And it’s not going to be 11 bars or 15 bars. So I am playing and looking at him kind of like as you are coming up on bar 16 like ready open the hat and maybe I go from going doo da doo da to doo da-da doo. Now it’s the chorus. I’m going to do something that’s — not going out on a limb — but changing it a little bit. I didn’t open the hats, but I went to crash/ride and after eight bars he is kind of like, ‘Yeah!’” The song the pair worked on that day, “World Class Fad,” was all over the radio during summer in 1993 with a $300,000 video to go with it.

josh freese discography

A select Josh Freese discography (he’s done a lot more since 2014)

6. KNOW YOUR LIMITS

Sometimes the most lucrative gigs can test your sanity. No matter what kind of payday we’re talking, it can be better to swallow your pride and cut your losses. If that sounds defeatist, knowing what line you won’t cross is the very thing that will liberate you. “I’m still coming to terms [with the fact that] I’m a rock and roll drummer,” Freese says. “I’m not going to name musicians, but there are some records with all these guys that are highly skilled and very famous in each of their own acts. And I’m like, ‘This music is awful!’”

He recalls a session at the Record Plant in Hollywood featuring a famous session bassist and guitar player and roughly ten Japanese guys in the control room with laptops open. “This song is like blazing fast,” Freese recalls of this particular day some four years ago. “Tons of programming, and the drums? They’re just ridiculous, like the drum program is insane, right? And I’m talking to the interpreter and he’s like, ‘He says he wants a little more energy,’ or something, I don’t know. And I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ It already sounds like Mr. Bungle meets Frank Zappa with [Alvin And The] Chipmunks sped up to 78 [rpm]. So we’d try playing it, and the interpreter came back in, ‘Uh, he wants blah, blah, blah.’ And so — I was really polite about it — I go, ‘This isn’t going to happen.’ But I’m in the hallway with the bass player who I’ve played many records with and he goes, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this.’

“If I were 18, it would have probably hit me pretty hard. It was comical, but because we’re all there in this expensive room and getting paid well, it wasn’t a joke. I wanted to deliver. I don’t like leaving, I don’t want to leave a session and be like, ‘I can’t do it.’ But I’m like, ‘You’re crazy for even asking to do this.’”

7. FLEX THE CONTEXT

Hanging with ZZ-Top’s Billy Gibbons was an object lesson in how to get into a song-learning frame of mind — even if there is no immediate payoff. The drummer and the shaggy-bearded guitarist were at Gibbons’ house and Josh was just strumming a guitar as they sat drinking beer and listening to blues records. There was talk about doing some projects down in Texas, which never happened, “but I’m sure the time is going to come that I end up playing with Billy,” Freese says. It’s an approach that is less about active song learning and more about doing the groundwork to becoming part of a songwriter’s world so that, if and when the two men do find themselves in the studio together, it’s not contrived, awkward, or random. “I’m not getting songs of mine on a ZZ Top record any time soon,” he says. “I got good rhythm and I like writing music but I’m not a guitar player by any means. [Gibbons] liked that because I wasn’t a threat like, ‘Oh you have to hear these riffs.’”

U2 drummer Larry Mullen is across the room, and summons Freese over. “He’s like, ‘Let me get this straight: You never played with No Doubt before, but you’re going to go play with them tomorrow? On TV?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, dude. That’s what I do!’”

During Super Bowl XXXVI, No Doubt was scheduled to play a kick-off jam in host city New Orleans followed by a half-time performance by U2. Freese was subbing for Adrian Young, whose wife just had a baby. Freese may not have been the biggest ska fan, but No Doubt’s impact in those days was such that Freese knew their songs by osmosis. (To be safe, he practiced the hits of the last ten years, especially ones off the then–brand-new Rock Steady at Young’s house before flying out.) Plus, they’re fellow O.C. musicians — buds by default.

Fast forward to the night before the game. It’s an Interscope Records party and U2 drummer Larry Mullen is across the room, and summons Freese over. “He’s like, ‘Let me get this straight: You never played with No Doubt before, but you’re going to go play with them tomorrow? On TV?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, dude. That’s what I do!’ He’s shaking his head, ‘Cheers to you mate. You’re a brave man.’ I’m thinking, ‘Not really. I’m going to go play six minutes of pop music, how hard is that?’” [laughs]

The latte is wearing off and Freese has to get to sound check. Tonight’s gig is an I.O.U. the band is cashing in. Last time Sublime’s drummer was arrested they were going to Brazil and drummer Bud Gaugh couldn’t leave the country. Freese was unable to fill in then so he told them to holler next time: Just another illustration of how Freese’s sponge-like personality, generosity, and ninja flexibility lets him jump into songs without much prep. “I’ve played stylistically similar things to them, but not exactly what they do. I said, ‘I’ll figure [the music] out because I like you guys and it would be fun to kind of do that.’ I’m an old-school Long Beach dude. It’s not like they found some guy from Montreal. I’ve kind of lived it with them, you know? So, I’m a good candidate in that respect aside from just being a ‘pro drummer guy.’”