BY AJ DONAHUE
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is one of the most influential and visible drummers on the planet. In addition to his culture-altering albums with The Roots and as a producer, he and The Roots have been anchoring The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon since it’s launch five years ago. There just aren’t many of other drummers—or even musicians—that have that kind of day in, day out impact and seemingly universal resume respect.
So, when he decided to introduce a new Ludwig drum set after every 100 episodes of The Tonight Show, it became another opportunity to make a statement. For his last three Tonight Show kits, he’s turned to Frank William Miller Jr.—also known as FWMJ—a creator, artist, and promoter known for subversive, forward-thinking work and a knack for identifying emergent talents with truly unique voices.
We reached out to FWMJ to learn a little more about how his relationship with Questlove developed, what the kit design process is like, and what he might be working on next.
Drum!: How did you first connect with Questlove, and how did that lead to designing drum sets for him?
Frank William Miller Jr.: I first connected with Questlove back in the early 2000s on Okayplayer.com. Like many of the “charter members” of the site, I found my way there after reading the liner notes to The Roots’ fourth album, Things Fall Apart. Our first real, intentional interaction was over a scathing review I did of their fifth album, Phrenology (which is still my least favorite in their catalog to this day). He didn’t like me at all behind that, but their late manager, Rich Nichols, loved the review and was basically the bridge to us becoming friends (eventually).
Do you design instruments for any other musicians?
No, I haven’t. These drum kits for Questlove were my first. I come from an album cover design background, so it’s always fun to find a different canvas to put designs on—especially when they’ll make it into meat space, and not just a streaming platform’s album cover window.
How many kits have you designed for him?
I’ve designed a total of 10 different kits, four of which have been produced. When he first tasked me with doing some designs for his every-100-episode-drum-switch-over, I did about seven different designs hoping for a mix and match set like Skittles. They were different assortments of camouflage and florals. He chose to do two sets from that initial batch, the MultiCAM style camo with the assorted roses for every show use, and the red Goyard-patterned kit with the roses that he used when performing with guest musicians and artists on the show. There was also a Prince-themed set I designed that we got a late start on and could not be manufactured in time for the Super Bowl last year.
There’s of course the No Frills set that’s being used now, and a yet unveiled set that I guess I should keep quiet on until it’s go-time.
What’s the process like? Does he present ideas that you help realize, or do you bring the ideas to him?
For the first batch I did, he said he wanted to do something subversive and fun. He’s been a pretty big supporter of my T-shirt designs—which are essentially wearable memes—and wanted something with that same spirit for his next set. So, I did seven different ones hoping each individual drum would be its own design—mostly because I couldn’t decide on one idea. He narrowed it down for me.
For the No Frills kit, he came to me with the design, and I tried to add little details that made it inside-jokey, for example check the ingredients list [see video above].
Where do you look for inspiration? Is there a particular aesthetic, vibe, or subject you’re trying to recall?
Nature, mostly. I’m a military brat. I spent the first quarter of my life in the Philippines, and I currently live in Seattle. So, I like flowers. And greenery. I like green as a color in general. Also, cats.
How many revisions does each kit go through?
Not too many. Maybe a round or two. Once he picks a design, it’s just a matter of formatting the graphics for each drum in the kit. We probably should have had more on the No Frills joints, because there’s a typo or two.
Once the design is finalized, what’s the process like after that?
Once I finish and upload everything to Dropbox, the masters at Ludwig take what I do and make it real.
Does Ludwig send you any matching drums to include in your portfolio or collection?
WISH. Can we start a petition?
Can you share any of your favorite kit ideas that weren’t used?
There was a teal and tan tiger camouflage kit I did for the first batch of drums that had birds of paradise flowers instead of the roses. That was probably my favorite. Jordan Brand ended up doing something similar for a bomber jacket this past fall, which has me giving them the side eye.
Do you have a dream kit you would love to produce for Questlove (or anyone)?
There’s an abstraction on a Vietnam War era tiger camouflage pattern design I’ve done that I’m having silk foulards made from that I’d love to see on a kit.
If you were designing your own kit, what would you do?
I’d take drum lessons first. But, as far as a design, I’d probably have each drum modeled after each individual Voltron lion. That, or the different models of Veritech from the ‘80s anime Robotech: Macross.
Learn more about FWMJ at fwmj.carbonmade.com.