By Andrew Lentz
Photos by Robert Downs
Originally published in the April 2008 issue of DRUM! Magazine

Thomas Pridgen of The Mars Volta

EDITORS NOTE: Check out the updated video interview with Pridgen.

Aside from the castle where Phil Spector dwells, Los Angeles’ Alhambra neighborhood is an uneven mix of middle- and working-class bungalows nestled in hills hemmed in by the I-10, 710, 605 and 210 freeways. It’s the kind of landscape where rehearsal spaces disappear into a scattering of warehouses and railroad tracks, liquor stores and carnicerías. Sitting in a small cove wedged between the studio and an auto body shop, Thomas Pridgen is discussing his new job as the drummer for The Mars Volta.

The wiry 24-year-old repeatedly halts our conversation to eye the LAPD patrol car that cruises back and forth. His expression is a mix of uncertainty and concern. A young black man with dreads tends to stand out in heavily Latino East Los Angeles, but that can’t be the full story.

Then, from the open window of the mixing consul – where members of The Mars entourage discuss business – wafts the unmistakable scent of Humboldt County, and it all makes sense: Homeboy’s just a little ’noided out courtesy of some premium-grade sherm.

Rhythmic A.D.D. A reputation as a wunderkind – coupled with a pair of wicked YouTube videos – is all it takes to land an aspiring drummer a plum audition. Unfortunately, it has been said that Pridgen has auditioned himself right out of potential gigs because his super-busy style was more a distraction than an anchor. Turns out that’s exactly the skill set The Mars Volta was looking for. “I think The Mars Volta has a gang of groove in it – it’s just not the groove everybody’s used to,” he explains. “Omar [Rodriguez-Lopez, the band’s co-leader], he’s like, ‘You know man, that’s cool but we’ve heard that before, let’s come up with something new.’ There’s a lot of changeups. Most of those grooves are, in their own way, solos. Some of those grooves are so hard it makes you feel like the whole thing is like a lick. So it’s really that we’re experimenting more than not trying to play a groove.”

For Pridgen, the challenge of joining The Mars Volta went beyond playing the drums. Drama has dogged the outfit since the days of At The Drive In, Rodriguez-Lopez and singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s previous band, which the two dissolved at its peak of popularity and whose signature post-punk sound was traded for the progged-out, conceptual jams of The Mars Volta – a double whammy that threw fans for a loop. Top it off with the mercurial temperament of Lopez/Zavala, the overdose of keyboardist/programmer Jeremy Ward (whose subsequently discovered diary would form the basis of Mars’ sophomore album, Frances The Mute, and the erratic behavior and infighting among members, the band has a mystique – or baggage depending on your point of view – that can supersede the music.

“When I first got into the band I didn’t know how many people was going to be all, like, trippin’ about John [Theodore],” says Pridgen of the ex-Mars drummer, who left the band over “creative differences” in late 2006. “I didn’t know all the Internet buzz, I didn’t know I can’t walk down the street with my girlfriend without people taking pictures and putting it on web sites, so I didn’t trip off none of that until after the tour,” he says of the days just before entering the studio to record The Bedlam In Goliath, an undertaking that would test his mettle.

“At first, Omar was, ‘Do what you want.’ But then he was, ‘I like this, I like that … this I don’t know about.’” Fortunately, Pridgen wasn’t so cocky he wouldn’t take advice. He knew The Volta’s reputation for pushing its members to the limit, so resilience on his part – creatively and psychologically – was a must if he was going to survive in the band. “I was figuring everything out because I was doing a new thing, I’m playing hella notes, I’m playing long songs – it was an adjustment, you know?

“When we started recording the album I was getting stressed out. That was the main thing for me, and Omar would be like, ‘Well, we should do it like this,’ and sometimes it was hard for me to understand what he was talking about, I was so used to listening to the demos. But for this first album I just learned to trust Omar’s thought patterns. His mind doesn’t work like a lot of other people’s.”

Back In The Bay. Like the churches in many African-American communities, the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Berkeley, California was more that just a gathering place on Sunday morning. It was the crucible that forged Pridgen’s musical obsession as a child. He would spend all day in the pews, along with all the other kids, waiting to get a crack at the church’s lone drum set. But Pridgen was unable to simply turn off the percussive energy whether he was at home, school, or at the mall. “Drumming’s all I was thinking about – I would break hella stuff – you know at Nordstom’s those things they have in the shoe? I would be playing those, I was so drummed out.”

Instead of driving his family to distraction, Pridgen benefited from a grandmother who cultivated his musical sensibilities. A single snare drum led to a Toys “R” Us kit that lasted three days before getting pummeled to pieces. Next came a special-order Remo Junior kit, but it wasn’t long before he outgrew that as well. “She encouraged me because she played piano and she actually quit. She played, but she didn’t go as far as she could. She got a day job and did other stuff. But she was like, ‘Well, I’ll buy him a new snare and if he quits, it’ll be on him.’ So she nursed it to the point where it made me want to do it.”

A steady diet of music magazines also fueled his ambition. In 1992, he entered a Guitar Center Drum Off after reading that first prize was a Pearl Export kit. “I just saw the kit and I’m about winning it. The whole time my grandma was like, ‘You might not win,’ and the whole time I’m telling her, ‘I’m gonna win.’”

Despite being only nine years old, Pridgen was uncommonly methodical in his preparation. He credits Curtis Nutall, a respected San Francisco Bay Area R&B; session player, with helping him structure his athletic playing style, teaching him how to read sheet music, and developing his vocabulary. “By the time the Guitar Center thing came up and it was time to go to the finals, he was showing me how to start a solo, basically, you know, making it be like a song, trying to make it make sense, coming up with an intro, the ideas of how you want to play it, how to end it, little stuff to make it be a drum solo.”

Despite the presence of older, more seasoned competitors milling about on the day of the contest, Pridgen stayed focused on his own performance to the point that he was able to tune them out. When his time slot came up, he entered something like a fugue state shortly after sitting down on the throne. “After I played my solo and everybody was done and stuff, they called my name and I was like, ‘Yeeeah! ’ Took the drum set home, I swear I set it up that night.”

Things quickly began to snowball, or as Pridgen says: “God had his hands on me.” Not a week after he won the drum off, he got a gig at famed Emeryville, California supper club Kimball’s East at just about the same time former P-Funk Allstar and drumming icon Dennis Chambers was doing a week-long residency there with Graffiti. Almost immediately, the two clicked and Chambers had the star-struck young Pridgen sitting in on drums every night for a brief pre-show solo. That Pridgen had not even heard of Graffiti much less knew the band’s drum parts made not a lick of difference to Chambers. “It was crazy because Dennis was my idol – Serious Moves was out, In The Pocket was out. If you was from the church and you was a black drummer, you had those videos.”

Thomas Pridgen

School Daze. In the years that followed, Pridgen watched, read, learned, and absorbed all things drums, whether it was horsing around at Stanford Jazz Workshop in nearby Palo Alto or honing his chops in the East Bay’s Berkeley High School Band – one of the best high school bands in the country. After an impromptu performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival – where he was unaware that talent scouts were watching him – Pridgen emerged with a scholarship to Berklee College Of Music, a place he dreamed of attending after learning that many of his idols had gone there. At age 14, he was the youngest student to ever receive a full ride.

Everything came so easily to Pridgen at this stage in his career it’s no wonder he didn’t start to coast a little bit. But in fact, he did the opposite. Badass drummers are a dime a dozen at Berklee. As members of an elite group, there is an ostensible camaraderie, but insecurity and competitiveness are never far beneath the surface. “I’d play something and the next week they were trying to play that exact thing,” he says of the other students. “For me, it made me develop quicker because I was like, ‘They’re trying to steal my stuff, so I’m gonna play this lick now, and switch it up on them.’”

In New England, Pridgen was like a fish out of water in other ways, too. “I went there in January and I had these kinda shoes,” he says, pointing to his beat-up skater kicks. But the sub-zero temperatures of Boston in winter turned out to be a good thing since it forced him to stay in his drumming cubicle, where it was warm, and practice nonstop. Though the school’s tense atmosphere forced him to keep his guard up, he nevertheless made a few friends – like Phil from Nashville. “He was this little white kid and if you saw him you wouldn’t even think he could play at all. But me and him, we was like shedding partners – he was killer, he just had it.”

Berklee also exposed students to the importance of musical context, geographical and otherwise. Pridgen already had a sense of this from his years kicking it with Walfredo Reyes and other players, watching their moves, soaking up their road-hardened wisdom. But it was Francisco Mela, his private instructor, who opened up his ears and mind into the ways a style becomes bastardized. “He was the man, dude. He taught me all the Cuban styles. He goes, ‘Yeah, you play the Latin stuff but it’s old-school. We play it like this.’ I’m talking about what they’re playing in Cuba right now. It’s like reggae in Jamaica,” he says, drawing a parallel. “We don’t live there, we just know what we think they’re doing. But he was playing some funky other stuff where people were like, ‘What is that?’ I don’t even know what to call it. If I’m playing Latin, I want to be able to sound like Horacio [“El Negro” Hernandez] or guys like Ignacio [Berroa]. So for me to play that, I’m gonna be at home trying to shed salsa for a month just trying to cop that style.”

Hey, Ladies! Recently graduated and scarcely out of his teens, Pridgen was getting tapped for more than just time-keeping duties. About four years ago, when fellow Bay Area native Keyshia Cole was putting her band together, she asked Pridgen to be her music director. By this time, he had many musician friends and acquaintances upon whom he could call to join the fast-rising R&B; diva’s cause. “I had to make sure all the arrangements was slappin’, I had to make sure the Pro Tools was goin’ off. I had to make sure it was poppin’. That’s difficult handling all that and playing and being young. And you’re on a gig with a girl that has nothing but girls coming to the concert. There’s no dudes like, ‘Oh, Keyshia Cole – I’m buying a ticket!’ Naw, it’s straight girls,” he says, before busting out into a grin. “And I’m young and I wanna see girls.”

It was also around this time he began creating hip-hop beats under the handle of Burnerbeats in styles ranging from gangsta to the Bay Area’s signature hyphy. “My friends from the hood, they all rapped and they were like, ‘Hey, where’s that beat?’ Playing in the church, a lot of people don’t realize it but there’s an [Akai] MPC and because I was playing there I already had one. It’s like a whole percussion setup, so having it there already, I’d just make a beat,” he says. “I’m still hella into making them; I just don’t have as much time.”

Staying Single. The most important myth to debunk about Thomas is that he uses a double pedal on his bass drum. With footwork as frenetic as his, it’s an easy mistake to make. “I was gonna use two bass drums on The Mars Volta but Omar was like, ‘Don’t do it.’ I’m like, ‘Why not?’ And he’s like, ‘Because they’re not going to believe it’s a single pedal.’ I’m so into mimicking stuff: like mimicking drum ’n’ bass, mimicking double pedal with a single pedal. For the longest time I was trying to play thirty-second-notes. It hella built up my ankle muscle.”

Interestingly, it was the lessons with Dave Garibaldi that improved not only Pridgen’s sense of color and timing, but also the way he physically related to the drums. “Now I got good technique and I’m glad I learned it early because I don’t be getting hella calluses or breaking up my body.” But rather than speed or strength, what he strives for these days, prosaic as it sounds, is symmetry. “I’m still trying to make my left hand as fast as my right hand. As a drummer I think that’s the one thing you’ll never do.”

Like many young drummers, Pridgen was weaned on instructional videos. Now that he finds himself increasingly on the other side of the camera, he feels compelled to make a drumming DVD of his own, but he won’t be sweating technique. “I want to do a video that has all kind of subcultures in it, like skateboarding. I don’t want to see you play a paradiddle for 45 minutes and tell me every variation on it. I want to see you play, but like, show me how you are,” he says. “Vinnie [Colaiuta], I swear, I went to a clinic with him and he didn’t play drums one time. He just talked about how he got saved, and how he loves God, about albums and what he played on, and what he was thinking and, dude, like, that to me was one of the sickest clinics ever.”

The Trap(pings) Of Success. When Pridgen became a Zildjian endorser at age ten, he was the youngest in the company’s history. What’s refreshing for a young star of his ilk is that he doesn’t get all caught up in the hype. Instead, he looks at endorsement companies as friends and family, people he can go have dinner or just hang with. He even has a handshake deal with Vater, who gives him sticks all day, and he returns the favor by plugging them and his other endorsements in the album credits. “I’m not hella disloyal changing companies all the time. It’s like, I don’t see the point: at the end of the day, they’re drums. I don’t really want no signature nothing like that – it doesn’t get to me. I just want to tour and play more than I want to be thinking about what kind of snare drum I play.”

This level-headedness has much to do with Pridgen’s upbringing. No matter how high profile his gigs become, his strongest bond remains the one he forged in church those many years ago. “I’ve noticed a lot of kids who don’t live in the hood, who don’t go to church, who don’t have nothin’ to do with our style of thinking or playing, are like, emulating stuff that they see that we do. I’m like, ‘That’s something I would see two years ago in church.’ It makes us laugh, but then we think we need to take it to a whole other level. We can’t do the same stuff that everybody’s doing now. So we go home re-evaluating ourselves. That’s why a lot of people be like, ‘Does your style change?’ I’ll be like, ‘Hell, yeah.’ I don’t want to be that drummer where you go to the concert and know exactly what he’s going to play.”

Pridgen says he is satisfied with the work he did on Bedlam but that while he’s on the road with Mars, fans can expect the unexpected. “Let’s go smash it because that’s important, dude. It’s important for the album, it’s important for us. We all enjoy it, going out and playing together – that’s therapeutic. I take it way deeper than a lot of people think. I’ve never had a day job – I’m never gonna get one. I’ll be playing every show like it’s my last,” he says. “Because to me, this is all I got.”

Drums: DW Custom Clear Acrylic
1. 24″ x 20″ Bass Drum
2. 14″ x 7″ Snare
3. 12″ x 8″ Tom
4. 13″ x 9″ Tom
5. 15″ x 14″ Floor Tom
6. 16″ x 15″ Floor Tom
7. 18″ x 16″ Floor Tom

Cymbals: Zildjian
A. 15″ A Custom Mastersound Hi-Hats
B. 20″ A Armand Ride
C. 24″ A Medium Ride
D. Two 16″ Oriental China with an 8″ China in the middle (stacked)
E. 20″ A Custom Crash
F. 19″ K Custom Hybrid China
G. 20″ Crash Of Doom

Thomas Pridgen also uses DW pedals and hardware, Vater sticks, and Evans heads.

Thomas Pridgen drums