THIS man is rock ‘n’ roll history, ” Billy Idol declared to a recent concert crowd as he introduced drummer Thommy Price. It’s true. Born and raised in the tough, lean and hungry streets of Brooklyn, Thommy got his first gig at a local dance club at the age of ten, and he’s worked steadily ever since. That adds up to 17 years of rock ‘n’ roll drumming, making him a bonafide veteran at only 27.
Thommy Price is a straight-ahead kind of guy. He looks at you, straight ahead, with kind, clear blue eyes. He’s mostly self-taught as a drummer, relying on his instincts when he’s behind the drums, and you get the feeling that he’s always handled his life off stage that same way. Anchoring the energized poetry of Billy Idol, he sledgehammers his drums with the awesome power and commanding stage presence of one of the most aggressive drummers in all rock ‘n’ roll. He is perpetually on attack, crouching low as he rips and slashes at his cymbals. Then, leaping to his feet, he grabs them in a headlock with both hands and wrestles them to silence, like a lion finishing off its prey. Every once in a while, he’ll deftly twirl his drumsticks, then send one soaring high above, to the audience’s breathless delight. And to show you he can do it all, if the mood is right, he’ll fill an open space with the precision and clarity of a jazz or classical master. But for the most part, Thommy’s a warrior in the front lines—a no-frills, soul and guts show of force. And in conversation, he pulls no punches—no cute “smile for the camera” verbal tricks. He’s as honest a talker as he is a drummer— always positive, always optimistic—straight ahead.
I first interviewed Thommy backstage at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey—a blue-collar, rock ‘n’ roll town. He was there for two grueling marathon days and nights of videotaping the title cut from Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell album. It’s a straightforward, close-up camera presentation of the incredibly tight band performing for a live audience of pumped-up, “just got lucky” kids who were picked up off the street hours before.
Here was a new side to rock ‘n’ roll drumming, a new demand on the reserves of energy and concentration needed to make it in the big time—video drummer. Makeup girls, sponge in hand, dab at your face every hour or two. Someone’s adjusting the fringe on your vest; it was out of place on the last take. Five people armed with cameras swarm at you like bees, within inches of your nose. The director wants you to stare directly into the camera just after you crash the cymbals near the end of the song. Worst of all is the waiting—waiting for the video crew to get the lights just right, waiting for the stagehands to show up to move some equipment, waiting in the dressing rooms between the endless takes, waiting for hours not even knowing what you’re waiting for. Nobody told you that you would have lo be an actor too, when you first banged away on your drums as a kid, dreaming about playing live on stage before thousands. Now it’s mostly you and the camera crew, acting out the same song in perfect time to the recording, over and over again.
But Thommy doesn’t seem to mind it all too much. He has chosen to be a rock ‘n’ roll drummer, and video is now part of it. Even when the director declared it a wrap at 1:00 A.M. on the second night, then changed his mind minutes later and called the band back from the dressing room for one last take, Thommy just smiled and stood up, ready to go at it again.
Maybe his unflappable attitude is the result of all those 17 years of experience. But even though he’s been in the music business so long, playing everything from jingles to disco to a five-year gig with Mink De Ville and a little more than a year with Scandal in 1982-83, somehow Thommy seems to have really come into his own with Billy Idol. The sense of excitement was palpable both in the audience and backstage as the band gave all they had for the “Rebel Yell” video and then plugged in for a spontaneous live concert for the fans when the taping was done. Billy Idol is happening in 1984, and his new thunder and lightning drummer is a significant part of it.
And it was more of the same when I saw Thommy at the Capitol again a month later, this time at a sold-out concert performance. After the show, we continued our conversation, and Mike “Moto” Malvasio, Thommy’s drum roadie, joined in with some interesting comments on Thommy’s personal style and technical setup.
CF: Thommy, the last time we talked, you were going into the studio to do the drum work for Scandal’s album. Now you’ve joined Billy Idol, and everybody’s talking about the powerful, thundering drums on the Rebel Yell album and the strong impact they’ve made on Billy Idol’s sound. It’s all happened fast. How did the change in bands come about?
TP: When I was working at Electric Lady for Scandal’s album, we were in the downstairs studio. Billy’s group was upstairs working on Rebel Yell, and they were having trouble getting the right drummer. The drummer had to play along with a LinnDrum and get the timing right, of course, but at the same time sound natural, like he wasn’t thinking about the Linn. And no one was able to do that.
MM: And we had tons of drummers coming in from all over— good drummers with names you would recognize. But it was strange to see; they just couldn’t work with Linn. Everybody was starting to get kind of uptight. We were spending a lot of studio time trying to find the right drummer.
TP: Then Michael Frondelli, the engineer on Rebel Yell, heard that I was in the other studio. Michael’s a good friend of mine—we’d worked together at Electric Lady on a few records—and he asked me to come up and try playing. Billy wasn’t even in the studio at the time; it was just the producer, Keith Forsey, Steve Stevens the guitarist, and Steve Webster on bass. So I just went up there. The first song we did was “Blue Highway.” I sat down, put on the headphones, and we got the song in two takes!
CF: What exactly did you have in your headphones while you were playing?
TP: I had the Linn, which was programmed like a Cabasa, a hi-hat, and a cowbell; Steve Stevens and Steve Webster both playing live; and my own drums.
CF: Did the Linn pose any problems at all for you?
TP: None whatsoever. It helped me.
TP: Well, it kept me right on line. It was programmed with an easy, swing sort of timing that was very comfortable to play to.
CF: What problems did the other drummers have?
TP: They couldn’t make it sound on line; they couldn’t play along with it and still keep a human feel. They probably focused in on the Linn for time, excluding the band and the feel of the song.
CF: They couldn’t play off it; they played with it?
TP: Exactly. And I just fell right into it. I kind of fell in between the cracks. I would still listen to the band and really didn’t have to think about the Linn for timing, because my timing is pretty good. All I had to think about was the feeling of the song.
MM: I’ve worked with a lot of drummers, both in concert performances and in the studio, and Thommy can hold time with the best of them, with or without the Linn.
CF: It sounds like they were using the Linn in the same function as a click track.
TP: Yes, but without that annoying “CLICK, CLICK, CLICK.” The studio click track is really aggravating. It sounds like someone knocking at your door, or like Chinese water torture. And sometimes when you can’t hear it and they crank it up, it goes right through your head. But with the Linn, it’s quite comfortable. They can crank it all the way up, and it’s like hearing a real hi-hat or Cabasa.
CF: Actually, then, to you this is a case of one electronic studio device, the LinnDrum, improving on another, the click track, and coming up with something more acceptable and more natural to the musician.
TP: Definitely. When a guitarist and a bassist, for example, are playing along with a Linn, it doesn’t sound like they’re playing with a click track. It sounds like they’re playing along with real drums, without thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to be right on this click.” In recording most of the songs on the Rebel Yell album, we used the basic LinnDrum program I described for timing, knowing that it would be taken out in the final mix. Then sometimes other Linn textures were over dubbed in, as on the title song, “Rebel Yell,” for instance. With a few songs, like “Crank Call,” we didn’t use the Linn at all. Then “Flesh For Fantasy” is all Linn, and it sounds great on that song.
CF: Apparently you’re not intimidated by the Linn.
TP: No, not at all. It’s great. Some players are afraid it’s going to take over their jobs, like factory workers who get paranoid that robots will take over theirs. But that will never happen. The sound of the Linn is amazing, and it can be used to get some interesting effects, but it doesn’t sound human. There’s no human swing to it. A LinnDrum is like any machine. It has its advantages and its disadvantages.
CF: So you were the drummer who could give what was needed for Rebel Yell. Did you work on both albums at the same time, then?
TP: Yes. I’d be doing Scandal’s record in the downstairs studio, and then as soon as there was a break in the action, I’d run upstairs and play a few tracks on Billy’s record, then run downstairs and finish up a few tracks for Scandal, then run back upstairs again! [laughs] And it was like that for two weeks.
CF: That must have been hectic.
TP: Oh, that was only the beginning. After the albums, even though I had recorded the drum parts for Rebel Yell, I was still definitely with Scandal. Then Billy’s group had some sort of trouble with their drummer and they called me to play some gigs on the East Coast in late ’83. So I toured with them for about a month and then did some other gigs with Scandal. It was a wild two-month period. Sometimes I didn’t know if I was coming or going. Sometimes I was doing both at once. It was l i k e leading two lives! The craziest night was New Year’s Eve. I ushered in 1984 with Billy on the MTV New Year’s Eve special, which took place at the Savoy in midtown Manhattan. Our set started at 11:30 and ended at about 12:30. Then as soon as I finished that set, I had to jump in the limo and get through New York traffic, on New Year’s Eve yet, all the way downtown to the Ritz, where I had a gig with Scandal that started at 1:30. The whole midtown area was completely closed off to traffic because of the thousands of people who gather around Times Square waiting for the ball—or is it the apple?—to drop at midnight. So the driver had to go in a big square instead of just driving through town, and it took an hour to go 30 blocks. In the meantime, Moto had to rush down to make sure that I had another drumset ready and waiting for me. What a night that was! I haven’t really been right since! [laughs] It was right after New Year’s that I decided to stay with Billy.
CF: Can you say what helped you make that decision?
TP: It was being on the road, playing the concerts with Billy’s band, the comradeship, the excitement of the live performances, and the music. This is what I really want to do. That’s it in a nutshell. It’s what I feel strongly about playing now, at this point in my life. A year ago, I was really into Scandal—into that kind of rock ‘n’ roll, which is a lot lighter. And it’s still great. I love their music. But my tastes sort of changed, and playing with Billy gives me a little bit more. I can use everything I have now, not only my power, but everything. I don’t have to hold anything back.
CF: You had to hold back a little with the other groups you’ve played with?
TP: Well—yeah, probably. I might have, yes. My real rock ‘n’ roll playing couldn’t come out. I couldn’t growl. Maybe it wasn’t so much holding back as not going to the limit.
CF: To the danger zone.
TP: [laughs] To the danger zone! And Billy gives me a lot of space. The drums are prominent. It’s definitely a part of the new record. The mark of Price is there. And playing live, I have the freedom to change a lot of the parts on the songs, instead of just sticking to the same things every night. I don’t go by the book anymore, at all. I’m free. Of course I have to keep the basic thing happening, but I fool around with it and try different parts, so I don’t get bored.
MM: But when Thommy does something new, he doesn’t interrupt the flow of the song. If they want to do something new, a lot of drummers will throw in something that’s way out and doesn’t fit in with the song.
CF: A tour deforce.
MM: Right. Thommy tries new things every night, but they fit. It’s intuitive with him.
TP: Well, the other band members pick up on what I’m doing, too, without me saying a thing. There’s a lot of free interplay, and it’s happened fast to us. It’s just going to get better, because the more we play these songs, the more we really feel free to change things from the way they are on the record.
CF: Do you do that together as a group?
TP: Yeah. When we go to a soundcheck before we play, instead of just doing a soundcheck, we fool around to come up with something new—try things out to keep it interesting. After all, the fans already know what’s on the record. They want to hear something different. They can handle i t . And we even tear up the list of songs, sometimes, in the middle of a performance. The other night we did “L. A. Woman” for an encore—spontaneously, with no rehearsal—and it came off great.
CF: It’s good when you feel confident enough to move away from the record version, and abandon the formulas and the set patterns. Some groups seem to sell the public short. It’s like they get hardening of the arteries.
TP: They play it too safe, and they get rigid. I guess they’re afraid their fans will leave if they change, so they don’t take the chances.
CF: You’ve got to take chances.
TP: You do. Otherwise, you’ll probably go crazy. Even in Scandal, the guys were a little afraid to go a little bit out. They always wanted to stay with what was on the record and stick to the formula. There’s nothing wrong with changing a little bit here and there, keeping it interesting, and keeping us interested, especially after you’ve been on tour for nine months, playing the same songs every night with no changes at all. Forget about it!
CF: And don’t you think being willing to change is going to give a band more longevity?
TP: Absolutely. I f you stick to the same thing, the rest of the world is bound to pass you by. Hey, but don’t get me wrong. I had a good thing with Scandal. It was hard to leave them. I spent some restless nights making up my mind. But this thing with Billy is what I really want to do. That’s what it comes down to. And the people with Scandal really understood that; they were very gracious. They saw that I belonged with this band. That’s a hard thing to admit sometimes, but they handled my moving on with nothing but class.
CF: So that meant you didn’t have to leave with a heavy heart.
TP: Exactly. They just made it real easy for me to call them up and say, “Look, this is what’s happening.”
CF: Let’s break away from your recent history. How did you get started on drums?
TP: I grew up in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn—a tough, blue-collar, Irish and Italian neighborhood. I don’t remember when I actually started playing. I was always banging on furniture, walls, whatever. It just came naturally to me. I was tearing the house down, so my parents bought me some drums when I was about seven or eight. I loved it. I played on them day and night.
CF: Did you take lessons?
TP: No. Well, I took a few, just to learn how to read, when I was about ten, after my mother said, “Maybe you should go for lessons if you’re so serious about the drums.” But I liked learning from records. I didn’t really want to know too much about technique because I was really having a good time learning the way I was learning. And then when I had to sit in this little room in the local music school with this guy trying to teach me how to read, I was really bored. So after a while, I would take the 15 dollars and go to the movies! [laughs]
CF: Did your mother find out?
TP: Yeah, she used to call up the music store and check up on me. “Hey, Tony, is my son there?” Actually, though, it was from the music school that my first group was formed. They’d take the best guitar player from a class, the best drummer, and so on, and they would form a group. So the school got four of us kids together and sponsored us. It was great. We called ourselves The Tablets. And we performed in this place in Brooklyn which is now called 2001. It’s where they filmed Saturday Night Fever. We would play there every Saturday afternoon opening for this all-girl band called The Butterflies. It was great to be playing in front of an audience every week, when I was still a ten-year-old kid in grade school. Then, as we grew up together—we were about 14—we started playing in other places in Brooklyn.
CF: What kind of music did you play?
TP: It was all guitar instrumentals—Venture’s songs, like “Walk, Don’t Run” and “Pipeline.” After a while, I started singing, because no one else wanted to. They were all too shy. And at that time, I was really getting into The Young Rascals. It was actually from Dino Danelli that I developed a lot of my style. Everybody in those days was listening to the Beatles and the Stones. I was too, but for me, it was The Young Rascals. In those days, you never heard a drummer play so powerfully! God, I remember when I first heard Dino on record; it was like, listen to this guy! I couldn’t believe it. I could picture this drummer really playing hard in the studio, really going for it, and just the simplicity of his drumming! The great thing about him was that he knew technical stuff; he did technical fills once in a while. But then other times, like in the song “Lonely Too Long,” he just really laid right into it and played real hard, simple, and solid. And those were the songs I related to—”Good Lovin’,” “People Gotta Be Free,” “Mickey’s Monkey.” I also liked The Young Rascals because they sounded black, and I was really into R & B records—that heavy Motown drum sound.
I remember how in those early days my drummer friends would ask, “Who are you into? Who’s your favorite besides Dino?” But I never really studied him, like a kid will take, say, John Bonham, and really cop his style. I’d listen to a lot of drummers and maybe take a little from one and little from another, but it would still always be me. I’ve always strived for originality.
I’m still a big fan of Dino, though. I always carry the old Young Rascals tapes with me on the road. George Sewitt, our road manager, was the Young Rascals’ road manager for years. Every once in a while when we’re on the road, I’ll sit down on the bus with him and say, “George, give me a little more information on Dino.”
CF: Did you ever meet him?
TP: I always wanted to meet him, and it was a year ago that I actually got to work with him in the studio on an album for a new artist known as “Steven C.” Dino played on about half of the tracks and I played on the rest.
CF: It must have been like a childhood dream.
TP: [eyes lighting up] Forget about it! And he’s still amazing—just as good as he ever was. Judi Dozier, our keyboard player, used to play with Dino. Now he’s the drummer with Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul.
CF: The first time I saw you play, I had a feeling you came from a working-class background. You’re a worker on the drums—gutsy, nothing overly intellectual. Can you see how coming from Brooklyn shaped your style?
TP: I don’t know; it makes you streetwise, gives you that street sense. It gives you your attitude and that’s in me. That’s part of my whole trip. They can’t take it away from me. I come from people who work hard for a living, who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, who speak their minds plainly, and who can carry the heavy load. In Brooklyn I learned about struggle, about toughness, and about enjoying life. If that comes out in my drumming, I guess it all started in Brooklyn.
CF: What happened after Brooklyn?
TP: Well, I moved out to Staten Island when I was a teenager. It was incredible. I met a lot of musicians out there, including Kasim Sulton, the bass player with Todd Rundgren—I grew up with Kasim—Earl Slick, Sandy Gennaro, Frankie LaRocka—he’s with Bryan Adams now—Tommy Morriengiello, who’s with Ian Hunter, Joey Vasta, Jr., the bassist with Mink DeVille, and David Johansen. We were all out of the same mold. Then I graduated high school and went right out on the road with a band. There was no doubt in my mind what I wanted to do. I stayed out about six months on the road. I’d be driving the truck, because I was the son of a truck driver and the only one who knew how to drive a stickshift. It was hard. I was only 17, and it was my first time away from my family. It was like, “Okay, let’s make a man out of him, or let him sink!”
CF: And did your family support you during all that?
TP: All the way. They always supported me. They were always right in back of me. My father was so great. He never let me down. I had a lot of friends in Brooklyn who wanted to play drums, and their folks would say, “Oh, it’s just a fad. You’ll get over it.”
CF: Get a real job.
TP: Yeah, get a real job. But it was never like that with my father. He was a big part of making me feel that I could make it, and of giving me my self-confidence.
CF: That’s rare.
TP: It is. Definitely. When all my friends’ folks were hounding them to “make something of themselves,” they would only put maybe 25% or 50% into their playing. And that’s all they got back—only what they put into it. But I always had this feeling that, if I put everything into it—100%—and I believed in it, something was going to happen.
CF: It sounds almost like Pollyanna, but it’s true.
TP: Yeah, I know. I always believed that was what did it for me. Everything I had I put into it. Probably the reason I feel so positive about what I’m doing now goes back to my family. They always said, “If you want to try to make it as a drummer, do it. And if it happens, fine. If it doesn’t happen, at least you tried. You know you gave it your best shot.” It must be terrible to be 50 years old, and look back and wish you’d had the guts to try. God, there are times when I wonder what I’d be doing now if I hadn’t become a drummer. I don’t know. I hate to say it, but so many of my friends didn’t make it. I come from a real bad neighborhood in Brooklyn. All of my old friends are either in Bellevue or dead from overdoses. But I was the lucky one. I’ve got to thank my folks for helping me develop the courage and the confidence to survive the odds.
CF: What happened next after your first road experience?
TP: Well, I stayed with that band until I was about 19, but it was a top-40 band and I wanted to do something different. So I quit that and started doing jingles—playing on commercials.
CF: How did you get into that?
TP: There was a friend of mine from Staten Island whose father was a producer for jingles, and he just got me in one day. They needed a drummer for some army commercials, so I did a bunch of army commercials, a Burger King commercial . . . [Billy Idol, overhearing this tidbit, laughs, curls his lip, and bursts into a chorus of “Have it your way, have it your way. “] I only did a few jingles, actually, but it was really beneficial because that was what introduced me to the studio, which is a whole different thing from live playing. And from the studio, I met a whole new group of people—producers, engineers—all those other outside people. An entirely new world opened up. It was then that I worked with a Brooklyn group called Flame, and we did a record for RCA which Jimmy lovine produced. I did some other things with Jimmy—a D. L. Byron record, some stuff for the score of the movie Times Square, some work with The Motors. And then just from working with Jimmy, I met whole new circles of people and started doing all kinds of things.
CF: Can you characterize the work you did in the studio at that time?
TP: A broad range of music. I did a few songs for that guy Sylvester, who did hard-core disco. I played on German artist Udo Lindenberg’s No Panic On The Titanic. He’s very hot in Europe. I played for Ronnie Spector and Tom Verlane, did some country & western, and a lot of other things.
CF: You seem to be an easy-to-get-along-with guy, which could explain why people want you. No star trips for you.
TP: No star trips. You’ve got to work with people. You just can’t go into the studio with an attitude. It’s my job. Why am I going to screw up my job?
CF: So it doesn’t bother you if you’re not playing your favorite kind of music?
TP: Well, it’s not like putting me to work in a lumberyard or something. I’m still playing the drums. I’m still making a living by what I do best. There have been some demos or a few things I played on that I didn’t particularly care for, but I never hated anything, and most times things ended up better than they started out. You never know where something will lead to.
CF: You take things as they come.
CF: And apparently things kept coming after those early days in the studio. Can you summarize your list of credits between then and Scandal?
TP: Well, I toured with Mink DeVille on and off for almost five years, from about 1978 to about 1982; I did two albums with him, Le Chat Bleu and Coup de Grace. During that same period, I toured and recorded two albums with the singer Helen Schneider. And I toured with Robert Gordon for a good part of 1982. Those were the main things.
CF: Billy Idol is a bold and dynamic performer, as much in the tradition of the theater as rock ‘n’ roll. With him, you’ve moved into a synthesis of rock with theater, with the costumes, the makeup, and the stage effects. Do you feel comfortable with that?
TP: Yeah, I like it. You have to do something different from the everyday. That’s what the stage is for. You might as well use it, you know. And I guess I’ve got a little of the ham in me. I like to throw my drumsticks in the air. It’s fun. And I like to sing. I did all the background vocals for Scandal, and I’ll do some with Billy.
It’s true that theater and rock are merging. You could see it in early precedents like Alice Cooper and David Bowie. Now with the impact of video, it’s really accelerating. Some groups are building really elaborate sets, trying to duplicate backgrounds in their videos, and taking them out on the road. And the audiences seem to love all the theatrics; they love to see someone like Steve Stevens cavorting around the stage. He can play, no doubt about that, and he’s fun to watch. Why not? I guess they figure, if we’re just going to stand there and play, they can stay home and listen to the record. Theatrics are frosting on the cake. We don’t let them get in the way of our playing. But I really like watching the audiences enjoy the show. You can feel they’re into it.
CF: How do you feel about all the makeup they put on you for the video?
TP: It’s a pain in the ass. [laughs] For the concerts, I just put a little makeup on myself. I do it real fast. And it’s off by the second song, anyway. I sweat it all off.
CF: When the close-up cameras were on you for the video, were they telling you how to act or to make certain gestures?
TP: Yes. Like on the part right before the chorus where the drum has a little buildup, the director told me just to exaggerate it a little, look out toward the camera and grimace a little more.
CF: Could that affect your playing at other times, having thought consciously about how you looked during a videotaping, for hours on end?
TP: No, I don’t think so. When I play live, I always let my feelings and the music take over, and let it happen. Anyway, what they sometimes make you do in videos is uncomfortable. You wouldn’t naturally do things their way. But that’s how it has gone in every video I’ve worked on. The direct or takes over. The director’s job is to tell you how to act, so you go along with it. Often you get directors who are used to making feature-length movies and to working with actors. But they’re not working with actors; they’re working with musicians. They want you to do certain things sometimes that are just physically impossible. They don’t realize i t . Even if you’re only “drum-syncing” to the record, you still have to hold time, and you can’t stand on your head simultaneously. Do you know what I mean? If you sweat while you’re playing, you still have to sweat. You’re not an actor. You’re a musician. And it’s hard sometimes to be both. But you can handle it, as long as you know who you are and you don’t forget it.
I guess it could happen someday that someone would be cut out of a drumming job because that drummer doesn’t act as well as another, even though the original drummer plays as well, or better than the other. But I hope not. I don’t mind doing videos, as long as it’s only two or three a year, [laughs] But the music is always what I’m here for.
CF: I never realized what an ordeal video-making must be for the musicians.
TP: Oh, the “Rebel Yell” one hasn’t been too bad. So far the worst that’s happened is my wife Debbie noticed this morning that the hairs on the back of my neck have been singed off from the hot lights they had behind me. I thought it was getting pretty hot back there! I remember the “Love’s Got A Line On You” video I did with Scandal. There we were, standing out in the freezing cold at four o’clock in the morning, still trying to look cool after they’d had us taping for 22 hours straight. Now that was an ordeal!
CF: With all the types of stresses you’re subjected to as a professional drummer—the traveling, the late hours, the videos—how do you manage to take care of your health?
TP: I try to stay healthy. I take vitamins, especially since I sometimes can’t eat right on the road. Sometimes I just don’t have the time. But nowadays we’re all trying to take better care of ourselves, musicians included. To die young at 27—it’s already been done, you know. It’s in to be straight. You can act as crazy as you want on stage, but that’s just on stage. Musicians are really taking care of their health more. And wanting to live a long life is nothing to be ashamed of.
MM: Thommy doesn’t drink or anything else before a show. Even on New Year’s Eve he didn’t have a drink. On stage, he drinks water. That’s it. And really, it’s hard to be in his shoes at a show, when you see a bunch of people you know and everyone’s partying and having a good time, and you’re sitting there drinking water. It’s got to be hard.
CF: Thommy, what do you do to prepare yourself before a show?
TP: I like to rest. A lot of drummers have their practice pads, and I used to do that—the rudiments, with the real heavy drumsticks, 3B’s or something—like a baseball player warming up with two bats. I even used to have one of those Remo drumpad setups when I was with Mink DeVille that I would set up in the dressing room. But then people started to get really annoyed, [laughs]
CF: Is that why you stopped warming up before a show?
TP: No. When you’re on the road, you’re playing almost every night, and the last thing you want to do—the last thing I want to do, anyway—is sit there and play before I go on. I’m warmed up by the first or second song anyway.
MM: Also, Thommy, if you warmed up for half an hour every night, your arms would already have half an hour’s mileage on them when you started the set. When Thommy goes on stage, the first half hour of the set is his first half hour of playing that night. So he’s still got it in him. That’s what probably gets him through all those nights of banging away without tiring.
CF: What you’re both saying is, “Why run five miles before a marathon?”
TP: Exactly. Another thing that happens is, not too often, but sometimes before a show I’ll get a little uptight. Actually, I get the most nervous, not when I’m playing in front of thousands of people, but when I’m playing with my family there. I’ll find myself in the dressing room with a set of drumsticks, and I’m just holding them or tapping them on my knees or something.
CF: Looking at your hands, I see you’ve got layer upon layer upon layer of calluses. Does a hard-hitting drummer like you have to play with pain?
TP: Well, a lot of drummers wear gloves, but these are like gloves to me. [laughs] What’s weird about these calluses is that, even though I’ve had them ever since I’ve been playing, if I take off for two weeks they’ll start to go away. And as soon as I start to play again, I’ll be in pain. Also, I’ve had a few problems with my back. I think that’s an occupational hazard with drummers. I used to see a chiropractor about five years ago, but I don’t anymore; my back is pretty good now. Part of the problem was that I always used to sit really low at my drums, with my back hunched over. Then it seemed that, no matter what I did and no matter where I went, I was hunched over. Then it got worse when I got this enormous drumset, and there was no way I was going to get at any of the drums sitting way down on the floor like I was. I was going for these drums and asking [jumps up, lunges way out with his arm], “Why isn’t this stick reaching that cymbal?” So I lifted the seat up high, stretched my legs out, and sat up straighter when I played.
CF: Do you think that it could have been more than playing comfort that brought you out from behind the drums? Maybe you were getting more confidence; maybe you felt you belonged there, sitting up a little higher on stage.
TP: Maybe. It could be. I remember thinking, “Hey, people are actually out there!” Before, with all those big drums in front of me, no one could see me.
CF: Could you briefly describe Thommy’s present drum setup, Moto?
MM: It’s pretty basic. All his drums are Premier. On the bass drum there’s a 24″ head, and we use a white Ambassador batter. We use a felt beater, not a wood one. We use a 14″ snare with a Pinstripe head. We have 13″ and 14″ rack toms, and a 16″ and an 18″ on the floor. On the bottom of all four toms we use white Ambassador batters, and on the tops we use clear Ambassador batters. They’re thin heads. They sound good, especially live, but because they’re thin, they dent and we have to change them almost every day. For miking, we use Shure SM-57s. The snare is miked from the top and also the bottom to get a more deep-sounding pop. The cymbals are Zildjian. We have a 22″ ride and two 18″ crashes, one on the left and one on the right, and 14″ hi-hats. And we’ve just added two Pangs, an 18″ and a 20″, on the right. I polish the cymbals every night. I do the tuning for Thommy, and as I said, I have to change the heads every day or at least every other day. When I put the heads on, I tighten them up by hand, and then I turn each lug around one or two times. Then I always stand on the heads and jump up and down on them before I tune them. That stretches out the head and cracks the bead around the rim so it doesn’t happen in the middle of the show and change the sound. I got the idea when I was working in a club and I asked this sound guy, who weighed 350 pounds, to stand on a bass drum. I figured, if he doesn’t go through it, I won’t go through it. I weigh 155 pounds and I’ve been standing on drumheads for seven years now. For the first time, last week, I went through one. But it was a faulty head, so that was good because it probably wouldn’t have lasted through the night.
CF: What about sticks, Thommy?
TP: I just started using new sticks, 5B Regal Tips. I was using 5A’s for a long time, but I switched because I always wound up using the butt ends of the 5A’s. I decided, why not just use the right end of the heavier stick? Plus, whenever they send us a gross of sticks, we’re always picking out the darker ones, which are from the harder, heavier heart of the wood, so now we ask for the darker ones.
CF: Your pink drums have become a part of your signature, haven’t they?
TP: Yes, I’m the guy with the pink drums. That all came about in England when I was with Mink DeVille and Premier approached me to do an endorsement. I saw their colors and said, “Let’s do something wild.” Pink went with Mink DeVille’s pink and black, ’50s staging, so they made me some pink drums. Now it’s become part of my thing, and it’s great. All musicians need to carve out their own styles, to find things that single them out as individuals, both visually and sound-wise. And now it’s funny. I’ll show up at a gig and someone will come up to me and ask, “Where do I know you from? I know those drums.” Not me—my drums!
CF: Have you ever tried any of the new drums, like the Simmons, for instance?
TP: I rented a set for about four days once, but they didn’t do much for me. Maybe I have to learn more about them. And just last week Moto and I tried two Simmons pads. There’s a part in “Rebel Yell” where, when we’re doing it live, Moto does a buildup on two toms miked up behind me. And I figured that if we could get the Simmons to sound better than those toms, we should do it. But they didn’t even come close to those real drums.
CF: When you hit the cymbals, you’re more of a ripper and a slasher. Instead of crashing down with the sticks, you often rip up from under. Why do you do that?
TP: It looks good, [laughs] Yeah, I usually crash the cymbals down on my left hand and go up on my right. It’s for the visual effect; it’s showmanship. The sound is the same.
CF: Let’s talk about your approach to drumming. Seeing you play live with the Billy Idol band, I’m impressed first with the tightness of the group and second with the sense of confidence and power that you radiate as the drummer. How would you describe your function in the band?
TP: Probably as the engine. I’m the motor. I’m not bragging, but I think the problem they had in the band before I got in was that they didn’t have a drummer strong enough to really push the guys—someone who could leave them free to play without worrying about the drums. With the drums on line, they can do their thing. A player like Steve Stevens is like a balloon free-flying off into space. And I’m the string, anchoring him down on the ground. With that security, he can just take off and not get lost. I hit rock solid. I just lay it down—lay right into the beat, heart and soul, powerful and simple. Simplicity is sometimes the best, you know. I’d rather hear a drummer play a fill that’s simple and allow some space in a song: leave that hole instead of saying, “Oh, there’s a hole. I’ve got to fill it.” The space is there for a reason. Why not leave some room for a few seconds? To me that makes more sense.
CF: There are a few who might belittle you for your simplicity and your rock-solid style of drumming. They might say, “Look at Stewart Copeland and at Neil Peart; look at all the fancy stuff they do.” How would you answer that?
TP: Well, I’d probably tell them to go out and get somebody like Stewart Copeland. I love Stewart Copeland. As a matter of fact, he came to see me backstage just the other night. But I know who I am and so do other people. That’s why I get hired for the things I do. They wouldn’t hire me for a Stewart Copeland record. They hire me to be Thommy Price. I’m not going to change for anyone. I don’t want to. I don’t have to.
CF: I think I know how you’re going to answer this, but I’ll ask anyway: How do you feel about drum solos?
TP: [big grimace] They’re boring. I hate them. I hate them. I hate listening to them, [laughs]
CF: And you’re a drummer.
TP: Yeah. But I really despise drum solos.
CF: So obviously you don’t do drum solos in your concerts.
TP: Oh, I’ve done them.
TP: Well, because we had to fill up a lot of time!’ ‘Thommy, go out and do a ten-minute drum solo!” Oooh. [moans as if in agony]
CF: So you’d rather go to the dentist?
TP: DENTIST? DENTIST? Would I rather go to the dentist? Oh, definitely! I’d rather have those drills going on my teeth—definitely.
CF: It seems many times that I hear a drum solo that shows off the drummer’s technical skill, but in the context of the music, it doesn’t make sense.
TP: Well, some of them actually do make sense. I’ve seen Mickey Curry from Hall & Oates do a drum solo that was incredible, only because it was so simple; it was really funky. I mean the guy’s got chops and he’s a great drummer, but in the solo he played funky and lean. I watched him every night for three weeks last summer when Scandal was touring with Hall & Oates, and the kind of solos that he did were the kind that I would do if, if . . .
CF: If somebody forced you to do a solo.
CF: Are you satisfied with your progress as a drummer?
TP: Well, yes. I never feel like I’m standing still. I feel like I’m getting better and growing all the time. I listen to records I did in the past and I can see where I’ve learned things since then and where I’ve branched out.
CF: Give me an example.
TP: Well, there’s a song we do in concert called “Shooting Stars,” and there are a few sort of ska-type feels that I’ve recently tried on the Pangs, off the beat. And I know Stewart Copeland opened me up to that. There’s always more to learn. I try to soak everything in. If I had time, I’d learn how to read better. It would help my songwriting. I’d learn how to play the piano. Right now I only know the guitar, besides the drums. Mentally, I’m ready to go in and do a project on my own. I’d like to learn a few more things, technically. But it’s not that far away. I talked to a friend last night about doing a solo album. And I know when I finally do go in on my own, it’s still going to be the first try at it—the outline. And the next time I’ll improve on that. It can always get better; that’s always the case.
CF: Besides contemplating a solo project, have you ever thought of fronting your own band?
TP: Yeah, I’d love to. That’s the ultimate, for every musician.
CF: If you were to imagine the Thommy Price Band, what would it sound like?
TP: Oh, describing it in terms of a sound you’ve heard, I guess it would be like Phil Collins—like the Face Value album. That album is a lot different from early Genesis albums. That’s when I really started getting into his simplicity and the way he lays right into the groove and plays with a lot of soul—primitive. I like the way the drums are a big part of the arrangement. I like that whole kind of thing that’s real moody, real hypnotic, mesmerizing, repeating itself like a chant.
CF: That’s really the basis of drumming, that repetitive rhythm that gets inside you and takes over, like in ancient tribal rituals.
TP: That’s what I try to do in my songwriting—to build that kind of rhythm, that kind of groove. But you know, when I try to talk about other drummers, I don’t really care to analyze them, technically. I can tell you how they make me feel—how they affect my emotions—because when I listen to a record, I listen to the drums, but I really don’t listen to the drums, if you know what I mean. I listen to the music. I want to feel the sound, not analyze it. It’s the same when I’m in the studio and I want to learn a song. Instead of them putting a chart in front of me and me trying to understand it, I’d rather try to understand the song: try to understand what the lyrics are about, try to understand where the changes are, try to feel the song more than read the song, and try to play it from the heart.
CF: You talk a lot about feelings, emotions, and playing from the heart. I’ve just realized that I’ve spoken to you for hours, and the subject of money has never come up. That’s almost unheard of in the 1980s! You’re really not in it for the money, are you?
TP: No. I haven’t gotten to that point, and I don’t think I ever will. If I were only in it for the money, I would just continue to move on. Just a few weeks ago, another group took me to dinner and said, “We’ll pay you double what Billy’s giving you.” I’m not making any more money now than I was making with Scandal. Not really. But I moved on because of the music. I love the music I’m doing now. I could make tons more money than I make now. I could stay in New York all year ’round and get double-and-a-half scale for doing records and other studio work—grab some fast money, work that 9 to 5, go in the studio every day, knock out about 47,000 jingles, and go home. I’ve done it before, when I really needed the money. But I always feel like I’m cheating myself. I like being a part of a group; I like performing for people all over the world. That’s what it’s all about.
CF: You’re one of the most confident, positive-thinking musicians I’ve met. Does anything get you down?
TP: Being away from my wife, when I’m on the road—being away from my home. My wife is very supportive and understanding. We’ve been together for six or seven years, and we’ve really merged. We were complete opposites when we met. She was a biochemist, and I was the lunatic drummer. I talk to her almost every day when I’m on tour. She’s my contact with reality. When we’ve got guards posted by our hotel rooms, and everyone wants to meet us, and everything gets crazy, she reminds me that I’m still the same Thommy Price who goes to the laundromat back home on Staten Island.
CF: I’m sure it’s exciting for you to be right in the center of a rock group rising to real prominence. And it seems you’ve had a large measure of success before this; you’ve always had a gig for the last 17 years. It could dry up for a little while someday. It happens to the best of them. Did you ever consider how you might handle that?
TP: Yeah…it would be tough. I’ve been very lucky so far. It would be tough. Well, I know the studio’s always there, but…I could really appreciate the opportunity to concentrate more on my songwriting. Now, I just do a little on the bus and little in my hotel room—bits and pieces. It would be good to have time to write and learn. You know what I’d like to do? Someday I’d like to work with wood. My grandfather was a carpenter, and I used to go down to his basement as a little kid and fool around.
CF: He was pounding, too—right? Only with a hammer instead of drumsticks.
TP: Yeah. It all goes back to that. I suppose I’m just doing my own variation on that—a different groove, a little more creative. That’s actually what I’d do; I’d love to work with wood like he did. He’d build these amazing grandfather clocks out of pianos [stops to think]. Now you’ve really got me going! It was those clocks and the way they kept time, so beautifully, with the pendulum and all, that always fascinated me so much.
CF: Another tie-in with the drumming—the timekeeper.
TP: Yes. It’s so funny, when you think of it, how your past can shape your future, and you don’t even realize what’s happening to you at the time. I guess I was “in training” to be a drummer from the very beginning.
Billy Idol on Thommy Price
Thommy has added so much to the group, in many ways that I can’t even put into words. Of course, during the making of Rebel Yell, after we tried for three months to find the right drummer, Thommy just about saved us by the skin of our teeth. Without him, we certainly couldn’t have done the album to the same degree of satisfaction. I’ve been looking, ever since I came from England, for the kind of drummer I love—one who can play rock ‘n’ roll, but with a modern rhythm, a modern heavy style; one who can handle what’s needed for modern rock ‘n’ roll drumming, which is to be fast, but without overplaying—to be simple. Charlie Watts is kind of like that, and Thommy Price is one of the few others that I’ve known. He whacks it down, and he whacks it down with soul. It’s taken me three years to find him, but now I’ve got a backbone to my group.
We’re a rhythm ‘n’ groove, soul rock ‘n’ roll group. And if I don’t have a drummer with soul playing behind me, how the hell am I supposed to sing like that? But Thommy plays into the groove so great. He’s feeling exactly the way I push with the music, the way I move with it, the way I’m thinking in my mind, and the way the lyrics and the song are. He’s interpreting it as he goes along like I am, even though there’s a framework. Now I’ve got a drummer who understand me—someone who plays music that isn’t just my music; it’s his music. With all that he has behind him as a drummer, and all that he knows and feels about rock ‘n’ roll, Thommy will expand his role in the group; I know he’ll have a hand in the writing from now on.
Most importantly, what Thommy’s helped to add is a future to our group, because without finding the backbone—without finding the right drummer—I haven’t got much of a future as someone who seriously wants to have a band around me and not a bunch of players who change every album or whatever. With a solid drummer like Thommy, I feel like we have a solid future.