It’s been four years since the esteemed ex–Mars Volta drummer began playing in QotSA. Now we’ve been gifted with the multifarious Villains, and at long last we get to hear what he sounds like on a full-length record with the group. What’s immediately clear is that drummer and band push each other to new heights of artistic expression. Perhaps less obvious is the sheer amount of time, effort, dedication, focus, and outside-the-box thinking involved in getting there.
In the mid-2000s, Jon Theodore made a tremendous impact on the drumming community with his playing on the first three studio albums and pair of live releases by the Mars Volta, a progressive-minded heavy rock band that consistently challenged the status quo while establishing global audiences. For many observers, De-Loused in the Comatorium (2003), Frances the Mute (2005), and Amputechture (2006) represented the epitome of modern heavy music at the time—wildly diverse, technically astounding, and emotionally explosive—and Theodore’s drumming was a source of wide-spread praise.
In 2008, after Theodore and the band had reached the end of their creative rope and parted ways, the drummer joined forces with former Rage Against the Machine vocalist Zack de la Rocha in One Day as a Lion, whose self-titled EP balanced fuzzed-out garage-rock keyboards with bombastic beats and de la Rocha’s intense rap-style vocals. Recordings and live work with Giraffe Tongue Orchestra, Puscifer, and Incubus frontman Brandon Boyd followed, and in 2013, the self-proclaimed “unpigeonholeable” drummer found brother-hood with yet another unclassifiable band, Queens of the Stone Age, entering the fold shortly before the band hit the road in support of the multiple-Grammy-nominated album …Like Clockwork. Queens alumnus Dave Grohl had stepped in to help finish that recording after Joey Castillo’s departure, but he couldn’t tour due to his commitments with the Foo Fighters. The first person he recommended to Queens bandleader Josh Homme was Theodore.
The group’s brand-new album, Villains, is an unorthodox collection of songs that are sonically bizarre, genre bending, radio friendly, and somehow still quintessentially Queens. It marks the band’s first full-length album with Theodore, making it one of the most anticipated recordings among QotSA’s many followers—as well as those who have been waiting for years to hear what kind of magic Theodore would bring to a full-scale QotSA release. Neither group will be disappointed.
To Theodore, moments of genuineness are responsible for drawing out technically inspired execution, and indeed his spirit emanates from his grooves, which range from the cavernous to the ridiculous. Theodore plays from the heart, thriving on personal connections between musicians. Modern Drummer explored those connections and much more with the drummer, mere days after Queens of the Stone Age had put the finishing touches on Villains.
MD: Before we dive into Villains, let’s talk about how you first became involved with Queens. Did you know any of the guys prior to joining?
Jon: Yes, Troy [Van Leeuwen, guitarist] and I were neighbors. We had run into each other one time and talked about what we were up to musically. Neither of us had much going on at that particular time, so we started jamming a lot and wrote a bunch of music for the band he has with his wife, Sweethead.
Dave Grohl had recommended me to Josh Homme when Joey Castillo bailed, but I’d been friends with the guys from Queens for a long time, and I’ve always loved to hang with them, so that foundation was already there. When Josh called, I was literally getting off a plane from tour, and he asked me to come down to the studio. He was working on a tune with James Lavelle (UNKLE) down at Pink Duck Studios. We jammed for about a half hour, and it became the song “Like Clockwork.” The record was basically done when we first started talking, so for that to actually make the record was great.
MD: With Villains being the first record you were involved with from its inception, and Josh being both a bandleader and a drummer, how open was he to you doing your own thing?
Jon: There’s a long legacy in Queens. Josh is incredibly hands-on and has a vast knowledge as a producer, drummer, and songwriter. He’s completely present for every step of the process. Every note in the history of Queens has been considered. In terms of production, Josh has very specific ideas, and he’s a great bandleader. He realizes that even though you set goals and have intentions, at a certain point you have to allow the natural process to take its course. He points the ship, but at the end of the day you almost have to release your expectations in order to be successful.
No two ears or brains are the same. So even if you want to dictate something to someone note for note, it will still be perceived and played somewhat differently. I love working with someone who has such a commitment to excellence, because it presents a challenge to deliver. When I normally sit down at the drums, I try to find these expressive places where I’m reacting to the music and to the universe. With Queens, someone else’s ears reframe my natural frame of reference, which inspires me to grow and find places in my own playing that I wouldn’t naturally go toward. And that’s not for everyone, but for me it’s kind of like the difference between a field of grass with a breeze blowing through it versus a bonsai tree.
MD: Drum sounds and drummers play a big part in the Queens legacy too. Dave, Joey, and you are all very physical players, but if the listener doesn’t have that visual frame of reference, the drum sounds are deceptive, because they’re often very dry and direct as opposed to open and boomy. Did you have to tone down your physicality in any way in order to achieve the “Queens” sound on record?
Jon: There’s a clarity in Queens records that’s reminiscent of early ZZ Top records, where it sounds like you’re literally standing right next to the drums. It’s misleading, because without that standard, super-hyped “rock ’n’ roll” drum production, it sounds like a really light touch. But that’s the essence of all the best players—John Bonham comes to mind and certainly Dave Grohl—there’s still headroom. In a live setting, it can be animated and aggressive, but in the studio, it’s not really about how hard you hit. The performance is only audio. Only the microphones are listening. No one’s watching. Precision on record is a fine line between being exact yet fiery and inspired.
The uniqueness of the Queens drum sound comes down to three things. First, it’s the intention in the patterns that develop. This is dance music, so the focus ends up being between the kick and snare. It has to be body rock. That’s the focal point. The second thing is the production of the drums: how they’re mixed and recorded.
The third thing is the actual technique. Josh is the first person I’ve met that overdubs cymbals. I’d never done it before, and it certainly proved to be a great challenge. When you overdub cymbals, you can take the same care over getting a cymbal sound, hi-hat sound, or crash sound that you do to get the right kick or snare sound. You experiment with mic placements and even where the cymbals are placed in the room, so it becomes this heavily considered process. Doing the drums and cymbals separately removes that ocean of white noise that overheads create, allowing the drums to be pushed up to the very front of the mix so they are dense and powerful. Then you have the control to slide the cymbals into the mix to a point where they make sense musically.
MD: How would you describe the drum sounds on Villains?
Jon: I would say it’s like a maxed-out drum machine that’s short-circuiting because it hasn’t slept for two weeks, some beer has spilled on it, and some parts are missing. [laughs] It’s really stripped down, punchy, present, and bizarro. The drums have this dead, low punch that’s really hi-fi but also a little bit busted.
MD: Intention seems to be a recurring theme in how the band writes—musicians composing for other musicians—but the songs always remain accessible.
Jon: We all grew up listening to records, when listening to music was an experience. Sadly, listening to music these days often means holding up your iPhone a few inches from your face and giving ten seconds of your attention to something. All Queens music, if you’re not really paying attention, kind of glides right by, and your brain is tricked into assuming that you’ve categorized what it is. Oh, this is a simple rock song. But on subsequent listens you’ll notice that these songs have oceans of depth. There are a lot of moves in these tunes; subtle shifts in the arrangements and intricate playing that will glide right by if you’re not paying attention.
Villains is the result of blood, sweat, and tears. This is what it’s like when people cut off all other aspects of their lives for a given time and go into the crucible together—constructing, developing, and refining. The songs may feel narrow on the surface, but they’re incredibly deep, sprawling multi-episodic epics. These are carefully curated compositions that we poured our hearts and minds into. You can have a casual listen and get into the tune, but the real reward is listening in the full spectrum hi-fi scenario.
MD: To your point, the album sounds like you avoided most conventional recording techniques too, which might surprise some people when they see that Mark Ronson was involved in the production.
Jon: There’s no copy and paste, there were no plug-ins, and there was no click! It’s easy to go down the wormhole of perfection and create a click map and put everything on the grid. We’re all from a time before that, and I’m proud to claim the ownership of our way. I have no problem admitting that we overdubbed the cymbals, that we carefully designed this cockamamie drum sound, or that we spent the time in the room crafting the songs so that when it came time to record, we could just concentrate on doing takes. This is what happens when the expression of music and the collective group experience is given the chance to flourish in a protective environment, which is the most magical part of being in this band. I’m surrounded by these cats who are as good as anyone I’ve ever heard musically, and we’re not constrained by any external pressure for how things should or shouldn’t be. All bets are off, best idea wins, let’s have at it!
MD: What do you feel were the advantages of recording the cymbals separately?
Jon: When you do take the time to overdub the cymbals, it gets away from this idea of just throwing up whatever your go-to cymbals are and placing some overheads. When we were writing the songs, I had my usual cymbal setup, but when it came time to record, our thoughts shifted to What’s the perfect sound for this part? and we chased it. Every cymbal was hand-chosen for its particular sound and auditioned using different mics and mic placements. For example, on “Un-Reborn Again,” the hats we used were two 6″ cymbal scraps that were the result of a friend taking a torch to two crashes.
MD: I’m guessing that means you used a variety of drums too?
Jon: I just got this kick-ass set of Vistalites for the tour from my man Uli at Ludwig, but because of the whole “all bets are off, best idea wins” mentality, we had a pile of different drums in the studio. There was my personal stash, Homme’s kits, Ronson’s magic kit that he’s used on a bunch of records. My man Sahir from Masters of Maple teched the record, so he brought in a whole bunch of stuff as well. We jelly-beaned kits for each song, and Sahir made sure everything was tuned right.
MD: With Josh, Ronson, and Mark Rankin involved in the production, did it ever feel like too many cooks in the kitchen?
Jon: No, because they all shared the desire to do something new. Josh never wants Queens to become a parody of itself. And that’s the beauty of Queens—the only thing that’s for sure is that it’s always going to be different from the last thing you heard.
MD: What criteria or elements need to be met for you in order to say yes to a project?
Jon: There’s no real equation for it. It’s just a feeling. I’ve done things with people that I didn’t have a heavy personal connection with, but I loved the music. I’ve also played music I really didn’t like with people I really loved.
Ever since I was a little kid, music has been an opportunity for me to communicate on a deeper level than just with words. Playing drums is a great way for me to make sense of the universe and have fun in a particular way and stretch my brain, my heart, and my soul. I’ve never had the mindset that a gig’s a gig. I’m too emotional for that, and that’s not what I love about music.
I never minded having a job, so I never felt I needed to be “gigging.” I actually can’t say that word without cringing a little bit, because I never looked at drumming as what I needed to do to make a living. For me, music and drumming was just always a function of my life. It was a way for me to have fun, be creative, and do something I thought was wonderful and made me feel good. With that perspective, I feel you end up creating what you desire.
Although I’ve been involved in a lot of projects, I’ve never been one of those guys that does a lot of stuff just to work. I’m not necessarily a hired gun. That’s not really me, and that’s okay, because there are a ton of guys and gals that are perfect for that. I’m like a nice bottle of wine—you really want to have it. [laughs]
MD: You’re not the house wine.
Jon: I appreciate that. And to clarify, fine wine not in the sense that it’s better, but that there’s only so much of it. It’s actually not about how good it is; what’s important is that it’s an appropriate pairing.
I feel that there’s this line in the world that has to do with intention and creativity and the way you want to organize the world around you and the people you want in your life. For me, I have a network of people I know or have known my whole life, and that’s an automatic yes when it comes to [considering] a project. I’m open to new opportunities and new people, and I’ve had lots of experiences with people I didn’t know. But if it can’t be something that enriches my life, I’m not necessarily drawn to it. I’d rather surf or go to the mountains than cultivate some sort of empty or unfulfilling musical experience that doesn’t sustain me emotionally or musically.
I love the drums, I love playing drums as much as I possibly can, and I also love being social. I’m a social cat. I love to learn about people and their worldviews and experiences with music and art to enrich my own life. So it puts me in a place where I’m constantly seeking out that dynamic connection, and more often than not it’s with a musician, because we share so many common experiences.
MD: That being said, do you identify more as a drummer or a musician?
Jon: I guess it depends on who’s asking. [laughs] From the first time I picked up a pair of sticks, drums were something I felt incredibly passionate about. To be honest, in terms of my personality and ethnicity, I’m someone who’s pretty unpigeonholeable. I’ve never been the kind of person that could just put on the jacket or have the haircut. I’ve never been able to embrace any kind of ethos or ideology based on appearance, because I don’t ever appear to be one thing or another. Playing drums was the very first time in my life that I felt singular. I felt whole and powerful, and all aspects of who and what I am went down the same funnel and were channeled to this one particular gear of life.
MD: When and how did you first start playing, and was there a particular defining moment that first made you pick up a pair of sticks?
Jon: My friend Gavin McCarthy and I both played piano when we were kids. Eventually he managed to talk his parents into letting him quit piano and start playing drums. I was so jealous, because I was burning on the inside for the same thing. I credit him for showing me it was possible to throw off the shackles of parental supervision at the age of twelve or thirteen. I didn’t start playing drums, though, until I was about fifteen or sixteen. And there’s absolutely a defining moment: the first time I heard “Fat Bottomed Girls” by Queen! There’s this fill in the middle of the song where Roger Taylor plays this monstrous coast-to-coast fill right before the refrain comes back in. I’ll never forget hearing it. It was so unhinged that it totally liberated me, because I was this pubescent maniac with no outlet for raging hormones. I don’t know why, but that song hit me right in my soul-hole and opened up the doors of possibility for me.
MD: So when was the first time you got to sit down behind a kit?
Jon: They had a drumset at this summer camp that I went to, so I started knocking around there playing “Mony Mony” and “Louie Louie”—you know, the only songs you can play when you don’t know how to play. [laughs] Then I got into the high school band, but there was already another drummer, so I had to play timpani, marimba, and sleigh bells, which was cool, but I would always sit behind the drums when the other drummer wasn’t there.
Villains drum tech and Masters of Maple mastermind Sahir Hanif on the making of QotSA’s latest collection.
With the current state of music, I think sound is sometimes overlooked. However, with Queens the sound is everything. In addition, [Villains producer] Mark Ronson has incredible taste—how could this get any better? I knew we were going to push the envelope, and I was ready to do my part.
We recorded drums and cymbals separately, which magnifies the sound of the drums more than usual. This process can be challenging, and microphones don’t lie. However, having Jon Theodore on drums made my job easy. He’s unlike any player I’ve ever seen or heard.
Kit-wise we tried numerous combos but ended up using Masters of Maple gum/rosewood toms, Ronson’s Ludwig kick—which was used on “Uptown Funk”—and Josh Homme’s 18″ bubinga kick I had built for him. For snare drums we used the Masters of Maple bell brass (6.5 and 5.5 depths), 7×14 Brazilian rosewood, and bronze prototypes (5.5 and 6.5). For heads I put Remo CS Dots on all the snares, and on the toms I used my favorite recipe of Coated Emperor batters and Coated Ambassador resonants. The title track featured no bottom heads for a ’70s essence.
When we started each song, Josh and Mark would play me their ideas—once Josh coughed and said, “I want this to sound like someone clearing their throat.” From that point they trusted me to get the vibe and adjust the drums accordingly.
My tuning is very drummer- and song-specific. Each song was like an album within itself, and the drums were the focal point.
Cymbal-wise, we needed to fill space with the loosest precision possible. I made Jon a wall of cymbals, he made his own stackers, and I even brought in a gong. You name it, we did it.
I think this is the best-sounding record I’ve ever heard.
MD: What was your first band experience?
Jon: Two of my friends were already playing guitar, and we were all listening to Zeppelin, Hendrix, and Neil Young. I was also really into Rush and Yes. Maybe I just had some mental or emotional proclivity for more technical music, because I always liked things that were intricate and challenging as much as I liked the more straightforward stuff. So the three of us were separately all playing in our basements and we finally had the bright idea to actually jam together. We sucked real bad, but it was a great moment in time where the world became ours and we suddenly had this sense of autonomy.
The basement was our world, a world that only we knew about. We spent hours of our time exploring these new realms, working out ideas to the point where we truly were able to intertwine our individual approaches to find these collective group-mind moments. It was these first luminous steps into this world of cosmic exploration together. Soon we started playing high school dances, house parties, and renting out the student union at the local college to play shows.
I remember somebody telling me that we won’t make any money if we don’t play Top 40, and I didn’t even understand what he was talking about, because that had no bearing on me.
MD: Your approach to music and drums in general seems so much more spiritual or personal than technical. Yet you’re a very technical player. Where’s the balance for you?
Jon: I’m an older guy now, and my experiences have served to balance my youthful utopian view of the world, and my musical world as well. Within everything that’s good, there’s still positive and negative. This is an analogy for larger life themes, but it’s apparent in the world of music and drumming too: The world is filled with people that can blast anything at any time and have refined their skill sets to such a degree that they are dazzling and fantastic. But when you meet them, you realize you’re not actually having a conversation with them—it’s like being at a lecture. Musicians can play that way too, and it’s completely unbearable to me. Technique is unquestionably respectable and requires a tremendous amount of time to develop, but it means nothing to me.
MD: I think I know what you mean. I’ve been in experiences
listening to or playing with some amazing technicians that could be best labeled as “doesn’t play well with others.” There’s no spirit
Jon: That’s exactly it. Now, I consider myself a musician as much as a drummer, because I think the distinction is that you can’t say that every drummer is a musician, because drummers who are solely focusing on blasting their skills out and aren’t really listening to other people…that’s not really music. It’s acrobatics or something. That’s where I would draw the distinction. To me, there’s a difference between excellent drumming and excellent music. I’m old enough now to want excellent music. There are a few guys, like Chris Coleman—man, that guy is music to me! I can’t fathom how on earth one guy on a drumset can sound like a waterfall or a babbling brook. I’m amazed how he creates these landscapes that are so musical. He clearly represents a dynamic understanding of the nature of music and what makes it great. He is top of a short list.
I, too, can admit to wanting to be dazzling, but I also want to be musical at the same time. I’m lucky that I’m in a position that I can acknowledge the situation and do what’s required. I guess it’s based on my vision of music as being a part of life. I don’t feel any push to prove myself in the world of drum skills. I can’t compete. That’s not part of my world of playing. My thing is a function of the music all the time. Without musicality, drums can be hollow and empty, regardless of how smoking your chops are.
MD: Did you ever develop a practice routine, or did you mainly develop your technique and style from playing along to records?
Jon: Well, I definitely had to practice for the high school band, and I did take some lessons from a couple of dudes. I practiced the fundamentals using Stick Control and Syncopation to develop muscle memory. I guess I looked at it more as an excuse to keep sticks in my hands all the time. But, even from the beginning, there was a disconnect for me between the lessons I was learning, because I didn’t feel I could apply it to what I was playing when I sat down at my drums. The lessons seemed rigid, but when I sat down at my drums, that was all open-ended, raw-nerve stuff, simply reacting to what was happening between me and my friends. It was never about me bringing forth any sort of learned technique. We were more into creating our own sound.
I developed my style mostly by playing with friends and along to records, and used my lesson practice as a way to warm up. I still use warm-up exercises that I’ve gathered over the years. Those are invaluable, but for me the important thing about any form of practice is unlocking the potential in your mind and body. Maybe this is presumptuous, but I never felt I needed to get past, like, the first page of Stick Control, because that one page was enough of a challenge for my brain. Leading with the left and making your weaker hand as strong as the dominant hand, the general multi-limbed equalizing approach, tends to be enough for me to create what I want to create, and I don’t normally get to a place where I don’t feel that I can’t do something. Clearly, there’s a million more things I can learn about drums that would make me a better drummer, but I’m motivated primarily by the people that I’m creating music with. When I’m particularly inspired, those moments come from inside; they’re not regurgitated practiced ideas.
MD: It sounds like you’re saying your technique is almost inspired by the physical and emotional reactions you have in the moment to the musicians you’re playing with. Queens, however, seems to employ a more methodical approach. Was that an easy adjustment for you
Jon: Well, Queens is a unique situation, because I came into the fold as a slightly fanatical fan of the band. First I had to learn their entire catalog, because we toured long before we wrote an album together. Having to figure out all the past tunes first made me aware of how deep and intricate the songs are. Every song is like an equation. There’s nothing intuitive about it, so when I started learning the tunes, I was immediately struck by the overwhelming feeling that I suddenly had to learn all these math problems. Now it’s been long enough that I can internalize them, and I don’t have to think my way through them as much. I’ve become hip to the band’s tendencies and their idiosyncrasies, which helps me stay in the body more than the mind when I play.
Being in at the ground floor for making an album allowed these parts to come from within, so for me it was about being physical and nimble—being able to react in the moment, remaining solid but supple enough to flow. Now my priority is balancing the physical and mental equally.
MD: What do you feel is your role on stage to keep the liveliness and intensity?
Jon: Every show has to feel like it’s special and that it’s the only time it’s going to happen this way. There’s some kid in the audience at their first show, and a strobe light is going to blow their mind, and they are standing next to a die-hard that’s seen every iteration of the band and wants to not have it be the same show they saw last time. It’s a real privilege and a big responsibility to go on stage, bring the heat, and create what brought us all here in the first place—an experience between the band and the audience.
MD: As the bandleader, how does Josh approach playing live, and how do you interact on stage?
Jon: There are a lot of situations where people will claim to be bandleaders, but they don’t really fit the role. It’s like a dog pack. When the alpha is weak or unsure when making a decision on the behalf of the pack, the pack gets uptight, starts fighting, and the order of the pack gets destroyed. Josh is a true alpha and follows the law of the universe that the best idea wins. That creates this level of openness where anyone can call an audible. There’s something very liberating about it, and it creates a really harmonious pack mentality where words almost don’t need to be spoken.
My number-one role is something I’ve learned both from being on stage over the years and by watching people like Chad Smith. When you go to a Chili Peppers show, everyone in the front row to the very back row is dancing, and that’s because of Chad. He’s focused on making sure that everything stays in the pocket and feels great. So my primary role is to make the music feel good, which means I have to be concerned with my dynamics and consistency. I have to be able to facilitate any form of set change, stay present, and be ready for an audible or to catch a cue at any time. I’m there as part of the entire experience and making sure everyone is locked on the same wavelength. I make sure people can dance and have a good time, while trying to breathe new life into all of the older songs and also honor all the different drummers, their different styles and feels. I’m there to tie it all together into this cohesive unit that we present.
My job is made easier in Queens because everyone has really solid time and command of the space between notes. I’m pretty sure everyone else in the band also plays drums too! Therefore, I never have to pay attention to my sense of time—all I have to do is listen. Once I count a song off, we function like pistons in a motor.
MD: What is the best lesson you’ve learned lately?
Jon: I guess that the train is going down the track and there’s nothing you can do to stop it, so you might as well just rip in and give it all you got, taste everything and just go for it. I’ve been through a lot of stuff in my life where I was reluctant to make a decision or say yes to something because I didn’t want to make a mistake. A good friend of mine once said, “Unless you’re in jail, you’re not in jail.” So, might as well try everything, and if you make a mistake, then you made a mistake. Live and follow your bliss, because it will all be over before you know it. You’ll never look back on your life and say, “Man, I’m sure glad I didn’t try that, because maybe I would have messed that up.” It’s quite the liberating revelation, musically and personally. That’s become a mantra.
Theodore’s Tour Kit
Drums: Ludwig Vistalite in red
• 6.5×14 Supraphonic snare
• 9×13 tom
• 14×16 floor tom
• 16×18 floor tom
• 16×22 bass drum
• 14″ K Light hi-hats
• 19″ A Medium Thin crash
• 22″ K ride
• 19″ A Medium Thin crash
• 17″ K China/14″ Trashformer stack
Heads: Remo, including Clear CS Black Dot snare batter, Clear Emperor tom batters, and Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter
Sticks: Vic Firth 5B wood-tip with Promark Stick Rapp
Percussion: LP Aspire bongos, Cyclops tambourine, and Chad Smith Ridge Rider cowbell
Hardware: DW, including 5000 series bass drum pedals, hi-hat stand, snare stand, and rack tom stand, and 9000 and 6000 series straight stands
Electronics: Roland SPD-SX sample pad and KD-7 kick trigger pad, Pintech RS-5 triggers, Dauz pads
Drum tech: Tim Ward