Watching and listening to Jeff Friedl play drums is like studying a veteran chess grandmaster. All the moves are deliberate, nothing is about speed or rushing to execute ideas, and there’s a thought-out intelligence to every decision.
As the drummer in A Perfect Circle since 2011, Friedl takes his time with drum patterns that mean something. The beats are big, heavy, spacious, and full of drama, supporting Maynard James Keenan’s emotive vocals with power and weight. Hold the flash, please. But that doesn’t imply Friedl can’t whip out some blinding fill or show you that there are different sides to his approach and the music he’s cradling. And it’s precisely this well-rounded skill set that makes the drummer such an in-demand player, having toured and recorded with Keenan’s other side project, Puscifer, and his own electronic/rock band, the Beta Machine, not to mention Devo, Eagles of Death Metal, Filter, Tears for Fears, and Shadow Party.
“There’s a weird dichotomy with me,” says Friedl. “I really enjoy playing with a lot of bands, and I love meeting and hanging with new people and experiencing new things. It keeps me sharp. But at the end of the day, I’m just a small-town boy that likes playing in one band and giving it my all. I’m kind of just an old rocker in that way. The push and pull of going day to day and not knowing what’s around the corner keeps me going and excites me.”
And there’s certainly a push and pull to Friedl’s kit work with A Perfect Circle. Check out his determined playing on APC’s live 2011 show at Red Rocks, found on A Perfect Circle Live: Featuring Stone and Echo. Then take a listen to his unusual yet thunderous approach to “By and Down,” from the band’s greatest-hits compilation, Three Sixty, which features the snare on the downbeat and then some cool ping-ponging hi-hat flourishes.
Besides working on releasing a new Beta Machine record sometime in 2018, Friedl is also busily working on some other projects, juggling a schedule of playing and teaching that would set most drummers’ calendars aflame.
MD: What was your involvement with the new A Perfect Circle record?
Jeff: I did some sessions for the record in late 2017 and some in early 2018. I’m not sure what the final outcome will be, but I’m excited to tour behind the record.
MD: You’re actually in several different bands, and there are many styles that you enjoy playing. How do you keep your parts fresh?
Jeff: I’m inspired by the people that are around me. If you’re in the moment and being creative with the people around you, then you’re focusing on the styles and the personalities everyone is bringing to the table. In the Beta Machine, Matt McJunkins [vocals, bass, keyboards], Mat Mitchell [producer], and I basically work on all the material, and they have their own particular backgrounds, their own influences. And those guys are wicked great musicians and writers, so they inspire me to craft my drum parts in the most musical way possible.
I also indirectly feed off the people I used to or currently listen to. The human mind is a crazy thing, you just retain this information. Some things you let go of, while some things just stick with you and inspire you for years to come.
The syncopation of Cuban rhythms is something that’s stuck with me over the years. Samuel Formell from Los Van Van is probably my biggest Latin influence. He plays drumset, but he also incorporates timbales and plays three or four percussion parts all in one. I’ve mainly been a drumset guy my whole life, so when I got into Latin music, I was into timbales at first and listening to Latin jazz—Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaría, Tito Puente. When I discovered the modern salsa music that the Cubans and Puerto Ricans were playing, that’s when I discovered Los Van Van, and it changed my life. Formell’s playing style is aggressive—almost funk, almost rock—but he has these traditional, folkloric rhythms embedded in his playing too, and it just freaked me out. And when I was living in Tuscon, I happened to be playing in a Cuban band, and we went down to Cuba and played in the jazz festival there. So that’s one of the ways I’m inspired, and those syncopations and rhythms carry through to the way I approach songs in general.
MD: Do any of your bands get that Latin influence and syncopation more than others?
Jeff: I guess Puscifer and the Beta Machine. The blistering tempos, the feels, and the funky syncopation kind of carry over into those bands. There’s a ton of space. Every note counts. I take a spacious, less-is-more approach with those bands, leaving space for guitars, synthesizers, and vocals. That way, there’s a purpose behind what I’m playing.
I try to lay off crash cymbals as much as I can, and that way when you hit them, it’s memorable, instead of just splashing your way through songs. There’s a time and a place for that, don’t get me wrong. In A Perfect Circle, I might crash-ride the whole damned way through, depending on the song. The Beta Machine specifically is very tom-oriented. And Puscifer has some interesting kick/snare patterns that bounce off the guitars and vocals, or vice versa. I love playing in both those bands. They’re representations of where my mind goes when I’m writing parts.
MD: Are you on a click with both of those bands?
Jeff: For the most part, both bands are on a click. There are moments when certain musicians aren’t on a click, so it lets things have an organic feel, but for the most part we’re on it, like if there’s a certain delay created on a keyboard. In the Beta Machine we’re triggering everything live; there are very few things on tape. In Puscifer there’s multimedia stuff going on, so things have to be synced to that, or we get to a part of a song and the click dies and we ride it out.
MD: Besides being a necessity for the songs, do you like how the click keeps everyone honest? Some drummers feel a restriction, while others know they’re not going to get a “you’re dragging” look from the bassist.
Jeff: I agree with both sides of that equation. I’m right down the middle. Some bands I play in don’t care about playing with a click, but others do. In Devo, the first six songs of the set are on a click because they’re new songs from the last record the band put out, and we have a video wall, so that content is syncing up and changing as we’re playing. But the rest of the show is off the click; the songs are from the first two Devo records, and it’s electro-punk madness.
There’s something to be said for throwing the band on your shoulders and just ratcheting through the set and doing your damnedest to make sure the tempos are as locked in as possible. The rest of the band doesn’t wear in-ears, they’ve got blasting wedges and they demand that I lace into the drums and relentlessly plow the beats through to the bitter end.
Playing drums in Devo is a crazy, out-of-body experience. You have to get to a Zen place and stay there in order to keep those tempos locked in, but to also push and pull with the rest of the band and properly pay homage to each of those songs. But I don’t have a preference. It makes sense that some bands have a click and others don’t. I like practicing stuff with a click and then throwing the metronome away. If I’m playing with a band that’s not on a click, I’ll write the metronome markings down, and if the singer is talking to the crowd, I’ll stare at the light blinking and get the feel for the next tempo. And then when we’re ready to go, I’ll tap the metronome off, count it off, and I’ll see you at the end. So at least we’re starting at the appropriate tempo, and I can feel the push and pull from the band depending on how much sleep we did or didn’t get the night before. But a click is also insurance in case someone is hung over or sick and is going to play slow that day.
MD: Talk about your relationship with bassist Matt McJunkins. You guys share a lot of stages together.
Jeff: In 2007 I subbed for a random band he was in, and it was fun. A year later we were both auditioning for [A Perfect Circle’s] Billy Howerdel’s band, Ashes Divide. We got randomly paired up as the rhythm section. We enjoyed each other’s company and each other’s playing. We went in and did a good job together, and we landed the gig. Then Billy recommended Matt and me to Maynard as a rhythm section for Puscifer, when he was putting that band together. By working on that music together, that’s how we created music for the Beta Machine. We realized through playing with each other that we have a really cool thing here, a real symbiotic relationship. We like writing music together, touring, and hanging out. Over the years, we became one of those go-to rhythm sections for people, like Eagles of Death Metal and Tears for Fears.
MD: When you’re presented with other people’s programmed drum stuff, what’s your process for interpreting what you’ll do for the keeper takes?
Jeff: Sometimes it’s cool not to hear any programming whatsoever, and just hear a bass, guitar, synth, or vocal part and let your mind gravitate to what you think will be best for the song. I like that process a lot. I also like when a producer sends a demo over and says that he likes what’s programmed, but I can do whatever I want to it as well. So at least I can hear what the writer or producer’s mind is gravitating towards. And then I can enhance or expand upon it. I always learn something from the process, whether drums are handed to me or not. And things always change. That’s one of the things that excites me about playing in multiple bands. Every situation is just a bit different, and you learn and grow from it.
MD: There are lots of odd times in Puscifer, the other bands as well. How do you come up with creative odd-time drum patterns?
Jeff: I’m trying to evoke the proper feeling, so my mind goes right to the underlying feel of the song, whether it’s a kick/snare pattern or a tom pattern. With odd meters, there’s a tendency for some people to overplay. But I generally try to make things feel even. If I can come up with a kick/snare pattern that transcends these shortened or elongated measures and people can still bob their heads to it—for instance, making a beat sound like it’s in four when an 8th note or quarter note is shaved off at the end of the measure—then I’ve done something right. Puscifer’s “Telling Ghosts” [from 2011’s Conditions of My Parole] is a good example of when I’m floating over the barline when the song is in seven. I’m always trying to come up with a way to make things sound simple, hypnotic, and funky, so people can move to it.
MD: How do you juggle all these bands? How do you keep your schedule manageable?
Jeff: Sometimes it just works. Sometimes you play Tetris and you have a good game, and sometimes the game is over before it even starts. For example, I went from being on tour with Devo in Australia, and on the plane ride home I put on my headphones and started absorbing A Perfect Circle and Puscifer music again, because the following morning at 10 a.m. I had double rehearsals starting with both bands, back to back, morning to night. If I can work it out, great. If I can’t, I graciously pass the baton on to someone else.
MD: Are there any cool new toys or gear you’re excited about using?
Jeff: For Beta Machine’s last tour, I had these Jenkins-Martin/Blaemire fiberglass concert toms. They’re replicas of Hal Blaine’s concert toms. And through geeking out on Blaine and Phil Collins, I’ve gotten into using that vibe. They just poke out and serve an amazing purpose. They provide this initial attack that’s unique, and they’re warmer than you think. I mix them with my Ludwig Mahogany Legacy kit and some Yamaha DTX electronic pads. With A Perfect Circle, I’ve got a couple cool 1940s WFL side snares I’ll use on the song “Counting Bodies Like Sheep to the Rhythm of the War Drums” [from 2004’s Emotive].
MD: You posted on Facebook about your Beta Machine setup, saying, “Sometimes certain setups make you play differently.” Elaborate on that.
Jeff: It could be anything, like bass drum size; if you’ve got a big, open 26″ bass drum, you might feel reluctant to play a ton of notes on it. If you’ve got something punchier and easier to play on, maybe that influences you to paint the page a little bit more.
But I guess it just depends on the music, right? If I’m using Rototoms like in Puscifer, or concert toms like I do in the majority of my Beta Machine setups, the way those drums project feels and sounds to me the best if I play less. There’s a certain sound that’s created when you strike those drums that fills the air in a certain way, the attack of them.
And if I have fewer cymbals in my setup, I’m less likely to bash away on them. I could probably get away with one crash cymbal in both the Beta Machine and Puscifer. I’ve been using the new Zildjian Avedis 16″ hi-hats in the Beta Machine, and those things are so versatile, you can make them sound like 15s or 16s. But really just having two crashes and hi-hats makes me play less.
There’s a lot more meaning behind it when you’ve got less in front of you, instead of hiding behind a bunch of gear. There’s a time to have a bigger setup, but it doesn’t mean a drummer is going to hit all that shit, especially if he or she is a good musician.
MD: Are there any trends you’re seeing in your teaching world?
Jeff: Some drummers care too much about what other drummers think of them. Ultimately the thing that’s going to get you respected and keep you working is playing musically, and the only way to keep playing musically is to play in as many bands as you can. I respect all the drummers that are sculpting interesting careers with social media and YouTube, but if they want to get a gig, they have to put themselves out there a little bit more. Every day you’re not meeting new people and playing in new bands, you’re wasting that time. And don’t try to impress people with your chops.
MD: Do you ever see a reason to stop playing?
Jeff: I can’t blame anyone who wants to do something else, or who’s tired of dealing with the bullshit of the music industry. You really have to love it to keep pushing through it year after year and play club circuits over and over. There’s something really magical about it, though. As long as you continue to love it and do your best to avoid the politics of it all, then it can remain fun your whole life.
Friedl’s A Perfect Circle Setup
Drums: Ludwig Classic Maple
• 6.5×14 Black Beauty snare
• 1940s WFL auxiliary snare
• 5×14 Supraphonic auxiliary snare
• 9×13 tom
• 16×16 floor tom
• 16×18 floor tom
• 18×22 bass drum
• 15″ A New Beat hi-hats
• 19″ K Dark crash
• 20″ K Dark crash
• 24″ A Medium ride
• 21″ Avedis crash/ride
• 20″ Oriental China
• 22″ Avedis crash/ride
Hardware: DW 9000 series, including lefty double pedal, two-legged hi-hat stand, Heavy Duty snare stands (for snares and tom), and Heavy Duty straight/boom cymbal stands; Roc-N-Soc throne
Heads: Remo, including a coated CS black dot batter and a clear Ambassador snare-side on main snare, coated Ambassador batters and clear Ambassador snare-sides on auxiliary snares, coated Emperor tom batters and clear Ambassador resonants, and a clear Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter
Sticks: Vic Firth 5B wood-tip
Miscellaneous: Q Drums, Cympads, LP percussion, Protection Racket cases,
Razer Nabu X smartband