This episode is very meta. Our guest is the host of the outstanding podcast, The Trap Set, about the lives of drummers. And he was recently in the spotlight for his production credit on the Fred Armisen Netflix special, Standup for Drummers. Here is Joe Wong.
JW: I was on tour a lot with bands. And around 2010 I got sick of listening to music while I was on tour because my ears were just fatigued from playing shows and seeing other bands play every night. So I got really into listening to podcasts, and the two that I think I’ve listened to the most are Fresh Air, which is obviously a legendary NPR show out of Philadelphia and WTF [with Marc Maron]. And the thing that I really loved about WTF, especially in those years, is that there was a familiarity between Marc, the host, and all of his guests. Even if he didn’t know them personally, they did the same thing, so they could launch into substantial conversations about life and the origin story of the guys rather than these cursory craft-based conversations. I decided to emulate that for what we do on The Trap Set.
DS: I think there’s a level of brotherhood or community in drumming that comes across on the show.
JW: And sisterhood.
DS: Yes, I mean brotherhood in a gender-neutral way.
DS: I think that you, among drum podcasters, have one of the most refined interviewing styles. What do you think lead you toward getting to where you are? Is it just a matter of doing it a lot and having the reps, or do you think that there’s an inquisitive nature that makes people feel comfortable talking to you?
JW: I think that I am an innately curious person and I always have been. I truly love connecting with people so I’m glad that comes across. And I definitely think that I’ve gotten a lot better as I’ve done it more. The main way that I’ve gotten better is staying out of the way and trying to just let the people talk and not inserting myself into it too much. It all comes from a genuine desire to connect.
The guests that come on the show oftentimes are dealing with the same struggles that all of us deal with, specifically as drummers, but [also more broadly] as people. You don’t get an opportunity to sit and talk to somebody for an hour at a time usually in daily life, so when you have an hour set aside to speak to somebody, why not talk about something substantial?
DS: You’ve done–as of this recording–155 shows. There must be themes that have emerged: things that are frequently topics, or lines of discussion that are commonly referred to. What are a couple of those?
JW: One would be identity. One of the questions that I tend to ask people that come on the show is, when they started to identify as a musician. When did it become a part of who they are as a person, rather than just something that they did.
And it’s always interesting to talk to people about the first time they got a visceral, ecstatic feeling by playing music. Where and when it felt like they could actually be a part of it. Those stories range from folks whose parents were musicians, so they just grew up doing it, to people that didn’t get into it until they were much older and were shocked that they could participate.
An aspect of identity is, I think drummers are usually there to service the songwriter. Putting everybody else’s needs in front of our own.
Another thing that happens is, drummers get discarded more often than other people in bands, so losing that identity. If you if you are with a band from the beginning and the band becomes popular, and then you get thrown out because you’re not thought of as essential to the sound or identity of that group. Then who are you if you’re no longer that person… if you’re not the drummer of that band, then who are you, really, and how does that end? And how does that shift over time, or if band breaks up, or if you decide to start a family? How does identity shift?
DS: Along with identity and drumming, one of the parts of that conversation that I find the most interesting is, “drumming is my identity, but it’s not my entire identity.” For example, the recent interview you had with Ronnie Vannucci [of The Killers]. While he’s already been very successful making music, what does the rest of his life look like? Music is a part of it, but it’s not the whole thing.
JW: Yeah, and another theme that came up with Ronnie, that comes up a lot–and probably because it’s something that I’ve thought about a lot for my life and probably subconsciously guide the conversations in this direction–is existential dread.
I think that is a driver as far as a lot of things, but especially artistic output or productivity. A lot of people are creating a legacy musically, in the same way that other people create a legacy by having a family, not that the two things are mutually exclusive. But in Ronnie’s case he was talking about thinking about his own mortality. And it’s making him rethink everything. I think some people use their work or their art as a way to avoid thinking about their own mortality or to try to build something in acknowledgement that they’re only here for a short period of time.
I think you could say that some people are running away from something by getting great at playing drums, and some people are running toward something by getting great at playing drums. Most people are somewhere in the middle, and it’s a combination of those two.
DS: You have had a fairly diverse set of guests. Whether you look at gender or background or ethnicity. Is that something that you actively seek out to cultivate a diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints, or is that something that is a natural function of being in Los Angles, surrounded by musicians from different walks of life?
JW: We actively try to represent a diverse group of people. I think traditionally the world of drumming has leaned heavily male, and in many cases, white, as far as the way that it’s been represented in the press. I like music from all different parts of the world and from different eras and from different perspectives, and so that’s just naturally where we wanted to go with the show.
I think of the drum set as a perfect representation of the American ideal of pluralism because its components are from all over the world: Africa, Asia, Native America, the U.K.; but when you put it all together, it’s a uniquely American invention. So that’s another reason why I try to I try to live up to that ideal with the people that we represent on the show.
DS: That’s great, and it shows.
Would you tell the listeners about your co-producer, Chris, and his role?
JW: Chris is a brilliant writer and a huge music fan, but not a professional musician himself, so I think he’s an ideal partner in the sense that if the show ever gets too Inside Baseball or too nerdy, he cuts it out, and that’s been the mandate from the beginning.
We wanted to make stories from this really specific segment of the population feel universally relatable. Chris wrote for The Onion for about 12 years, and then after that he wrote for Adult Swim and produced podcasts for them, and he also produced an Onion radio show.
DS: You talked about Chris trying to keep it mainstream, but from a targeted source of material. You were recently involved in developing and producing a special that Fred Armisen did, Standup for Drummers, on Netflix.
JW: I was first aware of Fred as a drummer actually. I grew up in Milwaukee, which is about an hour and a half drive from Chicago, and Fred was in a band in Chicago in the 90s called Trenchmouth, that either my bands in high school played with or opened for. I just happened to be down in Chicago when I was there for other shows, so my first awareness of Fred was as a drummer. And then I followed his career as he became a star in the world of comedy, but then I reconnected with him.
When I was playing with a guitarist named Marnie Stern, and Fred was a fan of hers. Actually she plays on the Seth Meyers show [Late Night] now, which Fred is the musical director of. But I reconnected with Fred during that time.
The very first guest that we had on The Trap Set was Brendan Canty from the band Fugazi. The whole idea for the podcast came about when Fred had invited the band to Saturday Night Live. At the party afterwards, I was talking to Brendan and asking him advice about life, and thought, “oh wow, if I recorded this, it would be a good podcast,” so that’s how it came about. Fred has been nice enough to come on the podcast a couple times.
And I went out to dinner with him last year, and he told me about this idea that he had to create a stand-up show, but only for drummers, and I thought it was really great. The thing that appeals to me is the weirdness of it and how incredibly specific it is. I was curious to see how it would translate. As funny as Fred is, if he’d happened to have been a roofing salesman before he got into comedy, and then did a show at a roofing convention, it would probably be funny! I just wanted to see how he could take this very specific material and how it would work not only with drummers, but with regular people too.
I helped him organize some of the first iterations of the show by inviting all the guests that had been on the podcast to come out and see him do a performance at this small theater in LA called the Steve Allen Theater, which I think is about to get bulldozed unfortunately. That was less than a year ago, and then really quickly it kind of morphed into what became the Netflix special.
We did a few shows: we did a show here in LA, and some shows in Portland and New York, and then we shot the special in San Francisco. We’ve been getting a really good response from drummers. I don’t know about everybody else, but they haven’t taken it off of Netflix yet! So I was really happy to be a part of it, and I felt very, very fortunate that he asked me to help out.
DS: Here I was, sitting on my couch, watching Fred play a kit from the 20s, a kit from the 30s, all the way up, every decade through today. Were you involved in putting that together, or was that purely Fred with Revival Drum Shop?
JW: I am really close with the guys at Revival Drum Shop, Jose and Jake, especially. And Fred’s favorite drum shop in the world is Revival [in Portland, OR] so we had to get them involved. I was there when Fred came up with the idea to do the Drumming Through the Ages bit, which was the most impractical thing that he could possibly have thought of to do. I mean, we had to remove a good portion of the seating on the floor in this small theater, and it it it made the whole thing way more expensive. Usually when you do a stand-up special, logistically speaking, you just have a guy with a microphone. Here we had 12 drum sets set up!
He was committed to doing exactly what he dreamed up. This whole special was basically Fred’s teenage dream, come to life.
DS: Now we’ve established Joe’s podcast hosting duties and involvement with the Netflix special and I asked what else he’s working on.
JW: For the last few years, I’ve primarily worked as a film and TV composer. I am working on a new show for Adult Swim that’s coming out in April, called Ballmastrz, which is a post-apocalyptic sports extravaganza. It’s really great. It stars Natasha Lyonne.
I just finished working on a horror comedy film called Seven Stages. That’s going to be at Tribeca in April. And then there’s a couple other movies that I can’t talk about yet. I just finished a record with Nate Mendel from Sunny Day Real Estate and the Foo Fighters. That’s with Bill Dolan, who’s one of my all-time favorite guitar players. And then I’m recording my own record later this week.
DS: Wow, you’re a busy guy! How do you fit in the podcast with all of those things you have going on?
JW: Keeping that existential dread at bay. (laughs)
The podcast is what grounds me creatively in the sense that I have to put one out every Wednesday, so it doesn’t matter if I’m in a great mood, or if I’m depressed or if I’m busy or not. It’s a way of ensuring that I do something that I enjoy and that is meaningful creatively every week.
DS: Well, this is the drum gear show so we would be remiss if we didn’t talk about some of the gear that you’re playing.
JW: Right now I am using a Fibes kit from the 70s, a five-piece: 22, 12, 13, 16, in a beautiful copper finish. It has a matching snare, which I’m not using. I’m using a C&C snare drum, which Jake made for me shortly after they started making their own shells. I’ve known the Cardwell family for a long time. Jake was in bands out of Kansas City around the same time when I started touring so we met back in the 90s, and I’ve watched them as their company has grown and it’s been really awesome to see. I always wanted a Gretsch Max Roach model snare drum and I didn’t have the scratch to make that happen so they made something similar to that. It’s a 4×14 maple-gum-maple. And it’s it’s stood up against lots of different drums. I made a record at a studio that had every snare drum you can imagine, and for some reason the C&C always worked out.
I also have a really awesome Gregg Keplinger drum that Gregg made for me last year. It’s black iron, and I use that in a double-drum project with a guy named Coady Willis, who plays in the bands Big Business and Murder City Devils. He was the second drummer in the Melvins for a while.
Cymbal-wise, I have mostly Istanbul Agop right now. I’ve been a big cymbal guy–by that I mean large diameter–for a while, so 24-inch ride, 20-inch crash/ride, and 15-inch hats. And then I’m really into lightweight flat-base hardware. I’ve been into the DW Ultralight stuff that came out recently. It’s affordable and I needed it in a pinch. I just went and picked up the whole thing with the case, and that’s been working out well.
A couple timpani: I use them all the time, almost every day when I’m scoring. I got them for $500 from a church. They’re fiberglass, and they sound great. So I have a whole fiberglass setup right now with my Fibes and my fiberglass timpani! And then I have an old an old set of vibes that I bought a couple years ago. They were at Pro Drum in LA and I need an extra tax deduction at the end of the year. They’re loud and kind of clunky, but they actually sound great recorded, and I don’t ever need to travel with them. I don’t even know what brand they are: it doesn’t have a marker on it.
DS: I’m glad you clarified on the Fibes. I was going to ask you what the shell material was, whether they were the Jasper shells or the fiberglass. You mentioned they have a copper finish. I know from that era, it was fairly common with Ludwig, and I think I’ve seen some Fibes that were finished with actual metal wraps. Is that what these copper drums are?
JW: I think it is, yeah.
DS: Do they weigh a million pounds?
JW: Yeah. I guess I also have another drum kit, which I’m probably going to sell soon, but it’s a Yamaha Recording Custom from the 90’s with power toms. I I first I first started playing drums when power toms were big. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for power toms, and I saw Steve Gadd play like a couple years ago, and I said, “oh, man. I wonder if I could find Yamaha drums [like that],” and sure enough there was a set of them for relatively cheap on Craigslist. I just snapped them up. They are called Recording Customs and used by so many people for good reason: they just have an easy sound. But I also thought it was kind of fun because people think of power toms as so ugly, but what do they know? It was fun to go against the grain.
DS: Speaking of Craigslist and speaking of Fibes, I picked up a Darwin power tom kit a few years ago on Long Island. Darwin was the name Fibes was operating under for a couple of years in the early 90s. They are white power toms including flying floor toms, which are just as equally out of fashion as the power tom depths!
JW: Yeah, it’ll all come back around. That’s the thing: maybe I should hang on to it for another couple years until they become fashionable again.
DS: Buy and hold?
JW: Yeah, although I actually don’t like I don’t like having that much to be honest. It gives me it gives me anxiety to have too many options. I tend to just set it and forget it. That’s been the way that I’ve functioned for years now. This is the most I’ve ever accumulated any given time, but compared to lots of the people that I have on the show or that I encounter it’s not much.
DS: Well if you can still walk around your drum room. You’re not officially a hoarder.
JW: Yeah. (laughs) I wonder if drummers are the most likely to become fixated on gear.
DS: I personally like to follow the Billy Ward rule, which is: if you haven’t played it in two years, you need to sell it. I’ve had as many as 30 snare drums. Today I’m at four, which is pretty good for somebody who is a pretty big gear dork.
I feel like more is not necessarily better, but having a new piece of equipment or a different piece of equipment, like changing a ride cymbal, changing hi-hats, changing snare drums can really inspire me in terms of the way I play. After Ndugu Chancler passed away recently, I tried experimenting with setting my cymbals up high and very vertical. And in the same way, that has really influenced the way I approach playing the cymbals. It’s been interesting to that after so long playing them closer to flat. It’s inspiration from watching him play, and seeing the way that he mixes in the cymbals.
JW: Could even be less gear… you could take away some, like take away the toms and see what happens.
DS: I had a great conversation with Carter McClean recently and that’s one of the things he likes to talk about: take things away for inspiration instead of adding more things to your setup.
JW: Yeah, but he has so much stuff! He’s always got a different kit when I watch his Instagram!
DS: Yeah, but he’s never using more than a four-piece kit. He’s never using more than three cymbals, and I feel the same way. I may have a lot of stuff at any particular time, but I almost never am using more than two toms, and I almost never am using more than two or three cymbals.
I’m very guilty of “if it’s in the kit, I’m going to hit it, and probably too often.” So that’s why I haven’t used a splash cymbal in 20 years.
JW: For some reason there are times when I need a splash cymbal for scoring work, so I keep one handy.
DS: I like to think that I’m becoming a more mature drummer, but that’s one of those things that I’ve learned about myself. I guess the maturity is in just not bringing it rather than having the self-control not to play it too often.
JW: I just think about drum equipment as a vehicle by which people bond, in the same way that other people talk about sports. It’s a way of establishing a connection with somebody without getting right to it. It’s a way of establishing a bond with somebody without asking them, “what’s really wrong?” You can talk about snare drums, and get someplace that way.
DS: Right, it’s a shorthand.
JW: I think that drummers are more in touch with their own humility because they get the least respect.
DS: We are definitely the Rodney Dangerfield of instrumentalists.
I want to thank Joe Wong for spending some time away from his busy schedule. It was a treat for me to talk to a fellow drum podcast host about drums, podcasts, and more. You can learn more about The Trap Set at its site, and be sure to subscribe wherever you listen to Drum Showroom. More on Joe is at his site, and you can watch Standup for Drummers on Netflix.