Not Your Average Joe

By Stanley Hall

Talking Drums, Volume 2 #2, 1995

The page below was resqued from

The music world suffered a terrible loss last year with the untimely death of Frank Zappa, composer, visionary extraordinaire, and purveyor of bizarre percussion. Fortunately, he left some talented children behind, Dweezil and Ahmet, to be exact. These two formed a band appropriately entitled Z and put out a very Zappa-esque recording called Shampoohorn (Barking Pumpkin R2 71760). The record utilizes a mob of stellar drummers to navigate its tricky rhythms, including the relentlessly brilliant Terry Bozzio and newcomer and now permanent band member Joe Travers. Z has been accused of sounding like Frank Zappa, but when was that ever a problem? After listening to Joe nailing the lid shut on "In My Mind" and "My Beef Mailbox", it's obvious that the brothers Zappa have inherited their dad's knack for coming up with impressive drummers.

Joe acquits himself well on the record, but it's not until you see him stickslinging onstage that you get a real sense of how much of a force he really is – fast hands on top plus a sub-basement bottom-end groove that goes way deep. Although you'd expect a hefty dose of adrenalized go-to-hell drumming from a new guy like Joe, it's surprising to hear it coupled with taste and discretion. But not too much – this is rock & roll, after all.

TD: You're on two tunes on the Z recording Shampoohorn, namely "My Beef Mailbox" and "In My Mind". How long ago was that done?

JT: The record was recorded in 1991, and about 64 songs were recorded during those sessions. Right when that album was beginning to be recorded, Josh Freese (the earlier drummer) left the band. And so they had a lot of different drummers come in and do the tracks; Terry Bozzio did some stuff, Keith Knudson (formerly of The Doobie Brothers) played on a tune, Toss Panos, and Tal Bergman. Toss has played with a million people and has just finished the Steve Vai tour, and Tal plays with Billy Idol.

The reason why I got on the record was, the album was released in Europe first, in the summer of 1993, and I joined the band in March. By the time the distribution deal went down for the States, the album had already been out in Europe for about half a year.

By the time the record came out in the States, Dweezil was already bored with the songs that were on the record, so he decided to take off two songs from the European release and add two new ones with me and the new bass player in the band, Bryan Beller, and that's how we ended up being on the US version of the record, but not the European version. Now there's talk of a Japanese version, so maybe I'll be on even more of The Record That Wouldn't Die! (laughs) We'll see.

TD: What are the immediate plans after this tour?

JT: Dweezil's been talking about recording. He's working on a huge, long instrumental piece that has every guitar player known to man on it. It's about 75 minutes long, and it's going to be the length of a CD. It's yet untitled, but the last working title was "What The Hell Was I Thinking?". It's a massively long instrumental piece that is showcasing a lot of cool guitar players and Dweezil's writing. He's trying to finish that up, and I'm on about a half hour's worth of that.

TD: Did you play that in shifts with other drummers or what?

JT: A lot of it was recorded during the sessions for Shampoohorn, so a lot of those drummers are on there, too – Mark Craney, Tal, Toss, all those guys. He's gonna try to finish that up, and then, obviously, more Z stuff. There are talks of a home video and a Japanese tour is in the works. We're also gonna be playing a lot around the LA area, keeping the local gigs going, and playing up and down the West Coast. We need to do that because we've mainly just been doing the East Coast.

TD: What were you doing before you hooked up with the Zappa brood?

JT: I was scraping pans! (laughs) Just kidding! I lived in Boston and I went to Berklee College of Music there. After graduating, I moved from Boston to LA in September of '92, I've been living in LA ever since. I got the gig through Mike Keneally, the guitar player with the group. I've been friends with him for a while. When the spot opened, I auditioned and got in. Before that, I was just trying to play around town and get my name around. Any auditions I heard about, I would try to go and do. Not only is this the first professional gig that I've landed, but if I had a choice in the matter at all, this would have been the first thing that I would have wanted to get. Everything's worked out perfectly and I've been really happy with my situation.

TD: A lot of the band's material is very tricky. Did you have to read for this audition?

JT: The stuff we do is really tricky, but it's not charted out at all. It could be if I took the time to do so, but that's not how the band operates. Basically, the whole band is one huge set of ears: Dweezil will play something and we'll have to play it back. I will create the drum part and if he likes it, fine; if he doesn't, then I'll add what he wants. That's how it works most of the time. You just have to memorize everything. That medley that we do [Joe is referring to "the dreadly", a lengthly extravaganza incorporating snippits of nearly every popular song ever played or not played on the radio from 1967 to last week, and the stupider the song, the better] – could you imagine charts for that? That would be hellacious. It's all by ear and memorization.

TD: The tune "In My Mind" has a lot of tricky stuff in it but also has a groove to it. Even though you're busy spinning in six different directions on a lot of these tunes, they have nice grooves and feels.

JT: Definitely. It rocks. On a lot of the stuff, the groove gets laid down and then a lot of stuff gets added and then it turns into Dweezil's music, for sure. It's good stuff.

TD: Besides the obvious places like the covers of Frank's tunes like "Peaches En Regalia", "My Guitar Wants To Kill Yer Mama", "I'm The Slime", and a few other things, a lot of your drumming on the band's material sounds similar to Frank's approach to drums: there were places where your playing was reminiscent of things that Aynsley Dunbar did or things that Terry, Chad Wackerman or Vinnie did. That's not to say that you're cloning them, but it just sounds like Dweezil's music is a lot like his dad's – it's got that stamp to it. In particular, there are a lot of flurries around the toms and odd clanging on that little icebell-type cymbal you've got up there. It's nice to see that, because a lot of young guys in bands don't have the opportunity to do a lot of tricky navigating and rampant filling; very few of them play in bands where they're able to flail the entire drum set and play a lot of notes and fills.

JT: That's why I'm so happy with what I'm doing. To be involved with a band like this was a dream come true for me, and yeah, the Frank influence is everywhere in it. That's just because, obviously Dweezil's been listening to a lot of his stuff over the years, and his writing is a cross between Van Halen and Frank. Plus, I've been listening to Frank ever since I was 10 years old, and the stuff that Aynsley and Terry and Vinnie and Chad were doing with the band all rubbed off on me, so when I approach this type of music, I've got all that behind me. That's why you hear it when I play this stuff.

TD: Besides Frank, what else did you grow up on?

JT: Rock. When I was young – five and six years old – I was listening to groups like Black Oak Arkansas and David Bowie and Alice Cooper and that kind of thing. In my teens I was into heavy metal and went through my massive Rush phase and Iron Maiden and Ozzy and all that stuff. When I went to Berklee, I started really getting into jazz because I missed so much of that style of music when I was younger. Growing up in Erie, Pennsylvania, you listen to what's hot. I was fortunate enough to have a family that introduced me to bands like Black Oak Arkansas when I was five, but once I got older, I began digging heavy on jazz and did a lot of listening to Miles, Coltrane, Scofield and all the major guys. I got turned on to all that stuff at Berklee. I just fell in love with that, and it helped me grow as a player, too. There were a lot of different things that I'd never heard before that made my head turn around.

TD: Did you do your whole four years at Berklee?

JT: Yeah, I graduated in December of '91.

TD: Did you study with Gary Chafee?

JT: No, he wasn't teaching there when I was at the school; he had stopped teaching there a few years before. I think that Gary Chafee's methods are unique and interesting, but I never stuck to it like I did with Dave Weckl's playing. Even Dave gets ideas from Chafee, but the pattern book that deals heavily with polyrhythms is the one of his four books that I got into the most because it's the only book out there that can explain in a semi-readable, easy format how it looks and how it should sound. That book really dives deep into what polyrhythms are all about and how to perceive them. It shows you how to start from this and get this other thing, and how you can get something else from that. You can just keep on going and going. So, that book helped me, but other than that, I didn't get into the different linear grooves and that type of thing. There was a lab that I took at Berklee called "Linear Time and Feel". I took it for a semester, and it barely touched on it. You could just devote your whole drumming career to his methods, if you wanted – that's how huge it is. I just touched on it and got a little bit from it and then went on; I didn't really stick to it exclusively.

TD: Do you feel the education you got there was worth it?

JT: The education I got was worth it, but the most important thing about Berklee was the environment I was in. Not only was I learning great things from the teachers and the classes, but the people I met and the music that they turned me on to were just as important as any classes I took. I can remember sitting around in a practice room at five in the morning, listening to Coltrane and Pet Metheny. Just a couple of friends listening to this stuff that I'd never really been exposed to before. And that meant as much – if not more – to me than sitting down and learning how to do a samba beat and keeping it on automatic pilot while playing the syncopation book over top and being able to split it between the right and left limbs and getting all intense like that. So I tried to get the best of both. Also, there was great playing experience at Berklee. For anyone who goes there, try and get involved in as many playing situations as you can and with as many people as you can. If you've got something unique and good to offer as far as people digging you as a playing musician, you can get a lot of work. It's not paying work, but it's a lot of exposure. You get asked to do tons of student shows, the faculty will see you and hear you, your name gets around, and it just spreads. Just that gives you so much opportunity to grow as a player that it's just amazing. I just enjoyed it immensely, and I would do it again if I had the chance.

TD: When you moved from Boston to LA, how did you start working?

JT: When I moved out, I wasn't playing at all. I was working at Tower Records in Boston just to make ends meet, and when I moved from Boston, I got my job transferred to LA so I'd have a job out there. I worked at the Sunset store, and my friends would take me down to jams and this and that, and I'd go play around. Z came around after I'd been there for eight months.

I'd been in LA trying to do whatever I could do, working as much as I could at Tower to make the groceries and the rent and the car and all those things, but at the same time trying to keep my ears and eyes out for people looking for a drummer. I was giving out packages to every single person I could in case they knew of someone who needed a drummer. I'd give them a tape or tell them where I'd be playing so they could come down and check it out. Anything that I could get my hands on, I was doing.

And then Z came around, and everything's gotten off to a really good start. This is more than just a good start, and I'm hoping it will go on as long as it can. From this I've also been doing some gigs with some other people. I've just done Mike Keneally's new record, and I'm playing with Marc Bonilla on the side. He's a contemporary rock guitarist signed to Warner Brothers, and he's got two records out already.

TD: So this has given you some time to do other things on the side.

JT: Yeah, but Z is first and foremost. If any of those things got to the point where they took me away from this, then I'm sorry, but Z will always be first on the priority list. The other stuff I do if I've got the time. I want to be as busy as I can and play as much as I can, but this is definitely the main thing.

TD: When you guys get this bus back to LA and you're doing the local stuff up and down the West Coast, do you get a guarantee of so much per month or a guarantee of so many gigs per month or anything like that?

JT: It's a continuous thing. I'm on a verbal contract with Dweezil, so I do anything he needs whenever he needs it, and that's how it goes. But say, for the third week of whenever, if we're not having any gigs or I'm not needed in the studio and if Marc Bonilla's having a gig, I'll just tell Dweezil a week in advance and he'll say fine, no problem, and I'll just do it. That's how it goes, but if the other stuff ever got in the way of Z, I'd drop it because Dweezil's always gonna be first.

TD: Is there any area of your playing that you've had to beef up since you've been playing with Dweezil?

JT: Hit harder. Hit harder. When I first got the gig, coming out of Berklee and being such a jazz freak, there was a fire and an energy that is required to play this style of music. The drummers that I listened to and got this spark from were Abe Laboriel and Josh Freese and some local drummers back in Boston that I watched. When you watch them play, you think, 'Holy god, look at that!' They portray such an energy and such a focus; they hit and they're raw, and that's the type of feeling that I want to convey when people watch me play with this group, because this music demands that. And that's what I had to do. When I first got the gig, I was just making sure I was doing it. I was playing, but there was a tiny thing missing. Then Dweezil turned around and said, 'Man, HIT them things," and that's what ended up happening!

TD: You really seem to be having a lot of fun back there.

JT: Oh, yeah! It's completely a ball. It's like a drummer's dream. When I'm behind the kit, I think about the drummers I admire, and I think, this is it. I want to portray the same thing to the audience that those drummers did to me.

TD: Did you have to change your sticks when you started hitting harder?

JT: I used to use 2B's, and now I use Vic Firth American Class Rock because they're a thicker taper at the neck; that helps them last longer. There's more beef there, so I can get more out of the cymbals. They have the same width as the 2B's, but they're longer, so I don't have to reach as much.

TD: You've got a lot of targets up there, including those three little cymbals in front of you and chinas on both sides.

JT: I don't care what anybody thinks. Some drummers might look at it and say "he doesn't need that many cymbals", but I use every single one of those friggin' cymbals, every single one of 'em. They're all used to the fullest extent and – I believe – musicially. And there may even be room for more someday!

TD: What exactly are you using now?

JT: My left to right, I have an 18" Oriental China trash and right below it a 12" Oriental trash. It's what they use with the new Trash hats, but I just use one, and I do that because during rehearsal I was messing with an EFX piggyback over there for a quick little kksshhhh, but the Oriental sounded better, so I swapped. All my cymbals are platinum except for the Orientals, which aren't available as platinums. Then I have a 16" medium thin and a 17" medium thin – those are the two crashes on the left. The hats are 14" Rock hats. The little cymbals in the front are an 8" EFX-1 turned upside-down, a 10" A splash, and in the middle is a secret I'll tell you about in a minute. Then I have a 20" ping ride, 18" rock crash, 19" rock crash, 20" China Boy high, and 13" Z x-hats.

About that little secret in the middle, I bought that thing when I first got into Berklee. I was listening to Frank's music on the '81 and '82 tours, and during those periods, Chad used to use a cymbal similar to this one. Ran Can calls it a Schueng, a little 6" thing which is the closest thing that I found for getting the sound that he had.

At the NAMM show I finally got a chance to ask Chad what he was using, and he told me it was a Wuhan. What I have is the LP Ran Can version of the Wuhan thing that Chad was using. The closest thing Zildjian had was the FX-1 turned upside-down, which I use as well, and when they get something like it, I'll use it. It's a great little cymbal. I love it because it just adds the perfect sound to the splash and the bell cymbals – it really rocks.

TD: And the drums?

JT: The drums are DW and they're special sizes. When I got together with John Good, he told me all about their drums and suggested that I try these certain sizes because of the kind of player that I am. He said he didn't recommend these sizes to everybody, but that I should check them out. So what I did was, I went with a 7x8 tom instead of an 8x8. They're basically smaller than usual: 7x8, 8x10, 10x12, and 11x13 mounted racks, plus a 14x16 mounted floor.

TD: Sounds like their new FAST toms (Fundamentally Accurate Size Toms).

JT: I don't know. John said that Tommy Lee had been making prototype drums of this type of shell, and so I actually took one of the shells that he didn't use and got it cut – my 13 was originally intended for Tommy. So I've now got this really cool sounding set of drums. The finish is electric blue, one of DW's finish-ply colors, with a 16x22 kick.

I also use a 6-1/2x14 DW bronze snare. The next snare I want to get from them is a 5x13 maple wood snare. Remember Solid snare drums? They're starting to work with DW, and they're making Solid/DW wood snare drums.

TD: Why are you going for that?

JT: I just want to get a warmer, crackier-type sound. I get a huge, massive Bill Bruford ring out of the one I've got and I dig it, but it's not going to be the best sound for every gig. I want to be a little more versatile with my snare sound. I want to get a piccolo, too – it's just a matter of time and money! (laughs)

TD: Just stay on this bus and keep touring! I can see you talking to Dweezil now – "I need a new snare drum, let's do two more gigs this week."

JT: Exactly! (laughs) All the batter heads are Pinstripes. On the bottoms I have Ambassadors, and for the snare I use a coated Pinstripe.

TD: Uh oh! Drum Workshop's gonna beat you up when they find out you're using Pinstripes with their drums – don't they recommend using Ambassadors and avoiding Pinstripes on their drums?

JT: Oh, they hate it! But I love the feeling of Pinstripes. Emperor heads don't give that to me. I can play hard on the Pinstripes, and I still get the drums to sing. They're not too dead for me, but I think it's just personal. If someoneelse were to get on the kit and play it, it probably wouldn't sound the same way – they might be too wet or too dead. But when I play them, they cut, and I like 'em a lot.

TD: Not only that, but the bass drum sounded ridiculous last night – it's a great sounding kick.

JT: Yeah, it's pretty sick. And these beaters that I'm using are really cool. They're a prototype thing from ProMark. They're self-adjusting beaters, and they're made out of the same material that dice are made of. Wherever your beater is sitting on the head, it will go to the head, so it's a longer life for the head. What it's made of gives you such an attack, it's like a wood beater but it's a little bit more sensitive than wood. This one is weighted and it's a cube with rounded edges, and I love how they feel.

They approached me with them at NAMM and said, "Terry Bozzio's freaking out about these; try them out, we think you'll be perfect for them". I tried them out, and I liked them, so I told them if they were planning on doing anything with them, I'd be happy to talk it up and mention it to Vic or do anything else to promote them. Hopefully, I'll become a part of that; I really dig them, and I've been using them the whole tour.

TD: When I heard you a couple of nights ago, your footwork made me stoopid – super fast, clean and really powerful – I was looking for three drummers back there!

JT: (laughs) That comes from listening to Tommy Aldridge when I was five years old – it rubs off!

TD: Who else besides Tommy has shaped you?

JT: I went through so many stages with so many different drummers, and when you ask that question of drummers, it becomes cliche because they always say the same people. For me...

TD: Karen Carpenter?

JT: Exactly! For me it started with Don Brewer from Grand Funk. I used to have the Grand Funk live record and a Buddy Rich record. I was about four, listening to this stuff, and playing on the floor with red plastic drumsticks, and by the time I was done they were all bent! After that, I got into Bonham when I was in my early teens, and then I went through a massive Neal Peart scene. At the same time I was listening to Frank, so I was hearing Terry and Aynsley and Vinnie. I love Terry, and I constantly get "hey, you sound like Terry on that". Great, that's all I need to hear! Terry's amazing, but probably my favorite drummers to listen to right now would be Dave Weckl and Vinnie. Vinnie, depending upon the situation he's in, never ceases to amaze me, and Dave was the first guy in a long time that made my mouth drop. When I was in my first year at Berklee, I could not believe what he was doing.

TD: What made you drop your dentures?

JT: I went to the Zildjian factory as a class trip, and they split the group in half. One group went to the drummers lounge and the other group did the tour. While we were in the lounge they played this unreleased Weckl video from the '85 Yamaha/Zildjian days or something. He was doing this electronic percussion clinic and then he went on the acoustic kit. It was the first time I'd ever seen the guy, and I couldn't believe what he was doing. He sounded amazing, he had really great chops, and he floored me. So I got the first Elektric Band record and from there, the whole thing he did with Michel Camillo just blew me away. That's the type of thing that I just love now – those records rubbed off on me the most.

TD: Well, you're no slouch yourself.

JT: Thanks. The thing that's really cool about Z is, there are improvizational sections of the show, like the middle of "My Beef Mailbox", where we go off and do whatever we're feeling. We may also do a tune in 5/4 tonight where I get to do some of that, too. I get a little out, but I don't want it to turn into a huge, massive jazz-fusion thing – I try to keep with the soloist.

TD: You don't really have to push it in a direction it's not going, because all the band's tunes call for a really technical style of drumming. With Z you can really use all that complex, polyrhythmic stuff for its intended purpose.

JT: There's a time and place for everything. I try to be as versatile as I can, and whatever the music calls for is what I'll do. If I'm playing with a quartet with a sax player, I'm not going to do my Vinnie imitation, because it'd be just too much. In this band there's an electric guitarist who's wailing, and it's got an edge, so I'm supporting him and giving him a foundation to launch from.

TD: Do you have any kind of regular practice schedule or regimen when you're on the road in this lovely land whale?

JT: When I was at Berklee I practiced a lot, but after I graduated I never had a place to practice, and now that I'm with this group, when we rehearse at Joe's Garage, I'll go in early and get some stuff in, but it's been a long time since I pulled out the Louis Bellson book or the Ted Reed syncopation book and just practiced. I don't get a chance to practice as much as I can. There are pros and cons to that.

The pros are, it gets me to focus more on what I'm doing with this group and add to the music that way; I can focus in on that and become good at that. The cons are, by doing that, I don't get a chance to expand, but I've got time for all that – I'm only twenty-five.

I'm by no means satisfied with how good I am – I always want to progress and I always want to become better, so don't think that at all. It's just that scheduling and what I'm doing now doesn't allow me the time to sit down and practice from 7:00 at night to 1:00 in the morning. Eventually, depending on how successful I become, I may get my own little practice kit in my own little practice room in my own house, and then I'll have a lot more time to do that type of thing. Right now, I just can't.

Photos by Karen Sumaras