Home News Interview with Josh Eppard from Coheed and Cambria

Interview with Josh Eppard from Coheed and Cambria

Interview with Josh Eppard from Coheed and Cambria

Prog rock titans Coheed and Cambria round off their hugely successful round of tour dates in the UK with a much-anticipated appearance at this year’s legendary Download Festival. Drummers Review’s Andy Hughes sat down with drummer Josh Eppard, to discuss complexity, being let loose on the new album, and that all-important pocket.

How were last UK dates?

Well, I know it sounds like trotting out the company line, things were great, but it’s absolutely true. These have been some of our best dates ever in the UK.

What’s your current kit, and why have you chosen it?

I am very pleased to be a Tama endorsee, and they are an amazing company to work with. Their A & R guy is a big fan of the band, and he came and drum tech’d for me on the last album. He brought about thirty different snares with him, and he and the producer went through all of them. They all sounded awesome to me, but they were discussing little nuances and differences in the sound.

Were you looking for a specific drum sound for the album?

Definitely. I know from experience, that you can have the most amazing kit, and if it doesn’t sound right in the room you are working in, you will not get the recorded sound you want. We wanted a punchy sound with a lot of attack, but we didn’t want everything in the top end, we wanted to be sure there was plenty of body in the sound as well. We recorded in The Steakhouse Studios in Los Angeles, I have never recorded in L.A. before, and it was an amazing experience. I think it would have been impossible to make the kit sound bad, it was wonderful recording there.

Do you prefer working in the studio to playing on stage?

Actually, I do, I find the atmosphere in a studio to be quite pressured, and I like that, it drives me, and I have always felt more comfortable in the studio than on stage. It’s funny because that is the opposite for most drummers that you talk to, they are fine and relaxed on stage playing a show, but they find it hard to get that relaxation into their playing in the atmosphere of a studio. But for me, it all came together at The Steakhouse, and I honestly think it is my best recording performance to date. 

Do you use a different kit on the road from in the studio?

Yes, I think most major band players do. In the studio, we use what the producer likes, which is fine, and I don’t ship my personal kit over to the UK. I used to have a kit here in storage that I used for UK and European dates, but that would sit in storage, sometimes it would be years between times when I played it. Now I have my Tama Star Classic kit that Tama have set up for me for dates here. I don’t have the same intimate relationship with it that I have with my kits back home, but we are building it, as we go. We are getting to know each other. The great thing about Tama is their worldwide distribution, so wherever I am in the world, whatever I ask them for, they get it and they get it immediately, and it is always top end equipment, so I can rely on them absolutely.

When we talk to drummers about their choices of companies, the support they get is always a big factor.

Oh yeah, absolutely. There are a lot of really excellent manufacturers out there making high-end equipment, and there really isn’t that much to choose between them, apart obviously from simple personal preferences. But the support systems are what can make the choice for you, and that is where Tama really have scored for me. It’s funny, before I signed to them as an endorsee, my perception of Tama was that they were … a little soulless … everything was entirely cold and factory-driven. I could not have been more wrong. They are the best drums I have ever played, and the company is the best I have worked with. The fact that their A & R guy Sam came and tech’d our album says something about their support. He is a fan of the band, and we have become real close friends, so that’s a bonus right there.

Given the complexity and density of the music that you make with Coheed and Cambria, it would be reasonable to expect that you play a kit the size and dimensions of a large apartment building. But in fact, the exact opposite is true.

It is, and I think that may go back to my childhood. My dad was in a lot of bands, and he was real close with Levon Helm from The Band, they used to jam in our basement all the time. I was maybe ten or eleven, and I had started paying drums, and Levon helm asked me what my drum kit was, which drums I had. No-one had ever asked me that before, so I just said that I have a five-piece kit. Levon Helm laughed and said that was three drums too many! And now I know that Levon Helm is a drumming legend all around the world, but back then, I didn’t know who he was. But I think what he said stuck with me. I know he was a hero to my dad, and I think I wanted something of the man that was so important as a friend to my dad. I don’t play a small kit to be different, it’s just what I am comfortable with, that’s the only reason. I watch videos of John Bonham, and he didn’t have a Neil Peart style of kit, his was a pretty straightforward five-piece. I’m not insistent about it, if a track needed an extra drum, I would put an extra drum in, no problem. There is track called Evagria The Faithfull on the Afterman album, and that has an extra tom on the recording because the song needed it. I can mimic that sound on stage with my five-piece no problem. The thing is, I would ever want to insist on a ‘simple’ drum sound if it took something away from the song itself.

Although, Led Zeppelin’s music was heavy blues, so a small kit would seem appropriate, but your music is vastly complex, with changing time signatures, so it would imply that a bigger kit was needed to make it sound right. Clearly not, because your kit works perfectly.

It does. I didn’t start out to be different, playing complex timings on a small kit, but it has turned out that way. It’s become kind of a badge of honour, I think I’m making Levon proud, he’s smiling down on me. Let’s face it, if Levon Helm gives you advice about drums, you’re gonna take it! 

What’s your view on formal lessons versus being self-taught?

That’s a great question. It’s a great question because it looks at the different ways any player takes the journey on learning their instrument. I obviously favour being self-taught, because that’s how I learned. But I can equally understand that I am missing certain basic technical skills that I never learned by playing through instinct. I sometimes play with guys who have been taught, and they have far more of a grounding in things like the theory of drumming, and the relationship between notes, and I do find myself wondering if I had not been so rebellious as a youngster, maybe I would have benefited from some of that. Now having said that, I wouldn’t change the way I play drums. I do play from instinct and feel, I am a pocket drummer and I like that about myself, and the way I play. I want to go on record as saying that there is not definitive right or wrong way to learn to play drums. It’s an individual thing. If you think that learning your own way, like I did, is going to work for you, then that’s the path for you. If you want to be grounded in the theory and technique of paying, then that is the route for you. Follow what you feel, and you’ll finish up where you want to be. That’s why it’s such a great question. As a self-taught player, I am always on a mission to learn more. I have considered taking lessons now, at this stage in my career and my playing. Some of the drummers I know, I would be thrilled to sit down them and take a lesson on some of their techniques, and that is something that I still may do. I love that I am self-taught, but if there is anything in Coheed that we are stick on, we all go to Zach (Cooper, Coheed’s bassist), and get his advice. That’s because he has the training and the musical mind to help us out when we get into things we can’t work out. Teaching and learning yourself are both out there for you.

You mention being a ‘pocket drummer’, but a lot of Coheed’s music is complicated and doesn’t really call on that skill.

Actually, I think it does. There are times in Coheed tracks where I do play as a pocket drummer. That, added to some of the recordings I have been on with my brother, they are absolutely pocket-based, so I do get to use that aspect of my playing style. Our very first record, which came out of our first demos, that first track has what one of the band called a hip-hop beat, which was really outside what we came to be known for, I know the sound is all Pro-Tool’d which was the fashion then, but the heart of it is pocket playing. I have a dream of being called up by a major hip-hop artist to go and play with just a kick and snare and a cymbal, and lay it down, that would be a dream gig for me. But Coheed is a dream gig as well because it is so eclectic and there is everything I ever want to play in that music.

What’s the best technical skill you have picked up in your career that you didn’t have when you started, but you’ve got it now?

I’d have to say foot triplets, and things with my right foot. It’s a real badge of honour for me. I love it when people think I use a double pedal. My feet have always been better than my wrists, so that’s become my ‘signature thing’. I am using techniques on the new record that people think I have not done before. I have, but they really come through on the sound from the new album. We did an acoustic set at the Grammy Museum, and there was a Q & A after. And a kid asked me, I think he must have been a drummer, and he asked me about the ‘new’ techniques I used for the new record. I told him that they were not actually ‘new’, but that the production of the drum sound meant that the kick drum sound really punched through. My favourite part of playing drums is the kick drum. So I’m really pleased that my technique is now coming through and getting noticed by fans. It’s a constant battle to make sure that the right sound is getting out there to the audience, and it’s not gated so hard that notes are missed. The sound guy has a lot to think about, he has guitars and synths and the bass, and vocals. He’s not always just thinking about my kick drum sound. So, the skill I have got, not sure if I have mastered it, is the use of my right foot when I am playing my drums.

It’s interesting that you focus on the kick drum as the centrepiece of your kit, and your playing, because most players reference the snare drum when asked that question.

Well, I guess for most players, the snare is the focal point, but for me, the kick patterns can really define and alter the pocket in your playing. Especially if you are on two and four on the snare, it’s the kick that puts you on the back of the groove there. It’s my strength as a drummer. Other drummers, I watch them warm up, and their hands are flying over the kit. I have never had the best wrists. They are good enough, but I think it’s the kick drum that really matters. I pride myself on articulating those kicks when we play live, making them speak through the sound that I want.

Given the complexity of the songs your band plays, how do you go about working out your drum parts. Do you get a time signature more or less straight away or do you have to experiment and work things out?

Both. I have been given songs where I play them for the first time and go “Errrrr … riiiiggghht …”, but after the second or third listen, I can hear a pattern developing that I can start with, and develop from there. In the early days of the band, Claudio would send me a song with him and an acoustic guitar backing on it, and I could hear everything there. Now, he is a complete engineer, he has all the gear in his studio, and he will send me a song to work on that is virtually ready to go. But I have to get him to strip it back, so I can find where the initial idea came from, because that’s what I need to work with to get the drums right. That’s the advantage of building songs the way we do as a band. When Travis puts his guitar parts on, it can totally change the way the drums are going to feel and sound. I usually don’t like to put my drum parts down until Travis’s guitar part is right, but on the other hand, I do need to hear the basic root of the song to get a feel for it first. But to return to my original point, it is both methods, sometimes immediate, sometimes it’s worked up and different ways are tried. I can sometimes get the idea for the drum sounds instantly on the most complex of songs. It can just hit me, I know what the song is doing, I know what it needs to make it work. Sometimes I will set out a drum section, and play it to the band, and they will say it was not what they were hearing, not what they were looking for, and I go away and study the song some more. It works all those ways. For me, the favourite writing method is when its immediate, when I get right away what’s going to work, that’s the best feeling for me.

Do you have your mind on the fact that you will have to reproduce our parts live on stage?

Not really, because if it was hard in the studio, by the time we have rehearsed it and it’s ready for performance, then it’s not hard anymore. I have found, that if I’m working on something at nine o’clock on a Friday night, and it’s not working out, I go home, go to bed, come back to it Saturday morning, and it works. Something has changed in my mind overnight, and it comes right. That’s happened a few times. What I find is, it’s not the big fills or the complex timings that are hard to get, it can be the little nuanced fills, little tricky bits that are the hardest to get around. People would be really interested in what we find hard to work on, as opposed to what they imagine would be the hard parts. I can honestly say I have never not put a part in because I thought it would be too hard to play on stage, And I think I can speak for the rest of the band, and say that they would think the same. Not to sound cocky, it’s just that experience shows that we will work out what needs to make things sound right on the night.

What’s your favourite song on the new album?

It changes week to week. I think for this album, there was a conscious decision by the band to let me loose, and do my thing, and I am so grateful to be in a band that allowed me to do that. I think Comatose is my favourite song from the new record. I remember when I first put my drum part on that in the studio, saying to the producer that it would never stay, but I was going to go for what I thought anyway, and you know what, it’s on there, exactly as I put it down! I love that heavy sound, it’s great. I’m immensely proud of this album.

What sort of practise routines do you have?

Well, sometimes we get a few months off between tours or studio sessions, and we’re at home. I maybe don’t play at all for a month, then I do some rudiments, never as much as I should. But sometimes I go to my drum room and say I’ll be half an hour, and come back six hours later, so it ebbs and flows. When I’m home, my role is to keep the house organised, and good nutritious food on the table, and seeing to the children, and the dogs. Life takes over on those times, so maybe I don’t may for a while, then other times I will do sessions and play stuff with my brother, and in local bands I hang out with, and I can be playing twenty-eight out of thirty days. I try not to force it. Music is already my job, I don’t want it to be a drag, so I do it when I feel passionate about it, and that keeps the good feelings going.

Are you prone to any injuries because of the style of drumming you play?

I’m forty-two still in a band, so things are creeping in now. I have tennis elbow, and arthritis in all my fingers. It’s not terrible, and that started when I was twenty-six and I was told then that it would become a problem later on. It takes longer to warm up now, I have a bit of back pain. Playing drums as I do is like running a marathon, so it’s a real work-out, which is good. Summer tour I lost 17 pounds, I was home a week and put it back on again. I can’t replicate that level of exertion at home because the enthusiasm of a live show doesn’t happen at home. I try to look after my body and I’ll keep on going.

If you could play one song with your dream band, who would it be?

Led Zeppelin of course, no contest. I know it’s the cliché, but it has to be them.  Last week, I was listening to isolated rums from Fool In The Rain, tapping it out, wondering ghost of a change of getting that legendary groove that Bonham put down, obviously not! I think until they came along, drummers were not really valued by bands, they were second-class citizens. But John Bonham was such an integral essential part of what they did, they couldn’t carry on without him. It’ such a tragedy that we no longer have his playing today. I heard Led Zeppelin when I was ten years old, it made me want to be a drummer. And I’m not the only one!