Interview by: Kristin Zachman
Photos: Blake Barit
We at Direct Attention were humbled to sit down with Claude Coleman Jr. while he was in Colorado. Coleman is a talented multi-instrumentalist, best known for his work drumming in the alternative rock band, Ween. This hard working dude is notorious for collaborating with a variety of acts including the Mike Dillon Band, Angelo Moore’s Brand New Step, and Eagles of Death Metal. Since leaving the Northeast, Claude is extremely involved in the music scene of his new home, Asheville, NC. We sat down with Claude at a restaurant in Old Town Fort Collins before his gig with Matt Butler’s Everyone Orchestra. The food may have been stale, but the conversation was anything but. We got deep into Claude’s influences, what his plans are for Amandla, as well as the magic of Ween, and what may be coming next.
DA: Hey Claude! You’ve been living in North Carolina for a while now. I know you’re working with a band called The Digs, and you’re playing with the punk band, Skunk Ruckus. Are there any other projects that you’re participating in, down in Asheville?
CC: Yeah! I’m also in this karaoke band that does honkey-tonk songs on Thursday nights. We have this book of around 300 songs, and all these drunk hipsters come up and butcher them. The band is really beautiful though, and every once in awhile there’s a really beautiful singer, which is great. I mess around with The Digs, and I also do some projects with the guys from the honkey-tonk band, they do a lot of tribute shows. But really, I don’t do much stuff at home because I’m never really there, I travel a lot. Now I’m back and Ween is off the road for a big break, until around June or July. So I’m gonna kickstart a bunch of shit, and get Amandla on the road.
DA: Awesome! When can we (fans) expect an Amandla tour?
CC: Well we have a tour planned with Mike Dillon in February of 2018. But… the whole thing with Amandla is that I don’t have anybody doing anything, it’s all DIY.
DA: Do you have a steady lineup of musicians that you’re touring with?
CC: No, I don’t have a steady band. I don’t have a manager, I don’t have a booker, I don’t have a publicist, and I barely have a website. I do everything, play all the instruments, record it all, print it, and then I have to do everything else. With this record, I’m assembling a team. I’ve been talking to this guy in Philly, and he seems like he wants to connect me with the right people, so I’ll be able to do more touring next year.
DA: That sounds promising. Can you tell us some of the driving influences on the new Amandla record, since the last one was released in 2006?
CC: Well, I got divorced. I was married for 16 years, so that was a big thing. The same time as that happened, Ween ended and blindsided us. It was like a one-two punch.
DA: Does Amandla’s name have any relation to the Miles Davis album ‘Amandla’?
CC: Not exactly as to why the name is Amandla, but it’s the same word. It was part of the political slogan of the African National Congress during the apartheid. It was used in all their protests, “Amandla Awetu!” which means “Power to the People.” It was their chant for the length of apartheid. There are all these political organizations with the name in it, and then Miles did that record. I just like the word, the word is pretty and it means power, man. It’s like naming your band rock! It eradicates any bullshit, whenever I’m dealing with anyone’s shit I’m like; “Dude, the name of the band is power, and you’re doing some weak ass shit! Be it, be power!” It’s everything to me, just be truth man, be honest, cool, good people.. music, art, power.
DA: You play in such a wide variety of bands. Ween is so genre-defying, and then you played with Eagles of Death Metal, which is a genuine rock band, and Skunk Ruckus, which you defined as ‘hillbilly’ punk. Amandla gives more of an R&B vibe. Did that play a part in wanting to pursue your project?
CC: I mean… There’s no rhyme or reason. I wanted to do my own thing, with my songs. I’ve been playing guitar as long as I’ve been playing drums.
DA: How long has that been?
CC: When I was nine years old I told my Mom if they couldn’t get me a drum set, I didn’t want anything for Christmas. So she got me one, that’s the story she tells every Christmas. It freaked them out because they didn’t even know where to get a drum kit, but I knew then if I couldn’t get that I didn’t want anything. So they got me a drum kit, and then the next year I did the same thing with an acoustic guitar. “I don’t want anything if you can’t get me this.” Cause they ask you; “What do you want?” Well, this is the only thing I want, if you can’t get that, then forget it.
DA: Were your parents pretty into music when you were growing up? What was playing around your house?
CC: My father was really into jazz, and I think I got that influence from him. I went to school for jazz, but that was just to learn how to play music. Jazz school was the only option available to learn music. This was before I met Dave Dreiwitz. The environment I grew up in was a little musical, but none of my family members play music, I’m the only musician. It wasn’t a super heavy, music-centric family, but music and the culture were appreciated.
I just fell into playing music. There were these kids across the street, they were my best friends, and we used to dress like KISS every year for Halloween. I used to dress up like Ace Frehley, and I have pictures to prove it. But year after year, my Mom would set the paint out on Halloween, she was ready. I was this little black boy in Newark, New Jersey, going around like Ace Frehley, like “Fucking Rock And Roll!!!” And we used to play the KISS records, and that’s how I got into music, was KISS. I was obsessed with KISS; I still love them.
DA: So you have a thing for hair bands?
CC: I have an appreciation for them, for sure. There are better ones than others, there are good ones, in my opinion anyways. A good tune is a good tune, man.
DA: Oh totally, I think it’s become fashionable to hate on stuff.
CC: Exactly! Right? People don’t even know what they’re talking about. People like to hate on the ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s like.. Motherfucker, that was some of the greatest music, especially the ‘90s. That was the golden era of indie, alternative, and the hip-hop was the best! Even the ‘80s, it sounded goofy, but all those songs are incredible! We still listen to them; they’re still amazing. I’m not going to be putting on any ‘Little Jeezy’ or whatever the fuck is around now.
DA: So do you listen to any newer music? Are there any bands that are up and coming around Asheville that you’re into?
CC: I get turned on to music in weird ways, by my friends and people I know in bands. I’ll hear about new music, but off-hand I can’t think of any I know that I’ve gotten into recently. It’s hard; I’m always re-discovering old shit, there’s so much stuff that you continuously realize you don’t know about. Even today, we were talking about this one record, a Tom Petty record. It’s one I don’t have, but I know it’s fucking awesome. I’m going to get that and listen to it, that’ll be my new record of the month. It’s not to say there’s not good new music, I don’t know it just comes up differently for me.
DA: Makes sense. You do seem like a pretty busy guy.
CC: That’s the whole other thing, man. I’m not going to gigs at all, even if your my best friend, and you come to Asheville. I’m like “You go on when? 10:30, Dude? I’ll see you tomorrow!” I do think I need to step out a little more and discover stuff because I am a homebody. But man, I work in bars and venues, that’s my job. The last thing I want to do when I’m home is to go to a bar or venue; unless it’s Elvis Costello, or something super badass that I can’t turn down.
DA: So we touched on your musical influences a little bit with your mention of KISS, but if you got to jam with anybody that influenced you when you were young, who would it be?
CC: It would be someone like Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Prince or Bowie. Those would be people I love to jam with, where the jam probably wouldn’t even be all that great. You just want to be able to say you played with them. Brad, our manager with Ween, is good friends with Stewart Copeland of The Police, Stewart is like his kid’s godfather or something. Well, we were playing a show in L.A., and he calls Stuart up, and he’s like “Yeah, so Stewart is cool if you guys wanna go over to his house.” He’s got this badass set up that’s like a man cave studio, all decked out with recording gear. So we’re like “Yeah, we wanna go to Stewart’s house!”
Stewart is the reason I play drums; if you want to talk about influences, he’s the only reason. I grew up with the KISS thing, but I was more about Ace, more about the guitar. But Stewart was the reason I picked up a drumstick, the only reason. I played his music my whole childhood. I became known as the dude who “sounds just like Stewart Copeland.” I had the same kit, the octo bongs. So our manager is like “We’re going over there at 7 pm. Lobby call at 7 pm!” I don’t think any of us believed we were going over there, so I was drinking heavily, and when he told us that, I was like “Oh, no!” We went down to the lobby, and everyone was kinda buzzed because we had all been drinking. We went over to Stewart’s house, and he was the nicest, most chill dude in the world, and we jammed all night.
At one point, I picked up the guitar and was playing, and Stewart Copeland was my drummer. That was the coolest thing in the world. We were all drinking tequila, and smoking big joints, and he was just the most righteous dude. But… the jams were terrible. They weren’t any good at all, and he recorded all of it. Later we were like; “Man, I hope no one hears that shit,” because we were all super shithammered. We were in front of Stewart Copeland, all nervous and trying not to fall over ourselves. So I imagine if I were ever to jam with Prince, it would be the shittiest jam in the world because I’d be so freaked out, but I’d still want to be there doing it.
DA: As a musician with a career spanning close to three decades, do you think the presence of social media has changed the life of a musician for the better?
CC: I think it has created more opportunity for the musician, so to answer your question, absolutely. It’s put a lot of resources and tools directly in the hands of artists and creative people. In the past, they’ve had to rely on other people to help them do that. It puts all the resources in the artist’s hands, but its hard because people like me can’t stand it. I hate, hate Facebook. I started a Twitter account, and I haven’t posted on it in like, four years. Twitter I don’t quite understand, people use that for different reasons, it’s more like a self-important extension of people’s ego. It’s like “this is my statement!” then CNN runs it as news. Whereas, I’m only interested in the promotion side.
I think that for fans and listeners, it’s an entirely different user experience. For us, it’s this nasty crutch we have to learn to live with. People like me just want to be playing gigs, and going around doing things, like this interview. I don’t want to be broadcasting on my phone all the time; I hate that shit. All the bands I play with are like; “Dude, post our gig!” I’m like… “Dude, just fucking tag me,” or else I’d be doing that shit all day. So I think there’s a conflict, it’s a struggle. You can be successful, and you can use that stuff to amazing results, but you just have to do it. I mean, I could be doing for myself.
DA: Do you think if you were “coming up” at this time you’d be more inclined to use it?
CC: Well… I am with my band Amandla, which is still entirely invisible. When I have a serious go at it, I’ll figure all that stuff out.
DA: What a bummer, you shouldn’t feel that way. I know plenty of people who are stoked about Amandla, wanting to know more about the album and tour.
CC: We’re definitely touring, we have a West Coast tour booked with Mike Dillon, we just haven’t announced it yet. My band is opening up, and then I’ll sit in with his band.
DA: I love Mike Dillon’s percussion and style, it’s so energetic.
CC: Yeah! A little bit too energetic. He’s straight edge, that’s his problem. Nothing slows him down; there’s never a day when he’s slightly hungover. He’s always 100% he’s like “ERRT! ERRT!” then you’re playing with him, and he’s like “ERRRT!” He wakes up ready to go. I come to play after the Ween gigs, I’m so exhausted, and he just points at me, like “ERRRRT!” He’s like “THIS TUNES CALLED SOMETHING, SOMETHING! ERRRRT!” and he goes one song to the next, one song to the next, no breaks, no talking, just punk rock. You don’t even have the time to get tired, and when it stops I’m just like; “Oh shit, I can’t wait to go to bed.”
DA: You’re no stranger to collaborations and sit-ins. It seems like Everyone Orchestra is the perfect fit for you.
CC: It kinda is perfect. I think that Matt has the talent to pinpoint a particular musician’s strengths, he does a great job pairing people up.
DA: How is it to work with a conductor versus playing in a five piece band?
CC: It’s great, it’s like not having to think about anything. You don’t have to think about this gig at all because it’s improv, everyone just shows up. You don’t even have to think to jam because Matt is like “This! This! E! G!” It’s just listening, you’ve gotta listen to everybody and it’s really fun. That’s the definite difference; you’re focused on other things. You aren’t thinking about a specific song and all that, you’re listening. We take a lot of time to soundcheck because that’s what it’s all about, just hearing each other.
CC: So, are you guys from here (Colorado)?
DA: No I’m from Central Illinois, and Blake is from Buffalo, New York. It was pretty sweet growing up; we had a good little music scene. I think it was because of Chicago. We got a lot of acts coming through that would dip down into the rest of the state.
CC: Yeah, man, those are both great areas. I’ve always toured in some of the more rural areas of Illinois, like Champagne and Carbondale. And Ween would always play in Madison, WI, which isn’t Illinois, but it’s close to Chicago. We would play there religiously; it’s the only regular place we haven’t played yet (since the reunion).
DA: So, speaking of Ween. I’m a big fan of the Caesar Demos….
CC: Of the what?
DA: The Caesar Demos that came out of recording Quebec, like “That Man From The Flat Lands,” or “Ambrosia Parsley.” That’s what we (the fans) call them, anyway. There is supposedly a lot of controversy around those songs. Do you think that Ween will ever play any of them live? Or are they considered ‘no-no’ songs now?
CC: There’s no reason we aren’t playing them. I think they aren’t thought about too much, honestly. We’re not avoiding it. There’s just more stuff that makes for a more mainstream and cohesive show. We like to sprinkle shows with obscure songs, two or three B-sides a night. I think that’s more of the reason why we don’t touch upon all that stuff, is because it’s not familiar to everybody (in the band). There are thousands of recordings; Ween has so many songs. When you do that much material, your relationship to it is different. Like that record (Caesar) probably took in four or five hours to record, on day ten of fourteen days of working on the album (Quebec). Those songs were some of around like four hundred other songs. There are probably enough songs for ten other records like that, and it’s hard to play it all.
DA: I guess that was just one of the few demos fans got to see once they were leaked onto the Internet. I think people like to fabricate ideas of why we never hear them, that there must be some reason. I think that’s something a lot of music fans do. We start to formulate these reasons for things that end up to be completely irrelevant.
CC: Yeah, there is a lot of weird speculation in the Ween world, I’ve noticed. I can’t keep up with all of that. I hear about Ween stuff from fans all the time. Like you asked about the Caesar Demos, and I had no idea what you were talking about until you listed a couple songs. Even Rhoni (Claude’s Assistant) was explaining to me some rumors circulating about a New Year’s show in Philly or Pittsburgh or something. Like there is some New Years Eve controversy. I don’t even know where that comes from.
DA: Someone was probably just wishing for it to happen, and then said it. Once other people hear it, they think they have obtained some secret knowledge, and they hope it’s true. Social Media makes it much more prevalent.
DA: Does Ween usually record their albums in just a few weeks?
CC: No, those guys have a magical, magical process. I’m as big a fan as anybody is of those two. The way they created was always amazing, year after year. It’d be the two of them, and they’d go and rent a house.
Sometimes it’d be a farmhouse, or they loved to go to LBI, to the beach. That’s where they recorded The Mollusk. And they’d do that all the time, just lock themselves in a house for a month. We’d dip in and out to help with the demos. Every time we’d dip in and out, they’d play all these songs after songs that they’d been working on. We’d all just be laughing and talking about the songs, and they’d keep at it, it was magic. They’re just good together, and it just happened. They’d make this music that one song after the next was the most amazing thing to be a part of. They’re amazing; it was just magical the way they created. It’s like they didn’t even try, you put them up in a room with a four track and a drum machine, and that was it.
DA: Do you foresee another Ween record getting made?
CC: That’s a little bit of a complicated issue. For that to happen, I think there needs to be a little more resettling. We’ve come back and tested the waters with staying out, and we’ve proved to ourselves that we can keep afloat and stable without incident. So this is the beginning of a process, and for another record to happen organically, there needs to be more time. To be honest, Mickey and Aaron’s relationship has to settle. This is still fresh for them. There’s some public animosity, but it’s not purely hatred. Its like family, man, they’re like brothers. They just have to become brothers again, and I think for that to happen naturally, it just has to happen. No one can put a timeline on it. So, whenever people ask me about a new album, I just say “Let us keep hanging, and playing shows, and then when we’re getting used to playing together they’ll get the bug again, they’ll wanna create.” I mean, Mickey’s creating all the time doing Dean Ween shit, I’m not sure what Aaron’s doing, but I know for a fact that he wants to get back into it.
DA: So, I read you don’t like to play “Poopship Destroyer.” Do you still not love to play it? Any reason why?
CC: No. I still don’t like playing “Poopship Destroyer,” and I have a reason. “Poopship Destroyer” is like.. Ween had a middle finger on the Chocolate and Cheese ring, it was like our logo, and that’s kinda what Ween is to the world. “Poopship Destroyer” is like us giving a big middle finger, because it’s not even a great tune. It’s always too long, it’s so sludgy and its stupid, man, it’s numbskull shit. The reason why we play it is because that’s exactly what it is. Mickey always likes going into it if he’s not feeling a gig. It’s kinda almost a negative thing, like “fuck this, lets Poopship Destroyer, fuck you all.” It could’ve been a great gig up until then, and it still can be a great gig I guess. My thing is like, why even give people the middle finger, or couldn’t we do it in another way without “Poopship Destroyer?” I just never felt much about “Poopship Destroyer,” not like how I feel about 99% of other Ween songs.
DA: Okay, so what is your favorite song to play, if you had to pick?
CC: “The Stallion, Pt. 1” That tune to me is the definition of Ween. It’s so agro, and weird. “You goddamned son of a bitch! You goddamn piece of shit!”
DA: So did you have fun playing “The Stallion, Pt. 1-5” at Stubb’s in Austin?
CC: It was fun for us. It’s just fun to sing about The Stallion for thirty minutes, you know? Just song after song about The Stallion. We should do a whole concert about The Stallion, with a symphonic piece, accompanied by a soundtrack, documentaries, a theme album, merch, all that. I think they’d (fans) love that.
DA: I want to ask about your HalloWEEN costume. You were a prisoner, but if I’m not mistaken, you had a Donald Trump mask on. I thought that was hilarious, how do costumes usually come about?
CC: No one recognized who it was because the mask got all fucked up! I’m surprised more people didn’t say anything; it was a whole moment with Dave bringing me out in cuffs. But picking costumes is just a free for all. Everyone’s just like “Dude, what are you gonna be?” “Oh, I don’t know, there’s a costume shop a mile away” “Oh! They have bunny costumes, get those!” Then it’s done.
DA: In Dallas, I was standing next to a family of three that bought those bunny costumes off of eBay, they were close to the front, and they were all wearing them. They had their kid with them who looked like she was around fourteen or something. They were showing everyone the signatures on the insides of the heads.
CC: That’s heavy man.. I wonder if they washed them. I wonder how much they paid for them! Did anyone ask? That would’ve been my first question. Did they wear them all night? Wow.. Halloween is usually a fucked up time as a drummer. No costume works at all because I’m moving, I’m bouncing around.
DA: Where is your favorite place that Ween has gotten to play outside of the United States?
CC: Australia for sure. They knew us there, the crowds were like the same size as in the States, but so much rowdier. These people were crazy, man. We played this club, and they packed it so full, it was so hot and sweaty in there. You’d look around out into the crowd, and there were people crowd surfing in the back corners and going crazy. It was cool, man; they had a lot of energy.
DA: You play a lot of different instruments, right? Why is it we usually see you playing a drum kit?
CC: Yeah, I play every instrument. I’m in a lot of bands playing bass, and I’m starting to play more guitar in bands. I sing and play the guitar in my band, Amandla. But it just happened like that; I just haven’t played in as many bands with those instruments. When I got drumming in a band, they took off, so I got known for drumming. The first band I was in before Ween was called Skunk, and I drummed for them. We got signed with Twin/Tone Records, and we got Ween signed.
DA: Oh really?
CC: Yeah, it’s a classic story. Our band Skunk, we were young. I was like 20, and my bass player was like 18, he lived in his parent’s house. We were getting signed to Twin/Tone Records in Minneapolis; they had bands like Soul Asylum and The Replacements. So the A&R guy was coming out because they hadn’t seen us, they just heard us, but knew they wanted to sign us. So he came out, and we did this show in our bass player’s mom’s basement. We were friends with Ween at the time, so I asked, “You wanna come open up for us? Our A&R guy is coming out for a showcase,” and they said, “Alright.” So they opened up for us with the tape deck, the chef hat, and the goggles in the basement. It was all of us from Skunk and Ween, and this one dude! After we all played, they signed them on the spot. Boom, boom, boom, boom, and then we went home. That’s how Ween got signed, and the irony is that I end up working for them my whole life.
DA: Before they were signed, was getting a deal something they were pursuing?
CC: It was all super word of mouth. Andrew Weiss, who produced them, had a home batch label and he was putting out all the 4 Track tapes. His record label is called Bird Of Prey Records, and there are all of these great early Ween tapes. A lot of songs came from those tapes; they’re the early, fetal versions. So they were doing these tapes, and they were the darling of New Jersey. City Gardens was letting them open up for The Ramones, Sonic Youth, all these huge bands. Everyone would boo the shit out of them, and throw shit at them. It was amazing; it was part of the show how badly everyone hated them. Aaron would just always be like, “Oh, what’s wrong!? You hate us!? This song’s called “Papa Zit!!!”” It was such a freak show, man, just like, what the fuck… And they got every gig in the world, and then eventually, we (Skunk) got them a record deal.
DA: Well, as big fans, this has been special for us. Especially hearing about your jazz influences. I always felt that I could hear a little bit of that in your drumming, the way you keep time and watching you drum. I love jazz, because of how strange it is. It lines up to a punk mentality. When I was younger, especially, I gravitated towards punk because it put a voice to a lot of the displaced aggression and anger I felt. I’m grateful for it though because I exposed myself to some exceptional stuff, and great art.
CC: Well, yeah, punk rock is cool man. And I think that’s why you’re into jazz because jazz is punk rock. Like, Bebop? That shit is punk, it’s too fast, with too many notes, it’s dissonant, crazy music. They were doing it all for themselves. Like.. “Here motherfucker, you white motherfuckers.” They were shooting smack, and banging hookers. They were punk rock freaks! Jazz is a powerful form of fucking original expression, just like punk rock. There’s no window dressing, that’s why most people don’t like it, and why some people love it. It’s just fucking human. And punk is everything, man, like Weird Al Yankovic is punk.
DA: Fuck yeah he is! I think any satire is punk. It’s saying “here, look how stupid we all look.” I think that insight is super beneficial for society, a reminder not to take itself so seriously.
CC: Yeah, it strips away pretensions. Sometimes, you have to say fuck it and play some music. That’s Ween; it’s like “Fuck you, we’re gonna write songs whether you like it or not. And if you like it, come party.”
For now, Claude’s back in Asheville gigging around with a handful of bands. We can count on him taking Amandla on the road and dedicating more time towards his passion projects before Ween gets back together next summer. In the meantime, Claude and Mike Dillon will be announcing their early 2018 West Coast tour soon, and you can download Amandla’s most recent album Laughing Hearts on many platforms (including iTunes and CD Baby.) I’d like to extend my thanks to Claude Coleman Jr. for the great conversation and for being such an amazingly talented and humble dude.
Special thanks to Blake Barit. Without him, this article would not have been possible. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of Direct Attention and helping execute, produce, and edit this article.
Thank you to Alise Nacson and Rhoni Sampson.