A Conversation With Claude Coleman Jr.

Words By Kristin Zachman (Direct Attention)
Photos by Blake Barit (Direct Attention)

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 hardworking guy 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 hugely 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 300 songs, and all these drunk hipsters come up and butcher them. The band is really beautiful though, and every once in a while there’s a really beautiful singer, which is great. I don’t do much at home because I travel a lot. Now I’m back, and Ween is off the road for a big break until around June or July. I’m gonna kickstart a bunch of shit, and get Amandla on the road.

KZ: Awesome! When can fans expect an Amandla tour?

CC: 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.

KZ: 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, or a booker, or a publicist, and I barely have a website. I do everything, play all the instruments, record it all, and print it. 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.

KZ: 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: I got divorced. I was married for 16 years, so that was a big thing. The same time as that happened, Ween broke up and blindsided us. It was like a one-two punch.

KZ: 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. I like the word, it’s pretty, and it means "power!" 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, just be truth man, and be honest, cool, good people... music, art, power.

KZ: Were your parents pretty into music when you were growing up? What was playing around your house?

CC: My father was really into jazz. I went to school for jazz, but that was just to learn how to play music. The environment I grew up in was a little musical, but I’m the only musician. It wasn’t a super music-centric family, but the art and the culture were appreciated. I just fell into playing music. There were these kids across the street who were my best friends, and we used to dress like KISS every year for Halloween. I would dress up like Ace Frehley, and I have pictures to prove it. 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 with my face painted like Ace Frehley, like “Fucking Rock And Roll!!!” I was obsessed with KISS; I still love them.

KZ: 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.

KZ: Oh totally, I think it’s become fashionable to hate on stuff.

CC: Exactly! 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 ‘90s 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.

KZ: 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. Ween’s manager, Brad, is good friends with Stewart Copeland of The Police. Stewart is his kid’s godfather or something. Well, we were playing a show in L.A., and he calls Stewart up and asks if Ween can come to his house and jam. He’s got this badass set up; it was like a man cave studio all decked out with recording gear. So we’re like “Yeah, we wanna go to Stewart’s house!” If you want to talk influences, Stuart Copeland was the only reason I started playing drums. I played his music my whole childhood. I became known as the dude who sounds just like Stewart Copeland; I even had the same kit. So once we got there, we were all drinking tequila, smoking big joints, and he was just the most righteous dude. But… the jams were terrible, 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, 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. So, are you guys from here (Colorado)?

KZ: 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.

CC: Yeah, man, those are both great areas. I’ve always toured in some of the more rural areas of Illinois, 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).

KZ: So, speaking of Ween. I’m a big fan of the Caesar Demos that came out of recording Quebec, like “That Man from the Flat Lands,” or “Ambrosia Parsley.” There is supposedly a lot of controversy around those songs. Do you think that Ween will ever play any of them live?

CC: There’s no reason we aren’t playing them. Honestly, there's just other stuff that makes for a more mainstream show. We like to sprinkle in obscure songs, two or three B-sides a night. There are thousands of recordings; Ween has so many songs. When you do that much material, your relationship to it is different. 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 about four hundred other songs. There are probably enough songs for ten other records like that, and it’s hard to play it all.

KZ: Does Ween usually record their albums in just a few weeks?

CC: No, those guys have a magical process. I’m as big a fan as anybody is of those two. The way they created was always amazing. 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  . And they’d 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 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 just the most amazing thing to be a part of. It’s like they didn't even try. If you lock them in a room with a four track and a drum machine they’d come out with some songs.

KZ: Do you foresee another Ween record getting made?

CC: 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 stable, without incident. This is the beginning of a process, and for another record to happen organically, we need more time. To be honest, Mickey and Aaron’s relationship has to settle. The issues are still fresh for them. There’s some public animosity, but it’s not purely hatred. It’s like family, man; they’re like brothers. No one can put a timeline on their healing. When people ask me about a new album, I just say “Let us keep hanging, and playing shows, and then they’ll get the bug again, they’ll want to create.” I mean, Mickey’s creating all the time doing Dean Ween things, I’m not sure what Aaron’s doing, but I know for a fact that he wants to get back into it.

KZ: 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 what Ween is to the world. “Poopship Destroyer” is like us giving a big middle finger. It’s always too long, it’s so sludgy, and it’s 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 almost a negative thing, like “fuck this, let's Poopship Destroyer, fuck you all.” 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.

KZ: 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!”

KZ: 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? 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 fans would love that.

KZ: 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. Halloween is usually a fucked up time as a drummer. No costume works at all because I’m moving, I’m bouncing around.

KZ: 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.

KZ: You play a lot of different instruments, right? Why is it we usually see you playing a drum kit?

CC: Yeah, I play almost 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. When I got drumming in a band, those bands 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 actually got Ween signed.

KZ: Oh really

CC: So, when Skunk got signed, we were young. I was like 20, and my bass player was 18, and he lived in his parent’s house. We were getting signed to Twin/Tone Records in Minneapolis. Their A&R guy was coming out because they wanted to sign us, but they hadn’t seen us live. So we did this show in our bass player’s mom’s basement, and we were friends with Ween at the time, so I asked, “You wanna come open up for us? This guy is coming out for a showcase,” and they said, “Alright.” So they did, it was just Ween with the tape deck, the chef hat, and the goggles in the basement. It was all of us from Skunk, Mickey, Aaron, and this one dude! After we all played, they signed them on the spot, and then we went home. That’s how Ween got their big deal, and the irony is that I end up working for them my whole life.

KZ: Before they were signed, was getting a deal something they were pursuing?

CC: It was all word of mouth. Andrew Weiss, who produced them, had a home batch label and he was putting out all the four 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 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, and all these huge bands. Everyone would boo the shit out of them, and throw shit at them. It was amazing; it was like, 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.

KZ: Well, as big fans, this has been special for us. Especially hearing about your jazz influences. Jazz totally lines up to a punk mentality. When I was younger, 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 extraordinary 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 is 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 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.

KZ: 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 literally 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.


Unabridged Interview


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