JamBase | Jersey
Go See Live Music!
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Claude Coleman, drummer for Ween and all-around musician for his own band Amandla. Being a fan of Ween I'm quite familiar with his drum work, but upon hearing Amandla's Falling Alone it instantly became a favorite. Based on Falling Alone I knew I had to see the band perform. It's a great feeling when a band exceeds your expectations on CD and then takes it to another level live.
Considering Amandla is mostly Claude, I was surprised how well they came across live, and how many people became instant fans that night.
So Claude and I sat down at a local coffee shop in his new hometown of Jersey City, NJ to discuss a bit of Ween, some Amandla, and a little about himself, including his near encounter with death.
David Weintraub: So before I get into Amandla and Ween, tell us a bit about your health. How are you feeling these days, and if you're comfortable with it, tell us exactly what happened to you.
Claude Coleman: (laughter) I got dinged up pretty bad about two years ago. Story goes, I was rear ended by a tractor-trailer on Route 78 (Jersey), heading westward. Then what happened was the tractor-trailer slammed into my car and catapulted me across the highway's median into oncoming traffic, where I got completely crushed by two or three different cars. The car was a heaping mass of smoldering metal and they had to cut the top off the car to get me out.
It was a pretty disgusting and violent ordeal. Fortunately, I have absolutely no recollection of it, and the last thing I remember was eating a slice of pizza three hours before that. I think that's proof there is some sort of god (laughter).
That was the night of a gig with your band Amandla?
No, no, I was hanging fliers for a gig in Hoboken that morning. The last thing I remember was being at the venue hanging fliers. Then I woke up four or five days later.
This was slightly more than two years ago?
Yeah, that was the beginning of the ordeal. So I shattered my pelvis, fractured my jaw, had severe brain injuries, clotting of the brain. I had constant vertigo and dizziness for about six months. Then I was in a wheelchair for two months, after that I had to do nine months of rehab to regain my strength, and then came a period of cognitive therapy, started to relearn language skills, memory skills and how to be a nice guy (laughter)
So does this currently hamper your drum playing?
Oh yeah, totally. In effect I'm playing with a handicap. I still have a lot of deficits on my left; still not properly feeling everything over here (puts hand on shoulder and arm). So, I am definitely dealing with this. I have to think harder, and player harder, and focus harder than I used to in order to get through it. It's less of a natural experience for me, unlike before where I could rock out, have a sip a tea, do my thing. Now I feel inhibited, so that's what changed a lot. My attention to it and my concentration is completely different. But it's no less enjoyable at all.
Two years removed from that, you have left Lambertville to reside here in Jersey City. How is the transition away from a place where so much of your music has been rooted?
It's fantastic. I'm a child of the city, born and raised in Newark (New Jersey). There are a lot of city elements in my character, as well as country elements. I've bonded with it, I identify with it. I really love the convenience of being in the heart of what's going on. Artistically, creatively, and politically, it's been great. Being close to many old friends, and new ones, has also been great.
In terms of the music, I've transported my whole operation with me, so it's not up here. I don't really feel any separation from the music which has been great. I just moved my studio down the street to my buddy's place, which has really worked out, at least for me! (Laughter) He's kind of putting up with me, working until three in the morning. I've got the headphones on while he's watching CNN. It's all worked out pretty great. I love being in this area. It's beautiful.
You're working with Ween, you have your band Amandla, so let's start with what most people know about you. Where's the collective head of the band Ween at right now? What ventures should we look for?
I'll give you the PG-13 version of the story. Basically, we're taking a little break from the last round of touring, and we're poised to start the new record. We're going to do some dates in October to keep our juices flowing.
Is the band close? I ask because here we are discussing your side project as well.
Oh, of course. We're family. Absolutely close like family. When you're in a band, and you have this close relationship, it's more like polygamy than a family (laughter). We are totally tight, and the best of friends.
I'd keep the polygamy thing off the record.
Yeah, totally. Well, you know how it is. Don't take it so literally, alright, pal? (laughter) We don't talk to each other every day, but we don't need to. We've spent the last 12 to 13 years of our lives together, so now it's just there. We are at arm's length away at all times, which is nice.
One more thing on Ween before we move on. I've seen the recent Ween DVD from the Vic Theatre in Chicago, and I must say, it's outstanding! It's one of the best live concert videos in my opinion. What are your thoughts on seeing yourself and the band in that setting?
I think it came out really wonderful. In fact it's really the only Ween I can sit down and enjoy, watch, and stomach. (laughter)
Why is that?
Usually, I have no interest in hearing our band live, on tape, or videos. I just have no interest in it. Not to disrespect the band, or anyone else, I just have no interest. I'm in the heat of it. I'm the guy on the stage. My approach to it is I want to keep the recollection of most shows in my heart and mind, not so much on a recording. And the fact that I've been playing those songs for a billion and a half years, I'm sort of indifferent to it. It's not like I am going to hear a song and be blown away after all this time. However, the DVD is a total triumph for our band. It came at a time when we were totally cruising on tour, and playing really well. It made me see Ween in an entire different light. I never realized we are as hilarious as we are! (laughter)
You mean hilarious between audience and band, or between band members?
I never realized how much hilarity, and rock moments, cream rock moments. It kind of overwhelmed me.
Well, you are a rock band!
I play the drums, and have been playing the drums. Then I go get drunk. I'm a purist about it, and I don't realize all the other things going on sometimes.
Why did the choose Chicago? Just curious, being from Pennsylvania and New Jersey in a sense?
Not really sure. Maybe because of the size of the venue? It was somewhere in between a large and small place. We sold out three nights there, but then again, we've done two nights in this area as well. You know, I'm not really sure. The Ween works in mysterious ways.
It came off great, regardless. Now you have your own band, which is Amandla. The first question, where did that name come from?
It's an African word from the Zulu language meaning "the power."
The Zulu language. Are you well versed in the language?
Not that familiar, but I know that word. It's a popular word. It was part of a politically used word of the African National Congress.
Which I think is disbanded, actually? It's now the Organization of African States, maybe?
Right? There's a whole bunch of political and criminal turmoil over there. Who can say what's what? (laughter)
Who knew this interview would focus on the problems in Sudan?!
Yeah, right? What's going on in Africa?
I think they need Amandla!
It's a popular word, recently used in the title of a documentary, and on a Miles Davis album. I heard the word a long time ago, and thought it was a beautiful sounding word. I didn't even know the meaning at the time.
I would name my daughter Amandla.
That was my thought, that maybe you knew someone by that name.
Then I found out it meant "power" and said, "Right on!" That's me, that's life, that's what I want my band to be.
Moving forward, I've heard your album, seen your band live, and you seem to cover a lot of musical ground with this band. How would you describe what you're trying to do with Amandla?
That's a complex question. My influences are so broad and diverse that my creative output reflects that. I never felt a person's creative outpouring should be limited to one or two things when so many things inspire you. What comes out of me is a reflection of all the things that do inspire me.
Musically, it's at times all over the map, but it's more a soul/rock kind of thing.
I noticed on the album, taking two songs, in this case the opening track "Smile" and "Daniella," we're talking one track that's almost Sly Stone-like and another that's practically Sabbath! You've got soulful music, and then hard rock. There's a lot going on.
I am into rock, soul rock, metal, jazz, and there are certainly elements of that in my writing. I go for a lush chord sound. Then there's a country element as well which reflects my time in Lambertville. On my new record I have some bona fide country music, with a fiddler and lap steel guitar. It's going to be beautiful.
These are just the things that I love, that I grew up on, and that's what I'm writing.
It's hard to not notice Aaron (Gene Ween) on your last album. Is there collaboration between what you are doing, or anyone else in the band, with members of Ween? Do you use each other to make your own stuff work? Or are you all separate?
I usually have a decent idea as to what I want the end result of any given song to be. In that tune in particular, which is a T-Rex cover song that's perfect for him for so many reasons, one being that he turned me onto the record and was responsible for me hearing it, so it's totally fitting for him to sit in on it.
I once heard Stephen Malkmus of Pavement say, "Once you write one song, your first song, you are basically just repeating the same process over and over, and it becomes slightly easier... It was like writing the same song again and again." Do you feel that way? Or how is it different for you?
It becomes easier in the process of doing it, but what you're attempting to do with a particular song usually becomes a struggle for anyone to try to communicate something personal, something intimate, with value. It's a labor of love, so you don't think about it as a struggle. I can't say it becomes easier, but you do start steamrolling along over the years with your writing. (Pause)
That's cool; you don't have to have the perfect answer.
Maybe it's that way for him since he writes a billion songs and is a great songwriter. (laughter)
Please, you're a great songwriter as well.
Let me talk about the live show you just played in Hoboken. It seemed like a very emotional night, one that I was viewing from afar, so to speak. I noticed what seemed to be family and friends, and a great vibe. What was going on there?
Well what went on is that show was the exact anniversary of my car accident. That venue was the last place that I can remember from the day of the accident; it was the place I was hanging fliers (Whiskey Bar). Not only was I there in the morning, it was the last place I remember.
That's tough, man, having to live with Hoboken as your last memory!
(Laughter) No, no, it's cool. It's a good place. Anyway, it took me and my group over two years to get back there so it was quite overwhelming. There were just so many factors involved.
I noticed a lot of heads being turned when they heard the music. A lot of, "Who is this guy?" The music is more straight ahead than Ween in a pop sense. It's very easy to digest. Are you more into what you are doing with Amandla or Ween?
The music is perhaps more mainstream, but it's so eclectic that it's equally as dangerous as far as being a successful artist. Seriously, I get a similar reaction about my music from people who, like in Ween, either love it or hate it. I have people who hear one song who may love one track, but aren't sure about another. It's like the dog with its head tilted when it hears the whistle. Then I have had people who are overjoyed with it.
That gets us back to Sly Stone and Sabbath.
I think it is easy for the average person to get it. But there are those who are trying to market this kind of stuff, who look at numbers and figures who may see it as a challenge to sell.
Well, it's not your typical pop, but don't you think people like different types of music?
Well yeah, it's definitely an indie-type record. A big part of my upbringing involved indie records. My favorite time period was the late '80s, and now there's an indie renaissance, with Sub-Pop, Twin/Tone, and stuff like that.
Now you are working on your new album. How's that going?
It's going pretty awesome, I'd say. It's slow going because I'm so busy with day-to-day affairs, survival. Some days I won't get to the studio til like five or six, and I have to push myself til 12. I have to push myself to get something done. So it's slow going, but a lot of fun. I'm noticing now since it's been a while that I'm in the studio recording my own music, there's a lot of change in my playing, a lot of evolutions, so that's made it more enjoyable to lay down some tracks. I'm somewhat startled and surprised about how different and how highly evolved what I'm doing has become.
I noticed on the last album that you played practically every instrument. Is that the case this time around?
Yeah, probably more so. It's a matter of practicality. I have a band, I have a bass player.
Yes, I saw the band play.
Like I said, there's a practical purpose to it. They're all players who are busy, and have lives, schedules, and itineraries. It's not always so easy to call someone up to have them come over and lay down tracks. I can't be scheduling a week in advance when in reality I want it down right now! I can play it, I wrote it, so it always ends up being me.
It's hard to do, and fun to do, but I realize I gel real well with myself. (laughter) I play with myself pretty good. (laughter)
The first time I realized musicians did that is when (Lenny) Kravitz did it, minus the horns which were done by Karl Denson. That's when I first realized that happened.
There's a long history of multi-instrumentalists, so I guess I'm one of them. People aren't even aware of how many people do it, from McCartney to Todd Rundgren--who's one of my favorites--Stevie Wonder, and others.
Is that in any way a putdown to the members of the live band?
Not at all, because there's a specific way I want it to go down, so it's not something that's better or worse. It's just really more of a taste and preference thing, as well as being more expedient.
Well, I'll say that on the new album one track really sticks out, and that's "Stone Love." It's one of the better songs I've heard in a long time.
We are trying to crack the Norwegian dance market with that. (laughs)
I didn't know of such a market!
There has to be one! All four corners of the world is the goal! (laughs)
Let's change it up and talk tech for a moment. You primarily play drums, so let's start there. What are you using these days?
Me personally, I can get on a set of trashcans and play a gig. I mean, I've done a gig with just a kick drum, a pair of sticks, and a high hat. I'm really not too overly critical about the gear I play with.
I've had one set of drums my whole life, and I just keep replacing them. I'll probably end up rocking out with this one for the next 25 years.
You said you grew up in the inner city. Ever play on a can?
No, but I used to play on books and rackets on my bed before my father got me my first set at a pawnshop! I used to use rackets, books, anything I could hit. I basically had a 30-piece set on my bed with all these different items.
Are you from a musical family?
Not at all. I'm the only one in my family. I'm the black sheep! (laughter)
I noticed you playing guitar live and in studio, and from my own experience I know there are differences there.
I love Fenders for electric stuff, and for acoustics there is nothing like a Gibson for me. All of them, they are such high-quality and beautifully made instruments. I had a loaner for our last gig in Hoboken and then took it into studio. I couldn't take my hands off it. I believe I even slept with it between me and my wife.
I doubt they want that back! (laughing)
(laughing) In that 72-hour time period that I had it in my possession I recorded four or five tracks! I went on a marathon with it. I could not let it go without getting something down on tape. I also love Fender basses. I could be happy with the Musicman and Epiphone as well.
I have an Ovation acoustic and it's somewhat lost between electric and acoustic. Although I do enjoy it unplugged.
Ovations to me represent that peculiar time frame in music history, that late-80s time frame where the Yamaha DX-7s were coming up.
A difficult time. (laughter)
Yeah, right before the mobile, strap-on keyboard was making a name for itself.
Totally. Straight out of the Pretty in Pink prom scene.
Right, right. A perplexing time for music. (laughing) I think that movie may have popularized it.
You play all the instruments, and in addition you do most of the singing. I was surprised at how good your voice is, considering it doesn't get that much play in Ween.
Thank you very much.
Do you enjoy playing all instruments equally?
I enjoy them all the same, but live I prefer to play the drums and sing. Now for the first time in the group's seven-year history I am making an effort to be up front, playing the guitar. This is something I am very excited about, and looking forward to it. It's not easier, but the songs that I'm writing, I don't want to have to be concerned with the drumming. I'd like to be able to float around more while playing, and with the vocals.
Well you noted the accident forced you to be more cognizant of what is going on. So has it been more difficult to sing and play the drums now?
Everything has been more difficult. In the process of making this record it's taken me a bit of a while longer than it may have in the past, the things I used to be able to do more quickly I cannot do.
A lot of these songs I wrote before the accident and they've become harder to play. It now takes me a bit longer to get them down. I have to rehearse and rehearse and rehearse, doing take after take after take in order to get a really strong cut. So that part of it is very different.
Are you a music perfectionist?
I guess I am, yeah, but a perfectionist for what I hear the music to be, not what I think it should be. I have strong, concrete ideas about sound, style, and feel. I'll work day after day after day to get it to a point before I move onto the next song.
Finally, you're on the spot, Claude Coleman, here it is, Jersey City or Lambertville, what works best for Claude?
Ooh, that's a tough call. I don't mean any disrespect, but I think I'm a country boy at heart. I need to see a bit more sky, and Lambertville occupies a soft spot in my soul, so I'll have to go with that.