Rolling Stone interview series Unknown Legends features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and veteran musicians who have toured and recorded alongside icons for years. All are renowned in the business, but some are less well known to the general public. Here, these artists tell their stories, giving an up-close look at life on music’s A list. This edition features drummer Bryan “Brain” Mantia.
Guns N’ Roses’ 2002 Chinese Democracy tour and Tom Waits’ 2004 Real Gone tour were such wildly different affairs that comparing them almost seems ludicrous. GN’R were playing arenas behind an outrageously anticipated album that wouldn’t land in stores for another six years, and there was so much chaos surrounding the shows — including a riot in Philadelphia when the band never showed up onstage — that promoters canceled the tour less than halfway through. Waits, meanwhile, played 11 intimate shows at small theaters across Europe and North America, and they all went off flawlessly.
These two early-2000s tours did have one thing in common, though: Bryan “Brain” Mantia, a journeyman drummer who has also held down the beat with Primus, Serj Tankian, Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell, Buckethead, and others.
As a kid in Northern California, Mantia was drawn to the “old-school funk” that he heard on the radio, picking up drums around age 16 while dreaming of becoming a professional skateboarder. Soon, he became interested in intricate jazz and fusion acts like the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Miles Davis’ Seventies combos. Rock was a less prominent part of his world, with some exceptions — like the night in the summer of 1977 when he was there at the Oakland Coliseum for Led Zeppelin’s last U.S. concert ever. “It was just chaos, and that kind of helped when I got in Guns,” Mantia says. “The chaos was ingrained in my brain. I was like, ‘Ah, shit. You got on late, and that makes it cool?’ They were making up excuses like, ‘Jimmy Page’s guitar isn’t working.’ I think they were just fighting backstage.”
In the last decade-plus, since leaving Guns, Mantia has switched his focus to creating music for movies, TV shows, and video games with current GN’R keyboardist/backup singer Melissa Reese. (Read more about their partnership in our 2020 Melissa Reese feature.) When he hopped on Zoom from his hometown of Cupertino, California, he was deep in their latest project for Call of Duty. “It’s like a billion-dollar game or something,” he says. “The budget is enormous. We go all-out.” He also recently finished playing drums for a new Predator movie and scoring a TV pilot with Reese.
They’re nice gigs, but Mantia owns up to feeling some nostalgia for the unpredictable thrills of GN’R in the Chinese Democracy era, including his long years working alongside Axl Rose in the studio on the near-mythical LP. And he’s happy to share some of his wildest stories from behind the kit. “I truly think [Axl] wants things to be at the highest level, and he puts that on himself,” Mantia says. “That’s the part that I admire.”
Your first break in the music industry came when you briefly joined Primus in the late Eighties. How did that happen?
There was this writer from Guitar Player, Joe Gore. He was a heavy musicologist. He had a band on the Worldbeat scene in the Bay Area, and he turned me onto this album Ice Cream & Suckers that was basically what Paul Simon stole when he made Graceland. I was like, “Wait a minute, that’s literally the same bass line as on Ice Cream & Suckers.”
So I’m playing with his band, Big City, and this dude comes in. Les [Claypool] will probably kill me for saying this, but it was Les. He’s carrying my drums. He’s basically my roadie. [Laughs.] He goes, “Hey, I got a band also. It’s called Primus.” I was like, “Yeah, sure, dude. Just like all the roadies…”
The guitar player in the band came up and said, “You gotta check out this band. They’re actually killer.” I went to the Berkeley Square and I checked it out. I was like, “Oh, shit. This guy is on another level.” So I went and jammed a couple times. But I was still skateboarding. Then I broke my foot. They ended up getting Tim [Alexander]. Tim worked out great. They went off and did their thing for years and years.
Then, after they became a really big band, I was working in L.A., doing sessions and programming. All of a sudden, the phone rings and it’s Les. He’s like, “We’re doing pretty well right now. Want to come play?” I was like, “Yeah. I’m not doing shit. Let’s do it.”
How about Praxis, the band you were in with Bill Laswell, Bootsy Collins, and Bernie Worrell around that time?
Praxis started when I was in a band called the Limbomaniacs. Our favorite albums were ones that Bill Laswell produced — Manu Dibango, Herbie Hancock, Public Image Ltd. Anything Bill Laswell, we were totally into. Our manager said, “Let’s reach out to him.” We went to New York, we recorded at Platinum Island. It was the greatest.
That’s when Buckethead entered the picture.
It was Joe Gore who turned me onto Buckethead. He got a VHS tape at Guitar Player. He was like, “Brain, you gotta check out this guy. You guys would probably get along.” I checked it out and it was him just sitting on a bed soloing, and an emcee was like, “David Letterman, you gotta get Buckethead in the band.” I thought, “This is crazy!”
I got the VHS tape when I was in New York doing the Limbo album. One day I was sitting at home at my parents’ house and the phone rang. It was Bill. He said, “Hey, I want to do this project with some of the Jungle Brothers and Af Next Man Flip and Bernie Worrell from Parliament/Funkadelic” — which I was a huge fan of — “and Bootsy … and Buckethead.” I was like, “Really?”
He sent some plane tickets and had me come out to New York to record. I played on Steve Jordan’s kit, and he was one of my heroes. I was like, “Oh my God!” And that’s how Praxis came about. We literally just jammed that first album, Transmutation.
You’re suddenly playing with some of the greatest players in music history. You don’t get much better than Bernie or Bootsy.
Yes. When it started off, I thought it was a joke. Then I was like, “This is the Jimi Hendrix of bass, the Jimi Hendrix of flippin’ keyboards.” Right? It ends there with those guys with funk. The real deal.
I definitely felt like, “Uh-oh, I’m the oddball.” That’s because Bucket had his schtick. Bootsy was like, “What is going on with this guy?” Bucket had his whole thing with the mask. He was playing with his toys and this giant robot that was making sounds. I remember thinking that I didn’t know where I’d fit in with this.
One day I was sitting there waiting to play and Bill walked by. He’s the coolest guy. He’s like Batman. He never really talked. He’d just whisper in my ear. He just said, [very softly] “Play the drums like you’re going to kill somebody.” Then I said, “Fuck, I get it.”
What were your initial impressions of Buckethead, just as a person? What was he like?
It was like, “Here’s another real-deal guy.” And I wasn’t sure I was a real-deal guy. I was still doing sessions. I was still doing suntan lotion commercials and dealing with producers that were very L.A. and very much like [uncool voice], “OK, we have to do this ten times and we have to get it right.”
Bucket wasn’t a session guy. I don’t think Bernie made Letterman’s band because he was just too real. It was like, “Bernie, you’re late. You have to show up on time.” “I’m Bernie Worrell! I don’t have to fuckin’ do anything!”
Bucket was the real deal too. He still, to this day, will send me music. Almost every morning, I wake up and there will be a solo on my phone. “Hey, dude. I think I’m getting faster!” [Imitates crazy guitar sound.] All those guys [in Praxis] were living it. It wasn’t a joke.
How did you first encounter Tom Waits?
That one came through Les [Claypool]. He called me one day and said, “Tom Waits is looking for a drummer.” Stupidly, I was naive to songwriting. I was so into my own little narcissistic view of drums that all I cared about was getting better at that, and fusion, and how many different odd times I could play in.
When Les said that, I really didn’t know who Tom Waits was. When he said, “Tom Waits is looking for a drummer,” I said, “OK.” He goes, “No, dude. I don’t think you understand. People would kill to play with this guy.”
It’s only now that I understand the magnitude of it. And when I played shows with him, I’d tear up at some of the songs in the middle of them.
I didn’t hear anything back for a while after Les told me about the job. And then one day, I’m at home and the phone rings around 10 p.m. It was Tom. He just said, [scratchy Tom Waits voice] “Hey man, Les tells me you’re a good drummer. Do you want to come to Prairie Sun [Recording Studio] and we’ll do some stuff?”
I went, “Yeah, sure. What kind of drum should I bring?” He said, “Don’t bring anything you can buy at a store, especially Guitar Center or those kind of places. And bring shoes that have wooden soles.”
I found my dad’s shoes. I went up there. The first track I played on, we literally had plywood on the ground. They were 12-by-12 sheets of plywood. We literally tap danced the first rhythm. [Imitates the rhythm.] I was like, “Uh-oh. This is going to get weird.”
On Bone Machine, you’re on “Such a Scream” and “In the Colosseum.” Do you recall making them?
Yeah. “Such a Scream” was the greatest. I had this snare drum made out of an old torpedo shell. It was this super-thin metal. On that song, I was hitting it and Tom went, “That sounds amazing. It’s like a shotgun. I love that sound.”
I was playing and he was rolling tape. I just started hitting things, playing around to the song, but not thinking they were recording. I played through the whole thing without even thinking. At the end he went like, “That was great. It sounded like you were playing a jail cell.” I was like, “That’s it?” He goes, “Yeah. It’s done.”
When you hear most pop albums, you can basically tell when they were recorded by the production or the sounds of the drums or synths. You can be like “This screams 1978” or whatever. That’s never true about Tom Waits albums.
It kind of reminds me of Bruce Lee. You see Bruce Lee and you’re like, “That could have been today.” I don’t know what it is. There’s always a retro thing he’s going for. It’s always a beat-up, fucked-up sound. I have so many stories of how we recorded. I’d be in a pasture and just playing outside.
I love Mule Variations. You’re on “Big In Japan.”
“Big in Japan” was kind of funny. We did it with Primus. I’m half Japanese. I remember [Tom] coming up to me in the studio. He goes, “Brain, I have this song called ‘Big in Japan.’ It has nothing to do with you.” I’d known him for like 10 years at this point.
I didn’t give a fuck about anything. I was like, “Whatever. Who gives a shit?” When we started that one, I remember it was this cool funky groove. And Tom doesn’t like traditional drum kits. He had this 26-inch marching drum from a marching band. We used that as the kick drum. It had a real big, open sound.
For my hi-hat, instead of playing a traditional hi-hat stick, I had this weird piece of wood. He put jingle bells and weird stuff on it, pieces of metal, he had literally nailed.
If he says to get there at 10 a.m., he’s there at 8 a.m. on the ground, making percussion stuff or hitting things to get sounds and tones, or he’ll bring in weird carburetors from cars. I’ll get there and be like, “There’s Tom.” He’s on the ground, pounding shit.
Where was Real Gone recorded?
They brought the whole studio to this old church in the middle of nowhere. They brought a huge truck, unloaded it, and built the studio in this church. I remember the drum set pattern in one song was recorded in the bathroom because it had a cool echo. We were hitting the sides of the walls with these weird things that Tom made out of plywood. Everything was made by him.
We would go in there and hit things. One time, I opened up a garbage can and saw a microphone in there. I was like, “The fuckin’ microphone is in the garbage can.” He was like, “It sounds like someone got buried there.” Everything was a free-for-all.
He asked you to go on that tour. That must have been incredible.
Yeah. I remember my drum company, DW, asked me to go to a show at the Warfield in San Francisco. I forget who was playing. It was this new singer-songwriter. When I went backstage, someone said, “Hey, Tom Waits is here.” I had played with him on Bone Machine, Mule Variations, and some other Jack Kerouac thing that we did.
[His wife] Kathleen [Brennan] was there, and someone said they wanted to say hi to me. I was like, “That’s rad. I haven’t seen Tom in years.” I’ll never forget when I went up to talk to them. Kathleen said, “Hey, what are you doing?” I said, “Nothing. Just playing a lot of tennis and golf.” She said, “It would be fun to do something.”
That turned into Real Gone, where he almost made me a member of the band. I was a in trio with [guitarist] Marc Ribot and [bassist] Larry Taylor. These are some of the best musicians to ever work with Tom. It was the biggest honor I could ever receive.
What was it like learning Tom Waits’ catalog?
I never really did. The funny thing is that I was still into hip-hop. I became good friends with Tom’s son, Casey. He ended up playing drums with him later. We’re friends to this day.
The greatest thing happened in Berlin when we were on tour. We were playing this beautiful theater, and we had about a four-hour soundcheck. We went through all his hits, all the big songs. Marc would help me and go, “Hey man, this one sounds like this.” I’d kind of heard them, but not really. We went through all these songs, maybe like 20 of them. I went, “This show is going to be the best show. I got all the parts.”
I’ll never forget. We were downstairs. Tom was upstairs in his own dressing room. It was me and Larry and I’m sure Ribot was somewhere. Kathleen knocks on the door and goes, “Here’s the setlist today, Brain.” I grabbed it. The door shuts. I look at it and go, “No! None of the songs we rehearsed are on this! ” I go running back up. I go, “Kathleen, I don’t get it. We rehearsed all this other stuff and…” Then I went, “Ooooh. I get it. He wants it to be fresh. He doesn’t want me to know it. He loves it like this.”
He could easily play “Jersey Girl” or “Downtown Train” or “Ol’ 55,” songs the audience knows every word of, and he doesn’t do it.
Nope. He doesn’t want to. Another funny story is that when we were recording Real Gone, there was a song they working on the day before I got there. Ribot was showing it to me. “It goes like this…” Tom walks in and goes, “What are you doing?” Marc goes, “I’m showing Brain the song.” He’s like, “Man, don’t ruin it!”
To switch gears here, how much did you know about Guns N’ Roses in the Eighties and Nineties? Were you a fan?
I wasn’t a fan of the music so much. I was just a fan of Axl and his vibe. I remember seeing him on MTV in that feather boa. Melissa always tells me it wasn’t a feather boa, though. But I saw him wearing one of those things Dave Navarro aways wears with his shirt off. Axl is wearing it with this spandex.
I saw this video where Axl was yelling at the audience, “Hey, can someone get that guy? Fix that!? No? Fuck it! I’ll fix it!” And he dives into the audience. I was like, “Holy shit, this guy is rad. What the hell?”
When Bucket got in the band and said, “Josh Freese just quit. I’ve been telling Axl about you. Would you be interested?” I was like, “Oh, shit.”
This was 2000. They were already deep into Chinese Democracy.
Josh had recorded almost all of the songs already.
Josh is a sick drummer, but he’s not on the album. It’s mainly you playing. How did you approach his parts?
With Josh, we’re two different players. It’s just like Tim [Alexander] and I. I get hate mail from Primus fans that say, “You ruined the band. You made it simple,” or “you made it funky,” or whatever. “Tim’s a better drummer.” I’m like, “Yeah. Tim is a way better drummer for what they’re doing.” We’re friends. He does his style.
It’s kind of the same with Josh. I’ve sat behind and watched him play with Devo. He’s an amazing technician. I saw him with Nine Inch Nails. It’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen, just technically and how he can play something so fluid and perfect. But my style is way more hip-hop, way more funk. I have good technique, but it’s a whole different style. Axl said, “Brain, re-record the songs as you.” I said, “OK.”
There’s one song where there’s a bunch of 16th notes going by. Every time he’s doing the fill, he keeps the kick drum going, doing eighth notes. It’s the Keith Moon style. My style is way more Wu-Tang. When I did that beat, I did it like the GZA from Liquid Swords. He came back and was like, “Uh-oh. There’s too much space. I don’t think Brain doing his thing will work.”
He came back and said, “Why don’t you keep your feel and what you do, but do all of Josh’s parts.” I was like, “Well, I’m not going to transcribe all this stuff,” even though I could do it. So we took a stack of CDs to Sony and went to their editorial department and found some dude that’s a master transcriber for orchestral stuff. We just said, “Dude, here’s all the songs that Guns are doing. Transcribe them.”
I literally had five [music] stands of the whole piece, of exactly what Josh played. I played it with my feel, but his parts. Towards the end, we started throwing the charts away. Then I started doing my own thing.
Most people found Axl pretty intimidating back then. How did you find him when you first met?
It was definitely intimidating. I knew, “Uh-oh, this guy may snap on me.” But my main goal was to play with Miles Davis or Prince. Instead, it went to Primus, Tom Waits, and Guns N’ Roses. So I didn’t really think about him. I was like, “I’ll go in there and talk about Wu-Tang.” I think he liked it. He thought it was cool. Axl has always been into different music. And because I went in naively, it kind of worked.
You started playing shows with GN’R in 2001. How much are you trying to recreate the original parts by Steven Adler and Matt Sorum, and how much are you trying to put your own spin on them?
When I started listening to the old stuff, I started realizing, “Shit, this stuff is deeper than I thought.” Adler kind of played like Alex Van Halen. He’s playing the guitar parts on the cymbals, or he’s playing the bass part. He’s not just playing through it as a groove. There would be two bars here and a six-beat section. There were like A, B, C, D, F sections. I was like, “Shit, this is kind of complicated.”
I just loved Adler’s greasiness. He brought a love to it, if that makes sense. This is his stuff. This is his music. This is him. Sorum brought more of a metronomic style. He was more into, “OK, my hair’s gotta look good. I need to make sure my chains are hanging right.” Nothing against him. I’m sure he’s a great guy. I just gravitated way more towards Adler because there was just this love screaming out of the drum set.
You were a part of the first concerts they’d done since 1993. There was so much attention on it from the fans and the press. Did you feel that pressure?
I was nervous myself because I was like, “Wow, this is a lot of music to remember. It’s not really my style 100 percent.” There wasn’t that freedom of Primus, where it was like jazz — we had no setlist. Les would just call off songs and we’d start playing them.
With this, I got nervous about the technical side and if I could do well for this band. I didn’t understand the magnitude of, “There’s no more Slash or Duff. Shit. This is a big deal for Axl.” My thought was, “I’ll just keep a beat.” That was my protection. I didn’t let myself go there. It’s only later I realized, “What the hell? I can’t believe I went through that.”
The fans were pissed. They wanted the old band.
One hundred percent.
The 2002 tour was complete chaos with the late starts and the riot in Philadelphia. Do you remember all that clearly?
Yeah. One hundred percent. Like I said, I joined the band because of that attitude and because of the aura that was like Led Zeppelin. I loved it. Everyone else was sitting there, freaking out, like, “Oh my God. Axl is two hours late!” I was sitting there eating an ice cream like, “Who cares? Maybe we won’t even play! That’s even better! As long as the money comes, who gives a shit?” I totally felt like the chaos never died. I was so into the vibe of that. He might have been brilliant. He might have freaked out onstage. I was into it.
I totally remember the Philadelphia one. I was in the hotel. I kept calling the tour manager. I was like, “Hey dude. Do I need to come down yet? Do I need to play this show? What’s going on?” He was like, “Just stay there.” I was like, “Something’s weird.”
We had just played Madison Square Garden the night before and killed. I look over and there’s Beyonce and Jay-Z and Chris Rock, and they’ve loving it. We did a great show. Here we are now in Philly and we don’t know where Axl is or what’s happening.
I’m loving it. I’m literally eating pasta like, “This is cool.” I get a text from Mix Master Mike’s wife. She’s like, “Brain, are you guys showing up? They’re throwing things and yelling at Mix Master Mike. He’s been playing the same DJ set for about an hour and a half.” I’m like, “Dude, I don’t actually know.” We finally get the call that he’s not coming. They went, “Everyone go home. This is the last show.” I was like, “Oh, shit…”
If he didn’t feel like playing, for whatever reason, he just wouldn’t show up. He knew it would likely invite a consequence like a riot or a cancelled tour, but he didn’t seem to care back then.
That’s on the biggest level. And I’m not saying it’s right, but that’s kind of like the stories I’d hear about Bernie Worrell and George Clinton getting into their shit. He’s willing to throw it away. In the end, I don’t know. I saw Bernie towards the end when I heard he was sick. I went to one of his last shows. In the end, I don’t know if it’s worth it.
But now Guns N’ Roses show up on time, Melissa tells me. They play for four hours and it’s the most amazing show. So go figure. But I kind of dug it. I have the stories. I have the experiences. I can play the fuckin’ drums — that’s boring.
I know this is a complex question with a long answer, but somewhat briefly, why did Chinese Democracy take ten years?
[Laughs.] Well, I think because it started with the original band. That was a good two or three years of chaos. And then Slash, Duff, and Matt Sorum left. They got Josh. That took a couple more years. They went through some producers.
When I got in, it was just a lot of trial and error regarding what we were going to make, what style of music. It was a new band. Also, Axl takes his time anyway. And now because it’s this whole new thing, it will be twice as long. Then it became almost like a folklore. It was like, “Now it’s gone this far, it might as well just be $12 million, $13 million. Ten years. Let’s go for the record.” I don’t know. [Laughs.]
You’re burning millions of dollars. Songs are leaking out. What was it like to be in the eye of that hurricane?
That was crazy. I think I have the record for the drums being set up the longest at the Village. That’s where they did Tusk and all the Fleetwood Mac albums. I think my drums were literally set up there for about four years. They were set up, ready to play. I did the Tom Waits tour and Real Gone during that. And it just kept going. I’d get the call.
I really realized, in that moment, “This is the greatest thing in the world.” The moment I wanted to get into music, not even drums, is when I saw The Song Remains the Same. There’s a scene where Jimmy Page is sitting there with a music box. He turns around and a guy is like, “We need you. You’re going to go play.” The next thing you see, he’s at Madison Square Garden.
I just loved the fact that I was in Guns, but I was doing other things, like taking golf lessons every day and learning computers and programming and orchestration and music theory. And then you get a call like, “Hey, Axl needs you.” I was like, “This is the closest I’m going to get to the Zeppelin thing. Who gives a fuck? Make it go forever. This is the coolest thing, that it took 10 years.”
The Beatles made Please Please Me in a single day, and it’s amazing.
Many fans say the songs on Chinese Democracy are great, but you can hear all the labor that into them and perhaps it was too obsessed over. Is that fair?
Yeah. I had the joke in the studio one day when they were playing the playback. I said, “Dude, I think the zeroes and ones are getting worn out.” It was played so many times and there’s ten different hard drives and “that’s in the vault somewhere, we have to go get it.” There was just so much labor.
I agree with a little bit of that. When I listen to it, it has its thing. Is it how I feel when I hear Appetite? No. Is it how I feel when I listen to Use Your Illusion or The Spaghetti Incident? No. But it has its own thing. It’s very dense and very electronic-y and very metronomic. It’s got that.
There’s so many legends surrounding the creation of the album. Is it true Bucket had them build him a chicken coop in the studio?
Yeah. He felt best playing in a chicken coop, and they built it for him That’s the beauty of this band. You better watch what you ask for since it’ll show up.
Why did Bucket leave Guns?
Bucket just struggled with the politics behind it. Bucket was a true musician in that he just wanted to play. He’d be like, “Why does it have to be so hard? Why can’t the album just come out?” I was basking in it: “That’s part of the gig, dude.” He wasn’t feeling it. We had a little bit of a falling-out. He was like, “It seems like they’re just getting off on this.” I was like, “It’s not that I’m getting off on it. I’m just trying to let it be what it is. I’m not going to be able to change it, obviously. So I might as well get what I can get out of it.”
The band went back out on tour in 2006, and Izzy joined you occasionally. It seemed like that was a good time.
Yeah. Each tour had their own little thing. They all had chaos. Every three days, you never know what was going to happen. We had some of the best shows, some of the worst shows. It was all kind of this rollercoaster. That kept it interesting to me.
Some shows started past midnight, which must have been after the overtime fees kicked in at some venues. That’s pretty nuts.
Yep. But in the end, if we started at 1:00, the show would finish at 4:00. And Axl would give everything into that show. I’ve never seen that fuckin’ dude wimp out ever. If it starts at 1:00 am, that show is going to finish at 4:30. And even if you’re asleep, he’s still screaming.
Why did you leave Guns?
My daughter was born. I was like, “I don’t know if I want to tour anymore.” I still liked the vibe. I still liked the people. I got along well with Tommy [Stinson]. I don’t feel like there was ever any weirdness with Robin [Finck] or Dizzy [Reed] or anyone in the band.
It really was, for me … The fun of Axl and the attitude kind of went away. I found myself like, “Here I am playing ‘Nightrain,’ doing the cowbell part. There’s something else left for me in music, and it’s not this.” Everyone is always like, “What happened? Were they jerks?” No. Mainly for me, it was that I wanted to do something else with my life.
You also met Melissa around this time.
Yeah. At that point, I was studying theory really heavily. I was getting into classical theory, jazz theory, even eclectic stuff that my teacher was teaching me out of these weird books. I was trying to learn everything about that stuff.
When I met Melissa, and she was classically trained, had perfect pitch, and some interest in this stuff, and was way younger and mold-able… I was like, “This person is perfect as a partner.” And she was also hot, so I was like, “Hey, I can look good too. I’m going to delve right into this.”
I was getting calls like, “Josh just left Nine Inch Nails. They’re looking for someone.” I was also called by Korn. “Terry Bozzio wanted $2 million to play with them. Will you do it?” And then Serj [Tankian] from System of a Down called. I had just played on his album [Elect the Dead] and he wanted me to go on tour.
This all happened at the same time. I could have hand-picked the next gig if I wanted to stay in drumming. But I was like, “Nah, I’m going to try and do this other thing.”
The dream of most every drummer on Earth is get phone calls like the ones you were getting.
[Laughs.] Right. And I’m avoiding them. That’s how much I wanted to be on the other side. But I wanted to be [Oscar-nominated film composter] Marco Beltrami or [Ennio] Morricone or something. It’s like, “Dude, you’re a drummer. Stand back there! You’ve got 20 years of shit you gotta do before you get that.”
You made a very swift shift there. It must have been jarring to go from flying off to Prague to play with Guns N’ Roses to making the music for Call of Duty.
Yeah. The chaos part is a big part of me. “Axl didn’t show today,” and I’m like, “Fuck it!” I like that kind of stuff. Now it’s corporate. It’s deliverables and answering e-mails on time. It’s not about me as much. It’s about the vision of the director. You have to please the studio. It became less about music.
I got hit pretty hard. There was a period of about three or four years where I was like, “Wait, drumming is maybe more my natural personality.” I remember talking to my therapist and going, “What happened? Drumming just happened for me. I got all these calls. And now with composing, I can barely get anything.” It’s only until now that we’re sitting at the table. But I’ve been doing it for 12 years now.
What’s crazy is that you leave the circus of Guns N’ Roses in 2006, and your partner Melissa joins up with the band 10 years after that.
Yeah. Of course, you know that story. That was crazy. The last thing on both of our minds was that call. In the end, it was perfect.
You have both spoken about these remixes of Chinese Democracy that Axl asked you to do a few years ago. Might those be heard someday?
I hope so. That’s the beauty of what I love about Axl. He let us go in there and reconstruct and fuck with the files, and even his voice, and play with them. We put some crazy techno beats and electro beats and Wu-Tang beats and all this kind of stuff, and allowing us to do those halftime shows with the remixes. It’s why I still work with them. It’s moving forward for me, musically, in that sense.
Will it ever come out? That’s when it hits the corporate side of stuff. Now Slash and Duff are back. Are they into it?
What’s funny is that Tom Waits, Axl Rose, and Buckethead are all very different artists, but they all have a real aura of mystery around them. They don’t really do interviews and the public knows very little about their offstage lives. It’s pretty amazing you’ve worked with all three of them.
Yeah. I think that’s why I gravitated towards them. Someone like Bootsy does more stuff, but Bootsy also knows the game to play. He can do the interviews, but he has that [mystery] too. Bill Laswell has it. The people I’m interested in doing stuff with always seem to have that.
Are you still close with Buckethead?
Yeah. We’re doing a Praxis show with Bill Laswell at Sony Hall in New York. August 30 and 31.
You’re going full circle back to your beginnings.
Yeah. We haven’t really discussed yet what we’re going to play, but I think that’s almost going to make it better. Bill’s been playing me a lot of Miles Davis remix stuff he’s been doing. I’ve been getting secret tapes of that stuff. They’re outtakes from the Seventies, my favorite era. I’m going to steal some of those grooves. That’s a gig I’m looking forward to playing.
The amount of music Bucket makes is pretty ridiculous. It gets no attention from the mainstream press, but it’s all out there.
He just loves to play. There’s that kid in him that somehow he’s held onto. Every time I’ve talked to him or done stuff with him, he always has a guitar in his hand. He’ll show up at your door with a guitar in his hand.
If the shorthand phrase that people use with you forever is “former Guns N’ Roses drummer,” do you mind?
No. In the end, I don’t really think about it. I used to fight it. Now, when I think about it, I am proud to be part of it. I was a part of something at the top level. I’m never going to play with Mick Jagger or Miles… Not that I’m comparing them, but on the rock and roll side, wow, that’s about as cool as it can get. And on the singer-songwriter level, I’m not going to play with Dylan. But shit, I got to play with Tom Waits.