Pay for Play
Superstar session drummer and Dadaist marketing genius Josh Freese (Devo, the Vandals, A Perfect Circle) sells himself, his famous friends and all-you-can-eat shrimp at Sizzler to promote his new album
As the sun sets over the parking lot of the Long Beach Courthouse, one of the best and busiest session drummers in the industry is standing motionless, a pair of shearing scissors in one hand, a plastic comb in the other, poised over the head of one of his biggest fans.
An overturned cardboard box serves as a provisional barber’s chair. Josh Freese looks around, unsure.
“Okay,” he says. He’s wearing a T-shirt (“Don’t Mess With Kansas Either”) with black jeans and Circle Jerks slip-on Vans; his blond hair is cut short. His teeth? Remarkably white. “I feel like such a freak doing this. And you know it’s bad if I feel like that.”
Freese and fan Bill Butler are surrounded: Along with Freese’s girlfriend (Nicole Amdurer), a photographer and Freese’s personal videographer, there’s a steady stream of people walking out of the courthouse, staring.
Someone points out the man in the dark suit peering down at the mini-media circus some three floors below him.
“We’re officially being watched,” Freese says, looking up.
Photographer Susan Sabo convinces the two to move in front of the parked, empty police car. “How ’bout we do it with the police car behind you?”
“How ’bout I lay on the hood of the police car?” Freese counters.
“No, seriously,” Sabo says. “It’s a good backdrop.”
“And then at the end,” videographer Jonathan Rach adds, “we’ll throw a brick at it!”
“Yeah!” Freese says. “Flaming bottle of vodka!”
Still slightly tipsy from the previous pit stop at the nearby Pike Restaurant & Bar, where he alternated between sips of Fat Tire and Patrón with lime and Cointreau on the rocks (Jerry Casale from Devo’s signature drink—a no-bullshit margarita), Freese begins cutting. Butler, perched on the edge of that grubby cardboard box, is getting what he paid $1,000 for.
* * *
It’s all a part of Freese’s grand marketing ploy, a not-unprecedented but still quirky scheme to get people talking about his second solo album, Since 1972—but mostly to talk about Josh Freese.
Even if you’ve never heard of him, you’ve heard him. As a professional drummer and session musician, he’s one of the best around—if not the best—known for getting the job done fast and right. Freese is a permanent member of Devo, the Vandals and A Perfect Circle. He served as the drummer for Nine Inch Nails for three years and worked with Guns N’ Roses from 1998 to 2001, even helping to write Chinese Democracy’s title track. As a session musician, he has played on close to 300 records, working with everyone from the Dwarves, Slash, Sting and the Replacements to 3 Doors Down, Avril Lavigne and Kelly Clarkson, effortlessly moving from the hard-driving prog-metal rhythms of A Perfect Circle to the odd-time-signature quirkiness of Devo.
When the 36-year-old announced in March a list of limited-edition, special add-on packages in conjunction with the release of his new album, he wasn’t the first to offer fans such bonus opportunities. Radiohead’s promotion of In Rainbows was considered “groundbreaking” in the music industry; the band let fans choose to either download a digital copy of the album for whatever price they wished, or they could opt for the $80 discbox, which had things such as an illustrated lyric booklet and an extra audio disc. In March 2008, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor released a 2,500-copy run of an “Ultra-Deluxe Limited Edition” for Ghosts I-IV that cost $300. Other tiers of the promotion included a different limited-edition album for $75 and a simple $5 digital download. In May 2009, Reznor raised more than $645,000 for a fan in need of a heart transplant by offering $300-to-$1,200 packages that gave buyers meet-and-greets, autographs, photos and even dinner backstage.
Freese, however, has taken things in a new, even Dadaist direction: $50 for a thank-you phone call; $250 for lunch at P.F. Chang’s or the Cheesecake Factory; $500 to float in a flotation chamber (a.k.a. sensory-deprivation or isolation tank) followed by dinner at Sizzler (“Get your $8.99 steak and all-you-can-eat shrimp on!”). As the price increases, so does the absurdity: $2,500 for a drum lesson (or foot rub) and buffet at the Spearmint Rhino strip club; for $5,000, Stone Gossard from Pearl Jam will write you a letter about his favorite song off Since 1972; $20,000 gets you a game of miniature golf with Maynard James Keenan and Mark Mothersbaugh; put down $75,000, and you can take shrooms and cruise Hollywood in a Lamborghini belonging to Danny Carey from Tool.
The album itself, with its youthful vocals and carefree lyrics, shows off Freese’s pop-punk Vandals roots and even echoes the Replacements, one of Freese’s favorite bands.
What started out as a joke has exploded—fans are snapping up the packages. All 25 $250 lunches sold out in less than 48 hours; 300 phone calls have been made to people as far away as Australia and the U.K.; Freese has had dinner at the Sizzler five times, done the Spearmint Rhino thing twice and given a tour of Disneyland once. The $20,000 package is long gone. Only the $10,000 and $75,000 packages remain untouched. Amdurer has even been temporarily recruited as Freese’s assistant, helping to field e-mails, phone calls and packages.
“It’s really crazy,” Freese says. “It’s going into this realm of performance art and jackassery. I do have that kind of weird, kooky, kitschy part of my personality, and it’s just the way I’ve always been. But even for me, I’m pinching myself—I can’t believe I’m doing this.
“I’m driving back to the Cheesecake Factory for the 11th time this month, and I’m turning down other work because, yeah, I’ve got a guy flying down from Canada. People will call me for a session, but I can’t show up because I’ve got to give someone a tour of the Queen Mary and a drum lesson, and then they gotta come over and pick stuff out of my closet.”
Though Freese says he’s only made a bit of money on top of what it cost to release Since 1972, which Freese estimates at roughly $25,000, the sheer amount of recognition is the real payoff. Within the past few months, Freese’s name and story have appeared in news outlets across the country, from NPR to Wired, spreading the word way beyond the crazed NIN, Tool and Devo fans.
“I don’t want it to be, ‘Yeah, you can come and kick Josh Freese in the balls for $10,000,’” he explains. “I put these things together, they’re selling, we’ll have a couple of drinks at this bar, we’ll get haircuts or take a tour of Disneyland, and that’s it.
“I’m a clown, not a complete whore.”
* * *
Paul James, 41, and his girlfriend, Charlene Mulharsky, 36, of Huntington Beach, wait with Freese in Float Lab Technologies, located in a nondescript, unlabeled storefront right on the world-famous Venice Boardwalk, with its tourists, balmy weather, and sketchy dudes handing out their hip-hop demos next to smoking paraphernalia shops and pop-up tents selling two sunglasses for $10.
James, who has a shaved head, is wearing a green plaid top and Jack Purcells; Mulharsky, a L.A.M.B. tote bag, pink tee and cargos. At Mitsubishi Motors, where they both work, they’re known as the “wild-and-crazy accountants.”
After hearing about the fan packages on KROQ-FM, James and Mulharsky quickly settled on the $500 listing—the Sizzler dinner sealed the deal.
“This whole thing is awesome,” James says to Freese when he arrives. “Like, I mean, I was really fired up for the Sizzler. When I heard you on the radio talking about the Sizzler, I was like, ‘I’m dooooown; I am so down.’”
Mulharsky has opted out of the float, but after a quick read-over of the one-page flotation-chamber guidelines presented by the owner, known only as “Crash,” James and Freese strip down (yes, totally nude) and climb into their respective tanks—which look like heated, glorified, darkened meat freezers—and disappear. (A glowing recommendation from Rick Rubin some five years ago had turned Freese on to the chambers.)
Some 40 minutes later, after the two emerge, Freese asks how James’ float was.
“I was kind of scared at first,” ?James admits.
“You know what the problem is?” Freese asks. “If I’m laying down there for a long time, the whole time, I’m like, ‘What am I doing here?’ I’ve got, like, 3,000 messages, man. I’ve got to go to lunch and a session; I can’t just sit here!”
“I’m not much of a relaxing kind of person,” James replies.
“Me, neither,” Freese says. He pauses. “What are we doing here? Let’s get out of here!”
After weaving through Friday-afternoon Los Angeles traffic, the group arrives at a Sizzler on Wilshire Boulevard. The three pose briefly for a photo-op just inside the entrance in front of a sign advertising new dinner specials.
“I hadn’t been here in a while until recently, but I do enjoy it,” Freese says while in line at the cash register. “You know, I love airplane food.” He pauses for a chorus of ewwwwwwws and wrinkled noses. “I’m not being funny; I’m not being ironic. It reminds me of being 12 years old and putting food in the microwave.”
He orders three steak-and-all-you-can-eat-shrimp dinners, cooked medium, with diet Pepsis and baked potatoes. The total comes to $58.27 (Sizzler: not as cheap as you remember), and everyone shuffles into a green-vinyl booth by the drink station and the hot-appetizers bar.
Topics of discussion before the food arrives: feeling old at concerts; Freese having to lie to his fiancee about working too much; Keenan’s winery; how both James and Mulharsky have been to an astounding number of NIN and A Perfect Circle concerts.
Just as James puts in his plea to get A Perfect Circle back together for a reunion, the three steak plates arrive: Freese wasn’t kidding about loving the food there—he inhales the steak and shrimp as he gives diplomatic answers about which fellow musicians are “cool” and which aren’t. It’s really the ultimate fan opportunity to geek out with one of your favorites:
“Aaron North or Robin Finck?” James asks, referring to the former and present guitarists for Nine Inch Nails. (Answer: They’re different people; Freese loves them both.)
James mentions that he and his girlfriend will be seeing three NIN shows within a six-day span.
Freese dives into his cheesebread. “I’m going for it, man,” he says. “I’m really enjoying the Sizzler experience, by the way, guys.”
“Mmmmhm!” James responds. “No, it’s spectacular.”
Forty minutes later and Freese announces he has to book it to Hollywood to make a recording session with Devo before rushing home for some family time.
Upon departure, James gives it one last shot: “Well, get Maynard, Billy Howerdel, and get them all in a room . . .”
“WE’RE GETTING THE BAND BACK TOGETHER!!” Freese yells.
* * *
Freese hates his dog.
Frankie, a brown Chihuahua, doesn’t seem so bad, but Freese points out that Frankie almost always wakes up his three children after he finally manages to get everyone to bed.
Freese is sitting in the back house of his almost-oceanfront-but-still-modest, one-story, Long Beach home. He shares the house with his fiancee of 10 years (Amdurer), children (Hunter, 8; August, 2; and Olive, 3 months), two cats, two fish and, yes, Frankie.
The home is beautifully decorated, with plenty of art displayed and kids’ toys strewn about. The back house holds some children’s-sized teal- and lime-green-colored, rounded-edge furniture; large, translucent bears stand on a white credenza, and a large-scale model of the Tiki Room at Disneyland sits atop a tall bookshelf.
August, whom Freese refers to as Auggy, stands just outside the door and screams, “Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaddy!”
Freese talks about his kids constantly and turns into a puddle at the very sight of them: “Auggy, you wanna come sit with me? I love this guy so much; he’s such a cutie. We were talking this morning, and he’s just learning how to talk and communicate and getting his vocabulary together, and it’s so cute!” he says, kissing the curly-haired toddler. “Hey, Auggy. Hi. Hey. Do you know you’re cute? You did know that?” He rapidfire kisses August’s forehead.
Freese only recently quit as the drummer for Nine Inch Nails so he could spend more time at home. “I needed to be around a bit more in 2009 for my kids,” he says. “They need their dad right now. I’m still going out of town, but just for bits at a time. I’m sure there will be a time when I go out for a long time again . . . but just not right now.”
Freese grew up in a musical family: His father, Stan Freese, has been working for Disney for 38 years. He started out as the Disney World director of bands when that park opened in 1971 and was transferred in 1974 to Anaheim, where he eventually became—and remains—Disneyland’s entertainment director.
Stan has a warm, friendly voice and a lively laugh—it’s clear from whom Josh inherited his sense of humor. Like Amdurer and Freese’s friends, Stan says that his son’s fan-packages plan wasn’t a surprise to him at all. He shares a story about Josh’s seventh birthday party.
“He wanted to watch Monty Python—that’s all he ever watched back then,” he begins. “The other little boys were just not into it, and so they split. [Josh] was crestfallen.” Stan lets out a laugh that sounds a bit like his son’s. “He couldn’t understand why other 7-year-olds couldn’t get into The Holy Grail. That’s when I knew we were in for a ride.”
As a child, Freese had convinced his father to bring a set of drums down from the attic in their Placentia home. Stan sat down and played a simple beat. Freese was able to follow right away.
“We couldn’t get him into toys and stuff. All he carried around, even starting at 2 years old, was drumsticks,” Stan recalls. “He came in knowing he was going to be a drummer, and if we wanted to be a part of it, that was cool. And if I didn’t, that was cool, too.”
(According to Freese, Stan’s oldest grandson, Hunter, shows no interest in becoming a drummer—he currently has dreams of being an architect instead, “which is heavily encouraged by Nicole and I.” In a separate conversation, Freese explains that “it’s the 2-year-old we’re worried about. It’s all about music, dancing and drumsticks for [August]. All that music stuff is around, though, and if the kids gravitate toward it . . . cool! And if not . . . cool, too.”)
Freese began to practice to records—funnily enough, Devo’s Freedom of Choice was among the first records he owned, in addition to Queen’s The Game, Zenyattà Mondatta by the Police and Van Halen’s (first) self-titled LP. He later went on to playwith Sting songs off Zenyattà Mondatta in front of as many as 400,000 people, and he has been a permanent member of Devo for the past 13 years.
In addition to acting as a second childhood home, Disneyland gave Freese his start as a professional musician: When he was 12, he played the electric drums on the Tomorrowland Terrace Stage in a cover band called Polo that had appeared (and won) previously on Junior Starsearch.
Following his stint at Disneyland, the then-16-year-old Freese went on a worldwide tour with Young and the Restless star/singer Michael Damian.
Soon after that, he played with Dweezil Zappa and joined the Vandals. Joe Escalante, entertainment lawyer/former radio host/bass player of the Vandals, says he has admired Freese’s talents since 1990.
“After the first Vandals practice with Josh, I told Warren [Fitzgerald] and Dave [Quackenbush] that, at some point, we’re just going to be sitting around bragging about being in a band with Josh Freese to anyone who will listen,” he says. “Twenty years later, that has come to pass. He’s found a way to make the most out of being a professional drummer and somehow stay rooted with his original band, friends and family.
“Here’s my second prediction,” Escalante continues. “He’s going to be the first drummer to break into the David Byrne/Peter Gabriel/Radiohead stratosphere in terms of talent and ingenuity, and it’s going to be fun to see where he ends up. Will he get the same recognition he gets behind the kit? Just how far ahead of his time is he?”
* * *
Any time you start talking about musicians making money, the phrase “sell out” will pop up.
Freese says he has come across a few negative responses on fan message boards and blogs, reacting to the prices of some of the more outlandish upper-tier packages. The $20,000 one in particular has stirred up a bit of controversy.
Tom Mrzyglocki, a 19-year-old in Melbourne, Florida, bought the package; he’d first heard about the marketing campaign through Tool’s website. A big fan of Devo, A Perfect Circle and the Vandals, Mrzyglocki flew out to Long Beach for a week in early April and got to spend a night on the Queen Mary, play a round of miniature golf with Escalante and Keenan (Escalante won—but only because he was keeping score, Mrzyglocki says), have a pizza party with Mothersbaugh and pick out three items from Freese’s closet (a custom Devo shirt, a Vandals hoodie and a Tempur-Pedic travel pillow from Brookstone). Mrzyglocki was treated to a few bonus incentives such as yoga class with Amdurer, hanging out with members of Tool at a Puscifer show, and attending a Vandals show and a recording session with Slash.
Mrzyglocki paid for the trip with an inheritance left by his father, who had committed suicide in 2007. He says some of his friends had “questioned my sanity,” but he declares the one-of-a-kind week well-worth it. “It’s a free-market economy; [Freese] can do whatever he wants,” Mrzyglocki shares over the telephone. “I think it’s mostly tongue-in-cheek just to promote his small solo career, but he probably wasn’t expecting anything out of it.”
“I could’ve done it all in three days, but my girlfriend and I moved him out of his hotel, and he stayed at our house. He’s a good kid. I didn’t know anything about him until he landed,” Freese explains. “By the end of the week, I felt like I had become a big brother to him. . . . The last thing I wanted was for the kid to go home and go, ‘You know, I guess it was okay. Yeah, I met Maynard, and he was a dick, and then he dropped me off. Thanks.’”
However, many criticisms posted on the Internet blast Freese for accepting money from a teenager. “I was really bummed reading [about it] on the Internet one night, and I felt pretty shitty. I put this thing up for sale; someone bought it. I didn’t know if he was 60 or 15.”
Freelance photographer/pharmacist Andrew Youssef, 33, of Huntington Beach, purchased a $250 Cheesecake Factory lunch—the first fan package experience ever for Freese.
“I think [Freese’s marketing strategy] is genius. I think people are jealous they didn’t think of it first,” Youssef says. “With the music industry going the way it is, he’s gotten more publicity out of all this than anybody could even dream of buying.”
Youssef says he’s definitely another satisfied customer. “I think the criticism is definitely unwarranted. Obviously he’s doing it for the money a little, but it’s not like the people who wanted to pay for it are feeling gypped at all,” he says. “I don’t think you’re hearing any complaints from anybody who spent the money.”
* * *
A few weeks later, Freese finds himself in front of the Indiana Jones Adventure ride at Disneyland with Ferris Al-Sayed, 18, from Carmel, Indiana. A recent high-school graduate, Al-Sayed is quiet, but he slips in every now and then with a funny one-liner. He wears a faded, black Nine Inch Nails Ghost T-shirt with a black button-up over it. It’s his first time in California since childhood, and he’s being given a tour of Disneyland by Freese as a part of the $5,000 package. Freese has on a huge smile under a baseball cap and sunglasses; a one-strapped Tumi backpack is slung across his chest.
Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard had FedExed Freese a thick envelope a few days earlier, containing the letter to Al-Sayed explaining his favorite song off Since 1972.
When asked why Al-Sayed chose that particular package, he replied simply, “He has to write a song about me and spend a pretty extensive amount of time with me.”
Freese and Al-Sayed head toward the Rivers of America, and then run into Eric Wilson, the bass player of Sublime. Freese points out the Mark Twain sternwheeler floating just behind them, where he and his little brother would play hide-and-seek while his father and the Disneyland Band played at the bow of the riverboat.
Freese, Al-Sayed and Wilson pose for photos in front of the Pirate’s Lair on Tom Sawyer Island. Al-Sayed cracks a joke about chopping off Tom Sawyer’s foot and replacing it with a peg leg. He stands, posing with a thumbs-up and his mouth gaping open.
Freese and Al-Sayed decide to tackle the 45-minute wait at the Haunted Mansion. While in line, the two chat about music, and Freese swaps stories about his rock-star pals such as Twiggy Ramirez and Buckethead, the latter of whom is apparently a huge Disneyland fan. A pregnant woman with a belly ring and two scrunchies in her hair stands just behind them, listening in on their conversation. Al-Sayed reveals he’s an aspiring musician himself, about to study music theory at either Indiana University or Purdue in the fall.
The group finally reaches its destination inside the Haunted Mansion and is ushered into the room with the “stretching walls.”
Freese grins and asks, “You want to know something scary? I can recite every single word of this.”
He’s not kidding. “Welcome, foolish mortals to the Haunted Mansion. I am your host—your Ghost Host,” he begins, reciting the same speech playing overhead in time. “Your cadaverous pallor betrays an aura of foreboding, almost as though you sense a disquieting metamorphosis. Is this haunted room actually stretching? Or is it your imagination, hmm?” People around him are staring. “And consider this dismaying observation: This chamber has NO windows, and NO doors. Which offers you this chilling challenge: To find a way out!”
Freese lets out a maniacal laugh.
“Of course, there’s always my way,” ?he finishes.
The two hop into their Doom Buggy and ride off into the dark, where happy haunts materialize. Afterward, Freese reveals that from 1985 through 1987, he probably made out with more 13- and 14-year-old girls than anyone else in the world while in the Haunted Mansion.
“My whole summers were spent at the Haunted Mansion,” he says with a laugh. “Let’s put it this way: My first groupie experience was in the Haunted Mansion. I’ll go on the record with that.”
But that rumor in the summer of ’87 that Stan Freese’s kid got a blowjob on the monorail? Not true, Josh says.
* * *
Controversial or not, Freese’s flippant marketing tactic has everyone from fans and non-fans to marketing execs and other professional musicians talking.
“Josh is irreverent and perceptive and punk in his music and his marketing,” says Gossard. “His creative energies are so vast he’s having fun with all aspects of his music and how people get interested in it.” (Gossard later retracts this quote, thinking it way too serious and e-mails a possible alternate: “That little punk-ass bitch is cracking me up. Shit, I love Josh Freese.”)
Mothersbaugh, composer/artist/Devo front man, also admires his band mate: “Josh may be the first artist to go beyond talking about it and finally figure out how to sculpt the ‘new business model’ to really work—letting the Internet and technology complement and enhance his own sense of humor and expression in a truly original and honest way that is ultimately attractive to fans and converts alike, appealing to their own personal interest for interaction,” he says. “I’m seriously jealous.”
In addition to his peers, publicists and virtual strangers have approached Freese, confessing they hung their heads in shame for not thinking up a similar scheme first. “Of course, I want to make money. I’d be lying if [I said] it wasn’t about the money,” Freese says. “But it’s not only about the money. There’s plenty of easier ways to make money, but especially now, at a time when the whole record industry is kind of scratching its head and chasing its tail and is like, ‘What are we going to do? How are we going to do something different?’ Even if [the packages aren’t] great, the fact that it’s different makes it great. Everybody’s freaked out, and then I came up with this thing that was so different that made everyone behind their desks have a laugh.”
Freese says that the success of the fan packages is just getting to see the end result—what he had hoped to achieve had been done without the help of a street team or having to hire a staff. “I got the word out, and whether people bought it or not, people forwarded it to all their friends and said, ‘Hey, you have you seen this?’”
Freese is keeping busy with what remains of the fan packages—he has a couple of lunches left to do this summer, and he’s working on writing those songs for Mrzyglocki and Al-Sayed’s respective purchases. He’s got a new record, Dirty Mature, coming out, which will include “all of the weird instrumental songs” that serve as the soundtrack to Freese’s homemade YouTube videos (youtube.com/joshfreese). He is scheduled to do one-off shows with Devo, Sting and the Vandals in the coming months and will be embarking on a two-month tour with Weezer in August. He’ll also be working with Devo on their first new record in almost 20 years.
There are even whispers of a possible reality show being shopped around, centered on these fan packages and Freese nearly losing his mind trying to incorporate them into his schedule as a highly sought-after session drummer.
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But don’t worry: He’s still got that same cheery attitude, remaining grateful for the opportunity, his career and the exposure.
“No, I’m definitely not taking myself very seriously, but what I do I take seriously but not too seriously,” Freese says. He pauses and tilts his head a bit. “That doesn’t make sense. I’m serious about not taking myself too seriously?”
To view a slide show of Freese's adventures with fans, click here.