Thomas Pridgen Makes Honest Sounds for Anyone and Everyone With The Memorials

The most stereotypical complaint of any musicians attempting to form a band is that there just aren’t enough drummers in the world. Percussion is the heartbeat, that aggressive slap of stick to skin or steel, an intensity that can’t be mimicked by any other instrument. So why the lack of drummers when they add so much? There’s something so universally understood, yet confusing, about drums; but not for people like Thomas Pridgen, who started playing early on, not even as a conscious decision.

“My grandmother was a piano player in the church,” explained Pridgen. “Where I grew up, all the drummers used to switch off. It was kind of like playing basketball in the hood; everybody did it, so I had no choice but to.”

Pridgen quickly separated himself as a prodigious talent. Not only did he win The Guitar Center drum-off at age 9, and a year later become the youngest recipient of a Zildjian endorsement, but he also was given a full scholarship to the esteemed Berklee School of Music, at age 15.

“Yeah, I was a little badass,” said Pridgen with a laugh.

Now only 26, he’s played with musicians like Dennis Chambers and Walfredo Reyes, Jr., and enjoyed a stint with the highly regarded, extraordinarily progressive force known as The Mars Volta.

At one point while working as a musical director for a childhood friend, Pridgen received a somewhat out-of-the-blue invitation from prog-rock luminary Omar Rodriguez Lopez to hang out on Halloween. In the middle of a few drinks, Lopez casually mentioned he wanted Pridgen to join their set for the night, which happened to be opening for Red Hot Chili Peppers to an audience of roughly 20,000 people.

That was essentially the beginning of Pridgen’s time with The Mars Volta, during which he found a home for his somewhat aurally chaotic style that he thought was outside of most listeners’ realms of tolerance. In fact, they not only understood it, but liked it.

“Sometimes as musicians you kind of feel like stuff you’re doing is over people’s heads, and sometimes when the normal person can like what you’re doing, and actually gravitate toward it, it’s kind of big,” Pridgen said. “I learned I can play all my crazy shit and be as crazy as I want, and it wasn’t far from normal. It wasn’t too abstract that people didn’t get it.”

In December 2009, Pridgen decided to break from Volta and focus on his own creation, something to fill a certain void he felt existed in the current state of rock music. Something that’s purely about sound, regardless of style or ethnicity.

“It’s kind of like if you’re a gangster rapper and you’re from the suburbs then nobody respects you, so in this [rock music], nobody cares where you’re from; but for us, we’re from the hood, from the ghetto, especially when I’m living in Oakland, where it’s predominately black and they’re not playing rock. It’s predominately hip-hop and R&B,” Pridgen said. “I could walk anywhere in my type of black neighborhood and they would not recognize me, but then when I come to more eclectic neighborhoods, they’re like ‘you’re the guy from The Mars Volta!’”

It can be hard to maintain a balance of equally representing your individual style and self with music, especially if the two haven’t historically gone hand-in-hand, but it’s something that Pridgen strives for, and feels like people can get behind.

“For me it’s kind of like a fine line, of trying to have people that respect you and know you’re from a place that’s predominately urban or whatever, and to do a music that most people of your color aren’t doing,” Pridgen said. “That’s why I feel like that voice is missing; Fishbone and Bad Brains, they’re super older than us, there aren’t too many young bands that come from where we come from.”

Pridgen wanted to assemble a band that didn’t have to build an image around the sound, but more just played honestly what they felt regardless of suit or trends.

“We don’t go play rock music and dress up like we’re in the ‘80s. We go and look just like we look when I walk in the hood, so for people my color to see that, it’s inspiring,” Pridgen said. “It’s inspiring to me to see other people–even if they’re not black–just to see people doing their kind of music with 100 percent passion,” Pridgen said.

From all this came the birth of his newest project, The Memorials.

The drums are the meat of The Memorials, with Pridgen’s impressively clean and rapid percussive builds that make for a thick base for their songs, melted over by Nick Brewer’s hammered/licked and sustained electric-guitar noises, drizzled with a glaze of Viveca Hawkin’s smooth, mellow vocals. Stacked and peppered with cameo contributions from various talented instrumentalists (Uriah Duffy on bass, Michael Aaberg on keys), it makes for a unique plate that at one point Pridgen might have questioned if people could even stomach, but now realizes they may even crave. “I never thought it would fail, but I never thought it would be this big so fast,” Pridgen said.

In the history of Pridgen’s impressively long resume of collaborating with other talent, this is the first time he’s actually the appointed head of a group. While it might sound like more pressure, it’s around the same level of obligation, just more hands-on in the entire process of a band’s duties.

“The only difference is I’m there from ground one–all the mixing and mastering, all the headaches–I’m getting the brunt of it,” Pridgen said. “It’s just a lot more on my shoulders, but it’s actually more fun.”

Not even a year old, The Memorials will be releasing their first record on Nov. 23, 2010, according to Pridgen. Coincidentally, the date is also his birthday. However, they’re more excited to go test them out in front of crowds.

“We made all these songs so we could go play them live,” Pridgen said. The core focus of The Memorials is to be able to play as many live shows as possible, to offer their eclectic creation to whomever wants to listen, and to be reciprocated with the experience of fine-tuning that very sound. Even though the group is now a solid trio, they remain open to guests and new ideas.

“I’m totally open to experiment, because I don’t want to make the same kind of records over and over again,” Pridgen said.

No matter who comes or goes, there will of course, always be drums.