Josh Freese is one of the best and busiest session drummers in the music industry. Today, however, he is standing motionless, a pair of shearing scissors in one hand and a plastic comb in the other, poised over the head of one of his fans.
An overturned cardboard box serves as a provisional barber's chair. Freese looks uncertainly around the parking lot of the Long Beach, California, courthouse.
"OK," he says. He's wearing a T-shirt reading "Don't Mess With Kansas Either," black jeans and Vans Circle Jerks slip-ons; 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 are surrounded. Freese's fiancée of 10 years, Nicole Amdurer, is there, as well as a photographer and Freese's personal videographer. A steady stream of people walk out of the courthouse, staring.
Someone points out a man in a dark suit who's peering down from three floors above.
"We're officially being watched," Freese says, looking up.
The photographer convinces Freese and his fan to move in front of a 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," the photographer says. "It's a good backdrop."
"And then at the end," the videographer adds, "we'll throw a brick at it!"
"Yeah!" Freese says. "Flaming bottle of vodka!"
Still slightly tipsy from a previous pit stop at a nearby bar, where he alternated between sips of Fat Tire and Patrón with lime and Cointreau on the rocks, Freese begins cutting.
The fan sitting on that grubby cardboard box has paid $1,000 for this experience.
Freese is in the midst of a grand marketing ploy, a not-unprecedented but still quirky scheme to get people talking about his second solo album, Since 1972, but mostly to get them talking about Josh Freese.
Even if you've never heard of him, you've heard him. As a professional drummer and session musician, he's known for getting the job done fast and right. Freese is a permanent member of Devo, the Vandals and A Perfect Circle. He was Nine Inch Nails' drummer for three years and worked with Guns N' Roses from 1998 to 2001, helping write Chinese Democracy's title track. As a session musician, he has played on almost 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 Perfect Circle to the odd-time idiosyncrasies of Devo.
In March, the 36-year-old announced a list of limited-edition, special add-on packages in conjunction with the release of his new album. Freese isn'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 either to download a digital copy of the album for whatever price they wished or to opt for the $80 disc box, which had extras such as an illustrated lyric booklet and a bonus audio CD. 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 sensory-deprivation tank followed by dinner at Sizzler.
As the price increases, so does the absurdity: $2,500 for a drum lesson (or a foot rub) and buffet at the Spearmint Rhino strip club; $5,000 for a letter from Pearl Jam's Stone Gossard about Gossard's favorite song on Since 1972; $20,000 to play a game of miniature golf with Tool's Maynard James Keenan and Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh; and $75,000 to take 'shrooms and cruise Hollywood in the Lamborghini owned by Tool's Danny Carey.
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 of the $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.; and Freese has had dinner at 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 are still available.
"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." (To claim their packages, fans must come to him.) Meanwhile, musicians have been calling him to do session work, but he has to turn down the jobs. "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 has only made a bit of money on top of the roughly $25,000 it cost to release Since 1972, the sheer amount of recognition is the real payoff. Within the past few months, his name and story have appeared in news outlets across the country, from National Public Radio to Wired, spreading the word way beyond Nine Inch Nails, Tool and Devo fans.
Paul James, 41, and his girlfriend, Charlene Mulharsky, 36, of Huntington Beach, California, are waiting at Float Lab Technologies, an isolation-tank facility located in a nondescript storefront on the Venice Beach Boardwalk in Los Angeles. At Mitsubishi Motors, where they both work, they're known as the "wild-and-crazy accountants."
After hearing about the fan packages on a radio station, James and Mulharsky quickly settled on the $500 choice.
"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.'"
After a quick read of the one-page guidelines presented by Float Lab's owner, known only as "Crash," James and Freese strip down (yes, totally nude) and climb into their respective tanks and disappear. Mulharsky opts out.
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, they arrive at a Sizzler. The three pose briefly for a photo op 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, waiting to order at the cash register. "You know, I love airplane food." He pauses for a chorus of ew 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 dinners of steak, cooked medium, and all-you-can-eat shrimp, with Diet Pepsi and baked potatoes. The total comes to $58.27, and everyone shuffles into a green-vinyl booth.
Topics of discussion before the food arrives: feeling old at concerts; Freese having to lie to his fiancée 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 inhales the steak and shrimp as he gives diplomatic answers about which fellow musicians are "cool" and which aren't.
"Aaron North or Robin Finck?" James asks, referring to the former and present guitarists, respectively, for Nine Inch Nails. Freese hedges: They're different people, and he loves them both.
Forty minutes later, Freese announces that he has to book it to Hollywood to make a recording session with Devo before rushing home for some family time.
Freese hates his dog.
Frankie, a brown Chihuahua, doesn't seem so bad, but Freese points out that Frankie almost always wakes up Freese's three children after Freese finally manages to get them to bed.
Freese's almost-oceanfront one-story Long Beach home is modest. He shares it with Amdurer, their children (Hunter, 8; August, 2; and Olive, 3 months), two cats, two fish and Frankie.
The home is beautifully decorated, with plenty of art displayed and kids' toys strewn about. The guest house holds some children's-sized teal and lime-green, round-edged 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, "Daaaaaaddy!"
Freese talks about his kids constantly. "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?"
Freese quit as the drummer for Nine Inch Nails only recently, so he could spend more time at home. "I needed to be around a bit more in 2009 for my kids. 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 first leader of the Disney World Band when the Orlando park opened in 1971 and then was transferred to Anaheim, where he eventually became — and remains — Disneyland's entertainment director.
Stan says his son's fan-package plan wasn't a surprise to him at all. He shares a story about Josh's 7th birthday party.
"He wanted to watch Monty Python — that's all he ever watched back then. The other little boys were just not into it, and so they split. He [Josh] was crestfallen. 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 convinced his father to bring down a set of drums from the attic in their Placentia, California, 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. 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 not, that was cool, too."
Freese began practicing to records. Devo's Freedom of Choice was among the first records he owned, in addition to Queen's The Game, the Police's Zenyattà Mondatta and Van Halen's first self-titled LP. He later went on to play songs off Zenyattà Mondatta with Sting in front of 400,000 people, and he has been with Devo for the past 13 years.
Disneyland, meanwhile, wasn't just Freese's second home; it was where he got 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 — on Junior Star Search.
Following his stint at Disneyland, the 16-year-old Freese went on a worldwide tour with The Young and the Restless star/singer Michael Damian.
Soon after that, Freese played with Dweezil Zappa and joined the Vandals. Joe Escalante, an entertainment lawyer and radio host who is the Vandals' bass player, 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?"
Anytime you start talking about musicians making money, the words "sell out" pop up.
Freese says he has seen a few negative responses on fan message boards and blogs, reacting to the prices of the more outlandish upper-tier packages. The $20,000 one, in particular, has stirred up controversy.
The package was purchased by Tom Mrzyglocki, a 19-year-old in Melbourne, Florida. 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, 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 taking a 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 questioned his sanity, but he declares the one-of-a-kind week worth it. "It's a free-market economy; he [Freese] can do whatever he wants," Mrzyglocki says.
"He's a good kid. I didn't know anything about him until he landed," Freese says. Although he could have fulfilled his part of the deal in three days, he says, he and Amdurer moved Mrzyglocki out of the hotel and into their house. "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 OK. Yeah, I met Maynard, and he was a dick, and then he [Freese] dropped me off. Thanks.'"
But critics blasted Freese for accepting money from a teenager. "I was really bummed reading [about it] on the Internet one night, and I felt pretty shitty," Freese says. "I put this thing up for sale; someone bought it. I didn't know if he was 60 or 15."
The criticism is unwarranted, says Andrew Youssef, 33, a freelance photographer and pharmacist from Huntington Beach, who purchased a $250 Cheesecake Factory lunch.
"Obviously, he's doing it for the money a little," he says of Freese's strategy, "but it's not like the people who wanted to pay for it are feeling gypped at all. I don't think you're hearing any complaints from anybody who spent the money."
He says Freese's marketing effort 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."
Freese is at 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 every now and then he slips in a funny one-liner. Freese is giving him a tour of Disneyland as part of the $5,000 package.
Al-Sayed chose this package, he says, because Pearl Jam guitarist Gossard had to write a letter to him. And because Freese had to "write a song about me and spend a pretty extensive amount of time with me."
A few days earlier, Gossard overnighted Freese a thick envelope containing the letter to Al-Sayed explaining his favorite song on Since 1972.
Freese and Al-Sayed head toward the Rivers of America, and then run into Eric Wilson, the bass player for Sublime. Freese points out the Mark Twain stern-wheeler floating just behind them, where he and his little brother played hide-and-seek while their 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 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. Al-Sayed reveals that he's an aspiring musician himself, about to study music theory at Indiana University or Purdue in the fall.
They finally reach the inside of the Haunted Mansion and are ushered into the room with the "stretching walls."
Freese grins and asks, "You want to know something scary?" Freese says he can recite "every single word" of what they're about to hear. He's not kidding.
"Welcome, foolish mortals, to the Haunted Mansion. I am your host — your Ghost Host," he says, while the same speech plays overhead. "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. Afterward, Freese brags 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.
"Let's put it this way: My first groupie experience was in the Haunted Mansion. I'll go on the record with that."
But the rumor that he got a blow job in '87 on the monorail? Not true, Josh says.
Freese's flippant marketing tactic has fans, non-fans, marketing execs and other professional musicians talking.
"Josh is irreverent and perceptive and punk in his music and his marketing," Gossard says. "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 tries to retract this quote, thinking it way too serious. He e-mails a possible alternate: "That little punk-ass bitch is cracking me up. Shit, I love Josh Freese.")
Mothersbaugh also admires his bandmate. "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."
Publicists and virtual strangers have approached Freese, confessing that they hung their heads in shame for not thinking up a similar scheme first.
"Of course, I want to make 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?' ... 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 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's scheduled to do one-off shows with Devo, Sting and the Vandals, and will embark on a two-month tour with Weezer in August. He'll also be working with Devo on its first new record in almost 20 years.
There are even whispers of a 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.
But he still has the same cheery attitude, remaining grateful for the opportunity and the exposure.
"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?"
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