Coady Willis on playing parties with projectile vomiting and people jumping out of windows
Business doing pleasure: Coady Willis (center) and his Big Business colleagues.
Coady Willis and Jared Warren formed Big Business in the wake of break ups by the Whip and Dead Low Tide. Prior to that, the two had been in a number of noteworthy -- even legendary in some circles -- Pacific Northwest bands like Karp and the Murder City Devils, groups that essentially helped to define a noise rock and punk aesthetic that proved influential in the decade ahead. Although Big Business's heavier sound has often been described as "sludge," the band's music really has little in common with stoner rock beyond a penchant for crushing dynamics and rhythms that have some swing to it.
In the last handful of years, Willis and Warren became part of the rhythm section of the Melvins and helped expand the noise palette of that group while maintaining a distinct musical identity of their own. In advance of Big Business's tour in support of its latest release, the Quadruple Single EP, we spoke with drummer Coady Willis about being in the Pacific Northwest at an interesting time, the difference between his drumming style and that of Dale Crover and the sheer fun of playing shows close to the crowd.
Westword: Did you grow up in Seattle?
Coady Willis: I was born in Bellingham, Washington. I went to middle school and high school in Mount Vernon, which is in between Bellingham and Seattle. As soon I was out of high school, I moved to Seattle. I lived there about thirteen or fourteen years.
When you were coming up, what was it like for you learning about music and going to see it?
When I was in Mount Vernon, not lot of stuff came through that place, believe it or not. As soon as I was able to drive, I would sneak down to Seattle, and my friend and I would go to shows at OK Hotel. I saw one of the first Built to Spill shows there. I saw Mudhoney a bunch of times, and they were always awesome and crazy and kind of scary. I saw Nirvana a couple of times, and they were awesome. I saw Bikini Kill, and I once saw this band Tribe 8 -- that was one of the scariest experiences of my young life. In the middle of the mosh pit were all these shirtless lesbians while the lead singer was swinging a black dildo in the air before cutting it in half with a knife.
Yeah, they're great. Lynn Breedlove used to put on a strap-on and have guys give her head while she was on stage.
Where did you see Bikini Kill?
I saw Bikini Kill, Nirvana and Mudhoney at a Halloween show at the Paramount Theatre. I saw Bikini Kill once in Bellingham at this place called the Showoff Gallery.
How did you get involved in music? Assuming you had a band before you were in Murder City Devils.
I had a bunch of bands with friends in high school but nothing of note, really. I started playing when I was fifteen. I had an uncle who played drums, and he was a firefighter, and he was kind of my childhood hero. So I always wanted to play drums, but my mom never wanted me to. Finally I got a job and bought my own drum set behind her back. She showed up one day, and there they were in her house. She just accepted it and said, "You can't play them while I'm home." So my days were spent waiting for her to go to work or leave somehow so I could get back there and play.
You grow up in a small town sometimes, and it's like do you want to play music in not your ideal band or not play music at all? I was just trying to play as much as I could, play parties or whatever. When I was seventeen, I think, I was in this band with some of the older kids in town who had been in other bands. We went down to the Lake Union Pub in Seattle, and they snuck me in, and I got to play a show at seventeen in a full-on bar, which was very exciting for me. That band was called Bland. Exciting! We were not very good.
Presumably you met Buzz and Dale while you were in Murder City Devils before Big Business. How did you meet those guys?
Well, Murder City and Melvins never crossed paths, believe it or not. It was just totally different scenes, and by the time the Devils started getting any sort of traction at all, we were almost done. The majority of our band's career or whatever, we were playing little, shitty rock clubs and stuff like that, parties. Toward the end, we started getting to play festivals.
After that band, Spencer [Moody] and Nate [Manny] and Mike Kunka from godheadSilo and Enemy Mine started this band Dead Low Tide, which was a little heavier than the Devils. That band opened for the Melvins on a west coast tour. That's how I met those guys. Jared has been friends with Dale's wife Maureen for a long time. She used to work at Jabberjaw in L.A. I met Dale through that band, and we'd see each other around and sort of keep in touch. When Big Business started and toured up and down the West Coast, we would stay at Dale's house and hung out with him. When they had to fire Kevin [Rutmanis], I guess Jared was their first choice for a new bass player. That's how we ended up in the Melvins.
When you were in Murder City Devils and Dead Low Tide, you definitely played at the 15th St. Tavern.
I remember it well. It was always a fun show there, always rowdy and crazy. I was going through some old pictures yesterday and scanning them and found a bunch of pictures from the 15th St., actually.
Did you ever see or play shows with Jared's old bands Karp and Tight Bros. From Way Back When?
The Devils and Karp never played together. But I saw Karp twice and then we played two or three shows with the Tight Bros. That's how I met Jared. He ended up moving to Seattle after Tight Bros. broke up. Eventually Scott [Jernigan] moved to Seattle as well, and that's when they started the Whip. After Scott had his boat accident and passed away, Jared was hanging out in Seattle for a while.
I think that's how Big Business got together six or eight months after that happened. Dead Low Tide had broken up and neither of us was doing anything, and I'd see him around town, and I admired his musical talent and all the bands he'd been in. So I worked the courage one day to ask him if he wanted to make noise, no strings attached. We tried it, and it was really fun.
What have been your favorite things about playing drums and what have been your least favorite?
Least favorite is the non-portability of drums. The lifting them and loading them--that can get old.
And tuning them, though most people not familiar with drums might think that sounds counter-intuitive.
Even that now, once you learn a drum kit and understand how they behave, it's not that hard. I'm not too much of a freak about that. I can get them to where the rack tom and the floor tom sound good when you hit them at the same time, and the kick drum sounds good. Cool. That's good.
It's the funnest instrument to play. I can't think of another instrument that would be more fun to play. It's cathartic, and you get to beat the living shit out of your instrument every night. I guess that can also get expensive. Cymbals are really expensive. The nature of it is that, yeah, it breaks eventually, so it's kind of a constant repairing things bit by bit. Usually there's one thing on my drum set that is broken. I miss it when I can't do it. If I go a day or two days without playing, I kind of start to freak out a little bit.
When you and Dale play together, would you say you have fairly different drumming styles?
Yeah! I think we have similar sensibilities, but Dale is a unique drummer, he's a natural talent, very much. He's very studied as well. He's very knowledgeable about a lot of different techniques and about music in general. But I think the thing that makes him special is that he has a natural timing and a natural sense of accents, just how he hits the drums; it's probably something you can't learn. I try to pick it up as much as I can. Similar sensibilities but different styles.
How would you describe your own style?
Busier than Dale, I guess, and in general: Where he would have a tendency to lay back and make things heavier, I have a tendency to fill in space and play faster. I don't always like that about myself. I'm trying to get better at using space and laying back a lot more. Sometimes that's just way more effective. I would say he has more roots in like Cream and '60s and '70s classic rock and metal. He's way more rooted in that, and I feel like I'm more rooted in more current bands.
In the Aquarian you said Here Come the Waterworks, the title, was kind of an absurdist inside joke. Would you say Quadruple Single is in that vein as well?
Yeah and no: Almost everything we do, I would say, has a hint of an inside [joke]. Not to be willfully obscure, but you know what I mean. We talk about stuff, and we spend a lot of time in the practice space, and in the van and jokes get deeper and more varied as we go and a phrase will convey about twelve hours of a joke for us. Twelve hours of work in two words. Most of what we have has some indication of our stupid sense of humor that we think is funny. Probably nobody else does but oh well. We try not to take ourselves too seriously.
You've played all sorts of shows across your career in music. What do you appreciate about smaller places like a club or DIY space versus larger venues?
It's almost always more fun across the board. Some of the most fun shows of my life have happened inside of a house, in a living room. There's just not that energy in the air of, "Oh, we have to get up and perform now." I love playing parties and when The Devils started, that's all we played -- basement parties and house parties. It's so fun. I never get invited to those parties anymore.
I just remember when most of my friends were 21 or 22 years old, and you're at that age where nobody has any idea of what their limits are, as far as drinking or physical abilities at all -- just insanity: people projectile vomiting everywhere but laughing at the same time, people jumping out of windows, parties like that. You're lucky nobody died. It was so fun, and you don't care how the show goes, you're just having fun and you're playing for your friends. To me, that's just the best time in the world.
The bigger the stage, and the higher and further away from the audience you are, the harder it is to work up that feeling. You still do it, and you still play, and it's fine, but that feeling where you're kind of crammed together on stage -- and I look over at the other guy and he's just right next to, like, the crash cymbal is almost hitting him in the back, and someone else is almost falling into the drums, and you're trying to hold everything together at the same time -- that, to me, is like when the energy picks you up and takes you with it. You don't have to work up any sort of motivation or try to look like you're having a good time; you just can't help it. That's the most fun for me.
I understand Lightning Bolt plays on the floor, and I totally get it, you know? It's fun to play a big show, too. It's fun to play in front of a thousand plus people or in front of nine thousand people once in a while. But it's a whole different energy. All the energy you're putting out is kind of focused on stage trying to connect with the other band members.
I hate playing shows where the stage is super huge and everybody is like 25 feet away from me. Whenever we play a bigger stage, I want to set up as forward as possible and as tight as possible, so that we're close together. It's just more intense that way, I think. I've lost my taste for watching big, like five-thousand seat festival shows where you're in a huge theater. All the speaker stacks are perfectly placed and each band member is standing equidistant from each other on stage. Like, if you average the square footage of the stage, each band member would have the exact same amount. It's so clean and orderly and there's nothing exciting about it to me.
I realize, too, that I'm old and jaded, and I like what I like. That's not to say there's not a place for all that stuff. There is, but I would hope to think people, after seeing a band like us, or seeing a band that's incredible and you're in that close space with them and it's so intense -- nothing really substitutes for that later -- when you see a really good band and you feel like you're there with them, and it's so in your face -- everybody around you, the energy is so high. After that, going to see Kings of Leon or whatever [is huge] just doesn't cut it anymore. It's not the same thing.
What has starting Gold Medal Records helped with releasing your own music or music by other people?
We did that to be able to do it [the way] we wanted to do it. A lot of labels I've been on over the years have a way they do business. They tend to put bands in certain molds. It never seems I've ever been in a band that fits the mold of whatever label we've ever been on. Every band I've been in has been the odd duck band on label X. It always seems there's money being spent in areas that are totally useless to us for the kind of band we are. Like we probably don't need a full page ad in AP magazine. Probably that money could have been spent better in other places.
We wanted to put our resources to work in a more realistic way that suits who we are as a band and how we operate. We're just investing in ourselves. We're hoping we make really good records and that people will like it and how we do things and take off from there. Hopefully we will repeat whatever rewards that brings and make it bigger and better instead of scrambling for your fifty percent against whatever expenses might have been spent that you had no idea were being spent -- just the endless laundry list of radio promotion or I don't know. I would rather spend money where we think it's appropriate and effective for us.
We happen to know somebody who has his own distribution company, so it works out that we can still get our records in the stores and still have them distributed. We can also [get] limited edition stuff that we can sell on tour. Whatever we want to do, we can do. It works out great, especially when we're dividing our time between doing Melvins and our own stuff. It's a way more flexible way of doing things.
What would you say are the biggest misconceptions about drummers and their role in the band that you've encountered over the years?
I would say a lot of things if some of them weren't absolutely true some of the time. Let's see: irresponsible, superiority complex. I don't know, I feel like a good drummer is hard to find. There's a lot of not very good drummers in the world and there's a lot of great ones.
I would say one misconception, I think, is that girls can't play drums. Sara Lund from Unwound, Jody Bleyle used to play drums for Hazel, and she's really awesome at drums.
Janet Weiss, of course.
Absolutely, she's bad ass. Everybody has their own flavor. I just don't like "pro" drummers that much. I'm trying not to become that, total gearhead drummers. Not that I dislike them as people.
I'm getting off track but one of my guiltiest pleasures in life, and I feel terrible about it in front of other people, is talking drum talk with my drum friends. John Sherman from Red Fang, he used to be in this band called Party Time, and we've been friends a long time. He's one of my favorite drummers and one of my guys all around. When we run into each other, we'll talk about different drummers and drum talk. You can watch the people, if anyone was standing around us, peeling off, leaving one by one as they listen to our conversation until, invariably, we're alone at a party talking about Mel Brown and different kinds of drums.
Anybody who wants to play drums, I think it's a beautiful thing. It's easy to do, but it's really hard to do well. I can't really hate anybody that does it. There's just certain styles I'm not into as much. Most people don't start out knowing how to play. It's a total language you have to build up piece by piece. It takes time, but once you have the muscle memory down to move in a certain way and play without thinking about it quite so much? That's when the good stuff starts to happen, and that's when it's really fun. Stick with it.
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