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Pay for Play 

Superstar session drummer and Dadaist marketing genius Josh Freese (Devo, A Perfect Circle, the Vandals) sells himself, his famous friends, and all-you-can-eat shrimp at Sizzler to promote his new album.

Wednesday, Jun 24 2009

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, 29, of Long Beach — are surrounded: Along with Freese's fiancée, 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 a 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.

The photographer persuades 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," the photographer says. "It's a good backdrop."

"Yeah!" Amdurer says.

"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 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 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 artists as diverse as Dwarves, Slash, Sting, the Replacements, 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.

In March, when the 36-year-old announced a list of limited-edition, special add-on packages in conjunction with the release of his new album, Freese 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 download a digital copy of the album for whatever price they wished, or they could opt for the $80 discbox, which had extras 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, 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 ("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; $5,000, and 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; $75,000, and you can take shrooms and cruise Hollywood in Danny Carey from Tool's Lamborghini.

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 his 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.; and 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," he continues. "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 has made only 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, 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.

About The Author

Vickie Chang


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