Tommy Rickard is a working drummer, singer and songwriter who got his start in the S.F. Bay Area in the ‘80s. After playing punk shows in high school, he joined Vain, landed a record contract and began touring. After few years with Vain, he went on to play with Eric Martin, Ronnie Montrose, Linda Perry and many others. Presently, he splits time between Sonoma County and Los Angeles, working as a session/touring drummer as well as recording a new album with the band Orchid. This summer, he re-teams with Vain as they head to Europe to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their underground classic album “No Respect”. I had the pleasure of talking with Tommy the other week. Tommy is an amazing force, full of energy and insight. He’s forged a great career for himself through hard work, perseverance and consistently being proactive in building his musician community. The following is part of our conversation:
Gary: Tommy, it’s so great to get to talk with you. I’m from the Bay Area and about your same age so your a local boy made good! I know you were playing in the S.F. punk scene about the same time I was. At the Mab and On Broadway.
Tommy: Yeah, I’d play the Mab in the early 80’s. I’d get off stage and I was so young I’d have to hang out in the alley because I wasn’t 21. I wasn’t even 18 so I couldn’t hang out and relax in the green room.
Gary: I remember that alleyway. Les Nessman, the owner, had a businessman dinner/smorgasbord every Friday evening to try to promote his restaurant business. He had our rock-a-billy band, Top Card, play every Friday for that dinner crowd. I think we made about $5 a piece and free dinner.
Tommy: Yeah, we maybe bought a burrito and split it between 4 dudes.
Gary: So you were playing in that punk scene in the 80’s. Would you book your own shows? Did it just happen organically or did you have a manager?
Tommy: It happened organically for the most part. Then in ‘83 I became friends with Katrina Sirdofsky. Later on she ended up being the manager of Vain, Death Angel and Linda Perry. Katrina became a friend I’d end up working with for many, many years down the road. She owned Rebel Records across the street from Santa Rosa High School, I’d go over there and buy records. She had all the cool indie stuff.
Gary: How did you come to meet the guys in Vain?
Tommy with Vain in the early years. Opening for Skid Row:
Tommy: That was all the same era. So, I met Kat at Rebel records and Ash, the soon to be bass player and I would go across the street and hang out at the record store everyday. We all went to high school together. We were jammin’ and hanging out so I knew them all through high school and Danny Montoya as well, the guitar player in Vain. We all knew Davy. He was in the record store once in a while but we were younger than him so we were just thought of as young punks. Then about 2 years later, I was playing with bands in the punk scene in S.F. and I was looking for other things. I was still hanging out with Ash, Danny and Kat. Davy was looking for a drummer so he asked me to just come down and jam, so I jammed with him one day and never left.
Tommy: Yeah. Katrina was the manager. They kind of had a vision so it was like a business plan. It was actually like...1. We’re going to put the band together. 2. We’re going to do a demo. 3. We’re going to start doing shows. 4. If we have to we’re going to record our own record, etc. But what happened is we started doing well. We started getting record company interest right away and then we just decided we would continue doing shows going from San Francisco to L.A. We opened up for Guns and Roses, Jet Boy, Sea Hags, Poison. So we played with everybody. Then we ended up getting a record deal and recording No Respect up in Canada. Then we went on a couple of US tours, handful of shows in Japan, and a UK tour with Skid Row. It was a whirlwind 3 years.
Gary: So you we’re playing punk and you transitioned to metal with Vain. Did you find that hard?
Tommy: Kind of. I mean I always played rock and metal and stuff like that. Vain is funny, if you put on a Vain record next to a Skid Row record or a Poison record or any of those bands we sound more like a punk band. Maybe that’s because of the way we recorded it, might be a bit because of the way I played back then. So it was kind of a cool combination. Davy writes really melodic melodies, that made our songs a little more commercially accessible. Kind of like ear candy. My playing had a little bit of that punk energy underneath those melodies.
Gary: That’s cool. So you did that for 3 years and then what happened?
Tommy, killing it on drums!:
Tommy: Yeah, for 3 years until we got a record deal and then I was still in Vain until ‘92.
Gary: Were you making a living off that? I’m always curious about that aspect since I know how tough it is.
Tommy with Vain in 2015:
Tommy: Yeah. I mean we just played. We were just surviving. I think I lived with my girlfriend for most of that time and she had a job and I was paying for food once in a while when I could. She was very patient and her parents were very patient and supportive. Once we were signed we were just touring and recording and everything was kind of paid for. It wasn’t like you had a bunch of money. I mean I didn’t have money in the bank but if I needed something I’d call up Kat and say, “hey, I need a new pair of pants” because I literally had no pants.
Gary: What an amazing experience and beginning trajectory.
Tommy: It was super amazing and it just happened to be with my friends I grew up with in high school. You can’t ask for anything more!
Tommy with Dee Snider in Vegas:
Gary: That’s a beautiful thing. So, you went on from there to meet some heavy folks in the music industry. You played with Ronnie Montrose. How did that come about?
Tommy: The Montrose thing came about through Eric Martin who I had befriended through the Marin music scene. Eric was with Mr. Big. The funny thing about that era is even though Mr. Big didn’t sound like Vain we still did shows together and we all knew each other. Eric was from Marin. Later on in 2007 I did a record with Eric Martin and Eric was doing a fundraiser in Sacramento and wanted me to come play with him and then Montrose wanted me to play a couple of songs that Eric was going to sing with him. So Eric asked me if I would play and I was like, “of course I’m going to play “Rock Candy”. I mean Rock Candy was one of the first songs I ever played when I was a kid. But the funny thing about playing with Ronnie is that Ronnie likes to play things even slower than they are on the record. So Eric’s like, “he’s going to want you play it about 8 BPM slower than on the record”. I was like, wow, that’s real slow but it sounded kind of cool because it was really heavy and almost kind of bluesy vibe.
Tommy with Scott Weiland:
Gary: Speaking of playing things slow, have you ever struggled with your timing and groove?
Tommy: Early on for sure because I was a punk drummer and I never played with metronome. All I did was play all night with different punk bands and we were never putting on a metronome so my tempo could get a little wonky, just because of the environment. Once I started to focus on it, it came pretty quick. I had played to records for so long. Not only did I play with rock records and punk records. I played to Madonna records and Michael Jackson records and to music that was really well produced and the time was always perfect. So my timing was pretty good from playing with all those records..
Gary: I was a speed demon. Every chorus and every guitar solo I was off to the races.
Tommy: Oh, did that too. I remember behind my drum set I’d watch the metronome red light flashing and I’d say to myself, “okay, take a deep breath and that’s the tempo”.
Gary: In that whole 90’s time period after Montrose who else did you work with?
Tommy: Well, after Vain broke up I played with a band called Loaded which was kind of “raunchy” like Oasis meets the Stooges. Really melodic, raunchy and garagey. We made an EP and did some great shows. We played together for a couple of years. In fact I’m playing with the singer again now in the band Orchid. Around that time I’d hang out with Linda Perry a lot and was working with her here and there, played on a record of hers and played with a lot different people. It’s funny, because you’re a teenager and you join a band, the band does well but it doesn’t become life changing. I mean it is life changing emotionally, personally, musically and as a band, but not financially. Your personality, and identity are kind of tied to that band. So some people recognize you and think, “there’s the drummer for Vain”. That’s great, but as a 23 year old dude, when Vain disbanded, I needed to find myself, and find myself musically. I knew that I had a ton of different tastes in music, so I started playing with a bunch of different bands. Whether it was a country band or a punk band like the Clarke Nova, which were a successful Bay Area band that sold out shows all over the Bay Area and Southern California. It was great. They were awesome dudes and we did a couple of great recordings as well. Then I played with Bloodroses, which was more of a melodic countryish ambient Mazzy Star thing. It was beautiful. A great singer and great songwriters. Then I was working with Linda Perry and I played with a band called Blue Sky Roadster which was a pop rock band from San Francisco that ended up changing their name to Single. We did a couple of really great records, and I still work with Todd, the singer/songwriter from that band. All those relationships happened after Vain. Amazing relationships that I continue to have to this day. Like Todd and Linda. I worked with Linda Perry on Beautiful and a couple of other songs of hers. I worked on a Courtney Love record, toured with Scott Weiland. It was a funny time. Things just happened one after another. Linda is obviously amazing. One of my favorite people to work with. I like people to push me. I know that every producer/songwriter like her, that has such a strong and clear vision, and so much talent inside of her that wants to come out, that it’s hard to hear people struggle through parts so it can get frustrating for those producers/songwriters, and I get it. I’ve seen situations where people didn’t love the way she communicated, but I love the way she communicates. It always works for me. I like people to challenge me. I’m there to make the situation as good as I can make it and grow as a person and a musician.
Gary: So it works for you when someone has a definitive vision and pushes you forward. Instead of getting defensive about it you learn from it.
Tommy: For sure. Yeah. I’ve learned to communicate in a way that’s like, “hey, I hear what you’re saying but I need to basically go through the math like an equation of how that’s going to work for me so I can play what you want.”
I know that when we were recording Beautiful, some of us were trying to do too much. When you listen to the song it’s basically like a John Lennon song. It’s like Imagine.. The problem with a song that simple is that a lot of people go into it wanting to make their “mark” or “show off” instead of just letting the song kind of play you. Let the song direct where it wants you to go. So she said something very funny. She said, “Tommy, it sounds great but can you just be a little less heroic?” And that was a perfect way to describe the build I was doing. So instead of trying to do these triumphant builds she took the song to another place. The song gets bigger, of course, but it doesn’t turn into “Living On a Prayer”. It’s not that kind of a force. It’s not triumphant like that. It doesn’t need a power fill going into the chorus. So I was like, “I need to be more Ringo, or more Jim Keltner”, like off the early Lennon or Harrison stuff. So that was a funny thing. If you can get your ego out of the way in situations like that it can turn into a funny situation. It becomes a huge learning experience.
Gary: Right. Take your ego out of it and you can relax and let the song tell you where it wants to go.
Tommy: For sure. In working with Theo in Orchid, Theo sings drum parts a little more specifically so sometimes it can be a little more difficult to interpret. He tries to sing the drums and I almost don’t know what he’s trying to say. He'll say things like “do a 32nd note triplet” and he doesn’t always know what he’s saying. So I’m trying to decipher what’s going on and I’ll get there, but sometimes it can be frustrating for him because he can hear it but he can’t communicate it to me because he’s not a drummer. So it can take a little longer than one likes. Because the words come out of his mouth but not coming out exactly like he’s hearing them then I hear them slightly differently too and then I try to play it and it’s absolutely not what he’s hearing. (laughs) It turns into a little like chasing your tail. I'm saying, “I don’t know where we’re going with this” and he’s saying, “but you’re not playing what I’m saying”, and I say, “I don’t know what you’re saying”. It’s a funny thing. But again, if you’re egos out of the way, not only can it be a lesson in music but a lesson in communication. A skill that will serve you for the rest of your life.
Gary: That’s great you can keep that awareness.Right now you’re living in L.A. and doing studio work and giving drum lessons?
Tommy: Yes. I do give drum lessons once in a while. It’s hard because my schedule is kind of scattered. I’ll be here in Sonoma county to teach and get a student that I love working with but I can’t teach them on a consistent schedule. I have a few students that are good with my schedule. I have about 5 students I work with a couple times per month and that’s about all I can do. As for bands, I’m still working with the same people. Still working with Todd from Blue Sky Roadster. We just did a new record of his. Orchid is working on a new record and hopefully we’re going back overseas in 2020 and able to spend most of the Spring and Summer over there in South America.
Gary: I wanted to ask you a bit more about teaching. As far as teaching a beginning drum student what’s your favorite way to teach a beginning student?
Tommy: No matter the age, whether it be a kid or a 40 year old, I start them out on a basic beat. Like one older student of mine, she said, “I just want to play drums, I’ve never played drums and I hope you don’t think it’s weird that I’m starting now. My response is, “it’s not weird. It’s awesome that you’re starting now.” And she starts to play a groove that is just 1 and 3 on the kick, 2 and 4 on the snare and 8th notes on the hi hat and she’s playing the groove to most pop songs. She’s doing it and it’s so awesome. It’s great to see my students get so excited. I teach a couple of autistic students. They are my favorite kids to work with. They are so excited and their confidence level is boosted when they drum. That’s so great to see. Just amazing. Selfishly it couldn’t be more gratifying when you leave there and you feel like you’ve helped change this person's life a little bit, although in a small way, it’s just a very beautiful feeling to see them walking out of the room differently because their confidence level has completely shifted from when we first met.
Gary: Do you have a recommendation for drummers that want to break into the field of music as a career? What’s the best way to go about it?Tommy: Follow your heart. For me, I became a bit maniacal. I played with everybody. I was in every band in my area. I played with everyone. I played a show every night. Two shows per day. I was just playing as much as I could. I have a student of mine, well, he was a student. We both acknowledged that I couldn’t teach him anything. I said to him, “you’re a person who can easily do this. You’re committed. Your learning curve is fast. You teach yourself so well that you need somebody to talk with you about your career path. A bunch of opportunities came his way. My advice to him was to keep playing with as many bands as you can. Keep doing what you’re doing and it’s going to take you where you want to go. He’s now doing a bunch of musical theater stuff which he’s crushiny. He’s so good at it. His skill set is perfect for that. And now he’s like, “I want to be in the band on a cruise for 5 months.” And he’s going to do that now. He’s taking off the music theater thing and doing the cruise. He’s super excited. I was talking with him today about that, just to kind of get him prepared for what he needs and such. Everybody's different but I love that fact that he just played with everyone and found what he wanted to do. That’s the thing, if you don’t play with a bunch of people you’re not going to know exactly what you want to do. You may just play and say to yourself, “This is my band”. They might be cool but how do you know you won’t like playing in an R & B band better? Or a hip hop or jazz or musical theater. Why not just try all of it? What looks the best on you? What do you look the best in?
Gary: That’s great advice. Don’t get stuck in one thing. To find your groove you have to break out and experiment.So currently you’re playing with Orchid and didn’t you just record a new album with Vain?
Tommy: We did last year. We’ve already done a couple shows this year and we’re going overseas in August to do 5 more shows. Then I’m going to get back and work with Orchid to finish our record by the end of the year and have it out early next year. So, yeah. Moving along.
Gary: Fantastic. I want to ask you, in 2006 you did a motion capture for Rock Band. How did that come about?
Tommy: I had a bunch of friends in the gaming industry and I came in and helped them out as a drummer, to make it look authentic. We all got along so well. I didn’t know the producers but knew the guys that were doing the programming. So the director liked me and brought me in as the male motion capture drummer. Then I brought in my friend Tori as the female. We had a lot of fun. Running around in those tight black suits with ping pong balls all over them. Hilarious. So unattractive. Nobody needs to see me in that outfit. (laughs) That’s why there’s no photos.
Tommy: Yeah. I do as much as I can. It doesn’t have to be L.A. I’m weird where I’ll go to London and call all my musician friends and say, “I’m in town for 4 days, I have 1 show. If you know anybody who needs a drummer to come over and play a couple of tunes I’m in.” So I’ll do sessions for ever. I’ll be super proactive about it. That’s something one can do. Be super proactive. I mean, sure it’s fun to go out and watch some sporting event or have a beer, that’s great. But also keep growing your musical community. You may end up in the studio with someone that’s awesome. You never know where it could go. I mean, I didn’t know Beautiful by Linda was going to be what it became. I knew it was a great song and certainly it was a huge success for Linda but I didn’t know that it would be what it is, what it became. So you just never know. You never know where a relationship might take you. Always be open and pushing yourself to meet and work with new people.
Gary: So true. Something else you’re presently doing is a documentary series “The Hard Road”?
Tommy: Yeah. I have 1 episode out. It’s on a podcast as well. It’s inspirational stories about musicians and artists. Now I’m going to do an episode on a baseball player as well. It started out as something loosely based in art but there’s an artistry to everything.
Gary: I watched the first episode about a musician who didn’t necessarily “make it” in music but he talks about his struggle and how he’s still doing it. Still making music.The Hard Road:
Tommy: Yeah. It doesn’t matter. I always put it like this: As a kid you want to grow up and be a “drummer” or “rock star”. Let’s paint that a color. So, “rock star” is blue. So when you get to be 30 and you’re playing music and making a living as a musician maybe what you’ve become isn’t blue, maybe it’s purple. That’s still “cool.” It’s just a different color. It’s a different version. It’s a different thing than you thought it was going to be. You’re still vital. You’re still a super creative force. You’re never not going to be. So in the series I’m sharing inspirational stories about people. they may not be “famous” but they’re people who continue to work and grow. There’s an episode coming out as a podcast in probably about 2 weeks so I will keep you posted on that.
Gary: Please do. That’s great. So, is there anything else that you want to talk or shout out about other than what you’ve mentioned?
Tommy: Well, keep an eye out for the documentary “The Hard Road”. It’s funny, because I’m so much more active these days. Situations shift a bit. Right now I feel like I’m back in a super vital point in my life. I have a lot going on. On Instagram I’m going to start posting clips of sessions I’m working on. Three records that I’ve played on are coming out in the next 2 months. I’m super proud of all of them. And I’m going to record a new record of my songs. I haven’t recorded a record in awhile and I have a few songs I want to record. I’m not going to turn it into a 6 month long project. I’m literally going to go in and say to myself, “I know these songs. I’m just going to sing them today. I’m going to play guitar and drums on them today. Tomorrow we’re going to put bass and keyboards and we’re going to mix them the next day. So like in a week I’m going to have my record.” (laughs)
Gary: Sounds like the way to record. So you write your own songs and play various instruments?
Tommy: Yeah. I put out a record called “Dream California.” Part of that was to see if I could do it. See how the process works. I also had a lot of songs saved up and it almost became like an art project, a therapy session. Anybody who listens to that record, if they go on Spotify and find it, (here it is) if you listen to the lyrics it’s pretty autobiographical. I mean you can pretty much hear what was going on in my life or anyone close to me can hear what was going on. It’s not dark or anything. It’s just real life stuff that I was unpacking. So, yeah, I play guitar and sort of lean toward the Americana style. Countryish. Singer songwriter. .
Gary: Do you have a home studio?
Tommy: Yeah, I’ll record some stuff on my laptop. Because I don’t mind it being a little bit raw. Technology is so great now. You can record it in your car and still make it sound pretty damn good. But I’m working a lot and do a lot of stuff on barter so I have a ton of studio time built up. So if they have a window of a week where the studio’s not open then I can go in a record.
Gary: What a great idea to barter studio time.
Tommy: Yeah. I do a lot of sessions and some of the sessions don’t pay that much. So, I’m like, I don’t need the $100 you’re going to pay me today so let’s trade studio time. If somebody has a song they want to record and doesn’t have a ton of money we will figure out a way to do it. If bartering is the best way then I can say, “hey, you’re a great guitar player, I’ll play on your song and I’ll call you when I need someone for my song.” I keep a little rolodex and when I need somebody for a song I will call you. That works for both of us..
Gary: Tommy, it’s been a pleasure to talk with you! I learned a lot. What an amazing adventure. I’m inspired to go out there, create and keep my vital force moving forward. I’ll forward to talking with you soon.
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