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Q&A: Claude Coleman Jr.: An online exclusive interview with the Ween drummer and Amandla frontman

An online exclusive interview with the Ween drummer and Amandla frontman

Claude Coleman, photograph by CCJ / Amandla, live photograph by Christopher Gogliardi

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Friday, February 23, 2007

Q&A: Claude Coleman Jr.

By Drew Fortune

Claude Coleman Jr. is paying his dues. The versatile multi-instrumentalist and longtime Ween drummer is traveling the US with his backing band on a 26-stop, bi-coastal tour in support of The Full Catastrophe, the second album from his passion project Amandla. Meaning power in the Zula language, Amandla is a pastiche of genres and musical styles, with a drive geared toward rock and soul. The gigs are small and the harsh, Midwest winter is menacing. But Coleman is on a quest to establish Amandla as its own musical entity, sans the Ween association. I caught up with Claude during the band’s stop in Chicago, and began by asking how he first became acquainted with Aaron and Mickey, a.k.a. Dean and Gene Ween.

“When I first met those guys, it was just the two of them making music with a DAT tape,” Coleman recalls. “It was the most heinous shit, but it was also the best shit ever. Back then, they were merry pranksters, making music and doing good amounts of quality drugs. They were a lot of fun to be with and just insane. I didn’t really get close to them until I started crashing on their couch when they were doing The Pod record in 1991. I took acid for two straight weeks, by myself, in this old barn with flies buzzing all around me. To this day, I don’t know why they let me stay there, but they did because that’s the way things were.

The origins of Amandla date back to the early Nineties, with Claude writing material for what would eventually become the critically acclaimed debut album, Falling Alone.

“I always recorded a lot of 4-track music in my basement, and around 1993 I had half of that record done,” he said. “The songs were written, but I was so broke and had no way to record them properly. So I held onto them and continued to tour and record with Ween throughout the Nineties. In 1999, I had a friend working as an engineer at Waterfront Studios in Hoboken, which was Lenny Kravitz’s first studio, and I got to record and work there for free. We went through crates of amps and guitars, and ended up using lots of Lenny’s stuff.”

After a brief relocation to London following his marriage in 1999, Coleman returned to Jersey three years later. Soon after, he was involved in a horrific, debilitating car accident near Hoboken. His pelvis was shattered in six places and he suffered severe brain damage, rendering the left side of his body numb and immobile.

“I don’t really remember anything,” he said. “I was parked at a meter and eating a slice of pizza. I don’t have any clear recollection of when I woke up. Anything that I know about the accident is what I’ve read from police reports. I consider it to be a major blessing that I don’t have any of that shit in my unconscious to feed any anxieties or nightmares. Every day was a milestone. I was so completely fucked up that I wasn’t depressed. I was in too much pain and trauma to have any way to process what was happening.”

For several weeks, Claude struggled to breathe and focus his vision, while trying in vain to muster the strength to simply shift his body in bed. Much of this time is a complete blur for him, though speculation about his condition was buzzing on the Internet.

“When I finally gained consciousness, my automatic personality kicked in. I’m a naturally entertaining kind of bloke, and I remember being really jovial with the people who came to visit. My room was covered with cards and balloons from family, friends and fans. I remember trying to convince the hospital staff that I was Jay-Z’s cousin, but they didn’t believe me. Everyone in the band was so supportive, and the fans were incredible.”

Two months later, to mark the anniversary of the accident and help pay Coleman’s extensive hospital bills, family, friends and bandmates organized several benefit concerts at New York’s Bowery Ballroom. Having clawed out of the abyss, Claude came to the realization that he would have to write off that year, or the next couple of years. Five years later, he has not made a complete physical recovery, and suffers daily from residual effects.

“From the brain damage, I have a constant numbness and tingle on the left side of my body,” he said. “It affects my circulation, so when it’s cold, the left side is a couple of degrees colder, which internally feels frigid and really hurts. When it’s warm, I’m sweating and perspiring. Like in Chicago right now, where it’s fucking freezing, it makes it twice as hard to move my fingers and my dexterity is challenged that much more.”

Claude now acts as songwriter, performer, producer and engineer for Amandla. On tour he’s made the switch from singing-drummer to axe-wielding front man. “Playing guitar is like physical therapy,” he said. “It’s all about the reclamation and the relearning for my body. I love playing guitar ... much more than playing drums.”

The Full Catastrophe is an album of rejoice, a 13-track love letter to life. It brims with originality, bright soul melodies and displays a devotion to a rock/folk mentality, tinged with psychedelica.

“There’s a lot on the record that has nothing to do with what I went through, but it’s perfect for what I’m going through at the moment. I need to have that rejoicing and positivity to keep me going.

That night, Amandla took the stage at the Cobra Lounge and launched into “Right Mind,” a tune Claude wrote as a wedding proposal. People leaked in from the adjacent bar, and soon the room was filled to capacity. The floor turned into a dance party and, halfway through the set, the stage was packed with dancing girls whose smiles beamed out to the crowd. Claude responded with meaty solos, his fingers flying nimbly over the guitar neck.

“I’m reintroducing myself to everyone,” Claude said. “I’m having a great time doing it. By the end of 2007, if I’m playing gigs to 300 people who know all the songs, it would make me the happiest guy in the world. I could die at the end of the year. I’m not going to stop until I get there.”


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