No one wants to talk to drummers. Of more than 300 musicians I've interviewed, only five played drums. While even the most casual of music fans likely would identify a song's beat as central to its appeal, few of the beat-makers enjoy a voice beyond their instrument.
"Drummers are probably the most underappreciated members of the band — they're taken for granted," says Joe Wong, host and producer of The Trap Set. "Even though their contributions are often defining and integral to the music."
The Trap Set is a weekly podcast in which Wong, a professional drummer, interviews fellow professional drummers. Yet it's almost equally relatable and intriguing to non-musicians. Wong, who also composes music for film and TV, brings notable drummers into his L.A. studio for freewheeling half-hour chats that often only fleetingly discuss their actual craft. Far from dwelling on the technicalities of chops and equipment, he uses drumming as a portal into sometimes very personal human-interest stories.
"Of course, a big percentage of our audience is musicians and drummers, but the intended audience is anybody," Wong insists. "It's almost like a sociological study of people that happen to be drummers."
A new episode of The Trap Set is released every Wednesday. Subscription is free, and it can be heard on TheTrapSet.net as well as on WMSE radio in Wong's native Milwaukee. Since its January 2015 debut, the show has released close to 150 episodes, encompassing big names like Phil Collins and Sheila E.; jazz greats including Billy Cobham and Jeff "Tain" Watts; and punk, post-punk and heavy metal heroes such as Dave Lombardo (Slayer), Dee Plakas (L7) and Sam Fogarino (Interpol).
Wong, 37, started touring in Milwaukee math-rock band Akarso while still in high school, before attending Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music and getting involved in New York City's jazz scene. Returning to rock music in his mid-20s, he performed with artists like Marnie Stern and Mary Timony. It was while touring with experimental noise-rock band Parts & Labor that, to rest his ears between shows, he started listening to podcasts rather than music, and was particularly struck by WTF With Marc Maron.
"Marc interviewed, especially in the beginning, nothing but other comedians," Wong recalls. "That allowed him an intimacy ... that enabled them to dive into more substantial conversations that appealed to anybody."
A chance meeting at a party with one of his idols, Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty, crystallized Wong's concept for what would become The Trap Set ("trap set" being another term for a drum kit).
"I was going through a kind of rough patch in my life at the time and asking [Canty] for advice," Wong says. "It was, like, OK, well if I'm going to work through my neuroses with my drumming heroes, I might as well record it!"
Edited and co-produced by former Onion Radio producer-writer Chris Karwowski, The Trap Set booked Canty as its first guest. Today, Wong reckons he devotes about a day and a half each week to working on the podcast, of which only an hour might be spent researching his next guest ("to kind of know enough but not too much"). In a soothingly warm timbre, he works from just a handful of what he calls "points of departure," rather than specific questions; this lets the conversation organically unfold based on what his interviewee divulges.
While The Trap Set certainly discusses music — The Police's Stewart Copeland explaining how his Middle East upbringing influenced his drumming, or co-founder Lol Tolhurst describing how The Cure shaped their early sound by identifying what they wanted to exclude — chats soon meander into explorations of guests' formative experiences and life lessons. Collins told Wong about his resentment toward his father and his own approach to fatherhood, while Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Brian Chase talked about Jewish mysticism. Thrice's Riley Breckenridge recalled struggling to transition into "regular life" while his band was on hiatus; Nerve's Jojo Mayer even discussed existential dread.
"It's a thinly veiled way of getting free advice, or psychiatric advice — almost life advice. If people feel like they're helping you ... then they're open," Wong says. "At least at some point in every conversation, there's at least a couple of moments of genuine connection on an emotional level."
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Wong has found that most drummers have many stories to tell and are keen to finally tell them (during his February Trap Set chat, The Pretenders' Martin Chambers recalled singer Chrissie Hynde grabbing the microphone from him on one of the few prior occasions when an interviewer posed a question directly his way). But others are tougher to pry open.
"They don't have to be as emotionally naked as perhaps singers do. Y'know, everything is filtered through ... an instrument that kind of almost feels like a protection — it's like a barrier between them and the audience," Wong says. "Some drummers ... aren't as comfortable discussing the emotional genesis of why they do it."
Wong is aware that, with its niche group of interviewees, the sponsor- and donations-funded The Trap Set — which currently has around 20,000 weekly listeners — has a ceiling on its popularity. But recently securing top-tier guests like Collins and (on Dec. 6) Black Sabbath's Bill Ward has brought the show a new level of legitimacy and only broadened its appeal.
"We definitely want to go for the Ringos and Charlie Watts and [legendary jazz drummer] Jack DeJohnettes, etc., of the world — and some of those people are already in the works," Wong says. "[The Trap Set has] already exceeded my expectations, so I'm willing just to ride it out and see where it goes."