For as long as he can remember, Atom Willard has owned a drum set. But his parents didn’t know when they purchased something for their 4-year-old to bang on that it would lead to a career as one of punk rock’s most prolific drummers.

After learning to play along with Iron Maiden cassettes while still in elementary school and joining a few bands on his way through high school, a teenage Willard began his decade-long stint performing with Rocket From the Crypt.

“Playing in Rocket From the Crypt, we were just a band that would play local parties and then local bars — but I couldn’t even get into the bars,” Willard says. “Then as a touring band, you start to play on bigger stages opening for bigger bands, and then all of a sudden I was getting called by that bigger band. It was just kind of an evolution.”

Since his full-time status in Rocket From the Crypt came to an end in 2000, Willard’s credits include everything from Social Distortion to Angels and Airwaves, The Offspring to Alkaline Trio. It’s not that the percussionist necessarily planned to spend anywhere from a single tour to several years with handfuls of punk rock bands; he was just doing what felt right.

“You go into each situation with open eyes and full of optimism and hope — at least that’s how I’ve always done it,” Willard says. “You think, maybe this is the situation that’s going to be creatively fulfilling, let me pay my bills, and do the things that you want to do as a musician.

“You want to play shows. You want to make records. At some point, each of those situations that I’ve left has not really made the grade in one of those categories. That’s all it ever came down to. You just have to move on and make it happen for itself.”

For the last three years, Willard’s found a more permanent home with yet another punk act. Against Me!’s seventh studio album, Shape Shift With Me (out this Friday), is only Willard’s second with the band, but as a guy who’s backed everyone from Mike Ness to Tom DeLonge, working with current punk icon Laura Jane Grace and company seems like a perfect fit for all sorts of reasons.

“We’re not a bunch of college graduates who just decided to try out music. We’ve all been struggling and making music our whole lives,” Willard says. “It’s cool and it’s comfortable to be in a situation with a bunch of people who are on the exact same level in that regard. I was a fan of the band before I was in the band.”

As for the new Against Me! record? It sounds pretty much exactly like any longtime fan of the band would expect. Over the last 19 years, Grace and company have shifted from a semi-acoustic folk-punk outfit to a full rock & roll powerhouse, and Willard believes Shape Shift With Me is the next step along that trail.

“It’s an incremental movement forward for the band,” Willard says. “I wouldn’t say it’s a total departure from the sound … there are definitely things that are reminiscent of all the records. Laura always writes from a very personal standpoint, and it’s all autobiographical — it always has been. Musically, this is just what it sounds like when we play together. There wasn’t a lot of work to make the songs happen. It was just a lot of jamming on a riff, and the rest came together naturally.”

In July, Willard took his musical career somewhere that punk rock rarely goes: network television. For four nights, the veteran filled in on drums for the house band on NBC’s Late Night With Seth Meyers, including an entirely live performance on the final night. Although Willard ended up having a blast, the drummer didn’t know how the process would work, and it turns out it’s a little different than your average punk show.

“I didn’t realize it was going to be as nerve-racking as it ended up being,” Willard says of his time on Late Night. “They just kind of throw you into it and tell you, ‘You’ve got to do this and this and this and this. Wait for his signal. Interpret this. Don’t go too long, but don’t go too short.’ There are so many fucking rules, but it was a lot of fun. By the end of the second night, I was totally comfortable with the system and it was just a good time.”

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