Josh Freese has an interesting big-fish story to tell.
For the Orange County-bred rock drummer, a wunderkind in alternative-rock circles with numerous impressive credits already notched at 22, the big one that got away was Pearl Jam.
Freese auditioned in October for the vacant drum chair in rock's hottest-selling band. He apparently was a finalist. Pearl Jam, which returns to live performance with benefit concerts Jan. 14 and 15 in Washington, D.C., has made no official announcement, but it appears the new drummer will be the veteran Los Angeles player Jack Irons, an old friend of the band.
"If I was sitting on my butt right now, I'd be really bummed that I didn't get the Pearl Jam gig," Freese said Wednesday from his home in Los Angeles.
Instead, the ever-enthusiastic drummer, who grew up in Placentia and began his touring career at 15, sounded as eager as ever as he talked about his hopes for his new band, Slider.
For now, the trio is an unknown minnow in the rock world, but it has an opportunity to grow into a whale, or at least a good-size trout, thanks to a recording deal with A & M Records. Slider, which also includes two San Francisco-based players--singer-guitarist Matt Winegar and a bassist known as Wic--will play its first concert ever on Tuesday, opening for X at the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana.
Freese said Pearl Jam's bassist, Stone Gossard, first contacted him last summer about auditioning for the spot formerly held by Dave Abbruzzese, who was fired. Freese said that Abbruzzese had been a fan of Xtra Large, an Orange County band he played with in 1992-93, and that Gossard also had heard his work.
Besides the defunct Xtra Large, which put out a strong but commercially unsuccessful album on Giant Records, Freese had notched high-profile credits as a studio drummer for Suicidal Tendencies and Infectious Grooves, and as a member of Paul Westerberg's touring band. He also is the drummer on an upcoming album by Juliana Hatfield and plans to play on Westerberg's next solo album.
"It was fun to play with (Pearl Jam)," Freese said of the audition in Seattle. "It was the first time I've literally jammed. We didn't play any of their songs. We just rocked for three or four days, improvised the whole time. They made me feel very comfortable."
Freese went back to Southern California to await the outcome, telling himself not to get his hopes up too high but also pondering the benefits of Pearl Jam membership: "I was really excited at the idea of not having to worry about money for a while."
Meanwhile, he had become enthralled with a demo tape put together by Winegar, a former member of Spent Poets and producer of two early Primus albums, and Wic, whose full name is William Coleman.
Record producer Matt Wallace had introduced Freese to the two San Francisco rockers, who were planning to debut as a duo backed by session musicians. The three hit it off and began to play together. In November, Freese said, Slider's record deal came through, and Winegar and Coleman invited him to join as a full-fledged member.
Freese says he phoned Gossard at that point to ask about his standing with Pearl Jam. The answer, he said, was not definite: Gossard told him that Pearl Jam planned to work with another drummer, but it was possible that things could change and Freese would still be under consideration if they did. Pearl Jam's manager, Kelly Curtis, could not be reached for comment.
Instead of waiting some more for the big one to come in, Freese decided to join Slider, which takes its name from the title of an old T. Rex album. After spending most of his career as a session drummer and a hired touring pro, Freese said he was eager to be an intrinsic part of a band, involved in the songwriting, as he was in Xtra Large. In order to devote himself to Slider, he also turned down an offer to spend '95 touring with another high-profile band, Ministry.
"Slider is the kind of band I would be a fan of if I played in it or not," Freese said. "It's something I'll be able to grow with artistically as an equal member. I'd rather take the risk. The Slider record could come out and not sell a dozen copies. But I'd much rather be Josh Freese from Slider than Josh Freese from 30 different bands."
* Slider opens for X on Tuesday at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. 8 p.m. $19.50. (714) 957-0600.
VANDAL-ISM: Actually, Josh Freese will maintain a rock 'n' roll equivalent of dual citizenship. Slider is his primary band, but he will continue to moonlight with the Vandals, the long-running Orange County/Long Beach satiric punk-rock band he joined about five years ago on a part-time basis. Drummer Chris Lagerborg, a member of the Joykiller, has been filling in on dates Freese can't make due to his other commitments.
The Vandals are applying the finishing touches to their first studio album since 1991 and are planning to shop for a deal. Joey Escalante, the lone remaining founding member, says the Vandals' stock is running high these days thanks to punk's commercial explosion. The Offspring's singer, Bryan Holland, can be seen sporting a Vandals T-shirt in some shots of "Self Esteem," a video that airs incessantly on MTV.
"Six months ago we would have to beg decent labels to consider us," Escalante said. "Now they're coming out of the woodwork. (Members of the Offspring) have helped us enormously. They cited us before they got big, and now that they've gotten big, they still talk about us."
Escalante said that three of the four Offspring members--Holland, Greg Kriesel and Ron Welty--joined the Vandals at a recent San Diego show for a rendition of their 1982-vintage oldie "The Legend of Pat Brown."