David Thibodeau’s name may not be familiar to you but the event that will forever keep his name in the history books is. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the event that has come to be known as WACO, a 51-day siege between a fringe religious community and government law enforcement that ended in the tragic deaths of over 80 innocent people. Thibodeau was one of only nine people to escape the fiery blaze that engulfed the compound where the community members were holed up. Thibodeau was more than just a member, he was the drummer in the controversial leader David Koresh’s band. That event however does not define Thibodeau as a person or as a musician. He is a graduate of the Musicians Institute. He played up and down the streets of Hollywood in places like The Whiskey, The Troubadour and The Roxbury. He’s recorded with singers and songwriters from the 80’s to today and he still plays the drums with the same passion and intensity that he did even before becoming a member of a doomed religious community. Today he is a musician, author, film advisor, speaker and entrepreneur. David took time out of his busy travel schedule to discuss his experiences prior, during, and beyond WACO from a drummer’s perspective.
MA: Our obvious first question is what brought you to the drums?
DT: When the Cheap Trick at Budokan album came out and “I Want You to Want Me” was a big hit being played on all of the radio stations, my friend had a mix-matched drum set that had been given to him by my aunt. It was all different brands and colors, red and gold. I went over to his house and he told me to sit down and play if I wanted to. I did and the very second I played it, for the very first few seconds ever, it was like magic. I picked up those drumsticks. I hit the snare. I hit the floor tom and I said “Oh My God!” this is what I want to do with my life. It was so weird. I knew instantly. It had that much of an impact on me in that single moment. I remember that my friend didn’t have a bass drum foot pedal. So I learned “I Want You to Want Me” by playing it between the snare drum and the floor tom. And that was it. As soon as I did that [makes sound of song beat] I just knew it, I mean I really knew it, that I was somehow going to be a drummer for the rest of my life. It was that instantaneous and easy.
MA: Tell us about your musical education? Did you participate in any school music programs? Did you take lessons?
DT: Once I knew what I wanted to do I was in elementary school. My dad thought it was a phase, so he never bought me a drum set. I saved my own money and I got a cheap drum set. I started to play all of the time. As soon as I got home from school I would go straight to the drums and play. Every chance I could I would play. I only knew two or three beats at the time but they seemed to work for almost every rock song ever recorded. I did join the school marching band and I played the snare drum. I started to take lessons at a music conservatory here in Bangor [Maine]. I remember that my instructor was an amazing jazz drummer. I was definitely more of a rock guy. He had me working out of the Syncopation Book [by Ted Reed]. I would swing time over the syncopation rhythms while training the left hand to be more independent. I would work on my feet. It was very helpful and I really learned a lot. Especially when playing a more complicated form of music with other people. It helped me to even things out a bit between jazz and rock. I remember that I played in a rock band in high school but as time wore on I tried to play in every kind of band that I could. It was all good music to me. I played in a jazz band for six months when I moved to Austin and it was fun. I had a blast doing it but I always wanted to rock it out. I was always a rock drummer period. So even though I could play in a jazz band, three or four months into it I would start to play a little more louder and powerful and it would evolve into a jazz/rock thing and I would usually get fired [laughs]. I wanted to do my own thing and rock was it. Don’t get me wrong it is a great discipline. One guy, Joe Vento, had a big band that played in the valley and he would let me sit in from time to time. That was really fun swinging with a big band. Talk about power!
When I graduated from High School I moved to California. I always wanted to go to LA. I went to the Musicians Institute which was my excuse for going to Los Angeles. That was an amazing time. I remember that I got dumped in the middle of Hollywood. My mother had met this guy from LA on a plane flight and got his number. He picked me up from the airport and let me stay in his house for the first night. He dropped me off at MI the next day and said “Good Luck.” I said “Thanks.” At the time I knew no one. I went into the school and walked up to the bulletin board and found three guys who were looking for a roommate. I made the call and I had a place to stay. I started focusing seriously on the studies and doing the various performances and theory. There would be a class where 15 or 20 drummers would line up along these padded tables and you would start working through the rudiments. It was a very unique approach. I made a lot of great friends and we had fun. The big buzz was when Chad Smith had just got the gig with the Chili Peppers. The Mothers Milk album was just coming out and everyone was talking about the kid who didn’t graduate because he got the gig in the RHCP. He literally went from being a student to a drummer in a major band overnight. It made us all feel like anything could happen. It was a place where I was able to make contacts while I honed my drumming.
One of my rock performance teachers was Doane Perry from Jethro Tull. We had a class of five or so drummers and he was showing us the opening fill from “Over the Mountain.” He said that it was a complicated sequence with a triplet part and he was going to show it to us. I asked if I could try it now and he asked if I really thought I could do it. I said “yes” and he stepped aside. He handed me the sticks and [says the beat]. He looked at me sideways and said “Well…that’s how you do it.” It made me feel great because I nailed most of, if not all of the rock performance exercises I had put in front of me. That came from all of the rock playing I had done before I got there. We got to play with some of the greats like Tim Bogart from Vanilla Fudge.
MA: Who were your early drummer influences?
DT: I was a rock guy all the way so for me it would have to be John Bonham. He was so amazing and powerful. His licks were so unique. Not only his playing, but everything Zeppelin did blew me away. Every time I would listen to him I would think “Oh my God, that’s not even human.” The point that I made back at music school was funny. We had a studio class in which you had to be metronomicly correct. I mean locked in perfectly with a metronome. I played a Zeppelin double track and it didn’t follow a metronome because Bonham did his own thing. You could tell there was a fluctuation there, a little sloppy as far as perfect time but it had a feel like no other drummer had. It’s that feel that lets you know that it’s just right. There’s something in that groove that makes it perfect. Page was known to be a little off as well and they combined to create a sound like no other band ever had.
For example, when I was younger Zoso (Led Zeppelin 4) came out. I spent countless hours learning that album. When I got to “Misty Mountain Hop,” there are three fill sections in that song in between the groove. In the third fill there is a single-stroke roll that is so fast and powerful. It’s one thing to be fast and another to be powerful but to be both is really something. Bonham worked construction and he was very strong. That came out in his drumming. That third fill I mentioned, I remember listening to that as a kid and saying that is impossible! There is no way you can physically play that way. I was dumbfounded. I started working on that fill every day. I could never do it. One day I came home and I could do it. Somehow I managed to get it! That taught me that something you thought was impossible could be possible if you were willing to put in the time to learn it. That was an amazing learning lesson for me. Learning Moving Pictures by Rush is another example of the impossible becoming possible if you were willing to put in the blood, sweat and tears to get it. I’m so thankful that I had that kind of musical influences and examples to look up to. I wouldn’t have wanted to have spent my teenage years doing anything else.
Classic Rock was the music I grew up with and I spent years and years playing those kinds of songs in cover bands for much of my life. Some of those songs (and many of you cover band guys out there will know what I’m talking about) I hate to play nowadays. I played in bands that did originals for a long time. That’s the kind of music I wanted to do. After WACO I ended up coming back here to Maine and I ran into some old friends. They had gigs making money playing around town so I got a job playing covers with them and I remember being amazed after the first Friday and Saturday nights that I played that I made real money. That was after playing two shows and I told myself that I could get used to this. I went from doing originals for years making no money to making money playing other people’s music. The downside is that you eventually get sick of doing covers. Now all I want to do is originals and I don’t care. At some point in your life you accept that you’re not going to get rich or famous. It’s about creating your own music for the sake of creating it. There are so many forms of entertainment today music will never be what it was back in the day. Those days are over. That’s why bands come and go so fast. I do it because I love it. That’s it.
A young David Thibodeau performing.
MA: You were a talented but underemployed drummer in Hollywood, what were your first bands? Where did you play?
DT: I started working at a place called Roadway Package Systems. I met a guy there named Scott Ghephart who was a guitarist. He was looking for a drummer for a demo he was doing with his singer Ryan Martin (aka Remedy Jones). We ended up getting together and we clicked right away. It was great and the singer was phenomenal. He wrote some great songs. He was really dark and a little “mental” and it made his songs, well, let’s say I was impressed with them. I ended up playing around with those guys for about ten years. We played different clubs off and on, basically whatever we could get. We couldn’t even get in The Whiskey at first. We were playing places that were way out on the edge of town. The scummier areas. Those were the gigs we got. Eventually we worked our way up to The Whiskey and The Troubadour. I remember it took a long time and it felt like forever. We weren’t that good but we wrote original music and we got better. There was a point that we had a Swedish bass player Tobias Kroon who was going to school and he was really good. He made the whole band sound better. We kept improving. We never did an album but we did a couple demo tapes. It just never seemed to go anywhere. I will say that we had a following which made us all feel good about what we were doing. People liked us and our music. It was weird. We were made the house band at The Roxbury. We played every Wednesday night and there were always quite a few people in the audience. A lot of them were musicians. For a while there, we were known as a “musician’s band.” To me that was always the greatest compliment. To know that our peers were interested enough to hear us play when they were off from their own gigs. That was cool.
David playing with Remedy Jones and Tobias Kroon.
MA: Tell us how you met David Korsesh. What drew you to him as a musician? How did you join his band?
DT: I was playing with the band I just mentioned when I met David at some point. What happened was I met David and Steve [Schneider] at a Guitar Center. We had been going to a band rehearsal and my singer Remedy was playing with my drumsticks on the dashboard of the car. He broke one of my sticks. I got really mad because I only had two pair of sticks on me. After paying for renting the space if you break your sticks you’re screwed so I made those guys stop by Guitar Center. I went in to pick up a pair of sticks and I had a bad habit of looking at the electronic drums. There was two guys there looking at an electronic kit. One of them looked at me and said “You look like a drummer. Wanna’ sit down and play these so we can hear what they sound like?” I said “sure” and I sat down and did a few basic fills around the kit. They said “Wow that was really good, you’re a great drummer.” I said “Thanks man.” One of them started to hand me a card. They looked very interesting. One guy had a suit on and looked like a manager. The other guy was in jeans and looked like a musician. They asked me if I was looking for a band. I explained to them that I was already in a band but that I didn’t want to burn any bridges and liked to jam with people. They handed me their card and the card said Cyrus Productions on the front and on the back it had all of this religious scripture. I said are you guys Christians because I’m not really looking at being in a Christian band and I handed the card back to them. They told me that they knew a lot about the scripture and David here has been all over the world and I’m Steve and he teaches things out of the scripture that is life changing to anyone who has insight into this book. We look at this as study more than anything. I thought that was really interesting because he wasn’t just preaching to me. I liked what they had to say and I took his card back but I had the idea of don’t call me I’ll call you. I had no plans to call those guys.
Just a few days later things weren’t going as well as I had hoped it would with the band and I gave those guys a call. I’m really surprised that I did that. I really had no desire to get into scripture or be a member of a religious group. It was in many ways the last thing that I wanted. I liked the way they had spoken to me at Guitar Center. They left a lasting impression on me. Over the course of the next month or so Steve would come over to the house with other members of the band, they would bring some beer and we would have some studies. I started to learn some basic things about scripture. I didn’t know that it was going to become a major permanent thing in my life. The more I learned the more I would want to know. That was how I was introduced to David. We started jamming together. A month or so into it David really liked playing with me and he wanted me to be his drummer in the group. It came down to my dedication. I had to adopt the scripture. I had to be in on the message. I had to believe his interpretation of the opening of the seven seals that occurs in Book of Revelations. David claimed that he could reveal the seven seals. People always thought that David was some kind of doomsday prophet who talked about the end of the world but according to scripture, if you believe that or not, the end of the world is just the beginning. He was just talking about the next steps of spirituality according to what is written in the scripture. David was able to harmonize the whole thing from Genesis to Revelations. And that was also a guiding force behind his music.
MA: You’ve said that he was one of the most talented guitar players you’ve ever played with, what was it like playing with him? You likened him to Steve Vai.
DT: What I meant by that was that he was a very progressive player. He was a great soloist. David would sit there and jam for a while and then he would find a musical pattern and then he would repeat that pattern until he tied it into another pattern and so on. So he would build this progression of playing one on top of another. He had that classic-metal vibe. I always wanted to do more. I always wanted to be a better drummer but there wasn’t a lot of odd time stuff. There were very intricate guitar parts on top of straight beats. I always felt like I wasn’t on his level but I shouldn’t have because it was always 2’s and 4’s. If you look at a lot of the big name guitar hero’s drummers they play a lot of odd time stuff. We didn’t do that much.
MA: You had a stage setup in the chapel at Mt. Carmel, when and what did you play?
DT: What would happen was after dinner David would come get me. We would meet on the stage and start playing for about an hour. We would just jam. Jam all out. He would come up with a riff. I’d lay down a beat. The bass player would come in. We’d do a couple changes here and there. We would work on that for about an hour and when the music stopped that was the sign that the study for the night was going to happen. Everyone would start coming into the room. Sometimes people would come in early to watch the band play. Once we stopped the young and old would enter. Then the bible study would begin and it would go from anywhere from one to eight hours. You never knew how long it was going to last. Usually they were pretty long and that happened just about every night.
MA: David recorded some of his music did you ever record with him?
DT: No I think that was before my time. There may have been a track that I played on. We were recorded at some point. One session I believe was recorded in its entirety but I don’t know whatever happened to that. I ran into someone at the 25th Anniversary Memorial who had a bunch of sermons on CD. I have not heard those before so I am looking forward to hearing them. There are all kinds of scripture that David interprets.
MA: It is interesting that nobody ever shot any video of you guys playing. I did see a video where you can see you in the back hitting the cymbals.
DT: I guess you are right. I think only the Australian documentary came over and shot him playing but that is the one they use to slow down and make him look all demonic and in a trance. That video is used over and over again. It consistently portrays him doing anything other than just playing the guitar.
MA: Looking back now, how do you feel about the music you made during that time?
DT: I thought it was very interesting and I wish some of it would have been recorded. Honestly, most of it was instrumental. There weren’t too many “songs” per say with structure and lyrics. It was always just a jam. And I think when I first came in he had some songs that we tried together but he would get frustrated because he knew what he wanted the band to do in his head but we could never do it properly. Either that or he was not able to explain to us how he wanted it done properly. I always thought the point was that it would never be truly finished and that was what he wanted. It was very frustrating after a while. As a drummer you simply want to be able to groove.
MA: So it was an ever-evolving process that had no closure?
DT: Yeah. It never seemed to get there.
MT: After the tragedy at WACO did it take a while for you to resume playing your music?
DT: Not too much. Maybe a couple months. I got back. Some old friends got in touch with me and they needed a drummer and I said sure. I started playing pretty quickly and I didn’t seem to lose any of my chops. I fell right back into the swing of things. I’ve never been without a band for very long. When I was in Hollywood I was back with the band I had been with prior to joining David’s band. Then I moved to Austin, Texas where I joined an excellent band called Lefty. We actually did a CD that was outstanding. I still play it for people today. Then I moved back to Maine so that was that. Here in Maine I’ve got a band called The Blast Addicts. We released a CD on iTunes and Spotify. There are some drum tracks on it that I am very proud of. I do some triplet stuff with my foot and my ride cymbal at the same time very fast, That’s my shout out to Nico McBrain. His drumming meant a lot to me because Iron Maiden music was always so fun to play.
MA: You had a lot of input into the 6-part WACO mini-series. Rory Culkin portrays you. There is a scene where you are playing at night in the dark for the FBI. Is that true? As they pan by Rory he’s in sync on the hi-hat. Did you coach him as a drummer?
DT: Yes. We did do that at some point during the siege. We jammed for the FBI. What happened was it was a quiet night. It was before they set up the psych-ops. David said “Hey why don’t we play” so we set up the speakers in the windows. Those guys were just as bored as we were. They weren’t doing anything. So we played for a half-hour or so and that was it. We didn’t think anything more of it. The next day the FBI did a press conference and they said “Oh it seems like the Davidians are trying to psych us out by playing loud rock music at us at night so we have some surprises for them.” The next day they set up the loud speakers and started playing the loud music at night. We did it because we were bored, but they took it to a whole new level. That was the FBI. Everything was a plot to antagonize us. Everything felt like an excuse to shoot us.
The very first thing they played at us was the very first Alice Cooper record and we were like “Yes!” This is great. I can deal with this. I remember calling them and asking if they could play the new Def Leppard album. It was just after Hysteria came out. They didn’t like that at all. That’s when the music stopped and they started playing Nancy Sinatra “These Boots are Made for Walking.” Then they would play the sound of rabbits being slaughtered and the phone beeping off the hook. It was all trying to get us to do something crazy from sleep deprivation. It never worked. It was ridiculous. If you think that you have a bunch of crazy people with guns why would you want to drive them crazier?
MA: Did you guys play at all for your own sanity to relax or deal with the situation?
DT: No just that one time. And we played all original stuff. It wasn’t a cover song like they portray in the series.
And to answer your second question, Yes a little bit. I spent a couple drum lessons with Rory. Especially the song that they chose. Rory also took drum lessons on his own with an instructor before he came to film the series.
MA: Who setup those drums? You had a double bass Pearl kit with the rack toms mickey-mouse-eared and the hi-hat sitting away from the snare. It drove me nuts.
DT: I have no clue but I had nothing to do with that. I think it was Rory who set them up because he was the one who had to play them.
MA: Speaking of drums, let’s talk about your gear then and now. In the series they had a Pearl kit set up there were you using that kit at the time?
DT: Originally we did have a Pearl double bass kit then we went to electronics because David wanted to control the sound better. It drove me a little crazy at first because I had always been an acoustic guy. It was a Roland kit. I can’t remember which brain it was. It was top of the line back in ’93.
David performing with The Blast Addicts.
MA: What kind of gear are you using now?
DT: For the last 20 years I had been using a Premier Signia Series which I have just given to my daughter and I am using a seven piece Yamaha Recording Custom. I got a lot of toms now to play with which is fun. It’s a single bass, two deep floor toms, and the smaller toms which give me a lot of options. All Zildjian cymbals. I have a special snare that has been with me for years. After WACO I was traveling and giving talks around the country. This was before anyone knew what really happened. I was in Boulder, Colorado and I went into a music store. Sitting there was a drum set that was on consignment. I sat down and I hit the snare drum and I had never heard a snare sound like that in my whole life. It blew me away. It was so damn sweet I had to have it. I went up to the guy and told him that I had to have the snare. He shook his head and told me that the snare belonged to the set and that I had to buy the whole thing, it was on consignment. I didn’t want to negotiate but I knew I was leaving with that snare. I pulled out $200 and I put it on the counter. He looked down at it and said “OK. It’s all yours.” I said “Thank you very much” and I left a happy man. It is a Rogers Super-10 and I still use it to this day. People have commented on my bass and snare sound. I spend the most time on it. I use the thicker snares, their like double normal snares. It’s just a piece of metal and I don’t know what makes this snare sound special but it does.
MA: Your life is one of great adversity. As a musician, you’ve continued to play regardless of what challenges have been put before you. Can you leave us with any advice on how to pursue the gift of music no matter what?
DT: You just gotta’ do it. It’s something that you need to believe in. Like I said at the beginning of this interview when I first picked up those drumsticks I knew I was going to be doing this until I died. It finds you. To me I have to get the demons out. I need a release. Something to hit. It works very well for me. WACO will never leave me. Drumming helps me to cope with life. When you have all four of your limbs going, when you’re playing a complicated song and really feeling it, that’s what it’s all about. When you play a good show and you are exhausted and barely able to make it to the car, that’s a great night. Very few things in my life feel better than that. It makes sense. Lots of people spend lots of money on dope to feel that good. All they need to do is pick up an instrument.