Theory of a Deadman made a name for itself in the early 2000s for its grunge-infused rock ‘n’ roll. In 2017, the band went through a dramatic evolution, exchanging the heavy grunge element that had long been present in their music for a more subtle flavor of rock; a version that is more focused on smart, impactful lyrics than fuzzy guitars. In 2020, Theory released Say Nothing, their latest album and a work that serves as a testament to the times—it is dark and gritty and full of a raw pain.
Now, the group is gearing up to finally get back on the road, with their first shows since the pandemic already scheduled for August of 2021.
Read on for our interview with Theory of a Deadman drummer, Joe Dandeneau, where we explore his own musical beginning, the experience of playing live shows, the band’s songwriting process, and take a deep dive into the evolution that the band undertook.
You’ve been playing drums your entire life—is there something about music or drumming that drew you to it, that inspired you to pursue a career as a drummer?
Joey Dandeneau: My dad and his brothers and sisters started a family band, way back years ago. So, I literally was born right into being around that. But the natural ability for me to play drums was there because at three years old I was making sense of drum patterns and beats and stuff, and my parents were shocked. Obviously, the ability was there, but the influence came from watching my dad play. Together, it created a mindset for me that it was like, at an insanely young age, I knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life; it was just a matter of trying to figure out how to do it, which I guess I did, I figured it out.
You joined Theory after the release of Scars & Souvenirs—how exactly did you end up being the drummer for this band?
Dandeneau: A lot of luck, man, a lot of luck. Obviously, growing up and playing since I was a child. To be able to learn how to play other people’s songs and play them well allowed me to be prepared when the time did come to try out for these guys. Along the way, I met somebody who has essentially been my champion—he was playing drums for them at the time. We became real good friends long before that even. When he was ready to leave the Theory camp, he called me he said “hey listen, if you’d like, I think you’d be a great fit to take my spot. Of course, you’re gonna have to audition, but I can put all the good word in on my end, and then you just gotta show up and do what you do.” I had to fly to Los Angeles, do the auditions, and of course, I was against 19 other professional drummers—it was crazy the amount of talent I was up against. But, somehow, they chose two guys out of that first audition, and I was one of the two. I had to go to Vancouver, and I was able to do a final audition there and then go to dinner with the guys, get to know them, and then they chose me. I thank my lucky stars every day. Some days I’m not even sure how I did it, but I did it, yeah.
What was it like coming into a band that was already established and had been so for years? Was the dynamic strange at first?
Dandeneau: They were so easygoing it almost seemed effortless. When we sat down for dinner, the conversation was like we’d been buddies for years. They were super successful and super established. I guess my mindset at the time was I was so ready to be there that I wasn’t nervous to just be myself. I think I just prepared myself so much that everything seemed easy. Once I got the gig, they called me back to start rehearsing. We had two weeks of rehearsals every day in Vancouver and that was probably the most fun time in my entire life. I went from being in a cover band in Winnipeg—and we were working full time, it was great work—but to go into a band that was playing originals, and not only playing originals but selling tickets and riding on tour buses and doing the whole thing. I didn’t know any of that. It was only a dream at that point to be able to do those things.
Everything just seemed to fall into place for me. It was easy. The hard part, though, was once we got on tour. All of a sudden, fans of the band were like “who’s the new guy, we wanna meet him.” Of course, being in cover bands, people just wanna go dance and drink; they don’t see you as this exciting person they want to talk to. But when you get to the national level, there’s fans of your band and they want your autograph, they want to meet you. I wasn’t prepared for that, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I’m like “why are people yelling at me, what is going on?” I had to get used to that part, but again that was even fun—it was such a weird transition from being nobody to people that actually care and they want to meet you and talk to you and get to know you and ask you questions; tell you how much your music has influenced them or got them through all kinds of stuff. They just want to be a part of the band. It’s a lot of fun. That was a huge one for me to transition, but it was good, once I got there.
Part of that transition in the journey you took, you went from playing clubs and bars to playing large concerts—was there any fear or trepidation at playing these significantly bigger venues?
Dandeneau: I mean, let’s be honest, you go to a national level, you have production, and lights, and a lighting guy. All of a sudden, you have intro music, and the lights go out and the crowd roars and you’re like “woah. I don’t know what to do with this.” But at the same time, though, I knew my parts. I knew that I was supposed to be there. The band wanted me to be there. I wasn’t nervous like “oh, I’ve never played in front of people,” but it was at the same time a little exciting in the sense that I’m playing for people that paid money to come stare at the band and just watch them and just be a part of the songs they all know and love. So, it was kind of fifty/fifty. Nervous, but not sick nervous, more excited nervous. It was an awesome nervous.
When Theory sits down to start writing a record, what does that creative process look like? How do you get to the final product of the record?
Dandeneau: Tyler is the songwriter, he writes all the lyrics, he comes up with all the ideas for everything. Then, what he’ll do—I can record all my parts here at the house—he’ll send me all his demos and say: “mess around with it, see what you come up with, let me know if you have any questions and send it back to me.” So, I do. So that’s how we do it. He doesn’t do big production demos. Very scaled back—acoustic guitar, piano, vocals. He’ll give me sometimes ideas, like “I hear this pattern in my head, but just take that and make it better.” Ok, so I do that, and then everything gets sent to Dean and Dave and they have a listen to it. Once the label gives us the go-ahead, we all meet and just get in the studio and start recording everything and then finish everything.
Nothing’s really done in the demo. There’s a reason we don’t do big production demos. If you demo everything to the point where it sounds like a finished product, when you get to the studio and the producer goes “let’s change this,” we’re so closed-minded that the producer can’t do his job. We definitely try and keep everything to a minimum. We are very open-minded, very aware that things can change very quickly in the studio.
When Tyler sends a demo of him singing a new song, how do you think about finding the right drum pattern to be present without being overpowering?
Dandeneau: It’s kind of a tough answer; I might come across sounding like a bit of an arse or conceited, but it literally, I just hear it and it comes to me. It just makes sense. I just know exactly what he’s trying to do, and I just lay down stuff and he goes “yep. That’s great. Awesome.” It’s part of that talent that I got, being a drummer. I don’t know how to read drum music. I’ve never taken drum lessons. Everything I know has been from being able to hear it and my brain just gets it, almost how we breathe. We don’t know how we breathe; we just do it. So, drumming is kind of like that for me. Obviously, I can’t do that for every genre; there’s a lot of things that a producer will change. But as far as creating all the basic patterns, most of it just feels natural for me.
But obviously, I’ve learned a lot over the years. Using differing producers, these guys go about things different ways. You learn from that. What I have learned a lot from, is our last producer—he did the last two records for us, Martin Terevi—and he likes things very simple and stripped-down. I realized less is more a lot of times, if not all the time. Especially with our band, it’s a very lyric-based band now. Tyler has strong messages and he’s got a lot to say. I don’t want to step on his toes. So I’m trying to do my best to keep everything simple, yet still create a really good vibe. You still want to tap your toes, bop your head, still create a moving vibe. That’s the trick. Every time we do a record, that’s what I’m paying attention to; not so much coming up with the basic patterns but making sure I don’t step on anybody’s toes. That’s the trick.
Few bands have undergone the kind of evolution you have—simply, how did the idea to pursue that evolution come about?
Dandeneau: It was a natural progression, at first. A lot of people are like “just make another ‘Bad Girlfriend.'” It’s written already, we’re not gonna make another “Bad Girlfriend.” So, where do you go from there? I think a lot of people think they want that, but then you make it, and they go “oh, I’ve heard this, it sounds like everything you’ve done already.” Exactly. The natural progression was to take that step. It’s nerve-wracking when you make a change like that. People expect something and then you come up with something that’s way different and everybody goes “woah, woah, woah, what is this?” So, for us, it was a little bit scary and risky, but at the same time, when you know that you have good songs, that blows over all the riskiness. When you listen to it in the studio and everybody’s going “these are good songs, guys. They’re not filler, junk; they’re well-written.” You can’t please everybody. There’s always gonna be people like “this is garbage;” “there’s not enough guitars;” we’ve heard it. And that’s fine. We can’t please everybody, that’s just how it goes. So, do what you do and be proud of it, which we are.
And honestly, we had “Rx” come up, (Medicate)—arguably the biggest song we’ve ever had. That was the first single off of the change. So, well, we got our haters, but we also got lovers. What we lost we may have gained in people that have maybe never heard us before. I lost sleep over it, when we did Wake Up Call. But then, going in to do Say Nothing, I was like “we got this. This is gonna be great. Let’s do another one.” So, we did. And it’s been great. And now we’re about to make another one. I don’t know what it’s going to be yet. Tyler hasn’t sent me anything yet; I’m waiting just like you. So, we’ll see what we do.
Is it freeing as a musician to not be tied down to rock music anymore? To be able to do a little bit of a different genre when you’re performing?
Dandeneau: Yeah, of course. That was the best part of making this change. That freeing emotion that you go through, especially when you get on stage. After a while, you can only bang your head so many times as a drummer. I got rock neck man. You’re just trying so hard to rock as hard as you can. Nah, it doesn’t have to be like that all the time. And here’s the thing, when we play shows, we still play all our old stuff. We love our old stuff and we still can’t wait to play our old stuff. It’s still a rock show, we’re just adding different elements, different flavors. And now, we get to do them live and you get to go through this cool, emotional show with us—you get the heavy rock, you get the poppier stuff, you get the retro stuff; it’s a cool little flow, and then we end the show with what everyone knows. It’s this great show, great concert. Yeah, it’s super freeing. It’s great. And you don’t come off stage exhausted every night. It’s very nice to go through crescendos and decrescendos as a show, as opposed to just slamming 90 minutes of heavy rock at you.
When you changed your sound, you also evolved the subject matter of the songs—what did some of that look like behind the scenes? Was it Tyler sending over new demos or was it more of a group conversation on what the band might tap into next?
Dandeneau: If you look at Wake Up Call, it was a little lighter. I don’t know if you noticed, but Tyler writes for the times. He’s writing for what he’s seeing. At the time he wrote Say Nothing, everything he wrote about is what he was noticing that was going on in the world. Maybe he was a little early on some of the things, but everything that he said basically happened, at the time or it came after we released it. He didn’t really discuss it with us, he just saw the world the way it was running and he just wrote about it. When I got all the demos, you could tell he was paying attention to what was going on and he wanted to write about it. When we get these demos, we’re kind of in the same boat listening to his thoughts for the first time, just like when we release the record and all the fans get to hear it for the first time. When I got the demos, I was like “woah, I guess that’s what he’s looking at.” So, I want to create a vibe with my drumming that goes with that, and that’s what creates the mood and this really dark record, and that’s basically what we did. Things are coming back now from the pandemic and people are getting happy again, so who knows, we’ll see what he sees now.
The band is playing shows again in August—how excited are you to get back on stage after such an extended break?
Dandeneau: Super pumped, man. This has been a year and a half of sitting at home. There’s nothing to do. This is what we do, we tour. You get bored if you’re not working. It was nice for a little bit to get a break, sure, ‘cos we were going hard. But we want to work, we want to go play. You gotta remember, playing shows is like a form of therapy. When you connect with fans and you see everybody singing along, you’re in the moment. I’m not a drug user, but I would assume that there’s no drug on the planet that can give you this wicked high than being on stage. I miss that. It becomes a part of you that you want to just be with the fans and play music. This is why we do it. This is why I’ve been a drummer my whole life. I just love doing this, and so do the rest of the guys. And I haven’t seen them—we all live in different cities. It’s been a year and a half since I’ve seen the boys. And all our crew—our crew are spaced across the states, some of them from Canada, I haven’t seen any of these guys. It’s a whole world of getting back on tour that’s gonna be great therapy for all of us.
That high of being on stage and playing music; after 10 years of performing with Theory, does every show give you that feeling, or is it sometimes hit or miss?
Dandeneau: Every night, you’re on. Let’s be honest, there’s nights where you’re maybe more tired than the night before. Maybe you didn’t get enough sleep that night; maybe it was a bumpy road. There’s a lot of times where you get on stage and you feel like you don’t have it. You’re doing whatever you can—eating chocolate, drinking coffee, green tea—anything to give you that extra boost late at night. You feel like “I don’t know if I’m able to be 100 percent tonight.” And it’s weird because that moment where the lights turn out and the intro music starts and you hear that roar, it’s like autopilot. All this stuff hits you at once. Eyes are wide open; you’re like “yep, I’m ready.” It’s crazy. It’s hard to explain the feeling. But every night, when I think I don’t have it, I got it. And you learn that. I’m stoked, man, just talking about it. I want to get out and play.
I noticed that looking at the album art for Wake Up Call and Say Nothing, it looks like Say Nothing is the inverse of Wake Up Call—was that done on purpose? Are they connected?
Dandeneau: Yeah, good eye. Listen to the lyrics, the songs of both records, it’s like yin and yang. One’s light and fluffy and one’s really dark. So, it’s the opposite of what we made. They are tied. The artwork is totally on purpose.
To have that kind of connection between the two albums, were you guys almost working on both at the same time? It looks like the album art for Say Nothing was built into Wake Up Call—did you know that a second, darker album was coming?
Dandeneau: You’d think we did. No, it wasn’t on purpose. It came after. Wake Up Call was on its own—we had no intentions to do a flip side of that. That thought process came once we were in the studio. We were in London, making the record. We’re going through all these songs and I think Dean or somebody just had this idea, and he brought it to our attention, and we were like ‘man, you might have something here.’ And so we went with it, and it totally made sense. We then tied it in.
Are there any ideas you can give us about the upcoming album?
Dandeneau: We haven’t started anything. Like I said, no demos have been sent around. I’d say, just keep an eye out for everything. Once we have something, you’ll know. But just stay excited man, ‘cos I’m excited. I’m excited to see what we do. Every record that we do is always exciting. I know some people have asked, “does it get old, just making new stuff all the time?” No—and that’s the reason why it’s exciting. We don’t even know what we’re gonna write until we all get together in the studio, and put it all together and finish it. Super exciting. So, I hope you and everybody else that listens to us is excited to see what we do because I know I am and I know everybody else in the band is, that’s been discussed already in the band; we’re all pretty stoked. So, just keep your eyes open, you’ll see what we do.
You can listen to Theory of a Deadman’s latest album, Say Nothing, here.