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Claude Coleman will play music ‘anywhere, everywhere, all the time.’ His latest venture helps others make music too

Claude Coleman inside one of the rehearsal rooms at SoundSpace.
Matt Peiken | BPR News
Claude Coleman inside one of the rehearsal rooms at SoundSpace.

Claude Coleman remembers being a 9-year-old in Newark, N.J., and making one life-defining request.

“For some reason, I told my mother if she couldn’t get me a drumset for Christmas, I didn’t want anything for Christmas,” he recalled. “That kinda threw my parents into a tizzy because they knew nothing about drums and music.”

Coleman’s parents did get him that drumset. Not only did it set him on the beat of his career, but also framed Coleman’s sense of community. Since the mid-’90s, Coleman has toured all over the country and beyond as the drummer for the rock band Ween. Coleman also records and performs in a solo project called Amandla. He has played alongside countless musicians locally since moving to Asheville a decade ago.

Coleman’s latest project was years in the making. A half-century ago, the former Rabbit Motel in Asheville’s South Slope was a popular stop for Black musicians and others traveling through the South. Coleman and a collaborator renovated it into SoundSpace, a four-room band rehearsal facility that opened two years ago.

Coleman and Ween perform at Rabbit Rabbit in Asheville Thursday to kick off a short run of East Coast tour dates. Tickets are already sold out.

“I love to play. I have to play. I don’t know anything else. I’ve never not played a gig since I was 11 years old. Anywhere, everywhere, all the time,” he said. “That is the most glorious fun, that is being alive, being alive for me, that is the meaning of life for me, just playing music with people.”

Coleman didn’t grow up in an artistic family. His father rose through the ranks of the Newark police department, eventually had his own law practice school and became a superior court justice. But Coleman recalls his parents encouraging him to explore and find his own path.

“I grew up with cops and lawyers and prosecutors,” he said. “But I was a Black kid into music and rock and roll growing up and getting profiled left and right every other day.”

He struck up a friendship with a musical neighbor who led him to Earth, Wind and Fire, Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith. Coleman recalls dressing as KISS guitarist Ace Frehley for so many Halloweens that his mother would lay out his costume in anticipation.

Coleman was also an elite hurdler in high school. He said he turned down three athletic scholarship offers so he could study music at Rutgers.

“Out of high school, I knew that’s what I wanted to do, I just knew I loved to play music,” he said. “I knew I was good at it. I liked lots of different styles of it. I was obsessed on a level that it was all I could do and that’s all I did.”

In college, Coleman played so often, with so many different people, he would leave his drums overnight in a club, knowing he would be back the next night playing with another band. He eventually landed in the short-lived but pioneering hardcore band Skunk.

Through Skunk, he met and befriended the founding brothers of Ween, who were from Pennsylvania and had performed with a drum machine until Coleman joined. Asheville left a distinctive impression on Coleman whenever the band passed through on tour.

“It was a drastically different city then. West Asheville was downtrodden, to say the least. Even downtown Asheville was a little rough around the edges,” he said. “We’d have these crazy gigs at Be Here Now. I mean, there would be fights and bleeding and people’s feelings hurt. It wasn’t all love, light and energy.”

But once he and his wife moved here, he quickly found his people. While Ween is his anchor gig, Coleman regularly collaborates with local musicians. He sees SoundSpace as his deeper commitment to that community. He described the ongoing challenges of financing and other elements of the renovation as the hardest thing he has ever taken on, along with co-parenting his 2-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter.

Renovations at SoundSpace aren’t finished. Coleman is rounding up more financing to rehab a long-vacant restaurant on the premises into a soul food eatery.

“I’m digging my heels in here. I’m creating support and resources for the community here to utilize and strengthen it, and I’m committing to every facet of being here,” he said. “One way or the other, I’m probably going to be involved here for the rest of my life.”

Matt Peiken was BPR’s first full-time arts journalist.