If you’ve attended many shows in San Diego over the past decade, it would be impossible not to have encountered drummer Richard “T-Bone” Larson. It’s been said that a band is only as good as its drummer, and Larson is as good as it gets—rock solid with just the right amount of attitude and his own brand of flair. An integral part of some of the most popular bands in town, it’s clear from the first beat that Larson loves what he does.
Richard Larson is a rare native San Diegan. “My grandpa and mom were born here too,” he said. “For the most part I lived within a mile radius my whole life, in North Park. I finally got out about five years ago and moved all the way to South Park,” he joked.
Although Larson doesn’t come from a musical family, it was their input that placed him on the path to becoming a musician. “I grew up in a pretty chaotic home environment as an only child,” he recalled. “So, before MTV the only music I was exposed to were some old copied tapes my mom had that my friends and I would listen to: the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Eric Burdon, and so on.” Interestingly, the drums were not his first choice. “The drums didn’t actually jump out at me at first; we were just completely fascinated by the music and knew we had to learn to play something,” Larson said. “I was originally gonna learn guitar and my grandma even bought me one, but I had no teacher and couldn’t figure it out on my own. I did, however, have an idea what was going on with the drums just by ear and once I saw all the rockers on MTV having so much fun on the kit, I knew that was what I wanted to do. Steven Adler from Guns ‘n’ Roses was definitely my favorite. I was able to revisit Led Zeppelin from a drum-centric perspective and John Bonham quickly became my hero. I was also really into the lighter hitting guys to like John Densmore and Nick Mason. I played on cardboard boxes until I sold my Nintendo and comics and was able to buy a real drum set.”
Larson attended San Diego High School and notes that the experience played a major role in his musical development. “High school was really incredible,” he said. “The school band, even though it was woefully underfunded, taught me so much about music outside of rock ‘n’ roll. Orville Brown taught band and rondalla [Mexican guitar music] and I learned so much from him; he was a very important role model for me and someone I will always look up to.”
Larson was still in his teens, circa 1990, when he gave his first public performance. “I was probably 15 and we opened for the Downs Family at the Universalist Unitarian church in Mission Hills,” he recalled. “There wasn’t really anybody except the bass players parents when we played, so it wasn’t received all that well. It did lead to a lifelong friendship with the family Downs, though.”
Music is now his full-time focus. “Outside of my family, yes it is. I have a five-year-old and a beautiful wife, so they deserve a lot of my attention,” Larson said. “I just can’t find the passion or motivation to focus on anything more than music as far as a “real job” goes. Music just makes so much sense to me and is so rewarding. Luckily, I am also passionate about beer, wine, and libations, so that has led to 20-plus years of bartending as my day job.”
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Liner notes and paychecks refer to Larson by his given name, but most of the scene knows him as “T-Bone.” How did Larson acquire the nickname? “Over the years I’ve tried to come up with silly stories like that I had tuberculosis (TB) as a kid, which I did, or that I survived a t-bone car crash. But the boring truth is that I worked at Corvette Diner and all the servers had nicknames. I was a busser at the time and the servers would put our tips in an envelope and there was another busser named Richard with the same last initial, so our tips would always get mixed up. I decided I would come up with a nickname that least represented my personality and T-Bone was born.”
As for gear, Larson has two drum kits: a 1965 Ludwig set (“which I use most of the time”) and a more modern turquoise sparkle Gretsch Catalina Bop Kit. “It’s an inexpensive set, but I think it sounds great,” he said.
The list of bands Larson has performed with locally is impressive; Bartenders Bible, The Day After, the Deere Johns, Bury Me in the Backyard, Muggles Meshugana Lounge, Tobyn Clarke and the Tender Fairies, Trailduster, Nena Anderson and the Mules, Mr. Tube and the Flying Objects, Lady Dottie and the Diamonds, Krass Brothers, Tori Cobras, Shawn Rohlf and the Buskers, and the Gargoyles.
Currently, he can be found on local club stages with four different headliners: Chloe Lou and the Liddells, Joey Harris and the Mentals, the Amandas, and the Dave Gleason Trio. While the various groups’ music varies stylistically, what they have in common, besides a great drummer, is the fact that they’re all dance floor fillers.
Larson’s favorite thing about being a musician? “People dancing. If I can be the source of someone giving their whole body to the music and forgetting their troubles, there’s nothing better.”
In addition to regularly gigging bands, Larson has sat in with numerous other performers over the years, including reunited 1980s-era ska favorites, NE1, but possibly his coolest gig is his role as drummer for (San Diego Civic Organist) Raúl Prieto Ramírez and the Spreckels Organ Rock Band, performing classic songs in Balboa Park’s famed outdoor venue, the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. He’s part of a band that includes Andrew McKeag (guitar), Ariel Levine (guitar), and Kenseth Thibideau (bass guitar). Their performances have drawn huge crowds, with their next full performance set for Labor Day. “Those shows have been big fun,” Larson said. “Being a native San Diegan, it meant a lot to me to play that first show in Balboa Park, the heart of the city. And to have that incredible organ at the center of the music was amazing. At the first show, there were 5,000 people who came to see the band. It’s an awesome feeling to play to a hometown crowd like that.”
ON THE ROAD… AGAIN
While most of Larson’s gigs are in Southern California, he is open to touring. To date he’s done extensive West Coast road work with Mr. Tube and the Flying Objects as well as Lady Dottie and the Diamonds, also taking part in two tours of Europe that saw them hit Spain and Germany.
How does he manage to juggle so many combos? “It can be interesting sometimes,” he said. “But a big part of it is that a lot of the bands I’ve been in just don’t need to practice because they play so much. So, time wise, that takes practice out of the equation, which translates into more time to play shows.” He considers that he wouldn’t play music that he doesn’t like, “If it’s a cover song, I probably already know it, if it’s an original, I was likely there when it was being created. I have a pretty good memory for these things and a strong desire to put together something that’s just right for the song.”
With so much stage time, naturally there have been some odd stage moments. “The Deere Johns were playing a San Diego Gulls [hockey] game many years ago at the Sports Arena [now the Pechanga Arena]. It was the championship game and the Gulls won. We were playing down in the [Stella Artois] Lounge to a small crowd and the star goalie comes down, still dressed in his goalie gear and holding the Taylor Cup. The cup is filled with beer and he’s passing it around to everyone at the bar to drink from. He comes up to the band mid-song and offers the cup to Stephen Rey, who takes a drink. Stephen passes the cup to the rest of the band, so we stop playing and take a drink.” So far, so good, but not for long. “We hand the cup back to the goalie and he takes it and throws what’s left of the beer all over the band. It was enough that we all got beer on us and so did our gear. We didn’t know what to do, because this guy was the biggest star on the team and everyone was cheering him on and laughing about it. We just went back to playing. The goalie goes back to the bar refills the cup and the whole scene plays out again the exact same way. He left after he dowsed us again and we just wrote the whole thing off to dumb jock behavior.”
WITH THE BAND
Larson has an impressive discography, although he hasn’t done much session work as yet. “No, I wish!” he said. “I’ve done a few things over the years but never enough. I guess maybe I’m just more of a live guy.”
Recordings he appears on include Nena Anderson’s Kiss You Good Night (2014) and Mr. Tube and the Flying Objects’ No Wrong, No Rights (2015). Larson spotlights five of his favorites:
Chloe Lou and the Liddells: Storybook (EP/2019). This is an awesome record written by Chloe Lou and Chris Davies that I’m so proud to have played on; we won a San Diego Music Award [Best Pop Album] for this one.”
The Krass Brothers: Strictly V.I.P.s (2015). “An instrumental album featuring the incredible keyboard work of Mark Boyce, who is without a doubt one of the best soloists I’ve ever played with. We got nominated for a San Diego Music Award for this one.”
Stephen Rey Sextet: Next Life (2017). “Such an incredible lineup of musicians on this one and the vibe is strong.” Rey and Larson were bandmates in the Deere Johns.
Shawn Rohlf and the Buskers: Live at Java Joes (2016). “Shawn spent 20 years busking at the Hillcrest farmers market and I was lucky enough to accompany him for a few of those years.” Larson said. Rohlf assembled a band that that also included Joey Harris, Jef Kmak, and John-Michael Brooks. “John-Michael was quite a bit younger than the rest of us, but he was one of the most accomplished musicians I’d ever had the opportunity to play with,” Larson said. “Every time he would solo the entire room couldn’t help but focus on him; everything he played just spoke in a way that anybody could understand but that no one had heard before. He passed away a few years after this recording, so it really means a lot that it was preserved.”
Tobyn Clarke and the Tender Fairies: Ride High. “I don’t think anyone ever heard this, but it’s one of my favorite things that I’ve done. Me, Tobyn, Matt Parker, and some overdubs by Matt Strachota playing Tobyn’s quirky songs. I’m quite proud of this one.”
At the moment Larson is getting back to work on shows big and small, ranging from the local club circuit to the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, and he has been laying down the beat in Studio West, recording the as yet untitled debut album by Chloe Lou and the Liddells. Meanwhile, he’s also “hoping to resume a project that was going strong before the pandemic hit.”
He considers that he is still growing as a musician. “Early on I was relying too much on natural ability. It got to the point where that wasn’t enough, so I’ve moved deeper into academics, working on new sounds.”
Wrapping things up, I asked Larson for any final thoughts to include in the article. “Man, I don’t know,” he replied good naturedly. “Maybe something about the power of saying yes, the magic of improvisation, having nothing to live up to but maybe wishing you did, drummers are musicians too and listening is job number one.”
You can see Richard Larson in action, playing with Chloe Lou & the Liddells, as part of the Troubadour Showcase night on Sunday, August 22, at Navajo Live, 8515 Navajo Rd., 6:30pm.