55 Minutes With ?uestlove

Photo: Patrick McMullan

Ahmir Thompson—a.k.a. ?uestlove—is sleepy. The drummer and unofficial spokesman for Jimmy Fallon’s house band, the Roots, woke up this morning in Philadelphia, where he lives, at 5:45 a.m. Now it’s 10 p.m., and he has many more hours left in his day, so he’s trying to take a nap backstage at the HighLine Ballroom, where the Roots have taken up a weekly residency. Their set isn’t even supposed to begin until eleven. “Based on this catnap I’m trying to take,” says Thompson, a soft, Pooh-like pile of a person, sighing, “I really need to have my ass in New York.”

Indeed, it’s the 36th day in a row that Thompson and a few of his bandmates have done this 200-mile round-trip commute. “I’ve gotta find a spot by day 60, or I’m-a be delirious. I’m pretty much at the mercy of hotel vacancies and Zoe Kravitz’s couch.” The actress and daughter of Lenny offered to let him crash with her, but hadn’t yet followed through. He grabs my tape recorder and bellows into it: “Bad host!”

So Thompson again woke up in Philly in time to catch the band’s bus at eight. After three hours of rehearsal at Legacy Studios on 48th Street and a brief lunch, the band raced to 30 Rock, where they rehearse their parts in all of the day’s potential sketches—“even if it’s just one note”—with Fallon. After a warm-up song at precisely 5:29 p.m., they shot the show in an hour. A half-hour later, Thompson would have been on the bus to Philly again, to work out with his trainer until eleven and get to bed by 2:30 a.m., if not for tonight’s gig or, really, any number of others in which he’s become entangled. So why not move?

“I’m … not that rich,” he chuckles. “I’m trying to crash it out till I find a very desperate, irresponsible real-estate owner who’s like, ‘Ugh, Ahmir, can you please come take over my Park Avenue mansion? A thousand a month and we’ll call it even!’ ”

Back to Philly it is tonight, before returning tomorrow for Fallon and then D.J.-ing his weekly party at (Le) Poisson Rouge. “Oooh, yeah, my thing tomorrow, fantastic!” he exclaims, apparently just remembering it. He removes the comb implanted in his Afro and scratches his head pensively before reinserting it. “I think there would be valid bitchin’ about the Fallon gig if we didn’t do stuff like this,” he says. “I kinda feel in some dysfunctional way I have to prove I’m still an artist and not this guy who gave away seventeen years of his history to be a late-night drummer.”

That’s not to say he isn’t enjoying the musical stretches his main job requires: In today’s sketch spoofing the volcano explosions in Alaska, “they let us get our Brian Wilson on,” Thompson says, perking up. “I’ve been looking for an excuse to do something derivative of the Smile album. The volcanoes required probably the most dissonant, free-jazz music we’ve done on the show.” Every Fallon show offers an opportunity for musical inside jokes, and Thompson says he has spent as much as three hours of research on some guests to pick the intro songs.

From downstairs, the sound of a wailing sax vibrates Thompson’s dressing/nap room. It’s the show’s openers, a street group Thompson discovered one day on his way to 30 Rock. “I seen these four black guys playing in front of the Fox building. I was like, ‘This is too good to be true,’ ” he says, laughing. “Just looking at them, like, ‘Oh wow, street musicians, that’s how we started off.’ So I figured, invite ’em, see what kind of charisma they have.” He’s amazed that “the Sarandons—though Tim [Robbins] hates when I say that”—might show up tonight (they didn’t, but Claire Danes and Hugh Dancy were there). He’s wondering what Wu-Tang song he’ll pick to bring out Seth Rogen on tomorrow’s show. And then the next day, he’s off to Canada for a week. For fun? “Oh no,” he says with a heave of his weight. “Always working.”

“But uh, I really want to take a nap before I go onstage,” he whimpers from the sofa. “I hope we’re good tonight. Can you do me a favor and turn out the lights and close the door on your way out?”

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55 Minutes With ?uestlove