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Read Exclusive Interviews written for Drumhead, Modern Drummer and Off Beat: Troy Luccketta – Steve Goold – Daniel Glass – Garrett Goodwin – Steve Smith – Dan Needham – Kelly Keagy – Scott Pellegrom – Brandon Scott – Mike “Woody” Emerson – Ben Barter – Rich Redmond – Sean Fuller – Jason Hartless – Robert Sweet – Keio Stroud – Tommy Taylor – Frankie Banali – Bobby Z – Danny Seraphine – Dino Sex– David Abbruzzese – Marisa Testa – David Thibodeau – Robert Perkins (Next up: TBD)
For our latest interview I thought I would try something different for a change. My conversation with Robert Perkins went so well I decided to present it in its entirety as an audio interview. Enjoy:
You may recall that I have posted over a dozen stories dealing with the wartime experiences of the drummer boy during the American Civil War. Some of these posts have ended up as articles published in drum magazines such as Modern Drummer. One individual’s story that has appeared in several of my posts is the story of Robert Henry Hendershot who was referred to as the “Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock” (See Here and Here). Hendershot is said to have, at only 13 years-old, volunteered and went over in the first boat to cross the Rappahannock River, during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Recently, thanks to my friends at the Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania National Military Park, I’ve come upon some references that counter this claim and give credit to an individual who has a compelling argument. In fact, his argument is very strong and has convinced me that Hendershot may have been taking credit for something that he did not do. In a newspaper article (year unknown) titled “PROOF THAT CAPTAIN JOHN T. SPILLANE OF DETROIT IS REAL AND ONLY DRUMMER BOY OF RAPPAHANNOCK” writer John Fitzgibbon recalls the validity of Spillane’s argument and an episode of embarrassment of Hendershot. It says in part:
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.
With baseball season underway and my Yankees doing so well I thought I would reblog this interesting story on drums in the clubhouse.
I am a huge baseball fan. In fact, I love baseball far more than I love the drums. There is no contest. I’ve been a New York Yankees fan for many years. I started out in the late 90’s as a contributing writer for Baseball-Almanac. After a while I wrote a Yankees column titled “The Pinstripe Press” (hence my email: email@example.com). It was then that I fell in love with the history of the franchise. A few years later I won a writing award for an essay I penned on my favorite player Lou Gehrig. I also published an online fan newsletter dedicated to the team and got serious into collecting Yankees baseball cards. Several years ago I posted a portion of my collection (900+ cards) here. What does this have to do with drumming? Stay with me…
Professional athletes, in any sport, are required to…
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When Rolling Stone did their “100 Greatest Drummers of All Time” they did it right when they recognized the far too often overlooked Levon Helm. He was ranked impressively at #22. Helm was known for his unique Dixieland-influenced drumming style but also for his country-soulful voice and multi-instrumental playing. Backing some of the greatest musicians of all-time to include Bob Dylan, Helm is best known for being a founding member of The Band.
His deep pocket playing laid down the foundation for the rest of the group and became an intrical part of their signature sound. Helm’s moderate drum sound and tasteful playing stood out among the drummers of his time who tended to overplay and drown out their bandmates. Helm was never much into the latest gear. He found some of his drums in a pawn shop. Whether live or recording he made some interesting choices. His unique sound was also antique in many ways. According to multiple sources:
His snare was first and foremost at the root of his sound. It was a 1920s/30s 4×15 with wood hoops, single-tension lugs and calf heads (in later years he would use Fyberskins and vintage ambassadors). It was also muted on top. The drum sets he used in the 1970’s were an assemblage of 1930’s sets with single-tension lugs, possibly Ludwig, Slingerland or Leedy. It had a 14×28 bass drum, apparently with calf heads. The rack tom was a 10×14 marching snare that was converted. The floor toms looked to be tenor drums or larger snares, probably 12×15 and 14×16.
Helm used two different kits for The Last Waltz film. The drums for the soundstage songs from The Last Waltz were a combined instrument that used pieces of his older set as outlined above and pieces of two more modern Ludwig kits added in. The snare drum was a 9×13 matching “Cub” which was Ludwig’s cheapest snare at the time. The wood finished Ludwig kit also had single-tension lugs. The kit he used for the other parts of The Last Waltz was a black diamond Gretsch with a 20” bass drum, 13” rack tom and 16” floor tom. He used his older snare as described above. He never used more than two cymbals. Usually Zildjans. The left side was usually a 18″ ride with rivets and the right side would likely be a matching crash that he would use as both a ride and a crash.
In the years to follow Helm often used vintage Slingerlands but it was Yamaha kits when on camera for his instructional videos. All of Helm’s drum sets were tuned in the spirit of Dixieland drums, muted in some places, wide open in others. Regardless of what combination of drums he was using it was Helm’s original style that made them sound great. Even more impressive is the fact that he was usually singing while playing. Years after The Band split Helm’s health declined after he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Never wavering as a musician he held concerts in his own barn in Woodstock keeping the spirit of The Band alive at these so-called Midnight Rambles. He also released his own material as well as instructional drumming videos. Helm died at the age of 71 as a Gretsch artist.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted. I’ve been busy preparing for my upcoming interviews with Michael Bublé’s longtime drummer Rob Perkins and Waco survivor and drummer David Thibodeau. Both will have unique insights from both sides of the spectrum for sure. Rob is now a producer and Dave is a speaker. Today I want to briefly talk about something that I still struggle with in my own playing, ghost notes. They are the beats that add spice to every groove. Drummers like Bernard Purdie and Steve Jordan have mastered the ghost note and made it an intrical part of their signature playing. For right-handed players ghost notes are that nervous little rebound that happens under the louder hand. For lefties it is the opposite. In simple terms, it’s a quiet bounce that has a rhythmic value. The real challenge is to learn how to play consistent ghost notes simultaneously with standard strokes. For me, the issue is maintaining ghost notes throughout a groove. I start out ok and then I lose it after a few bars. Then I struggle to pick up where I was. I can’t seem to get my hands in sync with one another. Practice is the only way I’m gonna’ get this. Here are two examples of ghost note exercises to practice followed by a beginner’s video on ghost notes. (Notation by Dave Atkinson).
When I got my first drum set I was fascinated with the hi-hats. There was something about stepping on the pedal to keep time or to get that chick sound that got my attention. I still consider the hi-hats to be the central part of the drum set. It is the center point of timekeeping and is where all of the flavor comes from. Think about playing sixteenth notes on the hi-hats while opening them on every fourth beat. Now add the bass drum and snare. The hi-hats are the foundation. Some of my favorite drummers have unique approaches to the hi-hats. Phil Rudd of AC/DC includes very heavily accents on the hi-hats on each beat with softer hits in between. Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones uses a technique in which he does not play the hi-hats in unison with the snare drum at all. Every drummer has their own approach to playing the hi-hats. Some favor closed hats while others favor opened. Here’s our hero Steve Jordan demonstrating his Paiste 17″ Sig Steve Jordan Style Hi Hat Cymbals:
I have been doing interviews here at Off Beat for several years now and they have garnered thousands of readers. In all that time I have not interviewed a single woman. Shame on me. Therefore it seems appropriate that I start off our new gender-equal blog with a very talented up-and-coming young woman who personifies the modern musician. Singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, businesswoman and philanthropist are the terms used to describe our next interviewee Marisa Testa. I first became aware of Marisa after my friend Rich Redmond mentioned her in a five second video on his Instagram. In it Rich mentioned that she had just got the gig as Corey Feldman’s touring drummer. I was aware of the controversy surrounding Corey’s music so I thought it would be interesting to interview a member of his band, of course his drummer. What I got out of the interview was so much more than I expected. I was incredibly impressed with someone who was enormously talented, wise beyond her years and a great role-model for not only young drummers, but young girls looking to take on the world.
MA: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today Marisa. You are the first woman to be featured on Off Beat and you will not be the last. Our first question is the obvious one that we start every interview off with…what brought you to the drums?
MT: I come from a very musical family. I have a lot of relatives who are musicians. Two of my cousins are drummers, my dad is a guitarist, my great-grandparents on my Dad’s side were opera singers at Carnegie Hall, and my brother is a Broadway actor so he sings. My mom was also the AOR Promotion Coordinator at Atlantic Records, and VP of Promotion at Mayhem Records before I was born. I’ve always been around music. What specifically brought me to the drums, believe it or not, was the video game Rock Band. My parents got me that for Christmas and I became absolutely obsessed with it. I went from the Easy setting to Expert and beat all of the levels in a couple of weeks. I ended up playing it to the point that I broke the pads on it. My family and I were like “I think maybe it’s time for a step up.” I got an electronic kit and I played on that until I got a regular drum set.
MA: That’s a great story because I’ve always wondered how many kids decided to pick up real instruments after playing games like Guitar Hero. On one hand it can make learning an instrument seem easy but on the other hand it can make kids like yourself, want to play the real thing.
MT: I’ve heard a lot about guitarists switching over from Guitar Hero but not many coming from the drums. It’s interesting because with the drums you are playing the actual beats with every single hit. You are using four pads but other than that it’s the same. I’m excited to see if any other professional drummers will credit that game as their starting point.
MA: How did you transition over to real drums? When did you realize it was something you wanted to pursue?
MT: I had the electronic drum set and it also became an obsession right away. I was playing for hours and hours a day. But an electronic kit can only do so much. It did not have the real look and feel and after a while it started to break from how hard I was hitting them. I wanted badly to play a real drum set. After a year or two I transitioned over from the electronic to an acoustic. It’s been history ever since.
MA: Could you tell us a little about those first kits?
MT: I’m not sure about the model of the electronic kit but it was an Alesis. I want to say like a DM-5 electronic kit. It didn’t quite have the hi-hat mechanism on sync. That presented a challenge. After that I got a no-name acoustic drum kit. A cheap one. My cousin gave me some of his old cracked cymbals. I played on those for a while. The kit had come with a set of cymbals but they were so janky when you hit them they sounded like pie pans and felt like you were hitting tin foil. So that’s how I started out. I had a lot of support from my family when I was going through that whole transitional stage.
MA: What age were you when all of this was going on?
MT: I want to say that I was ten or eleven years-old.
MA: Did you start to take any lessons around that time or were you involved in any music programs at school?
MT: At first I was self-taught, using my ear. Eventually I started taking lessons on and off but I never really stuck with them. In school I wasn’t a part of any band class. I was quite a choir geek, and still am. I sang from third grade all the way up through my first year at college. I was never really involved in serious drum lessons of that nature for the most part growing up. I just played what I felt, by ear. I did go to the School of Rock for a while from age twelve to sixteen, and would also take lessons there on and off.
MA: Can you tell us about the School of Rock for those who may be unfamiliar with it?
MT: Sure. School of Rock is an after school program where you take lessons for a variety of instruments. You can sign up for a show that you perform in at the end of the season and you cover whatever band or genre they are focusing on for that season. You learn the music you are cast on and then you come in and rehearse with other kids. All of the bands perform in a 2-hour show. It was a great opportunity because the School of Rock I went to put on an even bigger show than usual afterwards. We played in a really big room in New York City for what they called the “Best of Season” show. Eventually it turned into a competition but that was when I was leaving the school. I learned so much from so many people. It was especially great for me because I got to play all different instruments, not just the drums. I got to sing, play guitar, bass and keyboards. It was an open environment where I could flourish as a young musician.
MA: Do you remember the songs that you played in the performance?
MT: My first show was a Black Sabbath show. I played “Heaven and Hell,” “Electric Funeral” and “Iron Man.” Those were the three songs that I learned for that season. I remember freaking out the night before. It’s interesting to look back on my learning abilities then and my abilities now and put it into perspective. I played three songs my first show which I worked on for two months. The last gig I did I had to learn twenty songs in four days.
MA: Fast forward to high school. After graduation you went on to attend the Musician’s Institute. Obviously you were becoming serious about pursuing a career in music. Tell us about that.
MT: Before I attended MI I went to a small college on the east coast in New York. It was a private college and I went there for a year to study Music Therapy. That is still a field that I am very passionate about. The director of that program passed away and the program started to lapse. It didn’t deliver on the promise of what it was supposed to be providing.
MA: Can you elaborate on Music Therapy and why you are passionate about it?
MT: “Music Therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program”. In plain terms, Music Therapy is using music as a basis to help others accomplish a goal. For example, in a child with autism’s case, you could use music as a way to engage their communication and social skills. Hospice care is another use where a music therapist could come in to help someone come to terms with and find peace through music at the end of their life. There are people that work with premature infants, where music has been shown to help quicken their development. There are so many amazing uses for Music Therapy and music in general that people don’t even think about. I’ve noticed that more people have started to go into that field and I think there should be a lot more music therapists out there. I’m still passionate about it. With me performing and recording and writing music I feel more fulfilled when I can help people in my own way.
MA: What followed your time at that private college?
MT: After I went to that school for a year I was not sure where in my musical journey I wanted to be. Long story short, my family took a trip out to California to visit some family friends. I had only heard about Musicians Institute from people in passing. One of my favorite bands Avenged Sevenfold’s guitarist Synyster Gates went there. It was something I briefly considered in my college search, so I thought let’s just go look at it. I took a visit there one afternoon and I immediately fell in love with it. While I was there they were like “Hey do you want to audition?” I was like “Ummmm, ohhhh OK.” I went over to the local Guitar Center to buy a pair of sticks because I didn’t even bring any on the trip, and I came back later that afternoon. They heard me play for five minutes and then they interrupted me to say that I had been accepted. They told me that they would show me what the next steps were. It wasn’t really something that I had seriously thought about when I walked through the doors there. I had no plans to move across the country to pursue a music career but it all just worked out that way. Where one door closes another opens. I feel that I was very lucky. On top of that they offered me the Evans Drum Scholarship. I was so blessed from the beginning to have so much support from everyone at Musicians Institute.
MA: Do you remember what you played during that audition at MI that impressed them?
MT: They just had me in a room warming up. I think I was going to play a song by Sevendust. They didn’t even let me get to that point. Apparently they were so impressed with me warming up they offered me the opening. I was so surprised that I had been accepted that way.
MA: Wow that is amazing. You must of had one impressive warmup routine.
MT: Yeah I was in shock. I was like “You don’t need me to play anything?” and they said “Nope.”
MA: What was the curriculum like and what were the disciplines you were studying in the school?
MT: One of the great things about Musicians Institute is that they teach you anything and everything you need to know in order to be an independent, working musician. When you first start you are taking mostly drum classes. You learn drum technique, drum reading, drum performance while reading charts, drum maintenance, you take private drum lessons, live performance workshops where you get critiqued on your stage presence while playing with strangers who you’ve never rehearsed with before. That goes on for a four quarters, while you also take music theory and harmony and all of that. And then they work you into learning keyboards, how to record/produce using a DAW like protools, how to write your own music, and how to record drums. You also take business classes so you could walk into a corporate setting or just look at a contract and know what it is you are looking at or talking about. Within your last few quarters, you also are learning how to market yourself by building your own website, making your own business cards, and producing your own drum videos. That was something that I didn’t realize when I first walked through the door. I didn’t know that I was going to get a full crash course in how to do everything myself as opposed to just learning about different styles of drumming or just learning music theory. It was an amazing opportunity and I still hope to go back at some point and take other electives that they offer too.
MA: It sounds like they have a trade school approach where they are making well-rounded individuals who are multi-talented and self-sufficient.
MT: Exactly. The idea is that they want you to walk out of there with a good head on your shoulders. They want you to be able to protect yourself. They want you to walk into an audition and play and be able to walk into a job and deliver and perform. It’s not just about being a good musician, it’s about being a smart business woman or man. It’s about knowing how to brand yourself professionally.
MA: I understand that while you were doing all of this studying you were interning at Warner Brothers Records simultaneously. Can you tell us how you managed that?
MT: Yes. That was a great opportunity. How could I pass that opportunity up? At that point I was taking business classes and hearing different stories and scenarios in those classes so to be able to witness those applications first hand was something that taught me more than I was learning in a book. I got to work in these offices and see these computers firsthand where these professionals were conducting the business sides for these well-known artists tours, merchandise, radio airplay, etc. It was an amazing learning experience. Albeit I did not sleep much during this time. I was taking classes in the morning, doing the internship seven hours a day, and rehearsing with a band five to six days a week; All-the-while I was moving into a new apartment. It was a lot of work but it was one of the most beneficial points in my life. I learned a lot that summer.
MA: You mentioned that you were playing in a band. Was that outside of school?
MT: Yes, that was outside of MI. It was an electronic band that I was in at the time. We were setting up to go on a six week tour. So for that tour we were rehearsing for most of the week and it was about 15 miles south of MI. And then I had school and that internship going on before that tour started. The band was called “Lost in Los Angeles.” It was a 100% electronic band so I was playing to tracks with clicks while using trigger pads and samples. It was a totally different approach to drumming and performing for me. Up to that point I had been playing mostly rock and metal. That was a real turning point for me and my career. The challenge for me was keeping my excitement in check live so I could play in time with the click. It was a challenge for me to get my playing ready for live performances and to play something tastefully that works over a pre-recorded track. All of the people in that band were a lot older than me and had a lot more experience than me so I learned from them and was able to rise to the challenge. The guitarist was a Nashville guy that had moved to LA. The bass player had played with a lot of Brazilian jazz and pop bands. They taught me so much.
MA: Taking a step back, tell us about the bands you had been involved in up to that point.
MT: Before moving out to LA I was in a grunge band called “Color Blind.” That was my first experience writing songs and collaborating with other people. After I got to LA I was in a couple smaller bands playing shows in different genres but nothing steady. I also had an opportunity to play a 10 show holiday residency at the LA Zoo with former American Idol contestant and alternative pop artist, Jesaiah. After the electronic band and the LA Zoo residency was when I got the Corey Feldman gig.
MA: [interrupts] We’ll talk about that a little later…You had mentioned when you were at MI you were taught about promoting yourself. I am assuming that you developed your own branding and website after you graduated.
MT: Yes. I learned some things at Musicians Institute about Photoshop and web design. The singer of the electronic band that I was in was also a website designer and he helped me with developing my branding and my own logo. He helped me with how I wanted everything to look.
MA: What caught my attention on your website were the attention grabbing videos that you posted of you performing along to some songs. They look and sound great. How were they produced?
MT: When I first started out my brother recorded videos of me playing at live shows or at home. I shot some videos of me performing at School of Rock. That was before I moved out to LA. The great thing about MI is that they have certified studios that have professional engineers that can help you with recording yourself on audio or video. I started utilizing that capability to my advantage. I wish that I had done more videos but I would try to do them whenever I could. Whenever a spot was open you would just go in, usually at night, and you would play through a song a couple times, get it sent to you and then you would edit it yourself and post it to your liking. I tried to shoot different kinds of videos in different genres. I did a hard rock one, a grunge style one, a pop rock one and a hip-hop one too. It’s good as a musician to show as many niches that you can get into and play as possible.
MA: It says in your bio that you are quote: “A hybrid of Dave Grohl and John Bonham.” Who came up with that and how does it feel to be compared to those two?
MT: That’s something that I heard as I was growing as a drummer and still hear often. I can’t credit one specific person or another as I heard it or something close to it from numerous people. Of course it’s an honor for me, for my name, to be said in the same sentence as those two. Dave Grohl is a big influence of mine not only drumming wise, but also as a song writer and as a performer. I also love how he approaches drumming. He bashes the crap out of them. That’s something that I normally do and have always done. I even have a tattoo on my arm with some of his lyrics. It’s from “Best of You.” (Were you born to resist or be abused? I swear I’ll never give in. I refuse.) And then John Bonham, in my book, one of the most iconic drummers of all time. He bashed the crap out of them too and had the deepest pocket I’ve ever heard next to Morgan Rose from Sevendust. So it really is an honor for me to be associated with those two names.
MA: Talking about influences you are under the mentorship of our boy Richard (Redmond – coauthor of my book). Tell us about how that came about.
MT: Rich is an amazing human being. He is so successful and giving. I first met Rich at his drum camp in Los Angeles. I was lucky enough to be a part of that. I learned so much through that experience. I think I gained the most valuable real world information in that weekend. He crammed tons of clinics and Q&As in those three days- like how to be a professional and how to be effective at gigs and auditions. I still carry all of those lessons with me. Our relationship has continued. If I need to ask him a question he is always there. I actually met up with him last week for lunch to catch up. He’s one of my greatest connections. I’ve been so lucky since moving out to LA to have met so many well-known people in the business that are so supportive of up-and-comings. It’s interesting. In other areas of music there tends to be this unhealthy sense of competition. One of the things I love about the drum community is that everyone helps one another whether you are a beginner or an advanced player.
MA: The drum community is different from other communities. There is a sense of sharing and lifting each other up that you don’t see with other instruments. Drummers are there for one another regardless of age or stage. Drum hangs are the best.
MT: Something else that is cool about the drum industry is that drummers don’t mind giving away their little secrets. Take Rich for example, he brings in other top name drummers to his camp that he himself was mentored by to show you all kinds of licks to help improve your drumming. Because of his camp I was able to keep in touch with Kenny Aronoff who has become another mentor of mine. Everyone has no problem sharing what they know with other drummers. It makes us all better.
MA: Rich’s Drummer’s Weekends are very popular. The ones that takes place in Nashville sell out in no time. Guys like Liberty DeVitto and Troy Luccketta and Jim Riley come every year. I do all the printed materials and the roster keeps growing. Those guys enjoy it just as much as the campers do.
MT: Absolutely. I think the LA camp was a little different. He geared it more toward clinics most of the time. At the end we performed a big show where we played a couple songs each. I can’t say enough good things about it. If anyone ever has the chance to go it is worth every penny. It’s another highlight since I’ve moved to LA.
MA: Speaking of highlights. Let’s talk about what has to be the most hi-profile gig you have had, the Corey Feldman gig.
MT: Yes. It was definitely my first real professional job. I had been in contact with his MD (music director) at the time. We talked back and forth about me auditioning but at the time I was tied up with that electronic band and the Zoo residency so my schedule just didn’t work out. They got another drummer who apparently bailed out a week before their first show. They contacted me again and asked if I could please come and audition. They needed someone ideally in the next three days. I had wrapped up my commitment with the electronic band so I said sure. I auditioned and Corey texted me back an hour later saying the band loved what I had done and I had the job. They also wanted to know if I could learn twenty songs in four days. Every part of my being was sweating. That was an incredible challenge but somehow I managed to pull it off. That one show was great and the rest is history. They asked if I would join them to play the tour.
MA: Corey’s tour was controversial. It got a lot of critical reviews. People either loved it or hated it. How did it feel being a part of that?
MT: Well, like everything else it was a great opportunity. Up to that point I had never been involved in such a controversial thing. I think it got its controversy from their appearance on the TODAY show. When people came out to see the show, they were under the impression that it was going to be a shit show or surprisingly entertaining. From what I understand he had hired models to do the first TV appearance, but real musicians to do the tour so there was a big difference in the quality of music. We all worked very hard to give Corey’s fans the best show possible. We appreciated the opportunity and he appreciated our talents.
MA: I can tell. I saw a video of you online not just playing drums but also singing Alanis Morissette’s “Uninvited.” [Watch Here]
MT: Yes. Corey wanted each of us to stand out in what he called the “Angel Spotlight.” I wanted to do something else besides drums because I do drum but I also do other things such as singing. I decided to sing and play at the same time.
MA: That was really cool. Much more engaging than a cliché drum solo. How was it playing drums in that Angel outfit?
MT: It was definitely interesting and a bit difficult in the beginning. The dress and stockings made it tricky especially for a drummer sitting down. The halo kept falling off when I would head bang and the wings were held on by a backpack-like strap that would irritate my skin. After a while I got used to it and was just like “OK, let’s do this.” It’s like any other costume. Slipknot went on stage in their masks and jumpsuits and KISS went on stage in those crazy outfits. It just takes getting used to. Eventually I didn’t pay it any mind I just got up and did my job.
MA: While researching you for this interview I saw that Corey made some videos online in which you are playing the bongos. Are you still involved with him?
MT: Some days we would move into a mini acoustic set. I played shakers and bongos as well as sang. I think he has the project on hold so as of now I am not. You never know what may happen in the future. I currently have a few of my own projects going on that I am really excited about. It’s good to move forward.
MA: Can you tell us about those projects?
MT: Sure. I am in talks with a few local acts to play shows locally in LA. I’m also collaborating with some new people in hopes to get some of the music we write licensed to TV shows or commercials. This year I want to get some of my own solo music finished and recorded. That is very important to me. I’m working on some collaborations with fellow MI grad and colleague, guitarist Jimena Fosado. She also has a solo album coming out and she asked me to lay down some drum tracks on that so I am super excited. I received a phone call from female rock artist, Kaitlin Gold’s management saying they would like me to join her on her cross-country tour in April. That is currently in the works and is super exciting. I’ve also been auditioning for different pop artists. They have all been pretty recent so I haven’t heard back from them yet. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
MA: I noticed when you were on tour with Corey you were playing TAMA drums. Do you still play TAMA or do you play another brand? What gear are you using now?
MT: I use a lot of different gear at the moment. I’m at a point in my career that I’m enjoying playing and experimenting with different products. I’m not endorsed by anyone at the moment. I have a friend of mine named Tim Guilfoyle who I met while on tour that owns his own custom drum company called Queen City Drums. They are based out of Cincinnati, Ohio. He was so kind he built me my own custom snare drum and brought me to his shop so I could be involved in every step of the process from beginning to end. Tim showed me all the steps of what it takes to produce a snare drum. I really appreciate the workmanship that goes into building drums. It’s an art all in itself. One other thing I want to mention is that I always want to take the opportunity to give back to people that don’t have as many opportunities. For my birthday, Tim made 10 snare drums that are similar to mine. Every one that is sold he is giving a portion of that fund to charity for kids. I also spoke to him about donating a couple of the drums to schools in need. I was very lucky growing up to have been in a school district that offered top notch music programs. It’s so unfortunate that that opportunity seems to be dwindling away with budget problems.
MA: So what’s the scene like out on the west coast where you are living?
MT: I grew up in New York so this is a different world out here. There are so many opportunities that you don’t see on the east coast. For permanent gigs, New York is more into pit orchestras and Broadway while LA has opportunities everywhere. Studio musicians are in high demand. Auditions for professional gigs are everywhere too. You can even get work playing on movie soundtracks. There are also a lot of fill-in opportunities to get your feet wet.
MA: So as a drummer, what are your goals for the future?
MT: My goals? I love recording. I love writing. I love touring. I love performing on stage and sharing my love of music with other people. If an audience can watch me play in a group and forget about whatever stresses are going on in their life and just have a good time, then I’ve done my job. I want to grow as a performer. My dream gig would be to play for someone like Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Demi Lovato, or Lady Gaga. They all have a strong women-empowerment message. They are not afraid to talk about real issues that people of all colors and creeds go through on a daily basis.
MA: That sounds like women-empowerment is an important trait for you. Do you think there is a growing movement of strong women in music or is it still lacking?
MT: There is a 100% need for more strong women in every area of music. It is improving, but we have a long way to go. Since I was young I can remember being in a group of guys and I was either the only girl, or there was maybe one more besides me. I was talking to someone recently about this; You either have women who are flaunting their sexuality to bring in a more male demographic or you have women that go against that grain and have a more mixed demographic. I hope to see more of the latter who let their talents speak for themselves. My hope is to be a contributor to that movement.
Perhaps the biggest thrill of my drumming and writing career was interviewing the legendary Steve Smith. I was writing a piece for Drumhead magazine on the book that Steve wrote with Daniel Glass titled “The Roots of Rock Drumming.” Imagine Skyping with a man you had worshipped while growing up from the privacy of both of your homes. Steve could not have been nicer and more accommodating. Prior to the interview I showed Steve a handful of Vital Information cassettes proving how much of a fan I was. He laughed at the fact I still listened to cassettes. I also asked him how he felt about “Don’t Stop Believin’” being used in movies and TV shows. He smiled and simply said “royalties.”
For the next hour or so I conducted the interview and Steve discussed his thoughts on how he related to the drummers in his book. He said, “I grew up playing mainly jazz and big band music. Then I played fusion. When I was asked to join Journey it seemed like a big detour because I had never played with professional rock musicians, or even a singer for that matter…One thing about being a jazz drummer is that you are highly trained and you possess musical versatility. That means your technique is more advanced than what you would typically use in rock. Then it simply becomes a matter of concept. How do you use those jazz skills within the framework of rock music? That’s how you define a versatile drummer. They can bridge that gap.”
When it was over I was disappointed to end the conversation. When I completed the draft I sent it to Steve to identify any issues or errors. There were none. He gave me his approval in an email and that was a thrill in itself. One of the coolest benefits of writing for drum magazines or this blog is that you get to interview all kinds of drummers, many of them your heroes. I have yet for one to disappoint. Steve Smith was a Bucket List interview for sure and one I won’t forget. You can read the interview here. For more on Steve visit his website.