by Michael Aubrecht
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.
Marisa’s Signature Snare Drum