Photo: Kory Thibeault
For musicians, there is no direct path to success, and sometimes success is just what you make of it. Tamir Barzilay, 37, didn’t choose to become a musician to be a rock star. For him, success is being able to play, create and share good and honest music. He’s been playing drums in Los Angeles for about 12 years now and could be described as a collaborator within the scene. But he didn’t get to where he is today overnight.
The first time I saw Tamir play was on a computer screen. He was performing funkified versions of classic pop and rock hits with a group called Scary Pockets. I remember noticing the way he holds himself behind the kit, along with his great feel. His confidence and solidity in the groove are captivating. When I saw he would be releasing an album of original music, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a guy who I’d only seen play variations of funk. Upon listening, I was gripped by emotional tones and deep, melancholic rock sensibilities. There was obviously more to know about the person behind this music. Departures was released in late January, 2019; a vulnerable, honest and heartfelt collection of 11 songs, performed primarily by Barzilay with the help of a few friends.
Tamir has come a long way from where he began his musical journey, and has formed his own philosophy along the way for what it means to be a working musician. His story tells of the changes he’s gone through and how he’s arrived at the success he knows today, but the thing that’s stayed constant for Tamir is his unwavering devotion to the craft of music, and the practice of being original.
Born Into a World
“I don’t really come from a musical family,” Tamir said. In Rishon LeTsiyon, Israel, where he grew up, Tamir has an early memory of being fascinated with a classical cassette tape he came across. As he got older he became exposed to the world of grunge, and dove deep into the music of Soundgarden, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica and Nirvana.
“When you’re a kid, you think that’s the coolest thing,” Tamir said of the overall appeal of the genre.
Drums, at least in physical form, would come later for Tamir; playing music began for him with the guitar–a nylon string he found in his mom’s closet.
“I pulled it out and started playing it with just my right hand, because I didn’t know what to do with the left hand,” he said. “I started really digging in, and [my parents] sent me to guitar lessons with a classically trained guy.”
Surely, such training would have paid off?
“No,” he said. “I didn’t like it at all. I wasn’t inspired. When you’re ten, twelve years old, all you want to play is Metallica, and really wail like Kurt Cobain.”
He says he always wanted to play the drums, even before guitar, but it was always a “no no” from his parents. A drum set would be too much noise for his family’s apartment. Tamir would have to make do.
“Of course, people do pots and pans, but I did cardboard boxes, from cereal, and pencils with the eraser at the end,” he said. “It’s got a cool sound.”
Then one day, a cousin gave Tamir a pair of actual drumsticks.
“I was playing on pillows and anything that didn’t make a lot of noise,” he recalled.
When Tamir’s family moved into a larger home, Tamir was sure the time had come to finally receive a real set of drums. Despite his anticipation, he waited, still, for a couple of years, convincing his parents that he really deserved a drum set: “‘Buy me that Pearl Forum, red sparkle, whatever, drum set, that’s all I want in life!’”
As a teen, Tamir would catch metal and grunge bands as they’d pass through his town. He describes Rishon LeTsiyon as the “Seattle” of Israel.
“Tel Aviv is the big city, and Rishon was for the musos,” Tamir said. “Kids that were a little bit careless, or rebellious–we were all really into grunge and rock.”
His passion for the distorted sounds he idolized led him to ask for an electric guitar, which his parents agreed to purchase for him. He played the guitar, and he enjoyed it, but his craving for a drum set had not at all subsided. 15-year-old Tamir wanted that drum kit, and he had waited long enough. He still remembers the date: July 21, 1995, 10 am. His father took him to a music shop and bought Tamir his first set of drums.
Tamir was finally equipped with the tools he needed. He treated playing the drums as an escape from the everyday hustle that went on around him. While everyone else was tied up playing sports, Tamir was playing drums.
“Once I had my hands on a drum set, it was a done deal,” he said. “I’ve never looked back.”
He picked it up quickly, too, in a matter of months.
“I don’t want to say that I was a natural, but I think I was mentally so prepared, even though I had no idea what to do with my legs or my feet,” he said. “I was so prepared to go for it.”
He’d play along with tape cassettes; The Police, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, all on heavy rotation.
“Even Keith Jarret,” Tamir said. “And Jack DeJohnette…as a kid I didn’t know what they were doing, but it sounded cool.”
He began taking lessons from a local teacher and by the time he was 16 Tamir had started playing sizable shows for community events, and was being asked to play for musicals. When Tamir was 17 he was playing in a local cover band.
He remembers going to rehearsal one day and being called out into the hallway to speak with someone. Members of a very successful Israeli band, a la the Beastie Boys, had heard Tamir rehearsing with the cover band, and it so happened that they needed a drummer.
“They took my parent’s number,” said Tamir. “I went out for an audition. I knew who they were, and I was really excited and scared.”
He ended up getting the gig, which exposed Tamir to a new reality of what playing music could do for him.
“Being a kid, I was able to tell my parents, ‘hey, I’m playing with this huge band, I’m getting paid.’ I’m 17 years old and I’m playing on TV and on these huge shows.”
In 1999, Tamir and the band opened for Coolio at a huge park in front of 50 thousand people.
“It was a big achievement for me,” he said. “I could tell my parents it was happening for me.”
Tamir happily played with that band for a while, until he was asked to join the army– “Like every other Israeli.”
“My parents really wanted me to do it, because they’d be ashamed if I didn’t, even though they saw me so happy and into playing music,” Tamir said.
As he was coming of age, Tamir had attempted to pursue music through various recognized institutions, maybe in hopes that by having a degree, his parents would be more accepting of his aspiration to be a working musician. The trouble was he’d repeatedly freak out when it came time to audition.
“I tried to go to art school, music school,” he said. “I went to auditions for the test they give you; my parents paid money for me to go. And half way through it, maybe it was an hour and a half, I just got up and left. I couldn’t stand the pressure and how judgmental those guys were. I felt very insecure with reading [music]. To this day, I don’t think I’m the best reader, at all, and it’s still an insecurity that I have, because I didn’t go to school.”
The prospect of joining the army had become a reality. Tamir wanted to maintain his love for music and decided to try and join the army band, but unfortunately wasn’t able to make it through that audition, either.
“I freaked out there, too,” he said. “I think I was pretty good, but from an instinct standpoint. I was not educated at all.”
He valued the time spent with his local drum teacher, but he says he always hated the pad, and he hated reading.
“I just wanted to play and feel it physically,” he said.
Tamir had a good IQ, he was in good physical condition, he came from a stable, working class family and he was a talented musician…
“And I got drafted to work in the army,” he said.
So, Tamir joined the army.
“I did whatever I did…it was shit. I hated it,” he said. “It was a really bad place. You can only imagine. I did training, and as soon as I was done with training I was pretty much sent to a war zone, at 18 years old.”
While in service, Tamir lost his mother to cancer. The time had come for Tamir to make a change, and he got out of the army. Tamir went right back to playing music with a bunch of bands, mainly in Tel Aviv. He explains how at this point, all he wanted to do was forget about everything.
“I tried to escape, through music,” he said. “I gigged full time with the best ones, the best rock n’ roll bands. I even declined a few bigger gigs that weren’t my cup of tea. I said “no” to those things because I wasn’t into the music.”
Tamir was gigging a lot, but he was holding himself back; he says he was smoking a lot of weed and hash. Though eventually, he decided to quit.
“I got tired of it all,” he said. “I sobered up pretty quickly and then realized that I had it all but wasn’t happy. I needed to expand personally and professionally…Losing your mom at that age, and being in survival mode, it was a dark time. Music saved me.”
Tamir was ready to experience something completely new, and in March of 2007, with nothing but a suitcase and a snare drum, Tamir got on a plane headed for New York City.
“The move for me was more of a personal adventure,” Tamir says. “Speaking a different language, walking into one of the biggest cities in the world, I just enjoyed being nobody…just being able to enjoy, and letting myself do that after what I had been through. That was the best part.”
He couch-surfed for a while and worked at bars and coffee shops to support himself. He says it took him a while to start playing at all in New York; work wasn’t easy to find as a new drummer in a sea of established players. He was meeting musicians and playing jam sessions, but Tamir felt there was still more to be discovered. After about a year and a half in New York, Tamir decided to see what LA had going on. Once again, he boarded a plane with a suitcase, a snare drum and now some cymbals, and headed west.
A Sunny Disposition
“I took any gig I could,” Tamir said of his first few months in LA. “I started with shaker and a broken conga…going on Myspace and reaching out to a bunch of people…remember Myspace?”
Tamir was loving the California sun, and slower-paced lifestyle that LA is known for.
“I realized pretty quickly in New York that you don’t have a lot of time for yourself,” he said. “You have more time for yourself [in LA]. I feel more productive on a personal level and as a professional. I slowly discovered, ‘maybe this is the place to stay.’”
The first year Tamir was living in LA, he got signed to Universal with a rock band from Australia. They were being asked to move to Miami to make a record, when all of a sudden, the singer decided to bail. It just goes to show how unpredictable the industry can be sometimes. Tamir understood that he’d always have to be prepared to jump in, or jump out of any situation. So, when an opportunity came up for Tamir to audition to play with the iconic songwriter, Macy Gray, he was ready, and he was excited.
Tamir had spent five years in LA at that point and had been playing everything from Jewish weddings to singer-songwriter gigs around LA, all with great musicians, but he wanted to do more. By then, his nerves surrounding audition scenarios had subsided, but he still had his work cut out for him. To prepare, he studied seven of Macy’s records, when the other drummers auditioning had studied one. He brought his old Rogers kit from the ‘50s, freshly tuned with new heads. He really did his homework and felt equipped to make a good impression. But, he didn’t get the gig. There were callbacks, where they narrowed it down to four drummers, including Tamir.
“It was the longest most nerve-wracking audition that I ever had,” Tamir said.
Indeed, it was an all-day affair–seven hours including a lunch break and drinking Coronas with the crew.
“They asked crazy personal questions, to the point where I was like, ‘should I just go home?’”
It came down to Tamir and another drummer. The question was posed: “Prince is calling and says ‘hey Tamir I’m going on the road and I want you to come with me.’ What do you do?”
The other contestant stated he would never betray the gig at hand, and he’d always be loyal. But Tamir had a different reaction: “Well, it’s fucking Prince!”
“I had to be honest, and felt I should be real,” he said.
Again, he didn’t get the gig.
But a few months later, Tamir gets a call: “Hey we got rid of the other guy. The gig is yours if you want it.”
Tamir said, “Let’s do it.”
“I’ve been with her ever since, it’s been over five years,” he said. “It’s been since September 2013. It’s pretty much my main gig. It’s like a family at this point.”
Being able to play with Macy has given Tamir some sense of stability. He’s able to play sessions and work on projects that he’s passionate about.
“I’m really fortunate to only play stuff that I like playing,” he says. “I find myself not having to say “no” too much, and that’s a huge privilege. I never got into this business to get rich. The struggle as a musician is the clash between mind and heart, because the best stuff doesn’t pay, usually. The most genuine, special, beautiful music that will inspire you, probably won’t pay you as much. Some gigs I play with friends, I’m there to get inspired. The money, it doesn’t matter, because you got so much more out of it.”
He’s aware that he’s lucky to be in such a situation, but still, he’s crafted this path for himself.
“If it’s fun and I enjoy doing it, it doesn’t really matter what style it is,” he says. “If it’s good, it’s joyous. I definitely feel like I’m growing, and learning a lot. Every year there’s a bunch of new faces. And of course, all the old faces. We get closer and closer.”
Experimentation, Expression and Dedication
“When I’m in town I go to my studio a lot and just write and practice and experiment,” Tamir said. The studio is his lockout, where he recorded his most recent album, Departures.
“This record is a break up record. If you listen to the lyrics, they’re all about one lady. They explain how I felt. But, it’s only from my own perspective.”
Departures is painstakingly beautiful, in the way that feeling a connection to someone else’s emotional experience can be. Tamir sings: “I don’t want you to be my rock for a rock is too heavy / I don’t want you to be my everything, don’t be everything.”
Though, he would debate the validity of the word “sings.”
“I am the worst singer that I know,” he says.
He would worry about people walking by his door and hearing him record vocals.
“I’m so insecure and shy about my voice and my singing, and my accent,” he said. “I’ve only [really] spoken English for 12 years. I still have only so many words in my vocabulary. Some people are surprised when I ask them ‘what’s that word mean?’ They look at me like I’m joking, but I’m serious. Some people might find my accent charming, but not me.”
When he recorded his vocals for the record, Tamir sang very quietly, hunched down over the mic so no one passing could hear.
“I put the gain up and just kind of say it,” he explained. “During the mixing process a lot of the time it was hard to understand some of the lyrics. I’m kind of mumbling because I’m worried somebody’s hearing me, but I left it in. That’s a huge thing with me, exposing your insecurities–my accent, my not very good vocals.”
Tamir has always sung backing vocals for the artists he plays with, but for his album, he overcame an insecurity to sing the lead part. Even if he sang mumbled words bent over a mic, he was making the art he needed to make.
“I wanted to feel comfortable in my own skin,” said Tamir. “I wanted to grow and put myself out there, because I feel it’s important. And also sharing what you have.”
He says it took him a long time to feel whole with the lyrics he chose, before deciding to share them with anyone who’d listen. The songs on the record come from a place of pain, but highlight notes of joy and the threat of fickle companionship that can be associated with meaningful relationships.
“It’s stuff I’ve been writing for a couple years, since the breakup really,” Tamir said.
“I had 25 songs and I narrowed it down to 11. I basically had two records. I started making it early in 2017.”
Tamir plays most of the instruments on the album, but called on a few friends to fill in some gaps. Stevie Blacke plays strings, Rich Hinman is featured on pedal steel, Jordan Katz for horns and Trevor Menear played slide guitar on an instrumental track.
“Drums are the last thing that I cared about in writing this,” Tamir said. “It was always guitar. I didn’t even think about the drum beat. I would just play finger picking, mostly dry, old acoustic guitars for that warmth. With the minimal guitar vocabulary that I know, I made it work. What I wanted to be captured was pureness, and it’s imperfect.”
Imperfect as it may be, Tamir has received compliments on his guitar tone from people who really know what they’re talking about. Tamir says, “It’s nothing. It was a tiny amp and a Tele with a 57 on it and one plug-in.”
He just likes organic sound; sonically, he’s influenced by everything he’s ever heard before. The Hammond on his record sounds as close to any other Hammond that he’s ever heard in his life, and the bass “sounds like how a bass should sound.” It’s nothing too extreme, as Tamir would tell you.
“I like music to sound like what it sounds like when a few cats are sitting in a room playing together,” he says. “That’s how I wanted this record to sound.”
The drums and percussion on Departures is reminiscent of what you’d hear on a cinematic soundtrack; the sounds are vast, booming and encapsulate metallic, woody and perfectly raw noises all at once.
A shelf in the corner of his studio houses various percussion instruments from around the world, which he uses an assortment of on the album; a uniquely shaped hand-held box drum, hollowed out wooden cylinders he plays with hand-carved wooden sticks…different bells, shakers and mallets. The record is full of “clacks,” “bongs,” “pings” and “booms.” As previously mentioned, he likes to experiment.
“If it sounds good, it should be there. If it feels good, it’s good enough for me,” Tamir said.
The drum set he used for most of the songs is this huge, vintage, beast of a kit–a Slingerland Rolling Bomber, with wooden lugs. He says it makes him play differently.
“Most of this record is so sloppy,” Tamir said. “I did a lot of single takes. If I made one mistake, I’d go back and I’d record it again. It’s really important to me to capture this chunk of a few minutes, and just that. I don’t like chopping energy [a.k.a. punching]. This is it. Every instrument was one take, even if it took 15 tries, it’s one take. I didn’t really edit anything, so there’s a lot of sloppiness, mistakes, guitar slumpiness…”
Tamir has made his own music in the past, but he says making Departures is like nothing he’s ever done before. He says he had no real plan other than wanting it to be genuinely himself.
“I know that people really sense truth,” said Tamir. “They know when you wrote this from the bottom of your heart. They know when you really sing with pain and when you don’t. I don’t know how to fake that. I wanted people to listen to the album from beginning to end and stay on it and not lose interest. This is who I am. I meant it to share my feelings. It’s kind of very therapeutic because you can just complain about all the shit with your ex. If she listened to it she might want to kill me,” he said with a laugh.
Tamir’s record is a channeling of expression, thoughts and feelings. He says if people can relate to it, if he made someone feel something, or understood, then he’s succeeded.
“A good friend of mine once told me, ‘you have to share your gift. You can’t be selfish. You have to start somewhere, even if it’s a bad song. You have to write it first, and then you’ll get better.’ That really touched me. I thought, ‘he’s right.’ Because you’re not good when you start playing drums, either. You sucked. Then you sit there and you practice for hours and hours. So, singer-songwriting, it became something I started looking towards as another channel of expression. It’s not just drums anymore.”
People have come to Tamir saying they’ve been listening to the record a lot. Some people tell him about their favorite song. People are relating to it.
“It’s the first time I feel like people connect to something that I did, other than ‘hey man you’re really funky on those Scary Pockets videos,’ [laughs]. This is actually me telling you a story. Do you empathize with it, do you relate, do you feel anything?”
Tamir says he has no interest in taking his own material on the road in the way most singer-songwriters eventually do.
“Getting in sprinter vans and playing in dive bars in Idaho for 15 people, I don’t really want to do that,” Tamir said. “I don’t have any desire of being famous, I just do it because I enjoy it, and I feel like it’s very special to me. It’s a language. Maybe I’ll play some songs at a house concert, just myself and maybe a cello. It freaks me out really, but that’s the whole point: If you’re scared of it, you should do it.”
The Inspiration’s Inspiration
“I feel like you’re inspired by anything that you’ve ever heard,” said Tamir. “Even if it’s a dishwasher, and anything that you subconsciously hear. I listen to a lot of tribal music. I don’t own one Beatles record, I don’t own one Pink Floyd record. I don’t watch TV, I don’t listen to the radio. I don’t know shit about games of thrones, or what’s the other one, the meth guy?”
The other records Tamir has made exist primarily on his SoundCloud page. He doesn’t tell too many people about what he has on there, but, it’s really worth a listen. There’s a Celtic music EP, an electronic music EP, a funk record. He says the oldest recordings of himself he’s posted are from 2010.
“That was for me the beginning of acknowledging the urge to create music,” he said. “To say something, to at least experiment with the idea of me playing the rest of the instruments and singing. Even though it was very premature and raw material, I still think it was really important for me to do.”
Included in the catalogue of material on Tamir’s SoundCloud are several tracks of him playing drums and percussion over live recordings of Ugandan music and tribal chanting. He got the recordings from a friend of a friend who visited Uganda ten years ago and brought along a recorder.
“I always liked African music and tribal rhythms, especially as a drummer,” he said. “I’m not an expert in it, but incorporate it in my playing, for sure. I got these recordings and I put my own interpretation on it. I can show you the session.”
Tribal music is played loudly through the speakers in his small lockout, the rhythm is quick, maybe 270 bpm. Tamir plays the music by itself and then plays what he added–syncopated rim clicking and a dance beat with a bell that sits well with the original recording. He says he put together a kit that inspired him, with very specific tones and a low, earthy, percussive feel.
“You can’t really understand the words, but every song has a name and title,” Tamir said. “Most of them were about their daily life and how much they suffer, what they feel, and how their days look, in poverty.”
The blend of the original music with Tamir’s added layers inspire a sense of wholeness, and connectedness. Tamir says his approach was simple, utilizing elements of contemporary R&B, a 2 and 4 kind of vibe, over the complex rhythm of a vocal chant or quick pulse of a stringed instrument.
“It’s pretty much reacting to whatever you hear,” he said. “The grooves are cool, it’s like the stuff no one will let you play [laughs].”
These recordings, and everything else Tamir has done with his music, are examples of his pursuit to be an original. Or, maybe just a part of something original.
“To me, originality comes from being insulated. Not from knowledge,” Tamir said. “To me, originality comes from not doing what everyone else is doing. Not listening to Top 40, not listening to radio…like who inspired the most ancient musicians you know?”
He cites Miles Davis, as an example–who inspired that guy?
“I want to go there,” says Tamir. “I want to draw inspiration from all of the people that I like, obviously, but with anyone that inspires you, I want to sound like their inspiration’s inspiration. What came from that place? That’s where I want to go. Maybe it’s going to be really bad, but at least I know that I tried.”
When Tamir goes to the record store, he goes straight to the World section. He still buys CDs.
“I go home and I play them on my shitty CD player,” he says. “I have hundreds of CDs, still…”
He says with world music, there are things happening, and elements within the music that you won’t find anywhere else.
“Bulgarian folk music, Icelandic choirs…like wow, those singers…Madagascan guitar playing…”
Tamir has already started working on his next record, and has thought about what might change in his process.
“I might call some musicians to play…maybe I won’t even play drums, I don’t know.”
In the meantime, Tamir has his schedule set at least through the summer. He’ll be in Asia with Jason Mraz in May, followed by a U.S. tour with Australian bassist and singer, Tal Wilkenfeld, in June. Then he tours Europe with Macy Gray in July and August.
“After that, I’ll have some time,” he says.
Tamir brings something unique to the table with every musical situation he encounters. He’s inspired by the oldest forms of music, he’s disciplined, passionate, self-respecting and he’s humble. And he’s friendly. He’s easy to approach.
“I’ll never forget, this Italian lady came up to me after a drum solo at one of Macy’s gigs,” Tamir said. “She had a thick Italian accent and maybe was 60 years old. She came up to me crying after the show, telling me how much my solo touched her, telling me how she felt every little nuance. I don’t think she was a musician, but that gave me so much inspiration to keep doing it, and try to explore ways of communicating with humans, not just through drums, but anything.”
Living to be inspired. Inspired by inspiration. It’s clear that Tamir Barzilay is established in his life as a musician, simply aspiring to share in creation. He’s allowed himself the space and time to create and collaborate to his highest potential, and the exciting thing is, he’s still just getting started.