When Tyler Zarzeka greeted me in an alley behind The Belasco Theater in October, it felt like he was inviting me into his home.
We walked past security down some stairs and into a greenroom setting, where Tyler found a spot for us to sit. He seemed comfortable with his surroundings, and he was. Since he graduated from the Musician’s Institute in L.A. in 2007, the 33-year-old has made the road, and all stops along the way, his home.
He’s toured the world as a drummer for an impressive roster of pop artists, including Charlie Puth, Cher Lloyd, AJ McLean and Kiiara. He’s also toured as a drum tech for giants like Aaron Spears (Usher), Eric Greene (Jay Z) and Teddy Campbell (American Idol Tour). On the night we spoke Tyler was about to play the last full-band show of Noah Cyrus’ Good Cry tour. He explained to me the following morning would see his gear shipped to a studio where he’d begin two weeks of rehearsal for a 30-day run with Kiiara. “U.S. dates,” Tyler says. “Nothing crazy. Just the usual.”
CW: How’s this tour been for you?
TZ: Noah is fantastic. It’s like having a younger sister as your singer. She grew up on the road, on tour busses with her dad. She’s been surrounded by this her whole life. She seems very comfortable with everything–doesn’t complain about being on a bus…she’s not even in a condo on the bus, she’s in a smaller bunk and she doesn’t care. She’s just stoked to be performing and loves her fans and loves singing and is a really good entertainer. She’s only been doing this for like two years and it seems like she’s been doing it for 15.
CW: This is your first tour with Noah?
TZ: Second! We opened up for Katy Perry last year on her massive arena tour that she did, which was fun because I love playing arenas. The sound of a drum in an arena, even not mic’d up is amazing. And it’s been pretty quiet since then, which was last December.
CW: What first inspired you to pick up the sticks?
TZ: I wouldn’t consider myself a musician prior to playing the drums. I played saxophone in junior high, and did that for two years, and kind of understood then how to read music. I liked it, and I was super into choir as a kid. I loved singing. There was something about music that stuck out, but I never thought drumming was going to be my future. It wasn’t until I was 16-years-old that I finally got to see Blink 182 play live. I actually had such bad seats, we couldn’t see Travis Barker, but everything I heard–something was calling me. I thought maybe it could have been guitar, and I had a ukulele that I was messing around with, but somehow that translated to me tapping with pens and pencils in school. I wasn’t focused on high school at the time, I wanted to get out as quick as possible. I knew a few kids in high school that were in bands, and I kind of started making my way into their lives. And all I had was a pair of drum sticks at the time, I had never physically sat down on a drum set. I ended up jamming with some people, and they were like ‘yeah you’re cool, you can drum, you can hang.’ I finally asked my dad for a drum set and I got it when I was 17-years-old. I feel like I started so much later than everyone around me in this drumming world and community, but I knew that was going to be what I wanted to do. And I knew it wasn’t going to be me and a band, I knew I wanted to be a hired gun. Even though I didn’t know what a hired gun was. It was 2003. There was no internet, and I had no idea what a session musician was, I didn’t know you could get a paycheck for doing things like this. But I started a small hard-core emo band in Sacramento, which lasted about a year and a half, and I started taking lessons. Then I decided to move down to L.A. for music school.
CW: And you went to the Musician’s Institute.
TZ: That was amazing. I tell everyone that I owe everything to that school. Because I was awful. I’m 100 percent sincere when I say I was the worst student at that school when I started. I could not play “Billie Jean” on drums, as embarrassing as that sounds, I don’t mind people knowing that. It was 2005 and I couldn’t play that, which doesn’t seem like that long ago.
CW: How were you admitted if you really couldn’t play?
TZ: A teacher I was working with, Mike Johnston–before he was the Mike Johnston we know today–he was a teacher at a local drum shop. He taught me doubles, rudiments, he got me through basic things. It’s not that I couldn’t play at all, I was in a hard-core band so all I knew was hitting hard. I knew where the one was and I could hit downbeats. I kind of knew what I was doing, but when it came to finesse and playing groove, that’s what I lacked in. I could play the beat, but my teacher was like “Your dynamics are terrible, you can’t hit a rimshot, you’re swinging the hi-hats when they’re meant to be straight, and you can’t play with a band, and you can’t read music.” This was day one of music school.
I got admitted because I knew the basics but I didn’t understand what a rack tom should be used for in a song. I was oblivious to everything. School kicked me in the ass from day one. And that was the first time I got to see what Gospel drumming looked like, and it blew my mind. I knew that’s what I wanted to be. I worked my ass off for two years straight. I woke up earlier than all my friends did, I practiced hours before class even started so I could just get through the class and then I would practice after, before going to the job that I had just around the corner. I did that on repeat for two years. I don’t regret that, but the thing I lacked was I didn’t make a lot of friends. I focused so much on drumming that I was like ‘screw all you guys, you’re better and I want to be able to hang out with you and I don’t feel like I can right now.’ School was amazing because it taught me how to deal with musicians, how to play Latin; there was a double-bass metal class, a studio drumming class where we learned about Steve Jordan and Gadd and all the greats…playing technique in a marching class where we would open up our wrists and make them stronger. The school was just like “Here you go, you want to be a working musician? We’ll do that for you, and it’ll take two years.” So when I graduated I felt like a super human. I wasn’t as good still as other people, but I could keep up, and I finally read very well, which I actually found to be fun, and writing music, which some people didn’t really fancy. But I think it’s interesting to find a drummer who’s playing something in 7/8 and wanting to transpose it onto paper and see what that looks like. School opened my mind to so many things. I went through jazz phases and reggae phases and metal phases and singer-songwriter phases. It opened my life to music, and I couldn’t have been happier. I actually get to speak at MI this week to talk to first level students on a panel of drummers that have been successful, which I’m really stoked about.
CW: What was your first professional gig after school?
TZ: It was the same year I graduated, so 2007, and it was a tour for a pop singer named Maren. We did a U.S.O. tour for the troops overseas. It was 50 percent covers, 50 percent her songs, and she had burlesque dancers on stage, it was a whole glam show, but so fun. It was actually the first time I had to lug drums through an airport, which I’ve never done since. We didn’t know what we were doing, we were so green. We went through Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines…even a private island where only military can go unless you’re invited. That tour really changed my life.
CW: What were you schlepping for gear at that time?
TZ: It was an old custom drum company called Six Gun, and the dude who owned the company, which doesn’t exist anymore, was a friend of my family’s. I had a 24” kick, 12”, 16”, 18” and it was matte white with gold hardware–very showy drum set which I would never do again, but I was 21 at the time, and I was like ‘Oh my god I’m so cool.’ My cymbals were stupid-high…I was a good drummer, but if I were to look at photos now, I think I’d burn them all. I’d want to kick my own ass. It was pretty embarrassing. I had a mohawk and everything…it was bad [laughs]. I feel like I’ve matured over the last 12 years.
CW: What was something you learned early on in your career that has stuck with you ever since?
TZ: I maybe didn’t learn this right away, but how to mentally handle myself on the road, and how to deal with being gone and coming back home. It’s still something I notice I deal with today, going into my thirties. When you’re on the road, people are doing everything for you. Your lunch is prepared for you at a certain time, you wake up at a certain time…it is a good job, but when you come home from that, and there’s none of that, your brain goes ‘what do I do? What can I do?’ You have the excitement of being on the road and then you come home and it can be depressing. At least that’s how I feel, because I want to be on the road all the time. … Something else I might have learned early on…don’t shit on the bus!
CW: How many tours have you been on since starting your career?
TZ: Maybe 25-30? Then again, it’s hard to determine what counts as a tour. When I was a drum tech for Aaron Spears, for Usher, we toured for three years straight. When does that tour start and stop, you know? There was a point where we got to go home for a week and breathe for a second, but we went back on the same OMG tour, just that time it happened to be that we were going to Africa, or Dubai or Australia. With Usher alone I probably did like 10 tours, but it was this lump of time that I didn’t even know where it went.
CW: When did you choose to start being a drum tech? What got you into it, and what made you decide to put your own drumming career on the back burner?
TZ: I didn’t choose it, it kind of chose me. When I graduated from music school, I didn’t even know a tech, or roadie was a legit position. I didn’t know anything about the production side of the music industry, which is half of everything you see on stage. It was never really talked about at school. But a buddy of mine I met at music school cold called me one day and told me he was leaving his position at this place called Center Staging and asked if I wanted to work there. I was like “what is it?” He said “Ah you basically work on drums every day, maintain them, clean them, set them up for the client, tear them down, put new heads on…” I thought, “That sounds great, I don’t know anything about tuning, but I’ll learn.” I got the job, and was put on a crash course for tuning. I tuned probably five kits a day for two and a half years. I was taught by some really smart people. It was something that most drummers don’t get to do, even if you work at a music shop you’re not really taking apart kits and maintaining them and tuning them…and then having different style heads on different style kits. We had hundreds of kits there, different colors, every brand you could imagine. That was good because I got to hear what I liked. I heard everything and would figure out what sounds I really liked. That fell into my lap, but I still wouldn’t say I was a drum tech at that point. I was just a shop guy. I worked at a facility where bands would come in and rehearse. If you wanted a tambourine I’d go bring you a tambourine. But I started noticing that people coming through were doing the same things I was doing, but they were traveling on tour busses, getting paid thousands of dollars a week, and I was making 10 dollars an hour, barely breaking a thousand a month. I felt like I couldn’t sustain that life anymore and I wanted to tour. I just kind of put my ear out. The first tour that was offered to me at that point was for the band Hanson, and so I became Zac Hanson’s drum tech, and I was also a guitar and keyboard tech for that run, which was my first tour as a roadie. It really just fell into my lap, because I needed to survive. So that turned into a six-year-long period of being a “drum tech for life.” I thought that was going to be my path, and I really loved being a drum tech, I gave it 100 percent, I made drummers happy. I’d hear, “You can really tune this drum well,” and I’d be like, “Thank you, what else can I do for ya?” It was like being a glorified assistant–I didn’t get them coffee, but if they wanted something else related to drums, I was their man. I got almost the same amount of satisfaction as I do playing. If I didn’t get that call for Center Staging, that wouldn’t have ever translated into anything else. I never would have met Aaron Spears, who really changed my life for the better.
CW: How did Aaron change your life?
TZ: Aaron showed me so many different things. Some of my teachers at MI were really great mentors of mine, and the inspiration to buckle down on certain things. They were the ones routing for me on the stands when I was really trying to go for it. One of my teachers, Donny Gruendler, and the late Bubba Bryant–they molded me into what they thought they could, and I love the outcome.
Aaron though, Aaron showed me how to be happy. And to enjoy what you do. The way he handles himself and talks to other people…I’ve never heard someone say a bad thing about Aaron, and if they did, they were lying. He showed me that drumming and touring can be fun and there’s no reason you shouldn’t be smiling when you’re playing drums.
Another mentor of mine who inspires me a lot in Mike Johnston. He was my first teacher, someone I randomly chose at a music store in Sacramento off the 99 freeway called Skips Music–it might exist still. There were four teachers to choose from and Mike was the only one who had a tattoo on his arm. I was like ‘that’s the guy!’ I chose well. He’s so kind, he’s the best teacher I’ve ever encountered. He can teach anybody anything, he can find that way around your problems. I remember going to see him perform in Sacramento with local bands he had…he would blow my mind. And this was before he was a YouTube thing, and before he built his empire. We lost touch for a few years but I actually got to go to his drum camp this year. I went as a student, I paid money and just said “Teach me everything.” I love learning, and feel we can always learn more, and why not learn from people who inspire you?
CW: Are you studying with anyone at the moment?
TZ: Over this last year I’ve been taking on and off again lessons with Dave Elitch. He’s a drummer I always watched on YouTube and thought “this guy isn’t real.” These drummers that I take lessons from, I don’t necessarily want to be them, but I can see certain things in their playing and think “that’s something I need.” I want people to look at me when I play drums in the same way that I look at Dave Elitch. He changed my life for the better. It’s been a struggle, it’s been a long year of really buckling down and focusing on certain technique issues that I had, but he helped me so much. My playing now feels more comfortable and loose. My back doesn’t hurt, we lowered my throne, my legs aren’t tense. I don’t burry the beater…I sit properly now, I used to slouch a little bit–techniques that got lost in the cracks at MI. They were more worried about me sounding good as opposed to what my posture was like. I haven’t seen Dave in a few months because I’ve been on tour, but once I get my new hand technique under wraps I’m going to go back and see him some more. I get more nervous going into Dave Elitch’s studio than I do when I’m playing for 5,000 kids.
CW: How much time do you spend in the studio compared to your time on the road?
TZ: Zero percent in the studio, 100 percent on the road. And that’s not by choice. I wish it was 50/50. There seems to be a thing–my resume is purely touring, and say a manager is looking at that, they think “This guy can hang on the road, this guy can understand how to respect other people when living in tight quarters on a tour bus with 12 people. He can obviously hang and he’s mentally stable.” So I always get calls for touring. But studio drummers, they can be as weird and as crazy as they want to be, and they always get the same calls for session work. Even though I’d love to get those calls, and I could hang…the click is my best friend. I think it would be a different challenge but nobody is calling me for that unfortunately.
CW: Do you play with click live?
TZ: Yeah, because ProTools is running the show. If I’m off by one click, the show is done. But that pressure is never there for me. I grew up always wearing headphones when I played drums, so I’m used to having the cans on and having something keeping time going, whether it’s music or a metronome. Back in the day it was my Yamaha Click Station, now it’s on my phone. I definitely preach playing to a click when you practice.
CW: What would you say is one of the biggest challenges you face as a drummer who works solely on the road?
TZ: I want to be busier. I talk to some of my friends who say ‘man it seems like you’re so busy, that’s fantastic,’ but if I could be juggling 10 gigs right now, I would. There’s never enough work for me, I just want more. I currently have three artists I’m playing with, and if seven other people called me up to do a gig, I’d do it in a heartbeat. I’m never busy enough. But, thankfully I utilize my downtime treating drumming like my job. It’s my nine to five. If I’m home, Monday through Friday, nine to five is work time. Whether it’s working on drums or gear, or writing, or reading music, or practicing a part or just listening to bands that I enjoy. But the struggle is definitely finding consistency in the work. I can’t make work appear, but if Noah wants to tour for three years straight, I’ll be there. But at some point, people don’t want to tour and they take a break, and you look for the next thing. It’s always a hustle. I just have to keep performing better at each gig and hope somebody sees me, and says ‘let’s hire that guy.’
CW: Until you’re Aaron Spears, right?
TZ: Yeah, I’ll never be Aaron Spears. Watching him play every day for four years…it was funny because we never talked too much about drumming when we were on tour together. I respected him in a way that I didn’t want to bug him. I was there for him. If he wanted to be like ‘hey, what did you think of that fill?’ he would ask me, but we never talked about that. We talked about life, we talked about relationships…I felt like we connected so well on that level. But still, he’s a monster. I watch everything he posts online, and go “Yep, not going to be that.” I don’t want to be that! I want to be…I know my place in the industry and I love playing for the music. I can play what’s required for the gig.
CW: Would you ever consider taking another tech gig?
TZ: [Takes deep breath] I can’t say “no.” Say I’m working for all these artists and everyone takes a break. I don’t want to be at home twiddling my thumbs. I don’t come from money, and teching unfortunately pays better than being a drummer. And that was one of the hard things to flip, when I went back to being a drummer, was taking that pay cut, and starting almost fresh. I would take small gigs–I still help out buddies, and if they have any issues with anything electronic-wise, I do get those calls, and I’ll help out, but I would never go on a long tour, now, as a drum tech, because I know the second I get on that bus as a tech, somebody’s going to call me and be like, ‘hey can you be the drummer for Sia?’ And I can’t quit, I can’t burn bridges. I actually turned down the Jay Z and Beyoncé tour for a whole year, as a tech. I know it would have been so much fun, because it was all arenas and it was touring at its finest. I want to say it was 25 weeks straight. I would have missed out on Noah’s tour, I would have missed out on Kiiara, I would have missed out on Warped Tour, so I’m glad I said no, even though I would have made a lot more money. But I’m making plenty enough now to survive being a drummer.
CW: How drastically does your setup change when working with different artists, and is that something that takes getting used to?
TZ: As far as changing up kits for different artists, I start from scratch. If I get a new gig, or even if I’ve done the gig before, it’s a blank drum rug, and I work my way from the kick to the snare to what else may be a necessity. Some gigs I don’t have a ride. I might not need it. The kit that I’m using right now for Noah is, in my history of drumming, a big drum set. But something I’ll be working on come the Kiiara tour is going to be very simplified and more electronic. Not a lot of cymbals, more pads, as it’s a different type of music all together. But what I’m doing for Noah right now, I think it’s the biggest craziest kit I could think of. I’m very much a one up one down kind of player, but for this one I was like “I want to go big.” And we don’t have a crew, I have to set it up and tear it down every day, load the trailer…We actually lost a guitar player and a bass player, so it was the music director’s call. He said “This is your time, fill in every extra space with something.” Don’t make it trash, make it musically tasteful, but he said he wants me hitting something all the time. There can’t be a dull moment in the show. What I decided to go with on this tour is my Q kit, which has been my kit with Charlie Puth for years, for Kiiara, for Bobby Andonov…I’ve used the same kit but I just use different sizes. The kit originally started out 22”x13”x16”. For the Noah tour last year I added an 18”, and then for this tour I added a 10”. So right now, I have a mahogany kit, 22”x16”, 10”x8”, 13”x9”, 16”x16”, and then an 18”x16”. The 18”x16” has no bottom head and has a custom ring that I made that lays on top of the head, and it’s kind of like a gong drum. I’ve got two snares, both Q. My main is an aluminum plate, 14”x7” ten-lug, and then I have a side-snare which is my brass, 14”x7” eight-lug, which weighs like 18 or 19 pounds, and I use that as a “dead” snare, with a Big Fat Snare Drum on that. Remo heads–clear ambassadors on the toms, CS dots on the bottom. I use Control Sound X on the main snare, and the side snare is a Suede Emperor. The gong drum is also a Suede Emperor, in black. Roland electronics–SPD-SX, which I have on every gig, you have to have that. KT-10 for my electronic kick drum sounds when I’m not playing the acoustic kick drum, which is also triggered. My side snare is triggered as well for the big ballad-y songs, sampled from Noah’s record. And triggers on all the toms, but we’re triggering the gates for front of house, so he’s not getting a lot of the cymbal bleed from the cymbals that are directly above each tom; those have no connection to the SPD-SX, it’s purely for audio. Zildjian cymbals; I’ve got 15” New Beat hi-hats, a 10” EFX, a 10” K Kustom Special Dry splash, I have a 19” K Kustom Special Dry Trash/Crash, 18” A Custom, 22” K Ride, 19” K Sweet Crash. I have a stacker that’s a 14” Trashformer on top of an 18” K EFX, and then I have a 20” K Kustom Special Dry Crash…and I think that’s all of it. I’ve never had so many cymbals, but they’re all purposeful in my mind. I use my ride as a ride; I don’t really like to crash on it, it has the perfect amount of “ping” and the bell sounds amazing. The crashes are crashes. And then the two dirty FX cymbals to both sides of me are kind of like intermediate swells in a song, so I don’t necessarily want something bright, like my A Customs or K Sweets, I want something dark and gritty, kind of behind the mix. They’re further away from the microphones, and it kind of blends perfectly into the audio. And the reason I have two splashes is because the music director wanted more! DW hardware; 9000 pedal…JH Audio in-ears. Moon Gels.
CW: Is there anyone who you’d really love tour with or make a record with?
TZ: I mentioned Sia earlier, I would love to be her drummer. I’m not sure if she has a live drummer. All of her grooves in the last two records she put out are perfect, because they sound like real drums; I don’t think they use a real drummer in the studio, but if she ever needed a real drummer I’d be there in a heartbeat. I think her music is fantastic. And I’m typically drawn to female singers; I don’t know what it is. I work well with them, and I just love hearing a female sing every night. They usually kill it. I also would love to play for Coldplay. I mean I grew up listening to old Coldplay, which was a completely different band compared to what they are now, but watching them play up there…it’s like how could you not want to play their show. I’ve never seen them live, I’ve seen their DVD a hundred times on repeat, and I get chills watching that. And it’s not complex drum grooves, it’s just playing what’s required. But to do that for 50,000 people, that sounds like a lot of fun. I might have to murder Will Champion and take that gig…okay I won’t kill him but maybe I’ll break his ankles and sub for him for 30 days.
CW: What else fills your time, and what are looking at down the road?
TZ: I get hit up all the time for drum lessons, but I don’t give drum lessons. I don’t feel like I’m that type of a teacher, or am there yet, to show you how to play a groove. The youth of today has the Internet, which I didn’t have. You couldn’t watch anything drum related online. So now there’s 10 different videos on how to play the same drum beat. But what I do get a lot of questions about is the industry, and how to survive, and how to treat yourself like a business person…how you do taxes as an independent contractor, what health insurance is like…Nobody knows about these things, and I do offer lessons for that through a company called Schoolu. You can sign up with me, do an hour lesson and we can chat about whatever you want. We can talk about what I’ve done in the past to survive in the industry, maybe some mistakes that I’ve made, and how to just live as a musician, if that’s something that people really want to do. Another thing that I’m hoping will become more prominent in my touring is this thing I’m calling “Warmups with Tyler,” where I select one drummer for every city that I’m touring in to come backstage and hangout and just do warmups with me. I warm up every day for an hour, usually a few hours before a show…I actually thought of the idea when I was at Warped Tour, warming up with a buddy of mine, and it was so much fun, just me and him on a pad, and we just kind of showed each other things. We worked on paradiddles, and flams, and it’s always nice to see what other people are working on. I thought it would be so much fun if people could just come out to me, because I’ll be on tour and I’ll have a practice pad, and I’ll have quite a bit of downtime each day–why not meet somebody new? So I offer that completely free, all they have to do is repost a photo and I’d select someone. I had a few on this last run, but for the next two months or so, I have the Kiiara tour, and I’m hoping maybe people will reach out a little bit more, and not be afraid to hang out and do some things. It’s not a skill-based thing, it’s not a lesson, it’s literally working double strokes at 40 BPM, or whatever, let’s do it. It’s going to warm me up for the show regardless, and it might make somebody else happy, and we might show each other something new. I want to learn from others; it’s the circle of life, for learning.