Q & A: Drummer Tyler Zarzeka Talks Tour Life, Modern Drumming in Pop Music, and More

I first met drummer Tyler Zarzeka on Warped Tour when he was touring with Tatiana DeMaria. In the months since he wrapped up a tour with Noah Cyrus. I caught up with him at The Sinclair in Cambridge drumming for Kiiara to talk tour life and learned some interesting lessons about the reality of being a session drummer.

Concert Crap: So how is touring with Kiiara different than touring on Warped Tour?

Tyler Zarzeka: The difference is a tour bus instead of a bandwagon, but this is what I’m used to. Similarities would be we’re in a different city every day. We know our schedule in advance on this tour. The crew is bigger in a sense, we travel with our own audio, front of house guy who’s also production manager/tour manager, our music director travels with us and he’s also the keyboardist, we have a security guard, we have assistants, wardrobe.

CC: What about audience-wise?

TZ: Tatiana’s Warped Tour audience was made up of a lot of people who had no clue who we were, so big difference for this tour is that everybody knows who we are because we’re the headliners and the audience paid money to see this artist and hear these songs, so people sing along. Her music may not be the most sing-alongable, it’s more of like a dance party. This artist’s (Kiiara’s) style is so different in comparison to Tatiana’s, she’s much more electronic, dance, pop. Tatiana was just like pop-rock, more leaning on the rock. Kiiara has her own fan base, some cities do better than others, tonight should be a good night, we’re playing smaller venues so it kind of fills out more quickly.

That was the odd man out, Warped Tour, this is what I’m used to. I’m used to a production, with a production office, where you have answers from the person that you’re dealing with. Warped Tour production was a separate entity and I didn’t know one person’s name in that office because that wasn’t my job to know and I never had to interact with them in any way. Now I have to interact with this person, my production manager and audio guys, all the time throughout the whole day. We load in our own gear, we all know the ins and outs of everyone’s job, so we’re like a team. Warped Tour was more like who’s doing what and what’s going on, it was all questions. This is all just everyone show up and do your job.

CC: Do you have a tech or are you doing it yourself?

TZ: I do not have a tech. Since I’ve been with her for so long, they’re very aware of my past of being a tech and they know that I kind of like doing stuff myself. And it’s not a lot, it’s just one drum set and it’s not even that big, it’s a lot more scaled down than my Noah Cyrus drum set, so no crew. Same with the keyboardist, he sets up his own stuff. But I think in the future, it would be nice to have a tech.

CC: Do you get a chance to walk around and explore the cities you perform in?

TZ: This is like my fourth time at The Sinclair, I’ve played here four times, but probably been to Boston ten times. I do walk around. Yesterday we stayed the night in Providence, and this morning we came in early and went straight to work; so I didn’t have the morning to explore, but once I get set up, I can walk around and do stuff. I and the keyboardist got really good ramen up the street, I got coffee after that as well at Crema Coffee, so I find times to do that. Our monitor guy doesn’t get a break to do any of those things, he has to have food delivered to him; I get him coffee, I try to be as nice as I can because I’m not doing as much work as they are. But then again, my work details are different, so I do this, work on invoices, make sure I get paid on time, make sure my back home is good and all my bills are paid, that’s my responsibility.

CC: So how do you take care of back home when you’re so far away? Do you always have access to wifi?

TZ: On Warped Tour, there was no wifi. Here there’s wifi everywhere. And we’re in major cities in the US, there’s cell service everywhere. Warped Tour was always in the middle of nowhere, they’d put us out in fields that were far away from cell phone towers. There’s also not hundreds of thousands of kids, there are only 200 kids at these shows, so cell service doesn’t drop. You can download any movie you want and just chill and relax. It’s modern touring at its finest, which is good.

CC: How do you keep up with family?

TZ: I facetime my parents if it’s an emergency or if I haven’t seen them in a long time because they’re in Sacramento and I’m in Los Angeles, so they’re not that close distance-wise, but we talk and text on the phone. I always call my mom and she tells my dad everything that I say. As far as my brothers and sisters, they’re big texters and they have busy lives themselves. I get to see my family Thanksgiving, Christmas, and then usually one other time throughout the year on tour and that’s enough for me.

During our interview, the production manager walked in with the menu from The Sinclair and asked Tyler for his meal.

CC: Do you get food at every venue or is this because The Sinclair has a restaurant?

TZ: Not always. If you do a House of Blues tour, which I’ve done, they have a restaurant inside so every day you get lunch and dinner comped. The Sinclair has a restaurant, so they’ll give us a limit of like $15 per person, but some venues like the one we played yesterday in Philly did not. So we’ll get cash instead of food sometimes on top of our per diem. I don’t know how that works, that’s the production manager’s job.

CC: Do you have any tours set up for next year?

TZ: I don’t. It’s the time of the year where everyone shuts down, no one’s booking anything. As far as Kiiara, she’s not touring anymore. Noah Cyrus is not wanting to tour as well. I have gigs with this Australian pop singer that I work for, Bobi Andonov, but no tours.

CC: How does the process of getting booked onto a tour happen?

TZ: Management will start putting out feelers and figuring out what our schedule is like. They’ll say we have a perception that tour is going to be from for example February to March, are you available. And then I’ll come back with a yes or no. I really don’t have any say in anything, I have to hope that these artists want to tour. I’m not sure Kiiara wants to tour as much as possible, but I know Noah loves touring, so I have a feeling that Noah will start up probably around March of next year since January is a downtime of the year.

CC: So how do you keep yourself busy in between tours?

TZ: It’s tough, we get paid very well while we’re out here and unfortunately I know I can’t work a “normal” 5 days a week, 40 hours a week, so this compensates for those times that I’m not working. Obviously, if small gigs come up, I’ll take anything I can just to make extra money. For the most part, I treat drumming as my 9 to 5 at home. I practice all day long or do something that’s proactive in touring, so if I have stuff that needs to be repaired, buy new things, if I need to go through and organize or sell some stuff. I don’t have another job, I don’t have a side job, no Uber or Lyft. I would just be really bummed having to do that and I don’t like sitting in my car.

I’m trying to take as many tours as I can, but there’s no way to predict what’s going to be. Next year could be the busiest year of my entire life and I will not know until I get that phone call. This is one of the issues that most people don’t understand with drummers and session musicians. The work is not constant. You could be super busy and then not be busy for a whole year.

CC: Do you also drum on the albums or are you more of just a touring drummer? Do they even need a drummer for the album?

TZ: Unfortunately, it’s all fake. There are no real drummers on records anymore because everyone wants such unique sounds that the only to do it is with a computer. It’s just the DJ pressing the space bar multiple times, copying and pasting and then adding certain sounds. With technology, these electronic drum sounds sound real, but every pop thing you hear on the radio is usually fake, there are no drummers. On Noah’s and Kiiara’s albums and EPs, there are no drummers. Same with Bobi, same with Charlie Puth, even though he sounds like a “real” musician, it’s all fake drums. He does most of that himself, as well.

The best thing about that is that I now live to have to recreate these crazy drum beats that these producers made that don’t know how to play drums, that don’t make sense sometimes, too. They can multiply and layer things, but I only have four limbs and can only do so much, so I have to wrap my brain around how do I make this sound like the record and how do I make this sound good live. So it’s fun. That’s one of the challenges of being a session drummer, is doing this kind of thing. And every session drummer will approach something a completely different way.

The show is run with a computer as well, we’re all playing to tracks. There are other stuff and percussion on top of what I’m doing, but for the most part, I’m playing live drums, acoustic drums, and electronic parts and pads throughout Kiiara’s entire show. Sometimes throughout the show, there’ll be a part that has like a shaker or tambourine, something that I can’t recreate that’s percussive because I’m already utilizing all my limbs, so that will stay in the computer and will be playing to the audience and what I’ll be playing on top of that will complement that sound. I never play anything that clashes or doesn’t make sense. Usually, if a shaker is going, I’ll play a hi-hat quietly or if there’s a weird bell thing, I’ll play with my bell on my cymbals. It’s just whatever I feel musically makes sense to them. I wish there would be more drummers in the studio like there used to be, 70s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s, it was all real.

CC: Why do they need to bring out a live drummer on tour instead of just playing the track?

TZ: Good question, I don’t know. My theory, which I feel is right, is that people like to watch a band perform. If it was just her standing up there with a microphone playing to the tracks, people would probably start falling asleep. If there’s a drummer moving and hitting everything that they heard from the records and there’s a keyboardist actually playing these weird sounds with his fingers, which we really are all doing, then it’s more exciting, there’s something to look at, the light show helps build that. So it’s just the way it works.

Other artists will have bigger bands. We have a smaller band because that’s all we really need. There’s not a lot of guitars in her songs so there’s no reason to have a guitar player. The keyboardist plays bass on his keyboard so we don’t need a bass player or else we’d have those two up there right now. Her music is just literally drums and weird sounds and her voice, that’s what we’re trying to do.

Drums are a great instrument because when bands can’t afford a bunch of band members, the last person they’re going to fire is probably the drummer before the singer because people want to watch a drummer. How could you not want to watch a drummer? I love watching drummers.

The sad thing with modern music is since we’re playing to a click and a track that’s constantly going, that’s your starting point. The computer is not going to stop and it’s not going to slow down, it’s not going to speed up, it’s not going to play the wrong notes, it’s set in stone. So I’m the anomaly now that is either going to be lagging, rushing, with the track that’s already going. So I get into it when I’m lined up with the computer for an artist like this.

When it’s a real band with a real guitar player and a real bass player, I’m meshing with them because they’re who I’m playing to. I and the bass player have to be synced mentally and physically. I get really into it, I sing along. Her music might not be what I would probably download and buy if I didn’t know her but after having to learn them and having them stuck in my head for two years, I really do enjoy her (Kiiara’s) music. She writes fantastic pop songs. So I’ll sing along. I don’t have a microphone in my face, but I still like to hum along or mouth along.

I film myself during every performance. Sometimes I’ll put those online if I feel it’s good quality, I would never want to put anything bad out. This is my job and there’s a certain vibe that I want to put out that makes people think of me a certain way.

CC: During our Warped Tour interview, you were drumming on the warm-up pad. Do you still do that?

TZ: Of course. I actually have a full drum kit now. I set it up to the inch of where my drums are onstage so when I sit down to the practice kit, it feels the same way that my real kit would. I have 4 pads, a kick drum, and a hi-hat as well. I even have a fake cymbal. So I can really just jam out if I want to. The minimum version of that would be the pad, which I do every day.

CC: Do you warm up on the bus?

TZ: If the bus is around, and nobody’s on it, then yes. I hate being annoying and I know drums are very annoying, so if I had a quiet room, I’ll do it. If I know that maybe the opener’s playing (Abir on the Kiiara tour), you’re not going to hear the pads, so I’ll do that and that’s a good time for me to warm up since it’s right before the show. If there’s no room, I just won’t do it and I’ll warm up on my leg or my shoe or just do stretches. Stretch out my shoulders, do push-ups, even just bending my wrists, anything to warm up the forearms.

CC: What about Warm Ups with Tyler?

TZ: I came up with the idea for Warm Ups with Tyler while I was on Warped. It was because I started noticing most drummers weren’t practicing or warming up at all. It got me thinking that I want to make sure that up and coming drummers don’t absorb that idea of you don’t need to practice to be on Warped Tour or any tour. The theory was I want to practice and I want the younger generation drummers to practice as well. How do I do that? So I’m going to start inviting them to the shows for free and then it’ll be a contest, I’ll choose one per city. They’ll come out, it doesn’t matter what your skill level is, just show up and we’ll practice. If you’re a beginner, we’ll do simple things and if you’re more advanced, we’ll do more difficult things. Even minimal stuff, as long as we’re warming up together, it keeps me on top of myself and also maybe teaches the drummer something new. Maybe they teach me something new. I know I’m not the greatest drummer of all time and I don’t plan on being, but every drummer and every person has something they can show each other. I just wanted to develop a community across the United States that I didn’t already have of drummer friends and just promote practicing.

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Post and photo by Karen Shalev

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