Charlie ZInterview by Sean Mitchell // August 27 2012
I can always do clinics and I do them and festival appearances if people call but I’m trying to do something a little bit more in the public psyche that would resonate a little more with normal people not just drummers.
Charlie Zelany (aka Charlie Z) is one of New York’s finest (drummers, that is). Charlie is the evil genius behind the “Drumageddon” videos and could easily be considered the busiest session drummer in the world.
Between his hectic touring schedule, which includes, among others, Jordan Rudess of Dream Theatre, and his endless stream of sessions, gigs and his own solo projects, the Z sat down with me and chitchatted about all things Charlie.
As always the transcribed print interview has been pasted below the video interview.
Charlie, let’s talk first about “Drumageddon”—for those of you living under a rock or don’t have the internet.
“Drumageddon” was a long arduous process that I was very, very happy to embark on. It was an idea I’d had for a while—to do something totally crazy and different. What happened was coming through a friend’s studio– it’s 3 Egg Studios out in Brooklyn. The studio itself is amazing. So I walked in and I said, “I’ve got to do something of my own here.” I was thinking maybe a DVD of my own, and then I checked out the hallways, and it had this really crazy Half Life/Armageddon kind of a vibe–cause you know the paint and the walls and the whole thing.
Then they showed me the roof and that’s when I said, “I’ve got to do something where I do the entire building.” There’s an elevator there; it’s a freight elevator that connects everything. I said, “I’ve got to do a drum solo—a moving drum solo.” So that was the very first thing that I did to see if I could physically do it. That was the first one I did and it came out cool. I did the eight minute drum solo up the entire building in one take as you saw. Then I had to one up myself the next time and got all the permits and all the crazy logistics together for “Drumageddon Manhattan” in the centre of Time Square.
So suffice to say, living in a city like New York, getting the permits to pull this event off—a big hassle?
It was a very difficult thing to do, but it was very cool that we could do it. We’re trying to get all five boroughs before taking other cities. So the next borough is going to be Queens at the World’s Fair, with the big unisphere, the big globe. We’re going to do a gigantic thing there, so that’s next.
Charlie, one of my favourite things about your playing—being that you are a guy that when chops are required you have that, when you’re required to lay it down, you have that—but one of the things I really like about your playing is you have an ear for melody; you’re good at melodic playing, you do some melodic drumming. How did you get into that aspect of drumming?
It’s only recently that I got into that style ‘cause I’m actually a session guy. I’ve gotten hired for more pop and rock records than I can count. I think it’s 110 records I’m on; I think I’ve played 39 states and 19 countries. I’ve played with tons of different people and that’s my gig. So this whole solo thing is a newer thing and I’m trying to still get the whole bearing on my little niche, and that’s the thing that I’m doing is this “Drumageddon” thing. The melodic drumming, I always listened to it growing up and everything, and I did a lot of underground prog and metal and Arctopus and Blotted Science, played duo with Jordan Rudess—y’know things like that which required a very high level skill set for developing the ostinato kind of stuff and crazy polyrythmic stuff—so I had the skills already from doing that for so many years. So it’s just natural to just say ok I’ll do this with my feet and my hands or I’ll be melodic and play this kind of a thing.
Charlie, you are by far the most endorsed drummer I know—18 endorsements to date. You represent them very well. A guy with your skill set, should it be obvious that your goal is to be a clinician, or where do you see your career path headed with drumming?
The 18 endorsers always want me to do things in that kind of realm. I don’t necessarily do the whole clinician thing, per se. I can; I’ve done it for Jordan. Jordan has this on-line conservatory where I’ve done full master classes, core curriculums, clinic material and play alongs, and the whole nine yards, but I kind of got away from that because I’m working so much in modern music. I’m getting hired for tons of [gigs] so I wind up going in for things and I go, “You know what? I can do this,” but my thing, I want to try to forge a new path to take, you know, something like Buddy Rich would have done if he lived today. That’s what these “Drumageddon” videos came about; and there’s something new and exciting—more performance-art based rather than just clinic stuff. I can always do clinics and I do them and festival appearances if people call, but I’m trying to do something a little bit more in the public psyche that would resonate a little more with normal people not just drummers. I could always teach drummers different courses. I have a session drummer book that I have on the back burner; I have a drum special effects course of all crazy weird techniques, like one-handed rolls and things like that, that I have on the back burner. But just there’s only so many hours in the day and those hours have been devoted to getting gigs, touring, recording, and developing another “Drumageddon” series and my solo album and all that.
Charlie, you had the opportunity to go to Drum Channel and you of course jammed Terry Bozzio during the drum jams. How cool is that to be interviewed and getting to jam with Terry Bozzio?
I had a gig the night before in LA at the Knitting Factory, then I rented a car and drove myself up to Oxnard where the DW factory is, played that whole thing, had the interview, had a photo shoot, jumped back in the car, ran to San Francisco and gigged that night cause that was the only time I could do it—on that one day which was absolutely insane and absurd. [Terry’s] son actually introduced me to him. Raanen’s actually his son and he’s a great drummer from Austin. He almost actually incidentally got the Dillinger Escape Plan gig; he was auditioning and everything. Great player, really cool kid and he’s a really big fan of some of my older work, like The Underground prog metal stuff, and introduced me to his father, Terry. Terry was flipping ‘cause he hasn’t heard music this complex in a long time, and so he wanted to have me out to play. I said “Oh, are we going to play you with the big kit?” He said, “No, you have the big kit, I’ll have the smaller kit cause then I’ll be able to feature you instead of having everyone look at my kit. I walked in and it’s a really amazing pro operation. Terry is super cool, very, very laid back. He goes, “Oh, do you need some help setting that up?” The hi-hat wasn’t in the right place. “I’m really good at this; let me come over here and move the hi-hat for you.” This is Terry Bozzio. I have his video—the old VHS of the Ostinato video sitting behind me. So he was really cool.
Don Lombardi was amazing; the whole team was really pro. There were a couple of times where I am like a kid in a candy store, but when it got down to drumming it was real serious business ‘cause we’re playing, we’re playing, we’re playing. Terry is amazing, but Terry can play stuff that is absolutely inhuman by himself. So there were a couple of times that I had to be like, “Hey man, I’m still here.” Everything you heard in that was completely improvised. We literally just sat down and just started going, and that was one full hour of tape and that was just some of the parts. The interview was the same thing, we just talked about everything and that was it.
Now one of the things that I noticed, Charlie, about the jam itself, there were points where both you and Terry were sort of shedding back and forth and playing some really cool stuff – but within your playing I could see a definite maturity. I think sometimes players who are that accomplished with their chops can tend to let that get in the way of just four on the floor or just kind of a meat and potatoes type groove thing. But one thing I do notice about your playing, and even when Terry would take a solo, was you were so easy to just sit back and let him have some space and lay down a really, really solid groove. Where do you think that maturity comes from in your playing?
I grew up listening to rock music like Pearl Jam, Sound Garden, and all the grunge stuff. There was all sorts of 80s pop early on, so I always had these influences early on—the classical jazz; the pop music; the rock stuff; got into metal; got into Dream Theatre, big time in high school; in college I put on tons and tons of big productions which links back to the “Drumageddon” production mentality of everything. The main scenario of learning how to do that was a very conscious decision very, very early on.
I have to give props to … Modern Drummer was actually one of the reasons. I was in high school, and I was playing drums in a couple of friends’ projects. I read about a session drummer and what that was in Modern Drummer. My little fourteen-year-old self said, “I want to do that. I want to be the guy who gets to play everything with anyone all the time and doesn’t have to put up with all this stuff that a band has to put up with.” That’s what I was telling my friends in high school: “Hey man I’m not in your band; I’m just a session guy.” I wasn’t getting paid at the time but I was in everyone’s band; I was in the talent show and everybody’s project: I played with the country singer; I played with the dance troup; I played with the pop band; I played with the rock band; I did the loud metal thing; I did my own solo. It was like I was the hired gun back in high school, and I carried that over many, many years later to doing this.
I think Steve Gadd—you know everyone knows that Steve Gadd is one of the top session guys—he learned early on that it’s not just about the chops; it’s about groove, pocket, and making sure you keep on getting hired. All this stuff actually stems from “I want to get hired for the next gig and I want other people to keep on hiring me.” The “Drumageddon” stuff is cool. I love doing it; I’m going to do it forever. And the same thing with the solo album and the Drumistics stuff, but my two and four is pocket and it puts money in your pocket. All the pop gigs, I’m playing disco beats nowadays—a lot of the same upbeat hi-hat stuff, four on the floor. Disco beats is dance pop music. A lot of dance pop hires me right now. I did a lot of groove stuff. I’ve done Latin stuff – you got to learn your clave and Latin beats and everything—a lot of records (a lot of pop and singer songwriter records), learned how to play brushes. Everything needs to be done to a click. That’s another thing that’s one of my secrets: covering the click; every single gig that I’m on I’m on click. Even the “Drumageddon” videos, that’s on click because I had to time everything out exactly to a second. Everything was timed, so I needed to hit this mark by this time, this mark by this time. Everything is on click no matter what – that’s how it has to be. That’s how modern music is. So groove, pocket, that’s number one; that’s how you get hired to keep on playing—and learning when to lay back, when you let the guitars solo, when you let the singer. If they say, “Hey, be quiet, be softer,” you’re being quiet and softer.
Charlie, you are of course one of the main drummers for Jordan Rudess’ project. Jordan is the keyboard player for Dream Theatre. What led to that union, and can we expect some more stuff from you guys in the future?
When I went to college, I went to this place called Drew University out in Jersey. They didn’t have a jazz program and at the time they didn’t have a jazz band—they had nothing. So I walked in and I asked the music department, “Can you let me create you a jazz program?” And they said, “Hey, that’s cool.” So I got funding through the school, the whole nine yards. There was a jazz orchestra, a jazz big band, four combos (one was a funk rock combo, another one was a pop combo), two jazz vocal groups.
Each semester I would put on a big concert for a ton of kids that came out. I’m using all the kids at the school and a couple of outside ringers and every time I would do something different and crazy. The last semester I actually mounted the first five songs from Scenes from a Memory with a full live cast, live band, and a set and staging and the whole thing. I reached out to Mike Portnoy, I reached out to Jordan—found their info on-line. They responded back saying they wanted to come and see it. They didn’t wind up coming to see it but I sent them the video afterwards. They loved it and we got on very quickly.
Then Jordan eventually asked me to hang out at his house a couple of times and then started to hire me to do different things. I wrote for his magazine. I did the on-line conservatory: I did a bunch of video stuff for him there, I did a whole core curriculum, I did a master class curriculum, I did a bunch of play alongs, and I did drum transcriptions. Then out of the blue he goes, “Hey, I need you to be my Rod Morgenstein. He can’t do the Japan tour. Do you want to do it?” The answer is, “Yes, I’ll do whatever it is.” I only had two weeks, so I had to really buckle down and memorize all that crazy proggy fusion stuff he does, which is insane. I had to memorize it ‘cause you can’t just go in there and sight read that stuff. So I did that and I’ve recorded a bunch of other stuff with him. I think he wants me on the next record which is cool. He keeps on hiring me over the years. He is so busy with Dream Theatre; it’s insane. He is Dream Theatre now that Portnoy’s left.
A huge thank you to Charlie Z! You can stay up to date on all of Charlie’s projects by visiting him online at http://www.charliezeleny.com/
About the Author
Sean has 15 years experience behind the kit, studying under greats like Mitch Dorge and participating in master classes with Dom Famularo and Zoro. It was these life-changing exchanges that prompted the Canadian-born drummer to create a global drumming community, The Black Page, that was easily accessible to drummers of all backgrounds and levels of expertise. In addition to his work with BP, Sean is one-half of the world soul group The Mitchells.
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