How I Got Here — The Prelude To An Aspiring Drummer’s Career
My earliest memories as they pertain to percussion and drums involve going to my Dad’s rehearsal sessions with his old band, Trial By Life, in my hometown of Battle Creek, Michigan. I had zero understanding of drumming at the time, but the aggressive ambience that spilled from his guitarist’s garage, my grandmother’s basement, and the stage floor at Planet Rock no doubt instilled in me a subconscious learning curve that taught me what a “sick groove” sounds like. I’d been going to TBL shows for as long as I could remember, usually front row, most often paying attention to what my Dad was doing behind the kit. I have few memories of me actually sitting down at that 7-piece orange Pearl to attempt to hash out the newly formed impulse that I had to hit things in musical sequence, but my drumming career didn’t really begin to take shape until I got my own kit at age 10.
It was a red First Act toy set that my Dad literally got out of the dumpster. He noticed a friend of the family in possession of the kit at the time, eager to toss it in the trash. My Dad must’ve caught on to my newfound interest in percussion, because he offered to take the set off their hands. We set it up in my room, I sat down and he said, “Play something.” I had no idea what to do, how or why, I just did it. I busted into a basic 4/4 groove at typical Green Day tempo, at which point he suggested that I could maybe start a little slower. I surprised myself. I didn’t know how I’d just played what I did, but it was enough for me to say to myself, “Ok, yes, I can do this.”
From that point, the trajectory of my life completely shifted. My former interests in superhero movies and first person shooters became more and more limited, I started really listening to music instead of just hearing it, and I stopped caring about going into the military when I grew up. I wanted to be a drummer… or something. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do until later that year when I walked into the living room and saw Dream Theater’s live DVD, Score, playing on the TV. I remember being really captivated by the performance of the band, the back-and-forth interaction with the crowd, and the overall expertise of the players behind their instruments. I paid special attention to Mike Portnoy and the “Albino Monster” kit, as he called it, which he navigated flawlessly throughout the near 3 hour performance. By the time they reached the 24-minute-long epic, “Octavarium,” I knew what I wanted to do as a drummer. I needed to get there, somehow.
The next few years I spent practicing along to early Green Day and Linkin Park records, along with any Chevelle that I could manage to keep up with without a double-pedal. My Dad gave me a few crash courses on set up and tuning, and I picked up a couple rudimentary skills from middle school band, but my progression as a drummer was mostly based on self-teaching at that point in time. Over the years, drums became much more than a hobby. It was an obsession; an escape. A way for me to vent the frustrations of middle school life and get lost in the music.
When we moved to Colorado at age 13, I set up my kit in the living room, and kept practicing, day in and day out. The more I practiced, the more I realized all that I still had left to learn. When everyone found out the new kid at school could play drums, it almost made me cool… for like, a hot minute. But I didn’t really care about that. My focus was still on just trying to be the best drummer that I could and progressing my career. The next big step for me was my second drum set that I got for my 14th birthday: a black four piece Sound Percussion student kit. I’ll admit that I was slightly disappointed that I still only had two toms to work with and was far from the “Albino Monster,” but I decided to just be grateful for the fact that I had drums that could sort of hold a tune now.
Single pedal was getting old. As I grew older, I became more interested in heavier, faster and more complex music. Joey Jordison became my new #1 influence — no pun intended. My Dad stressed that I wasn’t ready for a double-pedal yet, and regardless of whether he was right or not… let’s just say that I disagreed. I secretly asked my Grandmother that following year for a singular 15th birthday present. On January 12th, 2014, I opened up a DW 3000 series double pedal. I could tell my parents were somewhat dismayed that I had disobeyed them; they had this look of, “Oh God, what did we get ourselves into?” My defiant teenage self couldn’t care less. Avenged Sevenfold, Slipknot and Dream Theater became the new norm for my daily practice sessions, and the whole neighborhood was gonna hear it whether they liked it or not.
In addition to my progression on drumset, high school provided new opportunities for me to expand upon my knowledge and skills to some degree. I started playing in jazz band and met up with some like-minded individuals who I would often warm-up with by rehearsing Green Day covers; I joined marching band, eager to play snare drum but stuck on bass drum by way of paying “freshman year dues;” and I also joined my first official rock band with some of the upperclassmen. We were called Break Against the Day, and we essentially played a mix of hard rock, metalcore and punk rock. It was awesome… until everybody graduated and I was still a sophomore. Oh well.
Despite my interest in more aggressive forms of music like metal and punk, I also dabbled in worship music by playing drums for my church youth group. I of course eventually grew out of youth group for a slew of different reasons, but it was fun while it lasted, and taught me a lot about how things operate for a full band on stage. I also procured my third — and current — drum set from my church youth group not long after leaving: a white 5-piece Pearl Export. Finally, three toms! By sophomore year, I was also finally allowed to take on snare and tenor duties off and on for marching band, despite not having enough band members to formulate an actual drumline anymore. The drumline — or lack thereof — essentially became my new “band,” which was also fun while it lasted, but I still wasn’t really doing what I wanted to do with my abilities as a drum set player.
In my junior year of high school, I almost got that shot. To avoid pointing fingers and changing the subject of the story, let’s just say that I got into the right band with the wrong people. Our soon-to-be bass player caught me walking through the halls at school with a Korn shirt on and told me he was looking to start a nu metal band. My first and only real thought was, Ok, I like nu metal. Sure. We found a guitar player and started jamming in my parents’ basement. This was the first time in my life where I felt like I was in a band that was really going somewhere in terms of songwriting, the first time I thought that I was in the band that might make my dreams come true. But, I still had a long way to go before then.
We were called Put To Rights, a name that no one was entirely sold on, mainly because it was put together in a rush so we could play at the high school talent show… which should’ve been the first sign that I was in fact not in the right band. Maybe it was just my own ego and overly-ambitious angry teenage drummer boy attitude doing the talking, but I never wanted to play that show, let alone play for a crowd of people who I felt didn’t like me very much. The feeling was mutual. The last thing I wanted not just for myself as a drummer, but for the career of the band, was to be remembered as a “high school talent show band.” That’s exactly what we became. For reasons that I still don’t entirely understand, we won the talent show as an instrumental 3-piece, but I was still far from satisfied. At that point, I felt like now I only had more incentive to one day “make it” for real, so as not to be remembered as just that band that won the talent show once.
Later that year, we found a vocalist to complete our lineup. Once he started putting lyrics to our songs, I began feeling somewhat more confident in being able to go out and play real shows. Likewise, we ended up doing the same thing my senior year: Put To Rights at the Vista Ridge High School Talent Show (with a singer this time)! No one listened to me when I said, “Guys, we already won this once. What makes you think they’re gonna let us do this again? Can’t we just skip it?” But, I knew there was no way I was getting out of this after how “well” round one went during my junior year. Nevertheless, we played the show, took home the silver, and I tried not to set my kit on fire when I got home. I wasn’t angry because we got 2nd place; I couldn’t have cared less about the stupid talent show. I was angry because I felt like we were wasting our potential as a band; we were putting ourselves in a box that no one wanted to acknowledge was there. In my opinion, playing for a crowd of school staff and parents and friends of other performers that were obligated to show up was far from playing a real show with real fans. I’d heard the phrase many times before at this point: “Everyone’s gotta start somewhere.” But at this point, I hadn’t even considered our career to have started at all. We needed to bring things to the next level. NOW.
The first real Put To Rights show took place in February of 2017, at Sunshine Studios in Colorado Springs, Colorado. It was time to put our money where our mouths were. Everyone was so nervous, including myself. But, after years of playing in school ensembles, I’d learned how to handle stage fright. All I knew was that I was about to get my first real shot at doing something great. I didn’t care if the stage was small, I didn’t care if we were the opener, and I didn’t care if the audience didn’t care, because we were going to make them. Walking onto that stage was the best feeling that I had ever known up to that point in my life. We were finally going to do it.
It’s hard to say that we did anything more than completely choke. We were having sound problems all throughout, most of us hardly moved around on stage, and the last song of our set got cut for time, so we ended on our softest and least aggressive song. I didn’t care. Not enough to quit at least. This was still a million times better than some stupid talent show. And even with all the shortcomings of that show, we still managed to impress people with our intensity and musicianship. We were far from Dream Theater’s level, but we still had something to show, and that’s exactly what we did. Suffice to say, the audience was still surprised when the sound guy announced after our set that this was our first show. I thought we were just getting started. It was a nice thought, but unrealistic.
Over the course of the next year, we played a small handful of shows in the Springs, bouncing back and forth between Sunshine and The Black Sheep. People were slowly beginning to pay attention, instead of just disregarding us as those “damn kids trying to play nu metal in 2017.” We even managed to land a show with one of our biggest influences, Islander, at The Black Sheep during the summer of that year. That was probably our highest moment, and I didn’t want to believe it, but our potential didn’t go far beyond that. Despite the miniscule — but valuable — amount of success that we were beginning to see, there were far too many internal problems in the band that would allow us to keep going.
While I pushed for more ambitious and mature song material, the rest of the band began slowly losing drive and energy after our bassist and I graduated high school. After graduation, my family moved to another part of the Springs to a different house, with a much different neighborhood dynamic. The new basement rehearsal space just wasn’t the same. Personal struggles amongst the four of us manifested into unshakable tension in the band, and our inability and unwillingness to properly communicate with each other eventually led to our downfall. Personally, I was fed up. No one took the band seriously anymore, no one took me seriously anymore, and I felt like I was being used. I was merely filling a role in the band that the other members felt was more of a hindrance than an aid, so I decided to test that theory. I’d had enough of being picked on for listening to anything other than nu metal; enough of the internal and external drama that was still following the band around from high school; enough of being bullied into doing things that I didn’t want to do. I quit PTR in April of 2018. Not long afterward, I heard that the band had dissolved entirely, about which I felt more satisfaction than sorrow. I could finally move on with my life and find the right band for a change.
It was a difficult adjustment period. There were definitely times where I questioned whether I had made the right decision or not; times where I became so frustrated to not have an outlet that I could use to express myself in live performance anymore. But I kept practicing, I kept believing in myself, and I refused to give up.
In November of that year, I went to a show at the Broadmoor World Arena with my Dad where Breaking Benjamin and Five Finger Death Punch were co-headlining. While traversing the merch tables in between sets, I noticed the dreaded blue VR Wolves logo from my high school in the crowd. I instinctively moved to cover my face to avoid being recognized, but then I saw who was wearing the hoodie. It was one of my upperclassmen friends from my early high school days, Nathan Meredith, who I hadn’t seen in years. I was instantly hit with flashbacks of us and our friends talking about metal music, playing hacky sack, and even jamming with Break Against the Day a couple times… with Nate on guitar.
I made my way over to him and got straight to the point:
(1) “It’s nice to see you!”
(2) “Do you remember Ian Hopkins?”
(3) “He and I are trying to start a band and we need a second guitarist. You in?”
Ian was another one of my upperclassmen friends from back in the day, one of the guys I met in jazz band and started jamming Holiday with every day. He was working at the local Guitar Center shop, where I used to go to pretty frequently, and told me not long after I quit PTR that he was looking to start something. He knew that I was a good drummer, and I considered him to be even better at guitar than I was at drums, so it was a no-brainer. Nate also found himself not thinking twice when I told him we needed a second guitar player, and long story short, we had our first two songs written by New Years.
This was more like it. No more fighting, no more name-calling, no more doubts, no more talent shows, just passion, hard work and a little bit of talent. We started writing music that really meant something to all of us, and was already far superseding anything I’d ever done up until that point, even without a bassist or a singer. There was no more genrefying; if it sounded cool, it was part of the next song… and the next song… and the next song. Over the next year and a half we compiled over an album’s worth of material, all without losing a single official member or getting into a single real fight. It was strange. It was incredible. I almost felt uncomfortable knowing that it really was possible to play music with like-minded, mature individuals in a great band that wasn’t afraid to push the envelope. It was time to put something to tape. But first, we needed to complete our lineup.
We started putting out ads and asking friends of friends to play bass and/or sing for us, but nothing was really working. Eventually, we decided to put out a demo in Winter of 2020, in the hopes of recruiting additional band members. We put three of our songs on the demo: “I’m All I’ve Got,” “Broken to the Bone,” and an instrumental track temporarily dubbed, “Untitled.” Ian recorded bass, and I recorded vocals for the first two songs, both of which I had written lyrics for. This was pushing me far beyond my comfort zone as a drummer, especially after having already tried my hand at lyric writing and singing backups in my previous band and essentially getting spat on by my bandmates. My vocal abilities were very limited, as I hadn’t sung consistently since I was a kid, and only just began seriously practicing vocals again in the year and a half prior to recording the demo, but I didn’t care. I didn’t want to be the singer for the band. I still wanted to be the Mike Portnoy of the band; the Jimmy Sullivan of the band; the Joey Jordison of progressive metal. But I stepped up anyway because we needed a singer and we needed some sort of example so that someone out there could get an idea of what we were looking for in a lead vocalist. Plus, I’d been told many times before that experimenting with other instruments, even my own voice, would inevitably make me a better drummer.
I was relieved to hear that my two bandmates were not only happy with my performance, but impressed. So was the guy who showed up to our first vocalist audition. We inducted our fearless leader, Jeremy Richards, into the band before winter even ended. The only spot left to fill was bass.
Not long before moving to Fort Collins for college, I’d decided I’d had enough of my old job and started delivering sandwiches with Ian at the Jimmy John’s that he worked at in the Springs. That’s where I met the final and most chaotic counterpart of our band, Xander Grendel. I’d heard… a lot about this guy from Ian and Nate; about his tendency to attack music with a stark combination of reckless abandon and focused vehemence, as he did with all aspects of life. He didn’t disappoint. After helping him break into his own car one day after work — which he frequently locked himself out of, to my amusement — I slowly began convincing him to come jam with us.
Finally, we had a full lineup. I finally felt like I was in the right band with the right guys at the right time making the right music. It was the closest I’d ever felt to finally achieving that “rock drummer” dream that I’d had for the last eleven years. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic was in full swing at this point, and there was no chance of us playing shows any time soon. But there was absolutely nothing stopping us from beginning the recording process for our debut album. I felt like by that point, I’d become a capable enough drummer to write the parts that I wanted to write and be able to execute them in a way that other drummers would be able to respect and possibly even admire, as I have admired all my favorite drummers. I was that much closer to becoming one of them; to finally be at that level that I’d been working so hard for so long to achieve.
Since summer of last year, my band, Cell 23, has been recording our first album by way of trial and error 100% by ourselves. No producer, no record label, nothing beyond five guys with a dream… a dream that I fully believe in my heart is soon to be realized.