Derek Roddy: Welcome To The Jungle

Derek Roddy

Making it in music means making ends meet. It’s a mouthful that demands repeating, a mantra that blastbeat drummer Derek Roddy drives home during the 50-odd clinics he teaches each year. A successful drummer must do more than simply follow the beat of his heart — wanting it isn’t enough. What happens when the tour buses, stadium sellouts, and bottomless pockets never come?

Worshipped in metal circles around the world for his frightening speed and near-flawless delivery, in 2006 Roddy was forced to put an end to touring for peanuts. He was always broke when he returned from the road. Bills piled up. He’d recently gotten married and needed backup, something that allowed him to play drums and make money. Because, as he pointed out at a clinic last March in New Mexico, life is not a soundcheck. Second chances don’t exist.

Timing, precision, endurance — these qualities, Roddy has discovered, somewhat ironically, matter more to the drummer’s business considerations than his physical role behind the kit. Yet these traits, paramount as they are, don’t usually hold up in the face of management misfires, bickering bandmates, and the other countless factors pushing back against your passion. The business of drumming, Roddy argues, depends on making another choice rather than a different choice: Stick with the drums, but temper your expectations. Paint with more colors. Be the artist who dreams big and can still sleep at night.

Consider Derek Roddy an intrepid reporter rather than some doom-and-gloom preacher. Having been in and out of a dozen bands and worked the jobs others wouldn’t, he’s approaching 40 years of spreading his wings across a musical landscape diminishing by the day.

“All the bands that I’m known for playing with, I never made enough to where I would ever be able to sustain my lifestyle if I was doing it, which was the whole reason I quit to begin with,” he says. “And it wasn’t because I didn’t love the music, or still don’t love playing or doing any of that. It’s just I can’t do it and live.”

Roddy’s first taste of this bitter truth arrived when he left South Carolina for Florida in 1996 to support death-metal outfit Malevolent Creation. Most of the musicians Roddy met along the way made their real money either flipping burgers, dealing drugs, or tending bar, he realized. This touring life afforded exposure and gratification, but little in the way of economic incentive and growth. Good thing he’d worked behind the counter as a music-shop sales clerk for almost 20 years. Retail closed some of his financial gaps, but it wasn’t enough. And when he met and married Halle, a psychologist, covering the bills back home commanded his attention more than ever.

“It was just like a vicious flushing toilet that I just couldn’t get out of. And I just had to say, ‘You know what? Enough,’” he says. “Really, music has nothing to do with touring. If it’s really for the music, then touring does not matter. It’s irrelevant.”

{pagebreak}

Feeding The Beast

As the band’s conductor and metronome, the drummer exhibits more versatility than he or she often realizes, something essential to ensuring a steady paycheck. Roddy explains that this might mean moonlighting at the local drum shop, or coaching budding drummers on perfecting their chops. Maybe it’s running sound or lights for the opening band at the next gig. More daring drummers might take up another instrument, like guitar. Roddy has.

“Learning another instrument is going to kill a bunch of birds with one stone,” he advises. “And you don’t have to be a virtuoso, but you could write. Then, if you can write, that means that you can get publishing credit on the records that you’re on.”

Roddy penned a book, The Evolution Of Blast Beats, in 2007, and recently released a companion DVD on extreme-metal drumming. As a child he learned the ropes of recording and production early on from his family in Columbia, South Carolina, where he practically grew up in a recording studio. His brother played guitar; his cousin was a bassist; mom played piano; and Roddy’s father, a singer and guitarist, charted a country hit in the ’80s. Randy Roddy was determined to keep music in the family, and bought five-year-old Derek his first kit.

“I beat the s__t out of everything in the house, and my dad figured it was a good idea to maybe put some drums under me,” Roddy laughs. It was. He learned his first licks from Donna Summer’s disco records, and later embraced Southern-rock fixtures like Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Though he’s hailed as one of metal’s drum gods, Roddy honed jazz and Latin chops years before he discovered and then reset the bar for blastbeat playing.

By nine, Roddy was performing with his brother — twice his age — at the clubs around town. In high school he joined thrash-metal band Deboning Method, and would spend the next two decades backing an assortment of groups, including Hate Eternal, Malevolent Creation, and Nile.

Sometime during the late ’90s, between struggling to find consistent cash and secure work, Roddy discovered that no drummer had ever tackled the extreme-metal style at any clinic he’d attended. Once he quit the road, Roddy was determined to become the first. While these regular clinics afford him the chance to play while educating up-and-coming drummers, Roddy’s lifestyle requires doing much more to feed the beast.

“People aren’t thinking about this stuff, so that’s part of my quest, is to find out what it is about people that makes them not want to learn how to do a bunch of different things,” Roddy says. “Learn another trade. That way you can kind of do both. For me, it’s breeding snakes.”

Derek Roddy

Hatch Job

It’s hard enough to spot a snake these days, let alone catch one. Florida’s insatiable appetite for perpetual development has sent more species slithering into endangered territory. It keeps guys like Roddy, a reptile lover since childhood, busy in this barren area of Deerfield Beach, sandwiched between the I-95 corridor and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s here where inspiration often hatches, a place near home where the drummer pulls back his long, dark curls, and searches in solitude.

“I can go out and snake-watch for a day, and spend four or five hours outside just walking through the grass and looking under logs and stumps and stuff for reptiles, and putting together an entire album in my head,” he says. “Any snake I find, I stop and look, take some pictures, and let it on its way.”

Yet during Florida’s breeding season (rain rarely falls here between March and June) Roddy keeps as many as 200 or 300 snake eggs in his incubator, located at the other end of his aptly named Aspidities Room recording studio (Aspidities, Latin for “shield bearer,” is the genus classification for Roddy’s favorite breeding species, the black-headed python). It houses everything he loves under the same roof. Most visitors inquire about Roddy’s snakes and miss out on the impressive array of microphones, consoles, and other drumming equipment piled throughout the place. Snake watching and breeding bit him at a young age, and to this day the trade nets Roddy more than half his annual income.

Roddy also allows the Internet to work for him. He makes recordings of his instrumental project, Serpents Rise, available to fans at no charge through derekroddy.com, and offers brief drum lessons via YouTube for $1.99 a piece.

Fans can’t order a T-shirt, says Roddy, which means they’ll usually support your art and come back for more as long as you’re making it available to them.

“I really don’t consider the Internet or free music a problem, ’cause I was never misguided enough to think that I could make my living from playing drums alone,” he laughs. “Up until the last 50 years or so, music was always free,” Roddy adds. “It was something we did for communicating with tribes across valleys, it was what we did to heal our souls when a death of a loved one occurred or when a birth occurred. It brought community. How did we ever think that was going to be different? I don’t care what anybody says, from here on out, music is free. It always was. And I think we were very naive to think that we could capitalize on art like that, something that’s meant for healing.”

While he offers free music, Roddy, 38, appears to be the first and only drummer to engage fellow musicians via an online forum. His Web site offers a home for musicians to wax about their day jobs as tattoo artists, short-order cooks, university professors, and company heads. They swap stories about record-label experiences, trade tips on technique, and even debate the topic of public image. And it gets personal. When forum chatters once accused Roddy’s polo-shirt-and-slacks look of conflicting with the typical metal persona, he retorted, “I’ve never been any different, and if you let a color of a T-shirt define you, I’m not the one with a problem.”

Hiss.

{pagebreak}

Clinical Delivery

Spring Break was off to a great start for Roddy superfan Gabe Gose. His idol was in town, and the New Mexico State University grad student planned to capture every moment of the March 18 Derek Roddy clinic. Gose spent the days leading up to the event posting fliers all over Las Cruces. They screamed: “Please come! Even if you’ve never held a drum stick! You’ll be thankful!”

Remember, no drummer had ever before traveled to clinics across the country to break down the aspects of playing extreme metal. So the metalheads weren’t the only ones from this city of retirees to take notice when Roddy came to town. That Friday evening, music fans of all ages, from preschoolers to baby boomers, packed the university’s band room. “It’s not every day that you see a ruffled, long-haired teen in a Cannibal Corpse shirt seated next to a man in his late forties in khakis and a polo flanked by his wife and infant son,” says Gose.

Three feet from Roddy’s kit stands the student, armed with his video camera and tripod, anticipating the drummer’s arrival.

“I am having a brutal, brutal, allergy attack right now,” Roddy announces as he takes the stage. “So if you see my nose dripping up here, it’s all part of the show.”

Those in the crowd laugh, and it’s off — several minutes of sinus-clearing percussive power rattles the classroom as Gose documents every moment of Roddy’s ferocity.

“I have been listening to this guy’s playing for 16 years,” Gose reflects three days later, “and he still scared the crap out of me. In a genre like death metal, where drummers often rely on triggers and beat-correction to achieve inhuman levels of volume, speed, and accuracy, Derek showed me why he stands out from the pack.”

Roddy often advises drummers to listen to their playing as if they’re in the audience. He shares this message with tonight’s clinic, and explains why listening matters more than anything when it comes to developing and improving style, speed, and accuracy.

“Drumming to me is 90 percent mental,” Roddy tells them. “I think if you can hear it first in your head, you’re already a step ahead of the game. For me, the majority of my practice routine isn’t even behind the drum set.”

Those who have recorded and toured with Roddy confirm this claim. John Storemski met Roddy in high school, and the two later played together in Deboning Method and, most recently, Traumedy.

“When Derek tells people that there are no shortcuts in drumming, that hard work and time spent is the only way, he’s not kidding — and I’ve seen it in action,” says Storemski. “What always impressed me about Derek was his work ethic. While most of my friends were focused on getting trashed, Derek would be at the practice shed all hours of the night, blasting away all by himself. It was nice to know that on a Friday at three or four in the morning, I could go down there and make some noise with Derek.”

Though Roddy was dubbed some time ago as “One Take,” the drummer admits that he cannot solely credit practice for his flawless blastbeats.

“I’m the worst about practicing,” he laughs. “I didn’t start practicing as a drummer until probably about four or five years ago. I was too busy playing, bro. I was too busy being in bands. I didn’t have time to practice. How many times do you say to yourself, ‘I’m going to go practice,’ and you go to the warehouse and you play the same stuff you’ve been playing for ten years?”

Back at the clinic, Roddy follows his thunderous performance with some laid-back Q&A and conversation. He’s a no-b.s. musician who for years has made it his business to discuss the underpinnings of a steady music career. To sustain the life and cash flow, you’ve got to open your eyes to some additional things you’d like to accomplish, he says. Guys like Dave Weckl and Dave Grohl have done it. So can you.

Roddy then informs his crowd of synesthesia, a cognitive condition wherein one’s senses cross paths — some people have reported tasting color, for instance. For Roddy, the perception of drum sounds presents itself as a color scheme — he senses his hi-hat as yellow, while the snare emanates orange and the bass drum burns with blue. Other musicians who claim to have experienced synesthesia include Duke Ellington, Lady Gaga, and John Coltrane’s drummer, Elvin Jones.

Derek Roddy

Get Off The Throne

News flash: The house guys would rather be smoking out back than running your cable and board. Want to pocket few extra bucks? Try offering your services to the opening band, says Roddy. You stand to make a name for yourself as either a sound or lights operator, or as the guy who shoots great YouTube-ready video. Most bands can’t afford their own stagehand or roadies to travel with them, which opens the door for you to enhance their stage presence. Somebody’s got to help them look and sound their best. Why not you?

“The moment somebody says, ‘Hey, man, you guys sounded great tonight,’ then they can justify giving you that extra money every day,” says Roddy.

And if you ever graduate from that van to a tour bus, make sure your tour stops make sense. Roddy recalls when a month-long tour stretched into six weeks because of poor planning, which meant being stuck on the road and not getting paid. And there’s also a fine line between being successful and accessible — over-gigging in the same cities and towns can work against you, and lose its luster for even your most dedicated base.

Roddy cautions that the business of drumming is often out of your control. Passion and the love of doing it just might make you rich. But even some of the bigger names out there struggle to string together regular gigs and make the rent.

“There really is no glass ceiling in music,” Roddy points out. “It’s a steel ceiling, or a cement ceiling. It’s hard to break through. I know guys literally that have Grammy nominations hanging on their walls that can’t afford to get their cars running out of the driveway. That’s not to say that there aren’t successful people, too. But that’s the exception, not the rule.”

Derek Roddy lives to inspire drummers everywhere to recognize that there’s more at your fingertips than drum sticks. Other opportunities exist that might help you earn a living while following the beat of your heart. Because this business of drumming begins long before you roll out of bed and ends well after last call. It demands rigorous adaptation and nurturing the things you can control. And it’s only as solid as the support it gets from those outside forces — managers, egos, bills, relationships — that often disrupt and resist more than they encourage and embrace growth.

Your life as a drummer is yours to incubate. Hatch at your own risk, and on your own terms.

“The greatest satisfaction I get from breeding,” Roddy offers, “is creating a new look or type of animal, and just the overall feeling of watching something with millions of years of history hatch out of an egg right in front of you. It’s the coolest thing,” he laughs. “It’s a lot like creating living art.”

Roddy’s Top 5 Career Boosters

1. Get Versatile: Break out the crayons and paint with as many colors as possible.
2. Get Multitasking: Learn to run sound, lights, and video for the opening bands.
3. Get Teaching: Advertise lessons and help get budding drummers on their way.
4. Get Writing: Earn publishing credit (and royalties) for assisting with the band’s songwriting.
5. Get Strumming: Ever picked up a guitar? Strap one on and learn a new instrument.