What Does it Take to Succeed in Music?
Charlie Zeleny is a drummer, music director, and producer who has toured 41 US states, 20 countries, and has played on 135+ records.
He also became popular with his nonstop eight-minute drum solo called “Drumageddon,” which he performed in one continuous take, walking from one location to another within a Brooklyn, New York building, playing drums placed throughout different floors, halls, and elevators within the building.
Charlie has played in duos with Jordan Rudess from Dream Theater and has performed drum duet work with Terry Bozzio for The Drum Channel. He has also been featured on MTV, VH1, E!, XM &, Sirius Satellite Radio, Oxygen TV, The View, AOL Sessions, The CBS Morning Show, WPIX, NFL Network, on Tone Maker DJ Ringtone Creator featuring Method Man and Cee Lo Green, and has played at The Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Metlife Stadium, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Irving Plaza, Iridium Jazz Club, The Bowery Ballroom, Six Flags Mainstage, Avatar Recording Studios, Sony Music Studios, Highline Ballroom, Cove City Sound Studios, BB Kings Jazz & Blues Club, Z100’s Zootopia Concert at the Izod Center, and The Knitting Factory NYC & LA.
Charlie is also a member of the Sick Drummer Magazine “Hall of Fame” and listed in Blender Magazine as “One of the Best Drummers of All Time.”
We spoke with Charlie about his work, and he revealed some little-known facts about what it takes to become a session musician beyond the music…
Charlie, you studied with Tommy Igoe, Nick Scheuble, and Joe Bergamini, all really well-known accomplished musicians. As a drummer, would you say the film Whiplash is an accurate portrayal of your schooling?
I would say it’s similar to my personal experience. Whiplash was a powerful and visceral movie that touched me deeply, especially as a drummer and musician who had to really work hard to hone his craft.
Each of my teachers in grade school, middle school, and high school, plus some some of my private teachers, had attributes similar to the intensity of the JK Simmons character in the movie. They all shared a deep passion for their craft, and that passion sometimes was conveyed in positive ways and other times in negative ways.
When I was young, I had a naturally good sound and feel for the drums, but had an attitude and ego that far surpassed my technical abilities at the time. When more negative reinforcement was used, it was absolutely necessary to get through my closed-mindedness and allow me to see where my skill was at in reality, rather than where I thought my skill level was.
I’ve been in situations where teachers would angrily throw the conducting baton from 20 feet across the room narrowly [missing] my head, sticking [it] into the wall when the other drummers and I weren’t paying attention. I’ve been in other situations where teachers would get angry and throw chairs across the room or yell and scream in your face when musicians wouldn’t be performing up to the highest level.
But when a teacher chose to break me down to build me back up again piece by piece, it was absolutely necessary to eventually become the professional player in the field I am today, though.
Each teacher taught me really important lessons, whether it was double bass and the business of music from Joe Bergamini, to jazz, song form and how to listen to records from Nick Scheuble. But one of the most intense and personally effective teachers was Tommy Igoe, who sat me down and let me know that I didn’t even know how to hold the sticks properly when I got to his studio (he was correct).
There was a lot of love and guidance at times, but a lot of yelling and intensity at other times. Ultimately, he was the teacher that was able to give me a full and solid technical foundation and make me work through all the intensity to be able to perform consistently and well across all styles of music.
He also would sprinkle in pearls of wisdom like a Zen master stating things like “Always appreciate where you are in this moment,” and “When you get out of private lessons with me, I will be your competition.” These things blew my mind and inspired me to achieve greatness as a musician in the field.
While still studying in school at Drew University, you became the founder and head of Drew’s jazz music department. Can you please tell us how that came about?
I’ve always been a pretty ambitious and confident person–not afraid to take big risks and chances. When I got to the smaller liberal arts school, Drew University, I was stunned to find out they didn’t have a jazz band at all. I always took the great middle school and high school bands I was in for granted and expected the same at Drew. So I immediately went to the head of the music department and asked for them to allow me to start a jazz program.
They said that I could start a jazz band if I wanted, and I tried to explain I was going to start much more than that. They didn’t understand until they saw the concerts with the filled rooms of large crowds watching the many bands I put together.
Each semester I found and put together around 30 musicians in different jazz combos, jazz choirs, big bands, funk bands, fusion bands, pop/rock bands, and jazz orchestras, playing a variety of music from all the greats. I was more than happy to do all the logistics, organization, and planning to be able to perform in all the different groups.
These skills were born out of necessity to keep honing my craft to be able to play all styles of music at the highest level. It also allowed me to pick what tunes I wanted to play with whatever musicians I had at my disposal, which was fun, and I even had big name artists sit in from time to time.
I headed up the whole program up for the three years I was there before I graduated early prior to being accepted into grad school for the Master of Jazz Performance Program at NYU. I wound up not going and decided to go pro instead to save money and start my actual career.
You’ve played with a multitude of artists during your career thus far. For all the prospective musicians out there who are reading this interview, getting the first gig is often the most difficult. How did you get your start professionally after school?
I have been lucky to be exposed to professional paid and unpaid gigs early on in my development as a musician. My first paid pro gig was subbing for my teacher on New Year’s, playing a jazz quartet gig on a night cruise around the Statue of Liberty in NYC at the age of 15.
My parents came along to make a night of it and ended up spending more money than I made for the night. I was still learning how to play a jazz ride cymbal pattern and how to comp and solo, so I got through the gig but am sure that the other musicians weren’t enthused that a mediocre kid musician was subbing for my teacher at the time.
But the experience was pivotal, since practicing is extremely different than performing live as musician, especially in improvisational music like jazz. This is around the age that my first high school rock band started playing unpaid local gigs, which gave me another perspective on gigs.
The first gig I rocked with them was a private party set up in a driveway where we only got through three tunes before the father of the graduation girl came up to us, looked at his watch, and asked, “What time do you guys stop?” We got the hint, packed up, and called our parents to pick us up.
So I was happy to be gigging all along throughout much of the learning phase as a musician to take the concepts I was learning into the real world. But when it comes to starting to get real gigs and real calls was when I tried to break into the scene in NYC. I started with Craigslist ads and auditioned with tons of different bands and artists. Many of these gigs I didn’t initially get, but I kept on trying out for different bands in all different styles.
I eventually got my first pro paid NYC gig playing for an 11-piece NYC funk band that played outdoors at an arena for a major sporting event, plus [I] played all around NYC. I also met the guys that would later become Behold the Arctopus from their post while they went to NYU. I wound up getting literally hundreds of gigs over the early years on Craigslist, which was great for experience and also paid decently at times.
But once I realized all the great and big gigs were a lot harder to come by than public postings on Craigslist by mostly lower-level hobbyist musicians, I had to figure out a way to move up in the field a different way. That’s where the marketing, image and networking propelled me to bigger and better gigs.
The life of a session drummer is somewhat nomadic, isn’t it?
The life of a session drummer is nomadic in some ways but is equally refreshing and exciting in other ways. As a session musician, you get a lot of variety with the different gigs you jump on, and it gives you a lot of experience working with different people in all walks of life. You may not become best friends with everyone on the gigs you get on, which can be somewhat isolating at times, but you can usually keep things more professional and about business which is great.
Meaning, you may get paid even when other musicians on the project might not be or get paid higher than some other musicians, since you are being called in–sometimes last minute–to rock the gig. You also sometimes have more opportunity to gig out live being a session musician, since you can pick up gigs at a variety of places rather than waiting for your one or two bands to gig.
The good thing about being a session musician is the ability for me not to get over-involved in the drama that some gigs may wrap themselves up in. When I commit to a project in a band setting, I have had the tendency to almost care too much and that has gotten me into trouble with building resentment all around.
Being a session musician, I can come to the gig without needing to look at the business side of the gig, give my personal opinions to make the gig better, or deal with any of the problems of the moment. I can just show up, play the gig to the best of my ability, get paid, and leave. So it can keep things a bit arms’ length at times, but is also helpful sometimes.
I’ve still made friends with a variety of other session musicians I’ve played with on many gigs over the years and hang regularly with them. So it’s possible to have a bit of your cake and eat it on this too.
What about the challenge of getting gigs? It takes more than just being a great musician, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, it’s not good enough just to be a great musician to get and keep gigs. A lot of it comes down to personality, networking, personal promotion and image. After all the intensity in the practice studio learning how to master your instrument and hone your craft, it comes down to much more than that to make this a career, rather than a hobby. Without no one ever specifically telling me this, I had to figure out the process of getting gigs myself.
I always had an outgoing personality growing up, so [I] was never afraid of talking to people and networking to get their info to stay in touch with them. I was always fine with telling people about the cool things I was doing and personally promoting myself to people without being overbearing, which is an extremely important skill to have. This is because you can be the greatest musician in the bedroom, but if you don’t let people know about you, they’ll never think to call you for gigs.
Of course you have to be “tall enough to ride the ride,” meaning you have to be good enough to actually play the gig you are called for to be successful, too, of course. But the more you regularly perform out with other musicians, record with people, show your skills online, meet people in person, and talk to them on the phone, text or online, the better. Constantly working generates momentum, and once some people start calling, a ton more people will likely follow.
This is the real work of being a musician that keeps the income coming in and allows you to jump from gig to gig as needed. Remember, you are only onstage for 30 mins to four hours at a time, and the rest of the time needs to be spent in connecting with people.
The other big thing that was difficult for me to overcome was my image. I still had a little hair flip and a goatee I had since [my] freshman year in high school and clothes that were completely generic, which didn’t look cool and were oversized, so [they] didn’t fit my body well. This made me forgettable to people, and since we are visual beings, people would assume that I wasn’t a serious musician due to my lack of caring about my image.
When I figured out that people hear me using their eyes almost as much as their ears, I started to take a hard look at my image to match the big and famous players I wanted to become in each style. So I put together outfits that worked well for each genre of music I played that I still use today. This also translated to getting hold of genre-specific gear, including a great jazz drum set and cool-looking rock kits, depending on the style of the gig I was playing.
Once I had a memorable image with a mohawk and a rockstar vibe which works for many of my gigs, I started to get big calls in the field, since it was one of the final missing pieces of my development for a complete package.
How did your unique project, “Drumageddon” come about, and what prompted you to create the project?
My friend owned a studio on the third floor of a really funky Brooklyn building I was hired to record at. One day I was hanging out, and he mentioned the cool rooftop with graffiti overlooking the Manhattan skyline. I went up with him and was floored and knew I had to do something crazy there. I dig a good drum solo but have seen so many killer ones over the years that I always wanted to expand what someone can do while rocking a drum solo.
Coming down the freight elevator, I got the crazy idea to play the whole building in one take which would be very different than any old drum solo. So I put a production team together and came up with a way to drum non-stop on multiple drum sets in one take starting on the street and ending on the rooftop.
Each of the drum sets got progressively larger as the video went on, and I had a cast of characters helping get me from kit to kit by coming out the doors with different drums/percussion while [I was] moving and playing nonstop.
The kernel of an idea came from the viral video phenomenon of Lip Dubs where people lip sync to popular songs with one camera floating through different scenes. But I mashed it up with Buddy Rich’s Muppet Show performance where he actually physically plays drums through the the theater on the way out to his drum set to do a drum solo.
I made sure to keep the camerawork and performance gritty, like an action film reboot, to modernize the whole thing for today’s viewer too. The formal title of the first video is Drumageddon Brooklyn: Drummer Solos Up Entire Brooklyn Building in One Take, and [it] was followed up by Drumageddon Manhattan: Drummer Uses Times Square Itself as His Own Drumset in One Take, and Drumageddon Queens: Drummer Battles Himself at the Unisphere Globe. I’m starting to plan Drumageddon Bronx, Drummagedon Staten Island and the bonus Drumageddon.
What about the logistics of the project? It must have been quite a lot of work to put together.
Drumageddon Brooklyn required 8+ hours of load-in and setup time with drums throughout the whole building. We actually almost ran out of daylight before getting set up, so [we] had to rush through and film it quickly, but [I] am happy that it came out well. The live off-the-floor audio needed a lot of mixing time, and we had to sync up all the separate Protools/Ableton rigs to line it up with the video.
Since my friend owned the third floor of the building, I was able to use the studio to set up and practice with all the gear prior to the shoot plus to mix it. But it still took about six months of prep work to figure out the whole thing.
For the second video, Drumageddon Manhattan was even crazier since we brought more drums and cymbals using a bigger crew and had more pressure with a lot less time. I had to negotiate intensely for about six months to convince the NYC Movie Permit office to let us do the shoot. This time I had to rent a van for the gear that was already set up and had only a two-hour window to shoot, which was the same time slot Alicia Keys and Jay-Z shot “Empire State of Mind.”
For us, it poured rain right up until about 10 minutes before and 10 minutes after we loaded the last piece of gear back into the van at the end, which was pretty nerve-racking. I actually did Times Square with a click to make sure I hit my marks and not stay too long on any one drum kit (the first video took eight minutes for me to get up the whole building, so I did the second in around half the time, which was more watchable).
For the third video, Drumageddon Queens, I got permits again, but this time moved laterally with the concept. I took all my session musician clothing that I’ve worn on all my gigs and used the gear I used on all my gigs in different genres to battle myself five times over onscreen simultaneously. I visually amplified the personalities of each version of myself and had each style version of myself take a solo (Nashville/Session Musician, Jazz/Fusion, Gospel Chops/R&B, Prog/Metal and finally the Big Drum Hero Kit).
I rocked the first four solos, and then the Big Kit version of myself spit back all the rest of the solos before all of the drummers played a unison line together as a grand finale. Again, I did this one to a click but had to memorize which way each version of myself needed to look while a different version of myself was playing (like the Brady Bunch intro).
It was a beautiful fall day, and we got it out appropriately enough for Halloween, since I was in different costumes. I am definitely looking forward to doing Drumageddon Bronx and Drumageddon Staten Island, plus the bonus video coming up soon.
And what are you working on now?
While touring Warped Tour a couple years ago with a Pop Artist on Warner Bros, I was asked to be a Cyborg Drummer simultaneously drumming, running backing tracks, electronics and acoustic drug triggers while singing backup vocals. It was a call where we had only 1 week to get the whole show together before we opened for Bon Jovi at a big festival.
I didn’t physically have a whole electronics rig ready to go at the time, so [I] ran out and got one and taught myself quickly how to rock what I needed to do for the gig. I literally didn’t sleep for a week, but was able to pull it all together successfully. We rocked Lollapalooza and did tons of other great gigs, tours, and venues for a couple years.
People dug the artist, the band, and the songs, but kept on having fans single me out and giving me props for visibly rocking all the tech plus drumming. It was a really fun challenge combining the acoustic & electronic worlds in a Dance Pop kind of context. I knew I had to keep it going somehow.
But it was when I hit the EDM (Electronic Dance Music) stage at Warped Tour [that] I truly fell in love with a huge movement happening that far surpassed traditional band concerts in recent years for me. Even bigger crowds than the bands would form for individual DJs and producers with nothing but a laptop onstage.
I’d hear the bands grumbling that what they did wasn’t music and that DJs were ruining the scene. But it clicked one day as I was watching, and I really understood what these DJs were doing. Their intense music with killer electronic production that had a visceral level of bass music plus a slickly produced light show was hitting the large crowds in a totally different way than bands.
The ‘us’ as a band and the “them” watching in the crowd all slipped away into a collective “us,” being a part of a real and true moment together.
This is what I was attracted to as a young drummer, when bands would emotionally move hordes of people in big crowds really deeply. The baton has now been passed to a younger generation raised on laptops and the internet, and it’s been very exciting for me to take what I’ve learned as a drummer/performer and morph it with being an EDM DJ and producer.
That’s how I came upon my solo project DRMAGDN: Cyborg/Drummer DJ. The title is a truncated version of Drumageddon to distinguish the Drumageddon Drum Solo Video Series from being a Solo Drum EDM Artist. This is my exciting new project where I can take everything I’ve learned on producing music, bandleading, music directing artists, to rocking the drums, visual antics, hyping the crowd on a mic, along with live remixing of tracks off Ableton while triggering off drum electronic pads and foot pedals all at once.
I’ve done some festivals already, and the buzz is growing exponentially right now. It’s really liberating being able to get people to match my passion and intensity in the crowd by dancing to nothing more than me, drums, electronics, lights and computers. I’ve even won some over skeptical traditional musicians who appreciate the multi-brained insanity by simultaneously being a drummer and DJ by myself.
I’m putting together my solo record and am talking to different management and booking agents to hit more festivals over the coming years, which should be a blast.
Any advice for musicians who are considering the life of a session musician?
The days of being a session musician in a traditional sense is really over. Live band music is becoming more scarce and live venues and recording studios are all closing due to the technology being so readily accessible at home. Artists and tours are downsizing and getting guys who can do a variety of things well in addition to playing their instrument. The big musicians I know who are successful have gone beyond just being an anonymous session musician on just their instrument solely.
They have also developed their own identity as being the best guy or gal to call for a pretty focused situation, whether it be a location like NYC, a genre and style, or a look and vibe. Meaning, if you need a top session drummer in NYC and Shawn Pelton from SNL is booked and busy, you can might want to give session drummer Charlie Z a call, ’cause he should be able to play what you need.
Beyond that, some of the best session musicians today have figured out how to anchor their income with one or two main gigs, whether it is a steady tour gig or residency, private/club/tribute/theater/wedding gigs, or even teaching to balance the more creative and/or more higher-profile gigs that come up sporadically.
One night you may play an arena, and the next night you may rock your own music in a small club for a couple [of] friends, but it’s all part of the current music industry. For me, I got into music directing, bandleading, and producing, besides touring and recording with everyone.
I actually don’t teach privately and don’t do wedding gigs or theater gigs, but have done masterclasses, clinics, and online videos. I have also taken a bunch of my free time to develop DRMAGDN and Drumageddon.
Here’s a list of other tips:
-Know how to play with clicks & backing tracks
-Running the tracks yourself as bandleader/music director is even better
-Singing backup vocals is pivotal, but being able to sing lead while playing is even better
-Look good for the gig and have an image that works for the gig
-Be visually passionate and animated with your performance on the gig
-Have a home recording rig to hear yourself microscopically
-Having a pro recording rig to record parts for your artists is even better
-Videotape yourself live, in the studio, and during practice a ton and watch back to make adjustments
-Have a system to learn lots of music quickly by ear & with charts
-Be prepared, early to the gig, and be cool to hang out with
-Keep an updated calendar and good financial books for taxes
-Stay on top of all calls, emails and texts for gigs & respond quickly
-If you get double-booked, do the earliest confirmed gig
-If the new gig is just too big to pass up, help find a killer sub
-Use YouTube and instructional sites to learn everything you need to know about your craft
-Use the internet and social networks to link up to all the top players in the field to get gigs
-Remember that playing only happens around 30 minutes to four hours; the rest is hard work to get and keep gigs
-Do all these things, and you’ll be successful in today’s music biz
As you know, our website is based around the phrase, “fall down seven times, rise up eight”. Can you please talk about the challenges you have had in your life as a musician and how you were able to overcome those challenges?
As much as you try to prepare for what life throws at you, it always finds new ways to surprise and test you. I am extremely fortunate to be a successful musician in today’s music industry, given how scarce gigs can be. But my professionalism, dedication to my craft, and all the hard work has been tested and forged at deep and intense levels over the years. I am not just talking about work in the practice room.
I’ve had multiple close family members get sick with long term terminal illnesses and had to care for them sometimes for years while still having to gig, record, and tour like nothing was going on. I’ve had to go from literally living at hospitals taking care of family members to putting on a happy face and be a total pro to rock on big gigs overseas.
Most times this was without anyone knowing, due to the fear that I’d be replaced on gigs and not be able to pay the mortgage on my house. I’ve had family members die of these illnesses or of freak accidents and still had to gig the day before, the day of, or the day after. I’ve had to rush back off tour dates to get to their bedside prior to me holding their hand as they passed away.
I’ve had musician friends play a gig and have a massive stroke and not be able to play again. I’ve had a singer friend be diagnosed with horrible illness mid-album and had to wait until they finished all sorts of treatments prior to finishing recording. That’s how I fell down seven times and rose up eight, because we all have to be strong enough to keep going and build resilience in life.
How did you get yourself to keep going after those setbacks?
The concept of leaving your baggage at the door on the way into a gig and living positively in the moment gets amplified when it comes to real-life hardships. It’s easier to crawl up in a ball and not want to leave the house or move when life gets awful.
There’s absolutely a time and place for that. But life must eventually go on, and that’s not what we are here to do. We are here to share our gifts and help as many other people as possible through this game of life.
For me, I am happy to help some people forget about their problems for a short time while watching a cool live performance, video, or record I’ve done. But no matter how many things happen to you, just know that everyone is fighting a hard battle, even under the best of conditions, and that we are all in this thing together.
There really are no guarantees in life, especially with exactly how much healthy time we all have. If that’s the case, you really do have to spend every moment you can following your dreams, give 110% to everything you do, and play each and every gig like it’s your last.
This is the meaning of life for me: Do what you love to do as much as you can and positively effect as many people as you can along the way. Life seems designed to test us, push us, and make us grow intensely to prepare us for what might come after this life.
I definitely thank God that I am still healthy and able to perform at the level that I do and hope that I can continue rocking as long as humanly possible.
Any last words of encouragement that you can share through your personal experience?
Throughout my life I’ve let love and passion for music, drums, and life really guide me. The one thing I’ve found that has gotten in my way the most was myself, whether it’s believing someone who says something can’t be done because it’s not “realistic,” or that I’ll never be able to become better at my craft, to me over-thinking situations, or not being able to manage my time well enough to be successful on gigs.
All of these things I’ve had to systemically try to break down and work on a ton to become truly successful in both the short term and the long term. The truth of the matter is that the most successful and happy people I know don’t limit themselves by negative thoughts that box themselves in. There’s always a way to do just about everything you want to do, even if it takes a ton of extra time, planning, effort, or money.
There might be some really difficult hurdles to jump over that take some really crazy ideas to overcome, but keeping your eye and belief on the prize of how awesome the end product will be [is] what can drive you to always reach your goals. But this definitely takes a good deal of focus and commitment to the work and the task you are trying to do.
In today’s society where everything is comfortable, easy, available, and distracting, it’s sometimes really hard to take yourself away from the daily distractions. But if you do and start to focus and commit to your big goal, you just may reach it.
Regardless, I feel extremely fortunate to be able to follow my dream as being a professional musician who makes a living banging things. The way I look at it is I am getting paid for my knowledge and experience plus any of the hassle of the prep work or logistical organizing, along with the travel to and from gigs. I do music and play the drums for the love, and it really keeps me going
This is because when I am behind the drum kit, no matter where I am around the world under any circumstances, that’s one of the happiest moments of my life.
Thanks for the opportunity to be a part of such a killer and inspiration website that is much needed in today’s sometimes difficult world. I hope my story helps inspire other people in their life.
Thank you charlie, And how can people reach you?
My website / http://www.DRMAGDN.com
YouTube / http://www.youtube.com/DRMAGDN
Facebook / http://www.facebook.com/DRMAGDN
Twitter / http://www.twitter.com/DRMAGDN
As you can see, Charlie was gracious enough to give us a peek into his daily life. We think that regardless of all the setbacks he has had, he has demonstrated the quality of resilience in not letting anything affect his performance. That is the true mark of a professional, isn’t it?.
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