Interview with Charlie Zeleny in August 2008 - The Science Of Drumming Is In The Ear Of The Beholder

A man playing even the most complex grooves with a smile, that´s Charlie Zeleny - maybe his appetite for odd time signatures results from his overwhelming delight to express himself. On the other hand he works as a session musician playing very reluctantly if desired. Although this chameleon of drumming is in a position to change his playing style enormously his handwriting is always noticeable. Perhaps he is able to explain how to do this.

ragazzi: "At what age did you start drumming?"

Charlie: "Well, I started drumming when I was eight years old on a pad and snare drum in my schools' concert band just like everyone else and was a bit bored. I really fell in love with drums when I jumped to drumset a couple years later in the middle school jazz band reading bigband charts and having drum solos. I finally took drumset seriously in late high school/early college and started studying, honing my craft and taking private lessons to ultimately become a professional session drummer."

ragazzi: "Which musical styles did you listen to while growing up?"

Charlie: "I started out with basic radio rock like Pearl Jam, Green Day and all the other 90s groups and then became a jazz snob for a bit. My entry point into that world was Dave Weckl's "Masterplan" album that opened me up to a whole new level of drum insanity. That point it was all bebop and modern jazz like John Coltrane, Clifford Brown/Max Roach, Miles Davis' early period. But at the same time I got heavy into Dream Theater and all their side projects like Liquid Tension Experiment and Rudess Morgenstein Project. Then I got into all the killer funk and fusion groups like Tower of Power, James Brown and Parliament Funkadelic until I beelined it back to radio Rock and Pop where I make a living today to balance out the crazy prog metal gigs that call me. I still do a lot of jazz and fusion gigs in NYC too which is very cool."

ragazzi: "Has it always been a dream of you to become a professional drummer?"

Charlie: "The short answer is yes. I remember being in high school reading Modern Drummer and deciding I wanted to be a session drummer and not join any one band. So there I was, a snot nosed fourteen or fifteen year old telling my friends I'd learn their music, play shows and record but not join their band. Then I started doing clubdates for money when my old teacher couldn't make a New Years Eve gig and it was all over. Getting paid well to play music was all I needed to know that I could make it a career with a little drive and a lot of patience. But in retrospect, I wasn't sure how to go about being a session drummer in todays day and age and it took a while to make the dream a reality. It was a huge sacrifice at times getting my name out there and hooking up in the right situations and I have plenty of knowledge from the mistakes I made. But there is nothing on this earth that I feel like I should be doing instead as a career and am very happy to be here."

ragazzi: "Do you play other instruments?"

Charlie: "I studied a lot of classical and jazz music theory and play percussion decently but all other intruments including my vocals I do just well enough to write and produce artists in different genres. I do have a good macro and micro sense of music from the history of genres down to the details of performance along with a good set of ears so they would have to be included in my best 'instruments' list too. I also have a pretty deep knowledge of Protools and that seriously helps with all my gigs for sure."

ragazzi: "On your yourtube channel "drumdocz" you have some videos that show you are a drummer that is able to play the fastest blast beats as well as totally relaxed grooves. Do you have a special concept to train this immense versatility?"

Charlie: "Wow, glad you checked all that out and thanks for the kind words. I have put myself in every possible musical situation for as long as I've been playing the drums which is about 18 years now. Very early on I set out to treat all music completely equally and try to learn to play every style with authenticity and honesty. When you do that, folk music is just as important as death metal and smooth jazz becomes as valid as pop, rock or polka. You can learn so much when you are open to everything even though it may not be popular with certain type of people. So dropping your ego and hearing all music as equal helps you a lot along with taking the risk and checking out, learning and playing in all styles of music as much as possible too. Having a good ear and solid technical skill to express yourself clearly drastically helps your ability to transfer well across different styles too."

ragazzi: "Did you ever have drum-lessons?"

Charlie: "I studied for a minute with educator Joe Bergamini and a local jazz guy named Nick Scheuble and did some jazz camp work with John Riley before being kicked into shape by Tommy Igoe for three years. But a lot of my skill is also derived from checking out drummers live, playing in all sorts of situations and practicing on my own. I used to check out every drum video out there too along with some cool drum books for fun that helped quite a bit."

ragazzi: "Which drum-teacher was most important for developing your style?"

Chralie: "I got some killer things from each teacher that I still use today but Tommy Igoe really got my playing together to be a busy working professional session drummer. His discipline along with his standards of musicality and technique floored me and redefined what it meant to be a great drummer for me. Studying with him was pretty humbling in addition to being an inordinate amount of work that proved vital to allow me to go on and play any gig I want out there in any style."

ragazzi: "Let´s talk about some of your bands and projects; please tell us what comes to your mind when you hear the following names. First of all there is BEHOLD... THE ARCTOPUS."

Charlie: "Well, they were the band that started me down the prog metal path of crazy projects for sure. I knew when jumping on the NYC scene a while back that I dug prog metal and Dream Theater and found Behold's music a challenge worth investing my time into. I also knew that this would be my only oppotunity to flex the technical side of my playing at a time when I was mainly playing R&B, pop, theater and singer/songwriter gigs. So it´s crazy music for crazy people for sure."

ragazzi: "The next one is BLOTTED SCIENCE."

Charlie: "Such hard work was put into this album by all the three members especially since we recorded all the tracks remotely in different states in the US. Ron Jarzombek and Alex Webster are incredible musicians and I am really glad Ron went in a serious death metal/prog metal direction with Blotted. The material is incredibly produced and written with such precision and attention to form, melody, counterpoint and harmony it´s astounding. I actually listen to the album occasionally just to hear the tunes and Ron´s killer leads! I am looking forward to possibly playing live and doing the next record for sure."

ragazzi: "Not to forget JORDAN RUDESS."

Charlie: "Well, if there was ever a gig that brought me to the top of the industry in one fell swoop it´s playing with Jordan Rudess. He´s the most humble musician I know and one of the best artists I've ever been able to share the stage with by far. I grew up listening and enjoying his solo projects even more than Dream Theater at times and to sub for Rod Morgenstein playing with him was a dream come true. It was also two weeks of intense practicing and prep for the one four hour rehearsal and Japanese tour that followed including a DVD recording. So the pressure was very high but it also validated me as a drummer at a time when I really needed it and I feel very fortunate to have gotten the call. I hope to do some more work with Jordan soon."

ragazzi: "How about THE GREAT KAT?"

Charlie: "Sheer and utter passion and craziness exude from her on stage and off. She´s another artist who knows exactly what she wants besides being a killer female guitar and violin virtuoso. Her technique is flawless and yes she actually can play that fast and cleanly live. I´m on the new album and on the DVD so check those out when they are out for sure."

ragazzi: "According to rumors you are recording the drum tracks of the progressive metal band SUSPYRE; is that right?"

Charlie: "I actually completed the entire album just before the current US Tour I'm on and we'll see how many tracks they can edit out by the strict deadline they have from their label. The whole album was finished with programmed drums prior to them calling me and I was called in very last minute to try to replace the albums worth of drum programs in a couple weeks. Totally crazy!"

ragazzi: "Are you the new drummer of SUSPYRE or did you just the recordings?"

Charlie: "I just got hired to guest as their drummer at the Prog Power Europe festival and do the CD Release party but they need to have a guy who can commit to a band situation for their live band and get out there on the ground level. Definitely a cool band doing some great things in the field though."

ragazzi: "What other bands and projects are you playing in currently?"

Charlie: "Geez, too many to count! I´m tracking drums for at least six full length albums the rest of this year and doing a bunch of different tours. Styles span tech metal to pop to thrash to ambient to rock and avant-prog on this batch of work. I'm also playing in a bunch of jazz and fusion projects coming up in NYC including one with a sax player in the Mingus Bigband and I'm sure I'll hop on some big pop tours soon. Outside of that I'm now a full Sonor endorsee and will start up on the festival and clinic circuits soon enough. Sean Cox is one of the best reps in the industry and he and I are really trying to bring Sonor to the next level in the US. Greatest drums on earth for sure!"

ragazzi: "How about releasing a DVD with the title "Extreme(ly) Progressive Drumming" to explain how to play very complex rhythms?"

Charlie: "I just started a book about how to be a session drummer and will of course write a book about about Extreme Prog Drumming soon enough I'm sure. DVDs will follow when I sign onto a major like Hudson Music or the like. But first I got to get my own subscription video service up and running like Derek Roddy and Virgil Donati. I´m going to include all sorts of crazy quick videos featuring some cool drumset tricks I've picked up along the way and put them all in one place. Sonor and I might pair together on some promo videos which I´m pretty excited about too. So lots of crazy projects coming up for sure."

ragazzi: "I heard about a drum instructional video course for Jordan Rudess´ Online Conservatory that will be online very soon; please tell us some details about that course."

Charlie: "I already did the core drum course showing the basics of drumming so the advanced course is going to show a lot of crazy drumming in all styles. Obviously Arctopus and Blotted will be featured a lot too as will be some crazy drum soloing since it´s called "Extreme Drum Solo Mastery". I break down a bunch of drum solos that I've recorded and really show how to play each one with multiple camera angles. Its going to run somewhere between 60 and 90 minutes and will be priced around $30 and is going to be available at www.JROC.US and through my site at It should go live by the end of August."

ragazzi: "Do you play the same set-up configuration for every gig?"

Charlie: "I'm totally stoked to be getting my new killer Sonor Delite kit I'll be using until my SQ2 Custom Kit is ready early next year. The 12 piece kit has all the components I need for all my gigs with multiple Artist Snares like the Black Steel, Earth Snare and Cottonwood Snares. I've been moving more towards having a specific setup for many gigs but can't ever use the same gear for all my gigs and sessions since they are stylistically so different. For jazz and fusion, I basically use a 18" kick along with jazz tuned toms with Evans J1 heads, those super killer Paiste Dark Energy cymbals and Vic Firth lighter round tip jazz sticks. For pop and rock, I tend to keep it simple with a 20" or 22" kick and a 13" rack and 16" floor and a deep wood snare with Dark Energy, Giant Beat or Signature Series cymbals and my all around favorite stick Vic Firth 5As. Those sticks are what I use for every gig and session except for light jazz work and Evans G2s Coated or Clear. For hip hop and R&B, I'll use my 5" x 12" snare as my main snare and use a 16" kick along with 10" Micro Hats. For progressive metal stuff I may add another tom or two and maybe add a china or aux hats and splashes. For the crazy fusion stuff and drum hero events I do the full Sonor nine to twelve piece kit with a horde of my killer Paiste Signature cymbals and add all the extras from Rhythm Tech. So much fun to play!"

ragazzi: "Do you prefer playing your blast beats on a double pedal or on double bass drums and which sorts of blast beats do you like best?"

Charlie: "Usually it´s the endurance factor to get through long stretches of blasting. I definitely include all types of blasts in all the tunes I play including single foot, together blasts and left side lead blasts. I´m not a full time death metal guy so it frequently sounds the best for me to split up the job using two kicks in unison with the hands or in half time with the hands."

ragazzi: "Most of the time you do pop, jazz and hip hop session jobs - do you have an idea why so many bands of the heavy metal genre love your drumming?"

Charlie: "I seem to be a lot easier to work with than a lot of drummers in the extreme genre vein due to my whole life revolving around being a session drummer giving artists exactly what they want everydat. I also developed a groove, tone and feel on the kit that some guys who are just into numbers, prog or brutal metal might not have. I also read written notation, charts, play to a click and programmed drum parts/loops besides being able to improvise in all styles of music acurately. So versatilty, communication and of course all the hard work I put into being able to play some pretty impossible things on the kit helps get me more calls for some of these crazy prog gigs. But at the end of the day it´s really all about feel, groove, time and taste as in all the sessions I do."

ragazzi: "Terry Bozzio invited you to play at his TV station "The Drum Channel"; can this channel be received all over the world and when will the show with you as a guest be broadcast?"

Charlie: "I don't want to divulge too much info on this since I don't know what I'm allowed to say at this point. We are still working out my situation right this second but will be announcing more details soon enough. I believe it is going to be worldwide online though so keep checking my site for more info!"

ragazzi: "Have you ever thought about recording a solo CD with the music you love instead of playing solely the music composed by other people?"

Charlie: "Of course! I produce and have a full Protools rig at my studio so I have the ability to release a record whenever. I´m going to hold off to when I have some more time to collect the right tunes for the disc and write a couple more and then will surely get it together. But for now I am happily swamped with sessions and projects."

ragazzi: "So you are a composing drummer?"

Charlie: "I actually write for many of the artists I play with including Behold the Arctopus and many pop/rock artists or jazz/fusion groups. I will probably have a hand in writing for the next Blotted Science record too. But I love writing out charts in the jazz/fusion vein with hits, figures and different styles too. Pop and rock tunes are also a lot of fun to write along with electronica soundscapes."

ragazzi: "Which plans do you have for 2009?"

Charlie: "Just gotta finish out all the current albums and projects right now and I will be entertaining all the offers that come in. I'm now in a position to really pick and choose more of where I go which is nice for a change. I'm used to pushing hard and working hard and living gig to gig. So having this luxury is definitely a nice change and people are starting to look at me more as an artist rather than just a drummer which is even better. I also hope to be able to relax a tiny bit more and transition a bit better between on the road life and off the road life in 2009. It´s always difficult jumping on and off the road and getting all the recording projects done. I´m going to get a second Protools rig and be able to work on the road and already hired an assistant to help me out with my day to day sessions and activites and might hire another. Regardless, everything seems to be moving very quickly recently and a lot of long term goals have been actualized so I feel blessed and very happy to be where I am."

Frank Bender