On the Beat With Robby Cosenza of Vandaveer: Talks Influences and Studio Sessions
Wow, MD—it’s an honor! I’m a touring musician (Vandaveer, Horse Feathers, and Small Batch, among others) and the session drummer at Shangri-la Productions with producer Duane Lundy in Lexington, Kentucky.
I started playing drums at age eight. It began with private theory lessons, followed by jazz/concert/marching bands. I began touring professionally when I was eighteen. Twenty-four years later, I’ve logged thousands of shows across this big, weird planet, half of them with These United States, Tarbox Ramblers, and Vandaveer. Recently, I had the honor of performing at Ringo Starr’s seventy-sixth birthday party at Capitol Records (I know, right?).
Early influences were Ringo, Max Weinberg, Russ Kunkell, John Bonham, Jim Keltner, and Liberty Devitto (I grew up in Long Island so if you weren’t a Billy Joel fan, you pretty much had to fight a dude). Coming of age in the early ’80s, I grew up on classic rock, prog/’80s metal, and ’60s/’70s singer-songwriters. Once my mom took me to see Rush in September of 1984, it was on! I can still sketch out Peart’s kits on loose-leaf paper. Nowadays, I just want to sound like Brian Blade—go figure.
Live performance and roadwork—it build chops, nuance, stamina, and industry know-how. Session work is a different beast altogether. You learn to communicate. You learn dynamics, texture, and tempo. I’ve done one-hundred-plus albums, including work with Jim James, Ben Sollee, and Dawn Landes.
For singer-songwriter material (the majority of my work), I prefer a click track for a tight, clean performance. I’m also a songwriter. My initial focus is not always the drums. I like playing to the vocals—Dylan’s phrasing, for instance, is as much a rhythm performance as any drum part. If an artist makes a lyrical reference to a ticking clock, will I go to the rim and click a bit? No, but I think along those lines. I might accentuate a dark line in the song by riding the floor tom, or a soft, pretty line, with a sizzle or whispery mallets. I don’t have a stock fill or go to an “obvious” place just because the track may be standard Americana or blues.
I use the studio itself as an instrument. If that means brushes on an armchair is the primary drum track, then good! Keep the broken gear—cymbals, heads, warped toms—fingernails on a snare head, shaking a busted inside kick head. Out-of-tune can be as effective as what’s in tonal balance (think the end of the Kinks’ “Strangers”).
I play a four-piece Frankenstein-type kit: 22″ kick (Ludwig Standard 1970, with matching 13″ rack tom); standard Tama Rock Star floor tom; new Pearl Sensi-Tone snare (which I totally love); old Zildjian New Beat 14″ hats; 20″ Zildjian A or K crash ride; and a Ludwig Speed King pedal (that can be fixed with a paper clip). I’ve always used Vic Firth SD-1 General American Custom sticks.
Come find me on the road. I like pizza, wine, and talking rock and roll. Thanks for reading!
For more on Robby and Vandaveer, visit www.vandaveer.net and www.facebook.com/vndvr.
Photo by Vivian Wang