In an era when the concept of the studio drummer is constantly being redefined—and even questioned—the player who’s tracked for artists including Taylor Swift, Sara Bareilles, the Civil Wars, and John Mayer has made no bones about embracing the role one hundred percent. (Okay, maybe with the rare exception…)
Story by Robin Tolleson
Photos by Alex Solca
Marketing. Branding. Setting goals and seeing things through. These are skills that don’t always come naturally, but honing them can make all the difference to the career of a musician with burning aspirations—like Aaron Sterling. “I’m talking about training people to perceive you in a certain way,” Sterling says. “I tried to train my focus on a specific thing that I really wanted to do. I took [some] gigs just to meet a producer or a bass player who was a little bit busier than me and try to get on some session with him. That was always the goal.”
Sterling grew up in Nashville, the son of arranger/producer Robert Sterling and session singer Cindy Sterling. He started playing drums at twelve years old in middle-school band, for no particular reason, but within weeks he was hooked. “It was over,” he recalls. “I couldn’t stop.”
After studying privately in Nashville with JD Shuff (First Avenue Sound) and Dale Armstrong (Crystal Gayle, Marian McPartland, Kenny Burrell) and getting a glimpse of Music City’s studio scene, Sterling attended the Berklee College of Music for a year, decided that live performing wasn’t for him, and chose to become a session drummer in Los Angeles. Hundreds of sessions later, he’s able to pick his projects more and more carefully. Recently Sterling recorded tracks for John Mayer’s upcoming album—spending five days in the studio side by side with the legendary Jim Keltner—and even broke character, going on his first world tour with the guitarist. “I’m kind of expanding things a little bit,” Aaron says.
Most of the time, however, he can still be found working simultaneously on a handful of projects at his home studio in Los Angeles, Sound of Sterloid. “A song for this guy, three songs for this girl—there’s always things going on,” Sterling says. “I’m doing a lot of drum tracks at my studio, a lot of writing and producing….” You know, the usual: making things happen. It’s a mindset, it turns out, that the drummer learned early on.
Aaron: I was definitely raised in a musical household, specifically one where they make money doing music. It’s not as daunting to figure out how to make a living doing it when you grow up seeing two people already doing that.
MD: So you were used to seeing sheet music spread all over the piano at home, for instance.
Aaron: There would definitely be music on the piano, and then, as I got a little older, my father started getting Digital Performer and programs like that. He produced records and did a lot of arranging and orchestrating, and he would work at home too.
MD: Do you believe that exposure influenced your thinking in terms of arrangements?
Aaron: Oh, yeah. You know, I think one strong suit I have—I have plenty of weaknesses, so I might as well talk about things I’m good at—is arranging and understanding concepts of arrangements. You could argue that it’s a genetic thing, or you could say what you’re kind of getting at, that it could have just been drummed into my brain, no pun intended. Saturday morning I’d be watching cartoons, hanging around the house like kids sometimes do, and hear the same figures over and over again for hours—hearing a person working on just one line or trying to figure out what to do with those four bars of music. I’d hear this progression in a person’s mind, moving on to another part of the music.
Sometimes my father would do full-on orchestral things—strings and horns—and you would hear the progression of that. And yeah, maybe that helped me get used to the idea of form and what that is, and different shapes that song forms can take.
MD: What kind of music did you like to listen to growing up?
Aaron: I got obsessed with a lot of ’60s and ’70s jazz-fusion, that whole movement, all the typical guys. But I eventually discovered a lot of music that was definitely not about the amount of notes, like albums on the ECM label. Elvin Jones and Tony Williams and the Mahavishnu Orchestra all led me to this or that weird ECM record. I ended up basically listening to Keith Jarrett solo piano records for two or three years. I was hardcore into the ECM thing at that age, after three years of being obsessed with all the typical drummers that you’d imagine a person would be obsessed with.
I also listened to all the pop radio of the ’80s and ’90s, buying CDs, studying everything, actively trying to prepare for a studio career. I knew I needed to know everything, so that’s how I spent my high school career.
MD: The idea of moving to L.A. to break into the studio scene can be daunting. What was your formula?
Aaron: The one thing I try to tell people is that, whatever your focus is, maybe tighten up that focus even more. I don’t mean that you should close off other options in the world, but if you’re too open to everything, sometimes nothing happens. I know this can be misconstrued—I’m not talking about positivity. What I mean is, a lot of guys move to this town and say, “I want to do sessions, and I want to tour, and I want to do local gigs….” It’s like, man, I’m already overwhelmed by all the things you want to do, just hearing that.
People need to define you. I don’t know if that’s human nature or if that’s just the music business, but whether you like it or not, people are going to pigeonhole you, and you need to take full advantage of that instead of trying to fight it. And if you come out here and say, “I really want to get a tour” and stop there, you might end up getting something that’s not a tour—but at least you’ve planted a seed in somebody’s brain, which is, “This guy wants a tour.”
When I moved out here, I was nineteen, and I made it clear to people that what I wanted to do was sessions. That’s what I came here for, that’s what I want to do, and that’s what I think I’m best at. I knew I had a ton to learn, but I also knew that’s what I’m good at. I was better at that than getting on stage, because I had a lot of social anxiety. I’ve never been in a band for even a day. It’s just not my thing. I think that helped me get to where I’ve gotten, because I was hyper-focused on this one thing.
I didn’t close myself off; I just helped focus other people, potential clients, that this is what I’m good at. And that makes people say, “Maybe this guy is good at that. That’s all he wants to do, and that’s all he does do. Okay, he’s clearly the guy to hire.” That’s how it worked for me. It’s not like I only did sessions, but I just drilled it into people’s heads: “I’m going to be a session player. Hire me for sessions. Trust me, you’ll love it.”
MD: Were there particular sessions that opened things up for you?
Aaron: Yeah, there were. One was a Korean pop thing. I had been doing this church gig every Sunday for a couple years, all in Korean—nobody spoke English. This guy comes up to me and says he would love to have me play on a session. I thought, Fantastic, I’m in. And then he explained to me, “The usual drummer, Vinnie Colaiuta, can’t make it.” I’m about twenty-two and thinking, Oh, crap, this is a whole other thing. It was the guys, the session musicians that I grew up listening to—Mike Landau on guitar, Greg Mathieson on keys, Luis Conte on percussion, this whole team that he used—and Vinnie couldn’t do it, so he threw me a bone. That was a cool session because I got to meet [bassist] Abe Laboriel and all these guys, and they were really cool to me. That helped me get into that circle.
There’s all these different little circles of people out here, and I try to get into as many as possible. Those circles kind of start cohabitating, and you find that this guitar player who was on the hipster session is doing the jingle session over in Santa Monica, and you think, Oh, I didn’t realize he did that too. There were a bunch of different sessions like that that helped me meet a lot of people.
MD: When you’re starting out, can you name your price? Or do you pretty much have to just get your foot in the door?
Aaron: Sometimes I wonder if half of my career has been spent thinking about that question. Man, that’s the biggest thing you’re going to have to navigate: what you’re worth versus what people are willing to pay—or what you think they’re willing to pay. Are you the person who says, “I’m X amount of dollars—take it or leave it”? Or are you the guy who’s going to be the whole other extreme, like, “Whatever you’ve got, bro, I’ll do it”? And I’ve worn all of those hats and every hat in between. The problem in the business and the thing that you have to navigate is that you mean something different to everybody.
MD: In terms of session drumming, are there certain players that you listen to for inspiration?
Aaron: There are so many people. All those usual suspects—Jeff Porcaro, Vinnie Colaiuta, JR Robinson, those L.A. guys. I loved how those guys had their own sound, but you could hear that they were also trying to serve the song. The thing I’ve always loved about Vinnie is this constant compromise—the healthy compromise—of figuring out how to be yourself but serve somebody else’s song. It’s not your song; you didn’t write it. Help this person. Do what’s right for that person, but also have your personality there. Clearly Vinnie does things that I’ll never be able to do, but that’s not really what I love. I love that there’s this kid inside that’s just dying to do all this crazy stuff, but he knows he can’t do it all the time.
I just like the idea of somebody saying, “Hi, you’ll be working for me today. This is a song I wrote, and I really want it to be as good as it could be. Is there something you can do to help me with that?” That’s my thing.
MD: You play with a lot of vocalists. Do you enjoy it when you’re there with them on a session and hearing the vocal tracks? There must also be times when you don’t even know what the vocal might be.
Aaron: Man, I try to listen to the vocal more than anything in a song. I just love it. And anything I do, I want to support that. When they’re singing with me, it’s an amazing feeling, very different from just playing to a track. So yeah, the energy of a singer is an awesome thing.
Now, I can’t always do this, because I’ve got to make money, but I try my best to tell people, “I don’t want to play on your song if you don’t send me a vocal.” If they haven’t finished writing the song and they’re just looking to experiment and have me play on something and try to create the song around that, that’s a little different. That’s a cool approach, and I’m open to that. But sometimes people send me finished songs and they don’t send me the vocal, because the scratch vocal wasn’t good enough or something. I just say, “Listen, I don’t want to play on a song if I don’t even know what the most important element is.”
MD: You’ve now become a touring drummer as well, having gone out with John Mayer.
Aaron: A bassist I play with, Sean Hurley, got the gig playing live with John. John was planning to make another record, and he asked Sean to be a part of it. John had tried some drummers out, and Sean brought up my name and told him he should call me, and he did. So I went to New York, where we had three days booked at Electric Lady. The idea was that I work for three days, and if he hates me, then he pays me for three days and that’s that. But we really got along well.
MD: Mayer’s combination of sophisticated jazz harmonies and soulful, funky grooves is deep.
Aaron: As a drummer it’s great—he has all of the same information that those top session guys have: a combination of skill level and knowledge. He’s not a session musician—he’s in the category of pop star or rock star—but he is a session musician. I’m telling you, at his core that’s what the dude really is. But what I love about him is that he’s also an artist and has something to say. That’s what makes it such an amazing gig.
MD: What are some of your favorite tracks that you recorded with John?
Aaron: I like the groove on “Queen of California,” the first song on the record Born and Raised. It’s a very simple groove—anybody can do it—but I like how it fits with the guitar part. And maybe I have an emotional attachment to it, because we had just met and I like that we had this sort of interplay immediately. There’s a lot of subtleties on the snare drum on that track that I like.
The first day was great, and we started on that song within, like, my first hour of meeting him. We just started playing, and that was some riff he started coming up with, and I started playing to that. I think most of the take of that song that’s on the record is what we did three or four hours after meeting each other, and that’s really cool. We tried to recut the song over the course of a year and a half, and just kept going back to that version. It wasn’t to a click track, and I think he was wanting to do it to a click for some specific reasons—there were some things he was hoping to add—but we just kept that first thing we did. I ended up staying in New York on and off for four or five months, just going back and working on that record.
“Paper Doll” is on the second record that I did with John, Paradise Valley. That’s a really cool song too, one that he and I did together. I like collaborating with him, and I’m the drummer on the track, but he’s doing some other stuff on there that’s really cool. He’ll put a snare drum on his knees and play it like a banjo. He’ll turn it around so that the snares are turning away from him and strum the snares with a pick. It’s a really loud, annoying sound in the room, but if you mike it up appropriately and put it really low in the mix, it’s a cool sound. People think it’s an aggressive shaker or brushes. We created “Paper Doll” around that little pattern that he’s doing.
And I really love the song “Who You Love,” which is also off Paradise Valley. That’s a really simple groove, but I’m a sounds guy too, and a lot of why I like that one is that I love the sound of those drums. We added a little delay on there, to kind of give it an extra vibe.
I like all the songs I’ve recorded with John, but in terms of drum parts, I don’t know…. I guess I’m proud of all the songs as a whole. It’s hard for me to talk about certain tracks like that in a “drummery” way, because it’s hard for me to separate the two, the song from the drum part. I don’t know if any of that stuff exists well on its own. But it certainly works well for the song—I hope.
“As a session player who’s constantly doing all sorts of different projects,” Sterling explains, “my kit is always dependent upon the song and the artist. I’ve been using the kit shown here a lot in my studio, and I’ll potentially be using it live in the future. It gives me the super-dead tom sound and the big, bright craziness that I get from the Rototom.”
The kit here is a U.S. Mercury set featuring an 8×12 tom, a 14×14 floor tom, and a 12×20 bass drum, with a 16″ Rototom. Like all studio drummers, Sterling uses various snares; the one in our photos is a 5×14 Ludwig Acrolite.
Sterling plays Istanbul Agop cymbals “of all kinds, mostly 20″ crashes and cymbals all over the kit. And all sorts of hats—lots of 15s.” Shown here are 14″ 30th Anniversary hi-hats, a 20″ Signature crash, a 22″ Vezir ride, and a 19″ Signature crash. Aaron’s heads of choice are Remo, and he uses Regal Tip sticks and DW hardware.
The electronics shown include a Synsonics drum machine, a Yamaha DD-5 drum machine, a Nord Drum module, and a Line 6 M9 multi-effects unit.