MD’S BILLY AMENDOLA, WHO’S BEEN KEEPING TABS ON THE DRUMMER ALL ALONG, REPORTS.
On April 16, 2010, the chart-topping band Daughtry surprisingly announced on its website that original drummer Joey Barnes had left the group, and that L.A. session drummer Robin Diaz was filling in on tour. The arrangement was intended to be temporary, just until Daughtry found a permanent replacement for Barnes. But after a few shows with Diaz, band and drummer were hitting it off so well, musically and personally, that Robin was soon faced with the decision of sticking with a lucrative studio career or throwing in his lot as a full-time member of an international act.
At the beginning of 2011 it became official—Diaz chose to remain with Daughtry, and he began recording the band’s third album, Break the Spell, which debuted at number eight on the Billboard Top 200 chart and, on the strength of the hit singles “Crawling Back to You,” “Outta My Head,” and “Start of Something Good,” soon went gold. Diaz, it seemed, made the right decision for himself, and given the group’s continuously high profile since, it would appear that Daughtry made a pretty good choice as well.
Diaz was born in Maywood, California, on May 16, 1978, and started playing drums at a very young age. He soon found his way into a number of bands, and while still in his teens he began landing steady session work in L.A. I first met Robin at a NAMM show ten years ago, when reps from Vater, the drumstick company he endorses, brought him to dinner to meet the MD gang. We kept in touch, and afterward, whenever we’d talk on the phone or hang out in New York, he’d fill me in on his recent recording projects.
Often, Robin would start off by saying, “Now, you can’t tell anyone about this—I got paid well, but I’m ghost drumming on it and signed a confidentiality agreement.” After a few such stories, I began to think, Is this kid BS’ing me? But, as I’d soon find out, it was all true. Obviously I kept my mouth shut, but it was tough knowing that Robin had done so many prime gigs—and we couldn’t tell our readers about most of them!
One project that Diaz was particularly excited about was the debut by a much-buzzed-about band from Oklahoma called Hinder, Extreme Behavior. At the time, in 2005, Robin wasn’t sure if he would be credited in the liner notes of the album, because, as with most of his ghost drumming work, the band in question had a full-time drummer, in this case Cody Hanson. An agreement was worked out, though, and fortunately for Diaz he was given proper credit—especially since that album contains the number-one smash hit “Lips of an Angel.” (Hanson cowrites most of the band’s material, so really it was a win-win deal.)
On a great many other hit records, however, Diaz’s contributions will never be known by the general public. Still, check out this list of artists the drummer has worked with that we can tell you about: Trapt, Theory of a Deadman, OAR, Danzig, Adelitas Way, Outernational, Ace Enders and a Million Different People, Rev Theory, Chris Cornell, Avril Lavigne, Three Doors Down, and Liars Inc. Diaz’s work extends beyond rock as well, with American Idol singers Kelly Clarkson, Allison Iraheta, Lee DeWyze, David Cook, and Kris Allen. The drummer even did a few tracks with his childhood heroes in Kiss.
Among the big-name producers Diaz works with are Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger (Theory of a Deadman), Brian Howes (Extreme Behavior), and Howard Benson (Break the Spell). “Robin has an innate feel for emotional rock ’n’ roll drumming,” Benson says. “I’ve produced multiple hit records with him, and the experience is always amazing. We are always on the same page.”
MD spoke with the talented drummer while he was on a rare two-week break from touring. (Daughtry spent most of 2012 on the road, and 2013 will be much the same.) This is Robin’s first full feature in MD, but we’re pretty sure it won’t be his last.
MD: When did you begin playing, and who influenced you to get started?
Robin: I first got turned on to drums when I was five years old. An older kid down the street had this enormous blue Ludwig Vistalite kit with all the bells and whistles. I would sit outside his house and just listen to him play. Once in a while he and his band thought it would be cool to let the little kid come over and watch them, and if I was lucky I’d get to sit behind his kit.
MD: What kind of music were they playing?
Robin: They would play Van Halen, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Kiss, and Ozzy songs all day and night. That was where my love for rock ’n’ roll music and the drums began. Shortly after, my mom bought me a pair of drumsticks, and I would beat the heck out of our leather sofa. [laughs] Awesome bottom end, by the way! But it wasn’t until my Grandpa Jo bought me a drumkit for my sixth birthday that I was able to start learning to play along to all the records that my family owned.
MD: What was your practice routine at that point?
Robin: Playing along to records and videos. My all-time favorite record to play along to was Kiss Alive II. Peter Criss’s drum solo in “God of Thunder” was mind-blowing to me. From there I learned all the Kiss records I could get my mom to buy, along with AC/DC’s Back in Black, Zeppelin’s first two albums, the Stones, Sabbath, and, thanks to my dad, Chuck Mangione’s Live at the Hollywood Bowl. I watched and played along to Tommy Aldridge’s double bass video and to Steve Gadd’s videos, especially to learn the Paul Simon track “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” That groove is infectious. And Jeff Porcaro’s video with the “Rosanna” shuffle was difficult, but it was a building block to becoming a well-rounded drummer.
MD: Did you have any formal training?
Robin: During elementary school I played drums for every talent show, and in junior high and high school I began playing in garage bands, playing rock covers and original music. We would play backyard parties and skating rinks and enter battle-of-the-bands contests. Then, before my senior year of high school, I went to the Musicians Institute PIT summer session program. During that program I met and studied with Fred Dinkins, Ray Luzier, Ralph Humphrey, and Joe Porcaro. That was life changing for me. At that point I definitely knew I would be a drummer! Upon finishing high school, I immediately started up at MI for the one-year program. MI opened my eyes to the technical aspects of music and broadened my understanding and appreciation of all styles and types of music.
MD: How did you get into studio work?
Robin: Initially by recording with friends and local bands here in L.A. From that I caught the attention of one producer and then another, and I went from small projects to medium ones to big ones. It was a very gradual progression.
MD: How do you prepare for a recording date?
Robin: A few different ways. Sometimes I get acoustic demos of the songs sent to me in advance so I can learn the songs, make charts, and work on my personal ideas. Sometimes I’ll do preproduction with the band for a couple of days, working out the parts together and learning the songs from top to bottom. And sometimes I just go in cold with no rehearsal. I’ll just listen to the song in the control room, make some cheat sheets, and go for it. That way can be stressful, but it’s one of my favorite ways to record, because it’s fresh and there are no preconceived ideas of how the drums or the song should sound.
MD: How did the sessions for multiplatinum records by Trapt and Hinder come about?
Robin: I recorded the entire debut Trapt record after their manager heard about my playing on the song “Headstrong” through an A&R friend of mine, Joshua Sarubin. There was no click used on the recording of that song. The producer, Garth Richardson, said he wanted to capture a live rock band in its element. And there’s no double bass on it—happily I’m blessed with a Bonham foot!
The drum pattern of “Headstrong” was special because of the fast upbeat verses that went into the half-time sing-along chorus. That song epitomized the perfect harmony between rock and pop beats. At that time most rock songs were half time and heavy, but “Headstrong” had a fresh, interesting, upbeat yet heavy sound.
“Headstrong” actually changed rock radio at that time. It reached number one on Billboard’s mainstream rock and modern rock charts and crossed over to the U.S. pop charts. It also won in the best modern rock track and best rock track categories at the Billboard Music Awards in 2003.
MD: How about Hinder? How did you get involved with them?
Robin: Hinder’s self-titled debut was produced by Brian Howes. Brian and I were in a band together, and he always appreciated my drumming and knew of the other session work I was doing at the time. The hit song “Lips of an Angel” was a stripped-down rock ballad where I played for the vocals and the song, not for myself. As a drummer that can be a hard thing to learn to do, but it’s especially important on a song slated to be a radio rock/pop single, and thankfully that’s what “Lips” accomplished—big time.
MD: Tell us about recording the first few Theory of a Deadman records.
Robin: I was brought in to record their first record by Chad Kroeger of Nickelback. We had met on the road touring and had become friends. Theory was the newly signed band to his label, 604 Records. The guys in the band then brought me back for the second and third albums, Gasoline and Scars & Souvenirs, which were produced by Howard Benson. I recorded all of Scars & Souvenirs. We did two weeks of preproduction, and Howard came in with his ideas and changes for the songs and drum parts.
MD: Can you talk about your approach to one of the biggest hits from that album, “Bad Girlfriend”?
Robin: That’s a straight-up, crowd chanting rock song. My approach for tracking it was simple: Play with feel and hit hard, solid, and with attitude.
MD: How did you come to play on Chris Cornell’s recording of “Light On,” which later became a hit for American Idol season-seven winner David Cook?
Robin: I was asked by Brian Howes, who was the producer and cowriter on that track. We did it at Jim Henson’s A&M studios, off Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. The night before the session, we all met at a hotel in L.A. to get acquainted and just hang out. Chris wanted to go over the approach and arrangement of the song. Little-known fact: Chris started as a drummer. So he showed me by jumping behind my kit. His enthusiasm and love of the drums made the session so much fun.
MD: You no doubt play to a click regularly in the studio. What tips can you offer to make it more comfortable?
Robin: Being able to play to a click is imperative for session work. I was fired from one of my first recording gigs back in 1995 for not being able to play to the click. That experience was humbling, but at the same time it forced me to go and shed for a long time.
I would start the click at around 50 bpm and keep increasing the tempo. I also wrote my own drum charts to practice along to. This enabled me to play behind, on top of, and perfectly with the click, until I was comfortable and not scared of the click anymore. It takes a lot of dedication and practice to play with a click. But once you master it, it’s like riding a bike. Drummers not being able to play with the click is the number-one reason I replace players in the studio. Once a producer knows you’re comfortable and confident behind the kit, the session goes smooth.
MD: These days, with everyone having a home studio, what can you suggest to someone wanting to be a session player?
Robin: Practicing fills and dynamics is so important. Every drummer must have their arsenal of fills that they can pull out at any time. These can become your signature. Hitting hard and consistently saves time during the recording process and during the drum comping process. This makes for a very happy producer and editor, which will guarantee you callbacks for future recording sessions. Also, being able to take and follow direction and to quickly make changes in the studio is very important.
That being said, no one wants a stiff drummer, and that’s why you can’t lose your cool and feel for the song. It’s a difficult balance, but putting your ego aside will help tremendously. This is something I have personally struggled with, due to my ADHD. For me, yoga helps. Also, understand that the drums are like the foundation of a house, and if the foundation is weak it’ll compromise the whole building.
MD: Now that you’re touring so much, as opposed to when you were working in the studios of L.A. more often, how do you balance your family life?
Robin: Balancing life and family on the road can be difficult. I don’t know how bands did it back in the day, but thankfully now there’s FaceTime and Skype! My wife, Lisa, and I try to stay connected as much as possible by always texting, emailing, and talking on the phone. We totally take advantage of free Wi-Fi!
My wife has always said she knew what she was getting into when we got together, and she’s grateful to have the support of her amazing friends and family. She feels it’s essential to have a life beyond her rock ’n’ roll husband but feels it’s equally important that we stay relevant and connected in each other’s lives. We both have careers and work hard at what we do, but being together is what is most important at the end of the day.
I also try to take some of my home life with me on the road, whether it’s my practicing of yoga and exercising, calling and texting with close friends and family in order to stay up to date on things, or taking in a little sightseeing on days off and hitting up a pub. I like to get out in the fresh air and make new friends—that’s always better then being stuck in hotel rooms and buses.
MD: Was it a difficult decision to join Daughtry as a full-time member and leave the sessions behind?
Robin: For the past three years I’ve been recording and touring with the band all over the world. We’ve been in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Singapore, South Africa, Moscow, and recently Dubai. What an experience playing to thousands of fans! We’ve performed on every TV show imaginable and shared the stage with many great musicians. And Daughtry challenges my drumming because of the dynamics in our live show and the evolution of the band’s sound during the record-making process. It’s not just bash-bash drumming; it’s all about the feel, the songwriting, and Chris’s vocals. Deciding to join Daughtry was a no-brainer, because, number one, Chris is an amazing vocalist. Two, all the guys are great players and songwriters, with no crazy baggage. Three, we’re all married and care for one another and our families. And finally, we’re pretty successful. Who could ask for anything more?
“I’ve been working with Robin for ten years now, and we’ve had many hit records together. He’s my go-to guy for all the big projects I do, because he’s the most creative drummer I’ve ever worked with. He always comes up with an interesting spin on the songs. The beats he lays down are actually hooks that bring the tunes to life. He’s also a songwriter, and that’s one of the reasons that he plays for the song and not just to impress other drummers. He’s usually a one- or two take guy, and he has a knack for making grooves feel good. And he owes me huge for hooking him up with his beautiful wife.”—Producer Brian Howes
- 6×14 ’80s Tama Bell Brass snare (with die-cast hoops) or 6 1/2×14 Pork Pie Big Black snare
- 9×13 tom
- 16x 16 floor tom
- 18×18 floor tom
- 18×24 bass drum
- 15″ AA Medium hi-hats
- 19″ Vault V crash
- 21″ HH Raw Bell Dry ride
- 20″ AAX X-Plosion crash
- 20″ HHX Evolution O-Zone crash
Sticks: Vater 1A hickory
Heads: Remo Controlled Sound snare batter and Hazy bottom, Clear Emperor tom batters and Clear Ambassador bottoms, and Coated Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter
Hardware: DW 5000 single bass drum pedal and 9000 series hi-hat stand
Percussion: LP tambourine
Tech: Adrian Benavides