He grabbed headlines as one of the most talked-about drumming prodigies in the history of the instrument, playing alongside musical icons three times his age and establishing a reputation for blistering clinic appearances. In his first MD interview in years, the drummer, who’s currently on an international tour with superstar Katy Perry, opens up about finding his unique place on the musical landscape, well outside of the box that some of his early chops-obsessed fans would prefer he stay in.
Tony Royster Jr. first graced the cover of Modern Drummer in January of 2000, at the age of fourteen. While sharing the spotlight with the iconic fusion and funk drummer Dennis Chambers, Royster was representing “the future of drumming.” No pressure there, right?
Some people no doubt thought that the young phenom had it made at that point, but in the music industry there are no guarantees. It’s not easy to stay on course in this business under normal circumstances, and with Royster there was the added weight of established leaders potentially shying away from hiring a player like him at the risk of their own skills and music being overshadowed by such a fresh and talented presence.
But Royster proved his doubters wrong. He streamlined his chops and utilized his skills on gigs with the likes of Jay Z, Joss Stone, and Joe Jonas, and now he helms the drum chair for superstar Katy Perry. He’s appeared on AWOLNATION’s debut album, Megalithic Symphony, on Joss Stone’s The Soul Sessions, Volume 2, and on Residente’s highly regarded self-titled album. And he’s released three instructional videos: 1999’s Common Ground, featuring Chambers and Billy Cobham, 2007’s DW-produced Pure Energy, and 2009’s The Evolution Of…, featuring original music from his band, ASAP.
Although he set up shop in Los Angeles a dozen years ago and has been rubbing elbows with instrumental and pop music elite for most of his life, Royster hasn’t lost touch with the family, friends, and values he grew up with in Hinesville, Georgia. He watches what he eats and maintains body and mind with regular workouts at the gym. “I like anything that requires me to be competitive,” he says, “but that at the same time [forces me to] use my brain. I love pool, bowling, basketball, and skating. I like going to the movies. I just like to be active. I especially like activities with groups, where we can vibe together and really enjoy each other.”
These days Royster is also developing a clothing line, and he hopes to put serious time into his own music during a break in Perry’s tour in 2018. “I haven’t put out any type of music since my last DVD,” he says, “and that needs to change. Hopefully I can involve some of the musicians and producers that I really enjoy working with.”
MD: It’s been great to see you build a serious career as a drummer after the notoriety you achieved as a young man.
Tony: I was blessed to have the opportunity to play with Dennis Chambers at an early age, and that was through connections with other people who had relationships with him. [Drummer/inventor] Bob Gatzen made all that happen. But I also had to make sure Bob knew that I was going to be a person in the industry that was going to continuously play and be focused on my craft.
At a young age like that you could easily get lost, you could easily divert from the task at hand, which for me was to be a professional drummer. I’m glad my father kept me on the right road in terms of doing that. A lot of people in the industry, including some who worked for manufacturers, didn’t think I would even last past fifteen or sixteen years old, so they didn’t put forth too much effort to support me. So it was great, but it was definitely not easy at all. You have to stay focused, and my father was always putting me in the right places at the right time in order for me to show everybody that I was here to stay in the industry.
MD: Did you feel the pressure at that age?
Tony: I just wanted to play and have a good time. I didn’t really get the pressure vibe, because I was still a kid, and at the time everybody was just excited about me being able to play. It wasn’t like I had anything to prove. I just happened to be a kid that had some talent. People were just blown away that I could play the way I could at my age. It was more pressure from my father to make sure that I kept my head on straight and stayed humble, but I wouldn’t really consider that pressure—he still allowed me to be a kid and do what I wanted to do. He just embedded in my brain to stay focused, and at the end of the day to just have fun.
MD: Where did your drive come from?
Tony: I think over time it was seeing what [my playing] did for people, how it made them feel. Also knowing that the drums is the driving force of basically everything you hear in music. Seeing people dancing or bobbing their heads or expressing themselves through my playing, that’s the thing that made me most excited. And also, if I was angry or happy about something, it was a great way to express myself, to release anything that I was feeling, which made me bring out different creative juices within myself. Music is a very powerful thing…just to be able to jam with your friends. You can also jam by yourself, go in a room and get it on. And as I was getting older, it became a great way for me to work out, go in there and sweat and play hard and just get it all out. Put everything on the table.
MD: You once said that for you it was all about singles, doubles, and paradiddles. Is that still true?
Tony: Those are most definitely my favorite rudiments. I can intertwine them in any way. They’re the very basic rudiments that a lot of people use, and they’ve always been my favorites.
MD: How many hours a day did you put in initially to build up your chops, and how many do you put in now?
Tony: Back then it varied a lot. My father still allowed me to be a kid, so sometimes I would practice for an hour, sometimes I would be super-happy and practice for two hours. Sometimes I just wanted to get something off my chest and I’d go and practice for forty-five minutes. It was never something that was set in stone. My father would always encourage me to practice more if I could, and for the most part I just did what I felt.
Now I practice most when I’m on the road. When I’m home I try to get in an hour and a half or two hours, just because my day is so busy with other things that I’m involved in. It varies, but the tour life is basically my practice time. I’m pretty much playing every other night on tour, so besides warming up for the show or something like that, that’s my practice.
MD: Do you have certain go-to warm-up exercises?
Tony: It’s basically different singles exercises, doubles exercises, paradiddles, sometimes five-stroke rolls. But that’s more to get my wrists and arms warm. When I get on the set I just want to be able to express myself without having any type of tension, and those exercises really help. I also do a lot of stretching before I play.
MD: Does getting loose help with your hand speed?
Tony: Yeah, most definitely. Stretching, and how you apply yourself to the warm-ups, is very important. If you’re not putting forth the effort, then you can tell once you get on the set, and you can’t do what you really want to. I usually warm up with marching sticks—which are heavier than the regular sticks that I play with—on a practice pad or pillow. Sometimes I go from a pillow to a practice pad, using the pillow because there’s no rebound. You’re forced to really use your arms and wrists, trying to open up and release, and that stretches out the muscles.
Then going to the pads is a completely different feel, and then going to the set I feel right. Usually it takes me about fifteen or twenty minutes to really get to where I need to be, and even then, once I get to the drums I can stretch in between whatever I’m doing if I still feel a little tight. Also, I still use the Moeller technique as a warm-up, and I like to drink a lot of water—that’s very important.
MD: Explain how you find the right grip and balance with your sticks.
Tony: I’ve been doing it for such a long time that it’s muscle memory now, but it’s about finding that balance point where the stick bounces the most [off the drumhead].
MD: Your ability to subdivide grooves while playing at high speeds is impressive—you seem to have a great inner calm.
Tony: Growing up, I always wanted to push myself to do something different. I used to play with the radio. My father would put music on and I’d work on my internal metronome, which was very important to me at an early age. I would play to a song, cut the volume off mid-song and just keep playing, and turn the volume up to see where I was with the music, how far off I was. That was a great way to work on the inner metronome.
And so having that type of internal clock, when I was getting older and playing some music, I was able to subdivide and play different time signatures and be able to know where the 1 was. I felt the 1 inside, as opposed to counting. When you begin to count like that, you block off a certain part of your mind. I don’t want to concentrate on counting subdivisions and time signatures. I want to be able to just feel them.
MD: Do you do anything to settle yourself before a show?
Tony: It really depends on what I’m doing, who I’m playing with. It’s always good to be around other people. For example, my Katy Perry bandmates and I, we hang out, maybe have a couple drinks before the show, listen to music, vibe, dance—just to get our minds in that vibe of calmness, as you said. We don’t even think about the show, to be honest. And now it’s second nature. At this point we’re on the train and the train is moving.
But me…just warming up, listening to other styles of music or whatever music I like to listen to, whether it be rap or R&B. And that’s sometimes what I warm up to, doing exercises to music that I like. There’s no crazy routine that I usually do, just whatever makes me happy at the time—hanging out with my friends, playing games, whatever.
MD: You’ve gone from playing fusion-type music with your ASAP band to gigs like Jay Z and Joe Jonas, and now Katy Perry. Is switching between genres a fun challenge for you?
Tony: It is fun for me, though I don’t really consider it a challenge. I just appreciate the fact that at an early age my father introduced me to all styles of music, which made me very versatile in my playing. And I enjoy all styles of music. Doing a rap gig, a pop gig, a jazz gig, and being able to play fusion like that, it was just a great way for me to exercise what I learned as a kid, and I just love it. And to be able to do it at that level, it’s even more fun for me.
MD: The pop stuff is obviously more regimented, but you have a great knack for making the music swing even with a click track.
Tony: Every situation is different, and every song that we’re playing requires a different type of swing. Some songs require you to play right on the beat. For example, this pop stuff with Katy, I’m triggering 90 percent of it. They basically took every sound from her latest record, and I’m playing those. I have to play it just like the record, so I’m mostly playing the electronic pads. And some of that stuff is very on the beat, for the pop vibe. And then there are certain songs that do have a swing to them. My biggest thing is trying to match the record as much as possible, and the only thing that I do that might have a little bit of my own touch and flavor is when I fill or something like that. But for the most part, the actual beat, the actual drive, I want to do it exactly like the record.
MD: With Katy you’re playing on songs that have been megahits for years.
Tony: Yeah, I can’t really go off the grid too much, because she’s used to something that she’s been hearing for a long time. You can’t just decide to do your own vibe to a song that she’s had a hit with for six years. You have to just zone into that vibe and match what you think she wants to hear and how she feels when she performs these songs.
MD: There’s lots of percussion sounds in Katy’s live set. Are you triggering those too, like the handclaps in the breakdowns on “Tsunami”?
Tony: Pretty much anything that you hear, electronics or whatever, I’m triggering. There might be one or two minute percussion tracks, some sounds in there for texture purposes. But the main stuff that you hear that really stands out, I’m playing. I call my set a booby trap, because any extra hit of those sounds that are triggered from my drums and, oh man, it’s a crazy situation. And the sounds aren’t like little snare drums. These are big-ass sounds from the record, like a big snare.
Most drummers aren’t used to playing triggers, because they’re so used to doing ghost notes, things of that nature. There’s no ghost notes in this type of music. You do a ghost note, it can be the end of your career playing triggers. If I’m playing a very simple pattern that just requires four on the floor and 2 and 4 on the snare, I can do some intertwining percussion parts. It’s a dope situation. It’s kind of challenging at times, but I’d rather them be happy with me playing the music and sounding like the record. And when people ask what’s staying in the box or what’s staying in Pro Tools, I can tell them pretty much nothing. They can’t believe it, especially when they come to the concerts. There’s really no drum tracks left in the Pro Tools. So if I stop playing, you’ll know for sure.
MD: Are you playing with a click in your ear?
Tony: Oh, yeah, absolutely. We’ve got breaks, pyro, dancers—so many different things going on with the show that if I didn’t keep time with the click, it would throw everything off. It all requires my not getting off time, rushing, or dragging. Any late hits that don’t go with the pyro or visual, you can definitely tell. There’s a lot that goes into the production, so you’ve got to be on point.
MD: There are videos that show you jamming with a click, playing ahead of, behind, and right on the beat. You seem to enjoy using it like another musician.
Tony: Yeah, it’s good to be able to have that skill set ready for whatever situation. If there’s a band that requires some dragging, you still have to have that click there so you have that foundation for the actual time. If you don’t, then some people lose it completely, and then you end up dragging yourself back into last year. You also don’t want to rush. So it was big for me to be able to practice that, to be able to play ahead of the beat and behind the beat and dead on with the beat to where you can’t even hear the click anymore.
MD: On “Tsunami” there are those snare rolls—are those on your drums?
Tony: At the beginning of the song I’m playing the snare sounds on my pads, and then toward the end of the song I switch to my acoustic snare, but the same sound that I’m playing on the pad is triggered on my snare. I’m not really changing it, I’m just adding the acoustic snare sound to the electronic sound to give it that other type of vibe. And if there are any extra snare rolls, that’s me playing.
MD: You have a gong drum for this gig too.
Tony: I use that a lot, more than some of the other gigs I’ve done in the past. They have it EQ’d and sounding nice in the house, and they love it. It just adds that show vibe and that extra oomph when it comes to playing big arenas—it just fits well.
MD: Some people have questioned you for playing with Jay Z or Katy Perry, like you’ve somehow sold out or are wasting your talents. They don’t seem to understand how important the feel is that you bring to those gigs.
Tony: Yeah, I mean it isn’t about…first of all, you can’t please everyone, and I got over that a long time ago. Second, the people that have come to see me play at clinics are super drum-heads, which is fine. But I have another level of thinking when it comes to playing, and my thoughts about the industry. When I hear a drummer like Abe Laboriel playing with Paul McCartney, he’s playing straight grooves, without any crazy fills. I mean, he’s not that type of drummer anyway, but nobody says anything like that to him, because he didn’t grow up as a clinician drummer like myself. But last year he [did extremely well financially] playing with Paul McCartney. So it’s more about setting a grounded foundation for your life, for your future, you know what I’m saying?
Playing with these types of artists, I have opportunities—to make memories, to build my résumé, and just to do different things. All that these [naysayers] are thinking about are my chops and all this stuff I do by myself at clinics. But they’re not taking into consideration what I’m trying to do for my career, for my future, for my family. I’ve gotten so many great opportunities from playing with some of these artists, like Jay Z and Joe Jonas, and now playing with Katy Perry. Some of these gigs I got because they knew that I played with other artists, sometimes without even having to audition for them. People don’t know what the actual work and logic behind it is.
So that’s why I don’t really care about what people say that’s in the negative realm. It is what it is. None of these guys are paying my bills. Nor are they making sure that I’m good for the future. They’re going off on things that they see, and not having the opportunity to talk to me about why. They just assume. So it’s cool, whatever. I’m going to continue to do what I do as a musician. I’m never going to lose the love of playing music. There are different phases in your life, and this is what’s happening now.
MD: In pop music the drum parts can be a hook—like on that YouTube clip of you playing “New York” with Jay Z and Alicia Keys, and there’s that place where you have to stop and just play the cymbal bell.
Tony: Absolutely. It really depends on the artist. In hip-hop the most challenging thing is not the grooves or the beats, it’s the breaks and the lyrical content—knowing when to play and when not to play. When producers make these beats, they’re not thinking about live musicians playing them, they’re just throwing drops and stuff whenever they want to. So remembering all that stuff was the craziest thing about playing hip-hop. It’s similar with pop music. Pop is about making sure you know all the patterns, and being able to re-create that feel using whatever program they’re using to make the beat. It’s a nice situation, man.
MD: What’s a rehearsal like with Katy Perry? It’s easy to imagine it involving forty or fifty people.
Tony: The rehearsal I just finished, we were preparing for New Year’s Eve. We’re going to Dubai, so it’s a slightly different show from our normal one, and we had to make sure that we had new transitions together, new outros to certain songs. But the normal rehearsal, it’s actually not as many people as you’d think. We have a total of four dancers, and we have five band members—two keyboard players, bass, guitar, and me—plus two vocalists. That’s basically all we need.
There’s also a guy that’s under the stage, and he basically runs the entire show, like, everything. All my pads and triggers are being controlled by him, and it’s automated as well. I have the pads up there, but I don’t have any FX modules or any type of switcher or anything. Everything is being handled by him, and he has like eight computers that he runs the show with, so it’s kind of crazy.
So if I’m playing a song, you have a verse, a chorus, a bridge, and on some songs a producer will use particular drum sounds for the verse but different ones for the chorus. So I’ll be playing the verse, and as soon as it goes into the chorus, the drum sounds will change. So basically all I’ve got to do is make sure I remember the patterns, and where I placed the sounds at on the pads. That was the biggest part of the rehearsal for the tour, remembering where the hell I placed them for each song. [laughs]
MD: And you’re triggering some sounds from your acoustic drums too.
Tony: Yes. I believe we’re using MainStage software in order to do everything—I have four auxiliary Roland pads on my left-hand side and one on my right side, and my three snares and kick drum have triggers. It’s an hour-and-a-half show, and I’m triggering electronics on every song. It becomes about muscle memory more than anything.
MD: Have you worked in a situation like this before?
Tony: This is the first time. Usually what happens is, the guy that’s running Pro Tools will get all the samples from the producer or whoever. They’ll cut up all the sounds, or he’ll do it himself, and then he gives me or my drum tech the sounds, and we have the program that we just connect to the computer and it pops right up. And it’s easy: You take the sounds out of the bank and you just drag it to whatever pad you want on the SPD-SX, get out the USB, and it’s right there ready to go.
I used to use two SPD-SXs, one for my kick drum and one for my snare, so the front-of-house man could EQ and mix it properly without having to try to do all that on the same pad. It’s good to have the kick separately, and your snare on one pad. But I don’t have to deal with that anymore. I did it with Jay Z, which was fine. It wasn’t hard at all. I switched all the pads and everything for each song. For this gig I don’t have to do anything but play.
MD: You’ve also worked with Joss Stone, in a more old-school soul music setting.
Tony: I toured with her for a little while, and then I did her entire Soul Sessions, Volume 2 album, at Blackbird Studio in Nashville. She’s one of my favorite artists to work with, because she’s just so down to earth, and so grieved about the BS that’s going on in the world. She just wants positive energy around her, and she’s one of the easiest people to work with, on and off stage. She’s very go-with-the-flow, she’s all about nature and all that stuff, and she has a beautiful, powerful voice. And her music definitely represents soul, and just being able to be free and express yourself. I had a great time touring and doing shows with her.
MD: Your attitude is inspiring, to play each different gig the best you can for what it is.
Tony: Yeah, you have to put forth the best effort, man, and play every time like it’s your last. That’s the only way for people to feel and see the passion, and to get the most out of people’s reactions too. People want to be able to have a good time and be able to feel the music. No one wants to see somebody that doesn’t look like they’re having fun. It’s all about connecting.
Once you connect, man, the limits, there are none.
Drums: DW Collector’s series with maple shells
A. 6.5×14 maple snare
B. 6×13 Edge or maple snare
C. 7×8 tom
D. 8×10 tom
E. 9×12 tom
F. 14×16 floor tom
G. 16×20 gong drum
H. 18×22 bass drum
Heads: Remo, including Black Max batter on 6.5×14 snares, Coated Controlled Sound batter on 6×13 snare, Ebony Emperor tom batters, Ebony Powerstroke 3 gong drum batter, and clear Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter
1. 15″ HHX Click Hats
2. 18″ HHX Evolution crash
3. 10″ HHX splash
4. 18″ HHX O-Zone crash stacked on top of 17″ AAX X-Treme China
5. 19″ Artisan crash
6. 16″ AA Sick Hat top stacked on top of 16″ XSR Fast Stax
7. 22″ HHX Omni
Sticks: Vic Firth 55A sticks
Hardware: DW, including two 9000 series double bass pedals (one attached to a trigger), 9500 two-leg hi-hat stand (with short pole), two 9991 single tom stands (for gong drum), four 9900 double tom stands (for toms and triggers), three 9300 snare stands, six 9700 straight/boom cymbal stands, and 9000 series throne base
Accessories: Porter & Davies BC2 Thumper throne, Vater white felt bass drum beater, three sandbags, small percussion table (no back), 8×8 black drum rug
Electronics: Roland RT-30K, RT-30H, KD-9, and PD-8 triggers; Radial JS-2 mic splitter