Spending your teenage years making records and touring the world on a rocket ship to stardom is every young musician’s fantasy. Choosing to jump off that rocket while it’s still on a steady ascent may seem like madness. For this drummer, it was reality. The now-twenty-seven-year-old’s voyage of self-discovery reads like an epic poem, complete with otherworldly landscapes, a long journey home, and a triumphant return to his roots.

In 2004, just twenty minutes outside Nashville in a town called Franklin, four starry-eyed teenagers formed a band and had big dreams. Paramore has since become a mainstay in modern rock, racking up hundreds of millions of audio streams. The band’s critically acclaimed new full-length, After Laughter, debuted at number one on Billboard’s Top Rock and Alternative charts, and was its third consecutive release to debut in the top ten of the album charts. The recording is a vibrant celebration of rekindled friendship, boasting a colorful new direction while staying true to the band members’ energetic spirits.

Zac Farro’s return marks the beginning of a new chapter in his life. After spending his formative years away from the spotlight, honing his skills as a songwriter, producer, and director with his own project HalfNoise, he’s returned wiser and primed to explore the road ahead.

MD: Before we talk about your return to Paramore, let’s go back to the beginning. When did you start playing drums?

Zac: I was nine. My mom thought I was bored over the summer, so she signed me up for this summer class called Bach to Rock. The instructor asked if anyone in the class wanted to try to play the drums. I should note that I’m the type of person that hated hearing their name called in school. Yet I found myself with my hand raised like some miracle against my will. The instructor demonstrated a beat, and I was able to play it fairly well. From there, I went home and did the whole pots-and-pans thing. I hated the idea of drum lessons and sitting down to practice, though. I felt that I was a very auditory learner. If I heard it, I could play it, but I struggled to read music.

MD: You were a founding member of Paramore when you were just becoming a teenager, and you left in 2010, while the band was still on its meteoric rise. How hard of a decision was that for you to make?

Zac: I had hit a wall. I didn’t want to go out and play, and if as a musician you’re not getting stoked to play in front of 40,000 people, then something is wrong. When the thought of driving to the grocery store back in Nashville seems more exciting than playing to a huge festival crowd, you have to check yourself. I needed to rethink my life. So leaving the band and going to New Zealand allowed me the time and space to figure out what inspired me.

MD: What drew you to New Zealand?

Zac: The landscape is insane, but really I was drawn to simply having a different pace of life. Living in New Zealand was a transformative experience. I see the world so differently now, and I grew up in many ways. When I left the band, I wasn’t sure if music was something I would keep doing. I knew I’d keep coming back to it, but I wasn’t sure in what capacity. I mostly worked on living life. I’d spent my teenage years making records and touring, which was awesome, but I felt the need to regroup.

MD: When did HalfNoise begin?

Zac: I split my time between New Zealand and Nashville for three years, and during that time I discovered my love for writing music. HalfNoise started in Nashville right when I left Paramore, spawning from all these loops I’d written. Creating more electronic-sounding music seemed to satisfy a different part of my brain. Songwriting and producing was new territory. Then I moved over to New Zealand and started to live that life. Once I moved back to Nashville full time, I began to pursue HalfNoise. I did a few tours, but I still hadn’t made up my mind yet if it was something I wanted to pursue fully, like I had done with Paramore.

MD: When HalfNoise plays live, you’re the frontman. Has that experience altered how you approach drumming in any way?

Zac: Yes. It’s weird for me to be out front, because as a drummer you get used to literally hiding behind everyone else, which creates this comfort zone. Being forced out of my comfort zone really helped my drumming, however. I actually didn’t realize that until Taylor [York, guitarist] and Hayley [Williams, singer] asked me to drum on the new record. The last time I’d played on a Paramore record was 2009, and I was a completely different musician then. The old songs like “Misery Business” that we still play live are very much representative of teenage Zac. But six years of songwriting, cowriting, and producing has opened up my mind and ears, which allowed me to approach After Laughter in a much more musical way.

MD: How so?

Zac: My drumming is more subdued, but there’s space for me to open it up a little bit when we play live. I also wanted to get the best tone out of the kit, which meant not slamming the drums all the time. When learning how to produce, I realized how hard it is to mix drums well when you’re constantly slamming them and playing fills everywhere. Even as far as drum parts, I learned that there’s more to the band than just the drums, which is something I didn’t consider as a teenager. Less is more. I listened closely to Hayley’s melodies and her lyrics and what they meant, and played to that.

MD: The drumming on After Laughter is very linear. The patterns are thoughtful, certainly not simple, and yet always complementary to the guitar, bass, and vocals.

Zac: My coming back to the band was a very organic process. I wasn’t asked to rejoin the band until halfway through the making of the record. From the start, it wasn’t even so much about playing with them again; it was more about getting reacquainted as friends. That was way more important to me than anything else. We seemed to still be on the same path in regards to music and fashion and art, even though a lot of time had passed. As friends we didn’t skip a beat, but we had a lot of life that we hadn’t lived together to catch up on. We’d been listening a lot to Talking Heads, Blondie, as well as Afrobeat music from the ’70s. We were enamored by the repetitive patterns and how locked in they were. One thing that stuck out the most to us was how much energy there was without it being heavy rock.

MD: That’s interesting, given the absence of overdriven guitars on the record. It could be described as sounding more vibrant and vivid.

Zac: Thank you! We knew we couldn’t do a complete 180 musically as a band. Paramore songs are full of energy and life, so we wanted to maintain that, but at the same time it felt like the right time for a bit of a facelift. So we introduced more of what we’ve been listening to and inspired by recently into this new record. It’s a different type of energy. It’s not the energy of distorted guitars and smashing crash cymbals. The energy comes from the polyrhythmic beats. They don’t “rock out” as much as they move and have an entrancing effect.

MD: How did working with producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen [Beck, Nine Inch Nails, M83] shape your performances?

Zac: JMJ is one of the best bass players alive. We set up together in the big live room and laid down every song. There was still some editing done, though—the album isn’t all live takes. But he’s such a badass bass player that it made me be better. I focused on doing my job properly and not screwing up the songs by playing fills all over the place. It was somewhat stressful for me, but we got there.

I’m still growing and learning. One thing that was really cool that we couldn’t get the drums right for was this one song called “Caught in the Middle.” We had tracked all the drums at RCA Studios in Nashville, which was really cool. We’d never done a record in Nashville before, even though it’s where we’re from. At the tail end of the recording process, we went to JMJ’s studio in L.A. to put some finishing touches on the record, but we couldn’t get the drums right for this song. I asked him if we could try to redo the drums at his space. I set up a very tight, snappy-sounding kit in this tiny room, and it ended up being some of my favorite drum sounds on the record. The rest of the record was done in this massive studio space. Even where the song is placed on the record introduces this fresh sound, which makes a nice impact to the arc of the record.

I think just playing to the song and making sure the drum sounds and drum parts worked perfectly for each song was important. For example, the drums in “Idle Worship” are big and fat. “Forgiveness” has only one crash hit in the entire song, so I wanted it to be more about the kick/snare/hat/tom relationship.

MD: Musically and visually, After Laughter is certainly a well-executed artistic concept. You also directed the videos for “Told You So” and “Fake Happy.” Where did the director side of you come from?

Zac: I directed a few videos for HalfNoise. When we were looking to do videos for After Laughter I asked to try one, and I did “Told You So.” People seemed to like it, so they asked me to do another one. But for “Fake Happy” I wanted to explore a more cinematic approach to a video instead of the traditional band performance. It was also the first video I got to shoot on 35-millimeter film. Art and music have always been a huge thing in my life—it can take you places. I always want to see life in a different way and examine different perspectives. I’m learning that I’m a lot more of a visual person than I ever thought I was.

MD: Recent performances by Paramore feature a bunch of musicians on stage, and everyone looks like they’re having a blast.

Zac: The nucleus of the band now is Hayley, Taylor, and I, but Paramore is really the community around us. There are seven people on stage when we play live. Taylor’s brother Justin plays rhythm guitar and sings backup; then there’s my roommate, Logan [MacKenzie], who plays keyboards and guitar. Joe Mullen, my drum tech, plays all the percussion. And there’s a bassist. It’s rad, because it fills everything out. We also set up on stage like a seven-piece band. It’s not the three of us out front and everyone else behind us. We’re all out there together creating this huge sound. It should be organic and it should be different every night, because that’s what people connect to. Playing in a band again, I realize that the ebbs and flows created between musicians is what’s truly special. I can be really locked in with the bass player and we can be tight, but we still all move together as a unit.

Tools of the Trade

Farro plays a Gretsch Broadkaster kit in rose marine pearl finish, featuring a 9×13 tom, a 16×16 floor tom, and an 18×22 bass drum. His snare is a 6.5×14 Gretsch Brooklyn chrome-over-brass model. His Zildjian cymbals include 15″ hi-hats made up of a New Beat bottom cymbal on top and a K top cymbal on the bottom, a 22″ Constantinople Medium Thin Low crash, and a 22″ Constantinople Medium crash. He uses DW hardware, including 9000 series pedals. His Remo heads include Vintage Coated Emperor tom batters, a Controlled Sound snare batter, and a Clear Powersonic bass drum batter, and his sticks are Promark TXR5BWs.