Kaz Rodriguez

Whatever you may know about the drummer and composer, it’s probably only a fraction of the story.

Take a perusal of London-based drummer Kaz Rodriguez’s social media videos, and it quickly becomes evident that he cannot be easily pigeonholed. On one hand, there are multiple photos and clips of his beautiful electronic/acoustic hybrid drumkit adorning arena stages around the world for singer Josh Groban’s tour. Then there are a slew of videos showing Rodriguez blowing some serious chops over prerecorded tracks. The music is of the heavy fusion variety, full of odd times and tricky turnarounds, and puts the drummer’s developed sense of groove and burning hand speed on full display.

But delve deeper, and you realize that there are many other drummers showing their goods over these same tracks all over YouTube, from an unknown kid in his bedroom recording his best effort onto his phone, to big-time drumming luminaries like Aaron Spears and Chris Coleman using Rodriguez’s ultra-useful compositions at their clinics. That’s because everyone loves Kaz’s tracks, and he’s released several albums of drum-less play-alongs that seem to hit the right spot for players of all levels.

“Everyone wants to have fun when they’re playing to a song,” Rodriguez says. “I had this idea of wanting to feel like I’m playing in an arena with an array of sound that complements and cushions my playing. And I wanted everyone to have the opportunity to feel like they were doing that. Other stuff felt too ‘MIDI’ to me. This was more a wall of organic sound. And we can do our own little clinics or do a concert and play just to a track.”

Rodriguez came up through U.K. schooling and spent time in everything from a Muse tribute band to tours with Jessie Ware and the dance-oriented Disciples. He might have stumbled onto a side career of creating tracks for other drummers to blaze over, but it could also be because Rodriguez opens himself up to be inspired by a variety of unorthodox elements, including the perceptual phenomena known as synaesthesia. Defined as “the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body,” synaesthesia affects Rodriguez in unexpected ways. He “sees” certain colors when hearing certain sounds; this allows him to map out Groban song arrangements into different colored sections, write music based on simply speaking to a person, and collaborate with his manufacturers to invent out-of-this-world hybrid drum tones and funky, synthetic cymbal flavors.

Rodriguez has made nice with electronics, and thinks you should as well. And though he brings a sensitive touch to Groban’s ballads, he’s featured on his own fiery composition “Marrakech” during nightly Groban performances. As the singer moves from one end of the arena to the other, the drummer captivates the audience with percussive excitement. Modern Drummer caught up with Rodriguez on one such night, when Groban was passing through New York City to play at a little place called Madison Square Garden….

MD: Talk about growing up playing in London. Did your Indian background influence you? Was there pushback against rock music in your home?

Kaz: I don’t come from a musical background. My roots are actually Portuguese, Iranian, and Indian, so we were a mixed-up bunch. I learned how to play drums naturally. I took a tabla lesson when I was younger, but I just couldn’t hack it. It’s a language within itself, and I just didn’t have the attention span.

In London I was brought up listening to fusion cats. My idols. I was in love with Toto and listened to Jeff Porcaro a lot, and then later with Simon Phillips. And Jonathan Moffett—I was into Michael Jackson, listening to pop—but also Billy Cobham. At about age ten, I was busking on the streets, just to make a buck, or a pound. And that really changed my life, because when I started gathering crowds, I knew there was something there. I learned the value of earning something, and it was rewarding to make people happy. My parents never let me go to play music, though, because they said it wasn’t a proper job. So I rebelled against what they were saying, and by fifteen I’d saved enough money for a drumkit. They didn’t know where that money came from.

MD: And you had experiences with synaesthesia then as well?

Kaz: I have it stronger now, but when I was younger, it wasn’t tapped in as well. At the age of twenty-one, I was in a short coma after being stabbed. I woke up listening to music, and I actually saw an array of colors. Before that, I could explain what color a song was, and people thought I was just weird.

MD: You believe the next level of it was triggered by that kind of traumatic experience?

Kaz: I think it was definitely a trigger, but I looked more into it and realized we’re all kind of born with it. When you’re a child and you look at something bright or colored, you react to it. And you’ll see a newborn baby react to a sound as well. When you get older, you lose sight of that. And for me, it unlocked this thing.

MD: If you hear music with a lot of notes, are there lots of different colors happening? How does it work for you?

Kaz: If I hear Steve Gadd play a triplet and then John Bonham play a triplet— same sticking—I’ll hear different colors. And it’s not just with music; it works for conversation and people in general. I end up writing a lot of music based on conversations or interpretations or listening to a crash cymbal.

MD: What inspired you to create your playalong tracks? Aaron Spears was the first to use them publicly, but other prominent names followed.

Kaz: I originally did it for myself. I was a fan of watching someone like Vinnie Colaiuta or Dave Weckl or David Garibaldi play to backing tracks. And I couldn’t read music. For me it’s a sonic thing. I hear something and think, That sounds right to me. And I don’t have perfect pitch. I just know when a sound doesn’t seem right. The first album I put out was on iTunes in 2011 or 2012.

MD: That’s just backing tracks with no official version of you playing drums over them?

Kaz: Yes, just backing. There are some tracks with me playing on YouTube, just to let people know. The blessing in disguise was that I left it a mystery, because a lot of people would hear this canvas, this painting, this sketch, but I let the drummers add the color to it. If I play it, I’m only playing my interpretation of the song. Does it sound the same if Steve Gadd or Keith Carlock is playing with Steely Dan? Different movements. What about if Steve Jordan was  playing with Steely Dan?

I never thought that there were enough people in the drumming community creating backing tracks that people genuinely enjoyed, with challenging time signatures, but not so challenging…to learn time signatures without reading music. That’s how Aaron got connected with it. I sent him my song “7 to the Power of 6.” He loved it, and I never even knew he would reply. He was playing that track [during his clinics] all over the world. He’s a major inspiration to me and now one of my best friends. He still pushes me.

Years ago, I asked him if this was good enough to keep doing, and he told me I should continue. And over the course of my albums, I began to grow because I started to tap more into my synaesthesia and tried to understand what a drummer would like. Originally I made things that I would like. But eventually I made a song for Aaron based on the way he plays. And later I met Chris Coleman, who somehow knew me, and he asked me to make him a track.

MD: And your newer stuff is a bit more compositional and cinematic.

Kaz: Yes, it’s more open, with infinite possibilities. People ask me what genre my music is, and I can’t answer that. Alex Rüdinger covers my song “Storm,” and he’s a metal guy, an amazing player. And then you have someone like Adrian Bent, who plays for Drake. There’s an array of stylistic players who can do this music, because it has all those influences on it.

MD: It must feel great for you to go on YouTube and see all these other drummers at home playing along, not just more well-known names.

Kaz: That is so satisfying for me. Some six-year-old in Indonesia. It’s growing, and it makes me so happy to know the drum community is building through my music. And it’s so nice to meet people who say my music has helped them so much. People at Berklee doing it for an exam. And it inspires me to keep writing and progressing, because I’m always learning. I was in Nashville, in the middle of writing a song for Calvin Rodgers, and Steve Jordan came up and said hello. I was like, Wow, this is crazy. I was so inspired by his presence that I wrote a song. I meet really lovely people through this.

MD: Is it lucrative?

Kaz: Surprisingly it is. I was a bit shocked. At the start it wasn’t. Now it’s become kind of like a business. I don’t rely on just that. But because of it, I’m given tons of opportunities for drum festivals and clinics and videos.

MD: How did the Josh Groban gig come up? Was it strange that your videos on YouTube were fusion-y, but you got a call to play this type of music?

Kaz: Groban’s MD, Tariqh Akoni, found me on Facebook. [At the same time] Josh was looking for a drummer and had a few come through, and then he saw one of my Drumeo videos and sent that to Tariqh.

I got the gig with no audition. It was an amazing opportunity, and I’m still grateful for it. And it’s nice to know that I was brought into the band as a contributor. Everyone in the band is creative, and we all have respect for Josh. I was asked to write a composition for the set that I get to play every day. I wrote “Marrakech” during rehearsals in L.A. Josh and Tariqh approved it, and we play this instrumental while Josh moves from the A stage to the B stage. It starts all cinematic, and I get to go a bit crazy.

Kaz Rodriguez

MD: How do you overcome the non-reading aspect, when you’ve got twenty-five songs to learn with minimal rehearsal before going into arenas?

Kaz: I’ve always been able to learn songs really quickly. It’s important to be able to do that. You see Teddy Campbell have short periods of time to learn songs for American Idol. I’ve always found a way to chart stuff in my head, but I do it through color. When I hear a song, I think, This section is blue, this section is green, this section is yellow…. I just remember it in a partially…I’d say…autistic way. You have a way of seeing groupings. Not saying that reading isn’t important, but if I have a piece of music in front of me, I don’t find it useful. I want to take the feeling away from the music, that you’re actually in the music, rather than looking at the pages. You might be missing some special things that aren’t on the page. And I feel like I have that musical freedom on this gig, as long as I learn the parts. Tariqh always says, “You bring the people you trust, and you trust them.”

MD: Is the Groban show a challenge, in terms of sensitivity?

Kaz: It’s being in the emotion of the songs. I’ve always heard this term, where you could be a bit too “L.A.” They’d say, “We don’t want this L.A. feel.” And I’m asking, “What does that mean?” [laughs] It means it’s too right on the money. It’s too much like a session. With Josh, there’s a song called “River,” which is a slow ballad. And it’s a really important song to play, one, because Steve Jordan produced it and he’s playing drums on the album original. So I had to learn to play those songs being me. Being right on the click is usually great, but in certain songs it isn’t. Sometimes you need to be kind of loose, on top of it or ahead of it. And if I’m on the drums, a hundred percent of the show is on the click. And when you’re playing with an orchestra, you can’t afford to be laid-back or too in front. You have to be in this fine sweet spot where you’re driving the orchestra and also bedded safely with the band. And dynamics are important. I’ve got three differently tuned snares. And you hear why in the show. If I used only one, it wouldn’t work.

MD: And this is where your knowledge of electronics comes in.

Kaz: On certain songs I have to enhance the main snare. I use Roland electronics, and they work perfectly for me. I can program a kick and snare on the Roland SPD-SX, and I can have a gigantic kick and this white-noise clap, and you can’t get that from an acoustic snare. To change that very quickly is important, to stay on the same snare but have it in this tuning range where I can feel like it complements the electronics.

A lot of people are afraid of it, but I actually love it. I do a lot of hybrid clinics around the globe, and it makes the old-school cats go, What was that? That’s the mission. It’s important to play both electronic and acoustic. Even Josh’s gig is heavily influenced by electronics. Our fantastic percussionist, Pete Korpela, has a lot of electronics as well, triggering samples from the record. They’re timed sequences. There aren’t a lot of tracks. We are primarily the guys who have to emulate the sampled sounds. We have to make it sound like the record. There’s something more endearing with that because you’re not playing to a static record, and it just sounds like the album. If you’re coming to a live show, you want to hear a live show but with the record sounds. We try to give the audience the sounds they’re familiar with.

MD: The live drums are otherwise conventional?

Kaz: My main kick is a 24, and being a fusion guy, I’ve never used one that size. So I have a 24and another one that’s 20.

MD: What about the future of Logic and the way software is developing and changing? What do you see happening in drum-centric electronics?

Kaz: Logic is what works for me. There are other things, like Ableton and Pro Tools. But Logic is my vice. It makes me feel satisfied. Logic is a template, a canvas I can understand. I helped design the Roland TM-6 PRO drum trigger module. And we designed and sampled our own sounds onto the module in my studio. If you look online, I explain how I recorded one of the sounds, a hi-hat sound, by just rubbing my hands together. I also made a bass drum sound out of a door shutting.

But everything is changing. Even with cymbals, people are using stacks more and more. I go to the people at Zildjian, and they want my input. Because of my synaesthesia, they’re drawn to sounds that are undiscovered. We’ve made some crazy cymbals, and I just hope they can come out for people. All these things are whitenoise-y, and to me those are sounds of turquoise, and turquoise is electronic.

Twelve years ago I was just a guy who played lots of notes. Now I understand what the future could be. I believed in it. It’s an honor to now be asked to be involved. I want to make sure other drummers out there have the ability to understand electronics as well.

MD: Your play-along tracks require a different muscle from the Groban gig. Do you do anything to keep in shape?

Kaz: When I go back home, I make sure I’m still warm to a balance of things. A lot of people think of me as a chops guy, because they see more of that on my social media. And then they’ll see me playing something like this gig, and I’m playing songs. But that’s from my roots. Also, I originally started playing a left-handed setup, and that didn’t feel right. I play ambidextrously. I can lead with my left or right foot. I mostly play a right-handed setup, but I sometimes play open-handed. When I play more “chops” music, it’s hard to explain what I’m doing. You’re doing the left- and right-hand way, and that’s quite a good way of doing it. It’s like Billy Cobham or another big influence on me, Gary Husband. But I practice both playing grooves and chops. All the technical rudiments—paradiddles, flam-taps, all that stuff. But I’m not trying to be the fastest, just as musical as I can be. I like to keep warm, but I don’t like to over-practice.

MD: So the future is bright?

Kaz: I play with jazz groups and this DJ/ house group called Disciples. I just want to keep composing and doing more drum clinics and more Josh and more projects with fantastic musicians. I’m looking forward to getting home and seeing my girlfriend and taking walks and being inspired. We talk about life. And talking about life brings you back to music. You have to have a balance and recharge. Like just now, because of our genuine conversation, I’ve gotten two ideas about a song. It’s nice: we’re sitting down, relaxed, and I’m already seeing colors. But it’s been a great run so far. I’m just riding the wave. I’m grateful every day for everything that happens.


 

Kaz Rodriguez

Rodriguez’s Setup

Drums: Tama Star (Walnut)

  • 6×14 Starphonic chrome over brass snare
  • 7×13 snare
  • 10×15 floor tom/snare
  • 6.5×10 tom
  • 7×12 tom
  • 14×20 bass drum
  • 14×24 bass drum

Cymbals: Zildjian

  • 16″ K Sweet hats
  • 18″ K Dark thin (prototype)
  • 19″ K Constantinople crash-ride
  • 12″ A Custom EFX stack with 10″ Spiral Trash
  • 23″ K Sweet ride
  • 24″ Light ride
  • 22″ Oriental Crash of Doom prototype

Hardware: Tama Roadpro stands, remote cable hat, Speed Cobra bass drum pedals, and 1st Chair throne

Heads: Remo, including Emperor Vintage, Powerstroke P3 Clear, and Emperor Black Suede batters

Electronics: Roland SPD-SX sample pad, RT-30 triggers, and TM-6 PRO drum trigger module

Percussion: LP Micro Snare

Mics: Earthworks DK7 kit

Accessories: Protection Racket AAA cases


 

Kaz Rodriguez on “The Journey”

Diving deep into a few of the drummer’s nasty grooves and fills.


 

Kaz Rodriguez built his name by creating slick compositions and loops for other drummers to shred over. But in addition to his own well-developed bag of technical facility, he can lay down grooves that bend the mind, like on his composition “The Journey.”

As Rodriguez explains, he wrote the song for an assignment at college after being told to make an interesting drum pattern. “I started writing it on a train to London, using Logic, when I heard this [sequence of notes] on an announcement,” he says. “It said, ‘Next stop…,’ and I was captivated by that riff, so I just looped it the whole way through. I displaced the 16th notes by accident and it sounded cool, and I began air-drumming to it. The purpose was to displace the kick drum so you had independence going on. Independence exercises help you discipline movements. That’s where I got into listening to composers like Steve Reich. The groove is keeping the backbeat in 6/8, but feels like it’s always carrying over the bar.

“The hi-hat and snare anchor the groove—those remain the same,” Rodriguez continues. “But I also change a lot of the pattern on top. It helps me open up to rhythms and find alternate patterns, find drum grooves within drum grooves, and find things that are uncommon. When I was younger, I was told to play the one thing that would pay your bills, but I thought there’s got to be more than this, like Rush, Tool, Meshuggah, or Animals as Leaders. Everything like that is displaced, but the riff is always where it is. So by displacing the bass drum, you’re creating a riff just by one movement of the instrument.”



 

Check out the following beat-displaced goody from “The Journey.” It’s deceptively simple—just tricky enough to where it takes some time to internalize the details. It’s a lesson in being open to the moment and the muse and finding inspiration in the most unlikely of places. [0:40]

The Journey 1

At the 1:04 mark, Rodriguez incorporates a 16th-note snare pattern with offbeat open hi-hats over the displaced bass drum figure.

The Journey 2

In the first B section at 1:16, Rodriguez opens up the feel with more of a traditional 6/8 backbeat on beat 4.

The Journey 3

Check out this burning triplet fill the drummer plays to transition back into the second A section at the 1:38 mark.

The Journey 4

After a displaced fill at the 2:04 mark, Rodriguez places the backbeat on beat 4 again while playing a shuffled 4/4 hi-hat pattern over the 6/8 pulse to create a four-over-six polyrhythmic feel.

The Journey 5

To check out a video performance of this song, search YouTube for “Kaz Rodriguez The Journey.”

Transcriptions by Willie Rose.