by Ilya Stemkovsky
Getting to the creative heart of the matter with Halsey’s beatkeeper.
Nate Lotz isn’t interested in showing you how fast his doubles are. As the drummer for the electro-pop starlet Halsey, Lotz works an electronic/acoustic hybrid kit with precision, but he’s much more focused on that magic that happens when the imaginative stuff comes out. “My favorite drummers are saying something on the drums,” Lotz says. “I don’t care about being the fastest drummer or the most in-time drummer. That’s been my journey for a couple of years. Let’s get in a room and do something creative.”
Raised in a remote town in Colorado, Lotz was drawn to the lights and opportunities of Los Angeles, and once he arrived he began a steady workman existence playing every sort of gig imaginable. Eventual tours and recordings with Eric Hutchinson and La Sera led to working with Ryan Adams on his version of Taylor Swift’s 1989 album. Nowadays Lotz spends his time doing sessions, laying down some serious rock with bands such as Blacktop Queen, and touring with new artists like Halsey, whose profile continues to rise. Just don’t expect any gospel chops coming from the drums when Lotz is on stage.
MD: It was interesting going through some YouTube videos of you from a few years back and seeing how you paid your dues with all kinds of bands before arriving at your current, minimal approach with Halsey.
Nate: As I’ve gotten older I’ve zoned in on finding my specific voice that people will call me for. But five years ago I was doing anything and everything under the sun. [I’d go from] a wedding gig to a jazz gig to sight-reading a musical to a church gig, all in the span of one week.
MD: You have those skills because you listened to a lot of different music coming up?
Nate: It was early in high school that I got really into drums and figured out that it was my passion. It was anything from Green Day to Thrice to Alkaline Trio to the Sex Pistols. There were no bands coming through Steamboat Springs, Colorado, so it was the one local music shop and the listening station there. My music teacher in high school was a drummer, and he turned me on to Elvin Jones and Art Blakey and opened up the jazz thing. Those drummers were aggressive, the same kind of aggressiveness I was hearing in rock music. Later, at Musicians Institute in L.A., I realized you can be in different bands, as opposed to being in one band that gets really famous or doesn’t. MI exposed me to different ways to make a living.
MD: Halsey’s album is heavily produced. What was the direction when it came to figuring out the live drums for the show?
Nate: It was a mixture of me and the musical director. We conceptualized the hybrid kit and sorted through the drum sounds from the record. We had a folder of samples, like “verse snare” and “chorus snare.” And it became, What am I going to play, and what are we leaving in the track? What should I put on the acoustic snare or kick trigger, and what should I put on the pad? It was a song-by-song, under-the-microscope process. Once it all gets distributed onto the kit, it comes to life quickly, but before that it’s a very technical process. We’ve got everything miked up and recorded during rehearsals, so we can play it down and listen back through a PA and then decide, “That sound needs to come down,” or “That sound needs to be panned left.”
MD: What’s the live electronic setup for Halsey?
Nate: I’ve got the Roland SPD-SX, a kick trigger, a snare trigger, a side electronic kick drum, and another external pad. I’d say 60 percent of the set is played on the SPD-SX, and 40 percent is on the acoustic kit.
MD: Ryan Adams’ music is obviously much more organic.
Nate: We made the 1989 record, and it was the opposite of the Halsey stuff. No click. Only real drums. And we’d only do a couple passes and you’d just feel it out in the moment. If there were things that weren’t technically perfect, that was okay. It would be character. It was a whole other side of opening up the musical brain. I still play with Ryan in the studio, maybe recording a song for another artist, trying out different things. It’s a very organic, open, creative space. Working with him has affected everything I do musically in a positive way.
MD: Did you use his gear or bring your own?
Nate: Ryan has a kit [in his studio], set up and ready to go. He has cymbals and snares, but I would also bring my own and swap those out. The kick and toms are the consistent house kit.
MD: How do you juggle playing on softer electronic pads and then rocking out with Ryan Adams? Do you do anything specific to keep your hands in shape?
Nate: Recently, after Halsey soundchecks, I’d play along with music or put a click on for an extra hour. Just improvising, and not being super-methodical. No paradiddle pyramid. Just doing more stuff that challenges my brain and creativity. When I got back to L.A. after the tour, it made me feel sharp. Sometimes, on a day off at home, I’d put together an odd kit setup I’d never played before and try to have fun with it. And I’d try to develop something new or creative to bring to the table for the next time I’m on a session or in a room with people. I’d do that more than reading out of a book and trying to get faster.
MD: How does this approach feed your creativity in the studio?
Nate: Sometimes I’ll play something off the grid, and they’ll like it and write a song on top of it. And sometimes there will be a loop already and I’ll play something on top, very much on the grid. It all comes back to the Ryan Adams thing. It opened me up to find my own voice. Before, I’d play something to make a producer happy or play what I thought someone else would play. Now I feel comfortable in a session to do my thing. And if you like it, cool, we can have a good relationship.
Tools of the Trade
Lotz plays a C&C white/black Tuxedo kit with a 22″ bass drum, a 16″ floor tom, and either a 13″ tom or a Roland SPD-SX sampling pad, depending on the session. His Istanbul Agop cymbals include 16″ Traditional hi-hats, a 24″ Joey Waronker ride, and a 20″ Mel Lewis 1982 ride. His batter heads include Remo Emperors on all drums except the bass drum, which has a Powerstoke 3. His stick model of choice is the Vic Firth X55B.