Trivium’s Paul Wandtke
Story by Ben Meyer
Photos by Scott Uchida
Career highlights like playing with the alt-goth band Kill Hannah, a traveling production of Rock of Ages, and a Nirvana tribute act—in which he’s singing and playing guitar—might not seem typical for a lead-up to joining an established metal group. But looking back on it, they sure seem to have done the trick.
Parents have forever lectured their teenage kids to work hard and make a good impression, and teenagers have always rolled their eyes in response, certain that such adult concerns will never affect them—or at least not for a long, long time. Chicago native Paul Wandtke is proof that working hard and making positive impressions early in life does matter. Selected from a group of seriously talented candidates, with an assist from a strong personal recommendation by drumming great Mike Mangini, Wandtke found himself on a dream drumming gig. And he wasn’t even looking for it.
It seems that Wandtke’s time studying with Mangini and rock and fusion legend Rod Morgenstein at Berklee College of Music in Boston left a lasting impression. In 2015 the journeyman drummer was coming off some van tours with upcoming acts and two six-month runs with the successful Rock of Ages franchise, and was a year into fronting the tribute project that he’d founded, Smells Like Nirvana, when he got the call that the popular metal act Trivium was interested in auditioning him as a replacement for its current drummer. “I think the biggest push for them to trust me was Mike Mangini’s recommendation,” Wandke says. “They’d read about me and checked out all of my videos online. They were talking to eight to ten other guys at the same time, and as it started getting closer to the date of our first show and the guys got to know me, things started moving to my favor. I was just doing my Nirvana tribute. I was surprised to even get the call.”
Wandtke began pounding away at grunge covers with his older brother and a few friends at the tender age of ten. “I was skateboarding all day, every day, and getting into punk,” he recalls. “I was listening to NOFX, Lagwagon, Screeching Weasel, and Operation Ivy, and then I started getting into older stuff like Ozzy, Black Sabbath, Metallica, Mötley Crüe, the Doors, and Hendrix. It was kind of a turning point for me. I guess everybody wanted to be Tommy Lee at some point growing up.” When most kids are consumed with baseball or the newest Xbox title, Wandtke was already forming the skills that would ultimately lead him to appear on stage in front of 40,000 screaming fans at Slipknot’s riotous December 2015 Knotfest México concert. It was his debut gig with Trivium.
Leading up to the show, Wandtke spent time meticulously preparing the band’s material, including creating custom tempo maps in Apple Logic to perform with. “We had four solid rehearsals in Orlando, Florida,” Paul says, “but I knew about the show a month in advance. It was a sixty-minute set. They have a rehearsal space with a kit, and they just fly me in from Chicago whenever they need me. When Mike Mangini emailed me about Trivium, I knew this was going to be solid. He said, ‘I have a melodic metal band looking for a drummer that may be right up your alley.’ I was thinking, This can’t be some low-caliber gig. This has to be something big. I just feel so lucky. It’s crazy.”
Debuting with a major international act in front of a screaming festival crowd can be quite an intimidating prospect. Wandtke worked through his anxiety with some sage advice from a friend. “The largest crowd I’d played for [before that] was around 5,000,” he says. “I messaged Alan Childs, the drummer from the Las Vegas version of Rock of Ages, who’d played with David Bowie [on the singer’s Glass Spider tour], and I asked him how I should prepare for playing in front of a crowd that size. He said, ‘Once you’re on stage, just kill it. Look out into the crowd, soak it in, and then just enjoy it.’ An hour before we hit the stage, I was really nervous, but then when we got on stage and the crowd started chanting our name, I started to feel more relaxed, like, They’re here to see us play.
“At one point,” Wandtke continues, “I was supposed to do a twenty-second drum solo at the end of the song ‘Pull Harder on the Strings of Your Martyr.’ Then the power on all of the band’s amps went out, so I had to do a longer one. It kind of worked in my favor, because I got to play a little longer. Overall, the show was great. The band said that they’d never had so much fun playing live with a drummer before.”
The skills that helped Wandtke to secure the Trivium gig actually went beyond his drumming, further demonstrating the level of dedication and drive he possesses. “The reason I started my Nirvana tribute was because that’s the band that got me into music, and I thought that [playing guitar and singing] would be a fun challenge for me,” Paul explains. “I’ve always been a drummer, and I didn’t even know if I could pull this off.
“During my last six-month Rock of Ages contract, because I had so much downtime, I practiced guitar and vocals for like six hours a day. Honestly, I’d taken a break from the drums. I was sick of looking for work as a drummer, and I wanted to take on the challenge of playing guitar and singing. I was hoping that this project would be a step toward putting together an original band. Then I got the call from Trivium. In Smells Like Nirvana I get a little taste of what it’s like to be a frontman, and that’s translated into my drumming. When I showed up for rehearsals with Trivium, I noticed that I’m listening differently now and relating to challenges that singers face. In my eyes, Nirvana is basically the Beatles with distortion and feedback and screaming vocals, so there’s a lot to learn from their music.”
Besides enjoying playing in front of huge festival crowds and living his dream of touring with an established act, Wandtke also feels fortunate to have gotten to know a few of his childhood heroes along the way, including Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe and Sixx: A.M. “Mötley Crüe was the first ’80s band I got into after my punk phase as a kid,” Wandtke says. “It’s so weird to be hanging out with Nikki, years later. We did the Carolina Rebellion festival together, and he invited [Trivium singer/guitarist] Matt Heafy and me onto his bus. We just talked about vocal techniques and stuff. I’ve always looked up to Nikki because he was one of the visionaries and a writing force behind Mötley Crüe.
“I feel like every gig I’ve done has been a stepping-stone to this point,” Wandtke continues. “If I was asked to give advice to aspiring drummers, I’d tell them to get into wedding bands or something. You learn about song form, playing different tempos, and actually getting paid. Having a solid repertoire is smart too. You should know artists and particular songs and feels. A lot of kids that I talk to say, ‘Man, I would never learn how to cover a song.’ I’m like, ‘How else do you learn?’”
Trivium spent early 2016 touring the U.K., Japan, and Australia, and then conquered the European and North American festival circuits. Currently the band is headlining shows with Sabaton and Huntress on its Silence in the Snow fall tour. “My original plan of being a high-profile drummer is starting to happen now because of Trivium,” Wandtke says. “For fifteen years I was looking to join a band that was doing high-caliber stuff. Now I’m getting to put my best foot forward. I’m just working on keeping the Trivium camp happy and delivering the best work I can for them, and between [commitments with the band] I’ll fill in dates with Smells Like Nirvana when I’m home.
“Being in Trivium has been a life-changing experience for me,” Wandtke adds. “To be on tour and experience this lifestyle is amazing. These guys actually have fans! I know that sounds weird, but I hadn’t had that kind of experience. The closest was doing Rock of Ages, but I was in the pit for that. I feel humbled by this whole experience.”
Tools of the Trade
Wandtke tells Modern Drummer that for Trivium’s live shows, he’s assembled his dream rig, which starts with a Tama Starclassic Performer Bubinga/Birch set in satin pearl white finish with black nickel hardware. “I’m so stoked to be a part of the Tama family,” says the drummer, whose setup includes 8×10 and 9×12 toms, 14×16 and 16×18 floor toms, and two 20×22 bass drums, plus an 8×14 S.L.P. Big Black Steel limited edition snare. “I really like how Tama drums are so warm but still have so much attack that they cut through the mix.”
Wandtke also uses Tama hardware, including pedals and stands from the company’s Star, Roadpro, and Lever Glide series. “I’ve been experimenting with Iron Cobra Power Glide and Speed Cobra pedals,” he shares. “I grew up with Tama Iron Cobras, so I can really tell that the new innovations on both of these pedals seem to make them a lot smoother and faster than before.” Among the Tama accessories he puts to good use are the Rhythm Watch Mini RW30 metronome, Ergo-Rider Trio throne, and Cobra Clutch.
Wandke’s cymbals, all from Meinl’s Mb20 line, include 15″ Heavy Soundwave main hi-hats, 14″ Heavy Soundwave auxiliary hats, 18″ and 19″ crashes, a 20″ Heavy Bell ride, and either an 18″ Rock or Soundcaster China. “The reason I love Meinl’s Mb20 cymbals,” Paul says, “is because they have a short sustain, which I think is perfect for metal. You don’t really want long-sustaining cymbals when playing fast sections.”
Wandtke’s Evans heads include a Heavyweight snare batter, G2 tom batters, and EQ4 bass drum batters. In addition, he uses PureSound snare wires and says that he always warms up backstage with Evans RealFeel bass drum pads.