Brian Pastoria

I first met Brian Pastoria while his group, Adrenalin, was rehearsing some tunes from their recent album American Heart. The group’s road manager, Thom Kuchulan, noticed me standing outside the studio and invited me in to listen. The band was just ending a number and, being a drummer, I instinctively—though unconsciously—hit an imaginary crash cymbal simultaneously with Brian’s real one. The rest of the group laughed, and then Brian asked if I’d like to sit in for a number. “Are you kidding,” I replied, and proceeded to jam with some of Detroit’s finest rockers.

One thing led to another, and before too long, Brian promised to tell me his story. I followed Brian and Adrenalin while they performed with many big name groups, such as Quiet Riot, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Huey Lewis & the News. It was an excellent setting in which to get a personal and first-hand account.

Born in 1957, Brian grew up in East Detroit, a city well known for its gritty style of rock ‘n’ roll. At the age of 13, he got his first set of drums and proceeded to learn his trade, practicing along with records ranging from early Motown to Chicago and Led Zeppelin. His drumming style developed into a thoughtful blend of driving rock ‘n’ roll and Motown soul, and he attacks the drums with the kind of energy needed to drive a half-dozen spirited musicians. Not content to sit at the back of the bus, Brian contributes in every area he can, suggesting lyrics and song ideas. Most bands have someone who inspires the others to reach out, to push harder—someone who is unshakable in the pursuit of a dream. In Adrenalin, Brian is probably that someone.

BE: Many drummers spend years working their way up, performing at parties, dances and clubs, and working with lots of different musicians, before they get a break or their group hits it big. Was it the same for you?

BP: Not exactly. The only experience I’ve really had out playing with other people besides the guys I’m with now was when I played in my father’s wedding band. It was the first band I was ever in. Since then, I’ve mostly played music that we’ve written.

BE: I imagine the wedding band gig forced you to learn a lot of different rhythms.

BP: Absolutely. It also taught me discipline. When you do weddings, bar mitzvahs, and Arthur Murray Studios, you can’t really jam or get flashy. You’ve got to stay in the pocket, play simple, complement the music, and try to make everyone sound good. Let’s face it, that’s also what a drummer should do in a rock ‘n’ roll band. Less is more.

BE: Why the drums?

BP: Ever since I was a young boy, I’ve had this problem. In school, I used to paddle on the desk tops and tap my feet on the floor. The teachers literally taped my feet to the floor to stop me. [laughs] I would drive my mom crazy at home, too. My father’s band used to practice at our house, and I used to sit on the steps of our basement and watch the drummer. A neighborhood kid also played the drums, and I used to spy on him through his basement window. Sometimes, he would invite me in to listen. I’d later tell my father about all this, but he wanted me to play piano. So my brother Mark and I started taking piano lessons. I hated it and did everything to avoid practicing. Mark continued on and ended up being our keyboard player. Finally, when I was 13, my dad bought me my first set, a Slingerland blue sparkle kit. I really loved them. They were the best things I had going then.

BE: Sounds like your parents were supportive.

BP: Yeah, they were. My mom used to sing to us or turn on the stereo, instead of plopping us down in front of the TV. When we were little, we didn’t even know what was happening to us, but when you listen to all that classical stuff, it really stirs the emotions. I believe things like that can have a big influence on you, since it really makes you feel music—all kinds.

BE: Speaking of influences, who were yours?

BP: Joey Kramer, Danny Seraphine, and Don Brewer, to name a few—a lot of Motown stuff, too. My biggest influence, though, was Charlie Martin, Silver Bullet’s former drummer. I connected with him the first time I saw him perform with Bob Seger. He played with so much feeling, energy, showmanship, and passion. I think Charlie appreciates and understands the essence of music. After meeting him, I found out why he could play like he did. He’s a tremendous person. I don’t think the studio captured the “live” thing that Charlie did very well.

BE: Was American Heart your first studio experience?

BP: Back in 1979, we put out a single called “Gimme, Gimme Good Lovin’,” and more recently, we did an extended play with six songs on it, so I’ve had some previous studio experience. With American Heart though, it was different. First of all, we recorded at the Boogie Hotel on Long Island in New York. It used to be an old theater. Now, it’s like a huge mansion. You can eat, sleep, and record there. Just down the street is a little strip with a couple of nightclubs. The whole atmosphere of the place and its surroundings created a mood that helped a lot with the recording.

BE: How long did it take to record the album?

BP: It took us six weeks to record everything and two weeks to mix.

BE: Did they want to muffle all the drums?

BP: No, it was great. Our engineer Bobby Shaper and I sat down and discussed the whole thing. He really did a great job. My other brother David is also a drummer and does all my tuning. We use very little muffling. We worked on my snare a bit and tried to get some different sounds. In my kick drum, we used a small, goose-down pillow because I wanted to get a real “live,” wide-open sound. On the snare and all the concert toms, we used Emperors. I’m really happy with the way they sound, but we are going to continue to find ways to do different things with them as we go along. I think that, when it comes to getting the sound out, it’s got as much to do with the way you hit them as with the skins and the tuning, especially in a live situation. Somebody else can sit down and play my drums, and they may not sound that great, but I know how to hit them to get a good sound. I really think that you’ve got to lay into them. I think they’re made for hitting, not with your arms but sort of like a whip. There’s a technique involved. You can’t just be bashing around; you have to be in control. Controlled aggressiveness is what you need when you’re a drummer. You’ve got to know when to beat and when to stop beating.

BE: You play with so much energy that you’re obviously in good shape.

BP: I exercise a lot—some weight lifting and aerobics. I feel that aerobics has really helped my drumming. I take a class in the neighborhood and really enjoy it. I think that it’s a very important thing for a drummer to be in shape, because the energy in a rock ‘n’ roll band comes from the drummer and the singer.

BE: Speaking of singing, you came out front on your a cappella number and sang with the rest of the guys. You obviously enjoyed that. Would you like to do more vocals?

BP: Yeah, that number is always fun. I do enjoy singing and can do it if I have to, but really there’s no reason when you’ve got the vocal talent our band has. That’s another thing about being in a band, you have to realize what your role is and go after that role with everything you’ve got. You’ve got to try to stay within the things that you can do well and try to improve the things you are average at. My job is to hold down the fort and give these guys a backbeat—a one-of-a-kind thing—something they can’t get anywhere else.

BE: How about running through your current setup?

BP: I’ve been using Pearl drums for some time now. They’re 8-ply maple with a wine-red lacquer finish. I use several sizes of snares, depending on the situation. I’ve got a 6 1/2 x 14 brass snare, a 5 x 14 maple, and my favorite custom-made 6 1/2 x l4 maple from Modern Drum Shop in New York. My tom-toms are 8×8, 8×10, 8×12, 10×14, 14×16, and 16×18. My kick drum is an 18×22 cannon. As for cymbals, I’m now endorsing Sabian Brilliants. I have a 22″ H.H. heavy ride and 18″, 19″ and 20″ crashes. My hi-hats are 15″, with rivets. The bottom is an H.H. and the top is an A.A. For effect, I use one 20″ regular Chinese and one 20″ flat Chinese. I put all my cymbals on the tom stands to eliminate the extra metal. It’s all heavy-duty hardware by Pearl.

BE: How do you feel about drum machines?

BP: It depends on the application. I’ve recently been working with a Linn machine and a DMX to create demos of our new songs for our record company to hear. They’ve already heard the sound of the band; these demos are just for the songs themselves. I’ve also played with Simmons drums a little, but in general, electronic drums don’t interest me much when it comes to playing live or recording with the band. I don’t like to hear a lot of songs being played with just an electric machine. You can’t feel any energy from them.

BE: What about using a click track?

BP: While we were recording American Heart, I did use a percussion track on a few songs to help me keep time. We tried using a click track, but it drove me, the band, and the producer crazy. That was when I destroyed one of my cymbals. It had been a long day, and I was tired and frustrated. The click track had been going “dom chu dom chu” real loud for hours, from half time to double time. When it did that, the 2 and 4 at the beginning were 1 and 3 in the ending, so it was all backwards. We were almost to the end of the song, and I just couldn’t make it. I had to stop because I was freaking out. So I got up and came down real hard on the cymbal. I broke the stand and everything. Everybody was looking at me like, “Oh boy, what did you do now?” It was just a moment of frustration, you know? Vinnie Poncia, our producer, says that every great album has blood on its tracks. When you really get your blood and guts out there, you get frustrated at times, but you can catch the intensity on the record. The feeling somehow gets there. “Faraway Eyes” is the song that’s gotten all the attention, and it’s the one I really beat up.

BE: How do you practice? Do you sit by yourself and try out new things, or do new things happen while you’re performing?

BP: I might pick up a few ideas from other drummers and try to adapt them to my own style, but mostly I like playing off other instruments and trying new things at rehearsals. When we’re doing something we’ve never done before and everybody’s jamming, I really like to go wild. That’s how I come up with new stuff. It’s something that you can’t do on stage all the time, or in the studio, but it’s another aspect of playing that’s really interesting to me.

BE: What about reading?

BP: Unfortunately, I didn’t get much from my earliest lessons. It seemed that my teachers were trying to make me play like them. I didn’t enjoy learning to read. Basically, I taught myself. I read a lot of books and learned all the rudiments. I never let the lack of formal training hinder me, though. I never said that, since I didn’t learn the right way, I couldn’t do it. I always felt that there was a “feel” to this instrument, and I set about to learn all I could.

BE: There must be more than just being a good drummer for you to survive in a group this size.

BP: It’s amazing when you realize that 15 guys who eat, sleep, travel, and go out together can stay together for so long. Don’t get me wrong. With so many personalities we have plenty of conflicts, and we each certainly need our space. But what it really boils down to is the commitment we all have to the music. We all feed off each other, having faith in the same thing. We know that we’re not doing this to be rock ‘n’ roll stars, but we’re doing it because we’re rock ‘n’ roll musicians and we’re committed to the music. If you’re doing it because you want to be a rock star, you’re going to be in trouble because it just doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to know what the music is about and where it came from. You’ve also got to know where you want to go, so you can make it happen. If you have the opportunity to do it and the talent, you can’t abuse it. It’s more than just music. It’s everything I do. It’s all rock ‘n’ roll.

BE: I think that there are a lot of talented drummers out there who become disillusioned and frustrated when they are confronted by the business realities of music. How do you deal with it?

BP: The old saying is, “They don’t call it show art. It’s show business.” This is the business that I chose, and I simply have to deal with it. That’s one thing I would pass on to people: If you want to play drums or be a musician in a band, then you need to be ready to deal with the business, or find someone you can trust who will deal with it. That’s often difficult to do.

BE: Has there been much discouragement on the way up?

BP: Sometimes, I’d wonder when it was really going to happen for us, but I think you’ve just got to say to yourself, “I’m doing it.” Once you come to terms with the reasons you do what you do, it makes it a lot easier.

BE: Besides being Adrenalin’s drummer, you are also the leader of the band. Are you comfortable with that?

BP: This band is full of leaders, and that includes our management and crew. We all have tremendous potential. I guess maybe I do feel responsible though, because it seems like I’ve gotten everybody into this mess, [laughs] I’ve always said that it was going to happen for us, and if it doesn’t, then I’ve really lied to a lot of people. I get my strength from everybody. If I wasn’t with these guys, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to be a leader. I think I’d probably be making pizzas somewhere, [laughs] If people think that I’m leading, that’s a great compliment to me, and it makes everything I’ve done worthwhile. If anything, though, I feel that I may be a living encouragement to somebody who says, “You know, I would like to do that.” “Yeah,” I can tell that person, “you can, because I wasn’t the best drummer on my block. Frankie LaRosa was. I wasn’t the best drummer in the city. Somebody else was. I won’t be the best drummer in the world. Somebody else will be. But I’ve got these guys and I’m in this band, and I can go wherever I want with them. They make my dreams come true, which is what rock ‘n’ roll is all about.”