Steven Tyler’s Sarah Tomek
Story by Adam Budofsky
Photos by Rick Malkin
Greetings from…Nashville? How a girl from Jersey left the nest to realize the drumming dreams of her father and power the solo success of a true rock ’n’ roll icon.
Sometimes you just don’t know what’s waiting for you when you walk off that stage.
I was first convinced of Sarah Tomek’s eminent skills on a night when our bands were both on the bill at Asbury Lanes, a bowling alley turned rock club in Tomek’s hometown. Yup, the same one immortalized in the title of Bruce Springsteen’s famous debut album. The boardwalk calliope might not have come crashing down that night, but the gig nearly did. A raging storm knocked out the club’s power for a few hours and left its six-foot-tall, bowling-pin-shaped front sign dangling precariously in the wind. But the electricity eventually returned, the room slowly filled, and the mood improved to downright cheery after my group played what we felt was a pretty strong set.
Then a local band called Ben Franklin took the stage, and…well…let’s just say that when Tomek’s husband, drummer/singer Larry Florman, later half-joked to me, “She’s so good, I don’t play drums anymore,” my mind immediately returned to that night at Asbury Lanes. As the bowlers threw strikes and gutter balls on either side of them, Ben Franklin absolutely raged. Tomek threw out thunderous chops, had a groove to die for, sang backgrounds with the swagger of a lead singer, and wore a huge, ever-present smile that made you feel lucky to be in the same room she was performing in—even if at the same time you were thinking, Maybe I oughta give up this drumming thing.
Later I learned that Tomek had spent years slogging it out on the New York, Philadelphia, and South Jersey scenes, performing with numerous acts, among them the highly regarded journeyman guitarist Glen Burtnik, rocker Bebe Buell, and the top tribute band Lez Zeppelin. Eventually she was invited to drum and lead the band for an up-and-coming crossover country singer named Maggie Rose, a gig that required a relocation to Nashville. Sometime after that, Tomek was “discovered” while playing Aerosmith covers by songwriter and producer Marti Frederiksen, who was in the process of putting together the backing band for singer Steven Tyler’s highly anticipated country-rock project. Soon Sarah was building a solid Nashville résumé out of Frederiksen’s Quad Studios and performing with Tyler, including his coming-out show at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall and subsequent tour. All the while, she continued to appear with Rose, the country-punk artist Raelyn Nelson (Willie’s granddaughter), and the rock group she shares with Florman, Them Vibes.
Nope, sometimes you don’t know what’s waiting for you when you walk off that stage—though Tomek would be the first to agree that being discovered is generally preceded by years of dues-paying. Sitting across from her in a window seat at P.J. Clarke’s, from which one can clearly view the glass and concrete entryway of the esteemed Geffen Hall—where Tyler and Loving Mary were rocking the house just twelve hours earlier—perhaps it’s only natural to ruminate on the path, and the personality traits, that led her here.
MD: On the way into the city today, there was a talk show on the radio and the topic was grit, which the guest defined as passion meets perseverance. The question was whether it can be developed in people, or whether you just have it. Would you describe yourself as someone who’s always just had it?
Sarah: A hundred and ten percent. Maybe it was from my father and seeing his career. I’ve just always wanted this. The work has been relentless. Even with this great gig, I’m in four other bands.
MD: You mention your dad, Joe Tomek. What was his career like?
Sarah: My dad was a New York City musician. He wasn’t a hired gun, he was very much from the band mentality. The guys in Kiss loved his band, Mushroom. He also played with Richie Havens for a long time. He did a lot of work at the Record Plant in the ’70s, including the preproduction for John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy album. The band was later fired because Yoko overheard them making fun of her. [laughs] John wanted to take him on the road, but then he was murdered weeks later.
I just grew into my dad’s shoes. He wanted a boy, but he got me. [laughs] He continued playing but never really had a playing career. He did the day-job thing. He could have been a studio cat, though. He was a badass.
MD: You grew up in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
Sarah: Yup. It was an awesome place to grow up, with an amazing music scene and a thriving art culture. And what better situation than to have your father be a drummer and have drums around? We made a deal once—he’d buy new drums and I’d buy the cases. That’s how we got our first Yamaha Recording Custom drums, which I still have.
My dad would be super-proud now, but he was hard on me. It paid off, though. He had me in the studio on a click track at eleven. So I have no qualms playing to a click, which everyone in Nashville has to do.
MD: What was your first serious band?
Sarah: Days Awake. We had a good draw in New Jersey and New York. That was the first time I fell in love with being in bands. It was the family vibe of it.
MD: When was this?
Sarah: Around 2003—I was about twenty. We did a couple EPs, which taught me how to be better in the studio. We had a studio in our basement. Before that I was just practicing to records.
MD: Did you take lessons?
Sarah: I did private lessons with Jason Rullo, who’s in Symphony X. He was a total mentor to me. Jason was great at teaching me song form, keeping me on a rehearsal schedule, and keeping me healthy—he taught me a lot about vitamins, hydration, stretching.
I also did a summer seminar at Berklee right after high school, which was phenomenal. I got to study with El Negro [Horacio Hernandez]. I always wanted to go to Berklee, but I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher, and I didn’t want to go into extreme debt. But I continued taking private instruction and playing in different genres. In my later twenties I started playing in the city more. I had a nine-to-five in the music business, but three days a week I’d be in Manhattan playing, getting home at three in the morning. There was an electro band called Hustle Club, an amazing R&B artist named Gedeon Luke, a punk band called Ben Franklin….
MD: That’s who you were with when I first saw you. One of the things I remember was how well you sang. When did that start?
Sarah: God, I don’t remember. The first time I was in the studio I sang “Come Together” by the Beatles.
MD: You played that song last night with Steven Tyler.
Sarah: Yeah, but I don’t sing on the Steven gig, though he wants me to. Since I moved to Nashville, my ear for harmony has gotten so much better.
MD: How did you hook up with Maggie Rose?
Sarah: Around 2007, Days Awake was working with another Asbury legend, Lance Larson. He brought this girl from Nashville, Maggie Rose, to the Stone Pony, and he wanted us to learn one of her songs and play with her. She was maybe nineteen at the time. Fast-forward to 2012, and I was playing with the Bebe Buell Band—which is ironic, because she’s Steven Tyler’s ex and Liv Tyler’s mother. That band was phenomenal. Anyway, we had a gig in Orlando once, and Maggie’s business partner was there and made the call for me to audition a week later in Nashville for James Stroud, who’s a famous Nashville producer and drummer. So I flew to Nashville and auditioned, and I was offered the gig. I had to be in Nashville in two weeks. So it all happened very quickly. It’s funny how it all stemmed from Asbury Park.
MD: Was it ever a plan for you to move to Nashville?
Sarah: No, I wanted to move to Manhattan or Brooklyn. I thought that’s where it was going to be for me. But I wasn’t making any coin there. A lot of clubs were closing down…. I didn’t know anything about Nashville at that point. It was terrifying—I quit my job and moved there all alone. But immediately it was a dream. We did 180 dates in ten months, doing radio shows during the day and clubs at night, and I became Maggie’s bandleader. I played exclusively with her for two or three years—I still play with her—and then I started branching out as I had more time to play with other people. And I was still coming home occasionally. I left my Bonham Vistalite kit and a small Leedy kit in New Jersey, and I would come back and play with Glen Burtnik. I’m still always hustling.
MD: How have you found working in Nashville?
Sarah: Nashville is an extremely male-dominated city/business.
MD: More so than other places?
Sarah: I believe so. I still hear, “You’re the best girl drummer I’ve seen.” My answer is always, “Right, I strive to be the best girl drummer—so thank you very much.” My father was hard on me, though, so nothing derails me.
The first time I got to track with Maggie was for her single “Girl in Your Truck Song.” She had me come into Quad Studios, which is a famous Nashville studio. We went out that night to celebrate with her producer/cowriter at the time, Dallas Davidson. Later we went down the street where some buddies of mine had a residency at a club playing ’70s music. They’d always have me come down and play Aerosmith songs. So I sat in on a couple songs, and when I got off stage, the first person I saw was this tall gentleman who introduced himself as Marti Frederiksen. I knew exactly who Marti was, because I’m a huge Aerosmith fan. And it was ironic, because he owns Quad Studios and I was just there that day recording. A couple weeks later I get a call to be in Marti’s Americana band, Loving Mary, and also to play with Steven for these solo dates he was doing.
Marti’s done so much for my career. He immediately took me under his wing. I think he just saw the excitement in my playing and how good I was on a click.
MD: The Steven Tyler show was interesting in that, without Aerosmith up there on stage, somehow more attention was put on the songs themselves. There were covers and segues, and your parts were so streamlined and purposeful.
Sarah: I’m more of a song lover than a drummer lover. My goal has always been to make the band as comfortable as it can possibly be, and make the show a success. So what better place for a girl? It’s like a matriarchy. Being Maggie’s bandleader, I think people appreciate my leadership style. I just want to make it go. My life’s a mess, but everyone else around me has what they need. [laughs]
MD: Even though you don’t sing with Steven yet, you have a mic on stage.
Sarah: Everyone’s on ears. Wedges are pretty much obsolete on the road. I have a talkback mic—the audience can’t hear me—and I’m on a click. I’m announcing the song, counting it in, guiding transitions. And anything can happen during a show. Last night Steven popped a champagne bottle on stage and it got all over the lap steel, and I knew the next song had lap steel, so I had to tell the crew guy to clean it off right away. I’m always staring at the artist, making sure that they have exactly what they need, because the night is all about them.
MD: You’re smiling all the time on stage.
Sarah: I can’t control it! [laughs] Steven has literally said to me, “I want you to look meaner.” The hardest thing I ever had to do was a mime of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” video, the one where the women have these blank expressions. How can you look upset when you’re playing drums? I’m so tense every other second of the day; that’s my release. And that energy rubs off. The greatest thing about Steven Tyler is that you’re never going to out-perform him.
MD: The stories about Joey Kramer and Steven in the studio with Aerosmith are notorious. Coming into that situation…
Sarah: …was terrifying. Being a huge Aerosmith fan, I heard all the horror stories. He’ll correct you. He’ll come up behind the kit. He knows exactly what he wants from the drums—and thank God! I want to be taught. I was playing “Walk This Way” wrong, and he mouthed it for me [sings hi-hat psst]. You choke the hat with your left foot to get that; it’s not a hit with your hand. But he’s been nothing but a gem to work with. He appreciates the dynamics that I play with. And I’ve listened to his in-ear packs—he likes the drums loud.
With the Steven gig the hardest thing for me is trying not to be Joey Kramer. And we’re playing Aerosmith songs, so how do you do that? I simplify things. I’m not shuffling the hi-hat as hard on “Cryin’.” I’m just trying to keep it more crisp and pristine.
MD: You said before that you’re on a click.
Sarah: A lot of the guys are using the SPD-SX pads now for tempo changes and loops. We don’t use loops with Steven—it’s all live—so I’m just poking at a click track. I like to keep the show on a click, because the guys and girls in Loving Mary are all studio cats, and I like to dig deep for a groove, so I tend to play on the heels of stuff. So putting me on a click keeps me in shape.
It took a while to learn the flow of a show, where I change the tempos. Steven doesn’t take a click in his ear, and I don’t want to feed him a hi-hat. I want it to be a clean show and let him lead us. It can be a challenge. On “Dream On,” for instance, he doesn’t like to be pushed.
MD: You rarely played anything smaller than 8th notes last night—for good reason. The songs don’t demand it.
Sarah: Being on a gig with someone of this stature, simplicity is the best. There are seven musicians on stage, so I need to create space. And it’s about dynamics. They just put triggers on my drum shells—not for sound, but so the vibration of the shell sets off the gates. I have a thumper on my seat, so when the gate opens, my ears open. There are songs we play with brushes, mallets.
MD: There was one song where you went back and forth between them a few times.
Sarah: I haven’t gotten the art of that yet. I kind of just throw them down and have my guy bring them back. All of a sudden I have “a guy.” [laughs]
MD: What are your short- and long-term goals?
Sarah: Right now I’ve pretty much hit all my marks for the year, and I can’t be any happier. I really want to see the success of Loving Mary and Maggie Rose. She moved me here—she’s made my whole life. I want to see this tour through with Steven, and then set new goals.
Drums: Ludwig Legacy Mahogany in vintage nickel sparkle
• 6.5×14 Black Beauty Supraphonic,
6.5×14 Copper Phonic, 5×14 Acrolite,
or 5×14 1964 maple snare
• 9×13 tom
• 16×16 and 18×18 floor toms
• 14×24 bass drum
• 15″ 2002 hi-hats
• 18″ Dark Energy crash
• 24″ Giant Beat
• 20″ Rude ride/crash
Heads: Evans, including Power Center, Reverse Power Center, and G1 snare batters and 300 snare-sides; Level 360 G2 tom batters and Genera bottoms; and EQ3 Frosted bass drum batter
Sticks: Vic Firth Classic 5A wood-tip
Hardware: Ludwig Atlas Classic
Cases: Humes & Berg Enduro Pro