Dena Tauriello has rocked her whole life. Coming up with several bands, she brought power to the stage and a solid pocket in the studio. With country rockers Antigone Rising, Tauriello honed her craft to become the respected timekeeper she is today, displaying equal parts muscle and finesse over the course of several well-received records and tons of live concerts.
Tauriello’s secret weapon wasn’t just bashing away with abandon, though. Rather, it was her undying love for both Ringo Starr and Karen Carpenter, two drummers who got by without much flash, but whose sounds were irreplaceable in their respective bands. That’s the influence she draws on as a member of Matchbox Twenty frontman Rob Thomas’s stripped down quartet, where she taps into her subtler side. And now Tauriello finds herself deep in the world of Broadway, locked in the pit of Head Over Heels, a new production featuring the music of ’80s pop rockers the Go-Go’s.
One might think this is a whole new scene of meticulous charts and stuffy audiences, certainly the opposite of the seedy rock clubs and festival stages Tauriello has been dealing with her whole life. But today’s Broadway is a different animal, with numerous recent shows featuring full-on rock bands playing modern hits. So Tauriello will have room to shine and bring a little of her attention and song-oriented detail to material everyone knows. Oh, and of course she’s still going to rock.
MD: How did Head Over Heels happen? Were there auditions? Did you have to brush up on sight-reading?
Dena: Interesting you mention those things, because neither of them were part of the process. I didn’t audition or have to do any sight-reading.
As is so often the case in this industry, I knew the right people. I had been on a quest for the last several years to get connected to the Broadway world. I grew up a theater geek, and my mom used to take us to see shows, front center orchestra. And back then, before it turned into these full rock orchestrations, there was a real, full orchestra down there, and I’d sit and peer over the edge of the railing into the pit and look at the drummer and think how cool it was. I also had aspirations of playing rock ’n’ roll, which is the path I took out of the gate. But over the last few years I started to put my toe in the water of trying to figure out how to crack this nut.
Lots of musicians have been flocking to Broadway over the years, with the changes in the music industry. It’s a union gig, it’s steady work, and it’s fun. So I started reaching out to drummers who held drum chairs on Broadway—Andrés Forero with Hamilton and In the Heights before that, Matt Vander Ende with Wicked, and Sammy Merendino with Kinky Boots. Out of that bunch, Sammy most notably came out of the rock world, playing with Cyndi Lauper. He really encouraged me to pursue it and introduced me to people there. When Head Over Heels was in the works, they wanted an all-female band to play the music of the Go-Go’s, so Sammy put my name in. And they reached out. Was I interested? Absolutely. Was I available? Absolutely.
MD: When you saw those drummers play, and it’s mostly rock kits, were you thinking I can do this, or were you intimidated by the whole stifling nature of boxed-in parts and charted orchestration?
Dena: Truthfully, when I saw Andrés do Inthe Heights, it scared the crap out of me. [laughs] That was the first show I got to sit and watch and the first book I got to see, so for me that was insane because I didn’t grow up with that Afro-Cuban/Latin flair. Plus, he was doing a thousand things at once. But it was exciting to be able to see how intense and exciting those roles are, for that and for Hamilton and Kinky Boots. Wicked was more orchestral, and Matt and I had a discussion about how that might not be for everyone. But the others felt doable and very interesting. Even though you’re doing the same thing eight shows a week, they’re very demanding drum chairs, and that was cool. And Head Over Heels is a similar thing. I’m very busy, and it’s very drum-heavy—a lot of fast tempos, a lot of involved stuff happening.
MD: Were you a Go-Go’s fan growing up?
Dena: Being a female musician, they were a huge influence in that they were an all-female rock band writing and performing their own songs. Seeing that on MTV was huge. It’s been a blast revisiting their catalogue and so much fun playing these songs.
MD: What’s the process like to interpret those songs for the Broadway stage? Are you sticking to the original arrangements?
Dena: The drum parts were orchestrated very true to [original Go-Go’s drummer] Gina Schock’s creations, but within that, there are vamps, dialogue, and moments within the song that will shift gears and do a couple bars of something else. It’s not a straight top-to-bottom playing of a song, like in Mama Mia! or Jersey Boys. But in the song, it’s pretty true to what Gina had done. And a lot of moments [in the charts] just say “fill,” so it’s not dictating to me exactly what to play. But being as familiar as I am with the songs, I’m honoring Gina’s flavor and flair. And some of this stuff is kind of motoring—195 bpm, 200, 225….
MD: When it says “fill,” is your intention to play the same one every night at that moment, to not mess anyone up?
Dena: Yeah, that’s my intention, to either do the exact same thing or very close and in the spirit of what I had been doing, because the choreography is so intense and there’s so much going on in most numbers. I want everyone to feel comfortable and kind of know what they’re getting every night. That’s important.
MD: At the end of the show, you’re actually on stage?
Dena: Yes, there’s a reveal, and the whole band is featured along with all this great choreography. For the majority of the show I’m in an isolation booth, stage right, in the wings somewhere. But for that part I’m on a platform on stage with the rest of the band.
MD: What’s the gear like? Are you using a standard rock kit, and are there electronics?
Dena: Both kits are Pearl. I have a five-piece kit in the booth and a four-piece for the onstage portion. There’s a little bit of percussion. I’ll be playing some djembe in a couple of places, and the usual assortment of tambourine and triangle. And there’s no electronics.
MD: How will you deal with conflicts, with eight shows a week, and if the show is successful and runs for a while?
Dena: One of the beautiful things about this kind of gig is having the flexibility to sub out. When Rob Thomas dates come up, I’m his one-off, private, corporate-event drummer. When he goes on a solo tour, that’s Abe Fogle on drums. I’m doing the stripped-down, acoustic-arrangement band, which we’ve been affectionately calling the Rob Thomas Quartet. I’ll fly out, and usually it’s a three-day commitment. So I could easily sub out for something like that, which is my intention.
MD: How do you approach the obviously lighter vibe of the Rob Thomas arrangements?
Dena: I really love it. My background is in a singer-songwriter kind of a thing, meaning that’s what I love, what I listen to. As a kid learning, you want to play bombastic stuff because it’s fun. I’d put on the Who and play along to Keith Moon—who doesn’t love that? But the heart and soul of where I come from is the Beatles and the Carpenters. It’s very sensitive to the melody, it’s serving the song. That mindset is what’s necessary here.
Rob’s songs are so brilliant and beautiful and wonderful, you need to serve them, and in this setting, where it’s really pulled back and beautifully arranged and thoughtful, I enjoy allowing that to come through. For me, it was never about soloing or trying to show off, and I never put a lot of time and energy into that. I just love coming up with parts that work for songs. That gives me the greatest satisfaction as a drummer, and I get to do that with Rob. You really can hear all these things at work, great guitar lines and beautiful piano parts and melodies and lyrics. It’s a joy.
MD: Do you work with brushes and rods with Rob?
Dena: It’s pretty stripped down. I use mostly Hot Rods, the Bundle Sticks, and brushes on a couple of tunes, and on “Smooth” I use sticks, because I have one of those RhythmTech StickBall Shakers on the stick.
MD: What’s the Drums and Disabilities [D.A.D.] program you’re involved in?
Dena: It’s amazing to see how kids can respond and the changes that drumming can effect in them. Drumming facilitates left- and right-brain integration, which can help with a myriad of things, when looking at oppositional defiant disorder, ADHD, and things on that spectrum. I’ve worked with kids who are nonverbal, who don’t communicate, who can barely make eye contact. When you get them with a pair of drumsticks in their hands, all of a sudden they’re looking at you and connect in whatever way they’re capable of. It’s an amazing process.
Dena Tauriello plays Pearl drums and hardware and Sabian cymbals, and she uses Evans heads, Promark products, and Studio Lab Percussion Drumtacs muffling devices.