The Argentine-born, Brazilian-raised, New York—based drummer fuels the vivid, dark, and explosive indie rocker on the road.
In August of 2018, the Japanese-American indie singer-songwriter Mitski released Be the Cowboy, her fifth studio full-length since 2012 and her most commercially successful to date. The artist’s latest effort draws from various styles—’60s guitar pop, ’70s disco, ’80s synth-driven electronica, ’90s biting grunge—all of which coexist easily amid her dreamy vocal melodies and raw, straight-from-the-diary lyrics.
Live, though, Mitski’s songs inhabit a new skin, infused with vigorous energy provided in part by the artist’s touring drummer, Bruno Esrubilsky. For evidence, check YouTube for the Brooklyn Steel performance of “Drunk Walk Home,” from 2014’s Bury Me at Makeout Creek. Behind the singer’s wild onstage movements, Esrubilsky pounds primal toms in 6/4 before launching into a steadfast march pattern that sets up the song’s exhilarating full-group climax: a collective buzz saw of distorted bass, guitar, and synth, with the drummer deftly steering its cut.
Esrubilsky grew up in Rio de Janeiro, feasting on a hearty diet of progressive rock and Brazilian ethnic music. “In hindsight,” says Bruno, “it was great getting into prog rock while studying jazz and Brazilian rhythms in Rio in the midst of Carnaval culture. And being a huge Rush fan really called me toward drumming.” MD recently spoke with Esrubilsky about the latest Mitski international run, which goes through September.
MD: How did you land the gig with Mitski?
Bruno: After touring for a few years while based out of New York City, I got to work with lots of artists and connect with people in the industry, including managers and agents. Being professional on the road and creating a solid reputation for yourself are huge. People will hopefully talk about you and recommend you for other gigs.
MD: What’s the band’s rehearsal process like for a tour?
Bruno: First we learn all the songs individually and then rehearse together for a few days before it starts. I usually write down roadmaps of the tunes, which helps me memorize them faster. I make notes of important spots throughout the song. Come rehearsal time, we play each song repeatedly until it feels right. Then we work on transitions—who cues what, who starts what, that kind of thing.
MD: How do you approach Mitski’s drum parts live as compared to the drums on her album tracks?
Bruno: I try to find a middle ground where I’m fully representing the record while also playing it my way. Mitski’s music is a whirlwind of styles. You can go from classical to swing, punk rock, pop, electronic, heavier rock, and disco within the same show. That makes my job more fun, as I get to find many approaches.
I also blend all the electronic aspects of her music within the acoustic kit. Instead of backing tracks, we often have long samples that I fire on a Roland SPD-SX sampler. It’s great not being attached to a computer, and I like the responsibility of firing all the electronic sounds.
MD: Do you play to a click live?
Bruno: We use a Boss DB-90 metronome. I switch the tempo between songs, and it runs smoothly. I like how traditional it feels.
MD: Do you have any advice for playing along to one?
Bruno: I’ve practiced to a click my whole life. By now I think of it almost as another instrument playing in the background instead of giving it too much focus. I couldn’t recommend enough the importance of practicing to a click. Always start slow and build your way up, with as much dynamic range as possible.
MD: Do you have a warm-up routine on the road?
Bruno: My personal bag of tricks includes jumping rope backstage, running around outside the venue, and stretching. Then I spend a few minutes on a Reflexx practice pad practicing rudiments and playing the Charley Wilcoxon book, The All-American Drummer, which I always carry on tour. Jumping rope is my favorite, though—that works my whole body and gets me really pumped for the show.
MD: What do you practice for technique?
Bruno: In the past, I was deep into Moeller technique. And for a long time I worked on my bass drum technique and focused on not burying the beater into the head. I’ve also always tried to be as relaxed as possible. Working on feeling loose while playing helps me focus and have better posture while playing. The way I look at it now, I sort of let the knowledge I’ve been collecting do its own thing, so I can focus on being musical and share a strong moment with my bandmates onstage, while always trying to learn something new and staying engaged.
MD: How do you maintain your energy each night throughout a set?
Bruno: Every night before I walk onstage I have a little thankful mantra going on in my head that settles me into the moment that’s about to come. At that moment I’m talking to myself and acknowledging how lucky I am to do this. I’m thanking life for this path I’m on and reminding myself that this is the fun part of the job. This is where all those years of practice and hard work culminate. I think that’s a big part of keeping the energy up onstage for me. Being truly happy to play drums and wanting to give the audience a night to remember fuel me.
Bruno Esrubilsky endorses Ludwig drums, Zildjian cymbals, Evans heads, Promark sticks, and Roland electronics.
Also on the Road
Johnny Rabb with Collective Soul /// Scott Hessel with Gin Blossoms /// Eric Singer with Kiss /// Charlie Watts with the Rolling Stones /// Reed Mullin with Corrosion of Conformity /// Jason Roeder with Neurosis /// Robi Gonzalez with This Will Destroy You