Interview: Nick Mason the “Living Dead Drummer”

Nick Mason AKA The Living Dead Drummer is a true professional when it comes to his craft of percussion.  He has performed on more albums than he can remember, numerous singles and several movie soundtracks, he has also appeared in many music videos, orchestrated drum clinics and co-hosted an international music TV show. Nick is also currently the Sr. Drum Instructor and Show Director for School Of Rock. Get to know him a little better below.

How and when did you choose to become a drummer?

Well I grew up with a drumming family. Everyone on my Mother’s side of the family, Mom included, played the drums. My Uncle gave me a Snare when I was two years old, an I always had a bucket of sticks in the house. I didn’t start really “learning” how to play until I was about 10. That’s when I started taking lessons and joined the school concert band. Did that for a couple years and eventually moved over to drum set.  

What have been some of the hardest techniques that you have mastered?

I don’t think I’ve “mastered” anything. Music is an art and practice; there is no end game with it. You will never stop learning, growing, and improving. That being said I always try to find areas in my playing that need improvement and work on those. I constantly work on stick technique, and expanding my snare dynamics, as well as trying to push tempos with my feet, while maintaining a solid attack. 

What are your favorite musical styles to play? And why?

It’s a mixed bag. I’ve always gravitated to harder rock music, but when it comes to playing I genuinely find enjoyment just as long as I’m behind a kit, regardless of genre. I will say there is a fair amount of Electronic music I really enjoy, stuff that’s up-tempo and just slams “four on the floor.” Many drummers might find that uninteresting or boring, but I love it. Another one that’s real high on my list is Blues. I really, really, love playing the blues! 

How do you feel that drumming as a whole has evolved over the last few decades?

I strive for accuracy in my playing. I want to be solid in my time keeping, have a deep pocket when needed, and make every note I play be intentional and count for something. I think I’ve been on the right track because those are typically the things that people will compliment when seeing or hearing me play. When I was younger I was all about finding something interesting to play. Coming up with a cool kick pattern for a song, or finding a way to work this or that cymbal into the set list someplace. Now I use my ears more. I start with just the basics and if something naturally comes out of it, like doing a fill with more than just one or two toms, well then I know I need to add a 3rd. I also put more of a focus on practicality. While I like to be well educated and learn as many styles of playing as I can, I spend more time working on things that are needed right now. For example, if I’m currently playing with 3 rock bands, than I’m going to spend my practice time working on techniques and styles that will aid in that music, and not dedicate too much to working on a technique that isn’t going to apply to my immediate work. 

What bands are you currently working with and what releases have landed and what can we expect in the future?

Right now, with the closure of live music venues and everyone’s tours having been cancelled for 2020, I’ve been working with probably a wider variety of musicians than ever before! I’m in the middle of recording two new records, one with The Rhythm Coffin, and one with FLAKE. The Rhythm Coffin is an all original “monster rock’n roll” band. The songs are all fun rock tunes about Werewolves, and Zombies, and such. This is my 3rd record with them, and the drums are nearly complete on it. We are shooting for a fall release. FLAKE is an older Nu-Metal group. Their intent is to release a double-album.  Half of it will be brand new material, and the other half is acoustic versions of older material they released before I was in the band. Drums are done on the new stuff, and I am about a quarter of the way into the acoustic material. 

I’ve also been doing a lot of one-off recording projects for people. I just did a couple industrial tracks for a music library, have been recording both original material and some covers for collaboration projects with musicians who are, like me, stuck at home. And I started working on a country album with a friend of mine in Canada. She’s a bad-ass guitarist I’ve known for many years and I’m really excited that we finally found a way to work together. Got a couple songs in the bag and I’m looking forward to diving deeper into that stuff!

What does a Living Dead Drummer practice session look like?

Well, I try to practice at least 5 days a week, more if I can get it in, and for at least 3-4 hours a day. 

The first thirty to forty minutes is warm up. I work on rudiments and sticking exercises, often while incorporating my feet for timekeeping and to get them moving too. After that I will focus a little more on warming up my lower half and to some work that will use all four of my limbs around the kit, or double kick workouts. I like to make sure that nothing is neglected, and both my hands, plus both feet, get equal attention. From there I tend to focus on material that I have for an upcoming gig or session, keeping songs that I may already know polished, or learning new ones. It’s rare that I am working without a deadline, so I have to make sure I’m 100% prepared for the upcoming job. On the odd occasion, and I mean ODD, that I have some free time, and don’t have any impending material I need to focus on, I’ll sometimes jam to music I like. I might only get to do this three or four times a year though. 

You’re a very accomplished and respected drum instructor. How did you make the leap from performer to instructor? What does a class with you look like? And what adjustments did you have to make because of the lockdown?

Thank you, I kind of fell into teaching by accident. When I was younger I thought it would be fun to work in a music store. I guess I kind of had the Empire Records fantasy, but with instruments instead of records. Every place I tried to apply told me they didn’t need anyone on the floor, but they wanted a new Drum Instructor. At the advice of my own teacher I took a teaching job in Niagara Falls, NY and discovered a passion I never knew I had. Sharing my knowledge, skills, and experiences with others has brought a lot of joy. I’ve been at it for almost 20 years now, and will probably continue until I’m too old to hold a pair of sticks. 

I’m big on the “formal” stuff, and fundamentals. If you’re going to be my student you will learn how to read and write music. We will work hard on proper technique, learn and maintain all the proper rudiments, and explore many different styles of playing. I tend to be a little stern, but that doesn’t mean we won’t have fun. The bottom line of playing music is of course to have fun. 

I have around 40 or so private students per week, and with the global pandemic, closure of schools, and social distancing orders, I had to act fast in order to keep the train from falling off the tracks. Pushing pause on having a creative outlet can give way to much larger problems. Depression and anxiety are common enough, art and music can help put a stop to that. I think now, more than ever we need music in our lives. 

As soon as the “work from home” orders came down I started buying up all kinds of new gear. Most of it was stuff I had planned on getting eventually, but had been putting it off for one reason or another. I invested in new mics, pre-amps, cables, web-cams, all kinds of stuff. I turned my rehearsal space into a full recording studio capable of handling remote drum tracking sessions and online lessons. I have a multi-cam setup so students can see a front view of my kit at an angle where they can see everything, as well as a side angle close up on my snare. I also have the entire kit running through mics and preamps and send the student a pre-mixed direct feed of my drums, with a vocal mic so I can speak to them clearly. So far it’s been working out great. I retained the bulk of my clientele, as well as gained a few new students. Some of them, of course, chose to wait until we could be back in person again, and that’s understandable. It’s hard to argue the pros of an online lesson versus an in-person one, but so far I haven’t run into too many speed bumps, and the students seem to be enjoying our time. 

I even went as far as to redecorate the studio and make it more appealing to look at. Before it was just a couple kits set up and a wall of road cases, spare parts, and extra drums. It’s still that, but I hung tapestries over all the soundproofing panels, and mounted old kick drum heads that had artwork done on them around the room. Something I planned for a long time, but never did because no one really saw the room other than myself. If I’m going to be teaching and have a bunch of people see the room over the internet on a daily basis, it might as well look nice too.  

Yamaha just designed a custom kit for you.  Tell us about it.  

I can’t gush enough over Yamaha. I’ve been officially endorsing them since 2011, and they’ve always provided me with the most incredible gear on the planet. I had a couple of Snare Drums they did some custom work on for me, and their craftsmanship was just outstanding. Those weren’t anything even that complicated, they just took two standard issue and made them in a different finish for me that isn’t available on the market. I was just so impressed with the work they did that I decided to toss the idea of this “custom” kit out there. It was more of a pipe-dream, “wouldn’t it be cool if” kind of thing. Much to my surprise the response I got was “we could do that.” 

The idea was this, an all white double bass kit, with blood spatter and bloody handprints all over the shells. Like a LOT of blood! And not just any blood, I wanted it to match the same shade of red that was available on the Paiste Colorsound 9000 cymbal line. The last few years I’ve been using an all black Yamaha Live Custom, with Black Aquarian Drumheads, and Black Paiste Colorsound cymbals. I’m not sure why, but having all my gear color matched appealed to me. The red Colorsound cymbals are really beautiful. Not only do they sound great in a rock setting, but the share of red is really bright and vibrant. We gave one of these cymbals to Yamaha and they went through a bunch of swatches until they landed on a red that matched! Then they ordered up the drums and paint and we got to work. 

I wanted their Birch drums, I’ve always preferred the sound of birch over Maple or whatever. Not that other drums don’t sound good too, my black kit is Oak, and I love it to death, but Birch was always my jam. I also didn’t want the kit to be too expensive. This whole thing was an experiment, and I would feel so awful if they got a bunch of $3000 drum shells and we totally destroyed them. So we went with their more mid-range Stage Custom shells. I actually really love this model drum too. I’ve used Stage Customs on many tours over the years and not only can they take the punishment of the road, but they sound great too! 

I really wanted this to be a fun collaborative art project. Once the paint and shells arrived we set up a day to go to town on with them. Daryl Anderson, Yamaha’s drum designer, and Greg Crane, Yamaha’s Artist Relations Manager, plus myself. We locked ourselves in the spray room and just went nuts! The result is the most bad ass, bloody, gruesome looking drums ever! I couldn’t be happier! They sound great, and it’s truly a dream come true! 

What is your choice in sticks? And why?

I use Regal Tip drumsticks. They’re made Western NY, where I grew up. I’ve always had a lot of hometown pride, and love that I can support a family owned business from there. In addition to that, this company gave me my first “big” start in the music industry. When I was in college I was teaching drums five days a week, plus working part time behind the counter at a music store. Regal Tip called me and let me know their Artist Relations Manager was stepping down and wanted to know if I was interested in interviewing for the position. I landed the job, and 48 hours after my college commencement ceremony I started doing AR for them. That job introduced me to the other side of the music business. Up until then, all I knew was the player side. Because of them I started attending trade shows, learning how other professional artists worked or operated. The knowledge I gained was far beyond any school could have taught. I worked for them for about three years before parting ways in order to focus more on my own music career, and cater to others less. 

Even after I left that job I’ve been able to maintain a fantastic relationship with the Calato family, who founded and own the company, and continue to endorse their products.  

Once lockdown is over what are some of the first things you will do?

Go to a bar and get a beer! Hahahaha. You know, I’m not exactly sure. I’m at a point where I’m really over this whole lockdown thing. I need to be around other people, I need to go out to eat, and I NEED to be on stage. However, there’s a part of me that also is comfortable working in my studio ten hours a day recording and teaching. I think once we get the “all clear” signal I will slowly start to resurface in public. I don’t know if I’ll be first in line anyplace. I’m sure once someone calls and tells me it’s time to go back on tour I’ll jump at it though. 

You released a cover of “Waiting Room” by Fugazi with Rick Thorne on vocals, Matt Fuller on guitars, Roman Blanco on guitars and Ben White on bass. How did that all come about?

That’s a funny story. In Hollywood we have a bunch of weekly and monthly “jams.” Theses aren’t try jams in the sense of the word. Nothing is improved, it’s all really well organized and cast. No one actually rehearses the material together, but you are told a day or so ahead of time what songs you’re responsible for performing. Well a few months ago I was arriving at The Sunset Jam at The Viper Room, and right as I was parking my phone started blowing up. Something about another drummer who wasn’t showing up that night, and people were under the impression that this guy had asked me to take over his songs for the night. I didn’t even know who the dude was! So when I walked into the venue they were preparing to cut those songs. Matt and Roman are friends of mine and I didn’t like the idea of them not being able to get on stage that night and play, so I asked, “when are you on?” “NEXT!” they said. So I ran to the dressing room with a sheet of paper, and pulled the song up on YouTube. I listened to it once, while I wrote out a chart, and said “Okay, let’s go!” We jumped up on stage and blasted through the Fugazi song. 

I guess I didn’t do half bad under the circumstances, because after the lockdown started Matt hit me up and asked if I’d like to record a cover of the song. Jokingly he said, “Now you’ll actually have time to learn it.” He got the same crew together that played it at The Viper Room and we all recorded our parts from our home recording setups, shot video, and Matt edited it together. Rick Thorne, being known for his BMX career, did his whole video singing the song while riding his bike through the streets of Hollywood. It’s outstanding!

What other activities do you enjoy besides drumming?

You know, the drums have been so all encompassing in my life that I have little time for anything else. I do work on Guitars a bit as a hobby. My Father owns a Guitar Repair business and taught me how to do all that stuff, mostly for students or friends. Now if only I could learn to play them better!

Anything else you would like to add?

I just want to say thank you for your time. I can be found on all major Social Media platforms under the username “Living Dead Drummer.” I’d love to connect with some of your readers, so feel free to hit me up!

https://www.facebook.com/nmason

https://www.facebook.com/livingdeaddrummer/

http://www.livingdeaddrummer.com/live/