Question in the Form of an Answer: Tony Royster Jr (Drummer for Jay-Z, et al.)

Tony Royster Jr reckons everyone has something to give. But then Tony Royster Jr himself has more than most to offer. That’s something I learned when interviewing the renowned drummer for a Scene...
By    April 25, 2013

Tony Royster Jr reckons everyone has something to give. But then Tony Royster Jr himself has more than most to offer. That’s something I learned when interviewing the renowned drummer for a Scene feature story last month. Acknowledged as a master of his trade, Royster Jr regularly tours with a numerous high profile artists, including Joss Stone, Joe Jonas and En Vogue, but perhaps most prominently Jay-Z, where he shares the stage with another of Carter’s regular collaborators, producer Young Guru.

In more recent years, Royster Jr and Guru have been sharing their skills in a different way, teaming up to present a series of workshops and small club shows focusing on percussion and production, respectively. It was before one such trip to Australia that I caught up with the Royster Jr. He was erudite and professional, but at ease when digging into both his passions and inspirations, and you get the impression he enjoys the opportunity to fly under cover and connect to the communities he visits. He even took the time to learn about the street organisation – the Youth Off The Streets foundation – he was contributing to. A stone cold professional. — Matt Shea

You’re from Georgia originally, but L.A.’s home for you, right?

Yeah, L.A.’s home, but I’m actually a military brat, so I was born in Germany and lived in five different states for equal parts of my life.

So where feels like home to you?

Um, I’d have to say that it’s a split between L.A. and Georgia, but only because Georgia’s where I did most of my school years, as far as part of my middle school and all of high school. And my mother and father live there as well.

So you’re on tour at the moment. It makes me wonder: do you get more offers to tour or to play in the studio?

Oh, tour, for sure. The studio sessions come and go. Most producers and artists are used to using people that they use on a daily basis. I do studio sessions when I’m in L.A., but a lot of people don’t really call me that often because they figure that –

You’re on tour.

Yeah (laughs). So it’s a catch-22. But when I’m home I tend to do a few sessions. It works out, which is cool.

Having been a military baby and moving around a lot, do you take to touring pretty well? Do you enjoy that sort of life?

Yeah. It’s cool. I mean, anything is better than a 9-to-5. This is great, it’s my passion, it’s what I love to do, so I have no complaints. And it’s amazing, because now I have the opportunity to travel the world and do a lot of things that a lot of people don’t have the opportunity to do. I’m extremely grateful for that, and for that gift of mine to play drums. There are some times when you get homesick, but that’s just because of the personnel you might be dealing with or the conditions or you might just want to go home. But once you get back home and you stay there for a week or so, you’re ready to do more stuff. That’s just how it is, that’s just how it works.

You and Young Guru doing these workshops: where and when did the idea first come to you?

Man. Well, let me start here: I love to see people dance and I love to see people move. Drumming: we’re supposed to keep the beat going with the foundation of music. So going to these clubs, I have had the opportunity to drum playing in clubs before and it’s an amazing concept. It’s nothing like super crazy, but just being able to play in the club and people really cling onto the live instrumentation and that’s great. But you have to play that fine line of not overdoing it. I’ve had the opportunity to play with a few DJs back in L.A. and locally – just to see how it will work out – and it’s been nothing but amazing feedback, and you just have to do it right.

When I play I don’t want it to be a performance, because that’s not what I want. I want to be considered a DJ in a certain respect, because I want to keep people dancing and I don’t want them to stop everything that they’re doing, just to watch. They’re going to watch anyway, but I want to keep them dancing, keep them going to buy drinks. Because that’s what’s going to keep the clubs wanting to hire and book because they see people having a great time, and then at the same time they’re still dancing and buying drinks and making the club money. That’s where the idea came to me – that’s an amazing way to still do what I love, AND have a great time at the same time. It’s so much fun – you’re doing what you want to do – you’re playing music that you already know, but it’s more so about interacting with people and giving the general public an opportunity to experience live instrumentation in the club.

Let me quote the presser here: “Guru and Royster have a genuine vested interest in developing the next generation of creative professionals” – what is your vested interest? Why get so passionate about the clinics.

Man! Well, if I’m a basketball player and Kobe Bryant is one of my favourite basketball players of all time, it’s really almost impossible to have a private seminar with him. If he’s in L.A. and I live in Australia, that’s virtually impossible for me to try to time that trip to go and see him – and that’s before you talk about expenses and all that stuff. So when it comes down to the clinics and letting people see me play, it’s more so about letting people see someone they look up to, see their favourite drummers, if that’s the case. I love to be able to help out people and just see their faces when I show up and they say that they really appreciate my drumming. Because I do it for them. I love drumming and that’s my passion, but if I can play and really make a change in people’s lives as far as their music is concerned – that’s more gratifying than anything.

You had musical parents: does that feed into it? That encouragement. A lot of musicians, the story is to fight against parents – or maybe be dominated by parents – but for you it seemed like they really supported you. Do you think the support from your folks fed into this passion to teach others?

Absolutely. Not even just my parents – I love them to death and if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be where I am today, and they gave me that opportunity to be a kid as opposed to Joe Jackson and not letting me do anything. It doesn’t necessarily have to come from them. I’m a grown man with common sense, right? And when I view the world, I see things for myself. And when you see how certain people don’t have the opportunity to experience, to go different places, or to see certain musicians that they look up to, and just the opportunity to see them play and even meet them, that’s more than enough to teach and extend my hand.

Then also, I like to teach these musicians and it’s all about camaraderie between us; it’s all about one family, because most people have the wrong impression – especially drummers to drummers. Not even drummers to keyboardists, or drummers to bass players. We’ve got our own community and I don’t want us to think of our playing when we’re playing against other drummers as a battle. Because it’s not, and I hate that. That’s another thing I try to stress when doing these clinics: it’s about us coming together and learning from one another. Everyone has something to give, regardless of how good they are and how much they suck – at least they’re trying. That’s just what it is and that’s the type of message I try to bring across when doing these clinics. It’s all about listening and enjoying one another and helping each other out and encouraging each other to do well.

You talk about learning yourself. Travelling the world and doing this, you must take a lot from it.

Absolutely. It’s always a great learning experience wherever I go – just different people everywhere. And I just soak it up like a sponge. Every place is a new place and I take it on as it comes.

You play in a bunch of different bands – you’ve performed with Paul Shaffer, and then you’ve been playing with Francisco Fattoruso, Jay-Z, Joe Jonas and your own band – is there a need for you to keep up that variety, to dabble and engage in all these types of music to keep that variety in your drumming?

Well, absolutely. I’ve had the opportunity and my father putting me in those different scenarios when I was an early age to learn and be exposed to different styles of music at an early age really helped a tremendous amount. I think it’s really important for musicians in general to be as versatile as possible; that allows you to not be limited as far as artist and music and things of that nature that you can embark on. Once you’re limited to a certain style of music, that limits your workflow. If all you can play is rock, then there’s no way in hell you’re going to be able to do a funk gig and keep the gig or do a jazz gig and keep the gig, because there’s so much work out there. You just have to really open yourself and open your mind to be willing to learn. I just feel like a lot of musicians are lazy, as opposed to not having the skill set to learn. It might be harder for other people because they might not have had the same upbringing as I had or had different things to put them in that position to learn different styles of music. I don’t know what their situation is, but for sure I think it’s very important – extremely important – to be as versatile as possible. It’s definitely helped me in my playing, because I can pretty much go into any situation, and even if I haven’t played that style of music in a long time, it takes me just a few minutes or so to snap into that – just because I’ve done it before or I’ve been exposed to it already, and it’s embedded in my soul.

What about Georgia: there’s confluence of musical styles running through the state – did that contribute to the variety, do you think?

Um – kind of, and then not really. Because I’m not really that stationary. I really couldn’t be there to see what type of impact that could have on me as a musician. I’ve played in Savannah, which is a great place that has a lot of history as far as jazz and things of that nature. I’ve played with a lot of jazz musicians out there. But like I said, I travel so much and I think that everywhere I go I pick up something from that particular place. Every gig that I do, I try to take it to the next level and get as much out of it as possible and understand the research and the craft as much as possible

Are there enough young men and women interested in being drummers? Is there any more interest or less interest than there used to be?

Back in the day, things were different to how they are now. Technology is completely different, which means back then you were forced to learn how to make something sound good, as opposed to a piece of equipment doing it for you. Back then, they didn’t concentrate on a machine or piece of software to do the work for them. And so the same thing applies to music. Most musicians nowadays have the wrong idea when it comes to a career in music. You have to figure out what their passion is and what their objectives and motives are for being a musician. If you’re doing it just to make money and that causes you to be depressed or stressed out or if things are not happening right then and there. Because it’s a crazy road and making it in this industry is extremely difficult. Most drummers are always asking me about getting endorsements and things of that nature: companies are not giving out endorsements like they did back then.

There are so many things that go into it, but to answer your question, the interest of certain musicians is there. People who really, really love music and do it because it’s a passion of there’s, that still exists. Those are the musicians that I really like to work with and be involved with what they’re doing, and I like them to see me play as well because they have a clear understand of what I’m trying to do. Also, I try to snap some of these other musicians that have that other mentality out of it and onto a more direct path of doing it because you love it and doing it because it makes other people feel good and when that happens other good things come to you.

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