BEN SESAR: Modern Drummer
Modern Drummer. If I use that phrase in conversation, I usually get a blank stare in return. If I say that Ben Sesar is Brad Paisley’s drummer, I’ll get a stream of comments about Brad Paisley. This is what has happened to drummers in the modern world. Over the years, the little drummer boy has marched into pop culture and largely lost his identity. When rock bands came of age, fans knew who the drummer was in most of these iconic bands. Keith Moon was a brand within The Who that he created and stamped into the fabric of what that band became, not the other way around. Drummers in Nashville today, despite the credentials they carry on their resume, don’t often claim an identity until they’ve made it onto a major tour. Their success is attributed to the name the headliner lends them, not any particular assets they bring to the stage. Yet one of the first things I notice, when everyone else is losing their minds over the headliner that just arrived on stage, is the drummer. In my interview with Ben Sesar, he compared the stage experience to that of a running car. The first thing you notice about a car is what it looks like. How it shines, how it’s detailed, its shape and size, gets most of the oohs and aahs – just like the headliner. What makes it notable is how it runs. A perfect engine requires having all its moving parts working in unison to deliver the smooth ride and expert handling that give it value and reliability. When an engine purrs, we pay it no mind. It if starts making an odd noise, we notice. The quality of the music a band makes keeps us buying concert tickets and coming back for more. Look and listen closely. The man in the driver’s seat of our concert experience is the modern day drummer.
Ben Sesar jumped off the stage, not literally, when I saw him at a Brad Paisley concert. There was a leadership and a strength in his playing that told me he was a serious drummer with above average credentials – way above average. When he blew me away with his drum solo on Van Halen’s, “Hot For Teacher,” I had to know who he was. If you Google ‘Brad Paisley’s drummer,’ you’re going to get a YouTube video of a GMA performance where Brad plays with a 6 year old. Fairly confident this was not him, I went to my source for drum information, Rich Redmond. Now having his name, I gave Google another try. First result: http://bensesar.com/. Once I find a musician’s identity, I can’t just look up their number in the phone book and call them. If they don’t have a website, facebook page, or twitter account, there really is no way to contact them. Through his website, I was able to send him a message and ask for this interview, in addition to finding out more about him. Having a website is a basic component of building a brand for yourself, but first, you have to do the work to make yourself stand out in the professional world of musicians.
Becoming a drummer on a major tour does not happen without the solid credentials to put you there. Ben was born and raised in New Jersey, a very gifted drummer from an early age. He finished high school confident in his abilities, feeling like he had something to show his new classmates at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Instead, what he found when he got there, shocked him. The other drum students seemed to play on another level, and all of the drum swag he thought he possessed eroded. He described it as starting from ground zero in learning how to play and figuring out how to get where he wanted to be. His fellow students had no idea how to teach him what they knew, and the teachers couldn’t get him there either. He was left to his own devices to bridge the gap between their abilities and his. What he did learn from Berklee, though, was valuable in other ways. He gained a solid knowledge of theory, ear training, and non-drumming principles. It was a foundation to build his playing techniques on. What he felt he lacked at that age, may have been more life-changing than he realized.
Music is an evolutionary, progressive process. It is never a finite encounter. In some professions, what is learned in college is the bulk of information you’ll ever need to succeed in the real world. For professional musicians, it’s just the beginning….at least for the good ones. Feeling less qualified than his peers, Ben developed a zest for learning everything he could about improving his playing. Even to this day, he still takes an occasional lesson. He played in bands to advance his skills and stayed in Boston after college to pursue a music career with a rock band there. One of his fellow bandmates, who was also from New Jersey, was a singer/songwriter named Dylan Altman. When that band gig ended in Boston, he and Dylan got in a car with their meager belongings and drove to Nashville. Like many who arrive in that city with little more than a hopeful resume, Ben said he knew one person there who he stayed with for two weeks. Quickly, he and Dylan reformed the band and rented a house. Over the next two years in the late 90s, every Tuesday night, you could find them playing at a dive bar called Jack’s Guitar Bar. He described their style as a jam band with heavy guitar influences. Far from being a dream gig in a marquee venue, it’s often these early Nashville experiences that shape a musician’s style of play. The nature of the Nashville bar scene, with so many skilled musicians in town, is a very organic environment. Show up with an instrument and you never know who might be there and what will come of the fusion. Ben recalled a young Keith Urban showing up frequently to see them play when he was new in town. Keith had a band called The Ranch back then and asked if they could jam together. They played a few gigs in that bar, and Ben said he could tell, even then, that Keith’s playing was something special. Who knew that their paths would continue to cross over the years since those early sessions in that dive bar?
Whenever I ask a musician how they landed the big gig, all of them have a six degrees of separation story to tell me. Ben’s happened in 1999, and involved a receptionist he knew at a record label and Brad Paisley’s manager. It sounds very clandestine, but in the world of music industry relationships, it’s the norm. Come as it may, he got the audition and landed the job. Do the math and you can figure out that Ben has been Brad’s drummer for 16 years. That’s quite a long lasting relationship by Nashville standards, and one that has shaped Ben’s career. Brad’s guitar skills are well known, but he is also an impassioned musician all around and takes the entire process of recording and performing very seriously. Ben respects him for that, and has developed as a drummer in this environment. Being a part of a group of very talented musicians tends to elevate everyone’s level of play. All the guys in Brad’s band have been there nearly as long as Ben, and he noted that no one has ever quit. Over such a long period of time, they’ve developed an onstage telepathy that allows them to communicate solely through the music. He said they can read each other’s mood within the first few notes of a song. Having the luxury of a band that can read each other so completely, Brad will often change the arrangement of a song at will. This requires exceptional skill to pull off cleanly, and keeps things fresh and interesting for the musicians and the audience alike.
Being a spectator, I can tell when a band has been together for awhile and when they’re truly invested in the music. Watching Ben play, I could see the intensity he plays with and how he steers the music so precisely, however the song demands it. His connection to the music begins in the recording sessions. It is not the standard in Nashville for session players to tour with the solo artist. Brad Paisley’s band is one of few exceptions. Ben has played on ten of Brad’s albums, every one since he joined the band. Since 2000, all of Brad’s band members, with the exception of one, have been part of the recording sessions. A few years ago, Brad built a recording studio in his house, where both Wheelhouse and Moonshine In The Trunk have been recorded. This created a family atmosphere for the recording process, which enticed the final band member to come along for the ride. Ben describes the experience of being a part of Brad’s band as joining a family, which is exactly how Brad wants it to be. Everyone contributes to the creative process and shares pride in the finished product. It is through such session playing that Ben has found opportunities to share the stage and his inspired play with some music legends. Joe Walsh, John Fogerty, George Jones, B.B. King, Don Henley, Hank Williams, Jr., and ZZ Top are just a few of the names on his impressive resume. He also appears on live television on a regular basis, whenever Brad performs, and has multiple award winning albums and song recordings to his credit as a session player. While the opportunities may come from the career Brad Paisley has built, being a part of it was earned. Getting there, and maintaining that level of musicianship, comes from hard work and diligent practice.
Ben is both a fan and a student of music. He watches the musicians that inspire him and listens to the music that moves him. He sees music as a means of communication, and how well you speak through it depends on your commitment to improving your play and developing your own style. Part of Ben’s learning process comes from teaching students privately in his home. He says it’s one thing to teach someone how to play something and another entirely to inspire them to be creative in the process. In his lessons, he promotes creativity through movement. Being expressive in one’s play involves pouring raw emotion into your actions and attempting to make the listener feel what you’re feeling. This is where the role of teacher becomes mentor. Leading by example is the only way to encourage a pioneering vision in a young student. Despite the abundance of music that’s being made in Nashville, Ben says that musicians still have to carve out their own paradigm if they want to raise their value and improve their chances of working at a high level on a long term basis. With the music industry downsizing a little more each year, opportunities are fewer and personal branding for musicians becomes more vital.
Making yourself an asset in the music market that Nashville has created is an individual pursuit. There aren’t managers that advocate on their behalf or inherent support from one’s peers. Developing a recognizable style and padding your resume through years of playing and life on the road, isn’t guaranteed to make you a household name or a sizable bank account. No amount of YouTube watching will accomplish this either. Ben’s sense of immersion into the process and his desire to improve his skills consistently is what makes him stand out on the stage even when the spotlight isn’t on him. In reviewing my notes after our phone conversation, I noticed that there wasn’t a lot of personal emphasis in what Ben talked about. He gave me a sense of the big picture and how he fit into it. This is very much the way drummers in Nashville find themselves on the country music stage. Most of them won’t get the killer drum solo that Ben did, albeit during the cover of a rock song. Country songs just don’t call for that. Their role is to marshal the collection of contributing sounds from their position at the back of the stage, channel the energy from the music, and return it to the audience with just the right amount of style and force to support the storytelling of the song. Ben recognizes that not every song needs a heavy hand to make a statement. Sometimes the lightest touch can speak volumes. Knowing the difference is what makes a modern drummer’s role invaluable. In the ever changing landscape of country music, versatility is key, and being able to keep that musical engine running smoothly on the stage requires experience not often appreciated. Modern Drummer: someone who marches to the beat of their own drum while incorporating that unique beat into the sound of today’s music in a way that makes a statement. On and off stage, Ben Sesar exemplifies the vision of a modern drummer with a soul that is passionate about music. As fans, we should consider this a gift.
Ben is available as a teacher, speaker, and clinician. For information on the services he offers, visit his website: http://bensesar.com/
Follow Ben on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ben.sesar.3?fref=ts
Follow Ben on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bensesar
Subscribe to Ben’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/rockoses2
For tour information, visit Brad Paisley’s website: http://www.bradpaisley.com/tour-dates
All CMA Fest 2015 photos are courtesy of Bill McClintic of 90 East Photography/Think Country UK.