Steel Panther’s larger-than-life character Stix Zadinia on heavy hitting and the importance of a good bandana
Words: Andy Hughes Images: Sabrina Ramdoyal
Darren Leader plays drums, keyboards and guitar. He writes songs, has a large collection of bandanas and is the proud owner of the character that is Stix Zadinia, drummer and ladies’ man from mock-rockers Steel Panther.
Chatting with Darren involves chatting with Stix as well, especially since we are backstage at the Manchester Apollo and between Steel Panther’s sound check and show. This is when the magic starts to work and the characters of Steel Panther come to life. Sometimes it’s hard to see where Darren ends and Stix begins, which is just fine, because they are both charming people and seriously talented musicians.
It seems oddly appropriate, being christened Stix, that he grew up to be a drummer in a heavy metal band. “My parents were prognosticators, and I think one of them was a relative of Nostradamus. They knew what was to be and said to themselves, ‘Let’s name this one Stix.’ It’s like gravity, it does what it does. The same thing happened to be when I first met the drums. We were destined to be together from the third grade, which is when we first encountered each other. I went to my friend Brent Christiansen’s house, and he had a drum kit. I have no idea what kind of kit it was, only that it was maroon and it looked fabulous. I picked up the sticks, hit the drums, and a light went on in my head. I went home, and I told my parents that I wanted drum lessons. Of course they were not at all surprised by this – they knew it was bound to happen, which is why they named me Stix, remember? So I asked for a drum kit, and they said no. They told me I could have a practice pad and some lessons, and if after three months my teacher said I was improving, then we could talk about having a drum kit. Of course, I did improve, because my destiny was written in the cosmos, before time began!
“I had lessons for about five years. I know that the debate does go on between formal lessons and being self-taught, and I am a believer that formal lessons are a good thing when you first start out. It means you develop a good playing technique and you can avoid getting into bad habits without even being aware of them, until they come up and bite you later on in your playing career. I have never had problems with my wrists, carpal tunnel or anything like that, so I am glad that I did learn to play properly from the start. I only stopped having lessons because I really wanted to spend the time actually playing the drums. The result is that, today, if you want someone who can play loads of paradiddles and loads of fast one-hand rolls, that is not me. If you want a guy who can hammer some serious beats into your rock and metal songs, then give me a call, that is exactly what I do.”
So what lesson has stayed in Stix’s mind from then until now?
“In a word, focus. My teacher used to get me to play along to a click track, and then he would play a freeform rhythm on a floor tom right next to me. That taught me to zone out anything that was distracting me in my playing and to focus entirely on maintaining the beat consistently, because that is the beginning and the end of what playing the drums is all about. I have brought that lesson to every gig I have ever played. There is always a lot going on with a band playing together, especially a band like Steel Panther, so you have to be able to keep hearing the bits you need and zone out the rest, and then you can be sure your mind is focused on your rhythms.”
So from lessons, to bands – what is the transition stage, Stix? “Well, for me, it started off fairly simply, jamming with the kids across the street. Then you start forming neighbourhood bands, you play at yard parties, and then you start getting noticed. You start getting smiles from the cutest girls at the party – girls who would not have given you a second glance if you were simply another guest, but there you are making the music happen. You are the dude. You are holding those beats down and you have a serious bandana on. Oh yeah, before I forget, an essential part of the rock and metal drummer’s kit is a serious collection of bandanas. Right now, we have a wardrobe lady on the road with us, and she takes care of everybody’s stage clothes and makes sure we all look killer when we go out there. She has recently sorted out my bandana collection, so everything is ready for my choice right before we go on stage.
“Seriously though, in Steel Panther, and I think this applies to almost all heavy metal bands, we believe in putting on a show. It’s a simple follow-on from when I used to go and watch bands when I was growing up. I don’t want to go and see a bunch of guys who look like they have just stepped up on stage from out of the crowd! I want my band to look serious, like they have made an effort to look right, and they mean what they are doing to be taken seriously. Look at Led Zeppelin. Jimmy Page never went on stage looking anything less than the superstar musician he was, with those dragon suits and that deal going on. And Robert Plant with those skin-tight jeans with the huge flares, and the skinny little Biba blouses that showed off his chest and he had that hair going on. Man, they looked like they owned the town, and that’s what fans wanted then, and I think they still do now. If you are going to step out on stage and entertain people who buy your records, and have come out for a night to see a show, then you’d better be sure that you give them a show, and that starts with dressing up and looking good, and we hit that mark every single night.”
Any more essential ingredients for the metal drummer? “Oh sure, you have to have that musical aggression, not personal aggression, that’s different, you don’t need that in a band with your buddies. You need to be able to pump it out on stage though, that is very important. Our band has a lot of straightforward beats and rhythms, but there are occasions when some musicianship comes into play for all of us. For me as a drummer, that means some creative fills, and it really helps if you can twirl your sticks properly. I recommend that drummers who don’t twirl yet should check out Mick Tucker from the Sweet, the 70s glam band. He twirled a stick like a master, and I learned my twirling from him, so he’s great to check out for ideas of exactly how to twirl your sticks just right.
“The other thing is to have fun, man. You’re in a band. I see so many drummers playing up on stage, and they are frowning and looking so miserable, I mean, come on, think of all the other jobs you could be doing and you are up there playing music, having fun, so let your face know and smile.”
Let’s talk kits: “I have a new custom-made kit from DW, which is not only the coolest kit I have ever owned, it is also the coolest kit I have ever seen. I have a spare snare drum with me and I had to switch to a double point coated snare head, which is much better for hard hitting. If I play coated Ambassador heads, I am lucky to get through one song before it is all pitted and looking gnarly.
“Drumming covers such a huge range of styles and techniques. There are some guys who tap away, and they can use the same heads and sticks for years and years, and there are other guys like me who really like to hit hard, and they can crack cymbals and bust heads and sticks ands get through everything two or three times in one tour. It’s all about playing for the style of your band, and if that means you damage some hardware doing it, then so be it. It’s not about being purposefully destructive, that is just a waste of good drum gear, but some players accept that parts of the kit will take more of a hammering than others.”
Do you prefer a double of a single kick for your kit? “Well, interestingly, I have been experimenting with double and single kick drums. I like a double kick because it looks cool, and looking cool is vital when you are a heavy metal drummer like I am. But in terms of actually playing with a double kick, it is harder work than with a single, I have found. With a single kick you can bring the kit in nearer to you, it makes the whole set-up more compact and easier to play. There is less reaching to do to get around the kit, and when you play a long set of heavy metal songs, that extra energy you can save throughout a set comes in handy in terms of preserving your strength. I have tried a double 24” kick set-up and a double 22”, and now I am using a single 22” for most of our shows.”
Mention of 24” kick drums almost always leads drummers into talking about John Bonham, who used his with such masterful effect – and this conversation is no exception. “John Bonham is without doubt the greatest heavy rock drummer there has ever been, and probably ever will be,” is Stix’s pronouncement on the subject. “I know there are guys and girls reading this right now who will disagree with my view – you may be saying to yourself that there are other drummers out there who are better than Bonham, and that’s fine. You’re wrong, but it’s fine!
“The thing is, when you hear his playing on ‘When The Levee Breaks’, it’s impossible not to be moved on a primal level. I know that they recorded his drum sound at Headley Grange, and they put the kit out in the hall, miked it from the landing two floors up and used that entire natural echo. But it’s the way he strikes the drums that matters – that band went out to capture lighting in a bottle, and that day, they succeeded.”
Steel Panther spend a lot of time touring, so Stix has some valuable advice for passing the time travelling with the band. “Actually, it’s not a problem in the UK because to us all road journeys here are really short. But in the States there can be some seriously long road trips when you are out on tour.
“We are really lucky in Steel Panther because we do get on really well together, and that’s not always the case with every band. But if you are good friends then that does help a lot. We used to spend a lot of time playing video games but these days, we just sit around and chat and laugh and goof around a lot. Sometimes we watch movies, it depends how people are.
“The most important thing about travelling on a tour bus is recognising when someone needs their space, and that happens to everyone at one time or another. If one of the guys just needs to be alone and take some time out, he can go to the back of the bus, or go to his bunk and just chillax. That’s how we do it, and I recommend that for any band who works together a lot on tour.”
Finally Stix, we need to know about the end – going out in the style in which you have lived as a rock star and all-round bandana-toting drum legend? “That’s cool that you ask me that, because I have thought about it and I am happy to tell you. I would like to die shark hunting with a spear. Not from the shark, no way – I kill the shark, I am successful with my shark hunt. But just as I am enjoying my triumph, I get into a tangle with some killer whales and that’s how I go. Killer whales – it’s the only way to go out, dude!”
Click to the next page for a look in Stix’s Gearbox…