From the February 2017 issue of DRUM! | By Bob Doerschuk | Photo by Clemente Ruiz
Sometimes a backbeat is just a backbeat. Sometimes it’s a lot more — a way to cope with tragedy, loss, and anger. For years, Tony Hajjar didn’t differentiate between these perspectives. Luckily, he’s evolved: He’s achieved his dream of playing professionally in several high-profile bands, including At The Drive-In, Sparta, and most recently Gone Is Gone. He’s married and a father. He and his wife run a charity, Smile Pediatric Therapy And Diagnostics, dedicated to providing speech therapy for children.
But something primal still lingers in his drumming, something that harks back to darker times.
Hajjar was just five years old when his family fled civil war in Lebanon and immigrated to the United States. For a few months the five of them shared an apartment with Tony’s uncle in El Paso, Texas. Though they soon found a place of their own, their situation only grew more desperate.
“We were very poor,” Hajjar recalls. “But somehow my brother bought this $50 Rogers snap-on-head kit from my cousin when I was 14 years old. My mother was dying of cancer and I would play just to try to forget that she was so sick. For me, it was about letting out the frustration of my dad leaving us, my brother raising us, my mom dying. It became my only way to survive.”
When his mother did pass away, Hajjar abruptly stopped playing and sought out other ways to vent his anger. “I was a fighter,” he says. “If anyone messed with me or my friends, I was the 5’10”, 120-pound guy who would wail on him.”
At 18, largely to scale down the violence in his life, Hajjar went back to playing drums. After graduating from the University Of Texas at El Paso with a degree in chemistry, he committed full-time to music. He hit pay dirt in 1996 when At The Drive-In welcomed him as the group’s fourth drummer. Here, he found not only a musical outlet but also a sense of belonging that had been missing through much of his youth. “As a little kid, I didn’t want so much to be a drummer as to be a member of a band,” he says. “To me, it was beyond drumming. It was being part of a gang/band, part of what makes that machine move.”
Hajjar brought unusual assets with him to that gig. “I grew up on metal, on double-bass, on lots of notes. I idolized Scott Travis, Deen Castronovo, and all those people. I mean, no one had a backbeat like Bonham. I still play [Led Zeppelin’s] ‘The Ocean’ over and over again and go, ‘How does he just sit back and play that beat?’ So I took from that solidity of metal and applied it to the looseness of the form of punk rock that At The Drive-In was doing. That’s where I got my feel.”
The fact that Hajjar, born a southpaw, taught himself to play right-handed added some extra muscle to his backbeat, too. “As a kid, I didn’t know you could play drums left-handed,” he admits. “I mean, all the drummers I idolized and saw on TV played right-handed.”
After At The Drive-In split up in 2001, Hajjar got involved in multiple projects, from the ATDI spinoff band Sparta to Gone Is Gone, an all-star aggregation born from the drummer’s work with Mike Zarin in scoring film trailers. That background accounts for Hajjar’s decision to approach his role differently than he had with ATDI.
“The goal of Gone Is Gone is to be a band whose music could be in a film or a movie trailer,” he explains. “With all the trailers we’ve done, we’ve learned that while there can be some intricacy in the drum part it can never be over the top, so the trailer editor can cut to it. At The Drive-In is full-throttle 80 percent of the time. Cedric [Bixler, lead singer] and I had lots of conversations about where we should put drum fills so that they work with but don’t interfere with the vocals. There are only two or three songs per record where I can rest, so to speak. For Gone Is Gone, I sit back with a lot more backbeat stuff.”
On their latest album, Echolocation, Hajjar gives free rein to his imagination within this commitment to simplicity. Drum sound moves to the forefront as a critical element, from the effects chain he manipulates while playing African drums, Roland samples, and a splash taped onto his snare in “Dublin,” to the in-your-ear immediacy on the line “don’t turn around” in “Slow Awakening,” when his sound strips suddenly down to the signal from a single ambient mono microphone. There’s even an echo of Hajjar’s Lebanese heritage in the snare pattern of the title track. “One hundred percent!” he confirms. “Every record I’ve ever done has a 6/4 or 5/4 beat that you might play on a dumbek, but I translate to a drum set. Every time I open up my snare, it’s because I’m thinking of an Arabic beat.”
There’s another element in Echolocation that hasn’t changed since Hajjar picked up his first sticks back in El Paso — his intensity. He smiles as he describes a recent session with the reunited At The Drive-In, whose next album releases in 2017. “We did three songs last Thursday and three more on Friday. On Friday, when we were listening to takes, the producer looked at me, shaking his head. I’m like, ‘Was it really bad?’ And he goes, ‘No. I’ve just never seen so much emotion coming through the glass!’”
Hajjar can’t hide his delight. “That was a really big compliment — bigger than just having great rudiments. That’s how I’ve always played. That’s how I’ve always lived. I still have that attitude — that no one likes us. When you live that way, you play like you’ve got something to prove. Because you never know whether this next album is going to be your last.”