BY JAKE WOOD
John Mader’s work ethic is almost scary. The man’s principles, in regards to learning material, seem to hinge on the idea that if you haven’t completely exhausted every single possible means of learning something then you haven’t tried hard enough. This level of discipline—he typically blocks out three weeks of 8-10 hour practice days to learn a musical—combined with extreme versatility and detailed musicianship, has netted Mader a resume of big names from numerous genres (Pat Benatar, Bonnie Raitt, Steve Miller, The Family Stone, Maceo Parker, Pee Wee Ellis) and has also made him a first-call drummer for the hottest shows on Broadway (Hamilton: An American Musical, Wicked, The Lion King).
Mader sat down with DRUM! to discuss one of the moments in his past where things didn’t work out quite the way he’d hoped. When asked if he’d like to share a time when he “dropped the beat” in his drumming career, he quickly, and surprisingly, shot back with enthusiasm: “Yeah, but there are so many to choose from!”
DRUM!: Tell us about a time when you “failed” in your drumming career.
John Mader: I was invited to fly to Nashville to audition for Peter Frampton. They’d wanted me to learn the entire set. They’d gotten my name from somebody, and management reached out to me. Because I was not cognizant enough of my learning strategies, and because of my insecurities, I screwed the pooch.
How old were you at the time?
I think I was 40.
Would this have been a big break for you? Had you already played with artists on a similar level?
At the time I hadn’t played with artists of that caliber, and this was another issue, psychologically, for me. That would have put me on the map for other high-profile classic-rock gigs. So I wanted it really badly.
Can you extrapolate on how things went south?
It was bad planning on my part when I got to town. I didn’t take into account how easily I get distracted, though I do have an amazing amount of focus when I get rid of all the temptations around me. Mistake number one was that my wife wanted to come down with me. Mistake number two was that we stayed with friends. That was mixing business with social and personal life at a time when that was the exact wrong thing to do.
Driving over to the audition, my wife had me drop her off at a business and it made me a little pushed for time. This got me a little stressed, so I didn’t get there with the right frame of mind. I wasn’t relaxed. Also I was feeling insecure about all the distractions I had allowed to happen at the beginning of the trip.
At the audition I oversold myself. I told a joke—I’m not really a great joke teller—and it fell flat. This was after the bass player had mentioned to me that the social chemistry was just as important as the musical chemistry, as we would be together all day on a tour bus.
Also I think I played a little too aggressively at the audition. When I’m hitting really hard and aggressively, my pocket suffers a little bit. I tend to sit a little bit more on top, and if you’re looking for that, that’s great, but I had noticed they were recording the audition. Usually in a situation like that they’re really looking for something that’s going to sound like the record.
Another strategic error was wanting the gig really badly. Sometimes I think you can want something so much that you end up trying too hard and not just relaxing and being yourself. Not being so wrapped up in “wow, it’s going to be so great that I get this gig because then this will happen and this will happen and it will be awesome!” That sort of thinking, for me anyways, does not promote a mindset in which I play well.
Did you walk into the situation thinking you’d get the gig?
I was feeling pretty confident.
Was the rejection from the audition a surprise?
In hindsight, no. Also, at the time it wasn’t because I hadn’t heard back right away.
Was the rejection emotionally difficult? Did it knock you off your game at all?
It was emotionally difficult. I was really disappointed. One reason being I falsely assumed that at that ripe old age of 40 that this was my last big opportunity. I felt like that was it. Nothing of stature is going to happen for me now that I’m a geezer. [Author’s note: this “geezer” is currently crushing eight shows a week with Hamilton].
Would you have done things differently?
Yeah. I needed to focus more and be less distracted with all that social stuff.
What have you learned from this experience?
I’ve learned a few things. I’ve taken into account the way that I learn material and what I need to do in order to get the nuance of the music firmly under my fingers. I’ve learned to make that an absolute priority. Also asking myself the right questions, like how can I serve the relationships with my friends and family and do an absolute stellar job at the audition. I’ve learned to think things through more strategically.
Have there been any positive outcomes from this experience?
Yes! I’ve gone to several auditions after that and I’ve made all those corrections. And I learned just to have more fun at the audition and that if I’m coming from a place of joy that’s just really infectious.