I wrote this profile first for Examiner.com in Sept. 2009. Now that Examiner went away, I decided to re-post the feature interview here, with some minor edits. Bryon Atterberry has become a dear friend of mine, family even. He’s one of the hardest-working, most dedicated musicians in the area, and is slowly shaping up to be a drummer with his own distinctive feel. A lot’s changed since 2009. He’s no longer married, but still devoted to his two boys, and he’ll always be that drummer you can’t take your eyes off during a live performance of Steely Dan’s “Aja.”
Musicians who know and have worked with Seattle drummer Bryon Atterberry, 44 on October 28th, describe him as “committed,” “dedicated,” “hard-working,” “thorough,” someone who always does his homework.
There’s a very good reason for this. Atterberry practically came out of the womb playing drums. His older sister, Sheila, often brings up the time Bryon had to go in for surgery when he was a boy. While most of us were dead to the world, allowing the anesthesia to do its job, Bryon was air-drumming to a tune only he could hear.
His mother, Nancy, told him that he was born with perfect time and a deep appreciation for music. “… even before I could walk or stand on my own, I’d hold onto the stereo door (back when we all had the big covered consoles) and sway back and forth in perfect time,” Bryon said. “She was a big music lover and always had tunes cranked while she sang along – very loudly! We only had a few TV channels back then, so music was more prevalent.”
Despite his general love of all music, there came a turning point in his life—at age five/six at his first Neil Diamond concert with his mom, dad and sister. It must’ve been 1971 or 1972, “back when he ‘rocked’ and everyone got stoned at his shows,” Bryon described. The concert had a life-long impact on the serious, intense little boy. “[Neil Diamond] had two percussionists and a drummer. I freaked at how cool it was. … When I got home, the next day, I built a diorama type thing that was a stage made of cardboard. I cut out a guitar and drum set made of paper and cardboard and then had my teddy bear playing the drums and my Big Jim and GI Joe ‘dolls’ on guitar and percussion.”
“Real sticks felt great. I pounded on the little wooden pad for hours the day I got it and subsequently blistered my hands so bad I could barely hold a pencil the next day.”
Bryon quickly developed an almost all-consuming desire to drum, whenever and wherever—even when dining out at a Chinese restaurant, a rare extravagance for his working class family. Lacking the money to buy the real things, Bryon learned to use whatever was at his disposal, even chopsticks. At home, he’d practice on the couch, pretending it was a real drum kit. “My mom said it looked rather funny having me pounding on the fabric and having dust flying all around my head!”
By the time Bryon entered sixth grade beginning band – drums, natch – he used every opportunity to indulge in his passion and practice, practice, practice. Almost to distraction. He explained, “Real sticks felt great. I pounded on the little wooden pad for hours the day I got it and subsequently blistered my hands so bad I could barely hold a pencil the next day.”
It’s that kind of commitment and dedication that’s served Bryon Atterberry well throughout his 20-plus years as a working musician…
The following is a Q&A he kindly agreed to do (it’s revealing that he spends more time applauding the works of others than building himself up):
What did you do before committing yourself full-time to music?
I worked in a brass foundry called Anacortes Brass Works pretty much right out of high school and then on and off for eight years. I had virtually no plans for my life when I graduated. The only reason I even got the job was because one of the guys who worked there was the person I had buy me beer (since I was only 18). I had just asked for a half-rack a few days before so he had me on his brain when his boss asked if there was someone the foundry could hire to do grunt work. I barely hung on to the job since I would show up late all the time from being hung over. I eventually grew up and became one of the top employees. After about four or five years of doing this job and then randomly playing in garage bands, I made the decision that “I would be self-employed with just drumming.”
When people, mostly students, have asked me, “When did you decide to be a pro drummer?,” I usually respond with, “I didn’t. It chose me.” I have felt for years that God called me to be a drummer. He opened doors for me to do this even when I wasn’t pursuing it. I’ve obviously had to work on it, but I have just been available and prepared so that God can use me where He wants.
What are some of your current, favorite gigs?
… I am a part-time contracted staff member at my church, Northshore Christian Church (among others). I play for the weekend worship services and provide leadership on the bandstand for the less-experienced players.
Speaking purely of musical faves, however, I’d say that Nearly Dan [a successful Steely Dan tribute band, who finished up a nearly sold-out Triple Door concert earlier this month] is at the top of the list. I love the music, the grooves and the strong potential that we all have with this project. We have a long way to go, but I think this group has the ability to really reach a wide audience with some very creative music and arrangements.
You are a working musician and Mr. Mom to two elementary-school boys. Describe some challenges you face juggling these roles.
Luckily, right now, I have some time in my day to practice while they are in school. For the first time since my youngest (who is five) was born, I actually have some me time! I can’t just hang out and practice since I have a house to run too, but I am trying to get two hours of shed [drum practice] time in and also work on my business chops too. It’s not like I’m gone every night doing gigs, so I get a lot of time with them and get to watch them grow up – which they are doing way too fast!
“I have felt for years that God called me to be a drummer. He opened doors for me to do this even when I wasn’t pursuing it. I’ve obviously had to work on it, but I have just been available and prepared so that God can use me where He wants.”
Explain your music philosophy and how you work on gigs. You aren’t so much a solo artist as you are a collaborator.
At the very core of my being, I am a team player kind of guy. I love collaboration. I love being more of a supportive role for the other guys to shine. I like to steer the song as dynamically and musically as I can. If I can usher the audience and the other players into the flow of the song and make it painfully obvious where things are going, then I’ve done my job!
Drumming is a very self-expressive art form. Just like any instrument. But unlike other instruments, drums, most of the time, need additional art supplies to bring out the expression – we need other people to help make the picture. I like to think of myself as that very canvas – and even the easel – and the other players are the paint, paint brush and light. At times, someone needs to be the clean-up rag! I suppose we all need to take on that roll sometimes!
Another virtue frequently brought up by the musicians and singers you’ve worked with is your undeniable love for the music, all kinds of music. What role does music and playing music have in your life?
I had to think about this for a while. Music has a way of transporting a person to a place in their lives. Some songs bring you back to your childhood or some special time or event that you experienced either by yourself or with friends and family. Some music is just great in and of itself. There is an emotional and physical high I get because the songs are so strong and the players are putting it all out there through blood, sweat and tears. When I am in great physical drumming shape (which comes and goes!), I feel so connected to my instrument that I am moved sometimes to tears at how good it feels and I silently thank God for the privilege of being in that very moment doing what I love. Other times, if I’m tired or in a funky mood, I can’t wait to be done so I can reboot for the next time when I know it’ll be better.
The audience plays a huge part of it. I know it is sometimes cliche to hear musicians say that “we are nothing without our fans!,” but it is so true for me. The energy you get from the people who are either listening and/or dancing is so electric. It could be a really stupid song, but you know that folks are just having the time of their lives, so all of a sudden, that song takes on a whole new meaning for me and them. Seeing people dance and smile while I’m drumming is the best feeling. I know that at the very least, the most primitive aspect of music has made a connection with them – the groove and feel.
I can get moved to tears whether I am playing drums or just simply listening to music by myself in the car. I think that whenever we, as humans, are doing what God has created us to do, there is such deep joy involved. I don’t care what the job is. Music and drumming just happen to be mine.
To be a part of the music-making process means I get to experience something with so many different walks of life and create a memorable moment for them. It could be that you are playing in a club where some couple is on their first date. That whole evening will be cemented into their brain – and I was there! It could be a wedding ceremony. The happy couple may not remember everyone who was there or how the cake tasted, but they will remember the band and the music – and hopefully how good it was!
It’s name-dropping time. Let’s get to it.
Wow. So many to remember.
Obviously, Nearly Dan takes center stage for me right now.
The concert I did with Greg Adams and Paul Brown last November was great. Greg was an original member of Tower of Power and they have been a huge influence on me and so many other musicians through the years.
I’ve played with The Coats, the a-cappella group. It was just me doing percussion and them singing. They are great entertainers. They really know how to connect with the crowd. I’ve done most of my traveling with them. I learned from them that it really isn’t about how amazing you are as a player, it’s about how entertaining you are. They have a huge following, because they put on a great show and they just happen to be very cool people to hang with. They are the real deal through and through – a class act.
Going to Hong Kong twice with the Martin Ross Band was incredible. He is by far the best performer and entertainer I’ve ever played with. I loved being in that band, because he would go off in some other direction with no warning and you had to be on your toes. I thrive in those settings. It’s like I’m enjoying the show for the first time just like the audience. There was never a dull moment.
I spent two years with saxophonist Darren Motamedy. His band was great. Doug Barnett on bass (with whom I’ve done tons of gigs. I owe a lot to Doug since he has opened up quite a few doors for me). Eugene Bien and Ed Weber on keys. Eddie has this ability to take a keyboard solo that almost sounds like a composition. John Raymond, who is also Kenny G’s guitarist, did a lot of shows with us when he wasn’t on the road.
My first big gig when I moved to Seattle was with soul and R&B singer, Korla Wygal. She could blow out a candle from across room when she sang! What an amazingly powerful voice! She owned the room when she performed. She was the quintessential Seattle Diva. She had a great band too. Amongst the other players I’ve mentioned before, she had Michael Eads as her musical director and guitarist. He also has helped me in my career.
Describe your ideal musical life.
I would like to connect with more of a national scene instead of just local stuff. There are a lot of great players out there and I would like to see how I fit in with the musical world. I am trying to get many hours of practice in every day, so I can get myself in better musical shape. I don’t think I have ever come close to my full potential, because of the constant ebb and flow of my performance schedule, teaching schedule, and my family life. My [family] means so much to me and I have put a lot of my dreams on hold to make sure that they have the best life possible. It’s a never-ending balancing act.
It would be great if I could get up, take the kids to school, practice for two to three hours, then go and do recording sessions for a few hours, and then go get the boys from school. Perhaps do local gigs three-four times a week – that hopefully don’t have me up until four in morning! If I do go on the road, I wouldn’t want it to be more than a few days or a week at a time or I’d miss my … kids too much. Getting a gig with some has-been rock group from the ‘70s that travels around doing short tours to the baby-boomer demographic would be great right now! They are too old to hit the road for months at a time! Perfect!
Maybe Bryon should give Neil Diamond a ring.