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Jack-of-all-bands Jarzombek marches to his own drums

Bobby Jarzombek (second from right) hams it up with Sebastian Bach after a show.
Bobby Jarzombek (second from right) hams it up with Sebastian Bach after a show.

Tell Bobby Jarzombek he's the only drummer in history to play with both vocalists who have made up Judas Priest -- without spending a single day in that band -- and he pauses for reflection.

San Antonio native Bobby Jarzombek has played with Rob Halford, Sebastian Bach and Riot among others

"That's a pretty good trivia question," the San Antonio native says. "I like that. That's cool."

It's easy to lose track of such feats when you have a resume most can only dream of.

Jarzombek, 46, has flourished since 2000 as a member of Halford, the solo band of legendary Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford, which included the Nov. 3 release of the Christmas album Halford 3: Winter Songs. But his career goes back much further.

Jarzombek was a member of Riot during arguably their two best albums (1988's Thundersteel and 1990's The Privilege of Power). He is still a member of progressive metal band Fates Warning and toured with Iced Earth when former Judas Priest (i.e. Halford's mid-90s replacement) Tim "Ripper" Owens fronted the band. Earlier this year, Jarzombek recorded a song called "The Light" off Owens' latest solo effort Play My Game.

That simply touches the surface.

In late 2004, Jarzombek put out Performance and Technique, an instructional DVD that features songs he wrote -- not to mention solos that will make your head spin trying to keep up (don't blink, or you might miss him hitting both of the cymbals perched behind his head).

Jarzombek, who played on Sebastian Bach's 2007 solo record Angel Down, departed last weekend for an overseas tour with the former Skid Row vocalist.

"I don't even keep a schedule calendar," Jarzombek says. "I just kind of have it in my head what I'm doing, what the deadline is for having something done."

Somehow, Jarzombek found the time to have dinner with me recently, and he graciously gave me a copy of his DVD. There was plenty to discuss:

Q: What was your reaction when Rob wanted to do a Christmas album with the Halford band?

A: I wasn't shocked. I was a little bit surprised, I guess. The thing that was really surprising was when I got the tracks. I first got nine songs to learn on my own. I had known for a little while that (producer) Roy Z was working on arrangements with Ed Roth on keyboards, and Rob was working on original songs. But when I got the tracks and heard that Rob had already sang on the tracks, and I learned the tracks with pretty much his vocals done, that's when I was like, "Wow, they're really serious about this."

Q: Do you think even the most diehard fans of Judas Priest or of Rob and the Halford band would be skeptical of a Christmas record?

A: Maybe fans would act that way about it. But I think because of Halford, and the way Priest . . . if you follow Priest's career all the way back to Rocka Rolla and Sad Wings of Destiny, you can't compare those records at all to Screaming for Vengeance, Defenders of the Faith or Painkiller or anything. I think with Priest fans and with Halford fans, everybody has their favorite albums, and it may go back to something early in the 70s, something in the '90s, or even the latest, Nostradamus. You're never going to please everybody. All you can do is what's true to you, and I know Rob really loves this record. I think that's the most important thing. He feels passionate about it, and the band does also.

Q: How was it playing drums on Winter Songs?

A: I left things sort of open when I came up with parts like "Get into the Spirit" and "We Three Kings." Those songs I pretty much had mapped out lick for lick. "O Come All Ye Faithful," for instance, that track, I had no clue what I was going to play to it. It's interesting, that track, because on this record, it may not be the most challenging technically, as far as the drumming goes. But creatively, if you listen to that song, you can hear the snare drum doing a marching snare. I just played whatever came in my head. Then the second time through, (Roy Z) said, "Give me some toms." And the third time, "Give me some cymbals and toms." And then I did that for a take. It was really surprising when I listened to it, when I finally got the CD, he sort of combined all of those different takes that I performed into one take. It's sort of like an orchestration. To me, that's creative. 

Q: Is it more rewarding or tiresome and stressful when you're juggling bands?

A: It's very rewarding. I just wrote a blog about this. I never really thought about it too much other than this summer when I went from doing the Halford record, sometime around June or July, then got into Riot mode and did the festivals, then Fates Warning and did Prog Power, and then back to Riot and did Japan recently. And even with Sebastian coming up, I think it's mainly the way my body holds up physically and mentally. Fates Warning is the most challenging of the material that I play. As far as mentally, I have to think about every second what I'm playing. I can't wander off. I can't watch the kids play air drums. I'm totally focused at all times, or I'll miss a time signature or something like that. And with Sebastian, it's all about the rock. I'm trying to rock as hard and play as hard as I can. With Riot, it's sort of more a melodic metal kind of thing. There's some older material we do where we beef it up and give it a more modern metal sound. And with Halford, I have to stay true to the original songs of Judas Priest stuff like "Living After Midnight," "You've Got Another Thing Comin,' " and play those the way they were played. You can't do a lot of double bass or go crazy on those songs. So it's just knowing what the gig calls for.

Q: What do you have coming up now that Winter Songs has been released?

A: In early December, I have dates with Sebastian. Three dates in Finland, Hungary, and we go to Italy. And then in January, we open up for Guns N' Roses in Canada. I've been staying in touch with Sebastian a little bit here and there. I think it's going to be great heading back out.

Q: What was your first encounter like with Rob?

A: There wasn't a whole lot of guys that auditioned for Halford. Roy Z recommended me for the gig. When I was rehearsing, we had rehearsed for maybe a day or so, and I was learning the material, trying to feel out what I wanted to play on certain songs. And Rob came in, and I didn't know that he was listening outside for a few songs. And he walks in, and we're playing. Somebody introduced me to Rob, and he was like, "Keep playing." He was walking around the kit, and he noticed I was reading my music, and he started doing the whole metal jabs, taking little punches while he's standing in front of the kit. And I'm like, "I guess he's kind of digging it." Rob said, "Let's take a break," and we went to Granada, which is in Burbank (Calif.), and had some Mexican food. They had a huge table set up, and somehow Rob ended up right across from me. He knew I was from San Antonio, so we started talking about the legacy of Joe Anthony and what he did for metal. You could tell that Rob knew a lot about the city. Rob had a few stories about eating at different restaurants in San Antonio. It was great. Cool conversation. I could tell at that point that I was really going to like being in the band. He's still probably, out of all the people that I've ever worked with, he's definitely on the top as far as a great human being, great person. When we played in San Antonio opening up for Iron Maiden in 2000, that was my birthday, at Sunken Gardens. Rob made a big announcement. That was a big moment. Probably one of my finest moments, I would say. I had just gotten the gig six months earlier, we recorded Resurrection, and I'm touring the world with Rob.

Q: How much do you get recognized around S.A.?

A: I think most people know. I get MySpace requests or this and that from people that say, "Hey, I just discovered your drumming." I mean, it's a small city, but it is a big city at the same time. I'm not playing in a band like Nickelback or anything that's mega, mega huge, so I think there are some people that still don't know, but I think that there are some who do.

Q: What do you remember about your first drumkit?

A: My first piece of junk was at Christmas, a gift from Sears. My mom got it for me and my brothers. It cost $14. It's unreal when you think about it. You can't find a drumkit (today) for less than $199, and even that's a junk kit. This kit was probably every good as that. It had a bass drum and two mounted toms that were mounted onto the bass drum with a bolt and a wingnut, I believe. And it had a cymbal. I was 10 years old. I graduated to a semipro kit six months later.

Q: I'm sure you get asked all the time about the cymbals behind you, so . . .

A: It was sort of an experiment. You're right, I probably get asked about that more than anything. I tried putting the cymbal behind me on the right side. It was probably about 10 minutes before I decided, "What about one behind me on the left side?" It's funny because the configuration of having the cymbal that's on my right is only slightly above my head. It's actually 51 inches from the ground, and then the other one is 63 inches. That's just the way it felt best.

Q: How did the idea for the instructional DVD come about?

A: I did that when I was with Halford. It's been ripped all over YouTube, so nobody's going out much and buying it anymore. At the time, I was looking for an outlet to do something. I thought about doing a solo record maybe with 10 songs, but I thought it was going to take me a long time. I had a good friend who worked at Channel 5 here in town, and we talked about using his camera equipment. I'm proud of the material on there. Those are three tunes that I get asked about a lot, people wanting copies of mp3s. I would say that the DVD is probably the best thing that I ever did for my career, for people to know who I am and what I do, and for my drum companies and promotion, that sort of thing. I don't play another instrument besides drums. When I write, I pretty much write the drum parts, and I have an idea of what I want the melodies to sound like. My first big influence was Neil Peart of Rush. There are so many great drummers that I listen to.

Q: What's the future of the bands your involved with?

A: Right now I'm demoing stuff with Fates Warning. A new song I just e-mailed to (guitarist) Jim (Matheos) a couple days ago turned out really good. He's got a 16-minute song for me that I'm gonna start listening to. I am excited about recording the record with Fates Warning, and I'll probably do that when I get back from doing this tour with Sebastian in February or March. Riot is going through a little bit of growing pains right now, and I wish things would move faster for the band. We're slowly kind of getting there to where we're working on things. That's about it. I would love to do another record with Riot.

Q: So how did the June 2 show with Riot in town go?

A: I think we did four rehearsals, but where else are we going to do a warmup show? San Antonio was a good place. Anytime you do something like a reunion, I think there's certain expectations that people have or a certain level that you really wish it would be at. But it's hard to be there unless you're a band that tours all the time. But it was good, and I thought we did good in Japan and at some European festivals. That Thundersteel record was done really quick, too. It was crazy. It's a great sounding record, still today, to me, sonically.

Q: Who would be your dream bandmates of all-time?

A: That's kind of a common question, but I don't think anyone's ever asked me that. Oh, man. That is weird. I'd say Gary Moore on guitar, but when he was doing his solo material, not the bluesy material he's been doing for the last 10 or whatever years. That's weird. I don't know who would play bass. Maybe Geddy Lee. Singer -- probably Mikael Akerfeldt from Opeth. That's a hard question, it really is. That's one of those questions where I would walk away and come up with the right guys.

Q: Are you often hit up by prospective drummers?

A: Yeah, and I hate that. I hate it when drummers ask me to check out their playing on their sites. I hope I don't sound weird by saying this, but I really don't have time to sit there and watch somebody's playing for a couple of minutes and write an e-mail to them on what they need to work on. That's a rough one. You want your criticism to be constructive without being mean to somebody. For most players, I think if you learn how to read music, if you learn how to play with a click track, learn various sticking patterns. I don't want to say learn a bunch of styles. Learning different styles will help you creatively, but I don't think you need to learn Basanovas. I would say I practice four dates a week, three hours a day minimum. If I can't get three hours, it doesn't make sense to me to sit at a drumkit.

Q: Have you had any mishaps from playing barefoot?

A: No, other than breaking my wrist a couple years back tripping over a cymbal stand. And I've never hit myself in the head with a stick going for the back cymbals.

Q: What's your favorite song to play out of all your bands?

A: The Al Di Meola cover we did on The Privilege of Power, "Racing with the Devil on a Spanish Highway." I recorded that song in 1990, and it still sounds really good to me. I took the parts that were on the original and created my own thing. I like "Handing Out Bullets" off of (Halford's) Crucible. I don't know why I like that, but I do. I like a couple songs I did with Rob Rock off an album called Holy Hell. I like "Slayer of Souls" off that. I like the title track. I like some of the songs off the Riot record "Nightbreaker." I like the Deep Purple "Burn" cover that we did off that record. I even like the ballads. We did another cover, "A Whiter Shade of Pale" off that record. Other than "Racing with the Devil on a Spanish Highway" . . . the fact that when we recorded that thing, we did two takes. It was just before Pro Tools and everybody was fixing things in the studio and doing all that crazy stuff . . . that was one full take. So that to me is something that means something.