Interview with Wheatus Drummer Leo Freire

By Dani Felt (March 1, 2016)

About Leo Freire: Born in Brasilia, Brazil and living in New York since 2004, Leo remains an active, in-demand member of New York’s boisterous music scene and beyond. He has worked with artists including Wheatus (UK No. 2 Billboard with “Teenage Dirtbag”), Mike Doughty (Soul Coughing), Andrew W.K., Viktor Király (NBC The Voice 2015 – Top 24), and Kate Nauta(Hollywood actress in Transporter 2). He has performed throughout the United States, Europe, and Brazil and was a member of the 40+ date 2015 Wheatus 15th anniversary European tour. With the band, Leo also appeared on the Ray D’Arcy show, featured live on Ireland’s premiere TV network RTÉ One. Leo was featured in the 2016 feature documentary “Black and White Stripes: The Juventus Story,” for which he contributed with writing, arranging, and playing for the film’s original soundtrack. Leo also participated in the MTV/VH1/ CMT 2013 O Music Awards Drumathon, alongside celebrity musician Andrew W.K, sharing the bill with drummers of the caliber of ?uestlove (The Roots), Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers), and Marky Ramone (The Ramones), amongst others. Finally, Leo completed his Masters of Arts in Music Education at Hunter College in 2015, being the recipient of the Agnes Duffy graduation prize. As an undergraduate student, he graduated from the prestigious Macaulay Honors Program at Hunter College and was the sole recipient of the Libbie Van Arsdale Memorial Prize for Music.

1. What was it like touring with Wheatus over the summer/fall?

The experience with Wheatus was good for getting a glimpse on how a band like they are functions. As a now independent band previously on a major label, it was interesting to observe the power of their global hit single “Teenage Dirtbag.” We headlined two festivals (one in Germany, another in Ireland) and in both we had several thousand people singing the words to that song. Especiallyin Europe, people love that song. I was part of the band’s 15th anniversary tour all throughout the UK and Ireland and a bit of mainland Europe (Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and France). We played close to 40 dates in total. As a whole, the tour was agreat experience of festivals, club dates, and one live television performance in Ireland. It was inspiring to get to experience different culture’s responses to the impact Wheatus still has over there, even 15 years later. The tour and the process behind it was one of the most challenging experiences in my musical career thus far but in retrospect, it was also uniquely rewarding.

2. What is unique about their approach on how they function as a band?

Ha – in many ways, everything is sort of unique about Wheatus live. From the acoustic/ electronic hybrid Whitney drum kit with Aquarian in-head triggers, connected to a DITI drum module (with custom trigger presets for each of the 40+ songs in our tour setlist), to the attention to stylistic detail in every song, their singer, guitar player, and band leader Brendan B. Brown meticulously crafts a vision in which the band follows. The attention to detail required in this band is unlike any other artist I’ve worked with thus far, which allowed me to really push my limits as a musician. From the specific guidelines on how to play every song to enduring the sometimes-brutal routine of 15 shows in a row without a day off, this experience really was a survival of the fittest test for me. I think it was also made a bit more challenging because it was my first tour with the band so there was
definitely a bit of a learning curve on how to adapt to their structure, given that all of the current band members have been affiliated with the group for years.

3. How did you get in touch with the band? How did you meet them?

Interestingly enough, a few days after my 26th birthday, I got a message on Facebook from a guy called Brendan, saying he was looking for a drummer for some upcoming touring later in 2015. I looked at his profile and saw his job was listed as “Iron Smelter in Wheatus,” which led me to wonder where I had heard of that band before. After some research, I realized that some buddies of mine in a band called Late Cambrian from Brooklyn had toured with them in Europe the year before and that I remembered my drummer friend Alex Cohen had gone on tour opening for Wheatus. Soon, I called another buddy of mine who reminded me of Teenage Dirtbag and that they were from Long Island. Everything kind of happened in a crazy period of my life for me because I was in my last semester of graduate school, student teaching at public schools and working with Music Teachers every day of the week from 8 am to 3 pm every day. But with the opportunity, I consolidated my schedule as best as possible to succeed in the last leg of
graduate school while devoting all my time to get the gig. From there, the band gave me 6 songs to learn in 4 days, instructing me to learn the songs exactly like in the recording. I produced note for note transcriptions of the songs, and even learned an extra song as a bonus. The first audition went okay, not amazing, but I did my best to learn the songs as best as I could in 4 days, given the intense attention to detail and technical difficulty of some of the songs. From there, I got invited to come back in 2 weeks after I was given more time to learn the material, this time with better recordings to learn from. I was also given more songs to learn.
When I came back, I also made sure to learn and display the most technically challenging song on the band’s latest album the Valentine LP – a song called “the Fall in Love”. That definitely caused an impression that I was serious about getting the gig. I ended up getting called for 4 callbacks and after 6 weeks of auditioning and practicing for hours upon hours a day, I finally got the job offer. I honestly just invested a ton of time into making myself the most prepared candidate possible. It was hard, I barely had a social life for 2 months, and I pissed off my roommates because I practiced too much, but I think it was worth it.

4. I’ve known you for a few years as one of the most driven and up and coming drummers in the Pop and Rock New York scene. I also know that you’re originally from Brazil. How does someone from another country move to New York City in pursuit of a music career?

Well, in my case, I was sort of lucky that the timing worked out for me with my parents moving to New York City for work when I was in high school. At that point, I had already been playing for a few years but without a clear vision of what I wanted to do with music in a serious capacity. And then I ended up getting a full scholarship to attend college in New York for music performance and later graduate school to study music education. I’ve been pursuing music in a full-time capacity, investing everything to make it happen, for about 3 years. I think one of my strong points is that I had a very clear vision of the direction I wanted to go in, with the work ethic, perseverance, and sacrifice to go with it. A career in music has never been easy and never will be and one has to approach that notion with open eyes.

But it is rewarding to say that when things start to work out that it was the result of my hard work. I’m the only musician in my family, coming from a completely non- musical background, and everyone I’ve met in the music industry was pretty much from putting myself out there and playing.  Especially being from another country, and living by myself in New York, it’s a daunting task. But having a consistent focus on the end goal keeps me centered. And I always do find time to visit my family a couple of times a year so it’s a nice escape.

5. Speaking of having a focus on an “end goal”, what is your vision with your musical career?

To keep on playing with talented artists and continuing to travel around the world, playing for as many people as possible. I want to keep on being recognized for my work and being able to inspire and provide guidance for as many people as possible. Being able to be a musician in New York is an extraordinary opportunity that very few people get to access and I’m incredibly fortunate to be here surrounded by the best in the world.

6. What advice would you give to up and coming musicians on getting their names out there?

My approach was simply to play out as much as possible and network with and meet as many musicians as possible. The more opportunities I created, the more likely I felt that some of them would be lucrative. And in the beginning it’s hard because you have to take gigs that you don’t necessarily want to play and you have to work for little to no financial gain. It’s a difficult time for music so breaking into the scenes that actually have a budget takes time and effort.
I had to play several non-glamorous gigs and spend my energy with people who were not always beneficial for my career in the long run. But I’m sure all musicians can relate to this experience. It’s about being able to endure through disappointment and fallbacks because in the end of the day, the ones who are the most mentally strong stay in the race. And I really think that with commitment and dedication to your craft, things inevitably will end up happening.

7.What are your current plans for 2016?

I have several potential interesting touring opportunities lining themselves up with several New York bands. I’d love to do some US touring this year. I have a few interesting recording projects coming up, including the new Wheatus album that we’re hoping to finish up this year. I’m also awaiting the release of a movie that I worked on the soundtrack for, which will be really exciting. And after graduating from my Master’s program in Music Education, I’m also filling my schedule with some teaching as well. I really enjoy working with kids (my program prepared me for K-12 teaching), so any opportunity I have to enrich and inspire other people’s lives is valuable to me.

*Leo Freire is available for touring, recording, teaching, master classes, and other opportunities.