Two years old! At two years old, legendary drummer Nick Menza was already playing drums… in front of fans! Admittedly, they were – if you want to get technical about it –fans of noted jazz saxophonist, Don Menza, who also happened to be Nick’s dad. At one of Don’s gigs, Don’s band mate, percussionist and composer Jack DeJohnette – whose stellar career includes a long run with Miles Davis’ live band – sat Nick down behind his drum set. And, Nick… well, his arms were a bit short to execute a full-out solo, but he made some noise. From there, he progressed to making noise by playing “pots and pans, ” as Nick remembers from his childhood. And – long story short – he’s been making noise ever since… divine, singularly energized, the kind of noise that would go on to electrify stadiums full of folks who know monstrously magical drumming when they hear it. But that’s getting ahead of our story…
Nick’s early influences, quite naturally, came from being around the various masters who his dad played with. Jazz greats and drum pioneers like Buddy Rich, who Menza still credits as being “the best ever,” Steve Gadd, the late Nick Ceroli, Jeff Porcaro and Louie Bellson. Nick formed his own band, “That lasted about a day,” Nick remembers, but then quickly began working with more reliable line-ups, launching his professional career at age 18 in the band Rhoads, featuring singer Kelle Rhoads, brother of the late Randy Rhoads. That association resulted in Nick’s first appearance on a record release, Rhoads’ “Into the Future.” When educated ears got a listen to Nick’s versatile abilities, he quickly became an in demand session musician playing in styles ranging from R&B, to gospel, funk and heavy metal, recording with, among others, John Fogerty.
And then, as is so often true of even the most celebrated of careers, he booked his most noteworthy gig via a side door; he got a gig as Megadeth drummer Chuck Behlar’s tech and on occasion he filled in for Behlar. The fill-ins included playing live with the trash metal masters in Bradford, England in 1988. How’d he do? Soon thereafter, Dave Mustane needed a new drummer, and, to fill the spot, he went looking only as far the row behind him on the tour bus. That began a ten year stint with Megadeth, Menza playing on, and touring with them, for “Rust in Peace,” “Countdown to Extinction,” “Youthanasia.” (He also played drums on band mate Marty Friedman’s three solo albums.) It was as fans tell it, the “classic” era of Megadeth and so, although Menza’s association with the band more or less came to an end after that run, to this day, Megadeth die-hards clamor for a re-Menza-d version of Mega.
After Megadeth, Nick dove into a solo effort, appropriately titled, “Life After Deth,” teaming with guitarists Ty Longley and Anthony Gallo, bassist Jason Levin, and later, guitarist Christian Nesmith, along with Megadeth and Ozzy Osbourne producer, Max Norman. The album was poised to launch Menza into a whole new orbit, with his name out front, only to be tragically derailed by the deaths of Longley, in the Station night club fire, and Levin, a year later from heart failure, which so devastated Nick that he scrapped plans for a tour.
But, life has a way of coming full circle, reflected in the fact that soon after, Nick pulled back a bit from his previously jam-packed schedule, but with a joyful excuse: He was raising his two sons. “I love them to death,” Menza says of the duo, adding, in a refrain familiar to parents everywhere, “But it’s a job, man, it’s a 24/7 job with these guys.” And then, adding a bit of detail that seems to indicate the sons take a bit of a cue from Dad – who auctioned off the blood stained power saw blade that almost lopped off his arm in 2007 – “They’re like black ops leaders!”
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Of these recent, sometimes “smaller gigs” Menza says,” We (Megadeth) played Rock in Rio in front of 198, 000 people, but I always dug my favorite bands in small settings because it’s more personal.” So, despite the fact that his old fans may be pining for stadium sized re-union of all his old cohorts, Menza is happy where he is: “If I hear music for the first time and it makes me wanna go get on the drums and play drums to it, then it’s probably pretty good… It could be any kind of music, it doesn’t just have to be metal, it could be anything, you know. From hip-hop, to jazz, to funk, to R&B, to whatever. I just like to play to whatever’s grooving, whatever’s happening.” We haven’t ask Jack DeJohnette for comment, but hearing those words he’d likely say, “Sitting Nick down in front of my drum set? Yes, indeed, that turned out to be one of my most brilliant arrangements!”