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For about five hours a day, the scene in Aric Improta's bedroom is one of complete insanity. As the last streaks of sunlight sink behind the hills in his native Fullerton, the 23-year-old drummer becomes a tornado of sticks, long hair and screams. Occasionally, he'll leap off a stool, his body slamming the beat with the intensity of a pro wrestler. The explosions from his drum kit echo through his parents' suburban home like the boom from cannon fire at the invasion of Normandy.
Inside his bedroom-turned-practice space, dim light from a ceiling fixture shines feebly on walls plastered with faded metal- and prog-rock-band posters. In the final stretch of his whirling, five-minute drum routine, his body spazzes wildly to complete one more thunderous fill before he finally exhales and stops pounding. "Okay," he says breathlessly. "Only have to do that 15 more times."
The night before the Guitar Center's National Drum-Off Semi-Finals, Improta committed himself to one last gasp of routine training. It paid off: the next day, he won the competition, advancing to the final round on Jan. 19 at Guitar Center in Hollywood. The massive contest, whittled down from 4,000 contestants nationwide, began in August. After five years of competing, this is Improta's first time making it to the finals. The prize, valued at nearly $50,000, includes a cash award, free drum gear and some career-altering endorsement deals. Contestants get five minutes to show a panel of expert judges what they've got.
The chance at all that glory feels light-years from where Improta started, playing in bands in junior high and high school. He claims he was always the weak link. "It was always a situation in which everyone I surrounded myself with was better than me," Improta says. "I just figured I had to get better or else they wouldn't want me."
Lured to the instrument by the rocket-fueled, freak-out performances of bands such as At the Drive-In, Tool, Opeth and Deftones, the longtime gymnast and skateboarder started taking things more seriously, gradually becoming obsessed with drums and being in bands. His style blends the ferocity of metal with jazz dynamics and an impeccable understanding of the four-on-the-floor rock groove.
By the time he hit college, Improta's parents (musicians themselves) encouraged him to enter the annual Guitar Center competition. At first, he wasn't really excited about the idea; he tried to get disqualified by doing back flips during the competition and bringing extra, unapproved instruments onstage. Yet Improta advanced as far as the quarter finals on his first try. "I was scared of being told I wasn't that good," he recalls, "but I ended up moving on anyway."
Before his nightly practice, Improta sits cross-legged on his bed; he's in shorts, with a glinting nose ring and his hair wrapped in a ponytail. Talking nonstop with a flurry of hand gestures, he tries to explain how motivational mantras—including ones outlined in books such as The Outliers—inspired him to become freakishly good at what he does. He says his No 1 goal is to put in 10,000 hours of practice on his kit. To reach that, Improta records his sessions religiously. At one point, he says, he even recorded himself fainting from exhaustion, falling face-first onto his snare drum. "Those three months [preparing for the drum-off] are like hell week in football," he says.
His practice time doesn't include time spent jamming with his band, Night Verses—a virtuosic squall of four-piece, post-hardcore rage à la Tides of Man or the Dillinger Escape Plan. Improta can barely squeeze in a part-time job. As for his family and neighbors, well, they're seemingly the most understanding people on the planet when it comes to the noise. Maybe they recognize that behind his insane chops, high-flying stunt work and Tasmanian Devil energy is a young person who is really trying to elevate his craft, both literally and figuratively.
At sundown, Improta realizes he only has a few more hours to play before he has to shut things down at the parent-mandated time of 10 p.m. In a couple of weeks, hundreds of people will be watching him perform. On this night, though, it's just the guys on his posters.
"It's kinda cheesy, but it's cool to have all your favorite bands looking at you while you're practicing," he says. "There are some times when I'm in here, and I've played the same thing 50 times, and then I'll look at John Theodore on my little Mars Volta poster, and it's like he's saying, 'Keep doing it!'"