Zac Mayfield

March 15, 2010
Zac Mayfield helped write Cape’s signature marching cadence. Soon, he’ll bring his thunderous drumming to European venues. NONE ROB KUNZIG PHOTO

Zac Mayfield brings the noise. When he gets behind a drum set, bystanders don’t hear his beats so much as they feel them. But anyone can go berserk on a snare drum; Mayfield plays with the kind of metronomic precision drummers can spend a lifetime trying to achieve.

Mayfield is 20. And in April, he’s touring Europe with a heavy metal band.

“I’ve never even been outside the East Coast,” said Mayfield. “I don’t think I understand exactly what’s about to happen.”

Some may remember Mayfield, who lives off Robinsville Road near Long Neck, from the 2008 Cape Henlopen High School drum line – he’s the skinny kid with green eyes and a cocky grin. He rocked the Cape stands, and in April he’ll rock Glasgow, Scotland, his band’s first stop in the Old World. But Mayfield’s infatuation with rhythm began with an old blue snare drum. He was 9 when he found it in his uncle’s attic.

“I got ahold of it and took it from there.” After a few years of his begging and nearly beating the blue snare to death, Mayfield’s parents agreed to buy him a drum set. His father drove him to Earle Teet Music in Dover and bought him a five-piece kit made by Gretsch.

“I thought it was the greatest thing in the world,” he said. “It probably kept me out of a lot of trouble.”

Time that might be spent on homework went instead to the drums. His grades were never great, he said, but they weren’t terrible, either. Instead of paying attention in class, he drummed lightly on the desk with his fingers.

“I think it drove a lot of my teachers crazy,” he said.

Clever thieving

He devoured styles as they came to him. From the radio, he learned the rudiments of rock; from Barry Eli, then director of Cape Henlopen High School Jazz Ensemble, he learned swing, funk, jazz and Latin. And he learned to love performance from Walt Hetfield, Rehoboth Elementary School music teacher and leader of a rock and roll summer camp.

The camp culminated in a performance at the Rusty Rudder in Dewey Beach. Playing for a crowd wasn’t about the attention, Mayfield said – it was about getting a response.

“I was doing something with my hands, and I was seeing the result,” he said. “It’s so visceral. It’s so primal.”

It was settled, he said: This is what he was meant to do. But graduation came before stardom; and before graduation, he needed to beat Dover High School’s drum line.

Dover’s drum line was large, disciplined and stone-faced. And it was good. Mayfield remembered facing it during a drum-off as a freshman.

“They ripped us apart,” Mayfield said, laughing. “Bit by bit. I couldn’t believe what they did to us.”

After getting embarrassed on his home field, Mayfield went to work. He studied videos of different drum lines, stealing a beat from one, a stick trick from another.

“The best musicians are thieves who never get caught,” Mayfield said, paraphrasing Buddy Rich, a great jazz drummer. Working with Cape alumnus Anthony Baray and fellow drummer James Sudimak, Mayfield wrote “Spartan,” a marching cadence with punch and flair. When Cape faced Dover in 2008, the drum line cranked out “Spartan” with such verve that even Dover’s stoic drummers had to crack a grin.

“It was like having to fight Batman,” he said. “But we broke their little shell.”

Getting creative

After graduating the following spring, Mayfield needed money. So he got creative.

He ransacked his mother’s kitchen, drumming on pots and pans until he found the sound he wanted. He snagged a few buckets from the garage and headed to Ocean City, where he squatted on the boardwalk and started drumming (he tried drumming on Rehoboth’s Boardwalk, he said, but several appeals to City Hall were met with disappointment).

Unlike his drum set, his street-drumming kit would fit in the back of his coupe, and it only took minutes to set up. It wasn’t long before crowds clustered around his makeshift drum set, dancing to his rhythms and filling the tip jar with bills.

“You meet so many people who wanted to help me out,” he said. “I made so many friends.”

He’d drum for three or four hours – fewer if the summer sun was particularly brutal. His mother lamented the loss of her pots, but Mayfield said his parents supported him nonetheless. It was great experience, and it allowed him to quit his landscaping job. And he was making music.

“I can’t do anything else, you know?” Mayfield said.

He got a call from Travis Orbin, drummer for metal band Sky Eats Airplane and Mayfield’s mentor. He said Oh, Sleeper, a Fort Worth, Texas-based metal band, was looking for a drummer to join them on a European tour. Was he interested?

Mayfield didn’t take him too seriously. He filmed drumming demos, but without much hope. He was sure his bid would be one in a hundred, well-intentioned but ultimately overshadowed.

About a week after he posted the videos, he received a call from an area code he didn’t recognize. It was Micah Kinard, front man for Oh, Sleeper. The gig was Mayfield’s, if he wanted it.

More than a month later, Mayfield said it’s still sinking in. When Kinard called again to ask what Mayfield wanted for the tour, Mayfield wasn’t sure what he meant. Kinard clarified his question – the drums. Mayfield was free to build his kit however he wanted. What should the band order?

“It’s weird how the puzzle comes together,” he said. “I don’t know if there’s someone out there looking out for me, but the pieces just fit too perfectly.”

Ruminations on destiny aside, he said his strategy for dealing with the pressure of big-ticket crowds is simple: don’t think about it.

“My plan is to keep my head down and play my ass off,” he said.

Mayfield also signed on for a stateside tour, with dates and locations to be announced. Until he boards a plane to rendezvous with Oh, Sleeper in Fort Worth, Mayfield is behind his set, learning the band’s songs note for note. For now, the pots remain in their cupboards.