Rob Wells: Sticks, Hicks and A Lifetime of Drumming
(The following is part of an ongoing GoBeWeekly series shining a spotlight on Niagara's artistic community. If you know a musician, artist, actor or performer of any kind worthy of a spotlight, email firstname.lastname@example.org).
“It’s not a bad gig,” laughs Rob Wells, life-long St. Catharines resident, career musician, studio owner and touring drummer for fellow north end resident – and Canadian country music star – Tim Hicks.
Not a bad gig at all, considering Rob has managed to carve out a successful career doing what he’s loved since first picking up the sticks in high school. Before that, he was just a kid addicted to rhythm without an outlet for his energy.
“I had always been an air drummer,” recalls Rob, whose parents moved into the home he now owns in 1948. “All my friends knew. Something about the drums always fascinated me. I remember being at the Grape and Wine Parade as a kid and just bouncing around to the energy of the drums corps.”
When a high school friend started taking lessons at Ostanek’s Music, Rob convinced his parents to sign him up as well. Shortly afterward, he purchased his first drum kit: a set of vintage Boleros he picked up from a neighbour for $90. The final inspiration for Rob’s eventual career came in the form of the RUSH album, Moving Pictures, which was released the same year. Practicing relentlessly to hone his skills, Rob knew he was bound for a musical career the day he graduated.
“Immediately out of the gate, I was interested in putting a band together,” said Rob, whose first project was an 80s contemporary rock band called Centryx. “I was kind of bored playing by myself. It’s not a real good solo career. And I was determined to work professionally.”
For the next two decades, Rob did everything he needed to do to survive as a musician, including teaching drum lessons at Ostanek’s and making and selling custom road cases. However, playing live remained his primary passion. “I was fortunate in the 80s when I started you could work six nights a week as a musician,” said Rob, whose band credits include progressive rockers Ice Nine and the epic production of Pink Floyd Niagara. “You could go into a club Monday to Saturday, play six nights with full production, lighting and sound guy. It was great for a band. As musicians you got really good at your craft playing six nights a week every week.”
In 1997, Rob took over a recording studio in Fonthill, which opened up opportunities to serve as a session drummer for artists who came in to record. One of those was a young Tim Hicks who, after years of playing in local rock cover bands, had decided to try venturing out as a solo artist. Rob signed on at Tim’s drummer in 2008, and in 2013 Hick’s released his debut country album, Throw Down. Four albums later, Hicks has become one of Canada’s hottest country stars, recently racking up his first #1 hit, “What A Song Can Do.” That’s put Rob on the road, playing giant festivals and touring across North America and Australia, things Rob says “I never thought I’d be doing by playing the drums.”
As a result, the kid who got his start as an air drummer is now spending summers sharing stages with the likes of Dierks Bentley, Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and Keith Urban. And for all the “wow” moments those experiences have provided, Rob says the biggest one of all happened a little closer to home.
“There has been a few gigs where you look out at the crowd and it’s kind of surreal. But one of the most cool times was coming home to play the Meridian Centre in November 2018 on the last tour. To have a sold out show at your hometown arena was amazing.”
Like any drummer from St. Catharines, Rob was saddened by the unexpected news of Peart’s passing. “He was the first idol for me as a young drummer. I hadn’t looked at social media, and when I got a call three days later with the news, I was stunned. It didn’t kick in for a day or two. He was the guy for me. Early on I played in a couple RUSH tributes. I didn’t want to copy him. I just liked the way he carried himself. There have been a lot of great drummers, but I don’t think there’s anyone who got more people inspired to get behind the drums than Neal.”
As for how his late-career success has affected his perspective on his career choice, Rob says most musicians know what they’ve signed up for.
“I don’t know, I guess luck plays a part of it. I guess just being diligent is necessary for success of any kind. I’ve always found ways to survive in the industry. Even if I’m not out playing, I can still build a case or teach. I was always determined to make it a career in some shape or form. You have the baggage that goes along with your choices. It’s that kind of a career. There’s really no safe time, like ‘woowho, the pressure’s off, I’ve arrived.’ You’re always looking over the next hill to see what’s there, but in the long run I feel fortunate that I’m lucky to make a living doing what I love to do.”
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