Like it is for many people, law was Drew Shoals' second career—before going to law school he worked as a professional drummer in Portland, Oregon. But after Penn Law and a few years at Shearman & Sterling, Drew took a professional opportunity not many BigLaw associates get: to become the drummer of one of the most successful pop bands in the world. In 2014 Drew left the glamorous world of BigLaw to become the drummer for the band Train. I sat down with Drew to discuss his drumming and legal careers, and what it’s like to give notice to your law firm that you’re leaving to be a rock star.
Vault: After you graduated from college you started out as a professional drummer?
Drew: Yeah. I went to a small liberal arts school called Whitman College in eastern Washington State, and I grew up in Portland, Oregon. So after college, I moved back to Portland and started doing jazz, rock, and singer-songwriter gigs, doing recording sessions and shows around town and then that led to tours around the U.S. with rock bands, blues bands, all sorts of things. From there, I ended up touring with Pat Monahan, who’s the lead singer of Train—that was in 2007. Train was on a break and Pat put out a solo record, he ended up doing a tour, I was the drummer for that tour and we ended up doing some shows off and on for about a year and a half, and toward the end of that I knew that Train was getting back together, and I told the guys that I was going to go to law school. It’s something that I thought about doing in college, but I also was good at drums, so when I graduated from college, I decided to try music out, and it ended up going really well. My musician friends were shocked that I was stopping to pivot to something completely different. But for me, I was looking for more intellectual rigor, and to acquire a new skill set that was different from music, and I thought law school would be a good fit for me. So I quit music cold turkey and moved to the East Coast and worked for a legal non-profit for a year while applying to law school, and after a year I went to Penn Law.
Did you continue to play music while in law school?
Just a little bit. I played jazz gigs around town. I played a weekly gig at an Ethiopian restaurant in West Philly by my apartment with some local musicians, playing jazz. And when I went home to Portland, I played there because I had more of a connection to the musicians there. But law school is pretty demanding, so it was hard to keep it up.
So did you start at Shearman right after you graduated?
I did. Actually I spent my first summer I worked at Stoel Rives in Portland; my second summer I decided to go to Shearman. Just being able to work on an international level and having the privilege to work at one of the small handful of firms that everyone knows, was such a great experience. So after I graduated I decided to accept the offer to work at Shearman. When I first started I was in litigation; I did that for almost a year and then transitioned to our corporate group and did mostly M&A for about another year until I joined Train.
Tell me about getting the call to join Train.
I had toured with the lead singer before. So it wasn’t that headhunters were calling and asking, “Hey, are you a lawyer and a drummer?” So the way it worked was that the original drummer had been in the band for 20 years, and then the band and the drummer decided to part ways and they were auditioning a handful of drummers—great drummers. Train’s such a terrific band and definitely could have their pick of talented musicians. But they decided to reach out to me because Pat had worked with me in the past, and we got a long, and he liked my playing, and he liked the way that I fit in. The “hang” is a big part of it—you know, personalities need to mesh, because you spend so much time together on the road and in the studio hanging out with these people that you want to make sure that you get along with them.
So he texted me and said, “Are you sick of being a lawyer yet?” And, of course, I responded, “It depends…” Because I really wasn’t. I had no intention of leaving. I was coming to the end of my second year and was starting to hit my stride in M&A. Even though I was still junior, it seemed like a promising future and I really liked the people I was working with. But I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss playing drums. It’s a huge part of who I am. Being able to tour the world and do it on such a high level, that isn’t an opportunity that a lot of musicians get. It really was a once in a lifetime opportunity. It really was a no brainer and I had a lot of partners at the firm tell me exactly that. They said, “You gotta do this. No hard feelings at all. You can always come back to being a lawyer at some point down the line.” But it was a hard decision in that I was still enjoying being a lawyer and I didn’t think I would leave that early.
When you decided to leave Shearman, what was the meeting like giving your notice?
The partners that I spoke to were really supportive and encouraged me to take the opportunity to play with train. It helped that it was a band that a lot of people had heard of, so it didn’t come across as I was just giving up on being a lawyer. It was more—this is an interesting other opportunity I have to pursue.
I put in my two week notice. In the middle of the two weeks, I flew to Florida and we played a festival in front of 20,000 people. And then I flew back and still had a week at the firm. And then three days after my last day at the firm, I flew to LA to start recording our Bulletproof Picasso album, which we put out in 2014, and I had a photoshoot in Beverly Hills at the mansion from the Big Lebowski that Jackie Treehorn lives in. So I was thrown into this ridiculous—I would have liked a little more time to practice, but I got up to speed pretty quickly.
We put out a holiday record called Christmas in Tahoe on Amazon and then we just put out a Led Zeppelin cover album, we did all of Led Zeppelin II, and all the proceeds go to a charity we donate a lot to. It’s called Family House, it’s based in San Francisco, and they house families of children that are receiving cancer treatment at UCSF. It was really fun to dig into John Bonham’s playing, because he’s obviously one of the all time greats.
How do you step into that role, playing the music of one of the all time greatest rock drummers?
The way that you would prepare for a trial or prepare for a deal—you just over prepare. You practice a lot. The way that I approach preparing to record an album of learning a new set of songs, is kind of the same way that I approached law school. I just work really hard and put in a lot of hours. Even though the creative process is a little different, I feel like the process of being methodical, and diligent, and disciplined applies in both settings. So the way I did it was I listened a ton to John Bonham, I watched old videos, I tried to really get inside his head and where we was at when he recorded that album. And I tried to understand his influences, he was really into James Brown; he was really into Buddy Rich—kind of old American blues and early rock and roll. And you hear that in his playing, that he was able to synthesize that and make it his own. So I tried to do the same. I tried to listen to him and see where he was coming from, and ultimately I had to synthesize that with my own influences and be myself. I think it went well. It was definitely intimidating, but I think I grew a lot as a player. And it was great to go on the Jimmy Kimmel show and the Howard Stern show. Stern is a huge Zeppelin fan and he’s not afraid to tell you if you sound terrible. And we played a few songs—Heartbreaker and The Lemon Song—and we were about to leave the interview and Stern was like, “Hey, what’s that song with the drum solo?” And we said, “That’s Moby Dick.” “Well, I dare you to play it.” And I was like, “Alright!” Luckily, I had prepared for it. I had done my homework—I like to over-prepare. When you go to the partner’s office and you assume they are going to ask you about these cases, you have to do extra research because they may ask you about those other ones too. So I try to always over-prepare. And it went great. I didn’t get overly nervous and the band executed it really well and Stern said, “You were channeling the man himself.” So that was really cool.
I’m sure the hours are different in character, but are there longer hours working for a large law firm, or being in the band?
I think from my wife’s perspective, she thinks she sees me less, I think I see her more. I’ll be gone for long periods of time when I ‘m on tour, but I’m also home for long periods of time when I’m not on tour. In a way, working in corporate law prepared me for the grueling tour schedule, because I don’t always get a lot of sleep when I’m traveling, and I’m getting up at 5 in the morning to go on the Today show, and then getting up to catch a plane to fly to LA for a show. And you have to be ready to bring it every night at a show. So for me, the work ethic involved in both of them is related. You have to have a strong work ethic to be successful as a law student and as a lawyer—you have to be disciplined and work hard. And to be a successful musician, you have to have that same work ethic. And that may seem obvious, but I think a lot of people just assume musicians are just hanging out and then the muse strikes. But I think the structure of setting aside practice time, or time to write, or time to listen to music—that’s something I do every day, and I think it is something that informs my work on stage and in the studio.
Photo credit: Mike Corrado