Drummer and percussionist Demian Arriaga B.M. '04 returned to his alma mater for Career Jam in 2017, sharing insight on his work alongside Iggy Azalea, Richie Kotzen, Gary Cherone, the Jonas Brothers, and Demi Lovato, among others. In 2007 Arriaga moved to Los Angeles, where he has been actively performing, touring, recording, and teaching. He has appeared on numerous television programs including The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Conan, Good Morning America, and Late Night with Seth Meyers. In addition to performing and teaching, Arriaga also currently hosts the Music Mentor podcast.
Born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela, Arriaga moved to Boston at age 19 to attend Berklee College of Music, graduating in 2004. Within his first week at the college, humbled by the sheer talent of his fellow drummers, Arriaga decided to focus on hand percussion, taking lessons from Eguie Castrillo, Ernesto Diaz, and Mike Ringquist while studying the drum set under Dave DiCenso (Hiromi B.M. '03, Josh Groban) and Mike Mangini (Dream Theater, Extreme). "I owe everything I’ve accomplished in my musical career to what I learned in those halls and the teachers I had. I’m forever grateful for that education," Arriaga says, noting his own love of teaching.
While at Berklee, Arriaga played many shows with fellow student Annie Clark '04, who would eventually achieve stardom as St. Vincent. "The second I heard her play and saw her hold a guitar and sing one of her songs, I knew I was in the presence of greatness," he said.
From Rock Dream to Pop Prestige
Arriaga says his first life-changing gig came while working as a roadie for Castrillo. During that job, he met producer and fellow alumnus Leo Mellace '93, who asked him to rehearse with an unnamed artist. To Arriaga's surprise, the artist was Gary Cherone from Extreme, which happened to be his favorite band growing up. "At Sanctum Sound Studios in Boston, playing 'More than Words' with my favorite singer of all time from my favorite band of all time—that wasn't in front of anybody, it wasn't publicized or on Snapchat or Instagram, but it was the most important moment of my musical life." It led to a few shows with Cherone, with Arriaga on percussion, before his move to L.A.
What soon followed was Arriaga's first big tour playing drum set with another childhood idol, Richie Kotzen of Poison and Mr. Big, who he met while teaching at the School of Rock only three months after buying a one-way ticket to L.A. "That was a highlight for me because as a Venezuelan, Latino metal fan, hanging out with my idols, going to bars and parties, was all this stuff I dreamt of my entire life," Arriaga says. But when he got a call in 2010 to tour with the Jonas Brothers on percussion, he decided to quit his dream gig to go the pop route.
"I was faced with continuing the rock dream, or [I could] tour the world, make three times what I was making, have all the endorsements I wanted, stay in five-star hotels every night," Arriaga says. He went on to tour Europe and North and South America with the pop sensations. "And it was the single greatest tour of my life by leaps and bounds." L.A. afforded him more opportunities in the pop world, working alongside Demi Lovato, Ariana Grande, and Iggy Azalea for a promo run on various national talk shows.
Advice for Young Alumni
When asked about the single best gig he's ever played, Arriaga's answer is not a 50,000-seat stadium or televised award show. Instead, it's a Halloween party dressed up as a monkey, playing "Are You Gonna Go My Way" with Nuno Bettencourt, his favorite guitarist of all time, because of what the moment meant to him in terms of accomplishing his dreams. "I'm a firm believer in dreams, and I think people sometimes make the mistake of just surviving in the music business, and I understand that part, but I think it has to come from a love of being versatile and learning, and not just doing anything and everything only to get by."
He adds the importance of teaching in his life, saying that "not a single personal accomplishment can compare to the amount of joy when my students learn a song or when I saw the kids perform Dark Side of the Moon at School of Rock." And Arriaga notes the significance of networking and making connections. "Anything I've done in my career or music can be traced to a Berklee connection, or a reason because of Berklee, even in Venezuela."
"I always encourage everybody to know that all of their dreams, no matter how absurd, farfetched, or impossible they seem, all those dreams are potentially real, and it's 100 percent possible to make our lives a living dream." He adds that as artists and musicians, talent is not enough, but there is a need to learn how to be professional, deal with adversity, and be versatile not only in music, but in being flexible enough to adapt toward achieving one's goal.