Louisiana-born percussionist Aaron Guidry moved to Vegas in 2002 after landing a coveted spot in Cirque du Soleil’s Mystère. Seven years and nearly 3,500 Cirque shows later, Guidry left for then-New York production Zarkana, which he helped score with composer and Empire of the Sun member Nick Littlemore. Now back in town with the show at Aria, he talks about his journey from marching band teacher to Cirque musician, behind-the-scene tricks and how he switches gears from his professional job to his new gig as drummer in local band Same Sex Mary.
How did you get involved with Cirque Du Soleil? I did my masters at West Virginia University in percussion performance, and I started teaching high school in San Antonio as a band director. Marching band is kind of a big deal down there, and we were doing a marching band show that was based on Cirque du Soleil music. My job was to arrange that music, from the piccolos to the tubas and the drums, for a marching band. I started doing some digging—I didn’t really know what [Cirque du Soleil] was—and I saw that they were having auditions. I liked teaching, but I always wanted to play. So I made a videotape of myself playing everything—snare drum, timpani, steel drums, marimba, everything I could do. They contacted me and said, “Hey, we want you to come to Vegas to audition.”
What was the audition like? Things don’t always go according to plan, but the music can’t just shut down, so they were seeing if I could catch things: When someone flips up in the air and lands on top of three dudes, can you catch that right when she lands? It was kind of testing me, I guess. Then they had me sing. I went to Ghana for two summers and studied [drumming] in West Africa, so I thought, “I’ll just start singing some of these African songs.” They called a week later and said they had a spot open in Mystère ... I played with Mystère for about 3,500 shows and played with them all the way until New Year’s Eve of 2009.
Tell me about your business, Yata For Luda. I write marching band music. I write it and they perform it and they have exclusive use of that show for their marching band season and then it goes into my catalogue for the next year and people from all over the country can buy that show. That’s kind of like a hobby, a thing I just started doing.
You started with Zarkana in Montreal at the beginning of its creation, then moved to New York City with the show. Where else did Zarkana take you? We went on the road with the show to Madrid, then we went to Moscow and played the Kremlin for three months. We went back to New York and played there for another few months and then they decided to put the show here in Vegas.
The music was composed by Nick Littlemore from Empire of the Sun. What was it like working with him? He would come in with a demo and let us all hear it. The songs had their structure and their chord progressions and the melodies, but specifically with percussion, there was no, “This is what you’ve got to play.” So for a lot of the show, I got to actually write the book myself. He had to approve it or reject it, but that was really cool. Doing the show from creation, you get to actually be a part of that process of putting together the sound of the show. It was kind of a blank page.
Zarkana went through changes at the end of 2013. What was it like having to restructure the parts you wrote? Do you like the show more now? I think it’s a lot better now. We do about 470 shows a year. ... The show does change frequently. Every night the show is a little bit different, so that keeps you on your toes. A lot of the percussion parts are based off what’s going on onstage. I’m also the assistant bandleader here, so I have to be on point. I have to make sure when this hits, boom, I’ve got to call that cue. There’s enough change and enough evolution that it keeps it fresh. Going in and changing almost every song that we did, it’s almost like doing a new show again.
What instruments do you play onstage? I have tambourines and milk jugs and lots of gongs. I get to play a broad range of things. I play marimba, vibraphone. I use a Xylosynth … it’s all midi, like electronic, so [I play] pretty much any sound I want to. That’s a lot of the harmonies and melodies I’m playing. There’s an orchestral side to it, where there’s lots of triangle-type things or lots of tambourine, like thumb rolls and flip rolls and rockin’ out type stuff. Then there’s world percussion where there’s a lot of hand drumming; I use a lot of the African drums I brought back from Ghana. Most everything up there is my stuff. And then during what we call the Wheel of Death, I get to play what I grew up doing, the snare drum stuff. I get a little taste of everything.
If someone messes up, how do you compensate for that? The music is made up in different phrases, different chunks. All those components can be flipped around wherever we want them to go. The music is put together really intelligently so that we can go from point A to point C without going through point B and everything makes sense. We’re all on in-ears, and the bandleader has a microphone so he’s communicating with us, and we have a click going so we have a consistent tempo. Everybody’s in the know. There’s also lights that we use and different sound signals, like chimes that’ll happen or a bullhorn that can be integrated into the music. It sounds like it’s just part of the music but we know if you hear that train coming, whoa, something’s not going right, hang on for a second.
You recently became the drummer for local band Same Sex Mary. How did that happen? They had this Bunkhouse gig coming up, so they asked me if I could do it and I was like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” So they sent me the songs, I think they had like 20 some-odd songs, and I just listened to ’em non-stop and had a couple practices and then went and played the Bunkhouse. It’s really fun playing with them. I like their songs; I like the whole dynamic of James [Adams] and Tsvetelina [Stefanova], and I love the Farfisa organ. It’s been fun to play in a band again outside of the theater.
How is preparing for a local show different than preparing for a huge stage production? If I’m playing at the Griffin and my girlfriend is there, or if I’m playing here and my mom comes, basically if there’s people I know, no matter what the venue, I get nervous. I can play Radio City Music Hall with 6,000 people and it’s like, “Whatever, let’s go play the show.” But if my dad’s out there, I’m like, “Oh my God, he was a drummer too! I’m gonna drop my sticks!”
When you’re not performing or writing music, what do you like to do? Do you have time for anything else? Well, I’m working on a cartoon. Me and my brother have had this idea for this cartoon that we’ve been putting together for a while, along the lines of an Adult Swim, Squidbillies-type thing. I don’t want to give away too many details, but we think it’s really hilarious. I did a movie score too that’s about to premiere at the New Orleans Film Festival. It’s called Love Land. They did inclusive casting, which means the [cast includes] people with physical disabilities and mental disabilities. Everyone that has a disability in the movie actually has that disability. So I did the music for that, it’s about 60 minutes of music. We finished it up last December, went and mixed it in LA and then we went and did the dub mix at Skywalker Sound [the music division of George Lucas’ motion picture group] up in San Francisco. It’s about to premiere in a couple weeks, so that’ll be cool.