By Eliza Partika
The muted thuds of drums echoed through the University Town Center parking lot one warm Thursday night, precise beats wafting to those loitering in the area or strolling past the shops. A security guard, smile plastered on his face, reached through the window to high-five the mysterious man hammering out Metallica and Madonna from the driver’s seat of his red Cherry High. Curious bystanders gather to headbang and Snapchat this strange and wonderful phenomenon to their friends. At the end of his set, Brian Tist leans out his window, raising his fist in the air. “It’s for the police, even if they don’t know it; it’s always been for them, for letting me do this,” he said.
“Drummer Brian,” as he is locally known, travels with a full drum set in the back of his car, playing in parking lots around Orange County. Lately, he’s been frequenting lots around UCI, as he did on this night in front of Trader Joe’s, but you may just see him anywhere: in Newport Beach drumming to a setting sun, outside a drive-in movie, or – some of his favorite locations – Starbucks or Albertsons. “I don’t know why I was meant to do this,” he said. “I’m still figuring it out.”
Nine years ago, Brian and two other vocalists and guitar players started a heavy metal Christian band at Stadium Vineyards. After rehearsal one day, he piled his drums into his passenger seat and turned up the radio to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
“I started drumming on the strike zone with my hands and I was a hit. Next thing you know I did it every chance I got.” He prides himself on having invented this form of drumming. “I’ve never seen another car drummer,” he said.
At first, he would play in abandoned parking lots “for myself” he said, but as he began to play in more crowded lots, people began to “catch fire” of him.
As he kept finding parking lots to play in, it became something more than jamming out to the radio. “It was intended to be just for fun, for me,” he said. “ I’ve been hated and I’ve been adored with this,” he says, noting that he has been yelled at by heroin addicts from whom he is stealing attention. He’s had his tired slashed, and he’s been chased by police.“But it’s turned into something that brings smiles to people’s faces now.”
This was especially true for Tist after one day, as he was drumming in a Starbucks parking lot, a school bus passed him. The kids on board were smiling and filming him with their phones. “That’s what made me realize why I do this,” he said.
One could say Tist was destined to be a drummer; from the day he was handed a toy drum set as a child, he began hammering out a complicated rhythm. He had a way of making them sing. While he did take other jobs, his passion always remained with the drums.
He vividly remembers the moment in which he fell in love with drumming. He was seven, at an away game with his father, who was the coach for the UCI basketball team at the time. He remembers going to pick up a stray basketball and following it as it rolled into the path of the oncoming UC Davis marching band. They gingerly stepped over and around him, and he stood watching their drums sail over him. “It was better than Christmas morning.” He still remembers the rhythm they played.
But drumming has become a kind of catharsis for Brian since he has detoxed from his addiction to painkillers and methamphetamines.
“I started this clean and sober and then I started using,” he said. He had been using for seven years, getting high on methamphetamines in his mother’s garage in University Hills, when his mother and roomate held an intervention. The police escorted him to the hospital, but the hospital wasn’t willing to assist him.
“The hospital spit me out at 3:30 a.m. and I was with nothing except my hospital gown,” he said. Another girl, a heroin addict who was also trying to detox, fell asleep with him in the waiting room, and when he woke up, Perry, his emergency contact, was there to pick him up and take him to a nearby hotel where he detoxed alone for eleven days.
“One day a voice said, ‘Brian, get up and walk to the ocean,’ so I got up and I started taking walks and I got better, and I decided to stick with it. I’ve insisted upon myself to continue doing the car drumming thing and the regular drumming thing.”
At the moment, his favorite song to play in his car is a song titled “‘When Everything Is Wrong’… same concept of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water.’ I don’t know if Paul Simon was talking about love or God. It was about friendship.” He only needs one drum and a snare to play it; it is not a very involved song. It reminds him of a close friend he abandoned while he was using. He hasn’t contacted her since the incident, but he continues to play the song, maybe wishing one day she will hear.
Now he lives and works at Sober Living rehabilitation center in Garden Grove’s Little Saigon as the assistant manager, right next to the studio he plays at. He has made several friends who are all helping him in his recovery. He still attends church and is taking his recovery one step at a time, allowing the music and his faith to sew him back together.
“My self esteem is low, [but] it’s coming back. I put God into everything I do. A pastor put it to me this way: God can control our lives, he can drive our car, but we have to pull ourselves out of park. And that struck me, that reached me. I understood that, y’know I bought that and it changed my life,” he said.“I’ve been asking Him – what am I supposed to do with this, what do you want me to do with these drums?”
For now, he is more than satisfied with the smiles he receives.
“If I’m performing and getting reactions that are good; there’s nothing like it. I really feel like I’m creating something for somebody else. You know, I have the best seat in the whole house. There’s this zone you can get into where the drums are almost playing you and you can see yourself and everything turns black and white, no color at all, and you are the best drummer in the world; you see yourself from almost a bird’s eye view and you see all the people and you feel like the world is conquered.”