More than a decade ago, Biju Zimmerman worked at the now-defunct La Boulanegerie Cafe in the Third Ward. It was the perfect job for touring musicians like Zimmerman because the owners were willing to accommodate their erratic schedules.
Zimmerman, who drummed for Camden at the time, waited on R&B / soul singer-songwriter Eric Benét and his wife at the time, Halle Berry. Benét, who now lives in Los Angeles, grew up on Milwaukee’s North Side – his mother still lives here today – but owned a condo in the Third Ward and was often spotted hanging out around town.
"It was cool to meet him, but I didn’t know at the time I would be working for him someday," says Zimmerman, who became Benét’s stage manager seven years ago. "The first time I met him, I was like, ‘Dude, I served you.’"
Becoming Benét’s stage manager was an opportunity that Zimmerman almost missed. When the job offer call came in out of the blue, Zimmerman wasn’t familiar with the number and almost didn’t answer.
"I’m really glad I did," says Zimmerman. "It was Eric’s tour manager asking if I wanted the job. And when I said yes, he said, 'All right then, you’re going to Japan.’"
Zimmerman started working as a drum tech for Milwaukee pop / rock band The Gufs at the age of 19. Through the band, Zimmerman was connected to many people in the music industry locally and nationally.
"They were like my older brothers. They got me into bars, introduced me to so many people," says Zimmerman. "Needless to say my 21st birthday was a secret."
Zimmerman, who was adopted from India when he was 2 years old, grew up in Racine and moved to Milwaukee after high school.
"My mom came to India and got me from the Mother Theresa orphanage and brought me back to Wisconsin. I love Indian food, but I’m very Wisconsin," he says.
Zimmerman’s name at the orphanage was "Biju" so when his parents adopted him, they named him Brian Biju Zimmerman.
Zimmerman, who has a sister who was adopted from Korea, started drumming in sixth grade. During his freshman year of high school he started a band with his best friends, Ryan Weber and BJ Seidel (owner of Burnhearts and Goodkind), called Faceless Neighbors.
One of Seidel’s cousins was in The Gufs, which is how Zimmerman originally met The Gufs. The band was responsible for first calling him "Biju" instead of "Brian."
"They tried to give me another nickname that was really dumb, but then they started calling me ‘Biju’ once they found out it was my middle name and the only name that was on my passport when I came here from India," says Zimmerman.
Zimmerman went on to drum for Matthew’s Uncle and then Camden. The band went on a United States tour with Death Cab For Cutie, The Promise Ring and other "killer indie bands." The group recorded a full-length and an EP with Death Cab’s Chris Walla in Seattle before breaking up.
After Camden split, Seidel and Weber started the band Decibully and Zimmerman joined a pop / rock band, Carolina.
"It was a lot of fun," says Zimmerman.
Zimmerman decided to take a break from drumming and later started working for Benét. He describes his duties as stage manager in simple terms.
"The stage is mine. Everything that happens on the stage is my sh*t," he says.
As stage manager, Zimmerman tours about half of the year.
"We could do one show a month or I could be gone for three months," says Zimmerman, who is currently on tour with Benét in Korea.
As Benét’s tour manager, Zimmerman has been all over the world. His favorite places to go are Japan and Amsterdam.
"I’ve been to Tokyo six times. The people in Tokyo are so nice. They get it," says Zimmerman. "And you have never seen a city so clean with so many people. If you dropped a candy bar on the sidewalk you wouldn’t think twice about picking it up because the sidewalk looks like it was cleaned with a toothbrush. Even the dumpsters are clean."
Benét has an avid following in the United States – including First Lady Michelle Obama – and in some Asian and European countries, he is a superstar.
"In Japan, we’ll do five days with two shows a night and every show is sold out. A lot of people will go to all 10 shows," says Zimmerman. "In Korea, it’s ridiculous how famous he is. Everywhere we tour, he’s recognized. He’s great about taking photos and talking to fans."
Two years ago, Benét performed at the Seoul Jazz Festival with Earth, Wind & Fire in front of 30,000 people. After the show, the fans surrounded Benét’s van and started rocking it back and forth.
"We weren’t freaking out, just saying, ‘this is so Beatles!’" says Zimmerman.
At every show, Benét tells the audience he is from Milwaukee.
"Eric’s really proud of it," says Zimmerman.
Zimmerman says Benét, who he considers a friend, is laid back and fun to travel with.
"Eric loves all music. It’s amazing to me all the genres of music that he’s into. And he’s into films – ‘Star Wars’ – and he’s really into ‘Star Trek.’ He’s a cool guy to hang out with," says Zimmerman. "Eric has such a positive energy. He’s a really good listener and he’s funny."
Benét and his crew travel by bus and plane, depending on the location of the shows. Zimmerman says he prefers bus tours because he sleeps better on the bus and gets to play a lot of PlayStation.
"One time the bus broke down, and we ordered Papa John’s, told the guys, ‘We’re by mile marker 180’ and when the guy delivered the pizza he came on the bus and was in awe. He kept saying, ‘this is so cool,’" says Zimmerman.
Does he party a lot when he’s on the road?
"Yeah, you have to. It’s fun. That’s how it goes," he says. "But if there’s not a party, that’s fine, too. Just being in your hotel room is awesome. We stay at pretty nice places. Coming from indie bands where you share one hotel room with four dudes it's pretty nice traveling with Eric and getting my own hotel room."
Although he is currently single, Zimmerman says he doesn’t find it difficult to be in a relationship with his busy travel schedule.
"You spend a lot of time on the phone during your down time," he says. "FaceTime makes it seem like you're right there. It’s nice to come home to someone, but it’s also nice being single on the road."
When Zimmerman returns from Korea he will be home for a couple of weeks – he lives on 2nd Street in Walker’s Point, which he refers to as "the block" – and will leave again for San Francisco for three shows, including one on New Year’s Eve.
"I’m always packed and ready to go," says Zimmerman.
Although he enjoys working as a stage manager, Zimmerman – who plans to also work for Dashboard Confessional this summer – says he will certainly drum in a band again someday.
"If you’re a musician and you’re not playing the instrument you’re always going to feel that loss," he says.
Recently, Zimmerman taught himself how to use FinalCut Pro and started making short documentaries while on tour.
Zimmerman believes Milwaukee has a great music scene and, like Benét, he rocks the hometown pride.
"It’s great to have 88Nine (RadioMilwaukee) behind it. People are really getting heard now, both locally and outside the bubble," he says. "I’m really proud to be from Milwaukee."
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.