DAVE LOMBARDO: CAUGHT ON PHILM
He’s one of the most prolific and well-recognised faces in the metal world – and all the more unique because he is a drummer. You can tell when Dave Lombardo’s playing whether it’s the breakneck double bass and avalanche-style fills of Slayer, crazy experimentalism with Fantomas or quirky bombast with Apocalyptica or Lorenzo Arruga. Now working with his reignited project Philm (featuring guitarist Gerry Nestler and bassist Pancho Tomaselli), Dave is more enthused than ever about music and finding a creative connection with other people. You can hear it in every rapid-fire note and unhinged delivery of Philm’s music, an arty and demanding combination of thrash rhythms and post-hardcore dissonance – kind of. A merciless basher of the skins, Dave Lombardo is also a consummate musician. He’s fully committed to the song, fully immersed in the moment, always striving for fresh-sounding performances that grab you by the ears and take the music where it’s supposed to go. Dave makes exciting music by remaining excited about what he does.
Adam Stanley of Heavy Music Artwork sat down with Dave to talk about how interesting life is for him right now.
HMA: So how long have you been in Philm now?
DAVE LOMBARDO: Well, I reformed the band in 2010 right after everything went down Tom (Araya, Slayer bassist/vocalist) and his surgery (Araya underwent intensive spinal surgery during Slayer’s Australia/New Zealand/Japan tour in October 2009 due to music-related back injuries), and then Jeff (Hanneman, late Slayer guitarist) with his spider bite (Hanneman was bitten by a spider on holiday which leads to his contraction of necrotizing fasciitis. He subsequently passed away from alcohol-related cirrhosis in 2013) – it just felt like, “Hmm, I need to put something together,” you know.
Of course I’ve known Gerry (Nestler, Philm guitarist), and Philm existed all the way from 1995, but because I got really busy with Fantomas, worked on the Testament record (Lombardo performed on Testament’s 1999 album “The Gathering”) – I was doing Grip Inc, I was doing a lot of stuff between ’96 and 2001 – I said, “Guys, you know, I can’t really focus on this right now.”
HMA: Yeah, it’s kind of new to me – you’ve done so much stuff and it is one of the things I wasn’t aware of previously.
DL: Yeah but we didn’t release anything until 2012, that was the first album. We got back all the way… you know, Gerry and I have been friends since ’95.
HMA: Right, OK – so how does it feel playing drums in what is not a new project, but the next step in what you’re doing?
DL: I’m really excited, it feels great – it feels like a breath of fresh air. I think you’ve probably heard in the media, you know, I have like this renewed feeling towards music, you know, and the excitement is there, which is important – if you lose the excitement, it’s not conducive to a working environment or creative environment, so this definitely has pushed me in a positive way.
HMA: So what are the things you’re most excited about creatively in Philm?
DL: With this band, it’s a collective effort. It’s not one guy coming in and telling you, “It needs to go like this, play this, play that – throw your style and your drum roll in there but I wanna keep it with double bass here, upbeat here, downbeat there, play fast there” – you know, it’s not like that.
What I love most about this band is the musicianship level. I’ve worked with some phenomenal musicians, for example (Mike) Patton (Faith No More/Fantomas/Mr Bungle vocalist), John Zorn – I mean this guy is an amazing saxophone player, songwriter, and then Bill Laswell, a bass player – the list goes on.
These guys (Philm) are up there with that calibre of musician – and the fact that we improvise so well. Gerry will start playing a guitar part, I’ll come in with the drum part, Pancho will come in with the bass part; we’ll create breaks and little changes spontaneously. And that’s important. That’s what I’m most excited about, and the fact that it’s easy for us to create music together – plus we get along, which is important.
HMA: I listened to the last album and it sounds like you’re not going for perfection, it’s very much about vibe and attitude to my ears because it’s very frantic and aggressive. When I listen to your drumming, lot of the fills seems like they’re almost going to fly out of control, and then it kind of comes back in… could you talk about that, about what you think this music’s bringing out of you?
DL: Well, I think you have to understand that with this album, the drums were recorded in one day. So we had time in the studio when the studio was offered by a company called Blue Microphones who create high-quality microphones – they have a studio which was Grace Kelly’s house in the Santa Monica hills… I think it was Grace Kelly’s, I could be wrong… and the studio was built in the attic and it was her closet where I guess she had all her dresses from the Oscars and whatever; and the downstairs was a big cavernous room almost like a church with these stained glass windows – it was just really beautiful.
We had one day to go in there and record, so I had to make sure that my drumming was on point – so if you hear some of that uncontrolled [stuff], that was just what was happening at that moment…. I’m sorry, I forget the question!
HMA: I was just trying to get into your headspace during the recording, since it sounds so frantic and aggressive, just going for it all the way through…
DL: Oh yeah, that was because of the situation we were in. If it feels that way it’s also because we made sure to capture the true essence of band instead of throwing everything into Pro Tools and editing every single drum, making sure everything sounds machine-like.
I mean, all the records I did from 1983 almost all the way up to the second to last record I did with Slayer, “Christ Illusion”, that was all done on tape, so all those albums were done organically without the use of Pro Tools. So I wanted to still maintain that essence and that element in the style of music, keeping it as raw and organic as possible.
HMA: Yeah I was going to say, there’s not a whiff of a computer on the whole thing and I couldn’t tell with the vocals or anything but certainly with the drums I could hear it was recorded very live… if you compare your experience recording on tape and then moving to digital, what’s it like performing? I’ve never recorded on tape personally, I’ve basically started on computers.
DL: Well, you know, you have a tape, a reel that could be either used at 15 minutes or 30 minutes depending on the fps which I think is frames per second. You could switch it. So in those days, you were under a lot of pressure – you had to be well-rehearsed. Before you went into the studio, you had to know the songs, you had to be on point. “OK we’re rolling, here we go.”
At that time they would probably do one edit, one splice, let’s say putting two songs together, two takes. “Well we like the first half of the first take, but we also like the second half of the third take,” so they would take the two pieces and put them together. That’s as far as it went back then, but I’ve heard stories that some drummers would do a lot of those cuts on their records, but I didn’t.
Recording on a computer’s a lot easier. “Hey, you know, I fucked up on that little bass drum part, let’s just click, nudge it, fix it a little bit – done. I don’t like to overdo it. You lose what it’s all about and unfortunately, a lot of guys like perfection and I don’t. “Oh I’m a little late there” – but you know what, it’s human. It’s real.
HMA: Is it a case, in the studio, when you’re recording onto tape, of taking a deep breath and going “123 GO!”? Is it more adrenalized?
DL: Oh you do get adrenaline, and you are under pressure and there is an adrenaline kick there. You know it’s, “OK! Here we go, I’m gonna do it!” But it’s a lot of fun. It brings out the best in you and makes you a better artist, a better musician when you work under those pressurised circumstances.
HMA: Are you often playing to a click track?
DL: No. This album wasn’t done to click track. This was all done with my own meter. All the albums I did with Slayer, they were all done without click track, except in the later years with say, “World Painted Blood”, they would start off [with] the click.
Let’s say I was playing it a just a little too fast, they would bring it down. I’d say, “OK, give me the bpm (beats per minute) you want, what feels best on the guitar,” and then they’d start me off with the click for maybe the first eight bars or whatever, and then they’d shut the click off and let me go, let me build by crescendos and decrescendos, and go through the song.
HMA: Can you compare the approach to composition that you took in Slayer to what you’re doing now, just given that that Slayer was your solid band situation for so long and now this is?
DL: No, this is a totally different approach. Let’s compare – in the Slayer approach, it was either Kerry or Jeff. Kerry comes in with one riff: “Hey I got this riff idea.” Or a couple of riff ideas. I’d play the drums to it, thrown in some rolls… to one of his riffs, I could create probably fix or six different drum beats.
So I’d throw all the different drum beats and then he’d get inspired and creates another part over another drum beat that I created from his riff, and it goes out like that. Jeff would have a CD or cassette with the skeletal version of the song – verse, chorus, a little bridge – all with his drum machine. He’d tell me, “Dave, this is the basic structure and this is how it feels but go ahead and add your style, and your beats, and whatever you feel.” So I’d take the riff and see how it feels, then I’ll add the rhythm to it and we’ll go from there.
Now Philm is different. This is what I love about this band and why I’m so excited. We’ll go, we’ll call each other up and say, “Hey man, let’s practice.” I’ll send a group message, you know. “OK, what time?” “Uh, one o’clock.” “Lunch or no lunch?” So we’ll go hang out, we’ll have some lunch, talk, maybe have a beer or coffee, smoke or whatever – then we go into the rehearsal room and press record, let the tape roll.
HMA: So you’re set up to record the whole time?
DL: Yeah. And that’s where the magic happens. Gerry will play something, I’ll start playing, or Pancho will start the song… and then it starts evolving. We’ll go back and listen to those tapes of those rehearsals or improv sessions, and we’ll trim everything that’s unnecessary; take all the crap out and listen to all the other parts – then recreate the songs based on those initial improvisations.
So we’ll take those little bits and then create around them – and we get to something really super interesting, where we go, “Wow, I really like that, that’s a fantastic piece, let’s create a song around that!”
Just like the opening track, “Train”, that started from a drum beat, just (sings drumbeat) “TADATADATADATADA” – I said, “Guys, you know, this sounds like a train, listen to that (sings pattern again),” and Gerry was like, “Yeah man!” (sings introductory guitar part from “Train”), and then we added that thrash beat (sings riff), dundundundundundun – I don’t know if you’re familiar with the record, that (plays drum pattern on leg)?
HMA: Yes, yes.
DL: That fast beat. So we kind of incorporated that into all those pieces. This band is definitely something to see live. You know, the album does some justice to how powerful the band is, but when you see it performed, that’s where I think these guys really shine because they deliver.
HMA: Yes, I can hear it’s that kind of thing – it’s a lot crazier than I thought it was gonna be, actually.
DL: Oh on the album?
HMA: Yeah, even the style of songwriting and everything, it’s a lot more, like, unhinged.
DL: Unhinged? Really? There’s been a lot of comparisons and I’m like, “Hmm? Really? I need to go back and listen to some of these bands you know.”
HMA: I meant the adjective, unhinged…
DL: Oh I see! I get it.
HMA: I’m not going to compare you to anything.
DL: Yeah, that’s cool!
HMA: I saw High on Fire recently, it was the same thing – I’d been listening to their stuff because I’d got the interview and I was like, “Oh I really should listen to this…”
DL: I really like High on Fire.
HMA: Yeah, and at first I listened and went, “I’m not sure,” but when I saw it, it was amazing. I got to stand next to the drummer for the set…
DL: Ah, he’s awesome, I love that guy… wow. It just takes me back to Australia, we had such a great drinking fest (laughs)… oh, it was fun! Great guys.
HMA: Awesome. Well, since you’ve been involved in a lot of diverse albums like the Vivaldi album, Apocalyptica, John Zorn as you said and Fantomas – what would you say it is that’s drawn you to such diverse projects? To the common metal fan you’re always thought of the fast double bass drummer, and I know there’s more to your playing. Can you talk about what’s drawn you to those projects, and then maybe about the mindset you’ve adopted for your drumming – like some of your favourite records?
DL: I think what’s driven me to be as diverse as I am is the fact that at such an early time in my career, I created a style that I was known for, and I felt that there was more to me than just thrash. Once Slayer released their first album, we had already tapped into the style, and drummers started coming up to me and saying, “Hey I really like your style!” but I’d always be like, there’s more to me. I’m into all other kinds of stuff. Most drummers would be surprised at what I listened to, which musicians.
So I think that’s what kind of drives me to be creative – I think that’s what initialised it, the drive to create something different. Now it’s enjoyment, to create different things, different movements and beats; working with different artists. I think that it keeps things exciting, challenging; it keeps your style diverse, and it teaches you a lot because when you work with the same guys day in and day out, you only know how those guys work.
When you step out and you challenge yourself and go into a room with this artist that you’ve never met before and you’ve only talked to, say, over the phone or via internet – you tend to be put on the spot. So you go, “OK, what do I do here? What do I do there? What’s gonna make him happy?” It’s challenging, and I like challenges – because once you get stuck in the rut, it just becomes very boring.
HMA: So when you were growing up learning to play drums and developing your style, what other stuff were you using to do that?
DL: You know, something I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned, but my sister-in-law, my brother’s wife – she was from Germany, and she was heavily into Elvis. So I was really into Elvis. At a certain age I used to listen to all her Elvis records. At that time, I was exposed to Cream, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, but I got into Elvis and I still have some Elvis records. Sorry, what was the question? you just took me to a place in my life…
HMA: No, I know what you can do in terms of playing heavy metal. I was just interested in what else you put into your mind when you were learning to play and that you brought to the table then.
DL: Oh yeah, yeah. Well I was heavily exposed to Latin jazz and Cuban music because of my heritage – I was born in Cuba and I came to the States when I was two years old. So I always had that element. I was exposed to R ‘n B through my older brother, who was into Tina Turner, Chaka Khan – I remember some of those records. There’s probably more, I just don’t remember. And he was into War, the band War – I’ll never forget that, the white album with the smile and the gold tooth. What else around that time?
HMA: And you would play along with all this stuff?
DL: Yeah, I would listen to it, play along and look at the albums and just dream about being a rock star or just playing onstage. Just looking at those album covers was always fascinating to me.
HMA: So what would you say you brought from all that to what you’re doing with Philm now? Consciously or subconsciously?
DL: Subconsciously… because I listened to so many different styles, I’m able to adapt my drumming into those different styles. Like for example, on my iPod, while I was rehearsing for a drum workshop that I had to do in Italy, Ray Charles mysteriously came on. I have Ray Charles on my iPod, and several other bands you’d be surprised I listen to. Well, he came on, and I was like, “Hmm. I love that. Damn.”
So I kept playing along, because I was just trying to play along to his stuff just to warm up – and I added double bass to a Ray Charles song, it was “Mess Around”, which I think was his first hit. I did that, and I think that listening to all the different styles of music when I was growing up has helped me to adapt my drumming to anything I hear. You know, I just listen to anything. Even country – I’ll listen to some country and I’ll be like, “I could put some double bass in there, that’d be a perfect double bass part!”
HMA: It’s all just drumming isn’t it, at the end of the day?
DL: Yes! It’s all drumming at the end of the day, it’s just how you approach it – and if you could adapt to it, if you could adapt to the swing that the song has. So I think I’ve been kind of lucky to have been around people who’ve exposed me to all these styles of music, and I’ve just absorbed it.
HMA: OK. What would you say is inspiring you these days, like albums or other forms of art – stuff that’s keeping you jazzed about music?
DL: Uh… I think right now, a lot of Afro-beat, stuff that’s really laid-back; funky and groovy – kind of syncopated, those kinds of rhythms and beats have been influencing me and keeping me going. I mean today I’m playing with Pancho Tomaselli, who was the bass player for War, so I have to dabble in those rhythms too, to keep the edge up.
HMA: I’ve got a few gear-related questions. Are you someone who constantly varies their kit setup and drum types and sizes according to what you’re recording? What do you want to hear from the kit?
DL: I like to hear resonance, I like to hear dynamics from my drumset. I don’t like to hear dead drums, I don’t like tape on my drums. If I go into a rehearsal place and there’s a drumkit there, I’ll take the tape off and retune everything, make sure it’s resonating. My kit has varied through the years.
Obviously with the Slayer kit it’s the big double bass kit, probably two, four, five toms. It used to be more, it used to be like seven or eight toms and two floor toms, but I’ve eliminated a few. It’s difficult to travel hauling around a big drumset. With Philm I was inspired, after meeting Gerry, to strip down my kit to a four-piece…
HMA: So no twin kicks?
DL: No. Not even a double pedal, so it’s just single bass, tom and floor tom. Reminiscent of the drummers that I was inspired by when I was young, which was Mitch Mitchell, John Bonham, Ginger Baker, even Bill Ward at one time used a four-piece kit. So I just had to go back and revisit that and now that’s where I’m at.
But the next Philm album, which probably will be released in about six months from now, because it’s almost done – that one has double bass. I decided to bring back the double bass with Philm. Because, you know, fans have been asking for it, you know, “You need to bring back some double bass!”
HMA: Do you prefer using two drums to a pedal?
DL: I prefer using two drums, it’s just got more power, more air moving, it just feels better.
HMA: You get the tension right on both pedals…
DL: Yeah, you get the tension right… I have recorded with a double pedal on one album, a few songs for this movie and a whole album I did recently with Casey Chaos from AMEN (vocalist). I recorded that on a double pedal – but there were only a few songs that had double bass. It really didn’t matter, I didn’t have to haul the whole drumkit in there for just a few songs. So I adapt, you know.
HMA: In closing, I’d just like to ask what we can look forward to from you in the future – both from Philm and yourself? And what you might want to explore?
DL: Oh from Philm, I want us to come back to Europe and do more shows, do a more extensive tour with smaller cities. In the UK I’d love to visit Nottingham and Birmingham and Edinburgh, and who knows which other cities we could reach… and more music. More recordings. I want to document my playing and my experience and my music, that’s just what I want to do. Hopefully, there’ll be more of that in the future.
HMA: Great. Well, thank you very much for your time!
DL: Thanks man, great to meet you.
Interview by Adam Stanley – Copyright 2014 © Heavy Music Artwork. All Rights Reserved.