A Conversation with John Tempesta
Renowned metal drummer, John Tempesta, who’s played with Exodus, both Zombies (White, and Rob), Testament, and currently with the Cult was in town recently (26th May) thanks to Tom Lee, as a part of his drum clinic tour.
With people being able to watch a master at work, dissecting his own technique, talking about growing up as a musician, his influences, and giving out tips to anyone who wanted them, the clinic was a goldmine of information for anyone wanting to increase their stick-skills. Using a variety of songs to back him up, he showed everyone watching the sheer power, hard work and variety needed to be drummer spanning very nuanced but different genres. Thrash, metal, hard rock drumming styles were all put on display, and you could even watch his pedal work through the camera aimed at his feet. He was playing so hard that after every song, the equipment had to be re-taped down. But in his own words – you play hard, things are gonna start sliding around. Despite this, it was a session that I certainly took away truckloads from, and I’m sure the drummers in attendance learned even more.
The Underground (U) caught up with John (JT) just before the clinic, to talk music. Read on to know more…
U. You’ve played with some real stalwarts of metal through your career; who would you say was your favourite, speaking as either an artiste or a music-lover, or in any sense?
JT. To play with, or a particular band that I was in?
JT. Well, I like all of ‘em, ‘cause every band was different. I mean, from Exodus to Testament, to White Zombie, to Rob Zombie, to Helmet, to the Cult, you know. And I had a great experience because the styles were completely different. And, uh, I don’t know – I like ‘em all!
I mean, I like my current gig with the Cult, because it’s dynamic, balanced, more mellow, whereas Zombie is kind of alternative-industrial. Testament’s fast, double-bass, so…Every one of them has a different thing, yeah. I had a great experience with all of ‘em.
I do miss playing the double bass, though.
U. Oh, yeah, that’s a unique feature of thrash-metal, isn’t it?
JT. Yeah, and it’s something I’ve always played.
U. Okay, you’ve also taken the sticks up for some of the most intimidating-sounding projects (like when you went to White Zombie), it’s something where people will be expecting something of you; so how do you deal with the pressures, the expectations, and the like? Do you think about that at all?
JT. I don’t know that there’s pressure, I mean, I love what I do. I mean I deal with it, I’ll do it to the best of my ability to record, or make it sound right. I mean, “we’re the ones puttin’ it out”, so there is pressure, yes, in that sense. But I always feel confident about playing drums, so I’ll do the best I can.
JT. I think it’s great. It’s great to have such a great chain like this; there’s a lot of these stores, I hear, out here, and you know, it’s a great education for younger drummers to see these guys, performing on their own in a drum clinic, one-on-one, so you definitely learn a lot.
When I was younger, I used to go to these drum clinics, so, it’s very inspiring, yeah.
U. I was just about to ask, did you have a particular place that you used to go to, like, say, Tom Lee?
JT. Yeah, there was a store in New York, sort of like this, called Sam Ash Music, and they put on a lot of drum clinics as well. I’ve seen some of my idols play there, like Simon Phillips [Toto; The Who; Judas Priest], Terry Bozzio [Missing Persons; Frank Zappa], Steve Smith [Journey]
U. That must be great when you’re just developing as a musician.
JT. Yeah, I learned a lot from them, and it’s just crazy that I’m here doing this, you know [drum clinics], at this time right now, ‘cause I used to go see these, and now I’m the guy performing. It’s pretty cool.
U. So it’s a full circle, huh?
JT. Yeah, it’s pretty cool.
U. Now, in my opinion, playing everything sort of machine-gunned is the biggest pitfall in metal drumming. Did you consciously avoid that when you were playing?
JT. No; I mean there’s times when I play really fast, full-on; I don’t go that extreme, but I’ve always been more of a groove player – it comes from the backbeat. It’s nice to use that groove and apply it to faster stuff, know what I mean?
U. Yeah, it’s a more interesting sound.
JT. Yeah, I think so. It lets the music flow a bit more too, so that it’s not so sterile.
U. Yeah, I mean the ones that I’ve heard, especially the more novice bands, they just tend to blast everything; so, it takes a while to learn though.
JT. Yeah, it becomes monotonous after a while, doesn’t it? I think so.
U. And, have you ever found the tags of being in “metal” and “heavy” music to be a cage, or restrictive in any way?
JT. No! Not at all, I love it. I grew up with heavy metal and rock, it’s something that I love doing. And, with the fans, it’s such a big community in that type of music.
U. So, you’ve never felt artistically restricted by it at any point?
JT. I mean the cool thing I said then, with the different bands I’ve played with, I’ve played thrash music, I’ve played more alternative; with Helmet it’s more alternative, like New York hardcore, with The Cult is rock, so it’s all music, but totally different genres. Completely different.
U. I totally agree there; moving on though – touring the world constantly must be really fraying your nerves at points. What do you do to keep things fresh for yourself, if anything at all?
JT. You know, when we’re touring with a band, you usually play the same set every night, so, sometimes what I’ll do is I’ll change things in my setup, just to kinda make things interesting – change a cymbal here or something.
U. So you’ve to keep on your toes, right?
JT. Yeah, exactly.
U. Listening to yourself play, who would you say, of all your influences, come out the most in it?
JT. I would have to say Cozy Powell [Jeff Beck Group; Rainbow; Whitesnake]. Just the backbeat, the groove, the power, and the drum double-bass…I do some pretty similar stuff, so he was a very big influence on me.
U. And, how, if at all, has your style changed over the years?
JT. I think I’ve become a better player. I mean, playing for the songs and not just for myself, you know, not just doing a million fills. Obviously, the best thing as a musician, the most important thing, is to play for the song, know what I mean? I think over the years, playing with different bands, I was educated with each band.
U. Is that a big temptation, though, to just go full-out on everything, especially at the beginning – thinking that “I can put this fill here, and this fill here!”, you know?
JT. I’ve never been that kind of drummer, though. There was never the want to just fill everything up; I was more about the beat, you know just playing heavy. I think that’s harder.
If you notice all these drummers, who play so fast, they can’t sit and play a beat for a solid minute. That what I wanna see them do, just play me an AC/DC groove, like Back in Black or something – they’d just want to fill it with something, you know.
U. Yeah, I was watching this video of the Ramones, and Marky Ramone was talking. He said that, most of these guys can’t do that – they can’t play a 4/4 !
JT. No, they can’t – it’s hard! It’s funny – the Ramones, their last tour  they ever did was opening up for us – White Zombie – in the States.
U. Oh yeah, yeah, I’ve heard about that!
JT. That was a great tour.
U. Wow, that must’ve been amazing. Anyhow, what kind of music are you listening to nowadays? Do you find that your tastes are dominated by a particular era, or genre?
JT. The 70s-era; I always go back and listen to some Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath…All the greatest bands are from the 70s, I just love them. The newer bands, I like Mastodon a lot. I think they’re very cool. I love Tool.
But I like mellow music too, I mean, now, if I’m on a plane, I’ll listen to Jeff Buckley or Elliot Smith – it just kinds relaxes me.
U. Being something of a fellow 70s-buff, I completely agree.
JT. Oh yeah, that’s the best time.
U. And, how is it different to join the line-up of a band that already established, as opposed to setting up a new one?
JT. Well, it always seems like I came later with each bands; like the last few bands that I played with, I was the drummer that came later [laughs].
U. Yeah, that’s why I asked.
JT. I don’t know, I have to start a new band though. We’re actually working on something right now, with some friends, which is nice. I can’t really get into it right now, so we’ll see. Next time we’ll get part 2 of that.
‘Cause from Cult, to Helmet, to Zombie, they’d been around. And I do want to do something fresh, start something from the bottom up, so it will be a full part me of.
U. And, finally, you’ve clearly never been one to rest on your laurels; so what’s next in the pipeline for you? You mentioned the new thing…
JT. Yeah, I’m gonna do this project right now, and I’m really enjoying doing the drum clinics, and touring, so I’ll get more involved with that. And just to keep playing, you know, with different people, exploring different styles if I could. Session work possibly, in Los Angeles. I just wanna stay active, and keep busy, you know.
Interview conducted, and summary written by Shashwati Kala