Hey, That’s What I Call Metal!
An Interview with Lamb of God Drummer Chris Adler
When Lamb of God’s Chris Adler took the stage before a capacity crowd of fellow drummers at 2005’s Modern Drummer Festival, thousands of jaws collectively dropped. Known for the speed, power, innovation and precision of his drumming in the world of modern American metal, Chris showed festival goers that day why his extravagance on the kit is considered to be one of the best parts of Lamb of God’s live performances. As one of that genre’s leading bands, the Virginia-based quintet has significantly helped to push the underground extreme metal scene to the brink of mainstream acceptance. Adler’s clinic at the 2005 MD Festival is still talked about as a stand out performance among that weekend’s featured drummers as diverse and prestigious as Jason Bittner, Rodney Holmes, Keith Carlock, Chad Smith and Ian Paice.
The popularity and success of Lamb of God — which also includes lead vocalist Randy Blythe, guitarists Will Adler (Chris’s brother) and Mark Morton, and bassist John Campbell — continues to grow exponentially. Their fifth studio recording, Sacrament, was named Album of the Year 2006 by Revolver Magazine. Lamb of God also received its first Grammy nomination in the Best Metal Performance category for the song “Redneck” from that album. Just this past month Killadelphia, the band’s live performance and revealing behind-the-scenes documentary DVD achieved platinum sales status. Not bad for a band that, amid a dwindling radio marketplace, has primarily built its reputation from nearly non-stop touring — not only in the states but all across Europe. According to Chris Adler, it’s been a pretty sweet ride. Ink19 caught up with the talkative drummer in Florida the day after their last show of this summer’s Ozzfest tour and got some engaging insight into the very heavy metal world of Lamb of God.
How’s the tour going?
Last night was the last show of Ozzfest and tonight we were supposed to play a show in Orlando at the House of Blues, but the HOB is actually on Disney [owned] property. When Disney found out that our show was booked there — even though tickets had been sold, and actually the show was sold out — they canceled us because they didn’t want ‘our element’ on Disney property. We ended up moving the show on up to Myrtle Beach, where we’re playing tonight, and it’s sold out. So, we’re moving right along.
Have you had that kind of thing happen much, with shows being canceled for ‘political’ reasons?
We’ve run into that kind of controversy before but we’ve always made it out alive, if you will. The same thing happened at the L.A. Forum, where we were booked when we were on tour with Slipknot. Slipknot went ahead and played [their set] but we were told that we could not play that venue. We moved our show down the street to the Glass House in Pomona –which is one of our favorite places to play — sold it out and had just a killer show there, too. In both of these cases a lot of our fans were complaining about censorship and those kinds of things. But being that they are privately owned buildings — and in this case, that the venue was on Disney property — they have every right to make those choices. I think it’s a dangerous situation for corporations to do that, but it’s not something to where I’m going to cry censorship.
Well, Disney are what they are, but it kind of shocks me that the Forum would pull that kind of a move. What, are they owned by a church now?
Yes, that’s exactly right.
Wow, the First Denominational Church of the Forum. Can Ronnie James Dio still play there?
(Laughs) I have no idea.
I remember seeing you play a clinic at the Modern Drummer Festival in 2005, and you were just insane.
That was definitely one of the most intimidating things I’ve ever done. You know, to be in front of 2500 people all staring at you and most of them are drummers. It’s like being under a microscope, if you will.
But you know that you shouldn’t sweat it, because it’s just a big drumming brotherhood. Everybody loves everybody.
That’s true, but put a mic in your hand and put a bunch of lights on you and there’s a little pressure there.
You started playing drums after college; kind of late for a guy who’s now as accomplished as you are. What got you into the drums?
I played bass guitar in bands through college. At one point I went to see a band called Wrathchild America and Shannon Larkin — who’s in Godsmack now — was drumming for them. He just totally blew me away and he really made me want to switch to the drums. But I had all this bass gear and I didn’t have money for drums, so it wasn’t something that I could do right away. As time went on I got a part time job and started saving some money, and guys that I knew wanted to start a band. One of them was John Campbell, who’s the bassist in Lamb of God now.
That seemed like the opportunity to go spend $250 on a drum kit [that] I saw in the classifieds and just see what happened. I spent, obviously, a lot of time trying to learn how to play and there were a lot of great bands in Richmond, so there was a lot of pressure on me to be good. I didn’t want to embarrass myself with the caliber of bands that were playing around town. I spent a lot of time just wood shedding in my house and trying to be the best I could be, so that I’d feel proud of the band and the songs we were writing.
And look where you are now!
(Laughs) Well, I guess I’m going to Disneyworld next!
Or not, as it would be.
Oh yeah that’s right, I’m not allowed.
You guys were just in Europe, was it in June?
You know what? We have traveled the globe three times this year on the Sacrament record, so everything becomes a blur. We certainly have been in Europe several times, but I don’t remember if it was in June…
What are your audiences like over there?
It’s very similar. Heavy metal really transcends geographic location. I think that people are very passionate about their music and for the most part they’ve made a choice and it’s a life style. It’s not the kind of thing where you’re into heavy metal for a couple of months. Everywhere we go it’s the same kind of response and support. Like you said with the Modern Drummer thing, it’s very much a brotherhood. There are all these different kinds of metal and the fans really appreciate the different styles. A lot of what they do in Europe is very different from what they do in the US. [In Europe] they’ll have a festival where there will be every kind of music, including eight types of heavy metal — from death metal to hair metal to whatever — all on the same stage on the same day. It’s really more about being a big fan of music and being passionate about that.
When we go on [stage] it’s a very similar reaction [to how people react to us in the States]. There’s a lot of energy and a lot of release, and people just letting go of their daily troubles or whatever’s been eating at them. It’s really about letting go and enjoying the moment. To have that kind of energy shared from the stage and coming back at us is a pretty magical thing. And it happens all over the world.
That can be your new slogan: “Forget Your Daily Troubles with Lamb of God.”
Do people ever ask you if Lamb of God is a Christian band?
Yeah, all the time! In fact, we just played a show in Pittsburgh a couple of days ago and had protesters outside the show screaming at kids in line to not go in because their souls would be lost.
And were any souls lost?
(Laughs) If so, it’s not my fault. I’m just playing the drums, man.
Your drum sound, and your snare sound in particular, is very snappy and punchy. How much of that has to do with the drums or heads and the way they are tuned, and how much is your own technique?
Wow, it depends on whether you’re talking about a recorded performance or a live show. The live shows are based on the choice of microphones and heads, and taking the time with my drum tech to make sure it sounds as good as it can every single day. In the studio it’s the same thing: working with the producer, choosing the mics, choosing the room that allows me to get the good drum sounds. The drums sounding clear and precise do not necessarily have to do with my technique, although it certainly helps to play precisely in order to (laughs) have all the sounds come through and allow the listener to take it all in. But it’s really more of an environment, with the microphones and the people I’m working with.
What grip are you using?
Just standard rock (matched) grip. You know, ‘caveman style’ (laughs). It’s funny, but one of the guys whom I’ve been fortunate to meet is Max Weinberg. He and I — bizarrely enough — keep in touch and talk once in awhile and he’s come out to several shows. He’s always telling me how stuff I’m doing is amazing and I can’t believe it, listening to him tell me stuff like that because I watch him on TV playing with traditional grip and he’s just ripping through this stuff that I know I could never do in a million years. He’s such a talented guy and I’m just in awe that he’s hanging out with me. I tell him the same thing and it just goes back and forth. But it’s cool to see guys that use different grips and have different styles and who do just completely different stuff because of the environment that they came up in. I think that all of us — myself included — are a product of our environments and influences. It’s not something that I ever spent a lot of time trying to change. I sat down and tightened my pedals until they felt right and raised or lowered my seat until it felt okay, and then just started bashing away, and here we are.
From watching some of these drummers in the bands you tour with, do you ever cop something that you think will work with your deal? Or are you just totally comfortable with what you’re already doing?
It would be almost ignorant to not try to grow and evolve and to learn from other people. There’s a lot of time spent trying to pick up things. We’re on the road right now with Hate Breed and I sat down with their drummer Matt the other day and he was teaching me an old shuffle. Things like that, of course, will never end up in a Lamb of God song, but it’s fun to just keep learning different things. You can appreciate different styles of guys like Morgan [Rose] and others when you see them. It’s not that I would watch a show and decide that I’m going to steal a part that he just did and bring it back to what we have. But if I see or hear something interesting, I might try to make it my own and do something interesting with it and continue to grow on the original idea.
I don’t know, maybe you could take that shuffle and make it your patented “Death Metal Shuffle”?
(Laughs) That sounds like a bit from Hee-Haw.
I know I’m going to read about that soon: “Chris Adler discusses his Death Metal Shuffle,” and I’ll remember that it all started with this interview!
I know that you’re extremely passionate about the drummers you admire. Would you like to talk about a couple of your primary influences, inside or outside of the metal domain, and what you like about their playing?
Sure. Certainly Shannon Larkin is the guy that made me want to start playing. I saw him just effortlessly playing this kind of prog heavy metal that was just mind blowing to me. He’s such a performer and he’s so good at what he does. Watching him play, I just wanted to be able to do anything as well as he was playing the drums that night. That was the start of it. Going backwards into the music that I was listening to and how I started learning to play the drums, [a big influence was] Joey Kramer from Aerosmith. The first couple of Aerosmith records were what I sat down with and listened to in headphones to just learn how to do things once I bought that first kit. You know, which hand does what, which foot is supposed to do this or that and learning about the basics. There are a lot of things [I do now] that, after the fact, I realized those are really in play from [what I learned listening to] Joey Kramer and Aerosmith. Whenever there was a guitar solo Joey would always go to the ride cymbal. On a lot of the stuff in Lamb of God I’ve noticed, after going back and listening to it, that I do the same thing.
After that, Gar Samuels (RIP), the original drummer from Megadeth was a guy who really made me want to speed things up. He had that kind of precise, jazzy feel that wasn’t typical to metal and he just basically took jazz drumming and sped it up for that band. His style was one that I wanted to emulate and I think that a lot of what I do now is definitely owed to him and his work on the early Megadeth records. In other genres I really love Billy Cobham. The album that he did with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Intermounting Flame was a big influence for me. You could just hear the vibe in the playing. It wasn’t about being precise or fast or showing off; it was about the songs, sitting in the pocket and understanding what good drums can do to help a band. I learned that from him. Those are probably the big guys for me who aren’t my immediate peers but who really helped shape who I am as a drummer.
I was just thinking the other day about how guys like you, Morgan Rose, Joey Jordison and Dave Lombardo from Slayer — just to name a few — can be said to have similar styles, and how this kind of drumming has maybe evolved since the ’90s. People didn’t play like this back in the ’80s and in the ’70s it wasn’t even heard of. All of a sudden there’s this ‘new breed’ of drummers, if you will. Who do you think kicked that off?
Wow, it’s hard to say. I guess I see this natural evolution, where guys like John Bonham turned on guys like Lars Ulrich, who then inspired guys like me. There are certainly standout players like Dave Lombardo, Lars and a number of people that kind of pushed metal in strange directions. With the songwriting that he was doing on the early Meshuggah records, Thomas [Haake] started bringing in that kind of jazzy feel, but very time-specific. There was something very obvious about what Meshuggah was doing that was different than what was going on [in the mainstream]. I think even where I grew up in Richmond there were a lot of “Math Rock” bands playing, where it was purposely progressive and weird. Those kinds of things helped shape the music today. I think metal, especially, went down that road because metal players — not just drummers, but everyone — are really focused on being very proficient at their instruments. They don’t want to be a Poison or Warrant kind of band, where it’s more about image. Today the focus is on ability.
Some people take that too far I think; [like] guys who want to play at 300 BPMs on every song. I think that’s just crazy. Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should (laughs). But I think that there’s really a focus on being the best that you can be for your band and for yourself — [and to be able] to walk away and feel proud. That’s helped push metal, even more so than other genres, into that progressive realm. Like you say, there are these players that are uber talented, crazy guys that spend all day doing this stuff. You really have to, at this point, to be able to succeed in what we’re doing. The most talented guys — the ones who can play circles around any one of us guys who are out on Ozzfest or one of these successful tours — are these are kids playing drums in their basement that nobody knows about. I’m not out here because I’m the best in the world. That’s definitely not true. I’m in a good band and we’ve had some fortunate breaks and we’re having a good time with it. But there is so much talent out there that goes unnoticed. There is a lot of luck and a lot of hard work that went into [my success], but going around the world I’ve seen players who could not only play circles around me but anybody that I’ve ever seen play.
You are a very precise player but you’re also obviously very emotionally connected to your music. With that in mind, would you say that you are a more of a technical drummer or more of a song-oriented drummer?
Wow, that’s a great question. The reason it’s pertinent to me is that for a long time, especially for our first three records, I was very much a technical player who was very focused on trying to be the best by being faster and harder than anybody. I was trying to outshine not only the band but also any other drummer that was on the stage with us that night. After a while I got to a point where I was sick of the race that only I was in — because nobody else cared. When we started writing Ashes of The Wake it was really important for me to sit back a little bit and become that kind of songwriting drummer. It was still technical but I really wanted to pay attention and do what was right for the songs.
Like I said earlier, just because you can play 250 BPMs on the bass drum doesn’t mean you should, so I wasn’t shoving that stuff into the songs just because I could do it. It was more of a process of recording it one way, listening to it in the car and [feeling that] if it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up then we know we’ve got something. It was that kind of process and what happened was that [when I found] the mix of those two things — the previous time I’d spent trying to be as technical and the best I could be combined with me now allowing the songs to be more important than my parts — that’s when the accolades started coming to me. I think it’s really important to mix those two things and not to focus necessarily on just one or the other.
Your most recent CD, Sacrament was released in August of 2006. Are you working on a new record?
We haven’t been home (laughs) since before that record came out. We’ve been touring non-stop on Sacrament for over a year and we are booked up until December 22nd of this year. Actually, I think we’re going to take a little time off and see if our wives remember us, then we’ll begin the writing process for the next record. So we’ll relax for a little while and then get together when the itch is there, and take it slow. For us, there’s no rush. The past couple of records have come in quick succession and it’s time for us to really put some time into the writing and let it come naturally without an imposed deadline. We want to take the time to record a lot of material and to weed it down to the best of what we have. The goal with Lamb of God has always been and always will be to put out a better record than we just did. We’ve continued to evolve and grow. Sacrament is the best record that we’ve ever done in many ways and it’s going to be hard to top it. Unless we do, we’re not going to put anything out. We want to take the experience that we’ve gleaned from all these records, the last couple of which have been kind of polished and maybe a bit easier to swallow than the early material. I think we want to go back into that middle ground where it’s a little bit uglier. It’s very important to us to maintain the integrity of the project, so it’s a challenge for us as well.