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John Tempesta: Metal Man Rising

When Mike Monterulo, booking agent for British metal powerhouse The Cult, informed his friend John Tempesta that the band was auditioning drummers to record on its upcoming album, Born Into This, Tempesta’s mind backslid to the moment 13 years earlier when he’d ducked away from the Testament drum throne to attend just such an audition, prepped with a set list of Cult songs he’d learned cold, only to be left hanging by a band that never showed up, apparently too burned out on auditions that day to sit through another one. But the 42-year-old Tempesta had come a long way in 13 years, and when the bandmembers did show up this time, they quickly decided Tempesta was the best drummer they’d heard yet — a realization that came, from Tempesta’s perspective, better late than never.

When the audition took place in February of last year, Tempesta was simultaneously preparing to record another album with Helmet and getting jazzed up for an exotic excursion to Dubai to play with Testament. But The Cult’s calls to “join us” were just too irresistible, and Tempesta couldn’t pass up the opportunity to put another nice, big notch in an already Swiss-cheesed metal belt. Born Into This was The Cult’s first album since drummer Matt Sorum left to play with Velvet Revolver, and Tempesta was coming in at a key time. Once the album was cut, The Cult got the chance to open six shows for The Who on their recent blowout reunion tour. “That was a blast man, getting to see Zak [Starkey] play every night. What a great drummer he is,” Tempesta says. “He’s got Keith Moon’s style down. It’s great when you get to open up for one of your heroes.”

Even better, though, is getting to play with one. Tempesta’s biggest career highlight came in 2000, when he was invited to play on a track called “Meat” on legendary Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi’s solo record, Iommi. “I remember I had my drums set up and Toni Iommi is on the side and he’s playing these riffs — and he’s Sabbath, he’s the sound of Sabbath, just his guitar tone and everything,” Tempesta says. “And I had to take a second and take a deep breath. I remember being a kid in my room listening to records with the headphones on, and here I am playing with this guy. It was the ultimate experience for me.”

It didn’t hurt that the kid listening to Sabbath through his headphones already had a head start on fulfilling his dream of becoming a metal drummer just by being born at the right place and time. The Bronx in the early ’80s was like a fantasyland for an aspiring metalhead, with entire neighborhoods pumping out scene makers. Tempesta started making connections he didn’t even know would matter. It just so happened he played in a cover band in high school with Anthrax’s Charlie Benante and Frank Bello. Years later, it would be working as a drum tech for Anthrax where Tempesta would get discovered by one of their opening acts, Exodus, and hit the road to fulfill his own rock and roll fantasy.

Exodus was Tempesta’s first real experience as a professional touring musician, and he spent four years with them before Testament asked him to record on 1993’s Low. He had moved to L.A. by this time, and was quickly growing tired of making the long commute up to San Francisco to be part of that city’s vibrant thrash metal scene. “That was a big reason for me to go to Zombie, honestly,” he says, “’cause they were basically rehearsing right up the street from where I live.” It was with White Zombie that Tempesta’s career really kicked into high gear. “That really opened the doors for me because that was at such a bigger level,” he says. “And then everything just sort of steamrolled from there, going from Testament into White Zombie, which is more industrial. And from there going into Rob Zombie, which is the same thing, and then going to Helmet, which is kind of odd-time stuff, and to The Cult, which is definitely more melodic rock. But it’s kind of nice where I could change my style around a bit.

“I’ve always been a heavy hitter,” he continues. “This is the thing with The Cult. It’s actually changed my style a bit because of the dynamics of the band. I’ve never been so dynamic. I think it’s obviously making me a better drummer. Usually when I would go on tour, the first couple of shows my hands would be all chewed up from playing so hard. It’s nice to have my fingers back. My hands would get so bad from blisters I’d wear gloves, but I’m not wearing anything right now, and I only have one callus on my hand.”

Born Into This, Tempesta says, came together quickly, in a few weeklong blocks at a small studio in Los Angeles called Headroom Audio. “We would go in there and basically just come up with ideas. Ian [Astbury] would have a lot of ideas and then Billy [Duffy] would take some guitar riffs and then he would just lay it down and then kind of get a little program thing going, like a little loop going, and just record to it, just to get the structure of the song. And those were pretty much the roughs, and then it would just kind of build from there.

“We went for a different approach, kind of more Stones-yish — like Clash, more raw — kind of keeping it more basic, but having a good swing feel to it. And that’s one of the things I learned from these guys — being British, they just love that swing feel.” There wasn’t much in the way of production on this album, which was fine by Tempesta, coming, as he does, from that bygone era of analog recording, where cutting up tracks was a much more involved process.

“There’s a lot of advantages to Pro Tools and a lot of disadvantages,” he says. “Pro Tools definitely speeds up the process in the studio. I remember the days of tape and having to put the reels on, and before you know it you’re spending hours in the studio. But I definitely miss the fatness of analog tape. You listen to those old Zeppelin records, or Queen, and they just have that natural feel.”

The Testament album in ’93 was the last time Tempesta can remember recording to analog tape, and for that record, the room was miked and everything was played live through a PA. But he had plenty of opportunity to experience the other side as well, as Rob Zombie is a notorious devotee of loops and samples. When Zombie put his band on hiatus in 2004 to pursue his horror movie career, Tempesta needed to find a way to keep playing, and took what he’d learned into a brief side project with Zombie guitarist, Riggs, called Scum Of The Earth. The album, Blah…Blah…Blah…Love Songs For The New Millennium, was also a chance for Tempesta to record something with his younger brother, Mike, the then-guitarist for Powerman 5000 (of which Rob Zombie’s younger brother, Spider One, is the frontman).

From there, the pieces continued to fall into place as he joined up with another one of his favorite bands, Helmet. “I was a fan of Helmet,” he says. “Before I would go on stage with Zombie I would get pumped up to Helmet. I loved their drummer, John Stanier, and I loved their sound — just so tight and heavy, but melodic at the same time.”

His appreciation for the heavy/melodic aesthetic stemmed from an early fascination with progressive rock. “The whole Zappa thing, and Jethro Tull, and U.K.,” he says. “And that’s really where Danny Carey is right now. It’s like, ’Man, that would be so cool to play that kind of stuff.’ I’d love to one day do that. My old drum teacher would take me when I was a kid to see jazz bands — Steve Gadd, and all those guys, Tony Williams, and so I still listen to that, too. I’ve never had the chance to play with anybody like that, but maybe one day it’d be cool.”

It seems safe to assume that after all these years, you’re not likely to see Tempesta busting out any Buddy Rich tributes. But then again, if Neil Peart can do it … Above all, Tempesta has established himself as a premier metal drummer who can reliably go where he’s needed, and that reputation is paying dividends all over the place. Tama just released his signature snare drum last year, a 7"-deep beast of a thing that’s got “hit me” written all over it, and he just recorded an album of his beat samples called Drum Corps that he’s planning on bringing along to drum clinics to play some odd-time signature stuff over. Carmine Appice even recently invited him to play on his instructional DVD, Realistic Rock.

“This is my dream,” Tempesta says. “I’ve been playing since I was a kid and to be able to make a living at it, it’s an amazing award, basically. I mean, the older you get on tour, people think, ’Aw, the road stories,’ but naw, we take our job really seriously. We try to give 100 percent — we do give 100 percent every night.”

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