The physicality alone is enough to bury even the strongest drummer. Then there’s the technical prowess at breakneck speeds, the intense touring schedules, the volume, the reputation, the aggression, and all for niche market pay. No doubt that being a thrash metal drummer could be the toughest gig out there. Yet somehow Paul Bostaph has pounded his way through a successful career in the incestuous underground of Bay Area thrash. He’s spent time atop the high blue heavens, beneath the hottest fires of hell, and everywhere in between. But the wicked double bass keeps pounding and the drumsticks keep splintering and Bostaph keeps charging at full speed, head banging straight through whatever comes his way. And when the smoke clears and the sweat dries, he’s still there, standing tall … a certified thirty-second-note thrill machine.
Possibly the only task more confounding than transcribing one of Bostaph’s dizzying speed fills would be attempting to outline his career path through the nonlinear world of thrash metal. A full-page flow chart is truly called for, but we’ll give it a shot here: Bostaph enters the thrash spotlight with his band Forbidden in 1985. Though critically acclaimed as top thrash musicians, the spotlight stays rather dim for the band. He then replaces Dave Lombardo as the next skins maniac for super group Slayer. After recording Divine Intervention in 1994, Bostaph leaves the successes and excesses of Slayer to start a side project called The Truth About Seafood. Catchy, eh?
Not really. Not at all. After eluding commercial and critical success there, he returns to his senses, and to Slayer, for 1998’s Diabolus In Musica and continues with the band through 2001’s God Hates Us All. Take that, God. From there, he signs with Lars Ulrich’s label and records Pleasure To Burn with the short-lived nu-metal band Systematic.
Still with us? Need a drink? The good news: That brings us up to date with Bostaph joining Exodus — one of the original bands to dominate the Bay Area thrash scene (and his former band Forbidden’s main influence). Their latest album, lovingly titled Shovel Headed Kill Machine [Nuclear Blast], boasts fruitful springtime melodies and heartwarming harmonies over light, airy percussion performed mostly with brushes and feathers. Love songs mostly … err. Actually, that’s what standard metal sounds like compared to the musical violence of Exodus. While guitarist Gary Holt is the only remaining member of the original 1981 lineup, the tumultuous band has finally managed to glue together some impressive souls including Bostaph himself, veteran thrash guitarist Lee Altus (formerly of Heathen), and new vocalist Rob Dukes.
“We’ve heard some critics regard us as an all-star band,” laughs Bostaph behind an articulate, balanced expression. “All-stars?! I guess between Gary and Lee and myself some people look at our experience levels and the bands we’ve been in and come to that conclusion. But nobody in this band thinks that way. There’s no rock star attitude. We’re just in there thrashing.”
Bostaph was called in to replace founding member Tom Hunting. Fully fit with clown feet to fill any size shoe available (see résumé), Bostaph was ready, yet respectful. “In my opinion, Tom Hunting is the most underrated thrash drummer of all time. He’s an incredible player whose style cannot be emulated. His style is his own. I think he has a fifth arm somewhere on his body.”
Lucky for Bostaph, they weren’t asking him to re-create the past. Exodus took advantage of their fresh beginnings — and of Bostaph’s extreme talent — and presented the drummer with a mouth-watering challenge. “When Gary and I first spoke on the phone,” recalls Bostaph, “the two words he used to describe the kind of record he wanted to make were brutal and pummeling. And that means double bass. When he said that, I was in. So I injected a lot of double bass in this record, and Gary has wanted that for a long time. Lots of driving thirty-second-note parts. I think it brings a lot more aggression to the record.”
After being called to step in for Hunting, Bostaph’s work was just beginning. “Basically I jumped into a rehearsal room with these guys thinking I had a month and a half to get to know the material before we started recording, and it turned out after one week of rehearsing I had just gone through all the arrangements and the manager came in and said we had two more weeks or the album won’t get done in time. I’m used to having more time than that. So I was like, holy crap. It wasn’t intimidating, it just hit me in the head that we’re not talking about five-hour days — we’re talking about ten-hour days to make this right.
“Part of us wanted to put the entire record off until the next year. But Gary and I have been playing thrash metal long enough that we knew what we needed to get done. If we don’t know this stuff by now, we’re never going to know it. So the consensus was to get in there, get everything done, and make a kick-ass record. And we did it. I think we got done with the entire recording process in a month, which was pretty incredible considering the band lost so many people and there were all these new pieces. The whole band was really surprised on how the record came out.”
Urgency is always an active ingredient in creative pursuits. Sometimes disastrous, sometimes miraculous, the one thing a tight deadline always brings with it is innovation. “This album was really different for me in terms of any other record I’ve ever done. There’s a great percentage of improvisation on this record because I had to come up with so much stuff while we were in the studio recording. A lot of the stuff we hadn’t worked out yet so we just worked on the fly in the studio. I’d just take a few seconds to work something out and wait and see if people were throwing up devil horns on the other side of the glass. So there’s a lot of spontaneity in the drum parts on this record.”
Years of experience recording with various musicians have led Bostaph to a very disciplined approach to creating his drum parts and finding success in the studio. “The one thing I do for every record is bring in a four-track recorder and tape every day. Then I take the rehearsal tapes home every night and do my homework. I start by listening through things and see what I like and don’t like in my playing. Sometimes I’ll hear drum fills I don’t like or things that make me want to gag. Sometimes I’ll already know exactly what I want to do to change the part; other times I just kind of remember it to work on and figure something out. I don’t write parts out on paper.
“I have to be cautious because as a player I don’t want to lean on the same stuff. Yeah, I’m a thrash player and there are certain thrash formulas that may always stay intact, but I always try to create new fills or find ways to mix things up. Like if I hear a part where a lot of drummers would do cut time, I’ll try to do some crazy pattern that is something no one else would do. And that’s part of my homework, trying to come up with these things as I listen back over the material. It’s almost like I do preproduction before we do preproduction.
“I learned this lesson a long time ago when somebody did a board tape of one of my very first gigs I ever played. It was the first time I got to hear myself play live and heard some things that just weren’t pulling off — this crazy stuff mostly at the ends of songs that just didn’t work. After that I recorded everything. And I teach drum students now that one of the biggest ways to improve is to record your band practices and do your homework. A lot of people who don’t do that and just play night after night, they get better at something, but it may not be what they should be getting better at. Then you get in the recording studio and the microphones don’t lie.”
What can sound like a rather formulaic process is actually Bostaph’s way of stretching himself and deepening his already cavernous pool of ability and style. “My first band I ever listened to was AC/DC, that’s how I learned to play drums, and Phil Rudd was my primary influence as a drummer. He’s the standard at which I play. And what I learned about that style of music is that in its simplicity, it keeps your head banging. Your head is always banging. And that’s the first and foremost primary interest of mine — that the music gets your head banging. At first you think AC/DC is real simple, then you realize that there’s only one Phil Rudd out there. As simple as the drumbeats are that he’s playing, he’s doing it in a style that’s purely his own. So it doesn’t matter how simple or intricate you’re playing, you’ve got to have your own signature on it.”
It’s a signature that has changed rather dramatically for a drummer of his genre. Bostaph started out like many young bashers — cocky and ready to dominate the boards. But his technique has subsequently evolved into a more polished, professional approach. “I think being more mature as a player helped me really buckle down and do what was best for the songs on this record, instead of thinking of how to showcase myself. When I was 23 and recording my first record, I tried to fit absolutely everything in there. I was young and excited, and by the end of that session I learned that maybe it was a good thing if I didn’t throw everything into one record because maybe I’d get to do another record and need some more stuff to play. So that was the start of my maturation process. And with this project I feel more like I did my job.”
All the dedication and woodshedding has changed his playing too. “My double bass is better. My meter is way better. I rehearse to a metronome now way more than I ever did, and that’s become an important part of my playing. I know my rudiments a lot better and have a much better command of them. I don’t really use them in thrash metal unless it’s a real instrumental breakdown. Thrash metal is all power-oriented, so I almost always use a single stroke approach. But practicing my rudiments has improved my stick technique a thousand fold.
“I used to play through the drum and kill the tone and now I play off the drum. Believe it or not it’s only been over the last two years that I’ve even been aware of that. Nobody was complaining about it until I did a stint with Systematic. We went in the recording studio and it became a harsh reality, a real slap in the face. The producer was used to working with people like the Josh Freeses of the world. Being the drummer of Slayer, I could do whatever the hell I wanted to: Hit as hard as you can. Kill the drum. It just doesn’t matter because this is the band. So for God Hates Us All, my last session with Slayer, I was absolutely killing the drums, using the Vater Nightsticks, basically tree trunks disguised as drumsticks. I’d get done with some takes and the producer would come out going, ’Uh, you might be hitting that crash cymbal a little too hard.’ And we’d play it back, and it literally sounded like I was choking it with my other hand instead of riding it to create a wash like I thought I was doing. It’s because I was using such gigantic drumsticks and had become so strong in the upper body that when I played aggressively that cymbal never had a chance to ring out. I really was killing it. So I use lighter sticks now. I still hit hard, but I’m able to play off the drum or cymbal more.”
Technique and style aren’t the only ways Bostaph has matured as a drummer and professional musician. You’ll notice in our previous clunky explanation of his career path that there are some gaps of several years in between different projects. Really, who in their right mind leaves Slayer — freaking Slayer — to play with a band called The Truth About Seafood?
“When I went off on my musical journey, I basically quit Slayer and went on this big exploration process of jamming with different people. It was just something I felt I had to do.”
What sounds like a case of red tide—induced insanity was actually Bostaph’s frustration with the thrash genre and his unsettled desire to branch out musically. During those years, many fans accused him of turning his back on metal as he stated in an interview that the genre was “limiting” and he wanted to become more “eclectic.”
“I do want to become a more eclectic drummer, but that was an unfinished sentence. At the time, what I was thinking was that heavy metal bands know what they want and it fits into a certain box. I was listening to James Brown at the time and playing with Slayer, and there’s just no room for funky kind of musician’s musician playing in that. Maybe that’s what I meant by it being ’limiting.’ A lot of people interpreted that as me saying I didn’t like metal anymore. That couldn’t be more untrue.
“Since I made that statement, I found out something very important about what it means to be a metal drummer — because between then and now I’ve played in some rock bands and done some funkier things and it showed me exactly how metal I am. A metal drummer playing different styles of music will definitely show you how metal you are [laughs]. For example, when I’d be playing with these different styles of music, sometimes people would say, ’Could you play a little quieter?’ And I’m like, Why? I like to hit the drums hard.
“So really what I finally realized is that every style of music is limiting. I mean, I can’t break out some thirty-second-note thrash fury on the double bass in the middle of ’Louie, Louie.’ People are going to stop dancing, all the girls will run out of the room, and the Metallica fans will still be there.
“I now know what I want to do with my drumming. There are so many styles of music out there, and I love them all, that it took me awhile to figure out what I wanted to play and realize you can’t play them all. And with thrash drumming, well, it’s not like I can mix some Latin jazz in there with one of our Exodus songs. I feel really comfortable where I’m at. I’m fortunate to be able to play thrash metal and be relevant at all as a musician. And I can go off and practice any style of music I want to and just do it for myself.”
He essentially realized that the burden to keep the music fresh and interesting actually lies within the musician, not within the genre of music itself. It could be an intimidating revelation for unqualified musicians — that the responsibility to innovate rests solely on their shoulders — and it’s unfair and incorrect to blame boredom on simply the chosen format of expression. But, like the rest of life’s lessons, Bostaph took it in stride and came out on top. And that’s not all he took from the experience.
“Another finding I discovered on that hiatus, or whatever you want to call it, was my ability to improvise. During that time, I did almost a year and a half of improv with some really good musicians. It was as close to jazz as a hack like me is ever going to get. And it’s that willingness to explore that was missing from metal for me at the time. Then when I came back, there were songs where I was able to use that experience. The Slayer song ’Gemini’ is mostly improvised on the drums. That song is so slow and sparse compared to other Slayer songs that the drums had a lot of room to breathe and at times even carry the song. I can play you a rehearsal tape of that song that is so horrible you’d laugh. But I knew that if I just went in the studio and let things go through improv that I would come up with something exciting.
“So I learned to play more from the gut, which helps me in the studio. I don’t get red-light fever anymore. I don’t freeze up. Because I know that whatever happens I’m going to be able to come up with some kind of creative answer.”
The impressive play on Exodus’ Shovel Headed Kill Machine is a rhythmic snapshot of a seasoned musician at the top of his physical and professional game. Just a few bars into the opening track and Bostaph’s licks take you to the front row, stung by the whiplash from his controlled aggression. And it makes him smile to know you’re up there sweating along with him.
“I like music that makes my head bang, and I feel it a lot more when my whole body is moving. I’ve always wanted to be a front man but have never been good enough to play one of those instruments. So maybe you can call all my head banging a little bit of jealousy towards the guitar players and singers out there. The physical aspect of drumming has always been important to me, but controlling it and knowing when to really go all out — that ability is starting to blossom for me.”
And while his skills and opportunities somehow continue to reach ever further, his attitude remains that of a grounded pro who has since abandoned arrogance for confidence somewhere along the tumultuous road of thrash metal.
“I’m not the best drummer out there. I kind of consider myself to be a hack. But I practice hard and try to be the best I can be every night. And I can be happy with that. In the meantime I’m just going to keep woodshedding, keep working on other styles, fine tuning who I am behind the drum set — and just let the music do the talking.”
Drums: Tama Starclassic Maple in Cherry Black
1. 22" x 18" Bass Drum
2. 14" x 3.25" Bell Brass Snare
3. 10" x 8" Tom
4. 12 x 9" Tom
5. 14" x 10" Tom
6. 16" x 16" Floor Tom
7. 18" x 16" Floor Tom
A. 15" 2002 SoundEdge Hi-Hats
B. 20" 2002 Novo China
C. 20" Dimensions Medium Thin
D. 20" Rude Crash/Ride
E. 22" 2002 Power Bell Ride
F. 20" Signature Heavy China
G. 15" Signature SoundEdge Hi-Hats
H. 20" Signature Full Crash
I. 20" Signature Power Crash
J. 38" Symphonic Gong
Paul Bostaph also uses Vater sticks, Remo heads, and Tama hardware and pedals.