If you’ve ever seen Ray Luzier do a clinic, he comes off as more P.T. Barnum than pedagogue. In Sacramento two years ago, he was the ringleader in a three-drummer performance that also included Chris Pennie and Seven Antonopoulos. Sitting center stage, Luzier busted out syncopated lines while making faces at his wingmen, goading them into responding with whatever lick they could muster. Pennie and Antonopoulos are certainly no slouches, but it was clear that on that day Luzier owned the show.
Which is why it’s surprising to hear the ordinarily confident 39-year-old, at this very moment sitting at the edge of a hotel bed in Anchorage, Alaska, second-guessing his contributions to the new release from Korn, a band he has toured with since 2008 and of which he is now a full-fledged member. Playing professionally for almost 20 years, Luzier estimates that his drum parts are on some 76 recordings. And yet here he is, just a few hours from soundcheck on the tour’s maiden date, still processing the traumatic experience of the sessions for Korn III: Remember Who You Are. “I can only listen to a handful of them,” he says of the new songs. “I mean, not that I’m not proud of my playing, but I’m very hard on myself and very critical about things. Recordings are permanent. They’re going to outlive us all.”
The Roman numeral in the title of the new album doesn’t mark it as Korn’s third. It is, however, the third one recorded by Ross Robinson, the star-making producer who helmed the band’s 1994 self-titled debut and the 1996 follow-up, Life Is Peachy, widely considered the band’s best work. While Korn’s output became increasingly polished after 1998’s Follow The Leader, Korn III unearths the detuned noise first hatched at the ass-end of California’s Central Valley in the early ’90s when the band was bored, pissed-off, and hungry for something more than cruising up and down Chester Avenue past the tract homes and strip malls of down-on-its-luck Bakersfield.
“Ross actually told me, ’I will not let you ruin this record with a click track.’ I went, ’That’s major, man.’ [laughs] Especially me coming from somewhat of a session background, too, you know? Doing other people’s records. Korn owns a very prestigious studio in Hollywood. Their drum room is a gymnasium. It’s drummer’s paradise. Ross walked in and said, ’You guys are way too comfortable in here – where’s the guitar booth?’
After walking over to the 8' x 8' cubicle and declaring it perfect for tracking drums, guitarist James “Munky” Shaffer and bassist Reggie “Fieldy” Arvizu began to crack up at the idea of their newest member stuffed into the constrictive space. “And he goes, ’Oh, don’t laugh, because you guys are going to be in here with him.’”
Korn III saw Luzier intimately involved in the writing process, hashing out half the album’s tunes in a garage with Fieldy and Munky. At this time, lead singer Jonathan Davis was off doing his solo project and writing Korn lyrics on the side, so the tricky part was marrying these two elements on the fly. “I literally wouldn’t know some of the song arrangements,” Luzier says, fast-forwarding to the first day of tracking. “And I would stop in the middle of the song and they’d go, ’What did you stop for?’ I said, ’I don’t really know what’s next.’ They’re going, ’Don’t ever stop. Keep time. Do something.’
“It was brutal,” he continues. “Ross was punching cymbals while I was playing. If you listen really closely to some of the new songs, you can actually hear him. I would leave that room sweating, bleeding.”
Most of Korn III’s tracks were furtively recorded while Luzier thought he was doing a rehearsal run. On these “practice takes,” Robinson would yell out to Bud, the engineer, a generic phrase that was in fact a secret code for “roll tape.” “He really helped coach me by doing that. As much as I wanted to ring his neck some days, I thank him.”
One of the tracks, tentatively titled “Pop A Pill,” features Luzier at his most unhinged, both physically and independence-wise – it’s what earned him the nickname Dr. Octopus during the recording sessions. Another track where he pushed himself to the brink is potential first single “Oildale,” named for a part of Bakersfield strewn with derelict oil pumps and meth labs. “That groove is so weird and odd for me to play, so I would come up with my own ideas but Ross would alter them. Some of them he would try to take in another direction, or if I was hitting the kick on the down, he would say, ’What if you put all the kicks on the upbeats and hit the downbeat with the floor tom instead?’ The “Oildale” song is just that. The main groove of it is me hitting the floor tom and all the kicks are on the upbeats.”
As for how much the parts will change down the road, Luzier knows as much as we do. “I’m curious to see myself,” he says. “I didn’t know some sections that were coming up, so some of the fills are crazy and something I wouldn’t normally do. So they might even be a little more dialed in when I play them ten times live.”
From The Sticks To The ’Wood
Luzier grew up on a farm in central Pennsylvania, about an hour outside Pittsburg. Like a lot of kids, musically inclined or not, Luzier’s parents bought him a toy drum set to keep him occupied. “As kind of a joke they just said, ’Oh, maybe he’ll be a drummer.’ And I destroyed it in, like, two weeks.”
He soon graduated to a CB700 when he was six. “Remember those? With the Camber cymbals?” On a 180-acre farm he could play to his sister’s albums as much as he wanted without neighbors complaining. An uncle made him a Led Zeppelin tape and then he got into Kiss after seeing them on the cover of a magazine. This being the ’80s, overly accessorized kits were all the rage, so it wasn’t long before he added another bass drum to his setup, never mind that the color didn’t match. “I didn’t care,” he says. “I had to have double bass.”
Learning by rote in high school orchestra and marching band, he secretly pursued his rock and roll dreams by night with Cry Wolf, his first ever band with two of his best friends, performing in roadhouses and taverns off the county highway. “We played some originals but mostly covers,” he recalls. “If you didn’t open with Van Halen and close with Van Halen, you got shot.”
Against the protests of his mother, Luzier and his guitarist drove an old church van 2,600 miles across country to Southern California. “We gutted it. There were drums and amps falling out of the back.” Once he was settled in Los Angeles the euphoria of escape began to wear off, replaced by the realities of the musician’s life. The first hurdle was taking the Musician’s Institute admissions test. “I remember you had to play a bossa nova – a simple jazz groove – and I had no clue, but I got in somehow. [laughs] “When I went, jazz was very prevalent. I was a rock and metal head off of a farm – I had my ass handed to me.”
The teachers saw Luzier’s passion, but when one of your instructors is Toss Panos, he’s not going to care how fast your fills are or how hard you hit. “They’re like, ’Put that left bass drum pedal away. You’re not going to need it here because your timing is horrible.’” After buying a metronome, the next thing he tackled was loosening up his grip (“I discovered I could hit hard but still be relaxed”). Next, he threw himself into chart reading with Steve Houghton, the jazz instructor. “He made me get up there and play with a 13-piece big band, and you can’t read the chart ahead of time. They just throw it in front of you and you have to read the section figures as the horns are snapping, and if you aren’t snapping with them …” There was no grand epiphany that changed his playing over night. Instead it’s the small things that stayed with Luzier, like Houghton’s unshakable patience.
After a year, Luzier advanced so quickly that MI offered him a few hours a week as a sub, filling in for teachers on the road. He was such a natural that students began requesting him. First he put together a hard rock class, and then refined it even further into a double bass class – bold stuff for a relatively conservative school.
When his guitar-playing buddy decided he couldn’t hack the cutthroat L.A. scene and headed back East, Luzier pursued his dream alone. “I always told my parents I’m going stay out here as long as I’m playing drums for a living. If I’m working at a restaurant I might as well go home and do that in Pittsburgh and get a gig on the weekends.”
A Diamond Is A Drummer’s Best Friend
After he graduated, the big work for Luzier still lay ahead once he realized that networking and making connections was the real job in the music business. “I was in my practice room shredding for 4—6 hours a day thinking, I’m going to get so good that people won’t be able to turn me down. Well, that’s not true if you’re locked inside four walls and people don’t know about you. People always talk about being at the right place at the right time but it really is true. I always tell my students to play that gig. I don’t care if it’s a Tuesday night in front of the waitress and four other people. One of those four people might be someone that can take you to another place in your career.”
Luzier’s path wasn’t nearly as Hollywood screenplay-friendly. The story goes something like this: Former David Lee Roth drummer and iconic player Gregg Bissonette heard Luzier’s playing on a few CDs from Shrapnel Records, a small but respected label for which Bissonette had also recorded. He was further impressed after he caught Luzier on a random club date. “He’s like, ’You have that energy, you have swing, and Dave loves swing. He doesn’t care how many chops you have. It’s all about your groove.’”
The idea of working with the former frontman of all-time favorites Van Halen was too good to be true. So when nothing came of it, he figured it was just that. Luzier continued to do as many sessions as he could for whomever would hire him. “If you had the dough and I thought the music was good enough to play, I would do it.” One day his stereotypically name-dropping L.A. neighbor was bragging about how he was going to make a record with Steve Vai and how he thought Ray would be perfect for it. Luzier didn’t believe him but humored the guy anyway. “And sure enough, he gives me the address, and I show up, and it’s Steve Vai’s house in the Hollywood Hills.”
After cutting a few songs, Luzier never heard from Vai again, but the guitar god gave his name to Roth. “Next thing you know, I’m at Ocean Studios. I was waiting and waiting for hours and finally Dave comes in and was like, ’What if I say play this, and what if I said play this?’ And he’s just kind of grilling me.” Luzier thought the line of questioning was strange since he was only hired to do two songs. After the sessions were over, he was already thinking of the next gig when Roth’s manager called to say he’d passed with “flying colors.” “I go, what do you mean ’flying colors’? He goes, “That was your audition yesterday.”
For the next eight years, the scope of Luzier’s musical education grew more with Diamond Dave than he ever imagined. Roth taught him a lot about show business and the art of entertaining. “He also made me sing every song,” Luzier adds. “It got my vocals together really quick. I’m like, ’Dave, I got great ears but I don’t have a good voice,’ and he says, ’I don’t care. I need help singing.’ So besides holding notes down and your four-way coordination, you’re trying to hold the timing together and playing double bass shuffles. And then for someone to say you are going to sing this part, that’s a whole other kind of independence.”
Getting steeped in theatrics and sharpening the multitasking part of his brain no doubt accounts for the super-animated clinician that Luzier is today. The downside was that Diamond Dave casts a big shadow. Great as it was playing with Roth all those years in packed arenas, people didn’t know who Luzier was. “And David kind of kept the band out of the press, which hurt me obviously. I still get letters to this day going, “Man, I saw you in 2002 with Dave. I had no idea who the drummer was and now I’m glad that I know who you are,’ and that makes me feel appreciated, but unfortunately for my career, I was still that session guy or that guy getting the next gig.”
A band of Korn’s stature has no problem skimming the cream of the crop when it comes to musicians. Joey Jordison, Brooks Wackerman, and Terry Bozzio have all filled in over the years since David Silveria’s 2006 departure. (It’s mostly Bozzio’s parts on Korn’s “untitled” record from 2007.)
About this time, Luzier’s tenure with Roth was petering out and he had just finished recording with Army Of Anyone, featuring Stone Temple Pilots’ Dean and Robert DeLeo. The DeLeos, who share management with Korn, immediately recommended Luzier after learning about the open drum chair. No one was more surprised than Luzier himself. “I was like, ’Really?’ I play with a lot of virtuoso guys, the Billy Sheehans, somebody like that. To get with a band like Korn it takes a certain thing to get inside their music, inside their heads.”
Flying out to meet Fieldy and Munky straight from a session just 48 hours later, he blew them away not by learning the handful of tunes the band had picked, but by learning more than 30. “You don’t just stroll in and join this band,” Luzier says. “Korn is not one of those things like, ’Oh, there’s a new drummer. Okay, let’s check him out.’ No, it’s like, ’Where is David? And who the hell are you?’
A few years and a world tour later, he was still a hired gun playing someone else’s parts. When Korn set about making their newest record in late 2009 and early 2010, it was no longer about a paycheck anymore, but time to make or break as an artist. “They really want me to bring the Ray Luzier element into this,” he says. “They were like, ’Hey, man, do your thing, it’s cool. You respect David’s parts, but we really want some fire in this band.’ That made me feel good because I’m here to bring what I got.”
The irony about the Korn gig is that it’s one of the last places Luzier or anyone else thought he’d wind up. Respected musician friends such as Sheehan, Bissonette, and others were scratching their heads, figuring a player at Luzier’s level would want something more progressive. “I’d be all ’No, no. I love this.’ This band is about attitude, and [coming up] they very much just played in their bedrooms and garages and they are, like, so anti-school that I love it. I love the fact that maybe they don’t know what a dotted sixteenth-note is.”
In a way, the Korn gig brings Luzier full circle back to the drummer he dreamed of being when he was playing along to records as a kid. “I played from the heart always, and I still believe, even though I have knowledge in my head that I can recharge and I can learn somebody’s record tomorrow if I had to, it doesn’t really matter. I love the fact that when they started the band it was so just raw energy. That’s what’s going on in our minds right now, and we are getting it out, and it’s working.”
Got The Life The latest phase in Luzier’s music education is that learning never stops. He just bought the most recent release from Dave Weckl, but at the same time he’s intrigued by bands such as Nine Inch Nails that use programming. “Playing real drums over top of loops, that’s a whole other element compared to the Weckl record. And then I listen to the new Seal record, and go, ’Well, there is a lot of programming on this. And then I’ll pop in the last Deftones record and go, ’Why did Abe Cunningham play this here, and he slowed this down here?’ Even with this last Korn record, I’m always standing right over the engineers’ shoulders going, ’Why did you phase that other mike out?’ I think that as a musician it’s important no matter what instrument you play.
He may have an enviable perch in one of the world’s highest grossing rock acts, but Luzier is not about to go soft – how could he? “Everyone always asks me what I like to do outside of drums,” he says. “I like to ride motorcycles … but I’m mostly a music geek. I go to shows, hang out at studios, I listen to stuff. So it’s eat, sleep, and breathe it.”
By Andrew Lentz
Ross Robinson isn’t your ordinary A-list producer. You know, the temperamental type fielding dozens of requests from bands dying to work with him. Instead, Robinson actively pursues the artists he wants to produce whether it’s scouring the clubs, checking MySpace, or as he is at this moment, en route to Coachella, the ginormous music festival that takes place each spring over three days in the Southern California desert.
As the producer of Korn’s first two records in the mid-’90s, isn’t it a bit ironic that Robinson – nü-metals’s erstwhile champion and subsequent detractor – would want to work with Korn 14 years later? “Basically I have this intense craving to see Jonathan [Davis] in pain,” he says laughing. “But I thought there was something missing [in Korn’s music] since I last worked with them, and that’s the vulnerability. So I had to make sure Ray understood what Korn means to me, and what I think it means to the core fans, and to express that through the music.”
That might not have been a problem with Korn’s original drummer, the self-taught David Silveria. But to get the same degree of spontaneity out of a credentialed session dude like Ray Luzier isn’t nearly as easy. “Korn was the first record I did and the way I would keep doing things, and that was have the vocal be the click track and the drummer has to be as real and vulnerable to whatever the lyrics are giving. The thing with Ray is he’s so good I had to mess him up. Playing good technically doesn’t mean he’s expressing the intention of the lyrics. I figure a broken dude, like Jonathan [is what’s needed]. If you’re playing great, perfect drums, you’re in the wrong band. But Ray was able to let go of perfection.”
It goes without saying, recording the drums live also helps to capture the moment. “There were overdubs but the vibe and the pulse is all live and real-time-based.”
The final ingredient cinching the authenticity was recording the drums to tape. Rather than some retro-fetish novelty, it’s what Robinson has always done, only these days he doesn’t have to cut it with a razor blade. “I hate digital cymbals,” he growls. “Especially on the radio. It kills me.”
Drums: Pearl1. 24" x 18" Bass Drum
Cymbals: Sabian<A. 14" AAX Stage Hi-Hats (or 14" AA Rock hats) B. 13" HHX Groove Hi-Hats
P. DTX-Multi 12 Pad
Ray Luzier also uses DW 9000 series hardware and pedals, Pro-Mark Ray Luzier 757 signature sticks, Remo heads, and Protection Racket cases.