Chris Adler: Working Man’s Metal

Chris Adler

From the tour bus in Seattle, Lamb Of God drummer Chris Adler phones the offices of DRUM! a full half hour before our scheduled interview. But that’s Adler for you: all business.

After the band toured nonstop for the last three years, the rest of the guys were finally getting reacquainted with a life that didn’t involve 6:00 A.M. bus calls and stale cold cut platters. Not Adler. He spent his time doing clinics across Germany, dazzling the masses with his fancy footwork.

“For me, personally, I think I maybe I had a bit harder of a time than some of the guys,” says the lanky Virginian of the post-tour break. “I’m not real good when I don’t have a whole lot to do. I’m somewhat of a workaholic.”

The Seventh Daily Sin

Lamb Of God has had its share of stylistic shifts over the years. There’s the dogged ferocity of New American Gospel, the prolonged snarl of Ashes Of The Wake, sporting riffs as thick and sweet as Appalachian sorghum. 2006’s Sacrament, the band’s most “digestible” record, was still plenty heavy, but it was about as commercial as they were willing to go. With new release Wrath, the band has distilled every idea over the last decade into something uniformly devastating, or as Adler describes it, “The kind of stuff that makes you feel like punching a wall and driving fast.”

Not a half-bad description of Wrath’s overall fierceness: Adler’s four-limb rumble never loses its Swiss watch precision; brother Willie’s guitar lines and John Campbell’s liquid bass are woven into a rhythmic core; Mark Morton’s technical yet unwanky solos are relentless (especially on the wigged-out “Fake Messiah”); while Randy Blythe’s rabid bark is the melodic and rhythmic equal of any of the instruments.

“Not to say that I wasn’t happy about the last records,” Adler says. “But I’m really the guy in the band pushing for more aggression, more speed, and I kind of got my wish on this one.”

Lamb Of God also wiped the slate clean by parting with their longtime producer, Machine, and going with Josh Wilbur, who recently won a Grammy for his work with Steve Earl. “He’s not much of a metal guy,” Adler says with ironic glee. “We wanted that guy who could bring a different world into what we do, and give us ideas that we wouldn’t think of because we’re so cooped up in this little metal cage all the time.

“The past couple years the producer, I think, was more interested in getting me out of the way for the vocals. [Wilbur] was more, ’I don’t think that fill is crazy enough. Come on, you’re Chris Adler: You can do something cooler than that.’”

Wilbur, a drummer himself, matched Adler’s thoroughness take for take, and the pair ended up spending 11 days tracking drums at Electric Lady Studios, Hendrix’s legendary recording spot in Manhattan. “It was a dream come true for me,” Adler says. “To be in the middle of the city and to do it with a place with that kind of history.”

Planning + Spontaneity + Brutality

Wrath marks the first time Adler and the rest of Lamb had their respective parts mapped out in their heads before entering the studio. In the past it’s all been live takes and hoping that somebody knows his way around Pro Tools. Time constraints still existed but at least the band didn’t feel like they were totally flying blind.

“The goal really was to just go in and go nuts and see what happens,” he says. “And we’ll go nuts as many times as we want to go nuts, and then we’ll piece together the energy of what’s there and not try to get just one take and sterilize it by chopping it up and quantizing everything but try to capture the little nuances and stay within the limitations of these grids that have been created for the song itself.”

As any drummer will tell you, drum parts can often sound very different when they’re framed in the context of a finished master. “It’s funny because I was listening to the mixes before I called you and I’m like, ’Oh, wow, that part sounds great. I’ve got to go learn how to play that now because I’ve totally forgotten.’ [laughs] You get in the mode in the studio and you’re just, ’Here comes that cool part, let’s see what happens this time,’ and just let your body do what it knows how to do, which is kind of how I play.”

Wrath is not a “drum” album by any means, but there were a few instances where a beat was the germ of a song instead of a guitar riff. Oftentimes this came about while the drummer was killing time in the studio by himself waiting for the others to show. “It’s normally nothing special,” he admits. “Just kind of a weird polyrhythm or something unique that I just happened to dream up the night before, and Willie will lock into that. Then our guitar player will walk in and say, ’Oh, that rhythm is pretty cool. Let me put this melody on top of it.’ On this record there’s two or three songs that have sections within the song that were grown directly from that kind of process.”

{pagebreak} Chris Adler

All Good Things Come In Threes

It doesn’t take a rudiment geek to know there are triplets all over Lamb Of God’s drums. “It’s kind of my thing,” Adler says. But push him to explain, and he draws a blank. “I’ve never been able to break apart my own playing and understand it on that level. While I certainly think that is a handicap in other regards, it’s very freeing because there’s nothing I can really do wrong. “I’ve been told that I play a lot of these songs in six,” he continues. “Well, on the guitar riffs they come in on four so the guitar players are always looking at me like, ’What are you doing to my riff?’”

As LOG’s double-kick demon, many fans assume Adler is doing blastbeats all the time when, in fact, except for Wrath’s brief flirtation with metal’s most annoying tic, he never does any.

“Blastbeats are obviously cool and aggressive, but a lot of times I think they’re overused and it just kind of sounds like white noise after a while. I think the impact of the dexterity in a blastbeat is almost negated by the sound of it. I don’t mean to take away from the guys who are out there making a living doing that. For me I’d rather use it as one of many, many flavors, and not try to get amazingly great at that one thing.”

On the flipside, he may just have a future in instructional DVDs with that whipping motion of his feet on the pedals, which brings to mind a poor man’s Moeller technique. Whatever you call this Adlerism, he stumbled upon it purely by accident when the track “Ruin” gave him trouble on consecutive nights during the Sacrament tour.

“I just couldn’t get back to the downbeat after doing a triplet, and out of frustration I went to kick my right drum pedal or whatever happened to be in front of my foot – I was just pissed – and it did this weird thing where as my heel came down, the pedal hit the drum, and as I pulled back realizing that I was going to break something, the front of my foot hit the pedal and it did it again. So I kind of created this quick double which, while it didn’t have a whole lot of power and force behind it, I realized pretty quick I might be able to do something kind of cool with it.”

But like geologic eras, a band’s previous album is ancient history, and over the last few years Adler has now developed the kind of control in his legs that doesn’t require him to depend on gimmicky techniques. “For me to try to stomp out double bass, you know, 190 bpm, really probably shouldn’t require much from my thighs when you work those smaller muscle groups in your ankles and shins. I’ve learned about not only my body but how the physics work on the kit and what I’m capable of if I take the time to think about it.”

Once A Luddite

Along with click tracks, you can add triggers to the list of percussion gadgets Adler refuses to adopt. “I would never call it cheating by any means,” he says. “I know a lot of people pick on guys who use them but, you know, you do actually have to play to make the trigger work. The reason I don’t use them is that there’s so much going on in a live show setting the last thing I want to do is plug in my drums. There’s enough that could go wrong already.”

Listeners will notice an increase in cymbal strikes, fills, and overall hand work on Wrath, an interesting change for the lower-limb-oriented drummer whose style at one time could be roughly divided as Gatling-gun spray below the waist, and loping 4/4 pulse above. “I had a lot of control with my feet, a lot of speed, and that’s kind of what I became known for. Not to get away from that, but I did want to develop some of my hand speed, and that was a weakness of mine. Before, on our first album, probably a couple songs had no toms whatsoever, and in the writing process on this record I focused on incorporating the whole kit.”

Never one to half step, Adler tackled this objective until he got the results he wanted. This meant sitting in the dark at the rehearsal space with his eyes closed practicing single-stroke rolls for five minutes at a time and increasing them in 5 bpm increments over a period of three hours.

“It was mind-numbingly difficult to just sit there and do something that simple, but that is what has made the difference in my playing on this record. Just get that muscle memory, build that control, and to be able to focus on breathing, feeling how certain things sound, if they’re hit just a certain way the drum has a different voice.”

Lamb Of God couldn’t be more stoked about the new record. But even within that excitement drummers tend to single out tracks that are favorites as far as playing pleasure goes. In Adler’s case that would be “In Your Words,” Wrath’s first single. “It’s a bit of a departure for us. I think a lot of people at this point would expect us to maybe dumb things down a little bit and maybe try to sell out and get a little more commercial and maybe radio friendly to get a hit out there. You know, make a few dollars and go off into the sunset. But we went in totally the opposite direction, and I think this track embodies that. It’s a long, six- or seven-minute track that has multiple parts that build on each other and some pretty quick drumming. But at the same time, parts of the song are laid-back, in-the-pocket drumming. It just covers all the bases of what we do and what I’m able to do as a drummer.” He also says that Wrath comes the closest of any album to what Lamb Of God is all about. So, dude, what exactly are you all about? “Wow!” he says, as though pondering it for the first time. “I don’t know how to define our sound any more. I listen to bands everyday like Despised Icon and Arsis and Decapitated, which are taking things to a level that I just can’t imagine how these people are doing what they’re doing.

“I love it, you know, but the evolution is happening so fast. But I think we’ve remained steady. We know what we’re good at, and I can’t think of a better way to still say this but ’pure American metal.’”

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He’s Been To The Mountaintop

The themes on Wrath range from the soul-sapping force of the rat race to humankind’s parasitic treatment of our planet. “Our lyrics on every album have never been putting us on a soapbox or telling people what to do or think,” he says. “If this wakes anybody up or has even one kid wonder what the world’s going to be like when he has kids, it’s cool that we helped somebody think for themselves.”

Taking in everything from Mahavishnu Orchestra to Norah Jones helps the drummer to expand his horizons, which on some subconscious level makes its way into the Lamb of God vision (nope, Norah Jones wasn’t a misprint). Grandiose as the ideas on Wrath can be, Adler admits that it’s the concrete experiences on tour that stay with him, like the last time he was in Japan.

“As soon as you walk off the plane the people are so gracious and welcoming and extremely hospitable and there’s a level of respect I think they have for each other and others that is lost in a lot of cultures, especially here in the U.S., and it’s humbling to see it. Now maybe that’s easy for me to say because I’m in a rock band that people want to see and they’re nice to me, but I don’t think it was just me. I saw it in the way they treated each other.”

At 36, Adler’s hardly old, but doing the band thing for 15 years straight would take a toll on anyone. Last time DRUM! spoke with him he was on a fitness kick. But last summer, after he and his wife had a baby girl, McKenzie, he put his workout regimen on the backburner: “The last thing I wanted to do was go to the gym and spend a minute away from her when I didn’t have to.”

Before, when Chris’ wife would come out on tour with the band, it was worth the effort because she enjoyed herself. “Now we’re definitely entering a new chapter of how were going to continue to do this,” Adler worries. “I’m sure the shows will go well but, emotionally, I definitely think this is going to be the beginning of a much more difficult process for me. I’ve seen guys out here with their families and I’ve seen them do it well. There’s a few role models – not many – but I’m going to do my best.”

Never Let ’Em See You Sweat

For live performances, Lamb Of God has always been firmly anti-metronome. For the first few runs on the warm-up slot for Metallica, however, the lanky Virginian wanted the security of a click. “That’ll probably fade away, but normally in the live show we refuse to do it because we really want that kind of ’who-knows-what’s-gonna-happen’ feel when we go into it. I enjoy playing songs faster or slower depending on how that part strikes me that night, and as a band we seem to function better when we’re not confined by the idea of playing with clicks.”

The amazing thing about a player like Adler is that the stronger and faster he gets behind the kit, the more at ease he looks. His abundant grace was on full display a few weeks later at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. On a small riser at the center of the 20,000-seat venue, he’s all control and composure, sticks arcing backwards in an S shape before wrists snap them forward for the down stroke. For this fan, the pock-y sound of his bass beaters diminishes the pleasing thud of the toms, but these jumbo venues have a way of diluting sound, so this was probably the engineer’s call.

The older tunes showcased the busy-footed player who can do the parts in his sleep, but on the tracks from Wrath it’s as if you’re watching a different drummer: He smacks the shine off those crashes, the toms are carved up like a shank of London broil, and his torso bobs back and forth while the billy goat beard and ponytail sway in counterpoint.

Five or six tunes and they’re gone. Maybe it was lost on the Metallica faithful, but it’s enough of the Wrath aesthetic to pique the curiosity of younger heshers hungering for that new next thing.

United States Of Thrash

In a genre that is notoriously clannish, macho, and prone to backlashes, Adler prefers to emphasize the positive, such as the way technology has democratized music. “There’s 14-year-olds in their basement making records with GarageBand that sound way better than our first record, and we did that in a full studio,” he laughs. “It’s exciting for me to watch. That’s not something I’d ever want to be in the way of.”

That isn’t to say he hasn’t spotted worrisome patterns. The copycat trend, where a novel sound is forged and then a zillion other bands follow suit, is particularly irksome. “Sooner or later the house of cards falls down,” he says. “I just hope that we are one of the bands that maintain our integrity so that we can withstand any kind of storm like that.”

First Drum Kit

Chris Adler is at a level in his career where choice drum gear is well within his reach. Funny then that the proverbial first kit, those no-name joke setups that most drummers are only too willing to forget, is indelibly etched into the man’s memory.

“It was an MX 100 bought out of the Trading Post,” he recalls. “The bass drum legs were different lengths so they wouldn’t touch the ground at the same time. Every time I would hit it, it would wobble from left to right. The cymbal stands were duct taped together, and I think after two or three times playing the kit, the pedalboard actually broke in half because it was made of that crappy old fake metal.

“It was a student’s nightmare, but I played away on this thing to try to learn how to play drums. I wanted that ability far worse than any drum kit could hold me back from. But it was kind of fitting that my first drum kit was almost impossible to play because it definitely made me a better player.”

Manufacturing quality aside, there were other impediments to practice in those lean years. “I didn’t have enough money to heat the house,” he recalls. “So we had this kerosene heater and we were huffing this black smoke coming out of this thing, trying to stay warm. I remember playing in a coat and gloves as I learned to play this kit in the dark.”

The cymbals were even more horrific. “I don’t know if they even had names,” he says. “They were the kind that sounded good the first time you hit them and then they never sounded good again. I do remember they bent – they were like hitting a stick of butter.”

More unbelievable still, the MX 100 is still in service. “My youngest brother James lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, and for a while he expressed some interest in playing some drums, so I said, ’Man, if you can play these I’ll buy you a new kit.’ He’s got that set up in his basement right now and I’m waiting for the call.”

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Willie Adler: Brother On Brother

Willie Adler

For two future icons of metal, growing up together in the DC suburb of Woodbridge, Virginia was not always the head-banging party it is today. Before they got on their respective instruments, Mrs. Adler made both Chris and younger brother Willie take piano lessons by the time they were six. As an extra slap in the face, Chris even had to take up saxophone.

“Chris was real into Aerosmith and Zeppelin and a lot of great bands,” says Willie. “And me being the punk-ass little brother, I always gave him a hard time because I was listening to the Sex Pistols and a lot of the hardcore stuff. I gave him a hard time and called him hippy.”

At the end of the day, both men give it up to their parents for fostering their musical inclinations, especially mom, herself an enthusiastic piano player. “They were both extremely supportive,” Willie recalls, “as far as buying instruments for us and letting us play in the basement.”

Though Willie didn’t join Lamb Of God until about four years after its inception, he says the dynamic between him and his brother are at the core of the band’s music. “It’s almost like in a marriage – you can finish each other’s sentences,” he explains. “Chris and I are on the same wavelength when it comes to what we want to hear and our approach to writing music, whereas Mark [Morton, lead guitar] has a real bluesy feel for what he does, and me and Chris are real metal purists.”

People say the drummer is the metronome for the band. But then, many drummers have told us they feed just as much off the bassist or guitarist or even the singer. So just who the hell is in charge? Willie laughs, “I know exactly what you mean. That’s funny because I definitely play off Chris. Whether he plays off me … I sure hope not.”

Adler’s Armament

Chris Adler DRUMS: Mapex Orion
1. 22" x 18" Bass Drum
2. 12" x 5.5" Snare Drum
3. 10" x 9" Tom
4. 12" x 9" Tom
5. 16" x 16" Floor Tom
6. 18" x 16" Floor Tom

CYMBALS: Meinl

A. 14" Soundcaster Custom Medium Soundwave Hi-Hats
B. 14" Generation X Filter China
C. 8" Classics Bell Effect Cymbal
D. 8" Byzance Traditional Splash
E. 12" Soundcaster Custom Distortion Splash
F. 14" Soundcaster Custom Medium Crash
G. 16" Mb8 Medium Crash
H. 18" Byzance Brilliant Medium Thin Crash
I. 17" Byzance Traditional China
J. 24" Mb20 Pure Metal Ride
K. 16" Generation X Filter China

Chris Adler also uses Mapex hardware, Gibraltar rack, Trick pedals, Aquarian heads, and Pro-Mark sticks.