By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Even if former Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo had walked away from music after his original stint with the iconic thrash band, his contributions would have made him a metal hero for all time. It was Lombardo’s volcanic drumming that pushed the band to hardcore tempos on its groundbreaking early efforts Show No Mercy and the Haunting the Chapel EP.
His ferocious playing and virtuoso technique developed rapidly, helping to make each of Slayer’s subsequent albums — from sophomore effort Hell Awaits through their landmark recordings Reign in Blood and South of Heaven — a quantum leap forward in the refinement of thrash metal’s brutal science. Lombardo parted ways with the band in 1992 after one final salvo — 1990’s sonic blitzkrieg Seasons of the Abyss — but that was far from the end of his career.
The drummer would form his own metal band, releasing several albums of complex thrash/power metal with Grip, Inc. starting in 1995, but Lombardo also began to expand his musical horizons. While he would continue to collaborate with metal bands — filling in as drummer for Testament for their 1999 recording The Gathering and later guesting on an album by Finnish cello metal quartet Apocalyptica, Lombardo began a serious exploration of avant-garde music.
In addition to becoming the drummer for Faith No More/Mr. Bungle singer Mike Patton’s musically schizophrenic ensemble Fantômas in 1998 (the band also featured Melvins guitarist Buzz Osborne and Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn), Lombardo played on a pair of albums for experimental jazz saxophonist John Zorn and — perhaps most outlandish — appeared in Matthew Barney’s surreal film “Cremaster 2,” contributing a monstrous drum solo accompanied by a swarm of angry bees on the song “The Man in Black.”
After the turn of the millennium, Lombardo would continue to explore other projects, recording several albums with Fantômas and touring with the group in addition to collaborating with classical composers and even tracking one of the few successful hip-hop/metal crossover projects with DJ Spooky (2005’s Drums of Death).
But more importantly, he rejoined Slayer in 2002 a decade after he had departed. The group would solidify it’s reputations as thrash metal’s most fearsome and powerful outfit during Lombardo’s second stint, recording a pair of acclaimed albums and touring extensively before a dispute over finances led to another acrimonious split in 2013.
Since then, Lombardo has worked on music for film and television soundtracks and recorded and toured with the decidedly less metallic but still heavy power trio PHILM until he announced his sudden departure from the band early last year. Desiring to return to a heavier sound, Lombardo joined SoCal punk contemporaries Suicidal Tendencies as well as playing drums on a number of dates for the surprising reunion of the Misfits. But it was his announcement of a new hardcore project Dead Cross that perhaps stirred up the most interest.
Teaming the drummer with guitarist Mike Crain and bassist Justin Pearson of the feral hardcore band Retox (Pearson had also played in experimental powerviolence band the Locust), Dead Cross aimed to bring Lombardo back to his hardcore roots while leaving plenty of room for wild experimentation. When original vocalist Gabe Serbian dropped out of the project, the band was initially at a loss of who to find to replace him, but when Patton inquired about putting out the debut Dead Cross album, Lombardo decided to ask him if he was interested in joining the outfit.
The resulting recording that found Patton adding his vocals to the band’s already completed tracks stands as a return for the singer to the more maniacal end of the musical spectrum he sometimes explored with Mr. Bungle and Fantômas and arguably features Lombardo’s most explosive playing in years. The self-titled album, released in early August on Patton’s own Ipecac Recordings, clocks in at under a half an hour but packs in more savagery than many bands can muster in an entire career.
CBS SF recently spoke to the drummer about how the album came together, the influences that helped shape his latest music and some of his early memories playing around the Bay Area as a member of Slayer. Dead Cross makes it’s live Bay Area debut at the UC Theatre on Wednesday, Aug. 23. The group will be joined by Secret Chiefs 3, the kaleidoscopic Middle Eastern/surf/death metal unit led by Patton’s former Bungle cohort, guitar wizard Trey Spruance.
CBS SF: Listening to this album, it’s hard to imagine how Mike Patton fit his contributions onto the completed tracks, it sounds so fully integrated. Did he send vocal demos that sketched out his ideas first, or did he come up with fully completed vocal tracks with lyrics once he heard the music?
Dave Lombardo: What was really exciting was when, after he received the files, we started getting — at one in the morning or two in the morning — his demos of the vocals. So they weren’t totally complete; it was just him demoing the ideas he had. And those demos were fantastic! We were like, “Damn! If that’s the demo, I can’t wait to hear the final product!”
And sure enough, a day or two later or whenever he got a chance write the lyrics and singing the actual parts to the songs that we were keeping, it sounded amazing. It was exciting. It was a really cool process. But we would hear a demo first of his ideas and then later he’d come back with the final product.
CBS SF: Did you give him notes on any of the demos, or were you pretty happy with everything you got? Were you giving him feedback or ideas that changed what he did in the final versions?
Dave Lombardo: Absolutely none. This guy, he’s a professional. I could give him something and trust him to deliver an amazing piece. That’s the beauty of Patton and his talent and direction. He just knows instinctively knows what fits in and what sits well with the song.
CBS SF: I guess when he first joined Faith No More, all the songs from The Real Thing were already done and he basically came up with all the vocal melodies and lyrics in the space of a week or two. So it’s not like he doesn’t have a history of performing this kind of magic…
Dave Lombardo: Yeah. I mean, I didn’t know that story about Faith No More, but that’s pretty much exactly what happened.
CBS SF: If the album was essentially finished by file sharing, how much of a departure was that from both your past collaborations with Patton in Fantômas and how you’ve recorded with other bands?
Dave Lombardo: We this was the first time where the music was recorded and completed first and then sent off to a singer without having any type of conversation. So it was interesting. It was different and exciting. I’m always open to new methods of recording and sharing files and different projects coming your way in different forms. It’s always challenging, so it’s good to stay open to trying new methods.
This one really surprised me because it seems like when we wrote the music, the choruses were played the correct amount of time and we had the right amount of time applied for the verses and bridges. So everything was planned out perfectly, because the vocals and everything feel natural. It sounds like we all sat in a room together and worked the songs out. We all got kind of lucky.
So I think we’ll create music with this process again. Because we have to write some more music for the upcoming shows. This is exactly what we’re doing. [Mike] Craine and [Justin] Pearson and myself get together and we write some songs and send it to him and he sends us some demos and those demos sound great.
CBS SF: You know, I hadn’t thought about how you would probably need more material to flesh out the live show with the album being about 30 minutes. I mean, you could play covers and you already have one with the version of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” from the album. But you’re already working on new material to play during this tour?
Dave Lombardo: Yes.
CBS SF: I was kind of curious about how you settled on doing the Bauhaus song. Did you consider covers, either hardcore or otherwise?
Dave Lombardo: Well, the way the band came together, we had shows booked before we even had a song written [laughs]. That’s a whole other story. So we were writing music and my love for hardcore and the influence that the Locust has had on me personally — and I’ve also enjoyed the Retox records with Justin on vocals — I wanted to create short, quick, to the point punk songs.
And we realized, “Man, we gotta play a 40 minute set. What are we going to do?” And it was Justin who suggested doing “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” because of it’s length and we could just go off and improvise a little bit. There were other songs thrown around, but I felt “Bela Lugosi” was the best choice because of it’s goth vibe. I don’t like categorizing, but it had a dark, menacing sound and an evil edge to it. That’s why I liked it. And because we were able to extend it a bit live.
CBS SF: That song along with “Gag Reflex” and “Church of the Motherf—ers” stood out to me as a very different songs as far as tempo and structure than a lot of the more frenetic songs on Dead Cross. Did you consciously looking to break from the intensity of the rest of the material with those tunes?
Dave Lombardo: Well, with “Church of the Motherf—ers,” that was a piece that musically the initially idea came from me. It was just some rhythms I had in my mind and I threw those out there and we started collaborating. “Gag Reflex” was to add some variety to the record. I really love this band Jucifer. They have a really cool way with songwriting, playing these really slow, grungy songs. And the Melvins do that too. So I picked up on some of those ideas and wanted to create something that was slow and moody.
CBS SF: One thing that Dead Cross brought to mind for me as far as the sheer ferocity and Patton’s vocals was the more hardcore tunes from the Naked City album that John Zorn did in 1989. I know you’ve worked with him too; how much of an influence did Zorn have on what you aimed to do with Dead Cross?
Dave Lombardo: Absolutely. John Zorn is and will always be one of my major influences. Not only an inspiration in songwriting, but in performance and always having an open mind in musical direction and never holding back in creating something. Saying to yourself, “Well, I’m not going to create a song around this drum rhythm because it’s not the genre I’m known for.”
F–k that! I’ll just bring that kind of thing into a hardcore thing, but just play it differently. It’s still the same rhythm. But there’s always the influence of fearless that you have, and I’ve acquired that from artists like Zorn and like Patton. You just go with it full force and be as creative as you can.
CBS SF: One thing about working with Patton as the singer in Dead Cross is that he’s pretty much impossible to replace. Did that raise any concerns for you as far as limiting when Dead Cross will be able to tour or record? Or did you just figure you’d sort it out later since he was too good of a singer not to work with?
Dave Lombardo: Well…exactly. That’s pretty much what happened. When this whole band came together and we had all the music written and Gabe Serbian said he didn’t want to continue, I reached out to Patton. He felt, “I don’t know how much time I can put into this band, but I’d love a crack at adding some vocals to the music.”
Because he’s a fan of the Locust. Fantomas and the Locust toured together in the early 2000s and of course Patton has release Retox albums on Ipecac, so he was very familiar. So when he came into the picture, he didn’t know how much time he could put into it. And I said, “Mike, no worries. Let’s just record this album and if we want to tour on it, we’ll do it. And if not and we want to shelve it, it’s OK.”
And Pearson and Crane were the same way: “Let’s just do it! If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, on to the next project.” But to have Patton involved in one of your collaborations, how can you say, “No, because if you’re not a full time member, we don’t want to do it.” You just go with the flow. If it works out, it does; if it doesn’t, you shelve it.
But at least we have this collaboration. To me, it’s golden. It’s a beautiful body of work and it’s what I’ve always loved doing. Trying to catch that essence and purity in a body of music. And I feel like we’ve done it with this. I think after he finished the vocals, Patton himself felt, “Wow! This is really special.” He did comment a couple of times that he really like how it turned out. Who knows what the future brings? You just need to embrace everything as it comes and never take it for granted and just enjoy it while it lasts.
CBS SF: With these tour dates coming up, how much will you be able to rehearse in the same room with the full band before the dates start?
Dave Lombardo: We are going to get together for maybe a week before the tour starts and rehearse and get all the bugs out and make sure it’s all on point. There’s definitely going to be some rehearsal. Crane and Pearson and myself have already started. We’ve rehearsed for three days just to get our feet wet and get an understanding of the music.
CBS SF: I know you also were busy with Suicidal Tendancies on their European tour. Do you have any regrets about not being able to play the first Fantômas show in nine years with Tool down in San Bernardino last June?
Dave Lombardo: Actually, I performed with Fantômas in Chile back in 2015. So I’m not sure where that whole first show in nine years thing started. My last show before that with Fantômas was around 2004 or 2005, so that was my first show in nine or ten years, that performance in South America in Chile with Trevor and Buzz. So that [San Bernardino show] might have been nine years since the last show with Dale Crover who took my place for a period of time. But the band actually got together in 2015.
CBS SF: You also recorded with Suicidal Tendencies for the first time on their latest album, World Gone Mad from last year. I was wondering what your experience with them was like? I know Mike Muir writes most of the material. I imagine he’s just giving you free reign to play what fits…
Dave Lombardo: That was actually a similar situation to what Patton went through with Dead Cross. The music was written and I was able to step in and add my touch to it. There were some reference drum tracks that I followed, which was pretty cool since the verses and choruses were detailed. There were vocals in the music that Suicidal presented to me. That was just as exciting. I love Muir’s writing and his whole approach to punk and crossover.
What I really love the most about Suicidal — not only their punk edge and Muir’s songwriting — is the influence of funk and the kind of groove they hit. I love that and grew up with that music. So to be able to play that style with Suicidal is a treat for me. I love funk and R&B and soul. And a lot of Suicidal Tendencies, believe it or not, has a lot of soul and feel to it that most punk doesn’t have.
CBS SF: That was something I wanted to touch on. For a crossover punk band, Muir has had some really high-powered jazz players and soul session musicians in the group. The Bruner brothers — Ronald Jr. on drums and Stephen aka Thundercat on bass — are just a couple of them. Does having a bass player slapping and popping with that kind of music change your approach to drums?
Dave Lombardo: Yeah, it does. It brings out a different element in my style. When you surround yourself with musicians who play in other styles of music, you start jelling and mixing with those style without even knowing it. So when Mike Muir asked me to be a part of the band, I started noticing it. Here we have funk bass player and a guitar player who can play soul or R&B or funk, but he can also bust out some really hardcore riffs. So that just brings out a different style and adds to the color of the music when it comes to your playing.
CBS SF: In other interviews, I’ve read about how far back your relationship with Mike and Suicidal goes since you were contemporaries back in the early ’80s. What are you memories of touring with Suicidal or playing in the Bay Area with them during the early days of Slayer?
Dave Lombardo: I remember in ’82 going to see Suicidal in Orange County. They were playing a club there called the Concert Factory. And I remember vividly the show and how great it was. And I think back in ’83 or ’84, Slayer and Suicidal played at the Aquatic Park in Berkeley. It was this little punk festival called Day in the Dirt. It was a spinoff on Day on the Green for punk rockers. We both performed and hung out that day. So this history goes way back with Suicidal.
Rocky George, Suicidal’s guitarist, was best friends with Jeff Hanneman. And Slayer toured with Suicidal on the Clash of the Titans tour in Europe in 1990 or 1991. And we crossed paths several times at festivals, so there is a lot of history. And a lot of admiration for their music. Suicidal’s music has always been in my collection and whenever they released an album I’d always be sure to pick it up and take a listen.
CBS SF: I actually got the whole band’s autograph in March of 1984 when you did an in-store at the Record Exchange. Somewhere I still have the flyer that everyone signed; I think you played Ruthie’s Inn in Berkeley and the Keystone on Palo Alto. What are your recollections about finding a new fan base in the Bay Area back then?
Dave Lombardo: While LA was in this kind of cesspool of glam, San Francisco was the epicenter of hardcore music. It was totally the opposite, which was great. When we went up there and played our first show in San Francisco, it was crazy. I remember playing and fans were jumping onstage and jumping off and getting on top of the PA and diving off. It was insane!
I’d never experienced anything like that. I wasn’t looking at my drums. I was looking at the bodies flying from one side of the stage to the other and jumping into the crowd. I knew that we were onto something. It was very exciting. What was funny was there was this kid who said, “Man, you guys are pretty good. But you would sound better if you didn’t have the eyeliner or the make-up on.” Because we were wearing the eyeliner like on the back of Show No Mercy. And soon after that, we ditched the make-up and became who we were. That was really an interesting time. I really enjoyed watching the early days of that band.
CBS SF: I can’t think of too many metal drummers who have as varied a body of work as you with your excursions into avant garde, classical and even hip hop. I know I’ve seen you speak of your Cuban roots in other interviews. What do you want to do that you haven’t done yet?
Dave Lombardo: That’s always a possibility. I love music from where I was born and Caribbean music as well as Brazilian music and stuff from South America. I would love to do something in the Latin realm. Maybe country music? There are still many genres that I could f–k up [laughs]. I would love to dabble in more styles.
There’s also world music; bringing in different elements and instrumentation from different parts of the world. But time is always the one thing that holds you back from doing things, because there are always other things that you have to do that are a priority.
CBS SF: I feel like I have a journalistic obligation to ask one other Slayer question. As acrimonious as the last split was, could you ever see yourself in a position where you would play with the band again?
Dave Lombardo: [click]
[Editor’s note: So with that last question, I managed to get one of the world’s greatest drummers to hang up on me. I should note that when I managed to get him back on the line, he said that as soon as he got the gist of the question, he knew he was going to hang up. But he was good natured about it and nice enough to pick up when I called back. So while I didn’t exactly get a verbal answer, I knew exactly what he was saying.]
Dead Cross plays the UC Theatre on Wednesday, Aug. 23 at 8 p.m. with Secret Chiefs 3