Chris Adler: Stress Test

Thursday, December 24th, 2015

Bludgeoning beats and physical appearances aside, Adler, 43, is as straight-laced an individual as you’re likely to encounter in the metal world, and on this afternoon at home in Richmond, Virginia, the drummer is doing the family thing with his wife and seven-year-old daughter. “It’s just a nonstop party,” he jokes. When it comes to Lamb Of God, though, Adler is all about getting stuff done. It’s a personality trait that can make him seem as much like a businessman as a shredding beast. Come to think of it, he’s both. Thankfully, the new album coincides with the band’s first-ever hiring of a business manager, a role that had previously fallen to Adler. And by business we mean everything from divvying up pay to merch design. “It’s nice to not have to worry about that anymore,” he says. “After a while it just gets to be too much.”

Cherishing order in his life and work, Adler seeks out messy, uncomfortable places in his art. It’s probably why Lamb brought in producer Josh Wilbur once again for the latest record [see sidebar on page 35]. Wilbur produced Resolution (2012), Wrath (2009), tracked drums for Sacrament (2006), and mixed the 10th anniversary edition of 2003’s As The Palaces Burn. Going with the same engineer sounds more like the comfortable rather than uncomfortable thing to do. Maybe for the other guys, but Adler’s got drum-specific reasons. “He won’t let me skate,” he says, referring to the three weeks at NRG Recording Studios in Los Angeles recording Sturm Und Drang. (The title, a phrase that originally applied to 18th century German romanticism, translates as Storm And Stress.) “There’s three things I love about Josh: One is that he’s a drummer. The second is that he’ll encourage the most off the wall thing I could do, which is so unlike most producers. And the third thing is he has a knack for finding the best drum rooms, which, as time goes on, is getting harder and harder to do.”

Sturm Und Drang was written as a whole band in every sense of the word. And since the songs are 95 percent complete before Lamb walks into the studio, you could almost say the latest outing was recorded live even though, technically speaking, the instruments were tracked separately. “When we get together to write we’re not emailing each other the ideas, we’re rocking out in a rehearsal room. Girl posters on the wall, beer cans, cigarette butts. Just hanging out. It seems so old school because everybody’s doing [tablature software] Guitar Pro or whatever. But for us, the way we’ve always given the thumbs up to an idea is by sitting there playing it because if it feels good, if it makes you get that kind of adrenaline boost actually playing it, then you know that that translates live.”

From Zero To Hero
In 2012, when Lamb Of God was in Europe touring behind Resolution, a fan ran up on stage during a show in the Czech Republic  hardly an unusual thing at a metal show. Vocalist Randy Blythe responded by shoving him off the stage  not in an aggressive way  just to get the kid out of the way so that the band could get on with the performance. Unfortunately, the fan, Daniel Nosek, landed on his head and died a few days later. Czech authorities treated the incident as a homicide.

With the singer in custody in Prague, the band was marooned 7,000 miles from home. Without missing a beat, Lamb lawyered up to spring Blythe from jail in just over a month and finish the tour. It was an impressive rebound from a tragedy, but Adler says that’s when the real problems started. “It’s true that we did resume the tour, but the whole thing really set us back,” he says of the seven-month delay recording Sturm Und Drang. “As a performer [a fan’s death] is never something you want to hear about and we all processed that in different ways.” Blythe’s experience may account for Sturm Und Drang’s schizo churn and lyrics dripping with personal torment. There’s clean singing on “Embers” and the makings of a ballad in the first half of “Overlord.” Blythe sought additional catharsis by penning Dark Days: A Memoir and the episode is captured in the documentary As The Palaces Burn.

If Lamb’s creative process is a group effort so are the finances. Everything is split equally five ways. Each member lives on a modest monthly stipend. The Spartan lifestyle helps replenish a general fund the band can save for a rainy day. Well, the storm came. “Going through the process with Randy definitely depleted all of that, so it was a tough year for some of us. I think every one of us got involved in doing other projects, bartending, whatever.” (Last summer Adler went up to Toronto and tracked drums for the latest album by Protest The Hero when the Canadian metalcore band lost its drummer.)

When you’re not touring there’s no income, so it behooved Lamb to get back on that horse. But the drummer wants to make it crystal clear that the decision to soldier ahead as a band was not economic in nature but for the love of the music. “We know we’re lucky to be doing this. No one is putting a gun to our backs and forcing us to tour and put out records.” In a way, the whole experience has only made intraband relations stronger. “In this business we don’t have a lot of role models so it’s like we all have to be that guy. We’re all dedicated to being really grounded and there for each other.”

Deth Becomes Him
A funny thing happened one evening while tracking Sturm Und Drang. After doing drums all day, Adler grabbed some Mexican food, and then headed back to the hotel where he promptly fell in bed. During the middle of the night he got a call from someone claiming to be Dave Mustaine. Adler thought the other Lamb guys were pranking him so he hung up, but a text followed urging him to pick up. Once Adler became convinced it was the real Dave Mustaine with an offer to work on a new Megadeth album, “I was jumping up and down on the bed, calling everyone I knew.”

As soon as he had time to process it, the euphoria began to wear off. He was scheduled to meet up with Mustaine in Nashville to start tracking in less than three weeks. “There was no audition. He sent me ten demos while I’m in Australia with Lamb Of God. I have no access to a drum kit to try and learn this stuff, so I’m basically just listening to it every chance I get, at least three hours a day.” A long list of Megadeth drummers (including Vinnie Colaiuta) precede Adler, so his head wasn’t totally in the clouds about what he was getting into. “I’ve heard all the stories, and read all the stuff on the Internet. My opinion is it’s just easy to pick on the king.” Adler hit up his drumming idol Lars Ulrich, who knew Mustaine from when the guitarist was briefly a member of Metallica before being unceremoniously fired. “I said, ‘Hey, can you help me out? Obviously, it didn’t work out well for you [laughs], but do you have any advice for working with Dave?’ He said, ‘Hey man, you know what? We’ve become fairly good friends in the past couple years. The guy’s really a pussycat.”

As soon as the drummer got back to the States and went into the Megadeth compound in Franklin, Tennessee, the pair dove straight into those ten scratch tracks without a single rehearsal. “Here is my guitar hero staring at me, like ‘That’s right,’ and ‘Okay, yup, like what you’re doing there,’ that kind of thing. And I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m actually getting to put my stamp on his song.”

No word on who else was vetted for the gig, but if Mustaine did try out other drummers, they probably didn’t have Adler’s work ethic. For the next few weeks he and the guitarist would show up at the studio at 10:00 a.m. and write until 6:00 in the evening. Except that after dinner, Adler would go back and rehearse until 10:00 or 11:00 at night and be ready to go the next day. “I think he appreciated that. He seemed surprised at my willingness to contribute.” A level of comfort and confidence is illustrated by the drummer’s input on “Foreign Policy,” a cover of seminal ’80s punk band Fear. “That’s the stuff Dave grew up on.

So he says, ‘I like what you’re doing, but there’s no double bass in these punk songs. I go, ‘Yeah, I know that, but why bother covering it if you’re not going to make it yours?’ So the next day he comes in and he goes, ‘I was thinking about what you said and you were right.’ It’s cool not just punching in and punching out, but actually being part of the team.”

Lamb Of God is Adler’s priority, so he needed his bandmates’ blessing before going any further. He spoke to everybody, both individually and as a group, before signing on as a full-fledged member of Megadeth. “I certainly wouldn’t want to be the guy in a band holding back someone from doing what they want to do. But I try to think of it from the other side. Does it hurt anybody? Does it get in the way? And I can’t come up with a scenario where anyone really comes out any worse for wear. I think it certainly helps me, but it helps both bands, too. I think their audience may be a little bit older than Lamb Of God’s, so we may get a few people tuning in to what we’ve got going on. And in my opinion, there’s not a more credible metal band in the world, so for the guy from Lamb Of God to be chosen, that’s a big deal.”

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Eye Of The Storm
For more than 15 years Adler has had one of the toughest jobs a drummer can have: Avoiding extreme metal’s clichés for robust drum parts that elevate the material from standard-issue brutality to, well, something better. For example, the band’s guitarists (Adler’s younger brother Willie and Mark Morton) consistently write in four, but a tendency to play in six has marked Adler’s playing from the beginning. “It drives the guys absolutely bananas. I just naturally lean to playing everything in six  especially in six over four. They look at me like, ‘How can you not hear it this way? It’s so clear to us.’ I was like, ‘Nah, it just sounds better like this.’ Back and forth. And then we had to take a vote. And now it’s become almost a signature part of the band.”

Not a busy player in the pejorative sense, but in the Lamb Of God context Adler is accenting, splashing, and finessing more than is customary for the dialed-in, undynamic style characterizing most extreme metal.

For example, the thirty-second–note bass drum triplets, an audible drrrrp-drrrp rounding out the flurry of bass strokes like bookends, are a dead giveaway that it’s Adler on the business end of those pedals. You could say the use of a 12″ rather than standard 14″ snare is another signature, but that’s pushing it. A veteran of several clinic tours, it tickles him that kids pay to see him jam on a kit, just like he would at home. “I think they see me as like, ‘Wow, I bet if I practiced my ass off I could probably do that.’ They’ve seen me come up and not be a superstar or taking over the band. I’m in a band, but it’s a little more technical than radio music, but not at the level of what the crazier groups out there are doing. You know, I try to groove. That’s been my whole thing.”

In a clinic or band setting, you’ve never seen a guy look so relaxed and controlled when blasting his rig to pieces. When DRUM! caught Lamb supporting Metallica a few years back at Oracle Arena in Oakland, the drummer honestly looked blissed out from his perch, those loose, multitasking limbs doing his brain’s bidding like it was nothing, and it created a visual disconnect. “Yeah, I think it’s weird for me, because while I’m playing I cannot think about what I’m doing or I will immediately blow it. It really has to come from this place that involves no conscious effort. So playing live for me is really about maybe looking out through the crowd, trying to find different color T-shirts [laughs], because when I think about playing the drums that’s when I tighten up.”

It all sounds so Zen. But anyone who knows Adler a painstakingly methodical guy who included drum tabs he notated himself in the 2011 book The Making Of New American Gospel  knows that he doesn’t go in for any new age crap. Maybe it’s just sheer pragmatism: Finding what works and going with it. “It won’t get better by focusing all of your attention on the problem,” he elaborates. “Of course practice does make you better, but focusing on the one thing that you’re having a hard time with will actually, in my opinion, make that one thing that much worse. I found myself pretty depressed that out of 2,000 drum strokes I might’ve failed at four. That’s probably a knee-jerk thing with a lot of drummers, but it was important for me to let that go.”

The fixation with consistency and precision might peg Adler as a devotee of bass drum triggers, but he has never used them live or in recording. It has less to do with notions of purity than betting against the odds. Again, pragmatism. “I don’t think anybody is necessarily cheating by using them. My issue with them is that when we’re playing there’s just an unbelievable number of things that can go wrong. If you have good equipment and a good soundman there’s really no need for them. There’s people that have been annoyed that I refuse to use them, but for me it’s just that I would really rather not have another element of the show that could go wrong.”

It was on the third Lamb album, 2003’s As The Palaces Burn, when Adler first adopted the metronome. DRUM! has talked to Adler about clicks in previous coverage, but it bears repeating only because it gets at the core of his playing strategy. “I remember at that time being scared to death of click tracks. Guys that are using click tracks are real pros and I’m just this punk rock heavy metal kid. But once I got over being afraid of it, it has been probably the greatest tool I have to do my job well, which is keeping the time.” What sounds like a constraint is in fact the very thing that sets him free artistically. “I can focus on other things. In a live show I use a click about 70 percent of the time, but I can go off of it because I’m feeling it. Instead of worrying throughout the whole song or focusing on keeping steady, now I know I’m steady, and then I can be like, ‘Let’s change it up or joke around or take it to the next level of playing.'”

The Good Kind Of Problem
With all the new Lamb tunes mixed and mastered, the band is ready to storm Europe, part of a strategy to make greater inroads across the Atlantic. The band’s new international partner, German label Nuclear Blast, wants LOG to exploit European markets. Adler is treating it like a personal mission. “It’s important we get over there,” he says. “It’s not our favorite place to work, to be honest, but I think it’s important to invest in our European business as well.” (Sturm is still on Epic in North America).

Before Lamb starts its coheadlining tour with Slipknot later this summer, Adler will already have made his debut with Megadeth. Mustaine just sent him the set list so he can start rehearsing. “It’s 22 songs spanning, I don’t know, 14 albums? I’m like, ‘Holy sh*t!’ For the past couple days I’ve been playing along to those. I leave next Wednesday so I won’t have access to rehearse Megadeth songs. I’ve got like a week to get in there and really woodshed as much as I can.”

Adler loves his job in Lamb Of God, and he’s gone to pains to reassure everyone, in and out of the band, of this fact. “I’m extremely proud of this latest album.” But when a good thing comes along, he seizes it, and passing up Megadeth because of potential touring conflicts would be a lame move. Still, he has no illusions about the juggling act ahead. “It’s going to be very difficult. I think my biggest concern is my family and my daughter. The workload with Lamb Of God is already enough to make me feel guilty, so this is going to be a big challenge for me moving forward.”

For someone as restless as Adler, a challenge is the whole point. “I really prefer having the problem of opportunity than lack thereof, so I’m just going to do my best.”

 

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