“When people were getting into nu metal and grunge, I ventured into the industrial scene and felt more at home there than anywhere else,” he reveals today. “I just found bands like Nine Inch Nails, Laibach and Einstürzende Neubauten so exciting.”
Born in Cuba in 1965 and fleeing with his family to the US as a toddler, he made his name in the 80s as one of the architects of thrash metal. Since then, his career has taken him down some weird and wonderful avenues, from providing the rhythmic attack for Suicidal Tendencies, Testament and Misfits to his collaborations with Mike Patton in Fantômas, Dead Cross and the resurrected Mr. Bungle.
Forty years on from Slayer’s debut album, Show No Mercy, he’s busier than ever, playing in Biffy Clyro frontman Simon Neil’s extreme metal side-project, Empire State Bastard, and releasing his very first solo album, instrumental drum solo showcase Rites Of Percussion. It’s a wonder that he has time to talk, but we pinned him down for long enough to look back at the part he played in the birth of thrash, his rollercoaster relationship with Slayer and just what he thinks of Lars Ulrich’s drumming.
What role did your Cuban heritage play in your upbringing?
“Major! I was two years old when we arrived in the US. We flew directly to California and hooked up with my brothers who had arrived five years earlier. Before I was born, my parents had sent them on this historical thing called the Peter Pan project, where parents sent their kids to foster homes in the US and the plan was they’d join them around six months later.
Well, in that time the Cuban Missile Crisis happened and suddenly this wall went up – nobody was getting in or out, there was no communication, nothing. They couldn’t see my brothers for five years and it really put a strain on the family.”
Did your family ever discuss moving back?
“That was a big no-no. Dad was an entrepreneur and had owned three butcher shops in Cuba, but he lost it all to the Communist regime. They had just bought their house and had to give it up. Fifty-some years later, my wife and I took my mom, who was 83, back to Cuba in 2018 and we visited all the spots that had meant something to my family – my dad’s markets, the apartments my mom grew up in, the house I’d been born in. We actually went inside; there were still bits of furniture that had been my parents’. It was a remarkable experience, and I’m very happy that before my mom passed I was able to take her there and talk to her about it.”
Did you get into much trouble as a kid?
“A little, but not much. I’d DJ with my friend who was a couple years older. I was his sidekick, so I’d come home at, like, 4am and my mom would be waiting at the window, furious. She was like, ‘If you come home at 4am when you’re 13, by the time you’re 18 you’ll be in jail! If you keep doing this, I’ll put you in military school!’ I had no idea what that was, but it sounded bad.
But then I found out the other kid I DJ’d with was actually at a military school, and the only issue he had was that he had to wear a military uniform, so it wasn’t that bad.”
Why did you take up drums?
“In fourth grade I was sent to this private school to get a better education. I found out they had a school marching band so asked if I could join. I was able to play the marching drums, then my dad brought me this little Pearl drum-set and I’d play along to records I’d get from a local store, because they sold all these 45s that I’d get for like 50 cents. Any song I liked from the radio, I’d write it down and then go shopping for it next time I was at the record store.
Asking my dad for money was difficult, because we were very blue collar and he’d say, ‘If you want money, get a job!’ but I do think that’s where my work ethic has come from.”
What made you pick up speed, drumming-wise?
“There’s some Cuban songs that have this certain drive and energy, and they’re pretty fast. That’s in my DNA. I think hyperactivity kicked in around puberty though, and suddenly everything I listened to was too slow. I’d seek out songs that had a faster, more exciting vibe and as I found bands to play in, I’d gravitate towards more hard rock songs and darker imagery. When I first saw [Iron Maiden mascot] Eddie, on the Killers cover, I knew I had to get that.”
How did it figure into the kind of music you were playing?
“By the time I joined Slayer I’d already started enjoying playing the heaviest songs. But then punk came along – good ol’ Jeff [Hanneman] comes in one day with his hair shaved off and says, ‘I’m fuckin’ punk now.’ We couldn’t believe it, but then he starts playing some of this music and it was like, ‘Whoa, I love this’. After that, you’d hear a riff like Living After Midnight, but double the beat, and the passion for fast music went from there.”
What are your memories of the very first Slayer gig?
“We knew we were good, and you could feel it in the energy when we got onstage. We had our own props, smoke machines… we’d build our own pyro! Rig these nails with copper wire and then plug them in so they’d explode and ignite some gunpowder we kept in steel pipes. Thank god there were no regulations – there was a lot of smoke and a lot of chaos in those early shows!”
What’s the craziest thing you ever saw at a Slayer gig?
“One of the craziest was when we travelled up to San Francisco, the thrash metal epicentre. The excitement was huge; we were playing with Exodus, and during their set people were climbing up the speakers and leaping off.
There were two guys I remember, one was called Andy ‘Airman’ Anderson and the other’s name escapes me, but they would literally walk on heads during shows. They’d run offstage and just see how far they could go until they’d sink and fall in. I’d never seen anything like that before. One time, a kid tried to jump off the balcony onto the stage, but landed feet-first and went through the stage. So his torso was sticking out, trying to wiggle out.”
Was there any rivalry with other thrash bands in those early days?
“A friendly rivalry. We were competing, but not in a negative way. We wanted to be the best, we wanted to be the heaviest, the fastest. So our rivals were any band that’d open up for us – we’d be like, ‘Let’s blow ’em out the water!’ I can’t think of a single band we had a real negative relationship with.”
When Slayer wrote Angel Of Death, the band were accused of being Nazis. Could you understand that?
“I couldn’t, at all. People just seemed to be getting it all wrong and it didn’t make sense to me; it’s a song, and nowhere did it give off this idea that fascism was cool. Tom [Araya, frontman] was talking about this guy who performed these horrible surgeries on innocent people – really stupid, horrific things. You shouldn’t need to read the lyrics to understand we weren’t condoning those things.”
You quit the band right as Reign In Blood came out, then rejoined a few months later. What happened?
“Back then, we didn’t know! We knew things were getting better because we’d gone from travelling in a van to a bus and having drum techs, lighting, engineers etc, but when we got home our so-called manager was telling us we’d broken even after playing all those shows… so I was just like, ‘Fuck this, something’s going on.’
[Legendary producer] Rick Rubin was an integral part of bringing me back, though – he’d call me every day, ‘What’re you doing?’ ‘Nothing.’ ‘Exactly. This band isn’t the same without you.’ Rick helped fund my return.”
Did the rise of death metal make you up your game?
“Well, we’d watch a lot of those bands from side-stage anyway. I remember whispering to Hanneman, ‘We’re better’, or ‘We’re faster’, ha ha! It wasn’t necessarily arrogant, but it was inspiring if we watched a band that couldn’t deliver the ferocity we were because it made us feel amazing, like, ‘Oops, failure!’ It was a youthful approach – you want to be better than the guy before you, you want to blow everyone away, and that was our mantra.”
You left Slayer again in ’92 after becoming a dad. What impact did that have on you?
“When I make a decision, I believe in it and I follow it, no matter what bumps come up in the road. I found it so gratifying because I had the time to focus on being a parent.”
How did it feel rejoining Slayer in 2001?
“It felt like the right time. My schedule had opened up and it was a real learning experience. The band had gained a lot more credibility and popularity again by that point, which just made me think of the tiny clubs we’d play when I first joined. I rejoined and it was like the profile just went up again; we were playing bigger festivals, bigger venues.”
Who were you closest to in Slayer?
“Jeff and I would spend a lot of time hanging out on the bus before shows. He was the guy I felt closest to.”
Are you in touch with any of the Slayer guys now?
“No, they never reached out.”
Where did you first meet Mike Patton and what did you bond over?
“We bonded over avant-garde music, the kinds of things nobody else would listen to! We must have met in the late 90s; Faith No More were playing one of their last shows in Los Angeles. He came over and was like, ‘Hey, you’ve got a new band!’ which at the time was Grip Inc. We just chatted and went on from there.
I have two text threads – one for Mr. Bungle and one for Dead Cross – as well as our own personal exchanges, and we’re just constantly sharing videos and links, funny videos, all that kind of stuff.”
Where did the idea for Rites Of Percussion come from – a Dave Lombardo solo album made up entirely of drum solos?
“Well, it came from these two drummers that I idolised. One was John Bonham, and the other was Tito Puente, a Latin jazz percussionist from Puerto Rico. Both of those drummers created these songs that only included drums – Tito Puente had Hot Timbales, which is a song Mike Patton actually turned me onto, and John Bonham had this song called Bonzo’s Montreux that was released after his death.
I love those two songs and Patton has been encouraging me for years to do this. When I presented it to him he was just like, ‘Yes, finally!’ He always says it’s your birthright to be free and create music not only that you’re known for, but the stuff that nobody would ever expect from you. It’s good for a musician’s soul to experiment and do something completely different.”
How does it feel knowing you helped get metal to places like Cuba and South America?
“I feel moved, to say the least. It makes you feel like a bridge; when I spoke to Cuban metal fans, they told me they had heard right back at the start of Slayer’s career that I was Cuban and they couldn’t believe it. Weirdly, the grandson of Che Guevara wrote a book, and mentioned he was a metal fan and that he loved Western music, mentioning Slayer in particular. I was like, ‘I’d better not show my dad, this’ll piss him off!’”
Has being estranged from the rest of Slayer affected your legacy with the band?
“I am so happy with everything I’ve done. Slayer is like an old relationship that’s been going on for a long time. At first you get on fine, then there’s quarrels. It’s a family-type thing, like we’re brothers, but when a fight breaks out you become distant. That’s an animal in itself; I’ve known those guys since I was 16, 17 years old, so anything with that band runs deep in the blood.
Legacy-wise, I’m a drummer who’s been able to collaborate with a lot of different musicians and elevate their music, in one way or another, creating a good time, a good environment to be around. The idea of legacy and legends scares me – I just make music, man, so you guys figure that out!”
Who do you think was the best drummer of all your contemporaries?
“Tom Hunting from Exodus was the first I saw. When we left LA and went to San Francisco I saw them and was like, ‘This guy is badass’ and you know what? He still is! We played a show with those guys in Testament, and that guy is stronger than ever. He’s made an amazing comeback after his illness [Tom was treated for stomach cancer in 2021] and I’m so proud of him, and I’m so happy to have seen those guys as many times as I have.”
Do you think Lars Ulrich gets unfairly dismissed as a drummer?
“Absolutely! I saw [Gojira drummer] Mario Duplantier recently talking about Lars, saying some kind words. I feel Lars is an essential part of that band – anybody else and it just won’t sound the same. I admonish the people who talk shit about him, I don’t like that. You have to embrace who Lars is, and his contribution to Metallica’s sound.
They’re such an inspirational band, and everybody wants to be as big as they are, and you can only do that by taking risks. They shocked people when they cut their hair or whatever, but it was part of their evolution and they clearly knew what they were doing. I love that they’re still out there, kicking ass.”
Which of the Big 4 were the best?
“Slayer. Ha ha ha! Who else could I pick?! We were brutal man, we were on top of our game, and if you watch the videos we were on fire. We really showed everyone else how it should be done – we tore everyone a new one.”
Rites Of Percussion is out now.