“Why don’t we do this outside. It’s great out there,” says John Tempesta, drummer for The Cult, as he leads me out to the balcony of his suite at the Hard Rock in Biloxi, where the band will end up playing an excellent set that night. But at the moment, we are taking in a great view and enjoying the swirling breezes off the gulf. Tempesta the rocker is a hard-hitting monster, giving The Cult a bare-knuckled beat that rattles your teeth and adds more crushing fills to their classic songs than anyone before him.
Johnny the New York born musician is a good-natured, always smiling, down-to-earth man who goofed around with Anthrax’s Frank Bello in high school and always has something good to say about everything and everybody. In fact, he sings everyone’s praises except his own. No rock star glimmer on this fellow, on stage and off. When I ask him what he was going to do before he hits the stage, he said he’d probably make some phone calls, stretch out, change clothes … nah, he’d just wear the t-shirt and jeans he already had on. Running his hands through his short black hair, he pulls down the shades and he’s ready.
Tempesta has kept his life close to his unpretentious nature and treats everyone with the same self-effacing friendliness he shows those closest to him, despite having played in such heavy duty bands as Helmet, Testament and White Zombie, which could have very easily spurred an ego growth spurt. But Tempesta blows all that kind of talk off with a laugh. He loves what he does and it’s others who end up adding the exclamation mark to his talents. “Johnny Tempesta is one of the most dynamic and exciting drummers I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing with,” Richard Fortus told me recently after they toured Australia together as part of the Dead Daisies earlier this year. “He is an absolute powerhouse and a true musician. It simply doesn’t get any better than him.”
“So you got some questions?” Tempesta asks with an enthusiasm that leads you to believe he loves sitting down with journalists and talking about his music. He’s excited about playing the show tonight – “It’s a nice venue” – and tells me about when the band spent a day off in this coastal city last year, going out on the boat of a friend. “It was so much fun. I thought it was the nicest day off I had the whole time.” Having been with The Cult for almost a decade – “Eight years on Valentine’s Day” – Tempesta had a few stories to share about his bands, his music and why the late great Cozy Powell still inspires him to this day.
Why is it still exciting to play with The Cult?
The songs are timeless, you know what I mean, and they have such a big catalog of music, from the new tunes on the last record, Choice Of Weapon, to any of the old stuff. And they’re just great musicians. I’ve always been a fan of The Cult, since I was a kid. I remember wearing the Love shirt and I remember seeing them on the Electric tour. Doing that tour last year [the 25th anniversary of Electric] was really exciting for me cause it’s one of my top favorites.
When you first came in, what was the hardest song in their catalog that you had to learn and what made it so difficult?
I would say, not hard, but it’s a little bit different. As you know, the styles change over the years so maybe “The Phoenix” cause Mark Brzezicki from Big Country is the drummer on that and he has a certain feel, like a laid back thing, and he has a bit of a drum solo in there. So really, what I try to do is kind of capture that moment that he had with them. Every drummer has a different style with The Cult but Mark is a big influence on me and I just try to capture that. As well as “Fire Woman,” which has cool fills. I love a challenge.
Of all the songs in the set-list tonight, which one wears you out the most?
I wouldn’t say it wears me out, but you know at the end, on the encore, “Horse Nation,” it’s like the older one, and the bass drum is steady the whole time, like the eighth notes, and I do it with both feet with my hi-hat, which I like. It’s a lot of fun to play but yeah, once I get going in the set I just start getting warmed up. I just love playing drums (laughs)
Which song in The Cult catalog have you guys never played live that you would love to play live?
Well, we actually finally on this tour we’ve been playing “American Horse.” We’ve sound checked it a million times but never got to the point to play it. So we’ve thrown it in on this leg and that’s a lot of fun to play. It’s from Sonic Temple, it has a great feel and it’s just an amazing song all the way around. And Billy just rips at the end. He goes off and we extend the end of it as well. It’s fun.
Now Frank Bello told me a few years ago …
That when you were in school together, you guys used to get in trouble every day.
Yep, with the music teacher (laughs). I used to throw my drumsticks at her cause we’d be playing Iron Maiden songs and she’d come around and take my sticks and in front of the whole class I remember I kind of went off on her, you know.
What did you say?
Well, it wasn’t that bad but she was very rude, you know what I mean. She just ticked me off. We were just having fun, man.
I can so see you and Frankie getting into trouble.
Yeah, we were kind of harmless though. He’s fun. We were just ball breakers. We were doing like practical jokes on people and that’s always fun (laughs). It’s almost like we were little kids. We just got a lot of enjoyment out of that. I played with him, after Anthrax did a little break with him, I brought him in when I was with Helmet and that was so much fun having my old friend play on stage and we’re looking at each other and laughing.
What was THE song or album that literally changed your life?
I got my first drum kit, which I bought from my next-door neighbor who was a drummer, and I begged my mom to sell me the kit for twenty-five dollars cause she would always buy me these little cheap kits for Christmas which I would break in like an hour. So it was a cheap kit but at least they were real. So I remember buying that kit and I remember the next day waking up and polishing the drums and just listening to records and playing “Black Dog” from Zeppelin. I don’t know if I played it correctly at the time but I felt like I got through the song. “Smoke On The Water,” obviously, which is like everyone’s first (laughs). Then from there my next-door neighbor that sold me the drum kit took me to my first concert which was David Bowie in 1978 at Madison Square Garden. And watching that drummer play, I knew right then and there, that’s where I wanted to be for the rest of my life.
I’m a little surprised you being a hard-nosed rock kid that Bowie was such an influence.
I love Bowie’s music. I was a huge fan. It changed my life. I mean, who doesn’t like David Bowie. How could you NOT like David Bowie (laughs)
You praise Cozy Powell a lot.
Yeah, he’s one of my biggest influences.
What was it about him and his playing that captivated you the most?
Well, Cozy Powell was the drummer with the big drums and the double bass and when I first heard “Stargazer” from Rainbow, that was it. The intro alone, I was like, “Who is this guy with this enormous drum kit?” I just loved his style and I followed him throughout his career, with his solo records, and he played with like the best guitar players. I mean, from Jeff Beck to Richie Blackmore to Tony Iommi, John Sykes, Brian May, Gary Moore. He played with all the greats and he really complimented them on their playing as well.
I understand you have his drumsticks
I have two pairs of his sticks and I own half of his drum kit from Whitesnake. That’s like my shrine.
To become a good solid drummer, what is the most important thing you need to do?
Play for the song. A lot of drummers, obviously they want to show off and do all these fills and everything, but the main objective is to play for the song. From the singer with the melodies and the choruses, you want to build it, you know, dynamically. And that’s a really good drummer where you could like lay back a bit, then add a little bit more excitement towards the choruses and everything.
You seem to play with very powerful bands and we all know that the drummer and the bass player are the foundation of every band. Pre-Cult, which bass player do you think you’ve connected with the most?
I’ve played with a lot of great players. My first gig was Exodus with Rob McKillop, a great solid guy. And then with Testament, Greg Christian. And White Zombie, Sean Yseult, of course. I love that girl. She’s like my little sister and she could really lay down. Then after that, Rob Zombie with Blasko, a great player, and then he was in Helmet for a little bit; well, like before the actual Helmet record came out. And then Frankie, of course, cause we played together as teenagers. And Chris Wyse in The Cult is amazing. He’s a great player.
What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened to you on stage?
Playing with White Zombie was a lot of fun and then with Rob Zombie. We had the big rock show and I was like eight feet higher on my riser and could barely see anybody. I was like, “Where is everybody?” (laughs). I had my own mixing board and it was a lot of fun. But a lot of pyro was going on and a lot of that stuff would go in my eyes, and confetti and stuff. I do remember one thing, in that song “Dragula,” we had so much smoke one time and I knew there was some kind of chemical going on and it choked me. I almost choked to death. And we had to get oxygen so that wasn’t fun at all. But it’s all part of rock & roll (laughs)
Were you there [with White Zombie] for the pudding?
Yes, that was fun (laughs) On David Letterman. We all did it. We were like, “Let’s jump in” and we dove in and it was freaking freezing in that studio. I don’t know if you know but David Letterman’s studio was freezing cold. He keeps the audience alert so it’s like cold in there. First of all, I want to get through this song because you don’t want to tighten up and after we jumped in the pudding there were no towels around! We were all like walking around going, “Who’s got a towel?” I couldn’t see out of my eyes. I had pudding everywhere but that was fun. It was spontaneous when we did it. Very cool stuff.
What is the secret to playing with people with strong personalities like Ian and Rob?
You know what, I learn a lot. I sit back and watch and you know, everybody’s different at the end of the day but I love what I do and I just feel their vibe. Rob and I are still good friends. Everybody thinks he’s like this scary, creepy guy but he’s not at all. He’s very intelligent. He’s a sweetheart. I’ve been very fortunate to play with such great people. Chuck Billy from Testament is a good buddy of mine and I just seen him at the Revolver Awards the other day. It’s funny, we were all in the same room, which was Slayer’s dressing room. I didn’t even know and they were like, “Slayer’s opening the show” and that was a surprise. So I go in there and Rob Zombie is in there and Gary Holt, who is playing in Slayer, who was in Exodus, and Chuck Billy. All three of my ex-band guys are there in one room.
And Richard Fortus was there playing with Guns N Roses.
Yeah, I just toured with Richard Fortus with the Dead Daisies. I was hanging out with Richard and Richard’s great, an amazing player. He’s very nice.
Who was the first real rock star you ever met?
I met a lot of people but when I was a kid, I used to be a messenger in New York City, used to deliver messages, and I would always go by Manny’s Music on 48th Street and I remember one time seeing Peter Erskine, the drummer from Weather Report, and he was so nice to me. He was like, “Where you going? Take a walk with me.” And I remember just walking and talking drums and I was a kid, you know. I must have been like fourteen, maybe sixteen, coming out of high school. And from there I just met a lot of people. I’ve been very fortunate, being around at the right place. Eric Carr was a good friend of mine, from KISS, and he actually got me an audition for Ace Frehley and he came to the audition and introduced me and everything. I set up his drums for a video, “The X In Sex,” and then he drove me home after the video, met my mom. The sweetest guy in the world. Bless his soul.
What song would you pick if you could go back in time and switch places with John Bonham playing live?
I wouldn’t want to (laughs) I think one of my favorite Zeppelin songs would have to be “Achilles Last Stand.” The drums on it are phenomenal. It’s a long song and it’s peaks and valleys and he goes in and out and it’s so exciting, man. I love it.
Was Exodus the first time you went into a studio to record?
Yes, that was my first professional time. When the recording button was on, I was just young and I don’t want to say naïve but I just wasn’t used to it. And it just took me years to gain the confidence going in there and really laying it down. So from that first record to where I am at now is like night and day.
For the Choice Of Weapon album, did you have any input with the creation of any of those songs?
No, Billy and Ian usually get together and structure the songs and then do a little demo and then Chris and I come in afterwards and we’ll build around all that and I’ll add my drum parts. Then the producer adds feedback.
It was a really good album
Yeah, I agree. I really like that record and I’m very proud of that record as well.
What still excites you about playing music?
You know what, I just love what I do. I’ve never lost that passion and I get excited and I love drums. I buy drums, I collect drums, and I’m still like a little kid. And if I change my drum kit around sometimes, just make it different, it keeps it exciting, you know what I mean. Some drummers, they’re so used to their setup they just play the same thing. But I like switching things around and keeping it exciting.
What was the hardest thing you learned on your own when you first started out as a professional musician?
The hardest thing is you really got to take care of yourself, especially on tour. When you’re younger it’s a little bit easier but the older you get, you’ve really got to maintain your health, get a lot of rest, eat right, staying in shape and all that. You learn, you know. It’s trial and error and stuff like that. I’ve been touring for over twenty-five years now and I feel the body a little bit, a lot of wear and tear (laughs).
You guys just did Coachella and got raves about your performance.
That was fun. It was a short set, only forty-five minutes but it was just a good vibe. The whole festival is really cool, everybody is enjoying the music and you feed off the crowd and they were very responsive.
What are the plans for the rest of this year?
We’re playing tomorrow [at the Welcome To Rockville Music Festival in Jacksonville, Florida] but after tomorrow, we’re sort of writing and those guys are already in the midst of doing that so we’ll hopefully have a record out, start recording by the summer. No definite date but that’s the plan right now.
So you’re going to be free for a little while.
I actually do drum clinics when I have time off. I’m going to Mexico City to do one, a drum festival. But it’s actually going to be nice to have some time off, to be honest with you.
You’re not going to get lazy are you?
Oh no but I get antsy. That’s my biggest problem. After a week or two, I’m like, “Now what?” (laughs)
No. I got my niece. My brother lives right near me. I’m gone so much and that’s hard. That’s another thing, you sacrifice a lot. It’s hard.
Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough