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Interview with Jon Dette - Anthrax, Slayer, Testament, Meshiaak

Photo by Alex Solca

What fascinates us about metal music. The heavy guitars? The screaming vocals? Sure thatís nice, but what would metal music be without heavy, fast, frantic drums?!

One of the masters of that field is Jon Dette.

We all have those first albums we started playing drums too, but Jon managed to go from teaching himself from those first albums to actually playing and touring with his childhood-hero bands - in his case, two of the biggest metal bands out there: Anthrax and Slayer!

All this and a 20 year career during which Jon has laid down the grooves for bands like Testament, Iced Earth, Animetal USA and many more.

I caught up with Jon via Skype to chat about his upbringing, his path onto the biggest stages in the world, his double kick work and his exciting new project Meshiaak.

You started off into metal pretty early. Even your first drum kit had two kick drums, right?

Yeah, well I was in an elective class at my junior high school and that really was the first time, at age 13, that I was seriously listening to music. I tried the tuba, the trumpet,Ö literally every instrument and the snare drum was the last instrument that I finally tried and immediately connected with. I really stuck with it and just knew I had to get a drum set for my 14th birthday. My parents were divorced and didnít really talk so I figured I had a 50/50 shot if I just asked both of them for a drum set for my birthday. What ended up happening was that I got a drumset from both of them. My dad got me a sparkle red CB700 5-piece, my mum got me a sparkle blue Reuther (by Pearl).

On that same birthday my brother got me the Anthrax ĎFistful of Metalí record, which had just been released a few months earlier in April í84, and as soon as I heard the first song ĎDeathriderí, I was just blown away by the drumming. Listening to that music I quickly realised that I could hear what the drums were doing. I couldnít play 95% of it but I quickly identified that those were kick drums going really fast together and all the other stuff Charlie Benante was doing. I was like: ďWait a minute! Iíve got a double bass drum kit here, I can play this stuff...Ē So the first song I ever tried playing on the drum set was ĎMetal Thrashing Madí. I just started self-teaching myself from that record. It took a long time but I think within six or seven months I was able to play those songs to some extend.

So yeah, that was my first kit. I wish I still had that thingÖ

And it was metal from then on?

I was into Judas Priest before that. They were the first metal band I got introduced to. Then I started listening to Iron Maiden a little bit, but once my birthday came around and I got that Anthrax record, that was it. After that I discovered that Metallica had just released ĎKill ĎEm Allí and also Slayer had just brought out ďShow No MercyĒ. Cool thing about all those bands is that all three of them (Metallica, Anthrax, Slayer) really came onto the scene with their debut records within six months from each other. It was a good time to become a Metal drummer!

Did you ever have lessons before you went to study at the Musicians Institute in L.A.?

Well, I was in the marching band in high school where I received some sort of sight reading and rudiment training and all that. It might seem goofy to be marching around with a snare drum but it really developed some endurance for me because the dynamics there are: hit hard and hit really hard. That ended up being very compatible with my style.

I also took some 1-to-1 lessons from a jazz instructor once I got into high school who identified some bad habits I had and sorted them out.

But yeah, once I went to M.I. thatís where I really got into a lot of stuff. The great thing about M.I. was that I quickly realised what the drummer was I wanted to be and identified the drummer that I did not want to be. M.I. was really geared to prepare you as a musician to go out into any field of music and get hired. You would learn different styles of music and this and that. It was great to learn all this stuff but I had no interest in playing samba, jazz or blues. Itís fun to listen to this stuff but it wasnít fun for me to play it.

It was a great experience going through that because I needed it to discover who I am as a musician. The irony is that when Iím at home in San Diego, I listen to all kinds of music but metal. Iíll be jamming me some Gordon Lightfoot before Iím jamming Kill Switch Engage.

To go back, yes, I did have some formal training: I can sightread, I can identify different styles of music but at the end of the day Iím a Heavy Metal drummer and I have absolutely zero interest in being any other type of musician.

You moved back to San Diego after finishing MI. Where did it go from there?

Yes I moved back and tried starting a band with some friends from high school. We played a couple of clubs but never really did anything major. Then ultimately a friend from L.A. told me about a band called Evil Dead that was looking for a drummer. Some of the guys were in an 80s band called Agent Steal, so they had a small deal with a German label and it was my first opportunity to get into something that was already put together. I auditioned, got the gig and from then on I was driving up to L.A. once a week for rehearsals.

Because of that I moved back up to L.A. in 1994 and about four months later I got the opportunity to audition for Testament. That was a really big deal for me because they were one of the bands I listened to when I was growing up and I was big fan. I auditioned for them in the bay area, got the gig and had to move up to Oakland. That was really where things just took off for me. I was with Testament for about one and a half years and then had the opportunity to audition for Slayer. They offered me the gig the second night we were rehearsing, it felt so good. I joined Slayer but about a year and a half later they decided they wanted to bring Paul Bostaph back in and I went straight back into Testament and stayed with them again for a year.

The unfortunate thing that I always joined these bands right after they had recorded albums, so although I was joining them as a full member, I probably looked like a touring drummer on the outside. I wish I had that stamp. I think things would be different for me now if I had a record from the 90s under my belt.

You have managed to end up playing for most of your Ďteenage heroesí bands. That must have felt weird.

Not so much weird but exciting and surreal! The biggest thing for me was just to not overthink it because if I started to think ďOh my god, Iím in a room with this guy and that guy!Ē I would have freaked out. I really just had to let all that go and say to myself: Ok, youíre here because someone heard you play and itís important enough for them to take the time to see if they wanna jam and work with you. Two entirely different things by the way.

Going back to the M.I. thing we talked about earlier where they prepare you to go into different situations playing different beats in different genres - I didnít have to learn that with those guys. Even more so because these were the bands that I predominantly taught myself how to play drums with, I knew almost all of the songs that they wanted to play. It wasnít really practising the songs, it was more just preparing. I had played all of these songs just for fun and with high school bands at parties, it was really a part of me.

I do remember my first tour though on a proper bus on a headline tour with Testament. I remember being in my bunk and just couldnít believe it. I opened my curtain, Chuck Billyís bunk was right across, I ripped open his curtain (which is a big no-no by the way), heís laying there reading a book and I just go: ďThis is so f***ing cool!Ē. [laughs]

I just couldnít help myself, I was so excited. I think through the years as this becomes your business and your career itís important to remember those moments because itís important to remember why youíre doing this. Itís easy to become clouded and maybe a little desensitised once the business aspects start taking over and no matter how hard your band is or how big they are, whether youíre playing for some of your idols, always remember why youíre doing this. For me personally itís been one of the greatest joys of my life being able to play for those bands.

Tell me about your new band Meshiaak. How did you guys get together?

Back in 2013 I was down in Australia performing at the Soundwave festival where I was actually playing for Slayer and Anthrax. Thatís a story on itself: I was on stage with Anthrax from 1 till 2 oíclock, off stage for 90 minutes and then back with Slayer from 3.30 till 5. The publicist who was assigned to those bands had a friend there called Danny Camilleri who was putting a project together. He saw me play and really wanted to start something with me. I got a call from the publicist six months later saying I should check the guy out and that he had some great stuff. Iím like: Yeah, but itís Australia. Itís not that I just jump in the car and be right over, itís 7000 miles away. So I initially turned it down. He kept pushing me to check it out though so I finally listened to the demos and was just really blown away. In particular the fact that in the title track of the album Danny is actually using a singing voice, not just a screaming voice. Thatís what made me think this could be a Metal band that goes places. We talked on the phone and I signed on to do the record - I didnít wanna join a band straight away without ever having met these guys. We set a time to track drums in Oakland and all the guys flew out to be there. Technically it was unnecessary for them to be there but it was the best thing because it was the first time we had a chance to meet and we all immediately bonded. We went into the studio to make a record but we came out of the studio as a full band. Thatís really where Meshiaak was born.

Your debut album ĎAlliance of Thievesí just came out?

Yes, I could not be happier with the record and Iím really proud of the drum performance. I think itís probably been 20 years of my career that people wanted to know what I sound like writing drums for a record: well, here you go. I had no parameters that I was held back from, the music is great on top of it, the solos are incredible, the singing is phenomenal - this is a record that I can truly present to people and go: this is me.

Iíve been waiting a long time to find the right band that I can consider myself being a full member of, being there from the ground up and being part of the creative process. This isnít me being told to play this beat here, this beat there, itís all me. I never thought it would be with a bunch of guys half way around the world but I guess things happen when they happen. Iím just so proud to be a part of this band. Itís a new chapter for me because for the last 20 years Iíve been a drummer in existing bands. Itís been an honour and a privilege to be part of those bands but to finally start something from scratch is just incredible.

The eternal question: two kick drums vs. double kick pedal?

Yeah, what about it?! Double pedal for me is like swimming at the kiddy end of the pool with those floaty things around your arms. Rip those floaties off and swim down to the deep end of the pool where the big boys play! [laughs].

Iím not a double pedal fan at all. I think itís a practical application for people that are playing small places or for drummers where double bass is more of an accentuated part of their style rather than a foundation of it. Being a metal drummer personally I just think that using a double pedal is just.... I donít know. Each to their own.

Personally I just donít like the response of two beaters hitting one kick drum head. It has that weird play to it when youíre doing long double bass rolls for extended periods of time.

Also I donít like the constriction. Iím a tall guy, Iím 6ft4. If you see pictures of my kick drums youíll see theyíre further apart than most double bass set ups. Thatís just because I naturally sit like that and itís easier for me. Having a double pedal with a rod that long just wouldnít work.

I have absolutely no desire to play one of those things in any setting application ever.

I have even been offered to do a tour where they said: ďWell, weíll only be able bring out a single kick.Ē And I said thatís a deal-breaker. Count me out, I have no interest in going on tour to play a double pedal. [laughs]

Did you have any specific exercises to get your feet up to speed?

One of the best exercises is simply playing to records. Iíll use ĎAngels Of DeathĒ as an example because itís an identifiable song for double bass. If you try playing that song by yourself in a room with just the metronome, once your legs start to fatigue a lot of people just give up. If you have the music one and it comes to that chorus - and you can feel your legs just dying - the energy just drags you along and you push through. As soon as the double bass ends I would still perform the song. I almost equate it to being at the gym with a personal trainer. If you do benchpress you know heís their to pull the weight up if you fail,but heíll also be yelling at you ďYou can do thisĒ! They create that intensity. When youíre hearing Tom Araya scream, youíre hearing those guitars and youíre feeling the intensity of the song itís so much more than just sitting in a room trying to practise double bass. Thereís a different focus behind it now.

I do have a form of exercise though called Tabata. Itís invented a Japanese guy called Izumi Tabata and it was designed for power weight lifters. You do 20 seconds of intense work of whatever it is, and then 10 seconds of rest. You repeat that eight times which makes it four minutes long. 20 seconds of all your power. I donít mind if itís push-ups, sit-ups, bench press or double bass. This is not about playing the bass drums properly, itís about high intensity. Go as hard as you can. If youíre playing double bass at letís say 180bpm, by the second or third round these should sound more like flams. If they still sound nice, then we need to up the tempo. Itís a physical exercise and the goal is failure. In most cases when people who start fatiguing on double itís not because of their technique, itís because muscle failure. ďOh that burn in my chin!Ē. You work those muscles and youíll be able to play longer, faster and stronger. I was teaching this at a Thomas Lang drum camp a few years ago and even Thomas was struggling by the end of the exercise. I hope he doesnít get bummed that I say this. [laughs] He had to stop and was sweatingÖ

Yeah, thatís one of the best exercises I teach to people who want to increase their speed and endurance.

You have a great way of distributing the energy of your legs during a show too. Tell me more about that.

Yes, itís a kind of energy conservation thing. I obviously play left-handed but when I play single patterns I alternate with my feet. If you were standing behind me watch me play for example the solo section in Angel Of Death, itís just a really fast polka beat, one kick and one snare at about 180 - 200 Bpm. I would play for example eight bars with my left foot, then for the next eight bars I would use my right foot. I do this pretty much with every song I ever play. The reason for that is that I like to distribute the energy between my legs so that theyíre both equal when theyíre going into a double bass part. If youíre only using your primary foot (if youíre right handed, your right) all through that single stuff and the left foot is just sitting on a hihat pedal, when itís time to come in with the double bass at 200bpm all out your left foot is not as warmed up as the right foot. Now you want it to just go balls out but it might not be ready for that. Conversely you have a right foot thatís been doing all this work and now you want that fatigued foot to go into a fast pattern.

Now you have one foot thatís not warmed up and one thatís pre-fatigued.

My solution to that is that I use both feet. In my case it would be the left one thatís more fatigued so I will give it a break and switch things back and forth. That way when you come into a double bass part itís more powerful, itís more impactful and it doesnít sound fatigued. Especially for this kind of music I treat this as an athlete - and Iím talking football, not golf. [laughs]

Photo by Alex Solca

Talking about treating it as an athlete. How do you keep fit to stay on top of the game?

I generally train when Iím home, do some mild training when Iím out on tour, lift weights and eat a healthy diet. Iíve been eating a paleo diet for several years on and off and just switched over to a ketonegic (high-fat, adequate-protein, low-carbohydrate) diet but Iím not a monk. Iím human and I like to enjoy life. The last few tours I probably enjoyed a bit more than I should have because I put on a little bit of a tour-gut. Weíve been touring Germany a lot, they have some great beers. Guilty! Iím home now working that off.

I believe in a lot supplementation as well. The Anthrax and Slayer guys always make fun of me because I show up on tour with a suitcase just filled with supplements. Fish oil, green powder drink, protein drink and so on. I just like to keep a lot of minerals in my body. I take some stuff before I go on stage and Iíll have a recovery drink right after I get off stage.

On the other hand I can go long periods without playing drums. It might sound weird but Iím not one of those drummers that gets into a room and just wants to woodshed for hours on end. Iím the other guy. I get off tour and wonít touch a drumset for two months. My fiance and I are out riding wave runners or wakeboarding - just having fun. But I canít go longer than a week tops without doing physical activity because if I donít keep up my physical base, thatís whatís gonna do me in. Iím 46 now and itís more important now than it ever has been for me to continue that. I picked the wrong style of music to age with. [laughs]

Seeing how full on the shows are, do you warm up before a gig?

Yeah, in the first week of a tour I would warm up probably 30 minutes before the show. Just some simple single strokes and double strokes on a pad, whatever feels good. I donít have a particular routine. Then Iíll play a couple of songs in my head or play along on a chair and simulating double bass on the floor.

When I get into week two and beyond it could be maybe just ten minutes of doing that. I do a fair amount of stretching before I go on stage and thatís really about it.

Iíve gotten to this point where it seams like the more I donít overthink things before going on stage or recording something, it seems like I have a better performance.

Everybody is different but Iíve just learned whatís best for me and it really doesnít require a whole lot of effort before going on stage.

Finally, whatís next?

Iíll be heading out on tour with Anthrax to be filling in some dates for Charlie on the Anthrax/Slayer tour thatís going on here in States right now and then after that all the focus is on the new band Meshiaak and getting us out on tour - hopefully by the end of the year but certainly early 2017. Iím just so proud of the record. Everyone go and check out ĎAlliance of Thievesí by Meshiaak.

Thanks a lot for your time Jon and all the best for the new project!

Interview by Tobias Miorin

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