Tempesta's profile grew in 1994, the year he joined industrial metal juggernauts White Zombie. The release of 1995's Astro-Creep 2000 made White Zombie a household name, largely due to the dance club hit "More Human Than Human" and its accompanying video. "Tempesta was the best," says former White Zombie bassist Sean Yseult. "White Zombie toured quite a bit with Pantera, and besides Vinnie Paul, there were no drummers that could compare to John. He's like a machine, but brutal. You rarely hear such a hard hitter with such speed, detail, and finesse."
Rob Zombie liked Tempesta's playing so much that after White Zombie split up in 1997, he kept him on as drummer for his solo band. Playing with Rob Zombie also gave John the freedom to drum on albums like Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi's self-titled solo record, as well as Black Label Society's Hangover Music Vol. VI.
When Zombie put his band on indefinite hiatus in 2003 (to focus on directing movies), Tempesta wasted no time landing his next gig. But he never imagined he'd become a core member in the new version of Helmet, one of the '90s' most influential metal bands. The way Tempesta tells the story, it was all about timing.
"I was kicking around the idea of playing with other people when I was introduced to [Helmet guitarist/singer/songwriter] Page Hamilton," Tempesta explains. "Page was in LA looking to put a new band together. After talking on the phone, we met at a bar for a couple beers, and he brought me a demo CD of some of his songs."
The two talked about jamming together to see what might happen. "Page came down to my drum rehearsal room and we just clicked," John recalls. "Once we started playing, we knew this was it." With bassist Rob Nicholson and producer Jay Baumgardner, Hamilton and Tempesta recorded demos for their as-yet-unnamed project. Then when Interscope Records chairman Jimmy Iovine contacted Hamilton, suggesting he put Helmet back together, the search for a band name went no further.
With Nicholson already obligated to join Ozzy Osbourne's band, guitarist Chris Traynor, briefly a part of Helmet before its dissolution in 1999, came on board to record rhythm guitar and bass for Helmet's first album of new material in seven years, Size Matters. Former Anthrax bassist Frank Bello completed Helmet's lineup after the album was recorded.
"It's great how things just developed over the past year and a half," Tempesta says. "The funny thing is I've always been such a big fan of Helmet. When I was in White Zombie, I'd listen to `Unsung' every night to get pumped up right before we went onstage. Isn't that crazy!"
MD: Although this new album represents an entirely different sound for Helmet, those who know the bans history immediately think of drummer John Stanier. Is it difficult stepping into a gig where you're automatically going to be compared to the previous drummer?
John: Yes, but I expected that because this isn't the first time I've been in this situation. When I was in Exodus I replaced Tom Hunting, who's a monster drummer. With both Testament and White Zombie I came in later and replaced the original drummer.
John's a great drummer, very powerful. I've always appreciated his work, and I'm sure people will compare us. But we're totally different players. Obviously there will be a lot of my style in there, but I'm definitely going to do John's playing justice, because I love his drumming and his parts.
Right now I'm learning the old Helmet stuff, and I can't wait to start jamming on those songs. I feel very confident about playing the bans back catalog. I also feel really good about the new record. The song arrangements and transitions and everything-it's all so cool. Live, we're going to play most of the new record, but it's good to have so much material so we can change things around every night. The band sounds really powerful, and I'm looking forward to going on the road.
MD: Helmet keeps you in the rock realm, but the music is miles away from the high-speed thrash metal you played with Exodus and Testament and the heavy sampling and programming identified with Rob Zombie. Did you apply any new techniques to recording Size Matters?
John: Actually, I went back to basics. I took away my second bass drum, went back to a single pedal, and simplified my whole drumkit. As much as I like to play double bass, it's cool to break away from that. I'm finding that I'm able to do a lot more with just one bass drum, without relying on the second one.
When I went in to record this album, I was feeling the influence of John Bonham. He had the whole package: power, dynamics, sound, and technique. When I did the demos with Helmet, I brought out my Bonham-sized kit, with a 26" bass drum. I wanted to get away from all the electronics and click tracks and just be raw and organic. It's a whole different element, which I'm really into right now.
On this record, there are fast- and slow-paced songs, and more feel. There are definitely a lot of dynamics involved within the songs, and it's really fun for me to play them. Sometimes Helmet will just lock into a groove, and it's the tightest possible thing-so simple, but so powerful.
On a song like "Throwing Punches," for example, the time signature is 5/4 but it has the feel of 4/4. Page has a degree in jazz and is an amazing musician. Just playing with him, I've learned so much about the development of music. He's helped me incorporate unusual time signatures, which I've never played in any other band, and I'm really adapting to that type of playing. In the long run I think this experience will make me a better player.