Editor’s Note: Last summer, I conducted two interviews with people from two of my all-time favorite bands. This interview with Crowbar drummer Tommy Buckley was one of them. Due to issues with my old laptop, I thought the files got deleted before I had a chance to transcribe them, which was a massive bummer. Other than loving the Hell out of these bands, these two dudes were nice enough to take time out of their days to talk with me about their music and I always appreciate that. So, when I wasn’t able to post these interviews, it was a huge letdown on multiple fronts. Recently, I was poking around on the old laptop and found the files got moved, not deleted (please never underestimate how bad I am with computers) so these can finally see the light of day. Some of the answers and questions here might be a little bit dated due to the nature of when the interview was done but here, in full, is my interview with the man behind the sticks for the mighty Crowbar.
Crowbar doesn’t need an introduction. I don’t really need to come up with anything clever or cutesy to tell you about these guys. If you’re a fan of heavy metal, you damn well know who Crowbar is. If you don’t, then just imagine Led Zeppelin plus about a thousand pounds. Better yet, strap your headphones on and let them batter your brains with any of their killer albums (you really can’t go wrong with any of them).
Last year saw the band release it’s 12th album, the crushing (Crowbar really doesn’t know another way to go about things) Zero and Below. It was another dose of what Crowbar does best, a sludgy collection of heavier-than-Hell doom that never rushes and that develops across compositions that have been honed through decades of experience. It’s the kind of record you get from a veteran band of players that know damn well what they’re doing and what their fans expect of them. If you’ve dug anything else from this New Orleans institution, I can’t imagine not loving Zero and Below.
Since joining the band in 2005, drummer Tommy Buckley has played on four records with the band, starting with 2011’s Sever the Wicked Hand (Buckley joined after the band had recorded Lifesblood for the Downtrodden). Buckley, himself a New Orleans fixture since his days playing in Soilent Green, seamlessly integrated himself into the band to the point where it’d be odd to hear someone else drum with the band at this point. After a hiatus that was extended due to the COVID pandemic, Crowbar was finally back on the road last summer promoting their new record and playing to devoted fans across the country. I caught up with Buckley during that time between stops on the tour to chat about the latest record, his journey to joining Crowbar, and the strength of the New Orleans musical community.
What was the writing/recording process like for Zero and Below?
Tommy: It was funny cause it kind of changes a little bit with every album but some things just never change, they always stay the same. With Kirk [Windstein], with his pattern and work ethics, whether he’s been writing songs for a little bit or if he kind of pushes it towards the end, sometimes I like it better when he pushes it toward the end because I feel like we work better under pressure, not that we ever rush it. We definitely don’t want it to sound rushed. We want it to be good and heavy and take substantial enough time to write the songs and come up with some good material. It was mostly close toward the end of the actual time when the album was coming due to the label that we actually started writing it so it was kind of a quick, under pressure thing where we worked the last few months and just kind of knocked it out. Kirk did these demos with a click track and basically I learned everything off a guitar demo click track, man, it’s crazy. That’s how we worked for this album and how we worked for the last album. For Sever the Wicked Hand, it was pretty much half…half was recorded live like a jam session and then the other half was click track. For this album it was back to the old demos, demo tapes, and Kirk giving me some demos and from there just trying to get into that creative writing mode and come up with the best parts that fit the song.
How badly did COVID affect the recording of this one?
Tommy: Oh it was very affected. I started setting up my drums in the studio around Thanksgiving of 2019 and then we had to stop, pause everything to go to Australia, we got our first Australian tour ever, and I was just going through a divorce and stuff so it was pretty rough for me, crazy times, and then I had to come back home from that and my whole life was about to change. I was moving back to New Orleans and everything, and so the whole Zero and Below thing was really kind of my life at the time. I felt like I hit rock bottom and it felt like all I had was that recording. A good friend of mine put me up and I was staying at his house and dude, I just wrote those parts by myself just listening to those demo tapes every night. I listened to Kirk’s tapes and I’d do one song at a time. I’d just try and come up with the parts for one song at a time.
It always comes out good. I think I’m always my own worst critic cause sometimes when I’m writing a part for a song, I feel like I’m just not doing enough but I’ve learned over the years to just play what the part calls for and try not to overplay. Mostly I just play in the pocket and [do] groove playing, that’s basically where I was at for this record.
This was the first record with Shane [Wesley] on bass. How did you guys find him?
Tommy: It’s an odd story cause Shane actually auditioned for Crowbar back in 2013, right after I got sick and went through my cancer process and had my surgery. We chose Jeff Golden over Shane, he kinda fit the look more…big bald dude with a beard. Honestly, hindsight being 20/20, he doesn’t have the skills that Shane has, but Shane’s an actual guitarist so he’s taking backseat to his own instrument to be in Crowbar playing bass. He’s a really good bassist because he is a guitarist. It’s nice to have Shane. He’s got a lot of knowledge. I believe he’s got a degree in music. I know his brother does. His brother is actually an engineer at Studio In The Country, which is a studio in Bogalusa, LA where Kansas recorded Leftoverture with “Carry On Wayward Son.” Since Shane got in the band, it kind of opened some doors musically to some new things. He’s a great player, a great kid, a great guy so it’s nice to have him in the band with his talents.
It sounds like he ticks all the boxes then for you. Obviously you want great players in the band but you definitely want someone you can hang out with and spend time around.
Tommy: It’s weird. I guess, as we get older, we hang less. I live across the lake in Covington with my girl so I’m kind of far from the band. I was before when I was married to my ex-wife, I was like two hours away from New Orleans so it made it a lot harder to jam and all that. Now it’s a lot easier, I’m only an hour away from the jam room. It’s across the longest bridge in the world, the Causeway Bridge, it’s a 23-point-something mile bridge across water. That’s basically my drive. I have a few minutes to get to the bridge and once I’m on the bridge, it’s almost a half-hour ride. So it takes me an hour to get there but it’s nice to be closer to home and to the city and be able to practice a lot more.
Speaking of the city, how important has the New Orleans musical community been to your growth as a musician?
Tommy: Oh it’s been very important. Some of the bands that inspired me: Exhorder, Chris Nail, the drummer from Exhorder, is amazing and Flesh Parade, Todd Capiton, their drummer, is amazing. There’s a lot of great talent. You’ve got Down, you’ve got Goatwhore, you’ve got Soilent Green, you’ve got Acid Bath, you’ve got Graveyard Rodeo, Crowbar, Suplecs, you could just keep going on and on. There’s so many bands; I just can’t think of all of them. I’m getting so old now that I’m so out of touch with the new stuff. I learn about the new bands from Kirk and bands that open for Crowbar, like Green Gasoline and Vermillion Whiskey, which is actually a band I just recorded a record with. They hired me to go do an album with them so I just did a whole record with the band, [they’re from] Lafayette, LA. I did their drum tracks in the same studio that Crowbar records in and they took it home to their home studios and did all the vocals, bass, guitars and basically took it back to OCD recording studios, where we do the Crowbar albums, and the same engineer and producer, the owner of the studio, Duane Simoneaux, he mixed it. It’s really good, man. It’s like Lynyrd Skynyrd on steroids.
That’s exciting. I grew up with Skynyrd and all those old Southern rock bands.
Tommy: It’s total Down, C.O.C., all that shit. It’s really good. I never would have done it if the songs weren’t good, solid songs. I felt something about these guys and these certain batch of songs they handed me. It kind of grew on me real fast and through a mutual friend of mine, Patrick [Musumeche] from PM Star Promotions, he recommended me to these guys. They had opened for Crowbar in New Orleans in 2018, which was Big T [Todd Strange]’s last gig. Shane was already in the band but Todd agreed to do that one last gig. Who would know that a couple years later I’d be doing a record with those guys?
Speaking of joining bands, how did you end up with Crowbar when you first joined?
Tommy: It’s a long story made really quick [laughs]. I’m not even sure the year, it was in the ‘90s absolutely but probably later in the ‘90s. Craig [Nunenmacher] was out with Crowbar. Jimmy [Bower] was originally in the band before they did the record, the first record. By the time they got signed to do the record, Craig was the drummer. It was Jimmy, Craig, Jimmy, Craig…it went back and forth with Craig and Jimmy and then Sid Montz came in and did Equilibrium. He was Kirk’s old drummer in Victorian Blitz but he wasn’t cut out for it, he just wasn’t able to tour and stuff…great guy and a great drummer. Then Tony [Costanza] came in and did Sonic Excess, and he was Crisis’ old drummer and was actually Machine Head’s original drummer before Chris Kontos. All that went down, with all the drummers back and forth, then Craig got back in the band and he did Lifesblood for the Downtrodden. [This was] years later, when Kirk was putting the band back together and there really wasn’t a band. He hired Rex Brown from Pantera to play bass and he had Craig Nunenmacher back in the band to play drums. It was Kirk on all guitar tracks and vocals. Basically, they went into the studio and recorded Lifesblood for the Downtrodden.
Right after that, he needed a band again. He was back to square one and didn’t have a band. Basically, he hired Steve Gibb from Black Label Society, he was basically getting kicked out at the time by Zakk [Wylde], and he’s one of Barry Gibb’s sons so it’s weird having one of the Bee Gees’ sons in the band! Steve got in the band so it was Steve, Kirk, and Pat Bruders, who is Down’s bassist now and no longer plays in Crowbar, and then myself, I was hired last. Pat actually called me, I said it on the With Full Force DVD that Pat actually called me first and then Kirk called me. It was the same thing when I joined Christ Inversion with Phil [Anselmo]. Big Ross called me first and then Phil called me second [laughs]. It’s funny how it works.
If Kirk would have called me 30 years ago or whatever it was when they did that first record, I would have been the drummer on all their records. When I got in the band, it was basically Craig so they were on tour out with Black Label and I guess he was being watched by Zakk every night. Craig’s a really good drummer; he’s no slouch. He’s a hard hitter like me and he got the Black Label gig. He and Zakk exchanged numbers and next thing you know, Zakk stole Crowbar’s drummer [laughs]! So basically Crowbar was left drummerless and that’s when I got the call. He was just like, “Dude, I need a drummer. If you say yes, then you’re in the band. I’m not gonna audition anyone.” I was like, “Wow, I guess I’m in the band, Kirk!” All he had to do was call. It’s like a guy being scared to ask a pretty girl on a date. I guess they were intimidated by my talents in Soilent Green but it’s like, dude, all you had to do was ask, man!
Was it a difficult adjustment for you, from a musical standpoint, getting into the Crowbar style?
Tommy: I feel like I took the less is more route with Crowbar. I like that cause I’m an old school kind of guy and I like playing more of the Led Zeppelin style, like a [John] Bonham style. Of course nowadays that’s my favorite drummer in the world. My drum instructor would smack me on the head with a rock if he heard me say that [laughs]. He’s a total jazz-fusion session guy from New Orleans, Ray Fransen, he’s a graduate of Loyola University, a very well-educated drummer. All the rock and metal stuff is kind of meatheaded to him but that’s how it is when you talk about a guy that’s a jazz-fusion type of guy.
I’m totally happy though. I’m where I want to be in life, just a good solid metal and rock ‘n’ roll drummer. I think that’s perfect for me. You see all these guys out there and it’s like, jeez dude, you can’t even touch what some of these guys are doing…Thomas Lang and all these other guys, like Terry Bozzio. Dude, just regular drummers in bands, the kids these days…it’s great to see that because it’s almost a dying breed. Kids are not taking music in schools as much anymore and it’s good to see young talent and stuff come out and popping up. Even bands that are kind of crappy, it’s good to see honest effort on stage. The bands that stick together, usually they get better.
How exciting was it for you to get that call to join Crowbar?
Tommy: Oh dude it was awesome! I didn’t really know if I was going to do it. I wanted to do it but, honestly, there was kinda some friction with me and Brian [Patton] from Soilent Green cause, and I’ve never said this to anybody but it wasn’t really a big deal, but I was a little pissy when he got into Eyehategod, I’m not gonna lie. I was like, “Dude, why are you joining that band? [laughs].” So he was kind of the same way when I joined Crowbar so I understood. Also, with all the loss that follows Soilent Green around, that led to us not doing much anymore. I was terrified to get into a band cause of the two accidents so it’s hard for me to do the Goatwhore thing and get back in Ben Falgoust’s van. Who knows, maybe the Green can get back together again but there are a lot of different things and factors that came into play at that time in life. Shit changes and this is where I ended up at but Soilent Green never officially broke up so who knows, man. I’ve got the reel-to-reels and my secrets under my bed so we gotta take ‘em and bake ‘em and work with them and see what’s possible.
How do you feel you’ve progressed as a drummer during your time with Crowbar?
Tommy: I was a little nervous when I did that Sever the Wicked Hand record cause it was kind of a re-birth of Crowbar. It was re-born with me doing the drumming and that Sever the Wicked Hand record just kicks ass. I don’t know what it is about that record but that record still holds…I think that’s my favorite record out of all the albums that I’ve done so far, even that new one. I don’t know, man, Sever the Wicked Hand set the standard. It set the standard to what we were going to become and what Crowbar was going to sound like.
It’s weird. I kind of look at it like a Pantera thing. I was joking with these guys and said that Sever the Wicked Hand was kind of our Cowboys From Hell and Symmetry in Black was our Vulgar Display of Power and The Serpent Only Lies was our Far Beyond Driven so I guess this would be our Great Southern Trendkill record. I always tell Duane Simoneaux that [he’s] like our Terry Date in the studio. He’s always like, “Really, you think?” And I’m like, absolutely, and it puts a big smile on his face. He gets a kick out of that. He does a great job on those records and knows what Crowbar should sound like almost better than we do.
It’s not been much of a struggle but I just try and pay tribute to Craig and Jimmy and the old drummers, God bless Tony, and Sid Montz. They’re all friends, I’m friends with all those guys and so I just try to do a little bit of Craig’s style and a little bit of Jimmy’s style and everybody, Sid, Tony, and just try and incorporate that and sound like myself, if that’s possible. I try and have a little bit of everything into one.
I was very nervous when I did that Sever the Wicked Hand album but I think, on the three records after that one, I feel at home in Crowbar, and I feel comfortable, and I started listening to Zeppelin more as I got older and older and the Bonham style started wearing on me a little more. I’m happy with my style of playing and where I’m at now. I’ve had some really nice compliments over the last few years that I never would think about myself. A guy came up to me the other night and said that I had my own patented sound. Like, thanks dude, I pretty much ripped off everybody [laughs].
What’s it been like to finally be able to get back on the road after so long off due to COVID?
Tommy: It was just weird, man, after not doing it for so long to get out there and do it again. I think there was a two to maybe three week run we did and it was weird, it was cool. I almost forgot how to set up my drums and the little routines and knick-knack things I used to do. It was like, wow, I’ve gotta get back into the groove. Other than that, it was just kind of strange. It definitely took some getting used to again. Of course, when you’re a musician, it’s like riding a bicycle. That shit never really leaves or goes away. I didn’t pick up drumsticks for six months when I had my cancer and I got back with Crowbar and jumped behind the kit and played like I never missed a beat or a practice. It’s just like riding a bike again.
What has the response been like to the new material when you’ve played it live?
Tommy: Oh man, we’ve been getting great responses. We were supposed to work in “It’s Always Worth the Gain” but we just didn’t have enough time before we left. With everything going on…my mom’s sister, my favorite aunt, passed away and then Kirk’s dad passed away. It was like four or five days apart so it was pretty rough. It was amongst other things [too]. I was working my regular job and everybody is trying to get things done before they leave, packing and everything, and you gotta do your home stuff and it got a little bit crazy but it’s cool to be back out again. For me, it’s long. Seven weeks is too long. I like going out for three or four weeks, a month is perfect. By that time, you’re getting homesick and boom, you’re back home.
Last question, do you have a favorite song from Zero and Below?
Tommy: I do like the “It’s Always Worth the Gain” song. I think Kirk was just wanting me to go off on that a little more. I’m not doing all kinds of death metal, crazy thrash metal rolls on it. It’s got some cool quads and some triplets on it and I like to layer a lot of shit when I’m playing, not overdub but two hand strikes. If I’m doing a single tom hit, I’m usually hitting with both hands. I want that shit to sound big and layered. I play with big drums, 14×12 or whatever it is, and then 16×18 or whatever. I believe in going at it to make the drums sound thicker and Duane knows that. We always try to make it sound huge in the studio. With the drums, we just go more organic, not triggered. If we do anything, we sample my own drums and we’ll just use my own sampled drum sound with a mixed sound but it won’t be much fake electronic stuff, you know? We try and keep it as organic as we can. That was my thing with the Symmetry in Black album because, I think his name was Josh Wilbur, who does the Lamb of God records, he did the mixing [and we] weren’t really happy with it. It’s a great record but it’s very triggered, electronic, and sampled sounding. As much as we fought with that, and sent it back and forth. I was lucky I got it to sound the way that it did. I got him to fix it that much. If you listen to that drum sound, as opposed to the other three records, it’s very different. You’ll notice it now that I’m pointing it out to you. If you go back and listen to it, it’s very different. [We] definitely try and go for the organic tones though, for sure.
Photo at top: Zero and Below album cover.