Born and raised on a farm outside Pittsburgh, Ray Luzier learned from a young age what hard work really means, but struggling with allergies forced him to withdraw from the farm work and spend more time in his room – with his drum kit. The rest is history…
I sat down with Ray after his performance at the UK drum show in Manchester to talk about his upbringing, his work on the Los Angeles session scene and the route that led him behind the drums of one of the most successful Metal bands out there: Korn.
You grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania. What are the musical influences there?
Yes. It’s weird because nobody in my family played an instrument but they had a great love for music so there was always something playing at home: Beatles, Zeppelin, Elvis, Chuck Berry… and I remember looking at the albums and being blown away by them. Non-farmers don’t quite understand that life. There’s a different kind of work ethic that comes with farmers. There is no 9-5 and then you go home and watch TV. You work till you drop. Sometimes I would get up in the morning, bail a field of hay, have a shower and then go to school. That’s just the life you know.
My allergies started getting really bad though, I was sneezing all the time. The doctor said I would grow out of it but it just got worse and worse. I would come back from the field and my eyes were swollen and I couldn’t breath so my mum said: “Go to your room and just hang out”. Well, my drums were in my room.
That’s really how it started: I couldn’t do as much farm work so I was always sent to my room and I just played and played and played. I would steal my sister’s records: Ozzy, Ted Nugent, Lynyrd Skynyrd… anything she had and just try to figure out what they were doing. I was so bad for so many years because I just didn’t know what to do. I didn’t even know what to do with a hi hat, I was just riding my snare. I got my first professional drum from my uncle who was in a marching band. It was a Slingerland snare drum. I’ll never forget that. Yeah, I just never stopped from then on.
At school I started jazz band, concert band and the symphonic orchestra. That’s where I learned how to read music but it was a whole other discipline. You’re holding a set of crash cymbals and counting 32 bars to play that one hit… I just wanted to rock out. When you’re younger you just think this is stupid but you realise how valuable it was when you get older.
That all tied in with me starting a rock band in Pittsburgh. We started playing some clubs but I wasn’t actually old enough to get in so my dad had to stand at the door with his arms crossed and wait for me. I had to play the show, take my drums out the back door and leave immediately. I did that for a couple of years.
Definitely. I was so passionate about it a super young age. I decided when I was 13/14 years old that I’m gonna do this – whether I’m playing a street bucket on the corner, or in a stadium.
In my later years in Pittsburgh my guitarist kept saying we’ve got to get out of there. He was convinced we wouldn’t be able to get into a bigger band there so we started thinking about whether to move to New York or Los Angeles. Back then in the ’80s, if you were a rocker, L.A. was the place to go. So he talked me into going 2600 miles across the States. My mum wanted me to get some kind of education so I applied to M.I.. I didn’t think I would get in because you had to play a bossa nova and swing, but I was just a rock metal head. But I got in, went there for a year and then decided to stay out there.
I always told my parents that if I’m making a living playing music in Los Angeles I’ll stay out there – if I’m waiting tables in a coffee shop, I can do that in Pittsburgh.
It was hard. I didn’t start making money for years.
You then went on to teach at M.I. Has teaching always been a passion of yours?
When I was at M.I. I kept complaining that they didn’t have a rock programme. Tim Peterson had a little bit of basic rock stuff going on but nothing major. They kept telling me to study jazz, latin and all that… I understand that, but I’m still gonna play rock.
Three years later Ralph Humphrey calls me saying they want me to come up with a rock curriculum. I’m 22, why would I teach? But they had confidence in me and I started with 3 hours a week – which led to 33.
I have a lot of great drummer friends that blow circles around me playing-wise but they can’t teach what they’re playing. They simply don’t know how to explain it.
There is a thing at M.I. called open counselling where you sit in a room with 15 drummers and they come in with stuff they have trouble with. You get the genius guy who pulls out a five page chart going: “I’m having trouble with this 13 minute long Dream Theatre song”. It’s a whole different skill trying to break that down – slow it down so bonehead- that anybody can figure out what I’m doing. Not a lot of guys can do that. I’m not saying I’m great at it but I was kind of forced to learn it because of these sessions.
I also used to do a lot of clinics and masterclasses but I don’t do as many today unfortunately. I miss that really. I used to go to Japan three times a year to teach at a few schools but Korn is so busy that I’m struggling to find time.
Yes I did. I was never a Josh Freese, a Colaiuta or any of these guys but I was making a living doing it.
The Valley in L.A. is this area with tons of recording studios and I lived right in the middle of it in Sherman Oaks. My friends would call me up going: “I need this tambourine recorded for this one section”. I would go over there and they’d give me 100 bucks just to play tambourine. “Come down and keep 4/4 on this track”, “We have this movie thing and there is a guy running through the forrest. Play a beat to that!”. I started getting calls for the most bizarre things. It was fun but very challenging. I still can’t play styles like I would like to because I don’t play them enough (I wish I played more swing and latin ) but I faked it really good in sessions. That’s one thing I learned at M.I.: always look like a professional.
All that session work led to quite a bit of touring work too, right?
I had a few failed original bands in L.A. – I had that dream just like Korn did. They’re five punks from California, they had no idea how to play their instruments but they had something that appealed to the masses. Everyone dreams about that. We got so close with my bands, selling out loads of big venues but at the last minute the labels would let us down so we just never quite did it. That’s when I started auditioning for other gigs.
Long story short I auditioned for the Jake E Lee band, Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist who was also in Badlands. There were 150 drummers there and they all auditioned playing the same three songs. I was one of the last guys of the day so I went in and said: “Hey Jake, I’m a huge Badlands fan, do you mind if we play Soul Steeler?”. He wanted to stick to the three audition songs but the bass player started jamming Soul Steeler. Jake went: “You’re playing it wrong, let me show you” and all of a sudden there was this new energy in the room. I got the gig and that was my first ‘being on a tourbus, making money, playing every day’ experience. We played some bad clubs and didn’t make much money but I didn’t care because I loved playing with him.
That led me into a band called Arcade which then led me to play with Cinderella. All of that led me to being really busy doing sessions ’95/’96.
One day a friend called me saying he is writing with David Lee Roth from Van Halen and David heard my playing and wanted me to come into the studio to record some drums for them. I’m a huge Van Halen fan so of course I said yes. He kept asking me loads of questions like: “What if I said swing this or play a fill here” but I kind of thought he’s just a weird guy. Next day his manager calls me and says: “Hey Kid, you passed the audition”.
That led me to eight years with David Lee Roth. It was a whacky ride but I learned a lot from him. David taught me how to be an entertainer. Don’t just sit back there playing the drums, be part of the show. That doesn’t mean show off but you don’t want that ‘waiting for the bus’-look. Let me feel what you’re feeling.
David is a bit crazy though which makes it tricky to deal with him and it became a drag after a while. I think I quit the gig about four times in the eight years. I was in arenas, on brand new buses, staying in nice hotels, making really good money but I wasn’t happy.
It’s more of a feeling, an emotion, I think. I’m not saying that drummers who just sit there aren’t good. I just saw Matt Garstka absolutely kill it, he’s amazing, and the stuff he plays is insanely difficult and it’s so smooth in his execution. You can sit there for that.
But if I’m there to see a show, give me a show. You don’t have to ham it up but I want to see what you’re feeling. If you’re not feeling anything then that’s your thing but I play how I feel. There are some Korn shows that go by and I don’t remember what happened. I sit backstage with my head in my hands thinking ‘I don’t even remember the last 90 minutes’ because if something comes over you – and there is an aggression about the Korn stuff – I pretty much just black out. It’s weird. It’s not something you practise, it’s just an emotion I have. Photographers always laugh and tell me I make the best faces when drumming. I’m sorry, that’s what I do.
‘Putting on a show’ is the perfect link to talking about your time with Steel Panther.
We had some time off between shows with David so I auditioned for this organisation called Perfect World. Anybody can play in a cover band but Perfect World had a reputation for doing full disco shows. They put wigs on, gold chains, polyester shirts, dancers, horn players – it was a show! That paid my bills because he paid really good money. My friends were laughing at me but they were getting $100-200 playing a cover gig, I was getting $500-1000 for putting on a wig. They then started branching out to funk so we put on different outfits and started playing Parliament and Gadd Band stuff.
One day he says: “We’re starting this rock metal band called Metal Shop. You’re the guy for it”. I said no because it was too close to what I actually love. The disco thing was fun because it was so different but I didn’t want to do that with metal so they got another drummer in. They weren’t too happy with him though so they convinced me to play a few shows to try it out. We played the Viper Room on a Monday night to 12 people and I was just thinking ‘this is stupid. What am I doing with my life? I’ve got a wig on, twirling my sticks playing Mötley Crüe and White Snake’. The band leader took me to the side and said: “Man, you’re not getting it. This is entertainment. You’re supposed to be Spinal Tap times 10. Get your stick caught in your hair, drop it on purpose…”.
So we started getting more and more funny. I designed the hair solo where the bass player got on his knees and the other guys just blew his hair. Next thing you know I’m getting my stick caught in my hair, the bass player is jumping on the kick drum trying to pull it out and the audience is rolling on the ground laughing. Then celebrities started showing up: Chad Smith, Steven Tyler… all these guys came to see this funny rock act. Next thing you know we’re selling out the Viper Room, we get a huge raise, people cueing up and down the road. All that time I’m still out touring with David Lee Roth so every time I’m away they had to get another guy in (Darren, who now is the resident drummer) to fill in. So I pretty much got fired from the gig. I remember him telling me they wanted to start original songs and I just laughed. Why would you want to do that? But look at them now, they’re killing it!
From getting out of Dave I kept desperately searching for something national. Now I had been playing with Dave on a certain scale / level, I don’t want to go down – but everyone knows that can very well happen in the music business. I have friends that had giant gigs and they’re in clubs the next day. That’s just the way it is, the nature of the beast.
So I had served my time and I was looking to get out desperately. I had a couple “prog-ey” rock bands going on, one of which was called ‘The Hideous Sun Demon’.
With that we played at the Sabian party at NAMM show in ’05. Dean DeLeo from ‘Stone Temple Pilots’ was there (I’m a huge fan of the band) and he comes over and tells me he’s starting a band with Richard Patrick from Filter (who I’m also a huge fan of). That was my way out of Dave. I auditioned for ‘Army of Anyone’, got the gig and we recorded an album that I was so proud of. Unfortunately it was short-lived because it got mismanaged. Classic story in the music business: “What do we do with you guys?”, “Put us on the road!”. So we did a small tour but it just didn’t work that great.
But our managers also managed Korn and we kept talking about them. Terry Bozzio was playing on their new album – then he got fired and they brought in Joey Jordison from Slipknot to play their tour. There was so much going on. One day he said: “You know, they really liked that Army of Anyone record. You should go and play with them on the last gig of the tour. I think you’d be good at it.” I said: “Why should I play with Korn? I don’t have any tattoos, I don’t have dreads…”. So that’s what I did. I went to Seattle sitting in this empty arena at noon – they had rented me a crappy sounding 5 piece kit, Joey’s monster kit behind me on the raiser – and the crew just looked at me going “Who the f are you? It’s the last day of the tour, the band is not gonna show up for something like this!”. I just set up, an hour goes by, 90 minutes go by, hum of the PA going “brrrruuuuuu”, and I’m just thinking ‘this is so stupid’. Finally Monkey shows up eating a sandwich going: “Sorry man, last day of the tour. So what songs do you know?”.
I learned back in the day that if you’re asked to audition and the band has a history, do your homework. And I was already a Korn fan anyway. So they had asked me to learn six songs, I learned 33. You’ve got to prepare, right? We played a few songs and they went: “Welcome to Korn. You got the gig. We’ll see you in Dublin”.
You can actually watch that on Youtube, just type in Ray Luzier audition. You can see on my expression when I got the gig: “Cool man, it’s gonna be great” – because I didn’t believe them. You don’t just join a band like that. They have die hard fans, 44 million records sold and people have the original drummers face tattooed on their backs – they don’t give a crap about some Luzier guy playing.
That’s exactly it. I’m a huge fan of some bands and I don’t want to see some new guy playing. I got a lot of sh*t the first couple of years. I was just a hired gun for the first year and I was happy with just doing my thing. I got up there and nobody gave a crap because they just wanted to see a good Korn show.
I got the gig in October ’07 and in ’09 the bass player says: “Hey man, this is getting weird, you’ve got to start showing up at meet & greets”. I didn’t really know why I should going but went along anyway. So we’re all sitting in a row at a desk and the fans come over to shake the guys’ hands and thank them for everything they’ve done – but they wouldn’t even acknowledge me. And I get that.
It’s now my 13th year with Korn but five years ago people still came up to me saying: “Man, I f**king hated you but now I love you!”. How did you hate me? I didn’t do anything. That’s what people don’t understand: the old drummer left. That guy left all of you and he didn’t even say goodbye.
I’ll never forget this girl in Germany. Every show she was in the first row dead centre giving me the finger. She couldn’t stand me. Then one day she said: “I want you to know I have accepted you” and she turns around, pulls her dress up and shows me a tattoo of my face on her leg. “You’re for life now”. That’s how die hard these people are.
I still get called the new guy after 13 years though. I told Neil Peart about that one day and he said: “Ray, I’m still the new guy”. I said “Neil, you are Rush!” and he replied: “Yes, but I’m not the original”. And he’s right.
Korn has recently released a new album and you mentioned in an interview that it’s more modern. Did that influence your drumming as well?
Korn is on an all new high right now. I don’t know what’s going on but over the last several years something clicked in the music, in us as a band and in us as individuals. It’s all about music and family now, there is no bullsh*t.
We just got off an America tour with Alice in Chains and it was pretty much sold out every night. Record numbers, 3000-5000 people more than we usually do, and the smile on peoples faces, it was amazing. I remember [Korn guitarist] Head coming up to me and goes: “This is some ’99 Korn sh*t!”, because that’s when they were at the top. The band has been around so long we could easily be touring clubs now playing ‘Freak on a Leash’ – and that would be ok, we’d still be doing it. We’re very fortunate to have such die hard fans. We all realise that we’re now 47 or 49 years old and we really appreciate the people still showing up – and you can’t bullshit the fans.
Jonathan lost his wife last year which obviously was a very traumatic thing to go through for all of us. Because of that the record has a lot of darkness to it but it’s life stuff and it seems that a lot of people can relate to that. I’m very proud of what came out.
We had this insane producer called Nick Raskulinecz who pushed me in a really cool way. With Korn you can’t just play fast fills and get away with stuff. It’s all about emotions and feel on the record, not about “can I impress a drummer with this” – that’s not how you play in this band. But then at the weirdest times Nick kept pushing me to play more. For example at the end of ‘Harder’, my favourite song on the album. In other parts he was telling me off for being too busy. We definitely butted head about that sometimes but listening back to the parts I had to admit that he was right. Asshole! You think you know it but having that ‘outside ear’-person is very important.
Yes, that just happened because of the quarterly period of time. KXM is my project with George Lynch and dUg Pinnick – two of my favourite musicians on the planet. I never thought I would be in a band with them. The album is called ‘Circle of Dolls’ and was actually something that didn’t have a producer. They don’t tell me what to do and that’s the rule in the band. Nobody tells anyone what to do. It’s pretty much my outlet for all the ideas I’m not allowed to use in Korn. Every day we get in the studio we write everything fresh, there are no preconceived riffs or notions. Sometimes a song would come out of just me sound checking the drums. Every day we write a song from start to finish and I’ll track the drums from 6-9 that night. Chris Collier, the engineer, helps us by being the outside ears and he’s the one that pushes us. It’s a 100% me on there which is awesome. I wish it was on a bigger label but we’re very proud to just get it out there and people like yourself are spreading the word.
We made some funny videos too. Go onto Youtube and type in KXM – there are like 3 or 4 videos for each records.
Interesting fact about you: you’re a fan of fine dining. I just got that picture in my mind of you playing a metal show and then walking into a 5-star restaurant…
I get my napkin out and everything. [laughs]
But yeah, I’m a foodie and I love it. I even watch cooking channels on TV and all that. There is such an art to what we eat. There are people who eat a 20 cent pack of Ramen noodles and they’re fine with it but I think it’s years of not having too much money growing up on the farm. My mum was a great home cook but we just never ate out ever. Going to McDonalds was a big deal. Wow, what’s the occasion, who’s birthday is it?!
When I moved to L.A. there were all these amazing pizza restaurants and Thai food places – I didn’t even know what Thai food was – and it was all reasonably priced. The more I started touring I ended up going to these nicer restaurants where the chef would come out to see if you liked it and they took so much pride in it. I love that and it really became a hobby of mine. I’m fortunate that I get to travel the world and can try the food in all these amazing places.
We have our own coffee out now and just released a new blend called ‘wired blend’ because of the guy on the album cover with all the wires. It’s super strong. You can buy in in our web store and even get it in certain restaurants around America.
Thanks a lot for your time Ray!
Interview by Tobias Miorin