THERE WERE THESE THREE TECHS IN AN ARENA - A Chat with Justin Crew, Chad Zaemisch & Jimmy Clark
BY STEFFAN CHIRAZI
The last thing Justin Crew, Chad Zaemisch, and Jimmy Clark need is some busy-body with mics and cameras asking them questions when the gig is hours away. Cue Steffan Chirazi’s timely and welcome arrival (assisted by Brett Murray).
You will not teach a wily old road dog new tricks. I know that! Zach Harmon, Rob Trujillo’s tech and one of the most senior members of Metallica’s crew, has seen this mic coming his way for decades and remains heartily disinterested in speaking about the band on record. So I didn’t even ask. Especially given the week that was Copenhagen! But as the intro cunningly hinted, I did make sure to impose myself upon the other three techs who (just like any night) were busy preparing for the show.
I had initially planned to find Justin Crew, Kirk Hammett’s long-term and loyal tech, a little earlier than my eventual arrival at his “spot” on one side of the stage. Justin is a true comedian. As dry as a Jacob’s Cream Cracker (with not one sliver of cheese to be found), Crew deals in deft sarcasm and straight-faces like no one I know. Some of the best road jokes I’ve heard have come from him, as have some of the worst come to think of it. Nonetheless, I offer a quick apology for my tardiness and quickly ask him what he is doing at this point, just under four hours from showtime.
“Well, it’s so much the calm before the storm right now because we’ve had a week of craziness in here,” he says, “getting guitars ready for tonight, the same ones that we’ve been rehearsing with all week, basically. This [picks up one of Hammett’s many axes] happens to be the guitar for ‘Thingy’ and ‘Dream…’ It’s a C-sharp guitar, so it has heavier strings on it, otherwise it will feel ‘floppy.’ And once I’ve got this done, I’ve probably got another three, maybe four to do. Can’t quite remember what we used last night. And then, yeah, [got to] get me the long black trousers, black t-shirt on and away we go!”
I imagine the indoor in-the-round set-up offers some unique challenges for him.
“There’s a huge amount of difference!” he chuckles, “The main thing is we don’t have to worry too much about the weather indoors. At the stadium show that’s huge. Everything [and everyone] is concerned about, ‘What if it rains, what if it rains, put it here!’ Whereas here [indoors] it’s not so much; here it’s all about keeping the barricade in as tight as we can so we can get as many people on the floor safely and try to keep everything down low so that everybody who is right there on the floor hasn’t got a big speaker in front of ’em so they can see everything. And the rest of it’s just the choreography of who’s going up what stairs when. At least we don’t have the distance, if we need to do a quick guitar change, I can do it right here where we’re set up or on the stairs. On a stadium show, you’re probably going to allow for it to go cool in the evenings. The colder it gets, the tighter the metal of the strings go, and also the springs they balance to get on with a whammy bar.”
Which begs the question: which is more painful, cold or warm?
“They’re both painful, but in here tonight it’s gonna get hot and sweaty, and it’s easier to tune these up. So if it’s getting warmer it’s easier, as it’s always easier to come up than down. So that’s definitely something we need to think about. And then just the audio, in here it doesn’t change too much because we don’t use speakers for the guitars anymore; we’re all digital in that respect. So it’s not the case of ‘if it’s a hot, sticky day in the tropics it sounds as if you’re mic-ing up wet cardboard, the speakers, and then other days they’re dry. So it doesn’t change as much. It’s much more consistent these days.”
Of course each crew member has their in-ear monitors, and I wondered if Justin gets everyone in his?
“I actually just largely get Kirk,” he says. “I get heavy Kirk, a little James, a little of all the vocals, kick, and snare. And that’s all I get, oh, and acoustic guitar as well from James to get the starts. Because Kirk is so prominent in my mix, I can hear anything going wrong. For example, I’ll hear a string break before he’ll notice because I hear the guitar go out of tune. If you break one string the whole tension against those whammy springs changes, so therefore the whole thing goes out. With a guitar that doesn’t have a tremolo, if you break one you can carry on with the other five, it’s just in your way.”
So folks, if you’re ever near or around Justin when he’s working, don’t talk to him, please. Please leave him alone. Please don’t start telling him about the shows you’ve seen and what life was like as a kid in Peoria listening to “…Justice,” right?
“Yeah, I can’t hear you because it’s Metallica in here!”
But truthfully, Crew is keenly dialed in during shows, trying to catch the sort of aural missteps we would never begin to notice so as he can get in and correct them.
“We succeed or fail together. On songs like ‘Fade…’ or ‘One’ where he’s playing an intricate part, I listen for his fingers to come off the strings for when he’s going to a different sound. You can’t change on the downbeat; you have to change between four and one between the bars. If I hit my change on the ‘one,’ half of that note is one sound and the other half is in the new sound.”
And here’s the kicker. The pair of them work on this with minimal chit-chat, relying instead on many, many years of working together to the point where they just “know” most things intuitively.
“I’ll see something come up, or he’ll have an idea and say, ‘I want to add this effect to that.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, that little bit? Fine.’ And we’ll do that and then I’ll hear him play it the following evening and maybe think, ‘That’s a bit too pronounced,’ or ‘It’s not quite enough.’ And then in a couple shows, it’ll be where we both wanted it. But until I hear him actually play, it’s not the same as when I’m playing [the equipment] in the afternoon. We try to get close, but when I hear him play it, I tweak it and hone it in a little bit more every time.”
I ask Justin what the worst piece of gear to go out during a show would be, and he confidently says that anything involving getting in behind the racks to patch them is “going to be a drama.”
“I can’t remember what that band was called now,” Justin says with a hint of diplomacy, “but we were in Australia and we were in the middle of ‘One.’ He’d [the star of our story, a member of said-band – ED] had a few glasses of wine after his set, was walking around, he stumbled, grabbed the back of my guitar stand, and pulled it over on himself in the middle of the show. And that was awkward, because you’re trying to do your changes and you’re trying to pick this [stand] up. He’d pulled the whole lot over!”
What do you do?
“It’s a busy show, so you just put it [back] up, and deal with that later. He was with his tour manager, so by the time I looked around everybody was gone. And the next day, there was a very expensive bottle of wine in my work box when I got there, and a thank you from the tour manager. I thought that was nice, but the next day, again. And the next day and every show after that there was a bottle of Grange!”
I dig deep into my pockets for a six-cent question and ask Justin whether he’s ever run out of guitars? Has Kirk ever looked at him, said “I want this guitar,” only for Justin to say, “Oh, fuck, we don’t have that one”?
“Way back there was a little bit of that because of all the different tunings. He’d see a guitar and go, ‘Ooh, I’d love to play that.’ ‘You can’t, it’s in a different tuning. It’s in D.’ They all have different tuning. So yeah, we don’t just have ’em all out here because it’s a pageant show! They’re all out here for a reason. And for every tuning, I need at least two guitars.”
And here’s me thinking it was literally, “Oh I want to play the green one” or whatever!
“I mean, there’s a certain amount of that, but…let me get my setlist…” Justin digs up a setlist within seconds, marked up with all sorts of bits and pieces. “…we got the Mummy, purple guitar, Mummy. Remind myself to change the bank on my foot switch. White Zombie, Mummy, White Zombie, Greenie, Mummy, Jackson which is a D, Purple, Les Paul, and so on. I go through and I have a plan. We use certain guitars for certain things.”
And do these get discussed at the start of every leg?
“No, there’s not a big sit-down discussion. This evening it’ll be, ‘Hey, do you want to use this guitar for that?’ This is a setlist that we’ve changed up a little bit. It’s normally a short, one-minute, two-minute conversation. It’s not like a sit-down with a bit of paper.” And with that cream-cracker comic timing, he drops an eyebrow and raises a smirk before saying, “We’ve been doing it a while.”
I leave Justin to continue tweaking and tuning, making my way around the corner to where Jimmy Clark is busy polishing something or taping something else on another side of stage just around from Justin. Three days ago I’d seen Jimmy backstage with a pile of nuts and bolts, fiddly little things encrusted in rust. The following day, this pile had been replaced by gleaming hardware, Jimmy having gotten rid of the rust and polished them up to standard again. With a smile. Jimmy always has a smile, even when he doesn’t have a smile and looks less than impressed, a smile is no more than an inch away from breaking out. He took over Lars’ drum tech duties a few years ago now, and I couldn’t help but wonder when nut (and bolt!) scrubbing became part of that?
“Well, we just finished the stadium tour. Great tour, but outdoors, so basically there’s a lot of maintenance and wear and tear on the drum set within the fact that the chrome gets corroded and lugs get rusted because of moisture. We go from Chicago and then we go down to Orlando, the trucks are sitting for two weeks and when I open up my cases, the drums are moving sweat! So after that leg was done, I had to replace all the lugs and everything to make it nice because I refuse to let him play on a dirty set or on one that’s not like new. Aside from that, my basic daily maintenance is changing the drum heads, cleaning the cymbals and wrapping the drumsticks.”
That last one sounds thankless.
“An average show? Ten to twelve pair. It’s not that I go through ’em, but he likes to change ’em every song because he sweats. We wrap ’em here [shows the area they are wrapped] with the stick tape. Once that gets wet he wants another pair. That’s why you see me onstage more than anybody. Not my choice, but he likes me to hand him new sticks all the time, so I do. So I try to prep about five shows’ worth so I’m never stressed out to have to do it, because it takes time. So last night, on my night off, bottle of wine, fifteen pairs of sticks, in my robe, wrapping sticks. Am I an exciting guy or what?!”
Pushing through that enduring image, I ask Jimmy if he listens exclusively to Lars in his monitors.
“I don’t listen to his mix because he’s just about his bass drum and James, and I understand that. I have to get a whole vision of the whole thing so I have to hear the complete drum set. That way I know if something is out of tune. Did something break? Did the bottom snare blow out or did the snares break? I can hear that. I change it out.”
The learning curve for picking up Lars’ needs involved a certain amount of intuition and interpretation, but nothing Jimmy wasn’t able to get a grip of.
“Lars is the master of making many faces. Many faces. When I first got the gig, he’d look over at me like Satan and, you know, do his ‘crazy’ stuff. I’m like, ‘What?’ And I had to run up there, only for him to say, ‘Nothing!’ Oh, okay. So over time, yes, I have learned when he’s just in the moment or when he actually needs something.”
The stick-passing can be a little trickier.
“The stick passing, we’ve got it to where I know which songs he likes them, but that’s not always consistent. I used to give him sticks at beginning of ‘…Sandman’ all the time. Now, sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t. But if he ever reaches his hands in the back, I know and I’m up there with another pair. Because he always just tosses them. Every night it’s different, because he gets in the moment. I used to worry, like, ‘Man, I’m not doing my job because he seems to be pissed off all the time,’ you know? And he said just don’t take anything he does personally because he’s in the moment. And being that I was a player [Jimmy is a drummer too – ED] all my life, I understand where his head is at during show time. He goes to another place. There’s Lars offstage who we all know and love, and then there’s Lars onstage who you don’t want to get in front of because he’ll spit on you. By accident of course, not on purpose. He’s just a spitter! But you know what I’m saying? He’s in the moment and I totally understand where he goes. So I don’t take anything he does personally. If he’s really pissed at me, he’ll let me know about it.”
I want to know what breaks the most in the course of a gig, whether Lars is a snare-popper or cymbal wrecker. Jimmy surprises me with the answer.
“I won’t allow him. Because again, being that I’ve been a player, and a hard player, all my life, I’ve learned what to do to make sure that every night he plays that kit he has nothing to worry about. One time the snare broke, but he didn’t break the head. The actual ribbon underneath the snare, the wire popped, and that’s just because it’s got two straps, you know? And that was in the beginning. Now it’s never happened because I double ’em up, so they’re double thickness now. You can ask him, but I don’t think we’ve had any major problems. I prep him to play that kit like I would play it, and I hit really hard.”
I wonder out loud whether there is a “brotherhood” between touring techs, whether they imbibe together as well as work together, where they hang and socialize.
“Well, it used to be me and Justin together on the last one [stadium tour]. This is a completely different thing and he’s over there; that’s good, because I don’t want him near me! I don’t want him in my area. I want him away from me! I can throw stuff at ’em now and they can’t come over and do anything about it because they don’t have the time. Wait ’til you see the paintball gun I got…” I am seeing all techs are comics. “…they won’t even see it coming!”
There is only one place to go after that dynamic duo of humorous tech-education: Chad Zaemisch. Another comedic tech titan and the man who looks after James Hetfield on-stage, I was looking forward to drawing a few zingers from him. However, displaying the sort of impeccable timing which has informed my career as a reporter, I get chatting with Chad right before the sound boys start testing the brown trouser-inducing sound system (which on the floor feels like it’s blending your brekkie, lunch, and din-dins at supercharged Cuisinart-mixer speed). So every time we embark on a point, a sonic boom kicks us in the ass. Still, we persevere! I ask what one of the big differences between this stage and the summer stage is for him?
“The thing that’s a little different is the timeline as far as when we [get] here on the stage,” he says as he tunes a guitar. Because the stage is gonna be blown apart and put in the separate corners while they build the center part of the rig, what I may end up doing is going to set up [his station] in a hallway, start to change strings, and do the basic things that take a lot of time.”
He prefers the indoor set-up regardless.
“This is a lot easier for me. To be able to see James is a big thing. In the stadium tour, I could not see him really at all, so it was difficult to find where he was. If something was going wrong, or if I was curious about what was going on or something else was happening like I had to do a guitar change, it was like, ‘Oh, where is he?!!’ You know? So when I do have to run out on the stage, this is a lot easier in that I can watch him the whole time. I can read his body language better for changing the sounds. I can tell when he’s getting frustrated with something. I might not know what it is. But that’s when it’s time to go on high alert and start looking, because it could be a microphone askew. It could be a sound thing, it could be something with the way the band’s playing the song, maybe he doesn’t like it, or if it’s too hot, just things like that. It’s easier for me to get a vibe on that [in this production] so when he comes off the stage, I can already start to offer a solution or ask him if he’s doing okay.”
When it comes to monitors, Chad is on the Jimmy-train.
“I have my own in-ear mix, right? So I hear mostly James and I need drums. Because with a lot of the punches and the changes and things like that, it’s pretty much between James and Lars. And I need to hear those sort of count-ins from when they break down, or we change from the heavy sound to the clean sound. And that’s what visually helps too sometimes, when he’s raising the guitar up or reaching for the switch. Those things help.”
And what doesn’t aide your cause so much in this set-up?
“The difficult part about doing this is just having my back to the audience. There are certain places where they think it’s cool or ‘punk rock’ to throw beer. You know, I spend all day every day maintaining the instruments, keeping ’em clean and doing all that kind of thing. So a cup of beer on your head is like -”
That PA’s getting tested again, and I will take a wild guess most of us could fill in the blanks of Chad’s sentence here. I look around the arena floor to suddenly see the first few fans streaming into the venue and realize that my time is over. As I head backstage and consider the dedication of Justin, Jimmy, and Chad (plus Zach of course!), realize, dear reader, that their importance to the WorldWired Tour could truly not be over-estimated.