Enter living room left. A man leaps onto a chair sporting a white t-shirt, a ponytail tucked into a backwards cap, and a pair of gym shorts with Bart Simpson’s face on one leg and the words RADICAL DUDE on the other. The sound of Metallica’s “Sad But True” starts with a jolt and the video’s star begins to air-drum along with unbelievable intensity.
The furious fills, snare snaps and horizontal cymbal crashes have been timed to the music with a precision that could only come from hours of practice. His mugging mimicry of Lars Ulrich has been nailed down to the head nods and one-arm raised hi-hat rides. The air-drummer ends the song bounding from his invisible kit like he just rocked a stadium.
This spellbinding clip is the most memorable excerpt from Metallica Drummer!, a bootleg VHS tape circulated from the West Coast of Canada to the San Francisco subterrain of the 1990s. For $10 you could take home a copy with the hype sticker proclaiming “He’s talented! He’s obsessed! He’s Canadian!”
Kevin Dabbs is the name of the unwitting underground sensation who air-drummed to various songs from Metallica’s Black Album along with scenes of “harsh racquetball action”, mountain biking, and lip-syncing to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Sexy Mexican Maid.” Filmed for his own kicks with no intention of a release, the video left Dabbs’ apartment and found its way to Calgary musician Craig Evans.
“I found it while going through a pile of unlabeled VHS tapes,” says Evans, who currently plays with Napalmpom. “I used to project old b-movies, cult films and instructional videos on the walls of [Calgary venue] the Night Gallery. In between bands I started playing this and run it through the PA. Conversation would stop.”
“One time Neko Case stayed at my place with Carolyn Mark,” Evans continues. “I showed it to them and made Neko a copy. She made a copy for Robynn Iwata, her roommate in Vancouver at the time. She was splitting her time between Vancouver and San Francisco where she was playing in I Am Spoonbender with Dustin Donaldson from Pansy Division. He made and sold hundreds, possibly thousands of the tapes in record stores and at shows. It was very popular in the gay community at first and then exploded with SF scenesters. Soon everybody had a copy, even the members of Metallica. One day I got a random call from San Francisco to do an interview as I was patient zero. It freaked me out. Never made a dime off it myself.”
Along with the aforementioned SF Weekly article the story was featured in the October 1999 issue of Spin with the headline Virtual Lars. Of course Nardwuar latched onto the tape as well, bringing it up in an interview with the members of I Am Spoonbender (skip to 5:54).
With some surprisingly simple digging, we’ve once again tracked down Dabbs the Metallica Drummer himself to tell the story in his own words. The software available at his current job as a video editor allowed him to re-upload the clip with an audio/video syncing accuracy between 97 and 98 per cent. Compare the re-edited video at the top of this piece with the original video here and read on for an oral history of Metallica Drummer!
AUX: I understand you filmed the video in 1992 or ’93 while living at your father’s house in Surrey, BC. Is that timeline correct?
Kevin Dabbs: Yes, ’92 sounds right, as the Black Album was released in late ’91, and would have been one of my “areas of study” in the year to follow! I was actually living in Winnipeg at the time, and took the train out to Surrey to visit my parents and some friends. I stayed at my parents’ house while I was down there, and shot the video while they were out briefly on an errand.
What was your original intention with the video?
I was exercising! I was away from home, and didn’t have access to my kit, and I wanted to work out. Why did I record it? For the same reason that any of us put anything to film or video, be it a still shot or motion picture; for memories. I was trying to capture every moment of my holiday, and the air-drumming was just another “snapshot.”
When Metallica Drummer! first broke, it was a more intriguing story for the media to sculpt me as a “non-drummer.” The reality is that at the time I was actively immersed in Winnipeg’s amazing punk scene. I was in a three-piece project called The Rhythm Disciples, and we were super fortunate to open for a lot of great bands who rolled through Winnipeg on tour: Nomeansno, All, Furnaceface, and Gorilla Gorilla (Bif Naked’s early punk project) to name a few. Those were the days!
Was it primarily for your own entertainment or were you sharing it with friends as well?
The tape was not intended for anyone but myself. That chunk of of air-drumming was only a small part of what was on the tape that Craig Evans found. I am an actor too, so the uncut cassette included improv sketches with friends that I was visiting, and other fun moments from my vacation. I had done some improv on that same tape with a friend whom I was visiting (Len Harvey, Craig’s roommate at the time). Len and I played it back on the camera right after we shot it, and he asked if there was any way he could get his hands on that footage, so I dubbed off a copy of the whole VHS tape (bonus air-drumming footage included!), and sent it to him. That’s how the video ended up with Craig.
The original VHS tape subtitled Suburban Brainboiler.
How long did you have to practice to nail the cymbal hits and “super-fills”, to use your own words?
I One Take Jake’d it. Nobody was supposed to see the video, so there was no point in rehearsing! I’d listened to the Black Album frequently, and studied Ulrich’s drum parts, because they’re tasty and crafty. Metallica received a lot of flack for that record, but there was still a great deal of rock innovation taking place on the Black Album, to be sure.
How did you feel after learning about the video being discovered and making the rounds among strangers?
Terrified! Humiliated! Violated! Burglarized! I made a fool of myself and went “incognito” on the phone trying to find out more from those people whom I knew were behind it. I panicked and threatened to sue the perpetrators. Then days later two producers from MTV contacted me by phone, declared themselves huge fans, and coughed up several thousand dollars to borrow the footage for an ad campaign they were putting together for the then-new MTV2.
The MTV2 commercial featuring Kevin Dabbs.
That’s when it kind of turned around for me. It was most un-cool for Craig to publicly expose such a delicately personal private part of someone’s life. It was brutally evident that the videotape was not intended for public consumption. The frogskins have certainly erased any resentment there may have been. I’ve now made tens of thousands of dollars off the piece, from music video and theatre spin-off gigs, to other people just wanting to lease the footage for a project.
I should mention here that years ago (when the story first broke in ’99) someone actually attempted to legally swindle me out of the copyright ownership of the video (AUX exclusive)! They called from Toronto, asking to “borrow” the footage in exchange for a moderate sum of money. I agreed to terms over the blower and a contract was promptly faxed out out to my home. They tried to mask the copyright owner transfer with hilariously convoluted legal rhetoric. Luckily I saw through it, and “signed” the contract with a giant black Sharpied “NO DEAL BRO!”, and faxed it back. Shockingly, they still wanted the footage and were prepared to pay me and take the proper lease channels, so I doubled the cost, quickly drafted up a contract that mirrored the solid MTV agreement I’d worked with a weeks weeks prior, and they went through with it! Cha-ching!
Neko Case and Nardwuar were both early champions of the video. Have you encountered any other high-profile fans over the years?
I’ve only heard lots of stories: Apparently Steve Albini was a fan, and regularly showed it to friends at one of his studios. I thought that was pretty cool, as I am a huge fan of his work.
According to the caption of one YouTube video, an earlier upload had “tens of thousands of hits when Metallica decided enough was enough and had it dismantled.” Were you ever in contact with the band yourself? Do you know if Lars has seen it?
Lars contacted me personally by phone in 1999 and said, “Duuuuuude! Your air-drumming is most-bodacious! We have a gig in two weeks in New York City and wanna fly you and a bud down here to see the show VIP style. Sound good?” Actually that didn’t happen. But it should have happened, right? Picture it! You’re Lars Ulrich, and someone shows you that video. Would you not reach out?
I was a bit surprised that Metallica never contacted me, to be honest. The Jason Newsted version of the band watched it when it first came out and loved it, according to Dustin Donaldson.
Have you made any other air-drumming videos in the years since this came out?
Yes! My favourite project: Producer/director/writer Joel Stewart (Corb Lund: Memphis Sun) asked me on for a project with a band called Hidell. It was a cool idea that worked out well, and I had a blast with Joel’s crew, and the band. Good times.
Hidell – “Going Down In Flames” (featuring Kevin Dabbs)
What are you up to these days? Playing drums anywhere besides your invisible kit?
Ha! Yes, I have been very fortunate to perform the part of Jerry Allison, Buddy’s Drummer, in the Broadway musical Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, on multiple occasions all over Canada over the past few years. The Mayfield Theatre here in Edmonton has kept my steadily employed as an actor/drummer/singer over the past decade, and a show that I co-wrote and performed in last year at the Mayfield, Folkswaggin’, was just nominated for an Elizabeth Sterling Haynes Award for Outstanding Musical. I am super proud of that!
Right now I am working at Global Edmonton as a News Editor over the summer, and look forward to new excellent adventures in the classroom, as I have just graduated with Distinction from the University of Alberta with a B.Ed.