Riz Ahmed Gets at the Heart of Obsession in Sound of Metal

John Colpitts talks with the actor and rapper about preparing for his role as a metal drummer.

For the first hour, Sound of Metal is a horror film. 

The recently released drama — directed by Darius Marder —is a nightmare for musicians. British actor Riz Ahmed plays Ruben, a drummer in a scrappy metallic noise (perhaps not quite purely metal) duo, dead ringers for the peripatetic Jucifer. Ruben loses his hearing suddenly one morning during a grueling tour — nightly jet engine decibel levels were the cause, and as an audiologist tells him during a harrowing hearing test, “…the hearing that you have lost is not coming back.”

Sound of Metal can be read as a cautionary tale for drummers. Cliff’s Notes version: Our eardrums are frangible; take good care of them. For some of us, this is something we don’t learn until our fourth decade. 

In 2004, I lost a short and painful bout with a monitor speaker in Mezzago, Italy. During sound check, I kept telling the sound guy to turn the system up. I wore earplugs and I needed to feel the sound waves ripple across my cranium. But during the set, a moment of wrong-headed inspiration caused me to pull out the plug closest to the speaker grill (left ear), so I could harmonize during a quiet improvisational vocal passage. Just writing that is embarrassing. As these things go, the band charged out of the pensive, quiet section and into the loudest ten minutes of squall I’ve played against. There was no popping my plug back into my ear. The venue was packed, and I didn’t want to break the spell. 

In retrospect, it was not worth it. No one remembers that moment. I spent weeks back home anxiously fighting through a gauze of hearing loss. It was terrifying. Recently at an O+ Festival in Kingston, New York, a volunteer audiologist informed me that I had lost 15% of my hearing in that ear. It could be worse, but now that I think about it, his words echoed the doctor’s grim assessment of Ruben’s hearing in Sound of Metal: “The hearing that you have lost is not coming back.” 

So consider this a PSA: wear ear protection.

Personal history aside, I can appreciate Sound of Metal for the many scenes that do not feature drums, drumming, or the transportation of drums, however superfluous they are to my priorities. It’s an excellent film, with powerful performances and I recommend it. 

Ahmed’s representation of a drummer — the high Moeller strokes, the double bass churn, and the physical training regimen reportedly inspired by the look of Death Grips’ Zach Hill — was attained through fierce determination. His expressive punch of a stroke does not stop at the fingers or the wrist, or even the hunched shoulder. His stroke is in the entirety of his being.

Of course, the same people who gripe about the technical flaws of Ringo or Lars will stroke their chins about Ahmed’s drumming. But I’ve seen worse, less convincing drummers on actual stages, in actual clubs, at actual shows. But that low bar isn’t what this is about. Riz Ahmed was a drummer on film, and for Guy Licata — his teacher and drum trainer for Sound of Metal — there are no partials. “He’s absolutely one of us,” Licata told me. 

Guy Licata is a lively drummer and teacher who manages to make project management jargon sound compelling (he is, full disclosure, a friend and mentor of mine). Terms like “deliverables,” “Gantt chart,” and “chunking” fall off his tongue as easily as “blast beats” and “Ted Reed.” This warm and generous guy is one part guru, one part master drummer with a dusting of Dale Carnegie.     

Riz Ahmed called Licata’s teaching “almost like a shamanistic act.”

Actor Riz Ahmed is also a rapper known as Riz MC. He has performed at Glastonbury and Coachella Festivals and clubs of all sizes — but he didn’t have much familiarity with metal, let alone drumming. When he signed on for Sound of Metal, director Darius Marder told him there would be no trick shots, no cutaways, no stand-ins for the three and a half minute live performance that opens the movie. Because Marder shot on film, and used a single continuous shot to capture the concert, the band would only get a handful of takes. 

“Me saying we’re not going to have cutaways and that it’s a sink or swim situation is a ridiculous thing to say to actors. It already takes so much courage to put yourself into a film with a first-time narrative director,” Marder told me.

This obsession with an authentic live performance, where the actors are actually playing the principle song, is the heart of Sound of Metal. When Ruben loses his hearing, he believes he’s lost everything and the loss must feel genuine to the audience.

“If you don’t believe in the music [and band performance] then you haven’t lost anything in the movie,” Marder told me. 

Ahmed had seven months to become a viable drummer. Not just a drummer playing a rock tune with bass drum on the 1 and 3 and snare on the 2 and 4 — but a metal drummer playing double kick, and fierce rolls along with an original composition that Abraham Marder had developed over years with drummer Harry Cantwell. At first, London-based Ahmed took a few lessons with Adam Betts, a drummer known for his work with Squarepusher, Goldie, and Three Trapped Tigers. After those initial sessions, film pre-production was moved to Brooklyn. Betts passed the project over to Licata and told him that aside from Ahmed’s impeccable time from his rapping, Riz was starting from scratch. And he was lefty. 

But before Licata got clearance from the film’s production team, Ahmed’s first Stateside lesson came from Sean Powell of Surfbort and Fuckemos; a drummer whose spirit and aesthetic directly informed Ruben’s look and energy in the film. But Riz’s perfectionism and learning style did not quite mesh with Powell’s. 

Darius told me, “Riz needed someone with a brain like his. We didn’t really know where we would find that until we spoke to Guy. I remember thinking, Ah, this guy is a freak.” 

When Guy first read the Sound of Metal script, he understood this film was important to drummers but also resonated with him personally. He had disappointing drummer film moments in mind when he started to shape the training regimen. “The script was incredible and I signed on immediately. [I thought,] What are the things I hate about drummers in movies? How do I fix those things and how do I attempt to take it ten steps above that?” Riz Ahmed was obsessive enough to shoulder the responsibility of representing drummers on screen, but Licata was key. 

When Guy finally met the Emmy award-winning actor outside his scrappy Brooklyn studio, he didn’t know what to expect. But the meeting was auspicious. 

“Riz told me that he didn’t want to shit all over our art and craft. So that was a good start,” Guy says laughing. 

They began with two lessons a week and quickly increased to three. Ahmed was set up with a full lefty acoustic kit (though it took them two months to settle on a configuration that would work with the film) and Licata sat to his right with a pad kit. The pad kit allowed Ahmed to observe Guy’s proper physical movements, without the distraction from the sound of another drum kit. Licata also set up a video monitor at Ahmed’s eye-level running the Groove Scribe notation and sequencer software — a program developed by Mike Johnston and his student, early internet pioneer Lou Montulli. The audio from Groove Scribe was pumped through a PA and while Ahmed can’t read drum notation, he was able to play along to the drum tablature and key loops from Abraham Marder’s composition.

Licata told me, “We never would have been able to get anywhere without Groove Scribe. Having the reference pattern looping from the PA allowed me to correct and manipulate Riz’s technique in real-time while he still was hearing the pattern and seeing things on the screen.”

Licata broke the composition into six component parts, and pulled the drum material from each. He continued, “We came up with specific naming conventions for each groove so Riz could recall them more easily, and once he had all of the basic parts memorized, we would run the pre-recorded piece (minus drums) in Ableton to a click. He’d go through the piece passage by passage and then would do full run-throughs.” In the last month of rehearsals they probably dedicated 40 hours to running the piece. 

The two would meet, drill, and then Ahmed would head home and practice on an electronic kit he “stole” from director Darius Marder’s son. He fit in these drum lessons along with daily work on American Sign Language and physical workouts. 

Darius explained, “Riz wasn’t going to get there in a scattershot way. The drumming needed to be broken down. Guy understood that, ‘I’m gonna need a click, I’m gonna need a program, I’m gonna need to give Riz this constant technological feedback, I’m going to break this down to the nanosecond.’”

Ahmed said, “Guy’s technique was quite psychological. It was about getting past thought. I can be quite hard on myself so I had to realize that the negative self-talk doesn’t help — it’s something in your head besides the beat.”

There were plenty of walls to climb over during the lead up to filming, and while they sometimes had disagreements about how to tackle difficult sections, Riz’s drive and perfectionism impressed the film’s creative team. At one point, Guy questioned whether it was necessary for Riz to actually play the double kick. Riz stood firm. It had to be in the film — he had to accomplish it. 

As the filming approached, Abraham Marder kept shortening the song that Riz and his duo partner actor Olivia Cooke had to perform. Each change required recalibration from Licata and Ahmed and sometimes removed elements that Riz had poured hours of practice into. They increased their weekly lessons to four and finally five days a week. The lessons lasted one to two hours. There was a lot of repetition; Licata described himself as a kind of personal trainer. “Do it again. Nice. Now do it again.”  

When Guy signed on, he had one potential conflict — a Berlin concert with Bill Laswell and Laurie Anderson on August 1, 2018 — but he was told that principal photography would be over by then. But as delays mounted, the start date kept getting pushed back, and soon, the filming of the concert scene landed in direct conflict with his gig — he’d have to miss the shoot. 

They had practiced relentlessly for seven months. After comparing notes with other production teams in the film, Licata realized that he probably had spent more time with Ahmed than anyone else. Licata was Ahmed’s training wheels and the prospect of doing the gig without Licata felt impossible, but it had to happen. 

The concert scene was shot in Cambridge, MA’s storied venue The Middle East. So the team decamped from Brooklyn and headed north for preparations. As the production team scrambled for a way to give Ahmed the comfort and coaching he needed during the concert shoot, Licata advanced the day with the Middle East staff like a normal gig. He sent a stage plot, set times and input lists to the production staff. 

The film started shooting on July 25, 2018 and the band, now named Blackgammon by Cooke and Ahmed, was doing more intense duo rehearsals. Their performances were not always convincing and tempers flared. They did not quite sound like a band yet. How were they going to pull this thing off? Everyone was terrified. The producers of Sound of Metal had thrown two actors into the deep end of DIY metal and expected them to play like seasoned pros. All of a sudden, it seemed plausible they might fall on their faces.  

“Everybody started to realize it was actually going to happen,” Guy says. Things got heated. Then Guy split for Europe. 

“The night before the shoot,” Abraham told me, “the rehearsals in the studio were very difficult – there was such a high level of fear and nerves around it.” 

But on the shoot day, when the band loaded into the Middle East and plugged into a real sound system, they were transformed. The audience was not a bunch of random extras, but hand-selected heavy music fans. When the lights went down, Blackgammon became a band.  

“Nothing was scarier than this,” Ahmed told me. “I have a bunch of gigging experience, but this didn’t feel like a gig. It felt like a bizarre bet that I had lost.”

But they killed it. And it was all on film. At 11PM in Berlin, Guy got a text from Abraham, “They did it! Riz became a drummer.” 

Abraham told me, “Riz played the whole thing through once in a way I’d never seen him play it.” 

Riz reflected on the experience with me: “I don’t think I learned to play the drums. No. I practiced the drums for seven months and I did my best. I would never try and insult drummers and say that I’m a drummer now. Having just seen what it takes, I have so much tremendous respect for the obsessive insanity of every drummer.”

As Guy described it to me, “How do you get someone really good, really fast? This guy is going to be playing something close to the blast beats. Riz needed to condition, and we needed to break down what the basic movement was, reinforce, and reverse engineer it. Riz is so determined and brilliant that even when things were hard, he wanted to push through.”

Before Guy Licata was brought into the mix, the Marder brothers had a vision. It was absurdly ambitious and maybe impossible. But Abraham said that when Guy joined the team, “He just immediately held everyone. Because we were like, ‘Oh shit, how is this ever going to happen? This is never going to happen. I mean, we’re going to do this, but it’s not going to be good.’”

But it’s better than good. Sound of Metal gets at the heart of obsession, of music and of letting go. 

 “It was a gift just to be allowed to just give my soul into playing this instrument,” Riz tells me, “I don’t take it lightly. It’s a sacred instrument. Drumming is about transcending thought, it’s about trusting the body, surrendering to the rhythm; submission. In some spiritual traditions it’s the centerpiece. You don’t play the drums, you let the drums play you.”

John Colpitts, aka Kid Millions is a drummer, composer, drum teacher and writer based in Queens, NY. He is best known for his work in the experimental rock band Oneida and his percussion group Man Forever. His latest album with Oneida, Success, is out now on Joyful Noise.