How a Local Drummer Inspired Riz Ahmed’s Character in Sound of Metal
Revisiting Fuckemos drummer Sean Powell's Austin dives and Hollywood highs
With early acclaim rolling in for music drama Sound of Metal – currently holding a 95% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and more than a few film critics forecasting a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Riz Ahmed – Austin music fans will be fascinated to know that Sean Powell, drummer for infamous sludge punks Fuckemos, served as a character study for the film's lead.
"Sean's a big part of this movie – his heart and soul are all over the film," co-writer and director Darius Marder revealed in an interview with the Chronicle earlier this month. "He worked with Riz early on and he became kind of a spirit animal for the Sound of Metal."
The film – in theatres Friday, before landing on Amazon Prime December 4 – tells the psychologically punishing story of a drummer named Ruben who abruptly loses his hearing while on tour and lands in a halfway house for deaf addicts in recovery. It's a powerful first-person narrative carried by an unforgettable performance from Ahmed, who learned both drumming and American Sign Language for the role. Via a chance introduction to Powell, the Nightcrawler actor was also able to study the soul of a real-life character who shares a lot of DNA with Ruben.
"Riz showed up at the house of a girl I know, who'd bought a painting from me," recalled Powell, via phone from Los Angeles where he's been living since the start of the year. "I guess he was hanging out with her and asked who made the painting and she said 'Oh my friend Sean – he's a crazy, sober drummer.' Riz told her he's playing a sober drummer who goes deaf so she gave him my number. He called me the next day and came over to my house."
Ahmed and Powell went on to spend a lot of time together leading up to the filming of Sound of Metal. Sometimes Riz would encourage the ex-Austinite to tell stories and record him. Being studied didn't bother Powell, but he concedes he is freaked out by the immersive depths of the Londoner's acting. "He can actually become someone else," he said. "And it's scary,"
Powell met Marder the day after he met Ahmed. "The first time Darius and I saw each other, we were brothers," he exclaimed. "I remember he said 'You are the fuckin' guy that I'm looking for!' and I didn't know what he was talking about."
What the filmmaker meant is that he'd found both the human equivalent of the character he'd been visualizing for years, and a mother lode of firsthand druggie punk drummer experience. A formative moment in that creative friendship occurred when Ahmed, Marder, and the director's brother, composer and co-writer Abraham, all met up to play music with Powell in New York City, where he lived at the time. A cell phone video Powell took that day shows them leaning into a heavy primal jam. Marder initially wanted Powell to give Ahmed drum lessons. "I told him I can't do that," Powell said. "I play a very specific style that's sloppy beast trash – it's a one-trick pony thing."
Ahmed would take more technical drum lessons from veteran session and touring drummer Guy Licata, but Powell could still teach him about being a drummer. "When Riz first sat down on the drums, I showed him a basic Phil Rudd-style four-on-the-floor beat and he did the first time. To me, he was already a drummer. So I just showed him body movements as far as power drumming is concerned – just being expressive, really thwacking the drums."
Powell's influence didn't stop at the drum kit. Where punk and metal-adjacent movies often contain eyeroll-eliciting wardrobe, in his Rudimentary Peni and Gism shirts Ruben actually looks like an underground musician. Powell, who had long been something of a low-key fashion icon in Austin punk and – more recently – part of a surprising Gucci campaign, had significant influence over the way the protagonist ended up looking. "Pretty much all of what Riz is wearing in the film is Sean's clothing," Marder reported.
Then there are the tattoos, of which Powell is covered in face-to-foot. For Ahmed's movie ink, the onetime Chumps drummer connected Marder and co. with his friend Rita Salt, who did the actor's non-permanent tattoos. "They gave him a couple that I have – one of them is a toilet," laughed Powell. "During that time, Riz was sending me ideas for absurd and funny tattoos. One day he sent me a text that just said 'Homer Simpson fucking a donut.' I was like 'Yes! If I could do it all over again, I would have that tattooed on my chest.' I even ended up getting a T-shirt made that said 'Homer Simpson fucking a donut.'"
But it's Ruben's internal life where Powell had the deepest impact. Marder uses the term "character true north" to describe how Powell informed Ahmed's portrayal. "In many ways, that's because of what Sean's been through in his life as a musician with substances."
In the film, Ruben's addiction exists as an underlying demon. It's not discussed in much specificity other than that he's been clean for four years and he has a sponsor. Still, the concern that life-changing hearing loss will trigger a relapse maintains profound suspense throughout the story.
"That one goes pretty deep for me," Powell sighed, when asked about his own past addiction issues. "One of the first guys I met in Austin ... I don't want to say his name, but he was the dude – an elder punk who played in shitloads of cool bands, sweetest guy in the world. I remember we jammed together and he was trying to teach me how to play 'Iron Fist' by Motörhead while he was basically unconscious, leaning on his Marshall full-stack. I didn't know at the time that he was on heroin, but when I found out, of course I wanted to follow in his footsteps and I did.
"First time I got sober was in 1999 and I stayed sober for two years. Then I did the Fosbury flop and relapsed and got high for the next five years. Then I got sober for the last time – hopefully – on March 27, 2007," he continued. "It's a thing that went hand in hand in music ... for me. If you're a musician, you're in a bar every day surrounded by people saying 'hey you want a toot' or whatever. It's super common. Then there's the other side of it, the people who go through it and come out of it and get sober – change their life."
Surprisingly, in spite of his pivotal influence on Ahmed's performance, and even though his current punk quartet Surfbort appears in the film, Powell hasn't actually seen Sound of Metal yet. He admitted he's a little nervous to watch it. Partially it's because he doesn't love glimpsing himself on film, but more so, the topic of a sober drummer going deaf kind of terrifies him. For him, the best thing that came out of his self-described role of "dork-consultant" on the film is an enduring friendship with Marder. Powell lauded him as "a great guy, a powerhouse. ... I want to be like him when I grow up."