INTERVIEW: John Connolly of SEVENDUST (April 2013)

Long one of the hardest-working bands in the business, Sevendust took a well-deserved break for most of 2012. Its members worked on side projects and dealt with personal issues before coming together again late in the year to record their ninth studio album, “Black Out the Sun,” which adds a darker edge to the trademark Sevendust sound. The band already has been touring for most of 2013 and, true to its reputation, plans to stay on the road for a long time to come. When its recent tour with Coal Chamber and Lacuna Coil came to Rams Head Live in Baltimore, Live Metal’s Greg Maki sat down with guitarist John Connolly before the show to discuss the new album and more.

LIVE METAL: The album just came out last month, but you’ve been out on tour for most of this year already. How has it been going out on the road? How are people taking to the new material?

John Connolly of Sevendust

JOHN CONNOLLY: Great. We’ve only done a couple new songs, because the first two months that we were out was before the record, and we wanted a little bit of mystery. A lot of people were like, “How come you’re not doing more new songs?” Yeah, we’re gonna do five new songs, and everyone’s got a high-def camera on their phone. So those are gonna be up there. It’s like, you know what, let’s have a little bit of mystery. It’s always cool when you get a record and you haven’t heard half the thing.

Part of it was that, and then the other part was (guitarist) Clint (Lowery) took a couple weeks off for paternity leave with his wife, with the new baby. He’s been back maybe about a week, week and a half now, so now we’re kind of starting to work some new stuff in. So far, so good. The reaction to “Decay” has been great. “Till Death’s” been in. We’ve been kind of playing around doing a little bit of “Got a Feeling” just to do it. It’s not really being added yet, but we kind of mess around with it every night, and it gets a little longer and a little longer. We’ve done it in a different key every night, we’ve messed the words up every night. (laughs) It’s just been a really, really cool reaction so far. Crowds have been great.

When you start playing a new song, how long does it take to get comfortable with it on stage?

As soon as the crowd’s comfortable, that’s when I’m comfortable. A lot of these songs, it’s funny. You can sit there and play by yourself and do all the rehearsal in the world, and it doesn’t mean anything until you actually go out there and do it in front of a crowd. And it either connects or it doesn’t. Some of our songs don’t translate as well as other ones do. We’ve got a lot of songs, and our die-hard fans are into all the songs, but there’s certain ones that have different translations, whether it be a tempo thing or a lyrical thing. The ones that they latch onto quickly are the ones that we go, OK, hang on a second, make a note of that. “Got a Feeling” definitely got that one. We were like, OK, this one’s gonna be good. Because the record’s only been out for two weeks. For them to know “Decay”—song’s been out for almost five months. Record’s been out for two weeks, no leaks, so this is two weeks of them knowing the songs. It’s cool when we throw them out there and they know it.

But yeah, it’s always cool. It’s hit or miss. Some of our favorite songs, we’ve taken out there—I remember when we released “Animosity,” “Dead Set” was our favorite song on the record. It was just one that we had to play live, and every time we did it, the crowd would just stand there and look at us. They loved it, but they didn’t do what we thought they would do. It was so weird. We kept trying to force that one in there, and it was like, dammit, they’re not doing it.

Have you had the opposite happen?

Totally. “Hero” off “Next”—we were like, it’s a cool opener, and that one, for whatever reason, was like an atom bomb going off. We opened up the tour with it. When we first came out on that record, we were opening up for Mudvayne, and right out of the gate, it was just one of those ones where we went, huh. We kind of knew some other ones might be good, but it’s always surprising to see how the crowd’s gonna react to it and how quickly they get certain things. Some things take a little longer to get than others, and some things are just like that.

How’s it been out with Coal Chamber?

It’s been cool. It’s a throwback, man. This feels like 1998 all over again. In some ways, it feels like we just kind of connected the dots and skipped the whole past 11-year break. It’s cool seeing a lot of those same people from back in the day. It is a little bit strange, though, in the fact that we’ve got nine records now and they have three. There’s a little bit of a disconnect. Some of our newer fans have no idea that they even existed. But a lot of our old-school fans were fans of Snot, were fans of Coal Chamber, fans of Hed PE—all those bands we kind of came up with.

It’s an interesting tour, because it’s the first time in a while that we actually have a package from start to finish. Usually, you’ll end up with some local openers, and there’s nothing wrong with local bands by any means. But when you’re trying to sell a ticket, it’s cool when you can have something that people will be intrigued by. We had Candlelight Red out for a while, we had Avatar out for a while, too, and those are really starting to hit right now, and our fans absolutely loved them to death. But our fans love Coal Chamber, they love Lacuna Coil, so we’re not hearing any complaints—“Man, you shouldn’t have had that band out on tour.” We’ve had that a lot (in the past). There have been some bands where our fans were like, “No, they gotta go.” And they’ll let us know like that.

You’ve been out with Lacuna Coil for most of this year so far. Did you know those guys before then?

We’ve done a handful of radio shows. We know somebody who knows them. It’s like we’re a couple of people away from them at a bunch of different levels. She (Cristina Scabbia) actually sang on an Alter Bridge release over in Europe. We’re really, really tight with the Alter Bridge guys, so we kind of communicated a little bit through that.

Like I said, we’ve done a handful of radio shows. We did some things overseas with them. We’re really, really good friends with Jim Root, which is her boyfriend. So we feel like we’ve known them for a long time, but this is first time we went, “Hey, very nice to officially meet you.” They’re such great people. Great to be around, always having a good time, always a smile on their faces. She kills it live every night. I don’t know if they’re used to doing as many shows as we’ve been doing. We’ve been doing a lot of five-in-a-rows. We’ve got a six-in-a-row to end this thing, so that should be interesting.

So now that you’ve been out with them for a while and had a chance to see them play a lot, if you could play one of their songs, which one would you want to play?

You know, I have pictures, I have video—I’m not a song name guy. I’m a number guy. I could tell you the opening song is great. We’re trying to figure out which record it’s on, too. Every night, we’re like, alright, let’s dig a little deeper. (laughs) We’re not super familiar with it, but I do know them by numbers. I could sing it to you. I don’t really know the words too well, but I could sing the melody real well. (laughs)

Let’s take the opposite: If they were to do one of yours—

Oh, that would be easy. It would probably end up being “Licking Cream.” Everybody and their brother has been asking—“You’ve got her out here. She could kill ‘Licking Cream.’” That actually would be a lot of fun to do. But poor girl’s got to sing a million shows in a row. Normally, we don’t do this many in a row, but with the new record coming out—the economy’s still kind of on the mend. Everyone’s still kind of hurting. You want to be conscious of what you’re doing and make sure you’re efficient out here, but we kind of overdid it a little bit.

The new album, “Black out the Sun,” has been out for a couple weeks. Sevendust took most of last year off, but you guys stayed busy with other projects. What effect do you think that break had on this new album?

I think it had an enormous effect, in a lot of different ways. I think the intention was to unplug and let us really recharge. Let the fans recharge. Screw talking about the band all the time. The fact of the matter is we’ve toured pretty much consistently—last big break we had, we had a six-month break we took back in 2006. So you’re saying almost seven years of pretty much round the clock. Even when we did “Cold Day Memory”—we do album cycles, but when you’re funding everything yourself and you’re running the show and you’re paying for everything, for lack of a better term, when you pay for producers, studios, Johnny K—all those things—you’re the ones who end up like, “Just send the bill to—me.” (laughs) So we kept leaving to go do shows, and it never really felt like we ever stopped touring. We’d literally go from album cycle to album cycle, and we’re paying for it, so you go out and do a handful of dates to be able to pay for the record. The impression is you never came off tour. Even though our fans were pissed, we were like, you really did need a break from us for a minute. We need a separation—not a bad one. It ain’t like we’re going anywhere or doing anything weird.

Then you throw the side project thing in there, and the thing about the side project is no matter how much you try to make it to where it’s not weird, it’s gonna be weird, because all one person has to do is say or think, “Oh man, is this the end?” And people take that, and they kind of run with it. And we kind of played into for a little bit. We were like, “Oh yeah, sure, whatever”—sitting there smiling the whole time. But what will end up happening is some of it will actually get into the mix, and all of a sudden, you’ll start hearing stuff—because you’re separated now, you’re not on tour. So you’re like, “Wait a minute, I heard so-and-so say something about such and such, and blah, blah, blah.”

But I think we needed the break. The side projects, at first, kind of got in everybody’s head as “Oh my god, this is the end of Sevendust.” Then once people got the picture that we weren’t going anywhere—I’m putting the Call Me No One stuff on my Facebook page, the Sevendust page, they’re doing the same on theirs, and everyone was like, “Wait a minute. I thought it was like they’re pissed at them.” It had nothing to do with that, none of it. But I think going through that actually made the break take about two months longer than it should’ve been in the first place, which at the end of the day, played into a better record. By the time we hit the studio, we were really ready to go. We should’ve been ready by June, but there was some issues that were going on internally that we needed to address, personal things. LJ (vocalist Lajon Witherspoon) had some things that he had going on in his life that he just couldn’t make a record then. He was like, “I have to deal with this right now.” (Bassist) Vinnie (Hornsby) had some issues, too.

There’s five people that all have to have the same opening. So once we found that opening, it was awesome, because we agreed to go in there with nothing. We said let’s not bring a whole pile of music in like we usually do and then fight over whose riff is gonna end up in which song or whose chorus is better for what. All of us write, and that can be a huge benefit until five people show up with a killer chorus for the same song—which always happens because out of 20 songs that you’re looking at, there’s always two or three that everyone knows, those aren’t gonna take much and they’re just there. This time, going in with nothing, just a big, wide open chunk of studio time and space, it was cool because you’d be working on Monday thinking, “I have no idea what’s gonna happen on Wednesday.” It used to be you have a schedule—we’re gonna work on a certain amount of songs in a certain order. So you kind of get your head wrapped around where you’re going. We had no idea where we were going. But the beauty of doing it this way is you don’t get attached to anything.

The problem with demoitis is you can convince yourself something’s great if you listen to it a hundred times. I’ve done it, and it’s horrible when it happens, because it’s very difficult for you to convince yourself that you don’t love that piece of music. You play it for your band and your band goes, “Yeah, that’s pretty cool,” and they go on to something else. There’s none of that because you don’t have the time to sit there and convince yourself one way or the other.

I think the biggest problem we have in this band is time can be the enemy. If we have too much time to do a record, we’ll do it, it’ll be great, and then we’ll overthink it to death and we’ll deconstruct at least three or four of the best songs from the record, because we think that we can make them better. I think in all the years, the one thing that I’ve learned is instinct is usually 85, 90 percent right. Sometimes you blow it and you miss it, and you probably should’ve fixed something. But when you work off instinct and you don’t overthink things, it sounds more like Sevendust to me for whatever reason. I guess because back in the day, it wasn’t like, here’s our single, we’ve got to chop it for radio. We never had that conversation. All we did was got in a room and we just made music that made us happy. It was organized and structured in its own way, but it was so new and we were so new that we were just happy to be doing it. I think when you just make music for the sake of making music, it kind of comes from a different place. There’s no agenda. It’s not like, we need a radio song, so let’s write this kind of song.

Once we got towards the end of the record, it was like we were kind of overwhelmed by how many songs we liked. Usually when you get 10 or 12 things, there’s five or six that are real obvious, and then the rest of them, maybe not so much. We loved them all so much. It was one of the easier records that we had to wrap up. We’ve come out of the studio before with labels and it’s like, OK, here we go. “Maybe if you spent two or three more days …” You’re like, you don’t hear the single, so here we go again. You want to spend more money on a record. And we’ve done it. We’ve tried that approach.

On “Animosity,” “Live Again” was a song that we had—it was the first song that was written for “Animosity.” The beauty of that song is I think that song was great in the beginning, because it set the bar high to where everything went past it. But we realized that, and we went, “This song’s not as good as the rest of the record.” So we pulled it. Mixed, mastered, did the whole shoot and match, and the president of the label just fell in love with the song and said that we had to finish it. Basically held the album hostage, and we had to go in the studio and finish the song. That’s not to say it’s not an OK song. It’s a good song, it’s just not one of those songs that we should’ve done that with. So it’s not to say that any time you have a producer or someone to sit there and monitor how you’re gonna approach that it’s gonna work. From experience, I’ll tell you it didn’t. We wasted a lot of money doing that. It had no point, no business whatsoever being that single. But he got his opinion. So when it didn’t work, we all went, “Hey man, it’s what you wanted.”

It’s another touch-and-go thing with Sevendust, too. We used to get all hung up over “oh my god, I can’t believe they’re gonna release that as a single.” You finally get to the point where you’re like, don’t give them anything you don’t want to be released as a single. If it goes on the record now, cool. Whatever you want to run with. You never know in radio. You don’t. We’re the worst at second-guessing and not hearing obvious songs, so we don’t even try anymore. If we felt comfortable enough to put it on the album, why should we be upset that someone wants to take that one and go to radio with it? Just because your personal favorite isn’t that one—most of my personal favorites are not radio singles anyway. LJ has got a great radio opinion. He listens to radio, and he can pick ‘em. He can pick ‘em from a mile away. He’ll fall in love with a song, and all of a sudden, it’ll be album of the year. Every year, he picks that one song. It’s like, how do you do that? You’re a great A&R guy. I’m the worst. Or I’m the best, because all I have to do is go completely against my instinct and I’ll probably sign all the right bands. (laughs)

This album was entirely self-produced.

Well, we’ve always got an engineer. With this one, Mike Ferretti was the engineer. Mike Ferretti is engineering and mixing. He’s the guy who’s kind of steering the ship. We’re all on the boat, but not one of us is sitting behind the Pro Tools tuning and moving and editing and doing all that stuff. But he does 99 percent of that stuff on the fly. It used to be what we would do is you have the one guy who’ll kind of run the ship, and then you have another person that kind of works behind him. Mike is great because he basically eliminates the editor, because he edits as he goes. That’s kind of how Shawn Grove did it when we did “Next” and “Alpha” and “Hope & Sorrow.” We had some other people that came in and kind of helped, because we didn’t take days off. We were nuts. We were like, start the record and finish the record when it’s over, which is a stupid way to work. We did those three, so this is our fourth. This is our first one with Clint back, because it was the three that we did without Clint that we self-produced. We’ve had co-productions on pretty much everything except for the first one that we fought for and they just wouldn’t give it to us.

After you do it nine times, we’ve tried a million different ways with a bunch of different producers. You pick everyone’s brain, you figure out what you really like about their styles. I think nine records in, when we sit there and listen to it, we go, alright, Sevendust is gonna sound a certain way, and if we don’t know how to make it sound like Sevendust, then I don’t know who would.

Production is a funny thing. You can get a producer who’s like a Ben Grosse kind of a guy, who’s a sonic genius. He’ll go in and he’ll mix a song for four and a half days. But he’s a drummer, and he’s not much of a songwriter. He’s not the guy who’s gonna sit there and throw a bunch of stuff at you. You’ve got a guy like Butch Walker, who might not be the most sonically savvy guy on Earth, but give him a guitar, a microphone and a record button, and he’ll write a hit on the spot. There’s a lot of latitude between both of those kinds of producers. We’ve had different variations of what all the different producers have contributed over the years. Everyone has always had a strong suit, for sure. Each one of us has done outside things, whether it be a side project or production thing or a guest spot. So we said, you know what, until we screw it up, let’s just go ahead and try it and just see what happens. Kind of a litmus test. With Clint in the band, let’s give it a rip and self-produce and see what happens.

I think the biggest advantage of a producer for us usually is just kind of monitoring the situation. But when you go in and there’s nothing to monitor, what do you need a producer for? (laughs) Clint shows up with his army of songs, I show up with my army of songs, everyone’s fighting over which one’s at the top of the pile—there’s none of that when we do it. The rest of it is pretty easy, because we have plenty of time to live with it. You sit there and you live with it, you kind of go off you instinct, your gut.

Mike will let you know. He won’t be super verbal about it if he doesn’t like something. He’s got these little tells. He’ll be like, “Nah.” That’s about all he’d say. I’d be like, nope, definitely try something different. He was always there to help. We always have a body, another sounding board. Shawn Grove was great at that. From a producer’s perspective, a guy like Shawn Grove or a guy like Mike Ferretti—both tremendously good guitar players and singers—I might’ve actually gotten some more physical production value out of a song on working with someone like them than maybe working with someone like a Ben Grosse or Toby Wright, who are not songwriters. Ben would drive us nuts. He’d be like, “Nope, that chorus sucks.” And I’d be like, “Cool. Um, so what are you thinking?” He’d be like, “I have no idea, but not that.” Butch Walker was guy who’d be like, “Nope, that sucks,” and he’d grab a guitar and play three chords, and wow, I never in a million years would’ve thought about going there. And then you live with it for a while, and you realize it’s definitely gonna make the song better. Even Mike Ferretti, even as we self-produce, he’s still valuable as far as giving insight. Like I said, he’s a great guitar player, and he knows melody. He’s gonna let us know if it sucks. He’s not gonna go, “You’re self-producing, do whatever you want.” He’s got to put his name on it, too.

Obviously, there is a Sevendust sound, but I think each album has a different vibe to it. This one feels a little darker. Where did that come from?

I guess going into it, it was a little darker. Clint had lost his father, we had the big break. Anytime there’s a break, there’s always uncertainty. You know you have the intention of getting back together, but then, like I said, you let social media run nuts, you let Facebook and Twitter and everyone on Earth spread the rumor that Sevendust is over—we called a band meeting at one point, and I said, “I don’t care who’s doing it”—I wasn’t doing any press because I was neck-deep in Projected. I was like, “There’s no press happening, because I’m making a record.” Call Me No One was done, so they were already starting to do interviews. I was like, “I don’t know who’s saying it, but whoever’s saying it, I have to say no to it every day. So however you’re saying it, stop fuckin’ saying it.”

We had that meeting. It was like, “Look man, if you’re not assertive about something yes or no one way or the other, if you give them a maybe, they’re gonna lean in the direction that they’re hoping to go with.” What’s the most juicy is the car crash. They don’t want the bright, sunshiny answer. They want the doom and gloom. It was a nightmare. Every day, it’d be like 15 emails—“Are you guys breaking up?” Facebook, Twitter. It was like, “Yes! We are, because I’m sick and tired of answering this question. We’re breaking up until we get back together. That’s the official answer.” (laughs)

It was a nice break, and it was good for us to get the side projects done, but it was a big question mark. Even though we knew we were gonna do it again, there was still a big question mark. And then with Clint’s dad dying, the state of the world, the state of the economy—we’ll turn the TV on and watch the news, and we’ll let life creep into what we write about, because we write about reality and real stuff. We may not consciously know I’m specifically writing about something like the Boston Marathon bombing. I might not say I’m gonna write a song about this, but it definitely has impact on how we approach and how we finish each other’s thoughts.

It has a darker vibe to it. But I think at the end of the day, it still has that dark but with a bit of positivity, a bit of acceptance of the fact that it’s gonna be alright. We don’t hate each other completely. (laughs) We’re working on it! (laughs)

You’re getting close to 20 years for this band.

Well, it depends on how you look at it. I’ve done some research into this because “Black” was written 20 years ago this year. It was written in 1993. But we didn’t release our first record until 1997. So if you’re going by like hall-of-fame induction, yes, you have to go by the date of the first release and those first couple years don’t really count. Yeah, we’re like 16 years, 17 years. Last year was the 15-year anniversary of the debut record. It’s a trip. You sit there and you go, whoa, wait a minute. It’s easy to go, where did that past year or so go? Then you go, holy shit, a decade just kind of ripped by. And then another half of one. (laughs) It’s crazy to think that it’s the same five guys doing this, too. That’s what’s even weirder. A little unusual.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

We’re gonna be touring the next two years. We’re just now at the point where we’re trying to figure what we want to do single-wise. I think we all kind of know where we want to go, but we’re a little bummed out. I had originally thought maybe go “Decay” and “Mountain,” and then do “Got a Feeling.” But I think “Mountain” might get skipped over to go straight to “Got a Feeling,” which I wouldn’t hate. The first one’s a guarantee, the second one is sort of a guarantee, and the third one is a question mark. I guess you’ve gotta go by your gut and go, is “Mountain” gonna translate? I think it will, but I don’t know if everybody that’s involved with the project feels the same way, because they feel so strongly about “Got a Feeling.” If you did it the other way, I think “Mountain” would still translate to the “Got a Feeling” fans. You still run that risk of people who really, really like that song and then they hear “Deathstar” or “Strong Arm Broken,” and they go, whoa, what is this?

“Till Death.”

Right, “Till Death.” (laughs) Like, I wasn’t buying a Slayer record! My mom, she’ll own “Got a Feeling” and play it, but she’s not gonna jam the whole record. (laughs) She has her favorites, but she skips around. Only a little metal. (laughs)


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