INTERVIEW: John Connolly of SEVENDUST (October 2020)

More than a quarter century after forming, Sevendust is as strong as ever. With all five original members still on board, the band is gearing up to release its 13th studio album, “Blood & Stone,” on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, via Rise Records. The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has placed any touring plans on hold at least until 2021, but the band is set to play its first-ever livestream concert, also on Oct. 23. (Get tickets for the livestream and order the new album here.) Guitarist John Connolly recently checked in with Live Metal’s Greg Maki to discuss the impact of the coronavirus, the new record, covering Soundgarden, his favorite Sevendust album and more.

LIVE METAL: Well, obviously, this has been a crazy, crazy year, unlike any other we’ve experienced. How have you been making out during all this time?

JOHN CONNOLLY: I’ve been making a lot of music. March, April of this year, I had already set aside to work on Projected (John’s side project) music before the Sevendust tour was gonna start. I figured why not go ahead and at least get the demos sorted out, so that when we did get a chance to hop in the studio, I’d be ready to go. So for me, March and April, the only difference was I had my wife and my daughter on lockdown with me, because normally when I go into riding mode, I don’t come up for air but maybe once a week, and you just kind of get in there and do your thing. For me, it was the same except for homeschooling, my wife working in the house and our dogs looking at us, like, are you guys ever gonna leave? (laughs) The dogs are just kind of sitting there dumbfounded after three weeks of it. So for me, it was sort of the same at the beginning. And then we found that Elvis (producer Michael “Elvis” Baskette) had some time in the schedule, so we figured if we’re ready to do this thing, we’ll hop in there, and we’ll go ahead and bang a record out, just to have it done, get it in the can. So it’s been a creative year, for sure. But now we’re to the point where I’ve got two records sitting on deck, and I’m ready to get out there and play some shows. And I’m not real sure when we’re going to be able to do that. So in the meantime, we’re gonna attempt this livestream thing and see how that goes.

Yeah, obviously, it’s gonna be a lot different because the audience won’t be there with you. But are you looking forward to actually playing for people again?

Absolutely. I mean, the last time that we jammed was late December. We did a handful of acoustic shows, which is sort of similar, but not really quite the same thing. I guess it was like August or September of 2019 when we actually played our last electric show. So it’s been a minute. (laughs) Yeah, it’s been a while. I actually had to grab a guitar and stand up. I’ve gotta remember how to stand up and play, because I’ve been sitting down for months. (laughs)

How long does it take to get used to doing that again?

It used to be not that long, because we didn’t take that long off. But you talk about not standing up playing electric guitar for 15 months, probably a day or so before you start to kind of feel comfortable and the muscle memory starts to come back. But typically about four or five days from the sitting-on-a-stool comfort zone. When you’re in the studio and you’re sitting there in that nice comfy chair, it’s pretty awesome. You sit there for like five weeks, making music, and then all of a sudden, you’ve got to stand up, and you’re like, oh, wait a minute, this is different. But yeah, we definitely look forward to it, for sure. Anything’s better than nothing at this point.

Throughout your career Sevendust has always been known as a live band, a touring band. So now that you’re releasing an album this week, not knowing when you’ll actually be able to play shows, that’s got to be a really weird feeling.

Very weird. When we were talking about how we were going to do this, when we were going to get the record out—with Sevendust, it’s never an easy thing, because there’s always a lot of moving parts. At this point, we’re 13 records in, with the same five guys who recorded on the first record, but we also have a lot of other things that are going on. (Guitarist) Clint (Lowery)’s got his solo stuff going, (vocalist) Lajon (Witherspoon)’s been working on solo record, (drummer) Morgan (Rose)’s got a solo EP, I’ve got a Projected record. And not that they actually take up that much time, but they’re always sort of out there, and they’re the things that are in the universe that exist in this world of Sevendust.

So it’s always weird when all of a sudden you’re like, “OK, well, we think we’re gonna be touring this year. Oh, we’re not gonna be touring at all this year. Maybe we’ll tour next year.” Well, at the same time, I’m sitting there going, “Well, 2021 is the 20-year anniversary of ‘Animosity,’ and we’ve done 20th anniversary shows for the first two records, so it would be crazy to think that we wouldn’t do something special for that one”. So you’ve got that, you’ve got the side projects, and then just the fact that we’re all kind of sitting on the sidelines at the same time, the whole business. The whole industry is on hold right now.

So I don’t know, man. You try to make the best of it as you can, like I said, being creative, using the downtime to spend time with your family, be home and do that stuff. But at the same time, get in there and create, and just try to be as productive as you can be. Because at some point in time, we’re gonna go out on tour and we’re not gonna be able to get off tour. After 2020, it’s gonna be like, “OK, you guys are gonna be out for, like, 10 months straight.” And then our family is gonna be like, “Really? I couldn’t get you out of the house for 10 months. Now I’m not gonna see you for almost a year?” You almost have to be careful what you wish for, because you might just get in spades.

So the new album, “Blood & Stone,” is out this week. And as you just said, it’s the 13th album, which almost doesn’t seem possible to me. I feel like I was just 17 years old, buying the first album. But now I’m 41, and you guys are still out here doing it. How’s it feel to you just to be at this point in your career? As you said, it’s still the same five guys from the beginning, and you’re still still going strong.

It feels unreal when you put it into perspective. Someone’s like, ‘You guys have been a band for 26 years, you’ve got 13 records, and you’re the same five guys that started the band.” You’re like, wait a minute, hang on a second. Obviously, it’s an awesome spot to be in. It’s a very unique spot to be in, as well. I mean, some of my favorite bands don’t have original members, and they’re still my favorite bands. Just the fact that the five of us are still excited about what we take into the studio and really excited about what we create in the studio, I think that’s the most important thing. It’s one thing to put a record out and have people love it and have people get excited about it, or have people not love it and want to critique it or whatever. But at the end of the day, if you can still make music that gets you excited—when you’re high-fiving your singer, your drummer on the way out of a studio session after 26 years, that’s a good spot to be in. And I think that’s what it really comes down to. I’m not sure if we have an agenda or a goal. Some people say, “Is it going to be the heaviest record you’ve ever made?” I don’t know if that’s the point anymore. Some people are like, “Is it going to be the most radio-friendly record you’ve ever made?” I don’t know if that’s the point either. I think when we make a record, we just want to walk out of that studio with the best compilation of music that we could come up with collectively, between the five of us. And we still do that. And it’s something that I definitely don’t take for granted.

You went into the studio pretty quickly after finishing up the touring cycle for the previous album, is that right?

Sort of. We started the writing process pretty quickly. We still had a couple of tours. When we finished the bulk of the “All I See Is War” stuff, we still had a couple of runs that we were going to be doing that we’re going to be sandwiched in between. So we probably started the demo process January, February of 2019. We got together for a couple group writing sessions in March. And then I think it was either late April or early May, because then we had a handful of dates, and then we actually took another few week tour out in August, September. And then we wrote again. And then we started pre-production. So we’d had a few cracks at it, demo-wise, even if it was just two or three of us, just to be able to sit together and figure out where everyone else’s head’s at. What demos are you into? What demos are you picking that I’m picking too? What’s Elvis think about this stuff? Where’s his head at? Where’s he at in the game with it?

But yeah, we didn’t waste much time. But we took a good six or seven months actually working through the demo part of the process before we actually went in the studio. I think we started early October. So basically, from January to August was our writing sessions, demos, let’s kind of pull as much together as we can and see where the strong ones are going to end up by August or September. And you’re always surprised. You always have high hopes for certain songs that never quite get there. And then you’ll have a handful of things that you’ve just completely written off. You’re looking at the rest of the guys in the band going, “I don’t know if I understand where we’re going with this thing. I don’t know if I see the endgame or the big picture.” By the time you actually start to record the stuff, it’s always surprising to see what’s going to make the cut, what’s actually going to be the record.

One thing I’ve always wondered, and I’ve never asked any of you guys is about the vocals and how much time and how complicated is it to come up with the vocal arrangements. Because, obviously, you’ve got with Lajon as the lead singer, but then you and Clint both sing, and there’s a lot of harmonizing. And then Morgan adds a lot with his vocals. So how does all that work out?

Elvis. (laughs) That’s one of the reasons we hired a producer again after self-producing ourselves. We actually had a great experience self-producing. We self-produced quite a few records actually. We did “Next,” “Alpha,” “Hope & Sorrow”—with Shawn Grove, he was our engineer, producer. But for the most part, we were making most of the calls on our own. And then we did “Black Out the Sun,” “Time Travelers” and “Kill the Flaw” up at Architekt with Mike Ferrettii—same situation: We had him as an engineer. He was our sounding board. We’d kind of look at Mike and be like, “Hey, man, what are you thinking?” He’d kind of shrug his shoulders, and we’d be like, “Dammit, that means it’s not good enough.”

But these days, I think it really comes down to Elvis. We’re like, let’s let Elvis weed out what doesn’t need to be in here. Because sometimes you’ll throw so many things and so many ideas at it that you just look and you’re like, wow, there’s a lot of vocals going on here, and maybe we need to pare it back and figure out what needs to stay, what’s the most important thing, what are the hooks. And as a producer and a singer-songwriter, he’s just phenomenal being able to help us make those decisions. Whose voice is going to be better suited on a certain thing, you never know. There’s times where he’ll be like, “I need you to do this.” And I’ll be like, “What?” He’s like, “Well, you’re the guy who can hit that note, and I need that note.” And then there’s other times where it’s like, “Your lower, huskier thing sounds good on this.” Morgan sings harmonies. A lot of people don’t realize that. (Bassist) Vinnie (Hornsby) sings live. It’s amazing to be able to lean on him. Because whether your voice is tired or whether it’s just something that’s too difficult to play and sing at the same time, it’s always good to have him there, because he can always kind of be our utility guy, picking up the things that might not be 100 percent—overlapping parts, things like that. He’ll be like, “I got you, I got you.” 

But yeah, man, I think after 25, 26 years of doing this, we’ve always put a lot of time and a lot of effort into making the melodies and lyrics and everything kind of stick. But there can be a lot going on in the Sevendust world vocally, for sure. But it’s nice to have five guys that you can rely on. At any given point in time, you never know who’s gonna be singing what.

This is the second album in a row you’ve done with Elvis. He seems to be one of those guys where when bands start working with him, they don’t stop. They keep going back to over and over again. You mentioned his influence on the vocals, but why else? Why is he so good to work with?

Logistically, for me, it works out great, because he lives here in Orlando. He lives about 10 minutes up the road from me. So it’s kind of hard to beat when you have that guy who’s literally in your own backyard. But beyond that, even if I didn’t live here, it would still be a process that I would look forward to, because we’ve worked with some tremendously talented producers. And typically, there’s two lines of thought. You’ve got your great engineers, guys who go in there and they make it sonically sound phenomenal, but don’t really do much of a contributing factor, as far as the music goes. They may not be really diving into the lyrics and the melodies as much as they are how to get the perfect kick drum, snare drum and bass tone. And then you have some of the guys that are just focused on the arrangements, the lyrics: Does this lyric make sense? Can we change this up this time? Can we do an adlib on the end? And typically, those guys are not super focused on the sound of the record. They’re more focused on the quality of the songs. And there’s an equal argument to be said about both.

I think you need to have both really, really dialed in, and that’s the one thing that Elvis is really good at. Sonically, we never worry about whether it’s going to be a slamming record. He likes to make records the way we like our records to sound. So that part of the conversation is really, really quick. It’s kind of like, alright, we go after a drum sound, we go after our guitar tones, and then we start stacking stuff up in the halls.

But he’s not afraid to tell us when something sucks. He’ll look at us as a friend and as a fan of the band, and just say, “That’s not good enough.” And it sucks to hear that sometimes. As an artist, you fight for anything that you create. But he does have his right, obviously, to that opinion, and nine times out of 10, he’s usually right. Usually, we’ll find something that works better for a problem section in a song. But with him, it’s awesome because every single note on every single record on every single instrument gets its day in court It goes under the microscope—every kick drum hit every hi-hat, every bass note, every guitar note, every vocal—everything goes under that microscope, and it gets analyzed but not over-analyzed; it just has to be musical at the end of the day. And I think that’s the songwriter in him. That’s just a tremendous asset when you’re in the studio, because sometimes with five people that are very opinionated about things, you can have sometimes two or three very, very different ideas and visions for a song. And we’ll usually look at Elvis, and he’ll be the voice of reason. (laughs) He’ll be the one guy to kind of talk two us off the ledge or kind of reaffirm what one of the guys is saying.

But he’s sort of the referee, but he’s also not really the referee. He’s more of a coach. He’s the guy who’s looking at the big picture, he’s looking at all of it. We’re very, very hyper-focused. Clint will be working on one thing, I’ll be working on another thing, LJ will be in there singing, and he’s looking at the board and looking at the big picture. Where I might only be focused on one or two songs at a time, he’s kind of focused on all 13 and how they interact together, and where are the weak spots and where are the strengths and all that stuff. But he also knows how to get those performances out of you, as well.

He’s awesome to work with. He’s just one of those guys where there’s times where it’s easy, and then there’s other times where it’s like he just wants you to dig harder, because he knows it’s in you, he knows that something better is in there, you just haven’t tapped in on it yet. And sometimes you kind of look at it as a challenge. Sometimes he will challenge us: “That’s good enough, but good enough isn’t. So let’s do something that’s better than good enough.” And that’s why we keep going back to work with him, because he sets the bar high. He’s not gonna let us off the hook. He wants to play the record for people and people go, “Whoa, man, this is great.” Because he has as much pride in it as we do. But he’s a tremendously talented guy. He’s just a really, really good friend, and he’s a fan of the band. He understands what we are supposed to sound like. Even if we weren’t friends, as someone who understands Sevendust, he’ll tell us what’s up to snuff and what’s not.

Throughout your career, Sevendust has done very few cover songs, at least that you’ve recorded and released. So I was surprised when you came out with “The Day I Tried to Live” as the first single from the album. So how did that come about, not just to cover it but to be the single?

It was one of those things where I think we knew it was unique, in the fact like you said, we don’t do cover songs often. If we do them, typically, they’re not super, super real popular songs. I think “Hurt” was probably the one that people knew the most. There were a lot of people that heard “Inner City Blues” and they thought that was an original Sevendust song. We actually had to explain it to them. But I think that was part of the decision in us picking this particular Soundgarden song. There were a handful of songs that were on the list that would have been awesome songs to do, but they weren’t as familiar to the general public. We would’ve had to do the same thing—explain that’s actually a Soundgarden song. We knew as soon as they heard the intro on this one, they would know what it is. Even before LJ opens his mouth, they might not know who it is, but they would know—”Oh, I know that song. I’ve heard that before. Where is that? What is that?” So I think that was one of the reasons that we gravitated towards it. It was a super intriguing song, but it was familiar. Maybe not the biggest single that they ever had, but it was definitely an important one. Of all the Soundgarden songs, on Monday and Tuesday, I’d want this one; on Wednesday and Thursday, I might pick this one. And this was the one song that we kept coming back to. We talked about a couple other ones, but this is the one that just kept coming up and kept coming up and kept coming up.

So we made a deal and said, “Look, if it starts to suck at any point in the process, let’s hit the pause button, regroup, reassess and make sure that we’re doing this for the right reasons.” We wanted to do it because, obviously, we’re huge Soundgarden fans and just to pay tribute, homage to Chris Cornell and his talent. It’s something that we didn’t take lightly. We needed to make it very original, very Sevendust, but it also had to be true to the original enough. We couldn’t change it so much that people couldn’t associate it with the original. And that was that line that we were sort of towing the whole time: Stay true, but make it Sevendust. Make it where it’s an obvious thing for Lajon to do. And for him, I think it was probably a bigger hurdle than anything, because when you’re playing someone else’s drum parts and guitar parts, it’s one thing, but when you’re singing Chris Cornell lyrics, melodies, those are some big shoes. And we definitely did not take that lightly. But I thought LJ absolutely killed it. When we heard the roughs of it when it was finished, we were just like, “Well, what is going on here?” (laughs) He was super super, just very, very, in the moment, very concentrated on what he was doing, just because he didn’t want to screw it up. It was like, “This is Chris Cornell. This has to be right.” I remember I looked at Elvis, and Elvis just shook his head. And I was like, “Good?” He was like, “Yeah, it’s gonna be great.” I went, “Alright, we’re good. As long as we’re not deleting the whole file.” (laughs)

So you’ve already been sitting on this album for a while. But given everything that’s going on, was there any consideration given to waiting even longer, until maybe things had cleared up a little more or anything like that?

I think so. We’ve had discussions with our label, just because it’s a guessing game. On one side of the equation, you’ve got, OK, well, we can’t do anything this year, so do we wait ‘til next year? And then the other side of the equation, like, OK, everything opens back up and 2021 is the 20th year anniversary of “Animosity,” which we’re going to have to pay a little bit of attention to. It was like, how many things can we potentially juggle in the same year at the same time? Or do we just roll the dice and actually get this record out and cross our fingers in hopes that we can—by spring/summer of next year, if we could be back on tour that would be great. It’s still a bit of a break from the release to the start the tour, but I think 2020 all bets are off. It’s like the rulebook has sort of been chucked in the corner, and nobody really knows what’s the best plan. Is it a good idea to put a record out without a tour? Two years ago, nobody would have done it. But this year, I think, especially going into October, when the lockdown started happening in March, you’re talking about six months of people being completely removed from this stuff. So I think the fans deserve to have it.

We want to get it out, we know it’s not ideal, but to sit on it, wait ‘til spring next year just seemed crazy to us. It was like let’s give people something to actually dig into and spend some time with. I know people look at what we do as sort of a release from everyday things that you’re going through, so if people can actually unplug for an hour while they’re jamming this record, then it would be worth it at the end of the day. Because at this point, I think people need something to give them a little bit of hope. If we can’t give ‘em a concert, we can give you a livestream and we can at least get the record out there. If we polled our Sevendust fans right now and say, “Hey, man, you know, we’re thinking about waiting another six months for the release,” they would lose their minds. We’ve been sitting on it long enough.

So it’s kind of a leap of faith. We’re not real sure how it’s gonna perform without a tour happening, but I think we’re everyone’s in the same boat. There’s so many bands out there that are all in the same boat. We’re all sort of making up the rules as we go. Hopefully, we’ll look back on this in a year and go, OK, it was a cool experiment, not ideal but we survived it. And hopefully the light at the end of the tunnel keeps getting brighter, and at some point we can get back to doing shows.

As a fan, I really appreciate that the album is coming out now.

It seemed crazy for us to wait any longer. It was just like, I know this sucks, I know it’s not ideal, but it’s ideal for fans, it’s ideal for the people who need to hear music. And for me, anytime that I dig into a new record, as a fan of an artist’s stuff, it’s sort of therapy. I get in there and I dive in and spend some time and really learn to appreciate what they’ve created. It used to be years ago, you kind of make your living off selling records and selling CDs and stuff. Nowadays, I think most bands make most of their money on the touring aspect of it, but this is the best we got right now. And we’re gonna have to release it before we tour anyways. So let’s go ahead and get this party started. Let’s get this thing going.

I think I have just one more question, and it might be a tough one for you. Do you have a favorite Sevendust album?

Favorite Sevendust album? Oh, man. I don’t know, man. I mean, this one, obviously. I think that’s the cliche answer. The new is always gonna get a little bit of favoritism because it’s the new one. It’s the one that we’ve played the least, the one that we spent the least amount of time with.

Listening back to all the records, as unique and quirky as the first album was and the fact that we still didn’t know what we were doing and didn’t realize what kind of band we were—I think the first album definitely has a special place. I think “Alpha,” in a lot of ways, was a super cool record, just because it was a different type of record. Choosing to record live, choosing to not have any programming, choosing to not dive down the Pro Tools rabbit hole, choosing to do a lot of things that we hadn’t ever done before—I think that was a big step. And then “Cold Day Memory.” I think a lot of people were looking at it as like, alright, Clint coming back, are we throwing a hail mary here, are we trying to regroup, is it a rebirth and re-energization of the band? And I think that’s what it ended up being. It was important for us to come out of the gate swinging with that record, because we were like, we’ve still got a lot to prove here, and now that we’ve got Clint back, it was an important step for us to take.

But it’s also hard not to recognize the fact that “Kill the Flaw” and “Thank You” actually got nominated for a Grammy, which being nominated for a Grammy is really, really cool. I don’t put as much weight into it as a lot of our family did. But knowing how important that was for my mother and father, our parents and our families who have always been our support group. Just to see getting recognized for something like that through their eyes was really cool. So “Kill the Flaw” will always have a special place just for that reason.

But but the new one, man. I haven’t spent as much time with it. I haven’t burned it out yet. (laughs) I’ve probably played “Black” more times than I’ve listened to every song on this record, even through all the demo phases and stuff like that. So there’s a big difference, but there’s 26 years between that first record and this new one, so that’s a long time.

Well, I think that’s all the questions I have. Is there anything else you’d like to say?

No, just tune in for this livestream. It’s gonna be an experiment for us. We’ve never done anything like this before. For a band that has been around for a quarter of a century to be doing something for the first time is always a pleasure, a pleasant surprise. But yeah, check out the record, check out the livestream, and let’s all stay safe, man. Stay safe, stay healthy, and hopefully we can get this business back on track sometime spring/summer, at the latest, hopefully next year. If we can get through this winter and hopefully get some vaccines, get some treatments and things like that, maybe we can actually get to a spot where it’s not as high risk for people. But yeah, just stay safe and stay healthy, and hopefully we’ll see you guys real soon.

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