Lamb Of God's Long, Strange Road Out Of Hell
A Billboard charting album, slots at Ozzfest, touring with Slayer and appearing on Late Night With Conan, so what's up with Lamb Of God?
This article originally appeared in Metal Hammer #171.
Call them the spoils of victory: the Grammy nomination, the gold records, the television appearances, the top-lining festival performances. Without a doubt, this has been a life changing year for Lamb Of God. Not since Slipknot’s homicidal clown show in the late 1990’s has such an uncompromising metal band broken through to the mainstream. But Slipknot rode the nu-metal wave, and Lamb Of God has no trend to attribute their popularity to. They are a phenomenon, a one-band revolution that threatens to overthrow the established order. If they can break through, perhaps they can tear a big enough hole in the fabric of corporate rock to let the multitudes of other extreme bands pour through. It’s a precarious place in metal history that this band occupies, one they are fighting to keep tooth and nail. No easy task, now that the inevitable backlash has begun.
“We’re already bigger than I ever thought possible”, says Lamb guitarist Mark Morton. “And I’ve already noticed certain metal publications and sub-communities where we used to be embraced that, now that we’re well-known… we’re just not in that clique anymore.”
“We’re not the underdog anymore”, vocalist Randy Blythe adds. “So now we’re a target.”
“That’s fine, it’s natural,” Mark decides. “It comes with the territory.”
It’s got to be tough to be on the receiving end of ‘sell-out’ accusations after all those years in the mud.
“It’s not tough,” Mark corrects. “We honestly don’t give a fuck. The five of us are so critical of what we do that there’s no room for anyone else’s opinion to impact what we’re doing. If it reaches people, if it touches people, fantastic. But that’s not the goal. I don’t care if that kid over there doesn’t like my next record. I wrote it for me, not for him.”
Welcome to the metal trenches. Sure, it might seem like Lamb Of God are on top of the world. Just look at their recent accomplishments. Their last album, Sacrament, released August 2006, sold 300,000 copies in the US alone and made it to number eight on the Billboard charts. Just prior to that record’s release, they successfully toured with Slayer on the Unholy Alliance tour. The band were nominated this year for a ‘Best Metal Performance’ Grammy award for Redneck. On February 9th, they appeared on the Late Night With Conan O’Brien show, where they performed Pathetic. All amazing achievements for a band whose music sounds like the exploding of Panzer tanks. But from the band’s viewpoint, these are merely minor battles won in a long war of attrition.
Currently, they’re slugging it out at Ozzfest, where they are playing the main stage right under Ozzy himself. Hammer meets Lamb Of God on an Ozzfest stop in Mansfield, Massachusetts, under an open-air tent surrounded on all sides by a high wooden fence. Deep green shrubbery explodes from every corner. It looks like the unkempt backyard of a Japanese whorehouse. Along with Mark and Randy, the scene is completed by drummer Chris Adler. With the possible exception of Chris, none of them seem to want to do this interview. Perhaps it’s burnout, or timing, but today questions drop like lead counterweights and are often answered with sighs, rolling eyes, or outward hostility. The war drags ever on, and rock journalists are on the hitlist. The digital recorder audibly groans when it’s turned on.
So, you used to be called Burn the Priest. Now you’re Lamb Of God. That’s a pretty interesting name change…
“It’s not that I’m mad at you for asking the question”, Mark says. How kind.
“It just that people ask, ‘Why’d you change the name?’ And I just think, well, Fuck you. Where were you? You didn’t know about either band when we changed the name. It makes for a great story, but the truth of the matter is, there’s so few people in the world that saw or heard us when we were Burn The Priest, that it’s nothing more than something to write about. We were there, there’s probably a couple thousand people on the East coast and at a few metal festivals that were there, but outside of that, Burn The Priest really didn’t make a dent anywhere, so it doesn’t really matter.”
Next topic, then. Recently, the band attended the Grammys. As nominees. A rarity for a band whose music is best suited for pummeling violence.
Did Beyonce come by their table and say, ‘Hey, Lamb Of God, nice work!’?
“No, but she did stop by,” Chris says.
“The after-party was great,” Mark tells me. “I think we all hung out with Dave Grohl for a bit, he’s a fan of the band and I’m a huge, huge Nirvana fan, so to talk to him and have him talk about our music in a way that was clear that he knew the tunes, that was really special.”
“We met Weird Al Yankovic, too”, says Chris, beaming.
Did he know who you were?
“I dunno. At that point it was all a blur.”
Ultimately, the band lost to Slayer.
“I wouldn’t say that anybody lost,” Chris corrects me. “Shit, to be in that company? Amazing.”
“Mastodon was nominated as well, and we’re really good friends with them”, Mark says. “So we sat together and lost together and like, consoled each other. Anyway, the fact that we’re even mentioned in that world is kinda bizarre. So we figure, have fun with it, you know?”
Not long after, the band did their Conan O’Brien appearance, which was broadcast all over the world.
“That was another awkward situation”, says Chris.
Does it make a big difference to the band’s popularity after doing such a high profile TV show?
“It doesn’t make a difference for us”, he says. “I think it does in the bigger picture, for a band like us to do things like the Grammys and Conan, I think it’s great for our kind of music. I think we’re part of that giant foot that’s kicking the door open a little. It is a little awkward for us, because it’s not the normal path for how these things go.”
It does legitimise your craft a little.
“That depends on who you talk to”, he says, with a rueful chuckle.
For Lamb Of God, Ozzfest is just one leg on a punishing tour schedule that has taken them all around the world, and will continue to fling them around it for the next few months. Tellingly, when the band are asked how long they’d be with the Ozzfest, they simply shrug.
“I never thought to check”, Mark told me. “It all seems like the same road. If you’ve been on tour long enough, Osaka and Cleveland are the same place.”
As far as this place is concerned, the band likes Ozzfest just fine, but prefer the more visceral thrills of the side-stage to the relative comforts of the main stage’s hospitality.
“I go down there and do the barbecues and shit”, Randy says. “This here, this is the retirement home, and over there is the ghetto, that’s where it’s real. It’s the no-fly zone. It’s like Baghdad. You want to see a horrorshow, go to the second stage.”
Before Ozzfest, Lamb Of God did a tour of duty on the European festival circuit. It’s hard to say who won or lost in that battle, but it appears that the band is not looking forward to the next campaign.
“The US is the best place to tour, no doubt about it”, says Randy. “Have you ever been to a European festival? Imagine that you’re in a urinal, and there’s 20,000 drunk dudes all around you. That’s what it smells and feels like. It’s really cold and wet, and it smells like pee.”
But most people think that Europe is actually more civilised. So…
“What are you talking about? We have seats on out toilets here. They shit in holes.”
“Just because you can rent a racetrack doesn’t mean you know what to do with 50,000 people,” Chris adds, thoughtfully.
It’s easy to get the feeling the road is beginning to grind them down.
“Of course it does, man”, Mark says. “We’re humans. Sometimes we want to go home and mow the lawn, and shit.”
So, add the endless road and the urinals of Europe to the list of hostile forces. Hell, there were times when it seemed Lamb Of God were even at war with themselves.
“You name it, we’ve done it”, Chris laughs. “All the shenanigans possible, and we’re still here to talk about it. Fires. Eyebrows. Sharpies.”
“Car wrecks”, Randy adds. “Dog shock collars.”
That one deserves an explanation.
“That was [John] Campbell”, Chris says. “We were playing a squat in Philadelphia, and then we stayed over some dude’s house. I took the collar off his dog and put it on our bass player when we was passed out drunk and shocked him until he woke up.”
Did he forgive you?
“No”, Randy laughs. “He’s still angry.”
“Give it about five days in this band”, Chris says, “and we’ll forgive anything.” Suddenly, Mark gets serious.
“Listen, with that stuff, we’re in our mid-thirties now, all that shit happened when we were 22 or 23 years old, living in a van, pooling our change to buy beer so we can get fucked up, sleeping on people’s floors, I mean, if you see us on the Ozzfest tour or MTV2 and think that we’re a big corporate rock band, fuck you. We lived every fuckin’ step of it, and you weren’t there.”
“Nobody handed this to us,” says Randy, as he lights another cigarette. Interestingly, this topic comes up a lot in the conversation. The backlash. Surely, it must bother the band.
“It doesn’t bother me at all”, Mark insists, “Because I know what we did. We could go back there tomorrow, you know what I mean? We’re here for the music, but listen, you want us to play at Ozzfest in front of 25,000 people? You want us to open up for Heaven And Hell? Fuck yeah, I’m gonna do it. But I was playing squats for two beers and a bowl of spaghetti, too.”
“And at the end of the day”, Chris says, “The only people we answer to is ourselves.”
“If some 16 year old dickhead wants to say we’re fake, then whatever. I was doing this shit before you learned to wipe your ass”, says Mark.
Randy sniggers. “Back when you were still swimming in your daddy’s nuts.”
Sixteen year old dickheads beware: you’re on Lamb Of God’s list, too.
It would be some sort of metal heresy to suggest that Lamb Of God were at war with Slayer, but when they toured together last year, certainly the Slaytanic ones felt a few volleys of friendly fire.
“I’m a competitive person, which means I want us to smoke every other band, every night,” Mark says. “I don’t mean that in a negative way, I don’ t mean your band sucks, but I want my band to be better than your band, and that’s the way I feel every time we go out there. There were times when we opened for Slayer, and I felt like, that was our show.”
What about the oft-held belief that opening for Slayer, facing their blood-mad fans, is the toughest job in rock’n’roll?
Mark shrugs. “Not really. I don’t mean any disrespect for Slayer, but I enjoy that challenge, when I walk away feeling like I leveled that crowd. I’m sure some of your readers will read this and say, ‘I was on that tour and Slayer ruled every night’, but I’m just talking about my perspective.”
“Same thing when we toured with Gwar”, Chris says. “It was one of those things where we asked ourselves, ‘are we up to this?’ And in both cases, not only were we up to it, but we presented a serious challenge to the other bands.”
“People would ask us if we were scared to open up for Slayer, and we were like, “No dude, we just spent two months on the road with Gwar. It’s the same thing,’” Randy adds.
“You don’t even give them time to think, you just go out there and hand them their ass, and leave them wondering what the fuck just happened.”
Not only do Lamb Of God regularly hand the punters their asses, they also inspire them to go completely fucking mental. If you have not witnessed an LOG crowd in action yet, look up Wall Of Death on YouTube and see for yourself the raw ferocity of several hundred loony young Lamb Of God fans crazily mowing each other down in one of the most jaw-dropping dances-of-death you’ll ever see. How did this phenomenon start? And has it always been this way with Lamb Of God fans?
“It’s always been that way with Sick of It All, who invented it back in the 80’s”, Randy says, in the exact tone you usually reserve for when you’re teaching a particularly slow child how to tie their shoes.
“It’s old school New York hardcore, that’s where it’s from. We didn’t invent it.”
“Hopefully there’s something contagious and mind altering about our music”, Chris helpfully adds. “That’s what we try to do musically, is write riffs that bring on that visceral reaction and make you wanna let it out. That’s what we’re doing for ourselves, and hopefully that translates to the people that are participating in the audience. We all come up with stuff that makes us want to punch the wall at 200 miles an hour. I think that’s what’s happening, I think that’s what translates to the live show. That’s the answer to your question.”
“It’s become fascinating to watch”, Mark says. “Randy used to explain it, you know, ‘You guys get on this side…’ But we started getting uncomfortable with it after awhile, because we thought it was getting too violent. That’s definitely not our intent, for people to pay money to see us and then get carried out on a stretcher because of something we were orchestrating, and that was happening. But now, it’s taken on a life of it’s own, in that when we play Black Label at the end of the set, people just do it. It’s not anything Randy tells them to do, it’s just done.”
Do you ever try to stop it?
“Why would we try to stop it? I mean, I hope no one’s getting trampled out there, that’s not our intentions, but listen, it’s hardcore, it’s heavy metal, people get hurt in these slam pit, mosh pits, whatever you want to call them. It’s full-contact.”
It has been an exceedingly long and strange trip to the top for Lamb Of God, and despite the afternoon’s grousing, they are quite proud of their achievements, and continue to marvel at the sheer incredulity of it all.
“When we started, we were all in college or around college, and it was the oddest formation of a band you could imagine”, Mark says. “We really got together because we wanted to drink a 12 pack of beer on Friday night and make noise with our instruments in the basement, and that was really the be-all and end-all, and then we began to write songs and got the opportunity to play parties and clubs. Every step of the way it was just about playing and having fun. But this kind of music that we make, then and to this day, the idea in 1995 that that would be commercially viable, that you could sell records and play arenas, that you could be nominated for Grammys and ride around on tour busses, that was totally unimaginable. It still is. I mean, let’s face it, it’s unlistenable, right?”
Hammer refuse to take that bait.
“At least to people who like commercial music it is”, he continues. “And yet, here we are on this major label selling records. Every step of the way, we’ve been shocked. Of course, now we’re used to it, but it still blows my mind every day that we’re here, because this really was just a basement band, just a bunch of drunk college kids playing riffs.”
The interview mercifully over, Lamb Of God simply get up and walk away, on to their next skirmish, leaving Hammer to shake hands with the ghosts and then wander through the sea of black-shirted headbangers. These are Lamb Of God’s people, many thousands of them, come to worship at their makeshift temple, sacrificing their bodies in the bloody ritual known as the Wall Of Death. It’s at that point that something Randy said earlier in the day comes to mind. Why do Lamb Of God’s fans go so berserk?
“It’s real. We don’t have no make-up, no costumes, no fancy special effects, it’s just raw aggression. There’s no gimmick, it is what it is. It’s in your face, and people identify with that. They see us, and it’s like, ‘Those dudes don’t look like Kiss, they look like they could be my neighbour. Fuck, they might be’. We’re just five dudes up there gettin’ it.”20,000 teenage nutcases can’t be wrong.
Lamb Of God destroy the place.
The revolution is alive and well
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