Dear God - Avenged Sevenfold: "We Were At Each Other's Throats"
Accusations of selling out, a critical mauling, a singer who couldn't sing and an album that would take them into metal's stratosphere. The strange and true story of Avenged Sevenfold
This article originally appeared in Metal Hammer #173.
It’s May 2004, and M Shadows awakes groggily from a deep sleep. Though he was blissfully unaware until it was diagnosed, a blood vessel had been popping whenever he screamed onstage. To kill or cure this gradually worsening problem, the Avenged Sevenfold frontman has just undergone a new technique of laser surgery. There is no pain, just a dull, throbbing ache at the back of his throat. And, of course, the rather more serious uncertainty of whether or not he will ever be able to perform again.
“My doctor said, ‘Dude, if you keep screaming that way, you won’t be able to sing or even talk within five years’,” he recollects. “So I visited a specialist in Boston who had a technique that was used to remove scars on newborn babies. After the operation I had to stay silent as a mouse for two whole months – and we were due to appear on the Warped tour in three months. I’d heard about [Sound Of Music star] Julie Andrews losing her voice forever after surgery. I admit it, I was scared.”
By that point, Avenged Sevenfold already had two albums to their name; Sounding The Seventh Trumpet and Waking The Fallen – both had been released independently and received enthusiastic reviews in 2001 and 2003 respectively, but to be brutally honest seemed to tell us all we needed to know about the mysteriously named Shadows, lead guitarist Synyster Gates, guitarist Zacky Vengeance, bassist Johnny Christ and drummer The Reverend.
The resolving of Shadows’ vocal issues opened up all sorts of new and exciting challenges. Once the tissue had recovered, he began seeing vocal coach Ronnie Anderson, whose clients include W Axl Rose, Chris Cornell and even Justin Timberlake. Three months and $35,000 of lessons later, all paid for from his own pocket, Shadows and Avenged Sevenfold decided the screaming had to stop.
“We didn’t even to listen to those type of bands any more,” explains the vocalist. “Suddenly everyone was screaming the verses and singing the choruses.” Embracing a raft of seemingly unlikely influences such as Guns N’ Roses, Iron Maiden, Queen and Helloween, the result was City Of Evil, an album that Hammer hailed as “exciting, daft, brilliant and brave” when it emerged in the summer of 2005.
Well, if you considered City Of Evil an exercise in cold-hearted courageousness, its successor is set to shock you like few other releases before it – for better, or worse.
Meeting M Shadows for the first time, the singer appears everything you’d expect him not to be, apart from his choice of attire (jet-black from the tip of his mini-Mohawk to the bottom of his trousers). Introduced by his real first name of Matt, he’s sober, forthright and friendly, almost to the point of being – ulp! – quite charming. But then again, this is the first wave of real press that the band has done for the newly released Avenged Sevenfold. The knives are still being sharpened.
Hammer breaks the ice by suggesting that Avenged are returning to the fray with an extremely provocative piece of work. Not for the first time, Shadows seems to disagree.
“I guess some people might consider it wacky if they’ve not heard from us in two years,” shrugs the singer. “It seemed a little crazy to us when we were writing and recording it, but I’m used to it now. The strangest thing is that many of our friends who never liked our band before think it’s a great record. We wanted it to have melodies that you didn’t have to listen to a hundred times before they sank in. It had to be eclectic, have a pop influence and be memorable right off the bat.”
One UK publication awarded the album one out of 10, something that Shadows finds both amusing and pitiful. “That guy obviously has something personal against us,” he chuckles. “He talks shit about all four of our records, is he even a journalist? And for the record, the magazine involved wanted us to do an interview that we turned down, so maybe there’s something political going on.”
One thing is for certain: Avenged Sevenfold continues the quantum leap that City Of Evil represented over …Seventh Trumpet and …Fallen.
“To us, every record we’ve put out has been different,” insists Shadows. “We left the whole hardcore thing behind with Waking The Fallen. Each time there’s been a backlash, but a whole lot more people have praised what we’d done.”
At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, it’s all a question of perception. Some of their fans still persist in thinking of Avenged Sevenfold as the band that kick-started the Orange County metalcore scene, the group themselves perceiving themselves as a far grander, broader-based entity. Based on sales alone – with the clout of the Warner Brothers empire behind them, City Of Evil sold the best part of a million copies around the globe – A7X seem to hold the winning hand. It begs the question, do they even think of themselves as a metal band any more?
“With this album, no. Not really. You won’t hear much double-kick [drumming], and we’re not trying to be a heavy band,” admits M. “There are still some metal elements, but maybe we’re more about rock and general craziness than metal now.
“The truth is that not much metal inspires us today,” he continues. “We still listen to Guns N’ Roses, Metallica and Pantera, but this time we’ve gone even further back to Mr Bungle [featuring Mike Patton of Faith No More], The Residents [US weirdos who perform with huge eyeballs on their heads] and Oingo Boingo [the new wave band from the 1980s]. Our attitude was, ‘Hey, let’s write 24 experiments’. We could’ve taken 10 of those songs and made a full-on heavy record like everyone expected, because those songs were there. In the end, we just took the best 10, whatever their styles.”
Among the biggest shocks are A Little Piece Of Heaven, an extravagantly-crooned, overblown eight-minute paean to necrophilia, and the album’s swansong, Dear God, a country and western-flavoured ballad that’s basically an excuse for an extended pedal-steel guitar solo.
“Along with Lost, which is also out of the ordinary, those three songs close the record,” agrees Shadows. “We could’ve finished with three slammers, but we felt the ones that we used were much better songs. And we don’t care what people say about that. We’re not here to cater for other people’s wishes – we make the music that comes from our hearts. Being in a band is art, you’ve got to stay true to that.”
Nevertheless, if someone had played Shadows a song as lightweight as Dear God when he was a 15-year-old metalhead, would he have liked it?
“I listened to stuff like that back then, but if I’d heard it on a Pantera record I’d have been confused,” he concedes. “But that’s what I love about our band. We do more than just one thing. Our focus is on being eclectic and making every record a new adventure. That can be a negative to some people, but not to us.”
Orchestral elements had been introduced to the sound on City Of Evil, but this time they went the whole nine yards, bringing in a string quartet to decorate Afterlife and Brompton Cocktail. A7X were thrilled when Marc Mann and Steve Bartek, the guitarist and keyboard player of their aforementioned heroes Oingo Boingo, agreed to get involved.
“Mark and Steve do all of Danny Elfman’s scores,” says the clearly impressed Shadows – and so he should be; Elfman is internationally renowned for working on soundtracks to movies like Batman Returns, Spider-Man and Edward Scissorhands.
“On A Little Piece Of Heaven we used a 26-piece orchestra and a full choir. It came out huge and completely off the wall.”
The band have even claimed that hip-hop influences abound, though you need to listen out for them. “They’re there in Scream and in the chorus of Almost Easy – just the beats though, of course we’re playing metal over the top,” Shadows elaborates. “You explain these things to kids and they think we’ve gone off the deep end. Maybe we have!”
If all of the above sounds self-indulgent, especially given the band’s history, the singer takes such accusations firmly on the chin.
“I suppose that’s true, but to me this album’s way less indulgent than City Of Evil, which had nine and 10 minute songs,” he affirms. “This time we stepped back and swore that we wouldn’t be showing off on our instruments. It was all about making good music and making ourselves happy.”
So the response from fans is irrelevant?
“The feedback to Almost Easy has been incredibly positive,” affirms Shadows, referring to the album’s first single. “But we’ve always been about pissing people off and getting a reaction and we don’t back down. Controversy has always followed us. Even from the start, we decided to have stage names and wear make-up. I just don’t know how to write a typical metal song any more. The whole band knows when we’re crossing the line, but we can’t help ourselves. We have to put our hands in the cookie jar. One thing I don’t understand is when we get flamed for speaking our opinions. If Axl Rose did that when I was younger, it didn’t make me want to burn my Guns N’ Roses records.”
Avenged Sevenfold’s UK fans have good cause to be pissed off with the band, who cancelled a tour in 2005, only to add a string of shows in smaller venues, then pulled the exact same trick the following year to commence on the album that became Avenged Sevenfold. Cancelling one tour is bad enough, but it sounds worryingly like A7X consider the UK a place that can just be scratched from their itinerary at will.
“That’s definitely not true,” insists Shadows. “We felt really bad about what happened. I don’t remember what went down with that first tour, but we were at each others’ throats for the second one. If we’d have come over for those dates, there might not have been a band any more.”
Things had got that bad?
“Yeah. We’d been out on the road for 16 months. It had got to the point where we just didn’t want to be around each other, around the crew. Anyone. We wanted to be home in our beds.”
Didn’t you feel responsibility towards those that had bought tickets?
“Of course we did. Some kids promised not to buy our records any more, and we expected that and felt bad about it, but at least we knew that if we cut things short we’d continue actually making those records.”
While Shadows was taken aback by the furore the cancellation caused (“When we did the same thing in the States the fans didn’t give two shits – why was there such a stink? Everyone got refunds”), he considers the band’s just-completed club tour a thank you to those who kept the faith. “It cost us $90,000 of our own cash,” he declares proudly, “and we will keep on coming over here, even if we lose money.”
We should probably be used to hearing M Shadows running his mouth off by now. The singer has openly criticised the way his band has been promoted by the record company, and continues to do so, despite A7X remaining on its roster.
“Warner Brothers is the top dog in the States, it’s when things start to trickle down the chain to Germany and Asia or whatever that our vision becomes diluted,” he says, clearly flummoxed. “It seems completely insane that we can have the Number One selling rock song in America, but in some territories can’t even get that same record played, while the ones that are two, three and four all get aired. Dude, that’s because we’re being marketed as a full-on metal band, which we’re not.”
It also seemed churlish to have criticised the MTV awards after Avenged Sevenfold walked off with the gong for Best New Band. If they felt that way, why attend the ceremony at all? Aren’t they supposed to be a rock‘n’roll band?
“Awards don’t mean much to us, though of course we appreciate winning them,” reasons Shadows. “I’d rather play in front of 10,000 kids than win an MTV award – so many of those bands can’t do that. Avenged Sevenfold can. That award is on my mantlepiece, and it was one of the greatest days of my life, especially as we didn’t think we’d win. My point is that is means nothing if you can’t sell CDs, t-shirts and tickets and be an actual band.”
Despite claiming to have girlfriends and regular partners, Avenged Sevenfold have obtained a reputation for raking in all the prerogatives that membership of a rock band can bring. As confirmed by the regular column in Metal Hammer that the band members took turns in writing last year, they’ve notched countless bedposts, cavorted in lap-dancing clubs, consumed vast qualities of alcohol, taken drugs and smashed places up that didn’t make them feel welcome (sample quote from M’s March 2006 entry: “I had been kicked out of seven casinos in two hours, started fights, cursed, drank, insulted people, walked away from the police with my pants round my ankles and ended up with a few less grand in my pocket – hey, it happens”). Such boasting must have had a negative effect upon the band’s standing as serious musicians?
“Only in the UK,” snickers Shadows. “I know that all that stuff can make us look stupid, so while we’re here we have to watch what we say. In the past we’ve been like, ‘Hey dude, we’ve just got off a plane, we’re hammered. Do an interview with us, let’s talk about dicks and balls and fucking girls’. And that’s the type of press we’ve got. So now we’re careful.”
You still do that stuff; you just don’t talk about it any more?
“Naah,” he replies sarcastically. “We’re gonna be good boys from now on.”
As if anyone doubted the popularity that brings such nocturnal privileges, the band proceeded to take London’s 100 Club by storm during their mini-tour, tickets for which sold out almost immediately. Previously occupied by Metallica, the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Rolling Stones, the stage is among the tiniest they’ve appeared on in many years, but Avenged Sevenfold face down the front rows, eyeball to eyeball, unheard new songs Critical Acclaim, Almost Easy and Scream soliciting as many cheers as old favourites Beast And The Harlot, Bat Country and Unholy Confessions.
During the afternoon before the show, Zacky Vengeance is in high spirits. The guitarist is ambivalent to the mixed reaction that Avenged Sevenfold is receiving from the British media. In its review of Avenged Sevenfold, Hammer’s sister title Classic Rock described the band as “ridiculously arrogant and impressively gormless”. Indeed, during the past year alone they’ve been called everything from moronic, fascist dickheads right up to the best band in the world.
“Which of those descriptions suits us best?” whistles Zacky, mildly amused. “That’s a question I couldn’t even begin to answer.”
Like the rest of Avenged Sevenfold, Vengeance got to hang out with W Axl Rose on their last tour. Having been assured of his band’s coolness by Rose meant a lot more to the guitarist than some half-assed critique by a journalist he’s never met, and it sticks in his craw to be told what kind of music he should be making.
“With each album we’re becoming a little more fearless,” he points out. “The scene’s also stagnating. There are five million shitty, disgraceful heavy metal bands. What would be the point of being just another imitator of Iron Maiden or Metallica?
“Another thing that annoys me is people who say Avenged Sevenfold were at their best when Sounding The Seventh Trumpet was out,” he says. “Where were those fans when we couldn’t sell out a single show, let alone 2,000 copies of that CD?”
Safe in the knowledge that they had been left alone to handle City Of Evil in all but name (co-credited with Mudrock of Chimaira/Eighteen Visions fame), Vengeance doesn’t care if the consensus among the reviewers is that he and his partners should not have been allowed to completely self-produce Avenged Sevenfold. Suggestions that they should consider staying away from danger areas such as politics with a song like Critical Acclaim receive equally short shrift.
“That’s an angry track, not necessarily a political one,” he affirms. “Because of the Gulf War there’s a lot of anger in our country right now. Critical Acclaim is us telling the people who don’t make the decisions to just shut up for a minute. Their bitching really isn’t helping. Let’s make the world a more positive place.”
Despite the pockets of negativity surrounding them, Avenged Sevenfold couldn’t be any calmer. Early fan reaction suggests that the band will easily weather the storm of press hostility towards Avenged Sevenfold. For the group’s part, no one is even remotely prepared to admit that this album represents a dangerous gamble, so it’s pointless to ask whether they’ve considered what might happen if it flops. But we do so anyway…
Vengeance: “As a musician there’s nothing more exciting than taking risks. We expect this album to take us to the next level. Nobody wants to lose fans, but you’ve got to be true to your art.”
Shadows: “The only reason I’d be worrying is if we’d re-made City Of Evil, and we haven’t. People can call us sell-outs, whatever they like. Our finger is on the pulse of our fan-base – our real fan-base, not just those that like a hit song – and we know that the kids are desperate to hear this record. I honestly don’t think that will change.”