Photo Courtesy of Looters/BMG
The chart-topping American metallers have a new album and a new big rock sound.
The story of the long-running American alternative metal act Godsmack, is one of consistency. In the last two decades they’ve released six albums, with three of them hitting number one at home. North of the border, their last two albums cracked the second spot on the national charts, their highest in Canada thus far. My point is that their formula seems to be working. So it’s rather surprising to find the band going for a more hard rock sound on their new album When Legends Rise, which is out today. I spoke to band frontman Sully Erna, and described to him how I was caught off guard by their change of direction.
“The band never considered themselves a metal band,” he says matter-of-factly.
“We kind of rode the line in the past, having some tracks that were a little bit on the metal edge. We’ve always just been a hard rock band, but obviously having written songs like ‘Voodoo’ and ‘Serenity’ from the early days, it really always left this door open, the lane to pursue if we wanted to. As we get older we have to grow with who we are as individuals, who we are as songwriters. For me especially as the main songwriter, I’m not the same angry kid I was when I wrote the first record.”
Erna credits Sharon Osbourne and the Ozzfest tour, as well as their widely-broadcast set at Woodstock ‘99, for helping them initially break out to a wider audience. But it was their 2002 track “I Stand Alone,” featured in Dwayne Johnson’s first major film The Scorpion King, that would bring them worldwide attention. It was his experience writing that song, that pushed Erna into taking a chance on the direction of the new album.
“I thought back to when I first wrote ‘I Stand Alone,’ it was the first time that the band really shifted into a different kind of sound, and we started introducing harmonies, a little bit more melody in the choruses” he says.
“When that song was finished, I couldn’t even tell if it was a good song or not because it was so different and unique from anything we had done. I would play it for my friends and for my manager and the response was all the same, ‘I don’t know, I think it’s good!’ We couldn’t figure it out, and it turned out to be our biggest hit to date. It just proved to me, that whenever I hear something (and) I’m not sure if I can quite identify it, maybe that unique quality is what’s going to make it successful and break us into yet another level we haven’t accomplished yet.”
After being encouraged by his bandmates, Erna took influence from his two solo albums which were collaboratively written with blues, classical, and jazz musicians.
“I wanted to take that process and that format and apply it to Godsmack because I felt like… maybe we can start developing something that’s a little bit more unique, and not feel like we’re writing the same record over and over again,” he says cautiously.
“I’m not ‘not proud’ of the records we’ve written, it’s part of the past. But we’re in a new place in our lives right now, and we feel like there’s a rebirth happening here. We want to try and take advantage of that and run with it, and see if we can open this up to a much bigger audience.
Erna’s unabashed declaration of his desire to push his band to the front of mainstream rock is sincerely refreshing after you’ve heard hundreds of bands lie through their teeth and say the opposite. But despite his excitement for the new album, Erna is well aware that he may lose fans who prefer a “heavier” Godsmack.
“If they expect us to sound like the Awake album then they’re following the wrong band,” he announces.
“But as I went through this process, it was a little bit nerve-wracking to me for a minute, because I knew it was going to be a different-sounding record. It did cross my mind, ‘Have we gone too far here?’ I spent time working with some outside writers because I wanted to hear someone who wasn’t in the struggle, what they thought we could sound like. Just to experiment, not knowing if we would use it or not. To my surprise I stumbled onto some really cool stuff that I really enjoyed. It made me think outside the box for melody, songs like ‘When Legends Rise.’ I wrote that with (ex-Goldfinger singer/guitarist) John Feldmann who usually writes for Blink-182 and 5 Seconds of Summer. I don’t categorize music in genres. I eliminated that a long time ago. I don’t care if it’s Migos, Justin Bieber, or Pantera, it’s either a good song or a bad song. Led Zeppelin’s probably the most prime example. Look at all the different styles of music that band performed, even though the majority of was a dark blues-rock, they had reggae sounds, they had country sounds. They explored the kinds of music they wanted to play.”
When Legends Rise finds Erna’s vocals in a particularly strong place. His love of the new material genuinely shines through in his performance, and it grounds the entire album. When someone says they want to make their music more accessible, it’s rarely this passionate and sincere.
“There are different goals that I personally like to aspire towards, and I think there is a lot more of audience to hit out there,” he says with an audible note of optimism.
“There’s a reason why the Foo Fighters are doing stadiums and we’re doing small arenas! (laughs) There’s a lot more people out there that appreciate music and that I feel I’d like to be able to introduce them to Godsmack. There’s a whole new generation who’s grown up since we came out with our first record, and the same fans who were in their twenties are now in their forties and fifties, and have fifteen year-old kids of their own that are discovering Godsmack for the first time. We wanted to be able to write music that’s accepted amongst the masses and amongst a much broader audience, because I’m a musician. I play five different instruments, I love to write music, compose, arrange. In the past it’s been a struggle to separate, ‘this is gonna be Godsmack, this is gonna be solo,’ I just feel like there’s a moment here to be able hybrid the two, and not lose the edge or the integrity of what we do with Godsmack.”
Godsmack’s new album When Legends Rise is out today, and you can listen to the title track below. They’re also one of the headliners of Rockfest in Montebello, QC June 14 – 16.
Photo Courtesy of 2911 Media
Legendary singer/songwriter Don McLean was recently honoured for achieving over five million U.S. radio plays of “American Pie,” and three million for “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night),” both from the 1971 American Pie album. It seems to be a significant accomplishment, one made even more so by the ever-changing state of radio and the music business. But at age 72, McLean seems to have had enough with attempting to understand contemporary music culture.
“I have no idea what’s going on with music, or radio, or any of that stuff. I watched the Super Bowl, and I watched Justin Timberlake do his thing. I didn’t understand any of that!” he says emphatically. When I point out that many people who enjoy modern music may not want to be represented by Timberlake’s performance either, he gives an acknowledging laugh.
“Right! (But) it doesn’t mean anything to me. I know I’m an old guy and everything, but from a musical point of view it just is meaningless to me. I’m saying that not in a way that is a criticism of anything, it’s just that my time is up, and my understanding of what’s going on now is zero.”
This statement seems at odds with McLean’s status as a classic artist, as his work is deeply entrenched in popular culture. While “American Pie” may have been played five million times in America, the song now has over one hundred million plays on Spotify (McLean is quick to tell me that the song “was always considered two plays for every one play. BMI would pay me twice as a publisher, every time they played that song”). His digital presence has, in a very short time, seemingly eclipsed his decades of traditional media exposure. Regardless of McLean’s self-perceived lack of understanding of “what’s going on,” he has his own insight as to why his songs are still being embraced.
“(People) can see me talk to people and they can decide what they think about me from head to toe. It’s quite revealing what’s happened now in the last ten, twelve years. If you decide to get into any artist, you can find so much out there, and it’s always increasing” he says.
“But one thing I would say, is that I think as this whole musical delivery system through the internet improves and becomes more powerful, people like myself who have been lucky enough to have classic albums and classic songs, those individuals will have more and more attention paid to them. Even if you sold a lot of records but you were basically garbage, you’re not going to get attention paid to you as we move forward.”
This all seems to place McLean in a privileged position. It’s easy to forget he’s a folk artist, and that even “American Pie” isn’t an obvious smash hit if you consider pop music of almost any era. It’s a stark contrast between artistic expression and commercialism that he seems very aware of.
“My life has been... I don’t want to say it’s been charmed, cause that would be presumptuous of me to say that” he says cautiously.
“But I’ve had a very wonderful life, and I’ve not been easy-going about things. You know there are people who are easy-going in this business, who naturally go with the flow and do very well. I had to fight like crazy for everything that I’ve done because it’s always been very different from what else was around. You have your record label, and then you have your boosters at the record label, and you have other people at the record label that think you stink and they like somebody else, so you’ve got that whole political thing going on. Then you’ve got radio, then your audience which, you know, you’re trying to reach and you know they’re out there somewhere. I think that has probably slowed me down as a songwriter because I might have... you know if I’d felt there was a receptive audience and a receptive business to what I was doing I might have been more excited about some of my ideas. But because it was such a struggle, a lot of times I would think ‘Oh well, that’s not gonna fly,’ you know what I mean. So it’s a lot of negative energy to overcome.”
There is also the issue of achieving mainstream awareness based on a limited part of your catalogue. McLean has released many studio and live albums since American Pie, but none of which have achieved the same exalted status. Some artists embrace this, while others become infuriated with the mere mention of their biggest hit. McLean seems resigned to this situation, which he admits is completely out of his control.
“I’m prepared to be disappointed” he says.
“The funny thing is that years later, people come up to me, then they start realizing or thinking that the songs were very good and even better than that. I kind of don’t do what I do for right now, I just do my thing and figure people will catch on to it later on. I’m down for the long run, I always was. A song like 'The Grave' (from American Pie) for example. George Michael did that song on television (in 2003 on the Graham Norton Show), and all of a sudden everybody was talking about that song. Well it had been around for a long time. There are a lot of songs on the American Pie album that have taken years to trickle down like ‘Crossroads,’ ‘Empty Chairs,’ ‘Winterwood,’ all those songs. They’re all standards now in a sense. Millions of people know these songs.”
McLean is about as famous as he is unknown. His digital presence continues to grow and allow him to be introduced to new generations of people. With his admitted awareness of how accessible the digital age has made him, I wanted to know what kind of impression he wants to make on new listeners. As he speaks, he grows more emphatic and passionate with each sentence, until he’s almost yelling.
“I’d like them to know that I love them,” he says in a hopeful tone.
“I love the human race. I love all people everywhere. I want to contribute something to their lives that is interesting and different, and they can have their whole lives to listen to. Not something that ‘Oh I wanna go back to when I was sixteen.’ (Something) that’ll always be good for them to go back to as they go through their lives. That is really my motivation, and that is probably the reason why I respect people more than seeing them as just consumers! I want people to get something from me that is personal, and that I’ve thought about and that is different! Like a unique gift of some sort rather than saying, ‘Oh this is my Don McLean consumer, so I will give him the Don McLean song he wants.’ I have too much respect for people to do that, and I have too much respect for myself to do that.”
McLean appears quite aware of how his music and legacy are viewed. He’s optimistic, but he doesn’t want to have any illusions as to realities of the music business. He wants to approach the world as it should be, while maintaining an awareness of how it really is. So as our conversation ends, I ask McLean, despite all his other releases, if listening to American Pie is still the best way for a new listener to get into his music.
“That’d be a nice start,” he says.
Don McLean’s new album, Botanical Gardens, arrives March 23rd, and he currently has dates lined up in the U.S, U.K, and Ireland. You can listen to the title track through all major streaming services and pre-order the album here, or you can listen to American Pie here.
Photo by Alexey Makhov
The Winnipeg hardcore squad return with a new album of heaviness and melody
“I’m always hoping before a record that it’s somewhat of a moment,” says vocalist/guitarist Andrew Neufeld of Winnipeg punk veterans Comeback Kid. He’s referring to the new album Outsider, their first for New Damage and Nuclear Blast. It’s a step up in terms of visibility, and having also just kicked off four months of touring, the band could be poised to create the moment Neufeld is talking about.
They found their sound early on by combining thrashy hardcore with melodic chant-along choruses. These days the intensity and the melody seem to be divided. Outsider features punk bangers alongside epically melodic mid-tempo tracks (which Neufeld gigglingly refers to as “soaring”).
“I don’t feel a lot of rage when I’m writing heavy music” he says cautiously.
“It’s ‘Oh shit that’s an exciting riff!’ or “That part’s hard!’ and it makes me feel the same way I would feel when I listen to a hard hip-hop song. The other guys in my band, Jeremy and Stu, I remember they brought some songs to the table and there was so much double-picking fast stuff going on. I really do love that stuff and it always has a place on Comeback Kid records. But in direct response to that I would write another song that would open up with a light riff and then go into a punk rock-style melodic hardcore song. I would do some of that on purpose. Especially with hardcore, which can be so one-dimensional, if I’m gonna hear the same shit over and over and over, I’m probably gonna change it. I wanted to write a record with a bunch of dynamics because we can kind of get away with that. We’re walking that fine line.”
That’s perhaps been a key to the band’s wider appeal. In the early 2000’s they were one of the very few hardcore bands who seemed to get some attention and acceptance from outside their scene. They toured with different kinds of heavy bands over the years, diversifying their fanbase. Now pushing towards two decades together, the fans have grown with them.
“I always feel like we started as being that band, like sometimes playing with hardcore bands, or punk bands, or metal bands, we were able to ride that” says Neufeld proudly.
“I even see it more so now. It’s nice, I like the variety. It’s nice that we can play different kinds of shows and I think people are open to that now. There’s so much music at our fingertips now, you’re not gonna just stick with one thing... maybe when you’re younger.”
Their musical diversity also seems to have had some affect on the themes of the new album. Although apparently written without rage, there’s a heavy feeling of resentment that inhabits the lyrics of Outsider. It’s a change in tone that makes the songs feel less self-referential than the band’s older releases. It’s not quite clear if Neufeld has crossed over into social commentary on this album, but apparently the vagueness is intentional.
“I kinda like that about it” he says laughing.
“I definitely write songs that are angsty. Dealing with stuff like anxiety and using excess to get over that, that can be a vicious cycle. But also, being 2017 I mean... we’ve never been a political band but having a little bit of social commentary, it’s kind of impossible to ignore.”
That kind of yearning to be socially outspoken is something that’s written into the DNA of hardcore music. Although it’s not necessarily something that fans may immediately associate with Comeback Kid, it’s an essential component of their sound and identity. They’ve found a balance between the desire to create and explore, and their obligations to their musical roots.
“We definitely still take a lot of influence from traditional hardcore and that world. But we’re trying to do our thing, and we’re trying to do new things, keep it fresh and exciting” says Neufeld.
“I like modern production as well. We’re moving with the times. A lot of it is about making music, I’m not gonna lie, that’s what I live and die for. But I also really connect with the community of hardcore and that values that it’s taught me. We really connect with the culture that our music comes from, and we’re thankful that it’s got us to where we are now. Again, I’m not that super-angry of a guy, I don’t find our music to be angry really. It definitely gets certain emotions up. Sometimes that’s what the world needs.”
Comeback Kid’s new album Outsider is available now. They’ll be on tour across Canada for the rest of September, followed by American dates in October, and then Europe for the rest of the year. See all the dates here and check out the video for “Hell of a Scene” below.
Photo Courtesy of Strut Entertainment
Juno-winning bluesman Steve Strongman has just released a new album called No Time Like Now that injects hard rock and gospel into traditional blues. He’s shared stages with legends like B.B. King and Buddy Guy, but it was before a working-class weekday headlining set at Toronto’s Rivoli that I caught up with Strongman. We talked about the warm tone and diverse influences on the new album, whether awards help underground musicians, and how he feels about modernization in blues.
Steve Strongman has a number of dates lined up for the spring and summer in Ontario and Quebec. You can listen to the title track from the new album No Time Like Now here.