"The first thought about the band that went through my mind was: ‘The band’s over.'" How Avenged Sevenfold found the strength to carry on after the death of The Rev - with the unlikely help of Mike Portnoy and the guy who wrote 50 Cent's biggest hit

Avenged and The Rev
(Image credit: Getty Images)

In the summer of 2010, just under half a year since the shocking and untimely death of their drummer and beloved friend, Jimmy 'The Rev' Sullivan, Avenged Sevenfold attempted to rally themselves and officially begin the next chapter of an already turbulent career. In a world exclusive interview conducted at the time by Metal Hammer's Dom Lawson, the Orange County metal heavyweights opened up on the impact of losing Jimmy, their new album Nightmare and tribute to him, and what the future held. This is that interview, published in full.


2009 was the year that changes everything for Avenged Sevenfold. Two years on from the release of their hugely successful and widely praised self-titled fourth album, the Huntington Beach quintet were poised and ready to begin work on a follow-up, safe in the knowledge that as one of the most popular – and, it has to be said, most controversial – bands of their generation, whatever they chose to do would inevitably make waves, polarise opinion and further cement their reputation as a metal band with grand ambitions and balls of steel. Keeping their creative cards close to their chests, the band spent most of 2009 working on new material behind closed doors, doubtless enthused by the opportunity to once again test the boundaries of modern heavy music and put a few noses out of joint in the process. Rumours began to circulate that the new record would be their darkest, strangest and most wilfully progressive yet. Meanwhile, a triumphant headlining performance on the Saturn Stage at the first UK Sonisphere Festival saw the band in a cocksure and defiant mood. Everything, it seemed, was in place for an explosive comeback in 2010.

But then the sky went black. On December 28, 2009, Avenged Sevenfold drummer Jimmy ‘The Rev’ Sullivan was found dead at his home. A mere 28 years of age, Jimmy had passed away, apparently from natural causes, only two weeks before he was to join his bandmates in the studio to begin work on their fifth record. But at such a heartbreaking, devastating time for all his family and friends, music was clearly the last thing on anyone’s mind. Nonetheless, the band were able to issue a brief statement, saying that “Jimmy was not only one of the world’s best drummers, but more importantly he was our best friend and brother. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Jimmy’s family and we hope that you will respect their privacy during this difficult time.” A private funeral was held for Jimmy on January 5, 2010, at an undisclosed location in California, and was attended by all of his loved ones and friends, including many other musicians from across the world.

Clearly a man who meant an incalculable amount to everyone who knew him, Jimmy Sullivan was an incredibly talented musician and composer and was such an integral part of the Avenged Sevenfold sound that many fans were anticipating that his passing would lead to the end of the band’s story. But barely five months after the news of Jimmy’s death broke, the band have generously acquiesced to break their silence and speak with Metal Hammer, not just to celebrate the life of their dear departed friend, but also to herald the arrival of the fifth Avenged Sevenfold album; a record that most bands would have had neither the courage nor the inclination to make at all, but one that this band of passionate music-makers now regard as a fitting tribute to their fallen comrade. Assisted by Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy – “the only guy who could’ve done the job right,” according to frontman M Shadows – Avenged Sevenfold have finished the album that they wrote with Jimmy and now they want the world to hear it...

Metal Hammer line break

It's hard to imagine how tough the last few months must have been for you all. How did you negotiate the terrain between hearing about Jimmy's death and feeling strong enough to hit the studio and make a record?

M Shadows (vocals): “It’s been rough, man. It’s a game- changer. It’s all been a little crazy, that’s for sure. We were only two weeks away from entering the studio when he passed away, so all the music was done and it was like the really hard part was over with. The writing was done. It was all good and we were ready. But when Jimmy passed away, the first thought about the band that went through my mind was ‘The band’s over’. The record wasn’t even an afterthought at that point and we were totally cool with that. We needed to take time and take care of each other and be with each other. We were just hanging out together, telling Jimmy stories and trying to do the normal things, and we were feeling bitter towards people that were having a good time, you know? We went round to Johnny’s [Avenged bassist Johnny Christ] house at New Year’s and Jimmy had only died a few days prior, and we were watching people on the TV, partying in Times Square, and we were the most depressed people in the world. We were so bummed out. We couldn’t believe it at all, watching people having a good time when we were in so much pain.”

So what made you decide that you wanted to make this record?

Zacky Vengeance (guitar): “We’d just written an album that we’re extremely proud of, and then Jimmy died and we just didn’t care about it. We didn’t care about music. We didn’t give a shit. We just got together in someone’s house and wrapped ourselves up in blankets and sat there all day and all night, telling stories. It was a really fucking grim time. We were sitting there with this amazing music that our friend had helped us to create, and we just decided that we don’t really have a choice. We have to make this record for our friend. This is the best way for him to live on.”

M Shadows: “Jimmy wrote this record with us and I don’t think the last Avenged album should be the last record he put out, you know? As a group we’re still really excited about the songs we’ve written and we’re excited about the record. Jimmy would call me every night and tell me how excited he was. For all of us five to write the record together, it was important to put this thing out and show everybody Jimmy’s legacy so people can see exactly where we were going before he died. After that, we don’t need to make any big decisions but let’s make the record.”

We needed to take time and take care of each other

M Shadows

The support of the fans must have been very reassuring and comforting for you during those dark days

M Shadows: “Well, yeah, it’s crazy how much support we’ve got from them. It was crazy to me how much people realised that Jimmy’s role was so huge, you know Kids said, ‘We know that the band will never bet the same!’ and that’s not a bad thing, because I know it’s never gonna be the same too and I understand that and I accept it and I’m really heartbroken by it. But right now I could give two shits about the band... because I’m just thinking about my best friend being gone. But the support from the fans and how stoked they are that we’re still putting out the record and we’re still going to tour, it’s been mindblowing. I honestly didn’t know what to expect, but they’ve been incredibly supportive and you realise how many people care about the band. Maybe we were there when they were going through a bad time and they’d listen to our music, and now they’re there for us. It’s really touching.”

Zacky: “We hung in there and then we went straight to work, knowing that we had a purpose as a band. We shut off the rest of the world for that whole time, but we had friends writing to us and sending us their love from all over the world. We had tens of thousands of letters piled up at our houses, and for that reason alone we had to do this. We needed to do it for ourselves. It’s definitely helped us, being together, playing music that Jimmy helped us create and having the best fans in the entire world. They’re going to go crazy when they hear this record, that’s for sure.”

How did Mike Portnoy become involved in the recording process?

M Shadows: “We kept talking about the record and we were throwing around ideas. I’d been talking to Mike a lot lately. He’s a fan of Avenged Sevenfold and he was in touch with me a lot after Jimmy passed away. He sent one of his cymbals to the funeral and signed all this stuff and sent it to Jimmy’s parents, and he was very sympathetic to the situation so we decided to ask him to help us out. Jimmy had already laid down all the drum parts for the record. We did it on an electronic drum kit in my home studio, just so that the demos sounded good. The drum tracks weren’t really usable for the record because of the tones and the triggers and stuff, so basically we asked Mike to record it all again for us. That’s how we got to the point of doing the record. Mike was a little bit of saving grace for us at a really, really dark time.”

It must have helped to know that you had one of the best drummers of the planet reproducing Jimmy's work...

M Shadows: “Definitely. We didn’t want to put out a record and not have it up to the standard that we were used to having with Jimmy playing drums, you know? So Mike had a couple of weeks to learn the drums and bring a little of his own flair to it, but we kept it really close to how Jimmy wanted it and we even saved some of Jimmy’s vocals from the demos. So in the end it was one of those things, it was kind of therapeutic but also really hard to get through.”

At such a difficult time for you all, did it help to have someone else in the studio?

Zacky: “Mike’s such a good person. When something like this happens, how you react really shows what kind of character you are. He was a fun guy to be around, an absolute blast. If he wanted to play on the album, how could we refuse? There’s no one else who could do Jimmy justice at this point.”

M Shadows: “Mike was such a cool guy to hang out with. He was so fun. He came into the studio and was very sympathetic and he just said, ‘You guys, just tell me what to play’ and he’d sit there for hours, spend 10 hours on a song, because he wanted it to be right. Everything was very meticulous and very respectful to what Jimmy wanted. He brought a real lightheartedness to the process, which was great because the last thing we wanted was a bunch of stress. Honestly, Jimmy had a lot of huge influences, everyone from Lars Ulrich to Vinnie Paul and Paul Bostaph and Dave Lombardo and all those guys, but Mike is the one guy that I could really hear in Jimmy’s sound. He’s probably the only guy that could get it right. Not that those other guys couldn’t play the stuff, but Portnoy could really do it all.”

How would you describe Jimmy's contribution to Avenged Sevenfold in terms of the creative process? Do you think people underestimated him because he was the drummer?

M Shadows: “Yeah, I think that the more I think about it, the more I realise that Jimmy’s drums were a huge part of our sound. His drum sound was so identifiable, and I don’t think you can say that about a lot of drummers. When it comes to writing melodies and vocal melodies and guitar parts or just ideas about what we’re going to do, we just sit down and write songs and it never has anything to do with just one guy. Take Jimmy out of that equation and it’s insane to me, because a song like A Little Piece Of Heaven [from 2007’s self-titled album], he wrote that 100 per cent by himself and we worked on the arrangement as a group. Any song that I could say that I wrote, Jimmy probably wrote one of the vocal melodies in it or we wrote it together and got it to the point where we were both happy. He was completely instrumental in writing stuff. If you got stuck with something, we’d take it to Jimmy and he’d come up with something to make it work and it would usually be brilliant. I can’t point to any one thing, he contributed to absolutely everything.”

Zacky: “Jimmy always referred to himself as an artist, far beyond just being a drummer. He would be so happy to know that his friends made one of the wildest, heavy, beautiful and angry records ever. The feelings are so raw on this record, it’s really magical. It’s the darkest thing, the most beautiful, the most progressive thing we’ve ever done.”

Jimmy always referred to himself as an artist

Zacky Vengeance

Avenged Sevenfold albums are always full of surprises. What can we expect from the new one?

M Shadows: “It runs so many different ways. There’s a little Pink Floyd influence on this one that we didn’t have before. There’s some longer songs like on City Of Evil. The first song on the record is... well, you know how Critical Acclaim came out like a kick in the face? Well this one’s like that but times 10! There’s an 11-minute song, the last song, and that’s probably my favourite song on the record. There’s a song that Jimmy wrote that’s just piano, drums and strings and it’s one of the darkest, most haunting songs you’ll ever hear. You can hear Jimmy’s vocals from the demos and we saved all his lyrics. It was all definitely straight from his heart. There’s a song called So Far Away that [Synyster] Gates wrote and his dad played some guitar on it as a tribute to Jimmy. It was Gates’ first time writing a lyric on his own and it came out really well. It’s very heartfelt. There are some straight-ahead fuckin’ thrashers on the record too. There’s a song called God Hates Us and it’s the heaviest thing we’ve ever done.”

Zacky: “It’s a magical record. First and foremost, the drums are amazing on the album. I know Jimmy would get such a kick knowing that he contributed to such an important album. The last album was a little more upbeat, but this time we wanted to go in and make the darkest, craziest record possible. We want to take the fans on a dark ride. Some of the heaviest songs we’ve ever written are on this album. There are songs that are completely off the wall and don’t fit into any category. There’s a song that will make everybody cry. It’s an incredible record, in my humble opinion.”

You usually produce your own records, but this time you worked with a producer. How did that come about?

M Shadows: “We got all the typical producers coming to us saying, ‘Hey, I wanna do your record!’ but they’re always working on three or four records at a time. But then we heard about this guy named Mike Elizondo. All we knew is that he’s a songwriter. He’s one of the most in-demand writers in the industry. He wrote Just Lose It with Eminem and he wrote 50 Cent’s In Da Club, and he also writes for all the country artists, but his favourite band is Avenged Sevenfold! So we meet with this guy and he starts talking to us about Megadeth and Metallica and he knows all about metal and our first record and the drum parts on City Of Evil. We soon realised that he’s a musical genius too. He’s a guy that will let us do an 11-minute song and not give us any shit for it. In fact, he wants to make it longer! The label was really scared about it and they didn’t know how it was gonna work, so we started at my home studio with him and did it under the radar, but it just sounds massive! Mike Elizondo is the producer and he’s a badass. People might think we’ve made a hip-hop record, but it’s nothing like that! Ha ha!”

How do you feel about the future of the band now? Do you intend to tour and will Mike Portnoy be able to play drums for you?

M Shadows: “Originally we didn’t know if we were going to tour or not. We were actually thinking about not touring. Right now, the idea of touring makes me feel sick to my stomach, but I know it’s the next step and I know that we have a few months to think about it and figure out what we’re gonna do. Right now, we don’t want to audition people. We don’t think anyone else could ever make us happy on stage. Mike has offered his services, which is awesome. He said that if we wanted to go on the road, he’d help us out and we’d make it work somehow. But the whole touring thing is going to be really hard. We really want to tour because we want people to hear this record and hear the last piece of music that Jimmy wrote, and we realise that if we don’t tour it’ll be hard to get the message out there. So that’s why we’re doing it, and I’m sure we’re all going to puke a few times before we get on stage, when we turn around and Jimmy’s not there. It’s baby steps for us right now. We’ll tour but we’re not sure where or for how long.”

Zacky: “What we’re going through is so hard to describe, and touring is going to be really fuckin’ hard. We love making music together, we love being in Avenged Sevenfold, we love our fans... but first and foremost we’ve lost our best friend. Jimmy was an amazing person. Now we get to show the world the music that we wrote together. We’ve got to get out there and tell our story.”

Originally published in Metal Hammer #206

Dom Lawson

Dom Lawson has been writing for Metal Hammer and Prog for over 14 years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He also contributes to The Guardian, Classic Rock, Bravewords and Blabbermouth and has previously written for Kerrang! magazine in the mid-2000s. 

With contributions from