Avenged Sevenfold: "This is our last true band album, it has to be big"

M. Shadows of Avenged Sevenfold performs at the start of the tour for the 2010 Rockstar Energy Drink Uproar Festival at Target Center on August 17, 2010 in Minneapolis,
(Image credit: Getty Images)

There are reminders of him everywhere. The remaining members of Avenged Sevenfold wear metal vials around their necks on long, silver chains. In each capsule is a small part of The Rev’s drumkit. The rest of it sits quietly in the Hard Rock Hotel, Las Vegas; testament to the memory of the band’s dead drummer.

The struggling Blue Jackets play ice hockey at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Backstage, the band sit among the team’s lockers, the sound of Disturbed’s set rumbling through the wall. Across the hall, there’s a tall cabinet on wheels that houses The Rev’s things – it travels with the band as they make their way across the US and, later tonight, into Canada.

“We have all his stuff here,” says frontman M Shadows. “All his drawers in his cabinet with his stuff in, his playing shoes, the tape he used and his drumsticks he’d mix it up with… all the stuff he used to play with, we have it still.”

Rockstar energy drinks are sponsoring the Uproar tour; their banners emblazoned with a crazed-looking lion hang over the arena. Stone Sour have played, Disturbed are closing the show, Avenged Sevenfold, recently the band with the number one album in America, sit in-between. Hellyeah are part of the bill too, but they’ve passed on playing Columbus – Dimebag Darrell was murdered here while playing at the Alrosa Villa venue across town; it’s not a city his brother Vinnie Paul ever plans on coming back to even if it means missing a show. Columbus is also the last place where the band ever played live in the US with The Rev, as part of the Rock On The Range festival. There’s a lot of history here, some good, some bad.

The Rev’s favourite ride cymbal sits among Mike Portnoy’s daunting-looking kit; he’ll use it every night on this tour. As the flames from their enormous gothic stage set – imagine an imposing Victorian mansion from your darkest dreams and you’ll be close – lick around him, he places a marshmallow on his drumstick, leans over his kit and toasts it. It’s a rare moment of levity in a charged set.

Lit up, M Shadows on the Nightmare tour

Lit up, M Shadows on the Nightmare tour (Image credit: Getty Images)

They sound incredible, their reputation as a head-turning live act remains intact, even more so considering that the bug that had laid guitarist Zacky Vengeance low in Chicago a few days before meant that Shadows had no voice at four that afternoon. His sheer will to make it and the show work is remarkable; he doesn’t miss a note in the hour they play. Everything stops for an almost eerie silence when they play So Far Away, and the backdrop moves to one side to reveal a huge image of The Rev’s tattooed back, his bandmates’ arms embracing him. Shadows will later admit that every night that it appears he wells up behind his impenetrable mirrored shades. Zacky sports two new tattoos, the new album title – Nightmare – on his upper arm, and on his neck one simple word: Forever. You don’t need to ask its significance.

This tour’s only five nights old, but they’ve been playing live again without The Rev since late July. To prepare themselves for Uproar they jumped on the bill of Rockstar’s other summer tour, Mayhem. They played a handful of shows alongside Rob Zombie and Korn, starting in Montreal. Due to Mike Portnoy’s erratic schedule they only got to rehearse a handful of times together before they stepped out on stage.

Nothing like jumping off the deep end, then…

Zacky: “We rehearsed for about one day before the tour. It was the scariest time of my entire life as a musician. We went on and kind of rehearsed on stage to be honest. We were up there just trying to get through the set, we were so nervous, my hands were shaking so badly, but I didn’t care, it was me connecting with the fans again. We were missing Jimmy, we were so sad, and now we’re just ready to demolish things; that’s how it is.”

Shadows: “I know, 20,000 people in Montreal. It was very nerve-wracking for all of us. What happened was that when Nightmare started [the set’s opener] it was so loud from the kids that we all felt a lot better. They all knew it was our first show back, there were signs, there were kids chanting ‘Rev’, so it was like, OK, it made us feel better because they weren’t expecting greatness, they had context for that first show back, let’s just get this one over with. And it was emotional and it was rough, you have all these nerves and you’re thinking about all these things on the first night, you know, ‘What are we doing?!’”

Zacky: “We didn’t want to come back and carry a show. They asked us to do headliners – I told them to fuck off. It’s not our glorious fucking return. We were scared to death, it was like throwing someone off a boat who’s never swum before and saying sink or fucking swim and we swam.”

So far away, with The Rev at the 2006 MTV Awards

So far away, with The Rev at the 2006 MTV Awards (Image credit: Getty Images)

You’re out now with Hellyeah! and Stone Sour, who’ve both lost friends and band-members. Does that help you come to terms with what’s happened?

Shadows: “I called Corey [Taylor] when it first happened and I said what I had to say and now we just don’t talk about it and I realise that there’s nothing you can really say. Keep your head up and move forward, you know? People say ‘I’m sorry’ and you’re like, ‘What are you sorry for?’ It’s the same way with Vinnie out here – he’s been so sympathetic to us in our situation because he’s been through it.”

In Nightmare you’ve made what sounds like the defining album of your careers, it feels like this is Avenged Sevenfold’s moment. Do you put any faith in the argument that great art comes out of adversity?

Shadows: “I think that’s why we decided to go into the studio so fast; through all the pain and the hurt we had a sense about ourselves where we knew that it needed to be tapped into then as opposed to waiting six months because I feel different now to the way I did then. I thought the world was over; it’s still bad, but that record helped me get to the point where I am now, where I feel a bit better about things. I’m really glad we did it then so we could tap into what we were feeling at the time instead of waiting.”

Synyster Gates: “It does feel like our moment and it feels like Jimmy’s moment too and it has to be, it’s his last bit of work and it’s going to be the last record that’s truly Avenged Sevenfold so it has to be the biggest record and I know it will be, it already is with us, it is with our families; it’s always going to be a very close to our hearts.”

Jimmy’s obviously irreplaceable, so how important was it getting Mike Portnoy to play on the album and come out and tour with you?

Synyster: “It feels comforting; he really does feel a bit like our saviour. When you look back and see him up there having the time of his life, it’s inspiring and it’s good to know he’s there kind of protecting us and we don’t have to think about the next step, we’re just here doing the best we can. Portnoy never offered his services either…”

Zacky: “Many drummers did offer and from many massive bands who shall remain nameless. It was nice, but it was almost insulting to us, because it was too soon. Some bands just wanted to jump right in and replace him – it’s like there’s a vacant stool, I’ll come right in! No respect at all and that’s not how we operate; it blows my mind that people can be like that. But Mike offered his condolences and sent the family a cymbal knowing that Jimmy was a big fan of his. The idea of reaching out to Mike came about and it was so easy to make it happen, the stars aligned then, he said ‘I’d love to do it, play whatever you want, whatever music Jimmy left behind…’”

Family men, Zacky Vengeance and Synyster Gates celebrate reaching the UK on the Nightmare tour

Family men, Zacky Vengeance and Synyster Gates celebrate reaching the UK on the Nightmare tour (Image credit: Getty Images)

You’ve spoken recently of the guilt you’ve sometimes felt when the band’s natural exuberance has returned; laughing in the studio and on the road and then realising that Jimmy’s gone and feeling bad about it. How hard has it been to resist those feelings?

Zacky: “I think you can’t grieve forever. When you look back and you realise that you all share the same fate at some point, you realise that Jimmy’s music is out being heard by millions of people around the world and we’re still best friends and we’re still alive with a lot to enjoy.”

Shadows: “Jimmy’s parents sat us down before we went on tour and said, ‘Listen, if you guys need to have fun out there you can’t feel guilty for having fun, you can’t feel guilty for thinking this rocks with Mike. You can’t sit there and feel guilty about anything. It’s not your fault, this is the way it has to be, you have to move forward and have fun on tour and if the record’s a success then enjoy that too. Don’t feel guilty, try and continue your life the way Jimmy would have wanted you to continue your life.’”

It’s quiet at the Hyatt on Capitol Square in downtown Columbus. At the rear of the hotel stands an impressive steel fountain, a silver figure reaching upwards, the streams of water gurgling around its feet. It’s getting late and empty cabs drift by, drivers scanning the subdued streets for a fare. Avenged Sevenfold stand around and swap cigarettes and stories. The days of the hard partying are over or on hold at least. There’s pizza if you’re hungry and large tumblers of 12-year-old whiskey are hurriedly drunk, but at no point do you imagine that a TV’s about to go out of a window. In the bar, Johnny Christ’s dad is engaged in conversation with Synyster’s father.

“First gig I ever went to,” says Johnny later, “Metallica with my dad and granddad, it was awesome.” The former was meant to be taking the band on a hunting trip while they were in town, but their plans fell through. Pa Gates, as he’s called on the band’s latest album, (he’s Brian Haner Sr when he’s at home), is a guitarist and comedian of some note. He plays the solo on the band’s Tonight The World Dies and brings depth to the song his son played a significant role in writing: So Far Away. He’s been out on tour for months with comedian Jeff Dunham as the Guitar Guy, opening the show and adding some musical colour to Jeff’s set. They leave for South Africa for a month of dates in a few weeks. In April this year they sold out the 02 in London. “You guys not played there yet?” he teases. He auditioned for Frank Zappa’s live band when he was 17, an afternoon he recalls as one of the most intimidating things he’s ever done. He didn’t get the job, but Frank would later invite him back to contribute some guitar parts on a session of his. He still reminds people about it.

A hard act to follow, Mike Portnoy filling in for The Rev

A hard act to follow, Mike Portnoy filling in for The Rev (Image credit: Getty Images)

It must have been a very musical household. Was your dad an inspiration?

Synyster: “My dad was always playing, always touring. He’s not the best teacher in the world, he used to get frustrated, but I pulled it out of him. Things like Black Dog, Stairway To Heaven, the stuff I first learnt, it was from him. It’s cool having him on the albums with us, he likes doing it and he’s pretty damned good. I’m a little better, but whatever! He’s unreal and he’s played with everybody and he’s great in the studio. Plus with So Far Away I had to have my father on that song, obviously.”

That was your first lyric for the band. Was that your way of saying goodbye to Jimmy?

Synyster: “I just had so much stuff that I wanted to put in alongside Jimmy’s last compendium of work, his last artistry, you know? So I asked the band if I could do it. It wasn’t just completely me, Zack helped a lot, Matt [Shadows] threw in some ideas. It’s a group effort, but it started with me I guess and it felt really good to just get it all out and off my chest. At first, it was like, ‘What the hell am I going to write or talk about him and who he was? Do I want to say goodbye to him? What am I doing?’ So I gave up on all of that and wrote what my heart was feeling.”

The album went straight in at number one in the US and has stayed in the top 10 since. It’s the kind of thing bands dream of, but the success must have been tempered by your loss.

Shadows: “It definitely didn’t matter as much as Jimmy had gone.”

Johnny Christ: “We celebrated a little bit a few days after, but the day that we heard it, we didn’t really do anything. We just went ‘cool’ and sort of shrugged our shoulders.”

Shadows: “But I’m glad that he had a number one record because to me Jimmy’s on the record, his voice and his music, so it’s an awesome send-off. I’m just glad that kids are getting it and getting to hear his last piece of work and I’m glad that it’s helping us continue. I think that everything we’ve done was leading up to making this album.”

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The video for Nightmare explicitly references the Jacob’s Ladder movie and manages to be both horrific and touching, it’s quite the feat. The tarantula spider from Afterlife appears, Jimmy’s drums make a cameo…

Shadows: “We never wanted to make a video; the director, Wayne Isham, talked us into it. He was a good friend of Jimmy’s and ours and he came up with the concept. It was strange when he made the pitch as Jacob’s Ladder was probably Jimmy’s favourite film.”

Zacky: “We wanted the asylum scene pretty much verbatim from the film: the bit where Syn’s banging his head against the window, that’s straight from the movie. My dancing with the skeleton was improvised, but references Afterlife where I was dancing with my girlfriend – with this one I wanted to let people know how our world has turned since and not for the better.”

Synyster: “We weren’t too into the idea of doing a video. It was one of those tough days where we were like, ‘Well, we’re officially a four-member band on tape, it’s on record now…’”

Zacky: “I didn’t want people to think we were just doing a music video and carrying on as normal. I wanted to remind everyone that we’re still going through the hardest fucking time of our lives and to do that we threw the drum set in their face; this is fucking real, Jimmy’s not with us, we’re not just moving on, it’s not business as usual. It’s a very real reality. I saw people in tears when it hit them, because it’s so creepy and then, oh shit, there’s Jimmy’s drums…”

You recorded the album in a relatively brief few months, you’ve spoken about breaking up; of being unable to go on… How tough did it get during the making of the album?

Zacky: “The studio was very difficult given what had happened with Jimmy; the only reason we were in there was that we were dead set on making the best, saddest, most emotional, darkest album, just the most powerful album we had in us. We were on the warpath with record label people, with anyone. We were at war, we closed ourselves off to the world, our label, our families, almost everyone because the only thing we cared about was making this thing perfect or we weren’t going to do it.

“We’d go back every night after the studio and one of us would be so fucking frustrated, you know? ‘What are we doing? I don’t want to do this; this is just fucked up.’ And one of us would just talk them down and it was almost a nightly event and every now and then we’d all get together and say, ‘Fuck it, we’re not going to do anything tomorrow, we’re going to drink scotch and let the stories come out, remember Jimmy, listen to old demos with him screaming along on them’ and then by the end of the night you’re crying again and then you realise that it’s back to war the next day.”

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Shadows: “There are a lot of things that never happened with this band before now; anxiety attacks and panic attacks and there’s got be someone there to let them know it’s OK. We had to pull together to get through it.”

Zacky: “I had an epiphany listening to the album when I realised that we’d done what we set out to do. I felt that we’d done Jimmy justice and whatever happened after that, whether we quit as a band, whether we got in a car accident and died, we’d done what we were put on this Earth to do. I was driving home on the last day of the studio with the rough demo, four in the morning, and I was coming up to the house and Fiction was playing and I was thinking, ‘We did it, I’m the only person out on this road realising that we had created a magical album’ and that’s when it hit me and I was really proud and after that I didn’t care about anything, right then nothing else mattered. It took a burden off all our shoulders, it felt like such a big responsibility and we could finally fucking breathe again for the first time in five months. Jimmy had left us a gift and we’d finally been able to pass it on.”

This article originally appeared in Metal Hammer #210.

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Philip Wilding

Philip Wilding is a novelist, journalist, scriptwriter, biographer and radio producer. As a young journalist he criss-crossed most of the United States with bands like Motley Crue, Kiss and Poison (think the Almost Famous movie but with more hairspray). More latterly, he’s sat down to chat with bands like the slightly more erudite Manic Street Preachers, Afghan Whigs, Rush and Marillion.