Stepping out of a gleaming black electric Porsche, Five Finger Death Punch frontman Ivan Moody takes off his sunglasses and replaces them with an eyepatch. It’s a necessity since an accident at Florida’s Welcome To Rockville festival, where an onstage laser nearly blinded him. “My entire right eye went black and they told me I’d singed the back of my retina,” he says. “So, welcome to the new pirate Ivan!”
It’s 100˚F in Las Vegas today – about 37˚ Celsius – with zero humidity: the kind of heat that hits you like you’ve opened an oven door and stuck your face in there. Not that Vegas locals are unaccustomed to such extreme temperatures in the long summer months, but still, as the members of Five Finger Death Punch arrive, they scurry inside the air-conditioned Son Studios to cool off.
Ivan’s appearance leads to some piss-taking and dodgy pirate jokes, but he takes them in good humour. The whole band are in fine spirits today, goofing around for our photoshoot, genuinely happy to be hanging out together. Given the line-up changes and all they’ve been through in recent years, these are not just bandmates but proper mates, ride or die. That said, it’s impossible not to overhear when Ivan pulls the two newest bandmembers – guitarist Andy James and drummer Charlie Engen – aside to inform them that, at some time in the foreseeable future, he’ll be taking a break from 5FDP to work on a solo album. After our photoshoot, we adjourn to a quiet room, where he explains further…
“Every artist gets to a point where they start growing and seeing things differently,” he says. “In my opinion, this new album – AfterLife – is my and Zoltan’s apex. This is us, no [ex-guitarist Jason] Hook, no [ex-drummer Jeremy] Spencer, no [ex-bassist] Matt Snell, no lawsuits or involvement with the label [they settled a dispute with Prospect Park in 2017], no anything. It’s literally me and Zoltan sitting at the helm with [producer] Kevin Churko, unleashing the hounds. After this, I plan on sitting back, taking a minute and seeing how I feel. There will come a time when I need to be me for a moment.”
It’s no secret that the singer has been through more than his fair share of hell, much of it self-inflicted, due to an inbuilt self-destruct button, which, thankfully, he is far less inclined to hit these days. Arrests, onstage meltdowns, rehab and even death. Today, four years sober, he seems at peace with himself, grateful to have survived.
“Everyone says I’ve gotten cheesy or weak since I’ve gotten sober, but that’s far from the truth,” he shrugs. “If anything, I’ve got gnarlier, but my anger is projected differently now. It’s not just me going, ‘Fuck you, man!’ That’s for someone who’s really insecure, which I was and still am, to a degree. But I try to do something cool every day. I know that sounds dumb.
Yesterday I was in the grocery store and I saw this lady – late 70s, early 80s – pushing her cart, and there were all these people just watching her do it. I ran over to help her, and I think she thought I was gonna steal it, because I don’t look like the nicest human being. But as I was unloading it into her car, I looked over and she was crying. Those are the moments. It’s the selflessness and the understanding.”
With just two shows in 2021, Ivan was understandably disappointed not to be able to tour the F8 album – his first sober album, he says, since 2009’s War Is The Answer – released just a month before the 2020 lockdown. The band did, however, release some videos during that time: A Little Bit Off, which was filmed during the height of Covid-19 on an empty Vegas strip, and the rather more controversial Living The Dream, which was, according to Ivan, more than a little bit off.
It features a female authority figure wearing an ‘exempt’ badge, who pins a hammer-and-sickle emblazoned badge reading ‘compliant’ on people who don masks. After leading a group of slaves around like bulldogs on chains, she orders them to smash up an ice cream van displaying the American flag. Surveying the carnage, the citizens remove their masks. At the end, a group of characters charge across a field bearing the Stars And Stripes, and get shot down. It ends with a flashback to 1776, and the signing of the Declaration Of Independence.
“That was a Zoltan thing and I’d rather let him talk about that,” Ivan says, having given the guitarist free rein on the concept. “I showed up for two days and Zo told me to run across the grass, screaming and holding the American flag, so I was curious to see it. Then when he released it, I called him, like, ‘You implemented your own platform into Five Finger Death Punch, and now I’m gonna have to answer for it, because I’m the singer.’ And it ended up going down like a fart in church!
There was the mask thing and the awkwardness of the whole thing. That’s what he visualised, but it’s not what I had in mind when I wrote it. For those who understood it, great. And for those who didn’t, I’m sorry, I didn’t agree with it either. I love Zoltan to death, that’s his opinion, but it won’t ever be done with my name on it again.”
Another video that should obviously be discussed is The Tragic Truth, a song originally written for the American Capitalist album in 2011, but released this year. It depicts Ivan’s near-death experience, when his body shut down after he quit drinking, cold turkey.
“Not near-death,” he says, bluntly. “I died! I’d been on a bender for about two years, and I’d gone four days without drinking in an entire year! Which is ridiculous. So, for four days I locked myself inside the house, and the fourth day my daughter came over and I went to hand her a glass of water, and that’s all I remember. There’s all forms of addictions, but if you quit drinking without the right medications and whatever else, you will die. That’s what happened. I was dead for about three and a half minutes, and I became part of something while I was there. I say there, because I was not in this shell. And for the first time in my existence, I felt peace. It was the oddest experience, and I wanna cry right now, talking about it.
“I was in a blue haze,” he continues. “It was very quiet and peaceful, and I remember not worrying about anything. I didn’t have an unidirectional view. It was wide, and I could see and feel everything. There was no matter involved, I was pure energy, and I saw this incredibly blue light. It was the afterlife and I was on the edge. Then, for a brief second, I heard in the distance, ‘Please, not yet!’ The next thing I know, I was laying there with two paddles on my chest, and my daughter was crying in my face. My daughter was the one saying, ‘Please, not now.’ Her voice pulled me back and that was the wake-up call for me.”
Re-enacting the incident for the video was, he says, horrific. His manager had to leave, and Zoltan, for the first time in years, cried. Ivan’s daughter was also present, featured in a scene where she walks him into the light. Afterwards, they went for burgers and she asked how much of it was real.
“I said, ‘My love, almost all of it,’” Ivan recalls. “And it was the most refreshing, fearful moment of my life, just telling my daughter, ‘That was your father, and that’s what I did to myself, much less the rest of the world.’ The very first words that came out of my mouth when they revived me were, ‘Don’t tell my band.’ I was more concerned that my band found out that I’d died than I was actually dying. This album is an awakening. It is the afterlife.”
Hence the title. In a previous life, Ivan was put on probation by his own band, with another singer standing in the wings to replace him if he fucked up (again). In a previous life, he was an ugly drunk, wasting his talent. In a previous life, he died. Sure, he still has demons, a darkness, almost tangible in this small room, but without the booze they seem, at worst, to be an inconvenience, and at best an inspiration. He liked making AfterLife, praising guitarist Andy James for his ability to add nuance to a song with just one note: the talent of Steve Vai, with the passion of Dimebag. Ivan’s proud of it, too. It didn’t come easily, but it’s honest: “This album, I dug into some holes, ripped off some scabs, and tasted my own blood.”
Guitarist Zoltan Bathory appears to be the polar opposite of his bandmate. Or maybe parallel opposite, since they seem to get similar injuries at similar times; Ivan broke his foot and Zoltan later broke his leg, and the latter has just had treatment for a detached retina. But if Zoltan has demons, there’s a good chance he batters the snot out of them on the mat, as a black belt in judo and jiu-jitsu.
He’s also an enthusiastic talker. So much so, that the rest of the band ask to be interviewed first, knowing that they will otherwise be in for a long wait. So, let’s talk… In the interest of fairness, we ask first about the Living The Dream video that Ivan disowned. Having grown up in Hungary, under Soviet communist rule, Zoltan has, as Ivan acknowledges, a different view of freedoms that we may take for granted. Escaping communism, it’s fair to say that he bought into the ‘American dream’ and lives it. Nonetheless, the video sent a confusing message.
“Obviously, that video created a lot of dust, and I really don’t want to kick up another shitstorm about it,” says Zoltan. “But it was about the blatant hypocrisy of what was happening. You can do this, but the population can’t! As a band, we sort of withdrew from politics and that was the last political commentary, but it flew over people’s heads and we were accused of the craziest shit.
“It’s crazy, because music was a cultural weapon. And now punk music and rock music is the soundtrack to the establishment all of a sudden? But it’s like, ‘OK, we’ll just play music and create concerts.’ People are educated by clickbait headlines, but there’s so much else to talk about.”
Indeed. Not least the fact that Zoltan has also experienced the afterlife, the first of several times – although he never gets around to revealing the others – being when he was 12 years old and ploughed into the back of a truck on his bicycle. He had, he says, a full out-of-body experience, which launched him on a spiritual path, reading books about life after death, and eventually finding eastern philosophy.
“People ask if it’s true that your life passes in front of you,” Zoltan says. “Yes and no. Humans live in a linear timeframe; you’re born and you die, and everything happens in between. When you say your life passes before you, you imagine a chronological thing, and that’s not what happens. Imagine if your mind became omnidirectional and you see everything at once. What happened then and now all exist in the same order, and time is no longer a factor.
“In that moment, you know it’s your death. It’s like, I am watching me die, but who’s the watcher? Everybody talks to themselves, but you realise that you’re not that voice, there’s a third perspective. I had some experiences that are hard to explain with our current understanding of physics and what we think the world is.”
Zoltan wasn’t present when Ivan ‘died’, but they talk about the experience with a fresh understanding. Does this mean, perhaps, that a band who might previously have been seen as somewhat bullish are becoming more spiritual?
“It’s not that we became more spiritual,” counters Zoltan. “The symbiosis and conversations between bandmembers was always there, but you read the room and speak the language of the room, otherwise you miss the ability to communicate. If I talk about ayahuasca, I’ll talk to a person who’s done it completely differently to a person who hasn’t, because they won’t understand the language. The things that I talked about in private, I now talk about in public. The environment is a catalyst to what I’m saying, because there’s a cultural shift.
“I also feel that there’s been a paradigm shift for the whole planet, so people start to re-evaluate,” he continues. “What happened these last years is the first moment in history where the whole Earth stopped. It wasn’t like World War Two, which was localised – this was global. This smelly, grimy petrol civilisation came to a grinding halt, and everyone took a breather and started to rethink what was important. Culturally, people accepted that they go to work at eight until five, and the routine becomes your cage, but then I noticed a spiritual shift, so maybe it was time to start talking about it.”
And so, back to the new album, which was written during that ‘breather’. Not that the band had any intention of working on new material until they’d toured F8 – stage props having already been built – but then two weeks to ‘flatten the curve’ turned into two months, and a year later, they were still sitting around at home. By which point, Andy was living at Zoltan’s place. The pair played guitar for fun, knocking around some ideas.
“We weren’t planning on making a record,” shrugs Zoltan, “but all of a sudden, we realised that the break could be really long, so we went into the studio. Technically, we wrote stuff, but it wasn’t intentional for the record.”
What was the vibe like, especially with Ivan doing another sober album?
“There was an elated, no-pressure feeling of, ‘Let’s see what happens,’” Zoltan smiles. “When somebody’s under the influence, I don’t know what’s gonna happen, because their behaviour is irrational and I can’t plan, or even relate. When Ivan’s sober, we can have a conversation and make plans. I’m comfortable because I know he’s sober and he doesn’t need me to sit there. I was there to catch him, but once he got sober there was this vibe of freedom.”
That ‘vibe of freedom’ clearly translates to the album, and it’s fair to say that fans are in for a few surprises. Granted, we only hear a couple of songs on Zoltan’s phone, but we can’t help but notice a broadening of strokes, particularly with the inclusion of some electronic beats. This is not the sound of a band treading water; it’s a band making the music they like, because they like it.
“This is the ninth record, and at this point everyone knows who we are and the sound,” explains Zoltan. “It’s very difficult to achieve a signature sound, but when you have that, you have nothing to prove and it allows you to venture farther away. Take Queen: you can’t categorise Queen, and that’s the place you want to be, because you can do anything.
“For us, I think this is the record where that’s really starting. For an artist, as much as you want to be free, there’s all this expectation, and you set yourself up, like, ‘I have all these hit songs so I have to keep repeating that.’ That’s why I mentioned Queen, because those guys didn’t give a shit, they wrote whatever they felt like writing. That’s as honest as music can be.”
As if AfterLife wasn’t ambitious enough, the band are in the process of making a movie of the album. Yes, you read that correctly. They’ve shot a video for every song, along with some dialogue, and they’re stitching it all together to make a dramatic Death Punch extravaganza.
“We didn’t want to write a concept album, because every song stands on its own and it’s not fiction – it’s stuff that Ivan experienced. But when we looked at the totality of the work, all these pieces have overlapping lyrics and vibes that connect into a full picture, and if you look at our videos, they usually tell a story,” explains Zoltan. “It’s very challenging, but I think we can pull it off.
“In parallel to that,” he continues, “we’re working on a digital version of what you could call a metaverse, I guess. The idea is that if you’re playing a game, you can create avatars and go into the studio and stream songs or demos. If you saw the video for [May single] IOU, that’s the map that you can walk around in, and you’ll be able to interact with other fans and find Easter eggs to win stuff. Then, if I log in, I can walk around and have conversations with the fans. I could do a Q&A, almost a virtual meet and greet. All these ideas just flourished into, ‘Let’s just build this!’”
Continuing to flirt with sci-fi themes, the band are taking inspiration from films such as Dune and Blade Runner on this campaign, and the type of visuals generated by the Unreal Engine – the same engine used for heavyweight games like Fortnite and Gears Of War. Although as Zoltan points out, it’s not really science fiction anymore, but science fact.
“We’re on the brink of artificial intelligence being developed and getting more and more serious,” he says. “Almost every science fiction movie is about artificial intelligence going sideways, and that’s a possibility, because if it becomes self-conscious, the first thing it will do is try to defend itself at all costs.
Also, everyone is talking about a metaverse, which means that environments that you develop on a computer get closer to reality, and you have clothing that can transmit sensation. In the metaverse, you can be anything you want to be, and that’s kind of a freedom in a way. Then there’s cryptocurrencies that separate people from the central banks and gives another kind of freedom.”
Being business savvy, Zoltan invested in Bitcoin when it was under $100 and doubtless made a fortune. The idea of his dabbling in oft-controversial cryptocurrency also seems to fit with his notions of personal freedom, as it’s outside the ‘system’ and not reliant on any central authority. “We’re not just observing [these developments], we’re a part of it, and it’s becoming a reality globally. The record is embracing that.”
The final piece of the puzzle, he says, is that this will be translated to the band’s live shows. As a big fan of EDM events that push the envelope with the lighting and visuals, he sees no reason why 5FDP shouldn’t up their game, taking their already massive live shows to the next level with video screens that are capable of imitating 3D objects. Zoltan and co, it seems, are intent on gazing into the future.
“You want that magic and suspended disbelief,” he grins. You want a live show that is a tribal experience and blows your mind! You want to be able to say, ‘I was there when that happened!’”
AfterLife is out now via Better Noise