Five Finger Death Punch: Survival Of The Maddest

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There’s a saying among those who have found themselves teetering on the edge of total, personal annihilation: you don’t get to choose when you hit rock bottom – rock bottom finds you. No matter how well you feel like you’re keeping it together, at some point the pillars of your life will come crashing down, one-by-one, all converging in one, terrifying, do-or-die moment. When the members of Five Finger Death awoke on May 1, 2015, they could not have guessed that they were only a few hours away from that very situation…

Call them rebels, call them outlaws or call them controversial, but few contemporary metal bands have – entirely on their own terms – amassed the commercial successes or the ferocious global fanbase that Five Finger Death Punch have. Bristling with equal parts swagger, testosterone and taut musicianship, the Vegas five-piece – singer Ivan Moody, guitarists Zoltan Bathory and Jason Hook, drummer Jeremy Spencer and bassist Chris Kael – make no apologies for anything that’s come thus far. And why should they? Their bruising amalgam of seismic hooks, 18-wheel tempos and stadium-friendly choruses has translated into millions of record sales, particularly in their home country. Their most recent releases – Volumes 1 and 2 of The Wrong Side Of Heaven And The Righteous Side Of Hell – each peaked at Number Two on the Billboard 200 and Number One on the Billboard Hard Rock and Rock Albums charts. That they’ve achieved it all in only 10 years is nothing short of stunning.

And yet 5FDP remain one of the most polarising bands of their generation, each new achievement inspiring titanic waves of trollish derision on the battlefields of the internet’s message boards. The pushback isn’t entirely surprising. Whether it’s the band’s outspoken support of all things military, their unapologetically macho attitudes or their combative, ‘come-at-me-bro’ lyricism, the bottom line is that they push buttons with an almost gleeful indifference to the opinions of others, continuing to sell more records, attract more fans and shimmy up the summer festival bills, ever-approaching hallowed headliner status. With the impending release of their sixth studio album – Got Your Six – and a show announced for Wembley, 2015 bears all the hallmarks of the band’s breakthrough year. If they could only survive Memphis…

By now, anybody paying the slightest attention to heavy metal news outlets has seen the parade of mobile phone videos from the Beale Street Music Festival on May 1. With titles such as ‘Five Finger Death Punch Possible Break Up On Stage’ and ‘Five Finger Death Punch Onstage Meltdown’, the clips appear to capture the band crashing and burning. A spat between Ivan and Jeremy devolves to the point where the entire band walk off stage, save for Ivan, who awkwardly attempts to carry on solo, amid the audience’s noisy confusion and the occasional jeering of irate ticket-holders. The band would come back out, but the bell could not be un-rung.

The haters had a field day; it was as if all of their Christmases had come at once, as they joyfully pumped social media channels full of dark, snarky torrents of Schadenfreude. Meanwhile, diehard fans soberly wondered if they had seen the last of their favourite band. Ivan released a mea culpa the next day, citing technical issues but ultimately accepting responsibility, stating, “I apologise for taking my anger out onstage. You guys know me and you know how I pride myself on live performances. I’d never want this to boil over into something that epically wrong ever again,” before adding, “To our fans in Memphis – we’ll make it up to you, I promise… And to the haters… wipe that smirk off your face… we are not going anywhere.”

Far away from the stage and his glistening silver pistol and skull microphone stand, Ivan is almost disarmingly gracious, speaking pensively and always maintaining eye contact. He chuckles at himself often and generally wants a detailed rundown of how you’re doing before talking about himself. In fact, he ends most conversations by saying, “If you need anything, call me.” And then, pausing until he makes sure he has your attention, adding, “Hey, I mean it.” We catch up with him as the band are preparing to leave for Europe, where they’ll be supporting Judas Priest on the Redeemer Of Souls tour. Until now, we have avoided discussing Memphis, as the subject remains a sore one. Finally, we press – just what the hell went down on that stage?

Ivan’s spirits sharply plummet. He does not want to go here. Nonetheless, he draws a deep breath and offers, “It started out as a technical thing. We’d just got a new sound guy and there was a lot of technical shit going on. Jeremy and I are pretty much best friends. I was born on January 7, he was born on January 8 – we’re connected at the hip…” ‘Glum’ does not begin to approach the tone with which Ivan now speaks. He continues, “Jeremy and I were talking backstage and we were both being human. It just sucked that I had my microphone in my hand. The saying is that you should wash your clothes at home. Unfortunately, there were 20,000 people watching while he and I had an argument. I really fucked up and I was so embarrassed. The fans didn’t have to see that. I’ll be honest, it hurt. I love the guy. He’s one of my best friends and yeah, we fucked up. It’s humiliating.”

If Ivan is still licking his wounds, Jeremy seems to have already put it behind him, actually chuckling when we raise the issue. “Well, we just could not get it together,” he says. “Our wireless packs were having all kinds of interference and we started getting a little frustrated with that backstage. Then Ivan lost his cool completely and just started taking it out on everyone, including me. He and I got into a little scrap and it just wasn’t cool. We got through it, but it was pretty ugly and it was unprofessional.”

Today, the band are anything but, posing for our Mad Max-themed shoot and laughing and joking together. At one point, Ivan even sticks his thumb out at the traffic, stopping a car and pretending to hitchhike away from the shoot.

Realistically, it’s likely that the incident had less to do with technical problems and more to do with the goopy emotional sludge that accumulates during long stretches of touring and years of living and working in each other’s personal space. For most people, conflicts with friends, family or co-workers quickly dissipate through a little time apart. Bands with road crews to feed, families to support and sold-out venues on their calendar don’t have that luxury. Five Finger Death Punch have spent the past three years playing nearly 200 shows across the globe, crossing back and forth through North America, Europe, Austria and New Zealand, and even a handful of shows in Kuwait and Iraq.

“We’re human,” explains Jeremy. “We’ve been together 10 years now, so it’s like a marriage – some days are better than others, but we love and respect each other. We get on each other’s nerves, just like anyone else in their relationship. It was one night that wasn’t great, and hopefully we can make up for it. But life goes on, man, and we’re still a band.”

It’s been said that pain is the touchstone of all growth, and in this context, what happened in Memphis has proven critical to the band’s future. Speaking in his smooth, measured cadence, Jason muses, “Maybe Memphis was one of those crossroads that the band had to get through so that it never happens again. Feelings get discussed and we realise that there’s a line, and when that line gets crossed, everybody gets a chance to express how they feel about that and the potential consequences of that if it ever happens again. So I’m going to say it was a positive.”

Ivan adds: “It’s definitely made us stronger. We sat down last night – me, Jason and Zo – listening to the new album together. It was just that moment where you all look at each other and you say, ‘You know what? It was worth it.’ The world can hear what they want to hear, and they can see what they want to see, but in all reality, we are a fucking unit. And we did this together.”

Talk of the new record incites something bordering on euphoria among the lads. In fact, Jason literally howls with delight at its mention. To a man, they believe it to be the best record they’ve ever released. And, most fittingly, the album’s title is rooted in military speak. Jason explains: “‘Got Your Six’ is a military term that means, ‘I’ve got your back.’ It comes from clock language, like ‘Japanese Zeros at one o’clock.’ In this context, the title means, ‘We’ve got your back.’”

The battle plan for Got Your Six, he says, was simple: skip the ballads and go straight for the jugular with dizzying tempos and bone-powdering riffage.

“We said we were really going to try to avoid some of the softer, melodic or mid-tempo material and shoot for more of a densely packed, highly potent record with uptempo songs that we could easily play live,” he explains.

He’s already sussed out which ones are going to fire up the pits. “The title track is nasty. The chorus of Got Your Six is kind of about circle pits. There’s another one called No Sudden Movement that’s pretty heavy. Those would be the two I’d bank on for that, for sure.”

Ivan weighs in: “Boots And Blood is one of my favourites. I’m an old-school punk fan, so I love the chants. Wash It All Away came straight from my heart. There’s usually, like, three or four songs on each of our albums that I gravitate towards, but this album, from front-to-back, has left me awed. I can’t believe it’s us, to be honest.”

Zoltan, in his inimitable, no-bullshit fashion, cuts to the chase. “It’s just packed with huge fucking choruses,” he roars. “Faster songs with giant choruses and big fucking riffs.”

While he may not mess around when it comes to his music, Zoltan might well be the Most Interesting Man In Heavy Metal. In addition to forming 5FDP with Jeremy, the Hungarian-born guitarist has earned black belts in the martial arts, his pilot’s licence, numerous firearms certifications, self-defence training from special forces, a spot on the monster truck circuit and several patents, and he speaks as easily about ancient philosophies as he does about the catalogue of Iron Maiden. But the easygoing guitarist can hardly stay seated when discussing the new record, and the challenges it brings for the road. “It’s going to be really difficult to figure what we’ll include live, although we’ll definitely play Jekyll And Hyde. That song in particular represents our next evolutionary step.”

Indeed, it would seem that Jekyll And Hyde also boasts the best origin story of the new material. “Ivan is a total caveman,” Jason chuckles, as he recalls the track’s inception. “In 2015, we have every device known to God for recording yourself or capturing an idea in MP3 and emailing it somewhere, but he has no technical savvy at all. He’s always like, ‘I had a great idea last night but I had no way of capturing it.’ So one night I told Ivan, ‘No matter what, if you have ideas, call me and leave them on my voicemail.’ A year later, I’m at home looking through old hard drives and old folders on my computer, and I come across this Pro Tools session that had a bunch of voicemails from Ivan dumped into the computer from my phone. I open this session and I start listening through these voicemail song ideas. He sketches out the lyrics and vibe for this one idea, so I start laying a little riff underneath it, and then I start creating another section where I cut some of his words and made a little chorus. I sent it out to everybody and said, ‘I don’t know what you think, but this is something that Ivan left on my voicemail a year ago,’ and they were like, ‘Ooh! That’s pretty cool!’ That actual voicemail ended up staying in the song! What you hear in the first verse is all from that voicemail message.”

Chuckling but not protesting, Ivan clarifies, “What happened was that it was, like, 4am and I was up writing, and I looked on the internet and saw that somebody had posted on my Facebook page – but I don’t even have a Facebook page. So that was the start of it. At the very bottom, there was a media release saying that I had died – that I had overdosed in some club in New York. This rhythm popped into my head – this quick 44 beat – and I knew that Zoltan would be sleeping and Jeremy hates when I call him late. So I left it on Jason’s voicemail, and it was the beginning of Jekyll And Hyde. It ended up being a fantastic fucking song. I think it’s one of the best we’ve ever written.”

Discussing a band’s new album with the musicians is often an exercise in heroic puffery, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here – there is a genuine sense among the guys that they’ve tapped into something very special on Got Your Six. They insist that its importance transcends its brawny commercial potential.

“For us,” Zoltan explains, “the album represents a moment where we show the world that we’re here to stay. We’ve now earned a seat at the table with arena bands and that’s how we approached writing this record. We know what songs will sound great in a stadium and which ones are going to go off live, and so our live show deeply influenced the vibe and pace of the new record.”

“When we started out, there were so many naysayers and people who just wanted us not to succeed,” adds Ivan by way of agreement. “On the second album [in 2009], we knew it was war, which is why we called it War Is The Answer. On American Capitalist [2011], we knew it was time for us to capitalise on what we’d done up to that point, and then [2013’s] Wrong Side Of Heaven… was built around a lot of inner issues. Now, to have our sixth album represent our best effort yet speaks volumes to the band and to us as individuals. This is the real deal and I’m proud as fuck.”

Even a cursory run through the new album supports the band’s wild optimism – Got Your Six is their most polished, most consistent and most brazenly aggressive album yet. From the marauding stomp of Jekyll And Hyde through to the bludgeoning riffage of belters like Hell To Pay and I Question Everything, to the stand-up-and-shout chorus of the title track, 5FDP have created something feral and provocative, conjuring a new dimension of heaviness without sacrificing the muscular hooks and galloping tempos that underpin their sonic identity. Unsurprisingly, the album’s lyrics follow suit, boasting enough incendiary bravado and bold calls-to-arms to rally an army.

Of course, Five Finger have always been a band whose psyche and intellect run far deeper than their detractors – who love to write them off as thuggish ‘bro-metal’ – would care to admit. We ask Ivan to flesh out a couple of his lines on the album, starting with ‘Fuck all the druggies and fuck all you drunks’, from Boots And Blood. “I hate even saying ‘f’ all of them,” he explains, “because that’s not the reality of it. I’ve had a whole bunch of friends who’ve faded away and a couple who have passed from certain addictions. God knows I’ve had some problems myself, and amongst my bandmembers as well. For me, it’s saying that sometimes you have to separate yourself. You have to pull away to figure out who you are as an individual. I’m not pigeonholing any individual, but at the end of the day, if I want to be me and I want to sober up and I want to do the things that are beneficial for my life, then I have to keep certain things at arm’s length, and that’s where that lyric stems from.”

What about, ‘I don’t mind admitting I’m to blame’, from the breakdown-heavy I Question Everything? “My grandpa used to tell me, ‘When the rest of the world’s wrong, you have to step back and look at yourself,’” Ivan reveals. “That’s what that lyric relates to – I’m sitting here pointing fingers at everybody else and I had to step back and admit that I could be wrong. That was a game-changer. Nobody wants to realise that and nobody wants to admit it. But sometimes it’s necessary.”

He then pauses and continues, as if circling back to his comments on Memphis, “I’d be lying to you if I said that we haven’t had our ups and downs, and God knows the rumours and stuff that’ve been posted all over the internet. I’m human – I bleed, I breathe, I cry and I’ll die. It’s one of those things where I never saw [this fame] coming. For me, this was something off in the distance. How could it not change you?”

But if Five Finger Death Punch have changed in the face of fame, they’re still humble about their successes. By now, you’ll have seen the quintet take Download, and just the mention of Donington inspires broad grins from each of the lads. Growing up in Europe, Zoltan understands the festival culture and sees it as more than just a massive gig, but as a badge of honour.

“Download is one of the biggest festivals in the world,” he enthuses. “And it’s not just a festival – it’s a destination where people come from all over the world. Download is a special party, an elite club; you have to earn your spot at Download.”

For their own tours, the band have found a new approach, and are taking the music industry with them. When they announced this year’s North American tour with Papa Roach, they organised a ‘demand campaign’, whereby fans voted online for the tour to stop in their city. Over 1.5 million fans voted, shaping not just the tour itinerary, but most likely the way other bands will begin to think about going on the road in the future.

“It’s eye-opening, because there were territories that came up on the contest that we didn’t expect to see,” admits Zoltan. “We’d look at the ongoing results and wonder why a certain city was getting so many votes. We’d look a little closer and find out that it might be a military town, or some other community drawn to our music. I mean, the phrases ‘market research’ and ‘heavy metal’ don’t really fit in the same sentence, you know? That’s for the suits! Ha ha ha! But you simply can’t ignore this anymore – this is the future of touring.”

On the heels of this archetype-smashing process, when the band announced their European co-headlining tour with Papa Roach, they offered fans the same opportunity to vote on what cities the tour should visit. By now, you’ll all know the winning destinations. And there’s the smaller matter of their Wembley show to attend to…

“For any band, headlining the Wembley Arena is one of the near-impossible milestones,” offers Zoltan of the band moving up to join metal’s Big Game Players. “It’s like sticking a flag on the moon must have been for NASA. It means shit just got serious!”

For any band, the final weeks leading up to the release of a new album is a jittery tangle of nerves, fear and toe-tapping impatience. As Five Finger Death Punch wait for the world to hear Got Your Six and prepare to join the recent ranks of Avenged Sevenfold, Bring Me The Horizon and System Of A Down by tackling the UK’s most prestigious arena, we wonder if there are any hills left to take. Zoltan replies, “There’s always a new mountain to climb. It’s truly a never-ending quest. But let’s not dance around it, we want to be festival headliners – one of those three or four bands that can headline a huge festival anywhere in the world. When you’re a bona fide festival headliner worldwide, that’s it. You’ve arrived at that place that every kid dreams of when he first picks up a guitar. That’s a big mountain to climb, but that’s the one thing left.”

Ivan is a bit more pointed, flatly stating, “We didn’t come to lose. When we started building momentum, we looked at each other and asked, ‘Just how big can this get?’ We still look at Rammstein and Metallica – those bands who have superseded anybody’s imagination. The world can naysay us all they want to, and they can write all the bullshit they want about us on the web, but at the end of the day, there are five fingers on this hand and every single one of them is a middle one. We’re not going anywhere.”

The shoot finished and the interviews done and dusted, we wrap up our chat and bid our farewells. Before leaving, Ivan stops, thinks for a moment and adds, “You call me if you need anything, OK?

“And hey – I mean it.”

GOT IT COVERED

Uncovering the origins of that disturbing new album artwork…

For the cover of Got Your Six, the lads tapped Dave Wilkins, one of graphic arts’ leading visionaries in comics and games. Dave has worked for Marvel, DC and Dark Horse, and is best known for his work on Batman: Arkham City and the remake of the Splatterhouse videogame. A colossus of a man, with muscles that most of us are unaware exist, Dave was a natural fit for the job. He explains, “I’d been listening to 5FDP every day while I was working out – this collaboration was meant to be!”

Absorbing the jaw-dropping scale of the album art, it’s hard to believe the concept came from a hasty drawing provided by the band. “Zoltan showed me a sketch of what he was looking for,” Dave explains, “and it was good! The fact that he did it on his phone blew me away.”

Ultimately, they went for 5FDP mascot Knucklehead decapitating zombies, although Dave reveals this was not the original concept. “We did one with a little girl being protected by Knucklehead. She was adorable – Pixar-adorable, you know? Ha ha! Big doe eyes, holding a teddy bear, mayhem around her. I’m kind of glad they decided to take her out.”

Could Knucklehead ever carry his own comic? “Zoltan and I always talk about how cool it’d be to have a Rick Splatter-house mash-up with Knucklehead,” grins Dave. “I think that would be badass!”

IVAN REVIEWS MAX MAX: FURY ROAD

Rebooted movie franchise races straight to victory.

“I couldn’t wait to see this movie, and having sat through it once – I plan on watching it many more times – I can review Mad Max: Fury Road in two words: Bad. Ass. Seriously, this is one of the most spectacular movies that I’ve ever seen. Tom Hardy absolutely killed it [as Max]. OK, I’m a massive Tom Hardy fan, but I couldn’t think of anyone better to fill that role. The only thing the movie missed, however, that I would’ve liked to have seen, was [original Mad Max actor] Mel Gibson doing at least a cameo. Even if he was just using the shitter, it would’ve been great to have seen him in there. Story-wise, I didn’t really think much of it, but for something this epic, it didn’t matter – there was so much action that you couldn’t really grip the story to begin with, but I think they did a great job of building a bit of history around Max’s character. At the end of the day, there’s no getting around the fact that Hardy just killed it. He was out-of-his-friggin’-mind good, and for me, that made the whole thing. I’m already hoping they make a sequel. Anything with that kind of bloodshed and with a female hero at the end – who’s hot! – yeah, I’m all about it. I give it 11 out of 10. [Learns that Jeremy rated it as a seven] What? Are you shitting me?! A seven?! Oh, I’m going to chew his ass… **Ivan Moody **

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