Five Finger Death Punch: "We thought Ivan was going to f**king die"

(Image credit: Travis Shinn)

The man in the corner looks peaceful enough: a colourful eccentric in white patched overalls smeared with paint, nodding gently to the music around him, eyes shut tight. He is Ivan Moody, the explosive, baseball bat-wielding singer of Five Finger Death Punch, a leading force in our present universe of heavy metal, and he’s listening hard to a song about his inevitable demise.

It’s not easy listening here at The Hideout Recording Studio on the outskirts of Las Vegas, as he rests a hand on his shaved head, taking in a track from the new album. The tune begins as a piano ballad, but there’s also a meaty guitar riff to accent its message of hope and farewell to Ivan’s loved ones and bandmembers.

‘I’m writing this in case I’m gone tomorrow…’ his voice soars from the speakers.

Ivan isn’t about to depart this mortal coil, as far as he knows, but the singer almost didn’t make it to 2019. A lifetime of hard living and heavy drinking took a toll. This wasn’t the usual rock star shenanigans, or another round of bad behaviour, bad choices, bad press or any other fodder for your favourite metal gossip site. This was serious. Ivan was going to die.

Less than a week ago, Ivan marked 19 months of sobriety, and as he reclines in the shadows of Studio B to hear playbacks of the band’s new songs in progress, he seems almost cheerful. On his chest is a cloth patch of a cartoon unicorn with a flowing, golden mane picked out by his youngest daughter.

“To hear this takes me to places that I’ll never be able to escape,” Ivan says between tracks that chart his most recent nightmares and unexpected survival. “This is as raw as I’ll ever be. It’s painful as a motherfucker to hear some of it because it’s still so fresh.”

Ivan is here with his musical life-partner, guitarist Zoltan Bathory, and longtime producer Kevin Churko, listening to several of the 14 songs recorded for their new record. The vivid tattoos on his head are markers for a new stage in Ivan’s reconstructed life – there’s a mohawk tattoo made to look like reptilian scales and feathers on his scalp, and a phoenix in flight marks his first year sober.

These were signs of Ivan taking back control of his body and personality, after years of boozing and deterioration. “His range is different now than when he’s drinking, and stronger in many ways,” Churko says of Ivan’s vocals. “It’s benefited him in almost every way. He shows up on time. He shows up.”

Ivan recently posted a video online of himself smashing through a wall at his house to demonstrate his energy on the new album – on the face of it, an encouraging sign of creative life.

“This album has not been fucking easy to make,” Ivan counters. “There was always somebody fucking quitting. Somebody wants to fire another guy, somebody’s unhappy with someone’s lifestyle. These things happen on a daily basis. “If there weren’t bumps in the road, it would have been a shit record,” he then adds, “because that’s complacency and that’s settling.”

(Image credit: Travis Shinn)

Addiction issues aside, recent years have been a season of uncertainty and change for the band. Ivan was on a wild ride onstage and off, quitting repeatedly, getting sicker, flesh turning yellow as he soaked in alcohol. 

He wasn’t the only member of 5FDP with a substance issue to resolve, but as the hardheaded singer in the spotlight, he inevitably got the most public attention. There was also the exit of drummer Jeremy Spencer, who left when an injury made drumming at full bore difficult, and who became a cop and then, more confoundingly, a porn filmmaker. 

The weight on 5FDP as modern, frontline warriors of metal with a global popularity has only increased; their streaming numbers regularly match Iron Maiden’s. And, as metal’s first two or three generations begin heading into retirement or worse, Zoltan still sees the future as open-ended.

“There’s never going to be another Ozzy, another Slayer and another Metallica, but there is Slipknot, there is Five Finger Death Punch, there are others,” says Zoltan. “If we don’t fuck this up, and we don’t drive it into the wall, this is still growing. Every tour is bigger than the previous one. You can’t really predict [the future] but we are not stopping any time soon.”

At this point, the first public glimpse of Death Punch’s next chapter is only weeks away with the planned release of Inside Out, the first single and the album’s opening track. It begins with a mournful, minute-long orchestral introduction with echoes of Game Of Thrones, before drumbeats accelerate as a dark, threatening riff struts into focus, and Ivan’s enraged voice erupts with a guttural: ‘Take it, I don’t need it/I don’t want to hear your motherfucking side!’

It’s the sound of 5FDP at their toughest. Then the track shifts into a forceful melodic chorus with bursts of crazed soloing – ending up as both grand reintroduction and an in-your-face statement of purpose. For Ivan, Zoltan et al, the song carries additional meaning as a declaration of survival, and a call to arms for the band’s international horde of fanatical knuckleheads.

“This single pretty much encompasses everything that I’ve been through in the last two and a half years,” says Ivan. “This is the first piece of music I’ve written since all this happened. So all these emotions, I finally get to put them out in a therapeutic way. It’s about alcoholism. It’s about my family leaving. It’s about my bandmates. It’s about looking at myself in the fucking face and saying, ‘Dude, you’re going to have to do this because nobody else is coming.’”

The band’s previous album, 2018’s And Justice For None, had been created at a physical and spiritual low point for the singer, whose self-destruction only worsened on the road. Zoltan could see the end coming. “At that time, the rest of us thought we are going to lose you,” says Zoltan, turning to Ivan, “meaning you’re just going to fucking die.”

After years of struggle, and repeated visits to rehab, a revelation for the singer came when a close friend pointed out how everything he’d ever dreamed of – stardom, family, a home, a full bank account, the love of millions – had come true for him. “That’s when it really set in: ‘Holy shit, I’ve got everything I ever wanted and more. What’s wrong with me? Why do I get all this?’

“It really fucked me up, man. I don’t understand why some people get access to the universe and other people feel like they’re meant to just be stagnant and fail. It hurts, man. When I watch people I love so much just deteriorate in front of me and I can’t do anything about it… why in the fuck am I in this position and nobody else gets to see that light? It’s taken a lot for me to understand that the position I’m in is meant to benefit other people.”

Ivan tears up and has to leave the room. “I’m sorry, man,” he says as the door closes behind him.

(Image credit: Travis Shinn)

The first steps toward making the new album began in November 2018 at The Hideout, with Churko and his wizard beard at the big soundboard as always. About 20 minutes from the Las Vegas Strip, it’s a second home for 5FDP.

Aside from the many platinum and gold records that line the hallway (5FDP, Ozzy, Disturbed), the place is an uncluttered operation, all clean lines and dark shades of brown, grey and black, as feng shui as your local Apple store but low-lit and comfortable. It was a safe space for Zoltan, Ivan, lead guitarist Jason Hook, bassist Chris Kael and new drummer Charlie Engen to reconvene and rebuild.

Together, they proudly accept their role as leading proselytisers for rock. Death Punch are currently the most- played rock band on the crucial US mainstream radio playlist, so Zoltan knows anything Death Punch put out will at least get a fair hearing. And he doesn’t want to waste that opportunity. “It’s now our responsibility to push the envelope,” he says, “so this way we can steer it back more to rock music.”

The guitarist and band mastermind also realises that the album comes during a period of heavyweight releases from such high-profile names as Tool, Korn, Slipknot and Rammstein. Zoltan wants to be one of those singular rock bands that others get compared to, and that doesn’t happen by playing it safe. 

“Evolution is necessary,” says the guitarist, now heavily bearded, dreads pulled back into a ponytail. “We’ve a lot of those old hardcore fans. I remember the faces and I see them: ‘Man, I remember you from 2007!’ Those guys and those girls who were there from the beginning, I know some are saying, ‘Hey, go back to the first record!’” 

The new album is about 80% complete as he speaks. Ivan finished his vocals just two days ago, and a row of electric guitars remains ready against the wall. Out in the lobby, alongside warnings about smoking and the usual firearms, is a sign declaring “no rocket launchers allowed”, posted after Zoltan brought in a non-functioning version of the battlefield weapon to a session.

Zoltan is prepared to defend himself and lead his band into battle, but Ivan’s struggles were often beyond his abilities to solve. As a casual partier, he simply couldn’t comprehend the singer’s need to obliterate himself daily.

“I was always sober so I couldn’t understand,” says Zoltan. “‘Why can’t you just fucking stop? Why are you throwing away your life?’ But it’s not as simple. I had to educate myself.”

(Image credit: Travis Shinn)

Ivan communicated his turmoil through his performance and his lyrics. One track on the new album begins with a cascading acoustic melody, working in a hint of country before shifting into a sound that’s thunderous, portentous. The words recall a dream about alcohol he had one night after he’d stopped drinking.

“You have dreams so vivid that you wake up and you can taste liquor on your mouth,” Ivan explains. “I had this dream that I was sitting on a railroad tie [sleeper] with my grandmother who had passed years ago and I could smell the gin on her mouth. And when I woke up I could taste it. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, did I drink last night?’”

For Ivan, the issues behind his drinking were always much deeper than a need to party: “I always tell people, ‘If you had a family tree of me, it would’ve been fertilised with liquor.’”

And as the lead singer in a platinum metal band, whatever demands Ivan had for more booze were attended to without question. “You know how fucking easy it is to get drunk on the goddamn road, especially when you’re a ‘cock star’? ‘Get me a fucking drink or you’re fired!’ It’s that simple.”

He once had to be tricked into a trip to rehab, just as the band was rolling up the US East Coast, leaving him in New Jersey while the rest of the band continued on to Philadelphia. Zoltan called to let him know that their friend, a Special Forces vet, was standing outside his second floor hotel room door to deliver Ivan to rehab. A private jet to Arizona was waiting at the airport. He didn’t have a choice.

“I didn’t want to quit,” Ivan recalls. “To me, drinking was fun and it was part of the life and it was just something that was a part of me. So I figured as long as I didn’t hinder on anybody else’s good time, it didn’t fucking matter. And what I didn’t realise is that it was killing everything around me. It was like putting gasoline on a lawn and expecting it to grow back.”

Ivan went to rehab twice during the making of And Justice For None, once directly from the studio. Philip Labonte from All That Remains stepped in for Ivan on a 2016 tour. “We were running off the rails and we were like, ‘OK, we can’t keep Ivan on the road because he’s going to fucking die,’” says Zoltan. “‘He has to go to rehab. Whatever it takes.’”

“At first, man, I was fucking livid,” Ivan says now. “But Phil’s a blessing, man. That guy saved the day for me. If I would’ve finished that European tour, I’d have died on the plane ride home.”

(Image credit: Travis Shinn)

Things were still at peak turbulence when Ivan returned, and during a 2017 tour stop in the Netherlands, 5FDP came apart. Even now, the accounts of what happened that night differ between Zoltan and Ivan, but the essential point is that somehow the show started before the singer was in place behind the mic. 

Whether that was because he wasn’t alerted as usual by the crew, or because he was distracted or just being difficult, Ivan wasn’t there when the first notes began. Tommy Vext of Bad Wolves took his place.

Witnesses say the concert only lasted 40 minutes, with Ivan behind the mic for most of it, Tommy for two songs at the beginning. Ivan told the crowd they might be witnessing the band’s final performance. Jason Hook threw his guitar down during Burn MF.

When Ivan finally embraced rehab, he got astonishing support from others in the hard rock community. Right before his trip to rehab, Jonathan Davis of Korn invited him onto his bus with a message: “Ivan, you’re a gifted motherfucker and you’ve got the whole world in front of you, but you need to quit the sauce. It’s going to destroy you and everybody you love.”

Even more so was Metal God Rob Halford of Judas Priest, who acted as father, uncle, brother and friend to the troubled 5FDP singer. While Ivan was in rehab, Halford called every day. “It didn’t matter what part of the world he was in. Didn’t matter if it was 4:30 in the morning or 4:30 in the afternoon,” Ivan says. “He’s almost 40 years sober.” 

Halford sent him hilarious memes, and told Ivan that if he’d ever had a son, it would have been the Death Punch frontman. He started calling Ivan his Metal Godson.

Considering Ivan’s history, the road has been both a place of danger and safety. On one hand, touring remains as filled with temptations and locals ready to party as ever. But it’s also where Zoltan and the larger 5FDP organisation can watch over their lead vocalist. The idea of leaving Ivan home alone didn’t make a lot of sense.

“To me, it felt safer because at least we know that he’s OK,” says Zoltan. “At least there is a medic on the road, And there is something that he’s responsible for that’s bigger than him. The stage, the audience: he has to come out and do it.”

Two years of heavy touring are ahead of them. Zoltan says the band will pace themselves. “When you’re a new band and you go out on the road, it’s like the fucking Vikings: ‘Let’s, go out there, burn down the villages!’”

In Europe, the tour will include thrash icons Megadeth as openers. That announcement alarmed some fans who see Dave Mustaine’s place in the metal pantheon as too monumental to be relegated to support act. Zoltan shares their respect for Megadeth, and points out that a tour of South America would certainly have the billing listed in reverse.

5FDP fanatics will get a reworked live repertoire, too, as certain songs written during Ivan’s drinking days are sure to be avoided. He no longer wants to deal with some songs from The Wrong Side Of Heaven And The Righteous Side Of Hell, Volume 1, when Ivan was closest to the edge. “God, there’s some songs on that record I can’t listen to. I fucking can’t even touch them,” he says. There are other fan favourites that will no longer be performed, including the acoustic version of Remember Everything.

“Listen to the lyrics: I’m talking about very personal issues I’ve had with my family, my mother and stepfather and my brother and sister,” he explains. “I personally went to Jason and Zo, and I was like, ‘Dude, I can’t keep reliving that moment. It’s destroying me.’”

Others gone include Ashes, Way Of The Fist and The Devil’s Own. If he could, Ivan would spend the tour performing the new album front to back, as a statement on his current state of mind and hope for the future with his band. But they know the fans will expect certain hits, emotional baggage or not.

“I see his face; he’s right next to me. I know that in every single thing he sings, he relives that moment,” Zoltan says. “I can imagine that those songs remind him of some fucked-up dark place he’s been when he wrote that.”

After the horrors of recent years, and the rebirth that came from making the new album, in 2019, the two leaders of 5FDP seem closer than ever. As the night grows late, Ivan is the first to leave, saying his goodbyes with hugs. His mother has dinner waiting.

Zoltan leaves the studio for a drive toward the Strip in his Rolls Royce. With the bright lights of hotel casinos on the horizon, he thinks back to his roots, growing up in Hungary, loving hard rock and metal, playing a homemade guitar, coming to the US and meeting Ivan and the others who would create 5FDP. That he ended up here, becoming a leading metal player, driving a nice car with a fleet of others waiting at home, is a kind of miracle he never forgets.

“It was an impossible dream,” Zoltan says. Now that his troubled frontman has rescued himself from certain doom, it’s a dream the band can share again with the many thousands of fans waiting for them on the road. “I see people bawling in the first row on certain songs. It’s actually hard to look at them because I have to play a song,” he muses. “I can’t get emotionally entangled because then we will have a big fucking crying fest!” 

Five Finger Death Punch: F8

Five Finger Death Punch: F8
Five Finger Death Punch return with their highly anticipated eighth studio album titled F8. The follow-up to 2018's And Justice For None will include the lead singles Inside Out and Full Circle.

Steve Appleford

Steve Appleford is a Los Angeles music journalist who has also written for Rolling Stone, Revolver and the Los Angeles Times. Over the years he's interviewed major artists across multiple genres - including Black Sabbath, Slayer, Queens of the Stone Age, System of a Down, KISS, Lemmy, the Who, Neil Young, Beastie Boys, Beyonce, Tom Jones, and a couple of Beatles.