Lamb Of God: “The system is broken. It doesn’t work”

(Image credit: Nick Fancher)

“Have you ever heard of temporary autonomous zones?” Randy Blythe asks, as we sit down in a quiet study room upstairs at the Richmond Public Library. Moments prior, Hammer had made an offhand comment that the sickly puce walls made it look like an interrogation room. With a bitter chuckle, he shot back, “I’ve been in interrogation rooms. This is a lot nicer.”

He wasn’t joking, either. But as Randy quickly makes apparent, he’s not a man who is fazed by much anymore. As the vocalist for one of the biggest heavy metal bands in the world, an accomplished photographer, a best- selling author and a former unhappy guest of the Czech prison system, the Lamb Of God frontman has lived and seen far too much for that. Instead, two blocks away from a greasy diner where he worked the grill back in his punk rock salad days, Randy kicks back in a stiff library chair as he expounds on a theory from controversial anarchist scholar Hakim Bey.

A ‘temporary autonomous zone’ describes an ephemeral period of revolutionary freedom experienced outside the structures of state control. As Randy explains, that’s where he sees the most viable solution for his own personal happiness – and the best kind of heavy metal experience.

“Throughout history, where people get together and go, ‘There’s no rules, let’s all get along,’ someone always comes along and crushes it,” he says. “So, you enjoy that sort of freedom in that moment, because this moment is all that truly exists. I feel a good show displays the best aspects of that. There are problems, but I think it’s up to the community to police itself. The group tends to handle it in a unified way, and everybody’s there and free together.”

That feeling is what has kept Randy going for the past 26 years of the band’s existence. He hates recording, and when we visited him and his bandmates on set at the music video shoot for Memento Mori last night, he seemed miserable. The fact that it was happening in a freezing warehouse surely didn’t help, but even at the best of times, Randy has never cared much for the trappings of his day job. He lives for playing live, and unlike some of his bandmates, he even enjoys the hours of travel in between, as well as the knowledge that the music they make is out there helping people get through their days. 

“Making records isn’t fun for me, not with Lamb Of God at least; I’ve done other projects where I’ve had more fun because I wasn’t just screaming,” he explains. “I wish we could just record live, with everybody in there as we do it, because there’s an energy that happens when we get together that you just don’t get when you’re listening to what they’ve recorded in your headphones.

“That’s why my headphones have to be so ear-blaringly loud. I was having problems getting my throat to do what it does onstage several records ago, it’s always been a problem, and our producer finally came up with something; he put this digital filter on the vocal track that I would hear in my headphones as I was singing that made it sound like a shitty club PA, which is what I was used to for years. Then all of a sudden my voice was like, ‘OK, we know how to do this!’ Somehow my hearing isn’t totally destroyed.”

(Image credit: Nick Fancher)

The band’s new, self-titled album is their first in five years, and the world is a vastly different place since their last outing. They’re not the same band anymore, either; this record is the first to feature new drummer Art Cruz, a 31-year-old LA native with a supremely laidback vibe, a bulletproof CV (he’s also played with Prong and Winds Of Plague), and a fondness for Carlos Santana. Art joined the band following the 2019 departure of founding drummer Chris Adler and has some intimidatingly big shoes to fill behind the kit, but Randy says he already fits right in, and brought a fan’s perspective to the new album. “We were his favourite band when he was in high school, it’s crazy!” he exclaims. “It’s really cool having him in the band because we’ve been friends for a while. We’ve known him forever; he used to just ride on the tourbus with us.”

Longtime Lamb Of God fans will be thrilled with the new material, which is as visceral and pummelling as anything in their world-class catalogue, and features fearsome appearances from Jamey Jasta (Poison Dream) and Chuck Billy (Routes). Those who read the lyric sheets will also recognise the band’s continued commitment to the same principles they’ve held since they were castigating former US president, warmonger George W. Bush, on 2003’s Ashes Of The Wake. 

Randy is fed up with the US political system in its entirety. It’s a sentiment that won’t come as any shock to those who’ve followed his career or listened to his musical output, but with 2020 careening into sheer chaos at a truly alarming clip, it’s hard to blame him for it, either - especially when elected officials treat matters of life or death as a game of political calculus. There’s nothing specifically targeted at Trump, who Randy dismisses as “a brazen kleptocrat”; Lamb Of God prefer to land body blows on the cruel system of which he is a willing pawn. Capitalism is the disease; Trump, with his bloodthirsty authoritarian agenda, is the symptom.

“The system’s broken; it doesn’t work,” he says with a rueful chuckle. “And the people who identify themselves so strongly as Democrats and Republicans, they’re so entrenched right now - just like our Congress - that nobody is willing to meet particularly in the middle, because it’s like sports teams now. There’s all these people who spend all this money and support this freaking team, and there’s thousands of fans on this side and thousands of fans on that side, and only a very few people get paid. The team members get some money, and then the owners get really rich, so that’s our system. It’s nothing new, it’s just more blatant and obvious.”

A new crop of brilliant young anti- establishment and unapologetically left-wing bands have come to the fore in the years since LOG’s last record, from Power Trip to Dawn Ray’d, but Lamb Of God makes it clear that these OGs still have plenty to say – and they intend for their message to endure through however many presidential election cycles the US has left. “Everybody knows already that I don’t like Trump; I’ve said that since before he was elected, so why on earth would I write a Trump-bashing record?” Randy explains. “The situation is so ridiculous and protean and constantly changing that there’s nothing to put your finger on - you can’t pick one topical issue to explore. The whole record is a snapshot of where we are in so-called ‘developed’ countries in the western world, and what I see as the root of it.”

In Randy’s view, that culprit is the rampant consumerism that has held a vice-grip on Western culture since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of the middle class. “I’m not saying it was great when there were rich people and everybody else was a peasant living in a burlap sack, but things changed,” he says. “In any society where your measure of self- worth or happiness is determined by what goods you own, you’re fucked, because when you die, it’s all gone. [American entrepreneur] Malcolm Forbes used to say, ‘Whoever dies with the most toys, wins’, and I’m like, ‘You win what?’ You died with a bunch of shit? Who cares? You can die happy with just enough to survive, people do it all the time.”

Randy fake-groans when we bring up politics, but is ready with a thoughtful, often profane answer to each question lobbed his way. His anti-capitalist worldview was shaped by punk rock, which gave him a leg up on many metalheads of his generation; while 80s metal dudes were squabbling over genre distinctions, Randy and his punk mates were busy giving Nazis the boot from local gigs. 

“The metal community right now as it exists owes the punk rock world a great debt – all the fun stuff, all the touring routes, everything goes back to the DIY efforts of Black Flag and all those bands in the early days,” he says. “I resisted saying we were a metal band for years, because when we came up, we were more grind-influenced, with ties to the punk scene. We were playing warehouses and squats, particularly in West Philadelphia, with a bunch of punk rock bands. That’s the world I come from.”

Despite his punk pedigree, he doesn’t identify as an anarchist (“It seems rather utopian to me”). His own political leanings definitely veer left, though, and the ongoing debate within the metal community over whether or not the genre should be ‘political’ drives him up the wall.

“When people are like, ‘Don’t discuss politics, stick to playing guitar,’ it’s like, ‘You fucking idiot, do you know nothing about the history of music?’” he says with no small measure of incredulity. “Not just punk and metal, but music in general. Read some Black Sabbath lyrics, you fucking morons! Sometimes I just want to kick back and listen to Cannibal Corpse and have a non-alcoholic beer, and that’s OK, there’s a place for that, but if you want something that’s just entertainment and doesn’t have any weight or message or meaning, listen to Top 40 music. Listen to something about nothing. Don’t listen to our type of music. Go fuck yourself.”

(Image credit: Nick Fancher)

The library is around the corner from the Virginia governor’s mansion, an imposing building where Randy and guitarist Mark Morton once worked as roofers, and a few blocks up from the State Capitol building. Several weeks before our chat, the Capitol grounds had been flooded with a heavily armed hodgepodge of gun rights advocates and right-wing extremists infuriated by the governor’s attempts to pass new gun control legislation. Randy missed the rally (he was on a surfing trip at the time), but says he would have otherwise been in attendance documenting the spectacle. 

He was also out of town during 2017’s deadly Unite The Right neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, but as it happened, he’d lent a camera to a close friend to use that day. “As he stepped into an alleyway to check his shots, he heard this revving sound,” Randy recalls. “He looked up and saw the car drive through the crowd of people and kill Heather Heyer.”

This writer was there that day and a witness to the carnage. It felt like a load-bearing pillar in American society was crumbling, and that brokenness hasn’t abated; it’s only gotten worse. But Randy (who was born in Maryland and split his formative years between Virginia and North Carolina) wanted to be clear that events like these aren’t a reflection of his adopted hometown, a bohemian little city known more for its university arts scene and underground music scene than its politics.

“To be fair to the great Commonwealth of Virginia, the gun rally was promoted by the insane far right-wing; nutty people were spreading all sorts of misinformation on the internet, trying to get things really riled up here,” he explains. “Thousands of people came from out of state with guns. It was crazy.”

Despite evidence to the contrary, Randy swears he isn’t serious all the time. He laughs a lot, and when he’s off the heavy metal clock, he surfs, goes to shows and spends time with family. He’s recently returned from a surfing trip at an “undisclosed location” in South America where he spent a month off the grid. He treasures his autonomy, and his ability to slip in and out of the public eye. Randy has been a metal household name for decades, but one gets the impression that he still isn’t used to the attention. Though fans may disagree, he still refers to himself as a “budget rockstar”, and even with his greying dreads hidden under a cap and spectacles obscuring his sharp features, he’s often recognised around town.

“Yeah I get recognised a lot, and yeah I get to do cool stuff, but I’m still not a millionaire, I live a normal life, I drive a used truck,” he says. “I get recognised more on the street in LA and London, and people are more excited. Here, people know who we are, and they’re like, ‘Oh, there goes the dude from Lamb Of God, I think he washed dishes at a bar I used to drink at,” because it’s true. The only two times it really bums me out is if I’m eating, or when I’m with my wife or my mom. If someone comes up like, ‘I fuckin’ love your band!’ and I’m like, dude, this is my mom – I don’t say the f-bomb around her! This is not a metal show, we’re at the shoe store, please restrain yourself. I’m a normal human being, and as such I deserve that level of respect. Just because I’m in a band you like doesn’t mean you should scream ‘fuck’ around my mom!”

The perks are hard to argue with, at least. He tells a story about when they played Hellfest in 2019, and Southern rock icons Lynyrd Skynyrd were playing directly before them. Randy planted himself on the side of the stage as they noodled through an extended version of Free Bird, singing along.

“And then we played, and there’s 70,000 people there going apeshit, and I’m like, what the fuck, Lynyrd Skynyrd just opened for me and we’re in France, this is really strange! How did this happen to me?” he says. “We’re right here at Second St. and Grace, and I used to cook at an all-night diner right around the corner, the 11pm to 7am shift, and lived as a vampire on no money. It’s not like we had this moment where it’s like BOOM, we’re touring with Metallica and making money; it’s been this long very gradual upward incline, and so it doesn’t seem as weird most of the time. But you have these moments where you think, ‘This is really fucking cool but it’s really crazy. Is this my life?’”

Whether he’s tearing it up onstage, documenting the world from behind a lens, or just shooting the shit with his Richmond homies, the only real certainty that lies in Randy’s future is that he will keep speaking out about what’s right, spreading the political punk gospel, and doing his part to make our world a little bit better.

“My dad and my mom, we don’t agree on everything but they taught me right from wrong,” he says. “I did not always do the right thing, but I always felt guilty. And I still don’t always do the right thing. I’m still a human being, but I’m trying my best, goddamnit. I’m an old, beaten-down tired man, but I’m trying.”

Published in Metal Hammer #334. Lamb Of God is out on June 19