It was a hot and dusty August afternoon in Council Buffs, Iowa, 2012, when Metal Hammer interviewed Lamb Of God frontman Randy Blythe for what was arguably the biggest story in rock that year – if not the entire decade. Having been arrested at Prague airport on June 27 of that year on charges of manslaughter, following the death of 19-year-old Lamb Of God fan Daniel Nosek at a show two years previous, Randy was just 12 days out on bail from a Czech prison, and facing a possible five to 10 years without parole should the case go to trial.
It was a surreal day, to say the least. Headlining the second stage at the inaugural Knotfest, Lamb Of God were, of course, phenomenal, but, still, there was a terrible gnawing worry that this would be the last time we’d see the band, the last time we’d ever see Randy on a stage. Only two weeks before he was arrested, we were partying with Randy on the HMS Hammer on the way to the Metal Hammer Golden Gods. Like we said: it was surreal.
Ultimately, Randy returned to the Czech Republic to face trial and was found not guilty (although deemed “morally responsible” for the death), and so we talk to him today, in North Carolina, as a free man about to embark on a year that, for the first time in a while, leaves him free to do as he wishes. And, as Hammer discovers, it is a year set to be brimming with projects, personal fulfilment and, most noticeably of course, a new Lamb Of God record./o:p
Before that, though, there’s the matter of his first book, Dark Days: My Tribulations And Trials; due for release this year and beginning with the day he was arrested, ultimately ending right here on a porch, by the beach.
“My book’s being edited now,” he reveals. “I mentioned you because I was really careful about any press I was doing at that time. I have a good relationship with Metal Hammer and I was like, ‘Well, these guys aren’t going to fuck me over.’”
WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER OF THE KNOTFEST GIG? IT SEEMED LIKE IT WAS VERY CATHARTIC FOR YOU?
“It was just fucking overwhelming. We were half an hour late going on because Machine Head blew up the power, but Slipknot were cool enough to let us go on late and do our whole set. But it was just overwhelming, and then the next night I kind of came into reality, like, ‘Whoa, I’m really on stage, and I was in prison less than two weeks ago!’ It’s hard to explain the nuclear mind-fuck that is getting out of prison and having this overwhelming show of support, that had been going on while I was in prison, but I had no idea because I had pretty much no contact with the outside world.”/o:p
WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THE VERDICT, ‘NOT GUILTY, BUT MORALLY RESPONSIBLE’?
“I think what happened was the court was like, ‘OK, he’s not guilty, we’re not putting him in prison.’ But the prosecuting attorney was very unhappy about that, and he is the state. Because the American government did not cooperate with the Czech government, and the prosecuting attorney was a former police interrogator, that pissed him off. I think there was a little bit of appeasement by the Czech state, but I was a little confused by the verdict. Either you’re guilty or you’re not guilty. I address that pretty explicitly in the book. Obviously I didn’t wish to avoid any responsibility I may have in the matter, because if I had then I just wouldn’t have gone back, but let’s just say it was a confusing verdict.”
STILL, IT MUST FEEL GOOD TO GO INTO YOUR FIRST FULL YEAR WITHOUT THE THREAT OF A CZECH PRISON HANGING OVER YOUR HEAD?
“Well, it was pronounced not guilty and then there were two appeals,” explains Randy. “So it wasn’t over as soon as they said ‘not guilty’. I went another six months when he appealed, and the verdict was upheld, and then there was another few months where I don’t know if they appealed or not. It was long haul and I’m glad it’s over.”
Given that Randy learned the history of the 125-year-old prison (complete with working guillotine), and gave English lessons to his Mongolian cellmate, Dark Days promises to be a fascinating read. He’s a reader himself and says that he found writing a book to be “way more intense than writing a record”. Currently, he’s even allowing himself the “guilty pleasure” of reading a book about writing!
“I own a bazillion of them,” he laughs. “It’s a lot easier to read a book about being a writer than actually being a writer. I spent all this money on writing books and self-help books, most of which are in a box, and none of them really helped. But I like reading about authors, so I’m reading The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer, which is about writing, or the writing life, which still fascinates me. I’m obsessed with Hemingway and the people in Paris in the 20s. The book A Moveable Feast about his time there… I just melt every time I read that. I had all these ideas about the writing life, and I love reading about that, but my writing life was different; it was me by myself in a beach house, drinking way too much coffee, and surfing.”/o:p
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Ah yes, the surfing. We were going to ask. Followers of Randy’s Instagram will have noticed that he’s in danger of developing gills if he spends any more time in the water. Growing up near the coast in Virginia and North Carolina, he’d always “screwed around on surfboards”, but only got serious about it in the last year. Perhaps because of the coffee, as is often the case, Randy has a wonderful, scenic way of getting to the point when asked about his new passion.
“When Lamb Of God got finished with our touring cycle we were in Africa, in January,” he begins, “and I was like, ‘Holy fuck, I have to write a book!’ I got some of it written on tour, like four chapters, but touring is no place to write a book. I’m not the guy that can write in a coffee shop; I have to be alone. A friend of mine has a house by the beach, a rental place, and I needed a hidey-hole, so I moved to the beach and wrote a book.
“When I couldn’t write any more I’d go surf, and basically it became so everything I did was dictated by the tides and when the surf was good. It really put me in contact with the natural cycle. A couple of older guys gave me pointers, and I’m by no means a shredder, but I can catch a wave. Surfing is a very singular experience. When you catch a wave you don’t think about anything else; I don’t even think about surfing. It’s like Yoda! There is no try, there is only do!”/o:p
Randy went out and bought a camera, and started doing interviews with different people, such as a scientist at the local university, asking him about how the internet and cell phones have affected education. And then one day – “This is a long way to get to the point, I’m sorry,” he laughs – he saw his reflection in a coffee maker, all distorted and weird-looking, and he snapped a picture.
Inevitably, the movie turned into the 2014 documentary As The Palaces Burn, which covers Randy’s trial, but it was that first, warped, coffee maker ‘selfie’ that inspired him to keep picking up the camera. And he hasn’t stopped taking pictures since (and you can check out some of his finest in this very feature – the ones marked RB – with comments from the man himself!).
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HAVE YOU ALWAYS BEEN FASCINATED WITH THE FAR EAST?
“Oh, always!” grins Randy. “In the fourth grade I read Shogun by James Clavell, which is a pretty thick book for a fourth grader, and that set off a fascination with Japan, which really set off my fascination with Asia. The first time we played Japan we were there for 72 hours and I slept for four hours! I was like, ‘I’m in fucking Tokyo! I’m doing fucking everything!’”
It would be fair to say that Randy Blythe lives his entire life that way. As a crusty punk rock kid he’d hop freight trains across America, a budding Jack Kerouac, experiencing all that freedom had to offer. Like most with a nomad’s soul and a writer’s heart, it’s as much about the journey as actually arriving anywhere.
“Absolutely,” he nods. “Because where are you gonna get in the end? A big hole in the ground! Whether you believe in an afterlife or a God or any of that shit, ultimately you’re gonna be dead and wind up in a hole in the ground. So you’ve got to experience everything along the way, you really do, otherwise life is pointless. As I get older, even when something really sucks, I’m like, ‘OK, I need to take this in and really experience this’, y’know? Experiencing it is better than nothing.”
It was that, says Randy, that made him quit drinking. In his 20s he was sent to a psych ward, something he writes about in Dark Days… “Some ill-advised shit over a woman. I went off the rails due to a combination of a girl and heavy drinking, and I wound up in the loony bin.” But you have to feel something to wind up in there, at least. In his darkest days, Randy felt nothing.
“I was in this beautiful place in Australia,” he says of the day he found sobriety,“and I walked out on my balcony, all hungover, and looked at all the beer bottles from the night before, and I didn’t feel like doing anything! I didn’t feel like breathing, or dying, or living, I just felt nothing. I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is no way to live’ and that’s when I got sober. I run pretty hard and burn the candle at both ends because I’m always doing a million things, but I’m experiencing life! It’s kind of like being a kid again, because when I was all fucked up I was not experiencing life, I was experiencing alcohol.”/o:p
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ARE YOU COMFORTABLE WITH WHERE THE JOURNEY HAS TAKEN YOU SO FAR? EX-PUNK ROCKER TO…
“Ex-punk rocker? There’s no such thing as an ex-punk rocker!”
OK, BUT TO GO FROM THAT TO BILLBOARD-CHARTING ALBUMS AND BEING THE CENTRE OF A GLOBAL MEDIA STORY…
“There are certainly things I could do without, like going to prison, and drinking all those years, but am I comfortable with where I am now? Yes, to a degree. It’s very odd to me, still, that I get to do all this cool stuff, like be in a kung fu movie, and write a book, and go on tour, that people want to meet me and want my autograph. It’s fucking weird to me! And sometimes it makes me uncomfortable because I’m just this dude from a little town, I don’t feel like a rock star, I just don’t. What’s the big deal? I’m a rampaging alcoholic that did his best to destroy his life, and now I’m living like a normal human being. Whatever. I think coming up from the punk rock scene it was different. I’ve met some really famous people and I’m just not excited, not stoked, and I think that’s why it confuses me.”
Obviously, with the tragic death of GWAR frontman Dave Brockie this year, the world has one less person to be stoked about, another journey ended. Randy was close friends with the man known better known as Oderus Urungus, and fondly recalls the early days of him being run out of many places in the small town of Richmond, in full costume!
“Towards the end he was like an ambassador for our city!” says Randy, fondly. “The mayor, I think, said something about losing him, and I think it really affected the whole town, in the art scene particularly, not just the music scene. I’m immensely proud of GWAR for carrying on, because that’s what Dave would have wanted; he was talking about breeding replacements years ago so GWAR could continue forever. GWAR wasn’t just Dave, it’s like an artist commune, but when a guy like Brockie dies it’s a huge, huge job to fill those big rubber shoes.”
YOU SPOKE AT HIS FUNERAL, HOW WAS THAT?
“I spoke twice. I spoke at the private service, which was weird, but it felt like the right thing to do for Dave. I think 11 people spoke, but there was only three who weren’t in GWAR and they asked me to speak, which was pretty intense. It was a sad day, but it was much more sad when they had the public memorial and they burned his costume on the lake. Someone shot a flaming arrow into it, and it was just so intense. Jello Biafra introduced me and said my name wrong, which was funny as shit, but watching his costume burn it just hit me like a hammer. It was a visceral experience and I was just sobbing my eyes out. And I think I needed to.”
Brockie died while Randy was alone at his beach house on a deserted beach, writing his book, and he found himself unable to write anything for two weeks until the funeral. He took a picture of Dave’s mask and sat it on his writing desk when he got back.
“Dave would say to me, ‘Stop being such a pussy and get it done!’” laughs Randy. “But it still affects me; I think about Dave constantly because he did a lot for me and my band, and when I think about him I just get very sad. There was nobody like that guy! You know how you meet someone and they remind you of someone? Nobody’s ever reminded me of Dave and Dave’s never reminded me of anyone. They broke the mould when they made that one! And he always told me he was proud of me, which meant so much more than any record review or Grammy nomination. It just bums me out.”/o:p
Us too, frankly. But while 2014 was a horrible time for many, a new year has landed, and with it, new experiences. Randy’s book will be out, and he plans to begin writing another. And along with the photo exhibition in New York, he plans to compose more music for the Richmond ballet, a piece that will be choreographed by his friend, Matt Frain. But what, begs the question, of his day job? Where do Lamb Of God fit into all this? Is he looking forward to resuming the album cycle again?
“That depends,” grins Randy. “We’re playing some big shows this coming year that I’m pretty excited about. I’m running from winter so we’re going to Soundwave in February, in Australia, and there’s some really good stuff coming for the band. They’ve been writing, and I’ve been writing, and I’m not sure when it’ll see the light of day, but the next Lamb Of God record is gonna be pretty fucking monstrous! I started writing lyrics while I was still in prison, and those will be on there for sure.
“I’m excited to get out and do a cycle after having had a break from the road, because I got out of court, found not guilty, and we just went on tour, it never stopped. So it’s been nice to be home for a while, but with Lamb Of God, everything is occurring well. I got off tour in January and people in March were going, ‘When are you going on tour again?’ I’m like, ‘Jesus fucking Christ! Are you out of your mind? We just did a three-year touring cycle, and, by the way, I went to prison!’ I wanted to be off the road for more than a month!”
And on that note, as one of metal’s most fascinating minds gears up for another busy year, we should probably let Randy be. He probably has surfing to do, right?
“One other thing about surfing,” says Randy, apparently not done with the subject. “Surfing is such a singular experience, you don’t think about anything, you just do. But I also read this book called Caught Inside, and it explains that until we find a way to ride light or sound, surfing is the only way to ride energy itself, because a wave is energy!”
Mate, you’re turning into a hippy!
“Yeah, next thing I’ll be wearing Birkenstocks and patchouli!” laughs Randy. “Nah, dude, there’s no fucking hippy here!”