The secret history of Avenged Sevenfold

(Image credit: Press)

You’re awake. It’s the dead of night. You’re stood, butt-naked on your lawn, surrounded by  smashed glass and pieces of roof, shaking your fist at the sky and screaming at the heavens as the shape of a bicycle disappears into the night, two shrieks of adolescent laughter drawing a rage from your belly fierce enough to level a skyscraper. Not this. Not again.

“Those god damn kids!” you bellow into the darkness as the throes of slumber slowly dissipate from around you. “Fucking hooligans! Irresponsible brats! Future architects of the biggest metal band of the 21st century!” Wait, what?!

“What can I say? We got ourselves in a lot of trouble!” laughs Matthew Sanders, better known as M Shadows, frontman of globe-conquering metal mega-weights, Avenged Sevenfold. The Avenged Sevenfold that used to get up to the kinds of shenanigans you’d expect to see in The Beano when they were growing up together in Huntington Beach, California in the late 90s.

“I hope it gets printed that I don’t condone any of this,” stresses Shadows with a chuckle, “but when Christmas would come around, and everybody would put up lights on their houses, we would go around and try to rip off every light from every house. We’d grab one light and say, ‘Go!’, and we’d ride our bikes off and rip the whole thing off the whole house. Eventually, the cops would come, and we’d have to take off. We had escape routes to get away from the cops: A, B and C. We’d just call it out and get away on our bikes.”

“We were the kids who were sneaking into stores, stealing booze, getting into fights,” smirks guitarist Zacky Vengeance (Zachary Baker to his mum). “There were a handful of pretty good dust-ups. Matt was a trouble-maker and had a reputation around the entire city of being trouble.”

“Ha!” comes the response from his singer. “Well, you know, I think that’s part of growing up.”

Indeed, growing up has played a monumental role in the journey of Avenged Sevenfold. From those early days of Goonies-esque mischief to the excess, decadence and controversy of the City Of Evil era (more of that later), this is a band that has hardly shied away from creating a spot of bother every now and again. As Hammer is joined by the band to take a mightily entertaining trip down memory lane, taking stock of their amazing journey and the road that has led them to this point in their career, it becomes abundantly clear that once you tap through that media-trained coolness that greets many of their interviews, there is a warmth and shared history running through the quintet that consolidates the ‘band of brothers’ tag that they have worn proudly right from the start. And, if there is one common line that seems to run through a lot of these early tales, it’s that one member in particular seemed to often be at the heart of it all…

“The first time I met Jimmy, I was at basketball camp during the summer,” remembers Shadows. “I knew Jimmy was trouble because he had a reputation that he was a bit of an out-of-control kid. We hooked up, and he was like, ‘Hey, I’m riding my bike out, you wanna jump on the handlebars?’ So I jumped on, and the whole way home I knocked over every trash can. I thought, ‘I love this guy!’, and I found out he lived five houses away from me, so I got my bike and that was it. We were best buds.”

“The first day I met Jimmy, I punched him,” counters Brian Haner, AKA lead axeman Synyster Gates, quite spectacularly. “It was in eighth grade. I remember that we were in line sending in our woodshop projects, and he turned his head and looked at me like I was shit. He tapped me in the chest, so I hit him and we got sent outside. We started talking about music and were friends by the end of our time out!”

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There seems to be no doubt at all that Jimmy Sullivan, known and dearly loved by millions around the world as one-man drumming machine The Rev, was a chief instigator in much of the madness that crowded both Avenged’s early years as cheeky, high jinx-baiting Cali scamps and the headline-grabbing escapades that would come later. As we know and still feel all too well, his journey would come to a tragic and frustratingly early end on that fateful day in December 2009, but his contribution to the band’s history remains immeasurable. In fact, in those early days, as the millennium settled in and the rowdy young gang (now a band with a few shows under their belts) had actually managed to haul themselves into a studio to record an album, both The Rev’s unbelievable talent and his somewhat… unusual approach to things became even more apparent.

“Jimmy recorded all of those drums in one take,” explains Shadows of their 2001 debut album, Sounding The Seventh Trumpet. “There was a bunch of mistakes but he was like, ‘It’s one take, it’s gonna be cool!’ Ha ha ha! But it was a learning process.”

“It was completely raw,” offers Zacky on the band’s promising but flawed debut. “We didn’t know what we were doing! We went there with a million ideas and laid them down with a tiny budget. Listening to it, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but the ideas were there.”

“We were 17, and we were writing that record on acoustic guitars in class,” Shadows adds. “We just wrote a bunch of songs, but we didn’t know anything about recording or click tracks or production, so we just wrote songs that a bunch of 17-year-olds would write.”

Even at that early point in their career, Avenged’s ascendance was not without its fair share of turbulence. One notable early incident involved the attempted suicide of their bass player at the time, Justin Sane – “He tried to drink a couple of bottles of cough medicine. He was an unbelievable musician but he had issues” – but still, the band’s star continued to rise, and so, soon, would their notoriety.

After the modest success of …Seventh Trumpet came, of course, the album that cemented Avenged as the hottest property in metal, and with it, their first taste of the chaos and the controversy that comes with owning such a title. Although, as Hammer discovered during this particular chat, not everyone was able to cotton on to the future classic status that Waking The Fallen would quickly earn.

“We sent our original record to Andy Sneap [Megadeth and Killswitch Engage producer/mixer/genius], and he wrote back an email saying, ‘I will never work with you guys’,” laughs Shadows. “Ha! It’s funny, because after City Of Evil, we saw Andy in London, and we were laughing about the whole thing. He was like, ‘Dude, I didn’t know it was gonna turn into this! I feel so bad!’”

Luckily, the band found their man in the form of Andy ‘Mudrock’ Murdock, and though the resulting production job fell short of perfection, the songs spoke for themselves. Waking The Fallen landed in the summer of 2003 to mass critical acclaim, still to this day standing as one of the greatest metalcore albums ever recorded and a testament to the immense talents that Avenged possessed at a criminally young age. As the quintet suddenly found themselves in demand across the globe, it wasn’t long before they also found themselves knee-deep in the kind of excess and booze-fuelled madness that can only come on the road.

“The first time we ever played abroad was in the UK, opening for Lostprophets and The Bronx,” recalls Zacky. “Dude, we were in a six-passenger van, and we were out of our minds. We were drinking as much as we possibly could. We’d play as hard as we could, then we’d go walk over to the bar, have fans buy us shots, and by the end of the night we were pretty belligerent. We’d get up hungover, get in the van and then pull over to let Johnny [Christ, bass] puke up on the side of the road. That was our first real taste of going out on tour, and we took every advantage of it that we could.”

“It was everything you would imagine it to be: pure debauchery,” muses Shadows. “You’re out there, going crazy, partying it up every night.”

Predictably, a bunch of lairy kids from California getting thrown into this kind of environment led to some rather, shall we say, tense situations. Most famously, one such situation led to the alleged arrest of The Rev outside London’s own infamous drinking haunt, The Crobar, shortly after Avenged’s debut London show on that very aforementioned tour in February 2004. The band released a purposefully ridiculous statement at the time to dispel any lasting controversy, but now, right here in Metal Hammer, we can finally set the record straight. Happily, we can confirm that the truth is as ludicrous as we’d hoped.

Avenged Sevenfold

(Image credit: Press)

“What happened was, we were at The Crobar, which is the place to be, you know,” Shadows slyly reveals. “We were all there, and I go to the bathroom, where there’s just one stall, and I had to pee so bad. This person wasn’t coming out – I think they were taking a shit or whatever – so I was like, ‘Fuck, dude’, and I started peeing in the sink. This guy walks out and starts flipping out and yelling at me, and I’m like, ‘Fuck off.’ I ignore him, and when I walk out front, he’s there waiting for me! He’s like, ‘Yo, you’re the dude that was pissing in the sink! What’s wrong with you?!’ So I punched him, and this huge fight broke out. Everybody started fighting; people were fighting in the streets, getting thrown through car windows, no joke, it was insane. So the cops come, and Jimmy starts making fun of them because they don’t have guns in the UK. He started mocking them and running in circles, and we’re all just laughing, and finally, they start macing him and arrested him, and he went to jail that night!”

“The funny thing is, when the cops turned up, this guy that wasn’t doing anything before got really mouthy, so Jimmy punched him right in front of the cop,” adds Syn. “He got arrested, and that’s where our manager comes in. He spent the whole night and day getting Jimmy out of jail so he could go to this show.”

“We had to play Rock Am Ring [in Germany] or something the next day,” remembers Shadows with a chortle, “but Jimmy didn’t take a shower. He had mace all over him when he played the show the next day. It was a complete debacle.”

It might make for a funny story now, but the fact of the matter is that things were getting pretty out of hand for a band still barely into their 20s. 

“It’s unbelievable that we survived that [tour],” admits Syn. “Really, any night could just escalate – not just because of us, but because of being in a foreign place, being out too late. There were people around you that just wouldn’t stop buying you shots. One time I had 10 shots of Aftershock in my hand, and next to me was my Snakebite and black. I should’ve died of alcohol poisoning! By the end of that first UK tour, we were 10 pounds heavier and pretty fucked.”

If the Waking The Fallen era established Avenged as a band to take debauchery and controversy in their stride, then City Of Evil was a whole new level of crazy. Dropping in mid-2005, the album was similarly mind-boggling in terms of both its creative excess and its shameless, over-the-top execution, with the likes of Bat Country, The Beast And The Harlot and epic, eight-minute closer M.I.A. flicking a middle digit to the mantra that less is more. And, as is their way, A7X took full advantage of the opportunity to ensure that life in and around the band followed suite.

“It was really fun,” Johnny enthuses of the time where he and his friends became heavyweight players in the industry. “It was the natural evolution of the band at the time; we were ready to party and we were gonna do it in our songwriting, too!”

“It was a lot of fun!” agrees Syn. “It was the glory days, where metal transcended metal radio. There was a much larger audience and the major labels were willing to dish out a lot more money for crazy videos and crazier tours. The parties were absolutely nuts. On the Beast And The Harlot video, we just got whisky-drunk all fucking day. We had a bunch of people packed in the fucking limo, popped open the champagne and just had a fucking party.”

With money now in free-flow for heavy metal’s newly established heavyweights, the band’s booze- and substance-driven habits inevitably went into overdrive. And no one seemed willing to play grown-up.

“We were constantly reining each other in, but there was nobody to lead by example,” Syn adds by way of admission. “If [someone] told me not to do cocaine, and I got drunk enough, I’d go get some. Then we’d be out of our minds at seven o’ clock in the fucking morning. Like I said, no one was leading!”

As was his way, it was The Rev that regularly out-partied and out-crazied the rest of his bandmates, often getting them into more spots of bother and, ultimately, indulging his own vices to the extent that the band were forced to take some action.

“We sent Jimmy to rehab for cocaine issues,” reveals Syn, before clarifying “it wasn’t that I ever felt like Jimmy had an issue, it was just a fucking tactic. He loved the fucking party, so we just picked [a vice], whether it was this, drinking or whatever, it was just, ‘Let’s get you some help, man’, to calm him down a little bit. It actually helped him; he didn’t do cocaine another day in his life!”

Upon further pressing, however, Syn then reveals another anecdote that he has, by his own admission, never previously disclosed. As it turns out, while cocaine would never again become a regular indulgence in The Rev’s life, and his stint in rehab did indeed prove a means to an end to that particular habit, a spot of white line fever would rear its head one last, spectacular time.

“Well, he didn’t do cocaine another day in his fucking life… except for the day he got out of rehab,” admits the guitarist with a guilty chuckle. “That was my fault. I got him out of rehab and we did a final cocaine hurrah, and we vowed to never do it again. And he never fucking did! But, the minute he got out of rehab, we did a big wad of cocaine, wrote a bunch of fucking music, and it was a great day! I’ve never admitted that to anybody. It was a little fucked up.”

The late, great Jimmy 'The Rev' Sullivan

The late, great Jimmy 'The Rev' Sullivan (Image credit: Future/James Cumpsty)

If “a little fucked up” might go some of the way to describing life in A7X at the height of their hedonism, it only paints half the picture of controversy that followed the band prior to the maturity and foresight that now envelopes their psyche. In late 2005, during the interview that accompanied their first ever Metal Hammer cover – a striking, Sin City-inspired shoot – the band made some inflammatory political remarks that still shadow many people’s perception of them to this day. Openly voicing his support for George W Bush’s controversial regime and stating an opposition to gay marriage, Shadows hardly endeared himself to metal’s more liberal quarters…

“I think there are always gonna be people that look back on that,” opines the singer with a sigh. “It’s a little cringeworthy, but when you’re a young kid you have the right to be stupid sometimes, and I think that when we were that age, we had some different points of view. Not to get back into politics, but I’m about as socially liberal as you can possibly be, and I think people don’t really realise that about this band. We’re the kind of people that think that you should be able to do whatever you want on this planet, and no one should be able to tell you differently, as long as you don’t hurt somebody else. I think those interviews were done with a bunch of young guys that were very strong-willed and just wanted to get their opinion out there, when it doesn’t necessarily represent the band now.”

“I wish that we’d had the maturity of mind to just say, ‘Hey, that’s personal, that’s private’, instead of, ‘Hey! Fuck you! We’re gonna vote for George Bush!’” admits Syn with refreshing honesty. “That’s not how we felt. We didn’t want people to fucking suck our Republican dicks, it was just a reaction. But, you live and you learn, and a lot of bands say douchey shit. I don’t think anybody’s been an exception, especially that young.”

“It’s kinda hard to look back on those things, honestly,” adds Johnny with a grimace. “Some of those quotes, it’s like, ‘Ah, man…’ Even at the time when it came out, we were like, ‘Did we really say that?!’ At the end of the day, you gotta laugh about it, ’cause we were just kids getting our first real taste of success globally. You live and you learn, and you have fun with it.”

With the band all in such endearingly candid form, now is as good a time as any to put down the  elephant in the room. So then, chaps. Do you still oppose gay marriage?

“Oh, no. Not even close,” shoots back Shadows without a second’s thought. “Honestly, I don’t give a shit what you do with your life, and I don’t think anyone else should care what anyone else does with their life.” Amazingly, it quickly emerges that Shadows’ more liberal views don’t just extend to issues of equality... “I might get myself in trouble here,” he continues, “but I think that everything should be legal, and until you prove yourself wrong, you should do whatever you want in your life – and that includes drugs, prostitution, everything. With marriage, I think that anyone on this planet that wants to get married to anyone else should be able to do that.”

“We’re always for equal rights,” confirms Syn. “I just want to make that completely clear.”

(Image credit: Press)

While the ol’ “We were kids! It doesn’t count!” argument might on first glance seem a safe shield to cower behind, there is certainly a maturity and, dare we say, more world-weary quality about these Huntington heroes that belies their relatively meagre years. A combination of a more sophisticated approach to their recording process and a few hard lessons learnt meant that the band that came drinking and screaming out of California in the early 00s was a different beast entirely come the arrival of 2007’s tellingly self-titled opus. Plus, of course, while the end of the City Of Evil cycle drew to a close the band’s more hellacious era, there were, tragically, far darker days to come in Avenged’s career. It’s been a steady but relentless learning curve that resulted in them becoming one of the most fully formed rock’n’roll acts of recent times. And who could have seen that coming?!

“We realised that people had a certain perception of us, and we didn’t necessarily want that any more,” says Johnny of the band’s evolution from snotty metalcore brats to wizened metal veterans. “We weren’t ashamed of it or anything, but it definitely wasn’t how we wanted to be portrayed.”

“It’s interesting growing up in some sort of media eye,” muses Shadows. “We’ve kept ourselves away from mainstream press, but at the same time, I still go back and read the things we’ve said in Metal Hammer and I cringe. But, that’s part of life. I know some people will stick with those opinions of us forever, and they’ll say, ‘That’s what these guys are and they have no right to grow up.’ That’s not reality, so what we do is ignore everybody, have our inner circle of people that we trust, our families and our friends, and we do what we wanna do. That’s how we’ve lived it.”

Published in Metal Hammer #258

Merlin Alderslade
Executive Editor, Louder

Merlin moved into his role as Executive Editor of Louder in early 2022, following over ten years working at Metal Hammer. While there, he served as Online Editor and Deputy Editor, before being promoted to Editor in 2016. Before joining Metal Hammer, Merlin worked as Associate Editor at Terrorizer Magazine and has previously written for the likes of Classic Rock, Rock Sound, eFestivals and others. Across his career he has interviewed legends including Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy, Metallica, Iron Maiden (including getting a trip on Ed Force One courtesy of Bruce Dickinson), Guns N' Roses, KISS, Slipknot, System Of A Down and Meat Loaf. He is also probably responsible for 90% of all nu metal-related content making it onto the site.