Nearly two decades on from their formation in Santa Barbara, California, Devildriver are firmly established as a permanent fixture in the metal world. One of the most legendarily hard-working bands in the business, Dez Fafara and his comrades won people over the old-school way: by touring relentlessly and making new albums at every opportunity.
The first two Devildriver albums – 2003’s eponymous debut and 2005’s The Fury Of Our Maker’s Hand – had aggressively established the band’s trademark blend of brutal grooves and dark, melodic hooks, but it was their third – The Last Kind Words – that truly sealed their reputation as modern metal heavyweights.
Released in the summer of 2007, it was an incendiary eruption of rage and riffs, replete with several instant classics. From the outside, it looked as though Devildriver were hitting a new level of potency. But according to Dez, things were not running entirely smoothly behind the scenes.
“There was a real craziness behind that record,” he states. “We were putting out a record every two years, we were touring constantly. When we were at home, we were writing and recording. So I think the band unit itself, during that time, was starting to come apart, to be honest. But the music, oddly enough, was really coming together. I’d said to the guys that it had to be a heavier record, with more groove, and we had to put our best foot forward, and the guys really brought it.”
Although Devildriver released Head On To Heartache (Let Them Rot) as a single prior to the release of The Last Kind Words, it would be the album’s second track that was swiftly embraced as an anthem for the band’s ever-expanding fanbase. Brutal and relentless but eminently catchy, Clouds Over California has remained a permanent fixture in Devildriver’s setlists ever since, its chorus call-to-arms of ‘Let the chaos reign!’ becoming an expected moment of chaos at the band’s already chaotic and exhilarating shows. Despite its aggressive, pit-inciting vibe, the song was originally inspired by a much more reflective moment.
“I was sitting in our town house in Santa Barbara, about a block away from the Santa Barbara Bowl, where a lot of music goes on,” Dez recalls. “On Saturdays I could sit out in my backyard and hear The Eagles or whoever was playing. It was a pretty interesting spot. It had a vibe about it, up against the mountains with 100-foot eucalyptus trees all around me. I was looking outside, through these big double doors out to my backyard and up at the mountains, and there were clouds everywhere.”
With two weeks left to finalise lyrics for The Last Kind Words, Dez was on the lookout for inspiration and this unusually dark and gloomy California day was just the kickstart he needed.
“My wife Anastasia and I started talking, and I can’t remember if it was her or I, but someone said, ‘No one’s going anywhere if there’s clouds over California!’ because no one goes out in the rain here, you know? That started the whole process. In that song, I’m discussing the nature of the beast and being in a band, being driven to do what you want to do, and really going for it. It’s about the way it feels on tour, too. ‘Lost in this world, out on the edge, with death by our sides…’ That was because we’d already experienced nearly dying in an RV. We’d had a lot of craziness happen to us. And then the line, ‘Let the chaos reign!’ was definitely written to be said from the stage.”
Fresh from the road, the band arrived at Sonic Ranch Studio, near El Paso in Texas, in November 2006. The band were certainly enjoying a great sense of collective momentum at that point, but The Last Kind Words was still destined to be a hugely important record in their careers. Unfortunately, having spent such vast amounts of time together on the road, tensions between them were at an all-time high.
“The music was great, but it was all coming apart at the seams on that record,” Dez recalls, ruefully. “We were in Texas, out on a 55/60-acre pecan farm in the middle of the desert, butted up against the Mexican mountains. Me and [drummer] John Boecklin were totally at each other’s throats. Everyone was staying in their rooms and there was a really trippy, distant feel between us. We vibed together at the end of the session, but it was a weird time. Looking back, it was because we’d toured so much and we needed a break, but we just went straight into the studio.”
Irrespective of the weird atmosphere, Devildriver clearly achieved their goals at Sonic Ranch. Songs like ferocious opening track Not All Who Wander Are Lost and, of course, Clouds Over California were more vicious and more memorable than anything the band had done before. Despite themselves, the Californians were set to outstrip their previous achievements and deliver an authentic modern classic, and Dez was in a celebratory mood as he entered the vocal booth to record his band’s soon-to-be ultimate crowd-pleaser.
“I remember that the night that we were recording Clouds Over California, the band was vibing and getting along extremely well,” he notes. “We were out in this beautiful studio, in the middle of the desert, it’s night time and inside there’s Native American stuff everywhere and dimmer lights and it was just a really magical thing. Before I’d record, I used to like to sit with the band and get fuckin’ drunk and listen to Pantera or Black Sabbath or whatever the go-to was at that time. We drank a gallon of Jack Daniels and then I said to the producer – quite rudely if I’m honest – ‘Turn the fuckin’ mic on!’ Jason [Suecof, producer] turned on the mic and I laid that song down in maybe four takes. But yeah, I was hammered when I recorded that tune! Ha ha ha!”
They almost certainly still needed a break, but Devildriver soon hit the road again, armed with their strongest album to date. By the time they reached Europe, it was more than apparent that Clouds Over California had been adopted as a major anthem for the band’s diehard fans, and the subsequent circle-pits and outright chaos that erupted at every single show noisily confirmed that Devildriver were the real deal. If anyone was still ambivalent about the singer from Coal Chamber’s new band, seeing them live was practically guaranteed to seal the deal.
“I definitely think the band had a lot to prove, and it was quite a run with those guys,” says Dez. “I wouldn’t change a minute. Everybody gave their all. I had a great time with everybody, and I was surrounded by great musicians who were doing great shit and going off onstage. We were fucking hungry. I was the hungriest guy on the planet and they were matching that hunger. They all fucking killed it.”
Not content with making their best album to date and smashing all-comers on the road, Devildriver also pulled off a major coup when Clouds Over California was selected as one of the songs for 2007 videogame Rock Band.
“My kids played that game, so it was kind of cool!” Dez chuckles. “Their friends were over and they’d be playing that game and our song was on it, and I have to admit that it was a little surreal. But that was a lucky moment, for sure.”
Today, only Dez and guitarist Mike Spreitzer remain from the line-up that recorded The Last Kind Words, but Devildriver are still firmly in Go Mode, albeit currently thwarted by pandemic restrictions. Nonetheless, when some kind of normality returns, you can guarantee that Devildriver will be one of the first bands to hit the road with a vengeance, armed, as ever, with one of the greatest ever songs to lose your shit to. As Dez himself bellows from the stage each night, ‘Let the chaos reign!’
“Every band has those songs that you absolutely have to play live. I can’t imagine Devildriver playing a show and not playing Clouds Over California or I Could Care Less,” Dez concludes. “We just couldn’t do it. I’ll get seven songs into the show and people are always screaming for Clouds Over California. Every show! It’s like, ‘Dude, we’re going to get to it, I promise! We have 15 songs to play and it’s coming! Oh, and by the way, I haven’t taken a breath in an hour, so calm down, you’ll get your tune!’ Ha ha ha!”