Music Musings :
Hard Rock & Metal
Sully Erna Talks Godsmack Hiatus, New Studio, and Drum Battle
August 20, 2014 , 3:34 pm | By Bryan Reesman
After a much needed hiatus, Godsmack is back with their first new studio album in four years. Entitled 1000hp, it combines the aggression fans have come to know with a more melodic sensibility that began seeping into their music from the time of the IV album. I chatted with Sully Erna for Grammy.com prior to the album’s release, and there was plenty more that did not make it into that story. Here he addresses the hiatus, the band’s new personal studio, the cheeky hidden bonus track, and updating their trademark concert piece “Batalla de los Tambores”.
Listening to the new album, I recalled that I went into the studio to listen to tracks from IV a few years ago, and that was when Godsmack started to bring a lot more melody into the music. It was there before but was really enhanced with that release. At the time you told me how when you grow up listening to metal, as you get older you start listening to other groups like the Beatles and start appreciating other types of music. That definitely seemed to be the case with your solo album Avalon.
For sure, plus I was working with a whole different group of musicians that were of a way different caliber than the guys I work with in Godsmack. It was really cool to hear so many different influences and where they came from and their backgrounds, whether they were classically trained or whatever. It’s no wonder that album came out as unique as it did. It’s been four years since the last Godsmack studio album The Oracle. In 2010 we saw both a new Godsmack album and your solo album Avalon. Was the hiatus for creative reasons and also for dealing with your vocal cords?
It wasn’t so much my voice. Thank God I’ve never had a problem with that. I tried to disconnect the solo record from Godsmack. I didn’t want to do that simultaneously. I had that record done before Godsmack, and the label just gave me a hard time with the whole thing. They were concerned about what I was going to do on the side, and I didn’t want to compete directly with Godsmack. If I want to write a big fat rock record, I’m not going to find Dave Navarro and Jason Newsted, I’m going to do it with my band. Why would I need to go find people to do something that is going to sound like Godsmack anyway? This had to be a completely different flavor. So I had it ready, but they wanted to piggyback that with Godsmack so they would get more looks at it. It was a completely different thing that didn’t belong in that world.
That was a little bit challenging, and we were also rearranging our employees. We fired all our management at that time and were hiring The Collective, Jeff Varner and all those guys. They jumped midway through the Oracle and Avalon cycle and did a great job with it. I have no complaints, but I felt bad because they really wanted to show us what they could do at a time when we were already midcycle. After I’d done some stuff with Avalon and after we toured as little as we did on The Oracle, the band was just in a weird place. Things felt like they were crumbling around us. We were financially struggling and very, very tired from touring for the last 12 years or whatever it was. When that stuff starts, man, it’s time to take a break because we were having thoughts about whether this band was going to even survive. We were doing all this work, and [previous] managers were abandoning the work. They weren’t really digging in like we wanted to. There were a lot of things around us that were making us wonder if we should still be doing this and if it was worth it. Before we made many any hasty decision and did something that could be irreversible, we just decided to take some time off, and I think it was just something that was well needed and crucial at that point.
What was it like for the band to build their own studio for this recording, and what future does it have?
I thought we probably should’ve done it 10 years ago. We wasted a ton of money always using self storage units for staging and touring gear and merch row cases. We had X amount of lockers costing us X amount of dollars a month for years and years and years, and we finally started looking at leasing some warehouse space. It’s so funny because in the end it didn’t cost us a whole lot. We have a lot of friends who do this for a living — as far as one guy who does sheetrocking and people who are plumbers and electricians and things like that — and we just called a bunch of our friends and a bunch of favors and they give us a great deal on it. We went in and built it out, and it didn’t even cost us a whole ton of money. Now, for whatever we were paying in self storage units, it’s another $300 a month and we have this whole place now. It’s great because one side is just a warehouse. It’s a loading dock door with big warehouse space with the tech station and our staging and touring gear in there. And then the other half is our live stage, control room, kitchen, living room, and bathroom. It’s cool, man. It’s totally a Godsmack headquarters. It’s three miles from my house and really convenient. We tracked the whole album there, and now it’s all paid for. Don’t tell the label this, but the next record will be free. [laughs]
The last track on the new album, “Life Is Good,” is the party song. You’re older now though, so I imagine you’re past a lot of that craziness at this point?
Yeah, we still like to laugh and have a good time and have fun. We’re not recovering alcoholics or anything. We never had that kind of serious issue — well, I shouldn’t say we never have, we definitely battled our demons in the past — but I think everyone’s got a good grip on who they are now and what we do. We still like to have a good time. We love having a big group of friends come together and have some drinks. I’ve got tell you, man, that whole song was meant to be a joke at first, but it came out really cool. We thought we should make it a bonus track. This is probably one of those songs that underground virally will get more attention than anything on the record and will be a huge live song if it takes off, definitely for an encore which is how are going to treat it. That’s exactly what we did [in creating it]. We had a ton of people come over to give them the first sneak peek of the album in our hometown. I mean real personal friends, people we grew up with and stuff. We had them in the studio one day with a bunch of beer and whiskey and everyone having a good time. The band just ripped the song live, and then we had our friends chant the backups and make a little party about it. It just felt right. It was one of the songs that was kind of bluesy and we didn’t know what to do with it, but we kind of liked it. It started to have a ring to it. It’s weird because it was supposed to be a throwaway [song].
You have your famous concert drum showdown, “Batalla de los Tambores,” which you engage in with your drummer Shannon Larkin. There is guitar in there as well. Have you ever thought to do an entirely percussive version of that jam?
You know, here’s the problem with that. I’m a huge fan of drums, so of course me and Shannon could sit there and watch a guy wail for an hour and that’s totally cool. I don’t think a lot of people have that attention span, and I don’t think people enjoy it as much as I would or Shannon would. Even with me, I can only listen to so much of a solo. The same with a guitar player, you can only hear him shred for so long and you’re over it. Unless you’re doing something really cool and unique… Tommy Lee has more of a cool visual thing. He likes to ride roller coasters when he plays. Then there are people [in groups] like Stomp and Recycled Percussion that do it with brooms, trash cans, and fire extinguishers. It’s a really cool thing visually and sound wise. You [can] go through an hour listening to that kind of thing, but to just have two drummers going at it and have no music choreographed to it, I feel like it wouldn’t be as powerful.
I feel it’s like another track of ours. It’s an instrumental. I feel the emotion gets people moving more when the music builds into it, especially with the hand drumming. It really makes people who have never seen the band or heard our music that much get up off their asses. It’s always been the thing that has separated us from every other band, and it’s definitely the showstopper. Shannon and I are in the middle of trying to redo the solo right now because we ran that last one for over 10 years. It did its job, it was great, and it definitely served its purpose, but we’re trying to reinvent it and do a whole new skit for it, put some electronics into it. We’ll see where we can go with it. We’ve tried this a few times in the past, but it never seems to beat the original one so we always revert back to it. We’re going to give it another shot in the next couple of weeks to see if we can build something really cool because I feel like this is the reset button now. The band’s had a nice, long break, and we want to come out revived and refreshed and want to have a new look, a new show, and new music. Just new everything.