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Locked and Loaded

On the eve of their first-ever India show, Lamb of God’s Chris Adler and John Campbell talk candidly about their remarkable career, the pitfalls of touring with Metallica and why they think the Grammys are a joke

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Deepti Unni May 10, 2010
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Travis Shinn

Enter ”˜Lamb of God’ into a search engine and the results you get could well be a metaphor for the perpetual battle between the supposed moral high ground of religion and the seemingly baser virtues of rock music. Fighting for space and attention are evangelical sites, churches, Armageddon warnings, salvation crusades but topping the list is one metal band from Richmond, Virginia. Five years ago the evangelicals might have won. But ever since Lamb of God completed the circle of the Big Four ”“ the band have now supported Anthrax, Slayer, Megadeth, and finally Metallica last year ”“ the doomsday prophets haven’t stood a fighting chance.

But the fact that the Virginia metallers ”“ vocalist Randy Blythe, guitarists Mark Morton and Willie Adler, bassist John Campbell and drummer Chris Adler ”“ have been tourmates with the biggest names in metal is hardly their defining factor. The band were marked for the big-time since they dropped their fourth album, Ashes of the Wake, in 2007 ”“ a crushing tonne of moshpit-igniting post-Pantera style riffs, raw, hardcore-edged vocals and punishing drumming ”“ that was instrumental in bringing back widespread respect and brutal, unforgiving aggression to a genre that fans thought was clusterfucked by nu-metal, post-grunge and rap-rock. They were called the vanguard of a new trend in music, the New Wave of American Heavy Metal, along with metalcore acts Killswitch Engage and Shadows Fall. The trend fizzled out, the label never stuck, but Lamb of God prevailed. Heedless of the media’s need to box and categorise them, they came up with their own label for their music ”“ “Pure American Metal.”

Forever the poster boys for doing things their own way, the band followed up the success of Ashes with the more technical Sacrament (2006) that replaced the raw aggression of Ashes with polished rage. It became the best-selling metal album of the year despite the band’s reservations about the change in sound. The band’s first Grammy nomination followed. A live DVD”“ their second ”“ Walk With Me in Hell chronicled the band’s tour in support of Sacrament. Unabashedly candid, the DVD threw the band’s lives open to fans ”“ from bloody, alcohol-fuelled punch-ups to intimate personal details ”“ everything that a band on a major record label is warned from doing. That their 2009 record Wrath peaked at Number Two on the Billboard Top 200 charts and picked up a second Grammy nomination meant that the band were clearly doing something right, a fact that was reinforced when Metallica came calling last year. “That was really a pretty special moment, to be recognised by the kings, really, of heavy metal, when Metallica called and said, ”˜We’re big fans of you guys and we want you to tour the world with us.’ That they not only knew us but they listened to us and they liked what we were doing ”“ I think it showed us really how far we’d come, as a band, in this long journey of music that we’ve created together,” says founding member Adler. “We’d been kinda doing things our own way for a long time and it kept growing slowly and naturally. There’ve never really been any big jumps or big steps or anything, there’s never really been a sellout moment, so I think our method is working.”

That Lamb of God’s time has come should be easy to glean from their touring schedule ”“ the band hit five continents in two years in support of Wrath, taking them places that the Big Four have yet to tour, like India. As the band get ready to play the Summer Storm festival in Bengaluru this month, is there anything in particular the band is looking forward to doing here? “Eating,” says Campbell guffawing. “Both Chris and I are vegetarian and I understand that eating as a vegetarian in India is very easy. And we’ve been eating Americanised versions of the food and it’s ridiculously good, so I’m looking to get some samosas in me and some palak paneer and all that good stuff.”

Were you surprised to get an invitation to play in India? Did you know that you had a fan base in the country at all?

Chris Adler: Yes, very much so. Our kind of normal travel won’t have us anywhere near there and of course, one of the best things about being in a band is being able to travel the world and see different places and cultures. India was never really one of the places we thought we’d end up. It doesn’t seem like a place bands are often invited or bands don’t wanna go or something but for us, as soon as we heard that it was possible to go, everybody wanted to go as soon as possible. When we were growing as a band, we had several e-mails on Myspace and Facebook and I would see a lot of correspondence from in and around India. So I knew there was people that knew us. I just wasn’t sure how and I didn’t know a promoter or whatever who’d take a risk to have us there but it’s very flattering that they have.

John Campbell: From what I understand it’ll be pretty big. I’ve heard that we’re fairly big in India, that people are into Lamb of God there. I’d been hit up a couple of times by a few fans on Facebook but otherwise I had no idea before this. I think we’re bearing witness to the strength of the internet that people all over the world, that there’s an audience that can connect with the things that they’re into and the bands that they’re really into no matter where in the world they are.

Do you have any expectations of the show right now?

CA: I think it’s hard to say, especially in a place where there’s no real accounting for us, no shows or CDs ”“ how many have gotten out ”“ and we’re just kinda hoping for the best. We’re very fortunate that we have a great fan base that maybe they don’t have our CDs but they’ve heard the band or they’ve downloaded a song or they saw a video and they come to the show to see us. And so I think in these different parts of the world where music doesn’t have as much of a commerce to it as maybe the US does, I think those avenues are the things that are bringing people to the show. I don’t wanna say we don’t have any expectations. I think we all think it’s going to be pretty good but I don’t know how. We just don’t know.

JC: Well, I’m imagining that the crowds there are going to be pretty crazy and very vocal and they’re probably going to be slam dancing and doing the circle pit and all that good stuff. That’s pretty much what we experience across the board, no matter where we’re going.

So, what exactly is Pure American Metal?

JC: I think we were asked for a tagline and what we were trying to say with that was”¦ at the time we came up with that, Swedish and Scandinavian metal was very popular. There was a sound, you know, the Gothenburg sound, a very regionally specific thing. Being a band that covered all the bases ”“ I don’t think that you can call us one specific genre of metal ”“ it seemed appropriate that being Americans and America being a huge chunk of land that has every type of person from idiot to genius, from asshole to the most charming person on the face of the earth, it seemed to cover us well and people really latched on to it. It served us well for being three loudly descriptive words.

It’s been a 16-year long journey for Lamb of God so far. Tell us a little bit about the beginnings of the band.

CA: Well, we all came to university or college here in the US ”“ myself, Mark Morton, the guitar player and John Campbell. We actually ended up living on the same floor of the dormitory for the school and became friends and drinking buddies. I knew that Mark played guitar and at the time I was playing bass guitar and we’d get together and fool around sometimes. This was in 1990. We all went our separate ways after that and then in 1994, I met John at a party or maybe at a class I was taking and he asked me about getting together and maybe making some music. And this was a very tough time for heavy metal, at least in the US ”“ the labels had really dried up the support for metal, grunge had taken over and while there were great bands doing things, bands like Testament and Meshuggah, there was no way to hear about them. There were no records in the stores”¦ the support was just really not there. Kurt Cobain killed it all [laughs]. So I was desperate to hear or play metal and so when John approached me about being in a band, I loved it. Of course, he was more of a rock guy at the time and I pushed him in a metal direction. I bought my first drumkit and began to learn how to play. John had maintained a friendship with Mark, so Mark showed up at my house one day and we all just kinda started jamming.

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JC: I don’t know if you’ve seen pictures of us but we’re not necessarily a fashion plate [laughs]. We tend to lean towards that which is less than trendy and less than high fashion and it was really unfashionable to be metal at that time. When we booked tours we had to call ourselves a punk metal band; we learned quickly that when we were calling ourselves a metal band, nobody was calling us back. So we said, “Okay, so let’s change it up, let’s call it punk metal.”

CA: The idea was never to be a big band. It was just kinda get together with your buddies and have a few beers. We never really chased the idea of getting on a record label or being successful or playing to a lot of people or selling records. We just did it for fun. We had a zine at the local record store that was called Book Your Own Fucking Life, which had telephone numbers and addresses of kids around the United States that would occasionally promote or host small shows or parties or punk rock matinees. And so we made a little demo tape and started sending out hundreds, thousands of demo tapes in the mail to all these people and kept calling back and saying “Hey, did you get our tapes? Can we come play your house for 10 dollars and a bowl of spaghetti?” It was just the idea of getting out and making loud music, having fun, getting drunk and passing out asleep somewhere and to us that was very exciting. We did that for six-seven years, all the time losing money but even though we didn’t really know it, we were building a huge reputation for ourselves. We just kinda took it slow and did it our own way. And when the labels did come knocking, we really weren’t very impressed because we already were doing what we wanted to do, and unless they made it easier or more fun for us to do, we didn’t need them. We didn’t feel like they had the leverage.

So, once we’d done six to seven years of travelling around, we signed our first real deal ”“ we did the Burn the Priest deal but that was kinda small ”“ the first real deal was with Prosthetic Records ”“ New American Gospel ”“ and then we got our first real couple of tours playing real venues which was very odd to us. We were used to playing small house parties and basements, clubs and cheap rundown bars and dangerous biker places. We did a couple of tours supporting GWAR, Cannibal Corpse, Six Feet Under, Mushroomhead”¦ we really did as much variety of things as we could, just trying to get our music out to more fans and before we knew it a booking agent came and helped us to begin our own headlining tours and things have just grown slowly from there.

You’ve spoken about how you guys get competitive on tour, and how you want to own every show no matter who you’re playing with. How did that work with Metallica?

JC: Well, they made the playing field in such a way that there really was no competition. That being said, we still went out there and put a hundred and ten per cent into it. But it can be a little disheartening to go out there and the PA is turned down so low that people can turn to each other and have normal conversations at normal volumes when we’re playing. That’s kinda par for the course, you don’t want the opening bands blowing the PA for the headliners and to be honest, the shows sold out even before they announced that we were on the bill. It’s really their show and their production and it’s an honour to be out there and we were still out there doing our best and trying to do a better show than Metallica.

So playing to 20,000 fans at a Metallica show still doesn’t compare to playing for even 1,000 Lamb of God fans at your own headlining show”¦

JC: No, absolutely not. I think our headlining shows are somewhere where we’re comfortable, where we’re in control of everything and good luck to an opening band to put on a better show than us. And that being said we don’t ever tell anybody they can’t turn up their volumes or limit it in any way. The only thing we might limit is a little space on the stage because our stuff stays up there but generally speaking our lights package is open to the opening bands, the PA is open to the opening bands. Even the merchandise, a lot of times when you go out touring with big bands they tell you that you have to match prices on the merchandise which kinda gives them an unfair advantage on merch. But then again we don’t want bands to deal with all the bullshit that we thought was bullshit, so we never ever do that with the bands we take out with us. We want to give everyone a chance to kick as much ass as possible, and they’re going to need it with us around.

You got your highest charting album (Wrath) at a time when the rest of the music industry was really taking a tumble and the recession was cutting really deep. What would you attribute that to?

CA: That was a big surprise to us and honestly, after Sacrament, we really wanted to go in and make a slightly more aggressive album that represented maybe some of our earlier material more and not go any further down that path of songs like ”˜Redneck.’ So, as we decided this and decided to get back and make a more aggressive record, it made sense to us that that might not do as well. But that was ok with us, because our goal was not to be number one or number two or to sell a million records. The goal was to make a record that, if and when there comes a day where we walk away from the band, we would all be very proud of. So when it did as well as it did ”“ in the US it was Number Two and in Canada it was Number One ”“ we were just shocked because it is in total a much more aggressive album than Sacrament was. I think after Sacrament many of our fans were wondering what we were going to do ”“ if we were going to kinda soften up and maybe go for the big money or if we were going to kinda stick to our guns and come out with something heavy and I think when we did the heavy choice, the fans that had been on the fence jumped off back on to our side. I think that had a lot to do with it.

Wrath brought you your second Grammy nomination. What does a Grammy mean to a metal band?

CA: Well, you know, it kinda strikes me as our parents’ awards show. It’s not really our generation sort of thing and for metal bands I don’t think it’s ever a goal. Even when they first started giving out Grammys to hard rock bands, they screwed it up when they gave it to Jethro Tull. So it was made to be a joke right from the start but because it’s kinda the leading musical authority here in the US, people do pay a lot of attention. So it’s nice to be on that list of people who get nominated ”“ it’s a very small list ”“ and to have them recognise you, even though you know that maybe some of them don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. To me it’s still my dad’s awards show where a bunch of popstars and fake people get stupid statues. We went to the Grammys and we got to see all the pop stars perform and then we got to go to the party and drink champagne with all these weirdos and plastic people. So for us, these long-haired Virginia boys, it’s kinda like a weird reality TV show. We were laughing all the time.

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From Burn the Priest to Wrath, what do you think has been the biggest change for the band?

CA: The evolution of the players, the people in the band, in the project. I think when we started, we had this idea we were the heaviest, and the hardest and the fastest and the coolest. There was ego involved on everybody’s part. I wanted to be the best drummer and the guitar players wanted to be the best guitar players and very little attention was paid to the song; we were all too busy showing off. So, as we grew up a little bit, as we matured as songwriters we began to understand that creating a song is not about showing off and just because you can do it, maybe doesn’t mean you should do it. I think we’ve gotten better at working together and writing songs that are maybe a little bit more memorable.

What was the toughest part of these years, do you think?

CA: The toughest part was keeping everybody together, the relationship we have with the guys. Now it’s been coming up on 16 years and we basically have become adults together, we’ve grown up in this world together. You know, I don’t know anyone as well as I know these guys and it’s not always fun, it’s not always best friends. There are disagreements, there are fights, there are different opinions about music or tours or the direction, the way things should go. It’s hard to keep everybody together and sometimes egos can get in the way and that makes it difficult to make intelligent decisions.

But I think, more recently, as we’ve come into our mid-30s there really has been a shift in that. It doesn’t mean that we’re necessarily best friends but I think in many ways we really have begun to appreciate each other for the amount of time and work and the life and blood that we’ve given to this project together. The project is far bigger than any one of the people in it because of the sacrifices that we’ve all made to it, it’s because it directly contributes to the success of it, that we’ve really begun to understand an appreciate each other a lot more than we have in the past where the little disagreements don’t seem as quite as important any more. I think we respect each other a lot now.

That’s another thing. You guys have been frank about the problems and disagreements that you’ve had ”“ the kind of stuff that a lot of bands just bury. Do you ever worry that it might hurt the band’s credibility?

CA: I don’t think we do it on purpose, but as a business, and me having somewhat of a business head, I’ve always believed that transparency really builds a connection. So what that means to me is that there are a lot of kids out there in bands, a lot of people trying to make it and when they’re playing in a band and they look at the big bands and they say, “How do these guys do it? They all love each other and they’re best buddies and they’re partying every night,” and I just sort of wanted to get this stuff out there. And it’s not just us; it’s every band that goes through the same kind of things. Those relationships come and go; it’s like any other relationship you have in the world.

If you can imagine the past 15 years, the five guys in the band have been stuck together basically in some sort of metal tube ”“ whether it’s a train or a bus or a van ”“ stuck in that tiny space and sometimes tensions just blow. It’s just the truth and I don’t wanna hide it, because, I think, people connect with us when they realise that we’re the same as they are and it’s not fake and it’s not always this perfect glamorous life.

Most of you are now settled with families and children. Does that change your outlook on your music and career?

CA: Well, yes and no. For me, my wife and I have recently had a baby girl and it’s obviously a very, very exciting time for us. The hard part about it is being on tour as much as I am. I missed her first walk, I missed her first words because I was on the road, and those are things I can never get back. But this is my dream to do this. Sometimes I have to go to work for two months but then I might be home for two months, so I think in many ways I’m lucky to have an extended period of time when I don’t have to go to work at all.

But I have been asked many times, “Now that you’re a dad, aren’t you going to get all soft and kinda ”˜everything’s great with the world’ and start writing some happy tunes for you daughter?”  But for me, because of this additional responsibility it just seems like I’m more frantic and hellbent on doing this than I ever was. I want to make the most of this and go as fast and hard as I can, for as long as I can before I really have to step away and take care of home. So I think my actual taste in music and what I’m doing with the drums is actually probably a little more extreme now than before and I think that’s a good thing.

So what do you guys do when you’re not touring?

CA: Well, I just got back from playing the drums [laughs].

So you’re not really giving yourself a break at all”¦

CA: No, I can’t. Because I started playing the drums pretty late. I didn’t start till I was 22. I just feel like there are just so many bands and so many young kids coming up today that just play circles around me. So I’m very inspired to keep drumming, to keep learning, to keep playing and to keep pushing myself to do it. And the rest of the guys are sitting at home and playing guitar as well. I talked to my brother today and he was working on new stuff. Mark, the other day, sent me stuff that he had written on the computer so we’re all ”“ even though we’re home and you could call it off work for the moment ”“ we’re still very much working knowing that a new record, which has to be better than Wrath is quickly approaching. So I think we’re all getting ready for that.

That’s fantastic. So you guys are already working on your next album?

CA: Yeah, in fact Mark’s told me he’s got seven or eight really fleshed-out ideas and I know Willie has two or three and I’ve been working on some different polyrhythms kind of stuff that I’m going to add to the writing process. So yeah, we’re well into it. We haven’t gotten together to put the ideas together but that’s kind of the process that once we’re finished touring in October, then probably relax for a month or two, maybe the holidays and then in January begin getting into a room and start listening to all the ideas and see what’s gonna make the cut.

Do you know what direction it’s going to go in, musically?

JC: Well, we haven’t really come to a consensus on that but, to be honest, I prefer the rawer sound but maybe there’s room for that to become more epic. We’re very much discussing what this record is going to be about and what we really want to do with it, and this will be our best thought-out and hopefully best record ever.

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