Tuesday, May 19, 2015

INTERVIEW - Dark Days Gone: The Unexpectedly Bright Future of Coal Chamber

Photo by Dan Santoni

Imagine crossing paths with a former lover from your distant past. Would the meeting go well, or would it be an emotional train wreck? Would it be possible to rekindle the magic, or would the mere thought of being friends again be enough to turn you off? Reconnecting with someone who represents so much history and baggage is always a tricky thing, which makes the unexpected (and so far incredibly fruitful) reunion of Nu Metal veterans Coal Chamber so intriguing.

Today marks the release of Rivals, Coal Chamber's first album in 13 years. Easily one of the year's most vicious Metal releases, Rivals finds the band (now comprised of original singer/current DevilDriver frontman Dez Fafara, original guitarist Miguel "Meegs" Rasc√≥n, longtime drummer Mikey “Bug” Cox and later-period bassist Nadja Peulen) pummeling through perhaps their strongest effort to date. The album's many highlights include the menacing "I.O.U. Nothing" and "Suffer In Silence" (the latter featuring a guest vocal appearance by Al Jourgensen of Ministry).

Considering Dez Fafara's heavily-tattooed image and imposing stage presence, it might come as a surprise to many that he is one of the most unassuming, well-spoken and insightful people in the business - a fact made crystal clear in the following interview. 

The obvious first question is, why now with Coal Chamber? Obviously, you've been very successful doing DevilDriver all these years. Why was it time to bring Coal Chamber back and do this new album?

We started talking in 2006, when Meegs came up and did “Loco” with DevilDriver in California. Then in 2009, he gave me a couple of songs that I demoed on. We listened to them, and they definitely sounded like old Coal Chamber. At that point, I don't think any one of us were at the point where we wanted to do that throwback music. Plus I [thought] the conversations and dialogue needed to be opened more. At that point, the mending started to heal in order for us to get together and go do a tour.

We started to tour in late 2011 into 2012. We went over to the Soundwave Festival in Australia. When you step out in front of 50,000-60,000 people and they're singing all the words in a place you haven't even been... it was magnificent. It was like saying, 'Okay, we either struck a nerve back in the day or people have long memories.' I think it's a bit of both. As far as why now? I don't know; it could have happened in 2009. But in 2012 when we were at Soundwave, we were on these buses that bring all the bands back to the hotels from the Festival. Meegs was listening to some music in some headphones; I grabbed the headphones and said, 'What is this?' He said, 'It's just some music I'm writing.” I said, 'For who? For what?' He said, 'Just some stuff I'm writing, Dez.' I was like, 'Let me tell you, if your writing, the arrangement and the sound is this mature, this is probably the time for us to get together and see if we can do a new record.'

That being said, too, I would be remiss to not bring up the fact – and it should be resounding clear to everyone reading this – that if you ever have a chance to make up with an ex love or ex best friend who you had forever but had a falling out with over something stupid or a job that rightfully fired you and you want to go back to that guy and say, 'Thanks for firing me. I finally got my shit together because of it,' then you should do that in life. I don't want to live with regrets.

I think the timing was perfect as well. In 20 years of doing both Coal Chamber and DevilDriver, I had never taken time off. With DevilDriver, we did six records in 12 years. Most bands take a year off between cycles, but we never did that. We keep spitting out good music and just toured, clocking more road miles than literally any band on the planet. Finally, after Winter Kills came out – it debuted higher than any of the others and was extremely praised by critics and fans alike – [I thought], 'Okay, this is the time when we take off and regroup.' Mike Spreitzer, my guitar player, said, 'Yeah, I'm going to build my home studio and surf.' I said, 'I'm going to finish my studio here.' During that time, knowing that I had time off, Coal Chamber approached me and said, 'Do you want to do a record?' I said, 'I don't want to go anywhere to do a record.' They go, 'You have a home studio. You can sing during the day.' My main goal was to have dinner with my family every night... In over 20 years, I can't tell you how many times I actually have done that. I said, 'I can definitely record during the day and hang out with my family at night.' Then they came to me when the record was done [and said], 'You've still got a year and a half off. How would you like to do five or six weeks in the states with us?' I said, 'No problem; let's go do that.' Then after that, it was, 'Hey, do you want to take eight days and go do Monsters of Rock in Brazil with Ozzy, Judas Priest and Motorhead, and do Chile and Mexico City?' I asked my wife, 'How do you feel about me splitting just for like a week?' She said, 'No problem, honey. Go ahead,' because I had been home, you know what I mean? It all worked out very coincidentally, and give Coal Chamber adequate time touring for the new record and adequate time to make the record.

Now that you have this rare benefit of being back in the band roughly 20 years after the first album and 13 years since the split, and you're working together in the present tense, how would you say the band has evolved in that time – not only in terms of your personal relationships, but how you guys communicate and work together in writing songs?

Personally, it's just on a totally different level. Meegs is married, very mature and has his shit together. Mike's got a baby boy who is a year old and is the light of his life, and Mike is sober. This band would definitely not be together if he was not sober, so we all get behind him on that. The relationships have gotten to the point where communication is the top priority. The first night we were together in the rehearsal room jamming, my wife asked, 'What did you guys get done?' I said, 'Nothing but laugh.' Literally laugh at all the bullshit and everything from the past. We'd make little comments to each other – the kind of stuff we used to say to each other – and just start laughing. That kind of a thing made me really feel like there was something special going on, like, 'It's okay, man. I definitely want to do music with these cats.' So everything has changed. Musically, it is completely different. It's on a much more mature scale, both in writing and arrangement. I think the way we go about writing has always been the same – very old school, lock ourselves away in a room, write, share back and forth until we get it right, get a producer, make sure our arrangements sound correct and have him go through it with a fine-toothed comb – which we did with this record.

[The response] has been overwhelmingly positive. One thing that is apparent is that we didn't want to be part of some nostalgia trip and some '90s throwback sound. We definitely wanted to do something different and new, and I think we have.

Looking back at the band's history, you have had some changes in the past when it comes to the bass player slot. How do you think having Nadja back at this point in time most benefits what you're hoping to do moving forward?

When we first started touring [again], she wasn't ready; she had some other stuff going on. Everybody had to be totally together in their minds and ready to do it. She wasn't at that point. [When we] got back together for another round and talked about making a record, it was very much on the top of our heads: 'Hey, let's talk to Nadja and see where she's at now.' She was just in a really great place personally and with us. She's a monster on stage, and she’s an absolute monster in the studio. She came in and in four days just killed her parts. I don't know a lot of bass players on a record that's going to be of this caliber who can just go in and wail on it like that. She brings her own style to things, and she's a bit of a mediator between is as well. That has always been a fantastic part of her place in the band. And not so much now because there's never any conflict because the communicate is open, but now more so that when she hears us say something to each other that makes us laugh, she starts laughing and brings another perspective, like, 'Oh God, I remember' this or that and then we all start fucking laughing at her view of what she was seeing before the split. So it's critical.

How did Uncle Al get involved in the proceedings?

Great friend, longtime friend and a progenitor of a scene. The guy started Industrial music; you wouldn't have all those bands out there now without him. He's somebody I've always looked up to. Over the years, I've been very fortunate to work with a lot of great artists, and he was one of those dudes on my list. I was like, 'I really want to work with Al.' I think he understood the lyrics to 'Suffer In Silence.' Are you keeping something in for so long that you'll explode? Eventually, you have to let it out; otherwise, you end up suffering in silence. He was like, 'Okay, I'm into this.' He understands heavy music, but he also understands the Goth aspect of what we are. We could just as easily listen to The Damned and Bauhaus as we can Black Flag or Black Sabbath – or Soul music or anything with any kind of groove. There are so many diverse things within this band, but I think putting all those things together led me to the conclusion of, 'Lets work with Al, man.' I called him, he wanted to do it and he came down here. We had a big Italian dinner, and we drank a bunch of wine. He went inside my studio, and I think one of the key things is you've got to imagine listening to Al getting his vocal sound. All of a sudden, there's that Al Jourgensen/Ministry sound coming out of my sound booth at my house. It's pretty spectacular – a moment that was engraved in me. When he came over, he brought me this leather bracelet; he had engraved the date that we worked together, and it had my name on it. It was just a real cool night, man. Rarely do you get a different caliber of musician to do stuff like that, so any time you can have that happen is automatically a magical moment.

Interestingly enough, the band's been away for over a decade – a millennium in the music industry. Now that you're back doing it with Coal Chamber, how would you say the gap in time has affected audiences? Do you see a lot of guys in their 30s who were from the original era, or it mostly younger fans?

You know, it's really crazy. We do a Meet and Greet every night [for] 50 or 60 people before the doors open, then there's anywhere from 1,000 to whatever in the room. It's been very apparent to us that it's probably about 75 percent kids who were not even born when we released this stuff. Although we do have the 35-year-old cat bringing his nine or 10-year-old kid out to the gig to meet us, the whole front row is young kids. I don't know how that happens; it's a blessing for sure. But the diversity amongst the fans is really cool, man. And this is [on] the heels of a band that graced the cover of Kerrang! a million times, and Kerrang! will talk to us now and be like, 'Yeah, we'll come do an album review, but you guys are not really our demographic.' It's like 16 to 20-year old kids who read the mag, but Kerrang! hasn't been to a show and seen what's really going down. The United States was a real eye opener, and then we took it overseas. That was crazy. All of Chile and Mexico and Brazil... it was like young, young kids. I don't know how that happens, but you gotta feel like we struck a nerve somewhere down the line.

I had one kid who was like 17 say to me at a Meet & Greet, 'Dude, you started all this, man! You started all this scene!” I was like, “Started this scene? What scene? What bands do you think Coal Chamber started the scene of?' When he went through the list, I was Iike, “Huh. Okay.” I was actually taken aback; I was like, 'You know what? I see what he's talking about.' Anytime you can have influence on bands coming up, it's a good thing. When you get a diverse culture of people coming out to see you after being gone 13 years, you just kind of look up at the sky and say, 'Hail the Stars,' you know what I mean?

Who are some bands you're sharing stages with now who you watch and obviously feel that connection, that they got something from what you were doing back in the day?

It would be tremendously egotistical of me to point out bands, like, 'Oh, yeah. They directly took that from Coal Chamber.' I'm not even going to begin. But we did help a lot of bands come up. When we had Gold records, we took them out on tour and they are on the top pinnacle of their career now. It's good to see.

You're probably the only [interviewer] who hasn't asked me this, but everyone else asks me, 'So what do you think about this Nu Metal revolution coming back out?' It makes me laugh, because I'm thinking to myself, 'Dude, what are you talking about?” Slipknot are arguably one of the biggest bands on the planet next to Metallica and about as Nu Metal as it gets. System Of A Down, Korn, Deftones...I can just go on forever and ever. If you listen to and look at Five Finger Death Punch – Zoltan and those guys are good guys – they remind me of a Nu Metal band, in both their sound and their look. Obviously, that style of music has crossed through to different bands, and different bands have taken either the look or the sound or the arrangements that we all did and are putting it into current styles. Not only that, most of the large touring bands are from that era, so I don't think Nu Metal went away at all. It only became a dirty word when there was like a second wave of bands coming in that just did not fit what we were all doing and what we were all part of.

I talk to a lot of bands from the '90s who are now getting back into the groove and trying to see how things go in today's industry, which has obviously changed tenfold since Coal Chamber was active the first time around. But despite that, you had DevilDriver through all these major changes that have hit the industry – from social media to downloading. What have been some of the biggest lessons or experiences you've encountered in the last decade or so in this industry with DevilDriver that you hope to apply to Coal Chamber to maybe protect them from the issues that some of these bands are having coming back now because they don’t have that insight?

I think the main thing is communication. Then, in both bands, we make sure we do our own thing. In DevilDriver, we've done our own thing for 12 years. Only now in the last few years have people started calling us 'Groove Metal' or 'the California Groove Machine.' I take to social media and I'm like, 'Well, who else is in the 'Groove Metal' category, guys?' People come by and say, 'Nobody, just you guys.' That's a real killer thing. It's the same thing with Coal Chamber; it's like, 'Lets do our own thing,' It's why we didn't want to be part of some throwback '90s record; that's why we didn't want to do the nostalgic thing. We wanted to do what was coming out of us naturally now. So that will protect you - having your communication level open to the way it should be so you can talk anything out – both musically and personally. And then make sure that you're doing your own thing. If you're into a scene, by the time you're doing it and getting signed, it's going to be done and over with, so you might as well do something unique anyway and just throw it against the wall and hope it sticks. As an artist, that's what it's all about.

Don't skew your music toward any media outlet. That's another thing I would tell artists. I hear it all the time: 'Well, we've got to have our next radio track or we're done as a band. We've got to write a certain song that's got to be 2:58 or radio's not going to pick it up. In order to make this one TV show, we've got to cut a bunch of these lyrics and a bunch of this midsection, but we need the media outfit to help us to be the progenitor of what we're doing.' It's like, 'Wrong!' Maybe it's because I was born in '66 or raised by hippies or the rebellion within me, but art doesn't work that way. It's the same way a painter doesn't say, 'If I paint in these certain colors, I know I'm going to sell all my artwork at that show on Friday night.' That's the guy I don't want to buy and hang up in my house at all.

Be brave in what you do. Keep your communication open. Do something different and try to stand alone on your own merits. A perfect example would be 'I.O.U. Nothing,' the new song off of Rivals. I could have easily backed down the vocals a bit. It's hitting Active Rock Radio now, but is it going to go full bore Active Rock? Doubtfully, because I didn't compromise. I was like, 'No, I'm not taking that midsection down a bit. It needs to be heavy like that; that's where the art stands.' Just by the grace of the Gods, I don't have a label or anybody I employ around me who says, 'You need to change that for commerce.' We never skew our art for commerce or for the media. Those are the things that I would impart on new musicians.

What are Coal Chamber's longterm plans, and what are your plans in terms of DevilDriver? Are you looking to do both bands on a fairly regular basis moving ahead?

The thing is, me doing Coal Chamber really did happen coincidentally. I was taking two years off. I could easily record a Coal Chamber album and be home with my family; that's why I did it. I could easily jump out for a few tours with these guys and be home, but my main thing is making sure I finish off a nice, long break from DevilDriver and do some of these shows on the Coal Chamber record. But that being said, I'm going in to record a new DevilDriver record October/November of this year. There have been member changes, after we did Knotfest. Austin D'Amond is on drums and Neal Tiemann is on guitar. Neil and Mike Spreitzer working together is a whole other level of things going on...I'll probably start some shows in early 2016 with Devildriver, but right now, Rivals would be relatively new, so I definitely want to give it its time and due.

When people say, 'What is the longterm future of Coal Chamber?' that's what we don't get caught up in doing anymore. That's what we did when we were young; that's why we did so many tours with Pantera and Black Sabbath and Ozzfest and never came off the road. It ground the hell out of us and was one of the parts that separated the relationships, so we don't go there. We don't talk about the long term; what we do is say, 'Hey, was the last tour fun? Yes. Was it a success? Yes. Would you like to tour again? Sure, book it.' After the next one, we do the same thing. After this record, no doubt we'll be, 'How was the record received? Well. Did you have fun making it? Hell yeah! I had one of the best times of my life. I had laugh lines I'll never get rid of from having a good time. Would you like to make another one? You know what? Yes!' But that's how we're taking Coal Chamber. 

DevilDriver's a different mentality. You get a DevilDriver record out, and you light a flame through a rocket and you go. You burn down every city you possible can. You go city to city as long as you can possibly take it. After this long, I don't think Coal Chamber's going to work like that. We're going to take our time with it and go tour to tour and make sure we're having a fun time doing it. That's the key word here, man – fun.

This is not the easiest business in the world to survive in, let alone have the career you've had. Because you've got some traction now and some things in the rearview mirror, what do you see as the greatest key to longevity in this game?

My family and not thinking about this game. That's it. People say, 'How do you juggle two bands?' I say, 'I don't.' I put my family first, then I give the bands the time that they need. I believe the reason I've had the career I've have is because I have the strong support of a wife I've been with for a long time, and good kids that I've raised right, and I'm a very private and reclusive person with a handful of good friends. I can count my close, close friends on one hand. I'm not a 'backstage' kind of guy; I'm not a strip club kind of guy. I don't get caught up in any of the stuff that comes along with being in a band. I really don't enjoy the, I guess, fame that comes from it; what I enjoy is touring and being in different places. I enjoy being on the stage and doing music, and I enjoy being in the studio. But a lot of the extracurricular stuff can really get to me. 

To give you an example, it took the band a while to convince me to do the Meet and Greets, just because when you put me in a room with more than 10 people, I split. I've been that way since I was kid. I'm socially awkward to the point of, 'I'm outta here.' And I'm still working on that, even later on in life. I hand it to Coal Chamber, because when we did those Meet and Greets, I'd come out after each one and go, 'Hey, that was a good time.' It's a good time talking to that one person and hearing that one story or hearing that kid say how he found out about Coal Chamber, so I'm learning to work through that. Those things are what's helped me in a business that just absolutely eats its own. If you want to go ahead and get into the music industry, I'm not going to tell you not to, but I'm going to tell you to have a very thick skin. You'll learn a few things about yourself and other people in the first year. Trust me.  

*Some portions of the above interview were edited for clarity. 

Photo by Dan Santoni

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com

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