JEW ON XTIAN: VINCE NEILSTEIN INTERVIEWS AVENGED SEVENFOLD’S JOHNNY CHRIST
With the passing of James “The Rev” Sullivan, it hasn’t been an easy year for the members of Avenged Sevenfold. But with their new album Nightmare coming out tomorrow and the band out on tour once again — with fill-in drummer Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater — things are starting to look up for the OC crew. In my quick chat with A7X bassist Johnny Christ last week, the youngest and newest member of Avenged Sevenfold spoke about The Rev’s passing, the late drummer’s role in writing the record, and working with Portnoy and producer Mike Elizondo. Our chat after the jump.
I guess the easiest way to start off probably is that you guys have a new album coming up. What would you like to say about it?
The new record is something that we’re all very proud of. It’s definitely an evolution of Avenged Sevenfold, and more importantly, it’s a record that we felt necessary to make after losing our brother Jimmy “The Rev” Sullivan. He was there writing the music with us for 9 months or something like that before he passed. He was there for every song and nothing was added. This is very much his record. We felt that we just needed to get it out there and have other people hear the artistic value of what he was capable of doing.
I know he was definitely an important part [of the writing of] the last record. Would you say he was a more of a part of writing on this record than the last one or has he always been an integral writer?
Yeah, he’s always had an active role. He’s one of the main writers of the band. We all have our places, and he’s definitely one of the main writers of the band. Yeah, I’d say maybe a little bit more on this record, but like I said, he’s always been a pretty critical part to that. There are some really great songs on the record that he wrote either 100% himself or we all worked on together. It’s pretty cool that we actually get to have this gift that he left us with.
At what point was the decision made to bring in Mike Elizondo as the producer?
That was actually made a few months before we were going to go into the studio. We had produced the last record ourselves, but we were definitely not opposed to working with producers. The label had brought us a few names that we went through to see what they had done before. Mike was really the only one that we met with this time around. Instantly after meeting him the first day, we all felt very comfortable with his direction of music and what he wanted to accomplish. We were all pretty much aligned on the same page of what we wanted to accomplish on this record.
A few months before we were going to record, he started coming down once or twice a week to Huntington Beach where we were writing and started helping that process. It was cool to have because we never had that before. We had a producer help out before, but he wasn’t really hands on with the writing. It was like we would basically write the record, bring it to him, and he would just do the recording part of it. With Mike, it was the first time we had someone come out in the early stages of the songs and start working things out. Before, it was go to the studio and “now let’s work it out.” It’s not as comfortable as it was this time.
My impression of him from his past work is that he is more of a hands on songs guy as opposed to just . . . well, not just, but as opposed to somebody who specializes more in tones and that kind of production. What made you guys decide to use a producer at all this time around?
Yeah. We weren’t dead set on it at all when we met with him. Like I said, we were just kind of open to the idea, but we weren’t expecting anything. We were ready and willing to do it ourselves if it was going to come down to that again. After the first meeting, it was a nice fit and he seemed to be a genuine fan and knew what the band was all about before even meeting us which is something that’s been pretty rare. We’ve worked with producers on previous albums and have kind of butted heads on the first meeting because they don’t get exactly who we are. That’s when you know that you cannot get into the studio with that person because it’s just going to impede the process. With Mike, we didn’t get that feeling at all. We actually had the opposite effect and felt that he could be the 6th member that could really bring something new that maybe we hadn’t thought of, or if we were to think of it, it would take us a lot longer to get there. He was very much a 6th member on a lot of the stuff.
Was there any pressure from the label to use a producer as opposed to self-producing?
No, our label is pretty good about that. We have the control to do pretty much what we want to do. With the success of our last record that we produced ourselves, I don’t think that they were too worried. They went out and gave us a few names to choose from. “Here it is if you want it. Maybe you can meet with a couple of them and see how things go.” That’s basically what happened. There was really no pressure saying that “you need to have a producer” or anything like that.
You guys wrote the record with The Rev, and then he passed and of course everybody is really sad — my condolences. Do you feel like the final, realized version of the album was true to his vision?
Yeah. I really think that it’s something that he’d be proud of. For the first 2 or 3 weeks after his passing, we weren’t even thinking about the band. It was a thought in our mind, but definitely not at the forefront — something further back. We were more just devastated and in shock and didn’t know what we were going to do. As we started to think more and more about the band and that became part of the forefront of our minds, we realized that we have this record. If we didn’t have this record already written, I don’t know what we’d be doing now. We had this record written that he was so involved in and was so excited about. We wanted to get it out there. So we started thinking about who we could get to play drums. We had a lot of this demoed out — demoed out drum tracks and everything. They were one-takers [drum performances] that he wouldn’t have been very proud of. He was always a perfectionist when it came to fills and everything like that. He would have had something worked out, and we knew that that wouldn’t have done it justice.
We gave a call to one of his heroes, Mike Portnoy. He had sent his condolences within the first day. He’s a really awesome dude. He came out and was very humble. We kind of ran him through a Jimmy 101 thing. If we heard something on the demo that was very classic Rev, we made sure that he would play it. He was very cool about it — someone who has been around the block from Dream Theater and everything to coming in with us to let us use his ability to sound more like an Avenged Sevenfold record. That was really cool.
Did Portnoy at all make any suggestions as far as the creative aspect of it or did he do pretty much exactly what you guys told him to?
He was pretty much very cool with about it. He said “yeah, I’m your vessel. We’ll keep going until it’s something that you like.” That’s very much what the process was with the drum tracks. A lot of times we’d give a very vague description of something. “Okay, at this part we want you to do a little cymbal work.” That was where he would go “okay, I’ll give you a few different things and you choose which one you like best.” That was very much the process of going through the drums which I think was very cool.
Looking back on it now, at the time we were still in the very early stages of grieving and stuff. I think making this record was very therapeutic for that — going through the drum tracks and everything, looking back on it and working with Mike Portnoy (who we all grew up listening to) it was a pretty cool thing. It was bittersweet.
Were there other guys that you considered?
Yeah, there are a lot of people who came out to Jimmy’s funeral and everything — Vinnie Paul and Brooks Wackerman and stuff like that. They had offered, and we just kind of felt that Mike Portnoy stylistically had a close fit to Jimmy’s style. It kind of worked out that way that he was going to be the better fit for this record. It was really cool because there were a lot of other people like Vinnie Paul that came out with “we’ll help you out in any way that we can.” That was really cool as well.
What lead then to the decision to have Mike Portnoy come out and tour with you as opposed to: a) looking for a permanent replacement or b) just hiring some other fill-in?
We’re not ready for any kind of permanent replacement at this time. It’s still way too soon, and the thought of it just makes me sick. Going through it while recording the record, he said “I got some time off coming up. I don’t know if you guys are planning on touring this record or not, but if you are I would love to get my hands into it and give it a shot live.” It was very cool of him to help us with the transition. We’re not ready to have a replacement like I said. When we were recording, we weren’t even positive that we were ready to tour. We have been taking baby steps every day. It’s still very nerve wracking to know in a couple of weeks that we’re taking off to start touring.
It’s going to be weird and everything. With that, he kind of offered himself up and we’re like “okay, we’ll think about it.” When we decided that we needed to tour to get this record heard by as many people as we can, we asked him if he would like to come out and he said yeah. It all kind of worked out. It was happenstance that he had time off and was willing to do it. It will help us with the transition, I think, and maybe take us to the next step. I don’t know.
Yeah. He’s a pro. I’m sure he’ll roll with the punches and be just fine for you guys for now. So that’s good.
Yeah. We got along really well. Right off the bat, he’s just a very good guy. He’s got a good personality and a good soul.
One of the things that I love about Portnoy is that unlike so many guys in successful bands (especially at his age), he really stays in touch with the current music scene. I know he’d talked about you guys well before any of this happened. He really stays in touch. Even when he’s not touring, you can see him just coming out to see bands at shows in New York City which is really cool. It must have felt good to know that he was a fan of you guys and a fan of The Rev.
One of the very first things that you said when we started talking was that this record is an evolution. How is it an evolution for you guys musically and however else?
Well when we went into writing this record, we wanted to bring something different like we always do — something heavy. Like I said, something a little heavier than maybe the last couple of records. Something that is kind of going back but forward in a way. We wanted something that was a very dark record but that still has a lot of those progressive melodies and guitar parts that we’ve had from City of Evil and stuff like that. So we just went for something that had an aggressive, dark feel. I think that the music had very much accomplished that. Then after Jimmy’s passing, the lyrics obviously were a very much more emotional thing. I think, not for the first time, but this record captures each of us as individuals playing with a lot of emotion that we hadn’t had before because we haven’t felt this way before. It was very cool and looking back on the record, I’m very proud of everyone and what they accomplished on the record. It’s pretty cool.