Godsmack’s Sully Erna – The Road To Avalon
By Mitch Lafon
Godsmack frontman, Sully Erna, took a left turn from the world of heavy metal in 2010 releasing his first solo album, Avalon. The music was inspired by renowned world fusion artist, Dead Can Dance. Fans were split in their appreciation of the album, but for Erna it was a truly meaningful and personal album. This past December, he released a monster Avalon box set featuring (among other things) a full concert video, the album and a copy of his autobiography. Erna sat down with Mitch Lafon to discuss the album, box set and touring with Metallica.
From inception to release, your Avalon album was roughly seven years in the making. Now, you’re repackaging it in a very limited edition deluxe box set. Tell me about it…
“First of all, it didn’t take me seven years to write. It’s just that I had material back as far as seven years. Songs like ‘Eyes Of A Child’, I wrote while touring on the Faceless album (during the Metallica cycle). ‘Until Then…’ and songs like that I’ve had for a little while and those are some of the more foundation pieces I brought in with the band. When we got together, it all started to happen very organically because I had called up a friend of mine, Lisa Guyer (who I’ve known for almost twenty years). She’s a great blues singer with phenomenal range on her voice and a great performer. I just knew that I wanted a female voice with me on this record. I wanted to take a left hand turn when everyone was going straight. I wanted it to be detached from anything I did with Godsmack, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was going to be. Between me and Lisa and Niall Gregory (the percussionist from Dead Can Dance) – us three became the foundation for the project and from there it branched out. The whole thing happened very organically. We didn’t know where we were going or what we were going to write, but we just knew we wanted to do something very different, very eclectic, intellectual, modern (with a little bit of edge to it), but not rock. It’s just happened with this album and we didn’t even know it until it was mixed and we listened back to the songs. We realized that these were well arranged songs, the melodies are beautiful and it’s just beautiful music. Hopefully, people will embrace it like we feel for it.”
You mentioned Dead Can Dance, most people wouldn’t think the lead singer of Godsmack would be a Dead Can Dance fan. How did you discover the band?
“Most people should know that by now because I discovered them back in ’93 when I was playing with this punk metal band called, Strip Mind. We were with Warner Bros. and as I was walking through their offices (Dead Can Dance was with Warner Bros./Reprise), they were playing their Into The Labyrinth record and I just stopped in my tracks, looked in the office and said ‘who is that?’ The girl from the international department said, ‘it’s this band Dead Can Dance and they just released this record blah blah blah…’ And from that point on, I just felt a connection with that kind of music. It’s just something that took me away to a different place and from there it inspired me to write songs like Voodoo (Godsmack) and stuff like that, so there are a lot of people out there that know that Dead Can Dance have been a real strong influence in my life. Man, you know – that music really took me to a different place and from that point on I wanted to create something like that with not so much an authentic world music vibe, but just very mystical, hypnotic and tribal. I wanted to take it to another level and do something a little bit more modern with it. That was really the foundation…”
Now, the new Avalon box set is an incredible package: 5 DVDs, 2 CDs, hat, shirt, guitar pick, incense, hard cover coffee table book and much more… Only 5000 will be made. Is this the fans only chance to get all of this stuff or will you make a sort of ‘best of the box set’ available later?
“I don’t know man. It’s a first time solo project and there just was a lot of magic with it. It just happened. We weren’t expecting it to be this. It’s just really great music for people to explore and get turned on to, so whatever we can do to take another bite out of the apple; we are willing to do. This (box set) came about because we wanted to document the live show before we put it to rest… From there we just thought we should do a package deal where they get the live show, the CD, a hat, a shirt and other things. Then we thought we should include the ‘making of’, a bloopers reel and it just kept expanding. It’s a great thing if people are into the music that I’ve written and Avalon the project. There’s also this ‘Golden Ticket’ giveaway where they have an opportunity to come meet with me, go to a show, go to dinner, play Blackjack, see a Cirque Du Soleil show or whatever… It just kept growing. It was all trial and error coming up with different ideas and finally expanding this thing into a box set.”
You’ve referred to Avalon as ‘the’ project. Is this the only time, you’ll do a solo album or do you see yourself doing more in the future? If yes, would it be similar music?
“I’m pretty sure it will be (different). I don’t know if it will be Avalon again. It took on its own life and, although, I am writing new music I’m not sure what direction it will go in. I didn’t know what direction I was going in when I wrote Avalon. I was just writing music and the songs that stuck and sounded attractive we kept working on. The songs that weren’t growing legs we tossed in the trash and kept moving on, so this is the collection of music we came up with. I think we’ll approach it the same way this time. I’m not even sure I’ll work with all the members, but I’m pretty sure I’ll work with most of them because they are just so talented and multi-instrumentalist. They’re just really great players and I know I can get anything I want from them (in terms of musicality). I don’t know how it’s going to sound. It could be more stripped down and cleaner like an Adele styled record or it could be more composed and orchestrated like Avalon. It’s hard to say. What I do know is that what worked well for us with Avalon is that it was a curve ball for the most part and it wasn’t what people expected me to do coming from Godsmack. With that being said, I want them to not expect this to be another Avalon record. Hopefully, surprise them again with something a little from left field.”
When might we see a second solo album?
“Well, I’m working on stuff now and I’m hoping to release a single by the beginning of the year (at least within the first quarter). Then, I need to create time to work on an album.”
What are the risks and benefits of doing music that is significantly different to what Godsmack does?
“I don’t know. I’m not concerned about that stuff to be honest with you. I play music for me and I play music because I love being a musician. I didn’t really care if Avalon ever got released. It could have sat on the shelf in my own library for all I cared because it was just a bunch of music that I had inside me and that I needed to get out of my body. It was a beautiful breath of fresh air for me and so luckily the Godsmack fans embraced it and they became a sort of street team for Avalon. I’m really proud of that and I’m happy that they loved what I put out because it’s really special music for me. It’s very personal. I stripped myself down and humbled myself. I became very vulnerable on this album and just chose to put it all out there. That’s the real meaning of music; to be true and honest when you write because people can smell bullshit from a mile away. With this (at this point in my life), I’m not shy or embarrassed to expose myself even in vulnerable situations. It takes someone like me to put that voice out there so that people know that it’s ok to embrace those times, release them and heal them somehow. Music, as you know, is am amazing healing vehicle. I hope Avalon has helped people get through some stuff. From what it seems so far, it’s worked well in that way.”
The Avalon concert video is the entire album played live. Is it challenging as a musician to bring it (the album in full) to the live stage?
“It’s no more challenging that anything I do with Godsmack. I’m very conscious when I record in the studio to not layer stuff too much and even though Avalon feels very layered that’s because I was working with eight members including myself who are multi-instrumentalists. It was really cool to write the album, record it and get it exactly the way we wanted it to sound… And then figure out how to pull it off live. Thankfully (because the musicians are so well-rounded), it was… Challenging, but intriguing. We had to make sure we weren’t missing that shaker or tambourine and ,oh shit, on the record we have this metronome think clicking… Yet, we have a drummer who can use both of his feet and hands and we have another percussionist to do the shakers and cymbals and you know… We were really able to put it together and perform it as the record sounds which is so awesome for us. There’s nothing worst than going to see a band and it doesn’t sound like the album. I hate that.”
Or see a band live that’s running tape…
“That’s the fucking worst. I will never get on stage with people that play to a tape. That’s not why I’m in music. I’m in music because I like to play my instruments.”
Let’s talk Godsmack. What’s going on with the band? Is there a new album coming soon?
Erna: “We’re just taking a break. We just finished a two year cycle, so we’re going to lay low for a little bit and give it a break. We’ll contact each other at sometime near the end of 2013 and talk about when it’s right to do another record, but right now we’re taking a hiatus to rest and hang out with our families and friends. I’m going to work on some solo stuff and I might dabble in some TV and movie opportunities… Work on me for awhile.”
On Godsmack’s Live & Inspired album, you covered Metallica’s ‘Nothing Else Matters’ and, of course, in 2004 you opened for Metallica on tour. What does that band mean to you?
“They are the kings of metal. They’ve been such a huge inspiration to me and my life. Not only for their music, but as a frontman. I learned so much from James Hetfield, Steven Tyler and all the great frontman out there… When I was transforming from drummer to singer and not really knowing what to do and how to perform and get it together; I had to learn and figure it out. I made a lot of mistakes and some things didn’t work. Some things came together, but over the years I feel that Godsmack has been able to become a great live band because of a lot of the people that we’ve honored as childhood heroes and Metallica is right up there on the top of the list. I couldn’t think of a better group of people. Those guys just treated us amazing. They were so cool with us. They didn’t limit our sound, our lights, our pyro or whatever. They were like ‘bring it on and don’t worry about us; you are not going to dwarf us.’ I was like ‘fucking A man – that’s the shit.’ You couldn’t ask for a better group of people than that. Hetfield and all of them were just super… Probably the nicest guys that I’ve ever met in my life.”
It must be nice to work with a band that isn’t trying to sabotage you.
“Who’s going to dwarf Metallica? Bands at that level (Rush, Aerosmith, Metallica and all that) are the cooler people. It’s the mid-level bands that sometimes have more of an ego. These guys are set. They know that they have their millions of fans. They know that back in the day this is what is used to be. It was all about the headliner and the opening band putting on a great show. It wasn’t about trying to squash somebody and making yourself look like the best. People are there to see and hear music and they (Metallica) just want both bands to put on a great show. It was the first time since I started touring on a national level that I was able to go back to playing in arenas with two bands and selling them out every night. It was really awesome to be part of that. We were into the Family Values tours, OzzFests and all that where it took seventeen bands to sell out a shed. Here we were with Metallica; we played the whole world with them. Two bands on a stage in an arena and we blew it out every night. So, fuck…”
Back to the Avalon box set. Will you be touring in support of it in 2013?
“I don’t know. We’ll see. I’m going to start booking solo shows and I’ll be doing a hybrid of things (some Godsmack, some solo stuff, some covers and maybe a Storytellers vibe kind of thing). I’m not sure I’ll bring out full on Avalon because it is an eight piece ensemble and until it has a little bit more momentum; it can be very challenging to get a project like that on the road. In the meantime, for sure, I’m going to get out there and support it and do shows all of 2013.”
Avalon website: www.sullyernaavalon.com