“I’ve been cast out, sequestered/ Pushed the fuck around/ Blindsided, beaten, locked up and bound,” sums up the pulsating honesty of legendary frontman Chad Gray who never shied away from confronting his darkest demons through lyrical outlets like “Moth.”
There’s a generation of us metalheads from the early 2000s that stumbled onto Mudvayne classics like L.D. 50 and immediately gravitated towards the emotional instability in Chad Gray’s voice. Once Mudvayne started to slow down, Gray’s early contributions to HELLYEAH represented a radical departure in his sound. Make no mistake, I’m quite supportive whenever musicians push their own boundaries, however, the metaphorical catharsis of “Not Falling” took a backseat to stereotypical party anthems like “Alcohaulin’ Ass.”
On the other side of the coin, HELLYEAH also features iconic Pantera drummer Vinnie Paul. Personally speaking, no other musical act helped me find such inner strength to believe in myself quite like Pantera. From the beginning, HELLYEAH immediately faced ‘supergroup’ expectations typically bestowed upon most bands comprised of high profile musicians. It’s no secret how some Pantera or Mudvayne fans feel about HELLYEAH but I’d challenge anyone to walk away unimpressed after hearing this band’s latest album Blood For Blood.
Once I heard HELLYEAH’s first single “Cross to Bier (Cradle of Bones),” it felt like this band finally tapped into its full potential. Blood For Blood marks a return to each individual member’s heavier roots and it’s no coincidence how this comeback resulted in their best album to-date. For anyone who questioned Chad Gray’s penchant for booze infused southern rock, this man still embodies the emotional relentlessness of “Dig.” Gray’s haunting bouts of therapeutic self-expression demonstrate his ability to unleash his self-driven rage at any given moment. Spearheaded by founding member and former Nothingface guitarist Tom Maxwell, all three musicians resurrected the tastiest elements of their beloved catalogs and raised their performance to peak levels. Case in point, HELLYEAH’s current setlist is mostly comprised of new material and I’d encourage hesitant listeners to experience this outburst of visceral aggression in person.
In an exclusive interview with Pop-Break, I spoke with HELLYEAH guitarist Tom Maxwell for an in-depth conversation focusing on his “Blood for Blood” tale of all the up’s and down’s of his band’s career thus far.
Let’s talk about your contribution to Blood For Blood, the group went through a major lineup change and the songwriting really fell into your lap. How did you approach Blood For Blood considering the increased responsibility to compose a majority of the material?
I didn’t really look at it as a burden. It was more of a feeling of “finally,” I could see my vision. It’s taken seven-years to do the record that Chad and me wanted to do from the beginning. I’m not slagging on the stuff that we did in the past. When it came down to it, I welcomed the responsibility and it fell into our laps naturally. It just clicked really easily despite the drama surrounding the band at the time. Chad, Vinnie, and myself went in there completely focused. We let the music do the talking and we didn’t think much about it. We just let it flow naturally and I think that’s the best way to do it. Don’t push or make music because of time restraints or because you want to come off a certain way. I think you just need to let it flow and that’s what we did and I think it turned out fucking amazing.
There were heavier moments on your previous records but Blood For Blood went full throttle in embracing the metal essence of your sound. What inspired this change in direction?
I’ll tell you man, this is the kind of music that I like to play and it’s the kind of music that I like to write. Even in my old band Nothingface, we wrote some very brutal shit but we could bring it down and be somber at the same time. That’s just really how I write. At the same time, I didn’t really have a gameplan. Whether it’s the most vicious shit or a song like “Hush” that toys with your emotions or brings you to your knees emotionally, I think a lot of my inspiration came from being home and missing home. I’m a family man and I get homesick pretty quickly when I’m away. That was a big fuel for my fire.
I know the inspiration behind “Moth” was about missing home…
“Moth” and “Hush.” Musically, when you listen to it, there’s a lot of loneliness and desperation in there. There’s also hope and happiness. It’s weird because when I’m writing – I’m pulling out all of these emotional parts. On the flipside, the music will sometimes take a turn and have more of an upbeat vibe just to break out the positive nature of it. What Chad does lyrically is the polar opposite of what I do musically but it just fits like a glove. It’s a ying and yang kind of thing.
From a songwriter’s perspective, was there always a thought in the back of your head that wanted to unleash the brutal honesty of Chad’s vocals or the relentlessness of Vinnie’s drumming? Did you always want to tap into their heavier identities from their previous bands?
Especially with Vince, the music is so demanding, I think this record made him go in there and play like he hasn’t played in years. And he did. He went in there and crushed it. I think he’ll even tell you that this is some of the best stuff that he’s played on since Vulgar. With Chad, let’s put aside the hillbilly bullshit and party anthems and just be Chad. Be fucking honest and melt the ice, which he did. I think he let go of some demons. I think a lot of the stuff he did with Mudvayne was metaphorical and the lyrics were great. I also think this record was 100 percent who he is top to bottom.
Having self-produced your first three records, how was it having someone as accomplished as Kevin Churko join the fold? What component of his production style or previous works inspired this collaboration?
All of it – from front to back. I was really looking forward to working with him. I knew just from talking to him, there were a couple of key things that he said. As a songwriter too, he worked under Mutt Lange for most of his career. He learned so much about greatness since Mutt Lange is one of the greatest producers of all time. He learned all of those tricks and we went in there and he’s a musician and songwriter. When you produce your own stuff, you’re so close to it and it’s almost impossible to look at it from outside the box. That’s what Kevin did. He came in with a totally different perspective and sense of direction. “Black December” went through eight or nine different changes and reconfigurations before we got it right. “Hush,” we wrote that whole song together in three days. It took us three days to compose it before Chad and Vinnie even heard it. I bounced ideas off him and he was on piano and I was on guitar and the ideas just kept flowing. His directions were very inspiring and I learned a lot about songwriting and the production side of things. This is stuff that we never would have learned on our own. I never want to work with anyone else again. He gets us and we get him. He has a system and certain pace that I meld or blend into that works for me. That goes for the rest of the guys too. It was such a joy and I think the proof is in the pudding.
Take me through the heavier songs like “Sangre por Sangre (Blood for Blood)” and “Cross To Bier (Cradle of Bones),” what kind of vibes were occurring in the jam room when you came up with those riffs?
“Blood for Blood” was a riff that I wrote at home – it was the main hook riff in the verse and I already had the chorus riff. When Vinnie and me sat down and started working on it, we wrote the barebones of it and he recorded his drum tracks. When we went to track the guitars, it was Vinnie’s idea and I don’t know if most people could hear it, there’s a heavy bend in the riff during the chorus. He told me to do that. Those little things matter. Vinnie Paul’s ideas and little nuances add so much color. Songs like “Cradle,” those songs were just riffs and ideas that came together. For example, “Say When” is one of the heaviest tunes that we ever wrote. It started with Vinnie’s drums; he came up with this crazy drumbeat that led to this crazy fucking riff. He was like, “Man, come up with something to that.” It took me a minute to wrap my head around it. I came up with this polyrhythmic riff that just followed his drums and it led to this fucking savage tune. Like I said, nothing was ever premeditated. It was almost like, “Man, what did we do today?” It all happened so fast. I’d go back to listen to it and I would be like, “Man, I think we’re onto something.” It’s the best when the music happens naturally and you don’t really know what’s going on and you have to go back and learn what you did. That’s as raw as it gets.
Even though you’re seven or eight years into this band, it sounds you approached Blood For Blood like it was your debut album.
It’s funny that you say that. A lot of people have said that to me. A couple of guys in my crew told me, “To be quiet honest with you, this is the first HELLYEAH record because this is the one we’ve been waiting for.” Beforehand, we were just basking in hanging out and being a band. There were all these parties and all that shit. We got tired of being pigeonholed. I know I certainly did and it fucking pissed me off. I’m not a party metal guitar player; I’m going to go into this gunfight with a knife. It’s exactly what we did. Even my friends from back home, they were like, “This is the record that we’ve been waiting for.” The first album was cool and very novel and fun. It seemed like we missed the mark on Stampede. Band of Brothers was a turn in the right direction but still wasn’t quite there. With this record, I agree that it technically should be considered our first record.
Could you describe the feeling of jamming with Vinnie Paul? How does his drumming raise your performance or bring out the best in your riffs?
Shit, he’s just awesome man. Very few drummers are beloved like he is and he’s so iconic. He’s got that perfect swagger and timing. As a kid growing up learning how to play guitar and being around other bands, it was always a dream for my old band to tour with Pantera, which we did. I never thought that I’d ever jam with or join a band with any of those guys, let alone Vinnie Paul. Unfortunately, what happened with Dime, a few years after that, I think Vinnie felt ready to do something. We just happened to run into each other at the right time. I mean; it’s great to go out there and play with him every night. I always lock into him because I mean, he’s just fucking amazing. He’s a hard hitter and he’s in the pocket and he has such swagger when he plays and it makes everything perfect.
It’s been a while since HELLYEAH headlined their own tour, how’s the adjustment been returning to 90-minute sets with encores?
I’ll tell you dude, it has been a long time since we’ve done a headlining tour. We’ve been out playing festivals, support tours, or big arena runs, which is awesome. Since this new record came out and gained some traction, “Moth” has been tearing it up on the radio. We’re seeing this upswing in momentum. We’ve made a turn and we’ve seen a whole new fanbase both young and old – a vast variety of people. Something is working and it’s been great. Doing these 90-minute sets and playing a 14 or 15 song set, it’s been amazing. Over the past year, people have only seen us play 40-minute sets. If we did a one off headliner, we would play a longer set but it’s been a minute since we were able to go out and play longer sets like this. It’s a good set too; I think half of the setlist is comprised of the new record and the other half are chosen pieces of work from the other records.
You mentioned how “Moth” is tearing it up the radio. Since you wrote “Moth,” what’s the feeling like to have such a personal song resonate with a large audience?
It’s humans – people could relate to a song like that. Chad talks about learning your lessons and that’s what being a moth to a flame is. You know it’s going to burn you but people still want to touch that fire. Whether it’s drugs or any sort of vice, if it’s not good for you or healthy, people still go back to it. If it’s the battered wife who can’t leave her husband that beats the shit out of her yet she still won’t leave him, she’s a moth to a flame. When people hear that, they could relate to it in their own way according to what’s happening to them in their own lives. I think it’s why this song is touching so many people. It’s all lyrical.
Musically, you could put the dumbest stuff together but it’s all about the vocal delivery and how the message is being sent. Our song “Hush” is going to be our next single and it has that same quality to it. Chad was a battered kid growing up and he let those demons out and now it’s going to be the next single. There are a lot of people out there – I’m sure you know someone – that grew up in a hostile environment whether it was physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. That song is going to reach a lot of people and the video is going to be pretty heavy. We’re partnering up with a couple of organizations and we’re trying to send a message of “Stop the abuse.” It’s a big thing for the message that we’re trying to send. I’m sick and tired of hearing about it. I’m a father and it fucking kills me to even think of my son falling and hurting his knee– let alone a grown person bullying or abusing someone else. I’ll fucking murder someone for that. Anything we can do or anyone that wants to help spread this message – about how this is not fucking right – is good. People need to pay forward with kindness and goodness.
That’s a powerful way to use your platform for a greater cause.
It wasn’t something we thought about. This is an honest tune. There were people from our label that had this idea and we said, “This is perfect. We would love to support this because that’s what the message is about.” When Chad says, “You’re not alone,” that’s powerful. I’ve read so many e-mails from people who were on the borderline of committing suicide and they heard that song or any of our songs and it gave them hope or it gave them an extra day to figure out their situation. That’s powerful stuff. At the end of the day, if your songs could touch people like that than it’s all worth it.
Absolutely, it seems like everything has come together and you’re truly basking in the moment.
I like where we’re at right now. We’re in a good spot. We all wake up and we’re brothers and we’re joking around with each other. I haven’t felt this way for a really long time with this band. It took all of the drama that we got through. When people get sick, they go to the doctor and get the issue taken care of. That’s kind of what we did. We had to fucking medicate ourselves and get rid of the problem. We brought in more positive reinforcement and it’s working great.
HELLYEAH is currently on the Rockstar Energy Mayhem Festival – catch them in a town near you.