Interview: Godsmack’s Sully Erna Talks Solo Albums and New Avalon Live DVD
By John Katic
Last year, Godsmack’s Sully Erna took a creative leap of faith and released Avalon.
Godsmack have shown glimpses of Erna’s world, plus some tribal influences, most notably with tracks like “Voodoo.” But Avalon fully immersed the artist into a world of musicians and collaborators. It truly shows the depth and breadth of Sully’s talents.
Recording a studio album is one thing, but making the transition to a live show is quite another. On December 18, Erna will release Avalon Live on DVD and Blu-Ray.
I recently spoke with Erna about the album, the tour and the video.
REVOLVER: Last year saw the release of Avalon, which was different yet somewhat similar to the work you’ve done with Godsmack. Can you describe the feeling of releasing an album under your own name, going out without the Godsmack brand and baring your soul to the world?
It was good and refreshing, and it continues to be refreshing. As you know, I’ve been doing Godsmack for a while, and being a musician my whole life, there is a lot of different kind of music I have played. Sometimes it is not necessarily good for Godsmack. For me, it was about exploring internally and getting some stuff out that I‘ve had inside. There are plenty of times I’m sitting around writing at the piano and noodling around, and you stumble onto some really great idea and you know at that moment that it won’t work out for Godsmack because it has a whole different texture.
They are still great pieces of music, and I wanted to release them and see what people thought. For me, the Avalon thing became internal. It wasn’t about critics and even what the fans thought. It was about creating a body of work that was really a part of me and that I have grown into. This was a record I just had to do for myself, whether it sat on the shelf for the rest of my life or it was released, it did not matter to me at that moment. Luckily, people embraced it and it has done really well and I am really proud of it. It was nice to step out of the box and not have a ceiling over my head.
When you were writing this material, where you typically alone, and were there particular instruments you wrote with?
It was a bit of both. Before I put Avalon together, I had a few pieces written like “Eyes of a Child” and “Until Then… .” From there, I started to put some members together. I had known Lisa [Guyer] from a mutual friend. She had a phenomenal voice and four-octave range and was just so great but never really had a shot. Once I was starting to write and knew I wanted a female voice, I thought of her. I knew it was going to be a great fit, so I contacted her.
I introduced her to Dead Can Dance and bands like that. It just so happened that Dead Can Dance were doing this reunion tour that year. So I took Lisa to the Boston show and she was just floored. She was blown away by Lisa Gerrard’s voice and the whole mystical, hypnotic world-music vibe. She got it right away. I told her this was what I wanted to do but only modernize it and make it a little more current and edgy.
It just so happened that the percussionist of Dead Can Dance, Niall Gregory, was a Godsmack fan, so we met him that night and we all just kept in touch. The three of us became the foundation for Avalon. Lisa introduced me to Chris Lester, who introduced us to Tim Theriault. Tim introduced us to Chris Decato, and it just grew from there organically. It was just something that kept evolving. It was really supposed to be studio tracking of the music, and we really didn’t know where it was going to go.
Did you do a lot of the arranging for the record and for the live performance?
Yes, I did all the arranging. There was a lot of input for content when people were writing things. I told everyone to go home and come back in a couple weeks with tapes of ideas. I then started to peruse things and organize it and create the arrangements. I have to give them props for bringing in a ton of ideas. Their melodies and riffs really helped me find the path we were on.
As the frontman of a very successful hard rock band, people think of you with a Les Paul around your neck. How did it feel to stand on the stage for the first time in that environment? Did you feel sort of naked, almost?
No not at all. It was a breath of fresh air. Godsmack is such a big entity, and we’ve always been known to put on a big, fat rock show with pyro, video, big lighting and all that stuff. It’s very animated and energy. It’s like a full-contact sport. Avalon was more like the seductive side of things. It was really cool to lay back on the piano or sing into the microphone and let the music and lights take people to other places. It wasn’t awkward at all for me.
Doing the DVD at the Wilber Theater in Boston, your hometown — was that a blessing or a curse? Obviously, you have the benefit of the hometown fans, but you also have the stress of guests and such that go with playing in your hometown.
It was great. I was proud to do it in Boston. We were in a historical theater at the Wilber Theater. It was great to have all our friends and family there, along with fans that flew in from all parts of the country to be a part of it. I would do it in Boston again for sure. I’d play in Boston as much as I could as long as we continue to draw an audience. It’s a great environment. People love their music there.
Obviously, you are releasing the CD/DVD, Blu-Ray and the box set. Do you plan on taking Avalon further with a new record at some point? Will this take a back seat to other things at the moment?
I’m working on new material now and I’m not sure where I’m going to go with it. What worked on Avalon is that we really didn’t know what we were writing. We just knew we wanted to do a certain kind of vibe for the album. We had an idea in our heads. What worked for us well was that it was a massive left-hand turn from what people expected from me for a solo record. They had no idea and might have thought that it was a solo rock record.
For me as I write again, I’m not sure if I want to pigeonhole myself into that genre. Luckily there are enough colors on that record; I can go in any direction. I could strip in down and do what Adele does acoustically or I could take it to another level and do more orchestration. But again I’m not going to premeditate it too much. I’m just going to write with certain members again. We’ll see where the music takes us. I want to keep people on their toes and not let them predict what the next record will sound like.
I think you can’t help but draw some comparisons to the music of Led Zeppelin and what keeps them so vital to this day. They didn’t stand pat on Led Zeppelin II, they evolved.
Exactly! Zeppelin is the perfect example. They just played what they played. They have stuff from reggae to rock to blues. You name it. They had so many different colors on their albums and that’s what made them special. By no means do I ever compare myself to Zeppelin, but I do feel Avalon was magical. I think my job as an artist is to just continue to write the best music I can write and hope people embrace it.
Avalon Live will be released December 18 on DVD and Blu-Ray. There also is a limited-edition box set that contains 5 DVDs: the double disc, Avalon Live, shot in Boston at The Wilbur Theater in 2D, on Standard and Blu-ray; The Making of Avalon Live, a 40-minute documentary of behind-the-scenes footage from the concert in December; The Journey to Avalon documentary, an hour-long version of the acclaimed doc seen on Palladia, and a bloopers and outtakes DVD of Sully in the studio along with videos from Avalon.
The box also contains two CDs: Avalon, the studio album, and Avalon Live, the live show from Boston. Other items include an autographed limited-edition coffee table book, an updated version of Sully’s personal memoir, The Paths We Choose, a limited-edition poster from the Wilbur show and a limited-edition T-shirt, a Sully Erna hat and necklace, commemorative backstage pass from the 2010 tour, a guitar pick and custom hand-made incense chosen by Sully.