Avenged Sevenfold's 'Nightmare': The Tragedy and Triumph Behind 2010 No. 1 Album | Revolver

Avenged Sevenfold's 'Nightmare': The Tragedy and Triumph Behind 2010 No. 1 Album

"It's the realest fucking album you could ever have. We knew we had to do it for fucking Jimmy."
avengedsevenfold2010getty.jpg, Jordi Vidal/Redferns
Avenged Sevenfold, (from left) M.Shadows and Synyster Gates, Barcelona, Spain, 2010
photograph by Jordi Vidal/Redferns

This story was originally published in June 2010.

Coming home from two years of touring in support of their self-titled album, Avenged Sevenfold started work on their follow-up. By mid December all the music for the planned concept record had been written and demoed, and the band was raring to hit the studio. Then disaster struck: On December 28th, Jimmy "The Rev" Sullivan was found dead at his home. He was 28 years old. An autopsy at the time was inconclusive, but in June, a coroner's report concluded that he died from an accidental overdose of prescription painkillers and alcohol. The report also noted that Sullivan had an enlarged heart, a "significant condition," which the coroner said, may have contributed to his death.

Needless to say, his bandmates — and friends for nearly two decades — were crushed. It was only after an intense period of grieving and introspection that they finally decided that they needed to complete what they call "Jimmy's masterpiece" and release the album, Nightmare, as a tribute to their fallen brother.


M. SHADOWS We started writing, like, in August, after that Sonisphere show, but we were very lackadaisical. It was just, like, you come over here, we might start drinking, or playing beer pong, or do something stupid, and then we wouldn't write at all. And then at certain times we'd write and get crazy and just on and on.

So then, the day before my wedding — I remember this very vividly which is kind of a funny story — I had to be in Palm Springs with [my fiancée] that night and I was riding home from basketball — I play basketball on the street, like every night — and I get this idea for a song and I pull out my BlackBerry and I started singing in it. And I came up with the line, "It's your fucking nightmare." And I just came up with, like, every single part for that song ["Nightmare"]. I sang it while I was riding a bike on my BlackBerry, and I came home and I started laying everything down. I laid down that whole song in its entirety, with the vocal melodies and everything, without the guitar solo and I played every instrument. And I remember going to my wedding, and we were late as fuck. I remember showing Jimmy the song on my wedding day and he's just like, "Fuck yeah!" Gives me a high five, "This is going to be sick." And everyone else is like, "What?" [Laughs] 'Cause it sounded so stupid, me playing everything, like, whispering in the mic 'cause I didn't want [my fiancée] to know I was in there fucking around. [Laughs] But that song was written, like, the day before my wedding, and I showed it to Jimmy and I remember him just flipping out. We all got drunk, and he's all, "Let's go show everyone the new song." And so I'm playing this demo, we're all hammered, and everyone's like, "Dude, that's awesome, bro." Like, everyone's fucked up. It was just kind of a fucking story at the wedding. And I went on my honeymoon and when I got back we just continued writing.

ZACKY VENGEANCE For the writing, what we wanted to do was make this album much longer and adventurous. We wanted to get into the studio and fucking do what we did on City of Evil where we're fucking slaves to the grind, pour every ounce of our fucking heart and soul. It just felt like, now that we'd won those fans over, it was time to give them something that they'd appreciate and understand, because they didn't catch on with City of Evil, what was going on there, they didn't catch on that we spent fucking 16 hours a day in the studio and were exhausted afterward. So this was our second chance to give them that album: long, fucking adventurous, fucking over the top. And we wanted to bring it back to a dark place, we wanted to take them on a fucking dark journey 'cause at the time, you could sense frustration on all corners of the Earth: fucking financial institutions, people are losing all their money, other people are rich for no reason. Just real frustration in the world.

SHADOWS The initial record was going to be a concept record and the concept was, you know, the whole state of the world right now: economy, racism, schools, religion. All these crazy things that I was going to try and pack into it. It was kind of like [Pink Floyd's] The Wall meets [Queensrÿche's] Operation: Mindcrime, like, crazy-like type thing.

VENGEANCE Jimmy was writing more on this album than he had ever written. His mind was just flowing. He had all these ideas. If you played something for him — everything that people were writing, he'd love — he would add something to it, or work his ass off to make sure that we could use the part. He was just on fire. He'd go to Matt's house and lay down drums every day, or he'd go over to Brian's house, you know, they'd get drunk, write, and then at fucking 4 in the morning he'd come over to my house and fucking play on the piano and we'd sit there and hang out. He was just, literally, exhausting every ounce of what he had left. That's what I really truly believe. He was laying it down and, like, just putting it all out there for the world.

SHADOWS We pretty much finished up writing the record by mid December. 100 percent of it, every demo was done. The only thing that wasn't done was the lyrics.

SYNYSTER GATES Jimmy completed the most amazing music, finished the fucking record, and he left so many amazing lyrics saying goodbye to the world. Yeah, he fucking planned it all, that crazy fuck. Knew he was gonna be gone before 30. He told my dad that he was fucking out. He said, "I know two things: I'm gonna be in a famous rock band and I'm gonna die before I'm 30." He told my dad that at 15.

VENGEANCE I think his heart knew that he wasn't going to be on the journey much longer, but I think there's no way of ever having your brain know that you're not going to wake up the next day. I mean, every person you talk to has the craziest stories of him before he died. It was almost as if something knew, there was some part of him that knew that he wasn't going to be around. I mean, he came over to my house maybe a week and a half before he passed, and I had, like, a birthday party, kind of a dress-up cocktail party, and it was pouring rain — it never pours in California. And he came over to my cocktail party and there's some times where he'd drink too much, and it just makes me sad, and he knew it was making me sad sometimes, but he came over to my cocktail party and didn't drink a drop of anything, at a cocktail party. And I thought, That's really weird, because Jimmy would never come to my cocktail party and not drink. But we had the best time. He stayed later than everyone, he stayed 'til 3 in the morning and he didn't drink. Me and Brian, we're drunk, and Jimmy hung out until everyone had left the party and he still hadn't drank, and we were just writing music, playing on the piano and having the best fucking time. But finally he was like, "OK, I better head home." And I was like, "Well, you know, you can stay." "Nah, nah, it's cool, I'm gonna go home." And so I gave him a bottle of champagne, 'cause Jimmy would always come to everyone's house and he'd always leave with one of your bottles of wine or champagne. It was just a party gift. [Laughs] So I was like, "Hey, dude, since you didn't drink, here take this champagne. Take it home, go enjoy yourself." And he's like, "Ah, cool, thanks man." So he left — it was fucking pouring rain — he was as sober as a judge. He calls me five seconds after he left my house, hasn't even left my neighborhood, and like, "Hey dude, I left my jacket," his favorite jacket. "I left it on your coat rack." So, like, "Dude, just turn around, come grab it. You're, like, three seconds from my house." I'm running outside. He said, "Nah, nah, don't even worry about it." I'm like, "I can bring it to you tomorrow." He's like, "Ah, no, don't even worry about it." It's like he knew, 'cause I always loved that jacket and he knew that I always loved it. And there his favorite jacket is sitting on my coat rack right now. I haven't touched it.

JOHNNY CHRIST The last time Jimmy and I hung out was actually the night before he passed. That night we all went and it was out good friend Matt Berry's wedding reception. He'd actually gotten married on Christmas but he had his reception on the 27th or whatever it was.

VENGEANCE Everyone was there, all of our friends, past, present, you know? Everyone was there for Matt Berry's wedding. So we all got to spend time with Jimmy.

SHADOWS Jimmy was so excited because he had just had LASIK surgery. He could finally see instead of having contacts or glasses. And it was so weird seeing him without glasses, all bright eyed and stoked that he could see.

VENGEANCE This is literally a week before he died and so he was walking around the world with a brand new pair of eyes, just to see everything for the first time in his life, which is awesome. I'm glad that he got to see that.

SHADOWS He came to me, like, "You know, Matt, I haven't seen you in quite a few years." And then he said, "You're a really good-looking guy." [Laughs] Like, dead serious to me. I'm like, "Dude, are you fucking kidding me?" [Laughs]

VENGEANCE That night, Jimmy left [the party] and passed. Matt's [Shadows'] wife, Val, has the last picture of Jimmy, taken of him sitting on the piano with a bunch of people around him. He'd been singing songs and everyone was there. It was pretty magic, you know what I mean? It's almost like the movie Big Fish. It's like the grand finale.

SHADOWS Obviously, Jimmy used drugs, but I wouldn't say he was an addict. I'd say he'd use any random drug that you gave him at the time. He wasn't, like, on one thing all the time, like, "I need this." He was an adventurous guy, and one thing that we know is that his stomach was always bothering him, and I guess the first sign of a heart problem is your stomach starts being bad, and his stomach was bad for a long time. He'd come over, just down Tums and Pepto-Bismol. He always said he felt like his stomach was bleeding, but he didn't know. So he went to a stomach doctor and, I guess, what I heard from his mom is that they found a reference from a stomach doctor to go see a cardiologist, and he never did. So a lot of things play into it. And he drinks like a fucking horse or whatever. You put drugs and alcohol together — and you have a heart problem — and your heart could stop.

I was with him that night — I know he was hammered, but that's what he did. There's nothing different from any other night. I did come down on him a little bit that night. I said, "Dude, you're really fucked up now," and he was like, [mimicking slurred speech]. That's not a good thing, is it?" Like, really fucked up. But he was always so cheery, you can't get mad at him. And what am I going to do? He's a 28-year-old man. Smack the beer out of his hand? And he was having a great time, playing piano, singing, people are sitting there and just watching him, and he's going crazy, big beard and just playing with five drinks around him 'cause that's how he rolled. And, like, six hours later, he's dead.


CHRIST When I got the call from Matt the next afternoon, I really couldn't believe it. I grabbed my shit and just went over to his house and that was the first day of all of us coming together and crying on each other's shoulders. For two, maybe three straight weeks it was just very surreal. You just kind of try to think about anything else but how to possibly continue without having our best friend around. We were camping out. We'd trade-off houses. We'd camp out at Matt's house, then we'd camp out at Brian's house, then we'd camp out at my house. We just didn't want to leave the house and we didn't want to leave each other. We were inconsolable.

GATES For fucking days we camped out in each others' houses. We basically gutted the living rooms and camped out, literally brought mattresses down and just camped out with, like, 20 or 30 people. Some people who weren't staying the night came in the morning and hung out for the afternoon. Jimmy's family came over and shit.

VENGEANCE When something like that happens, you can't think straight. Everything goes up in the air. You stopped caring about music; you stop caring about all that. All you care about is your friend and your other friends, who are dealing with this. It wasn't just like losing a band member; it was like losing a brother, losing a best friend, and like losing your fucking spouse, and it's like losing your dream, all in the same moment. It's something that most people will never be able to comprehend, just really the most absolute definition of devastation. And you don't care about anything. All you care about at that moment is the friends that you do have and watching out for them like a fucking hawk and watching out for yourself and making sure that you don't leave the world and hurt your friends. And it's just a lot of crazy stuff that happens at that moment.

CHRIST Somebody — I don't remember who — we were sitting around a table and somebody had the balls to tell a funny Jimmy story. One of the thousands upon thousands. We all kind of laughed a little bit. As the night went on, we just were telling all of our favorite stories of Jimmy. That was extremely therapeutic. Without the rest of my best friends, I don't know what would have happened. It was really hard. I had known Jimmy for longer than I had known anybody else. He was best friends with Brian before Brian joined the band. He was just very much, in a weird way, the guy who brought us all together.

GATES After his death, nobody told the same story twice and nobody stopped telling funny stories of this guy, for days. The fucking stories just never ended. The healing process was just so expedited because everybody just fucking laughed the whole time. We would never want to ever show anybody that time because when we were together we were just guiltily laughing the whole time, celebrating his life. It wasn't until we were alone, which was very rare, that we were like, Oh fuck, our friend is gone.

CHRIST During that whole time there was no thought of doing the record. It was just the band's done and that sucks; we just can't continue Avenged Sevenfold without Jimmy.

SHADOWS Losing Jimmy was obviously the craziest thing, probably, I'll ever go through in my life. I hope. It was for all of us. We literally sat here for weeks and didn't leave the house, like we couldn't see anybody 'cause no one knows what to say, and it's always the wrong thing. And it's like, you don't want to hear anything, you're just so angry and sad, and you're trying to make it better and it's never better, it's just weird. Like, we were sitting at Johnny's house on New Year's Eve — no one could drink 'cause we were all getting so much anxiety and stuff from it. And we were sitting there watching Times Square and New Year's Eve, everyone's partying, and we're just, like, three days after, and we're just like, Fuck. And we go outside and it's the first blue moon we had in 10 years and it looked like an eye looking down on us, and I was like, "Fuck, man. Dude. We need to finish this record for Jimmy." And everyone's like, "Dude, we don't want to talk about it." And I was like, "Dude, we have to finish this record. Come on, we have to."

CHRIST As we started to talk about it, we started to realize that we have a full record and a lot of these songs — I mean, Jimmy's had a part in every song and a lot of the songs are 100 percent his. He probably wrote about 60 percent of this record, himself.

GATES We just talked and were like, "Do you want to finish this record?" We had been hanging out with Jimmy's family, and they were like, "Please, you just have to put this out." We were getting all of this feedback from everybody and putting it into perspective: If it was one of us, would we want the others to carry on? And the answer was, "Fuck yeah."

VENGEANCE I think once we could think straight and once we could realize, This album's written, Jimmy wrote every fucking day more than he's ever written because he wanted people to hear this. And Jimmy's not playing on the album, but he wouldn't care — he wanted people to hear what he had written, the music that he'd written. The actual performing, he couldn't give a shit about that his entire life. He just wanted people to hear him as an artist. He left us with a gift, he left the whole fucking world with a gift, and it was basically up to us to show the world what we're made of.


VENGEANCE It was our defining moment, not only as a band, but as human beings to go through the hardest thing we've ever faced and have to stare it right in the fucking face and listen to these songs with Jimmy humming the melodies on them and finishing the fucking songs and bringing them to the studio and, you know, just constantly be reminded of the fucking heartache. But we knew that what we had was so dark and so fucking magical, musically, that we had to go in there during the hardest times and fucking let out everything that we were feeling.

GATES Katie, Jimmy's sister, had this great idea of having his idols play different songs. Only problem with that is that [laughs] most of his idols can't play what Jimmy does. I won't name names, but to get that fucking progressive and advanced and grooving at times is pretty much impossible.

CHRIST At first, I definitely was like, "I don't want to play on anybody else's drumming." Then I started to come around and we started to discuss it more and were talking about it. Mike Portnoy had sent his condolences and had been talking to Matt a little bit. We thought about it and we were like, Well, who else can play these parts? Who else can we ask that can pull off Jimmy's creativity on these parts? Mike Portnoy was a huge influence on Jimmy as a kid and as a drummer growing up. So, it was a good fit.

SHADOWS It was just the little bit of light in, like, the worst tunnel of our lives. So we went to [Anaheim music product trade show] NAMM very secretively, had a secret dinner with him, so no one saw us together, 'cause we didn't know how it was going to work out, and Mike came down there and we just talked and we gave him demos. And he called me the next day, flipping on the demos. He's like, "Dude, this is going to be unbelievable."

GATES We all have our weird little things to help with coping and mine is that Jimmy had this master plan. Maybe he didn't prefer to go out when he did, but he had said some wild shit really alluding to it. He knew that he lived a crazy life. I think all of this shit is part of the guy's master plan and nobody took control from that guy. Nobody controlled Jimmy. Jimmy controlled himself — or lost control of himself. Either way, it was all ridiculous. Having said that, I think having his idol play in his stead … I mean, hopefully, he's up there seeing Mike Portnoy's approach to his music. I think that would just be an incredible, incredible gift for him.

CHRIST Mike was very humbling to work with. He was very awesome. He basically came up and said, "This is your guys' record. This is Jimmy's record. If there's anything you want me to play, I'll play it. I'm your puppet." This is a drummer who we would usually be crapping our pants because he was saying things to us, but at the time we didn't really care. What we were thinking was, That's very cool of him. This is a drummer that we've all grown up listening to and loving. He's a huge hero in our books. Then he's just like, "Yeah, I'll do whatever you want me to do."

SHADOWS This album is not, like, the new Avenged Sevenfold without Jimmy. It feels like he played on it. Drumming-wise, Jimmy had written all the drum parts. And Portnoy does a really good job of channeling what Jimmy was doing. Maybe it's 'cause I know the demos and I know that we sat there, 12 hours a song with Portnoy, making sure he played every beat like Jimmy played it. We drove Mike crazy sometimes 'cause we had him doing punk beats, and he'd never played that stuff before. He always wanted to do it, like, backwards or different and he's just like, "Fucking turning me into an O.C. punk!" [Laughs] But it feels like Jimmy, those are his fills, those are what he was going to play, and that wasn't anything anyone else would have come up with. So this feels like our last record with Jimmy, even though he didn't have to do any of the hard work in the studio. [Laughs]

VENGEANCE We worked so hard and we gave every single thing we had in the studio. We exhausted ourselves to just let the world know about how great Jimmy really was and to do it for his honor and his legacy and for our friendship, because he's still a part of everything that we do. We wouldn't want his name on anything if it wasn't a fucking a masterpiece.

SHADOWS "Nightmare" was the only song I had written the lyrics for [before Jimmy's death]. It was a part of the story [of the original concept album]. The reason I didn't change it is because Jimmy loved them so much and I thought it would be a dishonor to him to scrap all the lyrics. So I left those lyrics, I left the lyrics to "Danger Line." The rest of the songs are all based around Jimmy in some way…

Lyrically, I was working every night, and I wasn't rushing anything 'cause I needed to sink into my depression to write. It sucked, but, like, I couldn't really drink. I'd just drink a glass of wine, just kind of sit in a room and look at pictures of Jimmy. And I'd write and it's the only thing I could do. So yeah, it was just a bizarre process, a lot of anxiety, a lot of crazy feelings, and then, like, it's hard for me to even show people the record. Not that I don't think they should hear it, it's just that, I listen to it and I'm not excited about it, you know what I mean? It's like … I was excited about [the song] "Nightmare" 'cause it had nothing to do with the guy and he loved it. And there's a couple of other songs that I can listen to, but a lot of it, like, the end of the record is very on him and, like, stuff he wrote. Like that song "Death," [which appears on the album as "Fiction"] that's a hard song to listen to.

VENGEANCE Two days before he died, Jimmy went and wrote "Fiction." He finished laying everything down, hummed the entire melody and sang parts of it, told Matt that he wanted that song to be called "Death," and he told Matt that he was going to help him with the lyrics, and then he died. He wrote one of the most haunting songs, unlike anything I've ever heard, that goes into the saddest, most foreboding ending in probably the history of music. I've never known someone to write something like that and leave the world two days later.

GATES "Fiction" was actually a Pinkly Smooth song back in the day. It was a final song that we didn't complete. I brought up doing something like that and I laid down the piano parts and Jimmy sang the song. It was just a really different piece of music and it's always been one of my favorites from the Pinkly Smooth stuff and I just thought it was a brilliant song. Matt came a couple of weeks later and said, "Dude, this is gonna be an amazing, amazing song. I love this song." It made me really excited to hear that he was behind it, and I thought it added a lot of depth to the album.

When Jimmy came in, came up with the ending, and laid that down, it was like, Whoa, this is pretty heavy. Got some deep fucking lyrics here. It was sort of one of the last things we laid down, too. It didn't really strike me that it was odd. It was just like, You crazy bastard, you were always thinking about death. He'd written some other scratched lyrics — he didn't write these out, he would just come and improvise them — but he came with another one that actually didn't make the record. It said, "It's 4 o'clock in the morning/Got one more chance to die." He would just say weird shit like that. He was always thinking about mortality and all other kinds of shit. Even though the lyric was a little morbid, I didn't think too much about it. Then when we listened to it after he died — we didn't listen to shit for two weeks — it was pretty fucking chilling. It really blew my mind.

Towards the end of "Fiction," Jimmy was kind of nursing an incredible hangover. Half the times he'd be up screaming all night, because it's all that guy ever did. It was the funniest shit you ever heard. Everybody fucking loved it. So, most of the days he was raspy and raw and couldn't sing, didn't have a range. But that one day, it was really fucking cool. Just the way he sings it is so eerie and not monotone but just not phonetic. It's just kind of mumbly and really droney. It's pretty fucking cool. So, definitely when we revisited it, it was like, This guy's a fucking nutcase. I can't believe we have this and we gotta keep it.

SHADOWS I mean, like, when does that ever happen in history? A guy dies, pretty much predicts his death in a song, and says goodbye in the song, and the song gets released, with his vocal on it and sings a lyric that's supposed to be a demo scratch.

I finished the lyrics for him. And I felt comfortable doing that 'cause I finish everything for him. [Laughs] Like, that's just how it is in here. Jimmy knows he's going to give me a skeleton, so he gives me a skeleton, then me and Brian and the other guys are gonna come work on it and we're going to make it what he wants. And so even lyrically, I always felt comfortable stepping all over his stuff 'cause that's what he wanted. He'd take me aside all the time, like, "Oh, I've got all these ideas, but I just can't… You guys Avenged-Sevenfoldify it." So I felt comfortable doing that.

GATES When "Fiction" came to fruition in the studio [as a duet between the Rev and Shadows], we were more than thrilled. It's a very special and magical moment in the record.

SHADOWS Then there's a song called "Welcome to the Family," which is about all these people that have things happen in their life, and there's a reference to losing Jimmy in one of the verses. There's also songs where I'm just in my own head, like, just very Zeppeliny, Floydish, where the lyrics are very obscure but they're obviously dark thoughts that are happening because of what I was going through, am going through. And there's, like, an open letter for Jimmy, from me. And there's a song called "So Far Away," that Brian wrote to Jimmy.

GATES "So Far Away" is a song that I initially set out writing when my grandfather died. I have this demo at my house and the scratch lyric on it was, like, "How do I live without the ones I love?" It had this chorus on it with Jimmy singing the song with me. We're drunk as fuck at 4 o'clock in the morning. It's just acoustic, me and him. It was my first time writing lyrics. I don't know what the fuck I think about them but they're exactly what I feel about Jimmy, who he is, and all of that kind of shit.

SHADOWS And then there was a song called "Victim," which lyrically was a part of the story [of the originally planned concept album], but now I changed it so it's basically the first day that we found out he'd died and it's almost like Funeral for a Friend-ish, or, like, from Elton John. It just speaks about the surroundings, and the house, and everyone's mood and then it just speaks about that day. So, yeah, there's a lot of Jimmy stuff on the album, and it's pretty crazy.

VENGEANCE It's the realest fucking album you could ever have. We knew we had to do it for fucking Jimmy, to give the world the darkest fucking piece of music that we promised. And so it became, the whole, from beginning to end, just real fucking dark. Any of the songs that we'd written that didn't have that darkness didn't make the album.

I think there's very few albums in history that captures something like this. I think it speaks a lot to just being human in general, through the music. I don't think you need to know about Avenged Sevenfold and where we came from. I think the songs will just speak to people. And I think that's what all the bands — the great bands that have touched me personally — have, and a lot of them have dealt with loss. But what's in this album is something that most bands will never have. And I don't wish it upon them, 'cause what it takes to makes an album like this is the worst experience of a human being's life. But with that, I also believe that's what we were put on this earth to do — not fucking run around and be fucking little naïve kids playing long songs. We were put on this earth to make this album that honors our friend and just relates to what it means to truly be alive.