Hellyeah have been through hell over the past year and a half. Losing their brother in arms, the revered drummer and Pantera icon Vinnie Paul, left the long-running metal supergroup with a partially finished sixth album and the difficult question of how — or even if — the band would continue without their friend and musical colleague. Ultimately, singer Chad Gray, guitarists Tom Maxwell and Christian Brady and bassist Kyle Sanders decided that they needed to complete the record, Welcome Home, which features Paul's final studio recordings, and tour behind it, to which end they enlisted Stone Sour's Roy Mayorga to man the drum kit. Mayorga's first show with Hellyeah was also the band's first since Paul's death, a one-night-only special concert in May dubbed "Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Vinnie Paul."
We talked to Maxwell recently, just one day before he underwent surgery on a finger to repair a "trigger condition" that cropped up after an auto incident. Fortunately, the procedure was a success. "A few weeks of rehabilitation and I'll be 100% for the November tour," the guitarist reported via social media.
In our chat, Maxwell — a founding member of the band — opened up about just how difficult it has been, both personally and as a group, to forge on in the face of Paul's passing, and what's next for Hellyeah following the release of Welcome Home.
YOU'VE PROBABLY GOT A LOT OF EMOTIONS POPPING BACK UP WITH THE RELEASE OF WELCOME HOME. HOW HAVE YOU AND THE BAND BEEN HANDLING IT?
TOM MAXWELL Honestly, I think we're better now. I think maybe the tour was the harder thing. The record has been done for so long that we've really had a chance to kind of let it sink in and live with it and just kind of be at peace with it, you know what I mean? So, if anything,we're excited to get it out there. The hardest part was just getting back on the road.
DO YOU THINK MAKING THE RECORD AND FINISHING IT, THEN LIVING WITH IT, WAS A HEALING PROCESS FOR ALL OF YOU?
I thought it was finishing it. That was kind of a big, big icebreaker, just to get back in there when it was still very fresh. You know, we jumped back in within a month after Vinnie had been buried, and that was really ... I'm trying to put it in the right word. Surreal? And heartbreaking, but at the same time, I think we needed to do that in order to move forward emotionally and as a band, as a team, as brothers. We had to finish it.
There was a sense of triumph that we were able to do it, and thank God he finished all his drum tracks before he left us. We were able to go in there and not have to have something unfinished that we'd have to mimic some other way. There was also that sense of sadness.
YOU MENTIONED THAT TOURING WAS THE MORE DIFFICULT PART. WHAT WERE THE UNIQUE CHALLENGES OF GETTING BACK OUT THERE?
Just emotionally ... I felt personally, and I can't speak for the other guys, but for me there was a lot of anticipation. It was more a fear of just getting back out there. It's one thing to be off the road for so long and to have everything be copacetic, but to be off the road for so long and know we're going up there minus somebody that was so important to us? That was really, really freaky, and I was pretty paralyzed emotionally the first few days. I was frightened and felt disconnected from the whole thing. I felt disconnected from the stage. The first couple of shows were a real emotional roller coaster for me.
It wasn't like the Vegas show, because the Vegas show was just a one-off and we were able to concentrate on that one show, bring all of our family and the fans, and there was just so much support. There was a lot of anxiety too, but touring is a different thing. Knowing that I was getting ready to go do this for a month … it was just a lot of fear. It took about a week for me to find my ground again and feel comfortable.
I remember the first day, I woke up and sent Kyle a text, just like, "Dude, I'm fucking freaking out, man." And I'm sitting there bawling my eyes out, and I wasn't sure why, but it was just all these emotions steaming over, like, in a pot. I didn't know how to put it back down.
TALK A LITTLE MORE ABOUT THAT ANXIETY.
I guess the best way I could describe it is like a big family. You know what I mean? There's, you know, a lot of kids and we're all brothers. We're all used to each other and then you go out there and you're doing the same thing that you did with all your brothers, but there's one missing. Even though we have a good friend of ours [Roy Mayorga] back there, it's still very different. There's still of lot of apprehension, there's still a lot of anxiety. It's still a lot of like, "We really need to do this and do it right and be great at it," but it's a slippery slope. I think all of the emotions just got to me all at one time before it started. And like I said, it took about a week before we really found ourselves and learned the little nuances of each other.
NOW THAT YOU'VE BEEN PLAYING WITH ROY FOR A WHILE, WHAT'S IT LIKE?
Awesome! He's such a rad dude, and I've known him since, like, the late Nineties. He's an East Coast kid, a New Yorker, as well, and my old band used to come up to play Coney Island High where he was running sound there. Now that place closed a long time ago, so we're going back! But he's fantastic.
He's a very powerful hard hitter, which Vinnie was — that was one of my main concerns, that we were going to have someone come in that was a beater, you know, just beat the shit out of their drum kit. Vinnie was a hard hitter, and Roy is exactly the same when it comes to that. He's just beast mode. But he's great and it's not just the artistic side of it. As a human being, he's a gorgeous person. He's wonderful and a good dude and that really, really matters to us more than anything. It's like, we're going to have to live with this person so is he compatible with everyone? And he absolutely is.
HE'S GOT A HUGE ROLE TO FILL, AND YOU CAN'T EVER REPLACE SOMEONE LIKE VINNIE.
Yeah, and like Roy's said, he's not coming in to fill shoes, he's borrowing a hat.
HOW ARE THE FANS REACTING TO HIM?
I'll tell you what, that's the most surprising thing. There's so much love, not just for the fact that we're out there doing it, but they're accepting him. That was the biggest thing. We knew the slippery slope we were on, and we knew that we had to someone that was not just badass, but somebody the fans were going to accept and respect, and they welcomed him in with open arms. It's been fantastic beyond my expectations.
YOU'VE SAID ELSEWHERE THAT IT WAS HARD FOR VINNIE TO GO ON AFTER HIS BROTHER'S DEATH, BUT YOU KNEW YOU HAD TO SHOW THE SAME STRENGTH IN GOING ON AFTER HIS. WAS THERE EVER A POINT WHEN YOU WERE GOING THROUGH THE DEEPEST PARTS OF GRIEF WHEN YOU THOUGHT ABOUT QUITTING?
Constantly. I still go through that. My love affair has kind of been crippled. It's coming back, but there are point where I don't know if I belong here anymore. This is just me. I can't speak for everybody else, and I know I have the strength of Chad and Kyle and Roy — especially Chad because we started this thing back in 2006, or before that, actually. It was just such a blow emotionally that it really hit me to the point that I was like, "I don't know if I want to anymore. I don't know if I can do this anymore." I didn't know if I had it in me.
There was always this sense of like, "Let's go do this. Let's world dominate. Let's destroy!" And it suffered. The blast radius went beyond my heart, it went everywhere. It's a struggle, I'll just put it to you that way. I think every day I get better. Every day I'm around the boys, I get better. I'm looking forward to seeing them again. And I'll tell you, I don't want to say I didn't miss them, but I didn't miss any of it or any of the grind. I was just at home waiting to see what we were going to do, and now I feel a little different. I do miss them, and I can't wait to see them. I can't wait to get back out on tour, which is just night and day compared to how I felt going into the last one.
SO WITH THIS RECORD, THE WHOLE THING WAS WRITTEN BEFORE VINNIE PASSED AWAY, RIGHT?
The whole thing was written. We just did it in two different stages. Usually what would happen is, like, I would fly into Texas and I'd sit with Vince with a drum kit set up in a part of his house, then we'd set up a rig for me, and then we'd just be face to face and we would just sort of demo the ideas. He'd say, "Slice and dice it," where we were put pieces together then merge them and figure them out into songs.
This time we went in and he wasn't too keen on this idea first, but I was like, "I just want to go into the studio right from the gut." No riffs, no songs already prepared, I just wanted to go into to studio with Kevin [Churko, producer], put me in the hot seat and just let me go. We did that for, like, six songs. I think "Welcome Home" was the first song that we wrote like that, then other songs were written that way to where it was just me, Vinnie, Kevin in the studio, and the basic blueprints were put down.
The second half of it, we had to take a break because Kevin had other obligations. He had another artist he was working with, so we took a break from the studio, then I flew into Texas and me and Vince did what we always did. We sat down and wrote songs like "Oh My God" and "Black Flag" and we finished the record. We had everything written before he passed.
The only song that was contributed after was a song called "Skyy and Water." I wrote that a couple days after he passed. I was just sitting in my room downstairs in my cave, and I just wanted to write something to him and for him. In my mind, I was writing it as if Stevie Nicks was going to sing it, with a Fleetwood Mac vibe to it. It's got this little shuffle kind of acoustic thing that was very somber. Then we went into the studio and Kevin sat us in the room and we worked it out, tweaked it, and we didn't put any drums or percussion on it. It's just strings and guitars and vocals.
DID YOU LEAVE THE DRUMS OUT AS A NOD TO HIS ABSENCE?
Yeah, that was exactly why. We wanted it to be a letter from us to him.
YOU'VE SAID SOMETHING I THOUGHT WAS REALLY FUNNY, WHICH IS THAT BEING AROUND VINNIE WAS LIKE BEING AROUND SANTA CLAUS. DO YOU HAVE ANY STORIES YOU WANT TO SHARE ABOUT THAT?
You could take that in multiple different kinds of ways. Not only was he giving … like, every time Christmas would come around or somebody's birthday or even just the end of the tour, he loved to shop. Vinnie was a shopaholic. He would just go to malls all the time, and he would drop a shit ton of money, come back with bags of stuff, and then he would call the entire band and crew into the dressing room at a specific time and just start with, "Alright, here Tom, this is for you." And it could be random, just a T-shirt, like, Johnny Cash giving the middle finger type thing. Or when somebody's birthday would come around, he would go out and have these specialty cakes with the person's face on it made.
I remember we toured with this band whose name I can't remember, but long story short: The guy had his MacBook stolen on tour out of the van, and he was so upset because he has so many memories and photos and all kinds of stuff on it. Vinnie just went out and bought the kid a brand new MacBook and gave it to him. That's just the kind of person he was. He was always selfless, and he always thought about everybody else.
Being around him, like when I said the Santa Claus thing, it was kind of like when you'd go see Santa and wait in line for an hour, then when you got the chance to go up and sit with Santa? It was that magical kind of, "Holy shit it's Santa!" That's the kind of vibe. He was just really jolly, and he was a great energy to be around. He made you feel like you were important, like you were somebody. He wanted to talk to you and hear what you had to say. He always had this magnetism to him where people wanted to be around him, and he was very receptive and very warm to that — he felt it.
LASTLY, I KNOW YOU'VE SAID THAT YOU'RE NOT SURE ABOUT THE FUTURE OF THE BAND YET. HAVE YOU FORMED ANY MORE THOUGHTS OR PLANS SINCE THOSE COMMENTS?
It's still a door the universe hasn't put in front of us yet, so I think what we're going to do is not look too far ahead. The best way I can put it is this: We were dropped into the middle of the fucking ocean without knowing where we're going. Right now, I don't want to say we're lost at sea, but we're swimming. Eventually we're going to get to an island, then we'll figure out how to proceed from there.
I definitely know we are capable of doing it. It's just a matter of all of us being on the same page and feeling, emotionally, that we can do it. It would probably have to be a little ways down the road. We're just trying to digest this right now. One day at a time, one show at a time, we'll tighten the ship up a little bit.