It's a beautiful sunny February morning in New York City and Lamb of God's Randy Blythe is reminding me that "we're all gonna die!"
Blythe's exclamation — delivered in the gruff, sonorous tone that's made him one of modern metal's most distinctive vocalists — is a pitch-perfect response to the current, inescapable media coverage of the global coronavirus outbreak. Hyperbole aside, as the COVID-19 virus continues to spread, and its death toll rises, many people's daily lives are being seriously disrupted while others are left increasingly panicked by the constant news updates. Blythe is trying to parse the truth from the fear.
"Right now, we're going through the coronavirus, obviously, and a few years ago it was Ebola," he says. "There's a lot of crazy shit going on ... but there always has been in the world. But we have these digital communication devices that can constantly deliver to us this never-ending 24-seven cycle of atrociousness and fear."
Blythe is in town to discuss his long-running Virginia band's new and eighth record, Lamb of God — a powerhouse 10-song collection of gnarly groove metal on which the singer drills down into a range of issues that plague modern society: from mass shootings, xenophobia and the opioid epidemic to vacuous consumer culture and impending ecological destruction.
In light of the current news frenzy, Blythe points to the themes of opener "Memento Mori." He explains the song was born out of his own obsessive newsfeed monitoring and realization that regular disconnection is crucial to his mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing. "You can't live in the media because it's going to drive you nuts," he says. "'Memento Mori' is about waking up: 'Wake up, wake up, wake up!' And that's me talking to myself. That's not me being pedantic and preaching at people. That's me talking to Randy because I was going fucking nuts."
Tackling topical issues and confronting human nature's darker side is not new for Lamb of God. Stretching back to their 2000 debut, New American Gospel, the Richmond crew have paired their ferocious, technically stunning metal with scathing sociopolitical commentary and intense self-reflection on topics ranging from police brutality ("O.D.H.G.A.B.F.E") and the Iraq war (Ashes of the Wake) to unchecked music-industry egos ("Redneck") and Blythe's own 2012 ordeal of imprisonment, trial and acquittal of manslaughter charges in Prague ("512"). This winning formula of headbanging think-pieces has served them well. Over the past two decades they've risen to the top of the New Wave of American Heavy Metal class, earning multiple Grammy nominations, Gold records and legions of worldwide fans along the way.
But the new self-titled record does mark a couple of firsts for the band. Most visibly, it's the first album without founding drummer Chris Adler, who performed on all seven previous Lamb of God releases, as well as their two albums as Burn the Priest (1999's self-titled and the 2018 covers record Legion: XX). In 2018, Lamb of God recruited touring drummer Art Cruz (Winds of Plague, Prong) to take over live duties for Adler while he was recovering from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident. Then in July of the following year, the band — Blythe, guitarists Mark Morton and Willie Adler (who's also Chris' brother), and bassist John Campbell — issued a brief statement announcing Cruz would permanently replace Adler. All parties involved have remained quiet about the exact circumstances surrounding Adler's departure — with the most pointed information coming from the drummer himself in an October 2019 Facebook post. "I did not make the decision to leave my life's work," Adler wrote. "The truth is I am unwilling to paint by numbers."
Blythe still declines to get into the particulars, and instead focuses the conversation on the current state of the band, which he reports reached new levels of collaboration while writing the record. "The vibe was super good during these co-writing processes when all five of us were in the room," he says. "Even I snuck a riff or two on this record. I didn't play them — I'd hum them to Mark. There was a lot of hijacking of each other's materials, which is how I think the best Lamb of God songs come out: Willie takes a Mark song and hijacks it, and Mark does vice versa."
Lamb of God was also the first time Blythe ever charted out the overall lyrical concepts ahead of writing. While he knew he wanted to speak out politically, he didn't want to pin his lyrics to a specific individual, or administration. So he dug deeper into the causes and conditions that fuel society's ills — with a little help from a friend, the "world-famous alpine climber, punk-rock maniac" Mark Twight.
"Donald Trump is just a symptom of a much larger problem," Blythe says. "I was talking to my friend Mark Twight and I was like, 'I don't want to write a topical record about the current administration because, A, he's a clown and, B, it's almost impossible to pin your finger on what's happening day to day with him. So what I want to figure out is, how did we get here? I want to write about the environment in our consciousness that allowed this to happen.' And he hit me back, like, 'Yes. And the effects on the actual environment itself.'"
That cracked Blythe open and he began tracing a line backward from the current "reality TV" president and the glorification of consumerism to the industrial revolution and its implications on the environment. As part of the exercise, the vocalist wrote a list of about 17 song topics addressing "different things that I see that are problematic in our society, and different ways that people speak out against those things."
The thematic crux of the record is the anthemic "Memento Mori," on which Blythe counters the fear-mongering news chatter with a message of hope, empowerment and old-school carpe diem spirit. "Memento mori is what the monks used to say to each other: Remember, one day you shall die," Blythe explains. "All we have, to my knowledge, is one life … Even if there are multiple lives, don't you want to make the most of this one?"
Anyone paying attention to Blythe over the past several years knows this is not just an abstract concept or empty platitude for the singer — he's clearly making good use of his time above ground. To say nothing of his musical output with Lamb of God and collaborations with artists like Gojira, Body Count, Bad Brains, Pigface and more, Blythe has been writing books (2015's Dark Days autobiography), publishing magazines (Unbuilt with Testament's Alex Skolnick), surfing waves (and partnering with DevilDriver's Dez Fafara on the surfwear line SunCult), shooting photos (he's a Leica guy) and putting boots on the ground in support of grassroots causes.
He's reported from the 2016 Standing Rock protests against the construction of an oil line on Native American lands in North Dakota, and championed equality by disrupting a protest (while wearing a white feather boa and blowing a whistle) of the hate-spewing Westboro Baptist Church. In fact, when we meet Blythe in New York he reveals he's just returned from a secret surf spot, where he spent most of the last two months catching waves, communing with nature in the nearby jungles and helping the locals establish recycling programs. So, the world may be fucked, and, yeah, we're all gonna die. But Blythe is not ready to watch it all burn just yet.
"All we have is this very instant," he continues. "And my life so far has seemed to consist of one long string of this very instant ... So we might as well make this very instant the best that we can."
HISTORICALLY, YOU'VE NOT ENJOYED MAKING RECORDS. WAS IT ANY DIFFERENT THIS TIME? DID TAKING A BREAK TO JOIN SLAYER'S FINAL TOUR HELP AT ALL?
RANDY BLYTHE We were on tour with Slayer for, like, 18 years ... and in between Slayer runs, Mark and Willie would go do a writing session with our producer [Josh Wilbur]. And then there would be months off ... You come back and there's some distance, which I think is a good thing. ... I do not enjoy making records. It scrambles my brain and it consumes me. [Laughs] When I sing and go to record, it's physically exhausting and rips my throat. I do enjoy writing lyrics. ... and I had more time with some demos to actually work on lyrics. ... So while I don't think I'll ever say, 'I loved recording a Lamb of God record,' I will say that the vibe during the writing sessions was the best it's probably ever been in the band.
THIS IS THE FIRST TIME LAMB OF GOD RECORDED WITHOUT CHRIS ADLER. WHAT WAS IT LIKE HAVING ART CRUZ BEHIND THE KIT?
I think at first Art sat back a little bit because he's a new guy. He's been touring with us for a while, but we are a successful band — we were his favorite band in high school. It had to be a little intimidating. ... So I think he was a little nervous first, but pretty soon into it he started speaking up more. And that's what we want. I don't want some yes person because at that point we might as well just fucking program the drums.
AND CHRIS IS NO JOKE ON DRUMS — THOSE ARE BIG SHOES TO FILL.
Yeah, but we didn't want him to be Chris Adler either… We wanted him to bring his own flavor to it cause he's a different drummer than Chris. He does a lot of things differently than Chris … Drum geeks will tear this apart, as they do, and say, 'He did this … He's not Chris Adler. Argh!' But it's like, yeah, but he did this, this, this and this. So, you know, he came in and killed it.
LET'S TALK ABOUT THE ALBUM'S CONCEPT. CAN YOU DESCRIBE HOW YOU WORKED BACKWARDS FROM TRUMP TO THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION?
If you look at modern culture — and I'm guilty of this as much as everyone else 'cause I live here in America — it's the sort of consumer culture, this blind adherence to this idea that material possessions, wealth and quote-unquote fame, are going to bring you some sort of feeling of satisfaction and inner well-being. I think that's a problem right now. That's why we have a reality-TV-show-host, trust-fund-baby president, right? [Laughs] "He's rich. He's got a gold toilet!" [Laughs] What the fuck. That doesn't mean he should be president.
How did we get to this point where you think this asshole is the paradigm we should aspire to as the leader of our country? I think this shift started around the beginning of the Anthropocene when humans really started affecting the environment in big ways. And that started around the industrial revolution. We started mass-producing things. And there was the creation of the consumer class, quote-unquote middle class, and mass-marketing advertising was invented. So, I'm like, I think we need to start at the industrial revolution. ... I think that's where all of these ideas were really birthed and plotted and planned.
YOU'RE TACKLING SOME BROAD ISSUES, BUT IT'S NOT AN ACADEMIC EXERCISE FOR YOU. YOU HAVE A PERSONAL CONNECTION TO THESE TOPICS. "CHECKMATE" ISSUES A CLEAR TRUMP DIG WITH THE "MAKE AMERICA HATE AGAIN" LINE, BUT I ALSO THOUGHT OF THE PROTEST YOU STAGED IN RICHMOND AGAINST THE WESTBORO BAPTIST CHURCH WHO WERE HATING ON YOUR FRIEND DANICA ROEM. [ROEM IS THE FIRST OPENLY TRANSGENDER PERSON TO BE ELECTED AND SERVE IN A STATE LEGISLATURE IN AMERICA].
Yeah, there is a personal connection to it. I hesitate to call myself an activist. Because that, to me, in the modern era conjures up this sort of humorless stereotype of sign-waving, petition-signing, angry people walking around. What I do is if something is pissing me off, I speak on it, or I do my best to do something about it. And Danica is a friend of mine who comes from our scene. She's a fucking metalhead. She was in a band in Northern Virginia. ... I joke with her when I see her. She's like, "Oh, you're fucked. You're hanging out with a filthy politician." [Laughs] Because I don't have a lot of faith in our political process. On a local level, yes ... I believe the ideals America was founded on are solid. I really do think America is a wonderful place. Otherwise I'd split, because I can. I think our system needs an update ... But Danica ran on a single issue of fixing these roads in her district. ... And she wore out a lot of shoe leather and knocked on doors and talked to people. And guess what? It's happened. She's actually done what she's supposed to do ... And she doesn't make a ton of money. She's doing what she does because she wants to serve the people on a local level. And that's a beautiful fucking thing.
"ROUTES," WHICH FEATURES A GUEST SPOT BY CHUCK BILLY, WAS INSPIRED BY ATTENDING THE STANDING ROCK PROTESTS. WHAT WAS YOUR TAKEAWAY FROM THAT EXPERIENCE?
I am firmly convinced that what occurred on the Standing Rock reservation, if that was near an urban area, a small American city, there would have been fucking riots. Because the way the militarized police and private security forces treated those people was atrocious. That was an indigenous-led movement. It started with some kids and women. ... These people were like, "This could get into the water supply, and [if] it destroys our water, it's going to go down and affect everyone because the ecosystem is connected. Cause it's not a matter of if a pipeline is going to fail, it's a matter of when." ... So my takeaway from that was change can start with just a very few small people. ... It was a nonviolent, spiritual movement and all the protocols were put in place and run by the native elders. … So it was important to have a native voice on that song. ... And that's why I got Chuck Billy on this. Plus, he fucking rules.
"ON THE HOOK" ATTACKS A DIFFERENT SIDE OF CONSUMER CULTURE: CORPORATIONS PROFITING OFF THE OPIOID EPIDEMIC. HAVE YOU PERSONALLY WITNESSED THE EFFECTS OF THE CRISIS?
Have you read the book Dopesick? I was reading that right before I wrote "On the Hook." I had known forever that the opioid crisis came out of Oxycontin. I had a family friend who got strung out in her seventies. This is a wealthy woman. ... She wound up copping street drugs. Luckily, she got clean. For me, it was alcohol. But these opiates that are out there are insidious. They were giving them out like candy. Doctors were getting kickbacks and incentives ... The book also references a large-scale national epidemic, just in a different shade. [Quoting lyrics] "We've seen this all before in a different shade." A different shade is skin tone. I'm talking about crack in the African American community and the Iran Contra and all that stuff. It's an atrocity. And if you look at the Sackler family [the owners of Purdue Pharma, which manufacture OxyContin] and what has happened with them — sacking away billions, like, "This isn't our fault!" Getting filthy rich off human misery.
YOU MENTIONED GETTING CLEAN. HAS SOBRIETY HELPED YOU CHANNEL YOUR ENERGIES INTO ALL THESE ACTIVITIES AND CAUSES? YOU SEEM TO BE EXPERIENCING A REALLY ENGAGED PERIOD IN YOUR LIFE AND CREATIVITY.
I think a great part of that has to do with getting sober nine years ago. ... Alcohol crushed me. I don't know why I'm an alcoholic, it doesn't fucking matter to me. ... I do know that I drank to change the way I felt about myself, my place in the world and things that were happening in it that I cannot stomach. ... So I always had these urges to be engaged in my own life — and I was, even when I was drinking, I did a lot of shit. ... But when I removed that filter, I had no choice but to look at myself and say, "OK, you don't like all this shit. What are you going to do about it?" When I removed the filter of alcohol the creative mechanism in my mind that is a problem solver got unlocked. What can I do right this fucking second to change the situation — other than just complain, drink another shot of Jägermeister and a Heineken, and cuss out some random stranger. [Laughs] That does nothing.
But trying to help people ... I get a lot of gratification out of doing things that help people. Someone asked me yesterday, "What's the greatest gift a fan has ever given you?" I've gotten it many times, and it's a compliment: "Your music helped me through a really tough time in my life." That feels fucking good to me. That feels better than, "Oh, you got a Gold record!" Because I don't care about a Gold record. I have two of them. I've auctioned them both for charity. When we send that check to a charity for breast cancer, like we did this time with [non-profit organization] Libby's Legacy, I get super excited. I guess it might be a selfish feeling. I'm not patting myself, like, "Oh, you're such a good dude, Randy." I get stoked and I want to do it because it physically makes me feel good. And I like feeling good. [Laughs]