This article was originally published in April 2009
One recent unseasonably mild evening in Richmond, Virginia, Randy Blythe is driving down Franklin Street, when out of nowhere a police car appears in the rear-view mirror, lit up like a Christmas tree. Blythe pulls over his aging, powder blue 1993 Crown Victoria with a Samhain sticker on the back; a cop gets out and walks to the car. Another officer guards the passenger side, making sure Revolver doesn't try to make a run for it. It's a little tense.
Is Lamb of God's stormy frontman wanted for some crime? A drug offense? Is the car stolen? No, his license plate has expired. The police lady hands him a ticket. "Thank you, ma'am," Blythe replies with southern politeness, the winking cherry-top reflecting off his rear-view mirror, making a little light show on his face. "I attract cops," Blythe explains as they drive away. "There's nothing I can do about it."
A proud Richmonder, he takes Revolver on a sunset tour of the city, cranking influential local bands like Honor Role and Breadwinner on his tinny car stereo. "I love this city," he says. "There's always a feeling that something cool could happen." He heads down Monument Avenue, past towering statues of historical figures such as Civil War generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, Confederate president Jefferson Davis, and… tennis great Arthur Ashe surrounded by little bronze children, their arms outstretched. Blythe loves how it looks like Ashe is using a tennis racket to beat the children, who appear to be rising from Hell. He's a history buff and gives an excellent guided tour. Then we visit a location rich in Blythe's own history.
In early 2006, while Lamb of God were making Sacrament, Blythe (pronounced "Bly") rode his scooter home in the wee hours of a rainy morning after a drinking binge, a few cans of beer stashed in his coat. "I was pretty fucked up, so I was going all of five miles an hour most of the way," he says, then points to an intersection up ahead. "I turned that corner and the bike started sliding." Both Blythe and the scooter went flying into the median, which wouldn't have been a big deal if it hadn't been for the fact that said median was directly across the street from the Third Precinct House of the Richmond Police Department.
A cop saw the whole thing and collared Blythe, whose coat was now spouting small geysers of beer. He spent the night in the clink. The next morning, "I got out of jail and got a beer," Blythe says. "Immediately."
Then it's off to Lamb of God's practice space in a bleak industrial section. Blythe looks at the traffic sign up ahead, crows "No left turn? Fuck yoooooooooo!" and swings the car in front of the nondescript one-story complex. The band's space is amazingly small, maybe 14-feet-by-14-feet, low ceiling, no windows, cheap rugs nailed to the walls, which are lined with, beat-up amps and guitar cases.
Right away, it's apparent that Blythe isn't the maniac he seems to be onstage; he's a thoughtful man, an avid reader who puts away a book a week (favorite authors include Hemingway, Bukowski, and Hunter S. Thompson). When he wants to underscore a point, he looks at you over the top of his glasses like a librarian. Perhaps the man can be summed up by the buttons on his Sword hoodie: One is for the Misfits and the other says "Shut Up and Read!"
The singer pulls up a couple of folding chairs and a six of non-alcoholic beer, and mentions he's been practicing Zen Buddhist meditation for a year and a half. "Buddha," Blythe explains, "is just a person who figured out how to live in a mellow manner — which I'm interested in." And that's good, because, until recently, living in a mellow manner was not the way of Randy Blythe. "Mellowing out is an act of self-preservation for me, I suppose — I'm a pretty intense person sometimes," he says. "And when you throw a bunch of alcohol on top of a pretty intense, screwed-up-in-the-head person, shit happens. And shit has happened a lot."
On a nearby table sits a Dry-Erase board listing the working titles of the songs on the band's new album. It also bears evidence of brainstorming sessions for the album title. Among the rejects: Age of Plagues, Ascension, In Death We Trust and V. They wound up with Wrath.
Ranging from cinematic grandeur to scorching speedcore, Lamb of God's fifth album is, as bassist John Campbell puts it, a "fucking sick record." While Sacrament was studio-intensive, featuring subliminal synths or sound effects on most tracks, Wrath is served straight-up, dense with spectacular stunt drumming, blood-curdling vocals, and riffs that hit like a brick to the face. You're never bummed that "the cool part" stopped — because another has just detonated in your cranium like a bunker-buster. Right when most bands would have cashed in, Lamb of God has made a seething pit bull of a record, as uncompromising as anything in their decade-plus career.
For Blythe, the lyrics all revolve around a slightly different emotion than wrath: "Disgust," he says, with a bitter little laugh. "At everything: disgust with our world situation, the economy, the apathy of the American people, disgust with various individuals, disgust with the music business. But for once, I'm not disgusted with myself at all — and I'm pretty stoked about that!"
But nothing has ever come easily for Lamb of God or Randy Blythe — for them, it was a long, hard road to Wrath.
"In high school, I was the kid in the jean jacket, skipping first period, smoking cigarettes; the kids in school called me a 'grit' and a 'hesher,'" says drummer Chris Adler. "And it's probably the case with all the guys."
But with the possible exception of guitarist Mark Morton, Blythe is the only true redneck of the band — the only one, he claims, who can drive a tractor. He grew up the son of a Baptist preacher in tiny Hallsboro, in rural North Carolina, then moved near Franklin, Virginia, home of a smelly paper mill. "I'd say, 'This place stinks!'" Blythe recalls. "And people would say, 'Nah, it smells like money to me.' And I was like, 'No, it doesn't. It smells like shit. And I'm getting the hell out of here.'"
Blythe got into punk rock and became the local misfit. "When you're the only dude in a little tiny redneck town with green hair," he says, "you kind of stand out." He went to Virginia Commonwealth University in 1989, but the real draw was Richmond's thriving punk scene. He skipped school and skateboarded, made fanzines, saw bands, mixed with the art scene, and shared a house dubbed "Dirtbag Manor" — "a horrendous place," he quips, "I had a lot of good times there" — with a few heroin addicts.
The following year, Chris Adler, John Campbell, and Mark Morton became floormates at VCU. Their neighbors were indie-rockers, so the trio began hanging out, listening to music, and jamming. "I came from listening to the whole DC hardcore scene," Campbell says, "and if it wasn't punk rock hardcore music, I didn't fuckin' want to hear it." Then Adler played him …And Justice for All and Campbell began digging into early Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Pantera.
Adler dropped out and played bass in progressive alt-punk band Jettison Charlie which recorded an album called Hitchhiking to Budapest and toured for two years. By September '94, at 22, he decided to teach himself the drums, jamming with Campbell on "half of this or half of that," Adler says, "maybe a couple of Chili Peppers bass lines that he knew."
Soon Campbell suggested inducting "that dude Mark from the dorms" to play guitar. Morton was now a veteran – he'd played in a punk band called Hgual ("laugh" backwards) that was on Minneapolis indie-punk label Skene; later, he'd played in Richmond bands influenced by underground noisemakers like Fugazi and Sonic Youth. But he soon left for Chicago to pursue a master's degree and was replaced by Abe Spear; Adler's friend Matt Conner came and went, but not before naming the band Burn the Priest.
Blythe had begun hopping freight trains and traveling across country. The first time he and a buddy rode the rails, they rolled for two days before getting spotted by a railroad worker who broke the news that they'd never even left Richmond. "You guys are on the garbage train that just circles around the city," he told the would-be tramps, then helpfully directed them to the next west-bound train.
The day Blythe returned to Richmond in the fall of '95, he checked out Burn the Priest. "They were loud as fuck and awesome," he says, still impressed. "And the cops came — they were playing in this garage behind this house and the cops were shining their lights in, so they just ducked down and kept playing. And I was like, 'That is fucking punk rock!' I looked at my girlfriend and I said, 'That is the band I'm going to sing for.' She's like, 'Whatever, Randy.' A week later, I was in the band."
"And," Blythe adds cheerfully, "it's all been downhill since!"
Morton returned in 1997 — music was where his heart was. At first, they'd tour on weekends, then expanded to two-week jaunts. It wasn't exactly glorious. On a typical night, "we were the fourth band on the bill with Cannibal Corpse," Campbell says, "and we're living off tortilla chips and salsa." And let's not forget the brewskis. "One tour we dubbed the Thousand Beer Tour," Campbell recalls. "The math came out to us having to drink a 12-pack each and then some, every night, in order for us to consume a thousand beers in that period of time." They lost count, which makes sense.
A seven-song compilation made Burn the Priest one of the first successful bands on MP3.com, leading to a 1999 self-titled debut on Legion Records. Legion's Mikey Brosnan saved up $2,500 for the recording and broke them in Philadelphia by promoting DIY shows. "He found warm places for us to sleep; he found spaghetti to cook when we were hungry," says Adler. "Without Mikey, we'd very well might not be a band today." (Brosnan was killed by a drunk driver in November. Wrath is dedicated to him.)
Deciding Burn the Priest was a juvenile name, they became Lamb of God, a Biblical term for Jesus. Adler was amused by all the bands "trying to out-evil each other — the darker, crazier, Satanist crap," he says. "Using the most innocuous name, Lamb of God, turned that on its head and still let us play in the same ballpark as those bands."
Adler's younger brother Willie replaced Spear in 2000. Although he used only two fingers to fret the strings, Willie was, as Campbell puts it, "fast as fuck." His frenetic energy and great progressive riffs dueled brilliantly with Morton's distantly bluesy attack. Lamb of God were now a force.
Even after they signed with Prosthetic Records, Campbell recalls, "We still didn't believe shit was going to work out. The dudes who signed us, EJ and Dan, were … well, I didn't think they were idiots and I loved those guys for doing it, but how is this going to work for them? EJ told me one day that we'd be playing arenas and we'd forget who he was. And he was only half right."
A week before the Richmond hang, Lamb of God is on tour with Metallica. Tonight they're rocking San Diego's Cox Arena, but the audience can manage only a very modest pit. "You're not watching American Idol!" Blythe barks. "C'mon, make some noise!"
What goes through this guy's head as he stalks the stage? "I guess the overwhelming emotion is rage," Blythe says. "It's like flipping a switch — I'll be joking with our guitar tech until the minute I walk out from behind the cabinets. Then it's time for business — It's like going out to fight. It's a good time."
Mid-show, Morton has an impressive hair-swinging duel with some young guys pressed against the barricades. When he walks off stage, he high-fives all of them; they're stoked, and he's glowing because they remind him of someone. "I love those kids!" Morton raves the next evening. "How can I not? That was me, you know? That was me.
"Sometimes I feel like this is the best of all possible worlds–I get to make music for a living and it really impacts people's lives," Morton continues. "And I'm so grateful. But then there's nights where … I don't feel like that character that I'm supposed to be out there. Some nights you feel a little bit like a birthday party clown — I can bend balloons into cool shapes and send you home with a T-shirt and you'll have a good time. Those are my worst nights. On my best nights, I feel like this is what I was born to do, what I wanted to do since I was 12 years old."
After the show, spirits are high, and back in the dressing room, Blythe is having fun answering everyone in a dead-on James Hetfield vocal style, which reveals something very interesting: Randy Blythe can sing! "It's so funny," Chris says, laughing. "Every producer we have, they sit with Randy for two or three hours and talk about this and that, and within two days, they come to the band and they're like, 'Guys! Randy can sing! Like, really sing!' And yes, he's got an incredible voice. But we want, and Randy wants, that aggressive, brutal Randy. We don't need somebody crooning over what we're playing."
Revolver surveys the party vibe in the dressing room and jokes, "Where's all the horrible stuff?"
"You want horrible?" Blythe shoots back. "You should've been here three years ago."
Blythe is a sensitive soul, but he's also a true punk. "I can be a confrontational person," he admits. "I made those dudes nervous at times. I'm a loose cannon, I know that. You never quite know what you're going to get." Onstage, that works to Lamb of God's advantage — while Chris, Willie, Campbell, and Morton rock very hard, Blythe brings a wild-card edge. But that rebellious misfit spirit runs deep, it lives offstage, and adding alcohol to it is like pouring gasoline on a burning man. "Alcoholics — and make no mistake about it, I am an alcoholic — alcohol treats them differently than normal people," Blythe observes. Which explains the most notorious episode of the frontman's drinking days: During 2005's Ashes of the Wake tour, Morton, fed up with Blythe's drunken ranting, beat the singer unconscious on a Glasgow sidewalk.
Surprisingly, Blythe was fine with featuring the incident on the Killadelphia DVD. "I just don't give a fuck," he says. "Besides, it's reality. I talk to dudes in other bands, and they're like, 'Thank God you put that in there!' Because that happens in other bands. We're not the only band that has ever gotten in a drunken brawl." (Morton wasn't even the first to hit Blythe — Campbell beat him to the punch by several years, according to Chris.)
The fact is, Morton and Blythe are friendly, and share a close bond that might explain why Morton can write so many of the bitter words that Blythe sings. "I think me and Mark are the heart of darkness [in this band]," Blythe says. "Mark's crazy. Mark has darkness in his head that I think just comes from being Mark Morton. It's his singular darkness."
But, as with all bands, there are factions within Lamb of God. The internal combinations are many, but the two main ones are Blythe and … the rest of the band. "Man, I've been the black sheep forever," Blythe says wearily. "We have very, very different headspaces." There are lots of good reasons for that. For one thing, Blythe doesn't play an instrument. And from his listening habits to his clothes, he's way more punk than metal; with his lanky frame and clean-shaven face, he doesn't even resemble the rest of the guys, who look like scruffy Confederate soldiers. Randy Blythe is an outsider in his own band: the defiant fuck-up, angry and damaged but resilient. And maybe that's what a lot of Lamb of God's fans, often outsiders themselves, relate to. When Blythe barks, "Take hold of my hand/For you are no longer alone/Walk with me in hell," it's a bonding experience.
"Randy really wants people to like him, and I think they do," says Morton. "But there are moments — and sometimes those moments are a year long — where he's just fuckin' wasted, really a challenge to deal with." And that compelled the others to minimize his role in the band. "I certainly think that his voice, for a long time, was overlooked and ignored, to a point," Chris concedes, "because most of the time he was incapable of making an intelligent decision. While he certainly thought he was, the rest of the band would see through his …" He doesn't finish the sentence.
Morton reveals that he wrote some lines in "Redneck" about Blythe. "I was pretty frustrated by his commitment level," Morton acknowledges, "and, as a friend, frustrated by what he was doing to everyone around him. It was like, c'mon, dude, just get it together!"
Fittingly, push finally came to shove during the June 2006 "Redneck" video shoot in Los Angeles. Everyone shared hotel rooms except Blythe — "No one," says Chris, "wanted to be around him."
"It was at a bad spot," the drummer continues. "We were probably as close as we had ever been to shutting down: potentially new singer, potentially the band over." The others were fuming — they'd sweated blood for eight months on the new album, the label was giving them a big push — and they couldn't stand to be in the same room with their singer. Something had to budge. "So I kind of took a few deep breaths and went down to Randy's room," Chris says. And the two bandmates had a heart-to-heart.
"His response," Adler says, "was, 'I know I have my demons and I have some cleaning up to do, but there is a history of not being taken seriously and not allowing me into this. I'm not blaming you guys but some of my behavior is certainly reactionary to that.' So we worked together on it. He was willing to make an attempt to clean himself up if I was willing to go and have the same heart-to-heart with the guys and say, 'Listen, we're all going to make an attempt here, and it's going to be difficult because there's a lot of history.' But we all did it. And so far, we've succeeded."
"I was pretty proud of him for manning up and talking to me," Blythe says. "I appreciated it. It was very cool of them to do that. He said, 'We'll meet you halfway.' Because on both ends, there was a lot of point-blank, fuck you, this is never going to change, without any chance of concession whatsoever. And he came to me and said, 'Look, we'll try to meet you if you try to meet us.' And that was the first time that had ever happened. After 12 years."
Blythe says there was no pivotal episode that led to his sobriety, not the scooter crash, not Chris' speech. "It was just making me depressed–massively, massively depressed," he says. "So I was like, you know, I need to try something different." Blythe was going through other stuff too, but he won't talk about it. "It's never just alcohol," Blythe declares. "Alcohol is not your problem — it's the solution to your problem. Regrettably, it's not a very effective solution."
Still, the rest of the band puts away beer like there's no tomorrow, something Blythe has made peace with. "Sometimes it's hard, but you have to realize that the rest of the world doesn't have your problem, and it's a rock show, and people are going to drink," he says. "It gets on my fucking nerves sometimes that everybody's wasted all the time. But then I used to be wasted all the time."
When the Sacrament tour ended just before Christmas of 2007, the five musicians went their separate ways. "When we're home we don't see too much of each other, to be honest," Campbell says. "When we ended that tour, we didn't have a whole lot to talk about, since I know exactly what the fuck you've been doing for the past 18 months."
Morton played with some friends — "heavy blues-rock, Black Crowesy, Allman Brothers kind of stuff," he says. Campbell toured with his beloved classic rockists RPG, and he and his wife prepared for the birth of their son that summer. Willie chilled out with his family and didn't pick up a guitar for a month. Blythe did a little recording in France with Gojira and took his wife to Kyoto to see the cherry blossoms; on another break, he studied with survivalist Cody Lundin, living in the Arizona desert, Stone Age-style. "It's a punk-rock attitude," the frontman says, "the ultimate DIY."
Blythe sometimes sings with Halo of Locusts but has a few other side projects in mind: singing in a "weird gothic" band with Cristina Scabbia from Lacuna Coil and Slipknot bassist Paul Gray, fronting a horror-rock band with Samhain drummer Steve Zing and Type O Negative guitarist Kenny Hickey, and even doing some solo electronic stuff — "mostly noise." Blythe made his acting debut in the horror film The Graves (tag line: "In Skull City, death is the least of your problems"), which hits film festivals this year. "I get to slit a woman's throat, choke a woman out, and I get impaled through the face," he says. "Acting's a blast!"
But workaholic Chris couldn't stand the time off. "I. Lost. My. Mind," he says grimly. So he'd work on his house or go to the gym or practice drums for hours, every day. "For me, this band is everything," Chris says. "I have a hard time stepping away."
They were supposed to take a longer break, but Willie and Chris started jamming for fun, and then everybody else wanted in. It was a lot different from the pressurized atmosphere of Sacrament. "On this record, it seemed like there was a strong bond, a real unification, between the whole band when we came together to write," Willie says. "Randy was coming to practice, sitting outside of the room and writing lyrics, and really had his head in the game. That's the first time he's ever done that. So it was a really, really good experience."
It was time for a new recording approach, too. With Sacrament, "we indulged ourselves in studio production because we'd never really had the means to do it," says Morton. "There's no way we were going to out-Sacrament Sacrament." So Wrath is much more straightforward. "I wanted it to be stripped down and baring our souls, and show everybody that we didn't just stick with the 'Redneck' thing, that we tried to push things." Willie says. "So we plugged our guitars into our amps and played it the way people would hear it when they see us play live."
The band enlisted Josh Wilbur, who'd helped engineer Sacrament, to record the music. "We were trying to get away from the overbearing producer," Chris explains. They just wanted Wilbur to get great sounds and let Lamb of God be Lamb of God. "Josh wound up offering a whole lot more than that," says Chris. "But he would never tell us what to do — he was just trying to pull us out of that concept where we needed to sound friendly or write some kind of single."
Not that Lamb of God would ever try for their own "Enter Sandman." "There's a lot of bands that we came up with, but there's not many left — and they chose to do that kind of thing," Chris says. "We're still around, we're still successful, and we didn't lose the integrity or the credibility of the band. When I'm 60 years old, telling my grandchildren about this band, the last thing I want to do is explain how we went for the cash grab."
The Wrath sessions were the first time that Blythe recorded sober. "I was pretty nervous about it," he says, "but that quickly disappeared once I was in the studio. It's even more boring recording sober." The results speak for themselves — the vocals are a more important part of the music than before, and Blythe screams with even more intensity and variety than ever. "I just think Randy is comfortable with pushing himself beyond what he thinks he can do, to what we all know he's capable of," Willie says. "He took it to the next level."
But it's not just Blythe who's kicked it up a notch. "I really feel like it's better now, since we were just stupid kids piling in the van, going 'Hey, let's go to Philly and play. It's gonna be a big party!'" Morton says. "Psychologically, mentally, it's the best it's ever been. It's really exciting to reach that stride at this stage in our career."
The day after the traffic stop, Blythe sits down with Revolver outside a café for a little more jawboning. At one point, three guys walk by — one of them calls out, "You are the friggin' man, dude! Love you, man!" Blythe tries to act cool, but he's clearly touched.
There's a lesson in all the strife he and his band have gone through, and Randy Blythe knows what it is. "You have to accept things the way they are," he says. "You can wish something didn't happen, but the fact is, it did, so you might as well deal with it and make the most of it. Because this moment is all you have."