The singer-guitarist wrote the title track to Lighting Up the Sky — which closes the hard-rock veterans' new, eighth and what they claim will be last-ever studio record — from the perspective of what he'd say now to a young Sully just starting out. In his trademark bellow, Erna sings of "burning through a life" and "never taking time, never take it slow." Musically, the song shifts from shimmering chords and cinematic picking sequences to the big riffs that have made Godsmack hitmakers since the Clinton Administration.
"If I could go back, would I have done it different?" says Erna, reflecting on the central theme of the title track's lyrics during a recent call with Revolver. "Or would I have gone a thousand miles an hour like I did and have no regrets? Because maybe if I didn't do it that way, we wouldn't have gotten to where we've gotten. Is it something I apologize for or something I honor? And so, 'Lighting Up the Sky' is just a metaphor for running a thousand miles an hour around the world."
If Godsmack really are getting out of the studio-album biz, Lighting Up the Sky is a metric-ton mic drop. The Massachusetts-founded band — which also features bassist Robbie Merrill, lead guitarist Tony Rombola and drummer Shannon Larkin — sounds as inspired and vigorous as ever. Beyond the title track, other highlights include the blues-metal opener "You and I," radio sizzler "Surrender," mystical mini-epic "Growing Old," strings-swathed ballad "Truth" and angular gem "Best of Times."
Lyrically, Erna's themes are reflective throughout Lighting Up the Sky's 11 tracks, the sequencing of which takes listeners on a Dark Side of the Moon gone Mob Rules-style journey: a 55-year-old rocker who's scaled the mountain, looking back on life, love, loss, family and what makes it all worth it.
Erna's success wasn't overnight. He didn't "make it" until he was in his early thirties, a move that required him to step out from behind his natural instrument, the drums. His years of putting in the work — and every hard-won lesson he's learned since Godsmack formed in 1995 — add weight to what he sings.
"We were one of the last eras," Erna recalls, "where you had to flyer the cars on a certain street that had a nightclub on it, because there was a big band playing that night and a big crowd. You're out there until one in the morning flyering cars and trying to play for a case of beer and $50."
Whereas Godsmack's previous album, 2018's When Legends Rise, was more textural, Lighting Up the Sky sounds like a high-octane band tearing it up in a room. In other words, it's vintage Godsmack — as heard on their signature hits like "I Stand Alone," "Whatever," "Awake," and the tribal-rock classic "Voodoo."
Which begs the question: why quit now? "We're not announcing the death of the band," Erna clarifies. "We're not announcing a farewell tour. We just don't think there's gonna be another full body of work after this. I mean, I could end up doing a collaboration with another artist or a soundtrack. There may be other things. It just feels like it's the right time to start enjoying the sunset years and really focusing on, like, a greatest-hits show."
Erna says that the band's primary goal moving forward will be to create a striking tour production to present all those hits — and there are a lot. For perspective, in 2020 Godsmack tied Van Halen for Top 10 hits on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Songs chart, and their newest single, "Surrender," earned them their 27th Top 10 ranking and held the No. 1 spot for five weeks. At the time of our interview, Godsmack are mostly scheduled for festival dates. At Florida's Welcome to Rockville, they'll perform right before Pantera. It's not a slot for the timid, but they have the bash and bangers required for such a gig. During our chat, presented in the edited excerpts that follow, Erna candidly discusses — in his salt-of-the-earth New England accent — career highlights and lowlights, creating Godsmack's swan song and more.
FINAL ALBUMS BY LONG-RUNNING BANDS RARELY SOUND AS GOOD AS LIGHTING UP THE SKY. BUT WHEN YOU CREATE AN ALBUM THIS STRONG, DOESN'T THAT MAKE YOU WANT TO MAKE MORE OF THEM?
SULLY ERNA Well, thank you. I really appreciate that. We put a lot of effort and thought into this record and because of COVID we had the luxury of time. [Laughs] Look, everyone has a goal, right? Some people just go, "I want to have a family and a house with a white picket fence, a dog and a truck." They get that and then they go, "Well, I'd love a motorcycle, too." And they never stop.
We wanted to be successful. We wanted to be rock stars. We wanted to do this for a living and be able to support our families and have a decent life. We didn't have to be stadium level, but we wanted to at least accomplish arena level and do it consistently. And we've arrived. Now we have to ask, "OK, well, we always wanted to do this with our lives. But is this everything we wanted to do with our lives?" And for me, the answer is no.
There are other things I want to do. I want to spend time with the people I love and care about, and enjoy the things that I've worked hard for. But I still want to be able to go out and perform live, like, "Hey, we haven't seen each other in a little bit. Why don't we go hit the festivals this summer and headline and go have some fun with the fans and the music?" And then be able to just go back to your own life without the obligations of a record label or another album.
HOW IS THE BAND GETTING ALONG THESE DAYS?
We're tighter than we've ever been. When we first got together, of course, we're young, it's exciting. You go through so many years like that. And then the wear and tear starts, and the alcohol abuse and the drugs and all the things that get you hungover and feel pain and fight. And all that crabbiness starts. It tests your endurance, patience and longevity.
There were so many times where we really thought we were hanging it up. We got to that point where we thought maybe it was a good decision to go and get some help — instead of being selfish and ending it and disappointing the fans. So we did that. We worked with a therapist and, you know, regained our brotherhood. And of course, we still had to figure each other out, and we had to get past that moment. But then it all smoothed out.
When you're together long enough, and there's so many moments that you have each other's back, I think those moments start to come back and everyone thinks about each other differently. We got over so many hurdles and so many mountains. And now we're on the other side, and we're adults and we have children and families. There's nothing else to challenge each other about. There's no animosity.
FACELESS TURNS 20 THIS YEAR. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE ALBUM NOW? DO YOU HAVE ANY STANDOUT MEMORIES WHEN YOU THINK BACK TO THAT ERA?
I liked the record. I don't love the production. When I listen to it, I don't think we got the production right compared to the strength of the songs. I mean, obviously, our biggest single we've ever had, "I Stand Alone" — that stood at No. 1 for 17 weeks on the charts — that's on that record. That was a great moment because I got to do my first real video, with The Rock and Kelly Hu from The Scorpion King, which gave me a little bit of an acting bug and I kind of pursued that.
But my fondest memory is I got to meet my idol on that record. It turned out that Rush was playing in Miami when we were down there living and recording that record. [Drummer] Neil [Peart's] assistant reached out to my assistant at the time. He's like, "Hey, we're in town. We know you guys are fans of the band and Sully always talks about Neil [in interviews] and he'd love to have you guys at the show."
So they invited us, and it was so ironic because I had just been reading his book Ghost Rider, and I was so moved by the book that it inspired me to write the song "Serenity." I had just demoed the thing and handwritten all the lyrics. And so we went to see them. Of course, we had a great time. They put us on the stage during the drum solo and me and Shannon sat there with our Rush hats and shirts and tour books looking like nerds. And I get to meet Neil.
I gave him the lyrics to "Serenity" and even asked if he'd be interested in playing the drum track on that song, although he politely declined. He said, "You'll see one day when you're well into your 50s that when you're on break, you're on break. And once this is done, I'm going to be taking some time off." And now I get it because I'm in my 50s. But it still allowed me to establish a relationship with him, and over the years I got to know him really well and hung out with him a few times.
GODSMACK'S 2018 SONG "UNDER YOUR SCARS" WAS INSPIRED BY YOUR TIME DATING LADY GAGA. THAT HISTORY CAME UP IN THE METAL PRESS AGAIN RECENTLY…
Listen, I really don't have a lot to say on this topic. What I will tell you is that I have an immense amount of respect for her. I was introduced to her through a mutual friend. We clicked and dated for a hot minute, and there was nothing but respect for each other. ... There may be a lot of people in the world that think she's kooky and crazy because she's so wild with fashion and things like that, but she knows exactly what she's doing. She's an extremely smart businesswoman. And she's kind and super talented. I'm proud to say that I shared some great moments with her. I was able to meet Elton John through her. She's an incredibly great person and those are some very fond memories for me. And I'll leave it there.