I sheepishly have to admit that Sully Erna's first solo record Avalon got by me when it was released a few years back. The Godsmack frontman took a real left turn with this project, stripping the hard rock away and crafting a record that is big on atmosphere and more earthy tones. I'm banging my head on the desk now because a forthcoming release of a live DVD and box set has brought to my attention what I initially missed out on and I'm loving this thing in a BIG way.
Let me assure anybody that is a Godsmack fan, you have to check this live set. Unless you're a lumbering idiot, this music will reach you. While it's obviously not the in-your-face rock the band is famous for, there is the same moody ambience that permeates anything Sully does. The record is great but this DVD is even greater. There is a wicked vibe that you can feel sink right into you and you're transported into somewhere otherworldly. The musicians are phenomenal and all get a chance to do their thing and your eyes are busy trying to take all the magic in.
The DVD consists of a special show that was taped last year in Boston at the historic Wilbur Theatre. There is also a box set that would be nirvana for any Sully fan. There are five DVDs in the set which include the 2-disc concert, a making of as well as another documentary and also a bloopers and outtakes disc with videos from the Avalonrecord. That's not all, folks. You also get Sully's personal memoir, a poster, t-shirt, hat, necklace, tour book, guitar pick and hand-made incense that has been personally chosen by Sully himself. This is a limited edition set and to make it even more special, there are 5 golden tickets hidden in some of the box sets. You can read what the owners of these tickets can experience further along in this interview.
It was a pleasure to speak with Sully recently to talk about the DVD and the Avalon project.
antiMusic: Some records are great headphone records. Some are only truly realized in a live setting. Avalonis the rare combination of both but did you envision from the beginning these songs coming into their own on stage the way they have?
Sully: No, I can't ever do that. Over the years I've just learned to try to make the best record I can make and then I have to figure out how to pull it off live. But I'm also very conscious about not overdubbing too much or multi-tracking too much. Because when you start to put on layers, it becomes tricky to pull off live unless you start running tape and I just refuse to do that. I will not be one of those bands that runs Pro-Tools and all that stuff with the band.
Even in Godsmack, we've taken pride in performing the live shows as good if not better than the record. So we may fatten up the guitar tracks and things like that but that's OK because the sound man's job is to make the guitar sound nice and fat on stage. But as far as layering and all that, we've been conscious of that because I've always loved musicians who play their instruments live and in this day and age, in the pop world and all this stuff, I mean, half of the people aren't even singing any more, let alone playing their instrument. So for me, I'm very proud, no matter what project I'm involved in…I won't play in a project unless the people can pull off the stuff live and play their instruments live on stage.
antiMusic: You're not just putting out a DVD. You're doing a deluxe limited edition box set. How did you determine what all you were going to put in there because this thing is packed?
Sully: Yeah, it was just trial and error. It came up as a raw idea about filming the show live because it just felt really special and it was a cool visual thing to watch. Eight musicians on stage. Then the director Dan Catullo who's done some of the older Godsmack shows, suggested that we put it together as a package with my book, and the t-shirt and the hat. Then from there, we had the making of the album that Palladia had aired on TV for eight months or so. So we threw that in there. And little by little we just kept building and building until we had this elaborate kind of thing.
Then I just wanted to put a cherry on top and make sure that not only do we sell these units but we give fans a very special package that you don't hear many bands doing. So we started talking about this whole Golden Ticket giveaway where a fan can win a pair of tickets to spend the day with me. And from there, we started to figure out, well what's a cool trip for a fan? Well, hopefully we'll organize this where I'll be playing some solo shows so that will be part of it. So their airfare will be paid for and their hotel. Then they'll come to the show that night or dinner with me. Or a day in Vegas, or jet-skiing or whatever it is. We'll just try to make sure it's really special. We targeted the coolest cities like Vegas, New York, Napa Valley, Boston and Avalon/Catalina Island. So we'll come up with whatever is authentic to that city and do a Day With, for the grand prize.
antiMusic: How many solo shows did you do and where was this Boston show in the lineup?
Sully: Well, the Boston show was separate. It was detached from the tour. We had toured in the summer with Avalon. And towards the end of the year was when this whole idea came up. So we set it in a very historical venue in Boston called the Wilbur Theatre and just did a one-off show and it was great. People flew in from all over the country to see it and it was cool. It was a great vibe. My hometown. Once again, it was all just part of the magic that this project continues to put out since the day we wrote the record and toured on it and all this stuff. Everything just feels like it fell into place with this music. So it's something that we're really grateful for because it's not often that you get these kinds of moments where everything feels so special. And everything around it, from the music to the people to the musicians involved with it, just all works freakishly, almost flawlessly.
antiMusic: Did you feel more or less pressure performing in front of your hometown? I mean you have the support there I'm sure but I imagine then it works the other way that with some special people in the audience it's more incumbent upon you to not let anybody down.
Sully: Yeah, but you know what? I've had nothing but complete confidence in this project. I mean, the day we finished this project….I'm a runner. I like to run and I was just telling somebody that usually over the years that I've written so many songs and so many albums that now the whole process is very tedious. By the time you think of a song and put it together and figure it out and rehearse it and record it and mix it and master it. By the time I'm done a record and put it on the shelf, I don't want to listen to it. I'm completely sick of it. I can't stand listening to my own music after it's done because I've already heard it a thousand times by that point. And I have to put it away for a while before I can really enjoy it again.
But Avalon was really different for me. I've got to tell you. Even after two years of writing it and getting it all ready, I still would put it on my I-Phone and run five miles every morning and that was the record that I would run to. I don't know….it would just take me away….take me to places. It's a very visual record. It paints pictures for you. It's just one of those records that took a long time for me to not want to hear it. It was two, almost three years now of me listening to it straight and that, to me, tells me that there's something magical about it. And it's not just because it's my own music. I'm very critical about my own music. I'll be the first one to tell you when I hate a song or I'm sick of it or burnt out on it.
But for me to keep listening to this, I was really able to step back from a fan or producer point of view and just listen to it as music rather than my music. And I started thinking that for me to keep listening to this, I had to hope that people would hear the magic in this album because it felt timeless to me at times. Just the way the songs came together, the way the melodies flow. Like "Until Then…" and "My Light". Those songs just feel timeless to me and I hope they get there at some point. I know the record didn't blow up and become the biggest record when it came out but I don't feel that it is that kind of record anyway. I feel that it's more of a cult following…an underground kind of thing that will grow organically and build over the years through new music that I put out. Hopefully that record will become something classic one day. I'm not sure. But for me, it's really special.
antiMusic: This band is very dynamic. Did they gel together right away or was there a bit of a feeling out process before they could fully lock in?
Sully: Listen, all the musicians in the band are extremely talented. They are all 10 times the musician I could be. Irina Chirkova, the cello player, is from Bulgaria. She's classically trained. She's taught in the Boston colleges for over 10 years. My keyboard player does a lot of soundtrack stuff. Lisa Guyer --- I've known her for over 25 years. She's been one of the most amazing blues singers I've ever heard. The guitar player is just a well of information. He knows practically every classic rock song you could ever name. Everybody has these different backgrounds. Niall Gregory, from Dead Can Dance, our lead percussionist, he's well versed in Celtic and Brazilian-style drumming and all that. So it's no wonder that the album came out the way it did. Everybody brought all these different backgrounds and inspirations to it.
I come from a hard rock background. Lisa comes from blues. Niall comes from Ireland and Irina comes from Bulgaria. So it's one of those things that when we got together and wrote and recorded this record, it was done in pieces over time. So when we got together to rehearse it, everybody was very familiar with it. They had listened to it and lived with it forever. So we just started working it through and we just said "OK, everybody just needs to play their instrument here and what we're missing we'll figure it out." Because everybody is a multi-instrumentalist, especially the drummer. So they were able to piece things together. Maybe on the record we had a piece that had bongos or something but we also had a tambourine or a shaker. The group was able to utilize their feet and their hands or something to make sure nothing was missing and we captured everything that was on the album. So to me, it was very important that I worked with people like this too so that we were able to cover all this live. So it's really due to the fact that these people are just great musicians that it sounds as good as it does live.
antiMusic: The sound of the entire band is just amazing but I think the most arresting part of it is the combination of your and Lisa's voice. Had you worked with her prior to "Hollow" from IV?
Sully: No, "Hollow" was the first song that I had invited her onto a Godsmack record but it was then that I identified how well our voices worked together. So a year or two later, whenever it happened, when I was putting this project together, I knew I wanted a female voice on there with me, and that's when I thought of Lisa. I knew our voices meshed well and I knew that she was capable of doing anything that I asked of her as far as her range goes. And she also fell in love with some of the bands that I had been listening to over the years like Dead Can Dance. I actually took her to one of their shows and she fell in love with the whole band and Lisa Gerrard and how cool and hypnotic that whole vibe was from that band. And so she got it right away. I told her that this was the kind of vibe that I wanted to do. I just wanted a more modern edge to it and make it a little more current and not so world music but different and not so straight-up alternative rock or something like that. So she was a key element to the way this thing sounds the way it does because her voice is so distinctive.
antiMusic: A really cool part of the set was the inclusion of "The Chain" ending with "Hey Jude". It fit the vibe of the show perfectly. What was the thought process of adding that to the set list?
Sully: Well the thought process was we wanted to just perform Avalon live from front to back and make that the body of the show. But because it's only the first album, we don't have a lot of material and we didn't want to leave there without having an encore. So the first thing I thought of was one of the songs that would fit into this vibe is "Serenity". And that was just something I wanted to do for the fans for embracing this project and spreading the word and acting as a street team for Avalon. And then from there, we thought it would be just cool to lighten up the mood and so something for fun. We started thinking, "Well, we can't just start doing a Metallica song or something like that. It wouldn't fit with that vibe." So we were trying to think what song would fit with this whole mystical, eerie kind of earthly thing and the first person I thought that would be perfect for this would be Stevie Nicks. Cuz she had the whole witchy vibe and Fleetwood Mac at times can have that whole cool mystical thing to them. So being able to cover her vocals, it just seemed like a no-brainer. So I suggested doing "The Chain".
And "Hey Jude", I've always done at solo shows because it's just such a big sing-along thing. And it really lets people from the audience open up and feel the music pass through them. It just became a really obvious ending.
antiMusic: Your piano solo was amazing. I never knew you were so adept at keys. Was that an improv or a rehearsed piece?
Sully: It was just something that I had over the years. We really just needed a piece to transition out from one song to the next and it just so happens that the musicians needed to change instruments between this song and that song so it felt appropriate to do some kind of instrumental piece before I went into the song "Until Then…". So it's just an instrumental piece that I've noodled around with and just kind of wing it at times.
antiMusic: I've read that the solo route allows you to do songs that don't really fit with the band. On the good side, does that make it easier to just direct a song to one or the other or on the bad side could you see it ultimately kind of handcuffing the band to what it could potentially do?
Sully: No, because you know what? Godsmack, over the years, has tried to take a left hand turn here and there and do something a little bit more mainstream without losing the integrity of what we've always been. So songs like "Voodoo", "Serenity", "Hollow" and "Shinedown", those songs were quite different than the core of what Godsmack does, which is just tough, raw hard rock music. It's very, you know, America's Joe workboot kind of band. It never really broke through for us and although those songs did well, it also made us realize that "Hey, what people expect this band to be is a big, tough hard rock band with a cool live show."
So we've kind of identified Godsmack to be that, the big monster hard rock band that just gets up there and it's a complete big testerone, f*cking strap-yourself-in, here-we-go kind of thing. So we're OK with that. That's what Godsmack should be. That's the badge that we wear. It should be that. But it's also the reason I branched out to do a solo career. I don't like to have a ceiling over my head. And I don't like to be pigeon-holed into one style of music. So because I sit at my piano and I play a lot and I come up with some other music. Or I sit with my acoustic or whatever it is that I play as an instrument. Sully Erna is now another brand that I can use as a vehicle to get other colors and textures out of myself in music and not just be stuck in one place.
Like I was saying on the documentary of the making of the record, I was trying to explain to people that Godsmack is one side of me and Sully Erna is the other. And I need both of those for balance. It's very important. So it's all the more reason why I need to nurture and pursue solo music because even with the next record to come out, it may not sound anything like Avalon. It could be more stripped down…cleaner…I don't know. But I do know that it will be a complete departure from anything I do with Godsmack.
Morley and antiMusic thank Sully for taking the time to do this interview.