The Cover Story

Avenged Sevenfold: “We want to make a roadmap to show artists that there’s a better way”

Ahead of the band’s third headline performance at Download this weekend, and one year on from the release of brain-bending eighth album Life Is But A Dream…, M. Shadows is, well, living the dream right now. And having successfully found the freedom he’s always wanted for Avenged Sevenfold, he’s now focussed on showing other artists how they too can own their future…

Avenged Sevenfold: “We want to make a roadmap to show artists that there’s a better way”
Ian Winwood
Brian Cattelle
Live photography:
Sara Schmidle

In 2016, M. Shadows and Synyster Gates engaged in a full and frank exchange of views about the speed and course set by the good ship Avenged Sevenfold. The points of order under discussion by the group’s singer and lead guitarist – respectively, Matt and Brian to their friends – were issues fundamental, perhaps even existential, regarding motivation, working hours, private lives, and the division of professional and familial responsibilities amid the constant thunder of a rolling rock group. As with so much of what lies at the core of A7X, these topics were tied together by a desire to find harmony in a shared instinct for constant evolution.

“It was during [the making of 2016 album] The Stage record that Brian and I really had it out in terms of workload, work ethic, and how we all wanted to get the record done,” Matt says. “Because it was taking a really long time. At that point at least, I was the driver of this thing, like I’ve been driving it since I was 17 years old. And at a certain point I realised I had to give up those reins. I had to realise that the only way the band was going to survive was by me not hounding bandmates who were [then] in their 30s. You can’t have that all the time. We have families, people have kids, priorities change. I realised, basically, that everyone’s an adult now.”

The moment at which the man caught sight of a verdant wood rather than a copse of trees inspired an ongoing – and here comes that word again – evolution in the operations department of Avenged Sevenfold. The singer explains, “Because we do all have families, the road, for example, has to be a place where everyone can bring them out at any time. There’s no problem with that; everyone’s taken care of. It’s also important to meet people where they’re at – when they’re inspired, when they want to do a record, when we want to write. Everybody has to be on the same page. It can’t be, like, ‘Well, I’m ready to go, so you guys have to be ready too.”

One of the most difficult tasks facing any long-standing band is the successful navigation of the swaying, rickety rope bridge connecting the eternally adolescent instincts of rock’n’roll with the requirements of adult life. Things change. A quarter of a century after forming in Huntington Beach, California, Avenged Sevenfold are wilder and weirder than they ever were, but the gang is no longer the only important thing in its members lives. Certainly, Matt’s admission that as a younger man, “I wanted to go on tour so bad [but] then I realised all I really want to do is be with my family,” surely explains why his group’s appearance atop the Sunday night bill at Download this coming weekend will likely be the only UK appearance in support of last year’s Life Is But A Dream… LP. If you want the truth of it, he’s “not interested in a run of 17 arena shows” in Britain and mainland Europe.

So, yeah, pick the bones out of that.

On a typically bright May morning in southern California, the 42-year-old singer strides through his spacious home in Orange County fresh from a road trip of a different kind. Swapping microphones and spotlights for rods and landing nets, our interviewee has spent the last five days on the lakes of Utah fishing for carp and trout with his two young sons. The excursion made for good eating and good sights. Beneath a jewelled canopy, a night-time constellation stretching all the way to the horizon made it seem like Matt was hurtling across the Milky Way. As the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says in the third and final act of Exist, the mind-exploding 15-minute final track from The Stage, there are ‘more stars than words and sounds ever uttered by all humans who ever lived’.

“I have this mind-set of being put on this earth when you didn’t ask to be here,” Matt says. “There’s no real objective. But when I was with the kids in Utah… it felt like I was flying through space. You feel that you’re in it. And you think about things and you ponder things. You look at the human expression of what we do while we’re here.”

In senses musical and interpersonal, and as a business organisation that understands ways of mastering new technology without recourse to obsolete third parties, Avenged Sevenfold have done their share of thinking and pondering. After stepping away from a legally disputatious long-term recording contact with Warner Bros. – having returned after releasing The Stage on Capitol – Life Is But A Dream… was their last album for the company, and Matt is quick to confirm that his band “will never sign another record deal”.

As fast as that, we’re back to the theme of evolution. A7X no longer need the things on which they used to rely. They don’t require permission from meddlesome music executives to proceed in a manner of their own choosing. Perhaps more radical still is an appreciation of the needlessness of seeking the blessings of an international constituency who have gathered to their flame. Sure, the approval of an audience provides nourishment to all bands, but to seek it before the fact is an impediment to the most important aspect of art and music: freedom.

“If the fans like one thing from you, they want more of that,” Matt says. “Or they think they want more of that. And if you let it, that will mould what your next creative output will be. But you have to reject that audience capture or else you’ll become a brand. And then the next thing you know you’re trying to look like you did when you were 20… But you’re actually 60.”

In the summer of 2006, Avenged Sevenfold appeared on the same bill as Metallica at a slew of European festivals. In the small hours, along with Matt Heafy from Trivium and Matt Tuck of Bullet For My Valentine, M. Shadows and Lars Ulrich would talk music in the drummer’s hotel suite. As his band’s chief architect and visionary, and with his head (as always) on a swivel, the ever-talkative Dane was keen to hear the opinions of this counsel-of-the-future he dubbed “the three Matts”. But in what seems like the passing of a summer’s day, remarkably, today the Avenged Sevenfold singer is now the same age as the drummer was 18 years earlier. In a striking inversion, it is now the younger man who looks to the elder statesman as a guide for plotting a credible course into the future.

“I think Metallica have aged really well,” he says. “I think they look like dudes who are out there doing what they want to do. Maybe a few years ago it looked a little bit more…” – a careful pause – “…forced, but they were going through growing pains. But now you see them and it’s James [Hetfield] smoking a cigar before he goes onstage. Lars is Lars. They’re not trying to fill up their faces with Botox. They’re just guys who are ageing dudes who are playing thrash. I think there’s something really human and cool about that.”

Mind you, in one sense at least, Avenged Sevenfold are ageing better. For while few are the people who would claim the music made by latter day Metallica represents the group’s creative high watermark, with the dazzling and boundlessly inventive Life Is But A Dream… A7X have sculpted a career-best album at the point at which many, and perhaps most, bands have lost several yards of pace. Only a group still ravenous with hunger could fashion a creation as forensically berserk as this.

Elsewhere, though, philosophical similarities blend like harmonies from a barbershop quartet. In seeking to shorten the divide between artist and audience – foregoing formal record contracts for technological advancements such as virtual concerts, a social hub linked to Fortnite, NFTs sold through their Deathbats Club, and more – the younger group have swept away the kinds of 20th century business practices of which Metallica removed themselves by taking ownership of their own music and launching Blackened Records in 2012. The tactics employed by Avenged Sevenfold are different, of course, but the campaign is the same. In battling their way towards an endgame of total emancipation, both bands have evolved to the point of complete control over all they survey.

“We’re one of those bands who [have] actually survived releasing eight records for a major record label,” Matt explains. “And so we’ve seen a lot. And we’ve seen the numbers, and we’ve seen the ways that corporations pretty much control art. And it’s an interesting, weird sort of dynamic, but you’re going to get people involved who… take make money off the back of art. And one of the things that happens is that the artists say, ‘Leave me alone, I want to create.’ And that’s fair enough. I get that. But my own brain works a little differently. I like getting into the technology and the weeds of the contracts that we sign. I like seeing the deals and I like seeing how much somebody is making off me or our band – where it’s fair and where it’s a little egregious.”

Time was that purists would regard the kind of advice spoken by Gene Simmons – that, in the music business, briefcases are as important as guitars – as being the words of someone more interested in cash registers than chord progressions. It was the kind of chat that was seen as being a bit, you know, déclassé. A bit grubby. But with the days when the idealistic artist could make like an ostrich when confronted with matters relating to business long gone, today these words could hardly be more prophetic had they been engraved on tablets of stone.

With the decayed infrastructure of the past sustained only by habit and illusion, major labels are no longer good for securing window displays in record shops that, anyway, are closing at a depressing rate. Long gone are the days of labels fronting hundreds of thousands of dollars for music videos, or of promoting singles to radio stations that would punt their “product” upon the ears of listeners who would otherwise remain oblivious to a band’s existence. The game, you see, has changed. In an age of instant technology, of artists reaching listeners in seconds, MTV and KROQ are no longer the gatekeepers of public taste. As Matt says, “since the advent of the internet and the advent of streaming, we’ve basically been living in the wild west”.

He goes on.

“So now what they do is they go to TikTok and they take someone who’s already gone viral [on social media], but who doesn’t have a label and they wrap ’em up into a shitty deal,” he says. “But they can’t do anything for them. When Avenged Sevenfold were on Warner Bros., they were trying to figure out how to create a viral TikTok moment. What? I’m a fucking 42-year-old man, I’m not trying to figure out how to do a viral TikTok moment. I’m sorry. You’re going to take 24 cents on our dollar and that’s all you can do, come up with a fucking fake viral TikTok moment?”

“I live with so much empathy in my heart for people”

M. Shadows discusses the importance of empathy

M. Shadows is a voluble interviewee. The ease and frequency with which he unfurls his fittingly Californian smile suggests a future, should it be desired, as a model in toothpaste commercials. He likes basketball, not just as a viewer but as a participant who plays on tarmac courts three times a week. “I think I’m a nice person,” he says, “at least I hope so – in fact, everyone thinks I’m too nice.” But please understand that he’s no longer the same person he used to be. A generation ago, when A7X put their names to a recording contract that elevated them to the big leagues, they were, like all artists of the time, flattered and grateful for the attention bestowed upon them. Bands didn't question the imbalance of power between giant corporations and a group of eager young rockers. Not anymore, though. In 2024, the pendulum has swung in the favour of music makers – in principle at least; for some of them, certainly – whose freedom can be secured by pushing at a door that has been unlocked by modern technology. In fact, should you choose to follow him, Matt might even show you the way.

“I would say that Avenged Sevenfold is exploring new technologies,” he says. “And we’ve found things that are going to be able to help artists in the future. Because a lot of artists don’t want to help themselves – and, like I said, I totally understand that. But we want to be the people who make a roadmap and can show artists that there’s a better way to gain ownership over your own art.”

When your reporter first interviewed Avenged Sevenfold, in Pittsburgh in 2005, M. Shadows cut a strikingly different figure. Perhaps not quite a hammerhead, he was by any measure a trainee All-American Rock Star whose sense of singular certainty rendered him identical to a dozen other heavily tattooed, and equally heavily promoted, frontmen – each of whom believed that talent alone had landed them on the covers of national magazines. Perhaps understandably, his vibe was the kind of small-c conservatism easily found in the well-to-do enclaves of Orange County. It can be summed up like this: I’m making a success of things, so others should too, regardless of their own backgrounds or personal circumstances.

Nineteen years later, as an older and evidently wiser man, Matt takes the rough gist of these observations rather well. To the charge of being a jock back then, he admits that he “thinks that’s fair”. When asked to identify the causes of this personal evolution, he says, “Well, I got to travel the world, which has made me a much more empathetic person. I mean, it really did. I fear what my thoughts and my opinions would be if I only lived in my city and had my close group of friends or community’s opinion on world events and world problems. Going to third world countries, going to Europe, and going to other places [has taught me] to understand that people aren’t all dealt the same cards.” To this, he adds that his once towering ego “helped [me] along the way. That competitiveness of wanting to crush every [other] band, and of having that competitive drive… it actually helps you – it helped us – in a crazy way.” Here comes the but. “But then when you strip it all back, you realise how silly all that stuff is, and how crazy it was.”

“If your art connects with one person, that’s really special”

Hear M. Shadows on finding that emotional connection with fans

These days, to a noticeable degree, Matt has cleared his mind of this kind of clutter. In fact, in seeking to separate art from artifice, he claims not to have even checked the debut chart positions of Life Is But A Dream… – number 21 in the UK and number 13 in the United States, by the way – adding, instead, that if this and other releases “connect with one person, that’s really special. It’s really special. It’s like an emotional handshake in a way.” As it should be, it’s good enough that the album is a masterpiece of imagination and execution. The question of how many, or how few, people notice is really, and rightly, none of his business.

“I would, though, say that I am glad [about] how everything in my life played out,” he says. “Meaning, I’m glad the way I was, just as I’m glad that I was able to see how un-useful some of that stuff was, later in my life.”

Not everything has been figured out, of course, because not everything can be. That’s what the music is for. That’s the point of it, thank goodness. By spraying their talent upon an increasingly vast canvas, A7X have bucked the truism that bands with recording careers lasting more than a decade become creatures of habit in hock to status and security. In declining the temptations of such predictable outcomes, the evolutionary march that made Avenged Sevenfold brilliant begs a truly tantalising question. Where on earth will they go next?

Because as Matt Shadows says, “When an artist feels free you can feel that freedom in their art. There’s just no doubt about it. You really can.”

Avenged Sevenfold headline Download Festival on June 16. Tickets are sold out.

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