Disturbed’s David Draiman: “Talking shit is the easiest thing in the world to do. You know the hardest thing? Writing a hit record”
When Kerrang! first spots David Draiman, he’s in the London offices of Warner Brothers Records, the owners of Reprise, the label that put out the Chicago metaller’s seventh album, Evolution. He’s walking with his head down, ignoring what others are doing around him and simply concentrating on moving towards where he needs to be. It’s highly indicative of the Disturbed frontman’s creative ethos.
Sitting down with him in a glass-walled meeting room a couple of minutes later, it’s clear that the vocalist has been the subject of some evolution too. He may look much the same, albeit missing the cascading metal piercings he had below his lower lip when the band burst onto the scene with debut album The Sickness in 2000, but there have been a great many changes to the singer over the years. There had to be – otherwise he wouldn’t be with us now.
To look at the David Draiman of today is to see a highly confident performer, savvy and outspoken in an industry that can, and has, chewed up others and spat them out; an upbeat man who’s weathered the slings and arrows of life in the public eye and the scrutiny that it invites. But he hasn’t always been this David Draiman.
He was once an angry young man, railing against his orthodox Jewish upbringing and the limitations it placed upon him at an age when he wanted to experience what the world had to offer, by a family initially opposed to his musical career. He’s also been heartbroken, having had a girlfriend who tragically took her own life when they were teenagers while in the throes of a heroin addiction that almost claimed David too, but he subsequently overcame it.
Such experiences might make some people impenetrably tough and unapproachable, but David is happy to talk about most aspects of a life and a career that’s seen him experience devotion and derision in equal measure. Most aspects, because there is one topic he refuses to discuss: a question about his father, YJ Draiman, who ran an unsuccessful campaign to be mayor of Los Angeles in 2017 (finishing in seventh place, with 0.91 per cent of the vote). It wasn’t Mr Draiman Senior’s political aspirations we were interested in, however, but something more nefarious that may well have had an impact on his son…
You’ve now been doing this for over two decades. How does that feel?
“Surreal, to be honest. To me, even 20-plus years into this career of ours, I still feel that we’re new kids in this arena. It still feels to me like we’re the young band having to prove ourselves. So it’s very… unusual.”
“Well, we’re still hungry as a band! We still feel that we have quite a bit to accomplish, and it’s something that continues to be reinforced at each stage of the game.”
Who are your inspirations?
“Oh, too many to list. James Hetfield, Bruce Dickinson, Ozzy [Osbourne], [Ronnie James] Dio… and in the modern era there’s Jonathan Davis, Chino Moreno, Maynard James Keenan.”
How would you describe your childhood?
“Tumultuous. It was kind of a mess.”
Did you recognise it as such at the time?
“Oh yeah, although it was no more unusual than anyone else’s, to be perfectly honest, because everybody has their own shit. In many ways, it was typical. There were aspects of teenage rebellion. My family were religious, orthodox Jews, and as much as I respect the heritage tremendously, human beings are equipped with a gag reflex for a reason, and sometimes when stuff gets stuffed down your throat it doesn’t go down so easily.”
What was it that you wanted?
“I simply had the desire to live a more ‘normal’ life as a child and as an adolescent, rather than having to deal with the regimented structure of, and strict adherence to, religion.”
You were kicked out of the Wisconsin Institute For Torah Study for throwing a student out of a second-floor window and blowing up the rabbi’s van. Sounds like you were one troublesome dude…
“Those stories have been well publicised, so I won’t go back into them, but those would definitely be good examples of my aforementioned teenage rebellion. The irony with all this, of course, is that I was angry but it’s not that I wanted to do anything so crazy. I wanted to fraternise with members of the opposite sex, I wanted to go to movies, watch television, and do things that normal teenagers do. But in a parochial boarding school, those things weren’t allowed, and my frustration sometimes came out in disruptive ways.”
Do any traces of that rebellious nature remain in you today?
“There are still aspects of rebellion in my persona, for sure. They’re not directed in the same places, but there are many different aspects of modern society that I can’t swallow.”
“People’s addiction to, and dependency on, social media would be a good example.”
Is that why you quit Twitter a few years ago?
“There’s just no decency. It’s a bunch of high school kids insulting each other, having a contest about who can come up with the most grandiose insult. It’s childish. People are dying to be triggered about something. All you have to do is express your opinion on anything and someone’s going to fight you about it. As a band, it’s not like we’re using our social media to be influencers, so why bother?”
Especially as you have your actual voice to do so – one which you reportedly inherited from your great-grandfather, a cantor in Jerusalem. But what traits did you get from your parents?
“They both had a tremendous work ethic, determination and perseverance to strive in the face of adversity, which are definitely things that relate to me too. My parents are good parents – they did a pretty decent job with me (laughs).”
Your father served a prison term when you were younger. Did that change your impression of him, or trust in the adults in your life in general?
“Let’s not talk about that. I don’t want to bring that stuff up any more out of respect for him. I remember when we were on the last album cycle [for Disturbed’s sixth album, 2015’s Immortalized] he said to me, ‘Do you have to keep bringing that stuff up?’ And no, we don’t, because it’s been handled.”
You experienced the loss of a girlfriend to suicide and heroin addiction at a young age. How did you manage to pull yourself back from the brink?
“I didn’t want to die – it’s literally as simple as that. I woke up in my 18th year on this earth, New Year’s Day, in Chicago, underneath a 72 [Oldsmobile] Cutlass [a type of car], with no shirt, no shoes, no socks and no wallet, freezing to death. I had no idea how I’d got there. Thankfully, I knew somebody who lived a couple of blocks away. I knocked on their door, and I collapsed and didn’t leave the place for three days. It took about three months of personal detoxing, because I was coming off heroin at the time. No methadone and no rehab; my parents just thought I was sick and were in a tremendous state of denial. After that it was seven years until I did anything drug-related at all. I didn’t trust myself to touch anything for quite a while. Nowadays it’s just a little bit of herb and a little bit of wine.”
Most people who are clean say that every day is a battle, even years later. Is that the case for you?
“The thing that attracted me to drugs back in the day was the sense of community. I know that sounds strange, but users like to be around other users, and I get that sense of community now from being a musician. Also, the death of my girlfriend at the time, who took her own life by intentionally overdosing, was such a hard thing to deal with for anybody, so that was another thing that motivated me to stop and is certainly something that stays with you.”
You’ve had a really diverse CV, full of interesting and responsible jobs over the years, including a stint as a healthcare administrator. At what point did music turn your head?
“Music was always a part of it. In truth, everything else was no more than a back-up plan. I was always open to the idea that music would be a big part of my life, because look at today’s environment, where you have more and more people breaking big later in life. Hope never died (laughs).”
You auditioned for a lot of other bands around the time you got the Disturbed gig. Can you remember what the others were like?
“Oh, they were all rock bands, but they weren’t all as heavy as Disturbed. I realise that statement is going to sound funny to some people (laughs). I remember one audition in particular where one of the measuring sticks for vocalists was whether you could pull off Man In The Box by Alice In Chains. There were two or three other singers auditioning, and one guy had more of ‘the look’, with long flowing blonde locks, and I remember thinking, ‘Yeah, I’m not going to get this one!’ The majority of bands I auditioned for asked me to join, but there just wasn’t anything musically compelling enough as far as musical material was concerned.”
What clinched it for you with Disturbed?
“As well as a band’s original material, I always thought about how I could fit myself into the equation, and with Disturbed it was magical. A roommate of mine at the time, who’s unfortunately no longer with us, was a huge part of introducing me to the new wave of hard rock and metal music that started coming to fruition at the end of the ’90s. He came with me to my first Disturbed audition, and he knew as I was walking away from it, even if I didn’t initially.”
What was the problem for you?
“It was intimidating. I didn’t know if, vocally, I could complement what they were doing with regards to aggression, because when I first auditioned they were much more Pantera-esque. It was a hard sell for me originally, but my roommate said, ‘If you don’t go ahead and join this band then you’re an idiot. If you pursue this, you’re going to get a deal.’”
You’ve had a rough ride in the press in the past. Why do you think that was?
“I’ve looked back at some of my earlier quotes and, regardless of whether or not things were taken out of context, I have to hit myself in the head and think, ‘What the hell was I saying?! Why did I say that thing like that?!’ I think that when you set yourself up to be a target, people are more than willing to take pot-shots at you.”
It must have been difficult, though. You’d overcome a lot of adversity – your parents were against you being in a band, your grandfather so much so he cut off contact with you. Did weathering that and still receiving those pot-shots hurt?
“It still does, in certain ways. Even though making music is your livelihood, it’s also a labour of love. It’s art; you’re creating things that you’re really emotionally attached to and are passionate about, so when people shit on that, and they shit on you and your delivery of it, then it’s a hard thing to take. They’re diminishing your pain. That’s the tough part. People are so cavalier with their judgements and their wordings, and understandably so, because we live in an age where there are no repercussions and accountability. You sit behind that keyboard typing away and nobody’s going to do anything to you. You can be anyone you want and say anything you want.”
Do you ever wonder what your younger self might have been like if you’d had access to today’s social media?
“No. I’m just not a shit-talker. Don’t get me wrong – there have been periods in the past when I’ve talked some shit, but that’s one of those retrospective elements that I can look back on and say, ‘What was I thinking?’”
The shit-talking seemed to increase exponentially as Disturbed got bigger. Did you ever feel that you were part of a scene that perhaps resented success?
“Ask Metallica that (laughs). Talking shit is the easiest thing in the world to do. You know what the hardest thing in the world to do is? Writing a hit song and a hit record. Good luck with that! If you persevere and you keep doing what you believe is not only bringing power, peace, serenity and happiness to you as a person, but is also offering those things to other people, then that’s all you can really hope for. I would rather have people react passionately one way or the other – love or hate, as opposed to indifference.”
How much has becoming a father changed you?
“Quite a bit. There’s nothing like having a child to intensify the already defensive posture you had towards the world, because now you’re not only defensive for yourself, you’re defensive for your kid. On the flip side of that, you also open your heart to so many other emotions that you really weren’t previously entertaining – at least I wasn’t. It’s really a mind-opening experience being a father. I love it.”
Would you ever consider running for political office?
“A lot of people have asked me this (laughs). The answer is unequivocally no. I’d be miserable at it because I can’t bullshit people. Everyone that tries to present themselves as ethical and moral, if you dig deep enough you’re going to find a skeleton. I wouldn’t survive for a second.”
Why do you think lots of people ask you that question?
“Probably for the very reason I’d be bad at it: because I can’t bullshit.”
It could be argued that that makes you a bad fit for the music industry as well, though, no?
“Well, that’s part of my Achilles’ heel too, then (laughs). It took time for me to master the art of subtlety, and to realise that not everything requires you to put your heart on your sleeve during a conversation.”
How would you like to be remembered?
“As someone who brought people strength, empowerment and a means to transcend adversity. I like to be thought of as somebody who can give people release and an escape.”
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