“It’s Still Painful To Talk About. There Are A Lot Of Voices In My Head… I Was Dying”
‘I pledge allegiance to the flag…’ reads the United States’ pledge of allegiance, ‘one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’ It’s a statement you’d expect Five Finger Death Punch to get behind. But it’s also one they’re unafraid to subvert. Widely perceived as amongst America’s most jingoistic monsters of rock – thanks to that flag-waving brashness and their undeniably admirable work with military and service veterans – but as latest LP (incredibly, their seventh in 11 years) And Justice For None attests, the Las Vegas quintet are keen to stress how they march to no-one’s beat but their own.
“We’re definitely misunderstood,” smiles guitarist Zoltan Bathory. “We’re not a ‘political’ band, per se. We’re entertainers. But we’re socially relevant – and that’s affected by politics. Everything is culturally, politically and personally relevant; that’s why it connects. Some people can sing about [mythology] or Viking warriors running around – and that’s great – but it’s not what we do. As artists, our job is to push the buttons. I can’t tell you what to believe in, but I can tell you to question fucking everything.”
In the division and global acrimony that seemed to spread like a virus over the making of the album, the band saw a macro-scale reflection of the legal dispute with longtime record label Prospect Park that held-up AJFN’s release.
“The lawsuit really felt like a kick in the nuts,” grimaces vocalist Ivan Moody of a largely wasted last 24 months, that saw the label tie up proceedings by branding the record ‘sub-standard’.
Zoltan is more reflective. “Coming out of a legal battle never feels great,” he nods “It’s aggravating. It’s expensive. It’s a pain in the ass. Even if you ‘win’ one you don’t really win – it costs you time and energy. The label is a business and I respect that. It’s about making the moves on the chessboard to try to win. Instead of bitching and moaning, I just say, ‘Okay, that’s your move. This is mine.’”
That’s the same dispassionate, business-like logic that triggered a tidal wave of scorn when the guitarist Tweeted his support of President Trump. Such social-media nuggets, he explains, shouldn’t be so quickly judged.
“I personally grew up in a different political system. I lived behind the Iron Curtain in Hungary. People don’t appreciate my perspective and experience. It’s not some college education. It’s not an experiment in a bottle, I’m not a Democrat, I’m not a Republican – I’m a centrist. And my politics are not necessarily reflective of my band’s. I support policies and ideals, not personalities. It’s about trying to find common ground, not just shouting louder than everyone around you.”
In espousing that message, of course, the band – completed by lead-guitarist Jason Hook, bassist Chris Kael and drummer Jeremy Spencer – refuse to play against bombastic, adrenalised, testosterone-fuelled type. They’ve embraced their OTT nature.
“It’s like this big inside joke that (at least most of) our fans get,” explains Zoltan. “In the middle of the Middle East conflict, we came out with a record called War Is The Answer. When everybody was talking about the rise of the socialist/communist idea and we released American Capitalist. We named this band Five Finger Death Punch – the stupidest fucking band name in existence. If that doesn’t tell you we’re being sarcastic, nothing will. Some countries looked at the AJFN cover and said, ‘That’s Trump pushing the button to bomb North Korea!’ They wanted to censor it. But what if it’s a metaphor for us firing off verbal rockets?! It’s a cartoon character – that upsets you?!”
“When did heavy metal become this conformist little box you have to fit in?!” the guitarist laughs as the just-dropped video for Sham-Pain has an army of elitist keyboard-warriors twitching to tear the band down thanks to the same tongue-in-cheek Technicolor bawdiness we last got to relish on Under And Over It.
“We absolutely love – and hate – naysayers,” chimes Ivan, mischievously. “From day one, we’ve been listening to people tell us what a wreck this is gonna’ be – and we’ve always prided ourselves on staying the course. That’s the gas that fuels our fire.”
But sometimes those fires burn too hot. And sometimes they threaten to destroy from within.
June 12 2017: The band are minutes into a performance in front of thousands at 013 in Tilburg, Netherlands. “This is my last show with Five Finger Death Punch!” seethes Ivan, before storming offstage. A year down the line, on the other end of rehab, the singer picks at the memory with the pained tone of someone regarding a not-quite-healed wound.
“I’m a proud alcoholic; proud that I turned my back on it, proud to wake up every day sober. For a while there it felt like everyone was in my pocket – if not for money, to show me off. But if it feels like the whole world’s wrong you need to step back and look at yourself.”
In 2016, Moody acknowledged the perils of rock stardom on I Apologise. He knew disaster was looming and was powerless to avert it. It took the cold smack of rock bottom, though, to knock him back on track.
“I think Trent Reznor said it best,” he reasons. “‘Somebody tells you you’re a god every day of your life and eventually you start believing it…’ I felt indestructible. I could drink anyone under the table, I could party, and I could meet women any time. I thought it was never gonna end. Then you wake up one day and it’s ending. That’s painful – it’s traumatic.”
“There was a time when I was the only sober person in this band,” Zoltan expands, illustratively. “My only addiction is to work, but there were four other guys who were totally out of control. You know that when you’re backstage at a festival and Nikki Sixx from Motley Crüe comes over to your camp to say, ‘You guys need to fucking chill!’ you’re pushing your luck.”
The rest of FFDP have since, of course, turned their backs on addiction. Jeremy has even published a book on it. Ivan’s excesses were accepted as part of life on the road – until they couldn’t be ignored.
“Offstage [it’s been] war at times,” Zoltan continues. “But music has always been the peacekeeping, driving force. The stage is like our holy ground: our church. When that was violated, it became a problem.”
Playing his final show with FFDP before what he half-jokingly refers to as his “vacation” in support of Linkin Park – and watching the passing of both Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington, provided a juddering, poignant reality check that’d force him to confront his demons.
“It’s still painful to talk about. It gets dark upstairs. There are a lot of shadows and voices in my head. I have feelings just like everyone else. Rob Halford – who was there with me throughout – is probably the closest thing I’ve ever had to a father. But I grew up in group homes in between foster housing. I was in trouble with the law three quarters of my life. Physically, mentally, spiritually – I found myself in a cage with no way of getting out. I was dying.”
Despite all their frustration and uncertainty, his band were there for him.
“No-one gets left behind,” says Zoltan, borrowing military parlance with the authority of a general. “We did everything to save his life.”
By the same token, however, one fallen soldier couldn’t be allowed to derail the machine. Divine Heresy/Bad Wolves frontman Tommy Vext was drafted in to fulfill outstanding obligations. Ivan remembers how watching his place be taken galvanised resolve.
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a kick in the teeth. It was a mix of tough love and necessary evil, and it really hurt at first. But it also made me step back and understand it wasn’t just me goin’ down. I was taking my guys with me. They didn’t deserve that. At the end of the day I had to wake the fuck up.”
With troubles dropping into the rear-view, it’s time to get back to world-beating business.
“I’m so proud of this project getting through the rough to put out this record,” grins Ivan. “We could’ve collapsed at any minute. It’s been so special to be able to be up there, looking each other in the eye again. We’re on tour right now with Bad Wolves, too. Tommy and I had to have a conversation where I made a serious point in telling him I am the singer in FFDP. There is no other frontman. He totally got it.”
“I would be 99 percent sure that now there isn’t that possibility that this thing is just going to run into the fucking wall,” Zoltan chuckles a sigh of relief with eye-rolling fatherliness. “That could have definitely happened five years ago. Since Ivan has gotten sober, it feels like the distance between us has decreased. The brotherhood has grown stronger.”
“We joke about it all the time – how Ivan is Captain Kirk and I’m Spock. Ivan is a massively emotional person. He reacts to things. He’s like the hand grenade with the loose pin. I’m the opposite: logical, pragmatic, methodical. He makes these crazy suggestions and I calculate what can actually work. We’re so Yin and Yang. That friction is why this works.”
So how far can it take them? Political and personal inequity aside, And Justice For None subconsciously invokes Metallica’s seminal fourth album, too, coming up on 30 years since that record’s release. Already headlining festivals Stateside, with Europe not far behind, could FFDP be the ones to ultimately fill such giants’ shoes?
“It’s about determination,” Zoltan reasons. “When you have that will to be successful, it’s in your core. Starting out as a kid, I didn’t even have a guitar. I couldn’t afford one. I was living in Hungary where people make $100 a month – so I made one from a coffee table and some old broken guitar parts.
“When you become that person who’s pushed and shoved and learned how to get ahead, you don’t want to stop. We worked for years and years just to get on the racecourse. Now that we’re here, we don’t want to take our foot off the gas pedal; we want to floor it.
“We want to write the soundtrack to your life. We want to write those songs that 10 or 15 years down the line you hear on the radio and say, ‘Oh, man, I remember that summer!’ Our stage show is already pretty massive, yeah. But we want to go out there like Rammstein.”
Ramping up the actual pyrotechnics isn’t a matter of replacing the personal ones that have always tipped the sauce onto FFDP’s knuckle sandwich, mind.
“Anybody who says getting sober has made me calmer is out of their mind,” grins Ivan, seeing infinite possibility as he nails-down the final word. “It’s made me more ruthless. The fire in my heart and under my ass is burning. I almost feel like Thanos: I’m here for it all.”
Words: Sam Law
Five Finger Death Punch leader Zoltan Bathory talks hard times, personal politics and defying expectation…
“We have made the difficult decision to postpone the remainder of our previously announced spring 2020 performances,” say the band.