Randy Blythe: “In An Ideal World, I Would Have Made Millions, Retired To A Hilltop Mansion And Be Surrounded By Models By Now”
Randy Blythe likes to surf. When not on the road or in the studio with the usually fractious but always functional Lamb Of God, the band with which he has sung for 25 years, he often decamps to California to ride the waves.
These sojourns to the coast are about more than board and lodgings. As well as savouring the view from the crest of a wave, the 49-year-old Virginian also volunteers at a local wildlife sanctuary. There he tends to birds that have been damaged and dinged by fishing lines and other hazards of industrial life. He sees the stomachs of those that have died and sees evidence of plastics entering the food chain. As he rides a board on the fringes of the Pacific, he is aware that elsewhere on that ocean there currently floats an island of plastic three times the size of France.
As a born contrarian, Randy Blythe might chafe at the idea that he is one of metal’s renaissance men. But as a cap, the description fits. He is a photographer whose work has been publicly exhibited. In 2012 he announced that he was standing for election as president of the United States, an idea that would sound nowhere near as daft just four years later. As a writer, in 2015 he authored Dark Days: A Memoir. The book, which became a bestseller, deals with the tragedy that occurred in Prague when Blythe was arrested and charged with manslaughter following the death of Daniel Nosek, a 19-year-old who died as a result of head injuries sustained at a concert in the Czech capital in the spring of 2010.
But this is an event on which Randy Blythe doesn’t care to dwell. While Lamb Of God have turned their attention to the past with 2018’s Legion: XX covers album, they’re moving forward into 2020 with a new self-titled album. Today, while sitting in his car in California, Randy discusses the past and present of the band. When he’s finished, the surf awaits. Best we not keep him waiting, then…
How is the man that joined Burn The Priest, which then became Lamb Of God, different from the man we speak with today?
“That’s a fairly broad question. I was 23 then. In many ways I’m exactly the same and in many ways I’m entirely different. Obviously I have much more knowledge of what the reality of being in a group entails. I’d been in bands before, but there was never a thought of making a living from it. I now have a much greater knowledge of what the music business is and what it requires of a person and of a group in order to make a living. Other than that, I’m pretty much the same guy. I’m still a social malcontent, as it were. I asked my wife a while back, ‘Honey are we ever gonna grow up?’ And she said, ‘I hope not.’”
Then, as now, you played abrasive music. What were your expectations in terms of success?
“I hoped to play with some of my favourite bands and be able to hold our own on the stage in Richmond, Virginia. There’s an astonishing wealth of musical talent there. That was about as big as it got. But in my wildest dreams I was thinking that maybe we’d one day get to play [legendary New York punk club] CBGBs. And we did. One of my most important musical moments was stepping on to that stage as the first act on a 13-band bill. I was, like, ‘Holy shit, I’m here at the birthplace of punk rock, where the Ramones and Television and the Dead Boys played.’ I thought, ‘If it never gets any better than this, I’m okay.’ But I never expected to make a living. People of the younger generation ask me how we strategised to become the band that we are and be able to tour the world. And I’m like, ‘You’re asking the wrong fucking question.’ I had no strategy and no expectations. There was no plan. I loved playing music and I found some guys I could make music with and we decided to ride it until the wheels fell off. And that’s been going for 24 years now. It’s been slow and organic.”
Do you consider yourself a metalhead who has a punk sensibility?
“I’m not a metalhead at all. I don’t come from the metal scene; I come from the punk rock scene. Those were the shows that I went to and that I go to to this day. Our first gigs were with punk bands. You have to remember that when we formed in ’94, the metal scene in America as it is today did not exist. Slayer were still doing it and Pantera were around, but apart from that it was all about grunge and alternative music. For a band of our miniscule size, in order to tour you had to tap in to the existing DIY culture, which was punk rock and hardcore. So our first shows out of town that had any impact were in squats and warehouses in Philly and Baltimore that we got through my connections to the punk rock scene. In high school I listened to Black Sabbath, Slayer and a little Metallica. And that’s it. I didn’t start listening to metal until I was in my 20s.”
Onstage at Brixton Academy a few years ago you said that if a person listens to metal, chances are they’re smart. Could you expand on that, please?
“As with any other social group, I believe that there are smart people and dumb people within it. There is a section of metalheads that are hyper-smart and super nerdy. That’s where you get the really technical metal stuff. They’re pretty smart. It’s interesting that as the metal audience expands in America, the intellectual demographic expands. Whether that’s for the better or for the worse, I don’t know. But also, I don’t even know if the term ‘underground’ is even valid anymore. The metal scene that we came up through and which we played a part in shaping, was really underground at one point. You had to know someone to know about a band. You had to go to record stores. You had to talk to people and those people had to turn you on to things. With the advent of the internet, there’s this huge global community that’s spread. And in a lot of ways that’s wonderful, but in a lot of ways, it’s watered things down. You have the music, but you don’t have the overall experience. You can just listen to whatever the fuck you want now. There’s no word of mouth any more. The musical climate is vastly different now than it was even seven years ago. If you can download basically any album you want in the middle of the jungle in Ecuador – which I just did a few weeks ago on a surf trip – how underground is that?”
You’ve been sober now for many years. Why did you give up drinking?
“When was the last time you heard someone say that drinking improved their life?”
That depends on the drinker…
“Let’s just put it this way: when I drink, I drink. There’s no middle ground. There’s no point in one or two fucking beers. That’s amateur, dilettante bullshit. I drink everything. Someone would ask me, ‘How much do you drink a day?’ And I would say, ‘All of it.’ So that’s my attitude. It did not improve my life. After a while I got fucking sick of it, and I stopped. I reached a point where it was just not working anymore and I was able to turn my back on it. And I’ve never looked back. But there are only two withdrawals that can kill you: alcohol and benzodiazepine. Everything else – heroin and crack and shit – just makes you feel like you want to die, but really you’re getting healthy. But alcohol withdrawal you can actually die from.”
Unusually for a metal band, in the U.S. at least Lamb Of God have been on a major label for well over a decade. How has this experience been for you?
“Coming from the punk rock scene, it was implied that major labels would take artistic control. But we talked with different labels, and then before we signed with Epic/Sony we had a meeting with Polly Anthony, who was the president of Epic Records, a wonderful woman, who took us out for a meal after a gig and told us how excited she was to be working with us. And I said to her, ‘Before we start, let me tell you something: you can’t tell us who is gonna produce us, you can’t tell us what to write, you can’t expect a radio hit, and you can’t tell us who is gonna manage us.’ I told her that she could put our records out, but that’s it. We retain full artistic control. This was before we put any ink on the contract. The [rest of the] band were looking at me, horrified, like, ‘What the fuck is he doing? He’s gonna sink us.’ And she just looked at me and said, ‘I’m so sorry if I came across that way – we just want you.’ And Epic has never, ever messed with us. We sell records on our own without any radio play. But signing with Epic was the first time that I didn’t have to work a day job. Up until then, for the first 10 years of our career we all came off tour – signing autographs, riding on tour buses – and went to work as construction workers, bartenders, cooks and dishwashers. So it was the first time in my life I could concentrate solely on making music.”
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Is being a star in the metal world a universally good thing?
“That kind of stuff isn’t really important. People telling me where we’ve debuted on the [U.S.] Billboard Hot 200 at Number Two, or that we had a Number One record in Canada, that kind of stuff doesn’t really change how I approach music. It’s nice, I suppose; it’s better than people telling me we suck and throwing shit, but it doesn’t really come into my mentality when I think about my band. Neither do GRAMMY nominations. We’ve had four of those and I’ve never been [to the ceremony]. I don’t care about that stuff. When you get on the stage, all of that stuff is really just fluff. There are plenty of people who have sold a lot of records who suck live. It’s smoke and mirrors, and you don’t get that with me.”
We live in an age where it’s rare for bands to make money from record sales alone…
“I know! If we started 10 years earlier I could have a house in California by now.”
Is the prospect of all of this being taken away something that bothers you?
“If they took everything away tomorrow, every penny in my bank account, I’d get a job in a restaurant and start over. In essence, all you need is food, shelter and clothing. So once I had those, my thoughts would turn to how I could transition back to being a creative professional. Without a thought for making a living from this, I did that for years. I’m an author, I’m a writer, I’m a musician… I just had an opening at the Grand National Gallery on the Cayman Islands. I shoot for magazines. I’ve had work published in Rolling Stone. I’ve had a bestselling book. I’m working on another. My band is still going. So for me, I have all these creative outlets so that I don’t have to mould myself to any corporate identity. And that’s solely because of hard work.”
No discussion of your life is complete without reference to what happened in Prague. What do you think when thinking back on that time?
“Well, how would you answer that question? Pretend you were me. You went to prison in a foreign country, stood trial and were found not guilty, then went back to your life. What would you think?”
Probably with a mixture of relief regarding the outcome and fear as to what might have been.
“Well, I was found not guilty in 2013. I do not exist in a perpetual state of anxiety about something that has been laid to rest. Of course it’s a part of my life and my identity, but so is everything else I’ve ever been through. I wrote a book about it and everything I had to say about it is in that book, which is precisely why I wrote it. It’s just something that happened, is all.”
In 2012 you announced that you were running for president. Would you ever seriously consider standing for public office?
“That’s an interesting question. When I ran for president – and I did get some write-in ballots – it was to show the ridiculousness and corruption in campaign finance. It was meant to highlight how people are moulded and shaped by lobbyists and how it’s all about money. So I said that I wasn’t going to spend more than 99 cents on my campaign, which I spent on a video-editing app on the iPhone. The whole thing was to make a point, and obviously wasn’t serious. I’m not going to win the presidency – although I do think I’d do a better job than the idiot we’ve got in office right now – but would I ever run for public office? That’s an interesting question. It would depend on the office and it would depend how long from now the election took place. You can’t run for office when you’re in a touring band because you need to be at home for your constituents. But I would consider running for public office in a local position where I could make an immediate impact on the environment. I don’t know, maybe one day.”
Let’s talk policy positions. Are you pro-life or pro-choice?
“I’m both. I like kids and I like women having the choice.”
See, you’re sounding like a politician already. Are you in favour of the death penalty?
“That’s an interesting question. I personally am friends with Damien Echols, who was one of the West Memphis Three, and he sat on death row basically forever after being wrongly convicted. Eventually, finally, he was released. So, on the one hand I’m thinking that the death penalty is pretty gnarly. But then there was this guy recently who got the death penalty who was in court saying, ‘Kill me, kill me,’ and smiling at the families of the people he killed, so it’s kind of hard for me to reconcile a policy of no death penalty in that scenario. I have a hard time keeping serial child molesters alive. That’s just wrong. I don’t have a solid answer, to be honest with you. It’s something that I struggle with.”
Would you legalise drugs?
“It depends. I don’t do any mind-altering substances aside from caffeine and nicotine from electric cigarettes, and I’m trying to quit those. But weed should 100 per cent be legal. It’s just not as harmful a substance as alcohol is. Do I think heroin should be legal? No, I don’t. It’s killed too many of my friends. I know that doesn’t stop people from doing it, but if you can go down to the pharmacy and buy heroin… that doesn’t seem like a wise idea. If you’ve met any junkies, their lives normally don’t go too well. Should drug addicts be treated with compassion? Absolutely. Should we be giving cocaine out for free on the streets? No, we should not.”
In summation, how long do you imagine yourself living on the road as a professional touring musician?
“If I had a crystal ball I could answer that, but I don’t. In an ideal world I would have made millions, retired to a hilltop mansion and be surrounded by models by now. But I’ll never retire. I’ll always make music for as long as I can, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll tour. I make music, not because it’s my job, but because I love it. That’s the thing. It’s the balance of art and commerce that’s hard to strike. But Lamb Of God is ready to fall apart at any point, as it has been ever since we formed in 1994. Things are always volatile.”
Is it really a combustible union?
“Absolutely. But that’s why we make good music. Somehow it’s worked for however many years. But is Lamb Of God the ‘Good Buddy Hug Club’? Fuck no!”
Lamb Of God’s new self-titled album is released May 8 via Nuclear Blast/Epic.
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