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Zoltan Bathory: “When I Say That Nothing Is Impossible, I Truly Believe It”

Five Finger Death Punch leader Zoltan Bathory talks hard times, personal politics and defying expectation…

If you ever feel like your dreams are insurmountable, just think about Zoltan Bathory. Born and raised in Soviet Hungary, then finding himself a wasted youth in the aftermath of the fall of the USSR, the Five Finger Death Punch bandleader could barely imagine getting his hands on a musical instrument, let alone ever becoming a successful guitarist.

For Zoltan, however, necessity and ambition have bred invention in the most spectacular way. At 41 years old, the guitarist has dragged himself by his bootstraps from the grey communist squalor and censorship of his childhood, to living in amongst the neon lights and unchecked excesses of Las Vegas. His air-guitar driven bedroom fantasies have been traded for a place at the helm of the most successful band in modern American metal. Oh, and just for good measure, he’s made himself a world-class martial artist, renowned philanthropist and professional monster truck driver, too.

Fresh from 5FDP’s European arena tour (which featured Zoltan’s boyhood heroes Megadeth and his present protégés Bad Wolves), he pauses to take stock for a moment, as the band celebrate the release of their latest album, F8.

“I suppose I have come full circle in a way,” he grins, knowingly name-checking 5FDP’s bombastic recent single. “If my 10-year-old self could see me now, he would find it surreal. It is surreal. Lots of people say they’ll follow their crazy dreams, but not everyone believes they can come true. Over the years, as I’ve gotten to achieve all these ‘impossible’ goals, I’ve created this cycle of fulfilment: dream it, wish it, work for it, achieve it. I’ve trained myself to dare to dream. When I say that nothing is impossible, I truly believe it…”

How triumphant was it doing sold-out arena shows with Megadeth playing support for you?
“This whole scenario feels surreal to me. Megadeth were one of my favourite bands growing up. I had posters of them on my walls, so to have been out on the road with them was crazy. I also discovered and manage Bad Wolves, so it was great to have them out with us, too. It was of significance to be back to Budapest. I had not been to Hungary in over 20 years. It felt like the Roman Legion returning victorious to Rome!”

What was it like growing up on the far side of the Iron Curtain?
“Hungary was very much a socialist, communist country. We had one TV channel that started at noon and ended at midnight. It didn’t broadcast on Mondays at all, and it showed no rock or metal music. As kids we’d beat the crap out of each other because there was nothing else to do! The one thing Hungary did give me was a heavy-duty education. I knew that if I wanted to get out, I needed to be faster, stronger and better educated than everyone else. I read hundreds of books. If I hadn’t, I would have been just another cog in the machine.”

How did you first find music?
“I got into British punk music as a teenager. I listened to all kinds of crazy stuff like Cockney Rejects, UK Subs, GBH and The Exploited. My first exposure to metal was Iron Maiden. It was like, ‘Wow!’ [Original vocalist] Paul Di’Anno was more of a punk character than a metal guy to me, so I first thought of Iron Maiden as a punk band with two guitars. Heavy metal became very much a rebellion. It wasn’t okay – the government didn’t like it. Bands from the generation before me had to submit all of their lyrics to the government to be allowed to perform. My generation wanted to burn that shit down. This was the music to do it.”

Where did you get your first guitar?
“I was an excellent air-guitarist for years! The country was very poor and guitars – especially good ones – were almost impossible to come by. I did eventually find a second-hand one which was a piece of crap, but the parts were intact. I cut a shape like a BC Rich Warlock out of a coffee table to rebuild it into my first guitar. It was barely even playable, but it was the beginning.”

A truly DIY ethos…
“Even today, the way I live is defined by that Eastern Bloc philosophy of asking not what I need to get where I want to go, but what I have and how far it can take me. ‘We need to get to the moon, but we only have a broomstick and some gasoline?! Okay! Let’s go, pedal to the metal!’”

That ethos must have served you well in moving to America?
“Smooth seas don’t make great sailors. I think it was definitely an advantage. If you ask someone in the U.S. what they need to succeed, they will give you a laundry list. I knew that there was never a possibility that I was going to take a backward step, or to lose. I arrived with a bag of clothes, a guitar and a few bucks in my pocket. I didn’t speak English. I knew German and Russian, but unfortunately they didn’t teach us English in school. So I had to self-educate! As far as I was concerned, as long as I was breathing, I was winning. And once I stop? It doesn’t matter – you’re dead then anyway!”

On moving across the Atlantic, you first lived in New York, but didn’t settle there. Why not?
“I had an early band that sounded like a mixture of Pantera, Nine Inch Nails and The Prodigy, but it never really went anywhere. I realised that New York really wasn’t the place for rock and metal. It was more about urban and hip-hop artists. Also, I found myself becoming a New Yorker. You know that’s happening when the bums stop asking you for money – it’s written on your face!”

How exactly did 5FDP come together?
“I moved to California in 2000 and worked with a bunch of bands not worth naming. In 2004, I jumped in with [LA post-grungers] U.P.O. on bass around the same time, which was fun, but it taught me that I wanted my own thing. I’m a race car driver, not a passenger. Around that time, one of my best friends was Nadja [Peulen, bassist] from Coal Chamber. We were like immigrant orphans in America, who would get together for the holidays. Working with her I came up with this vision for a band I wanted to see. By 2005, I already had [5FDP debut] The Way Of The Fist written, but I didn’t have a band.”

How did you get your frontman, Ivan Moody, on board?
“He was the guy I wanted as a singer. I had been watching his career. He was still with Motograter at the time, but they were beginning to fall apart. We’d met a few times and kept in touch via MySpace. Eventually, we kind of kidnapped him. I bought him a plane ticket to LA and cancelled the return. I convinced him to see how three songs would sound recorded in the studio. Then I convinced him we should try a couple of heavier ones. By the time he realised what was happening he’d been in LA for three weeks and we had nine songs done.”

At what point did you realise 5FDP could make it as monsters of modern rock?
“To this day, I’m still not sure I can fathom it. Yet in a way, I never had a doubt that I could accomplish this dream. Recording the first album, we knew we had something special, with power. We saw this huge reaction online, too. Still, the first Mayhem festival [in 2008] was the moment we really knew something was happening. We were playing 3pm on the second stage, but the festival founder told us we were outselling everyone in merch except Slipknot. He’d never seen anything like it. Merch matters. You can buy a CD to listen to a band, but if you buy the merch you’re joining the club.”

You’ve compared the dynamic between you and Ivan to the one between Star Trek’s Captain Kirk and Mr Spock, with his raw emotion contrasting your careful calculation.How important is that unique chemistry?
“The dynamic of the band is a huge part of our success. Ivan and I are polar opposites in so many ways. He’s the crazy, emotional one and I’m the logical, practical one. Yet, if you ask us both a question, we’ll come to the same answer. We’re like Yin and Yang. For a band to be successful, it’s not about making one right move, though. It’s about making 100 right moves in a row. The most important thing is the music we make.”

To what do you attribute 5FDP’s mass appeal?
“We know that we’re a very polarising band. Our fans are hardcore. They love us, and there are a lot of people who can’t stand us. But even the haters don’t compare us to other bands. We stand on our own. Beyond that, Ivan’s lyrics are always personally, politically or socially relevant. We’re not singing about history or Viking warriors. Ours is a social commentary, about the hope and the tragedy, and things we all go through in life.”

You can be pretty provocative, too…
“We like to press buttons. When everyone was on streets with signs saying ‘War is not the answer!’, we released [2009 album] War Is The Answer. When Occupy Wall Street was going on and socialism was growing in America, we brought out [2011 album] American Capitalist. That’s all intentional.”

F8 is your eighth album in 13 years. How do you keep up such a prolific output?
“We put in the work. We do 250 days on the road every year, then we start working on the next record. We don’t take vacations. We don’t stop. Don’t forget where you’ve come from, and keep connected to your fanbase.”

There’s a perception of yours as archetypically ‘American’ metal. Do you find that ironic, or fitting, for someone so clearly living the American dream?
“I’m never sure what ‘typically American music’ is. Is it about what we play? How we look? What we say? Perhaps it’s because we blew up in America first and focused mostly on touring there at the start of our career? Musically, if you look at most European metal bands, there’s classical influence in the background – it’s about harmonies and melodies and how they interact. American music is much more rooted in folk, and in rhythm and blues. It’s about the groove, the vibe and the feeling. I feel like our band is more international.”

Your politics have also played their part. Do you feel that they’re misunderstood?
“I have an advantage through experience. I have lived in socialism, communism, democratic socialism and capitalism. I didn’t learn about these concepts in school. Experience will always, er, trump assumptions. You only truly learn about systems by living in them. I’ve always been looking for the freest and fairest political and economic system – free-market capitalism. America is not perfect, but at least it’s trying. I don’t give a fuck which party it is, but I’ll always vote for the one advocating for the greatest freedom. Freedom of speech. Freedom to compete on an even playing field. The freedom to defend my life by any means necessary. I feel like if no-one else in the world was armed, then I wouldn’t need to be either.”

You’ve also worked with law enforcement and army veterans charities. Many would consider those authoritarian institutions. How does that fit in with that vision of maximised liberty?
“In any civilised society there are agreements and rules, by which we live. You need people to enforce those rules. Domestically, those people are police. Internationally, they are the armies. It’s about preventing the atrocities of the past being repeated. I support those people because they are dangerous jobs. You have to respect them. Without them, we would have total chaos.”

You’re a prize-winning competitor in Judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. How do martial arts philosophies inform your everyday?
“Martial arts, to me, are a way of life. They’re not something you do; they’re something you are. I like the challenge. I like competing in situations where no-one can help you but yourself. I live my life by the martial arts principles of honour and discipline.”

Where does your love of high-octane experiences like flying fighter jets and driving monster trucks fit in?
“In life, if you’re lucky, you have 80 summers on Earth. I love experiences. You can buy lots of possessions, but no-one can ever take experiences from you. It’s about the bucket list. I want to fly a fighter jet? Cool, I rented one because I could. I wanted to pilot a tank, so I did it. I wanted to drive a monster truck, so I ended up as a professional monster truck driver, with seven races under my belt!”

Are there any ambitions left for you to achieve?
“There are a million different goals left to achieve. I have a thirst for life and knowledge. It aggravates me that the human mind is linear and can’t handle concepts like infinity. The more you experience, the longer you live. I don’t want to be an old dude looking back thinking, ‘Fuck, I coulda, shoulda, woulda.’ I want to read as many books as I can. I want to find out how far I can push this mind and body. I want to fit as much experience as possible into my 80 summers, or however long I have left.”

Do you think about legacy?
“We all wonder if what we do matters, like, ‘Was there a point to my life?’ It’s why people were carving drawings in caves as long ago as mankind existed, and why they built the pyramids. You come and you go, and you wonder if there’s anything left behind. If this band’s music changes people’s lives for the better, or if we helped out with [Veterans Empowered To Protect] African Wildlife or fallen police officers, maybe we made a difference. Maybe I won’t just be a guy jumping around onstage holding a piece of wood with metal strings attached to it making some really loud noise.”

Posted on March 30th 2020, 6:00pm
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