What the girl from the cover of Godsmack's debut looks like now
We got a chance to catch up with one of nu-metal's most iconic faces.
Godsmack frontman Sully Erna may possess the intimidating scowl of a character from The Sopranos, the height of a jockey, and the lean muscular physique of a boxer, but he’s been a musician since he was three-and-a-half years old.
“I’ve told stories my whole life,” says the 50-year-old, whose father, also named Salvatore, was a trumpet player. His great uncle was a famous composer in Sicily.
Sully’s own accomplishments can’t be underestimated, and began to come to fruition after he made the transition from drummer to frontman. Godsmack formed in 1995 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, originally under the name The Scam. Despite going on to sell more than 20 million records (so far), Sully has no interest in trading on past glories. The band’s latest album, When Legends Rise, has seen them embrace working with a co-writer in the form of the omnipresent John Feldmann, to assist them in breaking new creative ground and broadening their fanbase in the process.
“I’m hoping that this is a pivotal moment for Godsmack,” says Sully during this no holds barred chat with K! “I’m hoping this is year one of a new life for us…”
HOW DID YOU TELLING STORIES EVOLVE INTO WRITING SONGS?
It was an interesting transition because I’d been a drummer my whole life. When I decided to take on the role of frontman, I didn’t know how to approach it, I just knew that I was tired of following other people’s directions and failing time after time. When I took the horse by the reins I was just writing bullshit stories at first, fictional things, I don’t even remember what I was writing about, I just know they weren’t real. Unfortunately something really tragic happened to me that enabled me to stumble on to a different process. It was the day that a good friend of mine, Dave, had taken his life. He hung himself in the basement with a chain. It was right at the time I’d started writing my own music, and I found myself sitting on the floor of my girlfriend’s apartment, writing lyrics that were trying to put myself in the position of how he must have felt, and the pain he must have been experiencing to go through with that. I broke down and was very emotional, and to this day I haven’t been able to record that song. There’s something about it that’s a bit heavy for me, but it showed me how to be honest and how to vent. That’s when I learned that music really heals people.
WHAT DO YOU THINK IT WOULD TAKE TO SHARE THAT SONG WITH THE WORLD?
I don’t know. We’ll have to see. Maybe one day I’ll put it out, but I haven’t got to a point where it’s felt right to me. If I cross that path and it feels right, then maybe I’ll record it. I have it all in my head and know the arrangement.
LET’S TALK ABOUT MUSIC YOU HAVE RECORDED, YOUR LATEST ALBUM, WHEN LEGENDS RISE. WHO ARE THE LEGENDS OF THE TITLE, AND WHY ARE THEY RISING?
There’s a reason that the title-track is the first one on the album. It’s probably the first song I wrote for the record, and it was co-written with John Feldmann, who’s a really great songwriter. It was really the first time that I was presented with some music that sent me in a new direction and made me think outside of the box. I think the biggest challenge for any record, for me, is finding what the lyrical content is going to be about, what the thread is that runs through the record. I went through a relationship and a break-up that was different because not only did it come from someone I never thought could be so deceitful, and the experience woke me up to a bigger picture in my life. I was surrounding myself with people that were there for the wrong reasons. Some of them happened to be long-term friends of mine, and some were family members, but I had to make a pretty serious decision to either continue to try to save everybody and carry their crosses, or eliminate this negativity and hopefully they’ll see one day that they need to help themselves. Legends… is about letting go of these vices and this addictive behaviour, which isn’t just drugs and alcohol sometimes – though that could be part of it as well – but it’s more about not only making a stand to correct your life and be in a more positive place, but being okay with it. It’s not egotistical at all – it’s not about calling us the legends, it’s about the phoenix rising from the ashes.
IT SOUNDS LIKE YOU’VE REMOVED EGO FROM THE EQUATION…
I spent my whole life in bad situations, making bad choices. I’m not proud of a lot of those choices, but I don’t regret one of them because they’ve me who I am today. I don’t think I’d respect human life, and people in general, if I hadn’t come from that background. Again, it’s all about accepting and humbling yourself – even to the point of embarrassment sometimes – but realising that the journey isn’t over and there’s still work to do. Life is going to kick you down over and over again, but it’s the people that learn to stand back up on their own two feet and take steps forward who are the ones that are going to find their moment and make something great happen.
WAS THIS NEW WAY OF WORKING AN EXTENSION OF YOUR NEW WAY OF THINKING?
I guess to a certain degree it was, because it’s about growth, expansion and continuing to learn. I think a lot of that was trial and error, even through the solo projects that I did. I worked with a whole new group of musicians, some that came from jazz and blues backgrounds, while I come from a rock background, but we were able to co-exist and blend sounds that became really unique. [2010 solo album] Avalon did really well because of that – it was a very hypnotic, mystical record. So I thought, ‘Why not take that knowledge and experience and try it in Godsmack? Why do I always have to feel that I have to hero the whole record?’ It doesn’t matter to me anymore who writes the song. I know I’m always going to have my hands in the pie because I’m the main lyricist and I write the melodies, but you get into this habit of writing in the same format, and there’s only so much water in the well.
DO YOU THINK YOU’D HAVE BEEN OPPOSED TO THE IDEA OF WORKING WITH CO-WRITERS, SAY, A DECADE AGO?
I never thought of it, but I guess as I got into the success in the early days of Godsmack I became more territorial about knowing that the formula that I was producing was working, so I had to bleed those lines dry. And then I did. After the third record [2003’s Faceless] it started to become a little challenging, and on the fourth and fifth [2006’s IV and 2010’s The Oracle] I opened it up to the band to do some more writing. On the sixth [2014’s 1000hp], it became more about getting in a room and just jamming again, being a band like in the early days. On this record, the band came to me and said they wanted me to write this record. They said, ‘We’ve been thinking about this a lot, and feel like we’ve had our best success in the past when you had a bit more of the control of writing, and you know this band better than anyone, and we feel confident you should write this record.’ I said, ‘Okay, but if you’re going to put this in my hands, I want to go with the format that’s been working for me lately.’ Genres don’t exist in my world. I have two categories now: good songs or bad songs.
WHICH SONGS FROM THIS ALBUM WERE YOU MOST EXCITED FOR PEOPLE TO HEAR? Bulletproof, for sure, which is the reason it was the first single. It was the first time the band had crossed into a different, bigger, melodic commercial aspect. It’s still a good, loud rock song that’s not too detached from what we do as a band, but it’s detached enough that it’s unique, and something we feel that a younger generation can connect with. Unforgettable is, I think, going to end up being the second single. Again, it has something very unique to it. The whole first half of this record shows the new beginning for Godsmack, as it’s more melodic and easy on the ear. The back half of the record caters a little more to our core audience, as it’s a little tougher and edgier.
AND THERE’S ALSO UNDER YOUR SCARS…
It’s the first ballad we’ve ever written for Godsmack. It’s a real Dream On/November Rain-style ballad that starts beautifully with piano and strings, and then blows up into this massive epic chorus at the end.
DREAM ON IS AN AEROSMITH CLASSIC. HOW IMPORTANT WERE THEY TO YOU, BEING A MUSICIAN FROM MASSACHUSETTS?
They were a huge part of my growth as a musician. When I discovered Aerosmith through a little bit of weed and the Rocks album - specifically the song Last Child - I was blown away. Then when I saw a picture of Joe Perry and how cool he looked with those bangs in front of his eyes and that blonde streak I thought, ‘Oh my god, I want to be that. I was no longer just about being a musician; it was about being a rockstar.
AEROSMITH, LIKE GODSMACK, EMBRACED WORKING WITH CO-WRITERS LATER IN THEIR CAREER, TOO…
It’s true. They also experienced the phoenix rising from the ashes thing. They were a big band and then the drugs took over and they crashed and burned. I remember going to see them at Worcester Centrum [now the DCU Center in Worcester, Massachusetts] and the place wasn’t sold out. That was a sad moment for me, because Steven Tyler was fucked up. They came on with Toys In The Attic and he fell over, the band finished the song instrumentally, the curtains closed and the show was done. They went through burning it down, only to come back bigger than they’d ever been.
YOU CO-STAR WITH SOME ICONS IN THE VIDEO FOR BULLETPROOF…
Yeah, Sebastian Bach and Billy Ray Cyrus. I knew Sebastian, but not Billy Ray. My manager had also managed him though, so there was a connection there. Everybody always wants us to do a performance video because the band has always had strength in the live performance, but I felt that this was a different kind of record and needed a different kind of video. So I scripted something that was a bit more comical, a bit more like Foo Fighters would approach a video. They say that comedy is just reality exaggerated, so I thought we’d have a video in which we talk about growing the fanbase, but twist it in a comical way and making a mini-movie out of it. The video is designed to be strictly for entertainment purposes – it’s not to be taken seriously. We want people to come into our world and have some fun with it before they judge or assume, ‘I’ve heard that band Godsmack and they’re a bit too heavy for me.’
DOES BEING PIGEONHOLED ANNOY YOU?
It frustrates me, now more than ever, because I know we’re so much more than that. I realise now that we’re entertainers, so we damn well better know how to entertain an audience. We’re not Rush, we’re not Yes, we’re not prog rock. We’re just entertainers, and we write the best music that we feels represents our band, while also putting on a great show for the people.
Words: James Hickie
Godsmack's latest album, When Legends Rise is available now through Spinefarm. Check it out below. The band will make their live return to the UK in November. Dates are as follows:
4 Birmingham O2 Institute
5 Manchester O2 Ritz
7 London O2 Forum Kentish Town
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