In Bloom: An Interview with Morgan Rose of
Atlanta’s Sevendust are one of the most popular and successful heavy rock bands currently recording and touring. I remember seeing them at a little NYC rock club/dive on St Mark’s Place called Coney Island High back when they were first signed and wondering what the hell was going on, because they didn’t sound like any other bands, at all. Last year I saw them perform at Roseland Ballroom, one of the city’s biggest venues, and people were just going insane. You know that kind of career trajectory is just unbelievably rare for a band that’s managed to put out gold records and stay around for eight years while never really having to sell out its musical integrity. Word.
With five successful albums in its arsenal, Sevendust includes singer Lajon Witherspoon, guitarist Sonny Mayo (formerly of Snot, who replaced original guitarist Clint Lowery in 2005), guitarist John Connolly, bassist Vince Hornsby and a truly phenomenal drummer named Morgan Rose. The band’s most recent album, Next was released in October of 2005 and the band has been on the road almost non-stop ever since. Ink 19 recently had the chance to speak to Morgan Rose who revealed the true story behind the band’s split from longtime label TVT Records, talked about having his eardrum blown out, explored the passion that motivates his drumming and got enthusiastic about his future participation in a all-star project featuring Tommy Lee, Godsmack’s Sully Erna and Dave Grohl. As you will see, Morgan is a man who spins a mean “road story.”
Next is your first CD release since leaving TVT. You guys were on that label for many years and I understood that it was a good relationship. Do you want to speak about why you moved on, how that has affected the band and where you are now?
Basically, when we started with TVT in 1997 they were perfect for us. We were an unknown band playing a style of music that was far from being commercially accepted – or even accepted underground – at that point. It wasn’t music that you were going to hear on the radio or see on MTV. At that time, there were no bands like Shadows Fall, Lamb of God, Disturbed or even Godsmack. These bands may have been together but they were not signed and out there to really ‘wreck house to the masses,’ so to speak. There really weren’t many bands to tour with and there weren’t a lot of people that would accept us.
TVT allowed us to hit the street, go on the road and play live. They also gave us enough money to be able to breathe. As we built our following that way, other bands started to come into the fray. Then, all of a sudden the Slipknots of the world were in the mix and it started to make some noise. So TVT were really great for us from the start.
Somewhere along the line, towards the release of our third record, Animosity, they started to get involved a lot more than we really liked, as far as the songs were concerned as well as [choosing] the producers and video directors we wanted to use. When it got to the point where we started to have families of our own, we started to give in a little bit on our musical integrity. That’s something that I hate to admit, but when you’ve got a kid at home and you’re looking at yourself saying, ‘what can I do to further my career to make a better life for my child without selling myself out?’, you start agreeing with certain things that you might not want to agree with. This includes having people come in and influence your songwriting or having someone at your record label tell you that they don’t like this batch of songs that you did and you should go in a different direction. So you start trying to write in a different direction…and things like that.
At that point we started to get concerned but by the time we got into our fourth album, Seasons it was in full bloom. We sent them a CD with twelve songs on it and they basically didn’t like any of it. It was much heavier than what [eventually] came out on that record. The one quote from them that I would really have to say will always stick in my head – that pretty much signaled the end of our relationship there – was that someone had the audacity to actually say that we needed to go buy some records by The Strokes, The Hives and The White Stripes. They said, ‘Maybe you should listen to this and see if you could incorporate some of that sound into your band.’
That’s completely unbelievable. I don’t even know what to say.
Yeah, and that’s an honest-to-god true statement. It really happened, so you can just erase everything else that I said and basically just put that down as the reason [things went bad]. When I said, ‘you have to be kidding me’…and I think my exact words out of my mouth were, ‘no offense to those bands – because that’s fine for what they do – but we will never sound like the fucking White Stripes. If that’s the kind of band that you want then you need to let us go, now.’ Then they started to bacpedal, like, ‘No, we don’t mean [for you to] write songs like them but the sonic sound and the way that they are simplifying their music and this and that,’ and I was just like ‘you’re taking the band away from what we are.’ It seemed like that was the goal for them for a little while. That was when we decided that we’d have to fight to get out of there, because we’d end up writing music, they’d turn it down, and it would just never end. Meanwhile while you’re doing this, you know, you don’t have any money. It’s not like the record label grabs your twelve songs, says that they suck but then says, ‘Here’s another chunk of money so that you can pay your bills and go in and write again.’ They basically say, ‘Fuck You. Your songs are not what we’re looking for. Go in and write again and while you’re at it spend the money that you don’t have to do it.’
It must have been so frustrating for you guys.
We were in a very scary place where we were worried that we were going to have to tour without a record and we would have to go through another album cycle where they didn’t like what we were writing. We decided that we were going to fight it. The irony of the whole thing is that on November 5th (2004) I believe, they had a technicality and forgot to pick up our option. They had to give us a written option by that date and they didn’t do it. When they forgot to pick up the option we were legally allowed to leave, without any talking or anything and it didn’t cost us a dollar. It was a very crazy time for us, because simultaneously with that happening we changed guitarists. December 13th was the last day that we saw Clint (Lowery) in the band.
Yeah, I remember hearing that.
So everything was crazy. It was like, okay, we’ve got a clean slate to do whatever we want and that includes songwriting, who we want to sign with, checking out the options and seeing who was out there to sign with. For a while, we felt like maybe no one wanted to sign us. We were told that our music was not what TVT was looking for, so we didn’t know really what to expect. The only life that we knew was with TVT. It was like having the same girlfriend for seven years and one day she tells you she really doesn’t like the way you look anymore. We had to figure out if anybody thought that we were going to be an attractive signing and, happily, there were a lot of people that wanted to sign us.
That really helped us get through [recording] the new record, which we basically financed ourselves. We didn’t want to sign with [a label] that would tell us to write different songs, so we wrote the record on our own without any outside producers, songwriters or label execs. When we got about half way through the recording process we started to invite some labels in and started to fly around with CDs to let some labels hear it. We probably had about eleven or twelve offers at that point, which made us feel really good. We signed with another indie which is being distributed through Universal and we figured that it would [be a good decision]. They offered us our own imprint to sign bands plus they gave us the creative control that we really wanted and had been missing for a little while. It worked out really well in that aspect.
That’s an amazing story, and the way you tell it is very compelling. So many bands get dropped from their labels and just disappear and get buried forever.
Sure. Nobody really knows, obviously, outside of us, what the deal was with that. Now that the band is on another label, most people think we were dropped and then picked up. There were a lot of people from whom I read quotes that said, ‘the band lost a guitar player, lost their record deal…’ and I’ve had people coming up to me saying, ‘What was it like when Clint quit?’ Clint never quit, you know? The funny thing is that really everything that happened kind of just happened. TVT missed an option that they didn’t want to miss. They wanted another record from us. As funny as it may sound, for a band like us that kind of is a Gold Record band – we pretty much sit in that 500,000 [units sold] range – our records made a lot of money for a record company that spent the kind of money we had spent on us. We don’t make any money off that, other than from touring, which is just the way it worked in that deal. But TVT made a lot of money off us.
Let’s move on a bit and talk about your drumming. On the new CD you also have a producer’s credit. How does your position as Sevendust’s drummer put you in a good place to step in as producer?
Oh god, the irony of that is that the drumming is the last thing I’m even listening to. I’m really more about vocals and melody and placing the heavy vocal aspect of our band where it needs to be. I’m trying to let the songs breathe with the way that we are. We have kind of a unique, three-voice thing with Lajon and then with my vocal and John singing back up. When Clint was in the band it was even more noticeable. John goes in and writes the majority of the riffs and then we sit down and we start putting this stuff together, but the first thing that goes through my mind is the vocals. I really don’t pay much attention to the drums. There are tracks on this record and even the previous record where I don’t think I ever actually played the drum part until we started tracking the record. We never even rehearsed it.
I like to make sure that the songs are going to mean something, but it isn’t my goal to make sure everybody gets it as much as that everybody can come up with something they can make out of it. It doesn’t matter what we wrote [the song] about as long as fans can relate it to something in their lives. I’m kind of a big Nine Inch Nails and Tool fan when it comes to lyrics. I like meaningful stuff as opposed to “Oh Mickey, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind, hey Mickey.” I need lyrics with substance [laughs].
Why do you prefer not to practice?
It’s not that I don’t care, that’s for sure. It’s that I spend so much time dealing with the production and songwriting end of it that I don’t really pay much attention to the drums until I get in the studio. I haven’t really sat down and rehearsed for a record more than… I think we rehearsed two days before we did this record and we didn’t even play half the songs.
I find it a little bit exciting to go in completely cold, not have my mind made up about doing anything in particular and just start going through the songs. I’ve listened to the song a hundred times and I helped write it, so I know how it goes. It’s just a matter of me sitting down and playing what feels right. Also, we tour so much that when I get home I make sure that there are no drums anywhere in a ten mile radius of the house. We live near a music store and I made sure that I can move further away from it if I don’t want to be anywhere near it.
Not only are you a tireless hard-hitting machine, but you are a great visual drummer as well. Which players have influenced the showmanship aspect of your playing?
You know, it started when I was younger. My father never allowed me to listen to anything real… I don’t know, I would like to say ‘fun’ – such as the Twisted Sister era and all that. He was definitely not into that. He had me listening to Stanley Clark, Grover Washington and Zappa – stuff like that. I got influenced by some great guys, some great music, but it had nothing to do with the way that I play, as far as technically, now. But the Zappa stuff started to influence me and then he let me see this concert movie called Baby Snakes…
Ah yes, Baby Snakes…
…and that was it. I was mesmerized by [Terry] Bozzio. Then I started following him through UK and Missing Persons. I thought he was like a chameleon that could really adapt to anything. He’s pretty much a joke in that he’s so unbelievable at every aspect of what he does. He’s got a swagger about him when he plays and it looks – then and still to this day – like his movements are done, obviously, because he feels that way. That’s his personality on stage and that’s his personality when he’s playing.
There were a lot of guys after that [who influenced me]. Tommy Lee is one, obviously. I mean, the guy spins upside down on his drumkit, and when you’re a kid what else is there that you want to do in life? So [seeing him do] that was pretty much the nail in the coffin, but even after that there was Jamie Miller (Souls at Zero, Snot). I had the pleasure of having Jamie as my best friend and touring with him for the better part of a year in 1997. I also love Shannon Larkin [Godsmack] and consider him to be like the Yoda of visual drumming, without a doubt. There’s something going on there that’s impossible to… I would never want to cop what he’s doing but I feel good playing the way that I play. It’s a personality thing. I can’t walk around and do that stuff walking down the street; people would just think that I was out of my mind. I hold a lot in during the day and I hold a lot in most of the time. When I get a chance to get up on stage and play I really don’t pay attention to what I’m doing, I just do it.
A good example of that is when we make videos. The director will say to me, ‘Okay Morgan, give me that live shit!’ And I’m like, ‘There’s a fucking stereo playing, dude.’ I mean, I don’t feel like it. If you want to catch me doing what I do and what feels right, I think it’s going to be while we’re playing live, because I can’t pull that stuff at a video shoot. I look at our videos and I look stupid enough doing it live but when I do it in a video it looks like it’s all planned and put together. It’s really weird.
I understand that you had an accident with an in-ear monitor that caused a significant hearing loss…
Actually it was a headset mic that was involved and that happened right before I put this band together. Vinny (Hornsby, bassist) and I were in another band before Sevendust. This headset mic wrapped around the back of my head and we were playing and it wasn’t working. I had long hair back then and when I tried to pull it off it got caught in my hair. I started to kind of whip my head around to get it loose from my hair and the metal post that hooked on around the back of my head went straight into my left ear like a dart. It was like this explosion in my ear and it blew my eardrum out on the spot. I played a few more songs in the set and then went to the emergency room.
In the emergency room there was no specialist on duty but they checked me out. The doctor who examined me came back in and told me, ‘I don’t think you’ll ever hear out of that ear again,’ because it looked like I had scratched my inner ear with that metal post. This was on a Friday, so of course I had to wait through Saturday and Sunday and a few other days until I could get an appointment with a specialist. I was completely deaf in that ear for about three weeks.
Finally, I went in and they did some work on me. The doctor that I had was great and he said he thought I would be able to get some hearing back in that ear. He didn’t want to speculate on how much but he thought some of my hearing would return. It’s funny, you know, we put Sevendust together and when Clint tried out for the band I had shotgun headphones on, so I never heard him play a note. I just looked around the room and said, ‘Is he good to have in the band?’ (Laughs) Everybody nodded their head yes, so he was in. Clint was in the band for two or three weeks before I ever heard him play a note.
So you’ve regained some of the hearing in that ear?
Yes. I was completely deaf in my left ear and then one day I was talking to someone, just like I’m talking to you now, and it just went “errangguh!” It got real loud and made a really strange noise and then all of a sudden I could hear. When you’re deaf for three to four weeks and then you hear anything it sounds like you’ve got 100 percent [of your hearing] back. It felt really good for a while and I took care of it and had plugs in all the time. Then we got a record deal and I wanted to hear all of this madness that was going on so I got rid of the earplugs and now I’m pretty much deaf on my own stupidity [laughs].
Is there anything you do to prevent further injury to your hearing?
No, and I’m realizing that I am pretty much going completely deaf in both ears. I haven’t worn earplugs or anything for years. I do wear in-ear [monitor]s now so I think that might help a little bit, maybe, in taking at least the major sound of the snare drum and some of the crack of the drums out of my ears. But then again I’ve got those things screaming in my ears, too. I can say now that it’s a small price to pay, but I’m sure that I’ll be thinking differently when I’m sitting on the couch somewhere and there’s no more tours to do and I can’t hear anybody or the TV. I think that the in-ears are probably less harmful and I’ve heard that the damage you do is something you don’t realize the effects of for ten years. I don’t know.
I’ll cross my fingers for you.
I might have to be wearing some hearing aids here pretty soon.
HAHA. Anyway, following that I know you’ve had joint and back problems. Do you have tips for other drummers on how to play hard while avoiding injury?
It’s pretty standard stuff. Anyone I’ve gone to has just told me to stretch and warm up. My hands, like most of the guys that play drums out there, I’m sure, are always sore. If you’re playing an hour and a half, five nights a week, you’re going to get sore hands. Some of my hockey buddies told me that putting your joints in ice-cold water right after the show is the best thing to do for that. When my hands, or my wrists or elbows, were really hurting me, I would have somebody get me a giant tub of ice water in the dressing room and I’d go straight from the stage and just plunge my hands and arms into these buckets of ice. I’d keep them in there for five to ten minutes. It feels really terrible and you get all the tingling and frostbite feelings but it’s supposed to be really good for you. It seems to work also but it was so much of a hassle and so painful to deal with that I quit doing it.
I’m really like the perfect person to look at and then not do what I do, as far as anything that’s responsible about taking care of yourself, physically. I’ve been working out a lot lately but I just got a game that I can play on my phone so I can run on the treadmill for more that ten minutes without getting bored. I was actually on there for forty minutes yesterday and didn’t realize it. I’m wound so tight that I don’t have the patience to really do any of these things that are so good for you. Pretty soon I’ll probably end up having to be forced to do them. The thing is, I feel really good right now, which is a bad thing. I don’t have any real ailments and I don’t know why. I know I’m taking care of myself a little bit more but in the past I was in pain pretty much all of the time. Hopefully I’m taking care of myself and working out enough to keep my body intact. This is turning into a depressing story [laughs]…
Children, learn from my example and don’t do what I have done!
In a way, your playing reminds me of Stephen Perkins because, like him, you tend to trace the rhythms that everyone else in the band is doing, not just the bass player. Why did you start doing that?
Stephen is unbelievable and a great guy. But that started pretty much right out of the gate. John was a drummer in another band and when he left that band he started playing guitar. Without going into that whole story, he had a lot of rhythm and his riffs were very chunky. We called our band the “Chg-Chg” band because everything we wrote was like “Chg-Chg, Chg-Chg.” I just decided I was going to copy John, because it started sounding like a sledge hammer of a groove to copy everything he did with my kick drum. Instead of following Vinny I followed John. Then, simultaneously, Vinny decided that he was going to follow me and all of a sudden it was this wall of chunk. We stayed true to that through the whole first record. Then, just to add some ambiance to it and to get away from sounding too monotonous, I started to go off and do a little bit more of my own thing. It also came from not being overly familiar with exactly what the hell we were doing, because I wasn’t really rehearsing a lot of the different parts. Towards the third record it got a little more noticeable but yeah, that’s where that came from. I’m in the process of going back a little bit more to that and sitting with John more. And a lot of improvising goes on, really. I mean, live it’s a riot. We don’t even really know what we’re doing, we’re just improvising everything.
Does that relate to why it seems like you just never stop playing, even between songs?
Yes, exactly. In between songs – this started during our tour for the second record – I didn’t like dead time. I couldn’t stand to have a song end and we weren’t popular enough to have any cheering. It wasn’t like that Arena Rock sound when you got done with the song, so to hear silence was completely devastating to me. I was the one that was stuck up there, because the other guys would be able to walk behind their amps, take a shot of Jack, smoke a cigarette and do whatever else they were doing and I’d be the one sitting there smiling at everyone and getting blank stares back. So I started to go off on these little grooves by myself and, knowing what song we were about to go into, to start soloing around that rhythm. It wasn’t any major solos or that I was shredding up there: it was keeping it simple, changing the actual beat of the song slightly and playing around that beat a little bit.
Over time, the band would get done having their break and they would walk up and start making noise, and then start following my groove. Then we’d start going until Lajon said something about the song and then I’d just hit the hi-hat two or four times and we’d go. That helped us to keep everything fresh.
In the December 2003 issue of Modern Drummer, where you are on the cover, there’s a side bar with Tommy Lee where he mentions the possibility of doing a project with you, Dave Grohl and Sully Erna. Did anything ever come of that?
You know, funny enough, I was at Tommy’s house and we were discussing it. We actually even had some material that we had written for Seasons that didn’t make the record. I was like, ‘What do you think about some of this stuff?’ He was into it and there were two or three songs that he really liked. So it’s something that will definitely happen and I think there will even be a lot more guys involved than those originally mentioned. I think Stephen will probably be involved because I know that Tommy loves Perkins and Stephen is a sweetheart of a guy and a phenomenal drummer. Just like anything else in this business, it turns out that timing in dealing with all of this becomes a _major_issue. At the time that he was ready to go I was in the middle of doing something and then once I was free, Motley Crue started up their reunion tour. I actually just talked to Tommy a week ago and he is up to his elbows. So, I don’t know when this thing with us will happen but it will be something really cool.
I couldn’t even get an interview with him. His people were like, “Tommy is too busy to talk to you.”
He’s too busy to talk to anybody. I got an invitation to a party of his at Sundance this year and it’s like, I don’t know what the hell that’s all about. I didn’t even know he was going to Sundance [laughs]. That television show (Tommy Lee Goes to College) made some noise, for sure.
I couldn’t stop watching it.
Yeah, he is the greatest guy and one of my dearest friends in the world. I have no regrets for almost anything that I’ve done – I’ve been so blessed and so lucky. The greatest thing about doing what I do is that I’ve got so many great friends and I’ve met so many incredible people and it was all because of this. To have that guy calling me up after having grown up looking at him like he was the second coming of Christ, to me, it’s pretty amazing what he’s done with his career.
There are so many unbelievable drummers out there, it’s ridiculous. I love it when people ask, ‘Who’s the best drummer in the world’ and I can just die laughing. You’ve got to be joking, man. There are so many and right now there are so many new guys. Chris Adler (Lamb of God), he’s a joke. He really rattles me, a lot. I listen to him and I watch him play and it bothers me. It kind of makes me think, in my mind, that some of the stuff that I do is like a generic version of his stuff, which embarrasses me [laughs]. I know that guys like him worked hard to get that good, they had to have worked hard. I know that they have a god-given talent to be able to get to this level but, please god, tell me that they worked really hard (laughs). It’s disgusting.
Last year I played at PASIC (Percussive Arts Society International Convention) and I went on right after Sonny Emory (formerly with Earth, Wind & Fire and now a renowned studio drummer and clinician) [sighs]. We played Woodstock with 180,000 people out there, and I barely broke a sweat. I mean, I loved it and it was a great feeling but I wasn’t nervous at all. Then I went out in front of five or six hundred kids at a PASIC clinic and I thought I was going to throw up. Because these kids ain’t no joke: they’re out there to check you out and to say you really aren’t that great. And they’re hurtful [laughs]. I read some of the conversations on the Pearl drum and other sites and these guys that like speed metal and death metal – whoa! You’d better just move away man, because they’re like, ‘He sucks! All he does is scratch his ass on the kit and I wish he was fucking dead.’ And I’m like, holy shit, man, these guys are out for blood [laughs].