Crisis Therapy: 12 Steps to Getting Over a Bad Year
An Interview with Sevendust Drummer Morgan Rose
Here’s a joke I love tell my formerly-married friends when I hear them complain about their asshole ex-spouses:
Q: Why are divorces so expensive?
A: Because they’re worth it!
That’s an awesome joke and everything, but anybody who’s ever gone through a divorce (or been close to someone who’s going through a divorce) can tell you it sucks worse than almost anything on the planet, no matter how bad you want out. So imagine that you’re divorcing your wife and spending every penny you have fighting her for custody of your kid. And you’re grieving over the death of a family member. And dealing with the fact that your gold-record-selling band has escaped from one shitty label deal only to land in the middle of another that’s turned out to be a million times worse. Now, consider that during this decidedly unpleasant period of your life, you have to write and record a new album with your band, or your family doesn’t eat. That’s the kind of year drummer Morgan Rose had in 2006.
Morgan’s band is called Sevendust and, as one of the most popular, successful and influential touring metal bands in the country, they have been together for ten years. His band mates are vocalist Lajon Witherspoon, guitarists Sonny Mayo and John Connolly and bassist Vinnie Hornsby. I got to know Morgan when I interviewed him last year and we totally bonded. Morgan is really an amazing guy and an interviewer’s wet dream, so I feel fortunate that we had the chance to spend some time on the phone last month and he gave me another great interview. In the following article Morgan talks about the resurrection of Sevendust with the release of the group’s latest CD, Alpha, waxes nostalgic on the band’s career accomplishments and shares a cautionary tale for other bands about accepting label offers that seem too good to be true.
When we last spoke, you were going through a divorce, and from what I’ve read this hasn’t been an easy year for you, personally. Would you want to speak about the hard times you’ve dealt with in relation to your playing and the themes of the songs album?
Sure. John sent a handful of songs to me and said, ‘See if anything catches your ear that [encourages] you to start throwing in some lyrics or melodies or both.’ At the time I was in this autopilot-survival mode of trying to convince myself that I was going to be cool, but having a rough time figuring out whether I should be really freaking out or whether it was just life, and I should just deal with it. I was getting influences from both sides; certain people were saying, ‘Hey man, life is life.’ And other people were saying, ‘I’d be jumping out of a fucking window right now if I were you.’
I didn’t think I was in very good shape to be doing anything that was creative at all, but I listened to the stuff John sent. I played it in the car and drove around with it. For a few days I listened to these six or seven songs and was just kind of humming them: not really coming up with anything lyrically, but hunting around the melodies.
One day I just happened to be on the good side of the day, and I decided to get the songs out of the car and try to throw a verse together. I started flying with it, but it was all about losing…my mind and was how I was struggling to keep above water mentally. I think that [this kind of pain] is something that’s universal to the world, because it is life. I have a lot of things that I’m thankful for. I’m definitely way luckier than most people to be able to live the life that I live, and have the woman that I have in my life, a beautiful, healthy daughter and a family that is always there to support me. All the bad shit that happened, some of it was stuff that wasn’t your ordinary bad shit — that’s for sure — but that’s the way life is.
Through writing these songs, I was able to get it off of my chest a little bit. I think that everyone who listens to this CD and reads the lyrics can probably get something out of it, because, as I said, it’s fucking life.
Well your songs are fairly emotionally honest anyway. It’s not like you went from writing songs for Britney Spears to trying to write something heavy.
That’s true. It helped that this is a more aggressive record. It’s a lot easier to put the inner turmoil on paper when it’s something that’s aggressive –at least it is for me. I do like the Nine Inch Nails approach, that’s my favorite. We’re not that kind of band, but I appreciate the ‘vocal emotion’ side of things. That’s something I always thought would be a lot tougher [to achieve] than it is. Lajon is very good at being a chameleon and being able to put his spin on anything. If he writes a song it sounds like one thing, and if somebody else writes it, it still sounds like it’s him.
You, again, have a co-producer’s credit on this CD. In our previous interview you said the following on your view of your role as a producer: “The irony is that the drumming is really the last thing I’m even listening to. I’m more about vocals, melody and placing the heavy vocal aspect of our band where it needs to be…” Do you still feel this way about your role as a producer vs. a drummer?
I was more drum-conscious on this record than the last one (2005’s Next), because on that one there was no rehearsing at all. I mean, we didn’t rehearse one song. We wrote the whole thing on a Roland 1600, using the most old school drum machine that we could find just to throw down some beats. It was like one of those things where we were in a hurry, so I was always in that mindset of, ‘I’ll know the structure of the song and I’ll go in there and just play it.’ We didn’t do the record live, it was kind of a very square album when it comes to how it was produced and recorded. It was very much just the old school way of ‘do the drums and then do the guitars’ and so on and do the vocals last. It was very stale.
On Alpha we decided that we would not do it that way. We had the means to be able to have a little more time [as well] and we rehearsed. John will write a lot of beats on the drum machine that sound nothing like what I play on the song when it’s recorded. But sometimes he’ll get on to something that’s really tough and almost impossible to pull off with the human body. Nine out of ten times, I’ve taken the easy road and said, ‘Yeah that sounds good, but I’ll just go ahead and play this,’ because, well, I can’t fucking play that. (Laughs) On Alpha there were a few things I heard that I realized were very tough parts, but I decided to go ahead and try to learn them to hear what it would sound like if a human were playing it rather than a drum machine. There were a handful of things that I wanted to make sure we had enough time to rehearse so that I’d be able to get some real woodshed time in there. And you know, it wasn’t like we spent a tremendous amount of time on it, but we did get a few weeks of rehearsal in, as opposed to, seriously, a day and a half for the last record.
Recorded in a minute!
Like, no kidding. I recorded Next having never played half the songs at all, ever with the band. We rehearsed for a day and a half just so that I could be kind of semi-knowledgeable of what our arrangements were going to be. We were really winging it on that album and this one we just put more time into. It was a lot more fun.
With you positioned as a sort of drummer icon for this genre of music, and a player who’s got a fairly bullet proof reputation at this point, I guess the obvious question is what’s different about your playing on this record than on previous records, and what did you do to take yourself to the next level?
Well, all of the compliments are out of control. I don’t know how to take that stuff (laughs), but [you have to understand that] I didn’t really care about playing drums for two records [prior to this one]. That’s basically all there is to it. I had way more to say about how rough everything was than to think about playing drums. I was just more interested in the vocal aspect of things, and I think it’s really cool to tap into that side. I think that I was able to release a lot more tension by talking about stuff than just beating my way through it.
But drum wise, I’ve become very comfortable with click tracks. I mean, I can do that without even thinking about it any more. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, because I can play in front of or behind the beat and can use the click as something [that guides me] more going into a part and out of a part and seeing where it’s going to go.
About the only thing that’s really changed with me over the last five years or so is that I probably was a worse drummer [for the past two years]…I probably started getting back to really caring about playing drums again this year. There were two or three years of [me] kind of just not paying attention to it and really getting by with the bare minimum, which might sound really ridiculous and selfish but…I was doing other things. I was paying more attention to what everyone else was doing and trying to make sure that the vocal things I was thinking about were going to cut through than [I was] worrying about the drums. I just took it for granted; I figured I’d just go up there and play a beat and it would fit because that’s kind of how we do it.
I don’t think anybody who heard or saw you play would guess that you didn’t care about what you were doing. It hardly looks like you’re phoning it in.
It’s funny though, because we’ll [record] and then we’ll go out and play live and one fucking week into playing I’m like, ‘Goddammit, I could have just done all that on the record and would have really been looked at as a dude who knows what he’s doing.’ I really was just thinking, ‘let’s get through it, let’s not make everybody look around and say how come the drummer’s taking a few days to get this done.’
Let’s just not suck.
(Adopting gruff voice) ‘Let’s not have to call “The Man” to come in here. We don’t want to have to call Josh Freese to come in and finish this record because Morgan’s taking too long.’
That’s funny. Morgan Rose: Drummer Comedian!
Yeah right, well that’s the whole charade. That’s how I work with mirrors. If you make them laugh enough times people will go, ‘You know, that guy’s a really good drummer!’
I can still remember seeing Sevendust for the first time at Coney Island High on St. Mark’s Place in New York. That club isn’t even there anymore.
Wow. It was a lot of fun back then. I find myself occasionally getting nostalgic over stuff [I’ve done in] my career [with everything we’ve been through as a band]. I mean, I don’t know if I can go as far as saying ‘resurrected,’ but we did put out a record (Next) about which it was hard for us to find anybody that really wanted to take our phone calls, over the perception of our band being in trouble. That was because of a bad record deal. We still went out and toured and still sold more tickets than we had ever sold in our career, sold more merch than we had ever sold in our career and had a single that was the highest moving single in our career. And yet [we were a band that] nobody wanted to put their hands on because we had a label that had manufactured the smallest amount of records that we’ve ever had done. The perception was that the band sold no records so they didn’t want any part of it. Well, the label didn’t print any records.
That’s so weird.
It’s hard to sell CDs when they aren’t there to sell. And they didn’t put a fucking ad in more than one magazine for [longer than] one month. So, I got myself in this self-abusive mode of ‘I’m going to look back on all of these great things that happened in my career because I’m in the twilight and it’s over and I’m just going to think about how much fun it was back then.’ There was more self-pity going on around here, I swear, my mother would be like, ‘Oh god, will you just fucking buck up already?’ I’ve got my head on my mom’s lap ready to start crying to see if she’ll just rub her little son’s head, and she’s like,’ Look at what you have and quit looking at what you don’t have.’ It took me a while and then I finally got to where I was okay with all of that. But, not to ramble, I did look back at Coney Island High and Irving Plaza and playing in New York, building that thing from [there being] one hundred people at Coney Island High — where probably the label bought all of the tickets — to being able to play Roseland and Hammerstein and having thousands of kids in there that were just rabid, all based on one record. It took us twenty-one months to do it, but it was so much fun to watch it go like that, and so much more gratifying than going to bed one day as nothing and waking up having sold a million records.
Like American Idol.
If you don’t mind me asking, what exactly happened with your former label deal, with Winedark?
It was really bad. I remember shaking my head, thinking ‘this cannot be happening.’ We got out of the TVT deal and inked this deal with Winedark that was so financially ridiculous for us, it was a no-brainer. We had been talking to all the majors, everybody was interested in signing us and the money that came from this little, unknown label was astronomical. It was so astronomical that some people who were close to us were saying, ‘you need to really be careful because this doesn’t look like it could be happening.’ I remember our booking agent saying to me, ‘I don’t want to offend you Morgan, but what makes you so special to be offered this much money?’ That gives you an idea of how much it was: it was astronomical. All we could think about was that we have kids and we’d been taken advantage of financially for a long time, and we needed to go ahead and take the money and bank on the fact that they’d have to do the right thing to make that money back. And…they didn’t.
They gave us a little bit of the money and then all of sudden it was like, ‘We’re not going to give you any more money. Our main investor is gone and we’re looking for others right now.’ So we’re going, ‘Okay, but that’s not what the contract says…’ They just dumped the deal in the toilet. We were at the beginning of the album cycle and it was already gone. We spent months sitting there, and I swear to you I am not lying when I say that I wished we were back with our previous label. That’s how bad it was.
We basically wasted a year of our career. Somebody said to us, ‘Well you got a little bit of money and you got your record back’ and I said, ‘Fuck the money and forget the record that is now damaged goods.’ It was just really tough. I think that probably the hardest thing we were all dealing with, regarding this album, was that we couldn’t believe that somebody would go out there and do something like that to us after the word on the street was, ‘somebody please treat this band right because they’ve been taken advantage of for so long.’
It makes it even sweeter now that you have your own label (7Bros) and a distribution deal with the Asylum arm of WEA. I thought that “Asylum” was a moniker that they retired in the ’70s.
That’s an interesting relationship. We have a melting pot of an arsenal over there. Obviously, the Warner Music Group basically owns everybody. Along with Asylum and Atlantic and Warner Bros…and now I believe Roadrunner is even over there, I think they just inked a deal with them…they pulled our little 7Bros records over and all of a sudden we’re using a whole pile of people. It’s like Warner Music Group is our bodyguard, if that makes any sense. It’s a whole other world. When we get on the phone with these people that have a history of greatness behind them, the discussions are not the ones that we were having with Winedark. These folks are all about, ‘what are we going to do to make this thing catch fire?’ It’s all for one and everybody’s passionate about it. I know that we did the best that we could, without a doubt, and the people who we surrounded ourselves with are doing the best that they can. That’s all you want. You don’t want people who don’t even know anything about your band sitting around collecting checks for doing nothing. When we were negotiating with other labels this was the label that could name our songs right away and they knew what was going on. It’s really cool. We’re really, really happy about all of it.
Have you made any accommodations to cope with your hearing loss?
It’s funny that you even asked that. I’m pretty sure that I’m doing way more damage now than ever before. Our monitor guy came up to me the other day and he says, ‘Can we please at least get you up on the kit to sound check, because I plugged in to listen to your mix and almost vomited over the volume.’ And I was like, ‘Really? It isn’t loud to me at all (laughs).’ He said, ‘I’d really like to try to get it down a little more than that because I’m really worried about your ears and you losing your hearing.’ We did it one day, we turned it down a little bit and I looked at him the whole night going, ‘Nope, I’m not feeling this at all.’ So we went right back to the deaf volume.
I was talking to Seven Antonopoulos (drummer, Opiate for the Masses) and he told me about this Buttkicker thing that you use that mounts on your throne. Doesn’t that help you to feel it if you’re not hearing it?
Yeah, it gives you a lot more feel on the low end of things, when you’re using in-ear monitors. I’ve got a great monitor engineer and he can find a way to get it very close to the feel of the actual room. It makes you play a lot tighter and you can hear everybody, and if you’ve got a good guy running [the board] the mix is always killer. You can pretty much have the same mix every day and when you’re playing different sized venues every day like we do, [getting a consistent mix] can be pain in the ass. That’s the good side of the in-ears, but on the downside the minute that you put those things in your ears you lose the live feel of the room. My sound guy does all kinds of tricks: he’s got room mics out there to try to get the crowd into it so I can get a little more feel out it. But ultimately I just gas them: I just get them loud and do the best that I can.
Have you added any new gear to your set up?
I was playing 20-inch kick drums for a long time — ever since we did the acoustic tour. I even recorded with a 20-inch on this record — but I decided to go back to a 22-inch kick. I really have no idea why. I just decided that I’d been playing 20s for a while now so I should go back up to a 22. It took me a little while to get used to that. It was really amazing how that little bit of difference was going to affect the feel of my kick pedals. It’s a lot more work to control the feel with just that little bit of an increase on the size. Watch, I’ll be going back to an 18-inch within the next six months (laughs).
What’s going on with your clothing line, Alien Freak Wear?
It’s happening! It’s one of those things that started as a joke, but somehow the clothing line got started up and things started doing well. There are hundreds of kids out there who have that guy [a little alien Morgan designed] tattooed on them, and that’s like my little gang of folks. I threw [that design] on some shirts and then when I went through the divorce [the business] just went away. Then it was brought to my attention that I should screw around with it again, that it might be something worth doing. I said, ‘It’s not my deal, I didn’t run it to begin with. I just came up with the logo.’ But it’s probably just going to continue to move. It’s got a website up at Alien Freak Wear Dot Com and the site itself is pretty cool. Now we have baby clothes coming out pretty soon. So things are moving along and I think we might see about getting it into some of the major chains. I don’t know if my people would be too appreciative if we started selling it in Hot Topic, but I think I would dig it (laughs). Some of the profits go to charity and we try to give something back. It’s just cool to see the little guy around. I mean, I get a kick out of it. I saw a guy at a show wearing one of the shirts with two of his daughter wearing the little girl shirts. That was pretty sweet. I love the kids.
Alien Feak Wear: www.alienfreakwear.com