An Interview with Guitarist Dan Donegan of
Thirteen years, 10 million albums: everything – and nothing – has changed for the members of Disturbed. “We’re very much the same people we were then,” says guitarist Dan Donegan. “We’re still as motivated. We’ve been climbing that hill throughout our career. In the music business it’s tough to be relevant for a period of time; the challenge is to continue evolving as songwriters and musicians, and come up with material that connects us with our fan base and keeps them interested. We’re competitive; it’s in our nature to be hard workers. We like challenges and challenging ourselves, and the fact is that we’re still hungry for it. It didn’t come easily; it was always a battle. People try to shut the door on you, and it made us stronger. We wouldn’t want overnight success. We toured hard to get to where we have, built a fan base from the ground up, and that’s part of our longevity.”
The members of Disturbed – Donegan, vocalist David Draiman, drummer Mike Wengren and bassist John Moyer – are touring in support of their latest release, Indestructible, which debuted on the Billboard Album Chart at No. 1. The self-produced disc is the band’s fourth overall and third consecutive No. 1, making them one of only six rock bands in history to chart three consecutive No. 1 debuts with studio albums.
Selling 10 million albums is no small feat, yet it took until last year for Donegan to make the cover of a prominent guitar publication, while some have yet to grant him the coverage he deserves. And, as is often the case in band situations, mainstream media tends to focus on frontman Draiman. None of this, says Donegan, is of much concern.
Do you ever feel ignored or slighted when all of the attention falls on one band member, or because it took until 2008 and 10 million records to make the cover of a guitar magazine, while some tech publications still refuse to join the party?
Really, it never bothers me and I don’t look that deep into it. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m secure about who I am and what we do. We all are. It’s nice at some level to be acknowledged as a band. We all know what we contribute, no one can do it alone, and we bring the best out of each other. We accomplished this together, and any positive write-ups or covers or awards… it’s nice, but more important is that we have fans. We don’t need awards and covers if we don’t have a fan base. I have a career because of the fans we’ve earned, and that’s more important to me. A lot of bands have Grammys on their mantles and no tours because they have no base. So yes, we’ve felt like an underground band over the years because it has taken 10 million records in ten years to be acknowledged, but whatever; I don’t put a lot of thought into it. I know we’ve accomplished something because our fan base has continued to grow. We try to break in new territory and connect on a worldwide level, and the goal is to continue cracking new territory. Critics and magazine covers may come around here and there and take notice of the guys individually, but it’s a band effort and I can’t do it without them.
Indestructible is your first self-produced album, which you tracked at [longtime producer] Johnny K’s Groovemaster Recording in Chicago. After cutting three albums with Johnny, was there a danger of getting too close to your own work by producing this album yourselves?
We’re always too close to our own work from the minute we write the songs! We feel strongly about our own opinions and put every song and idea under a microscope. Every track, up to the last one, is as important as the first track. It’s not that we don’t trust another opinion; we’re open to them, but they just have to be better than our opinions! And between our four opinions we achieve the best results. Fortunately, that has not run dry, and hopefully we will continue to get the results we want.
Do you ever worry that it will run dry?
It does enter my mind once in a while because – for example, right now we’re in touring mode. I write a riff here and there and record it for a good starting point, but sometimes you have to switch gears and start writing and get creative. At first I get concerned. I wonder where the direction will be – the first couple of songs set a template for the next album, and ultimately you can’t force it out. It’s got to come naturally, and there are days I don’t feel it and other days I pick up the guitar and don’t think about it. It’s like riding a bike – you don’t forget how to write a song. It’s always good when you present ideas to the other guys and try to put a stamp on it as it takes form. It’s been good so far, but we’re only four albums deep. The challenge is, will the tenth album be as interesting and keep evolving and not sound rehashed? We want to keep the songs exciting and new for ourselves as well. What we write and record will always sound like us; each guy has a way of playing, and David’s voice is uniquely his. We always try to offer something new. Disturbed is not each guy worrying about his own part. We all worry about each other’s parts and performance. We push each other and we don’t totally step out of the box or go in the opposite direction. This type of music moves and inspires us, and we try to branch into other areas at times to keep it interesting.
You mentioned working on riffs while you’re on the road, then having to be creative when it’s time to get into album mode. Are you a disciplined writer, or do the bursts of creativity simply happen?
I usually have a guitar next to my bed, and a lot of times my brain is racing and I’m not sleeping, and at 4 a.m. I want to play. I have my Washburn next to me, and I have a home studio with Pro Tools and [Roland] V-Drums, so when Mike comes into town – he lives in Milwaukee now – he comes to my place and we write together. He’ll get on the kit and throw beats down and we piece things together. Once we’re in that mode, we try to get the songs under our belts before we present them to David.
How fully formed are the songs when you develop your solos?
Lots of times they’re in the early stages. Musically, I might improvise at the time, depending on what it’s doing for me. I like to put it in there and let the guys know what I’m feeling musically. I start to do that early on, improvising parts, making them melodic and tasteful. Sometimes I may alter it when David lays down the melody. It might inspire me to do something different.
Do you still practice?
All the time. We have instruments in the dressing room, and I play a lot throughout the day. I have a practice amp and guitar and a Pro Tools rig in the dressing room. Mike has an electronic drum kit in the dressing room. We all warm up at our leisure.
Do you feel that at times you are rediscovering the instrument?
A lot, yeah. I think we’re always pushing each other to do other things, and when it’s time to write the next album we try to impress each other, not other people. We want to go in with strong ideas because no one wants his idea shot down! Everybody works great together and there’s a lot of respect and trust. There’s no half-assing it with a sub-par performance when three other guys are critiquing it and saying, “I know what you’re capable of doing, and I want you to do more.” The opinions and ideas come out and we push each other to do things that seem impossible at the time.
What is your definition of tone?
I think a lot of it comes from your hands and the way you perform. I’ve seen great guitarists play on shitty guitars through shitty amps and they sound great because of the way they grab the guitar and perform. I don’t like stuff that’s too high gain and distorted. I don’t like to tune too low; it sounds muddy. A lot of bands do that today and I’m a fan of it in their music, but I stick with the old-school way and try to keep it at a point where I have good clarity when I hit a chord so that my notes cut right through. In the studio and onstage I’ve got to use what sounds good. I use my Randall  amp with a Bogner Ecstasy head [Donegan also uses a signature Digitech pedal, the Weapon] for different tone and frequency. It’s been a good experience for me to blend and fill out the tone. In the studio I have to play around with a few things to keep it fresh. I try different effects and use whatever is necessary. I’ll have ten amps in the studio, but on rhythm I use the Randall and Washburn. On overdubs and solos I use what’s right for the part.
How do you keep your playing exciting for the audience, whose interests and playing levels are not the same as yours? The last thing anyone needs is another “pretty good” solo, or “Eh, Donegan’s wanking again; wake me up when he’s done.”
The show for us is a big moment, being onstage, acknowledging our fans, incorporating them into the performance and having key moments when they get involved, crowd participation moments, working the front of the stage, getting as close as possible and making eye contact as often as possible. A lot of it has to do with when we were kids at concerts, and you want to get the attention of your favorite guy and tell your buddy, “I think he looked at me!” We like giving that back. It goes a long way. It still sticks with me, and I know it has a big effect on our fans.
Are guitarists as willing to stick to their guns today in terms of originality?
I guess I’ve never given that a lot of thought. There are a lot of good players and shredders out there, but speaking for myself, I take the influences I have and develop my own sound. You can always learn from somebody, and it depends what you do with it. There’s no rulebook as far as I’m concerned. I’m self-taught, I don’t know theory, and maybe that’s good in a way because I developed stylistically with no guidelines. It’s a matter of trusting my ear and instinct of what feels good to me. It’s hard to see a lot of guys be original enough to develop their own sound. Only a handful of guys every decade stand out as having something unique.
Are you one of them?
I don’t know. In some ways, because the band has developed a signature sound, and people, within five to ten seconds of a song, seem able to identify that it’s Disturbed, so on some level that must include me in that category because a lot of bands sound similar. But System Of A Down, Tool, Korn, Rage Against The Machine – you hear them and you know it’s them right off the bat. I’m sure in that category people hear the opening of a song and know it’s us.
Is it easy for guitarists to paint themselves into a stylistic corner?
Probably, if they don’t have the drive to further develop and only play what they know. You’ve got to have a desire to grow. It’s endless, you can always learn from somebody. You learn over the years, if you still have the drive and want to continue to grow.
Are you at the top of your game? If so, how do you stay there, and if not, what do you do to get there?
It’s a growing process. I think we’re very relevant, and not many bands are, sonically. In this genre we’re at the top of that, and I can’t think of many others, with the exception of Metallica. We’re following in their footsteps and we’re willing to take that torch when they’re willing to hand it over! There’s always room to grow and push each other further. We’ve developed an identity and continue to accomplish things and climb that mountain. There’s so much we want to achieve. There’s room to get bigger and better and hopefully still be interesting.
Is anything really accomplished during 15-minute soundbite interviews? Are you bored with them yet?
We know we’re going to get asked the same questions a lot of times because fans want answers to those questions. It’s the nature of the business. We give the answers. It comes with the territory.
Bands now communicate directly with their fans through the Internet – for example, you and Mike review submissions and offer tips on technique. Because of this means of communication, will magazines become obsolete and interviews unnecessary?
I don’t think every band is willing to do that. There’s a lot of laziness with a lot of bands when they get to a certain level; it’s extra work. We try to do the best we can, at the level we are, to include our fans on a more personal level and go above and beyond to speak to them directly. That doesn’t mean writers will go away. There’s always something to write about, good or bad. This is one way of acknowledging our fans and showing them how important it is to us to do the best we can and find creative ways to interact. We videotaped a lot of performances while making the album. When we weren’t tracking we were videotaping guitar and bass lessons, and we thought it was a good idea to go to YouTube and see kids taking a stab at playing our riffs. It doesn’t take a whole lot of time and effort to take a camera, set it up and give them a free guitar or drum lesson to encourage them to become better musicians and guide them in the right direction. I couldn’t have imagined Eddie Van Halen talking to me one-on-one and giving me a guitar lesson. Everyone is getting on the Internet and seeing it first hand. It’s another creative way to do something different.
Throughout the 1980s we were going to concerts – Motley Crue, Dokken, Pantera – Mike and I, and we’d try to stand in the crowd and hope we could get laid by being in the audience! You see four or five guys onstage commanding that much power, and if we could do that one day we could probably get laid too! I went to so many concerts as a kid. You’re caught up in the moment and so excited, and you want to know that the band acknowledged you.
You put so much into your craft. How do you feel about being reduced to a ringtone?
Maybe we’re getting old and we have to start accepting technology. What can I say? As long as a piece of it is heard somewhere, maybe it will turn them on to hear the whole song, to listen to the whole album, to see a show. I don’t know if we’re so lucky to go that far, but whatever gets it out there.