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Sully Erna sits back and sinks his small but sturdy frame into a plush but utilitarian chair in one of the VIP rooms upstairs at Boston's FleetCenter. The frontman of Godsmack is fingering a paperback copy of Many Lives, Many Masters, a non-fiction psychiatric thriller by Brian Weiss that heís particularly excited about. "Itís amazing. Itís about some chick who has bad anxiety and bad fears of the dark and water, and this psychiatrist uses hypnotherapy on her. He doesnít get anywhere at first, but then he starts to find out some molestation things with her dad, and then she starts experiencing these past-lives things. She goes through like 800 different times that she lives. And she starts to become psychic, and she speaks to spirits, and she tells the doctor things about his life and things that have happened to him. She knows that his first son died at 26 days old. And all these spirits start communicating through her into him. They test it by taking her to a racetrack one day, and she wrote down the winners of every race and handed it to him. And every single race came in like that. Itís crazy, dude. This book will change your life. Itís the most interesting book Iíve read in the past 10 years."
The supernatural and the dark side of spirituality have been running themes in the story of Godsmack ó one of the more interesting rock-and-roll tales to come out of Boston in the past 10 years. Erna himself was something of a role player, drumming in various bands around town, including Stripmind, a hard-rock act that released one album on Columbia before flaming out. Exactly how that experience affected him is hard to gauge. But he came through it with a renewed sense of purpose, and through three albums on Universal, Erna and Godsmack have developed into one of Americaís premier hard-rock bands, with multiple Grammy nominations and radio hits to prove it.
Sure, they still bear the taint of having hitched a ride on a grunge-related metallic trend that was spearheaded by Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots. And they took their name from an Alice in Chains tune. Of course, with Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley dead and buried and Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland in and out of drug trouble, Godsmack are now the most reliable purveyors of the dark, pensive, grungy sound that brought those bands platinum success. And with that, the importance of Alice in Chains in Ernaís world view has diminished. He barely acknowledges the Alice in Chains connection when I mention it, and they are not among the bands he points to as formative influences on Godsmack. "A lot of people have referenced our name to the Alice in Chains song and said that we sound like Alice in Chains. Iíve just never really heard that in our music. I grew up with Zeppelin and Aerosmith, Rush, and Sabbath. I went through the whole í80s era, was into punk rock, was into heavier bands like Metallica [whom Godsmack will be opening for on tour this spring] and Pantera. I also like Elton John, the Doobie Brothers, I mean, I like all kinds of stuff. Alicia Keys, Christina Aguilera. I just listen to a lot of stuff. I donít listen to the radio, but to me a good song is a good song: I donít care if itís death metal or pop or hard rock. It doesnít matter to me. I donít even think there should be categories: itís just either a good song or it isnít."
As for the name Godsmack, Erna offers an alternative explanation. "It happened at rehearsal when our drummer came in with a big cold sore on his lip. I was making fun of him all day because we had a photo shoot coming up. And then the next day when I came in, I had a big cold sore on my lip. So my guitar player said, ĎSee, God just smacked you for making fun of him.í "
Pop music is filled with mythmaking, with people who have reinvented themselves for public consumption. And perhaps that makes the truth, whatever the truth may be, irrelevant. Whatís important is the power of the image a band project. Erna and Godsmack are currently in the process of emulating Alice in Chainsí crossover from the hard-rock audience of their 1992 Dirt to the broader audience of their 1993 Jar of Flies EP (both on Columbia); this week, the band will be releasing their new acoustic EP The Other Side (Universal). And thatís the main reason Ernaís hanging at the FleetCenter: Godsmack, along with members of Dropbox, the first band to sign to Ernaís Universal imprint Realign, will be performing between the second and third periods of a Bruins game. Theyíll even stick around to do a few songs after the game. Itís a way of reaffirming their ties to the city they emerged from and a chance to get a little advance publicity for the new EP.
Beyond that, Erna projects an air of casual indifference. "This was set up through our manager. Otherwise, I have no idea. The FleetCenter wanted to do something with us. And it turned into this. Plus, the timing of this acoustic EP worked out well for us. Itís a good way for us to debut the acoustic side of what we do. I think this is the most attractive of our music for a broad audience. If it were a full-on electric set, then it might scare away a lot of the moms and pops."
Exactly. Erna is well aware of the potential payoff from this little EP. The disc itself features reworked renditions of four songs already familiar to Godsmack fans (including "Re-Align" from Faceless, "Spiral" from Awake, and "Keep Away" from Godsmack) ó itís a tack that worked well for Stone Temple Pilots when they performed "unplugged" for MTV. And Ernaís deep, ruminative voice is as natural a fit for brooding acoustic songs as it is for brooding hard-rock tunes. It may even work better in this acoustic setting, which also suits the rest of the band ó long-time bassist Robbie Merrill (the only member whoís been with Erna since the start of Godsmack), guitarist Tony Rombola, and drummer Shannon Larking, the latest addition to the Godsmack family. And the new material, three songs in all, attests that these guys have yet to lose track of their muse. Itís a calculated commercial move that also appears to have catalyzed an artistic breakthrough of sorts for Godsmack.
"Weíve always had softer stuff like this, but we just felt it wasnít right to put too many of them on a full-blown Godsmack record," Erna suggests. "So we put ĎVoodooí on the first album, and ĎSpiralí on the second CD, and the third album we had ĎSerenity.í But we always had these ideas that never quite fit with the vibe of our hard-rock albums. Yet itís another side of us, hence the title The Other Side. We like to sit around with acoustic guitars and sing and play sometimes and not have it be so produced with all the big electric guitars and all that stuff. And we always thought that this band should never have a ceiling over our heads. We want to have another path to go down, and hopefully that will broaden our fan base as well. And I think it will be a nice buffer between Faceless and Godsmack 4, so while weíre working on the new record, people can digest this, and it wonít feel like so much time has gone by between records. It also helps us not feel so limited. I mean, Zeppelin did it for years: they had so many styles of music. They were always labeled as a hard-rock band, but they had amazingly beautiful acoustic songs. And acoustic stuff is nice because it really shows whether you have a good song there. When you strip it down to nothing, you either have a good song or youíre hiding behind a bunch of electronics."
Unfortunately, the softer side of Godsmack doesnít quite come together as nicely as the band might have liked at the FleetCenter. Adding a floor of ice to an already acoustically difficult venue and then relegating the band to a small stage stuck up in the stands in one corner of the arena creates enough delay between the actual drum reports and the sound coming through the PA that itís hard even to make out what song theyíre playing between the second and third periods of what turns out to be a 2Ė0 loss to the Florida Panthers. Although the mix is much better for the post-game set, the mood at the Fleet isnít all that upbeat. And it doesnít help when Erna adds some hand drums and a couple members of Dropbox to the already crowded mix.
Not that Erna wants to be thought of as the kind of spoiled artist whoíd be bothered by such trivial matters. "I try not to live with one foot in the past and one in the future. I just kind of live for the moment. I try to feel good every day. Iím very proud of what this band has done. Weíve worked very hard, and we havenít had any major setbacks. So I think we just have to focus on writing for the moment and feeling what we feel is good for that time, and hopefully people will continue to connect with that. As long as I know that when the day comes that we donít sell any more records or that we donít want to be a band anymore, weíre able to look back on great times and memories and that we didnít miss the ride, then I donít really care about what happens.
"I donít worry about things. Iím okay in my life. Iím in a good place. Iíve made some okay money. And whatever happens happens. As long as I can provide a good life for my daughter, Iím not worried about anything else. Iím a very creative and aggressive person. Iíll always find something to do. I donít sit around and sleep my life away. I sit around and write music. I just wrote an autobiography thatís in the editing stages right now and is hopefully going to come out in the next year. And Iím working on a screenplay right now. Itís about these four kids that grew up together, theyíre really close, but theyíre influenced by the streets, and they end up growing up to control the streets. As they get older, they screw everything up, and all four of them downward-spiral into their own mess. Individually they all turn out to self-destruct. Itís just a hobby that keeps me busy. Itís something to feel creative about instead of sitting in front of a TV with a Play Station all day."
Issue Date: March 12 - 18, 2004
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