“Godsmack is a big powerhouse, a raw tough rock band that goes out and does arena-style shows with fire and lasers,” said the group’s founder and lead singer Sully Erna recently during a break from a touring schedule that would end a couple of weeks later in California. One of the most potent musical enterprises ever to come out of New England, Godsmack has allowed Erna to scale the heights of rock stardom — sold-out tours, millions of albums sold, and a near-worshipful audience he calls “my army.”
But this didn’t happen overnight; Erna spent years toiling in the area club circuit, from Boston through his hometown of Lawrence and up into Nashua, Manchester and Concord. Before Godsmack, Erna was primarily a drummer, playing Black Crowes meets Alice Cooper rock with Fighting Cocks, and old-school metal in Meliah Rage (practicing regularly in a Windham, N.H., garage), to name two of the better-known bands he’s hooked up with since playing his first show in 1983. In 1993, he first tasted national success with Strip Mind, making a record for Warner Brothers and shooting MTV videos. Erna formed Godsmack in 1995.
Along the way, he crossed paths with many area musicians, and a couple of years ago he gathered members of popular Manchester cover band Mama Kicks and a pair of Seacoast solo performers to help him make Avalon, Erna’s first solo album, and an effort worlds removed from Godsmack’s edgy hard rock. Released in September, it’s best described as an organic work, rich with percussive touches like hand drums and finger symbols, chanting and chamber pop touches like flute, cello and violin. It has soul-baring lyrics that touch on childhood, broken romance and new fatherhood.
“This was the alter ego in me,” Erna said in a phone interview, “another side, a very emotional side of me that I feel a necessity to get out of my system; this has been building for a while.”
When Mama met Sully
Some of the seeds were planted in the early 1990s, when Erna met Lisa Guyer. These days, she fronts the popular cover band Mama Kicks, but back then she was busy establishing herself as a blues-rock singer. The two became close friends, sharing a taste for Ethereal Wave bands outside their respective genres like VAS, Mazzy Star and Dead Can Dance. In 2004, Erna invited Guyer to sing with him on “Hollow,” a dreamy track from Godsmack IV. “He wrote it literally as a last-minute thing,” recalls Guyer. “He was having one of these release parties that they do for press, and the day of that party, he flew me out to L.A., because he had just written this song. We did it really quickly.”
“It was then that I realized how well our voices went together,” Erna said. The experience moved him closer to what eventually became Avalon. “I just collected some songs from over time that I had written as far back as 2003 … sitting in a dressing room and noodling around with an acoustic guitar, stuff comes out. Sometimes it’s really a nice piece of music. But it’s not quite right for Godsmack, so I’ll just tuck it away.”
In 2005, he approached Guyer about recording with him. “He said, ‘I have a solo album written in my contract for Universal and I want to do the project with you.’ And I said, why? — once,” she laughs. “Then I said OK.” The invitation wasn’t as out of the blue as it might seem. Dead Can Dance had disbanded in 1998 without ever playing in America. That year, when they reunited briefly for a world tour, Erna invited Guyer to see them perform.
“She was immediately in love with the singer, Lisa Gerrard,” remembers Erna.
“I’d never experienced a concert like that,” says Guyer. “We went in the front row, and sitting there you could hear a pin drop at any minute until the applause when it was done. It was so emotion-evoking.” Afterward, they went backstage, where they were introduced to a member of the touring band, percussionist Niall Gregory. The three discussed potential collaborations, and Gregory urged Erna to keep him in mind if things moved beyond the conceptual phase.
“After that, we kept in touch,” Erna said. “I contacted Lisa and told her I wanted to do this project and I had some ideas and thought it would be great to have her featured on this kind of music [but] we never quite knew what it would sound like because it was not written yet, and so it was one of those things that just became a work in progress. The more we started to get serious about it and I would show her some ideas, the more she would bring in.”
The only guideline was that they draw from, but not replicate, the male/female energy that drove Dead Can Dance. The Australian band, said Erna, “struck something inside of me — hearing these hand drumming and vocals that weren’t constricted with lyrics; they were very loose and free and there was no words involved. It was just what music is about. It brings you back to why music was derived in the first place. It’s an emotional lift. It’s a healing remedy, very therapeutic, and I wanted everything to be organic. It was the whole purpose of this project.”
Guyer’s classic rock roots helped to ground the structural elements; her four-octave singing voice, meshed with Erna’s guttural baritone, would provide atmospherics. From the outset, it was a stretch for both of them, and that challenge was in a lot of ways as important as the music.
“One of the things that Sully said at our very first meeting when he asked me to do this was, ‘I want us so outside our box, so outside our comfort zone that it’s uncomfortable,’” Guyer says. “At the time we talked about what we wanted it to sound like. He said, ‘Do you hear what I’m saying?’ I said, ‘I hear it, but I don’t know if it’s good or bad,’ and he said, ‘That’s the point. So if it’s good, it will be different from anything that’s ever been done. We have to go for it because this is what I want to do, this is the step that I would like to take in music.’ And I said, I’m all for it because I don’t like what’s going on out there.”
Pulling the gang together
Guyer introduced Erna to Tim Theriault, a mainstay at Portsmouth Gaslight Company, Dolphin Striker and other Seacoast clubs as well as Murphy’s Taproom in Manchester. A call went out to Mama Kicks guitarist Chris Lester, Gregory was brought in as a percussionist, classically trained cellist Irina Chirkova joined, and the group began exploring ideas in earnest at Godsmack’s Tewksbury, Mass., studio.
“We just started writing and writing,” Erna says. “I would bring in stuff, and Tim would bring in some riffs. Chris would bring in a tape full of ideas and we’d sift through everything. It was just a matter of grabbing what worked, what was the most appealing to my ear, and then kind of arranging things and putting it into a place where I felt comfortable knowing that we had really good pieces of material to work with.” Songwriting contributions came from everyone. From Lester’s tape, they combined two progressions to form the music for “My Light,” a tribute to Erna’s daughter. Theriault brought “Seven Years,” and keyboard player Chris Decato gave them “In Through Time.”
The title track grew out of “Serenity” — the final song of Godsmack’s 2003 album Faceless. “Actually it was a spawn,” Erna said. “I just kind of turned some things around and found a different kind of melody and rhythm for it … I showed it to Tim and he started playing it. Me and Niall started laying down some rhythms for it, then Tim came up with the middle section.” The song’s lyrics came from a poem written by Laurie Cabot, a Wicca high priestess from Salem who has taught Erna about witchcraft over the years.
The group wrote nine songs in two weeks, Guyer recalls in amazement.
“That’s really organically how it happened, and we felt the magic … we’d never really known each other. Everybody, even Sully, had an idea in our head but we were never quite sure what it was going to sound like,” she said.
“I just knew it would work,” Erna says. “I knew if they were OK with following direction and just playing what the piece would call for, not worrying about their own influences or worrying about overplaying … shining their talents in moments, so when it happens, it’s not a guitar solo on every single song or really crazy off-time jams. We showcase it when it’s needed, and sometimes it’s just laying back in the pocket and really fulfilling the emotion of the track.”
Midway, though, they felt the need for a keyboard player, so Theriault invited his Seacoast pal Decato; up until then, Lester was doing double duty on guitars and keys. “In the beginning, we were just trying to build up songs,” Lester says.
“We knew that keyboards were going to be a big groovy, earthy part of this,” Guyer continues. “It was going to give it that big orchestral, eerie sound.”
Guyer brought in the final member of the group, Mama Kicks drummer David Stefanelli, only after the record was finished, and with no small amount of resistance on Erna’s part. “The whole time we were writing, we weren’t finding that second percussionist,” recalls Guyer. “I said, ‘You know, Steff’s your man.”
Erna responded, “I know, but I’m trying to get you outside your box.” Guyer brought Theriault and Lester to the project; rather than invite another familiar face, Erna chose to assume the percussion role himself and hire someone when studio work was complete.
“I had all the toys in my box that I’ve been playing with for 15 years — new box, same toys,” says Guyer with a laugh. Two years later, the record was done.
“The time had come and I went to him again. I said, ‘You know that Steff is your man.’ He smiled at me. We’ve recorded the album. We know our sound now; we know where we’re at and how it all fell together. He goes, ‘Steff’s our man,’ and asked him to do it.”
Though Mama Kicks play cover songs for a living, Guyer, Lester and Stefanelli all have extensive backgrounds as original musicians. Guyer has made two solo records, and Lester played with local band Tizzy in the ’80s, later signing a record deal with the L.A. band Wild Horses. Stefanelli spent most of his life as a session drummer, making three 1980s albums with Boston popster with Robert Ellis Orrall, working with Peter Wolf and even playing on the California Raisins’ hit cover of “I Heard it through the Grapevine.”
“I was always good at being under the gun, and not just to imitate — I had to get inside it,” says Stefanelli, who heard a rough mix of Avalon after a Mama Kicks show at the Black Brimmer. “She played it for me and kept asking, ‘Is this good?’ I had to be kind of cool, because I wasn’t involved in it yet. But I was thinking, ‘Wow, this sounds really great.’ I’ve got to be much nicer to these people.”
When Sully gave him the nod, Guyer says, “Steff stepped up to the plate hard.”
“Being involved in the beginning, you’d see people coming and they wouldn’t last,” Lester adds. “Some people can play great but they can’t interpret what somebody’s looking for. I knew that David would have that because he’s a songwriter.”
“Without sounding overconfident, you’re seeing a bunch of musicians in Mama Kicks that are playing some classic rock covers that we love,” says Stefanelli, “but we’re not a typical cover band. We take the songs and kind of make them our own. I think people realize that when they come and see us, so I don’t think it’s a crazy thing that Sully went and saw this cover band because he knows that we’re a little more than that and we’re capable of finding that muse and becoming a bit of an original, creative thing rather than just a mimicking thing.”
Though three of Mama Kicks’ four members will hit the road with Sully Erna when tour plans are nailed down, the band will continue to be one of the busiest in the region before and after. Though keyboard player Gardner Berry didn’t participate in the Avalon project, he’s emblematic of the band’s versatility, playing solo, leading open mike nights and working with Lester, Stefanelli and Tim Theriault in the Led Zeppelin cover band Four Sticks. New Year’s Eve is always special for the band — it’s Berry’s birthday, a circumstance he gripes about heartily in his recently published book, Observations From The Cellar.
Bringing Avalon to the fans
Avalon has received solid reviews so far, and everyone involved hopes to mount a tour, perhaps as soon as next spring. When Godsmack played recently in Lowell, Guyer visited with Erna backstage while the singer was doing a meet and greet with a few contest winners, who recognized her when she walked in. “They came up to me with the CD, opened it up to my picture and said, ‘Oh my God, we can’t believe you’re in here right now … we’ve been following Sully forever, we love him so much, we love all his music and this is our favorite thing he’s ever done.’ I looked at Sully, and he smiled at me. He said, ‘We got to get it out there.”
When Stefanelli joined the project, one of the first things he did was a live-in-the-studio video at a Los Angeles soundstage. It was the first time everyone involved with the project was in a room together. He envisions a live rendition of Avalon coming close to replicating that experience. “Hopefully, we’ll be in venues where you can hear a pin drop because you’ll need to be able to hear every little thing,” he says.
It’s important because every sound on the record is made with an instrument — there are no synthesized flutes or drum machines. For that matter, few drum kits were used, because Erna wanted as much hand drumming as possible.
He told the group, “We’ve just got to keep it this way, it’s really not a running around the front of the stage high-fiving everyone thing,” reports Stefanelli. “I thought that was funny and profound because that’s what it is, and they’re not used to seeing him in that serious context.”
“It takes you on a journey like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon did back in the day,” Erna explains. “Not that I’m comparing myself to Pink Floyd, but the music and the experience … tuning your ears into hearing the music, the instruments and these musicians — that’s the stuff I know we captured on this record.”
Transforming it into a live tour will be unlike anything he’s done with Godsmack: “As I begin to focus on that and realize what this record is, I’m like ‘oh my God,’ now the whole f-ing reel is spinning again and I have the whole live visual thing I’m going to start scripting out and trying to take into theaters; because now I’m really going to take people on a trip. Now that I know what this record does to people and how it’s moving them emotionally through the music, I’m going to create something that’s really going to send them on a journey live. So when they leave, they’ve had a complete musical experience and great journey through emotion, but all taken through music. Music will drive the whole thing. They are going to leave knowing they have truly experienced the gift of music.”
At times during the interview, Erna’s enthusiasm sounds like one of those ‘I’m not just a customer, I’m the president’ ads from late-night television. But it’s no act — he really, really loves Avalon.
“The reason why I am convinced that this record is a really great record, and I don’t mean that with any ego, I’m just talking about the music and listening to it as a fan, is because any musician will tell you that by the time you write and record and mix and master a song, you f-ing hate it,” he says. But that hasn’t happened with this release.
“I run in the morning, four to five miles a day, and that is the record that I put on my iPod,” he says. “Not only am I not sick of hearing it [but] still to this day it makes me emotional. Like there are times when I listen to a certain piece and my eyes fill up with water. I don’t know if it’s because part of it is connected to me, because I was so vulnerable on this record and I really slit my wrists and dumped it out. Everything I know since the day I was born to this time in my life is in this record — pain, happiness, new experiences, my daughter being born — it’s all in this record.”
Erna continues, “I think we’re way more emotionally attached to this than we normally would be about any other body of work. Even Tim has called me at times and said ‘I want to punch you — this record’s so good.’ It’ll be like three in the morning and he’ll send me some stupid text — ‘man, I’m just so proud of this record.’ I love it so much and it’s just nice to hear people react like I feel it. I hope the fans and everybody hears it the way I hear it and I feel it because it’s so powerful to me.”
Guyer emphatically agrees: “When we get to play this live, we will be in the muse of music and we will bring people into that moment where Sully and I first talked about where we wanted to go with it,” she says. “It’s first his dream but I was drawn into it first and I said I hear it, I hear what you’re saying and I want to be a part of it. I think we achieved it.”
Says Erna, “it’s about getting back to the music. Forget about what kind of clothes this person is wearing or how high they can jump off the drum riser or 20-foot flames shooting off the stage. This isn’t that — this is for sitting down in the theater and really watching a great performance with great musicians that can really play their instruments [to] create a really great emotional record that is very visual and will take you places and strike a nerve in your own life. I think lyrically, it’s filled with stuff that people go through every day. They can relate to it. It’s simplistic, but it’s mysterious; it’s eclectic and intellectual — but it’s epic.”