On September 14th Godsmack frontman Sully Erna debuts his new solo album Avalon. The album – years in the making – is Erna’s personal masterpiece. The songs, written throughout the years, were brought to life by Erna’s collaboration with an eclectic vagabond group of exceptional musicians that span from percussionist Niall Gregory (Dead Can Dance) to vocalist Lisa Guyer who fans may remember from her work on past Godsmack albums.
The collection of songs, best described as tribal and hypnotic have several layers and each time you listen to them you hear something new from strings to piano to hand drumming. Not exactly what one would expect from the tattooed frontman but Erna encourages fans to listen to Avalon with an open mind. The album, rich in melodies and composition offers up a diverse range of sounds and evokes an array of emotions but overall it’s a true musical journey for the senses.
We recently had a chance to chat with local boy Sully about the making of the album, how it all came together, and what he hopes fans will take away from it.
Interviewed by: Mary Ouellette
Your solo album has been many years in the making, how did you decide that now was the time? You embarked on a solo tour a few summers ago and I think that’s the time that a lot of us starting getting our hopes up about a possible solo album, did that ignite the fire or were you planning on doing a solo album before that?
That’s a good question because it was a little bit of both. Throughout the years I had already written some songs while out on tour, hanging around in the dressing room and noodling around on guitar or just sitting at home on my piano. Sometimes when you’re messing around like that you end up with some cool songs and music you want to keep but not songs that would necessarily be good for Godsmack. I would just tuck them away and over the last six or seven years I’ve collected a handful of songs like that that I knew I would one day record but probably not with the band. And then we took that break and I went out and did that solo tour. It really did inspire me to think that I had this spare time on my hands and songs I had been wanting to record. The more I thought about it, the more I considered what I wanted the sound to be like and the direction I wanted it to go. At that point it was very vague but I knew I wanted to do something that was tribal, with all hand drumming, acoustic with exotic instruments.
You brought together a really amazingly talented group of musicians to work with you on this. How did the players sort of fall into place for this project?
One day it just dawned on me that I knew this great girl back in New Hampshire named Lisa Guyer who’s a really phenomenal singer. I called her up and said hey let’s get together I have an idea I’d like to talk to you about. So she was aboard and I had taken her to see the band Dead Can Dance at the Boston Orpheum and it turned out that one of the lead percussion players, Niall Gregory, was a fan of Godsmack so we went backstage and said hi. We hit it off and he said that if we were ever looking for a percussionist to get in touch and that’s where it all started snowballing. Lisa introduced me to a few more people and I brought Niall in and we found a really great cello player from Bulgaria, and the whole thing just fell into place. We got together and that’s really when we started nailing down the different sounds and the different influences that they all brought in and creating this record. It was really great because I have a rock background, others had a blues background, Niall is from Ireland and he brings a lot of different drumming influences from Brazilian to African. It’s kind of like the universe dropped all these special people in my lap to complete this and now we look at it and I’m just so proud of it. It’s been the best thing I’ve ever done so far and I really mean that. I absolutely love the record and I’m so excited to play the songs live.
So I don’t think there’s many words that could describe the intensity of this album more vividly than your own quote where you said – “I slit my wrists open and dumped it out with this record.” – when you dig so deep and put yourself so out there like that, is there a fear that people won’t get what you are trying to do with this album or is it rewarding just to hear the final product and realize what you’ve accomplished?
I really do feel that way. It’s both because I know what we’ve accomplished but when we set out to do this we all sat around and talked about what we wanted to do and the influences we wanted to include as well as putting a modern edge to it but you never know what it’s going to come out like until it happens.
You’ve put yourself in a really vulnerable position with these songs – are you worried that the Godsmack fans won’t accept it?
I didn’t fear it as much as I wondered if they would embrace it but I can tell you that so far the reviews have been phenomenal and I’m really excited about it. They’re using the exact words that I was hoping they would – that I was hoping the music would translate to – like epic and exotic and eclectic and intellectual. I really appreciate that because that’s what this album is to me. It’s very hypnotic and mystical , I want people to enjoy this experience because really it’s a musical journey. It’s unlike the tough and raw powerful in your face sound of Godsmack. This is powerful in a different way and it takes you on a ride and is very pictorial. When you listen to the record you can paint the pictures in your mind. I think if it does well it could turn into something theatrical like Tommy or The Wall was. Not that I’m comparing myself to Pink Floyd but just the experience side of it.
From song to song we hear quite a varied array of influences – songs that are driven by piano, by tribal percussion – and sound which could likely be a product of your collaborators on the album –do you think that by working with all these new musicians and their different influences that they were able to push you to new levels?
They definitely introduced me to a whole different kind of inspiration. They all come from different backgrounds. So being in the rock world for so long and then playing with these musicians who are so much more advanced and better than I am, it was really nice to bring them in and expand on all of our musical abilities. I think we all learned from each other. Niall comes from Ireland and he’s in the room with some Jazz and Blues guy, the rock guy. I’ve been a drummer my whole life but Niall brings something exotic to it and I learned a lot from him. I think we all sat there at one point and remember saying that we were all going to think about music a little differently and we were all going to better than we were just by working with each other.
“Until Then” is one of my favorite songs on the album –from the powerful message to the haunting strings really add to the feel of the song, can you tell us a little bit about the song and how it came together?
That song and “Eyes of a Child” were the only songs from the album I was playing on that solo run. When we went into the studio one of my friends suggested we bring in a cello player for the song and I was willing to try that. We wrote the string line and she played it and I was blown away at how much more emotional it made the song. Lyrically it became a tribute to the U.S. Armed Forces. For the longest time Godsmack has been supportive of the troops and paid our respects to the people that fight for this country and allow us the freedom that we have. I thought it was important for me to give back and acknowledge what they do at work every day and how hard it must be to leave their families and friends not knowing if they’ll be coming back.
As a drummer turned vocalist, turned front man, turned guitar player, now piano — what was the most challenging aspect of making this record?
I think just figuring out and defining a sound and making sure it all worked together. If you listen to the record from one song to the next is clearly a different genre. If you listen to one song individually at a time you could probably categorize it but if you listen to the album as a whole body of work I don’t know where this record belongs. If I worked at a record store I’m not sure I’d know how to categorize it. So I think that was the biggest challenge, putting all the pieces together and making sure it all connected.
There’s a song on the album called Avalon and that’s also the album title. Did you feel that that song really encompassed the album as a whole?
If someone asked me if there was one song that could define our sound that’s the song I’d pick. It’s just a little bit of everything – Lisa sings great on that song and it’s just one of those songs I’d reference as haunting and hypnotic. It’s all hand drumming and has beautiful melodies. It’s a journey through meditation. The song is about experiencing visions and feelings you get under meditation. I just think it’s a really beautiful song, it’s very smooth and seamless. That’s the one I’d have represent the project.
So for music fans who might hear that you’re doing a solo album and expect it to be Godsmack part two, what would you want to say to them?
It’s real simple, I’ve told people not to expect this to be a rock record. It’s not Sully trying to do a solo record as a rock band. This is a very distinct departure from Godsmack and it has nothing to do with that. It’s the other side of me and a whole different style of music that I really enjoy playing and writing that is completely separate from Godsmack. It’s one of those things that I want people to open their minds up and give it a chance and just experience it for what it is but don’t expect it to be this big loud rock record because it’s definitely not that. It’s a record built of really beautiful melodies and great compositions with piano work and cellos and flutes, it’s a whole different animal. It’s something you want to put on when you’re chilling out at home – light some incense, put it on, and enjoy it.
You’ve mentioned the desire to see this become a theatrical type performance at some point. Before then do you have any plans of touring in support of the album?
It’s too soon to say, it depends on what the schedule looks like. Right now I’m focused on touring with Godsmack.
Speaking of, have your band mates in Godsmack heard the album? I’m wondering what their thoughts are on it?
They’ve heard some of it, not the whole thing. They’re totally supportive. I think they’re a little nervous and hoping that it doesn’t get too big but they have nothing to worry about. I love my band and some of the best memories of my life are with them and its two totally different things that don’t compete with each other. It’s not like I’m out there releasing a rock record with Dave Navarro that would compete with what I do with Godsmack, this is completely different. It has a modern edge to it and I think most Godsmack fans will embrace it and help spread the word, and of course there will be some haters too. I just hope people get it, that’s what I’m concerned about. This album is so important to me and I’m so vulnerable on this record and I really dumped it out. It’s taken me a very long time to complete it – years of writing and a year of recording, it’s my masterpiece. It might not be a masterpiece to the rest of the world but it’s mine and I just want people to enjoy it
Music is one of the most powerful forces out there. I’m sure people tell you that your songs have been there through their highs and lows, the good times and bad. I’m sure that this record will evoke the same response. What is that like, to know that you have an impact on the lives of so many people?
It’s awesome, I’m glad there are people out there that truly get it. I feel the same way, I think music is a universal gift and it’s very powerful and I think a lot of people underestimate it and don’t quite understand it. I actually wrote a letter to the fans in this album that they’ll get when they buy it and I talk exactly about that – how powerful music is and how important it is to embrace it and use it for what we need it for so it gets us through our bad times and enhances our good times.
In parting, what do you hope music fans will take away from this album?
I hope they walk away with the music. This record is about getting back to the music, it isn’t about a big pyro show and video screens and jumping into the audience –t his is about an experience through music and I really want to emphasize that to the whole audience that is interested in this record. This is something that you’re going to watch and see and leave with a complete musical experience and I’m rally hoping people get that. It’s time to bring it back to the music. There have been a lot of bad bands that have surfaced over the years but it’s because it’s too easy now for people to just pick up a keyboard and sing over a programmed loop. This is not that. This is eight musicians that play at a very top level that have chosen to write for what the song calls for and not for individuality. It’s really great to see classically trained musicians in this project just playing simplicity sometimes but it’s so disciplined because of maturity and I really hope people get that touch of class because that’s what I feel this record has a lot of.
For more info on Sully’s album Avalon visit his official website