INTERVIEW – Sully Erna – February 2013

Every once in a while you are given the opportunity to speak with an artist you know only through their music.  Today I was given the chance to chat with Sully Erna, whose claim to fame is fronting the rock band Godsmack.  Today we are talking to discuss his solo album, ‘Avalon,’ which has just seen a big re-release as a monster box set.

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Sully Erna: Sorry about that, my phone was on vibrate and I didn’t hear it buzzing and they were trying to connect the call.

ToddStar: No, no. It’s all good. We appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedule for us.

Sully Erna: No problem.

ToddStar: So let’s introduce you.  You are Sully Erna of Godsmack – and anyone who knows anything about rock and roll knew the second part of that, but what I’d like to talk about is Sully Erna, the artist; the man behind Avalon.

Sully Erna: Yeah. Same guy.

ToddStar: Same guy, but you wouldn’t know it on the surface. I’ve had this disc in my collection since 2010. I got this thing when it first came out. I’ve loved it and I listen to it on a regular basis. What can you tell us about this release, Sully, that a normal guy might not know on the surface?

Sully Erna: The Box Set?

ToddStar: Let’s start with the album and then we’ll move into the box set.

Sully Erna: Okay, well I think just the album was derived through just stuff that I had been writing all along throughout the years in Godsmack, and I’ve always had another side to my music that I discovered through being inspired by bands like Dead Can Dance and jazz and stuff like that. So songs like Voodoo and Serenity came out, and then there was just a bit of a different twist compared to that tough rock music that we were writing. So over the years I’ve always continued to write that kind of stuff, and then eventually Godsmack did an acoustic album, a little EP, and it was only the more hints of that kind of stuff that I’ve always moved around with. But over the years, sitting at home with my daughter, sitting at the piano, coming up with different textures of music and stuff, there were a lot of times when I just discovered a different sound, a different kind of song, and I really loved it and it was a great song for me, but it wasn’t necessarily something I knew I could do with Godsmack because it was even more departed from stuff like Running Blind and Serenity and that kind of stuff. So I just kind of shelved a couple of ideas, then when I took a couple of years off from touring after about ten straight years of touring it was just a nice opportunity for me to get writing again and pull some of the stuff off the shelf and when I started to do that I immediately recognized in the melodies that I was writing, that I wanted to have a female on the record with me. So I had especially been inspired by Dead Can Dance, and people like that, where they have a male/female duet thing. I wanted to do something with that kind of vibe and those kind of textures, but I went a bit more modern. The acoustic stuff and the piano compositions and stuff I was writing, and take it even further down the rabbit hole. So that’s how Avalon started, and from there, you know, it’s just a matter of reaching out to people like Lisa Guyer, who was an old time friend of mine who I’d known for almost twenty years, just a local phenomenal blues singer, and I’d taken her to a Dead Can Dance show to show her the kind of music that I was listening to all along, and she was immediately in love with that, because she’s a very vibey kind of girl when it comes to that, and she’s deep, you know? And it just sort of happened at that same concert, the percussionist, Niall Gregory from Dead Can Dance, happened to be a fan of Godsmack, and so we met and just chatted and swapped numbers, then months and months later, when I started to put this project together Lisa and Niall were the first two people I contacted. And that kind of became the foundation of the idea, that’s really what it was about. Very earthy female, male voice, and from there Lisa would introduce me to bass guitar player Chris Lester, who introduced me to Tim Theriault, who introduced us to the keyboard player Chris Decato, and so on and so on it went.

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ToddStar: I mean, this is awesome because so many artists today when they step out from behind the mic or anything they are doing with their day job, a lot of times some people might have bought this and thought this is going to be the next Godsmack album that Sully puts his name on, and this is so different. I think that’s what drew me to it. We really get to hear you sing. We get to hear the raw emotion, not just the rock, not just the guy crooning, but the guy behind the mask, so to speak. Is that just another facet for you of the outlet?

Sully Erna: Yeah I just really, like I said, I wanted to dig way deep into myself and release this other kind of emotion that I had inside of me, because it’s not always heavy rock music. I grew up in a musical family. My dad’s still a musician, my great uncle was a famous composer from Sicily. Music goes way back in my blood line and I don’t always just write rock music. It’s just that I was raised in an era where rock music was some of the stuff I enjoyed listening to the most as a kid, so I was raised on Black Sabbath and Aerosmith and Rush and Zeppelin and bands like that, then into my teens I listened to Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, Metallica and bands like that. For me I always had that, and I was always a very energetic kid. My personality is very… you know, high metabolism and things like that. So rock music is what really got me off, and that’s the kind of music I wanted to write when I was really trying to become a musician, rock star, you know, being in a band. But over the years, that settles in too, you know. When you do that for so long, it’s kind of like when you eat chocolate ice cream so much you want vanilla once in a while. Then becoming a dad, growing up a lot and kind of releasing a lot of the juvenile ways, you settle into adulthood and things are good for you, you find yourself not such an angry young guy any more, and so there is a reflection of that in the music. So Avalon, I decided it worked when I started hearing the music we were writing, and once I started to develop some lyrical content and melodies I realized that this mustn’t be an aggressive, angry kind of thing, and even more so the more I discovered the melodies, and the more I started to move around with the songs. That’s when I started really recognizing that I need to crack myself open here and be extremely vulnerable on this album. This is my opportunity to really show my true colors and who I am today, and start letting people understand that there are a lot more layers to me than just Godsmack.

ToddStar: Well said. Watching the video, having seen the video and having seen you live with Godsmack, you seem so much more at ease with yourself in this setting. Is that something that you recognized as you were going through these shows that you did leading up to… the end result being the DVDs and the box set. Do you find that you felt a little more yourself on stage?

Sully Erna: I’ve always felt myself on stage, even with Godsmack. It’s just a different dynamic. It’s like having a split personality. I really need Godsmack in order to do Sully Erna stuff, and I need the Avalon stuff in order to do Godsmack better, because it’s a blend of both that gives me a balance. So I’m very relaxed in a different way for the Avalon stuff because I follow the emotion of the music, and for me that’s what that becomes. This wasn’t about a big performance thing. This wasn’t about jumping off drum risers and blowing off pyrotechnics, this is more about really feeling the emotion of the music and playing stuff that was very heart felt and touches people on an emotional level, and plus with that same emotion it’s harder at times. Every one of us, me and Lisa, the guys in the band, it doesn’t matter. It’s very emotional music. Even the cello player, Irena, she is a very deep player and when she plays some of these lines, especially on songs like Until Then, I don’t know anybody who can listen to that song and it doesn’t hit them in the heart. So you know, it is something that for me is very comfortable to be on stage with, but it’s because of exploring the underside. Exploring the more productive and emotional side of music versus the more aggressive, energetic side.

ToddStar: Cool. We talked about Avalon and there is a box set, which was really phenomenal. It’s quite a package. It has five DVDs, including the live show which was shot in your home town, you’ve got a couple of CDs in there, the studio album and the live disc from the Boston show, and there are other pieces in there. Would you like to expand on what some of those pieces are, including the coffee table book?

Sully Erna: Yeah, the whole box set started as just… we had the studio record, obviously, then we were running our own cameras while we were recording it because we wanted to document it for our own library, then we ended up putting this piece together called ‘The Journey to Avalon’ which is the making of the record, and then Palladia started airing it. So we got the CD and then the making of the album, then we ended up filming the live show, and we just thought those three CDs would be a cool little package, we’d put a hat and a shirt in there and we’d have a little box set or whatever, and maybe my book. Then more and more ideas started coming and then it became about the bloopers, and the making of the live concert and live CD. So there are seven discs in this box, which includes everything from the studio album to the making of the record, to the live concert, the making of the live concert. It just goes on and on. There’s a hat, there’s a shirt, there’s my favorite incense in there, there’s my book, a key chain  signed poster, coffee table book. There’s a ton of stuff in this box set, and it’s a beautiful looking box to begin with. We just wanted to come up with as much content as we had on Avalon and take people through the whole experience and give them as much bang for their buck as possible.

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ToddStar: And I think you’ve done that with this package. You’re just expanding it that much. Like I said, I’ve been listening to this disc for over two years now, and I hear new things in it all the time that I didn’t pick up on, but to be able to get these videos and see the videos all in one sitting, you really get some of the nuance that I think was part of your initial vision.

Sully Erna: Yeah, again we were just developing, creating on the spot. Some of it was written and then I brought in… like until then I had sort of trial pieces, things like that. I’d had other things like 7 Years, The Ride and Cast Out, you know, that was stuff that just happened during rehearsals, and again we tried to be really conscious about layering things in the studio because we wanted to make sure we could pull it off live, and not do too much layering. Then we didn’t want to run tape and things like that. So sure, it’s a project we’re extremely proud of, and everything you hear on the album is the instrument. So when you hear a cello, it’s a cello. When you hear a flute, it’s a flute. They’re not samples, they’re not on a drum machine. Everybody is playing their instruments. And everybody in the band is a multi-instrumentalist, which is beautiful for me because me being a composer and arranger and things like that, a producer, I have all these great, talented musicians that are like a toolbox for me, and they’re all tools inside there and when I need to pull out a mandolin it’s there, when I need to pull out a flute it’s there. So no matter what it is that I come up with in my kooky mind, they’re able to deliver it. So that’s really a bonus for me. And then of course on top of that we’ve got 5,000 boxes for this limited box set. We put five pairs of golden tickets. We chose five boxes to put a pair of tickets in, so whoever purchases that box, if they open it and there’s a pair of golden tickets in there, they win a trip with me to Vegas and New York or LA, or wherever the trip is going to send them and they spend the whole day with me and kick it with me for dinner and blackjack, or Cirque du Soleil show, or a spa treatment or whatever it’s going to be. So that’s another cool little incentive for people to go out and grab it so they can enjoy it, learn the music and experience this great music that we felt we put together and want to share with the world.

ToddStar: Just another facet of the man that shows you are truly are a man of the fans. Tell me Sully, if there were one or two songs on the disc that you just had to pick that you think everybody should listen to, what would they be?

Sully Erna: That’s tough to say because even though this is not a contextual album, it kind of plays out like one, and it’s one of those records that I’m really proud of because when I grew up it was about putting it on vinyl and listening to the record from front to back. There was no singles, no skipping tracks, things like that. That’s what I loved about Pink Floyd and bands like that, it was a journey. When you put those albums on it was a journey. This record kind of plays like that too, so ultimately I would really encourage people to take it on from the first track and just chill on your couch and have a glass of wine, and just really close your eyes and listen to this whole album. But if I had to single out a couple, it’s really tough for me to do. “Until Then” for sure is one of my favorites  It’s my favorite because it’s very powerful. It’s just a vocal, a cello and a piano, and it’s really deep and it’s a very emotional song.  It’s always been one of my favorite. And then I really love “7 Years,” because it’s this epic song that takes you through a journey itself, and it paints very clear pictures for you. So you know, as well as the song “Avalon” does, it’s very pictorial, very visual, very cinematic music. We just wanted to make sure that the best of the best made this record, and I just don’t feel that there are any real disappointments on this album, no matter what track you put on.

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ToddStar: You hit my favorite; that’s “7 Years,” but I know you’ve got to get going, so I’ve got one last one for you, Sully. What’s the meaning of life?

Sully Erna: Happiness.

ToddStar: Awesome. I wouldn’t expect anything more from you. Thank you again so much for your time, we really appreciate it, and we’re looking forward to 2013 and more of Avalon and everything else you’ve got to offer after that.

Sully Erna: Thanks for sure, and be sure to let people know to go to sullyerna.com for tour dates because we’re starting to post those now.

ToddStar: Yep, there are six up that I know of and we’ll make sure people go to get the rest of them, because I want to see you here in Detroit.

Sully Erna: Thank you.

ToddStar: Thanks Sully.

INTERVIEW - Sully Erna - February 2013

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