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Godsmack
BATTLE CRY

Words Adam Falik
Photos Eddie Malluk


When Godsmack is on stage, drummer Shannon Larkin is the center of gravity. When leader Sully Erna moves, it’s to Shannon’s beat. During his guitar solos, Sully will often face the drums; he’s not turned away from the audience, he’s turned towards Shannon, the beat’s center. It’s something to behold, their obvious on-stage affection, their common language.

But this is only a preparation for the show’s most dazzling spectacle. Late in the performance, Shannon’s drum riser begins to move, the center stage parts behind him and a second drum riser enters with Sully behind the kit, looking even more impossibly excited than he had all night, prowling the stage. This is The Drum Battle, where the two comrades meet.

The synchronization is shattering. Sully tosses a stick in the air while Shannon topples an intricate assault, hitting every piece of his set. By the time Sully catches his stick, the two crash down together. Then it’s Sully’s turn, daring his escapade until Shannon catches his stick, connecting them both yet again. It’s like watching two boxers at the height of their game, circling one another, dancing around the ring, mesmerizing one another, mesmerizing the spectator, without ever throwing a punch. They can’t. They admire one another too much.

“This isn’t just a drum solo where you go and get a beer,” Sully explains, seated beside Shannon in their comfy candlelit backstage dressing room, where a mosaic of rugs, like medieval tapestries, drapes the walls. “This is a whole choreographed piece of music. Even though it’s called The Drum Battle, it’s really more of complementing each other, and paying homage to the greatest drummers out there and their drum fills.”

 


 

The drum fills are recognizable. Some nights drum aficionados will distinguish the fills of Neil Peart and Bill Ward, other nights Phil Rudd and Clive Bunker. “It’s formatted, we have guidelines to follow, but there’s open holes to do whatever you want. That’s your moment and, boom! You either get a good one and the other guy’s like, ‘Nice!’ or you blow the thing and the other guy goes, ‘Oh shit, dude.’”

Shannon picks up the thread. “Sometimes a simple fill in a big arena is what works. We simplified our fills to translate well to the big crowds, but the way we can lock up with just kicking snare on the beats and be tight, that’s what I’m most proud of.”

A Tale Of Two Drummers
In the decade-long history of Godsmack, the band’s music has left the realm of the formidable and come to dominate our collective consciousness. Their pulse-driving rhythms, which herald front man Sully’s distinctive growl, now scream from commercials, movie soundtracks, television theme songs, and video games. And the band is evolving. Sully, who had long been in the driver’s seat, a drummer-cum-lead singer-cum-guitarist, responsible for every note played and lyric sung, is loosening up the reins, now welcoming the contributions of his fellow band mates. It’s paid off. Their fourth album, aptly titled IV, debuted at number one on Billboard. IV is something new for the fans who have followed the band’s progression from album to album, and new for the band as well.

One thing, though, hasn’t changed: This is unmistakably a drummer’s band. Not just because Sully is a drummer, a damn fine drummer; and not just because Shannon—slated to be one of modern rock’s great time keepers — has lived the life of a rock ’n’ roll drummer; but because their music is an anthem to the art of drumming.

 

“We’re very similar as drummers,” Sully says. “We’re influenced by the same guys, namely Neil Peart, John Bonham, and all the way up to Metallica in the early ‘80s. We’ve always listened to the same shit all our lives. When we play, our style is very similar. Our [writing] approach is very similar, too. We have this impulse to lock onto the guitar riffs: Like, if it’s a very staccato kind of riff, we both have this instinct to almost play the guitar rhythm on the drums so that it almost becomes one. But I do think our styles vary as well: We have our own little things we do. We have the same intention, but he can yin where I would yang. I would zig where he would zag.”

It’s not just in the riffs, or the rhythm, that an admiration for drumming emerges. Especially in the earlier records, while Sully was still developing as a singer (he had never sung for a band before Godsmack), the listener is hyper-aware of a relationship between the drum parts and the lyrics. Take the title song of their sophomore album, Awake. Sully’s voice enters the song, pounding in cadence, each word accompanying each note of the guitar, keeping time and lyrically marking the rhythm until jumping off and swinging onto the ands, but always with a system, a conscious intention.

“I always try to find a big fat groove, that’s my biggest thing, and when I find that, I can write melodies and lyrics for it. You gotta remember, being a drummer my whole life, everything else I touch, whether it’s vocals, a guitar, a piano, a harmonica, everything is a rhythm to me because I’m a drummer. That’s really what I do. I’ll never stop being a drummer. I’m not great at any other instrument, I’m not a great guitar player, I’m not a great pianist, I’m not a great singer. But I know rhythm very well.”

Getting There
Godsmack’s mythology is plucked straight from the rock ‘n’ roll archives. Ozzy biting off the head of a bat. Ronnie James Dio’s dragon horns. Religious symbols, asemic writing, the slithering undead. It’s a rock mystique that carries forth a tradition fans hungrily embrace, that parents and religious conservatives still fear, and that shrouds the band with a distant, untouchable shimmer.

In an interview, though, Sully doesn’t hide behind that screen. He’ll discuss his past, his talents and intentions, even failures, with open candor. This doesn’t mean he’s gentle. He’s t-shirt, blue jeans and work boots — raw American stock. He was born in 1968 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the city “TIME” magazine once named the most dangerous in the country. His parents divorced before he was 5 years old. His mother raised Sully and his sister. They were poor, grew up on food stamps and powdered milk. His mother was an X-ray technician, a nurse. His father played trumpet in an Italian Colonial band, the kind that marches before the saint in Boston’s North End Italian festivals. He wasn’t able to do much for the family.

 “Through my teen years and stuff I got involved, like everyone does, doing drugs and drinking and partying and being a punk, crime and violence and gangs and fights, you know, stealing cars and stereos. That’s the life I knew. It was just survival. I had to make myself an ass-kicker because I was small and if you didn’t fight you were gonna get your ass beat in that neighborhood. And it’s good and bad, it teaches you how to stick up for yourself in your life, but then it also translates later on in a bad way because now you’re an adult and you don’t have to be a punk anymore. Over the years now I’ve been trying to calm that side of me down.”

Still, Sully’s mother made it work and even managed to provide him with his first drum set when he was 5 years old.

“Watching your dad play in bands, watching practice and all that, you start to go, ‘Hey, I wanna play that drum thing.’ So that’s how it started for me. Then I used to beg my parents to take lessons so finally they found someone who would teach me that young. I just started going from there and never quit.”

Sully’s first signed band was Strip Mind, a thrash metal band he drummed for. They recorded one album for Sire/Reprise Records in 1993, What’s in Your Mouth. It was not the rock ‘n’ roll career Sully had dreamed of. At the time he was going through problems at home, wasn’t showing up for practices, and was ultimately thrown out of the band because they didn’t feel he was dedicated. The band then self-destructed.

“I was 25 when I was done with Strip Mind. Then I quit music. I was done. I didn’t want to play. I put my drums away. I’d been on the road since I don’t know how young. I was just tired of the whole thing. I was looking at myself like, Jesus, I’m 25 years old, I have no job, no life, no f-----g girlfriend, I’m sleeping on my sister’s couch, all my other friends got apartments and cars and they’re all partying and I don’t even got five bucks to buy a pack of cigarettes.”

After that Sully cut his hair and got a job, intending to become a proper citizen.

“Then when I was 27 I started getting the itch. I called Robbie [Merrill] and asked him, you know, let’s do some writing and whatever, we’ll just keep it in the studio and make it fun, no strict obligations, no practicing eight hours a day.”

After Merrill, Sully brought in Lee Richards on guitar. That was the initial spark of Godsmack.

“Then I couldn’t find a singer because everybody was still singing really high, like Queensryche. I wanted something with a bit more of a growl. I was a big fan of Metallica and stuff like that, so I just decided to try it. I sucked for a long time, until I got my voice to a place where I liked it and it started to work for the band. It kept evolving from there. That’s kind of the story in a nutshell.”

Almost. While touring with Strip Mind, Sully had met drummer Tommy Stewart, who was in a band called Lillian Axe. Tommy played with Godsmack for a year, decided things weren’t moving quickly enough and moved back to Los Angeles. Then Richards quit to raise the 2-year-old son he’d just discovered he had. Merrill brought in Tony Rombola on guitar, and Sully found drummer Joe Darko, though just as the band was about to sign, a last minute drum change was made. Darko was not the right man for the job.

“At that point the band was about to get its record deal. We’d been in it for three years and it was right there. We talked to Tommy and told him what was going on, [we] didn’t want to be held up and blow the deal, start looking for drummers and all that, we figured it was a sure thing. We knew he was a strong player, so we brought him back.”

Tommy Stewart played with them for two albums, Godsmack and Awake. In interviews surrounding Stewart’s final departure, and in the time since, Sully always proclaimed an amicable break-up.

“Listen, I think enough time’s passed that I can be completely honest here. Me and Tommy just didn’t get along. I’ll say it right out in the open. We just didn’t jibe. He played what we wrote, and he’s a good guy — he’s not a dick — it’s just that WE didn’t connect very well. I had a very set vision on where I wanted to go with music and after a while, in his defense, it just wore on him having no input in the band. But at the time I was the only one writing, I just felt like I had to grab the bull by the horns and steer this thing because I didn’t want it to fail.

“When we found out it wasn’t going to work with Tommy and we let him go, I sat there for about 30 minutes and went, Wow, okay, we pulled the trigger, that’s done, now what are we going to do? It felt like we were just starting to do really well. Then I immediately thought: Shannon!”


 

Third Time’s A Charm
Shannon Larkin was born in Chicago, raised in West Virginia, and when he answered Sully’s call, he had been living in California for 12 years. His parents didn’t play instruments, but they were a musical family.

“We were that family that instead of going in to watch television after dinner, we’d go down in the den and my dad would play his records, and my mom would play her records. My dad was all ‘50s, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, but my mom was the rocker, she was Beatles, Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival. She turned me on to Judas Priest. That’s where I got the rock side.”

Shannon’s musical career began at 10 years old when his friend Terry Carter got the guitar he wanted for Christmas, so Shannon asked for a drum set so that they could start a band. Eight years later they were signed to Atlantic under the name Wrathchild (“Then we were forced to be called Wrathchild America ‘cause there was some dipshit Wrathchild in England that was on Cheeseburger Records, but Atlantic wouldn’t stand up for us”). After a couple of records they changed their name to Souls at Zero, made two more, then Shannon quit and joined Ugly Kid Joe. He played four and a half years with Ugly, then spent another four and a half years playing with Amen.

“At that point I’d made 18 records, I’d toured the world, I gave it my best shot,” Shannon says. “I was making like 17 grand a year. I just had a baby and realized, you know, I was like 32 years old and I wasn’t a punk rocker anymore. I’m very grateful for everything that’s happened to me, but I just didn’t think it was in my cards to make it as a rock star.”

He’d accomplished what he’d set out to do as a kid, did the whole limousine to the airport thing, had sat in with Ozzy and Sabbath when Michael Borden was touring with Faith No More. So he quit Amen and enrolled in Santa Barbara Community College.

“I was going to be a hairdresser because that’s what my mom does. She had a shop in our home when I was growing up and I’d just watch her. She was happy; she’s a happy lady and she makes other people happy, and that’s kind of what we do. So I was gonna go for that route.”

That’s when Sully Erna called. He had long been aware of Shannon’s talents: The two would run into one another once or twice a year at shows throughout their many musical incarnations. Shannon joined Godsmack. The band moved into a house in Miami where they wrote and lived together for three months before entering the Hit Factory’s Criteria Studios to record Faceless.

“That was a first for the band,” Sully recounts. “We had never approached writing in that way. Previous to Shannon it was always me coming in, ‘Hey, here’s a new song,’ and they’d put their thing to it, Tony would come with a lead and, boom! There it is. But this time, we all went to work every day. We’d be there at noon and we’d leave at midnight.”

Faceless begins with “Straight out of Line.” Entering from a distant silence is the sound of artillery, gun fighting, falling bombs. A helicopter approaches. From beneath its turbines comes an advance of toms, 20 seconds of marching with elongated guitar pulls prolonging the militant mood until Shannons’s drums explode in full-frontal assault. If that doesn’t exactly scream to the listener, “new drummer!” nothing will.

“That was the first thing we wrote together,” Shannon recalls. “[Sully] said, ‘I’ve got this riff, come up with a cool tom drumbeat,’ and he walked out of the room. And I was like, ‘Rad!’ When he came back I had it and he was like, ‘Great!’”

“It was one of those things,” Sully remembers. “We stepped in a room and as soon as we started writing we had the riff, [Shannon] starts laying down the beat and everyone’s looking at one another like, ‘Are you f-----g shitting me? Here we go. We’re off.’”

 



How Black Is Black?
IV is something new. Bluesy, with fresh melodies and unexpected musical sojourns. Robbie Merrill picks up a guitar slide, and there’s the acoustic “Hollow,” with strings, female accompaniment, sans percussion. You’d expect to hear that Sully, having tasted success, now trusting his band as musicians and writers, as well as being a new father, was happy to step back, assess and let others take over. But that’s not how it went.

 

“In our minds we were like, ‘this could be our Black Album,’” Sully explains. “For AC/DC it was Back in Black, for Metallica it was the Black Album, for Zeppelin, IV. There’s that one record that you just go, ‘holy shit,’ and it dominates the f-----g world and you can’t stop it even if you wanted to. [But] there were a lot of things going on during the writing of this record. I was going through a three-year lawsuit, bullshit with my house, my family, I came clean with my girlfriend and told her I had been cheating. I was drinking a lot, partying, all that stuff. I was in a very dark place, where these guys were on a very bright side of things, they were excited to write the new record and I wasn’t there, mentally. I really didn’t feel like I had any ideas left.”

While working out his personal issues, the rest of the band was working. They’d written 40 songs before Sully asked them to stop and leave him alone for a couple of weeks so that he could process things and figure out which songs he could and couldn’t write for.

“Then one day I sat on the couch and started thinking, What the f--k is this record going to be about? There’s nothing influencing me right now. I think the last decade has been the most un-influential decade in music. I haven’t heard anything that’s knocked me off my feet. I’m just uninspired by everything and everybody.

“So I’m sitting there in like a dungeon. I’m thinking, god, I just lived this whole life of crap, it’s really been nothing but sin. The debauchery and drinking and lying, the shit you do when you’re caught up in that rock-star world.” And then it came to him: “That’s it! I have to write about this because this is where I am right now. The first thing I wrote was “Living in Sin.” That’s a cool title for a song, I’m sure it’s been taken, but it’s where I truly am. ‘I’ve seen it all and I’ve walked it tall / Lived in this sin so where do I begin.’ It was a rebirth. I got so excited. I started writing and I got this melody in my head and next thing you know I call these guys and I go, ‘it’s on! I don’t know where it’s going yet but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.’” Sully didn’t know how he was going to get there, or how long the tunnel was, but it didn’t matter. He wasn’t blocked anymore.

Onward And Upward
Sully and Shannon are busy. Sully just wrote a book, due out in January, called “The Paths We Choose,” about the first 30 years of his life and what it took to get from point A to point B.

“It ends when Godsmack got a record deal, so it’s not about Godsmack so much as it’s about the climb to success, the struggles, life in the ghetto, all that stuff.”

Meanwhile, Shannon, Tony Rombola and Robbie Merrill are doing a side project. They’ve teamed up with Shannon’s former band mate from Ugly Kid Joe, singer Whit Crane, to create Another Animal, using songs that emerged during the writing of IV that didn’t make the record.

You might be curious to know, though, that if Sully ever misses the raw power of just sitting behind a drum set, he sets everything aside to reassume his role as a drummer.

“I do miss it at times, but I don’t think I ever wanna be the drummer in a band anymore. I feel like I’ve evolved into something else. I’m really learning this whole entertainment thing. I know all the components that are needed, how to write songs, how to run a show from the production side to the artistic side. If I was just to sit behind the drum set again and be nothing more than a drummer, I’d be limiting myself. I want to continue to learn and grow. I don’t want to go backwards.”