Avenged Sevenfold’s M. Shadows Talks ‘The Stage’ Album, Artificial Intelligence, Pushing Boundaries + More
Avenged Sevenfold have the music world abuzz after surprise releasing The Stage album and throwing a streaming 3D, 360 degree record release performance for fans to check out. But that could be just the beginning of cool things tied to The Stage album. We recently had a chance to chat with Avenged Sevenfold frontman M. Shadows about the creation of the artificial intelligence-inspired album, and he spoke about the surprise build up to the release, the creation of the disc, some of the key tracks, the future of music presentation and more. Check out our chat below.
How hard was it keeping this under wraps all this time, and keeping the big secret up until you just dropped it on us all?
You know, I think it got harder and harder as the release date got closer, but when it was just the band that knew, that wasn't very hard at all, I mean... I think when I was 22, or 23, I probably would have wanted to spill the beans to everyone, and eventually someone would have leaked it. But I guess being the age we are now, we just were completely content with being in the studio with Joe Barresi, and just making sure everyone knew that it was going to be a secret release. We just really didn't tell anyone, we didn't tell family members, or good friends, we just... I guess we really didn't have the urge to do it. We were just really confident with the music, and happy with what we were doing.
I think it got a little more frightening when we knew that there was going to be pressing plants making copies, and artwork had to get out there, and we had to do vinyl acetates, and when the CDs go on trucks, to go to BestBuy and what not, that's when it got a little more scary, because at that point you just don't know who's going to find a copy and go, wait a second, what is this? And put it online. Yeah, that was a little more worrisome.
One of the things I love about this is it kind of brought the mystique back to rock. There's so much of just, people having to do two or three or four preview tracks before an album comes out, and this is loke the old days where everybody gets it at the same time, which is great.
Yeah, you know, I think... one thing that was frustrating to us, always, was having to do so much press building up an album, and you're asked so many questions about, you know, is it more melodic, is it heavier, are you doing your old stuff, is it new? And all of the sudden your whole album has like a vibe attached to it, before anyone gets to hear any music, and then you feel like, the internet moves so quickly, it's kind of like, okay, well thanks for that single last week, but now we need something new, people are getting bored. It's just such a self-defeating process. Luckily we have some trailblazers in music in general, like Radiohead, and Beyonce, and different people that are doing different things, and we were able to kind of piggyback off that, and also try, and add a different element to it, which was adding physical copies to a surprise release, which hasn't been done. It's really cool, man, because it gives it a different vibe for the record, and it's nice to get one piece of work at once, instead of little breadcrumbs.
Every time I listen to this album, I pick up a little something different on it. The artificial intelligence theme that you guys have kind of used to connect everything here together -- how and when did that become the focus on what you wanted to do on this album?
Well, I think if we just started educating on artificial intelligence, and some of the ways of the universe I guess, I think we would have been in big trouble, because it's a very deep and expansive subject. And I think, luckily, right after Hail to the King, and we were taking some down time, I started really picking up books on singularity, and you can get books on the universe, and just the happenings, and artificial intelligence, and also listening to a lot of podcasts, so there was about three years of I guess an education, going into this, and really becoming obsessed with it. So when I started talking to the guys about the record, you know, at first we started writing riffs, and throwing stuff around, and it just felt like the same stuff, this and that. And then when we started talking about subject matter, lyrics, it was a different approach for us. Because we started talking about artificial intelligence, like I guess on a more broad level, but it started inspiring riffs and it started inspiring vocal melodies. So luckily the guys were as into it as I was, and then I was able to fully transform this album, not only from a lyrical perspective, but a musical perspective. So, there was about two years of being obsessed with it before we even started writing, that kind of led up to this whole thing. So it wasn't kind of just, 'Hey, let's learn more, let's learn more, write write write.' It was more like, there was a nice foundation there already.
You mention the obsession with it. While going down the rabbit hole, what maybe came as the biggest surprise to you while you were researching this?
What I didn't expect is that there's a lot of people that know a lot about this stuff, and how, you know, how I guess, blind, or how much we ignore it in normal society. But I think it's really important, it's like education issue when you vote, you know? And if we're going to vote for people, in our elections, and vote for our leaders, you want to be educated on what you're voting for. And a lot of science, and a lot of artificial intelligence stuff is all going to play into that in the future. One thing, that really excites me about, kind of to answer your question, is that the smartest people, and the things that we know, like, the edge of our intelligence, it's okay to not know the answer. And there's so many things we don't know the answers to, there's so many theories about the multiverse, there's so many theories about black holes, there's theories about where artificial intelligence is going. And I like hearing people talking that can admit that they don't know the answers, but they have very intriguing theories on things. And I love that.
Getting into the album here a little bit. I love "The Stage" and it's an epic track -- and listening to the album I noticed a lot of these songs are five minutes, six minutes, way beyond. How enjoyable is it to not have the constriction of creating a 3:30 radio song?
You know, we never felt that we had to write a radio song. I think either we wanted to write songs that were shorter, and I think we're always one of those bands that reacts to our previous record. If you look at records, they bounce back and forth between one style, then they kind of jump to the next style because we're kind of sick of the style we played previously. I think Hail to the King was so stripped down that this record was more of us just kind of letting our hair down. I'm sure I could find a better analogy than that, but we just really wanted to let our chops be shown, and just play a different type of metal. But for me, when you think about radio, and you think about how is that audience going to react to it, it's really like the tail wagging the dog in my opinion. You gotta make what you want, and make songs based on how you feel, and... you know, I hope that even if this record doesn't succeed with that type of fan, I hope it opens up their minds to some different progressive metal, and some different progressive songwriting. And also I hope some other bands can be inspired whether they like the record or not, that it's okay to kind of forge your own path, and maybe we can change the outlook of rock and metal, and make it a little more progressive, instead of trying to just be on the radio all day.
Very cool. And "The Stage" video, as well, is one of the cooler videos we've seen this year. Can you share your thoughts on how it turned out and capturing the vibe of the song?
Yeah, I loved it. I've been really interested in bands choosing their art over showing themselves play in a studio for a while now. We had of our ideas that didn't really pan out, but me and Zack have been talking about the little puppet show that was in the Sound of Music that we thought was cool. And then he actually came back with this huge idea to do this thing, kind of show a more humanistic approach. I mean, the record deals with simulations, and all these different sort of theories that are going around in the world right now. So, we kind of threw some of that stuff in as well, at the end, you know, the artificial intelligence, or the skeleton, or whatever it is, pushes the reset button. But what we really wanted to get across was just more of a, the idea that humans continue to do bad things to each other when we don't understand each other, when we don't see from another person's perspective, and it's really just a video to make people realize that. Whether you're a caveman, and you don't understand the other caveman and you're killing him because you're scared, or you're dropping bombs on each other because you don't understand someone's religion, or nationality, that these are all the same sorts of things that keep us in this never ending cycle of violence, and at the end of the day, we need to be smarter than that. We need to really educate ourselves to try and get above that. Because if we don't, then we're going to become extinct eventually. And there's been plenty of extinctions that this earth has had, I think it would be the sixth one if we were to become extinct. And, we don't want that to happen, we have kids, we want our kids to grow up, and we want to evolve as a species, then that video kind of pointed out that, hey, we're still doing the same things we were doing when we were cavemen, we're not that smart.
Another track I love on this album is "Sunny Disposition." Can you talk a little bit about bringing the guys from Fishbone in to work with you on this track?
Yeah, you know, we had written this part, that whole song especially has a very, to me, has like a lot of Mr. Bungle leanings, like Patton-esque type vocal melodies, etc. And when we had written the part, we thought it was hilarious, so we left it, the whole horn section. And then when we got into the studio with Joe Barresi, he suggested that we get Angelo and Dirty Walter Kibby to play on that. We're huge Fishbone fans, as well, but we just didn't know how to reach out to them, but he happened to know them from playing on a Melvins record that he had produced. So he called them up, and we thought it was a great idea, because we didn't want it to sound perfect, like it was done with a bunch of professional musicians, sitting in a very stale environment. We wanted these guys to come in, and just blow it down. And that's exactly what they did. They have this energy, and this attitude about them, and they came in, listened to the track, they were completely excited about what the track was doing, and they just went in there and nailed it. And I think you can feel the energy, and just the off-the-cuff-ness of it.
Absolutely. And on "Exist," the finale of the album, how did Neil DeGrasse Tyson come into the picture for this?
Well you know, we wanted to write a song, one of the bigger ideas, and one of the first songs we wrote was "Exist." We wanted it to be our musical interpretation of the big bang. And as the idea evolved, we went from the big bang, to the radiation period, to the cooling down period, and then we wanted there to be earth, and earth to us was more organic than the rest of the big bang, so we, you know, it's all acoustic when the vocals actually come in. And it kind of represents life.
Then we felt at the very end it would be cool to have like a speech or something kind of just laying it out there, so that people get like that cherry on top, that final finale of, you know, just a little bit of, I guess, just kind of a thing to make people feel like maybe we need to treat each other better, our egos are much bigger than our actual importance in this universe, and the universe is so big. It's just kind of a positive note but also a daunting warning at the same time.
So we reached out to Neil and Neil put his money where his mouth is. He always talks about how he'll do things for education. We told him what the record was about. And he called me, and we go on the phone for a couple hours, we sift through some of his essays, and what would be right? He tried to actually question, he's like, "Are you sure you want to do a 15 minute song? You know, 'Imagine' by John Lennon is very simple." And I was like, "We got the music part, dude, trust me. This is going to be cool." And he's like, "Okay, as long as you really want three minutes of me talking." And I was like, "Yeah, we wouldn't have asked you if we didn't." But he ended up doing it, he recorded it in New York, and did a bunch of takes of it, sent it to us, and we were able to get it in the track, and it's just a super cherry on top to us.
The 3D, 360 degree live performance thing that you guys did was cool. Avenged always seem to be at the forefront of pushing things, and trying out new stuff. Now that you've done this and gotten this out there for people to view, where do you think it's going from here? Do you think this is something that more bands will take on and do? And what is the future of presenting shows?
Well, you know, I think, I hope other bands take this and they do their own thing with it, and they do push further into boundaries. I think, there's a lot of pop artists, and R&B artists, that are doing these sorts of things. I wouldn't say that exactly, but they push the boundaries, and a lot of rock fans want to just ignore them because it's not the music they listen to. But I feel like as a rock band, and as a metal band, we need to really push into those boundaries as well. Everything from streaming music, to how we consume and listen to our music, are all things that rock bands do, it's just that we need more bands that are willing to take that step and actually present things. And so, virtual reality wise, we're working with some VR companies now to try to bring some new content live. I think there's so much technology out there that we can ... I mean hopefully get stuff to people's phones, and if you're in the live experience maybe your phone gives you another experience, and you aim it towards the stage. Just all these things because there's no point of sitting there and berating your fans, or arguing with people about how they want to consume stuff.
The reality is you either step into the future or you become a dinosaur. And I feel like there's some things that we like to keep, like for us it's how we record our music, or the dynamic range on the records, and not doing too much in the way of technology, but at the same time, things with streaming, and how you get your music, how you see a live show, how you are presented with your merchandise, how everything works at a show, it's changing. And rock bands need to wake up to that because that's how people are consuming music now.
I know with the album out now, you can get into playing the new songs, I can't wait to hear how this is all going to translate live to the stage. Just curious, do you have songs in particular that are kind of standing out to you, that you can't wait to play live... is there even a thought of playing this in full?
I just don't know about playing it in full yet. I know that when bands do that it's a big risk, and it's not usually a risk that pays off all the time. I personally would love to do it at some point. But I do know that we were very worried about playing "The Stage" for the first time. We played it at Knotfest, and I've never seen the band as nervous as that, and I was, as well. But I gotta say, we played it at Aftershock, we played it in Mexico City, and it just felt like it was a classic Avenged song, like it had been around for the duration of 17 years of our career. And if the other songs feel that good live, then we're going to have a lot of fun playing these new songs, because that song to me, just live, just really lights it up. And you know I see "Paradigm" being played live, "Sunny D," "God Damn" for sure, "Creating God," maybe "Simulation," just to start it off, and then we'll see where the other ones take us, but those ones for sure have a lot of energy and I think people will really enjoy those.
Do you have a personal favorite song on the album that particularly stands out to you?
I think one of the biggest sleepers that people are going to be able to dig into later is "Fermi Paradox," it's the song before "Exist." To me it's got the coolest, it's just so bizarre because it's got one of the most melodic vocal melodies, but we put it over a black metal blast beats. So all the verses have black metal drumming and black metal guitar work over something very melodic. And I think it really takes you into outer space, which is the whole vibe of that thing. And it's got my favorite bridge, the chord progression, and the key changes in the bridge, and Brooks [Wackerman] sounds amazing with it, and we also did like a very '80's phase on it, with a real tape machine, not using a plugin or anything. We really phased it after the mastering to get that swooping feel on it. So that song to me just always has felt so cool to me, but I can completely understand how it's a little more "out there" for some people, but I think it's gonna be a sleeper where people are going to maybe appreciate it more a little more down the line.
You mentioned Brooks [Wackerman] in there. Obviously, you had The Rev to start off with, you played with Mike Portnoy and Arin. Everybody brings a little something different to the fold. Can you talk a little bit about what Brooks has brought to the band since he's joined?
Yeah, incredible grooves. And not to get into his personality, he's just a great guy. He's a professional, you know? He's got a super intelligent personality, super fun to be around, but from a writing perspective, that's been the reason why we didn't really announce having Brooks for about a year before we worked with him. We wanted to get in there, and really feel him out before we made this change. And so, we knew going in, after we'd announced that, writing with him was going to be really fun. And kind of what we did was we said, "Okay, we know the chord progressions and just the overall key changes, and things we want to do are going to be there, so what if we jam with Brooks and kind of get different grooves than we've ever heard, or different time signatures, or different feelings out of these type of musical pieces we're making."
So we started writing with just sitting in a room with him, and us just doing kind of dumb riffs over cool grooves. And once we get a groove that was really original and exciting we would you know, throw the music, start writing music on top of that. And I think it was a great way to write because you get all this energy, and it's not just focused on one thing, whether it's the music or the energy, it's got all of it, because you have this guy in here that can just play anything he wants, and the weirder and weirder it got, the more excited we got, the more we wanted to keep pushing down that path. He grew up listening to everything from Zappa's brother, Frank Zappa's drummer, to (Mr.) Bungle, to Faith No More, all the weird stuff. And the further down we got the more excited we became, and I think that's why he's such a huge asset to this band, because he's into the same stuff we are.
Can you tell me a little bit about the next five, six months? What's on the horizon for the band at this point?
Yeah, there's a lot of stuff going on, man. We have a tour in the U.K., then we do Europe, and then we have a lot of stuff that's on the table right now that I guess we can't talk about it because then we'd bum out a lot of promoters, because they're trying to put some things together and we don't know if they're completely secure yet.
Another thing is we're going to be doing a lot of different things, like these pop up stores, where we show up, and we got different merch. We're trying to change the whole way our merch is viewed, in terms of just not a bunch of skulls interlaced, you know, every album can look the same, so they're going to be stylized and different. We're trying to change up the whole thing for people.
Also, this record's going to be evolving. We have a lot of stuff that we're going to keep adding to the record for people that streaming, such as Spotify and Apple Music, we want the record to keep evolving, and we're still debating exactly what's going to be put on there, but we have a bunch of stuff in the works. And it's going to happen pretty soon. We don't want people to think, "Oh you buy the record and that's it." We're going to keep putting stuff out that we feel belongs with this record; some cover songs, some fun things, and also maybe a couple originals that didn't quite make the record. So, it's going to be a fun time, we're just trying to really break the mold of what music is, and just let it keep evolving.
With your fascination with gaming, and obviously you had done your own game before, would there be any gaming type of tie in with this album, as well. Or is that just a wait and see?
Yeah, it's more a wait and see. We're just trying to do the right things. Our last game did really well, it was really fun to make, but it was also, I've never wanted to rip my hair out more than when I was making a game, it was just insane. But then again, when Treyarch does a new Call of Duty, who knows? They might call us, or whatever it will be. Or Guitar Hero, or whatever it is. You know, we have our eyes open, but at the same time, we're really just trying to, instead of, you know, everyone's doing that stuff. We really want to try and bring kids a new experience, because we all know the world's changing, and people don't, I mean people are getting made about this, but they don't seem to have as much time for music, so you kind of have to fit in their life a little more than just, hey, love it or leave it. We want to make sure people are getting music on their phones, they're streaming it, we're being interactive with them, and just making this a different experience..
Avenged Sevenfold, "The Stage"
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