Bad Wolves’ Tommy Vext on the Harrowing Story of ‘Remember When’
Bad Wolves are a new band, having just released their debut album, Disobey (on May 11), but they're hardly rookies. The members are lifers; they're ex-members of Divine Heresy, DevilDriver, Vagus Nerve, God Forbid, Bury Your Dead and In This Moment. Frontman Tommy Vext has even served as a fill-in frontman for Snot and Five Finger Death Punch.
Their album is off to a promising start, thanks to their first single, "Zombie." We spoke to them about that song, and well as the devasting "Remember When," the media narrative about rock music in 2018, and the importance of representation in metal.
Your cover of the Cranberries' "Zombie" has been one of the biggest hits of the year. You put your stamp on the song, to be sure, but how much do you change a classic song like that?
Doc Coyle: It’s super important any time you’re doing a cover to make it your own and to kind of reinvent it for modernity. People reach out to me like: "Dude, the guitar solo!" And it adds another element to it. I think it’s important if you’re not gonna do a note-for-note rendition, then go the other way. Make it your own. Reinvent it. I think especially with Tommy’s vocals are so unique and such a stark contrast to the original vocal, that more than anything I think, represents a very new and fresh way.
We know that the plan was for Cranberries singer Dolores O'Riordan to join you in the studio. That adds such a haunting element to it.
Tommy Vext: Our concerns were, did we do a good job with this interpretation?
I was in London at Wembley Arena to see Five Finger Death Punch, and our managing director of the U.K. office, Dan, is a family friend of Dolores, and he had heard our rendition. And so in the dressing room, we had a pretty long conversation about it and I kind of just threw it out there. I was like, do you think it would be okay if you sent her this song for her approval?' So we kind of were like, is this good enough?
And a couple days later when he called me and said, she thinks the track is killer, she loves the song, she wants to sing on it, and we were like, wait, what? And it happened all really fast. Within two weeks she was in London ready to record, and it almost felt like a dream come true. And then obviously, tragically, it never got to happen. And I think that ultimately, the only reason we decided to release the song is because we donated the proceeds to her three children. And so I think for us it’s kind of the healing thing, and I think that by taking the song and introducing it to newer generations who never heard the original, and by also giving it to people who may love the original and also enjoy this one, it helps us kind of heal from that whole situation.
Were you picturing it as a duet, or Dolores doing backing vocals? What was the arrangement going to be?
Tommy: She’s the master, I am the student. There was a lot of anticipation because I was really excited, and I had no idea what would happen. It never got to happen.
You guys are a new band, but no one in the band is a rookie; you've all been in bands before. This industry can grind you down if you’re in a band and stuff doesn’t happen. Did you ever feel like quitting?
Doc: I never stopped.
Tommy: We’re lifers. It’s like the Pantera lyric ["The Underground in America"], "We thrive on what’s stronger than most of the world." You have to have thick skin for this thing. We didn’t know what would happen with this record. We didn’t know if we’d get signed. We didn’t know if we’d get put on a label. We didn’t know if anyone would care. We didn’t know if anyone would help. Because we’ve had stuff that people did care about, and we’ve done projects that nobody gave a shit about. So it’s the relinquishment of expectations that reinforces the drive to do it the way that you want it to. And ultimately, we created a record that we wanted to hear, that we would’ve bought if we were 16-year-old kids again, and it just seemed to work.
Doc: I would call it an artistic compulsion. I remember I had a revelation when I moved to L.A. a few years ago: "Wow, wouldn’t it be nice if I didn’t have this thing in me that was telling me I gotta work on this?" Because some people, they do whatever their job or their career is, and they’re not necessarily concerned with maybe these other kinds of extracurricular activities. But this thing, it’s not a "want." It is a thing that burns inside you that you’re almost possessed in a way. So in that sense, I feel like there’s almost not a lot of choice for me. It’s just this is what I’m compelled to do. You just keep going. It was never like, "I need to be this level." I just wanna do great things with great people.
“Remember When” is obviously a personal song.
Tommy: “Remember When” is a song about my relationship with my twin brother. And we both took separate directions in life. I wound up doing music and getting sober. He stayed involved as a drug dealer and became addicted to drugs. And in 2010 he broke into my apartment, and I came home to a home invasion. And he struck me with a crowbar, fractured my skull, broke my arm, and beat me up until my spleen burst. I was rushed to the hospital, and I died. It was pretty crazy. And through all that, he wound up going to jail, and he got 17 years for attempted murder.
And then the process of healing has been what happened between our relationship has a very heavy hand in how I became a sober companion. And I think that I found a job that, by being of service to other people’s families, if I was able to help them heal, it helped me heal a little bit every single time I could help somebody else because ultimately, I could never save him.
This song is really like an open letter to him. He was the cool one. When we were kids, he was cool. I always thought he was cool. The song talks about our choices and how the choices that we make determine who we are, and they determine our destiny. And it’s a power that we have to choose every single day.
So it’s something that was very personal, and it happened, obviously, eight years ago; it took me eight years to be able to write this song. But it’s also about being in a band with guys who were, again, supportive of this kind of openness. And without that, I don’t know if this song might’ve come to fruition or got to the record. So it just felt like it was time. It just became time.
Doc: I think it was a real breakthrough lyrically because so much of the record before that was a bit more metaphorical. And we felt when we heard it, like, "Wow." This is another step, the fact that he would be willing to go to those lengths to expose himself in a vulnerable sense about something so personal, but we also felt that’s exactly the type of thing that people were going to relate to. And there’s not a lot of that in metal. So to me, it’s such a more direct sense of reality and emotion, and that’s really what makes songs universal in a way.
I know you work as a sober counselor. Do you do that while you're on the road?
Tommy: The band takes up a lot of attention right now, so I don’t wanna do a half-assed job. And Doc is in this line of work as well. He does adolescent and young adult mentorship, and he helps people that have failure to launch in kind of learning life skills, whatever deficit that his clients have. I was working in this field for a while and kind of brought him in because he has a lot of experience dealing with that kind of stuff. And so the band thing is what’s happening now, but I could see in the future expanding on this thing and creating something where people can go and utilize these resources that we offer on a smaller scale.
You guys are playing a lot of the big rock festivals this summer. How do you react to people who say that rock isn't doing well?
Tommy: People ask this stuff, and I don’t know where they’re getting their information from. We go out on tour, and you play the festivals, like in the States, the Danny Wimmer festivals, they’re packed. Nine Inch Nails, A Perfect Circle, In This Moment, Five Finger Death Punch, Ozzy Osbourne, Foo Fighters, Muse... I don’t know what any of these people are talking about. I could go down the list of bands from all different genres of rock. We go to Europe and South America. I’ve seen Death Punch play in front of 300,000 screaming German fans on like a Wednesday. So I don’t get it.
Doc: Well, I was a columnist for VH1 for a year, and a lot of what I wrote about was dissecting the culture of heavy music. Heavy metal and rock is kind of the biggest thing that doesn’t maybe get a lot of the attention. I would say if anything, where there’s been a kind of gap or separation is how it folds into the broader idea of the mainstream pop culture. So for example, they didn’t air the rock award at the Grammys, and Avenged Sevenfold, because of that, decided to boycott.
Hey, we wanna be included in the dance. And I think with what’s happening with the success of "Zombie," in a sense, we’re opening a few doors that haven’t been available to bands of our ilk. And hopefully, we can knock that door open a little bit and bring a few people in with us, because I think we should be part of the conversation, and we should be part of that big tentpole that is pop culture, because when we were growing up, you would turn on MTV and it was Guns N' Roses and it was Metallica, but it’d be that and then they’d play En Vogue, and then they’d play Sir Mix-A-Lot. And we understood that we can all exist in that same thing. So it’s about having a more inclusive view of the whole thing. I think it is complex though.
When I grew up every metal show I went to, it was predominantly white dudes in the audience and onstage. Now it feels like it’s changing. There are other people interested in metal now that maybe weren’t traditionally. Representation matters; if you're not white and you see people who look like you onstage, it has an effect. I was wondering what your take on this is.
Tommy: I see it from both sides. I think that to say that mixed races in metal is a new thing is erroneous. I think you have massive bands like Sepultura who came from Brazil and basically changed American metal.
Tommy: Yeah, Slayer, Sevendust. There are bands that influenced me like Candiria. God Forbid was a band that was all black dudes and one white guy. Killswitch Engage had a black singer, and they were at the pinnacles of their careers at the top of the charts. I stepped in for a band, and I’m mixed race. I’m half black and half white. Nobody cares. I think that the music speaks for itself, the same way that Eminem is embraced by the hip-hop community. If you’re good at what you do, people recognize and respect and support it. I wish that "female-fronted" would stop being a thing, because who the fuck cares? In This Moment is a great band. Jinjer from Ukraine is one of my new favorite bands. Yeah, they have a female singer, but she sings better than 90 percent of the men out. So what does it matter what her gender is? People wanna label things, but I think metal’s just a music of the people, and there’s lots of people.
Doc: From my background, I was in a band called God Forbid that for our era was kind of known as "the black heavy metal band" for that time. And I know for a fact that what we did had an impact. For example, I have a podcast, and I had Tosin Abasi, the guitarist for Animals as Leaders. And he speaks to that, how a band like God Forbid existing made him feel more welcome, and then you see that success he’s had. And one thing he talks about is that for him, generally, race isn’t an issue, that we’ve come far enough that you can have someone who is talented, who is great at what they do, and who they are is kind of supplemental to what’s going on.
And I hear that all the time. I hear so many people tell me, "Hey, you guys made me feel comfortable in this world." And while I don’t think we should just have people there as a token or have someone of this identity to kind of check a mark, I do know for a fact that representation matters in the aggregate. But hopefully, we keep moving to a place where it’s not something that has to be mentioned all the time, or that that’s the main point as to why that artist is there.