Five Finger Death Punch’s Zoltan Bathory on Dealing with Bandmates’ Addiction Issues
It's been a chaotic couple of years, but Five Finger Death Punch appear to have emerged stronger than ever. The band's And Justice for None hit the Top 5 on the Billboard 200 Album Charts and their co-headlining tour with Breaking Benjamin is one of the summer's hottest tickets.
We spoke to guitarist Zoltan Bathory about the new album and discussed the continued evolution of their sound, the statement made with the current single "Sham Pain" and the long gestation period of And Justice for None. The guitarist also discussed FFDP's association with both military and police, and he addressed the prank that Bad Wolves, whom he manages, pulled on him for his birthday.
What does it mean to you to continually have the fans supporting with album and ticket sales?
It’s the cliché man – heavy metal is not dead. Rock is not dead. [laughs]. It’s not going to go away. There are cycles and this is our time. And if it’s not us, there will be someone else. But as long as there are bands that continue to hit these numbers and are charting and bringing these audiences, we’re going to stay around. So we’re very happy about it.
Let’s talk about "Sham Pain." It’s a very pointed song from Ivan [Moody] in terms of the lyrics ...
[Laughs] Well, these last two years have been the biggest years for the band but at the same time the most chaotic, hectic and insane. Ivan was struggling with a few demons and we had the lawsuit with the record label and as the saying goes, “Smooth waters don’t make great sailors.” But we look at this album as a time capsule. Whatever is happening with us, whatever is happening socially or politically in the world, that is what we talk about. We don’t really write about mythology or Viking warriors, which can be great for other bands.
But that particular song is sort of tongue-in-cheek; we made that crazy video for it which is kind of underlying what is going on and how it pans out. So yeah, this is definitely our life.
Ivan had a difficult time at the time. He lives for that two hours that you’re onstage, but everything surrounding that is crazy. It’s the other 22 hours that you kind of have to go by the rules. But he hates the planes, he hates the bus; it’s all in the lyrics. He loves the fans. He goes to the meet-and-greets and he’s always being yanked away, sometimes by the security guys. He’ll jump in the crowd and sign everything he can and the security guys have to get him out of there. And everything in that song is basically about that hour, hour-and-a-half that we live for and the other 23 hours that are fucking insane.
You had to wait for the legalities to shake out rather than put the album out immediately.
The record was essentially finished in January of 2017, but then we added a couple of songs. We’re always working on something and at the last minute we had some stuff we submitted to the label, but like I said, it’s a time capsule and it does embody everything that was happening in those years.
As a band, we have a sound. It’s not like we come up with some jazz fusion or whatever. Five Finger Death Punch is a sound, and we can experiment with it and we can sacrifice some for experimentation, but this band sounds like these five guys. So when we talk about a Five Finger Death Punch album coming out in 2017 as opposed to a year later, it’s not really that much of a difference.
But during this time Ivan was in and out of rehab, and that’s how you can see the difference. It’s almost bi-polar to some degree. He goes into rehab and if he comes out and he’s hopeful and happy, then he’s going to write a song about that, and he’s on top of the world that day because he feels that way. And if he falls off the wagon, he may be angry and frustrated and then if we get into the stuff with the label, you’re gonna have that. So lyrically what he would write today may be different than what he wrote at some other point because today is different.
But he’s sober now and he’s on top of the world and he’s sounding the best ever. He’s full of energy and if we were to go into the studio today, he would write something else. But I think it is a very important record.
You say that Five Finger Death Punch has a sound, but thinking back to that first album -- The Way of the Fist was a heavy pummeling album. But on this album, I love that you cover “Blue on Black” or that you have a bluesier feel on “When the Seasons Change” while also having heavier songs as well. What does it mean to you to see this band continually evolve, adding more to the palette with each album?
Great question. It’s a funny thing. We get a lot of people who think, “Oh they’re only repeating the same thing” and there are other people who are just like, “I wish they were just like the first record.” I think the sound is evolving and if you look at the first record and really the first two records – The Way of the Fist, I wrote 95 percent of that record. Somebody had to lay down the base and the foundation. It sounds like how I sound like. Then on the second LP, we had Jason [Hook] coming in and adding to the whole operation. With the third record, Ivan came in more and it was more equal. This is what I mean by this is how it sounds with these five guys together. The first record, Jason wasn’t there and you can hear it. He’s more of a rock guy and I’m a metalhead, so you can kind of see how the band has grown to have more of a balance of hard rock and heavy metal. Each of our influences is on it and that’s how we’ve created what it is today.
We always experimented to a degree, but take the double record. There’s 25 or 26 songs and with that many, you can experiment of five or six songs because there’s so many. Fans get the record and they still have the pulse even though we experimented with different influences on four, five or six songs. When you have one record and you have 12 songs, and you do that much experimenting, fans will say, “Wow, this is not even the same band.”
“Blue on Black,” it’s a different song. Kenny Wayne Shepherd, I’d never seen his band. It’s not my vibe. But when we did that song, once it was done I was surprised. It fits in the record and I don’t see it sticking out too far. It still sounds like Five Finger Death Punch, but it is something different. At the end, I was like, “Wow, I didn’t expect this to work but it did.”
Obviously, the larger focus has been on Ivan’s struggles the past couple of years, but within the band, Jeremy Spencer has addressed his addiction issues in a book in the past. Chris Kael has been very open of late about his sobriety. What has it meant to know that there have been people within the band with shared experiences that can offer some support?
Well, this band was pretty much out of control. I was the sober one. I don’t drink and at this point in my life, it’s just what has happened. But when you’re out on the road, it’s like you’re the king of the party. Wherever you go, you’re the party. People are always coming and saying, “Hey, let’s party, let’s drink and do this and do that.” It just comes so easy. And that’s something that a lot of musicians get caught up in.
So there was a time where all of them, I was the sober guy, so at least someone had the hands on the steering wheel, but all of the guys were out of control. When Nikki Sixx comes to you and says, “Guys I did some stupid shit in my life, but holy shit… If you need me, let’s talk”...
But really, it was hidden from the world. You don’t show the laundry and we kept it together, and as I said, at least as the sober one I had my hands on the steering wheel. But the band started to get bigger and bigger and everyone started to realize that this is such a rare thing and it’s one in a million and something happens to you like the success of this band and you realize the volume of the situation. You realize how many bands and how many lives got destroyed because of addiction issues. So they all started to realize what we had and they started to respect it and everybody started to sober up. Jeremy and Jason and eventually Chris and Ivan too.
For someone without addiction issues, it was hard for me to understand it. You just want to shake someone and say, “What the fuck is wrong with you? Why can’t you just stay normal?” But I simply didn’t understand. So I had to learn and understand what they were dealing with. I had to have compassion and see that way and if somebody is sick, everyone comes to the rescue.
The general population doesn’t realize that this isn’t a simple thing. It’s not as simple [to understand] as it sounds like from the outside. So I learned everything I could do and the rest of the guys sobered up and had their experiences that they had to go through and now everybody has each other. But this is the band.
Ivan['s struggle] was the most difficult to go through, but I’m so happy to see him sober and see him sort of rediscovering life. He’s been everywhere in the world, but he just doesn’t remember it. But now, he woke up one day and it was like, “Oh wow, we’re doing all this.” It’s really interesting to see him going through this.
I know you’ve had plenty of association with the military over the years. Do you feel we’re doing enough to help our veterans?
The military guys are a good portion of our fan base and it’s happened organically because of what we talk about, what we sing about, what we do. We’ve had to fight for everything. I came from a communist country and whatever it takes, that’s what makes you who you are and it will draw similar people to you. And those people are these guys who believe in something bigger and stand for something. That’s what it takes to be successful is you just have to plow through with it. Every position, it doesn’t matter how bad it is, you just have to find a way out of it. And that’s what the military guys have to do mentally and that’s why they do it. And that’s how we draw the fan base to begin with.
So we’ve done these USO shows and spent time with them and by being around them, they’ve become friends. So being around these guys, you start to understand their problems. You understand PTSD and you read the stories and you know what they’ve been through, so this is personal to us as well. They’re our friends and as this band has become an influential force, we’ve tried to do things. We try to bring attention to certain things like “The Wrong Side of Heaven” video for example – that was addressed by The Washington Post and several politicians because it had over 100 million views and now it’s almost 200 million views. People are seeing and exploring the data and seeing how the veterans are becoming homeless. If we have this platform, we should use it for something good and we’ve been doing this.
On this next tour, we are donating a portion from every ticket sold to an organization called C.O.P.S. Basically, it’s for the families of fallen police officers. Realistically, we’re not living in a world where everybody’s got flowers and smiling and are peaceful or [singing] "Kumbaya." So for those who realize this is not reality, you have to accept that each city has a police force, and they are really that thin blue line, that thin layer of ice on a deep ocean of fucking chaos and savagely things can happen to them. It’s a necessity and once you accept that it’s a necessity, then you have to look at it and realize there are certain people who will sign up and do this job. I don’t have to look at my girlfriend and you don’t have to look at your family and think, "This could be my day." It could be a bad traffic stop or if you’re in the military, it could be a mission that goes sideways. We don’t think this way, but for these guys, they go to work and realize they might not come home. They sign up for that and that is respectable. I personally look at them and think they are special people who deserve the respect and I don’t know that the general population understands what they go through. I feel that they are not getting the respect that they deserve.
This summer you're touring with Breaking Benjamin. What’s the relationship there and what made them the right pick for this summer’s run?
Well, people succeed in communities, so to speak, and I look at it this way: hard rock music and heavy metal... for me personally it wasn’t just music. Like I said, I grew up in a communist country, so listening to this was a sign of rebellion. There were no radio stations that would play this hard rock music, so as a kid this was my middle finger to the government and the system. It was much more than music. It was a lifestyle. So to me, it’s even closer to my heart. It’s not just music for me.
There is a difference, to me, between the pop bands and the rock bands in that rock bands create communities. Pop bands, there is a different form of success and it’s really rare when a pop artist stays around, and I think that that is the difference. Rock music is always a vehicle. There’s always a voice and a lot of times it’s a rebellious voice so I think it’s important that this genre stays healthy and important and the way to do that really is by helping each other.
So for us, when we put together a tour, whether we headline or co-headline, we want to put together a package that we know is going to fill an arena. Taking out Shinedown [on the spring tour], we knew our audiences overlap and they have a huge audience just like us. Breaking Benjamin, it’s the same story. They have an overwhelming fan base. So then you can fill up these arenas, but then you think about the opening bands. There’s Bad Wolves and bands like that that we can take with us and expose to these massive crowds. That’s sort of us paying it forward.
Plus, we have Nothing More. They were nominated for a couple of Grammys and we want to celebrate that and it’s great because all these eyes are on them now. So that’s how this always happens. We always pick these opening bands and bands that we really think should be big and then the two main bands are really big and we can do some serious numbers and fill up arenas and then it’s a party and the energy in these places is just insane.
I still recall the first time we played Red Rocks and Ivan is from Denver, so for him, it is a huge deal and it was completely sold out. It was absolutely insane and an unbelievable show and those are the experiences that you can’t replicate. When you play for a crowd like that and everyone is connected, there’s a rhythm to everything and it’s an experience. It’s sort of a tribal experience. And for every musician, it gives you a high – a high that is not similar to anything else. I think that’s what everyone is after, so we put together these packages because that’s the experience we want to create for the people who come and for ourselves.
I know you have a close relationship with the Bad Wolves guys and manage them. I saw the video of those guys coming out dressed as you onstage for your birthday. What was your reaction to that as it happened onstage?
(Laughs) Yeah, that was not expected. But you know, I’ve known these guys forever. I’ve toured with every single one of those guys when they were in different bands and then when Bad Wolves was formed, John [Boecklin] and Tommy [Vext] showed me a couple of songs and I could tell they had something serious there. I had seen stuff they had done before, but this, when I heard this, I thought, 'This is something I can help [with]." I can manage the band and help you sort of get on the radio and it’s amazing to see. I love these guys. They’re my friends and I see them struggling years after years after years and this is what I did before Five Finger Death Punch. So it’s nice to have the ability to open a door for somebody. The real joy comes from helping... I know it sounds like a fucking greeting card here, but it really comes from helping other people. I feel like I have a hand in that and I’m looking every day to see how they’re doing. It’s awesome.
But yeah, there’s a great friendship and that particular day I had no idea that they were doing that. During the day, they had gone to some party store. Actually, it's a funny story. During the show, we have a breakdown of “Burn MF,” so I’m spinning my hair and doing my windmill and generally Chris Kael is standing right next to me during that song. So I’m spinning my hair and I feel something and I’m thinking, “Man, Chris Kael’s beard is getting long,” because he’s usually standing next to me. But out of the corner of my eyes on the other side I see Chris on the other side and thought, “How did he get to the other side,” and I look up and on both sides, everybody from Bad Wolves is out there with dreadlock wigs. They dressed just like me down to a T – the jumpsuit, the high top shoes, everything. It was funny. I didn’t expect that. I love those guys and it was fun. (Laughs) It took me by surprise.
Five Finger Death Punch just released their new album, 'And Justice for None'. The disc is available via Amazon and iTunes and is streaming via Spotify. See their summer dates with Breaking Benjamin here. And revisit the band's "Sham Pain" video below.
Five Finger Death Punch, "Sham Pain"
FFDP's Jeremy Spencer Plays 'Wikipedia: Fact or Fiction?'
Five Finger Death Punch Albums Ranked