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DevilDriver's Dez Fafara: "The Earth Knows How to Purge Itself of Brush and People"

DevilDriver wants to drive you to the brink.
DevilDriver wants to drive you to the brink.
Dean Karr

"We play more shows a year than any band out there right now, unless you have a residency in Vegas." --Dez Fafara, vocalist of DevilDriver.

Upon reading that, there are probably a dozen bands most people would list off the top of their heads -- and probably none would be heavy metal acts.

But as we all know, metal is a genre where most bands have to work twice as hard to get recognition, which includes touring. And nowadays, DevilDriver has been carrying that reputation on their shoulders.

The act's brand of heavy metal delivers outside-of-the-box surprises while sticking to the band's signature groove-meets-melodic death metal style. From Ministry to Johnny Cash, their influences cover everything that's heavy and purposeful. The name "DevilDriver" even fits that description perfectly: it refers to the bells that Italian Wiccans used to drive evil forces away.

The band has been surging forward in its mission -- and thriving. In 2012, DevilDriver left their long-time label Roadrunner due to a range of issues. Then they signed on with Napalm and released their sixth album, Winter Kills, in 2013, and the album has garnered the band's best chart numbers to date.

When vocalist Dez Fafara -- also the vocalist for Coal Chamber -- and I first started chatting, I did not think the conversation was going to lead to climate change, his philosophy about releasing records and the band's seventh album, as well as the prospect of a new Coal Chamber album.

But Fafara is one of those artists that exceed expectations when it comes to cognitive insight. Of Portuguese and Sicilian descent, his life has always had a mixture of influences and importance of passion and devotion. He's insistent on "never making the same album twice" while never straying from old-school style. His father and late uncle were child actors on the Leave It to Beaver television sitcom. His wife has appeared on the cover of the second Coal Chamber album, and his three sons (one of which, Tyler, inspired that same album's "Tyler's Song"), and another one, Simon, added backing growls to DevilDriver's third album before he was even in his teens.

This is a band that is about the details and solidified their longevity in the metal scene from the first album -- fitting, since the members' musical talents fit together like heavy metals on a periodic table.

Up on the Sun talked with Fafara about the epiphany of switching labels, dealing with California wildfires, DevilDriver's daily writing, and the future of Coal Chamber.

DevilDriver is scheduled to play the Marquee Theatre on Monday, May 19.

So did switching from Roadrunner to Napalm records disrupt the creative writing process for Winter Kills at all for you guys?

Dez Fafara: We had the record predominantly written before that decision was made, but I think it was imperative that we moved on. We had been there for some time; I myself had been there you know, almost 20 years. I just felt it wasn't a priority to them, and it seemed a lot of the metal acts weren't a priority to them. Especially the bands that helped build the label, like myself and Machinehead, etc. It was just time to go. As far as the process going smoothly -- absolutely. We found a partner at Napalm that not only was completely involved in the process of the approach of the record, but also very involved in the process of hearing the music and giving me feedback. And that was very important. When we sent the record to the label for the first time, I was getting bombarded for like 48 hours by the people there who loved it and how they wanted to get behind this band. It's like any relationship. Eventually you just wake up and say look man, it's better if we just part. And I'm glad we did. I found a great working partner in Napalm Records.

 

That's great; because that doesn't always go so smoothly for bands.

Well, it's a different scenario I think with Napalm. They are a smaller label and they are run by people -- and this is very important -- but the owner is very passionate. I think in 20 years, I met the owner of Roadrunner once, and all he ever really wanted to do was talk business. He didn't care to ask me about how my wife was or my children. You know, when you are in business with someone for so long you expect that type of interaction. And what I found in Napalm was an owner with massive amounts of passion. Being with them now for less than a year, I've met and hung out with the guy like six or seven times. We're drinking wine, listening to music--it feels like a great partnership.

DevilDriver has always been a band that believes in cutting its own path with out-of-the-box music styles, delivering something different on each record. With that being said, can you elaborate about one thing on each of the six records that you feel really stand out for you?

That's easy to do now that we're on our sixth record. What I do think is, and people should notice, is that we were only a band six months before we got a record deal. And I said early on that the records that would come later would be more interesting and more growth, because naturally you are growing as you play together and getting to know each other musically and personally. I think the first record [2003's DevilDriver] was a little linear yet there are some absolute standout tracks on that record. And it's still one of my favorites; it's what broke us open. We still play tons of that music live. I think our second record [2005's The Fury of Our Maker's Hand] is where we really grew; that was really obvious, that growth. We just had to do what felt natural in where we wanted to go. Our third record, The Last Kind Words [2007], really took a heavier turn. We were in a ... I don't want to say dark place, but it was a strange place for us as a band. We were really starting to grow and, um, we wanted to put our foot forward on doing something different. And that record is like critically acclaimed so that brought a lot of positivity towards the project. From there, by the time we got to Pray for Villains it was a mid-tempo record, back to where we were at at the beginning. And with Beast [2011], we were really straddling the lines of who we were at that point. The arrangements are really wide open, there's a ton of riffs in each song. We tended to really go off on tangents musically. And I love that. And now with Winter Kills; it's way, way different than any of those. The arrangements are much tighter, the grooves are much groovier and the hooks are way bigger. Instead of trying to be ultimately heavy with these huge breakdowns -- like so many other current bands are doing -- we just wanted to stay true to what we're doing. Kind of a long answer to a short question!

Well I think it's important to paint that big picture of you reflecting back on those records because that's one of DevilDriver's goals: You guys want to deliver something new each time. You know, for me personally a record like The Last Kind Words brought forward a stronger melodic metal influence which broadened your appeal to a mass audience, even though you say you guys were in a dark place.

Well, when I saw darker place ... there was like a stretch right there where I was constantly moving my family during the wildfires in California and there was all this displacement while I was trying to make this record. We had no home, and were touring so hard that when I did get home I had to move my family and the animals three times I think. What we never want to do is make the same record twice. Ultimately, you have to stay to your signature sound. And our signature sound is the groove. Me, myself; I came around in music in '94, '95. I have lived through several different scenes and DevilDriver has been around for 10 years now so we've been through several different scenes too. We've learned to stick to what you want to do, know where you want to go with your music and don't be afraid to step forward or backwards to make your art better.

 

Those wildfires, man. They are getting more and more out of control every year.

We lived in Santa Barbara at the time and we lived on a mountainside with eucalyptus trees and those things explode like bombs! When we got the call to evacuate; well my wife got the call to leave and I was actually on tour. So I get this call and from the back of the tour bus I'm arranging hotels for my wife and kids and dogs, but we've been in the same place now for three years and it feels great. That being said I live up in the mountains here in California, so "fires" is like an evil word completely.

Have you ever seen that show on Showtime called Years of Living Dangerously?

No I have not.

It's a documentary that mostly focuses on climate change, but there was just this one whole episode focused on the fires in California and Arizona over the past 10 years or so, and with Arnold Schwarzenegger saying that there is no longer a fire season; it's just year-round.

Right, right; no I haven't seen it. I don't watch a lot of TV, but when I do is usually to watch documentaries with my wife. What people need to know to is that nature cleans itself out. So when it's time for a mountain to go up in flames, when it's not started by humans, it's time for it to clean itself out. We've had several mountains around us that have caught on fire in the past couple years and we were just driving by one yesterday and it was just so green. An intense green. So you know; the Earth knows how to purge itself of brush and people. [Laughter]

So are you guys doing any writing right while touring and promoting Winter Kills?

We are writing. Pretty prolific, this band is; and pretty efficient. We like to get an album out every two or two and a half years usually. But we have been writing and we have about seven songs right now; and lyrics to one. But I do have books of lyrics -- I write daily. There was an interesting email that was sent out to me from my manager. ... This guy speaks about the industry and a lot of people listen to him. You know he's been in it forever working in record companies. And he just said, listen. Things are changing. If you think you can put out a record every three to four years and survive, it's not going to happen any more. It's not possible. You know, when I was younger it was a record a year, so I don't personally like to wait more than two years. It's like -- and I don't want to dumb it down like this -- but it's retarded! You know, we're musicians, we should write and record. I'd like to put the guys in the studio this fall at least to get the music done and I'll sing on it next year and hopefully have a release in late 2015, early 2016 -- that would get our next record two years and four months from our last one. I don't want to miss that deadline and I don't think our fans want us to either!

That's a very true perspective from your manager.

Yeah man, you know, it's about getting content out there. If I had it my way we would put out a new record every year, but there's just no way with DevildDriver's touring schedule. We play more shows a year than any band out there right now. Unless you have a residency in Vegas, we play more shows. With that type of a grind, trying to get music out and have it be correct and good.

What's going on with your other band Coal Chamber?

You know, a lot of people have been asking me lately. The world tour we did was an absolute success right across the board, which was a humbling thing, man. I mean, you realize you've been gone for 12 years and then you play in front of 60,000 people and everyone's singing the songs ... it's just ... it's hard to even answer that question. It was eye-opening. There are things going on; we've been asked to do some festivals and some yours. But we'll just see what happens with DevilDriver's touring schedule, as well. I don't want the two to become convoluted. I want to make sure I'm taking the right time with both as well. But we have been hit up to do a record by every label on the planet at this point. I think lately, in the past month, we've been really entertaining the fact of doing a new Coal Chamber record. I think it would be really fun and a lot of people would want to do it. I have a crystal ball but I don't use it for those things. Laughter.

Are there any newer bands on the metal scene that really stand out to you?

I think the band's were taking out on tour are excellent. Look at Whitechapel, you know? They've got a top 10 record. They are about as heavy as heavy can be! For somebody that's like new to music, you know, if they put them up against someone like Slayer -- this band is hea-vy. And the guys are great. I also think Revocation is a great band. And Carnifex is great. I'm interested in the new Suicide Silence. I can't wait for that to come out. It's going to be fabulous. My thing is I have my ear to the ground and I not only listen to local demos that I get when I'm on tour, I also listen to all kinds of music across the board. I may wake up listening to blues and go to bed listening to black metal. But there's a lot of bands doing cool things out there.

DevilDriver is scheduled to play the Marquee Theatre in Tempe on Monday, May 19.

Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.

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