Sully Erna of Godsmack Talks Avalon

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Sully Erna of Godsmack Talks AvalonSully Erna's solo debut Avalon exudes real heaviness.

Erna steps back from Godsmack's crushing catharsis and crafts a collection that's simultaneously thought-provoking and tribally tripped-out. "Broken Road" comes to life with a piano melody and Erna's vibrant vocal delivery. Lyrically, he's at his most open on the hypnotically haunting "7 Years". Fueled by piano, acoustic guitar and unique percussion, Erna bares his soul like never before, and makes one of the best rock records of 2010 in the process.

While in a Southern California rehearsal space, Sully Erna talked to ARTISTdirect.com editor and Dolor author Rick Florino about going solo for Avalon, the journey he wants listeners to take with him, why Boston is still an inspiration and so much more in this exclusive interview.
Is there one common thread or theme to Avalon?

What ties the record together so well is the fact there is no thread; there's no theme to it. It's made of separate bodies of work that happen to complement each other really well. It's a very intellectual and eclectic record. There are these nine-minute epic songs that infuse so many different influences. Our percussionist Niall Gregory toured with Dead Can Dance. We have a great female vocalist named Lisa Guyer on the record. There's a Bulgarian cello player, and there also some beautiful piano compositions. There are some big world music-style pieces too. It's funny because from one song to the next it really varies, but somehow the album threaded itself together without having any kind of conceptual thoughts.

Was your approach especially boundless this time around?

For me, it's a collection of stuff that I've put to the side over the years because it wouldn't necessarily be good for Godsmack. I still really believed in the songs. They were beautiful, for what it's worth. I knew that one day I'd definitely do a solo record. This album is something I've never done before. It's my first time treading through this territory, and I don't know what to make of it. I can't even put it in a category. If I was a guy working in a record store, I don't know where the CD would go [Laughs]. It's so diverse from one song to the next.

With every listen to Avalon, it's easy to find something new.

The record is made of songs I've collected over the years, but it really wasn't until Lisa and I got together and started asking, "What is this record going to be? Are we going to have a direction or are we going to simply go for it?" Everybody has such a different influence. We had somewhat of a direction. We knew we wanted it to be tribal and primitive with hand-drumming and things like that. However, we didn't really have it mapped out in a sense of genre. We assumed it was going to be something with a world music vibe. That might be what it leans towards more. In some songs, you can hear the rock influence. On other things, you can hear the Dead Can Dance influence. Other times, it's beautiful piano compositions with a cello. Everything has its own little personality, and that's the influence of all the members of this project. They're all phenomenal players, but they all come from different worlds. That reflects in the music a lot, and I think that's why this record has become something you can't really categorize. If you took some songs individually, you could probably drop them in categories. However, the record, as a whole, is really hard to categorize.

Would you say Avalon is more introspective for you?

Well, yeah. I slit my wrists open and dumped it out with this record. Everything I know in my life up to this point is in this record. Whether it's joy sadness, anger, disappointment or love, it's all in there. Every emotion you can imagine is on this album—you name it. They're true emotions. It was really painful at times writing some of these songs because I was very vulnerable on this album. It was a big risk I had to take because Godsmack is more closed off. It's just a big, bad monster that goes out there and tours. This was very intimate for me. I still listen to this record and get choked up during certain moments. It's either a line Lisa sings and how she sings it, a beautiful cello or a lyric. It comes from such a vulnerable place.

What was that lyrical process like?

It's important for me that this record translates to the audience in whatever life situations they're in. I wanted them to be able to translate this in their own way. Listen to the record, and you can tell someone went through some experiences. These are lyrics built through emotion and what I felt at the moment. It's not necessarily what the situation was but how I felt going through it.

Did you intentionally conjure more visuals with these songs? Was painting pictures sonically an intent from the get-go?

Completely not! I had no idea it was going to be that pictoral, but when I heard the record later, not only did it become a very visual album for me, I think everyone who hears it can paint their own pictures in their minds. They see the story. They see the images and the path that it goes down. This whole record really takes you on a journey. I think that's a beautiful thing. If this record has some success, I would love to see this go into some kind of Vegas-style production in a theater and truly take people on a musical ride. It'll come back to the music, and people can experience it for what it is.

It could be like Tommy.

Or The Wall! There are some great pieces out there, and I'd love to be able to create something that could be timeless.

Avalon could be so much more than just this record.

I hope! That's definitely become a goal of mine in the last year, living with this record for so long. We recorded this thing awhile ago. I've been sitting on it for over a year now, really waiting for the right moment to launch it. It's a very special record to me. This isn't something I just whipped together in six weeks; this is something that took a lifetime. It's very sentimental and personal, and I wanted to have a fair chance at being heard by the world. If it does become somewhat of a success, I'd love to take this into a scenario where it could incorporate live dancers, 3-D videos and surround sound. I think this album lends itself to that kind of quality.

Do you tend to read a lot when you're writing?

I read to stay balanced. I read different kinds of spiritual guidance books. I guess, in a sense, they could influence me to write what I write. Really, my book is my life story. It's been a crazy road. It's been up and down, turned right and left and twisted around. There's so much content there. I don't think I'll ever run out of material to write about because, even from a very early stage in my life, I'd seen more than most people do in a lifetime. It was because of the environment I was raised in and the situations I was put in. That really created who I am today, but it's left me with a lot of scars, a lot of memories and a lot of joy. There's a world of information inside my head. Little by little, I'm getting it out.

If you're not from Boston, you don't really get what it's like there.

You don't…there are some people that do get it and even get it worse. It's that kind of environment. It's a very hard place to live, not only just because of the streets, the neighborhoods and the people sometimes, but the environment. You've got guys who are masons and they're working out in bone-chiling weather through the cold. It's no wonder why they're angry! Out here in California, you see a lot of people honking their horns. They're like, "Get out of my way." In Boston, if you honk a horn, someone's getting out of their car and punching you in the face through the windshield. It's a much different mentality there for sure.

Boston's a great place to draw inspiration from because you experience the different seasons. You get reality. It's not stagnant and mild like it is here.

It's definitely not the same. It's built on a whole different culture. For me, the east coast is very raw and true. People are real there, and they wear their hearts on their sleeves. It is what it is. You know exactly where someone stands; there's no bullshitting.

How is the live show coming along?

It's been a great experience so far. We're just getting going turning this into a live thing. It's everything I was envisioning it would be. This band is made up of eight members. It's really fun to step back and watch these guys play. At moments to see seven or eight drummers doing a drum circle, it's really spiritual. I hope it continues. So far, so good. This was created as studio project so it's really cool to hear these songs live. It's going to be a really cool journey. The support has been 100 percent.

If Avalon were a movie, what would you compare it to?

Pink Floyd's The Wall. It's not that I'm trying to compare us to Pink Floyd; we are not Pink Floyd, but the experience is what I'm looking at. This whole project is truly a musical experience. It's not a loud rock show. It's distant, cold and mysterious, but it's something you can sit back in your seat, watch and be mesmerized by. That's the kind of movie I see this becoming.

Which records really shaped you?

For me, it's Aerosmith's Rocks. I love that record. That was probably the first record I bought with my own money. Sometimes, I really reflect on the music I listen to when I'm writing for Godsmack and in rock mode. A lot of metal and rock records come to mind. It's mostly Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin. Rush is a huge influence for me as a drummer. Some of the stuff I tripped on to 15 years ago is still on my playlist everyday. Dead Can Dance happens to be one of my favorite bands. For me, it's a little bit everything. Some days, Elvis is on. Other days, it's Slayer. It's all about my mood and what I feel I need.

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