Winter Kills: The Rebirth of DevilDriver

Posted July 23, 2013 in

DevilDriver's newest album, Winter Kills, will drop Aug. 23 on Napalm Records.

Vocalist Dez Fafara has been a staple of the heavy music scene for going on 20 years now, and the man is a prolific music-making machine. He is the head of nu-metal giants Coal Chamber (who have just returned from a hiatus most fans thought would be permanent), as well as helming DevilDriver, the “California Groove Machine” of melodic death metal that defies boundaries and expectations, and contributing to a myriad of other projects with members of bands from all over the heavy music spectrum. SLUG sat down with Fafara as he runs his latest press gauntlet in support of DevilDriver’s upcoming release, Winter Kills, to talk about this new rebirth for his band and discover his unique inspirations and challenges as an artist.  

SLUG: On each album, you strive to bring out a different motif or sound than the last. Do you find it’s hard to keep a balance between introducing a new twist and keeping your sound consistent enough that fans of old albums aren’t alienated? Or is that a concern at all?
Fafara: No, I mean, I think the concern for us is to make sure they do sound different. There’s so many influences within the band that it’s naturally going to come out different—we almost have to fight to make sure it’s DevilDriver. But I think it’s important to grow and every record to have a signature sound, which we manage to do. 
SLUG: The album’s just about to be released—I was fortunate enough to get a taste for this interview and it’s definitely on a different level than your past stuff—but you have put out the groovalicious “Ruthless.” How is it being received?
Fafara: Good! Absolutely. People are loving it right now. It’s important we put out a track that is not an outside track, but a different kind of track. It in no way sums up the whole record, which is cool. You could do that, just put out a track that sums up the whole record. Instead, we put out what is a little different on the record as well. 
SLUG: “Sail” is a particularly ambitious track to cover—I really fucking enjoyed it. What inspired it, and who’s the lovely lady vocalist you included in the background? 
Fafara: We really like to cover obscure stuff. On Beast, we covered Black Soul Choir—totally obscure band. AWOLNATION is totally obscure at this point, underground. The fact that I hear that song coming out of my young son’s room, and I say, “This is killer, what is this?” I identify with the lyrics—blame it on my ADD and the word “sail,” but you just nailed me—I felt like I relate to this lyric. I hit the guys up and within five minutes, they got back to me and were like “Let’s do this.” I think it’s important to do something different and to try to do something a little out of the box. We’ve covered Metallica, we’ve covered Iron Maiden, so it’s like, “Let’s do something out of the box.” The vocalist is Mary, [guitarist] Mike Spreitzer’s roommate. She’s a preacher’s daughter, and she’s got killer vocals. 
SLUG: In an interview, you refer to Winter Kills as being related to the idea of rebirth. Can you elaborate on that and what you went into this album hoping to express?  
Fafara: WE went into this album hoping to express ourselves, really. I love the rebirth of things. I love the way winter comes in and everything gets desolate, and from there, the spring and summer come and rebuild. I love to build the new house and start the new business. I didn’t mind leaving Coal Chamber and starting DevilDriver—I love the renewed aspect of things. It’s something that’s inherent in my nature and my character, so I love to see it grow and mature. I think DevilDriver is on a rebirth. We’ve got a great vibe in the band. We’ve got a brand-new full time bass player, a new record, a newer sound, a new label—so all of those things encompass Winter Kills for me. 
SLUG: Speaking of new bassist, did Chris Towning write on this new album with you? How was it writing without Jonathan Miller for the first time? 
Fafara: Chris did not write on this one. I’m saving him for a secret weapon for the next record. We had the record primarily written—even Chris heard the songs we’ve written and said, “Why mess with something good?” So, I have been saying I think this is our best record, and that being said, where does that leave me for the next record? It might fall short. That being said, I have Chris Towning in my pocket for the next record. Jon didn’t really write on Beast—he was in a bad way at that point. We had been kinda putting up with his struggle with alcoholism and drug abuse, so for us, it was way smoother sailing not having him around at this point. He wasn’t focused, and we’re all very focused in the studio, very focused in our personal lives and the music we do. I always wish Jon the best, of course. It is great having Chris—he is a straight-edged cat. We never had that kind of cliché rock n’ roll thing that was going to drive us over the top anyways, but Chris does rail us back in, which is nice. 
SLUG: I think it’s pretty sweet where some of DevilDriver’s inspirational roots are drawn from: the Italian witchcraft, the cross of confusion—this is all very powerful and ancient stuff. I read that you were exposed to Italian witchcraft through your grandparents. That’s an intensely unique upbringing—so many bands adopt pagan and occult associations without having an actual history with it. 
Fafara: I’ve been into religion all my life. I was forced to go to a Baptist school, my stepfather was Catholic, my real father was Lutheran, my mother and grandmother practice Christian Science. I did have witchcraft in my background: I started at a young age with ritual and knowing what that was all about. I’m also heavily tied into Masonic roots. I married a Mormon. SO, I do really understand the history of religion and know how to do workings, not just prayer, but other ways to actually work with the ether, work with the entities and subsequently enhance your life with light work. It’s way beyond paganism, way beyond Golden Dawn, way beyond Italian witchcraft for me at this point. It’s a mix of all of the above with the ancient cultures of Sumerian and Babylon and ancient Egyptian magic. We have our own way of doing things. My wife has also been practicing ritual—her and her mother—since she was a kid, so she understands as well. I find that it binds you. Some people get down by going to church together, family home evening on Tuesdays, but for me, I think it all works. I don’t down any religion. I think to have some kind of higher power is a wonderful thing, and in my life, I’ve experienced that over and over again. I have many friends that are Christian, Muslim, Mormon, Satanists, and I can agree and disagree with everyone on a similar level. 
SLUG: The band just went through the not-terribly-fun task of changing up record labels, though it seems like your switch was a positive experience. Will there ever come a time when DevilDriver ditches the labels altogether and goes independent/crowdfunded as many bands are opting to do, or do you feel the label relationship is the best place for you to be?
Fafara: Of course— I come from having a label relationship. Even the new school, going to Bandcamp and raise money, get to do your record … OK, now who’s going to pay for calling up the press, who’s going to do this, who’s going to do that … not even monetarily fund, but who’s going to schedule this, that, the other thing? I find [that] a partner in business in a label right now is absolutely a necessity. When it becomes not a necessity—it’s like being on the beach, if I don’t need to wear shoes, I kick my shoes off, and that will be, in essence, time to do that. But right now, I find it a necessity for us in order for us to not only grow, but I like the business relationship between people with passion. That’s why we signed with Metal Blade for Japan—we stayed with Roadrunner overseas in Australia, and we just signed with Napalm. I felt their passion, their love for music, and their business sense was phenomenal as well. 
SLUG: Everything I’ve read says you’re constantly writing lyrics in bits and pieces in notes, on your phone, wherever you are. I imagine your creative output has to be kind of a whirlwind going in your head all the time, by the sounds of it. How do you deal with that constant output of imagination? How do you weed out the good ideas from the bad?
Fafara: That’s just part of my ADD. Anything artistic, you can’t weed it out if it’s good or bad—you just have to spit it out. Once you spit it out, you take a month off and look at it and go over it. I write all year long—I try to write every single day. I’m getting ready to release a record, and I’m still writing. I find it necessary to produce art. I just find it necessary. It’s why, when I’m home, I guest on other people’s records. I’m on the new Soulfly record, I’m on a song with the new Cancer Bats record ’cause I love Liam and those guys—they’re great friends of ours. I love to work. It’s why I have Born of the Storm, a record with Mark Morton of Lamb of God, because I like to work and do other things. To be proficient, I think, is important in this game. You could be one of those bands that just spits out a record every four years and it loses me—as a listener, it loses me. As a fan of other music and other bands in the genres of music, I found myself losing my way when they make me wait too long. I also like to hear, “Oh wait, a singer that I like in that band did something on the side with this guy? Cool I wanna check it out.” I really like going outside the box. It’s why I brought back Coal Chamber as well: I like to go outside the box and do different things and punish myself with a great deal of work.  I really can’t just sit around, and work is everything for me. I came home straight from Europe and started working on my house with my wife. 
SLUG: You recorded vocals at your new home studio, which had to be a plus in the sense of being close to your family during the process and in a comfortable environment. Do you feel like that change of scenery contributed to the production, and if so, was it positive or negative? (For example I imagine being happy and around your family could possibly make it difficult to bring out the vocal beast in an angry song, so to speak.)
Fafara: You’re never comfortable laying a record. I could literally be sitting on a mound of gold and I would not be comfortable. What I’ve found is, you think placing yourself outside your comfort zone, giving yourself a little of that feeling of being displaced would add to the art when it comes to metal, punk rock, blues—things that need that kind of feeling. But what I found is it was taking it away from me. Over and over and over again, I’d be like, “OK I have four songs to track and then I can go home.” I wasn’t focused. Subsequently, this record is extremely focused. It made me focus in a way that I don’t think I’ll ever record in any other way possible. I’m a loner, I’m a hermit, I’m an isolationist—I’m totally socially awkward to the point were you put me in a studio with other bands and other people and people’s friends stopping by, you will shut me down so quick. I will sit there on the couch and say nothing—I’ll just shut down, totally socially awkward. It just added so much that now that I listen back to the record, I’m like, “I should have done that years ago.” I was one who thought, “Yeah we’ll just place ourselves in the middle of Texas or Boston for this one,” and it was just taking it away from me completely. The guys recorded in Audiohammer in Florida, had some magical moments and a great time, but even said to me, “Hey, we want to record close to home in LA next time, too.” I think they realize as well that you’re never comfortable doing a record, but being in surroundings that help you focus is way better for the art, way better for the listener that’s going to get the outcome. 
SLUG: That’s crazy interesting. Does the social awkwardness, the feeling of shutting down creatively when you get around other people … How do you deal with that when you get onstage? Is it just a totally different feeling because, at that point, it’s more showmanship rather than creative output? 
Fafara: About an hour before the stage, and then onstage, and about a half-hour after, it’s just a different person, a different feeling. I don’t take any of that id or any of that ego home to my family, my friends. Rock star is an ugly, ugly word to me. I was just very awkward, socially. as a kid. I mean, I still am—my wife would tell you several times where she’s wanting to go to this or that, and I’m like, “Wait isn’t it a red carpet? Aren’t I just going to be surrounded with people?” and she’ll be like “Yeah that’s the point!” and I’ll say “No I’m not going.” And I was like that as a kid. I was totally fine with some Legos and some vinyl in my room all alone—that’s just the way I’ve always been. It’s the same way on the road: You’ll never find me at the strip clubs, I’m pretty much in the background with a few friends, nice glass of cognac or some wine. I know how to chill as hard as I know how to work. But the social thing is a whole aspect of my business that, sorry about my language, but I fucking hate it. Of course I’ll be friendly and give you a hug, say hello, and to you it all feels normal and I’m a nice guy, but in my mind, my hands are wet and I want to leave the room immediately. It’s just how I’ve always been. 
SLUG: It’s really interesting to hear that someone as prolific and successful as you struggles with that kind of anxiety, because I’m sure there are a lot of people out there that don’t talk about it that have that same struggle.
Fafara: My parents had me on Ritalin for, like, 11 years and I don’t think that’s right either, and if you’re reading this, you should look on getting off that. In all honesty, I found weed, and that actually made me focus and deal with that. It may not work for everybody, but I’m just saying it’s not pharmaceutical and not manmade, and it helped me in my way out to deal with out. It started to get a little too much in the last four or five years, actually. I’d find myself walking into a place to do a meet-and-greet, and, literally, my heart’s racing. I just don’t feel comfortable around people. I don’t think that will ever change. I’ve come to live with it, and so has my family. My wife is my best friend, and she’ll laugh at me and say, “You chose the wrong job!” 
SLUG: You’re just coming off a European stint with the newly returned Coal Chamber and jumping right into tour with DevilDriver. Is it difficult to make that creative transition? 
Fafara: Well, I’ve had a month off so it’s all good. It lets me get my head out of the clouds and get into family and then start thinking about the future. DD is a whole different monster, whole different animal, whole different ballgame live. Before those shows, I have to start ramping it up, get on the treadmill, get in the gym, listen to the music, remember that it’s a whole different vocal style for me. But I’m excited for the shows upcoming for Winter Kills—I’m really excited. We’re going to do festivals for 17 to 18 days, then I fly to New York to do press for four to five days. My wife will fly in and do that with me, then I come home for two weeks, and then we get ready to announce a two-month pro headlining tour in the U.S. with a cool band and good friends of ours. I wish I could release the band name. 
SLUG: How do you feel about the current state of metal?
Fafara: Well, I kinda don’t care. I mean, I listen and I know every band from newest coming-up bands to the oldest, I guess. I’m very familiar. I don’t dig my head in the sand like a lot of artists that aren’t 20 years old, especially since a lot of it is coming out of my son’s room. But if you pay attention, the scene or the current state of metal … Here’s what I know: People are doing metal. People are doing heavy music—there’s many different genres. As long as it’s being done and there’s heavy art being done, I’m stoked, for one. I know there’s a big resurgence in the punk scene, which I can’t wait to come to fruition and watch some of the pop-punk stuff die and watch real punk bands coming up with shaved heads and mohawks that are doing it raw. There’s also killer scenes within metal that are underground coming up right now. As long as there’s people doing heavy music, I’m stoked. That question gets asked a lot, and as long there’s kids annoying their parents in the basement or garage with a local band, jamming heavy tunes and trying to learn someone’s cover song, I’m excited.
Winter Kills will be available Aug. 27, 2013 from Napalm Records—preorder now and get "Ruthless" immediately. Dez and company will be on tour in Europe for the summer before joining Trivium, After the Burial and Sylosis on a just-announced North American tour this fall (no SLC date though, so get ready for a drive if you don't want to miss this lineup).
DevilDriver's newest album, Winter Kills, will drop Aug. 23 on Napalm Records.