The Softer Side Of Sevendust

Sevendust guitarist John Connolly recently called up Pollstar to chat about the band’s new acoustic album and the accompanying tour. Time Travelers & Bonfires was released this week, the latest LP to be funded by a direct-to-fan campaign.

We caught up with Connolly the morning after the alternative metal band’s first stop of the trek in Athens, Ga. The guitarist revealed that he stills gets nervous during the launch of a new tour. Of course, as he points out, doing an acoustic show has a totally different vibe compared to a typical gig.

Time Travelers & Bonfires features six new tracks along with six re-recorded takes on classic Sevendust songs. Connolly discussed the significance of “The Wait,” which he wrote about his father, who recently passed away while the band was on the road.

He also told the story about how the fan favorite song “Black” – which is featured on the band’s self-titled album as well as the new LP – almost didn’t make it onto the 1997 debut.

Photo: Chris McKay /
Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre, Alpharetta, Ga.

How did the first stop of the tour go?

It was good. It was kind of one of those bittersweet ones that I think turned out better for the fans than it did for us. Just because the first show you always get nervous jitters and I don’t think we got a chance to enjoy it as much as our fans did.

There’re a lot of transitional pieces that are kind of semi-structured, so to speak. We know about how long we’re going to go but it’s all kind of going by the seat of your pants. You’re so focused on not blowing it that you’re really not enjoying doing it. But each day it’s going to get better.

Overall I think it went off great. From the fan response, at least. But we were like deer in the headlights, very nervous.

It’s interesting to hear that even after being a group for nearly 20 years that you still get nervous before shows.

Well, especially doing the acoustic thing because it’s a totally different environment, a totally different vibe. When you’re out on tour and there’s no opening bands it’s basically you and the crowd. It’s cool, there’re a lot of different things [compared] to a normal electric tour … [There aren’t any] amps, stuff that you can kind of hide behind (laughs). Doing the whole acoustic deal exposes you a little bit more. Kind of lets people see inside without the haze of the electronic guitars and a lot of heavy programming.

You mentioned the vibe at the acoustic shows. How does the crowd act?

Well, they sing everything at the top of their lungs. (laughs) It’s amazing, you know, we’ve got ears in, but still, you can tell. … It’s one thing when you’ve got a pit and you’ve got people jumping around and bouncing and doing all that stuff. But when you’ve got people’s attention and they’re listening to what L.J.’s saying and they’re really, really into the song, to see their expressions and how it affects them … For us to reach somebody that was moved by the experience, it’s so cool for us.  

The acoustic thing is very upfront and personal. And there’s something that happens with Lajon when we go acoustic. He’s got a hidden sixth gear that he very rarely ever uses and he just kind of steps up. We almost take a step back, stripping the guitars down, not having as many big distorted sounds and a lot of that stuff. We … let him move forward and he just excels at that.

Photo: Chris McKaty
Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre, Alpharetta, Ga.

Why did the band decide to launch the PledgeMusic campaign? Was it to have more creative control over the album?

I think it was a multitude of reasons. We already have a fair amount of control because Seven Brothers is us. [It’s] basically our imprint on Warner Music Group. … [I’ve] seen so many of these fan-funded campaigns work. [It] involves the fan in a way that they normally wouldn’t get the chance. I get people all the time [asking], “How do I get one of your guitars?” or all this other stuff. When you do something like this it kind of makes [those opportunities] a little bit more organized for those fans. But it also keeps the business out of it.

This is basically just a direct connection to our fan base without having to go through distribution, labels, radio or even management, for that matter. Management basically just kind of stays on the sidelines and watches it all happen organically. … The response has been nothing short of amazing. I mean we kind of figured this is an innovative way to move forward with music. Labels are kind of confused about how to approach the digital part of things. There’s so much erosion from CD sales. I would guess [there’s] maybe two or three years [before] CDs are almost unnecessary. There’s so much sharing going on with the music. You know, your fans are still there, regardless of whether you’re going to have the honest fan that supports you and buys the CD or legally buys the download – or someone who gets a copy from a friend. I mean, we used to do it back in the day too, sharing cassettes and burned CDs … [but] these people are still coming to the shows, they’re still buying a T-shirt. Of course I don’t want anyone to take [the music] but at the same time you kind of have to look at ways that you can minimize making everyone a bad guy, because that’s not the case either.

But the Pledge thing, it was just direct. … It was, “OK, we want to fund a record. Can our fan base fund it? Can they actually pay for it and get what they were going to get anyway, without having to go through all of the typical radio, labels, distributor chains?” For us it was an eye-opening experience because I think this is definitely the future.

Were you surprised at how quickly the fans responded?

We were because we’re always that humble band that doesn’t think that we deserve what we have. We’re blessed to have so much people that have stuck by us for so long. The Pledge folks [told us] that we were probably going to hit [our goal] within the first week. And then we hit it within the first 48 hours.

It’s good for a band like us, which is an established act, to be able to make it work but it’s a great opportunity for new and up-and-coming bands. It’s cool to be able to do something like this and realize, “Hey, you know what? Even if we didn’t have a deal or a distributor or anything like that, the fans can basically dictate the fact that Sevendust can continue, just self-sustaining,” which is great hope for bands that are just getting started. You’re not under the gun to have a big management [deal] or a huge label deal or something like that. If you can drum up enough business and sell something, if it’s good, people are going to buy it.

Sevendust refers to its fans as a family — and it really sounds like your family came through for you.

Well, they did, you know, and that’s the thing. We’re in this 16 years, we’re actually in it closer to 20, but 16 years signed. … [The first stop of the tour] in Athens, we probably knew at least 35, 40 percent of the people in that crowd. We’ve got one person that has seen nearly 200 [shows]. So you see these people, a lot of folks travel around. The first night of the tour, a lot of people took a vacation day because they wanted to see the kickoff of the tour.

It’s cool to have so many friends that have been with us. Some of them have been with us for five years … some of them have been with us since day one.

The fans got to take part in a poll to vote on the six Sevendust songs that would be re-recorded for the album. How many songs did they get to choose from?

It was kind of an anything deal and then we just went and tallied the numbers up. There were a lot of songs that was like, “OK, we haven’t played that song, maybe ever, and it got two votes.” (laughs) But yeah, everything was listed from top to bottom. “Black” was number one, of course. … We were debating should we do it again?”  Because we didn’t just want to redo everything that was on Southside. It was real easy for us to kind of gravitate towards those songs because they sense, but the more we were thinking about it, it was like, “Man, there’s a lot of stuff that we already did acoustic. I mean, I know it’s not in the studio, but, you know.” We [wanted]  to mix it up a little bit.” But “Black” and “Trust” were two of the top so we were like, “OK, we gotta do those.”

That’s neat the fans got to give their input on the actual album.

Well, that’s the thing. If they’re going to be part of a Pledge campaign, they should actually have a say in what goes on.

If our fans can’t tell us what our better songs are, then, I don’t know. Friends, family and fans I trust more than I trust our own instincts sometimes. I mean, no lie, we actually tried to pull “Black” off the first record before we recorded it.

It was one of the first songs that we had done together as a band. By the time we got a record deal, we had probably played it 500-600 times and we were just kinda tired of it. It was the last song we played for our label and the producers and they all just laughed and [said], “You guys are funny, man. That’s the best song of the bunch.” And we were like, “No, it’s not.” And they’re like, “Yes, it is – watch! This song will stick around for a long time.” And you know what? They were right! (laughs)

Was it tricky at all to change up any of the songs and do you think there are any Sevendust songs that wouldn’t work acoustically? 

Some of the songs are really easy to translate because a lot of them are written on an acoustic guitar in the first place. I might just be zoning out in front of the television (while writing a song) and I’ll actually have to transfer what I’ve done on acoustic over to electric and clean it up and make it work a little bit better. So some of them are just taking that step back, which is a natural thing.  

Ones that start on electric, if they’re too heavy and they’re too reliant on an amp or gain, or something like that … things like “Crucify” kind of work but we took a left field approach to it. People listen to it and they’re like, “What is that?” Then he starts singing and everyone just goes nuts! … It’s a conscious thing for us to try to keep more up songs (in the set list) and I think that’s the biggest challenge with some of the songs translating over. We’re doing “Rumble Fish,” which is one of the heavier songs we did on the Home record. We’re kinda doing it almost the same way; we’re just doing it on acoustic guitar, which is pretty funny.

One of the new songs that you recorded for the album was especially meaningful for you. Can you talk about writing “The Wait?

The whole three or four months before my dad passed, it was one of those things where I think I knew before my mother did. You know, once you get to a certain stage in the hospital … it’s almost like every holiday was affected by it because he had some issues that were affecting his quality of life. It got to the point where my mom and dad were spending more time at the hospital than they were spending at home. And of course, I’m out on tour the whole time and flying back and forth on every break and off day. Mom was still in that “It’s going to get better” phase and was kind of accepting the fact that it was going to be what it was going to be and it was just a matter of time.

For me “The Wait” was that last month because I [got] that call that he’s in the ER, rushed home, saw him, and you know, it was a bad scene. … Once you move into hospice you realize it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. And he passed on the last day of that tour. … In a bitter twist of Sevendust irony, we added one show. We were actually supposed to be home on that day. We added the one show because it was an opportunity and, you know, we all agreed to it. It was in the area that we were in and we figured OK, we’ll do the one extra one and knock it out.

… It wasn’t like I went in [the studio] and said, “OK, I’m going to write this song about Dad.” I was just thinking about him a lot. And that was the piece of music that came out of what I was thinking about. … Clint (Lowery) got in there and really helped me steer all the melodies and lyrics in the right direction. He had gone through something similar a year prior when he lost his dad. We had a connection, it was like he got it. He knew exactly what I was feeling and where I was coming from. For us to sit down and do that one together, it made sense.

It was one of things where I was torn [about] what I wanted to do. I didn’t know if I wanted to take it to Sevendust. I’ve got a side project called Projected. I didn’t know if I was going to put it over there. I knew it was an important thing and during that time period when we were waiting for him to die, I was out [on tour] and I think that was the whole final decision. I was like, “Wait a minute, these guys went through ‘The Wait’ with me.” They were there every day. And in addition, I didn’t know that I could sing it. It’s kind of one of those things, being that personal. I didn’t know that I could get through it. So I quickly said, “All right, this makes sense. These are the guys that I’ve been with for 20 years, they were there every day through it.” It deserved to be a Sevendust [song].

I’m so sorry for your loss. That must have been tough to have been on tour during that time period.

Well, that’s the hardest thing – knowing that we missed it by one day. But I got a chance to say goodbye and for me, I think that was the biggest thing. A lot of those trips home that I had made were inconvenient, from us out here on the road. My guys helped me get from point A to point B to be able to get in and out of certain airports just to go [home] to see what was going on. Also, I’m an only child so it’s just me and mom. Mom’s a strong woman, but she could only do so much when she’s by herself. It was important.

You know, it happens to everyone. I mean, no one’s isolated from this, it’s not like it only happens to certain people. This is a part of life. … He went out peacefully, I don’t think it was anything major that he was going through at the end. We were thankful for that.

Being out here, even though we had to be out on tour, I couldn’t think of anyone – other than mom and my wife and my daughter – any better folks to actually have around me. … Hell, I’ve been with these guys technically more than my wife. … It’s like we’re brothers. We lean on each other. We fight like brothers do and we get over it and we move on. And it’s the same five guys that started this band, which is kind of unusual. It’s not unusual for bands to be around for 16 years … it’s the fact that it’s the same five guys that hopped in the van to go to the first show on the first tour.

Photo: Chris Baird

Upcoming dates for Sevendust:

April 18 – Seattle, Wash., El Corazon          
April 19 – Portland, Ore., Hawthorne Theatre         
April 20 – Boise, Idaho, Knitting Factory Concert House   
April 21 – Salt Lake City, Utah, The Complex – The Grand
April 22 – Englewood, Colo., Gothic Theatre          
April 24 – Kansas City, Mo., Arvest Bank Theatre At The Midland           
April 25 – Joliet, Ill., Mojoes
April 26 – Madison, Wis., Orpheum Theater
April 28 – Royal Oak, Mich., Royal Oak Music Theatre     
April 29 – Cincinnati, Ohio, Bogart’s           
April 30 – Louisville, Ky., Mercury Ballroom          
May 2 – Baltimore, Md., Baltimore Soundstage      
May 3 – Washington, D.C., The Howard Theatre    
May 4 – New York, N.Y.,  HighLine Ballroom       
May 6 – Hartford, Conn., Webster Theater  
May 8 – Patchogue, N.Y., Emporium          
May 9 – Portland, Maine, Asylum    
May 10 – Philadelphia, Pa., Electric Factory

May 23 – San Antonio, Texas, Backstage Live San Antonio
May 24 – Anthony, Texas, Wet N’ Wild Waterworld (KLAQ BalloonFest)
May 25 – Lubbock, Texas, Lone Star Amphitheater
May 27 – Sauget, Ill., Pop’s 
May 29 – Mount Pleasant, Mich., Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort  
May 30 – South Bend, Ind., Club Fever      
May 31 – Fort Wayne, Ind., Piere’s Entertainment Center  
June 1 – Council Bluffs, Iowa, Harrah’s Casino – Stir Concert Cove          
June 3 – Lancaster, Pa., Chameleon 
June 4 – Boston, Mass., Paradise Rock Club           
June 6 – Clifton Park, N.Y., Upstate Concert Hall  
June 7 – Stroudsburg, Pa., Sherman Theater
June 8 – Sayreville, N.J., Starland Ballroom
June 11 – Ashwaubenon, Wis., Green Bay Distillery           
June 12 – Arlington Heights, Ill., H.o.m.e. Bar        
June 13 – Spring Lake Park, Minn., POV’s 65         
June 14 – Milwaukee, Wis., The Rave Eagles Club 
June 15 – Bloomington, Ill., The Castle Theatre      
June 17 – Oklahoma City, Okla., Diamond Ballroom          
June 18 – Abilene, Texas, The Lucky Mule Saloon  
June 19 – Beaumont, Texas, The Gig           
June 20 – Broussard, La., The Station Live  
June 21 – Tunica, Miss., Horseshoe Casino  
June 23 – Nashville, Tenn., Marathon Music Works
June 25 – Columbus, Ohio, The LC Pavilion           
June 27 – Niagara Falls, N.Y., Rapids Theatre         
June 28 – Kent, Conn., Club Getaway         
July 23 – Cleveland, Ohio, House Of Blues 
July 31 – Biloxi, Miss., Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Biloxi

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