Interview: Aaron Lewis of Staind
Tue, 06 Jan 2009 13:50:40
Aaron Lewis chooses his tattoos wisely. Sitting in the famous Hart & Huntington tattoo shop in Las Vegas, he's getting a piece that he's wanted for awhile. "I'm getting this Aztec, Tibetan-style skull. When I put my hands together, the whole skull will be on the front of my hands, but only half of the skull will be on each hand. I just have to decide whether or not I should really do this to my hands before I play this evening," he laughs.
Beyond displaying some righteous ink, Aaron is one of the 21st century's most poignant songwriters. With Staind, he speaks to a generation of kids through cathartic and compelling hard rock. Songs like "It's Been A While" and "Mudshovel" remain bona fide anthems. On Staind's latest opus, The Illusion of Progress, Aaron bares his soul once again. This time, powerful acoustic cuts like "Tangled Up In You" illuminate Aaron's knack for melody and his unbridled honesty. However, his solo acoustic concerts are really something to behold.
Every January, Aaron grabs an acoustic guitar and embarks on a solo tour of the United States. During these shows, he plays stripped down versions of Staind songs, covers and whatever fans might request. It's an intimate and unique experience for fans because Aaron's personality truly comes through on stage. He's down-to-earth and humble beyond belief—more so than you'd expect from a multi-platinum artist such as himself. However, he hasn't changed all that much from when he first picked up a guitar as a kid. In an exclusive interview, he spoke to ARTISTdirect.com about his current acoustic tour, his forthcoming solo album, Staind, the American dream and much more.
During the solo shows, you strip down the songs and truly show their power. What excites you the most about doing these shows? Is there a certain freedom to them?
I get to play songs that the band doesn't usually play live, and I get to strip them down to their guts. It's the skeleton of the song that I'm playing. That skeleton is what the song was before everything else was added on top of it and it was turned into what people are used to hearing. It's that freedom. I never have a plan. I never have a set list. I don't have any sort of idea about what I'm going to do when I walk out on stage.
It's just you, the music and the crowd. Is that especially liberating?
It's so random! It's perfect [Laughs].
What initially inspired you to do these tours?
I did it before I was in the band. I've been doing it since I was 17 or 18. It's what I watched my dad do when I was a kid. Doing these acoustic shows really brings everything full circle for me. I'm coming back to how this love affair with music that I have was started.
Did you start off by doing open mic nights around Massachusetts?
No, I went out and got shows. I played bars, coffee houses and wherever the hell there was to play.
Acoustic songs have always been part of your identity as a songwriter. You had "4 Walls" on Tormented and "Excess Baggage" on Dysfunction .
It always has been. More acoustic-based material is where I come from, anyways. I didn't own an electric guitar until 14 Shades of Gray [Staind's fourth album]. I didn't even have a guitar with steel strings on it, until I was like 14 or 15. I learned on a nylon-string classical guitar. It was my dad's guitar, and I got that guitar when my dad got a new one.
"Tangled Up In You" came about on one of your acoustic tours. Do you have a lot of time to write during these tours?
That song happened during sound check. I was just messing around with the song, and my tour manager asked, "What song is that?" I said, "I don't know. I was just messing around with it." He was like, "Man, I thought that was off a record or something." I thought, "Cool, maybe I should put a little focus into this." During a couple more sound checks, I came up with what the song is, and I started playing it. People liked it. Playing it first live and getting a reaction from people is a good way to gauge whether or not it's worthy of going on a record.
Are there any songs that are particularly enjoyable for you to cover?
No, I don't even want to play all of the covers that I'm known for playing anymore. It's funny because everyone's yelling songs at the shows, and I can hear everybody. It gets a little confusing at times. I'll try to pick up on a song that I haven't played or I don't hear people yelling all the time, and I'll try to play that. I'll fail miserably at times. I'm not going to lie [Laughs]. I'm not sitting here and saying I'm capable of playing all of the songs that I try to play, but I give it a shot anyway.
Is it easier to connect with the crowd when it's just you and an acoustic guitar on stage?
It's a totally different thing. It's me hanging out on a stool with my guitar. You get me instead of getting what you've gotten in Staind all these years, where it's still me but I don't feel like I have anything to say in between songs. I've never been the frontman trying to be a frontman. I've always felt uncomfortable trying to be that "frontman guy," so I haven't. I've fought off people's suggestions pushing me to change who I am. I never have been that guy, and I'm not going to start now. In Staind, there's no reason for me to crack jokes in between songs or do all the cliché things that every frontman has done since Elvis. I go out there and let the music talk in Staind. When I'm sitting there on a stool, I'm by myself and I've got to entertain people for an hour and a half. As quiet as the acoustic set is, on top of that, if I didn't say anything in between, people would be going to sleep [Laughs].
Have you been writing for your solo record?
I've got songs that I've written on solo tours, and they're kicking around. There are definitely plans to record them. I haven't been able to actually start working on it yet. I look forward to it. It'll be the next thing that comes out from us.
Your lyrics are so poignant. Would you ever want to do a poetry book or a novel?
I don't know. I've been approached about doing a biography or something like that. I've always thought that just putting the words of the songs in poetry form on paper for an entire book of the songs' lyrics would be cool. Maybe, that'll happen.
Very rarely have critics realized how positive your music truly is. Even since Tormented, you've always captured glimmers of hope. On your acoustic shows, you capture a spectrum of emotion too. Do you think it's important for fans to realize that?
One of the things that I've been the most disappointed about in my career is how everybody has just painted me as this miserable, brooding, down and always-complaining lyricist. They're just missing the point altogether. I'm very lucky that I have the most amazing fans in the world. They get the point. It doesn't go over their heads. I feel good about that. I've gained security in feeling good about that.
Staind's one of the few from hard rock's last big boom to weather the trends. You came out of the Korn revolution, and you've entered the 21st century stronger than ever. It's a testament to the songwriting more than anything else.
That, and it's a testament to how amazing our fans are. They haven't allowed the changing of trends and the changing of seasons in the music business to force us to get swallowed up and go away.
“I never wanted to create some false impression that I would have to live with for my entire career. I've always just been myself.”
What have you been listening to lately?
I listen to a lot of patriotic talk radio, and I listen to country music if I'm not listening to conservative talk radio. That might surprise you [Laughs].
Over the past few years, people—especially "entertainers"—have become so negative about America. We're still the land of opportunity and the land of the free. More artists need to respect those opportunities and that freedom.
It's such a liberally driven industry. You don't find many conservatives in the entertainment industry. I'm not conservative on everything, obviously. I'm pretty known for enjoying my pot. That doesn't mean that I don't believe in family values and that I don't believe we're losing our kids. We've completely lost touch with the generations we're bringing up underneath us. We've lost touch with so much more than that too—as far as what's going on with this government and what the people of this country are looking to for change. The change that we're looking for is not Barack Obama. The change we're looking for is the Declaration of Independence. It's been sitting right there under our noses for hundreds of years. Our system has just been skewed so far from what it was originally supposed to be that it's not working correctly. If we just go back to what the original design was, everything would fix itself.
I completely agree. One man is not the answer. There's a system of freedom that this country was based on. That system will make everything right. Values and ideas need to be upheld. America is family values and working to make something of yourself—not giving anybody a handout.
I don't think it's about the government controlling more. I don't think it's about the government being bigger. I don't think it's about the government living higher off the hog off of our hard-earned dollars. The average American works 120 days each year for free because the government takes it all out of the 365 days. It's ridiculous. Where do you think the money is going to come from that Barack Obama is planning on utilizing and giving tax breaks through? It doesn't make any sense. You don't punish people for being successful. You don't punish people for being wealthy. They create the jobs for the middle class and so on and so forth. That's how the system was set up. Capitalism with a conscious is what it needs to be.
Everything's perpetuated by so many lies and so much hypocrisy.
What kills me over and over again is we pick our representatives from the same dirty, bought-and-paid-for, hidden agenda people to replace the last person that was a bought-and-paid-for puppet. We keep picking from the same pool of degenerates, for lack of a better term.
The people who have worked for their success and started something from nothing are never represented.
I'm certainly not trying to sound pompous, I don't think I possess that ability, but I am the American dream. I grew up in a trailer park. We moved from a trailer park to a log cabin that my dad bought for $1500. This is what it's all snowballed into. Look what I'm doing. Look where I am now. That is the American dream. I am American. I'm Italian, Welsh, English, German, Russian and Polish. My daughters—you can throw in French and Irish in there as well. That's as American as it gets. America is the melting pot.
You've always been honest too. That honesty is the most important thing, and it's what kids need to see the most.
It's all I've ever been. I never wanted to create some false impression that I would have to live with for my entire career. I've always just been myself. If anything, over the years, I've become more comfortable in my skin than I was to begin with.