Interview: Staind (Aaron Lewis)
Mon, 25 Aug 2008 22:56:42
Sioux Falls, South Dakota holds a special significance for Staind frontman Aaron Lewis. It's not because it's the most appealing place in the world. The singer explains, "I wrote a song the last time I was here. It was during the acoustic tour that I did where it was just me, my guitar and a stool. I sat on the bus in a parking lot, and I wrote a song called, 'Anywhere But Here.' That'll be on my solo record that's coming out at the end of this Staind album cycle. I really wished I wasn't there at the time, and that's where the song came from [Laughs]." It's just proof that Aaron can find inspiration anywhere. Rising up out of the barren wasteland that was the Greater Boston music scene in the mid-90s, Staind became a rock phenomenon. After their third offering, Break the Cycle, they morphed into a multi-platinum sensation. They made a reputation for crafting rock albums that were brutally honest and beautifully melodic all at once. Their music was immediately adopted by droves of disaffected kids suffering from childhood trauma and the desolation of growing up products of self-obsessed, divorced parents.
However, at the same time, the band aimed for a positive effect. The message at the heart of Staind's music was, "I made it out ok, you can too," though it was often misconstrued, as much great music is. The press could never categorize them either. Yes, they came up alongside KoRn and Limp Bizkit, but Staind never fit that post-grunge rap/rock style. Yes, they played heavy riffs and sang about dark subject matter, but Staind were never a traditional brooding metal band. Instead, they always hearkened back to a classic rock sensibility, blending lush acoustic melodies with incredible guitar tapestries to back Aaron's distinct and powerful voice.
With their sixth and latest album, The Illusion of Progress, Staind have crafted their most memorable, powerful and poignant batch of songs to date. It's a rock record that runs the gamut from pensive acoustic songs to giant anthemic epics. Illusion won't soon be forgotten. In this exclusive interview, Aaron sat down with ARTISTdirect and discussed the making of Illusion, the band's evolution and growing up.
Every record from Tormented onward has seen the band evolve. It seems like The Illusion of Progress showcases the band's biggest evolution yet. Would you say that's the case?
Absolutely, it's definitely the most musical and adventurous record that we've made yet.
Everything's been kicked up a notch, especially the instrumentation.
Well, the bass and the drum tracks were done in two weeks. Between my guitar parts, all of Mike's guitar parts, writing lyrics and the vocals, Mike and I took about six months. The rest of the band was done in two weeks. It took about a week for Jon to do all of the drum tracks. I don't even think it took a week for "Old School" to do all of his bass stuff.
You guys really labored over the guitars and vocals.
It's because I didn't have anything. We were writing everything as we went. I had to go back afterwards and learn the record. We play it, like it, record it. It happens that quickly. The track would be playing, and I'd be messing around. Then Johnny K., our producer, would go, "I like that." I'd go, "Ok, let me figure out what I was doing." Then I'd mess around with it for 30 seconds. Johnny would hit "record," and I'd play it. In a lot of songs, I had to go back and figure out what the hell I even did.
Is it difficult to simultaneously write lyrics and riffs? Do you have the same mindset for writing both?
The guitar parts are the canvas. All of the music is the landscape that I'm able to paint on top of—if that makes any sense. For me, the song has to be finished before I can write lyrics. I have to know where it's going to go, and I have to know how the chord progressions work with each other before I can even begin to start coming up with a melody idea. The melody has to be there, and the meter of how I'm going to sing has to be there before I start putting words down. Otherwise, I don't know what words are going to fit. It's a very improvisational, off-the-cuff situation throughout the entire writing process. We come up with the foundation for the song before we record it. From there, those foundations change and get other stuff put on top of them. The song gets built that way.
It seems like there's a pervasive theme of hope. Did you approach this album differently in terms of lyrics?
It's just how the lyrics came out of me this time around. I feel differently about life. I'm 36-years-old. I have a wife and three kids. I have a life outside of what I do that's way more important than my job is. That's going to change how somebody feels. I've always written from feelings. What am I supposed to do? Fake being sad and angry. Why should I still be angry? What do I have to be angry about? Aside from points on this record where I was a little angry like "Rainy Day Parade" or "It's Raining Again." Those aren't happy songs, especially "Rainy Day Parade." That's an angry track. I'm sick of hearing people complain about this country. I'm over it. Travel anywhere else in the frickin' world and then come back to the United States, you won't complain so much.
It seems like you've adopted a real classic rock sense of boundlessness that made anything was possible on the new album.
That's awesome. I'm glad that you appreciated that. We used a lot more traditional, classic tones. You can hear my Fender Strat through the Fender Bassman amp. It's a '74 Strat played through a '64 Bassman amp. That's one of those combinations that you can recognize from records over the last 30 or 40 years when you hear it. Because I'm such a guitar freak and I'm familiar with the true tones of instruments, I can listen to music from the '60s and 70's, hear the guitar and go, "Oh, that's a Telecaster. Or that's a Gibson Les Paul. Or that's a Strat. Or that's an SG." We utilized all of those classic, recognizable tones on this record.
They fit the Staind sound as well. One new song that truly stands out is "Tangled Up In You." What's the story behind that one?
Honestly, "Tangled Up In You" was a song that I improvisationally wrote during a sound check. I was just making shit up. I came up with a chord progression that I thought was cool. I started playing the chord progression during sound check, and I started singing words over it. By the end of my little jam session, my tour manager had walked up to me, and he asked, "What record is that off of?" I was like, "I was making that up as I went." I was totally just messing around. He responded, "That song needs to definitely go somewhere." From that point on, I made it up on the spot a few more times while playing live. Finally, I settled on words that seemed like they kept coming out over and over again. I just kept playing it. In the recording process, that element really was kind of missing from the record. So I decided, instead of saving that song and using it on my solo record, I would put it on this record.
The album is like a painting because there are so many different colors. "Nothing Left to Say" and "The Truth" are also very powerful, but in a different way.
"The Truth" was a song that was written for Chapter V. We kept it off the record because we were assured that we'd be able to use it for a movie soundtrack or something good like that, since they weren't going to use it as a single. So it was worth more for us to hold onto it and hopefully have it put on a soundtrack, rather than being put on the record and never being considered as a single anyways. We thought it was a great song, so we kept it from that previous session. It is pretty cool that it fits here though.
You have such a set identity that songs from different sessions can fit together seamlessly.
It's cool that we have that chemistry as a band where we could probably take leftover songs from every record that we've done and mix them into our next record that we haven't even written yet. They would probably still even fit because we have that chemistry as a band.
What's it like seeing your fan base grow and come back with their own kids now?
It's definitely a changing landscape, for sure. In the early 2000s, was it a really cool time to be every angst-ridden teenager's savior for a moment? Yeah, that was cool. Do I appreciate the fact now that there are people in the crowd from 13 to 60? Yeah, sure, it just means that more than just angry teenagers are relating to what it is that we have to offer. I think it's all part of the band growing up. I think it's part of everyone growing up.
“It just means that more than just angry teenagers are relating to what it is that we have to offer.”
You guys were never a strictly "metal" band. You've always been a rock band because you had the versatility to do acoustic songs. You even had that great acoustic song, "4 Walls," on your very first independent album, Tormented.
Thank you so much for noticing that! Because if we get called a "Nu Metal" band one more time, I don't even know what I'm going to do! We never fit. Like you said, even on Tormented, there was still a full spectrum. Even then, I didn't want to get pigeonholed into being just one thing. We're not an alternative band. Why are we an alternative band? That's the newest one I'm hearing. We've never been a nu metal band. We never had a DJ. We never had any sort of rap element mixed in. We never fit that bill. I don't want to say it was guilt by association because we were very happy to be associated with some of the bands in that genre. Our parents in the business were Limp Bizkit. That was a huge time for rock music, period. I'll give you three chances to name one person that, over the last ten or fifteen years, could command the audience the way Fred Durst did. He was the master of getting things going and having the crowd become a frothy mess ready to explode at any moment. There's no one before or since that's had that kind of hold on the crowd during a show. Then KoRn are our grandparents in this business. KoRn found Limp Bizkit and brought them to the table. Limp Bizkit found us and brought us to the table. That's our family tree. I have no problem being associated with those people and those bands, but we just never fit the outline.
You resonated because you didn't fit the outline. You weren't a metal band. You were a rock band.
No, I never thought we were. The closest we ever came to being a metal band was on our very first record, Tormented. On that, we were trying to fit into the Boston hardcore scene. That was what we had to work with at the time. We didn't have a record deal. We didn't have anything going on. In order to try to compete in some way in the Boston Hardcore music scene, we wrote a really heavy record, and our roots for that heaviness were metal. It's never been that since. Even Dysfunction was a huge step away from Tormented.
On the "Believe" video, you're telling another story. That's something that's always been a part of your video style.
I'm hoping that everyone likes this video. I don't know if we've ever done a video that the people that play the videos liked. The video that we did last time was "Right Here," and it barely got played. We already brought this new video for "Believe" to VH1 and let them see this video in its first form. They loved it, so hopefully this time around it works. It seems like, over the years, we've never been anybody's darlings, if that makes any sense. It's always been a struggle to get our videos played on MTV.
That's strange, because videos like "Home" and "It's Been Awhile" were so good.
That's cool that you said both of those videos because Fred [Durst] directed them both. We've had some cool videos. There was the clock tower video for "Fade" that came out four days before 9/11 happened. As soon as 9/11 happened, because of the fact that the clock tower is crumbling around us in the video, they immediately pulled the video. We've just had bad luck over the years. For the "Epiphany" video, we had Billy Zane as the main character. It was straight out of Sleepy Hollow with the production, the film and everything else. You never saw it. You might've seen it once or twice, but then it vanished. It was an expensive video.
The fans always understood it though. Even though the early Staind records are a bit darker, there's a positive message in them. You took everything negative and turned it into something beautiful.
Well, I'm very thankful that you noticed that because that's one thing that's kind of gone unnoticed over the years. I've been painted into a corner of being this miserable, down-and-out, always brooding, always having something wrong figure. So many people have always missed the positive twists in pretty much every song. Pretty much every song over the years—no matter how sad the song sounds and no matter how much the key words point in that "dark" direction—has always had some sort of little positive twist. It's something as simple as a line in "Right Here." All the choruses are, "You always find a way to keep me right here waiting." Well, on the little breakdown that I do, it's, "I always find a way to keep you right here waiting." It could be something just as simple and as subtle as that, and it completely flips everything. Unfortunately, over the years, the critics who are supposed to be paying the most attention because they're calling themselves "critics" don't pay enough attention to catch any of that.
“Pretty much every song over the years has always had some sort of little positive twist.”
There's a positive message beyond the catharsis and darkness. It's hard to understand why people have missed it, because the songs and melodies are often so beautiful.
I can't even express to you how refreshing that is to hear. I'm almost giddy to say, so far so good on the new record, as far as the critics go.
Every record gets bigger and better.
That's always what we've tried to do in the studio. We try to better the last record, and we've felt that we've done that regardless of what people have said. We've done that from Dysfunction to Break The Cycle to 14 Shades to Chapter V to now. We won't leave the studio until we feel like we've outdone ourselves from the last record. If we're not finished, we're not finished. We're not afraid to write more songs. That's how it's always been. What good would it do our career to put out a record that we all didn't feel was better than the last record we put out? What point would there be? When it gets to the point where we can't outdo ourselves, that's when we're done. When a band can't better themselves further, what's the point?