Dan Donegan interview: A Real Trooper
Whether he's writing, recording, riffing or performing with Disturbed for the U.S. Troops in Kuwait, Dan Donegan goes the distance and gives 100 percent. In this Guitar World interview, he demonstrates why Disturbed titled their latest ironclad effort Indestructible.
Dan Donegan used to bang nails for a living. Poured his fair share of concrete, too. He was pretty good at it. Some might say he had it made. Working for his father’s construction company, a union job that paid well, Donegan was riding the E-Z Pass lane to the American dream: promising career, solid craft, sound future. And then he threw it all away by joining some fool metal band.
“It definitely could have been a disastrous decision,” Donegan says, with a laugh. The thick-muscled guitarist, who could easily clank a few weights with Zakk Wylde, no sweat, is seated in the Guitar World offices, having just finished a photo shoot for this month's cover. ”Another dream accomplished,” he says of this, his first solo GW cover. Indulging his interviewer, he contemplates a life of what might have been, before the million-selling albums, the signature guitar (Washburn’s Donegan Maya Pro) and the tours that have taken him around the world.
“There’s no way I could have known that I’d be in this position right now,” he says. “All the odds were against me. I was a guy like anybody else, just working a regular job, you know? And the thing was, working construction was fine, really. Obviously, I have enormous respect for the people in the industry. But you have to follow your heart, silly as that sounds. The only thing I knew was that I had this incredible belief in myself and that I had to see it through. That’s just the way I am about everything: don’t do it halfway when you can do it all the way.”
Donegan’s earnest approach to his instrument extends to how Disturbed, his Chicago-based group, make music. Some bands compose songs on the fly and rely on spur-of-the- moment recordings to capture light in a jar. Disturbed’s method is more nose-to-the-grindstone. For days, weeks and months on end, the band hammers out each track, measure for measure, note for note, sanding off extraneous bits and buffing every nuance to a shiny metallic polish. It’s mind-numbing work, but Donegan says the group doesn’t know any other way. “Anything we’ve ever done that’s been worth a damn has been the result of a hard-won battle. Which is fine by me. I’m all for going to war, as long as there’s a reason.”
When Donegan says the words “going to war,” he’s not just tossing off a well-worn line. He knows from where he speaks. For years now, Disturbed have received letters and emails from troops in Iraq telling the band what its music has meant to them. “For some reason, our songs really resonate with the men and women on the battlefield,” he says. “I guess there’s just a ‘gung-ho’ aspect to our sound.”
A couple of years ago, Disturbed were shocked when a sergeant lieutenant, his wife in tow, came to one of their concerts intent on presenting his bronze star to the band. “There’s no way you can prepare yourself for something like that,” Donegan says. “Even though we felt we didn’t deserve it—we're just a band playing music; we didn’t risk our lives like he had—we had to accept it, because it was an honor to do so. He wanted to say thank you to us. But really, we were the ones who were saying thank you. And we do so to this day.”
This past March, Disturbed got a chance to say it up close and personal when they appeared alongside such disparate acts as Jessica Simpson, Filter and the Pussycat Dolls as part of the Operation MySpace show that traveled to Kuwait City to perform for the troops. “Let me try to paint this visual for you,” Donegan begins. “We hit the stage, the crowd goes wild, and I’m up there playing guitar looking out at all of these servicemen and women. Everybody’s holding rifles, but everybody’s cheering and laughing and jumping up and down. It was the most amazing thing. Now, you try telling me that music can’t lift people, that it can’t move mountains, that it doesn’t have some sort of seismic force. I’ll tell you differently—’cause I’ve seen it!”
The idea of music’s seismic force has long fascinated Donegan. He caught the buzz the moment he picked up the guitar, when he was a teenager living in his hometown of Oak Lawn, Illinois. Even then he knew something magical happened every time he played a power chord. “It’s that way you feel the strings vibrating through the guitar and against your stomach,” he says. “I don’t know how anybody could get tired of that.” Later, when he formed Disturbed with drummer Mike Wengren, bassist Steve “Fuzz” Kmak and singer David Draiman (bassist John Moyer has since come on to replace Kmak), he held long and hard to that sensation as the band slogged through some decidedly un-metal-friendly Chicago clubs. “Making a name for ourselves was pretty tough at first,” Donegan admits. “A lot of Chicago clubs at the time catered to rock and alternative bands. Metal was considered kind of uncool. So we just took our music to the kids, to the people. It’s what we’ve always done. Before you knew it, we didn’t need anybody else’s scene. We had created one of our own.”
Disturbed recorded a demo that caught the attention of Giant Records. After signing a deal, they threw down and recorded The Sickness with their friend and producer Johnny K. Powered by the hit “Down with the Sickness,” the album was a roaring success, eventually selling more than three million copies. Two more Johnny K –produced albums, Believe and Ten Thousand Fists, followed. The Disturbed sound— Donegan’s Homeric riffs, Wengren’s jackhammer beats and Draiman’s animalistic howls—was buried in the thicket of metal fans’ senses. The combined sales of all three albums was closing in on 10 million. No one in his right mind would want to mess that up, right?
“I don’t know if we messed it up,” Donegan says, laughing. “At least I don’t think we did.” The guitarist is addressing the band members’ decision to oust Johnny K from the producer’s chair and assume knob-turning duties themselves. “It was just something we all knew we had to do. For our sound to evolve, and for us to grow as a band and see what we were truly capable of, we had to take on the whole nine yards. And that meant making the record our own way.”