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.”

The aptly titled Indestructible (it’s named for both the band’s inner resolve and as a tribute to the U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan) is Disturbed’s angriest, most politically charged and, well, its most disturbing to date. On songs such as “Enough” and the title cut, Draiman paints brutal, vivid landscapes of war and all its horrors. Elsewhere, on the tracks “Deceiver” and “Inside the Fire,” the singer dives into his own soul and exorcises the demons that are past girlfriends. “David has a lot on his mind pretty much 24/7,” Donegan says. “Which is great, because he’s never at a loss for material. No writer’s block with that guy.”

As for Donegan, he surrounds himself with a fortress of guitars. On past albums, he sometimes appeared to be more of a supporting player, gamely pumping out riffs, squeals and rhythms but shunning the spotlight. “I never lose sight of the fact that the song is the thing,” he says. “People buy Disturbed records, not Dan Donegan records.” The new album, however, sees the guitarist assuming a starring role—every song features a solo and a significant riff—with spectacular results. And so the former construction worker from Oak Lawn, Illinois, is a guitar hero now. A real one, too, not merely a collection of pixels in a video game. And real guitar heroes have this funny way of being indestructible.

GUITAR WORLD It looks like congratulations are in order. You’ve gone from being an unknown guitarist in an unknown band to a guitar player in a band that sells CDs. And now you’re a bona fide guitar hero on the cover of Guitar World. What’s next—are you going to Disney World?

DAN DONEGAN [laughs] Yeah, right. I should! You know, I’m still getting used to the fact that my job is to play the guitar, let alone that I'm supposed to be a—you know, “guitar hero.” [laughs] I don’t have to tell you that most bands, even ones that achieve some success, have very short-lived careers. There’s no guarantees anywhere. So to be in a band that has loyal fans, a band that’s getting bigger and is still climbing the ladder—there’s no way I could describe how amazing it feels. I get letters and emails from kids all over the world telling me how my playing inspires them. That’s unbelievable to me.

GW Nowadays, it seems as if there are a lot of metal bands coming from all points across the globe. Disturbed are one of the few big metal groups to hail from America. Numbers-wise, do you feel that the States are not representing?

DONEGAN I think metal bands have always had to break down doors and barriers. I think it’s great that there are so many bands coming everywhere and players are getting recognition. As for us being an American band, hey, we’re just doing our part. The funny thing is, I never knew where we fit in with any particular genre or anything, and I still don’t. [laughs] When we first came out, we were called nu-metal because that’s what was happening at the time. Now people say we’re not metal enough. Whatever, you know?

GW What was it like producing the new album by yourselves? And in the process, what did you learn about the band?

DONEGAN It felt like some added pressure at first. I think the record label was a little nervous. You know: “What are those guys doing? Are they going to mess this thing up?” We were pretty confident though. We had worked with Johnny K on the first three records, and we were very comfortable with him. But that’s the thing: we were too comfortable. It was time to shake things up. Funnily enough, we ended up making the record at Johnny’s studio, Groovemaster Recording, and we used his engineer, too [Tadpole], so we weren’t totally out of our element. We’ve always been perfectionists in how we approach the writing and pre-production. We beat the hell out of every song. Did we allow ourselves a bit more room to experiment? Possibly. But we don’t go into the studio without a clear picture of what we’re going to wind up with.

GW Your drummer, Mike, is a very fluid player. As a guitarist, do you have a particular way of working with him?

DONEGAN It’s funny you say that. I’ve been with Mike the longest of anybody in this band. Musically, we know each other very well. Going into a record, if I have riffs I’ve been working on, I’ll play them for Mike to see what he’s going to do with them. It’s only when I have a very strong idea of what the drums should do that I’ll give him any kind of direction. Most of the time, what he does instinctively is pretty magical.

GW The opening track of the new album, “Indestructible,” begins with the sounds of war: bombs, helicopters, machine guns. What kind of statement are you hoping to make?

DONEGAN We’ve always been very vocal about being pro military but anti war. Nobody wants to send their sons and daughters off to war, especially one that we can’t all agree on. But the fact that the troops are there—that they’re doing their jobs and they don’t question their mission, that they’re making such a huge sacrifice for this country—we respect that. Throughout the years, David has always made comments about the war and his support for the troops. He gets the crowd going at shows, shouting “U.S.A.!” Those are very powerful moments.

GW What was it like to perform in Kuwait for the troops?

DONEGAN It was definitely the most memorable moment in our career. It was a little frightening going over there and not knowing what to expect. I remember sitting on the plane and looking at the monitor and seeing that we were flying right over
Baghdad. That was a little shocking. I thought, you know, maybe we’d just go around Baghdad. [laughs] But the look on the troops’ faces when they saw us, and their appreciation for us being there… It was unbelievable.

GW The “wall of guitar” tone on the album is very consistent. How many guitars do you generally record on any given song?

DONEGAN I usually play two rhythm tracks and combine them. I use the same guitar but I put it through two different amps: my Randall 1086 and a Bogner Ecstasy head. That’s the bedrock of my sound. I do some layering here and there, and that’s when I’ll try things through Marshall or Diezel amps. All the toys eventually come out. Whenever I’m tweaking parts, the guys joke around and call it “The Danny Donegan Orchestra,” because I act like something of a mad scientist experimenting with different sounds. It’s probably boring the rest of the guys to have to sit through all of that, but for hours I’m totally absorbed. Every pedal that I have, every pedal the studio has—I’ll just tweak everything out till we find the best tones and frequencies that sit in the mix.

GW How much are you using the Washburn Maya on the album?

DONEGAN I don’t think I changed it once.

GW I imagine it must be pretty cool to have your own signature model guitar.

DONEGAN The whole thing is pretty mind blowing for me. I remember being a kid playing in a garage band who dreamed about getting onstage. I never, ever thought in a million years that a big company would want to make a guitar for me. That said, when Washburn first approached me, I really wasn’t looking to make a switch from what I had been using. But because Washburn is only an hour from where I live, and because they wanted me to be very hands-on with the design, it led to some great discussions. So I went to see them, I told them about what I thought I was looking for, and they built a prototype that knocked me out. Once I tried the prototype in the studio, that was it. I said, “Let’s do this thing.”

GW Now, you have your own DigiTech pedal, the Weapon. How much am I hearing that on the album?

DONEGAN It’s definitely on a few tracks. There’s some overdubs you can hear it on. I actually used that pedal on the Ten Thousand Fists record on some drum parts. Mike wanted to create these drum loops, so he ran them through some distortion, and then I put them through the DigiTech pedal.

GW The riff of the song “Inside the Fire” is one of those curlicue patterns that could go any number of different ways. How many versions of a riff like that will you come up with before you know you’ve got it?

DONEGAN I beat myself over the head with every riff, probably too much. The guys are always making fun of me ’cause I’m such a perfectionist. But a lot of the time, after Mike has laid down a drum part or David has done his vocals, I’ll hear the riff and want to approach it differently. I admit that I get carried away with going back and trying to make improvements. That’s just the way I am though.

GW But what is your process for writing riffs? Are you one of those guys who just zones out in front of the TV and jams?

DONEGAN A lot of the time, sure. Being at home is the best thing for my writing. Even if it’s, like, four in the morning, I’ll just wake up and start noodling around for a couple of hours.

GW The solo in “Inside the Fire” is a pretty big guitar hero statement. At this stage in your career, and because you’re receiving such acclaim for your playing, do you feel pressure to deliver such Olympian-type performances?

DONEGAN I don’t feel any pressure. I don’t really think about it that much. I want the solos to serve a purpose but never as an excuse for me to show off. The majority of the time I try to play something that is influenced by what David is doing vocally or what the backing track is doing for me.

GW I find it hard to pinpoint your guitar influences—which is another way of saying you have a fairly unique style.

DONEGAN I don’t think it was ever one main guy. Of course, I was very influenced by classic metal bands: Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Queensrÿche, Metallica, Pantera… They were all powerful to me. I try to pick a little from all of the guitarists in those groups. And over the years, I’ve learned a lot from so many people. But there wasn’t really one player who made me pick up the guitar; it was more like everybody did.

GW You’re all over the whammy bar on “The Curse.” I don’t hear too much whammy action on the rest of the album.

DONEGAN Something about that song and the riff just made me want to go for it. Having more solos on this record than on anything else we’ve done, I guess I had a few tricks up my sleeve. Some songs had a little finger tapping, others had cool arpeggios. “The Curse” just kind of screamed out “whammy bar!” There have been players over the years—Dimebag and Randy Rhoads—who did amazing things with whammy bars, so maybe I just thought of them while I was playing.

GW As a player, do you ever feel restricted with your role in Disturbed and the music the band makes? Might you ever do a solo guitar record?

DONEGAN I don’t know. I don’t know where I would have the time to do that. I have my plate pretty full with Disturbed business. You know, we’ve worked so hard and been so dedicated to our fans—I wouldn’t want to deny them anything the band has to offer. Plus, I don’t know if I would feel right being away from the other guys. It feels…I don’t know…like cheating on your wife or something. [laughs] I’m not saying the grass couldn’t be greener on the other side, but you know…why chance it?

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