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From the Archive: David Draiman and Don Donegan of Disturbed Discuss their 2002 Album, 'Believe'

Here's an interview with David Draiman and Don Donegan of Disturbed from the November 2002 issue of Guitar World. To see the complete cover, and all the GW covers from 2002, check out our 2002 GW covers gallery.

“You callous little bitches! Get the fuck up!”

Guitar World has just finished hearing a sneak preview of new Disturbed material at Soundtrack Studios in downtown Manhattan when singer David Draiman, he of the shaved head and stainless-steel goatee, spits out this command in a menacing voice that betrays his otherwise polite, soft-spoken demeanor.

Fortunately, Draiman isn’t addressing the magazine’s editors, or this writer, directly; rather, he’s recounting an Ozzfest war story from the previous summer. During one of the tour’s stops, a couple of concertgoers had the gall to remain seated during Disturbed’s main-stage set -- an offense the singer will absolutely not tolerate.

"I was like, 'Who the hell do you think you are? How dare you sit down right in front of me?'" recounts Draiman. "I said to them, 'Get the fuck out of my front row. Either stand up or get the fuck out!'"

On this day, however, it's readily apparent that there will be no need for one of Draiman's verbal reamings: as the opening strains of "Prayer" pulse through the studio, those present can't help but move their heads and feet to the pummeling barrage of sound. The song, slated to be the leadoff track and first single from Disturbed's new album, Believe (Reprise), explodes from the speakers with a lurching, bottom-heavy groove that's topped off by thick slabs of distorted power chords. It's good stuff, and Draiman and guitarist Dan Donegan, who has joined us in the studio, both know it. The group's main songwriters, they lean back in facing chairs, gleefully playing air guitar, air drums -- air anything -- as the album plays.

And with each new tune it becomes more obvious why the bandmates are so excited: Believe is a major progression over Disturbed's 2000 debut, The Sickness. Draiman uses his attention-grabbing yelps and punctuating screams more sparingly, focusing instead on lush, full- throated singing. And while the dense chording and syncopated rhythms that characterized The Sickness anchor the new songs, the group emphasizes dynamics this time around: jerky, unmelodic verses bloom into soaring, textured choruses, while midtempo, ballady numbers like "Darkness" and "Remember" share space with metal grinders like "Liberate" and "Rise."

“That's our full-on, old-school metal song," says Donegan, grinning like a proud papa as he cues up the latter track, its galloping guitar riff and double-bass drum pattern leading the charge underneath Draiman's raspy vocal. "It just moves. It's such a rush -- total adrenaline. We can't wait to play 'Rise' live. In fact, we can't wait to play any of these new songs live."

That Donegan has his mind on live performance is understandable: Disturbed cut their teeth onstage. Formed in 1996, the group, which also includes bassist Fuzz and drummer/programmer Mike Wengren, honed its chops playing in the seedy bars and clubs of Chicago's South Side. While the decidedly trendier pop-rock and alternative bands snagged all the prime slots at the choice inner-city venues, where they would showcase original material in short, 45-minute sets, the city's unfashionable metal contingent was relegated to the less-prestigious and more thinly populated south suburbs, where bands were often required to play up to three hours each night. Disturbed filled up much of that time playing covers of songs by Black Sabbath, Tool, White Zombie and Marilyn Manson, among others.

"There was absolutely no local metal scene in Chicago when we were coming up," says Donegan. "Heavy music was blacklisted at all of the main clubs. But that just made us hungrier. We felt like we had to force our way in and make people listen. Disturbed became the hardest working band in town."

"Eventually, the club owners couldn't deny the fact that we were pulling the people in," adds Draiman, "and we finally booked a few shows in the city right before we got signed." He smiles. "I think we're one of the few bands out of Chicago to get a record deal having only played two shows in the city's main clubs. It was unheard of."

On the strength of their live shows and a pair of demo tapes recorded with a local producer known as Johnny K (who subsequently produced The Sickness and Believe), Disturbed signed with Giant Records in the summer of 1999. Two of the songs from those demos, "Down with the Sickness" and "Stupify," went on to become hit singles when they were rerecorded for The Sickness. That album has since sold more than two million copies, and Disturbed have graduated from opening-act status -- where they supported everyone from Danzig to Marilyn Manson to Stone Temple Pilots -- to full-fledged headliners on tours like last year's Music as a Weapon tour, which the band plans to make an annual event in the vein of Korn's Family Values.

But perhaps the most telling signifier of Disturbed's success came during their aborted stint as second-stage headliners on last year's Ozzfest: a near riot broke out during their set when the tour opened, ironically, in Chicago, the very city that had once snubbed Disturbed and their metal brethren.

"It was pure chaos," says Donegan. "There were 20,000 people gathered around the second stage and, unfortunately, some of them started getting trampled. There were a lot of injuries."

The band was quickly reassigned to the main stage for the remainder of the tour. And although they prefer more intimate settings -- "smaller, unseated environments are always better than seated ones,” says Draiman -- Disturbed will most likely have to become more comfortable playing sheds and arenas with the release of Believe. It's a small price to pay for success. But then again, it can lead to confrontations like the one between Draiman and the offending Ozzfesters who were given the choice to "either stand up or get the fuck out."
Which begs the question: How did the situation end?

"Oh, believe me, they stood right up," says Draiman. "And they stayed that way for the rest of the set --smiling, too."

GUITAR WORLD: I take it you view audience participation as integral to the experience of seeing Disturbed live.

DAVID DRAIMAN: Absolutely. I think it's disrespectful for anyone to be sitting down when we're onstage emitting so much energy. So I have no shame when it comes to stuff like that -- I've threatened to piss on people, all kinds of ridiculous shit. I despise lackadaisical behavior when it comes to our music. I mean, this is heavy metal music. You must be involved. You're required to be involved. Disturbed is a full-contact sport -- there are no fucking bystanders. You have to be in it.

I've noticed that both you and Dan continually call Disturbed a heavy metal band.

DRAIMAN: We take pride in that description and, with the greatest sense of self-assuredness and the greatest sense of accomplishment, feel that this new record is truly a pure metal record. Dan said it best the other day -- "We're putting the 'old' back in nu-metal." I think that's very accurate. This is much more Iron Maiden than it is...

…Limp Bizkit?

DRAIMAN: Right. And God bless both of them. But for our purposes, we prefer this direction.

And yet most people tend to just lump all the current bands together as nu-metal.

DAN DONEGAN: When people call something nu-metal, do they really just mean rap metal? It's a ridiculous term.

DRAIMAN: We are a metal band, period. To me, the "nu" part infers some sort of a rap influence. Don't get me wrong -- we love our hip-hop, but in its own context. Rap has no place in our music. Is what we do rhythmic? Sure. Is it syncopated? Certainly. But our music has nothing to do with hip-hop.

But aren't those syncopated rhythms a big part of the nu-metal sound? And the down-tuned guitars as well?

DRAIMAN: Actually, the guitars in this band aren't really even tuned down.

DONEGAN: Our tuning is very simple: a half step down, and then the E string is dropped another step, to C#. It's nothing crazy. That's why there's clarity and definition to our chords and riffs. At the same time, I'm not dissing those bands that do tune very low. It's just that, nowadays, there are hundreds of bands doing that. I mean, Korn do it and they're great at it, and they've had a big enough impact that so many bands follow them. But that's their thing. We do our thing. I'm more into straight-up metal and rock music, and that's what's on this album.

Usually, when bands describe a new record -- particularly their second one -- they try to explain how it's broader than their previous work. They say things like, "It's lighter and also heavier," and, "It's more aggressive but also more melodic." In your case, though, Believe really does cover a lot more ground than The Sickness.

DONEGAN: Definitely. When we write a song, we're always trying to top what we did the last time, and this is the best stuff we've ever done. Coming into this project we were hoping to widen things out a bit, try new things and add different elements throughout the songs in order to build drama. We also wanted to give Dave a lot more room to get melodic with his vocals instead of just showing off his aggressive side. We wanted to take the music through different moods.

The closing track, "Darkness," has acoustic guitar, piano and cello. It's the biggest departure from your previous work.

DONEGAN: We wanted to show that there's not just one formula that works for us, so we thought we should go with the heaviest thing we've ever written and also the lightest. And since David was obviously singing a lot more on these new songs, we figured we could dabble more in those "light" areas. So I had a little acoustic piece, just a couple parts that I threw together and recorded a rough structure of, and I gave it to him. He was working on a few different melodies for it, but nothing really came together until I went over to his house one day with an acoustic guitar and started playing the song. And then it just clicked. David came up with the vocal melody right on the spot.

Is that you playing the piano part as well?

DONEGAN: Yeah. It's just real basic one-note stuff. It was something I had written on guitar and moved over to piano. Same with the cello lines in that song -- I wrote the part on guitar, and then we had a cellist come in and play it.

It's obvious that every song was constructed to have a really strong chorus. Was it a priority to get a solid hook in there every time?

DRAIMAN: Oh yeah. And it's always a challenge to find that strong hook, especially since Danny doesn't always make it easy for me to do. [laughs] But we had a conversation pretty early on where I said to him, "Give me some room to run." When he's not playing such heavily syncopated guitar riffs it's a lot easier to write those big, open, soaring choruses that you're hearing. It makes it that much more dramatic, and we feel that it actually ends up complementing the busier stuff that he plays on the verses.

DONEGAN: The songs have a nice blend of heavy riffs -- some that are very choppy and some that are more open. That way the melody and riffs don't get in the way of one another. And the choruses sound bigger when they're not as syncopated. I just open up the chords more and let the vocals take over with the melody. You feel the song climax. When you're listening to it, you automatically know, bam!, this is the chorus.

In addition to letting the chords ring out more on choruses, you often choose to overdub single-note guitar lines on top of the progression.

DONEGAN: Right. Sometimes I'll lay down certain melodies I have in my head and Dave will write to that, or vice versa -- maybe he'll have a melody and later on I'll overdub a line that complements his part. We keep it interesting, but without getting too crazy We want to lay enough ear candy in there to give this album some life. That way, you can listen to it 50 or 100 times and still hear something new.

So while there are no solos on the record, you do sneak in your "Guitar God" moments.

DONEGAN: Yeah. I play little melodies to complement certain parts, but there's never any overplaying. On the chorus of "Remember,' for example, there's a guitar line going on underneath one of the most melodic vocals Dave has ever sung. And the lick is almost like a solo -- I'm just totally going off -- but it's a melody as opposed to just mindless shredding. It doesn't take you away from what's being sung.

Dave, what were you going for vocally on these new songs? It sounds like you're using a lot more of your range this time around.

DRAIMAN: I am, and that's because I now have that option. My voice had been suffering for a while, and I recently had to undergo surgery to reconstruct the valve at the top of my stomach, because it had completely herniated away.

As a result of your singing style?

DRAIMAN: Yeah. The way I sing is extremely physical, and it was causing acid from my stomach to wash up to my vocal cords and burn them. Because of that, the day after a show my voice would be half gone. I tried everything to take care of it, but nothing worked. So eventually I had surgery. And that forced me to start taking better care of myself, because nothing is more important to me than this band. I mean, I used to drink a hell of a lot, and do other things as well. But over time, the complete abuse of my body led to its deterioration.

So now you have to resist certain temptations when you're on the road?

DRAIMAN: Yes. The song that Dan just mentioned, "Remember," is about that. The chorus goes, "If I can remember to know this will conquer me/ If I can just walk alone and try to escape into me." There's the necessity to persevere amongst all the temptation and not let it get to me; to let people know that I'm aware of what has been given to me. It would be irresponsible of me to not take care of myself, if only for the sake of the gift that this band has been blessed with.

Are the other guys respectful of that, or after the show are they like, "Hey, Dave, have a beer!"

DRAIMAN: They've always been very respectful of my boundaries. But at the same time, they certainly don't hold back at all. They go ahead and do what they've gotta do.

DONEGAN: But there's no peer pressure placed on him. We respect Dave for taking his job seriously, because we're a hard-working group. We want to do this for a long time -- we want to be a career band. We're not gonna fuck it up by acting like a bunch of idiots, you know? So if something is wrong we fix it. In this case, unfortunately, it happened to be something that took away from some of David's favorite... umm… habits. [laughs] But he took responsibility for that. He fixed the problem and now he's able to occasionally join us for a drink again.

What are some of the other topics you deal with on the new record?

DRAIMAN: Everything is tied together under the one universal theme of "believe," and all the songs deal with different aspects of that -- self-belief, belief in God, belief in the future of humanity, belief in the potential for love and relationships, belief in life after death. And of course, there are songs that touch on all the changes that are going on in the world. The world is a radically different place than it was when we released our first record, and I feel that it's our responsibility to reflect that. Another album like The Sickness would be redundant in today's times, and it probably wouldn't be what the world needs, or what we need, even. We have to believe in something. We have to have hope.

So was the subject matter on The Sickness more internal -- how things related specifically to you -- while the new record is more about relating to the world at large?

DRAIMAN: I suppose, but then again, with every song the idea starts from the internal -- if it doesn't then the feeling isn't genuine. It has to come from what I was feeling at that particular point in time when I wrote the lyrics. Otherwise I can't have the conviction necessary to carry the words through. At the same time, I always try to make the lyrics cryptic enough that they can be embraced by each listener according to that person's individual needs.

What are some of the personal issues that figured into this album?

DRAIMAN: Well, the death of my grandfather had a lot to do with this record, may he rest in peace. He passed last August while we were on Ozzfest, and I couldn't go to Israel for the funeral. I've felt guilty about that ever since, and also about what's going on over in Israel in general. I'm incredibly frightened by it. I have 250 relatives in Israel -- my little brother lives in Jerusalem, and so does my grandmother. So it scares the hell out of me. It's insane to me that from different beliefs -- Islam and Judaism -- there's war. This record isn't called Believe simply because we needed a name -- it was chosen very specifically and intentionally.

So the concept of belief was there from the outset?

DRAIMAN: It was all about finding that theme, and then the words started coming. I don't like to write a body of work where, from a lyrical perspective, one song has nothing to do with the next. I feel that every Disturbed album should have a theme, something that ties all the songs together. So figuring out what was going to be the theme of this record was something that plagued me for a good month and a half before anything could really materialize. And it certainly didn't make it any easier that, the way we write, the music usually comes first. As a result, the lyrics are basically being written to a preconceived rhythm and melody So it's very difficult, but it's also proved the most constructive and effective way for us to write.

Vocally, does the music you're hearing direct you down a certain path?

DRAIMAN: Absolutely The vibe of the song pretty much determines where I go lyrically with it.

Dan, has there ever been a situation where, since you've already written and recorded the music, you have a vocal melody in your head that clashes with what Dave comes up with?

DONEGAN: Not really; because there's just a lot of mutual respect and trust in each other's work. So I don't really even think about the vocals. Although there was one situation, again with the song "Remember,' which has a verse riff that's in a really weird time signature -- different from anything we've ever done. I kept thinking, Should I make it straight 4/ 4? Should I make it a little easier for Dave to write to? Eventually I said to the other guys, "Let's give it to him this way and see what he comes up with." And now that I hear the finished product I'm thankful that we didn't give him an easy way out.

DRAIMAN: I kept insisting to Dan, "I will figure it out." I was determined to, because the hook is so there -- that sort of "off" timing gives the part its character. I didn't want to let my temporary inability to come up with something change what had been written, because what had been written was great.

What was the writing process like?

DONEGAN: It was different from the way we've done it in the past. Normally, we would go into our rehearsal space and work out songs by playing them full blast. But we realized that that makes it hard to hear what each guy is doing. So this time we started out at my house, playing at low volumes. We had a little eight-track Pro Tools setup, Mike used a Roland V-Drum kit, I went through a DigiTech Genesis and the bass went direct into the board. It was a real simple setup, but it was enough for us to lay down some decent-sounding demos. Then we would burn a CD right there, give it to David and let him work with it. Afterward, if there was something that we felt needed to be changed, I could cut-and-paste in Pro Tools or just retrack the part entirely. The whole process allowed us to work really quickly, because as soon as we had an idea we were able to record it on the spot. And playing at those low volumes made it possible to hear the dynamics of the music a lot better.

One thing that's instantly noticeable is that the electronic side of the band has been toned down this time around.

DONEGAN: There's certainly nothing as sequencer-based as "The Game" [from The Sickness] on this new record. And any electronic sounds that we did use on this album weren't really voices you'd find on a keyboard or sequencer -- they're things that we created from scratch. I would play two notes on the guitar, for instance, and then Johnny K would dump it into Pro Tools, we'd add an effect and create a sequence out of it. We wanted to come up with completely original sounds.

How did you first hook up with Johnny K?

DONEGAN: I've known him for a long time He went to high school with my brother and grew up in the neighborhood. He's a totally laid-back guy, very talented, and does the best-sounding demos. In fact, some of the tracks he produced for our first demo actually wound up on The Sickness. And I'm sure that, in addition to the songs themselves, the sound of those demos was a big reason we got attention from. labels. So when we got signed and it came time to choose a producer for our first record, we knew he was the guy.

It's surprising that a major label would allow a brand-new, unproven band to have a say in who produces its debut album.

DRAIMAN: Well, they heard the demos.

DONEGAN: We knew that Johnny could execute, and Giant was supportive of that. It was a lot of pressure on the guy, considering that this was not only a shot for us but for him as well. And Johnny stepped up to the plate. His first major-label album sells two and a half million records. Not bad.

So it was a no-brainer that you were going to work with him again.

DONEGAN: From the outset we were intent on not feeling that added pressure of the big "sophomore album jinx." So recording at home in Chicago and working with someone we already have a great relationship with was very important to us. We went back to Groovemaster Studios -- the same place where we recorded The Sickness -- did one day of preproduction and then started tracking. And everybody at the label believed in us enough to not be around while we were writing and recording these songs. We sent stuff out and let them hear the progress, . but they let us do our thing.

It sounds like the label is pretty hands-off with you guys.

DRAIMAN: Well, two and a half million records sold buys you a little bit of space. So we've earned it on a certain level, but then again, I'm sure that if the first few songs we sent to the label didn't come out as spectacular as they did, they wouldn't have been so accommodating. But we were certainly thankful that they were willing to let go and allow us to do what we do.

With The Sickness it was a slow build to get to that two and a half million point. Do you feel like Believe has the potential to explode right out of the gate?

DRAIMAN: We can only hope. We've certainly been hearing a lot of talk about that, but the thing is, people will talk from morning to night. Ultimately, our own feelings are what we trust the most. If the hairs on the backs of our necks aren't standing up when we play any of these new songs, we haven't done our job. And thankfully, every single song on this record gives us that feeling.

Richard Bienstock

Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.