This article is part of Guitar World's series of interviews and features with artists addressing and raising awareness around themes of mental health, particularly as they relate to musicians.
After answering classified ads, playing covers at local bars in Norman, Oklahoma, and a few personnel changes, Fist of Five solidified their lineup in 2006 with vocalist John Gates, guitarists DJ Windle and Steve Jones, bassist James Cyrus, and drummer Josh Anderson. Their goal was to write great music and simply enjoy the process. In June that year, the band produced and recorded their debut album, Broken Roses, only to amicably split a year later.
Then, time and distance did what they always seem to do: the close friends lost touch. They mostly dropped out of the music scene and moved on to careers and families.
13 years later, the unexpected resurfacing of a video for the song Damage on YouTube, combined with the power of the internet, brought the band a wave of attention. Text messages were exchanged. They decided to get together at Jones’ house to catch up over barbecue and a bonfire. Just like that, Fist of Five were back together.
Jones had a small home studio – a computer, some microphones, and Logic Pro – while technology made it possible for the musicians to share ideas and riffs remotely. They met for practice sessions, began crafting songs, and decided to remix and remaster Broken Roses.
“That album was recorded in four days and was never properly mixed,” says Windle. “We thought, ‘Why not give it the love it deserves while we work on new material?’
“We called [producer] Sterling Winfield – we had actually broken up in the middle of working on some new songs with him – and asked if he’d help us out," Windle adds.
“He immediately jumped onboard. Sterling remixed the album in 2020 and Howie Weinberg remastered it. Things went from there. We wrote a whole new album and recorded it in three months.”
That album is Sparrow Road, produced and engineered by Winfield and Sylvia Massy.
In mid-2021, in advance of their new project, Fist of Five released a video accompanying their cover of The Dance. The original, written by Tony Arata, was recorded by Garth Brooks on his self-titled debut album. The ballad quickly became one of Brooks’ signature songs, its lyrics often interpreted as a message of combined wistfulness for someone or something lost, and gratitude for what was gained from the experience.
Fist of Five, with their aggressive, metal rendition of the song – recorded with Schecter, Gretsch, and baritone guitars through Marshall, Rivera, Wizard, and Mesa/Boogie guitar amps and cabs – were determined to give it a work-over.
“We sucked all the hope out of the song,” says Jones, “and that was our goal. In the original, people treasure the experience, move on, and see brightness on the horizon.
"For us," he continues, "it was about using the same lyrics, but telling the story for people who feel hopeless, who feel that this is the end and there is no looking back on a happy memory. It became a song about tragedy, without glossing it over and having a Hallmark moment where everyone is happy again. Things don’t always end well, and you see that in the video.”
It was a risky move, turning a legacy country song into loud metal, but the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
“We fully expected people to rip us a new one for doing this to a classic,” says Jones. “Instead, we’ve received thousands of comments, 90 percent of them positive, from people connecting with it, telling us that this is what they’re going through. Years after a loss, they still don’t have those happy thoughts.”
The Dance was the first installment of a video trilogy that includes the acoustic Can’t Be Over and recently released title track Sparrow Road, and which tells the story behind the new album. In 2013, Gates lost the woman he considered the love of his life. “Sam,” as she is referred to in the video, was the passenger in an automobile that was crashed into and thrown off the road by an oncoming car, whose driver ran a red light.
Fist of Five were midway into recording at Massy’s studio when the album’s theme became apparent. Windle and Gates were outside during a break when Windle came up with the idea for the trilogy.
“We all knew Sam; I had known her since I was 14,” he says. “The band had a deep connection with her. We all loved her. John and I talked a number of times about the album being about her while we worked on it, but it really hit that night on the porch.
"I told him, ‘This is your story.' At that moment, it clicked for everyone. The Dance became our grief song, and the idea of the trilogy was built from there.” The connecting thread in the videos – the worn Bible that appears in all three short films – is, in fact, a gift from Sam to Gates: a possession of hers since childhood that she gave to him with the request that he never give up his passion for music.
Gates’ grief was so all-consuming that he spiraled into a four-year mental health battle. “Depression is a hole so deep that you’re looking for just a pinpoint of light to help you try to find your way out – something to help you fight it,” he says. “I died with her. Losing her killed my heart.
“I didn’t function. I couldn’t eat. I drank to try to erase the pain. I pushed everything away,” he continues. “I hurt people by pushing them away. I can’t say a big enough ‘I’m sorry’ for that. I carried so much guilt over things I wanted to tell her but never had the chance. I told myself I never want to love or be loved again.
“I never went to therapy because I was a fool, saying I didn’t need it and didn’t believe in it. I’m not that fool anymore. I thought anxiety was something people made up, something they chose. I was a fool for believing that, too. I put a label on something I didn’t understand, until I went through it and realized how stupid and selfish I had been to think that way.
“I stayed in that dark place. My mother stuck by me, a few friends checked on me, but I was angry and depressed. As crazy as it sounds, I would sit alone in my truck for hours and talk to the moon. And then I started working on myself. You never really get back to normal after losing someone, but you can get close. It took a lot of work to get to the ground I’m on today. Even though it’s not fully solid, it’s solid enough to stand on. There’s a saying that was told to me: ‘Be you and let your wings grow, and take each step with faith.’ That’s my journey as I continue to heal.”
Today, with a new album to share, the A-list team of Massy and Winfield behind them, and a multitude of social media platforms onboard for support, Fist of Five are reenergized and determined to create and promote their music. Through their art, however, they are also advocating for mental health by telling their stories, speaking openly about grief, depression, and therapy, and working to break the stigmas surrounding such challenges.
“People take supplements, go to the gym and talk about physical health, but we don’t do anything to talk about our mental health,” says Jones. “I started seeing a therapist a couple of times a month about a year-and-a-half ago, just to organize my thoughts and sort through things. I wasn’t depressed, but I wanted to take care of myself, and it’s been a good thing.
“My wife and I became parents in 2019, and it was a very difficult birth. She went through so much, physically and postpartum; watching her inspired me to get in there and do something. She is a great mom to our son, a great wife, and a great friend to me, but she was carrying the aftermath of everything that happened.
"It was so intense that it scared the hell out of me, so staying ahead of it by talking to somebody seemed like a good idea. It’s preventative maintenance, and I think if more people looked at it that way, it would help remove the stigma and more people would get help. No one should have to feel weird or afraid about going to therapy. We should take care of our mental health before it becomes a problem."
Jones continues, "We also need to take care of each other and normalize being comfortable asking each other how we feel, and being honest about it when someone asks. I can do that with my wife, my partner, but men should be able to talk to each other that way as friends. The key to our ability to work together is to be a rock for each other when someone needs it, and to be their support every day.”
“If you fall hard enough, you’re going to break something, whether it’s your arm, your leg, or something inside,” says Gates. “And when you’re broken, it takes time to put together the pieces that make us who we are. Sometimes it takes explaining each piece to somebody so they can help you put those pieces back together. There’s nothing wrong, and there should never be a label, with getting help for that.
“For people reading this who are going through anxiety, depression, or substance abuse, my heart goes out to you. I have been there, and I know there eventually is light. Just don’t push people away, because a lot of them will hold your hand to keep you from drowning – I’m so grateful for the hands that pulled me up. Be you, take your time, take each step. Even if it’s a small step and then a step backward, there will be another step forward.
“For people reading this who know someone who is suffering, remember that the steps have to be on their time. You can’t push it, and you can’t speed up their process. Be there, and eventually they will make that move. When we plant a seed, it takes a while to grow, so just give them time.”
- The Sparrow Road trilogy is available now via Bandcamp. The Sparrow Road album will be released on March 11.