Five Finger Death Punch founder and rhythm guitarist Zoltan Bathory admits there have been “many crazy chapters” during the band’s 15-year existence, but he reveals that he’s now experiencing a sensation that’s utterly new to him: an overall feeling of peace and tranquility.
“It’s almost like one band ended and a new one has begun,” he says. “For a long while, we had this inertia that pushed us forward, but it was also tumbling downward.
But things have a way of turning around, which they’ve done for us, and it all happened in kind of a synchronized manner. I feel really good about where we are now. It feels like a new chapter for the band.”
One big reason for Bathory’s sunny outlook is the sobriety embraced by bassist Chris Kael and singer Ivan Moody. “That’s been a positive step for both of them, and it’s reflected on the whole band,” Bathory says.
“Our last album, [early 2020’s] F8, was the first record that Ivan made completely sober, so that was great. Everybody was super focused, and I think that helped to make it the best record we ever made.”
F8 is the first album to feature the group’s new drummer, Charlie Engen, who replaced longtime sticksman Jeremy Spencer in 2018, and it’s also the last disc lead guitarist Jason Hook (a member since 2009) recorded with the group before his departure last year.
Rumors about Hook’s exit swirled on the internet for months (fans speculated that it had something to do with his late-2019 gallbladder surgery), and the guitarist has yet to address the issue fully. Last October, he posted a video to Instagram announcing his departure, but he promptly removed it.
Bathory is loath to discuss the matter, but when pressed he offered this explanation: “The whole thing with Jason was, it just ran its course, like any relationship. I can’t really speak for him, but, I mean, he was making movies and getting married.
“There are a lot of those personal things… It wasn’t one particular reason. He had gallbladder surgery. Touring beats you up, right? There’s a toll you pay for being on the road 200, 300 days a year. So there comes a time when you have to make an intelligent decision – ‘Is this working? Is this still valid?’”
British guitarist Andy James, who has issued a number of solo recordings and who had also been a member of the bands Sacred Mother Tongue and Fields of the Nephilim, was initially tapped to serve as a temporary guitarist for Death Punch’s early 2020 European tour.
After just a few shows, James felt as if he was clicking with the band, a feeling they reciprocated, and even though the group’s touring schedule was cut short because of Covid, the good vibes remained and James was announced as a full-fledged member last fall.
“When Andy came into the picture, it was another part of the refresh we were looking for,” Bathory says. “We needed the kind of energy he brings. He’s a fantastic guitarist, and as a human being, he’s just a super guy.”
For James, joining Five Finger Death Punch in the middle of a pandemic has been a lopsided experience.
“It’s been strange, for sure,” he says. “When I came in, the plan was that we had a whole tour scheduled, and there was another one booked for later in 2020. There was going to be a lot of shows, a lot of traveling. As it turned out, I only did 13 shows until the whole COVID thing hit. So on one hand, 2020 stacked up to be the best year in my life, and then it just turned out to be the worst year of everyone’s life.”
For the moment, James remains at his home in Wales. Remotely, he recorded his first official track with the band – a song called Broken World, featured on the just-released greatest-hits set, A Decade of Destruction, Volume 2.
He’s considering a move to the States to join the Las Vegas-based Death Punch, but with international travel still problematic, he’s more or less grounded. “We’ll just have to wait to see what all happens,” he says. “It will be great when we can all get in a room and work together, but that part of things is up in the air right now.”
Zoltan, what was the actual process of bringing Andy into the band? How did you guys hook up?
Bathory: “We kind of knew each other. I was always watching Andy’s videos because I found them so impressive. I was in the recording studio with Charlie one night, and I brought up Andy. Charlie said he’d toured with him.”
James: “That’s right. Charlie was the drummer for another band I did a tour with. We hit it off.“
Bathory: “So I asked Charlie to reach out to him, just to tell him that I was a fan of his work. Then Andy and I had a few online conversations. I was originally thinking of him to join one of the bands I manage.
“I thought he should find a bigger audience, you know? Fast-forward and I’m sending him a text to join Death Punch at Wembley.“
Was there any kind of audition?
James: “There wasn’t really time for that. I basically got this crazy text from Zoltan saying, 'What’s your music retention like?' I didn’t know what he meant, so we got on the phone and he said, 'Do you reckon you could learn a whole set?' I was like, 'Well, you’ll have to fire it over, and I’ll see.'”
“I was already a fan of Death Punch since American Capitalist, so I knew a lot of their stuff pretty well – not to play, but to listen to. I think it was a list of 17 songs I had to familiarize myself with in two days before I flew to London to meet up with the guys. I was on the plane with my headphones on, just going through the songs in my head.”
How many days after that were you on stage with the band?
James: “Just a couple more till I was thrown in. [Laughs]“
Okay, this feels like a big leap of faith for everybody involved. You had a big gig to play in two days; what if you guys got in a room and it didn’t work?
James: “That’s the ultimate gamble, though, isn’t it?“
Bathory: “The thing is, with a guy like Andy, you hit a certain level of musicianship. I knew he could play the material. I watched his videos and listened to his records. I knew he had the skills; I just didn’t know if he could learn the shit in 48 hours.
“That is kind of a big reach. Some of the songs live aren’t the way they are on record, so we had to go through how we’ve modified them.“
Andy, how many shows did you have to get under your belt before you began to feel comfortable?
James: “Material-wise, probably the second or third show. The first show, I was getting used to levels and counts on my in-ear monitors. Plus, you’re developing the eye contact with everybody.
“You’re figuring out your place on stage. That’s what the first show was all about. It was a process. I would say I felt really comfortable for the last four shows we played.
“Although I do remember something from the first show. There was a pre-count before Charlie starts, but I wasn’t prepared for that, so I started the riff to Lift Me Up too early, just as the curtain drops.
“Ivan shot me this look like, 'No, it doesn’t fucking start yet.' I’m literally on stage thinking, 'This is terrible! I’m going to get fired after this.' But it was fine. The thing is, I had played in bands in pubs for so long, so I had the experience to get around something like that and the audience would never know.”
Zoltan, when was it decided that Andy would become a full-fledged member of the band?
Bathory: ”Not too long, really. Once we saw that he could play the show, you start to look at other things. Does he really fit with us? Does he have the energy and emotion on stage that we want? We have a very big stage, so it’s not just a matter of playing the guitar parts; you have to project a certain level of energy.
”There are lots of great players, but they look kind of small on stage – something is missing. This is a living, breathing show, and we get feedback from the audience. Do they feel good about Andy, you know? So there are lots of different factors to consider. So we took a little time to make sure Andy was vibing with the rest of the band.
”We hung out together, and after a bunch of shows, it was like, 'Hell yeah. This is working.' There’s a dynamic between band members that you can’t plan – on stage and off. When you’re on stage, you can’t really coordinate it like a dance. Everything just has to fall in place, and people either know what to do or not. Andy has all that down.”
Thirteen shows in, everybody had to go home. What have you been doing since then? Do you write or jam together remotely?
Bathory: ”We kind of started to send tracks and licks to each other. We’re still looking at this whole Covid thing like, 'OK, can we tour in 2021?' Obviously, a lot is changing with powers and forces outside of us, right? So we just have to see how it all pans out. If we can’t go on the road for a while, then we’re going to record a new album.
”We’ve taken a little time off, but we don’t want to just sit around, obviously. But also, the focus is still on the latest album. We still feel as if it’s brand new. We’re doing videos, and we’ve been trying to get Andy out for some of them, but that’s hard.
“The whole Covid thing put a wrench in that machine; otherwise, he would have been in the music videos.
”This whole thing has been difficult, as you can imagine. We’ve been on the road for 18 years, sometimes 200, 250 days on the road each year. It’s been weird. But in some ways, we’ve been waiting for a forced break like this. I’m the kind of guy who looks at life and just grabs the bull by the horns.
”Every day, I’m just go, go, go. I always feel like I have to work harder than anybody else. This is the first time I would just sit in my pool and think, 'Man, I don’t even feel guilty that I’m not in the studio, or I’m not working on something or writing something.'
“Nobody else was doing anything, so it was kind of a relief. I got caught up on little things – 'Where are the light switches in my house?' All the things I never have time for.”
You did issue one track featuring Andy – Broken World.
Bathory: ”That was a track we recorded a couple of years ago for our old record label. It was an unfinished thing in the vault. Nothing was happening because of the pandemic, so we decided it was a good time to put out a second greatest-hits.
”The first one did really well. And, of course, you need some new material and bonus tracks, so we looked at a few things we had never released. Broken World needed a guitar solo, so we sent it off for Andy to cut his lead. It commemorates his entry into the band.”
Andy, was there any pressure cutting that solo, knowing it would be the first Death Punch song a lot of people would hear you on?
James: ”Yeah, I think so. It wasn’t pressure to come up with something cool; it was more considering the fact that Jason had been in the band for so long. Listeners are used to hearing that sound, and I count myself in that group, so I tried to split myself down the middle.
“I was like, 'How do I do something that sounds like Jason while still being me?' That was a thought for a second, but in the end I switched that off and played what sounded right for the song. Once I did that, it came out quite naturally.”
Andy, you have your own signature guitars with Kiesel. How do you think they sound with Five Finger Death Punch material?
James: “I’m predominantly a seven-string player, and this band plays with six strings with baritone tuning. That was an obstacle I had to get around. When I got with them to learn the songs, I didn’t have a six-string guitar on me, so I had to transpose everything to get it to sound as originally played.
”And that was on top of just learning the tunes to begin with! It’s very strange, because once you get used to playing a seven-string guitar, going back to six strings isn’t so easy. I pick up a six-string guitar and I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.”
Bathory: ”Yeah, and on baritone guitars the strings go from .013 to .070!”
James: ”Yeah, fuck that. [Laughs]”
Zoltan, you’re back with B.C. Rich Guitars, right?
Bathory: ”That’s a story there. I was with B.C. Rich for a long time. I’m a big fan of their guitars and I had my signature models with them. There was a moment [CEO] Bill Xavier was leaving the company, and you know, I’m a loyalty guy. As much as I loved the brand, I said, 'If Bill’s out, then I’m out, too.' So I decided to see what Dean Guitars could do.
”We made a couple of guitars with the custom shop, and for a while things were great. And then the same sort of thing happened – guys I was friends with left in a very short period of time.
“Then I went to DBZ, which is Jeff Diamant – I was using Diamond amps for years. Same thing there. I designed guitars with DBZ like the Bird of Prey. I was with them for a minute, but now Bill Xavier is back with B.C. Rich.
”It’s like new leadership and ownership – everything is restructured. So I’m back with B.C. Rich, too. You know, the first guitar I ever had was kind of a Warlock-ish shape that I cut out from a coffee table. Literally, that’s what I did. I was so proud that I made my first guitar.
”It was an unplayable piece of crap, but in Hungary it was almost impossible to get a guitar. So I did what I had to do. I got a neck and some spare parts, and I cut the Warlock guitar shape from my parents’ coffee table. From that, I cobbled together my first guitar.”
Aside from anything musical, what have you two learned about yourselves during the pandemic?
James: ”What’s interesting is, I thought that being home so much might kill my relationship with my wife, but the reverse is true: my marriage is probably more solid than ever. I also discovered that I don’t really need anything.
“You get so sucked up in material things – 'I need this, I need that.' So I have a sense of contentment that I never realized was possible. I’m just able to sit down and do what I need to do, and I don’t really worry about everything else.”
And Zoltan, you realized you don’t have to be such a workaholic.
Bathory: ”Right, right. For so long, I only knew the gas pedal; I never hit the brakes. So I kind of realized, 'What’s the point of success? What’s the point of anything if I’m just fucking flooring it in the fast lane?'
“I never see the scenery if I’m just going 200 mph all the time. It was stunning to realize I didn’t have to get up at six in the morning and work all day. Things were still gonna be OK. Now I’m learning to balance everything.”
It sounds like you’ve experienced a real catharsis.
Bathory: ”It’s because of my circumstances and where I come from. The only way I could get out from Hungary, which was this socialist/communist country at the time, I had this vision that I had to work harder than anyone else. I had to study. I had to train. I had to be smarter and faster than anybody else, and I kind of got stuck in that mode.
”Fast-forward a couple of decades, and I’m still doing the same shit every day. It was like a chess game – 'Am I winning today?' So now it’s like, 'I’m just gonna lie in the hammock today and not do a fucking thing.' And you know what?
“The world didn’t crumble. It didn’t end with nuclear war. Everything is fine. That’s really something for a guy like me to come to grips with.”
- Five Finger Death Punch's F8 is out now (opens in new tab) via Better Noise Music.