As heavily armed gunmen stormed the Bataclan the night of the terror attacks that left 130 dead across Paris, it’s possible they were familiar with the night’s headliners, Eagles of Death Metal. They probably didn’t realize the tattooed, mustachioed man commanding the stage was one of music’s sharpest walking contradictions: Father, frontman, NRA member, and Trump supporter Jesse “The Devil” Hughes—who improbably enough, also happens to be an ordained priest.
Hughes and the California rock band he started in 1998 had just begun launching into their song “Kiss the Devil,” from their 2004 album Peace, Love, Death Metal, when men wielding AK-47s and suicide vests began spraying bullets inside the venue in the heart of the 11th arrondissement. Later, he’d text his EODM co-founder and longtime best friend Josh Homme, who’d stayed home in the states: “Bro everyone got shot… everyone got shot… they took hostages… I have blood all over me.”
Hughes escaped with his life that night alongside guitarist Eden Galindo, bassist Matt McJunkins, and drummer Julian Dorio, who realized something was very wrong within seconds when the first round of gunshots interrupted their set. In an instant, the rock stars dropped everything and fled the stage, running for their lives alongside 1,000-plus panicked fans. Not all of their entourage survived: EODM’s British merchandise manager Nick Alexander and several friends and colleagues were among the 89 left dead in the brutal theater assault.
After the attacks, ISIS would claim responsibility in a statement describing the show as a pagan-packed “concert of prostitution and vice.” Pastor Kevin Swanson of Generations Ministries, who’d hosted GOP candidates Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and Bobby Jindal on his Christian radio show two weeks prior, actually shared the jihadists’ extreme sentiments when he suggested the killings were acts of divine retribution. “This is a message from God,” he said, fingering the dead, the injured, and the Eagles of Death Metal as devil worshippers who’d brought the bloodshed on themselves.
It’s unclear exactly why the Eagles of Death Metal show was targeted the evening of Nov. 13, one of several locations struck in the coordinated attacks on young Parisians out on a Friday night in the City of Light. Ironically enough, for all their heavy-charging hard rock tunes about sex, drugs, and Satan, the band’s charismatic leader is the rare public pop figure who is unafraid to wear his faith on his tattooed sleeves, or voice his controversial opinions on two issues that have loomed over so many tragic terrorist attacks of the 21st century: guns and religion.
Hughes puts his personal politics on display as the subject of the feature documentary The Redemption of The Devil, a film that debuted online early last month via FilmBuff.
Unsurprisingly, in the weeks following the Paris attacks, interest in the doc rose as more people wondered: Who are the Eagles of Death Metal? Produced by Vice Media and directed by Alex Hoffman, the engaging dive into a year of Hughes’s life captures the magnetic musician’s manic energy, following along as he embraces his 40th birthday, plays South by Southwest, gallivants with his much younger ex-porn star girlfriend/bassist Tuesday Cross, and records the Eagles of Death Metal’s next studio album with Homme.
Unabashedly devout in his Christianity, Hughes describes being raised by a Catholic mother who still can’t stand it when he swears. It was she who plucked him out of their South Carolina home when he was a boy to flee westward, away from his abusive rock and roll dad. “My dad’s disobedience to God and abandonment of faith didn’t serve him very well,” Hughes explains. “It became the model for the left, to me…” Later, he elaborates on his definition of the term. “By the left, I mean anyone who does not love Ronald Reagan and does not accept without a doubt the Second Amendment,” he pontificates, threatening physical violence to anyone who disagrees.
Hughes became a bona fide reverend in 2012, ordained by the Order of Saint Francis. The endorsement seems to have validated a deeply ingrained sense of self-loathing, as if the same internal forces that drive Hughes toward rock and roll wickedness also demand spiritual restitution for his sins. Occasionally, the camera catches him sermonizing on his Internet radio show from the “nesting place of sin,” Hollywood, California—really his living room in domestic, suburban Atwater Village—where he blasts Barack Obama, worships Ronald Reagan, and sounds off on any and everything while surrounded by tokens of his warring, driving influences: drink, sex, Satan, Elvis, the Bible.
Following the Bataclan attack, the Eagles of Death Metal sat down with Vice and shakily recounted the details of that night. One bandmate hid in a side room with strangers, terrified that they’d be discovered by the gunmen who were shooting their way through the building. Sound engineer Shawn London narrowly escaped being shot at as he and others ran for safety. Hughes himself encountered one of the shooters in a hallway while searching frantically for his now-fiancée Cross. “He turned on me, brought his gun down and the barrel hit the doorframe,” recalled Hughes, who fled in the other direction seconds later. “And I was like, ‘Oh, fuck.’”
But as passionate as Hughes is in his dedication to rock, religion, and personal freedoms, it might be the film’s many gun-toting scenes that got Redemption of the Devil pulled from a recent film festival in the wake of the Paris attacks.
When he’s not preaching politics or doing nude pictorials for photographer Richard Kern with Cross, Hughes is captured in the film (shot in 2013) doing drugs and waving around a vast array of guns in and around his home. In one scene, a friend and Hughes play around with handguns and rifles, his pal sporting an Obama costume, as he echoes NRA backers and gun owners resistant to calls for tighter gun control laws, despite climbing numbers of gun-related mass shootings in America.
“Everything’s fucked. Honestly, if we lost guns in America it would be the linchpin of disaster, it really would,” he declares. NRA booklets litter his coffee table. Later, Hughes and another pal stand outside his garage in the daylight, shooting at a Chinese flag. Their right to bear arms in hipster-fied Atwater Village is merely “good old-fashioned American fun,” Hughes insists. “Let’s put another round into China,” he says, hoisting his rifle into the air. But Hughes’s commitment to the Second Amendment is fundamentally rooted in a traditional Constitutional basis. “I’ll do anything, including give up my own life, to protect my liberty. I’m willing to do anything for freedom,” Hughes says.
He shows the camera a scar from the time he accidentally caught a .22 bullet in what he describes as a gang-related shooting. “That taught me a big powerful lesson: It wasn’t the guns that hurt me, it was bad behavior and the inability to be responsible for yourself. If it hadn’t have been a gun it might’ve been a car, it might have been a fucking knife, or a baseball bat.” In light of Paris, one can’t help but wonder how the tragedy affected Hughes’s outlook on firearms and faith.
The Palm Desert, California, Republican rocker who once volunteered for Sonny Bono’s failed Senate campaign had political aspirations of his own before his music career sprouted, late in life. His plan was to get elected to the state assembly and work his way up to the White House. His solution for America is a simple mantra that might win him some allies in the 2016 GOP race: “What this country needs is everybody needs to go back the fuck to church. Like, now.”
After Paris, it appeared that Hughes had deleted a recent podcast episode of his Boots Electric radio show titled “Our President is a Foreign Born Muslim!!!!” In a show of sensitivity and solidarity, the band encouraged their fellow musicians to cover their song “I Love You All The Time,” announcing that publishing proceeds will go to charity. They vowed to complete their European tour and to return to Paris to play the Bataclan when it reopens—a gesture of another kind of faith: faith in the human spirit. “Our friends went there to see rock ‘n’ roll and died,” Hughes told Vice. “I’m going to go back there and live.”