The Heavy Metal Band Raging Against the Trump Machine
Lamb of God frontman Randy Blythe opens up about their new self-titled album, the state of America, and why they’re one of the few metal acts that goes after Trump.
Lamb of God is the voice of pure politicized American fury, and the heavy metal titans’ new album—the self-titled Lamb of God—plays like the ferocious soundtrack to our present domestic moment of mounting authoritarianism, racial and economic strife, and enraged protest. The first to feature drummer Art Cruz after the 2018 departure of founding member Chris Adler, the band’s eighth full-length LP is a righteously angry sonic assault, tackling everything from environmental decay and school shootings (“Reality Bath”), to corrosive consumerism (“Gears”), drug addiction (“On the Hook”), the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access pipeline (“Routes”), and our discord-sowing commander-in-chief (“Checkmate”).
Driven by the blistering guitar duo of Mark Morton and Willie Adler, and bolstered by the muscular bass of John Campbell, it’s a no-holds-barred blitzkrieg of thunderous riffs and socially conscious lyrical wrath. And it proves that, more than two decades after first bursting onto the scene under their former moniker, Burn the Priest, the Richmond, Virginia, quintet has lost none of their crushing might.
As anyone who’s heard Lamb of God knows, central to that power is vocalist Randy Blythe. The lanky, dreadlocked 49-year-old author, photographer and frontman wields arguably the most distinctive growl in metal, and his roar remains in imposing form on Lamb of God. Still, despite boasting a howl that would sound right at home in the bowels of Hell, Blythe is no one-note purveyor of doom and gloom; on the contrary, he continues to be an engaged and outspoken critic of American failings. It’s a tack that dates back to 2004’s Ashes of the Wake, which cast a critical eye at George W. Bush’s Iraq War, and is evident again on the band’s new collection, which takes no prisoners in eviscerating modern societal shortcomings.
It’s no surprise, then, that Blythe—who was acquitted of manslaughter charges in the Czech Republic in 2013, stemming from a 2010 incident in which a concertgoer died following a fall from the band’s stage—doesn’t hold anything back in conversation. Ahead of Lamb of God’s release (which was pushed back from its original May 8 date because of the pandemic), the candid and thoughtful vocalist spoke with us about making music in the age of Trump, the ongoing George Floyd protests, whether live metal shows can resume before a COVID-19 vaccine is developed, and the secret to keeping his voice in grand, gravelly shape.
The chorus to Lamb of God’s opening track, “Memento Mori,” cries out “Wake up, wake up, wake up.” Do you feel like this album is a call to arms, especially today?
That song in particular is about getting lost in the information overload—the constant influx of horrific news battering down upon us by the media, and by screens in every freaking corner. It’s about not getting consumed by that, and returning to engaging with reality itself. It’s very important to stay informed as to what’s going on—you can’t go through life with your head in the sand like a freaking ostrich. But we all have these cell phones in our pockets, we all have computers, and there are screens at the gas station and in airports and everywhere, and if you pay attention to all this information coming at us constantly, generally, good news doesn’t sell advertising. So it’s this constant barrage of bad stuff. If you pay too much attention to that, it will consume you and all you will see is bad stuff, and you won’t take note of any of the beauty that exists all around us.
And it really does. Even right now, in all this chaos—the COVID and the protests and injustice of all sorts—somewhere a mother is holding their child for the first time, and that’s a beautiful moment. But that doesn’t get on the news. So for me, I wrote that song not in a pedantic way to say to everyone, “Hey, pay attention to reality, you’re lost in your cell phones!” I wrote that song for myself, because I was getting lost in this digitally-filtered representation of reality, and it was driving me freaking insane.
You’re no stranger to protest—including against the Westboro Baptist Church. What’s your take on the ongoing George Floyd protests against police brutality and racial injustice, and the response from the police and the president?
I would like to clarify: I am not an activist. I’m almost 50, my knees hurt, I hate tear gas, I hate jail, I hate making cops nervous. I’ve done all that shit before; this is not my first rodeo. And I also don’t enjoy some of the connotations associated with the term “activist.” Because having been to a lot of protests, it seems as if… when I say “professional activists,” I don’t mean these people are getting paid by nefarious deep state operatives or something. There are just people who seem to do this all the time, in order to beat some drum. They self-validate that way, I guess. This validates my existence—I am out screaming and yelling. To me, that’s not what I’m about, even though I make my living, quite literally, by going out screaming and yelling.
I try to be a bit more measured in my response to things. That means I address these things through both art—my photography, writing, and music—and, at times, with my physical presence. Because right is right. If something is unjust and I feel that my presence is required to support the people who are fighting this injustice, I will certainly go there and do that.
Obviously, right now, with the police brutality, and the killing of George Floyd, anybody who’s seen the video cannot argue with just how abominably fucked up that situation is. I think the length of the video is what makes it so impactful. It’s perhaps one of the most graphic representations of what has been happening for a long time here. This is not an isolated incident, and it’s not just to do with the police. People will roll their eyes at this, because people don’t like history, but this is not an isolated incident, and this is not a new thing. This is 400 years of oppression. And it’s completely understandable to me why things have reached the point that they have. One hundred percent.
What’s it been like in your hometown of Richmond?
I live in Richmond, Virginia, and the echoes of slavery and colonialism are everywhere in my state. That being said, I get kind of ticked off when people from elsewhere portray all of us in the South as hayseed fucking rednecks, because that’s not the fucking case at all. But the echoes of this are everywhere around us, particularly in my city—it’s the former capital of the Confederacy. You can’t throw a rock without hitting some sort of history. There’s a joke in Richmond: how many Richmonders does it take to change a light bulb? Ten—one to change the light bulb, and nine to complain about how much better the old one was [Laughs]. So people really hang on here.
This history has built up and built up, and there have been these boiling points. Historically, I believe in 1800 there was an attempted slave rebellion by a slave named Gabriel. And then you move on through that, and the Civil War, and into Jim Crow and the Civil Rights era, and we are at another boiling point right now, and things are spilling over. And the coronavirus pandemic is not making it any better! Because people are already freaking locked in their homes, they’re pissed about having to stay in, and a lot of people have lost their jobs, they don’t have money, and climactically, here in Richmond, it’s starting to get hot. And bad things always increase when it gets hot here.
It’s a perfect storm, in a sense.
We’re at this boiling point, and people are pissed—they’ve had enough. I cannot condone violence, as a peaceful man, and as a man who’s engaged in violence before, regrettably, much to my shame. I cannot condone violence, because I do not think it solves anything. But I understand it. I understand why we are where we are. And I have to look at other people and try my best to walk at least a block in their shoes, and to try to understand all this.
Do you have hope that the protests will lead to significant, meaningful change?
I think, honestly, that things are going to get better, to some degree, after this. But people can only sustain this level of emotional engagement for so long—and that’s why it’s mostly younger people doing it, because they have the energy for that. You see older people, for sure, but any sort of change, historically, has always had a huge youth component to it. It’s cool to see that. And I’m very stoked to see the kids being very engaged in their community. What is the long-term plan, though? I don’t have an answer. Instinctively, I think things are going to get somewhat better. I really have no choice but to think that way, though. Because if I just sit here and say, “Well this just sucks, the world is going to hell in a handbasket,” and I just dwell in that, then I cannot help institute any long-term change. I’ll just be stuck in negativity.
Lamb of God’s first single, “Checkmate,” takes aim at our current political discourse, and includes some shots at Trump. Has polarization gotten worse under this president—and did your feelings about him, specifically, help shape that song?
Just put in as the answer, “Long laugh!” [Laughs] I’ve made my opinions about our fearless leader pretty clear, over and over again, in the press. That song, in particular, didn’t start with Trump. This album is not about Trump. It’s just not. Because as anyone who’s paid any attention whatsoever to anything during this presidency knows, everything changes, and not day-to-day, not even hour-to-hour, but minute-to-minute. So how are you supposed to put your finger on something? Everything is protean and shifting so quickly, and truth has become subjective. I read something the other day about how we’re living in a “post-truth era,” and I was like, no, I don’t think we are! I don’t think we’re living in a post-truth era because truth is the fucking truth. Your interpretation of the truth may be flawed, but there are such things as empirical truths.
This seems to be an empirical truth, that right now, in our country—and not just in our country, but since I live here, this is the one I’m qualified to comment on—there has been a severe absence of civility in political discourse. It seems as if, within our country, and the two-party system, it’s like sports teams these days. You pick a sports team, and even if your team is sucking that season and is completely blowing it, you are going to support them because that’s your team. I think it’s just a freaking mess.
A lot of this exists solely online. Maybe people keep these thoughts to themselves, and maybe they believe these thoughts, but I think the vast majority of people who are really screaming one way or another are only doing it online. In real life, you don’t really see people walking down the street screaming about the battle over public health care. You don’t see people in line at the grocery store calling each other Nazis and commies. That’s just not how it goes. It’s all in these fucking digitally-filtered representations of reality. Does that seep into real life? Yes. But for the most part, it exists in this online world.
So for me, I’m disgusted with the way things are. But it hasn’t started with Trump. If you look at the entire Obama era, the division of Congress, where everything is split down partisan lines, and things just wouldn’t get done—that hasn’t changed. It’s insane. I get really mad when I see in the media the term “bipartisan victory” on an issue that shouldn’t really cause a political furor. “It was a bipartisan victory between the House and the Senate to get this bill through that benefits the American people,” and it’s like they’re giving themselves a fucking cookie for doing their jobs. Oh, we all got along and did something that benefited the people—like we’re getting paid to fucking do! I think we’ve reached a level where there’s discord within our system that’s unsustainable. We need more options. I think we need a reboot [Laughs].
Lamb of God’s albums have always reflected your political viewpoints. Has that ever caused friction within the band?
To a great extent, I’m writing these things for myself. That’s something I don’t think people understand. The dudes in Lamb of God write music for five dudes, and that’s us. That’s it. We don’t write music for the fans. We just don’t. And we never have. When we started the band, and we started making music, we did it because we loved it. And somehow, against all odds, it’s turned into how we make our living. But that’s not why we do the band. We do the band because we’re musicians and we love it. We have found a group of five special guys who can get together and do what we love together and create something.
Now as far as a unified party line or whatever [Laughs], that’s an interesting question. It’s not like we get together and have focus group meetings on how we’re all feeling. At various times, I’ve written all the lyrics on an album, and other times I’ve written half the lyrics. On this album, I wrote almost all the lyrics, except Mark Morton and I co-wrote “Checkmate”—he started that, he wrote a great part of that song, and then I finished it. So I guess the easiest answer is, when I write lyrics, sometimes the guys are like, “I don’t like that line” or whatever, and we’ve had some blowouts over it. But it’s normally an aesthetic thing. I mean, if I started spouting some crazy racist nonsense or something in my lyrics, I think they would say something to me [Laughs].
I’d hope so.
Or if I lost track with reality and started thinking I was a wizard or aliens were coming, I think they might have some concerns. But they pretty much kick back and let me do my thing—at times, much to their chagrin, I believe [Laughs]. But I can’t really speak for the other dudes in my band.
Have you ever been concerned that your outspokenness might alienate part of the fan base?
I write what is true to me, and I think that comes across. If I start pandering, or diluting what I want to say out of fear, I think the fans would smell that too, and they wouldn’t like that. I’ve had many fans say, “I don’t agree with you and all of your positions, but I respect you, because I’m open about it.” That’s what I do—that’s my art, dude. It’s gotta be true. I could make money writing some bullshit that would be more palatable, but that’s not what I’m going to do—that’s not why I do it. If all the money disappeared tomorrow and we weren’t able to ever play another show or sell another record or even release anything, I’d still write music with those dudes, because that’s what we do.
The pandemic forced the cancellation of your summer tour with Megadeth…
And the winter tour! And all the tours!
Can metal shows—which are all about aggressive, close-proximity physical contact—come back without a vaccine?
No, no, no, no, no. Not my band. Everybody’s doing quarantine jams remotely, and tracking separately, and I’ve done some of that, and it’s fun. But as far as a show? Steel Panther, who are friends of mine, did a stream show [recently] that you could watch, and it was freaking hilarious. But it’s just them on an empty soundstage, and they’re funny and can do that. I’m not really interested in doing that, because our music is such a visceral experience. I don’t think there’s ever going to be a socially distanced Lamb of God show—it’s just not going to work! I can’t guarantee my own behavior at the first show after this. I’m just going to be honest, I’m going to be in the audience, hugging and kissing people and humping people’s legs. I’ll probably get arrested. It’s going to be crazy. So I think until the vaunted herd immunity or a vaccine has been achieved, I don’t foresee shows that are super-aggressive in nature, like ours, really happening.
“Routes” is about your time at Standing Rock. Given that subject matter, was it vital to have a native voice like Testament’s Chuck Billy on the track?
It was absolutely imperative to have a Native American artist represented on that track. It’s about my experience [at Standing Rock], and it’s subjective to me—I don’t speak for anyone else. My experience there was shaped by hundreds of years of the Native American experience, and I was amazed, while I was there, that it had remained non-violent. Because it was screwed up, man—totally screwed up. I was just astounded by the level of restraint, and that was because the people there listen greatly to, and have so much respect for, the elders in their Native community. Those are the people in charge. They were the ones who made the ultimate decisions. Not saying that youthful energy isn’t needed, but it wasn’t the twenty-year-old hotheads. It was the elders. Writing about an experience I had that was shaped so much by hundreds of years of indigenous culture, and the repression of that culture, it was important for me to have a Native voice represented on that song. Because it was a profound, life-altering experience for me.
How do you keep your voice in such great, growly shape?
I do a vocal warm-up, and I try not to talk too much when I’m recording or on tour—particularly after a show, or after a session. Sleep is very important, and water is very important to your vocal chords. When I’m recording, or touring, I don’t really live a normal life. I can’t, because it’s my instrument, and I have to take care of it. I’m not a guitar, where if you break a string, you can just change it. You can’t do that with me. So I do rest a lot and drink a lot of water. But other than that, man, I’m just kind of built for this. I don’t know how or why—I just am. I’m not saying my voice will last forever as it is. Maybe it’ll morph into Tom Waits-type stuff and I’ll do lounge music and sit back on a stool and fucking relax some for once [Laughs]—and that’s OK too. But so far, it’s held strong, and I’ll take it.