A Soundtrack to Your Life: An Evening with Five Finger Death Punch

5FDP performing “The Bleeding” to a sold-out AFAS Live in Amsterdam

“So, any updates from your contacts in the Russian government?”  

That’s how, after quickly saying hello, I decided to start what would end up being a marathonic 8-hour conversation with Zoltan Bathory, the founder and guitarist of the multi-platinum American band, Five Finger Death Punch. 

He laughed as we reminisced about the absolute insanity that ensued after his band’s song “Wash it All Away” was quoted by Vladislav Surkov in an editorial where, among other things, he made some comments on the West by using heavy metal lyrics as a starting point  

It was amazing. I was in Moscow when it happened, so I read it in the Moscow Times. In one way it was funny, because he’s a very highlevel government official; on the other, it really shows how in music there are no social classes, genders or races. When it comes to music, either you like it or you don’t, it has no other borders, it really unites everyone.

We have fans in really incredible places. For example, we were in England and were allowed to visit the Parliament because a couple of MPs are fans. It happens everywhere; from military generals to politicians, to people who you’d never even think of. All of them are listening to our music.

In the case of that Russian official, he didn’t just quote our song. He actually likes the band. What happened was that the Western press picked up only part of that story, and ran it in a way that made it sound like Surkov was just criticizing “Western Hypocrisy” using our lyrics. If you read the quote in context though, he’s just saying how he likes the band, how he’s a fan of Five Finger Death Punch and of bands like Disturbed.

Zoltan had already caught some flak when he first commented on Surkov’s use of the band’s lyrics. The idiots extraordinarie of MetalSucksperhaps taking a break from making inane “[INSERT GROUPS] reacts to metal” videos, had already taken some shots at him. Zoltan, an avowed gun-rights advocate, clearly rubbed a lot of left-leaning commentators the wrong way, so many had even penned him as a Trump supporter or, more simply, an endorser of Trump’s candidacy and later presidency.   

That’s what the media does. There’s a reason why I never talked about it at lengthI’m interested in politics, I’m kind of an armchair politician; It’s a hobby for me. When I started watching this particular election process, I started tweeting and talking about it on social media on a very observant way, in the sense that I just had some opinions about where all this was going. I predicted this outcome, simply because the writing was on the wall, but I didn’t say yay or nay. The press, however, picked it up and spun it into something different.

I even saw someone made some funny images of me as Iron Man and Donald Trump as Captain America… and the media just ran with it. I didn’t comment on it at the time because I’m not going to let the press, or anyone for that matter, bully me into or out of  anything. If I had simply answered that my words were twisted, and that I had neither endorsed nor condemned Donald Trump at that point, then that would have been perceived as me caving into some kind of pressure, and then that would have become the topic. Of course, that would have then been picked up to create even more garbage headliens

Zoltan isn’t wrong in his reluctance to have his politics suddenly become the core of the discussion. There is a growing trend (and a thoroughly studied one at that) that shows an increasing reliance on celebrities for guidance. From what causes to support, what clothes to wear, and even what to eat, celebrities (partially due to the halo effect, and partially due to our own fear of becoming outcasts among our own peers) have become our guides. In Zoltan‘s eyes, and despite the care with which he speaks, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, nor is it the sole responsibility of the “celebrities.”

A lot of politicians and political parties use celebrities to advance their agendas. Once they are allied with these celebrities, they put them in the position of “opinion makers” or “influencers,” while at the same time turning them into possible targets. Political winds can change very quickly so this is dangerous for those celebrities, because it can alter their careers forever. In my case it’s a bit different, because I actually write a  political column in a nationally-distributed magazine, so some might say that I kind of choose this kind of “controversies” because, after all, I’m “semi-professionally” engaged in the topic.” 

Zoltan’s condition as an “armchair politician” wasn’t exactly a secret to me, as I had already experienced it first-hand back when I first met him 4 years ago. Back then, just as we were sure it would happen this time, other media outlets had gone through our conversation and cherry-picked whatever they thought would better serve their editorial views. Far right media had painted him as a pinko who wanted to take their guns (or, at least, empower the state to do so) while others had painted him as an insane gun-toting, trigger-happy maniac.

Seeing this kind of exploitation of his words, the quotes taken out of context, as well as the mockery and the ridicule that came from those who didn’t care to find out the truth, had annoyed Zoltan. Although he seemed comfortable talking with me about whatever topic we brought up, the same couldn’t be said about the rest of his interviews, where he had, by and large, preferred to remain silent about anything too political. Of course, I understood his reluctance since, as he had told me back in 2014 (in a yet-unpublished interview) it was frustrating to see that no matter how careful you are with your words, some media will ensure the truth takes a backseat to reality.

Usually people react to headlines, so if the headlines are opportunistic, then people will form their opinions based on that. If somebody lifts a line from an interview, without any context or explanation, they can create some clickbait controversy. This is the business of the news, they present things in a certain way in order to entice you to read the story.

Because of this, nothing really surprised me, since I expected people to just form their opinions based on the headlines alone, even though we were very careful in the way everything was worded in order to avoid that type of confusions to begin with. People react to headlines and to half-truths, so I’m not surprised that nobody was really satisfied.

There’s also the matter of bias and prejudice. Being biased lets you read whatever confirms your prejudice. Back in Hungary, for example, during the communist years, musicians had to submit their lyrics for approval to the authorities; things like “a new wind is coming” in a song was interpreted by them as something anti-governmental, because that’s what they wanted to find.

We had already seen how his views on gun registration had been distorted by sites like Blabbermouth, and so we knew that whatever we discussed here would probably also end up being taken out of context. This was a source of frustration for someone who, as some might argue, could end up becoming the go-to celebrity for American conservatives and libertarians. Despite the love for guns, however, he laughs when compared with the current holder of that title: Ted Nugent.

There are other examples, besides Ted Nugent, of celebrities, actors and musicians who became politicians. People like Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example.

As musicians, we travel the world, we meet a lot of people and see a lot of things. Because of this maybe we can form a bit more of an educated opinion on certain things. I don’t limit myself to an echo chamber or to just one part of the country.

I have a place in California, for example, and I can totally put myself in their shoes and see why they behave the way they do, because they do live in a very care-free society. California is like Eden on earth, so I can understand why someone from there would react different to certain issues than someone from the suburbs of Detroit, where it looks like a bomb just went off. 

Anyone who has been able to develop this bird’s-eye view of the country and of the world, be it an actor, a musician, anyone, and who ends up becoming a politician, will end up having a bit of an advantage.

Zoltan Bathory performing at Wacken 2014

Since his words always fall short of announcing any kind of political aspiration, I inquire as to whether he can imagine himself actually seeking an elected office. After all, although a few years ago the idea of someone outside of the mainstream reaching an elected office would have seemed far-fetched, the recent election of people like Danica Roem, a transgender heavy metal musician, to the Virginia House of Delegates, shows that electorates across America are paying attention to completely different issues, and dropping a lot of their prejudices. 

I never say never, you know? I like politics, although I’m somewhat of a centrist. I think that it would be really beneficial if we had more parties than just the Democrats and the Republicans. Right now it’s very dangerous because if one of them collapses then we lose all the checks and balances on the other. 

I’m not a Republican, but I’m also not a Democrat. I also think that identity politics are dangerous, this idea that you need to be loyal to your party and just go along with it and vote for things even though you morally disagree with them. it’s terrible.

As he had done in my previous conversations with him, Zoltan was putting forward a political view that, despite not being exactly in the mainstream, was also far from being in the fringes. As a person who has adopted the United States as his country, and who demonstrates a deep love and respect for it, he does not hide his concern for the polarization that currently affects it. It is perhaps for that reason that he is so political, so vocal about the things that he sees affecting America.

As he himself had said, being a musician had allowed him to see the world, to connect to millions of people across many countries and cultures, and to live a very comfortable life that most people would envy. And yet, at the same time, as we talked about politics and history, his words often betrayed a certain fear that I’m not sure he wants to admit he has, or whether he is even aware that he has: That he is “only” a musician. That no matter what his views are, the many charities he is involved with, and regardless of how big this soapbox might be, his impact in the world will be minimum.

With so many important things happening in the world…sometimes you just wonder what’s the point. If we’re just dancing monkeys, having no real impact in the course of this planet.

The issue of impact is interesting. How do we measure the way in which our lives play a role in the lives of others? Do our actions, as big as they might appear to us, actually affect anyone? We build our expectations based on what we have seen on TV and movies, and wish we were one of those heroes who, single-handedly, change the course of history. We want to be the engines behind dramatic changes that, in reality, hardly ever happen at once. 

As I walked the pit during the show, photographing as much as I could, I caught a glimpse of a girl who raised a makeshift cardboard sign that read “Your music saved me from myself.” I pointed this out to Zoltan during one of the show’s interludes. While we may argue about how much impact a band can have (even one that is positively cited by a leading Russian official) I’m sure we can agree on the fact that for that girl, even if it’s just for a brief period of time, they were having a huge impact.

That girl’s sign served as a testimony to Five Finger Death Punch‘s power among their fans. In this, their 9th visit to the Netherlands, they had once again sold out the venue, as they played in front of one of the most diverse audiences I had ever seen. From young kids (some of them extremely young) to people who were clearly well into their retirement age, there was something about 5FDP‘s music that had brought them all together.

A young fan of 5FDP at Hellfest 2017

When I look into our audience and see several generations together, when I see grandparents, their kids and their grandkids, all together… I realize that we became the music for that family’s entire dynasty. It gives me goosebumps.

A family of 5FDP fans at Hellfest

Not long ago, during their last visit to Holland, the band’s very survival seemed to be at stake. Addiction and infighting were threatening to bring it all crashing down. The media had a field day with it, reporting the fights, the comments on social media, everything. Although it wasn’t the first time that something like this had affected the band, many fans feared that this time the damage was too great.

“All bands throughout history have always lived permanently in a state of ‘we might be fucked now’. If you’re a doctor, for example, the longer you are in practice then the more difficult it would be for you to do something so stupid that it would jeopardize your entire career. Bands, on the other hand, they come and go just like that; it’s really just a handful that manage to survive.

In this case, Ivan (who, honoring his name, really likes vodka [laughs]) got to a point where we had to step in. So many musicians have been lost in the last couple of years when shit went sideways for them, and we did not want to watch him do the same. We were worried about him, but we decided that it had to be tough love.

He’s a grown man, we were not going to take the bottle away from him. but what we could do was to make him choose between either going to rehab and working through this and coming back, or just leaving the band.

Ivan IS the singer of this band, we started this together, we are brothers. Forcing him out of the band is unimaginable, and would be the absolute last resort, but his health comes first. Now, if one day he decides that he doesn’t want to sing with us anymore, then we will need to look for someone else; but until that day comes, the idea that no one gets left behind continues to be in force, and we will try to work things out.

For the band, the addiction that affected Ivan was no joke. Even though his excesses had indeed put the band through a difficult time, and that many of them were not willing to put up with it any longer, seeing their brother-in-arms go down this road was not easy. They knew that unless serious changes were made, Ivan was going to end up drinking himself to death.

Covered by the glamour of being on stage, of meeting a new girl every night, of being acclaimed by thousands, a performer’s addiction often goes unnoticed. While for many the “rock and roll” lifestyle is supposed to involve a certain degree of substance abuse and debauchery, the reality is that a performer’s body is just as susceptible as anyone else’s to succumb to addiction.

The unfortunate thing about people who have addictions is that they are the only ones who can make the choice. You can’t force them to stop. 

So, if we go back to the question about whether I thought we were fucked… it was more that I wasn’t sure about whether Ivan was going to make the right choice or, if he did, whether he was going to stick with it. He had been to rehab a couple of times before, but he never stuck with it. 

When you give someone an ultimatum, you give away your aces. If you don’t go through with your promise, if you don’t fulfill your threat, then your word is worthless now. if anything, I was worried that if he didn’t make the right choice then we had no more cards left and there would be no way to save him.

Thankfully for Five Finger Death Punch, as well as for their legions of fans, Ivan did the right thing, and accepted to go on rehab. Now even the fans could notice the difference in his demeanor, as the demons he seemed to have been battling for years were, finally, retreating. Of course, it wasn’t a simple process, and the band had to also adapt itself to fit the needs of someone who is recovering from the scourge of addiction.

We have tried to create a support system that allows him to be OK. He’s better than ever now, he’s completely sober, whereas when even I first met him he wasn’t. I had never experienced this with him, and it’s kind of interesting to see the world through his eyes because even though we traveled the world together, he wasn’t really “there” most of the time. When we’d go see the cities he would just go to a bar, and it’s interesting to see how now he’s excited to be on stage, he wants to add songs to the setlist (something that had never happened before! [laughs]). It’s great to see this excitement that he now has about life; that he goes out, sees the cities that we hadn’t really been able to see during these 10 years we’ve been on the road. The band is tighter than ever now, it’s really a machine.”

As it happened to many others, Ivan‘s temporary absence from the band took me by surprise. It was just a few days after their infamous Tilburg show when, in Hellfest, I saw Tommy Vext singing the songs that, to many, were Ivan‘s. Many thought that this was a permanent replacement or, at the very least, someone whose intention was to take over Ivan‘s role in the band. They were very much off the mark.

Tommy Vext with 5FDP at Hellfest 2017

Tommy has known Ivan longer than me; they go back a long way. Same with Phil LaBonte and Ivan; they are all friends. Every show Ivan brings Tommy on stage to perform with him, and I think the fans can see that this was never an issue of bad blood between them. If people thought that Tommy was trying to take Ivan‘s job, they can now see that this is not the case. They are close friends.

 

As the night went on and the band delivered the performance that their eager fans were waiting for, I asked Zoltan about their longevity and success. Throughout the evening he had told me how every night when he goes on stage he is “chasing the dragon”, trying to place himself in the mindset of that Hungarian kid, the one who got beaten up by the police for liking heavy metal, the one who lived in a repressive state where his music wasn’t acceptable, the kid who moved to America with big dreams, and who somehow managed to make them come true. It was both a happy as well as a sad story since, on the one hand, it showed that hard work can pay off, while, on the other, it showed how no matter how much success we get, how much we manage to achieve, there will always be something inside of us pushing us to do more, and to never be truly satisfied. In Zoltan‘s case, his satisfaction is not dependent on money or fame (after all, he has both already), but instead on his ability to create something truly meaningful.

Even though we are all proficient musicians in this band, we do not want to fulfill the role of music teachers. That’s not what this is about. I always thought that if I can be the soundtrack to your life, then I am winning.

Regardless of genres, there are songs that, as soon as you listen to them, you remember where you were when you first heard them, or they remind you of specific times and events in your past. Those are the songs that I want to write, songs that will touch something deep inside of you.

Just like if I go to the gym and lift all day I will get buff, if play my guitar eight hours a day, then I will be a mechanically amazing guitarist… I probably won’t have a girlfriend, but I will be very good on the guitar [laughs]. Even though you can become very technically proficient, in the end you’re just learning how to control a meat puppet, how well you can move your fingers along the fretboard, how cleanly you can play, etc., but that’s not songwriting.  

Songwriting exists in things like, for example, Vivaldi‘s Four Seasons, where you can listen to all of them and just know which one is winter, which one is spring, etc. without anybody telling you. Songwriting starts with the music being able to paint a picture for the listener. It’s like the soundtrack to a horror movie, which you just know comes from a horror movie even before you know what it is from.  

You can write a song, something that sounds really simple at first, but that is actually much more than that because it has something special to it that connects with people. That’s the art this band is into, that’s what we’re doing.

People may not understand why some bands are so popular, or why any given song becomes a hit but that is why. There is a secret sauce, and it’s made of a lot of things that remain under the surface, and that they simply don’t understand.


Special thanks to Jeff, Guy, and every other member of the 5FDP staff that had to somehow deal with the fact that my 15-minute slot for an interview took slightly longer.

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