Sometimes life surprises you. If anybody had told me that I’d spend over two hours sitting in a dressing room with Zoltan Bathory discussing gun control, politics and, of course, music, I would have thought they were on crack.
Let’s be honest, when you think of 5 Finger Death Punch your mind doesn’t exactly fill up with memories of deep introspective works, but rather with short, powerful and straight-to-the-point tracks that, if anything, are the perfect soundtrack to break something. As it often happens, however, my preconceptions and prejudices were wrong.
As the brains behind the band, Zoltan transformed 5 Finger Death Punch into a massive band in America, and is now attempting to do the same in Europe. Riding on the success of their two-part album The Wrong Side of Heaven and the Righteous Side of Hell, the band is certainly prepared to take the old continent by storm.
Due to the length of our exchange, the interview has been divided into two. This first part deals with the musical side of the band, while the second, which will be released next week, deals with Zoltan’s views on politics and gun control.
As humans, we have no fucking idea about what’s going on around us
MB: Today you are releasing The Wrong Side of Heaven and the Righteous Side of Hell, Volume 2. First of all, congratulations on fitting that whole thing on the cover and still leaving space for the artwork.
Z: Thank you!
MB: When I heard about the release of this two-part album, I couldn’t help but think of Guns n’ Roses’ Use your Illusion; one album released in two parts. Why did you guys take that road with this one?
Z: All the songs were done; so we just wanted to make sure that we’d separate them into two equal batches, without prioritizing either of them. We wanted to make sure that there would be a balance.
We were going to release them at the same time; the title is actually that long because originally one of them was going to be Wrong Side of Heaven, and the other Righteous Side of Hell. Then we decided against it, because 20-something songs are just too much material and would divide the listener’s attention.
Normally what you do is that you record 20 or so songs, choose the strongest ones and put them out as an album. This time, however, we felt that the material was too good. We told the label “We have a good problem: The songs are so good that we want to release all of them”; they only wanted to release one album, so what we did was that we sent them all the songs and told them to decide.
Later the label called us saying “…Yeah… I see your point”. That’s how it ended up as two releases.
MB: So you guys didn’t want to make it a double album?
Z: We didn’t want to release it as a double album because it would be just too much. When I buy a record it takes me about 2 or 3 months to become really familiarized with it, which is why we spaced the releases like that; then we unified the titles and turned them into this gigantic thing that even I can’t pronounce [Laughs].
These two records are the best stuff that we’ve recorded, so we wanted to make sure that it would be delivered properly. We looked at people who’ve done it like this, such as Guns n’ Roses, even when it came to their cover art. Originally we wanted to have two different covers, but then we realized that this would prevent people from making the connection between the two. We ended up using the same cover for both albums, but changed the color scheme; we understand why Guns n’ Roses did it, since it’s the only thing that would make people understand and connect the releases.
MB: Well, it clearly was a good idea, since it has worked really well for you.
Z: Everything together would have just divided your attention in 24 different ways.
A lot of good things came out of this decision. This is our 4th record, which is a difficult position: The first one gets your foot in the door; if that was successful, then you make a second one to see if your first one was simply a fluke; if that was successful, you make the third one to show whether you have something left to say or not. The fourth one is difficult; you can’t keep doing the same thing, because you already have three albums like that; if you try to be more melodic you’ll be accused of selling out; if you try to be too heavy they’ll say that you lost your touch with songwriting. Whatever you do, you’re kind of fucked [Laughs].
We always try to strike a balance between hard rock, melodic and heavy stuff, but if we just do the same again in one album, people won’t be satisfied. If you try to experiment in a single album, where you only have 12 songs, a couple of songs already represent a big percentage, so the fans won’t know what the fuck is going on.
If we have 24 songs, however, we can “sacrifice” 6 or 7 even of them for experimentation, and we still have 17 or 18 “traditional” Deathpunch songs.
MB: Do you feel “imprisoned” by fans’ expectations? I mean, you know that if you just continue doing the exact same thing you’ll probably be successful anyway, but maybe you want to try something else, but know that it’s risky.
Z: There are probably a lot of bands that have this issue, namely that they have a sound that they are locked into. Slayer, for instance. Can they do anything else? What about Iron Maiden? Can they do something else?
MB: IRON MAIDEN IS THE BEST BAND THAT HAS EVER EXISTED AND I WILL ACCEPT NO DEBATE OVER THIS!
Z: I absolutely love Iron Maiden! They’re one of my favorite bands!
Still, if you look at their music, Iron Maiden sounds only like Iron Maiden. Of course, they’ve written many songs and have progressed, to a degree, but they will always sound like Iron Maiden. You’re never going to get a Pantera record out of Iron Maiden.
Every band that has a voice kind of traps themselves into that voice a bit.
MB: At some point, however, the desire to try different things does come out. Steve Harris did it with British Lion, Bruce Dickinson with his own solo project. Granted, they’ve been going at it for much longer, but there is clearly a desire to explore. Do you feel something like that, that you would like to try something different but that it just can’t be done as 5 Finger Deathpunch?
Z: We’re not at that point yet. We’re a fairly young band, after all our first record came out in ’07 and we’ve been dropping records fairly often.
While we haven’t run into this problem yet, the fact of the matter is that we sound like we sound, and I’m happy with that; we have an identity, you can tell it’s us, and that’s a very important thing for a band. We started with a pretty big spectrum of genres; I love Scorpions, WASP, Accept (they’re one of my favorite bands in the fucking world!) but I also listen to Dimmu Borgir, Slayer, Voivod, Killswitch Engage, and a lot of other stuff. I manage to find a sound in between those that I’m happy with and, even when we experiment, it’s never going to be heavier than Slayer and it’s never going to be softer than Def Leppard! [Laughs] With such a wide spectrum, we still have a lot of room to try new things.
MB: You worked with a bunch of people in these albums, like Halford, Max Cavalera, Jamey Jasta; yet, all of these collaborations ended up in the first volume, with the exception of a bonus track with Rob Zombie on the second one. Since you said that there were no favorites between these two batches of songs, was it just a coincidence that these collaborations just ended up in the first one?
Z: To record “Lift Me Up” with Rob Halford was just like… “Wow! This happened!!!”; we were just like kids in a candy store. This motivated us to call some more friends and try to do more of these things. We did a bunch of them, but them as “bonus” tracks on the first record, because we wanted to make sure people saw the record as self-sufficient, since we’re very proud of it and didn’t need any gimmicks.
For the second album, however, we didn’t want to do the exact same thing (even though we have a bunch of songs that we recorded with other artists) because it would just look like a gimmick.
MB: And who are those artists?
Z: Ryan Clark from Demon Hunter, Rob Zombie, Dir en Grey (we have a version of a song that is partially in Japanese)…. We decided to keep these songs and use them later for soundtracks or special events instead of just doing the same thing again.
MB: I was recently reading an interview you gave on Metal Hammer, where the interviewer was basically telling you that you’re very smart.
Z: No idea what was wrong with that journalist! [Laughs]
MB: They asked you whether you found it amusing that your music gave perhaps the idea that you’re all quite stupid. While you said that this is not something that worries you, since you have a series of intellectual accomplishments, don’t you think that this image of the band being a bunch of airheads is perhaps understandable considering the “violence+music+money” theme that seems to dominate a big part of your material?
Z: You have to look at what the medium is. If we talk about movies, there will be a different attendance to a Schwarzenegger movie than to a documentary about hydrogen. The two have a different function and intention.
MB: So are 5 Finger Deathpunch the “action movie” of music?
Z: We’re probably closer to an action movie, yes. While what you do depends on the medium, it’s also important how it connects to your audience.
I could speak to you in Shakespearean English; however, not only would it be out of place, but also most of the people listening would just be wandering what the fuck I’m saying. Music is a tool to connect to people, and to put them into a certain mood and emotional landscape, so it would be bizarre if you weren’t talking to them in a direct manner. If I want to sing about something that makes me angry, the lyrics probably won’t say “Sir, would you please step aside”, but rather “Get the fuck out of my way!” [laughs] It’s direct, because it’s what you or I would say in that situation. That’s the energy of the music. We are, after all, a rock band.
On the other hand, some things are nothing more than tools of expression and there is no need to read into them too deep; The other day, for instance, we did a photo shoot for a magazine saluting the troops; we wore military uniforms, etc. Almost all of the military were very thankful, while some said that us wearing the uniform was insulting to them. Hell, you don’t watch a movie to see a bunch of people running around in their civilian clothing with a caption saying “Imagine these actors look like soldiers”. Jesus! It’s a fucking movie! Of course they will be dressed in uniforms to deliver the message, to make a point. Nobody is insulting anyone.
MB: People thought it was disrespectful that you were wearing the uniform?
Z: Yes, although it was only a few here and there. I mean, come on, we’re saluting the troops. In fact, we were just coming from visiting them down range when we did the shoot!
MB: You work a lot with the troops?
Z: We do a lot of military shows; people don’t know about them because we don’t put them on our public schedule.
We’ve visited the middle east, we’ve done shows in military bases in Germany, everywhere.
MB: You feel very connected with them?
Z: Yes, we have a lot of fans in uniform.
The military connection comes from the lyrics; the “action movie” thing again. It’s always been kind of about the “survivalist” mentality: Get up and fight for the things you believe in.
MB: Well, it IS “action movie” music. It’s the kind of thing that those kids are probably listening to in their Hummers.
I won’t even pretend that I agree with the US’ foreign policy; however, I totally get the idea of supporting these kids and their families.
Z: That’s the point; it’s about the individual soldier and what it takes to do what they do. When they are called upon, they can’t run away, their job is to go there and handle the situation. It takes a lot of balls to do what these people do, so we always connected to them, the individuals.
For us it was never about the political agenda, we’ve never advocated war itself.
MB: I get it; even people from the left, like Jon Stewart, visit them quite often. Besides, and even though for many of the soldiers there must be this patriotic idealism, for many of them it’s just the only thing they could do; recruiters tend to go to poor neighborhoods to get kids to enlist.
Z: Of course, some of them also go for the education, the opportunity to go to college.
MB: Speaking of patriotism; the song “The Pride”…
Do you know the movie “Team America World Police”?
Z:It’s one of my favorite movies! I laughed my ass off! [Starts quoting lines from the movie]
MB: Well, the first time someone showed me “The Pride” the only thing I could think about was “America Fuck Yeah”. I refused to believe it was serious… I still refuse to believe that’s serious.
Z: You have to understand our sense of humor.
We called that record American Capitalist in the middle of a financial meltdown for a reason.
MB: Then again, if you read the lyrics of American Capitalist you don’t get the vibe of “Oh, these guys really like Milton Friedman”, while in “The Pride” there is space for doubt.
Z: As an artist you can’t preach, you can only point things out. I can’t tell you what to think, but I have an artistic way in which I can point out certain things so as to make you think about them.
When we did American Capitalist, some parts of the record were about what we were feeling back then. As we became successful we saw that vultures started to appear, people who started to hate us for no reason, as if our success meant that we had done something bad.
Anybody who is successful or makes money attracts this negativity and hate. I was like “What the fuck happened to free market economics? What happened to survival of the fittest?”. This is exactly what went wrong with communism, namely that they tried to equalize everyone, even though people are not all the same.
Some motherfucker smokes crack while you work your ass off; you’re not equal! Should he get the same benefits that you do? Fuck no.
MB: There is a certain desire to instigate class warfare; some people love to criticize those who have more simply because they have more. This, of course, doesn’t change the fact that there is inequality and that people don’t always start the competition on an equal footing.
Z: I agree. This whole issue is something that we just pointed out in the album. The negativity and the hate are not the solution.
MB: American Capitalist is not serious though. I read the lyrics yesterday and… come on.
Z: As an artist you have to place yourself in a middle line so that the listener will ask themselves what it’s all about.
MB: Or, “are these motherfuckers serious?!”.
Z: That’s the point; everything you say has to be put in an angle that makes the listener wonder whether it’s serious or sarcasm
MB: And “The Pride”? Come on, it’s not serious song.
Z: It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, yes, but every joke is based on something true.
MB: Firmly tongue-in-cheek.
MB: But there’s people who didn’t see it like that, and it goes back to what we talked about how people think you’re all stupid, so they assume that this is as deep as it can get when you try to be patriotic. Still, it’s tongue-in-cheek.
Z: Somewhat! [Laughs] I won’t give you a final answer. I can’t rob people of their own perception by explaining everything line by line.
MB: You became an American citizen, so you clearly feel connected with the country. Still, when you just arrived, what misconceptions did you encounter when it came to their view of Hungary?
Z: Not many. It’s a tiny country, so it was beyond the line of people giving a shit enough to know anything about it, so they didn’t even have misconceptions.
Some people think that Americans are arrogant and ignorant. Coming from another country these are things that you may encounter, but you soon realize that they are like that because they just don’t need to know.
Above that, wouldn’t it be arrogant of me to expect them to know about the world I came from? They are concentrating on their own lives; their own world is number one to them. They are in the front row seat of that theater, and just like if you have the front row seat at a football game you would rarely look back and wonder what the people behind you are doing. You’d be watching the game.
MB: However, if your country has military bases in over 50% of the world… maybe you should, I don’t know, be aware of what’s happening outside of your borders. I sort of understand why the ignorance happens though, since the country aimed at, and achieved, being self-sustaining from the very beginning.
Z: Everyone is ignorant about certain things. A farmer could say you and I are ignorant because we have no clue about how to milk a cow. Life runs on a need to know basis, and on the prioritization of concerns. For an average person, the need to search for something outside of the borders rarely arises.
America is a big country with lots of resources, where you won’t find the kind of limitations that you’d encounter somewhere else. Everything is possible and available somehow. The need to search for something outside rarely arises.
MB: Do you watch Fox News?
Z: For entertainment? [Laughs]
MB: Have you ever watched Bill O’Reilly or Glenn Beck?
Z: Yes, but that’s the extreme right, just like there’s an extreme left.
MB: Sure, but… I mean, have you ever seen Bill O’Reilly explaining how we know God exists? “Tide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that!”. Motherfucker, that’s one of the things we CAN explain!
MB: The media in the United States is a bit too partisan and the rhetoric too vitriolic.
Z: It’s also about the fact that they have the freedom to be like that. I remember when I was a kid back in Hungary, and they reported how air traffic controllers were on strike in the US, saying that this showed how the “capitalist system oppressed and exploited the people” . It had a reverse effect on us, because we took it as “Really? They can strike? They can go out on the street, and say they’re not happy and not get shot for it?!”
MB: For a while America did represent a series of ideals that other countries looked up to, a beacon of freedom. I really don’t think they’re doing that anymore though.
Z: It’s a new country. It’s not made up of the remains of a feudalistic society or a thousand year-old kingdom; people got together and formed a country, with a great ideas, through the Constitution. They established a great system of government; true, some of the ideals haven’t been accomplished, but it’s a work in progress.
In comparison it’s still a fairly new country. Right out of the gates, it was much further removed from a feudalistic society or some thousand year-old kingdom with deeply embedded submissive social habits. The Founding Fathers practically founded a country based on great ideas and ideals. They wrote a well thought out Constitution and laid down the foundation for something they imagined to grow into a great, fair new world and established a new system of government. True, some of the ideals haven’t been accomplished, some have been even eroded, but it’s a work in progress and it still beats all the other options. I’m trying to be optimistic here.
MB: After 250 years I don’t think you get to use the “it’s my first day” defense though
MB: Talking about all of these topics; do you think that when it comes to your views and opinions they’re portrayed accurately in interviews?
Z: It all ends up being about headlines; sometimes they pick things out of context in order to attract attention. ?Controversy sells. For instance, we’ve been called a “tough guy metal band”, and that came from an interview in which we talked about survival and how every day of your life, since you came into this world, you’re always in a struggle. Conversations about these things would get twisted into ridiculous things. There was this time when I said something about free market economy, making an analogy with lions and zebras, and the writer changed the zebra for a moose – something that specifically does not live in Africa, to make us look like fucking idiots.
Once a reporter told us that our audience is “full of tough guys” . I don’t really think that’s 100% true, since we have a full spectrum of fans from 16 years old girls, from little kids to soldiers, grown ass men, and blue collar workers: we have everything! I said, however, that I wouldn’t be surprised if our music did attract people with sort of the same mentality as ours, the survivalist “lets get shit done!” mentality. The reporter then insisted “So, then you do play music for the tough guys?”; “As opposed to what?” I asked “… the pussies ?” I said “If you really wanna stick to that theme, sure, I guess we play for the tough guys any day over the pussies”. So I read the Headline a week later: 5FDP Plays Music for the Tough Guys – Not for the Pussies! [Laughs]
MB: There is a big problem in music journalism. On the one hand, it has a lot of people who wanted to be musicians, but couldn’t; on the other, there’s a delusion as to how serious our job is. It doesn’t matter what your opinion is about anything, you’re a musician, you’re not going to shift any policies, but some will still try to make it sound as important and controversial as possible.
Z: If they have a controversial headline, people will start arguing; that gives them traffic, there’s a financial reason. This is how tabloids survive, and here it’s the same thing. Especially the web stuff.
When you print something you might have to issue a retraction; when it comes to the web, and we’re the first generation of musician that has had to deal with this all the time, it’s the wild, wild west. You can say whatever the fuck you want, it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. I’ve seen interviews I never gave!
MB: Wait; what?!
Z: Yeah! [Laughs] I read a whole interview with me that I never did.
MB: Did you at least agree with yourself?
Z: No! [Laughs] All you can do is send a cease-and-desist letter and get them to take it down, but there isn’t a real punishment for them.
You’ll have kids reacting to things you never said, things that never happened. This is the age of misinformation.
For instance, we saw a fake flyer online, after we fired our bass player back in the War is the Answer time, on Blabbermouth. They posted this flyer that even had an outdated picture of the band, saying that we looked for a bass player that had a certain height and other ridiculous shit like that. Then you have a few hundred kids arguing about that shit. Could have Blabbermouth verified this? Sure, they could have asked us; Were they malicious or just cared for the traffic it would generate? I don’t know. I don’t really care. I learned not to care. I guess we are blessed that we are in the news one way or another, and that people give a shit.
MB: Well, Blabbermouth pride themselves in being the CNN of metal. I think that’s accurate.
Z: [Laughs] That’s the business model. Sites like that protect themselves saying that it’s not their content and that they’re just putting up something somebody else said or did. They play the news game very safe and very well; they pick clever and controversial headlines. I understand, these sites wouldn’t survive without doing so. As a reaction, artists in general had to grow a thicker skin; we won’t survive in this business if we don’t. We can’t correct all misinformation, and we can’t set every record straight.
MB: Well, although in a completely different scale, for me it’s still a surprise that in my interviews nobody has called me a fag or said that they’ve fucked my mother. I guess they respect my mom.
Z: [Laughs] Isn’t it crazy that this is even a thing to discuss?
The written word used to have a certain weight. You didn’t just become a writer in a big magazine, you needed to work your way up to get there, you couldn’t just make shit up. The printed word is still, to some degree, seen like that; the general public didn’t make the transition yet that with the Internet it’s different now, there are no limits to what you can say and the truth is no longer sacred.
MB: Well, the good thing about the internet is that it gave a voice to everyone. The bad thing is that it gave a voice to everyone.
Z: [Laughs] Exactly. What changes is that now some random guy on Twitter matters because he generates a page-view, so the media will start catering to him.
The media has changed and started catering to the lowest common denominator. That’s why you have biased headlines and made up stuff.
This new record is actually about the social phenomena this technological advancement created. All these people are now shouting their opinions into cyberspace and they are very aggressive about their point of views, but nobody questions whether their beliefs are verifiable, quantifiable, or whether those beliefs stand up in a completely different culture. Your truth could be ridiculous in another society and their beliefs could be taboos in yours, but who is the elected judge to decide which one of you is right?
Wrong Side of Heaven and Righteous Side of Hell is about how everything you believe is right might also be wrong, and whatever you think is completely wrong might not be completely so. It’s all a matter of perception. The yin and yang both have a contrasting dot. This is what that dot means.
Everything you think you know is determined by just a limited amount of knowledge; it doesn’t matter how smart you think you are, there is only one universal truth: As humans, we have no fucking idea about what’s going on around us, what it is we are experiencing and perceiving as our lives. Unfortunately, this is the only thing that we can be certain of.