Today, Black Stone Cherry, Shinedown and Halestorm may be filling arenas, but they slogged for years in tiny clubs, toilet tours and er… funerals. So who better to give us an insight into life in a hard-touring band?
We get around the table with Chris Robertson, Ben Wells, Zach Myers, Lzzy Hale and Joe Hottinger and hear about bizarre shows, studio no-nos and keeping your drummer on a leash…
You’re here today playing a huge arena, but what’s the strangest show you played early on in your career?
Lzzy: “Well, there was one time we played at a funeral…”
Chris, Ben & Zach:
Lzzy: “It was a good gig, $50 a song! We didn’t know the deceased and they set us up to play in front of the closed casket. Everyone was crying. It wasn’t like people were clapping or anything, it was a real bummer.”
Joe: “We did two songs and that was like big money. We did a Jim Croce song, and a Don Henley song… that was the deceased’s favourite song.”
Chris: “Well, Halestorm wins this round!”
From early gigs to early recording experiences. What’s the biggest lesson you learned in your first time in the studio?
Zach: “I’m a confident guitar player but in the studio I’m like a little kid who has never picked up a guitar in his life. I get super nervous. I’ve been recording since I was 14, so for me getting confidence was, and still is, the biggest thing.
“I get scared in the studio. You need to realise that you’re in a room with people that love you and you’re not being judged but in your head you’re thinking, ‘Oh my god, they’re all looking at me.’ The studio has never been this fun magical place for me.”
Ben: “I’m the same, it’s like you’re under a microscope. Live you’ve got people out there and it’s cool.”
Joe: “Live, a mistake just goes off in the wind.”
Chris: “I’m the complete opposite, studio for me is where I go, ‘Let’s do this shit.’ Then there’s something I love about knowing that I could fall flat on my face playing live, but trying to save it is part of the fun.
“I screw something up every night. We were playing last night and I was doing a solo and hit the most godawful note on the planet. I could see people’s faces screwing up, but I saved it with the next one.”
Joe: “You just play that wrong note three times and then all of a sudden it’s right!”
How much of a learning curve were those early studio experiences for you?
Joe: “One of my very first times in the studio, we had this song and I was playing it just competently. The producer said, ‘Okay, now let’s double it up.’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean double it up?’ I had no idea what I’d just played so I couldn’t double it.”
Zach: “I’m the same. I’m such a live guitar player that I don’t remember what I play. Doubling it is the hardest thing for me because I have no clue. My right hand never does the same thing twice.”
Chris: “In the studio Ben and I would do a rhythm track each and then we’d go to double. We couldn’t double ourselves for shit. But we could double each other. If we got rid of our own guitar track and I played with Ben’s track or vice versa it was one take and we were done. We were real tight to each other’s playing. Hey, why do you need five guitar tracks on a song anyway?”
Lzzy: “Right! And this is coming from guitar players!”
Chris: “Ben’s usually like, ‘Okay, let’s do 36 rhythm tracks on the chorus.’”
Ben: “We’ve been guilty of wanting to stack the tracks up a lot. We’ve done albums like that and then we’ve done albums with two tracks per side and the one with less usually sounds better and way more heavy.”
Do you like to experiment using vintage gear in the studio, or stick to your tried-and-trusted live rigs?
Chris: “On our new record, I literally took my live rig into the studio. I used to do all the vintage stuff and then I had to keep paying out to fix the stuff and that sucks. I’ve found the amps that work for me and I use them every night. I like stuff to be simple. My amp has four knobs. I recorded the new record with a new prototype PRS amp. They sent me a new amp, a super awesome two-channel 50-watt amp and I recorded the whole record with it and then the other channel is the four-knob amp, which is an original Sewell.”
Lzzy: “I do exactly the same thing in the studio, I take my live rig and I plug directly in and get everything done with just a [Marshall] JCM800.”
How about pedals - do you experiment with those at all?
Chris: “The question that drives me batshit crazy is, ‘What distortion pedal do you use to get that sound?’ I’m like, ‘Umm… the volume knob on the amp.’ We’ve never used a distortion pedal. We might use an Octave Fuzz for lead sounds, but you should just let the amp do its job.”
Zach: “Especially in the studio that’s true.”
Lzzy: “Yeah, you’re in that rare situation where you’re in a room and you can just crank it up.”
Joe: “Er… I actually use a distortion pedal…”
Lzzy: [laughs] “Oh yeah, distortion pedals are cool.”
Zach: “Well, if you’re into that kind of thing…”
Ben: “What’s that you’re using there, Joe, is it a DOD Grunge pedal maybe?”
Lzzy: “Oh god that was my first distortion pedal.”
Ben: “I had one of those, and an Ibanez distortion pedal.”
Chris: “I had a RAT. I used to have a ’68 Bassman Silverface. I bought it off this guy that my dad played music with for years… It was typical old Fender, just loud as shit. But I used it with that RAT distortion and I was playing an Ibanez Artist double-cut, that was sweet.”
Ben: “Yeah, you were so cool back then…”
Chris: “Okay, Mr Schecter Scorpion through a Roc Pro!”
Ben: “Hey, there are people out there that like those, I just couldn’t pull it off.”
Chris: “No, it didn’t work with your hair.”
Zach: “The Bassman is my favourite amp. I own more Bassman amps than any other and we used a lot of Bassmans on our new record.”
Chris: “Jim Marshall loved them. You plug in the bass side of them, it’s like Leslie West in a box.”
Zach: “If you a play a Strat into a Bassman you get the fattest tone ever. We use a bunch of combos and weird stuff. I used to bring my live rig into the studio but now I see it as an opportunity to have fun and be like a kid in Toys R Us and be like, ‘I want this, this and this.’ I still nerd out in the studio.”
Advice for the young at heart
If you could go back to when you were starting out on guitar and give yourself one piece of advice what would it be?
Chris: “I’d have bought a better tuner! Nah, I may have taken some lessons because I never took any. I wish I had better understanding of guitar beyond just playing something until it sounds cool.”
Lzzy: “There’s no wrong way to learn the guitar. I’m the oddball at this table because I started on piano first and then had to figure it out from there. For the longest time I didn’t know what anything was and I was going by ear and sight.
“I think all of us would now say that a couple more lessons early on would have been good. But at the same time you are shaping your unique perspective on the guitar by diving in head first and just figuring it out as you go along.”
What’s the biggest lesson about life in a band that you have learned?
Chris: “I got to a point where I didn’t want to do this anymore. We were doing great, headlining the O2 Academy venues, but I was miserable. I was a miserable person to be around.
“For me the most important thing with any gig is just to have fun and not take it too seriously. It’s my job but dude, the whole reason people come to see us is to let go of the negative shit and have fun. If I screw up a song or sing something flat, which I’m going to do every night, man shit happens, just smile and go on, you get to do it all again tomorrow night.”
Ben: “If you screw up at our work you don’t have a boss standing over you saying, ‘If you do that one more time you’re fired.”
Chris: “I really appreciate you not firing me. [laughs]”
Hang on to yourself
As bands that have toured heavily for several years, how important is keeping the live show fresh?
Zach: “To me the key is not over-thinking it and staying true to who you are. For us, we’re now 13 years in and we’ve always been a stick to the set list for a whole tour band and that has driven me crazy since the day I joined.
“I go see bands like Pearl Jam and I’m like, ‘I want to take our set list and flip it on its head every night.’ We’re now just starting to change it up. That has been so much fun.”
Chris: “We always open with Rain Wizard, but last night we tried a different opener. I was talking to some fans after the show, and we were saying how we’ve always closed with Lonely Train and the guy goes, ‘And why the hell didn’t you open with Rain Wizard?’ That works.’ Tonight marks 11 years of us playing the same opening and closing songs.”
Lzzy: “An anniversary!”
Ben: “We play that song as the opener because we haven’t written one that can top it yet. I don’t know what that says about us…”
Joe: “We did this ‘Evening with…’ tour in the States where we’d do an acoustic set, take a break, adjust the stage and then do an hour and a half electric and every night was totally different. It was just our fans there, we had no opening band so we could just play whatever we wanted.”
Lzzy: “On that tour we discovered one thing about [Halestorm drummer] Arejay, is that when he gets bored of something, he will start adding things into songs to placate his boredom. With us switching up everything, he actually had to think and listen a little bit to what we were doing.”
Zach: “You put your drummer on a leash!”
Chris and Ben, you also have a larger than life drummer that plays on the edge. What challenges does that bring to Black Stone Cherry?
Chris: “Man, I can’t tell you the number of times the one has been on the one and a half. After 15 years though we just go with it. John Fred is so good, sometimes you’re playing keep-up with what he’s doing.
“Last night we did Ace Of Spades. But John couldn’t hear and came in on the four instead of the one and every one of us hit the four with him. We played in a tiny room rehearsing together for the first five years of the band and we’ve been doing it for 15 years so you just fall in together, thank god. Otherwise our shows would be a complete train wreck.”
Zach: “We skipped a whole two beats on our first song last night and everyone knew. That was bad and then we landed back on the one.”
Bands tend to make their money on the road these days, does that suit you guys?
Ben: “Yeah, we love playing live. If you don’t love doing this you might as well go get a job.”
Lzzy: “You can make a lot more money doing something else that you hate.”
Chris: “Records don’t sell anymore. Adele sells records, but her music is so much more accessible. Not everyone wants to hear a Marshall on 10. The last band that sold six or seven million copies was probably Nickelback a decade ago. The records aren’t selling so you have to stay on the road, and that’s fine with us.”
If records aren’t selling, what’s the motivation to make them?
Zach: “The crowds motivate you. You go out and play in front of these kids and you don’t care how they got your record, you’re just happy they heard your music. For us it is an amazing sense of victory knowing that these people want to hear your band.
“All three of these bands came up together, touring together for five years, playing the same shows so to come over to the UK and see all of the people with shirts of these bands and singing their songs is incredible.
“It sucks that the record industry is in the state that it’s in because I hate that some little kid isn’t going to start a band because he knows he’s not going to get a platinum record. I hate that it could deter kids.”
So what would your advice for kids picking up a guitar for the first time today be?
Chris: “Be careful how you measure success. Success in this business is not about record sales and dollar signs, it’s about the pleasure you get from it.”
Zach: “That might be the only advice you need.”
Ben: “I wasn’t 12 years old picking up a guitar because I wanted to make millions of dollars. C’mon, I wanted to be a rock star.”
Zach: “People coming up to you telling you what your music means to them, that is the currency now. All three of our bands are now playing music around the world. We live a dream.”
Chris: “We get to speak the only universal language on Earth.”
Lzzy: “Hell yeah!”
Black Stone Cherry headline Ramblin' Man Fair on Sunday 24 July, while Shinedown and Halestorm play the Lemmy Stage at Download Festival on Sunday 12 June.