Unsociably loud, theatrical and bombastic - but that’s enough about MusicRadar's Hywel Davies. Here’s his little chat with Avenged Sevenfold bassist Johnny Christ.
The board is set and the pieces are moving for Orange County metal juggernauts Avenged Sevenfold. Three years since 2013’s Hail To The King album, the Californian five-piece went undercover and dropped one of the most ambitious albums of their career last October.
At a whopping 73 minutes long, The Stage packs more cool bass parts than we have broken strings, with bassist Jonathan Seward - otherwise known as Johnny Christ - unleashed in all his splendour. We sat down with Seward before hitting the stage (ahem) at Cardiff’s Motorpoint Arena.
“I think it all came down to what we were feeling at the time,” explains Seward about the musical direction of the album. “We were very proud of everything that we accomplished with Hail To The King, but when it was time to write a new record, it was like, ‘Well, we accomplished that. Let’s see what else we can do,’ and took it to the next level.”
Among the deluge of riffs, vocal harmonies, orchestras and kitchen sinks that was chucked into the signature bombastic style of past AS albums, only the smallest of nooks was left for Seward to work within. However, his bass has grown to become a fundamental element within the band. His parts are woven intricately into the fabric of this latest venture, keeping those intricate rhythms sounding beefy, tight and definitive.
“This album is a little bit more proggy than the last couple of records,” he says. “It has a lot more space than City Of Evil  did. We put layers and layers of every kind of sound on that record - there was no space for anything else. We took every soundwave you could possibly make and threw it at that record, so there was only one little spot for the bass. I had to find a niche right in there.
“But this record has a lot more balls to it. I was able to dig in and find a rad tone with my bass and play with my fingers. When we play our songs live from those other albums, I’ll still go back to the pick, just because it was the sound we were going for at the time. I think I only use a pick a couple of times in this set.
“When I got into songs like Exist, I was like, ‘Okay, this riff has some bass sweeping in it, I’m definitely going to have to use a pick… but I guess I’ll have to learn how to sweep first!’ What it really comes down to, especially in metal, is that the bass needs to cut through, so you go to the pick for that effect. But when you have a certain feel about the music and really dig in to get a big growl, you have to go with the fingers, because you’re not going to get it with a pick.”
Pushing the limit
Typically, when a band as big as AS reach their middle career, the once well-oiled machine starts to lose its drive as ideas become stale and unmotivated. However, after 18 years and seven albums of pulverising heavy metal, The Stage is the band’s most thought-provoking and challenging release to date. How far was Johnny willing to push himself for this album?
“Ah man, as far as we could take ourselves,” he replies. “The real challenge was honestly never a playability kind of thing. It was more a matter of, ‘How could I push myself creatively?’ I specifically used a lot of hip-hop influences, like Dr. Dre on some of the choruses: I made it kind of bouncy. But more than anything for those songs, I wanted to make sure we were having fun. We wanted to make a different sounding record that we hadn’t done before, and I think we achieved that.”
How much does he rely on his influences while writing his parts, we wonder? “I’ve always had influences from all over the place, like Mr. Bungle and Primus. As a band, we try not to focus too much on where it’s coming from, because we’re always listening to music. Right now, I’ve been listening to The Weeknd’s new record over and over backstage. You’re always listening to the music, so somewhere it’s going to come out. I don’t think about it too much - when it comes, it comes.”
Since the tragic death of original drummer James ‘The Rev’ Sullivan back in December 2009, Johnny has had to lock in his style with several drummers, Mike Portnoy [ex-Dream Theater] and Arin Ilejay among them.
“As time went on, I really realised how important it was when I started working with the Rev and getting a great groove on with him,” he recalls. “He was the ultimate groove master. Learning from him and playing with him for so many years helped make sure that I lock in with the drummer. Since then we’ve had a few different drummers and now we’re out with Brooks Wackerman, who is just awesome. He is just stupidly good: he’s a little bit tidier then the Rev was, but he still goes off on one, which makes it fun.”
AS have never been strangers to Schecter guitars. Guitarists Brian Haner, Jr. [aka Synyster Gates] and Zachary Baker [aka Zacky Vengeance] are both long-serving Schecter endorsers, and Johnny wasn’t going to be left out.
His signature Schecter bass is a sleek work of art that sounds as good as it looks. With a satin black ash body, maple neck and golden bone cross inlays with the band’s ‘death bat’ on the 12th fret, Seward is delighted with his creation.
“I went over to Schecter after years playing with Music Man. I loved Music Man, but I was ready to design my own bass. I was able to go over to Schecter and design it from the bottom up, and I’m very proud of it. I use an EMG 81 guitar pickup close to the neck because I wanted that growl and high-end pop which a Rickenbacker has.
“We went through a bunch of pickups and one of the Schecter guys said, ‘The only thing we haven’t tried yet is a guitar pickup’. So we put it in and it did everything I wanted it to do. It has all the bottom and all the control you could ever want from a bass.”
We’ve all heard the rumour that bassists are the most under-appreciated member of any band - but not in AS’s case it isn’t. Singer M Shadows recently admitted on YouTube that “Johnny Christ is the leader of Avenged Sevenfold. Johnny Christ writes all the songs. Without Johnny Christ, Avenged Sevenfold would be nothing.” Could our man confirm that this is still the case? “Of course! He’s the one who said it... I’m not going to go back on it!”
Avenged Sevenfold's album The Stage is out now.