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Before sharing the stage with Korn and Heaven Shall Burn in Antwerp, I was able to score an interview with Hellyeah‘s lead-singer Chad Gray. What made this an amazing experience was not only the chat I was able to have but the fact I was able to do it on their nightliner. While I was fascinated by the space (it was larger than my room!), Chad couldn’t get enough of the deLonghi espresso machine. Something he referred to as “something I definitely need to get when I get back”. As we sat at the dinner table and I turned on my dictaphone, I would never have guessed we would talk for 50 minutes..

Being one of the founding members, you’ve seen Hellyeah grow and change. How did you experience this evolution?
It’s been exciting. Tom and I have been talking about this since 2000 and through all the years it is finally coming to fruition. When you get in a room to write, even if you were with the 5 most outstanding musicians, you might not be able to come up with a single thing. Their own personal interests, their self ego gets in the way. You have to be open and receptive to criticisms and you have to be constructive. If you can’t deal with those criticisms constructively, it won’t stick. But that was one of the really cool things. Especially with me and Vinnie not knowing each other that well, we just hung out the first night we met and partied it up. We got to know each other and the next day we went in the studio and we saw that it worked. We didn’t even know what we were doing. Whether it was a side project or what was going to happen with it since Greg and I were still doing Mudvayne. We liked it enough to do both, which was a huge undertaking. It was probably the craziest three years of my life, playing in both bands, touring with them and writing albums. Then the second record came around and I was still doing the other thing and I felt there needed to be a division. It felt like sawing myself in half with the band-saw. It was hard but I never really aspired to be a rock singer. I always wanted to be a metal singer, to emote and show feelings and metal has always been amazing with that. In any metal band there’s a level of hopelessness and intensity that just really comes round in the music. That’s what I aspire to be as a metal musician: aggressive but also helpless and passive on another level. As metal heads, I think that’s where our loyalty comes from. So then record number three comes along. I wanted to get back to being who I am, since I had the feeling of being in this facade of being something different. It was fun but because of that I felt we weren’t being taken seriously. Then on to the next progression, Blood for Blood. Literally two days before starting the recording of that record, Greg leaves the band. I had been writing with him for fourteen years so it got me hard. When I heard the news, I was doubting if we could actually do it. We were in Vegas at the time, so I told the other guys I was going back to Arizona to pick up my truck and drive it back up. I stayed in Arizona for a week and Tom calls me and convinces me to go back.So I drove back and we started recording and fought through that whole thing. It was an incredible feeling. Kevin Churco actually deserves a lot of credit for bringing balance during the whole production. It was a cool situation for us too because, before that, Hellyeah had never really been produced. We just got done touring for Blood for Blood and we took two weeks off and started writing for Unden!able. It was really hard. Especially for Tom since he has a little kid. I don’t have any but I’m assuming it’s a pretty big deal. We threw overtime and discovered we work really good under pressure. Every album’s had a bit of pressure really. The first one with us not knowing each other, the second where we didn’t know what we were doing, the third one turning the barge around and the fourth one steaming up river but missing a member and then the fifth one running back in. Another step in the evolution was with Greg and Bob leaving, we got Kyle and Brady. You’ve just got to cut away the dead wood. I’m not dissing anybody but if your head and your heart’s not in the band, it’s gone. Anybody that’s seen Hellyeah from the early era to the now era needs to open the book because it’s completely different. Overall the evolution’s been inspiring.

Of couse every band goes through those kinds of changes. Especially to find the right members  who it just works with.
Well yeah, I’d always comment back and talk to the people who follow me. It’s important to have that kind of relationship. I was going back and forth with this dude once. He asked me this “what advice do you have” and I didn’t really know what to answer because I did everything the old school way. You know, going through the process of getting with a group of people seeing who wanted to hang and who didn’t and just cut heads. In the end you end up with a whole group of new guys but they’re in it for the right reasons. That’s when you move forward. Whatever happens from there happens. All it takes is going through that process and compromise. It doesn’t always have to be head chopping but you might have to sit down and have a good talking to that person.

Your latest album, Unden!able,  is filled with different emotions. Anger, depression, feelings of betrayal, … seemed to be key in the production of it. It’s like you’re building further on what you left behind in your previous bands. Was this intentional?
When I started singing, it all started in that band and that’s the only way I really truly know how to express myself. So I think I don’t really have to hide from myself. I brought myself from what I did in Mudvayne to Hellyeah now. I’m just being me. It’s not like I’m trying to pull Mudvayne to Hellyeah. I’m just trying to get back to being me and that’s me singing the way I sing, getting emotional as I am, getting blood spit in my face. That’s what I like, that’s truly what I feel in my heart when I’m bent over on that box and I got my head in my hands, I’m living that moment. It’s so fucking real. I’m just carrying on that torch that was passed onto me from those metalbands I grew up listening to and seeing the way that they did it. Everybody is influenced by somebody and it’s always been that way since the beginning.

Just like your previous album, Blood for Blood, the songs are more serious than other Hellyeah tracks such as “Alcohaulin’ Ass”. Is the band trying to reinvent itself by steering away from “party songs”?
Exactly. It’s not really me anymore. I like taking this band seriously. It fills the void and I need this music to survive. I need the people to continue to support metal music in order to survive. We are no more important than the person standing in front of us in that crowd. That crowd has so much power and I feel that that’s what my job is… to empower those people to be themselves, to believe in themselves and to be whatever they want to be. I’m so appreciative of all the support we get and all the people that are finally knocking down the wall between Hellyeah and our previous bands that are Pantera and Mudvayne and just accepting it for what it is. That’s hard to do because people are very emotional about their music. There’s a lot of emotions attached to it so I understand their frustration. But I see that it’s beginning to get accepted since everybody in the band is bringing what they played in their past to Hellyeah. That was exciting for me to have that realization of not wanting to hide from myself, to be who I am, to not care about being judged. Like I said, all I can do is do my best at what I do and try to encourage and motivate people to give us a shot and empower people to be who they are. But I want Vinnie to be my hero drummer. I saw that band and was like “damn”. Dime is one of my biggest life influences. The way he carried himself was huge. It was humble. He would give his shirt off his back to anyone, talk to anyone, he would never shine anyone. He wasn’t like that and that’s what metal is all about.

photo credit David Jackson

What do you think keeps metal alive?
We’re all one big family. Looking down from that stage at a moshpit and seeing everyone get knocked out and stuff and seeing the dude that did it stop, put his hand out and help the dude up… It’s just the unity and the community that to me are the really cool things about metal. The relationship between the bands and the fans. I don’t even really call them fans. Fans are more fanatic. I believe in a level playing field and that’s how we survive. Like I said, it’s my job to empower people, I want people to know that they empower me. It really is a give and take situation and there is circumvention with energy going on. They scream, we play harder and there’s real beauty in that. It’s a family bond. Taking care of one another and to get comfortable in a space with people you don’t even know, all because of the music. That, to me, is the essence of metal.

Talking about the fans, what has the response been like to the last few albums where you’ve been getting more serious?
It’s been great. I mean, you got to do it slick and ease people into it. A lot of people have followed us into this direction and a lot of new, more serious people, have begun to wrap their mind around what we’re doing because it’s more what they’re into. Talking about Alcohaulin’s Ass is a Dime inspired song. It’s amazing how much stuff that guy had lying around. It was just tongue in cheek, joke songs. Dime had a whole album of them. One of them was called Takes an asshole to smoke a cigarette. It was a whole song about how much he hated people smoking cigarettes around him. It’s that kind of tongue in cheek humor. We did it at the same studio that they worked in and there was definitely a sense of Dime there. It was in his garage where they did Trendkill, Rebel Meets Rebel and the Damageplan records. So yeah, there was a lot of Dime-time in that studio and I think there was still a piece of him in there. I always think he’s with us man, even on our shows I feel him there.

It must be a difficult subject to talk about after his passing in 2004..
We pride ourselves on continuing his legacy because he was so powerful and so important to metal. I don’t know anybody that doesn’t like him or couldn’t appreciate him. What he brought to music was outstanding. All those great songs started with those riffs that he would write and lay down. It generally starts with the guitar player laying down the riff so that’s a pretty big set of shoes to fill. But what he did to music was brilliant. Just like the song I don’t care on our new album, that was never in the plans. That was so late in the record that that started coming around. Kevin, Brady and Vinnie were in the main studio and in the middle of those sessions they took a break and started talking. I don’t know what they were talking about but Brady brings up that song to cover and Vinnie was like “It’s funny you should mention that ’cause Dime and I recorded that like 14 years ago”. So yeah, we looked into it and they recorded it on this old Radar system. Back in the day they had Protools and Radar and Protools. So Vinnie calls Sterling and they found the session in one of the 4 storage units Pantera has. It actually took a couple of weeks before we could start the vocal recording since we had to contact Radar for a new system to read those files. But my god, it was so awesome to be able to do that and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about that. It was just one more way for us to continue his brilliance. Even after 10 years that he’s been stolen from us, to resurrect something he did and for me to be able to sing on it was a feeling I can’t describe.

Talking about I don’t care anymore. I noticed that on most tracks of the album but here especially, the drums have a very prominent part in the sound. Was there a special reason to bringing it like this?
Well, Vinnie definitely shines and it’s such a drum prominent song. The biggest hook of that song is the drums and that’s weird because mostly it’s the vocals or the chorus. That drum sequence is just such a powerful part of the song so we didn’t really mind pushing that a little bit, considering the player and the part. I’ve always loved that song anyway. I like all of Phil Collins‘s work. I like all music, I’m not just a metalhead.

You’re playing Download festival in the UK soon. How do you compare festivals to smaller shows?
We’re so excited for the UK. I’ve been wanting to do a UK properly since this band started and although this doesn’t cover the whole of it, there’s at least six dates and it’s not just download, which I love. Don’t get me wrong, but there’s like 150 bands there over the course of a few days so everybody in the UK goes there. They’re not only your fans while, if you do club shows and you’re doing 75 minute sets, it’s about you and your crew. Whatever your crew totals there is how you know how many people you’ve properly reached. We’re so appreciative of Korn for bringing us over here to get in front of just three bands and play for a more condensed Korn crowd which we can totally appeal to. It’s a really a good look for us. It might be a country thing: I’ve noticed some people in some cities are more watchy and sometimes the whole floor is a kind of moshpit. It’s been different in every city. Zurich was insane and Paris was a bit more laid back but they were watching it. You got to remember a lot of these people don’t know us but we come in like a fighter jet, opening with X.

Now you mention X, I got to say the 360° music clip is insane!
Thank you! It was so funny too… We were doing a photo shoot that day and he was pulling us one at a time over and over again and just having us run through it a couple of times. I didn’t fully understand how cool that was going to be or trust me, I would have put a lot more energy into that. When I saw it when it was done I couldn’t believe it. Nobody explained to me it was going to be this cool. I mean… you can look up and down. You can see my feet or look up at the sky, just amazing. I never really witnessed it apart from the landscape videos and such.

This was it for my interview. Is there anything you’d like to add?
Keep fighting the good fight ’cause this is what it’s all about. The music and the sense of belonging. It’s on us to keep this alive through all the shit that’s going on in the world. We’re all in this together.

It was at this point that Tom Maxwell got on the bus. After a short chat, a selfie and Chad and Tom duetting “Everyone has aids” from Team America because I have the same name as the main character, it was time to leave. I’m very appreciative to have had the chance to do this interview and see their amazing performance (gig coverage). See you again soon dudes!