“Sometimes it takes putting down the heavy distorted guitars and picking up the acoustics, and then people can see the layers that go into writing a song.”
These days, deluxe editions of established albums often seem to be short-term money grabs for both bands and labels. Just sprinkle in an extra track or two, up the price of admission, and rake in some extra cash from your fanbase. Ka-ching!
Multimillion-selling metal icons Avenged Sevenfold don’t operate that way, however. As impactful as 2016’s heavy-hitting and chance-taking The Stage was all on its own, the band upped the ante with how they filled out The Stage – Deluxe Edition, available today from Capitol Records in various formats.
“I love hearing where some of our older songs have gone. I wish we could re-record some of them!”
To that end, Avenged Sevenfold doubled the number of Stage tracks by adding one unreleased cut (Dose), six somewhat surprising covers, and four punishing live tracks recorded at the O2 in London while they were opening for Metallica on their recent European/U.K. tour. The live tracks also carry some extra weight behind them due to the recent, unexpected passing of the band’s live sound engineer for the past 12 years, Dave “Shirt” Nicholls.
“I felt the live tracks would be cool to do as an added-value memorial to Shirt,” vocalist M. Shadows admitted to Digital Trends. “He had given me a hard drive of every show of that tour right before he passed away [in May], so I wanted to put his stuff out there to both remember him and give the fans an extra bonus.”
Digital Trends got on the line with Shadows (real name: Matthew Sanders) to discuss how you know when certain songs are the right ones to cover, his views on the possibility of going to Mars and A.I., and the key differences between being an opening act and a headliner.
Digital Trends: Some fans might be surprised to hear Avenged Sevenfold has covered songs from Pink Floyd, Del Shannon, and The Beach Boys for the deluxe edition of The Stage, but not me. I can totally see that lineage and connection to what the band has done all along.
M. Shadows: Well, I’m certain my tastes have gotten more sophisticated as I got older. I would say the most influential band in my life at this point is Pink Floyd — but I also know when I was younger, I couldn’t stand putting on a Pink Floyd record. (both chuckle) I just didn’t get it. What they did was too long, and too, I guess … it was very abstract to me at the time.
And I’ve seen it with The Stage, where there’s definitely a part of our audience that doesn’t get it. I think that’s the audience I was at one point — the one that wanted more heavy-hitting, straight-to-the-point, in-and-out sorts of songs. But you gotta go where your heart takes you, and this is the kind of music we’re playing now. It’s a little more in-depth, and it takes more paying attention to.
What was the criteria for the songs you decided to cover for these bonus tracks?
“Songwriting should always be the main focus of your music.”
We just wanted to pick some things we knew we could have fun with by those artists we really enjoyed and who were really influential on us. The other criteria was we had to be able to take the song and visualize us actually doing it different enough from the original song, but also keeping it true to the original as well.
Songs like [The Beach Boys’] God Only Knows are pretty tough songs to tackle, especially in terms of how people are going to look at it when it’s done. But we were trying to have fun with it. We just went in the studio, knocked it out, gave each other high-fives, and we loved it!
Because The Stage had a certain quality level to it, did you have to make sure the bonus material level-matched the album’s original 11 songs in terms of tone and production, and also make sure your vocal placement was similar in those mixes?
Yeah, totally. We actually recorded 90 percent of those covers while we were recording The Stage. That was the plan all along — to have the record evolve in that way. And that’s why I was really proud of the band, because, production-wise, adding on six or seven more songs after you’ve been in the studio for two or three months can really be taxing.
The only thing that was different with the B-sides is that we had Joe Barresi [Queens of the Stone Age, Coheed and Cambria] mix those, whereas we had Andy Wallace [Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, Linkin Park] mix The Stage. You may hear some differences, but all of the tones really came from the same spots. And we had Bob Ludwig master all of it to match up as much as possible.
Avenged Sevenfold mixes can be very heavy and very detailed in terms of the heavy guitar tones and the double kick and bass drums. As a vocalist, how do you make sure you cut through all that? Do you say, “Hey, I need to be placed upfront in this mix”? Especially on a song like Creating God, is that a conscious thing when you’re working on it?
In terms of the production value, I have to do what I do, and then we have a guy like Joe make sure I cut through it all, and then we get a guy like Andy Wallace in there who knows exactly what to do — how to round out the guitars a little bit more, or where you place the vocals to make sure they cut. That’s where you need the guys who know how to EQ it up and allow everything to settle. And that’s what Andy Wallace is so brilliant at — he can make anything stand out.
The hardest part in terms of getting stuff to cut through on this record was with Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s [spoken word] part on Exist. There was a lot of stuff going on there. He had recorded it a few times for us and every word was at a different volume, so you couldn’t compress it too much because it sounded too big. It must have taken Andy an entire day to get those vocals to sit just right! It was pretty insane watching him figure that whole thing out.
Getting Neil on there was quite a coup. Was he always involved on Exist from the beginning?
The initial idea I had was I wanted to use Carl Sagan’s  Pale Blue Dot speech. When we were writing the song, which is obviously about the Big Bang and the Earth, we always thought Pale Blue Dot was the thing to use. We had been in contact with his estate and they said no because they had used it on Cosmos, so they weren’t allowing anyone to use it anymore.
But they were the ones who were able to hook us up with Neil. He had been really hard to get ahold of from our end, but once the Sagan estate reached out on our behalf, he got back to us, and we got together and wrote this whole thing out. From the beginning, we wanted the song to have a really cool send-off from a certain perspective of science.
Well, you are Mr. A.I. at this point. With all the talk about possible manned mission to Mars in the future, would you go?
Would I go to Mars? (slight pause) Umm, no, I would not … because I have kids.
That’s a very responsible, fatherly answer, so I can respect that.
Maybe I’ve been uploaded into a supercomputer and I am being controlled.
Yeah, you know, as much as your feelings as a father may be built-in through evolution, it is what it is. Going to Mars would be insane, but my kids are my life at this point, and going to Mars would mean they probably can’t come. And even if they did come with me, that kind of experimental life is probably not what they need. So, yeah, that’s the dad answer, for sure. (both chuckle)
Since we’re talking about A.I. and I know you’re a fan of shows like Westworld and Black Mirror, can you assure me that you haven’t been replaced? As far as we know, you haven’t been “taken over”?
I’ve come so far, I don’t even know if I’ve been replaced! (both laugh) Maybe I’ve been uploaded into a supercomputer, and somehow I’ve been fooled and I am being controlled; who knows?
Well, we may have to look into that. We also have four great live bonus tracks recorded at the O2 in London. How did you decided to whittle it down to just those four? Hearing how these new songs have evolved live, this is literally the next stage of The Stage — like the subtle changes on God Damn, for example.
As songs get older, more and more stuff appears, and that’s what’s so cool about it. You go back to songs five or six years later, and when you hear the recorded versions, it just seems so different. I love hearing where our songs go. Sometimes, I wish we could re-record them! (laughs)
You can! Why not? Since we’ve been talking about the live tracks, how great was it being out with Metallica?
It was good, man! It’s hard opening because you’re relinquishing control, in terms of the night. But the positives outweigh any of the negatives, because it was more about the experience, and seeing how Metallica run their operation. I went and watched them from the audience every night, and that was an adrenaline rush, all on its own.
What’s your favorite Metallica song?
I think one of the greatest songs they’ve ever written is Fade to Black [from 1984’s Ride the Lightning]. That opening guitar part is one of those things where you don’t even know how they came up with that, in terms of it going from dark to light. The chord progression they’re doing there is so classically innovative. It’s just so cool.
Like Metallica, you guys also have multi-tiers to what you do, like your recent acoustic Grammy Museum performance of songs like Roman Sky proved.
Oh, well, thanks. Sometimes it takes putting down the heavy distorted guitars and picking up the acoustics, and then people can see the layers that go into writing a song.
I love those chord progressions, and I really love that song. I think when a track is so deep on a long record like that, it sometimes doesn’t get noticed. I’m glad we brought that one and Exist out, and that we showed people a different dimension.
The key there is, if you don’t have a good song at the core, you wouldn’t be able to play songs like these acoustically anyway, if the songwriting wasn’t there to begin with. They’d break down when you strip them down.
One of the things I always scream from the top of any mountain is that rock bands need to work on the songwriting. Songwriting is your key. You can add all the layers on you want and make it as heavy as you want and put a double-kick everywhere, but it doesn’t polish the turd, you know? (chuckles) That’s our number one focus, and that’s what should always be the main focus in music: the songwriting.
Since you guys are switching back into headlining mode starting in Nashville in about a month or so, exactly how do things shift for you in that role?
We’re going back into the territory we’re used to, which is to control the environment from the moment someone steps in the arena — from what’s projected onto the screens when they walk in to the type of merch we’re selling to the music that’s playing in between bands. You’ve just gotta create a vibe for that, so that the moment they step in there, they feel like they’ve walked into a different dimension.
It’s also in how we put the set together, what we put in it, how we end it, the bands we bring out on tour — we’re in control of the whole night. And when you’re opening, you have none of that control. You’re just thrown up there for an hour, and you’ve just gotta do the best that you can. And then you’re off the stage, and everyone is ready for the band they came to see — which isn’t you. So, yeah, we’re excited about getting back to our own little headlining world there.