The Cover Story

Avenged Sevenfold: “Just say your message and put the art out there. Artists should do what they want and explore deeper rabbit-holes”

Avenged Sevenfold have become one of modern metal’s biggest bands by forever doing things their own unique way. In a world-exclusive interview, frontman M. Shadows and guitarist Synyster Gates lift the lid on new album Life Is But A Dream… and the band’s fearless, fantastic latest chapter.

Avenged Sevenfold: “Just say your message and put the art out there. Artists should do what they want and explore deeper rabbit-holes”
Emily Carter
Brian Catelle

It wasn’t the most relaxing night’s sleep. Late one evening after a hard day’s work in the studio, M. Shadows was laying down ready to go to bed when he put on Avenged Sevenfold’s new record. It had just been freshly mixed by Andy Wallace, and the frontman was keen to hear how the songs that comprise Life Is But A Dream… would transition into one another in their final form – specifically the trio of G, (O)rdinary and (D)eath. While the album title may suggest a semblance of serenity, the experience didn’t gently send Shadows into a slumber. On the contrary, it hit him so hard that his heart began to pound.

“It was shocking!” he recalls, rapidly tapping his palm over his chest, demonstrating this most visceral of reactions to his own band’s music. “I felt, for the first time, what someone might experience when they listen to it, and how it goes from progressive, Zappa-esque stuff to all of a sudden funk, Daft Punk to, like, Frank Sinatra and Wizard Of Oz.

“I was like, ‘Okay, this is fucking rad.’”

He hadn’t always been so certain, though. Before the Huntington Beach metal heroes’ years-in-the-making masterpiece was given the mixing treatment, the frontman found himself questioning if they had even gone far enough (if you’ve heard recent single We Love You, you’ll already know what a genuinely hilarious thought that is).

During one such early listen while in the car with guitarist Synyster Gates, M. Shadows turned to his bandmate and asked him: “Is it really that out-there?” For the singer, having lived with it for so long by that point, the impact had dulled somewhat. The album actually felt – god forbid – “normal”.

Put this to Syn today, and he considers a different interpretation to his friend’s prior concerns.

“How those comments resonated with me is that this album is as bizarre and crazy and fucked-up as it gets from an arrangement and production standpoint,” Syn explains, proudly. “And maybe what he meant was from a songwriting structure. I hadn’t thought about this ’til just now, but this is maybe our most kind of lullaby, approachable record. I really feel like the songwriting is some of our best. But we wanted to see how much we could fuck it up and not sound like 40-year-olds with 18-year-old tools!”

Having experienced “contentious” recording processes before, M. Shadows and Synyster Gates (real names Matt Sanders and Brian Haner, Jr.) see eye-to-eye on just about everything with their band now. In fact, Syn laughs, they’re even pretty “nice” about each other. A group made up wholly of “strong personalities”, Avenged Sevenfold – completed by guitarist Zacky Vengeance, bassist Johnny Christ and drummer Brooks Wackerman – drove themselves to new extremes on Life Is But A Dream…, and have since come out the other side very much on the same page.

With freshly-blond hair and no less than four guitars resting beside him, when Syn catches up with Kerrang! from his Southern California home’s music room ahead of the album’s release, he giddily reveals that he’s “energised and fucking excited” but also unbelievably knackered from a particularly brutal creative undertaking. “Over the course of five years, I probably averaged fucking bad sleep four or five days a week,” he chuckles. And things haven’t slowed down since the band completed the album, either, with the guitarist having to “tie up loose ends” and make sure this breathtakingly ambitious material can properly be translated live (here’s an idea how that all works: not easily).

But they’re both stoked about where Avenged Sevenfold are at in 2023. Down the road from Syn, sat in his bright house with a scruffy mohawk-mullet and casual white T-shirt, M. Shadows radiates just as much positive energy as his bandmate. These days they take the approach to “not sweat the small stuff” where possible, and while their new music was treated with absolute seriousness, they have a healthy outlook on life and their career.

To be fair, you would too, if you’d lived the same few years as Shadows. Following Avenged’s 2016 prog epic The Stage – which thoughtfully tackled subjects like artificial intelligence and the Big Bang – the frontman went through a “deep existential crisis” right before the pandemic. Life Is But A Dream…, therefore, is an “extension” of its predecessor, because it reflects “the full human experience”.

“It’s a much more emotional record than talking about our possible overlords in AI,” Shadows laughs. “I think in every human’s life, there’s those super-shocking jolts to the system. When you start thinking about, ‘Well, what does it mean for me not to exist,’ which is going to happen, there’s a point where that shocking thing hits your heart, and you freeze.”

“The Stage was an incredible feat, but this one gets more heartfelt and introspective, and delves more into existentialism,” Syn explains. “Whether people know the word or not, we’re all experiencing it. You get to a certain point and you’re like, ‘I know we all die… wait… we all die?!’ And then you have kids and you’re like, ‘They’re gonna die one day.’ And it fucking hits you like a sack of shit.”

These overwhelming thoughts had been weighing heavy on their minds after a little nudge into that headspace. Or, more accurately, a rather powerful propellant: the psychedelic 5-MeO-DMT.

“We did a lot of fucking drugs – the good kind,” Syn chuckles. “Don’t do drugs, kids, but if you do then do the good kind! That helped us heal and fucking connect and really have the ability to communicate and articulate what we’re feeling.”

“It wasn’t about the music, it was just simply about finding ourselves, or finding an answer,” Shadows continues. “I’m super-grateful, and I couldn’t imagine my life any other way without going through that. I don’t want to leave this life and not have that experience and see what it’s all about. I’d obviously done recreational stuff when I was younger, but nothing that was in a setting with [a shaman], like, ‘We’re going deep, it’s gonna be scary, and you’re gonna face yourself and then you’re gonna kill yourself pretty much, and what does that mean?’”

As well as regularly practicing meditation and mindfulness – on top of being “hit over the head” with psychedelics – the frontman began to feel the benefits of this ego-shattering endeavour. He doesn’t, he stresses, have it all figured out. But he’s certainly learned a few things along the way.

“The mundane things in life are actually the reward of life,” he smiles. “It’s about the journey, because we all end up in the same spot – and that spot is terrifying to most of us. But if you can just enjoy your kids watching a movie, or taking them to practice, or visiting your parents and actually being present on Thanksgiving when they’re annoying the shit out of you, these are the things that you can unlock, which make life much more enjoyable.

“Things get shitty,” he adds. “You have deaths all the time, and though you know that it’s gonna happen, there will be a point where you lose everybody you love – if you live long enough – or you’ll die yourself. There’s one of two options there. You need to be prepared for that, and you need to know what it means.”

To put all this in context with where Avenged were at by that point, they had started work on The Stage’s follow-up, and then “came back to it and dropped things that weren’t up to par, in terms of really pushing the limits”. The drugs didn’t help in the sense of magically presenting Shadows and Syn with an entire new album, or conjuring up the musical notes they should be playing. But the frontman did have a different epiphany, of similarly significant proportions.

“We’re here for such a short time,” he says, “so make the music that you’re gonna make bold.”

Synyster Gates believes there’s no album on the planet that has all good songs. Even his favourite records, he says, “aren’t flawless”. Want to know why? If it contains an instrumental track, then he’s out. Done. Thanks, but no thanks.

“They’re the type of songs that take some of my favourite albums from an A-plus to a B,” he explains (albeit very light-heartedly – Avenged Sevenfold may seem like super-serious chaps, but they’re all endearingly tongue-in-cheek).

“I’ve always wanted to write a flawless record,” Syn continues. “Not one that sells 40 million copies, but a record that I don’t look back on in a couple of years and say, ‘There’s some fat.’ And instrumentals do that. That’s why [The Stage’s 15-minute mostly instrumental closer] Exist has a vocal part!”

The guitarist is making this caveat because, ironically, A7X’s new album contains an instrumental. At four-and-a-half minutes long, Life Is But A Dream…’s stunning closing title-track hears Syn show off his musical chops not on his typical axe, but on the piano. Due to the fact that he isn’t classically trained, it took him several years to accomplish, practicing two hours per day. This was an almighty task in itself, naturally, but there were further complications: Syn could ‘only’ play the piece on his own piano, so producer Joe Baressi had to come to his house and build a studio to record said piano. And you wonder why Avenged took seven years between albums…

“Brian wrote it on MIDI – on a programme – for my first son’s birth, so it was 10 years ago, almost 11 years ago,” M. Shadows explains. “And he sent it to me and Val [Matt’s wife], and I fucking loved it. I would listen to it – the MIDI version – every night on headphones. And with this record being so weighty and emotional, for the end of it I was imagining The Shining, where Jack Nicholson’s at the bar and he’s talking to the people that had been there before him and they’re all dead. I was thinking of that scene and this one simple piano: just raw, bare piano. And I convinced him that it needed to be on the end of the record.”

How easily were you persuaded, Syn?

“I was both deeply honoured and deeply concerned!” he admits. “I don’t suffer from much embarrassment these days (laughs), but I had a touch of embarrassment because it’s like a ‘look at me’ moment. It kind of fucked me up. I’m so thankful that I had the support to put a fucking meandering piano piece that I wrote and played on an Avenged Sevenfold record. I mean, who could ask for better friends and better bandmates? I can’t express how grateful I am to have that type of support.”

That’s a lovely story. Only…

“It’s not a perfect album now!” Syn points out. “But I’m cool with that, and in all sincerity I’m proud of it.”

There are other reasons the band modestly point out how Life Is But A Dream… isn’t “perfect”. But not in the way you might think. Take the magnificent Cosmic, for example, which is easily one of Shadows’ most moving recitals on the album.

“That’s not even my best vocal performance,” he counters. “But that was the one that felt real, right? I think that’s an important aspect of making stuff like this. It’s a completely different philosophy from our old, old, old stuff which had to be perfect, and powerful, or whatever. I think there’s something more endearing and cooler in the long-term of having a real performance that isn’t perfect. I’m in a place now where it doesn’t bother me at all – I love it. I’d rather we have what we have than the perfect take that might technically be better.”

Ask Syn about his bandmate’s stirringly “real” vocals, and he quite literally gets goosebumps. And a bit sweary.

“Matt’s execution is so fucking believable – he absolutely fucking crushed it,” Syn praises. “And his lyrics are fucking freakish. I’m so touched by everything he’s saying on this record. All the different things that he touches upon are communicated from the heart and soul.”

That said, M. Shadows made a very conscious effort to, um, not actually sound like him.

“The only way I can put it is ‘without putting the M. Shadows snarl’ on top of it,” he explains. “We’d try things and then hear it back when it is M. Shadows and roll our eyes and go, ‘That’s just not believable.’ I feel like that puts you into an era, and it’s too much of a reminder of where we came from. We wanted this to just be its own thing, and reworked from the ground up.”

“If you allow yourself to be bored… it’s an easier way to come up with those little gems”

Hear M. Shadows explain how the vocal melody for We Love You came to him in the shower

That’s not to say the band’s roots are ignored. In fact, Life Is But A Dream… opens with the frantic punk-meets-thrash-meets-hardcore rollercoaster of Game Over, which Shadows insists wasn’t put there to troll fans into thinking they could expect more of the same over the following 50 minutes. C’mon, this is Avenged we’re talking about here, so we just had to double-check…

“We’re not trying to fuck with people’s emotions!” Shadows grins. “It was about something that’s gonna twist and turn. The influence for us went more to something like Abbey Road – it’s Beatles-esque in the middle, and then it drives you back into this chaos. That’s where our mindset was. It wasn’t really trying to fuck with people in terms of, like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna trick you’ (laughs). But it might!”

Lyrically it does set the tone, though, as the frontman theatrically runs through a person’s life at breakneck speed (‘Changes, hormones, high school, threesome, roll call, study…’), hammering home the existential journey the listener is about to embark on.

“We’ve all been through all those things, and it shows how quickly it happens and how the only real answer is being present in all the moments, or it’ll just pass you by,” Shadows explains. “It’s like you blink one day and you’re 80 years old on your deathbed, and you go, ‘Well, how the fuck did that happen? Did I do any of the things I wanted?’”

It’s also very funny in places. One of many knowing winks on the album, Game Over contains the lyric, ‘The bestest part of waking up.’

“It was inspired by an old Folgers [U.S. coffee brand] commercial, which is so mundane and everyday, but we were like, ‘We need more syllables… the bestest!’” Shadows laughs. “We did pure stupidity for the sake of art in a cool way. Do we think ‘bestest’ is a word, no, but we think it’s kinda funny.”

“We were just having fun with certain things like that,” continues Syn. “Or there’s (O)rdinary, which is a robot that’s starting to come awake and there’s little twists of words. He’s saying things so perfectly, but then it’s like ChatGPT where it’s just brilliant but then they have a little fumbling: ‘I want to see the things that you see / I want to be the human you be.’ Or you take G, and that’s fuckin’ narcissistic God. That’s us giggling on the way to the studio like school kids while we’re going, ‘On the seventh day I thought about world peace but I decided just to take it off.’ We’re like, ‘Fuck yeah, that’s it! Fuckin’ God taking the seventh day off, motherfucker!’ A lot of those things were making us laugh and smile. Those are some of my small collaborations because the crux of this record, lyrically, belongs to Matt.”

Indeed, the frontman worked incredibly hard on summing up these swirling thoughts in new and interesting ways throughout Life Is But A Dream… Partly inspired by Albert Camus’ 1942 novel The Stranger (though Syn stresses that it’s a “disservice” to Shadows if people think the album is exclusively pinpointed on that) as well as the work of outsider artist Wes Lang, there’s an absurdist lens with which he frequently used to write, but creativity hit him from plenty of other angles, too.

“The whole concept of Mattel came to me while I was taking a little bit of mushrooms and walking my dog down the street, and I noticed that everybody now has fake grass,” he recalls. “I don’t know if that’s normal in the rest of the world, but in Southern California everyone’s got fake grass to conserve water. The houses look perfect, and people outside are very Truman Show – I’m like, ‘This fucking shit… there’s no way this is real!’ These were happy mistakes – just don’t try, and things will come to you.”

Despite leaving room for spontaneity, everything on Life Is But A Dream… is 100 per cent intentional. An unbelievable level of meticulousness is and always has been the Avenged Sevenfold way, and it’s something Syn in particular relishes – even if he could probably do with a decent night’s sleep at some point.

“I’m not the world’s greatest songwriter, but what I am is fucking relentless, and I won’t stop until I stumble upon something that I love with all of my heart that I can’t wait to fucking arrange and build,” he enthuses. “And that takes monumental amounts of fucking time, and energy, and doggedness, and a real shitty attitude towards anything that you’re slightly allergic to! I just had to love everything. Instead of letting anything go, I let nothing go. And I want that militant attitude. M. Shadows is a historically militant motherfucker! And I love that.”

If you hadn’t already gathered, then, it was all worth it.

“We were all pushed like crazy on this record,” he continues, “to where we can sit here today and genuinely say, ‘Fuck, we love art that we created.’”

“There’s a sensibility of, ‘Oh, I haven’t heard that before and I want to go back to that’”

Listen to M. Shadows detail the moments of “ear candy” on Life Is But A Dream…

When reflecting on Life Is But A Dream… in all its spectacularly gutsy glory, perhaps Mike Shinoda says it best of all. Chatting with M. Shadows about the record and giving his assessment, the Linkin Park man recently told Avenged Sevenfold’s singer of the band’s non-conformist approach that it’s like a “splat”. Bear with him on this one – it’s a compliment, honest.

“I appreciate a lot of his insight,” Shadows enthuses of Mike, “and he was like, ‘If a four-year-old was throwing paint at a canvas you would say that it’s a four-year-old and they don’t know what they’re doing.’ And he said, ‘You guys have painted beautiful paintings up to this point, to where now when you splat stuff on a canvas, it’s art; it’s special.’ And he’s like, ‘That’s what I feel like this record is, because we know you know the rules, but you broke all the rules, and so it’s more meaningful.’”

Mike’s absolutely spot-on. Now eight albums in, Avenged Sevenfold have made it abundantly clear that not even their wildest artistic dreams can hold them back. It’s an avenue they’d much rather pursue than rehashing the same metal bangers over and over again, and they’re elated to have gotten to this point.

“It’s pretty freakish,” agrees Syn, “how we’re able to have all these fucking wacky ideas and then just say, ‘Yo, Johnny, can you play this?’ It’s truly amazing what our band’s capable of. I can go to a guy like Zacky Vengeance and say: ‘Crazy chords, what have you got?’ Or go to Brooks and say, ‘I need a modern groove Zappa, what can you do? I need some fucking Daft Punk here. I need early Metallica here. I need Rammstein here…’ To have a guy that can not only do the parts but can also innovate and bring a breath of fresh air to it, and then get to the point where we’re all just laughing like giddy schoolchildren…”

Syn trails off, before picking things back up with an enormous smile.

“It can be very tough, but on those days you’re just like, ‘This is what I do, and will do for the rest of my life.’ I’m very fucking fortunate – just chock-full of gratitude to be able to fire on all cylinders. There’s not a weak link – there’s not. Whatever our imagination’s ceiling is, anything in there can be executed. We can do anything we think of.”

That’s not to say that everyone will be on Syn’s, or indeed Mike Shinoda’s, wavelength. In fact, as someone who regularly interacts with people on Twitter, M. Shadows is used to seeing the gloomy side of social media. But he can often brush off the rubbish that’s sometimes thrown his way.

“There’s never gonna be a comment section where I don’t see, ‘These guys don’t know how to write a song anymore,’ because they want us to write more stuff like Bat Country,” he shrugs. “Or someone will say, ‘They died with [late drummer] The Rev.’ And then they give The Rev credit for a bunch of songs that I wrote – that’s just what happens when someone dies: they go, ‘Well, he wrote this, this and this…’ and it’s like, ‘No, I actually wrote those myself, but okay.’ There’s never gonna be a situation where as you go on and you’re doing new things, you don’t just see negativity.”

He’s also thought a lot about how fans of specific eras of the band might respond to the new material, and how their attachment to various albums might mean they’ll either embrace or reject what Avenged do now. If you’re only into 2003’s Waking The Fallen or 2005 follow-up City Of Evil, for example, he wonders if that might be a “hinderance” in some cases.

“There are people who think that everything we do is make-up and duelling guitars and speed drums, but we’ve been off that for 12 years, right?” he asks rhetorically. “But people still put us in that box.”

“This one is f*cking way crazier…”

Synyster Gates reflects on A7X’s albums and how Life Is But A Dream… outdoes them all for ‘what the fuck’ moments

Here, may we kindly point you back to the whole fuel behind the record: in the grand scheme of life, this kinda doesn’t matter. Comments sections, social media, releasing an album in such a fast-paced world… M. Shadows has got bigger things on his plate than that, and is pretty much okay with wherever things land.

“You can’t be so full of anxiety that you can’t get people’s attention, and you can’t get any sort of traction,” he says. “I find it beautiful, and I think it’s interesting that there’s so many options. So just say your message and put the art out there. I think it should be freeing for artists to continue to do what they want and explore some of these deeper rabbit-holes, and put out what you want and don’t expect anything back, because it’s just not the ’80s, it’s not the ’90s, it’s not the early 2000s. You’re not going to get the feedback or the traction that you thought you would. It’s okay!”

Ultimately, though, Life Is But A Dream… will reach its intended audience.

“I actually think there are people who put us in [the make-up and duelling guitars] box that don’t like that box who would love this record, that are not gonna give it a chance,” Shadows says. “And there’s a bunch of people that love Avenged Sevenfold that just want the old stuff. And that’s the risk you run, but what are you gonna do?! (Laughs) You’re gonna go write that stuff again? Or go beg these other people to listen? There’s nothing to do.

“Just put it out there so it exists, and people will find it.”

Now read these

The best of Kerrang! delivered straight to your inbox three times a week. What are you waiting for?