By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — One of the biggest metal bands to emerge during the ’90s, celebrated Richmond, VA-based band Lamb of God has roots dating back to 1994 when guitarist Mark Morton, bassist John Campbell and drummer Chris Adler founded the group Burn the Priest (the three had met and become friends as freshmen while attending Virginia Commonwealth University). Several years later after the addition of punk-influenced singer D. Randall “Randy” Blythe, the neo-thrash outfit was signed to Prosthetic Records and switched its name to Lamb of God for their label debut, New American Gospel.
With hints of sonic brutality that recalled Pantera mixed with the technical riff construction of classic thrash-metal bands like Megadeth and Testament, Lamb of God built a fiercely loyal following with its relentless touring schedule and steady output of solid albums. The band eventually scored a major label deal with Epic and found even greater commercial and critical success with Ashes of the Wake in 2004 and their follow-up effort Sacrament.
Tabbed as one of Metallica’s favorite support acts in the past decade, Lamb of God continued it’s upward trajectory with the release of 2009’s Wrath and Resolution three years later. Hailed my many as their best album yet, Resolution found a newly sober Blythe delivering a ferocious vocal performance. However, the band suffered a huge setback when the singer was arrested when their European tour landed in Prague after charges were brought against him in connection with a fan’s death from a head injury suffered at a 2010 Lamb of God concert.
Incarcerated for almost 40 days before finally being released on bail, Blythe and the band would spend much of 2012 dealing with the singer’s legal battle instead of touring to support the album. That struggle, vividly depicted in the documentary As the Palaces Burn, eventually found Blythe acquitted of all charges, but the trial took an emotional and financial toll on the group. The singer would write lyrics inspired by his time in a Czech Republic jail for the group’s most recent album, VII: Sturm und Drang. Another triumph for the band after overcoming enormous obstacles, the effort stands as Lamb of God’s most focused and intense metal onslaught yet.
Last year, the group put out a couple of new songs with The Duke EP. Dedicated to fan Wayne Ford who was battling leukemia and was befriended by Blythe as he battled the disease, the collection of songs including several recent live recordings was aimed at raising funds to support Ford’s family after his passing. The group is currently on a six-week tour of North America with thrash-metal greats Slayer and Polish black metal extremists Behemoth. CBS SF recently spoke with Lamb of God bassist Campbell about the tour, playing American hard-rock festivals and his punk-rock roots ahead of the tour arriving in San Francisco this Wednesday.
CBS SF: You’re about two-thirds of the way through this tour with Slayer and Behemoth. Has it been as savage and heavy as anticipated?
John Campbell: This tour has been amazing. It’s all bands that have toured with each other and know each other and are all amazing bands in their own right, with a little different taste of metal from every band. It’s been a great run! We’ve been filling up these venues and people have been showing up early, staying all night and having a great time.
CBS SF: You also did a few dates in Central and South America leading up to this tour? Metal fans south of the U.S. border have a reputation of being a little more intense than here in the States. Was that your experience?
John Campbell: Yeah, South America is a great market for heavy metal. They are intense! That’s an excellent word to describe them. They’re waiting for us at the airports and hotels and outside the venues. They fill up the venues and are singing back the solos and all the words to every song. It’s a great experience.
CBS SF: Do you think it’s mostly because the bigger bands just aren’t able to tour there quite as much?
John Campbell: I would guess that it’s partly because bands don’t go down there quite as often to tour as they do in the States. People are kind of spoiled here. You know they’re going to see their favorite bands every couple of years. Down in South America, they may have to wait a little longer. When we go, we’ll play a couple of shows in Brazil sometimes and try to otherwise play one city per country we end up in. So I think we went for 11 days and played six shows? You don’t get a lot of music that goes down there and tours for a long time, so it’s a big deal to them when it happens.
CBS SF: Is this your first time on the road with Slayer since the Unholy Alliance Tour in 2006 or had you played with them since then?
John Campbell: We’ve been on the festival circuit in Europe where we’ve played some shows with them, but as far as just Slayer and us being on tour together, it has been since Unholy Alliance about ten years ago.
CBS SF: Your mention of festivals leads me to my next question. Early on for this tour, the bands hit a number of hard rock festivals in the Midwest; I think there were a couple in Wisconsin and Chicago’s Open Air Festival. I’m always curious about experiences musicians have at American festivals versus European festivals. Do you see a lot of difference between the two?
John Campbell: Well, the experience can be different from festival to festival regardless of where it is. Some festivals are better run and organized and have a better venue in which to operate. The Chicago Open Air Festival was amazing; on par with the best European festivals we’ve played. So it’s really not so much about the country. It’s about the festival itself.
European festivals, maybe they trust each other a bit more [laughs], but they seem to do more of the camping out. I guess they do that here too, but so much for the hard rock and heavy metal festivals. But they’re very similar. Bonnaroo is very much like a European festival, although it’s one of the more eclectic festivals. We’ve played that and been the token metal band.
There’s also Graspop, this great festival in Belgium that’s all hard rock and metal that’s probably one of the best festivals we’ve played. Also Download, which is another huge festival that is well run. The only thing that has going against it is the weather, because it rains every year.
CBS SF: Since you’re already on the road and the festival dates are just built into the tour itinerary, I’m imagining you end up being there for the day you play and get to see maybe a few bands and then you’re off again?
John Campbell: That’s exactly it. We’re there for a day and we get to catch a couple bands depending on the schedule and how far apart the stages are. But festivals are great because we’ve been doing this forever and played with tons of bands over the years, so when you’re at a festival it’s like a reunion. You get to see all your friends in other bands and crews you haven’t seen in a while. You get to see a lot of people you wouldn’t ordinarily see.
CBS SF: I grew up in the Bay Area seeing Metallica and Exodus and Slayer as a teen. I know thrash is a big part of Lamb of God’s DNA as far as core influences…
John Campbell: Absolutely.
CBS SF: So even though you are a couple of decades into this, do you still have those “Holy s–t! We’re playing with Slayer!” moments? Or does it feel pretty natural at this point?
John Campbell: [Laughs] Maybe not quite like that, but I do pinch myself from time to time. It’s incredible. We’re incredibly lucky and to be on tour with Slayer is pretty crazy when we think about where we started and what our initial goals were.
CBS SF: The Duke EP and the fundraising effort is pretty remarkable and commendable tribute to Wayne Ford. The title song was obviously written for and inspired by him, but was the other new song “Culling” a song that you wrote specifically for the EP, or something you had together already?
John Campbell: What it was is that we wrote a bunch of songs for the album and kept working on them through the recording process and got to the end and had to figure out which songs are going to be on the album. Which is always difficult, because you get attached to songs and they can’t all fit on the record. So then the record company said ‘Hey, we want to put this out with some of the other tracks.’
That was amazing, because these songs we’d worked really hard on were going to have a chance to be heard and then we were able to add three live tracks, one of which was from Bonnaroo. Those were tracks that didn’t make the record but still great tracks and thankfully they get to have a life.
CBS SF: Are you starting to get together material for the next Lamb of God album?
John Campbell: We’re talking about the scheduling for that. We’re wrapping up this tour cycle, but there might be another tour; it’s undecided at this point. But we’ll take a little downtime and then get to work on the new stuff. I’m pretty sure Willie and Mark already have tracked some ideas at home. They’re our main songwriters and are pretty much nonstop playing guitar when we’re at home. It’s not necessarily all for Lamb of God, but I’m sure there are already ideas in the bucket for Lamb of God to dig into.
CBS SF: Talking to Randy back when Sturm und Drang came out ahead of the tour with COC, we talked about his punk influences. Would you say you come more from the metal end of the spectrum as far as what your formative musical background was?
John Campbell: I grew up in the D.C. suburbs and grew up listening to D.C. hardcore. Basically punk rock from the D.C. area, so I actually came from the punk rock side. I wasn’t that into metal until I met Chris Adler in the dorms and he said, ‘Hey man, you gotta hear this record!’ And he played me And Justice For All… in his dorm room incredibly loud, with his stereo hooked up to his bass amp. And at that point, I fell in love with Metallica and then branched into Slayer and Megadeth of the same era. I like some metal, but primarily I listen to rock and roll and old-school punk rock. So I’m definitely not coming from a metal perspective.
CBS SF: That’s interesting. I didn’t know you had D.C. roots, but if you were growing up near D.C. in the ’80s, how would you not be touched by Minor Threat and Bad Brains and all the great stuff from that era? I guess the last question I had stemmed from one of the interviews I came across, I think it might have been with a South African journalist. In it you mentioned being a fan of Die Antwoord, which is not something one would necessarily expect. I was wondering are there any other bands you’ve discovered in recent years that the average Lamb of God fan might be surprised that you’re into?
John Campbell: That’s a great question. I’d have to say no. I think Die Antwoord is probably the last band that I’ve gotten into that would shock people. Since Chris Cornell passed, I’ve gone back and been listening to some of his stuff. He’s got a record called Songbook that’s amazing. It’s all live recordings of him with an acoustic guitar. But I don’t think that’s very shocking.
CBS SF: Yeah, that was a terrible loss. Last year was rough as far as Prince and David Bowie and Lemmy, going back to late 2015. Just after Cornell died, I saw a really heavy death metal band, not someone you would expect it from, throw in a quote from “Slaves and Bulldozers” at the beginning of one of their tunes in tribute. He really touched a lot of people.
John Campbell: He absolutely did. But thankfully, there are babies born every day We don’t celebrate their accomplishments because they haven’t done anything yet, but there’s another Chris Cornell, another Lemmy out there. The human race keeps going, thankfully. It’s hard losing people who have accomplished a lot, but at least we still have their life’s work.
Lamb of God plays the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco this Wednesday, Aug. 9, with Slayer and Behemoth.