By Gary Suarez
Four years ago, Godsmack appeared unstoppable. Riding high on their third consecutive No. 1 album The Oracle, borne off the success of its lead single, the eyebrow-raising “Cryin’ Like A B—h!!,” the Massachusetts headline act were thriving when so many their peers were floundering. Godsmack held sway; among the last men standing who played the kind of rock ’n’ roll that actually rocked.
Their survival and resiliency in the face of changing public tastes and the hyper-segmentation afforded by the Internet isn’t all that surprising. In both their music and their public image, Godsmack exude an unabashed American toughness, which nowadays seems largely absent on the modern rock charts. But every band has their physical and psychological limits. “When you’re in it, you don’t realize what kind of damage you’re doing,” frontman Sully Erna admits. “Sometimes you get to a breaking point.”
“[The road] is a scary place to be sometimes. You get so desensitized.” Fatigued by virtually ceaseless touring and some creative infighting, Godsmack announced a hiatus late in 2012. Despite the inherent promise of that word, Erna had doubts the band would ever come out of it. “It was a question of whether or not we were going to be a band anymore. I certainly had those thoughts running through my mind of whether or not I wanted to continue to do this.” The time off allowed him to focus on his home life and creative endeavors outside of Godsmack, but eventually the guys began to reconnect socially, leading them back into the studio to lay down their sixth studio album.
1000hp, the end result of those sessions, picks up right where they left off. “In hindsight, we just needed a break,” Erna says. “We’re stronger than ever now.” Muscle-bound tracks like “Locked & Loaded” and “I Don’t Belong” proudly display the heavy hallmarks of Godsmack’s discography. Yet longtime fans might be surprised by what Erna describes as “artistic songs” with “more epic” lengths. Not to suggest that the band’s gone soft, but “Generation Day” harkens back to the spirit of the ‘90s when groups like Alice In Chains and Guns N’ Roses had major chart successes with twisty, flowing rock ballads.
Think evolution, not revolution. “You’re rolling the dice when you reinvent the whole sound and drop a new record that doesn’t sound anything like your band.” Avalon, Erna’s eclectic solo album that appeared mere months after The Oracle, gave him a chance to work out ideas that wouldn’t likely have been well received on a proper Godsmack record.
“With Godsmack, there’s a formula, a format you have to follow to a certain degree,” Erna concedes. Choosing to take incremental calculated risks as opposed to willfully ripping up the playbook helps to explain their endurance in an increasingly crowded music marketplace. For a band to thrive decades into their career, losing touch with their core fanbase might be the biggest risk of them all. Spending some time away from the recording and touring cycle could have proven a misstep, but Erna had faith in his audience. “You gotta trust that the fans are gonna be loyal and there when you return.”
“Putting on a great show for the people, entertaining the fans — that’s the spirit of music,” Erna emphasizes. While some detractors dismiss Godsmack and those that love them with pejoratives like “construction rock,” he takes pride at what’s implied. “These people work in f—king Coca-Cola factories and at UPS,” Erna says. “It’s important to take that into consideration and do the best you can.”
That modicum of humility — something altogether elusive in a world that has been christening and deifying rock stars for decades — also plays a role in their success. “I hate artists that are so tripped up on their egos,” Erna says, particularly displeased with the unhealthy and petty aspects that come with treating rock n’ roll like a competition. In his view, the better that like-minded artists such as Shinedown, Staind, and Volbeat do, the better things are for Godsmack.
Erna sees the mutual benefit of his hard rock peers’ success at radio and elsewhere. “People think that pop music is One Direction or whatever,” he says, “But pop music is really popular music.” At 46, Erna is old enough to remember the days when mainstream charts simultaneously and unapologetically housed the likes of Whitesnake alongside Whitney Houston. “In the ‘80s, you had Guns N’ Roses and Bon Jovi. They were the ones that dominated radio.”
Whether those days are long gone or not, Erna bristles at the negative approaches his fellow artists sometimes take. “Bands need to stop segregating the fans. They’re putting pressure on them to make a choice.” Godsmack’s zen attitude on the matter coupled with a return-to-form like 1000hp makes it fairly easy to choose.