By Brian Ives
How long will Godsmack go on? Sully Erna tells Radio.com that we shouldn’t expect to see them playing Desert Jam in 2030. But the frontman has other creative plans: first and foremost, his solo career (he’s just released a new album, Hometown Life), but also acting and maybe even producing a television series. He talked to us about all of that, as well as some of the finer points of parenting, and on the pain of tattoo removal.
Your album is called Hometown Life. Lots of artists become artists to get away from their hometowns, because they don’t relate to the people there. That doesn’t seem to be the case with you.
I’ve always tried to try to keep myself grounded and humble. I never really wanted to be alienated from society, or the public, or people that I used to bump elbows with and have a beer with.
Lawrence, Massachusetts, the place where I grew up, instilled that kind of integrity in me and those kind of values. As a matter of fact, Time magazine at one point quoted Lawrence, as the most violent city in America. So that’s just to give you a little snapshot of what that place was about.
So it was really tough growing up there, and we were very poor, [it was a] very inner city kind of lifestyle. But I’m proud to say that I’m from there, because I really feel like the skills that I learned from a place like that is what helped me and shaped me into the man that I became today, because it taught me how to defend myself, and survival skills, and be tough when life is tough and things like that.
Now I’m trying to pass that down to my daughter as well, because obviously, she’s growing up in a much different kind of environment than I did. So it’s important, and it’s tricky to make sure they understand the value of a dollar bill and that kind of thing.
Talk about calling the album Hometown Life.
You still have your ups and downs and your good days and your bad days. But when you’re having a bad day, you remember having much worse days. And so it was really that for me; it was about just kind of reflecting on where I came from and the whole journey and how I got from Point A to Point B.
So that’s what Hometown Life is about. It’s about looking to this place that I was once so afraid of and struggled so much and realize now that I’m very grateful to have come from a place like that, even though I didn’t understand at the time why I was going through these things and why life was the way it was. But I’m thankful for it, because it really did show me the way, and it showed me how to be strong in weak situations.
Tell me about “Your Own Drum,” which sounds a lot more alike an “adult” song.
“Your Own Drum” was a song I co-wrote with a gentleman named Zac Maloy. He’s a great Nashville songwriter; he used to be in the Nixons. We were just talking about our kids in general, and he has teenagers, just like I have a teenager; we were talking about where they’re at right now and that whole getting lost in that process of entering high school and possibly going down the wrong path. You want them to go down the right one and not be influenced by the wrong people. It’s about being able to give them the advice of how to run to the beat of their own drum. Be a leader, not a follower.
“Turn It Up” has a ’60s soul vibe, and it’s really different from anything you’ve done before. And I know you worked on it with your father, so tell me about working with him.
Well, that song is probably one of the most interesting tracks on the record. I had this idea for the bassline. And that spun the whole song, and it got me going in this direction of this really swanky, jazzy blues song.
Usually when I start writing, I think about what the layers of the song are going to be. If it’s a piano piece, am I gonna orchestrate it with strings and cellos and that kind of thing? This one, for sure, called for horns. It was very punchy and upbeat and funky.
And when I started thinking “I’m gonna put horns on it,” that’s when I was like, “Wow, my dad’s a trumpet player, he has been his whole life, and we’ve never had the opportunity to play together or record together.” And I thought, “What a great idea this could be, to invite my dad on to this record.”
And so I did, and he accepted happily. But he was really nervous, and he was a bit out of shape. He hadn’t played in about 15 years; he’s gonna be 72. It was cool though. He came in, and he killed it. He did great in the studio, blew right through it, and we had him play at a live show with us at home and he was the center of attention. The crowd went crazy when I brought him up, and it was great. And we’ll always have that moment, that memory forever now.
Was that the biggest crowd he ever played for?
Oh, for sure. He still owns and conducts the Northeast Italian Band, which is an Italian marching band that goes around and does all the Italian feasts in New England. And when they carry the saint, they pin the money up on him and yell out “Viva St. Alfio” and all that stuff. And he’s the band that follows them around and marches with them and plays all these Italian sonatas and things like that. So that’s the kind of crowd he’s used to playing in front of.
I think that was one of his first concerns was like, “I don’t know if I can play at the level you guys play at.” And I’m like, “Of course you can. You’ve been a trumpet player for sixty years. You can play anything I put in front of you.” I wrote out the sheet music. He really liked the song, so that helped a lot too.
But we have an interesting dynamic anyways, we really have. We can butt heads pretty quickly, and there’s a lot of Italian sass in our relationship, and he’s a very old school Sicilian stubborn Italian guy that’s set in his ways too.
What does he think of Godsmack and the other music you’ve made over the years?
Oh, he loves it. He’s always been a fan. He’s a musician like me, and so he’s supported me along the way. It was tougher when I was younger. I was talking about quitting school and all that other stuff, and obviously a parent’s gonna be concerned about that. Like, “Music should be a hobby.” But then he saw where it was going and he was like, “Okay, you win.”
“Different Kind of Tears” is very “country” sounding.
Well, that song certainly has that country flair to it. Zac Maloy came in with this idea, and we worked on it, and we were talking about the lyrical content: what does it actually mean, having “a different kind of tears?”
We started relating it, once again, back to our children and those teenage years and when you’re going through your first heartbreak and those kind of things that when you’re a kid you’re like, “You don’t get it, you don’t understand, you don’t ever understand.”
Of course, as adults we’ve been through it so much that we know when it happens, it’s: “Okay, this is gonna suck, but it’s gonna be a process, it’s gonna take some time to heal or whatever.” Where they’re like: “It’s the end of my life, and everything’s horrible, and it’s always gonna be pain!”
So to them it’s a deeper kind of pain, it’s a different kind of tears, because they’re experiencing it for the first time, that really deep pain. And so that’s kinda what that song is about.
Does your daughter think of you as being cool because you’re in a band?
No, I’m just “Dad.” We show up at her volleyball games, support her the whole way, and it’s like: quick hug and back to her friends. [I say,] “You’ve got a little too much cheek showing in those volleyball shorts, so why don’t you fix that first!”
I know you don’t think too much in terms of genre. What if your label worked that song to country radio?
It would be great. I certainly wouldn’t reject it. I think this record is just full of a lot of different genres, a lot of different styles, a lot of different kind of inspiration. And I just made a promise to myself a while ago that I stopped categorizing music. I just don’t do it.
I mean, we know Metallica’s metal; we know Godsmack is hard rock; we know that Chris Stapleton is country. That’s fine, and when I do a Godsmack record I know that I am in the rock category. But when I do solo stuff I like to think of music a little bit more free. And for me there’s two categories, you either have a good song, or you have a bad song. And so those are my genres now.
And I’m okay with this record having every song feel a little bit different. Because music, to me, is a very universal language, and it should be for everybody. And so why not be able to write what you want and sing what you want and play what you want? I don’t really wanna categorize my solo stuff or put it in a certain column at Newbury Comics or whatever.
When you write a song, is it immediately apparent if it’s a solo song or a Godsmack song?
Well, it certainly takes its own shape, and then it’s pretty easy to identify right away if this is gonna be something that’s gonna work for Godsmack, even on an acoustic level, or if it’s something that I have to keep separate for my solo stuff.
I read that you said that you were listening to singer-songwriters like Billy Joel, and you composed a lot of the album on piano. Was he a big influence on you?
I didn’t mean for it to sound like I sound like Billy Joel, or I’m in that category or that kind of thing.
When people ask me, “You think you’re just gonna ride Godsmack out?” No, I’m not that guy. I don’t think I wanna pull the “Mick Jagger,” where I’m 65 years old and still trying to sing Godsmack songs. It could happen, but I don’t see it happening. It’s not really what I wanted to do.
When and if the day comes when I decide to lay Godsmack to rest, I think it’s this kind of stuff [I’ll do] to be able to ride out the sunset like a Billy Joel or some of those singer-songwriters. This stuff feels like something I could do when I get older and I don’t have quite the energy for a big Godsmack show.
So your plan is to do this kind of music after Godsmack.
I really try to stay true to my art and stay true to why I write music. Because [the reason] I write music is that it’s therapeutic for me. It heals me, and it helps me enhance my good times and flush out my bad times.
But I’m not that same young, angry kid as I was when I was writing early Godsmack material. And so now Godsmack has become a little bit of a challenge because I go, okay, what am I gonna write about? ’Cause you can’t write too “happy” when you’re writing for Godsmack, but nothing is really making me super sad or angry. And so it’s gonna be interesting to continue.
And then when you’re onstage, you wanna be able to feel what you’re playing. But I just look at it as fun now. I have a good time when I’m with those guys, and I don’t really think about the lyrical content like I did once, where it took me to that time and place when I was that hurt from whatever it was I was writing about. So now it’s just fun.
Next year is Godsmack’s 20th anniversary, do you guys have any plans?
We’re talking about it now. It’s a little premature to say, but most likely we’ll try to drop something early 2018, which is gonna be the 20th year anniversary of our first album.
Talk about your role in the upcoming film Bleed for This.
Yeah, I got a small role in that. They just asked me to come in; they had this one little part they wanted me to fill, which was just being a blackjack dealer. But it takes place in the early ’80s, so they had me carve in this weird pedophile mustache. And my nametag actually said “Sully” on it, which was weird.
But yeah, it was a movie about Vinny Pazienza, the boxer that was temporarily paralyzed and wasn’t supposed to ever walk again after he broke his neck and somehow made this great recovery and became a world champion, out of Rhode Island. And Martin Scorsese executive-produced, so that’s cool to have on the resume.
How’d you get the role?
Well, I did an indie movie while back called Army of the Damned with a writer-director named Tom DeNucci, he was involved somehow with this. And they were looking for someone, and he just suggested me, and I was local, and he called me up, and he got me in.
What happened to the movie Black Files, that you were supposed to be in?
Yeah, it never happened.
Didn’t they shoot some scenes?
Not with me. They had a trailer shot in Bulgaria with Bulgarian stunt people and actors just to shop and try to raise money for it, but they didn’t raise the money yet, so they’re still trying to get it funded. It looks like it’s gonna be a great movie, but they couldn’t get it funded yet.
Do you have any other upcoming roles?
Tom DeNucci actually called me recently, and he has something else in the works that I may do. I’m looking at the script now. I’m not sure what it is yet… I haven’t finished reading it. But there’s an opportunity there.
I just shot a movie with David Labrava and Drea de Matteo and Mark Boone Jr. and a bunch of the guys from Sons of Anarchy called Street Level, which is supposed to be coming out some time at the end of this year.
And I’m actually working on a new TV series right now with a friend of mine, but again, a little premature to talk about that. But it’s gonna be a comedy based on my lifestyle, at least the past. It’ll be fictional characters. But just extracting good, funny stories from the road and putting them into a show. Like an Entourage.
I saw you were tweeting about tattoo removal. How many have you had removed?
I had a star on my face, I had one on my arm, I had stuff on my hands…
Why did you decide to remove them? You haven’t removed all of them.
Yeah, some of ’em you can’t [remove] because you’ll just scar too much, but some of the older ones that were homemade I wanted to take ’em off. I just wanted to get the older, crappier ones off.
I hear it’s painful.
How would you describe it?
World’s largest elastic band snapping you in the ribs at a thousand beats a second. It’s a laser that basically passes through your skin, and when it locates ink, the laser blows up the ink, so you literally see your skin spark and smoke, and then it breaks up the ink, and it slowly just—your body just fades it out over time.
So if your daughter ever talks about getting a tattoo, you can explain…
Don’t even talk to me about that right now, because she’s already done something… that we’re gonna deal with.
In Godsmack’s early days, a lot was made over the idea that you’re a Wiccan.
Oh, I don’t talk about religion. I’m so beyond that, like I don’t follow any specific religion. I’m just a spiritual person; I believe in karma and things like that. But religion is an ugly word to me.
Everybody has their beliefs. I don’t wanna really try to sway anyone. I have my beliefs, and what I think is good and bad, and I think they’re all kind of neutralized, that’s all. All the religions preach the same thing in their own way, “Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal, don’t kill anybody.” It’s all [about] being a good person. I think they’re all just guidelines.
The problem [with talking about religion] is that after a while it became such a topic that they were forgetting to ask me questions about the music, and it all became about this. So I was like, “Yeah, we’re gonna stop this now,” because does every time someone interviews Cher, do they ask her if you’re a practicing Catholic?