With their new album VII: Sturm Und Drang, Virginian metalheads Lamb Of God restate their claim as headbangers most likely to take over the planet. Bassist John Campbell talks the low frequencies: Joel McIver asks the questions
When the current leaders of the heavy metal movement get too stiff to headbang and switch to playing the uke in old people’s homes – and this will happen within the next 10 years – a void will open up for newer, younger, hungrier bands. One of these new, or at least new-ish bands, will be Lamb Of God, who have been going ‘only’ 20 years and are still in the ascendant.
Not that it’s been an easy ride for the band – Randy Blythe (vocals), Mark Morton and Willie Adler (guitars), John Campbell (bass) and Chris Adler (drums) – in recent years. In 2012 Blythe was arrested while LOG were on tour in the Czech Republic and charged with the manslaughter of a teenage fan two years previously: the singer was accused of pushing the stage-invading kid off the stage, which caused a fatal head injury.
Although Blythe was cleared of the charge, he was found guilty of the ‘moral responsibility’ of the boy’s death, a weight which he and his band still carry today. Asked if the case has fully receded into the past, Campbell says soberly: “If you were ever going to take stock of your life, that was certainly a moment to do so – it was an intense moment. There was quite a bit of psychological shock attached to it. It was incredibly difficult, and it’s still not completely resolved: there’s still a guy that died and a family without a son.”
Two years since Blythe was cleared, Lamb Of God are back with an appropriately thoughtful album, VII: Sturm Und Drang. As heavy as any of their previous work but laden with a slightly pensive edge, the album reached the top of the US album charts on its release, quite a feat for a band whose music is as impenetrable as that of Lamb Of God. When we catch up with Campbell, the band is mid-tour in France and trying to shake off their annoyance at a bunch of gigs being cancelled at short notice.
“I’m not far from falling on my face, to be completely honest,” sighs the exhausted bassist, “but I’m glad that I’ve had a chance to catch up with your magazine. We’ve made the most of the shows being cancelled and we’re being tourists. We are where the D-Day invasion started in France, and we went down the American cemetery and Omaha Beach. It’s incredibly frustrating to have the shows cancelled, but thankfully we do well on our feet, and we came up with some things to do here.”
Complimented on the new Lamb Of God album, Campbell replies: “Thanks! I have to say that our producer Josh Wilbur is an amazing dude in the studio all around, and he helped to craft an amazing bass tone. The tracks went down quickly, although not that quickly in this day and age. My actual studio time was four days to track and a day to go through and fix everything. The studio’s not about fun: the idea is to get in and do the work, although there are worse things to have to do… I tell people that in the old days you struggled to make things as perfect as you could in the studio, and then lived with what you got, but nowadays it’s possible to make everything too perfect, so it’s really more about spending time on the feel of what everything is and what’s appropriate.”
Which were his favourite bass parts on the new album, we ask? “The blur of those four days getting the bass parts down was insane! Being able to sit back down and play out that grind at the end of the song ‘Embers’ was great. That was an idea that Josh had, to bring that back, and we agreed it would sound awesome. This is a really exciting record for me as the bass player, because I feel I’ve stretched out a little in some ways. I’m not playing quite so straight, maybe in the kind of things that aren’t heard – although maybe they’ll appear down the road.”
Asked about his gear, Campbell explains: “I’m with ESP now, which is a new move for me. I’m playing their Stream bass, and we’re working on a signature series. I recorded the new album with the Stream, and live I’m playing into a Mesa 400+ rig and a Powerhouse 8×10 cabinet, with a Sansamp. The signature model will be a four-string: I’ve messed around with a five, just to have that extra note down there for playing low stuff that we’ve done, but all I’ve ever really used it for is in the studio, just to have a string at the correct tension that might be abnormally tuned – in a song that we end up not playing live.”
Is Campbell the kind of musician who requires multiple takes, we want to know? “At the end of a really hard day in the studio,” he explains, “when you’re starting to burn out a bit, it’s nice to have someone who’s still on top of it and who says, ‘Well, that wasn’t really a good take, let’s have another one’. There’s no room for feelings in the studio! There are definitely parts that I’ve nailed on the first take, but not the whole record through. There was one song on our Wrath album [from 2009] that we saved until last because I was a little intimidated by it, because both the song and the bass part were complex. Funnily enough it ended up going quicker than any of the other songs. Who knows why, but it proved not to be as hard as I’d expected.”
“When I first started out,” recalls Campbell, “I came from the punk rock scene in Washington DC, where I grew up in the suburbs. That hardcore scene was everything to me. There was Bad Brains; there was Soulside, who had really good bass playing with two bass players; and the first metal band that I got into was Metallica. I’ll forever be in awe of Cliff Burton’s skill at playing bass: it would take a few more lifetimes for me to get anywhere close to that. I’m completely self-taught, so I don’t look at the fretboard and see the classical scales laid out or anything.”
Asked about his first bass, he recalls: “It was one that I bought in pieces and put together. The action was ridiculously high, so I played that for a while and eventually bought a Guild Pilot, which had EMGs and a Badass bridge. It had a really nice neck that I could fly on. I started out on bass because some friends of mine had a house with a drum set and guitar and bass rigs, and one of the guys played drums and I accompanied him on bass.
“It took years before I felt up and running: I remember the very first time I played in front of people, my right leg wouldn’t support my weight because I was so nervous. Then everyone left apart from about three of our friends, and I was still ridiculously nervous! We stopped playing and got back to the partying. That was back in 1992. And then, for a long time I used a Jackson Concert that I’d had modified with a Badass III bridge and EMG pickups: the neck was really skinny and easy to get around on.”
Some of Lamb Of God’s songs are fast, arranged in tricky ways and difficult to play, let along to learn, and yet most of Campbell’s bass parts are played in unison with his fiendishly dexterous guitar players. How does he pull the picking parts off, we ask? “Well, if I hadn’t started working with these guys in 1994, and working out how I was going to pull the parts off, it would be way more intimidating,” he ponders, “but I’ve nailed it enough times that I’ve gained confidence.
“But if I had any advice for bassists reading this magazine – and I know this may sound ridiculous – then I’d say make sure your left-hand pinkie is in shape. It makes life so much easier, because you’re then using every finger on your hand. It sounds obvious, but bass players like myself who are completely self-taught can struggle with parts if that’s not the case. I remember thinking that if I used my pinkie it would be a whole lot easier, so I developed the muscles in that finger. Work on stretching out your hand and developing your fingers as individuals.”
“Endless practice is how I got it to work,” he concludes. “Focus on warming up and building up technique. For me, I need to play blazingly fast 16th and 32nd notes in some of our songs, so in the early days I’d start slow and eventually I’d be able to play them. The same with alternate picking and triplets: after years of doing it, it comes naturally…”
VII: Sturm Und Drang is out now.