Sevendust Interview, Pt 1: John Connolly On the Low Down

Oh, those low, low, low tunings. Drop it down a fourth to B, or even lower, to A-sharp, and you’re flirtin’ with sonic disaster, unless you know how to handle it. But that’s the tuning territory a lot of metal bands have made a career of, including Atlanta, Georgia, -based Sevendust.

Now 20 years into a still-expanding universe of appeal, the five-man band recently released their second acoustic album, featuring un-amplified versions of select tunes from their nine electric studio albums, along with a couple of new tunes as well.

Released in the Spring of 2014, Time Travelers & Bonfires found the band revisiting an unplugged landscape they first traversed in 2004 with the release of Southside Double-Wide -- a collection of 15 tunes played acoustic and live, and accompanied by a DVD of the concert. For Time Travelers… however, Sevendust stayed in the studio and found new ways to break down familiar tunes.

And new ways to conduct the business of releasing an album as well: First, they let the fans contribute financially to the record through a fan-base approved and very successful crowdfunding campaign. And second, they let the fans pick the songs to appear on the album.

In this exclusive interview, guitarist and Sevendust founder John Connolly discusses how Time Travelers & Bonfires came together, the fun they had reworking electric tunes to fit the acoustic format, and how different brands of acoustic guitar handled -- or didn’t -- the deeply dropped tunings in which Sevendust works.

We also delved deeply into Connolly’s amps, pedals, and guitars -- including his upcoming Dean signature model guitar -- and how all of that was put to use on stage on the acoustic tour. Watch for our in-depth interview with Connolly’s partner-in-crime, Sevendust guitarist Clint Lowery, on later this week.

As this interview posts live, Sevendust are launching -- this week -- one final leg of their 2014 acoustic tour, venturing out for 16 more dates throughout the U.S. South. Catch ‘em if you can. Hello John.

John Connolly: Hey, how are you brother? Great. So where are you today? Are you at home?


Connolly: No, we’re actually finishing up. We’re doing a short little electric tour. We started back, I guess it’s almost a month now. It’s a little over a month long. So we’re in La Crosse, Wisconsin, today. Two more shows and then we’ll be home for a pretty good bit. Cool. So La Crosse, that’s an interesting area. There’s a big college up there right, University of Wisconsin at La Crosse?


Connolly: Yeah, yep absolutely. So the acoustic album is pretty cool and I know you’ve done some acoustic recordings before. It’s very interesting how you put this together with sort of like a crowdfunding kind of thing. Do you know much about that?


Connolly: Well, you know it’s funny. We took a good year off before we did the last electric record. We'd taken about a year off and kind of unplugged from Sevendust, and we’ve started working on some of these little side projects. Morgan and Clint had a project called Call Me No One and Vinny and myself did a project called Projected. And you know when we were coming up with creative ways on how to fund those things, we were looking at a lot of the fan things, you know platforms like Kickstarter, and things like that.

My first impression with Kickstarter was that the message was kind of being sent the wrong way from a couple of Kickstarter campaigns that I was looking at because I was like, “Man, this looks like you’re asking for a handout,” you know?

Instead of actually building it from the ground up. I got the point that the message was in there but it was kind of misconstrued by the dollar figure and a timer with the day and all that stuff. And I was like “Whoa!" That’s kind of an odd way to go about it.

We weren’t aware that there were other crowdfunding sites, and we kind of looked at all the things about these platforms that people really like and when it came time to do the next one for Sevendust it was kind of like the seed had already been planted. We had already been paying attention in watching how a lot of these different fan funding operations were working.

And it didn’t feel like the dollar’s figure was nearly as important as the goal of the project, which was more important for us. you know because it’s like we’re going to throw in the money to do it one way or the other, and we’re either going to earn it back after we release the record or we can earn it back as we’re doing the record.

So we figured, "Hey, let’s just see what happens." We knew we have a pretty solid fan base and you know we’re pretty certain that we’d be able to hit our goal. We had no idea how long it was going to take, whether it was going to be a day, four days, two weeks, two months. But for us it was awesome because it opened our eyes, and I was like, "OK, this is a true testament to our fan base. Our fans don’t care whether we release the record on this label, that label, or this management, or that management."

It’s all about us and them, our relationship between the two. I think it’s the way of the future. I mean, if you know that you have that much interest in a record, straight from the fans to you without having anything in between, that’s a pretty good place to be.

I mean, it’s cool to have the radio and the promo and all that extra stuff -- the PR stuff. But it’s pretty awesome that you can actually put together something like that, and you've got everything paid for before you release it. It’s not a question, it’s not a risk of, "Am I going to lose my ass in this or not?"

So in a lot of ways, it’s a much healthier spot for bands to be in that they can have this direct relationship with their fans. There was always a question years ago, "Are we going to recoup the budget? How much money is in the budget? How much have we spent? What’s the marketing budget? Blah blah blah…"

Now it’s pretty cut and dry. We ask for X amount, we get X amount, and then we go about doing our business like we normally would. But instead of owing the bank -- or the record company -- money, we just get our fans a record. So it’s kind of cool. I agree. I read a book a while back called “Confessions of a Record Producer.” Have you ever read it?


Connolly: No, I haven’t. It was a book about how the music industry works. I’ve been a journalist for a long time so I’m pretty aware. But there was one part in the book where it talked about, when a band signs to a label, when they get an advance to go do the recording, when they get tour support, when they get this and this and that, essentially it’s all a great big loan, and it’s typically at an astronomical interest rate, in the long run.


Connolly: Sure, oh yeah, yeah. It’s like the most horrible bank loan ever. Yeah. The author of that book suggested it was like a bank loan at 66 percent interest, which would be illegal in, say, real estate.


Connolly: And with people who aren’t really even as qualified as the bankers are in a lot of ways to be actually handling and billing all your money. Because the meanest thing about it is you really don’t have any approval process for what they’re going to spend it on. Right.


Connolly: You know, one example is our Animosity record, which we released in 2001. We sold 600,000 or 700,000 copies and we still supposedly owe money. Of course we looked at the marketing budget and the marketing budget was two and a half million dollars. And you look at it and you scratch your head and go, "WTF?" you know?

Hindsight is 20/20 for sure, but if we had known then what we know now, I mean we wouldn’t have spent money on a lot of the stupid things that labels would spend money on. A lot of that marketing money was them just throwing it against the wall and see if it sticks, you know? Put it in as many places as you can and "Let’s see what happens." It's crazy what labels used to be able to get away with, even in the day and age where you've got a lot of bands signing 360 deals, which are another entirely different nightmare.

But evolution in business is happening so fast now. It’s nice to see that the fan-funding thing and the crowdfunding thing has taken off because there’s no mystery there. If you hit your number and go well beyond it then you’ve way exceeded any expectation you ever had. So you don’t worry about those record labels with horrible bank loan scenarios, and all that good stuff. And it gives fans that got involved with you in this process a real sense of involvement…


Connolly: Sure, their name in the liner notes, and all that kind of thing. I mean, you can’t be any more involved than actually having your name appear on the record as someone who contributed.

We've done everything from private house parties to autographed guitars, sticks and drum heads, and lyrics sheet. There were so many different things that we offered in return for fan funding contributions, but it was cool for us. It’s not something that is offered all the time, and for a lot of those fans, to be able to have those opportunities is very special. For us it’s a simple thing. And it meant the world to them, so it’s so much cooler. I think it brings your fans into a place that they never had an opportunity to be before, and it just makes sense.

If you’re a band like we are and you know you have a fan base, then play to you fan base. Our fans are going to tell us what they want, how they want it. They helped pick the songs on the record. It was as involved as we could possibly make it. Trust me, "Black" was not at the top of our list of songs to do, but the fans spoke loud and clear, and we heard it. It was far and away the number one song request for the acoustic album, so we said, "OK, we got it."

Some songs we can kind of weasel our way out of, but not that one, you know? That to me speaks volumes because there’s no guessing, "What do our fans want?" We ask, and they tell us. And it’s a great relationship. The fans got to chose what, six of the songs on this album, right?


Connolly: Right, yeah pretty much. You know, we took some liberties on this because there were a couple of songs in there... You know the biggest hurdle for us was making sure we didn’t completely re-create the Southside Double-Wide record.

And a lot of the songs that fans were asking us to put on the record, we’re like, "All right, without making that record completely over again, we could do a couple of them, but we need to re-visit them and take them to a place that’s different." But yeah, the fans picked four or five of the songs and the sixth one definitely got a lot of the votes. But we didn’t want to do the same record you know, twice in a decade. So how did you go about reworking these songs that you had already done acoustically before? Did you sit down as a group and just jam on them, or did you work on different parts individually?


Connolly: Every day it would be grab a guitar and like, the “Crucified,” thing. It was like, how are we going to do “Crucified?” Because we’ve already done almost a literal version of the electric version on acoustic, and it was just trying a different approach, trying a different feel, trying a different element. It could be as simple as Clint just swinging something instead of playing straight through, and we all went, "OK, cool!"

But it’s completely organic you know, literally just grab a guitar and see where you end up. Some of them were accidents -- we were like, "No, that song’s not going to work." And suddenly, you’d start playing and we were like "Uh... all right, wait a minute, maybe this will work!" Like "Denial," that was one of those ones that we’re like, "All right, we really want to space this one out, trip it out," So we made it super, super, super dynamic because that song is a pretty heavy song to begin with.

So first, to be able to take those kinds of songs and completely turn them on their side and make them something different was a lot of fun. We would all show up and sit around, grab some guitars, and just start making noise, you know? So what are you playing gear-wise? What did you use in the studio? What do you use live? Is it the same acoustic guitar? Is it the same rig? What are you doing?

Connolly: We did a combination of things. When we first got in the studio, we had a couple of really nice Martins that we started with. But the funny thing about Martins is that they really don’t like being tuned down to B and A-sharp, and all these insanely crazy keys. So, we were taking it back and forth from standard, up and down, up and down, up and down. And then of course you played late and you forget and come in the next day and, "Oh wait a minute, this thing is all messed up."

So we started leaning on some of the PRS and some of the Deans that we had. Clint has PRS acoustics and same with me with the Dean stuff. We’ve got a couple of Exhibitions, a couple of Natural series. We ended up using them in the studio. When the Martins wouldn't cooperate, a lot of the PRS and a lot of Deans were working. There were two or three that were on the whole record. We kind of used everything that was at our disposal. Uh huh. Are these acoustic-electric? Were you plugged in or were you miked up?


Connolly: No, these are just straight up acoustic. We used the input just for tuning, but basically we had two mics in the room, we had a pencil mic kind of aimed towards the sound hole. And then he had some, I’m not even sure what is was, but it was either a [Telefunken] 47 or [Neumann] 67, one of the two, kind of back in the room. And that was pretty much it.

It was as simple and straightforward as it could be. We did all the odd stuff and we were working demo versions of things, so we could kind of sort through it, kind of throw it together and then we’d record it, a live version of whatever it was. Then we'd listen to it, make our adjustments, and then we’d go and track it. But it was about as stripped down as you can get. But we are delay freaks and we had to have delay on everything. So when you’re out playing live, what are you using to re-create this stuff?


Connolly: Same thing. And the funny thing is I actually use a scaled down version of what I use for the electric. Because there were a couple of songs that we didn’t do on the record, songs like "Prayer."

That was kind of cool but it’s like, "All right, throw my wah-wah out there." I knew I needed delay. If I have delay and the wah, then it was all right. It was just literally a smaller version of the electric rig so wah, whammy, delay, and a tuner, and that was pretty much it.

That is as straightforward and as simple as it gets. We did tap tempo on the delays so we could do things on the fly. Because the funny thing is, like, with the electric stuff, we have a lot more programming and things like that going on. And even though there was a lot of that in this record, -- we brought Kurt, the actual co-owner of the studio and the guy who had done all of the keys and all the programming on that record instead of his stuff just being on a machine -- we brought him on tour. What kind of delay do you use?

Connolly: I’m using an Eventide in the rig. But I’m still kind of a sucker for this tc electronics small ones. They just, they work, they sound good, they’re not too deep in the editing side of it. And they’ve got tap tempo. It’s kind of been one of my go-to’s. Either the tc or the Eventide. And what kind of amplifications are you using with these acoustic shows?

Connolly: Nothing. We basically just D.I. everything. It basically hits the pedal board, like I said the tuner, wah, whammy, and a delay pedal but other than that... Well, actually I take that back: I did have a… I did have an overdrive that we use maybe like three times a show. If I needed some extra gas in like a chorus or something like that. But other than that, nothing. I mean, basically just D.I. I’m sure our front of house guy was probably putting a few bells and whistles on some things out there, but yeah, we're pretty much as straightforward as we can make it.


Most of the acoustic stuff was completely off the cuff. We weren’t on a click or anything. We were just kind of free formatting it with him, physically doing all this stuff. And you know some nights he’d be a couple of clicks quicker, some nights would be a couple of clicks slower. But for us it was cool like, "Uh… this is kind of getting back to where it all began in the first place, before you start leaning on -- oh we want the industrial thing." And all of a sudden you realize you’ve got a lot of extra things going on.

But for us, even though we had left out those elements in the acoustic show, it was cool for us to go out and just do it live. It was nice having a body do it instead of a machine for a change. Right, right. So how did you keep the acoustics in tune on tour? What kind of strings were you using?


Connolly: All Ernie Balls. We tried some of these new ones. I forget what they’ve sent us in the studio. We went through a couple of different things, going from anywhere from I think on the C-sharps were down around .012 or .013 on the high and then like .056 on the low. And then what about the songs tuned down to B, or A-sharp?


Connolly: Yeah, same gauge strings. Same gauge pretty much all the way. And we’ll swap from .012 to .013 going from C-sharp down to B, when I need the lowest stuff. Going from C-sharp to A-sharp is always the trick because you really just have to kind of ease up on the hands and play a lot more delicate than you would think.

It’s funny, you tune way down into the basement, and you'd think that’s like all clatter and big and heavy, but that’s where you've got to like.. I actually treat the instrument with a little bit more finesse.

It sounds like we’re really beating the shit out of it but you just kind of ease up about 20-, 25-percent. But you will usually find guitars that kind of like being in certain keys. I had a couple of guitars in the beginning of the tour that just absolutely hated where they were, and so we switched things around and they all kind of fell into place nicely.

Some guitars will show you how far they’re willing to go and in Sevendust we’ve thrown a lot of tunings at a lot of good instruments, so sometimes it’s not the instrument’s fault. Right, it’s funny how instruments, how the guitars can sort of almost have their own little personalities.


Connolly: Yeah, yeah, I have two or three that absolutely love being in C-sharp and can’t stand being in A-sharp, and vice versa. I have a couple that just get really weird. You know, for us, C-sharp would be considered a high tuning.

So for us to take something that’s been sitting around tuned lower for a few years, once I kind of get them into their spot and let them sit and get them set up... A lot of people ask, "When are you going to switch over to seven strings?" And it’s not a need, you know? In all honesty, six is more than enough for a lot of the stuff that we’re doing in the world of Sevendust.

I honestly haven’t had a guitar that hasn't been able to hold the tuning other than, like I said, something like a Martin, after it’s been sitting at standard for years and years and years.

You know, most of our stuff -- even Clint’s signature guitars, and we're probably going to do the same thing once we release my signature guitars -- they’re actually shipped with the heavier strings on them, so they’re set up for that directly from the factory. Tell me about your signature guitar from Dean.

Connolly: The dream of mine for years and years was to have an Explorer shape and an Explorer body but have a Fender scale on that. I’ve always liked the twenty-five-and-a-half-inch scale. And I’ve always liked a big, wide fretboard, you know, wide and flat with a lot of real estate. And that was always a compromise with a Gibson.

I always had the sound and I always had the body shape correct. The shorter scale was always a little bit of a compromise, It’s weird because I don’t have super big or long fingers and my hands would always feel stuck, like I was kind of boxed in up above the twelfth fret. So Dean was like, "We could put whatever neck you want." So that’s basically what we did: We put a twenty-five-and-a-half-inch scale, long scale neck on it. It definitely helps in the tuning a little bit.

You know it’s not that much of a difference but any extra fight that you get when you’re tuning super low, sometimes it’s a good thing. It’s kind of cool when the guitar actually kind of fights you a little bit down that low.

So long scale for us was kind of the eye-opener. To sit down and play for hours and hours on end, I don’t mind the short scale. But when you get the adrenaline pumping and you’re jumping off the drum riser, and running all over the stage and stuff, sometimes that extra little bit of length helps keeps things very nicely tuned.

So for me I'm basically playing an Explorer, except for the neck. A couple of gain pickups are in there but other than that, it’s pretty straightforward. Your standard tone and volume controls, and then a pickup selector.

We were trying to get it out this summer and one thing lead to another and all of a sudden here we are in October. So realistically I’d say it’ll probably be out for NAMM. We weren’t going to try to wait until NAMM, but NAMM is going to be the next biggest thing on the calendar. So we’ll be looking to hopefully get that signature out then. Cool, what gauge strings is that going to ship with?

Connolly: I've been going back and forth. I’ve been coming down in both pick gauge and string gauge. Twelve is about where I’ve stayed for a while, and it used to be .012 to .056. Now I’ve even lightened up, I’m more like a .012 to .054 guy.

If we’re in A-sharp, which -- A-sharp is kind of extreme -- we don’t do a ton of stuff in A-sharp, but we go down there sometimes. B is in our wheel-house. So that guitar would most likely ship with a .012 to probably .054 set on it. You see, that’s kind of my happy medium you know. Yeah, cool. So you know, this is actually your 20th anniversary with the band isn’t it?

Connolly: Yeah, pretty much. I mean, it’s right there. We kind of started… I mean, the first record came out ’97 if you’re going by that, if it has to be when you released the first record. But yeah, the demos were written in ’93. We were kind of together like putting the band together and actually jamming some shows in ’94 so yeah, it’s our 20th anniversary. Very cool, very cool. I guess when you start something like that, you never expected to go this long do you?


Connolly: No. A few people would ask us back then, "What are your expectations?" It’d be like we had a pretty decent album cycle and went out on the road and had a good time, and 20 years later going, "Whoa, wait a minute! Oh, what happened?" Well yeah, it’s pretty amazing. So, I know you're hitting the Southeast before you end the tour, places you hadn't hit before. And what are you going to do after the acoustic tour wraps up? What’s next?


Connolly: Uh, a break. We’re kind of shutting down the Black Out the Sun album, and the acoustic thing. We're just going to shut it down 'til the next album. We did about 18 months on Black Out the Sun, and we’re probably about 5 or 6 months on the acoustic thing, so it’s time to go home and do the to-do-list: Cut the grass, you know, all the fun stuff. Yeah, and then get into writing for the next album?

Connolly: Sure, yeah. I don’t know if I’ll specifically write for a record as much as I just got to write to write. You know, I used to be like, "All right, we got a record coming up in three months!" And then you cram. You’d write 30 songs. Me and Clint would show up with you know, 50 or 60 ideas and it was just completely overwhelming for the band to sort it through. You know, "How can I be objective about that much stuff?"

I’m not saying that it doesn’t still happen but we don’t bring as much into the party as we used to. It’s also a lot of fun to actually write on the spot. You know, a lot of Black Out the Sun stuff we made right there in front of each other. There's never any guess work like, "What part would you play?" Or "Here’s a drum beat that’ll kind of work," you know?

Not to say that we won’t show up and have plenty of stuff in the well, just in case you have a dry day. But it’s funny, with five people that are all involved in the writing process, you can have two guys that are just having the worst day of their careers as far the writing goes and the other three will pull you through.

So there’s never a shortage of ideas and material with this group of guys. Even though we’d show up and be prepared, we’re always ready to say, "Let’s just jam and see what we've got."

Some of our favourite songs are the ones that we wrote that way. Like "Splinter." "Splinter" was a song that we wrote after we realized, "OK, we’ve got a record done, so now let’s have some fun!" Right.


Connolly: "Decay," was written the same way. "OK, we got the record. Let’s just go ahead and finish that one just to see what happens." And it turns out to be the the first single. Yeah, sometimes it's better that way, because it doesn’t have all the pressure on it.


Connolly: Right, exactly. Now that we're done recording, all the good songs are going to come out! Yeah, very cool. Well thanks for your time today John.

Connolly: Absolutely.

Related Links:

Sevendust Official Website

Sevendust on Facebook

Sevendust on Twitter

Sevendust on YouTube

John Connolly on Facebook

John Connolly on Twitter

Dean Guitars Website

Dean Guitars on Facebook

Dean Guitars on Twitter

PRS Guitars Website

PRS on Facebook

PRS on Twitter

Eventide Website

tc electronics Website

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