Rock

Zoltan Bathory on the Struggles That Informed Five Finger Death Punch's New Album

Five Finger Death Punch
Stephen Jensen

Five Finger Death Punch

When asked how he's doing just a few days before the Friday (Feb. 28) release of F8, Five Finger Death Punch guitarist Zoltan Bathory, in his light-hearted manner, quips, "Coronavirus free, so far -- I'm in Italy, and they have a huge outbreak here."

He and his FFDP bandmates have just finished a successful headlining arena tour of Europe and are taking a break before gearing up for a big tour with Papa Roach in April and May. F8, the group's eighth, is their most mature offering to date. Once again produced by Kevin Churko with that patented Five Finger aggression and angst, it features singer Ivan Moody chronicling his daunting path to sobriety over music that traverses a diverse range of styles, from sensitive ballads to balls-out barnstormers.

Bathory acknowledges that the experimentation they indulged in on the two-album set The Wrong Side of Heaven and the Righteous Side of Hell a few years ago led to the revelation that their fans embraced a wider palette of music than they originally thought. "We realized our fans love that stuff," says Bathory. "I would say that probably opened up the aperture a bit wider. I think this is a bit more diverse than that [double album] was."

And after a difficult few years, Five Finger's vocalist wanted to push himself.

"Ivan did say when we were going to the studio, 'You know what, sometimes all this screaming, I don't know if I'm still there. I like to sing,'" Bathory tells Billboard. "So he did have it in his head that he wanted to sing more." But when the guitarist whipped out more old school-style FFDP rockers like "Scar Tissue" and "This Is War," Moody tackled them full bore. Still, he embraced a wider spectrum of vocal colors on F8.

The guitarist is proud of the diversity displayed on the new album with such tracks as the somber, electroacoustic ballad "Brighter Shade Of Grey" and the semi-acoustic, slightly dancey "A Little Bit Off." One or more string instruments slip into a few tracks as well, including the metallic-symphonic intro to the album. Bathory found getting the right balance between the super heavy songs and more acoustic moments to be challenging. "How do you put those things in the same album without making it disjointed?" he muses. "I think that's a challenge and a task. We're really proud that we managed to do that without making it feel like it's not the same band."

Moody's lyrics reflect someone who's had more experiences with overcoming struggles. Songs like "A Little Bit Off," "To Be Alone" and "Darkness Settles In" chronicle the tumultuous ride to sobriety taken by the Five Finger frontman. They express his insecurity, anger and hopefulness in dealing with an addiction that threatened his place in the band. For 2016 and 2017 concert dates, he was replaced on tour by Phil Labonte and then Tommy Vext because his alcoholism had become too much for him to cope with and the band to tolerate.

Given that Moody's struggles were not sudden, not all of his new lyrics gestated during their latest recording sessions. "I think that the 'Brighter Side Of Grey' was something that he started to write a long time ago, when he was still struggling," explains Bathory. "It's not a suicide note per se because it was never his intention. But it was in his mind like, 'Oh my God, I might not make it. If I don't make it, then this is what I wanted to say.' Every other piece [on F8] is the struggle."

The Five Finger crew – which also includes guitarist Jason Hook, bassist Chris Kael and new drummer Charlie Engen – is aware of all the musicians lost in recent years due to depression and addiction, and their veteran members certainly received a talking to from various hard rock luminaries about the pitfalls of rock n' roll excess.

"We were on tour with Sixx:A.M.," recalls Bathory, "and Nikki Sixx did come over and say [something] like, 'Guys, what the hell are you doing? I did some dumb shit in my life. But goddamn, you guys need to step on the brakes. You have everything that you can possibly want. Your band is blowing up. You have all the aces, and you guys are going to just light it on fire.' We knew a lot of artists who had been there, done that, and by talking to the party section of my band they were definitely instrumental in getting them sober. 'Hey, we've all done this. Some of us didn't survive, some of us did. You guys should probably think about that.'"

While many of his bandmates partook in the party, Bathory was the sober one, and purposefully so. "Not that I don't have a glass of wine with dinner, but I never had a problem," he clarifies. "I was always the sober one basically herding cats, trying to get these guys to stay focused. Every band has to have at least one guy who is minding the business, who is sober and watching what's happening and can navigate [the ship] so you're not hitting the iceberg."

Moody was the one who really went off the rails, and he does not mince words about his experiences on the new songs. Take this line from "Darkness Settles In": "Waiting for someone to save me/But everyone just runs away/Waiting for someone to change me/But no one ever comes."

"When it seemed like he wasn't going to make it, there were some vultures, there were some negative people," acknowledges Bathory. "He's definitely lashing out against them. He saw that some people left him in the ditch, so to speak. It's all in the lyrics, and I think either everybody has gone through something like this or knows somebody like this. And the lyrics are vague enough that you don't have to equate every single lyric with alcoholism. They fit all kinds of situations in life. That's when lyrics are great, when you can get adopt them to different scenarios so it will mean something else. It's not spelled out so strictly that you cannot take it in any other way than what it is."

The Hungarian-born guitarist expresses a fascination with Moody's lyric-writing process. He says that the singer often comes to him with an abundance of words written on napkins, notepads, even the backs of old pizza boxes. Part of his process is to write with a pad, whatever that surface may be. "He just grabs whatever paper and shows up in a studio with this stack of papers and doodles, little words, poems and full songs," explains Bathory. "It's pretty interesting. He always writes. He always has his stuff with him."

Bathory enjoys the sarcastic lyrics to "Living The Dream" and the pop culture references that Moody brings up on that track, including Superman, Captain America, Iron Man and Mr. Universe. He also appreciates that rather than using the name Lady Liberty that Moody says Lady Amnesty. "It's this whole idea that the government lets you do something," remarks Bathory. "Government is elected by you to work for you, but it's almost like this upper class gives you amnesty. That you can do anything as long as they approve. That's Lady Amnesty. There is no actual liberty, right?"

As he is speaking to Billboard from Rome, Bathory invokes an old Roman concept of "bread and circuses," widely attributed to the satirist and poet Juvenal circa 100 A.D. "What they meant by that was that as long as people have something to eat and they're entertained and distracted, this will stop them from revolting," he says. "It's what the ['…Dream'] lyrics are about. The distraction would be all the pop culture figures that he's talking about. It's a sarcastic kind of thing that we are living this illusion of liberty and this illusion of freedom, but is it really?"

Across the decades, heavy metal has generally thrived on challenging the status quo, often to the point of being marginalized even in the face of overwhelming success. Despite the fact that they have played arenas worldwide, racked up billions of streams and YouTube views and scored several top 5 albums on the Billboard 200 chart, one could argue, as Bathory says, that they are "the biggest unknown band in the world." He notes that the group's popularity is rising even more, so that tag will likely not apply to them much longer, but he addresses how hard rock and metal are simply not in the spotlight right now.

"This is just not the genre that is getting the TV coverage and getting the mainstream coverage," says Bathory. "I think it's simply attributable to that. The Grammys are not even showing the hard rock/heavy metal awards anymore on TV. Also, there is not really printed press anymore. We used to have all kinds of magazines dealing with the genre. Basically, you've lost the entire subculture because nobody serves that. It's only the mainstream bands that get some press, if they get press."

Despite the dearth of mass recognition for heavy music, as Bathory notes, the fans never went anywhere and are still out there. "If you look at actual numbers and have conversations with people from Spotify and other streaming services, a really interesting thing is happening," he says. "Look at pop music entities, the stuff that gets big quick and then disappears because it's almost a music fashion that comes and goes. Some artists manage to have a long-term career. Some have this huge moment and then they disappear. Look at these hard and rock heavy metal bands that have been around for three, four or five decades in some cases." He adds that such bands might not have enjoyed immediate popularity or fame, but they have endured, and many of them have racked up hundreds of millions of streams.

There is another reason for metal's lower mainstream profile. Let's face it: the music annoys the sh-t out of many people. "You push their buttons, right," laughs Bathory. "But then you start to look at the spectrum and the long term [viability] of the bands. In the end, it's the rabbit and the turtle. These guys stay around. Rob Halford — Jesus Christ, he was already a rock star before I was even born."

Having worked hard to make it, Bathory is passing the torch and now manages two bands, Bad Wolves and Fire From The Gods, whom he thinks have what it takes to go the distance. He also makes the observation that for a long time, being a rocker with a strong business sense was not considered legitimate; for some, speaking about the inside dealings somehow took away a sense of artistic integrity and diminished one's standing.

"It's almost like for you to be a rock star you had to be irresponsible, throw TVs from hotel rooms, and just be crazy," says Bathory. "That's changed massively. In fact, I don't think that bands who don't have at least one guy or two in there who understands the business side of things can even survive. I was the guy in this band who always dealt with all the contracts. I have a natural thing for it anyway."

He makes the comparison between the talented artist who is lazy and the less talented artist with a strong work ethic who might go further. He prefers to see the best combination of the two, and he knows what it took for his band to make it.

"I can tell them what to avoid," says Bathory of his managerial role. "I know where the shortcuts are, so I have the experience that can actually help. I think the most important part is to recognize the guys who are the artists who have the right stuff that can make something interesting. You have to understand the market as well. So those are the goggles I look through. I see this in Bad Wolves and Fire From The Gods. Both of those bands are very unique in some way. They have the right stuff. I also know these guys. They're hard workers, they're hustlers. That's part of it."

Bathory knows what it is like to hustle. When he was a teenager, he arrived in America from his native Hungary with only a guitar, a bag of clothes and a Hungarian-English dictionary, through which he taught himself to speak English by translating The Shawshank Redemption word by word. He also watched TV with closed captions on so he could recognize words and how to pronounce them. The young musician mainly learned English through reading books. He says he probably translated Shawshank about 20 times before he actually understood it.

"I lived in Barnes & Noble," recalls Bathory. "I would read a book a day. I couldn't afford them, but I would go to Barnes & Noble and just read, read, read, read them. There's a difference when your vocabulary comes from books and the way you use the language is definitely very different than if you were learning from the streets. I understood that. I was just learning, learning, learning. I know what struggle means. I know what it means to work hard. I know exactly when I put on the manager shoes know what I'm looking for. I'm looking for the guys who will climb that mountain when it's there."

The FFDP six-stringer has climbed other mountains, including various non-music businesses. "I recently purchased a well-known company," he says. "I'm not going to reveal it yet. It's going to be a shocker for a lot of people when it comes out. But you know, I had a sportswear line [Alphadog Combat Gear]. We were supplying the official gloves for various MMA competitions. I'm a martial artist, so that world is close to me. Now the band takes most of my time, but it's still a viable business. I have many different fishing lines in the water."

Given everything he's involved in, one wonders when Bathory has time to sleep. But he assures us he gets about five or six hours of shuteye per night. "At the same time, I'm trying to eliminate crazy stuff from my life," he says. "Life hacks matter because you can sleep less if you don't accumulate stress and don't waste time with crazy stuff."

Even after all these years and successes, Bathory and his bandmates have managed to stay humble -- in part thanks to their gradual rise. There was no magic bullet that shot them to the top of the charts or quickly grew their rabid fan base. There was no global push from something like MTV to get them out there faster. Metal bands usually have to work harder to make it, so FFDP simply hit the road and kept at it.

"We were on the road for 250 something plus days every year, banging out albums one after the other, and just climbing the ladder," says Bathory. "There is no magic formula. There is no shortcut through the forest. I never woke up one day and said, 'Oh my God, I'm a rock star.' I have a million tasks every day that I have to do so. Obviously, our lives changed, and we can have nice things. I don't have to worry about a lot of things that otherwise 15 years ago I would have. There's no complaints. We have a great life, but because it was gradual I would say that everybody stays grounded. I don't ever forget where I came from, how I got here, and what this country gave me. That's why I'm more of a flag-waving patriot in some ways because I came from a country that didn't have a Constitution and the rights that I was given in America." Her adds that their charity work benefitting police, first responders, veterans and their families "is just remembering where we came from and why this is possible. That matters."

Their recent European jaunt with Megadeth was a major highlight for Bathory and the band. He says every show was pretty much sold out, and metal icons Megadeth were one of his favorite bands growing up, so the whole trek was very surreal for him. On an even more personal note, he returned to his home country of Hungary for the first time in more than 20 years.

"It was crazy," declares Bathory. "I've lived in America for 20-plus years, and I hadn't been back there. And the first time I came back I was selling out the biggest inside sports arena there and having Megadeth as direct support. That was just insane, you know? National TV and the newspapers that don't necessary cover music all came out. It was a pretty crazy homecoming that I didn't expect. It was incredible."