Ben Burnley meant it when he named his band’s 2015 album Dark Before Dawn.
Although his rock band Breaking Benjamin had achieved significant success — selling 4.9 million album copies so far, according to Nielsen Music — the group had been on a five-year hiatus prior to the album’s arrival. The break was due to the singer-guitarist searching for a definitive diagnosis as to why he was experiencing symptoms like chronic muscular pain and dizziness since 2007, but doctors couldn’t provide any concrete answers. (He has speculated that his health was harmed due to excessive drinking before he got sober in 2007.) On top of that distressing situation, he wound up firing Breaking Benjamin bassist Mark Klepaski and guitarist Aaron Fincke in 2011 for allegedly approving the release of a remix of the song “Blow Me Away” without Burnley’s approval, and drummer Chad Szeliga left in 2013 due to creative differences.
Eventually, Burnley took the health of his body and his band into his own hands: He decided to push through the discomfort he feels so he could keep recording and performing, and he decided to take a bigger role in managing Breaking Benjamin, re-forming the group with guitarists Jasen Rauch and Keith Wallen, bassist Aaron Bruch and drummer Shaun Foist.
“I’ve made it a point in the hiatus to find the exact right people not only for me musically, but also personally, so they’re all my friends first and the business is last, whereas before it was the opposite,” says Burnley. “I would even go so far to say there wasn’t much of a friendship there [with the previous band members]. It was more of a business endeavor for them, and I’m not really interested in being in a band that’s like that.”
Dark Before Dawn has proved prophetic by ushering in a brighter chapter in Burnley’s career. The album surprised the industry by debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in July 2015 — the band’s first chart-topper — with first-week sales of 141,000 equivalent album units. It surpassed the initial sales of previous album Dear Agony, which moved 134,000 in October 2009 when it bowed at No. 4. (To date, Dark Before Dawn has sold 347,000, and Dear Agony has sold 877,000.)
Burnley believes Dark Before Dawn connected with audiences because “it’s the most sincere album we’ve ever done, that’s for sure. My whole heart is into it because I’m finally working with people that I’m supposed to be working with, and before it was very mismatched. Not that they’re not competent musicians … they’re just not the right people for this band, and I think that translates.”
Lead track “Failure” has been anything but. It notched Breaking Benjamin’s third No. 1 on Mainstream Rock Songs and topped the chart for nine weeks, the band’s longest run to date. “Angels Fall” also belied its title by ruling Mainstream Rock Songs for four straight weeks. New single “Ashes of Eden” is currently No. 20 on the chart. Despite its name, the midtempo ballad is very uplifting in terms of its sound and lyrics, but Burnley is coy about the song’s meaning. “I’ve come up musically listening to Nirvana and I absolutely idolized Kurt Cobain, and he always really was adamant about people finding their own meaning in what his songs were about,” he says. “So I kind of take a page from his book and do the same thing where I like people to drawn their own conclusions.”
He’s more open about describing the concept behind the video for “Ashes of Eden,” which seems inspired by Gravity and Star Trek. (“Probably because I’m into that kind of stuff,” says Burnley. “It’s probably subconsciously affected it.”) In the clip that he calls “sort of a modern sci-fi take on Adam and Eve,” two members of a space crew are separated from their ship and “plummet to a water planet where their ashes turn to the building blocks for life as we know it on earth,” he explains. “Billions of years go by and the earth becomes the earth as we know it, and they’ve sort of re-evolved into humans and have found each other again.”
Billboard is exclusively premiering the video for “Ashes of Eden” today. Watch it below:
Burnley may like movies about space, but he has absolutely no desire to set foot in any kind of aircraft: A longtime fear of flying has kept him from traveling overseas and limited Breaking Benjamin’s touring capabilities. “When you get on a plane, you can sit there in your seat and think about it or not think about it, but it doesn’t make it any less true that there is the possibility that the plane will crash and you’ll die,” he says. “That’s an absolute, 100 percent possibility that that could happen.”
Burnley decided it was finally time to travel to Europe. (He was likely encouraged by a 2014 fan-circulated Change.org petition that asked his label, Hollywood Records, to approve his travel by boat.) So he booked passage on the Queen Mary II and took the nine-day trip (each way) across the ocean. He knows boats can sink, but he’s convinced his chances of survival are much better at sea, citing such technological advances as the GPS-equipped life preservers and numerous life rafts stored on the ocean liner.
“People look at it like with the Titanic, but there was no radar, there was no sonar, there was no cell, there was no satellite, there wasn’t a single satellite in the sky [then], so it’s way, way different,” he enthuses. “And they build ships so much differently, so even if the Queen Mary II were to hit an iceberg, it would just plow right through it.”
The tour was a success for Breaking Benjamin, affording it the chance to play in front of tends of thousands of people at such events as Germany’s Rock Am Ring and Rock Im Park, and the United Kingdom’s Download Festival. And Burnley’s willing to make a return trip by boat for another go-round, thanks to the band’s supporters. “I knew we had fans in Europe. I just had no idea there were that many,” he says. “We owe [the amazing trip we had] to the fans. [They] brought us there.”
Burnley also credits them with helping him weather life’s ups and downs, both personal and professional, so he could get to where he is today. “Every fan that we acquire is a heartfelt fan. They’re not in it halfway. They’re in it full on, and they get what we do,” he says. “My fans are like family to me in my mind, and the peaks and the valleys, everybody goes through that in their life. Everybody. I’m sure you have had things happen to you that suck, and you have things that happen to you that are awesome. Your family, your friends — and in this case, my fans — those are the three staples in life.”