Disturbed’s forthcoming album, Divisive, has been four years in the making. The last time the band had this long of a gap between studio releases was during its early-2010s hiatus that lasted nearly as long. But these have been surreal times, with the coronavirus pandemic delaying albums and tours, and putting people a different head space. For many, lockdown inspired musical creations, but for others, it instigated a change that wasn’t for the better.
Divisive takes on the country’s fraying society where political friction, social media sparring and, as frontman David Draiman calls it, “outrage addiction” has turned Americans against one another.
Headbanging songs like “Hey You,” “Love To Hate” and the title track (the video for which drops Oct. 28) tackle the tumultuous times. Even a ballad with Heart’s Ann Wilson, “Don’t Tell Me,” is about a disintegrating relationship where each party struggles with letting go.
The metal quartet had little problem with changing-up its recording situation. It worked with producer Drew Fulk (Motionless in White, Ice Nine Kills) for the first time, and it nested into Nashville for recording sessions rather than Las Vegas or Chicago as it had done in the past. Guitarist Dan Donegan notes that half of the music that he wrote came about in the studio due to the strong chemistry he had with Fulk. And for Disturbed’s 2023 world tour, he and his bandmates are considering switching things up in the setlist to keep things fresh and give fans a wider variety of tunes while hopefully digging into deeper cuts.
The Chicago band has no shortage of proven hits to choose from. Since debuting with 2000 single “Stupified,” Disturbed has scored 24 top 10s on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Airplay list. Eleven of them hit No. 1 (including “Hey You,” for three weeks), and four of those chart-toppers remained entrenched for months, like 2008’s 14-week champion “Inside the Fire” and 2016’s epic revamp of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” that reigned for seven. The group’s crossover appeal is evident in its also impressive Billboard 200 stats: Half of its 10 entries have ruled the chart and were RIAA-certified at least platinum. 2000’s No. 29-peaking The Sickness accounts for at least 5 million of the 17.1 million equivalent album units the band has earned, according to Luminate. Disturbed has also sold 15.6 million digital songs and logged 362.2 million on-demand streams.
Donegan sat down for a Zoom with Billboard to talk about the creation of Divisive, his personal connection to “Don’t Tell Me” and what it was like recording with legendary vocalist Wilson.
Billboard: Disturbed has broached similar themes in its music before, but they’re really relevant now. Society is at a point where it’s so split that it has to start finding ways to reunite. Even in the ballad with Ann Wilson, it’s there — the idea that this couple has serious issues, yet they can’t imagine being apart.
Dan Donegan: Exactly. That was a really personal one for me. During COVID-19, I was going through a divorce after 18 years of marriage. Part of that divorce process is that there was still a great deal of love we have for each other, and we couldn’t imagine our lives without each other. Just that letting go, letting somebody go that you still love, but maybe the marriage just might not be working anymore . . . It was touching on that. It was just very personal.
Did you write the lyrics for that?
The concept, basically. Some of the lyrics I worked on with David. I threw a few lines at him, and he took the ball and ran with it.
There is the patented Disturbed sound, and you occasionally throw in surprises like an unusual cover or the 2018 semi-acoustic Evolution album. What’s the challenge to keeping things fresh?
I’m always just trying to push. I never really second guess what we do or why we do it. Or try to chase something — what is it that the label wants, the fans want or radio wants. When we started this band, it was all about being in a room together and trying to have that therapy session together and trying to inspire each other. The only thing I concern myself with is trying to be creative enough to continue to inspire the guys that I’m writing with. And I just trust my gut. I just feel whatever that emotion is, wherever I’m going with it musically. I try to study a lot of other bands and producers, and try to get a feel for new ideas and something that might be inspiring to me. Then we push it. Even with the previous album, Evolution, that was such a departure from what people are used to . . .
Which is good.
It is good, and just no apologies for anything we do. I don’t care. I do it for me, I do it for us. There’s going to be people that love it, people that hate it, and you’re never going to satisfy everybody, but I’m satisfying myself with it. It’s the music that we write, and it’s a way to express ourselves.
I think after all these years of being together it’s always fun to push each other and challenge each other and show that we’re not this one-dimensional band, that we can throw an occasional curveball at you. We’re going to experiment; we’re going to try things just like we did with “The Sound of Silence” and with the acoustic stuff we did on half of the last album. It is always fun to challenge ourselves, even when we do cover songs like “The Sound of Silence” or “Land of Confusion” or “Shout” . . .
Or the Sting cover, “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You,” which you released in 2020.
Yeah, the Sting song. I love doing those songs because it’s so challenging to take a great classic song and put our stamp on it. [To] try to walk that fine line of paying our respect to the original artist in what they did, but to give our interpretation of it so it still sounds like a Disturbed song. It’s finding that balance of keeping the hook of the melody or lyric within there, but still add that stamp.
The most important things I look for is, lyrically, the message first — is it something that we would say? Is it something we feel resonates with us? And then, musically, is it something that I could take and I’m not going to be crucified if I change it too much? I can’t imagine doing “Stairway to Heaven” and changing the guitar part. It’s too signature. But with “The Sound of Silence,” with all due respect [to] the folky guitar part, I thought I could take the ball and run with it and try different things and not be married to trying to replicate that guitar part. I didn’t think it was a signature enough of a part that it had to stay. That came to the question of, “Where do we go with it?” I just pushed the guys and said, “You know what? I think most people are going to think we’re going to go the opposite way with it and go heavy with it. Let’s go slower with it . . . Not real slow, but let’s make it moreso haunting, more of the darker Disturbed thing. We can make it a little bit more haunting and bring [in] the orchestra and the piano and David’s delivery.” It was definitely an experimental thing, but clearly, we found something that connected and worked. [The song was nominated for a best rock performance Grammy.]
Was “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You” recorded before the pandemic?
We recorded it during the same session as Evolution. I suggested that song because I always loved it. I love Sting, and lyrically is what did it for me. It’s just funny how those lyrics really rang true once the pandemic hit. Even though we were a year ahead of it, the line about the politicians and how it’s all become a game show on TV — they’re all kind of clowns. No matter what side of the fence you’re on, we don’t have to turn it into a political debate. But it’s just become a circus.
Some of those lines stuck with me, and I thought it would be good timing to do our interpretation of the song. Some of those other lines seemed to come through once the pandemic hit. There’s a line in there about questioning science and questioning your faith. A lot of people questioned that when this pandemic happened.
For a few moments at the start of the Sting cover, I thought it was a Seal tune. Now I’m thinking the band could do a rocked-up cover of Seal’s “Crazy.”
Yeah, I love that song. It’s definitely been on my mind. It’s such a great song, and I was always a big fan of Seal’s voice.
“If I Ever Lose My Faith in You” ties into the thematic arc on this new album. On “Love To Hate,” David sings about getting engaged in a war that can’t be won. Have you seen that with people whom you know, that vitriol and intensity?
Even with “Hey You,” the first single off this album, it’s a little bit of a wake-up call for us to step back and reflect on how crazy we’re all acting. Especially throughout social media and just even among friends and families and watching strangers go at it. It’s not even debating anymore. It’s just attacking. Debating is a good thing. It opens our minds to educate each other on whatever our views are, but it’s not even a debate anymore. It’s just like, “If you don’t believe in what I believe, then I hate you and we have to cancel you.” It’s the back-and-forth hatred, and now it’s just crazy. I’ve seen friendships falling apart. I’ve seen some family members that are losing their minds over it.
The positions on Divisive are generally centrist.
Right. We’re not here to try to force whatever our opinion or our views are, we don’t have to shove that in people’s faces or down their throats. So if it’s a little cryptic or it’s a little middle of the road, let [the fans interpret] it the way they choose to. Like I said, we walked a bit of a fine line of not having to force our views because it’s not like within the band we agree on everything all the time. Or in a marriage or anything — you’re going to have different opinions and different views on things. That’s OK, there’s nothing wrong with that. You can still be friends and bandmates and fans and still have that connection. But nobody’s being over the top, shoving our views, saying, “This is the way it is.” There’s no agenda behind it.
You flew out to San Francisco to record Ann Wilson’s part. What was that like?
As [the song] was coming together, I knew David had talked to Ann Wilson a couple of times through social media. They became somewhat friends over the past couple of years. He’s like, “These parts sound like we could maybe have somebody on this and do it more of a duet.” Obviously, she was the first person that came to mind. She’s a legend, one of the best female vocalists and rock vocalists around. He reached out to her, and she said yes almost instantly . . .
Once she agreed that she would sing on it, we wanted to make it as easy on her as possible because we didn’t know her schedule. She was out in California, and [David, Drew and I] flew out to San Francisco. We found a small studio more inland like Walnut Creek or somewhere in Oakland. She came in and was so professional and just killed it. She did whatever we asked of her, and her and David worked on the harmonies together. I’m sitting there on the couch just listening to two of my favorite singers harmonize and work this out. She was willing to do anything that was suggested to her, so she was taking direction from Drew as well. And she did her thing to it, too. We wanted to give her that freedom to do what she does. She gave us a bunch of takes and left it at that, and it was amazing.