"This doesn’t happen everyday," remarks an incredulous Steve Kline, COO of Eleven Seven Records. "You know from being in the business and just observing, just for any song to react like this [is unusual]… but a rock song?"
Kline's referring, of course, to "Zombie," the debut single from Eleven Seven signees Bad Wolves, and a cover of the chart-topping 1994 alternative hit by Irish '90s alt-rock stars The Cranberries. Despite being a cover from a relatively unknown band, performed in a traditional heavy rock style — one that couldn't be more out of step with the decreasingly guitar-reliant rock songs most impacting the charts in 2018 — Bad Wolves' single has grown into a surprise hit, debuting on the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 54 this week, the chart's highest new entry of the week.
Though the song is gaining steam on streaming services (up 18-6 on Rock Streaming Songs) and on radio (up 15-11 in Mainstream Rock Songs), the primary driving factor behind its recent Hot 100 success is sales. "Zombie" jumps from No. 24 to No. 2 on Billboard's Digital Song Sales chart this week (with 44,000 in sales for the week ending March 15, according to Nielsen Music — second only to Drake's Hot 100-topping "God's Plan"), after climbing to the apex of the iTunes chart, where it stayed for most of last week — a journey followed closely by the band on their social media accounts, largely in disbelief.
— Bad Wolves (@badwolves) March 10, 2018
"We all come from different bands, and we’ve all been on various record labels and have worked extensively over the last collective 12-15 years," explains Bad Wolves frontman Tommy Vext, a metal scene veteran who's performed lead vocals with the groups Snot and Five Finger Death Punch. "Immediately, within [our] close group, there were a lot of people who had a very positive response [to "Zombie"]. And then it just started to take off. And it’s been a little bit jarring, because it’s more exposure than any of us had experienced with any of our other projects… It’s weird. I’ve been an underground artist for 20 years."
The song's long trek to the mainstream started in late 2016, when Vext had the idea to cover the song after hearing it in a coffee shop, and doing research into its background. "I was a big Cranberries fan when I was a kid, but I didn’t really understand what the lyrics meant," he explains. "So, I got a little more clarity on what Dolores [O’Riordan, singer] was writing about — the 1916 reference to Easter Rising, the bombing in Warrington in which two little boys were killed… I came to the band and was like, 'We need to do this song.'"
The band also caught a break when Dan Waite, managing director at Eleven Seven and a longtime friend of O'Riordan, passed the singer the band's version of her signature hit. O'Riordan was taken with the cover — in particular, Vext's timely updating of the original's "It's the same old theme since 1916" lyric to "in 2018" — and agreed to appear on the recording herself. "I was almost like an insecure kid seeking adult approval," Vext remembers of asking for O'Riordan's blessing. "Because until she was on board, we weren’t sure if the song was going to make the record or not."
The collaboration would never come to fruition, however, as the 46-year-old singer tragically died right before she was supposed to record her vocals for the remake. "Dan was going to pick her up in the morning," Vext recalls. "I went to bed thinking, one of my childhood heroes, I was gonna get to collaborate on [a song with her]. The next morning, a friend of mine texted me, and then Zoltan [Bathory] from Five Finger Death Punch, who’s our manager, he texts me, and… I didn’t think it was real."
While the band was processing their shock over the terrible news, they had to decide if they wanted to push forward with their cover, or to set it aside out of respect for the dead. "There was honestly a big meeting, because we almost shelved the song. We didn’t know what to do with it," Vext says. However, after consulting with Waite, Bathory and label founder Allen Kovac — who had served as The Cranberries' manager around the original release of "Zombie" — the band decided to release the song, and to donate portions of the proceeds to O'Riordan's family. "That was kind of how we tried to make a positive situation out of such a tragic one," the frontman relates.
Though the band had always envisioned their "Zombie" cover as a potential single, they were initially wary of debuting with it. ("You don’t want to lead necessarily with a cover for a new band," remarks Kline.) But once real-life circumstances intervened, they decided to make the song their first focus track, even filming a video for it (directed by classic MTV fixture Wayne Isham) that paid visual homage to the Cranberries' original Buzz Clip. However, the single was met with resistance early in its release.
"Quite frankly, there was some pushback," says Kline. "Like, 'This is cold…' We’re like, 'No, this is with the family’s blessing and everything else. Proceeds and profits go to the kids!'" Other industry folks the label took "Zombie" to just thought it was trying to get in on an already-saturated nostalgia market. "People were saying, 'Too many covers, too many covers, I can’t play another cover,'" Kline recalls. "And there are! There have been a lot of covers. But we were like, 'Let’s just do it… let’s drop it and see what happens.'”
With its real-life timeliness, emotional delivery and surreal background story, the cover connected faster than anyone involved could have anticipated. "We knew right away it was gonna be a perfect fit for the Octane audience," says Vincent Usuriello, program director for Sirius XM's hard rock channel Octane. "We saw, literally after the first week, the listener feedback skyrocket, the passion come through. It worked its way up the Big ‘Uns countdown, which is our top 15 songs of the week, pretty fast — faster than I’ve seen a lot of other songs go. It just blew up there, and it’s been up to No. 1 for weeks in a row now."
As radio play for the cover picked up and the song's video started to rack up millions of views on YouTube — aided by signal boosts from Five Finger Death Punch, Spotify's Rock This playlist (and eventually, their Pop Rising list as well), and even influential SiriusXM radio personality Howard Stern — the song started to sell by the thousands.
In itself, that feat was hardly unprecedented; as the industry critics who yelled "Too many covers!" at the band's management had no doubt observed, numerous bands have found success on iTunes in recent years with new renditions of classic rock hits. Since 2016, Bad Wolves' mainstream rock peers in Godsmack (The Beatles' "Come Together"), Disturbed (Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence") and even good friends Five Finger Death Punch (The Offspring's "Gone Away") have all charted on Billboard's Digital Song Sales tally with such covers.
"The ceiling, sadly, for rock has gotten lower — and until recently, there have been fewer platforms to feature rock," Kline offers as to why these covers have represented some of the biggest mainstream rock hits in recent years. "So with that, it takes a long time for songs to become familiar. A cover is instantly familiar."
Usuriello also thinks word of mouth plays a big part, especially between fans who don't often find common ground for their music tastes. "I believe there’s some bonding with [listeners'] parents, because of the generational gap between these artists," he theorizes. "For instance,'The Sound of Silence' with Disturbed, I was like, 'Hey Dad, check out this Simon & Garfunkel song that Disturbed did!'"
But despite the success these covers have found, none have taken off with quite such velocity — and, as Kline gleefully points out, no other mainstream rock cover or original has reached the top spot overall on iTunes in years. ("The biggest song of last year was Theory of a Deadman [“Rx (Medicate)”] — never hit this. Two years ago it’s Disturbed — never hit this.") The COO says the last time Eleven Seven saw a hit single explode like this was over a decade ago, with Southern California rockers Buckcherry's controversial 2006 rave-up "Crazy Bitch." "People didn’t want to play anything that was offensive, and just the title of the song alone…" he remembers of that surprise success. "But you know what? It was lightning in a bottle. And that’s the last time I felt that [before "Zombie"]."
Bad Wolves' frontman, who tagged one of the group's tweets about the song's success with the hashtag "#rockisntdead," sees the cover's success as validating the massive rock audiences he still sees regularly out on tour. "In the ‘90s, great rock songs were written, and the industry put them out, and made them available more commercially to mass amounts of people, and there’s some nostalgia attached to that," Vext offers of his cover's recent virality. "And maybe the industry should still do that. Obviously, there are a lot of people who want to hear that kind of music, that all those [rock doubters] are saying we’re not supposed to be hearing."
The question for Bad Wolves, at this point, turns to whether the cover will sustain its momentum, or whether the song's unlikely origin story simply resulted in an early spike of interest that will quickly subside from here. Kline, however, has been convinced by the data that the song is here to stay. "We thought maybe there would be an arc [to the song's popularity]," he admits. "If it was a novelty, or if it was just something that was timely, there would’ve been an arc. But instead of that arc, there has just been a trajectory, and it’s just picking up more speed… This is not part of just rock culture, it’s part of pop culture now."
And though the cover will serve as the majority of fans' introduction to Bad Wolves, Kline isn't worried about it overshadowing the rest of the group's career — which will begin in earnest with the release of their debut LP, Disobey, on May 11. "I think they’ve got enough of a pedigree amongst them with the core rock fans, and they’ve delivered a great album, and they deliver live," he offers. "I don’t think ["Zombie"] will hurt their credibility at all." (Usuriello points out that post-hardcore outfit I Prevail also initially found traction with their take on Taylor Swift, but continued their radio success from there: "You gotta follow it up with your own music to keep it going, but it’s not a bad thing to get noticed for a cover.")
For his part, Vext is less concerned with continued mainstream success than taking advantage of the opportunities he's now been afforded to do what he and his band have always done. "It just signifies an opportunity for us to do more work," he says, detailing the band's upcoming packed tour schedule with Five Finger Death Punch, as well as fellow labelmates Nothing More and Breaking Benjamin. "Everyone’s excited to go to work. We’re touring musicians, we play live. This is what we love to do."
And more than any chart positions or sales numbers, Vext feels most validated by the fact that the band's cover was well-received by O'Riordan's own family. "I have heard from her brother — he emailed us after seeing the music video," he relates. "It was really touching — I mean, I almost cried… They felt very moved by the video and the tribute. I think the last send-off was 'Congratulations on a masterpiece.' So, that’s how you know we did good."