DevilDriver frontman Dez Fafara is just as intense on the phone as he is onstage. Choose your words carefully.
And when the affable 25-year veteran of the hard rock and metal scenes — also the bane of purists everywhere — sets something in his sights, look out.
Exhibit A: DevilDriver’s forthcoming album, Outlaws ‘Til The End: Vol. 1, a collection of heavy metal takes on 12 outlaw country classics. You could call it “the DevilDriver’s Dozen.”
On the surface, sure, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher. Just… what?
That’ll change as soon as you give it an honest listen. Trust me.
With the energy of 100 men, Dez Fafara is game to talk about pretty much anything, from the Outlaws album and the importance of truly making a cover song your own, to the passing of legendary Pantera drummer Vincent “Vinnie” Paul Abbott and how it affects the metal community and the world as a whole. Mix in a little surf talk — and dispelling some misconceptions you may have about said hobby — a few family businesses, and what drives him to go hard everyday instead of resting on his laurels for even a moment, and you’ve got a full-contact conversation that would tax any other dude to the point of emotional exhaustion.
Dez had a full day ahead of him after our chat and likely didn’t bat an eye. Like a shark, he’s always moving forward, and if there’s blood in the water, he’s coming for you. And, at the same time, despite his openness, he can be guarded at times.
Don’t take my word for it; read his.
— DevilDriver (@devildriver) July 3, 2018
Hey, is this Dez?
This is Dez.
Hey, it’s Kevin Tall, how are you doing today, man?
Good, what’s going on bro?
Not too much; how’re you feeling?
Good, hoping to be up this early working and trying to get out of here early, trying to get out of here by 5 or 6 tonight so I can go surf for a minute.
It’s good to talk to you again. Obviously, you wouldn’t remember, but we shared some words outside a venue that was once called the Masquerade in Tampa, Fla., after a Coal Chamber show more than a decade ago.
Yeah, I was that one guy you talked to that one time after that show you played.
Yeah, you know how that goes. I totally remember, like I remember faces, but names are hard for me. I’m reading this thing called ‘The Tao of Willie,’ it’s like, this small, tiny, little book written by Willie Nelson and, like, the first page he says “Try to remember every single person you meet on the road, try to remember their names and the people at the venue and you won’t have to do crossword puzzles. Later, I’m like ‘Oh fuck.’
But, I like crossword puzzles… Seriously, though, I’ll always remember, even though things in the band were unraveling at the time, you still had a magnanimous, grateful attitude and BSed with all the fans hanging around out back of the venue. That was super cool to me.
I’ve always been appreciative of where I’ve gotten to in life. I mean, it was a rough go, but here I am, so it’s all good.
So, so many things to talk about, but first, I have to say, Vincent Paul Abbott, the legend; one of the godfathers of the modern metal scene is gone. You toured with Pantera in the Coal Chamber days, I know DevilDriver has done a bunch of festival dates, including Knotfest, with Hellyeah. Give it to me raw, how does that feel?
It’s the fucking worst, you know? I don’t like burying friends, I don’t like burying legends and I don’t like burying guys that gave me my start in the business. It’s the worst. I feel for his family and for his girl right now, and for the whole heavy metal community. That guy had a light and a fucking smile that nobody else had. He never had a backstabbing moment in his fucking life. He helped everybody around him.
Every time I came to Dallas, my whole career, he was there; he would stop by. He was at the last DevilDriver show at the Gas Monkey. I came offstage, he’s fucking standing by my bus. I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘He’s like, ‘I want to come say hello.’
So it’s the fucking worst, man, but it’s a physical passing. He left music. He left a lot of memories and so he’ll live on, and that’s what it’s about in life: making a scar, so when your physical presence leaves, you leave some kind of fucking memory, y’know? Maybe you helped a local high school, maybe you built a bridge, maybe you wrote music, maybe ran a good fucking good company, maybe you helped something out.
It’s all about leaving some kind of scar on life and he left a fucking deep one on all of us.
I remember you did a song for the ‘Strait Up’ album, a tribute to Lynn Strait from Snot, and appeared in the ‘Angel’s Son’ video. It’s going to be crazy to see what kind of impact it’s going to have, on not just the metal community, but the entire music world.
Yeah, I mean, we’ve seen it. We’ve seen legends and legacies passing in the last 5-10 years. I mean it’s just… it happens. But we have to remember the person that he was, the smile that he had, the things that he left. I was very fortunate to tour around the world with Pantera for years. Vinnie was the one who always spun. I mean me and Philip [Anselmo] were very close; I lived in Philip’s house. We still are very close friends.
Vinnie was the one who had Coal Chamber on his jukebox at his house. He was the one who always fought for Coal Chamber to get on shows. So yeah, man, it’s a passing of an era, because — obviously — everybody had held their breath for some kind of a Pantera reunion but now that, obviously, the brothers are both gone, that’ll never happen. So that’s all just going to kind of pass into time’s gate.
Well, I think we’re all going to be feeling this one for a while. But let’s switch gears, and honor Vinnie’s memory by talking about the future and what we can do with the time we’ve got left. DevilDriver has a pretty interesting project in the pipeline right now. ‘Outlaws ‘Til the End: Vol. 1,’ your album of outlaw country covers, drops in the immediate future. To start off, where did this idea even come from?
I’ve always heard this music heavy, and you know yourself, if you go to heavy metal concert, you’re backstage, you on a tour bus, you’re at a barbecue, you’re going to hear Slayer into Johnny Cash, Cash in the Pantera and Willie Nelson and nobody bats an eye. Nobody’s like, ‘Oh, who put that on?’ The kid with the Slayer back patch on his vest oftentimes has a fuckin’ Johnny Cash patch. I find myself having to explain it more to people of the UK or Europe or even Australia, like, what this is all about, because people in America, they get it and everybody has said the same thing to me. Like, this should have been done years and years and years ago and done right.
I’ve just always heard this stuff heavy and the lyrics are the most poignant on the planet; the storytelling is most poignant on the planet. It needed to go together; these two genres needed to go together. So I wanted to get people from four different genres, punk, metal, outlaw country, Gothic rock, put it together and see what we can do.
And I’ve heard other bands cover some country stuff but it just… they do the covers extremely placid and safe. This is not about it, this is so not about, like, fucking safety. This is about ‘Let’s throw everything at the wall, and let’s get it; let’s get this thing amped up and ferocious. Let’s make sure that it’s raw.’ And we did that.
— RS Country (@RScountry) July 5, 2018
That’s really an interesting point because that’s completely the opposite, that safe way, of what Johnny Cash did covering Nine Inch Nails 15 years ago. He made it his own; he just completely stripped it down to the basic framework and said, ‘This is how I’m going to sing it. My way.’
Well, I was fortunate enough to be on hallowed ground and go to the Cash Cabin and record with John Carter Cash and Ana Cash, watch them record and record some of my stuff myself there. This was shortly after Chris Cornell had left as well. You know, it just came about that there were some fantastic people on this record.
I had said to John Carter, ‘Do you think your father, Johnny, would have liked this?’ And he immediately said the same thing you just did; he looked right at me, he said ‘Oh man, he covered Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’ of course he would totally get it.’ And I was like ‘Oh my god, I’d forgot that.’
You know, being at that cabin is like hallowed ground. There’s a mantle over the fireplace wood mantle that John Carter and his father, John, had put in themselves, and everybody signs that with pen when they record there and I was fortunate enough to sign next to Willie Nelson and Chris Cornell, in big black Sharpie. It’s just an amazing thing to happen, y’know, like some bucket list items at the end of a 25-year career.
Right on, and speaking of Chris Cornell, obviously Johnny Cash did Soundgarden’s ‘Rusty Cage’ years before he did Nine Inch Nails.
Right. So he understood. He did it the opposite way that we’re doing it. Like I said, I’ve heard some heavy metal bands cover some songs. I’ve heard some people do ‘Ghost Riders’ and stuff and they do it really placid, man, and we didn’t want that.
And I was even told, early on in this thing, like ‘Hey, this might be a great thing for DevilDriver to crossover, to get to active rock, to cross over to the country genre. You should definitely think about doing these covers like radio versions.’ And I was just like ‘none of these people understand what the fuck I’m doing.’
Everybody who had any of that sentiment, I just blocked them out so hard. It was like, you know, ‘No.’ I just wanted this thing to be raw, ferocious, and I wanted everybody to give a 110 percent, and they did. I’m real humbled by that, man. The guests, they really gave their all on this thing. Nobody put their hand out for money. Everybody knew they were part of something extremely special. That was fantastic to be a part of.
I’m sure in conceptualizing this, you probably had about five albums’ worth of songs that you wanted to do, but how did you go about narrowing that down to the ones you actually did for the album?
You’ve got to stick with the outlaws, right? You get the Cash, Waylon [Jennings], Willie, Hank [Williams], you choose the songs that represent them even if they’re not their own songs, you choose the songs that represent them best. Then after that, you put in extra stuff like ‘Thousand Miles to Nowhere’ by Dwight [Yoakam], ‘Outlaw Man’ by The Eagles, ‘Dad’s Gonna Kill Me,’ Mike [Spreitzer] brought that in, that’s how it got assembled.
That was actually my next question; the one that really sticks out to me is Richard Thompson ‘Dad’s Gonna Kill Me,’ for a couple of reasons. That’s one of three songs you covered that actually came out this century and the original artist is actually a British folk singer.
Yeah, I was not familiar with that track. Mike had always liked it; it’s an anti-war, kind of an anti-violence track. I checked it out and I was like ‘Oh, ok, 40 million views; well, people must like this track.’ I had never heard it. Once I listened to the lyrics I said ‘OK, we need to attack this, cuz this is anti-war, could be a little bit anti-abuse in the home, which I went through as a child, so there’s a lot of little things that it could be about if you really listen. I took that interpretation and ran with it.
It’s actually even more straightforward if you know in the context that ‘Dad’ in that case is actually a shortened form of Baghdad and it’s written from the perspective of an American soldier in Iraq.
Right. So, when I read the lyrics it was like, ‘OK, nobody’s done this song heavy; 40 million people have heard it. Let’s go ahead and do it.’ God knows I come from a military family; my father served. Obviously, heavy metal gigs are packed with servicemen, you know? So doing this song, the lyrics were intense. Really intense.
You couldn’t just sing these lyrics; you had to put your mindspace there, headspace there, you had to feel these lyrics, otherwise, there’s no way you can deliver a song like this.
It would have come and off terribly smooth and placid if I didn’t put my headspace into it.
Yeah, totally. I was actually kind of obsessed with that song for a bit. I first heard it while watching an episode of ‘Sons of Anarchy,’ so it was really interesting to hear your take on it. Obviously, something like that, that’s fairly minimalist in its instrumentation, is more of a blank canvas for you to work with, contrasted with ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky,’ which millions on top of millions have heard, and your version comes off as this awesome metal homage to the Cash version.
Thank you. Like I said, I’ve heard other bands cover ‘Ghost Riders,’ but they are terribly placid and smooth, for lack of a better term; I can’t really put a finger on it. This thing jumps off the page. You know, because John Carter Cash and Ana Cash, because Randy is part of it, because the feeling was there with all of us, that we were definitely doing something special together, it just turned out great. It’s got its own feel for sure.
And at the same time, it still kind of maintains, sort of, that heart and soul and tradition of Johnny’s version when you’ve got John Carter Cash doing the chorus for it.
I think it needed to… Cash didn’t write that song, but it’s arguably one of Cash’s biggest hits and it represents the Cash family in its entirety. I love that family; we’ve become very tight with them and John Carter and I talk once or twice a week and it looks like the Cash family and our family will be doing stuff in the future, now that we’ve become very close.
There needed to be a reverence for that song and, by the same token, it needed to be set free and let loose and give it some fangs, because it had never really been covered with teeth before. It’s always, like I said, placid and smooth, and we needed this thing to have teeth; we needed this whole record to have teeth.
A lot of people think when they go and they do covers, they’re doing it to get to active rock radio; they’re doing it to get to another genre of music; they’re doing it to boost their career and this is a whole different ballgame. This is, like, anti-that. This is like, ‘Everything is gonna have teeth, everything is gonna be ferocious.’ If it finds its way to any media outlet, then it’s going to find its way on its own; it’s not skewed for monetary value. I think you can hear it in this record, that it’s coming off true, it’s coming off real, it’s coming off ferocious, with teeth.
Right on. You’re doing a handful of dates in the U.S. right after ‘Outlaws’ comes out and then you’re hitting Europe for about a month. Will you be working any of those songs into the live sets or is this just purely an album project?
Y’know, we don’t know. We’re flying out Sunday night, we rehearse in Nashville on Monday, and we’re going to talk about adding songs then. But this thing was not built to play live. But now that it’s kind of taking off, and people are really, really talking about this record. We’re talking about adding songs and which ones were going to add. Or if we come into town, into Nashville, y’know, can Hank come out, or can John Carter come out? If we come to L.A., can Lee Ving come out? We’re starting to add that kind of stuff in now, but we hadn’t had any discussion about that in the past until probably this week.
In addition to making music and performing, you also have a management company, Oracle Management, with your wife, Anahstasia, featuring a stable of performers such as Wednesday 13, Combichrist and Jinjer, among others, even including legendary metal producer Ross Robinson and Sirius XM’s Jose Mangin.
Correct. Yeah, we’ve been building this thing for about two years. I’ve obviously been in the business about 25 years; I’ve watched a lot of mistakes made by managers, and it was just time for us to open our own company and give people another home to be in and it’s been doing fantastic. Yeah, we do have a large clientele and actually just picked up another band this morning.
My wife learned from the best, so she’s been around a long time; she’s watched a lot of managers that have handled me along the way, and it was just time for us to take this thing under our own wings. And I’ll say this too: this record, ‘Outlaws ’til the End,’ would have never been done, never been accomplished, had we not been in charge of the whole thing. Because I mean, phone calls were coming in at 11, 12:30, 1 o’clock at night from artists. A lot of moves had to be made on the fly; you couldn’t do that thing with a third-party management team. It would never have fucking worked in this case.
So I’m real proud of her, because this was a logistic nightmare, and I tell this to any band listening: If you want to go try and do this, I’m going to laugh in your face. It was a fucking logistic nightmare; money ran out halfway through. Months ago, six months ago, I told my wife ‘I don’t think this thing is even going to get finished.’ It was just very difficult to get done and it wasn’t meant to be that; it was meant to be like, ‘Look it’s gonna be three years between records, ’cause we’re working on our first double-record we’ve ever worked on. So let’s give them something fun to do, let’s go and just do a cover record, it’ll be nice and fun and easy. But no.
And like Anahstasia says, ‘Nothing good comes from anything that comes easy.’ So this thing was a labor of love for everybody involved, really. Like I said, no one put out their hand for money; it was about, like ‘We know we’re part of something special, part of doing something that’s really never been done and done right.’ So everybody gave 110 percent doing it.
And since you’re a prolific worker, you’ve also got another iron in the fire, Sun Cult, your surf company, partnering with Randy Blythe of Lamb of God.
I found, about three years ago, when I came home — I’ve surfed all my life from the time I was 5-years-old, born and raised in California — I just needed to kind of shake off the road put this whole industry behind me for a minute. And I was out in the water one day going ‘Okay that’s it, we’re starting a company.’ It’s my company with my kids and my wife.
It has been doing fantastic in the last year-and-a-half, and now we’ve brought in Randy as a partner, and he is bringing so much to the table. And we’ve moved onto working with other designers and getting ready to reskin the site and relaunch. We’re getting ready to go into big box stores and we’ve got buyers looking at the brand.
We do skateboard, surfboards, wax, apparel. So it’s fun and it’s a good time. It’s teaching my kid the art of business, and it’s fun working with Randy because we’re tight family friends and we surf together anyway. He’s going to be out here at the end of July, staying for a week, just to surf and go over designs and business stuff. If you have a good time doing stuff with friends, do it. And that’s what Sun Cult’s about.
To me, it’s funny, because as a metal fan, I conceptualize guys like you and Randy the way I see you as performers, which is obviously on the extreme side. But to find out you have this hobby that’s almost Zen-like, and all about flow and harmony, if you buy into that stereotype, it kind of flips things on its head.
I mean, you can buy into that stereotype, but, like, try dropping in on me if I’m on an 8-foot wave, I’m going to get real fucking aggressive. [Laughs]
I’ve paddled over to dudes and said ‘Do that again and I’m going to fucking paddle over and pop you, so don’t take all the harmony from it, bro.’ [Laughs]
OK, so that’s the other side of the ‘Point Break’ mythology.
Dude, man… I’ve surfed in extremely local spots where, if you’re not a local, you’d best take care of yourself and watch out. Randy came out here and we went to surf at County Line in LA; you can’t go there unless you’re there with locals.
So the territory thing is real?
Oh, it’s beyond real, bro. Because, I mean, you get some kook in the water and you can get killed, dude. You have some guy take off on a 9-foot board on an 8-foot wave and he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing, you know, somebody’s gonna get hurt. So, yeah, that local thing is… We always say this: ‘It’s all aloha until you act like a fucking kook.’
— DevilDriver (@devildriver) June 12, 2018
Fair enough. So, switching gears a bit, looking at all these ventures on your personal landscape, as a guy who slept under bridges in L.A. and now you’ve got all this going on; how does that happen?
Uh, weird question. That’s the weirdest fucking segue in the world, bro. So I don’t even know how to approach that. I had a lot of abuse in the home. I had a lot of stepfathers that came in and lent abuse. Committed suicide and lent abuse. And it made me leave home at an early age. And you wind up in L.A.; you wind up fucking fighting for food. You wind up stealing food from the AMPM, you wind up sleeping under bridges at Western and fucking Sunset. You end up clubbing and trying to fucking find people to stay with. I mean, you know, it got to be a rough existence for a bit, for sure. And then when you say ‘How does all this happen?’ You’re talkin’… I was going to fuckin’ band rehearsals from time I was 13 on. It’s all I did; I obsessed with it.
Well, yeah; the focal point is more about what came out of it; what came out of that forge.
What came out of that was… what do you mean, ‘what came out of it’?
Let me attack that from another angle. I’m talking conceptually, the question; the focal point is less on rehashing what happened to you, which is obviously your story. But, you’ve built this kind of larger-than-life, almost empire of these companies and you’ve got… I mean, you have a legacy. And it’s just like… how does it feel, to kind of survey that landscape?
I don’t have time to look at it like that; even though I appreciate the context and the way you put that. I don’t have time to look at it like that yet. I’m building, I’m on it, I’m going. I’m not… There’s no rearview mirror.
Current situation – when the wife wants to get a pedicure you go with her ???? pic.twitter.com/GqlLRcDKVQ
— Dez Fafara (@evilriver) July 12, 2017
So we’re not stopping to smell the roses, we’re just chugging away.
Yeah, yeah, there’s no rearview mirror at this point, right now. As far as legacy… I don’t even… I’ve got to go, I’ve got to do music; I’ve got shit I’ve got to do.
I do say this: if you believe in yourself and you have a work ethic and you have something that drives you, like my three sons and my wife and my family drives me to succeed, then you’ll not fail. You just have to get something in your life that won’t allow you to fail. When you’re sitting there, when your 1.5-2-year-old son is holding your fucking finger in his hand, you’re not going to fucking fail. You’re going to go on tour; you’re going to make money you’re going to fucking not fail, you know?
So you’ve got to get something in your life that prevents you from failing, and my family is what prevents me from failing. You know, and I think too, man… you’ve talked to a lot of cats; you’ve done a lot of interviews right? I’m definitely the most private person in this business; I haven’t met anybody like myself. It’s usually, when [other musicians] are off tour, they like to go to the nightclub or whatever, y’know? I’m just not that guy. I don’t like any of the extracurricular bullshit that surrounds my job you know? I love writing, playing live, meeting people and touring. All the rest of it is all just bullshit.
All just noise. I’ve got you. That actually leads right into my next question. During a 2016 interview, in answering a question about Coal Chamber, you address it in the context of being asked what the most important thing to you was, and you said ‘ I want to eat dinner with my family every night.’
Right. Well, that being said, I took almost a year off this year, right? We went in we did the outlaw country record, now we’re in recording 25 tracks, so we’re probably going to do less than 30 shows this year. Normally we do about 280 shows a year.
What happened, too, is I really kind of looked at the discographies of the guys that I followed, the guys that I grew up on, and I was like ‘how does this dude, in 30, have fuckin’ 40 records?’ It’s like, ‘OK, so I’m really slow, or ‘No, I’m not.’ It’s just the situation that metal is in; people release records every four or five years. That’s why I started kicking it up, and I said to myself, ‘Look, let’s just stay home; let’s do art. Let’s make music for people.’
And so that’s what we’re doing this year, and I have been home and cooking for my family. The last four nights I’ve cooked dinner for my family. There’s something to be said about that; I’ve been gone 25 years. I’ve missed graduations. I’ve missed a lot of shit. I’ve missed birthdays. I’ve missed anniversaries. I’ve missed a lot of stuff to make sure that there was food on the table for my kids and for my wife, y’know? So like I said, you’ve gotta find something that drives you, something that absolutely won’t let you fail.
Alright, I can definitely respect that answer.
It’s why there’s not a lot of rich rock stars that are from fucking rich families. Because they get it and they take advantage of it and they don’t fucking feel it you know and they end up losing it because they’ve had it all their lives; they’ve never had to fucking starve or known what it’s like to fucking you know by a bean burrito and fucking take three days to eat it, y’know?
In a recent interview, you’d said you’re ‘not really scared by that many metal bands in the scene’ right now. Who does make that list, at this point?
I mean there’s fucking so many killer new bands out there. There’s so much shit happening that’s killer. Look at Power Trip. Look at Code Orange. Look at the people actually like, not keying their art for fucking monetization, they’re just fucking putting it out there, putting heavy stuff out there. There’s a lot of killer bands. But, like, as far as being ‘scared,’ I’m not scared of anybody on the stage, you know what I mean? I’ll go on before or after anybody; this is not cockiness, this is just 25 years of saying… ‘Let’s do this.’
I don’t know, I just saw Slayer’s farewell tour, and Behemoth… Randy said something. He said ‘they’re from Poland, a place so cold they don’t even have the sun there.’ So, Behemoth, if I was going to be scared by anybody, they might make the list.
Yeah, you know I’ve met all those cats and they’re so cool, they’re really nice guys. You’d be surprised that most of the black metal bands, those guys are really really cool people. I was fortunate to meet all those cats, like, real early in my career, when I was in Coal Chamber when, by all rights, they never should have extended the hand of friendship and they did. That’s just the way that goes.
If you’re going to do something in life, I don’t care if it’s… I used to be a bricklayer. If it’s a bricklayer or a songwriter, you can’t be scared of it, right? You’ve got to come up to the challenge. You’ve got to meet it head on, and I’ve always been a big proponent of that.
Right on. Hey, man, I really appreciate you taking some time to talk to me today.
Cool bro, I appreciate the support. I really do.
Yeah, man, take care.