Songwriter Interviews

Dez Fafara of DevilDriver and Coal Chamber

by Greg Prato

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It's not often that a rock musician experiences commercial success with two different bands, but that is exactly what screamer/singer Dez Fafara has accomplished as the leader of DevilDriver, and of the currently-on-hiatus Coal Chamber. Despite nearly a half-century in his mortal shell, the heavily-tattooed singer can still growl and riff with the best of 'em, as evidenced by DevilDriver's sixth studio album, Winter Kills.

Fafara first introduced himself to metalheads worldwide with Coal Chamber, a nu metal outfit that scored a trio of hit albums during the late '90s/early 21st century (including their gold-certified 1997 self-titled debut). The singer/guitarist has been far more productive album-wise with DevilDriver, who specialize in a heavier sound and more traditional metal look than Fafara's earlier band.

Fafara (real name: Bradley James Fafara) conversed with us about Winter Kills, the stories behind some of his best songs over the years, and the chances of a Coal Chamber reunion.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): If you want to start off by talking about the new album, Winter Kills...

Dez Fafara: Well, we started a little bit at home before we went on tour. And I did write a lot on the road, which is a different thing for me. When you're a vocalist and you're writing lyrics in the back lounge of a tour bus for four or five hours on end, and then you can call the guys back at the end of the day and read them the lyrics and get instant feedback, that's an important thing that I've never experienced before that I really, really, enjoyed.

Otherwise, I write daily. I got up this morning and wrote. I try to write daily. And that being said, I had an abundance of material for this record and still do have an abundance of material left over, but that's par for the course.

Songfacts: Will some of the material that was left over be on future DevilDriver albums or issued as B-sides?

Dez: It's real strange for me, man. When I do write like that and I have an overabundance of things, it never ends up on another record. It's always specific times and moments in my life that I don't know if I can recapture two or three years from now, so I have books and books and books of lyrics that will probably never make it to music. However, I wish they would make it into print at some point.

My wife and I have spoken about that, actually, about putting together a book of lyrics and putting them out in print.

Originally formed by a chap named Cees Wessels in the Netherlands during 1980 (and for a spell, going by the name of "Roadracer Records") Roadrunner Records began hitting its stride as a metal label during the latter part of the decade, upon the release of Obituary's Slowly We Rot and Sepultura's Beneath the Remains - two albums largely considered to be landmarks in the "extreme metal" genre. As the '90s progressed, Roadrunner's roster expanded with popular acts like Type O Negative, Machine Head, and Slipknot.

As the years rolled on, lighter but wildly popular acts including Nickelback were snapped up by the label, which since 1986 has had its main headquarters in New York City.

Roadrunner Records remained true to metal during the mid '90s, even though radio and MTV had done their best "ignore job" possible. And they were certainly rewarded by several hit heavy releases during the latter part of the decade, including Coal Chamber's 1997 self-titled debut, which hit #10 on the album charts in the US and earned gold certification. Coal Chamber remained on the label for all three of their albums, and when Dez jumped ship to DevilDriver, his new band remained on Roadrunner for their first five studio albums. 2013's Winter Kills is the first-ever Dez-related album without the Roadrunner imprint - it was issued by the Napalm label.
Songfacts: Cool. And from what I understand, is this the first DevilDriver album that wasn't released through Roadrunner Records?

Dez: Yeah. This is the first one not on Roadrunner Records.

Songfacts: So you if just want to talk about how that happened. The label DevilDriver is on now is Napalm, right?

Dez: Right. Well, you know, Roadrunner was around for years and a very formidable metal label. In the end, they were letting go a lot of bands; a lot of bands were leaving. They were letting go most of their staff that had made the label, and I just thought it was time for a change.

You need passion in this industry. I didn't feel like the last two records were well-served on that label in the United States. Overseas, however, they did do well.

When you're going to turn your art into commodity - which sounds like an ugly word - it serves you well to have somebody with passion involved and not bean counters and not formula makers. And these guys, they have passion. They love the music, they back the music, they weren't just putting us into a specific formula. They weren't putting us into a specific mathematical equation: "If we ship this many, this is what it'll do." It was all about the art and all about being passionate behind it.

So I really, really, have been loving dealing with them so far with the business aspect of it, and watching them and their passion. Every time they received a new song, every time they received a new photo, I got emails for days saying, "Man, we love these photos," or "We love this record." "We love this song." So it's been a wonderful, wonderful thing so far.

Songfacts: You cover an Awolnation song on the album. How did that come about?

Dez: Lyrics are a big deal with me, and the lyrics of "Sail" really hit home with me. I've been dealing with attention deficit disorder my whole life; I was on medication for it all through my childhood. So the lyric, "Blame it on my ADD, baby," really set me off. And then of course, the chorus, being "Sail," I've been on the road almost 20 years, so that really set it off, as well. And as soon as I heard the song, it had a great groove, a great catch to it.

What DevilDriver likes to do is work with obscure songs. We've done Iron Maiden, we've done Metallica and those are kind of in-the-box things. But when we did "Black Soul Choir" from 16 Horsepower, we realized that working with out-of-the-box or even underground art was a more pleasurable, fun thing. And Awolnation, for as much popularity as they do have, they're also still a very underground band at this moment, and I just fell in love with the song. I sent it to my guys and they were like, "Yeah, let's do this." It was great being able to record it.

It was a good time. It was something that was underground, alternative and understated a little bit - in the metal world, for sure. But it was also something that was current, and I wanted to do something that was current rather than cover a song from a '70s metal band or whatever.

Songfacts: As far as songwriting, how do you find that you write your best songs?

Dez: My best songs are predominantly written between 4:30 and 7:00 in the morning. I love to get up in that time where people are just not even awake yet, where the electricity in the air isn't even being taken up by phone calls. It's a very quiet time for me.

However, I did enjoy writing on the bus this time in the back lounge. I do have to sequester myself and be alone. I cannot be bothered when I'm writing. And also I tried a lot of automatic writing on this record, which is to say, listen to the song maybe 5 or 10 times, turn the song off, and then just start coming off the top of the head of what I feel I want to write about. A lot of the times at the end of the song I would read the lyrics and go, "Well, I must be talking about this."

That's as opposed to another way of writing where a songwriter will say, "I want to write about the color purple." Well, I've got to explain the shade of it, what it looks like on paper, what it looks like on wood. I've got to explain to you the color purple. I didn't want to go about it that way.

I've done that in the past, but without having to write lyrics. I have done automatic writing and now what I want to do is take that even more so when we do the next record.

Songfacts: Who would you say are some of your favorite songwriters?

Dez: Man, it goes deep for me. I listen to everything from blues to black metal. So I love tight arrangements. I think Elvis is the king when it comes to writing. The stuff outside of metal I listen to is like Elvis, Johnny Cash, Van Morrison, incredible songwriters.

Within metal, the people that I tend to listen to that have really influenced me on songwriting are guys that also have tighter arrangements. So early Metallica, Danzig, Ozzy, Sabbath, stuff like that. But I like a tighter arrangement, rather than this loose kind of 24-measure breakdown in the middle of songs for no reason and things like that. I like a tighter song.

Songfacts: Let's discuss some of your songs, starting with "The Appetite."

Dez: Well, that is definitely a song about life and getting you through life. Do you have the appetite - the expectations - to suffice? Meaning, if you want to go for something in life, don't think you're going to get there by going at half-ass. You're going to have to throw yourself in the fire and see if you can live up to the flame.

I remember writing that tune when it came time to change labels and some other business stuff going around. I was like, "Do you have the appetite?" Yeah, most definitely. And getting together with my band on the bus, I remember that the expectations would suffice. I remember the word "suffice" being thrown around in the back lounge, and I was like, "I'm going to use that word, I've never used that word."

That's something I like to do: if you go over all of my lyrics over the last 13 records or whatever, over my two bands, you'll never hear me using the same phrases or the same words. Entomology is a huge deal with me. So they were throwing that word around and it stuck.

Songfacts: What about the song "Dead to Rights"?

Dez: "Dead to Rights," that's about having somebody in your sights going, "Hey, I see you for everything that you are. I've got you dead to rights on everything that you've been saying and everything you've been saying is wrong. So don't try to pull any wool over my eyes."

Songfacts: What about the early Coal Chamber classic, "Loco"?

Dez: "Loco," that's about living in Los Angeles and just wanting to do something different. And having a persona around myself where people think I'm a little nuts, but really I'm crazy for music.

I was living in Los Angeles, trying to come out of that environment after it was totally devastated by hair metal and everything else. No one was going to clubs, there was no real scene in Los Angeles until bands like Coal Chamber and Deftones came out of LA. So that's what "Loco" is about.

Songfacts: And looking back, what would you say is the favorite album of yours from a songwriting standpoint?

Dez: Wow. The whole record? That would be very difficult. Well, I think as of now, it would be The Fury of Our Maker's Hand, DevilDriver. And this new one, Winter Kills, is really up there for me in terms of writing. The arrangements are tighter and the songs are really focused on songwriting rather than "how can we give you a big break now to incite you?" They were written for the songs.

Songfacts: What is the current status of Coal Chamber, and is a new album being worked on with Coal Chamber?

Dez: There's no new album being worked on and the current status is we finished touring, and got to revisit what made us in the past and bury some old hatchets and it was a great time. But I don't foresee anything as of right now in the future. Now, that being said, never say never.

January 10, 2014.
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Comments: 1

  • Tami Fischer from Moreno Valley, CaFantastic Interview.....I love and respect Dez with Coal Chamber and Devildriver....... he is an awesome writer and singer/screamer.......NO ONE can scream in perfect harmony like Dez Fafara........ I will always buy what EVER he and his band puts out.......Love and respect forever!!!!!!!I have met him 2 times and he has been very professional and a sweet man!!!!! Once I met him with Coal Chamber at Edgefest in Albuquerque,NM and in a club, Sunshine Thearer ,downdown Albuquerque with Devildriver!!!!!! Thank you DEZ!!!!
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