Songwriter Interviews

Scooter Ward of Cold

by Carl Wiser

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How Nick Cave got him past writer's block and through to Cold's first album since 2011.

Cold: Nick Coyle, Scooter Ward, Lindsay Manfredi

Scooter Ward does his best work under blankets of burden. By the time Cold released their self-titled debut album in 1998, the band had been together in some form for over a decade, and Ward, their lead singer and primary songwriter, had been through a battle with Crohn's disease. Their songs - heavy, dark, visceral - connected with fans on a primeval level. Cold found themselves touring with Limp Bizkit, Soulfly and Weezer. 13 Ways To Bleed On Stage, just as heavy but more introspective, followed in 2000.

The next few years were rough ones for Ward: His sister got cancer, he split with his fiancée, and the band lost their guitarist, Terry Balsamo, to Evanescence. All that angst channeled into their third album, Year of the Spider, in 2003. Cold wasn't the biggest band in the land, but by this point they had sold a million albums and built a rather devoted fan base that aligned as the Cold Army. Their vector shifted in 2005 when their album A Different Kind of Pain didn't quite connect. The next year, they called it quits.

In 2011, they returned with Superfiction, an outlier in the sense that Ward didn't bleed all over the grooves. Their 2019 release, The Things We Can't Stop, is once again very personal and very engaging, with Ward at times revisiting his dark days of addiction. The Cold Army has matured, and so has the band (Ward has teenagers!). There's even a love song on this one.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): With Cold, you've done very personal albums, and you've done some fictional albums. Where does this one fit in?

Scooter Ward: This one is a personal record. I think the only record that was not completely personal was Superfiction, and that was because on the previous records, going to dark places and sharing that with the world was such a heavy process. When I was a child, I used to write these elaborate stories, and on Superfiction I just wanted to go back to that. And though some of the stories are fictional, some are in story form just so everybody can take a break from all the heaviness. And at the time, a lot of other active rock bands were doing depressing things. I was like, "Everybody is probably tired of this. Let's give them a break." But it was nice to come back to what I really do, which is to play with emotion and put that out there. So that's what we did on the new album.

Songfacts: What was going on in your life that led to these songs?

Ward: Oh Lord, just life! I have teenagers now, and they go through things. I see what happens to them, and that affects me. Of course, sickness with friends and addictions with other friends. Luckily, we are not in that anymore - that is a past thing for us - but I still pull from that because I had been in that my whole life.

And there were things happening around us: the things we can't stop. The goal for the record was to write songs about the things that are inevitable. It's gonna happen whether you like it or not, so try to deal with it the best way you can and make a positive out of it if possible.

Songfacts: Well, let's take the track "Without You," where you're singing about how you want to kill the things you love. Can you talk about that?

Ward: Yeah. "Without You" is a little vague, but the bones of the lyrics is, whether it be an addiction, religion or love - whatever you're gravitating towards - going all-in with it and just letting it take you over. But at the same time there's a little part of you that has that doubt, that little line that breaks, and you're like, Oh, now I see it for what it is. It's a revelation in whatever addiction you're having at the moment.

So, the line "kill the things I love," with addiction, the addiction itself kills everything that you love. I like being vague with the songs now because I love it when people have their own interpretation of what we're trying to say, and I find when I tell people exactly what I was thinking about in the song, it kind of kills it for them sometimes. I'm just glad people relate to it.

With "Without You," I've already had people from addiction things message me online and say they're going to rehab now and starting to box and trying to get off pills and stuff like that just because of this song. They were like, "Dude, I connected with you on that. I knew you used to be an addict and I feel you." So I'm thankful.

Songfacts: Another song that may or may not deal with addiction is "Snowblind." Can you talk about that song?

Ward: Well, yes. "Snowblind" was the worst-case scenario, basically. I went back to when I was an addict... I always knew it was going to kill me one day. So, "Snowblind" is about when addiction is overtaking you, and my funeral happening in my mind: I'm going to go back home one day, and the people are going to carry me away. [pause] Man, it's emotional to talk about this song.

But it was very important to me to go that dark, because not everything has a happy ending. I was like, Do I want to do this on that song? Do I want to basically just end it? And I did. I'll go on all the way snow blinded. That's what it's about, and some people just can't get out of it, and I understand that. Sometimes it just takes that impact and going that dark for people to feel it and come out of that dark place.

Songfacts: How long have you been sober?

Ward: A while! A long time. I still have a couple of drinks every now and then, but no more drugs or anything like that. It's been a long time since anything bad has happened.

Songfacts: But it sounds like you still have the ability to tap into that time pretty viscerally.

Ward: I do. It was a huge part of my life. That whole vibe... Everyone around me was an addict. It was a crazy situation, and I put myself in those situations. Even when I was out of it, when I felt better, I still put myself in there trying to help people. Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn't, but if people were able to be helped and maybe take my words of advice, that was awesome.

Songfacts: You had a little bit of writer's block on this album. How did you come out of it?

Ward: Yeah, it was crazy - I had never had writer's block in my life. Ever since I was 12 years old and started playing music, I've always just played music and the melody to a chorus or a verse instantly appears. It just comes to me, and then the lyrics just come to me. Sometimes I don't know what they mean or what it is in that moment, but it's just there. Then I'll take that, and I'll make it make sense.

With this record, it happened initially. All the songs came, and I was like, "Cool, we can go record the record. I've got the gist of the lyrics, so we're fine." But then it got to the point where I wanted this to be a little deeper and affect people more, so that got in my head. I started obsessing on things, and manifesting things that maybe were there, and maybe weren't. I wanted to go deeper with it, so I decided to change basically every lyric to every song. And when I did that, the weight of it just pushed me down, and I seriously thought it was the end of the world for me. I was driving around going, "What happened?" It's always been there my entire life, and now that one thing that I do to take care of my family and to make me feel and to help people is gone.

It was a dark depression, and I was right back in - not into the addict thing, but back into that person that I used to be: a dark person, a recluse, not going out, just sitting around wallowing in a bunch of misery that I created.

I'm a fan of Nick Cave - we played with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds years and years ago before we even got signed - and he had a movie coming out called One More Time With Feeling. It's a documentary that he did after his son took acid and fell off a bridge. Nick Cave got a studio, got some dope cameras, a great producer, and they went and filmed this whole process of making this record in the vicinity where his son had passed. And when I saw this - just the cadence of his voice when he's talking at the beginning of the movie - the whole thing was just so beautiful to me and inspiring, just the dedication that he had. It pushed me to where I was like, "What the fuck am I doing?" I'm sitting around here and this guy is going through all that and still making it happen. I watched it like 20 times - it isn't like I watched it one time and everything was fixed. I kept watching it every night because I got obsessed with it. It was life-changing for me, and I'm thankful for that man to make that movie because I could still be in writer's block right now. It was that long a period that it was happening. Trippy.

Ward is the only constant in Cold, which has changed lineups several times. For The Things We Can't Stop, Nick Coyle, a fixture in the Eastern Pennsylvania rock scene, came on board as guitarist and Ward's co-producer. Lindsay Manfredi, a bass player from Indiana who has done more than her share to put instruments in the hands of young women, is also on the album - she's been with Cold for a few years now.
Songfacts: You were talking about how you're always hearing from your fans about how Cold songs have gotten them through difficult times. Is there a Cold song that has gotten you through a hard time?

Ward: You know, the sadder songs, as I'm writing and creating them, they've helped me. But seeing the effect that it has on the fans is what helps me now. They still affect me while I'm writing them, but those are things that I create to overcome what I'm going through and to fix it.

When I get on stage and I play certain songs, I go back to that place. I've broken down on stage before and just been like, "I'm a hot mess right now." I can't say there's one certain song.

The reaction from the fans is the thing that keeps me in it. When you're playing on stage and you see their faces and the feeling that they're having through the song, it puts you back in that spot that you were in. So, yeah, it's medicine for me.

Songfacts: What's one of the most emotional songs for you to perform?

Ward: Oh, "Cure My Tragedy" is definitely very emotional... I'm sorry man, I keep getting choked up. I'm emotional just talking about this stuff.

Yeah, it's about my sister, and going through cancer and her overcoming that and me wanting God to cure my tragedy back then when she was going through the worst of it. That song, we tried to play it after we recorded the record, and I just couldn't do it. Even at the rehearsal rooms, I couldn't even get through the first verse. It took years and years to get to that point where I can play it live and play it well.

The Cold Live DVD we did just a few years ago, we did a piano version of it with strings involved, and it was very beautiful. When the strings started up that night for that song, I got to the first verse and I stopped the song. We were recording it, so I was like, "We're gonna have to do this again." My sister was there. She was still very sick with her second bout of cancer, so she was in the audience, and she had left early because she was feeling really bad, but when I came out to do that song, she was still in the room as far as I was concerned. And trying to play that song in front of my family, I broke down. Then I caught myself, and I was like, "Let's do this. This is what Cold is about." So, I gathered up enough courage and we did another take and we pulled it off. But it was really tough... even talking about it right now with you is tough. So, I'm hoping we can do it on this tour. I really want to pull it off and I want to overcome that with me. It's my goal to be able to perform that song well without losing my shit.

Songfacts: Did your sister make it through?

Ward: She did. This is the second time. That's another reason why I took off previously for a long time, because the first time that she had cancer I was always on tour and that was really hard for me because it's just me and her - we didn't have any more siblings, so we were really close our whole lives. For me not to be able to be there through all that for her really hurt me, so when she contracted it again, I went, "OK, it's time for us to take a break because I'm going to go back to Jacksonville and I'm going to be there for as long as it takes. I don't care how many years it takes, I'm going to be there until it's over." It took her five years, but she finally ended up beating it again.

Songfacts: And how is she doing now?

Ward: She's alright. You know, with melanoma and any kind of cancer, the treatments and the damage that happens throughout years and years of that, it affects you. She's the strongest person in the world though. She's one of those persons that never gives up... she's amazing, man. I've never seen anybody stronger in my entire life than my sister.

The Things We Can't Stop starts with the voice of a young girl who sounds like she's in a therapy session, talking about her pain and how others reacted when they saw how hurt she was. It leads into the thunderous drums of "Shine," a song about bullying.
Songfacts: At the very beginning of the new album, there is an introduction that goes for about 50 seconds. What's going on there?

Ward: It's a girl that was battling depression. I believe it was from a 1940s interview we heard one night. Seeing her talk about depression and battling with it, and talking about taking pills to help, it hit me so hard when I heard it.

We had the intro to "Shine" already cut, the music. The song "Shine" is about bullying, which leads to depression, and the string section, we were like, "Let's put that in as the intro. Let's put her voice on top of it, because it's impactful." I wanted the record to start off with holy shit, here we go. It's not Superfiction. This is going to hurt, but hopefully it helps.

Songfacts: Yeah, it has that feel where you can tell it's not staged, that you didn't just hire an actress to do it.

Ward: No, we thought about doing something like that, but that's not real to me. Then there were a couple of friends that had girls that were being bullied in school really bad. They were telling me their stories, and it was so tragic. There was a part of me that wanted to add their vocals to it and put them at the beginning of the record before the song, but I was bullied when I was a young, young child, and I didn't want to put them through putting the mic in front of them and having them tell those stories. I felt like that was exploiting them in a way - I don't want to do that to a little kid. I'm the person that comes to help. I don't want to make them go to that dark place just because my ass goes to dark places. But when I heard the girl that's on the record, it had the same impact as something like that. It took months to find it and to feel it, and as soon as I heard it, I was like, That's it. We're done.

Songfacts: Who is on the album cover?

Ward: It is a friend named Britney - she's a beautiful girl. She's a photographer.

The way we found her was funny: We were on Instagram, and she was pulling up in our feed. We saw where she did this amazing makeup-artist work - she does Vikings and things - and we just reached out to her. She's a Cold fan and was really stoked.

We wanted to reinvent this old character we used to have for Cold, which is a woman with spiders on her shoulders and the line across her nose - it was kind of an iconic old Cold pic that a fan did a long time ago, and it became a thing with the Cold Army.

So, we wanted to re-create that pic, and then she comes and she sends me the pic of the spiders on her throat and I was like, you're a bad-ass. It just looked so epic and she was so pretty in the picture. When we saw that photo, we knew it was the album cover. She looks like she's got makeup running down her face after something tragic happened, but now she's coming for blood. That's "the things we can't stop," so it makes sense.

Songfacts: A lot of your life is dependent on your family, and when you wrote the song "Gone Away," a lot of it was about being away from your daughter. How did you deal with that at the time, and how do you deal with that now?

Ward: You know, man, it's tough. I have two teenagers right now, and with Raven, she was young - she's 24 years old now, she's a teacher in Seattle, she's doing great. But it was really tough not being there for all the little things. I was always there for the big things, but the little things like taking her to school or watching her practice or things like that - it was a giant sacrifice.

In my mind, I was doing that to give her a better life in the future and to make everything OK for her. But at the same time, it's a huge thing where you don't get to see your family and you're away from all the great things that you need to be there for as a parent. So I tried to be better with my time with Cameron and Leah. I'm just trying to make it work and be there more for them during little things and enjoy that - maybe set up tours a little differently so I have more time to be there for the little things, the special things... everything's special with kids.

It's a hard balance to find. I'm still working on it, and I'll be working on it throughout my life. And that's with my wife, too. Everybody thinks being a musician is all fun and big-time - your dad is a rock star, and your husband's a rock star - but they don't see how there's a lot of lonely nights. The kids don't care about dad being a rock star, they just want dad.

Track 11 on The Things We Can't Stop is "Beautiful Life," a piano-and-strings ballad that begins, "I remember when the lights went out in Boston."
Songfacts: Was there really a night when the lights went out in Boston?

Ward: It's more poetic. I wanted to write a song for my wife. I'm not really good at writing love songs. I'm good at writing tragic songs, and songs about being a musician and about what I want to do for other people and things like that, but I'm not good at love songs. So, I wrote the best type of love song I could for my wife, and it was beautiful. This is why I do it all: It's to give my family a better life, and that's it.

Most of the time we don't have a better life, we just have a life, and it's alright. But she loved it, and that's all that matters. But with "the lights went out in Boston" - the lights went out a few times in other places, but Boston just rings true. It sounds good, it sounded like the right thing, it just flowed better. And I love Boston.

Songfacts: This one seems obvious, but there's been a fair amount of discussion about it. What is "The Day Seattle Died" about?

Ward: Granted, it's about Layne Staley and Kurt Cobain... I think they died on the exact day? Is that right?

Songfacts: They both died on an April 5th. Years apart, but it was the same calendar day. [Cobain's body wasn't found until three days after his death, so we learned about his suicide on April 8, 1994. Staley died April 5, 2002, but it's only through forensics that we know that: A recluse in his later years, he wasn't found until April 19. Ward's meeting with Staley likely happened in 1998; Staley hadn't performed with Alice in Chains since 1996.]

Ward: Yeah, it was crazy that it's called "The Day Seattle Died" because I didn't mean it to be that. I meant it to be as far as those two losses in Seattle - to me that's the day Seattle died. I wasn't putting that together and thinking about the exact dates.

I had met Layne Staley before when he was really sick. We were on tour with Jerry Cantrell, and Jerry knew I was a giant fan of Alice in Chains. It was Halloween night, we were in Seattle, and all of a sudden, a little dude comes up and he's got an old fishing hat on and he's kind of dressed up like an old dude - he is dressed for Halloween. I guess he didn't want people to see him because he's Layne Staley walking into a club in Seattle, and that would draw a lot of attention, so he got a little costume.

He came backstage with me, and it impacted me so deeply to see him in that condition, because he was one of my biggest idols of all time. We opened a bottle of Jack Daniel's and drank it, and I just talked to him about everything for a long time. But the condition that he was in at the time affected me deeply - to see him look years older than what I thought he was. I knew when he left that night, that was the end - that he was going to go. I'm so thankful I got to spend that time with him.

So that affected me, and I was like, "That's my hero, I'm going to write a song for him." And then the Kurt thing came in too. He was just as influential, but Layne I just felt more of a connection to - he was way darker, and I've always gravitated towards that stuff. Layne Staley's mom actually reached out to us to thank us for the song, and it was really beautiful. So, it had some impact. People really feel that song.

Songfacts: You have a song on The Things We Can't Stop called "Better Human," where you want to be a "better broken human being." Can you discuss that song?

Ward: Well, it sounds in the verses like it's talking about politics, but it really isn't. It's me seeing everyone fighting with each other over the last few years. Everybody is fighting with each other, there's the epidemic with pills - it doesn't seem OK anymore. We all have our vices and the things that break us, and I thought, We're all broken humans in a way. That's why we named the tour the Broken Human tour.

I just got so tired of seeing everybody fighting. I wanted to make an anthem, and I hope it inspires a couple of people to go, "You know what, this is all bullshit. Why don't we be better people and at least try to be nice to each other." So, it's my rally to unite people again. That's what that song is about.

September 4, 2019
The Things We Can't Stop is set for release September 13. Order information and tour dates at coldarmy.com
Photo (2): facebook.com/Cold

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