Opening The Creative Doors: A Conversation About Writing, Sobriety, and Metal With D. Randall Blythe

by | Apr 23, 2021 | MUSIC

Fifteen years ago, Ryan Kent interviewed Lamb Of God vocalist Randy Blythe for RVA Mag. Fifteen years later, they reconvene for another conversation about everything that’s changed and everything they’ve learned over the past decade and a half.

I haven’t gotten much better at interviewing bands in the 18 years since I started doing so, and there have been a slew of interviews during that time. The problem might be nerves or substance abuse, or maybe I’m just a fucking clown. So, all of this is purely an accident. It was an accident fifteen years ago when I first interviewed Lamb Of God/Halo Of Locusts vocalist D. Randall Blythe for RVA Magazine. A far more skilled journalist should have conducted that interview. Unfortunately for them, I asked, and they did not. That’s what happens sometimes, folks.

Here’s how that first interview happened. Over the years, I’ve learned to swallow my pride and ask for what I want. Being drunk on Alleykatz’s draft PBR in 2006, I asked Halo Of Locusts’s tour manager, AJ, if I could interview their singer. AJ said, “Sure. Wait here.” Honestly, I hadn’t planned on that answer. After hearing “no” enough times, it had begun to sound like a nickname. But I did what he told me; I waited right there and wrote in my spiral notebook whatever bonehead questions I could think of in those few short minutes. There wasn’t a photographer with me, and I can’t believe I had the wherewithal to bring a tape recorder.

If you’ve read the interview, you’ll know what I mean. It reads like a book report written on the school bus. I may have asked the questions, but Randy conducted the interview, and he let me know I was that kid from the school bus.

Fifteen years later, it’s still an accident. Typically, you interview someone once, and that’s it. That Fight Club adage of “single-serving friend” certainly rings true. But not in Richmond; in this place, we’re all bees returning to the same fucking hive. 

Throughout the intervening years, my life has crisscrossed with Randy’s. That single serving accidentally turned into multiple servings. Richmond is wonderful for episodes like that. Meet someone once and you can end up knowing them for years. Maybe they’ll even have a small hand in getting you off the sauce.

This time, I just asked Randy for the interview on my own. A few hours later, we met at McCormack’s Irish Pub on 18th street, where the original interview took place. This time it happened upstairs on the stage, sans alcohol, with R. Anthony Harris and Joey Wharton taking photos. This time, I only wrote down one question to ask Randy. Being the conductor of a locomotive for 25 years, I figured he could get us back to the hive. This is the conversation that transpired after I pressed “record.”

D. Randall Blythe: We’re waiting for the real band to come on. You had to load out through the back of Twisters, and it was always a nightmare, pushing through the crowd and all that shit. I was pushing this fucking bass cabinet and Dave [Brockie] was sitting at the bar and had two hot babes on him. Lording it up, drinking a beer. He looks over, he sees me. He goes, “Hey, Randy. It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll.” I was like, “Holy shit, he knows my name.” Not what to expect when you first meet the guy. His reputation. Well, Dave had also said things to me that I wouldn’t let my own mother get away with, but it’s fucking Dave. Like, you love him.

All right, let’s do this thing. Let’s have a talk.

Ryan Kent: What would you say to 35-year-old Randy the night we first hung out? You’re a much different person than you were then. Like, imagine if you just walked in and you’re like, dude, I’m from the fucking future.

RB: Well, first thing I’d probably say to him, 35-year-old Randy: “Bro, you look like shit. You need to tighten up. You are rapidly rocketing towards a bad time.” And that was certainly the case. I got sober at 39, so at age 35, that was right around the time I first tried — started trying — to quit drinking. And it took me about four years. That was just between tours. 

RK: Yeah, like you drink already on tour, come home and chill. 

RB: Exactly, dude. I would not drink at home, but I would still eat a ton of opiates, you know? Pain pills. It was kind of like a placeholder for me. I used to have my chick drop me off at the airport hours early if we were going on tour. I needed to get there early just so I could go directly to the bar. Start pounding fuckin’ shots of Jägermeister and drinking Heineken. I wouldn’t make it through security at Richmond International Airport; I’d go straight to Applebee’s or whatever the fuck it is, and just start getting wasted at eight o’clock in the morning.

I wouldn’t really have much more to say to that 35-year-old, right? I think that would be Priority Number One. Just, “Dude, you look like shit. Chill out. Stop fucking up your life.” But at the same time, 35-year-old Randy would have looked at me and said, “Fuck off. I got this, okay? What the fuck do you know, Future Man?”

I think sometimes about the past and things I could do differently, and I’ve come to the realization that’s a completely and utterly futile exercise. Because where we are right now is because of what you did. The present moment is the only thing that exists. Back then, it was the present moment. Right now is the present moment. And then if we make it till tomorrow, wake up, it’ll be the present moment. So, we have to do the best at the present moment that we are in. And I will say, I’m utterly thrilled to be sitting up here, on this stage, upstairs, above McCormack’s. It’s fucking dusty and there’s chairs and stuff here, but I mean, I’ve seen so many good bands here. I played shows here myself. I haven’t been up here in years. It’s just awesome to sit here.

RK: Cheers.

RB: One nonalcoholic Lamb of God-branded BrewDog beer, and one 7-11 brand coffee. Yes, sir. I’m not even smoking real cigarettes.

RK: Hey, I’m getting my shot because of that. My mother said, “Smoking will get you nowhere,” and I was like, “It got me in line.” It’s like that Chris Rock thing, when Marion Barry got in trouble for smoking crack. He was saying to a kid, “You know, if you do drugs, you’ll never be anything.” The kid’s like, “I could be Mayor!”

RB: Well, here in Richmond, we have Chuck Richardson, I believe is his name. Black gentleman. He was a Vietnam vet who came back, as many did from Vietnam, with an opiate habit. He was a city councilman on and off for years and got busted a few times with heroin. But he wasn’t a kingpin, he was just moving shit to support his own habit. I don’t know that much about his constituency, but from what I understood, he was doing a pretty good job for his constituency. He’s just a fucking drug addict. So, I think, even in my lifetime, it’s worth mentioning that the understanding of the nature of addiction has broadened. I bitch about the kids sometimes, [but] I do think one thing that is cool with the younger generation: I think that they are, on the whole, not as entranced with the idea of becoming a completely fucked up mess as you and I were. 

RK: Self-destructive.

RB: Yeah. Self-destructive. Glamorous fuckin’ rock and roll writer, whatever, you know. 

RK: Oh, speaking of that, though, like what we were talking about with present and everything. I know with sobriety, I’m three years — let me rephrase that. I don’t drink alcohol. You are sober. I do what I do. I’ve found I have a lot of remorse. Not pity. Remorse. I’ve spoken to my friends and they’re like, “You know, if it wasn’t for you fucking up and just plain sucking, you wouldn’t be here doing what you do now.” So, when it comes to you, do you look back at that time period with any remorse? Or is it just like, “Okay, I did those things. I wasn’t a bad person. I mean, I was a drunk, but I got where I am because I was crazy.” Right? 

RB: I mean, I was utterly fucking crazy. That’s for sure. I think I certainly did some shitty things when I was drunk, things I’m not too proud of, as most alcoholics do. Anybody who has any sort of substance abuse problem can attest that very few people enrich their character by becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol. The little check marks on your karmic balance sheet don’t really go into the positive. I’ve been super hard on myself, but I wasn’t the Hitler of alcoholism. I wasn’t the Attila the Hun of alcoholism. I wasn’t the Pol Pot of alcoholism all these years ago. I wasn’t even like a two-bit budget failed-Third-World-coup-attempting wannabe dictator of alcoholism. I was just a fucking drunk who was an asshole sometimes and did some shitty things.

That is not to dismiss any responsibility for anything I did during those times, because I try to maintain accountability — I’m really into that. Just because I was an alcoholic doesn’t mean I can’t be held accountable. But at the same time, a lot of this self-obsession, when you really think about all this, it’s like the other side of narcissism. Really kicking your own ass out hard is just as self-obsessed as the grandiose, manic sort of narcissist.

RK: Or somebody who just thinks about their muscles. 

RB: Yeah, exactly. 

RK: It’s like, I’m thinking about crawling on the ground tonight. You’re thinking about 500 reps. Mental masturbation. 

RB: Yeah, exactly. And furthermore, as a guy who’s been sober 10 years now, because people helped me get sober: I view it as my responsibility. If you want to call it a karmic debt, or whatever: what comes around goes around. Paying it forward. However you want to put it out. I sort of view it as my responsibility, that if there’s someone who needs my help getting sober, then I will do my best to help them. Right? I cannot do my best to help someone, and I cannot use my past experiences to help someone, if I’m sitting there wallowing in them. I have to recognize them. Come to terms with them if need be. Make it right with some people, which I’ve done before, and then I have to move on. If I’m here to help anyone and I’m just sitting there going, “Oh my god, you’re a drunk. You asshole,” sitting there just kicking my own ass forever, I’m useless. I’m combat ineffective.

RK: This winter, I’ve spent months at night walking around the Fan. A lot of it was identifying and holding myself accountable, even if it was just mentally at 11:30 when I walked around with cigarettes. Just being able to identify and open it up and leave it there. Just be done with it. That’s freeing. 

RB: It’s liberating, and for every one of my friends and family, not one of them has ever said to me, “Man, I miss the old Randy who was drinking all the time.” Not one. And these people are still my friends, and they’re still my family.

RK: Are there things about who you were then that are not here anymore? That aren’t necessarily good or bad, they’re just not here anymore?

RB: I think I miss certain things about time periods that are not here. That’s for any of us of at a certain age. Not just me. As far as missing the guy who used to come in here and drink downstairs, or up here in this very bar where we sit… I mean, I had some good fucking times here. There is no doubt about it. However, I do not romanticize those times, because I know how they ended. Which was me crying in my backyard, “What is wrong with me?” Well, I mean, you’re a fucking alcoholic, and everyone else is telling you you’re an alcoholic. Maybe you ought to quit drinking.

I used to have these romantic fantasies, dude. In my fantasy, somewhere in a room sort of like this. It’s dim, and there’s light coming through, but it’s also sort of in the Old West, like a saloon. And I’m sitting there with a bottle of whiskey, even though I never drank whiskey. I didn’t like it, I’m a beer guy. Then I see like a neurologist or a rare disease expert, who looks at me and examines me. I’m sitting in this dusty room, grimly, drinking my bottle. This guy says, “You know, Randy, you are one of the very few people in the world who has been diagnosed with Shippenheimer Syndrome. Frankly, I don’t know how you’ve made it this long. No wonder you drink so much, as any human would.” Then he explains this to all my friends and my family. And they’re all like, “We’re so sorry.” It’s just this total egotist escapism, romantic fantasy. Anything to not face the fact, “You’re a fucking alcoholic, dude.”

Do I believe it is my fault that I’m an alcoholic? No, because whether I drank myself there or whether it was genetic, nurture versus nature, it doesn’t matter. No one, when they’re little kids says, “You know what? I want to grow up and fuck my life up!” So that doesn’t mean I don’t have to take responsibility for it, but I have to accept it. You know what I mean?

I used to think all sorts of crazy shit like that, because I just didn’t want to face the facts. That’s a strange thing about alcoholism, it warps your perceptions. It warps them to where you just can’t understand reality. Literally, man, when I would think about myself, towards the end of my drinking and shit, I would wake up and I would wanna die after having pissed everybody off the night before or whatever. I’d be like, “Why did I do that? I would never do that. Maybe I should stop drinking.” And then a little while later, the monkey would start talking to me. It’s fucking crazy. 

RK: It is crazy. Before I quit, I felt like I was betraying alcohol by quitting. I was really doing myself, and what I’d been planning on doing with my life, a real injustice by quitting. Then one day a switch was flipped. I was like, “All right, boy. Let’s see how your life is in a week of not drinking.” Any other time, I was counting the minutes I hadn’t drank. This time, it was the end of the week and I didn’t even realize it. Then I looked at my life and was like, “Well, everything is better.” Then we see people we look up to and we’re like, “Well, fuck, Bukowski was wasted. Hunter S. Thompson was on acid or whatever. He was drunk.” 

RB: Yeah. And Hemingway blew his brains out.

RK: It’s just that weird feeling, like somehow, I was letting them down. Like they gave a shit. 

RB: You were looking at the romanticized view. You were looking at the Keith Richards example. I’ll tell you what, being in the rock’n’roll business… I mean, in my band, I’ve been at it for, what, 25 years? I know a whole lot of dead people who were fucking rock and rollers just like Keith Richards. Some of them, who have hung out in this very fucking room, you know, and they are no longer with us because they did not fit the Keith Richards profile. But very few people fit the Keith Richards profile. Keith Richards being Number One — he also fucking gets his blood flushed. And we don’t have this. This is Lamb of God, not Led Zeppelin. We don’t have Rolling Stones money. And even if I did, the mental pain, the exhaustion of dealing with being an alcoholic, just wore me out after a while. 

RK: I would get this thing in the morning. I wouldn’t have even done anything wrong the night before. I would have gotten drunk and hung out with my friends and had a great time. I wouldn’t have said anything too stupid. I wouldn’t have been too overly honest. I wouldn’t have pissed anyone off. But I would wake up in the morning and feel guilty. It was like, “Why the fuck do I feel guilty?” “Well, because I spent all that money and now, I don’t have any.” I set out that morning saying, “I’m hungover. I’m not having a drink.” Then eight hours in the kitchen, after my shift, I couldn’t wait to have a drink. And I was just like, “I’m not in control.” I was scared, because all I did was drink. So now, what am I going to do to replace that? You have surfing, and you have photography, which you have been able to come into and be good at and replace the drinking.

RB: Well, yeah. I think that’s the other aspect of being a creative guy — a creative person, rather, but in this case, being a creative dude. Being a musician and writer. We mentioned several of them. There’s fucking Bukowski, the hard drinking guy. And Hemingway, of course, who helped redefine the written language, the way we do it, he was fucking drinking. So, you have these people you can look at and hold as these paradigms, and they were hard to keep, dude. I wanted to write, even beyond the band thing. I did some writing before I was in the band, some during it, but I had this idea, this romantic idea of the manly writer, and so, I proceeded to drink and womanize and do some drugs and get in a few fights and all that stuff. I was doing all the things that the great writers did — except write!

It’s not just amongst people like me and you. It’s sort of a cultural mythos, the drinking writer guy or whatever. And I bought into it, and you bought into it. I used to joke about being an alcoholic, too, as a musician. I’m in a heavy metal band. I bought into that. But it was all just excuses. So when I removed that sort of liquid filter alcohol provides, the synapses started firing and going, and over time it opened the door on creativity. Now it’s like, I have too many ideas. I have to work consciously to focus and to pick one and go with it. That’s a skill I’m working on. The hardest thing creatively I’ve ever done, by far, is write a book [Dark Days: A Memoir]

RK: It’s a big book. 

RB: Yeah. My contract called for 80 to 100,000 words. I was like, “Oh, my God, that’s so much.” At my final draft, I turned in 246,000 words. That was great, but it’s long. So, my editor was like, “Everything’s great. We just have to do some amputation.” Writing a book like that makes writing an album look like going to kindergarten. You’re doing it all yourself. When you do stuff with a band, you’re just one piece of it. There’s also the support you get from your bandmates. Writing that book, some people can drink and write. Some people can also drink and not wreck cars and piss everybody off. I’m not one of those people. It’s like, the creative doors have just come open and I enjoy life so much more. You mentioned something earlier, and this was something that dawned on me. Because when you drink all the time, it’s like your best friend, and it kind of becomes what you do. 

RK: Yes. When you stop, it’s like you just changed careers. 

RB: Yeah, what am I going to do? I came to this realization, after a little bit of being sober. “What am I going to do? What am I gonna do with myself? What am I gonna do?” “Oh yeah, anything I want that I wasn’t doing while I was drinking!”

RK: And then you had to go on tour. How difficult was that for you? You’re sitting idle on the bus. And then you’re sitting on a bus with 15 other people who drink. Then everybody else. Cats in the crowd who are just thrilled to see you. Then they meet you in the parking lot and all they want to do is take a shot with you. And you kind of want to, you kind of want to do that for them, because they’re going to talk about this for however long. Then you don’t want to because you don’t want to compromise what you’re trying to do. 

RB: Yeah, I mean, for real, I got sober on tour. I was surrounded by free alcohol. Free drugs. People who actually want to give me drugs. “Yeah, here, have some!” Because they want a story, as you said. But I came to the conclusion, pretty quickly, that I can’t worry about other people’s stories. My story is going to come to a swift end if I don’t absolutely stop. So getting sober on tour, for me, was just the way it was supposed to happen. Because I would always think, “You know, I’m going to come home and I’m really going to get sober this time. I’m not going to fuck around. I’m really going to take it seriously when I get home later. Now, when I get home, it’s gonna get real.” And it just happened to happen on tour, when I was like, “I can’t do this anymore.”

And I’m pretty grateful that I got sober on tour, because I know plenty of touring musicians who are sober, who didn’t get sober on tour. And a lot of them underwent massive, massive anxiety about going back on tour. You know, they’re like, “Holy fuck. How am I gonna do this?” Then you go out to the wild, and it’s all kind of stripped away. I always enjoy doing things the brutal way. I’m a knucklehead. So I’m grateful, because I’m like, “Okay, well, fuck, I got sober on a heavy metal tour. I can do that. I can stay sober. I can do that.” 

RK: Richmond is a drinking town. You’d be getting off a drinking bus to go to a drinking town, but already have your sea legs, in a way. 

RB: Yeah. It’s like, I just did this impossible shit. So, coming home… I mean, I don’t hang out in bars unless there’s a band playing. I’m not scared to go into a bar. Obviously, we’re sitting here. You know, if I want a drink, I can go downstairs and get one, right fucking now. I do not want one. I don’t miss it at all. Particularly earlier on, I would question myself at times, like, “Are you really okay?” Because I didn’t want to drink. And I’m like, “Are you really feeling okay? Are you lying to yourself just like you lied to yourself about not being an alcoholic for years and years and years?” My perspective was so fucked. 

RK: Do you think that was like the alcoholism Good Cop/Bad Cop?

RB: I mean, that doesn’t really happen anymore. It’s been 10 years. I obviously know that I’m fine without it. But I think it was just such a weird, radical change in my pattern of existence. Because you know, at the end, I had to drink in the morning before I could eat. I’d have to at least put a beer in me before I could keep any food down. I couldn’t see. 

RK: I never got the DTs or had it to where I had to have something in the morning to be able to function. I’ve had friends that had to crush a bunch of vodka in order to do anything; I never got there. But I was ruining my life.

RB: I could function. I just couldn’t eat without putting some alcohol in me. 

RK: I didn’t eat. I never ate in the morning. I usually didn’t eat until my legs were telling me, “I’m not going up the stairs until you eat.”

RB: You’re empty. You’re done.

RK: I look at old Lamb of God lyrics and they’re different than lyrics now. 

RB: Yeah, I mean, obviously. Hopefully, they’re better [now].

RK: I’m a fan. They’re great. But different than before. It’s like the difference in writing down a bunch of questions and asking you, or just having a conversation. It feels like you’re talking to me, the listener, in a different way. 

RB: I think that’s sort of the process of learning to become a songwriter. Learning how to communicate what you want to say in an effective manner that the listener can take, and it doesn’t feel like an utterly foreign experience or concept for them. I mean, I’m writing the lyrics for me — don’t get me wrong. I don’t write lyrics for fans. We don’t make music for fans. Once you start doing that, then you start getting shaped by external expectations and your art suffers. I write what I feel like writing, and I think the fans respect that as well.

At the same time, learning and growing as a lyricist, and trying to learn how to write so that it’s a bit easier for the listener to take the song and internalize it, and make it their own. That’s what the best songs do. I could write a song about me and you sitting here doing this interview 15 years later. And that’s what it’s about — there’s no doubt about it. “I wrote a song about me and Ryan Kent. We did an interview 15 years later, and this is what happened.” But to someone else who listens to it, it might remind them of a conversation they had with their dead mother or something, and that song becomes precious to them.

Our music is our music. It’s Lamb Of God music. But once it goes out into the world, and people make it their own, it kind of becomes everyone’s music. I think that’s a beautiful thing, because that’s what music has done for me. It’s like the first time I met Milo from the Descendants. I walked up to him, we were playing a gig with them, and I was like, “Milo, I got a question for you.” He’s like, “What’s that?” I was like, “How did you know how to write all those songs about all of my ex-girlfriends?”

Photos by Joey Wharton

Ryan Kent

Ryan Kent

Ryan Kent is the author of the collections, Poems For Dead People, This Is Why I Am Insane, Hit Me When I'm Pretty, and Everything Is On Fire: Selected Poems 2014-2021. He has also co-authored the poetry collections, Tomorrow Ruined Today, and Some Of Us Love You (both with Brett Lloyd). His spoken word record, Dying Comes With Age, will be released by Rare Bird Books in 2022. Ryan is a staff writer for RVA Magazine and maintains a pack a day habit. (photo by D. Randall Blythe)

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