Avenged Sevenfold topped the album charts this week with Nightmare, a success that comes after months of emotional toll: In late December of last year, the metal band’s drummer, Jimmy “The Rev” Sullivan, was found dead of an overdose on prescription medication and alcohol. He was 28. After his passing, the band made the tough decision to carry on with their fifth album, which was all but written. They enlisted Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy — one of Sullivan’s heroes — to sit in behind the kit, and recorded what became a eulogy for their lost member and longtime friend. We asked bassist Johnny Christ to talk us through Nightmare‘s creation and Sullivan’s legacy.
Entertainment Weekly: It has probably been a very exciting week with the album going to No. 1, but probably the most bittersweet version of exciting.
Johnny Christ: You nailed it right there. Absolutely.
Is it possible to describe your emotional state?
It’s been hard. It’s been back and forth. I’m very excited, and very blessed, and very thankful, and at the same time, I wish that my brother was still here to share this moment with me. But in all honesty, he left us a gift, and that was us being able to do this. We went through a lot of hard times just to create this record, so it’s pretty awesome, and it’s a good feeling. I’m just trying to enjoy it as much as I can.
I’ve read a bunch of news reports and interviews with you guys about what happened, but I’m wondering if you can put into your own words the story of this album.
This album was very much a record that we wrote 100 percent with Jimmy. He was there for every single song, and had his hand in every single piece of music that was written for this record. We wrote for like nine months. We wanted to make a heavier, more concentrated album. It was going to be a concept album originally, and the music was 100 percent written. About a week or two before we were going to hit the studio, Jimmy passed, and everything changed. The lyrics became a tribute to Jimmy and how we were feeling at the time, and as that happened, it became a much darker record than we’ve ever written before. It’s very emotionally charged, I think. We went into the studio like any other time, just ready to write and get excited about a new record, and Jimmy was super excited. He was really proud of the work that he had done. So after he passed, we knew that we had to continue this record and get it out there, because he would have wanted us to do that. We went into the studio, and it was so therapeutic. It was a blessing that we didn’t know that was going to happen. When you’re concentrating on just the music, you’re not thinking about anything else.
How did the lyrics change, and what songs can we hear that the most on?
There were two songs that Matt [frontman M. Shadows] had already written lyrics for before Jimmy’s passing, and Jimmy was a part of that, too. He liked those lyrics, so we didn’t change them. Like on “Nightmare,” those are very much the lyrics Matt had already written. Then you get songs like “Danger Line” that was I believe already written as well, but it kind of took on a new meaning. It was written for a soldier, and about a soldier’s death, and it became kind of a new meaning. We have a song, “Welcome to the Family” — we realized for the first time in our lives that people go through this every day around the world. There is someone very close to them that they’re losing, every day. That song is, We know how you’re feeling. Welcome to our lives. That was a really heartfelt song that was written out, it’s a song that Jimmy actually came to us with musically, and I’m pretty sure he actually said “welcome to the family” when he demoed it out. And then we wrote the lyrics and made it what it is now.
There are places where Jimmy is actually on this album, vocally?
Yes. There’s a song on the record, “Fiction,” that he’d written for his side project band many years ago, and he never finished it. Literally about three days before his passing he had finally finished it, and recorded the last part of the song. What he sang was basically saying goodbye to all his friends, and all of us. It’s hard to listen to, but outside of that it’s just a beautiful, well-written song that only Jimmy could have written, and only Jimmy could have sang those parts. Matt went in and just tried to finish that idea with the lyrics, and I think he did a great job.
How was the chemistry with Mike Portnoy in recording?
Mike was a great dude. In the drumming community, there was Jimmy and Mike. They’d started saying good things about each other, and becoming friends, and Mike was just a huge hero to Jimmy. He got in touch with us when Jimmy passed, and sent his condolences and everything, and we decided if we were going to finish this record, the only person who could possibly pull it off would be Mike Portnoy. We gave him a call and he was like, “Yeah, whatever you guys need.” Just an awesome, awesome person in a dark time to help us out with this. We kept as much of Jimmy’s parts as we could possibly keep.
Have you performed this stuff live yet?
Yeah, we did like four shows last week with Mike, and it went really well. The fans actually helped us so much. When we were deciding if we would keep making this record, we got an onslaught of letters from the fans asking us to please continue. Without them I don’t think that we would have been able to make this record.
They’re very defensive about you guys online, especially if anyone says something negative about the record. How does that feel?
It feels f—ing awesome. The fans have always been die-hard and awesome. That’s why we do a lot of the things we do. The other night when we got the news we had a No. 1 record, we told all the kids we were gonna be at a bar, you know, Come out and hang out with us. These fans are the reason why we’re here. They’re awesome, and very crazy. The love Avenged Sevenfold and we love them. Having that is rare. They’re quite a gang.
How has Jimmy’s passing coupled with the success of this record changed the band’s direction?
Jimmy’s passing definitely put us in a spot where we didn’t know what the f— we were going to do, you know? We didn’t know that we could even make this record. That whole idea didn’t even come up until days later. When he passed, we were best friends, first and foremost. I didn’t give a f— what the band was gonna do. It was a loss of my best friend, my brother. You take baby steps in trying to go on. You’ve only got two options. Either you kill yourself, or you just keep going on. That’s how we went into the studio. Baby steps. And now the whole idea is to continue Jimmy’s legacy. In everything that we do, Jimmy is still there. This record was put out because he was excited. These were his last pieces of work, and I just want everyone to know how brilliant Jimmy really was. I wish everyone had the chance to know him the way I did, because it was a wonderful experience.
If Jimmy was around, what would his response to the No. 1 record be?
[laughs] The loudest “HELL YEAH” you’ve ever heard in your life. He had an amazing personality. We’d actually have to ask him to stop yelling sometimes, only because we needed him to sing. He woulda been very excited. I’m sure he’d still be celebrating now, sitting right next to me. Jimmy was a kid at heart. I think right now I miss most his laugh and his smile, and those two things would be very abundant right now.