I recently had the chance to interview Zoltan Bathory, guitarist and founding member of Cali-based metal act Five Finger Death Punch. Frankly, at the time of our conversation, I was unfamiliar with the band (and that hasn’t really changed since); however, there are a few things I can tell you for sure. The first is that the band has carved its own little niche into an overcrowded modern metal scene, and that’s respectable in itself – they do what they do very well, and people have noticed. I can also tell you that this interview was one of the most straightforward and seemingly honest I’ve ever conducted, and that’s saying a lot. It’s a long one, but I’m pretty sure fans will find it worth the read. In hindsight, it was a great opportunity to talk music with somebody that knows what being “into music” is about.

The band managed to accomplish quite a bit with only one record under its belt (2007’s The Way Of The Fist). What do you think it is about the record that allowed it to take off so quickly?
Zoltan: I think it’s a combination of a number of things. One of them is that the music has to connect to the people, which may be a ‘right thing, right time’ kind of thing. The album is heavy – it’s not extreme metal, but at the same time it’s not mainstream metal. I guess the record walks between the two. At first, people thought it was too heavy for radio play, but I guess the songs proved that wrong because a couple of program directors had the balls to put the tracks on the air, and [“The Bleeding”] turned out to be one of the most requested songs of the period.

“The Bleeding” became a top-10 hit, then the second single (“Never Enough”) hit the top 10, so I think it really means there’s a change around the corner and some heavier music is coming back into the mainstream. Another thing is that we did six US tours together – we’re currently on our sixth one. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen us live, but we pretty much leave it out on stage, you know? We go ballistic, and every time we go back to any town, we have triple or quadruple the audience, because word of mouth is the best form of advertising, and that’s what happens. People were doing that before we even got signe. In fact, that’s how we got signed. We had songs up on MySpace, and were getting 5,000 downloads per day without a label.

It’s basically everything – the people behind the record, the fans, the live shows – you really have to have all areas covered. You can’t just go into the studio and be a Pro Tools band that sounds great on record but can’t pull it off live. You won’t go far.

This whole downloading thing also might be helping the music. It’s not good for the music industry, but it might be good for the music. That’s the funny thing about it. It will force bands to become better. You can’t put out a record anymore with only one good song on it, because people won’t buy it. So I think the musically actually benefits from this. The audience really wins. It’s an interesting thing, and I think we have this all covered, and we’ll do everything in our power to be as good as possible.

Taking off from there, the success that “The Bleeding” had on radio for a first single, especially for a heavier act than you’d traditionally find in the top 10, did that open any interesting doors for you that you didn’t expect to encounter being a metal band?
Zoltan: Mainstream radio, being the same for the last 6-7 years, is undergoing a shift. It changes every few years. When “The Bleeding” was in the top 10, and you looked at other bands there, it was bands like Puddle of Mudd and whatnot – not bad bands, but more mainstream rock acts. Now when you look at the top 10, you see acts like Metallica, Slipknot, Disturbed, us – a lot of the bands there are metal bands. A band like Metallica can always make number one because of their fans, but just the fact that there are four, five, or six metal bands in the top 10 says maybe there’s a change and metal is coming back to the mainstream.

As far as doors, our success has given us the opportunity to tour properly. We could get bigger and better tours and play for more people, and thus will generate more record sales, and then we’ll finally be able to put on a proper headlining tour. So this is our sixth US tour, and between the first tour to now, the audience has jumped to insane numbers. We’re happy because we’re sharing this feeling with a lot of people who are connecting to the music – singing the lyrics. We’re trying to restore that mosh pit ideal, and so far the mosh pits have been absolutely insane.

Taking it back to the record, I noticed you had Logan Mader (ex-member of Soulfly and Machine Head) mix and master the album, which was interested to see. What drew you to him for the project?
Zoltan: I’ve known Logan for awhile. I lived in Los Angeles for awhile, and so he’s a friend of mine who started to do production maybe eight years ago or so, and he became extremely good at that. The interesting thing about Logan is that he’s a very, very – I mean, you look at him and he’s covered in tattoos and whatnot, but he’s a very precise guy. He’s very business-like and serious. When we went to him, I had a very precise vision of what I wanted. So he mixed and mastered the record, but when I took the tracks to him, I told him exactly what I wanted to hear. He was really happy about that – he like working with a band that had a vision and knew what they wanted. For him, it made it that much easier, you know what I mean?

For us, it was an awesome experience. He really did what we asked him to do. It wasn’t a battle of egos or a battle of wills or vision of what it was supposed to be. It’s a low-tuned metal band that we wanted to sound like today’s sound production-wise, but at the same time, I love ‘80s metal – Iron Maiden and stuff like that – so I love lots of effects on the guitars and nicer vocals. So the vision was “make it sound like an 80s metal record with lower tuning and those choppy, heavy rhythm sections. And he did that. It’s that transparency, meaning he’s not going to make it what he likes; he’s going to make it what you want, and that’s super important. A lot of bands get into a situation with a producer or engineer where the record comes out, and maybe it’s a great record, but maybe it’s not what you wanted. If it’s successful, great, but if it fails, it wasn’t on your terms, you know? I’d rather fail on my terms than succeed on somebody else’s.

You’ve toured with everyone from Twisted Sister to Korn to your current headlining tour, which features metalcore bands like Bury Your Dead and In This Moment. All these bands play to fairly different audiences, so I’m wondering, which is your ideal audience? Where do you feel most at home?
Zoltan: It’s interesting. It goes back to how we fall between “commercially accepted” or contemporary metal bands and the old stuff from the ‘80s. So we touch on a number of different audiences. We have the 40-year old metal heads who grew up on Iron Maiden and old-school Judas Priest, right? They’re there because they find something in us similar to what they used to listen to. At the same time, our sound is modern, so all the kids who are big Slipknot fans or Korn fans are coming, too, because the sound they like is there. So we’re kind of giving little pieces to all of these people. We have everything from 14-year old girls to the 40-year old metalheads who were at the first Judas Priest concert. So we can play with that whole spectrum of bands. Probably the most similar crowd to ours was Disturbed’s crowd.

On all of those tours we’ve had so far, we’ve grabbed members of those audiences. As for In This Moment and Bury Your Dead, they’re also a lot different, but their audiences might also like us because we’re heavy enough, but there are other things going on. I think it’s a necessity. It comes with the territory of the music we play that we’re able to play to so many crowds.

It’s funny you’re touching on all these things because you’re stealing my questions. [laughs] There are indeed a lot of elements of the older shred metal here, but you’re also combining elements of what’s happening now. What do you see, not so much in your band but in others on the scene, that you’re liking about metal currently, and what are you seeing happen you wish wasn’t there?
Zoltan: I could give you the media-friendly answer, but I think I’ll just spill it. Sometimes, you’ll read something about someone talking shit on Yngwie Malmsteen, and that stuff still pissed me off. Like, he’s one of the best guitarists ever – it’s going to be very different for anyone to top that guy. So there are some bands that live off of three chords that they know. They think they’re comfortable and whatnot, but I think the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. The better of a guitarist I become, the better I can see how great of a player Yngwie Malmsteen is. So personally, my opinion is that you need to own it and learn your instrument and earn your right to be a musician.

I don’t dig the bands that live off of a couple of chords with really predictable songwriting. But at the same time, I have very specific tastes. So I know what I like, and that’s what I like. I mean, Killswitch Engage is one of my favourite bands; Demon Hunter is another. I think they have great, great songs. The element I personally like is these bands that do what they like and can still become successful. Howard (Jones, Killswitch vocalist) can really sing, but the guy can also fucking scream. That’s what I like. All these guys that can sing, but have the ability to bring it when it comes to screaming. Corey Taylor is another.

So with our band, everybody is a crazy musician. Our drummer can really fucking shred. Like, every single member of this band can play on a really high level and are very skilled musicians, so the possibilities are endless for us. We can really do anything we want to, and if we can do anything we want to, then there are no limits musically to what we can do. So back to the question, I like the bands today that realize that without melody, there is no song.

As for things I don’t like, I don’t like all the shit-talking. These was a time when metal was like a brotherhood, you know? If I had long hair and another guy had long hair, we didn’t even really have to talk; we’d just bond immediately. So the shit-talking and the absence of that brotherhood bother me, thought I think it’s really coming back. Like, we’re really good friends with the guys in Disturbed and Machinehead, and all these guys are bringing that brotherhood back.

Right on. You’ve done quite a few acoustic and unplugged performances that seem to be turning out really well despite how heavy the record is. Do you ever write on an acoustic guitar?
Zoltan: I’ll often just grab the acoustic and play around with it. Maybe it’s just laziness, because you don’t have to fire everything up, you know? So I definitely play with the acoustic guitar, and it has that ability to let you write songs without relying on effects or anything. Anything acoustic that’s not depending on a specific sound will allow you to write more song-oriented material, so it helps. But at the same time, I like the sound of a heavy, low-tuned electric guitar. So I guess it’s both, but mainly the electric guitar.

With the acoustic shows, we’d have to go do a radio station promo, and hauling the gear into a studio that’s not really equipped to broadcast a loud and obnoxious metal band doesn’t work. You have to try something different. So we tried things acoustically, and thought they turned out really well, but they weren’t written acoustically.

I’ve drawn the conclusion that your fanbase deserves a lot of credit for propelling this band. It seems like you have a lot of die-hards, and like you said, word of mouth is the ideal type of promotion. Can you comment on that?
Zoltan: I think I get what you’re looking for. Like, our band is signed, and that’s because of the fans in the first place. The way the label and management discovered us was because of the fact we had no label or had no management – we recorded this album on our own terms. So anybody who thinks we’re an artificially created band that was pushed by a major label is out of their fucking mind. What happened, in fact, is the complete opposite. The material was completely organic. We wrote and played what we wanted on our own terms with our own money. We had a complete record, album cover, everything – all completely down on our own.

We didn’t have a label yet, but we knew we were going to do it no matter what. We had this passion that this was what we wanted to do. We put a couple of songs on MySpace because we were really proud of what we’d done, and it just fucking exploded. We were getting 4,000 or 5,000 downloads everyday. So once we got that kind of visibility, labels, management, and everybody started to come around.

We’ve all been in bands that have had some level of success, and so because we’ve been doing this our whole like, we had connections where we could call friends. Like Dragonforce – those guys let us play with them. So this is what we had going for us. And then because of these shows and word of mouth, we were able to grow this almost cult-like fanbase, I guess you could say. So we didn’t even have a record out yet, but we had people tattooing the bands logo on themselves. Image that – a tattoo of a band that didn’t even have a record out yet. That’s extreme! And the label saw this, so when they came to us, they’d just found what we had online, and were like, “Holy shit, what the fuck’s going on here?” So when the record came out, because of the fans, it hit the Billboard charts right away, which is also kind of extreme for a first record, and it just went off. It just kept crawling up every week, and the kids are sending us pictures of themselves holding the CD. It’s kind of a pride thing for them. They’ll come to the show with the CD, saying “Hey, we have this.” They’re saying “We support your band. We’re buying the CD.” And that’s just awesome. Of course it’s easy to download it – the economy sucks, CDs are expensive – whatever. But these kids are proud to be behind this band, and that’s…

[Editor’s Note: I ran out of tape. Sorry for the boner, though the interview lasted maybe another 15 seconds, so you didn’t miss much.]  [ END ]