SEVENDUST – Meet The Family – A Conversation Lajon Witherspoon

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Lajon Witherspoon

Sevendust is celebrating their fourteenth album and nearly thirty years of uncompromising music.  The genre-defying artists, again, have delivered a list of songs that embrace multiple styles and influences.  Still, they continue to stretch their creativity and take some surprising risks.  With Truth Killer, Sevendust gets heavier, softer, and everything in between.

Screamer Magazine sat down with Sevendust vocalist, Lajon Witherspoon, to talk the new release, the state of music, and the values and influences that drive Sevendust.

A new album can be both exciting and anxiety-inducing.  Sevendust, after decades in the industry, does not suffer the details.  For Witherspoon, it’s best to step away and let the music speak for itself.  “I like to remove myself from the album,” he says earnestly.  “I like to hear it when it comes out on the release date.  Unfortunately,” he jokes, “I had to listen to it two days in a row for the listening party, and I love it, and I’m so excited to relive it again!  I just like to feel it with everyone, you know, if that makes sense. That’s the way I’ve always done it.  After I record the songs, I don’t want to hear it.  They’re going to do what they’re going to do, and we’ve done the best we can do.  We would not stop working if we didn’t know that we had it.”  Record it.  Get it right.  Walk away and let the listener decide.  “Eventually you hear it, and you know that this is what you wanted it to be like.”

Few bands have the output of Sevendust.  Maintaining tour schedules, side projects, and well-deserved downtime, Witherspoon is surprisingly casual about the quantity and quality of their songwriting.  “I think it’s just in us.  We all have our side projects that we do.  So, I think that is something that is always buzzing within us all.  It’s easy to get together as a band to do what we love to do.  When we’re all together, it seems, we all turn into those young men that started out twenty-something years ago.  That’s the vibe that you get.  That’s when it’s real and it’s magic.  [We’ve] been very blessed to have that energy still, to this day.”  It’s not a job to these guys, it’s life and family.

When you look at the technical skill of Sevendust, you would assume a tightly oiled machine of scheduling and planning.  It’s the opposite.  The band is more accurately imagined as siblings, bonded whether they like it or not.  While music is always a business, Sevendust has managed to write, perform, and exist as a partnership that goes beyond the job.  “We’re brothers,” Witherspoon tells us.  “We’re like any other family.  We get mad at each other, but at the end of the day, we’re brothers,” he says with some seriousness.

Putting the Sevendust family together was, as with many bands, a product of a musical community.  Bassist Vince Hornsby and drummer Morgan Rose were already playing together in the band Snake Nation on the Atlanta, Georgia circuit in 1994.  Witherspoon was recruited while playing in support of Snake Nation with the R&B band, Body & Soul.  John Connolly, a drummer at the time, was recruited as a guitarist in their early evolution.  That an R&B vocalist (Witherspoon) and a drummer (Connolly) turned guitarist formed the early core of this family was as unlikely as it was fortuitous.  Lead guitarist, Clint Lowery, joined only after the departure of Lee Banks and becomes one of the band’s chief songwriters.  We don’t get to chose our family.  Fate has something say about that.  With bands like Sevendust, fate it seems, created a family, a brotherhood that will last beyond stage and studio.

Sevendust, like any family, share the burden and the benefits of that partnership.  “I think that if we weren’t an equal share band, we wouldn’t still be the band we are.  It’s not fair to be in a position this long and have someone come in and say ‘everything is from my point of view and that’s it. I’m gonna take sixty-percent and drive a Lamborghini and the guy over here is gonna ride a bicycle…You can’t work that way.”  Witherspoon pauses and considers.  “The way we work is, without one it’s not a whole.  That’s Sevendust.  We’re a band, not a group.  There are a lot of incredible groups out there…but a band is people that have been through it all together, through all the ups and downs.  I feel like we’ve been through so much together, so that if anyone understands each other, it’s us in this band.  It’s very special.”  With only brief interruptions, Sevendust has been the same band that started out decades ago.  Few marriages and even fewer bands can claim such a commitment.

“We’re like any other family.  We get mad at each other, but at the end of the day, we’re brothers.”

The Family l to r: Clint Lowery, Morgan Rose, Lajon Witherspoon, Vince Hornsby & John Connolly

It’s easy to forget that our musical heroes are human.  It is a challenging career, and it takes those who commit to it away from home and friends for months and sometimes years.  Sevendust, at least, have always leaned on their friendship.  “We’ve been there when someone’s dad has died, and we’re on the road and they can’t get to the funeral.  Who else is there to console you other than your brothers?  We’ve been together down in the trenches.”  Witherspoon, whose brother was fatally shot in 2002 minutes before a performance, knows this all too well.  “I feel that has a lot to do with our writing.  We do the same things and go through all the emotions everyone else does.  We just have a platform to be able to paint the picture and share it with everyone, and hopefully they connect with it in their own way.”  It is the personal connection and longevity that feeds and sustains Sevendust.  It hasn’t been an easy ride and that emerges in their music.  But, this a unit, a family, a band where every member is essential.  Remove one and Sevendust is not Sevendust.

A hallmark of a band like Sevendust is evolution.  They somehow managed to maintain a consistent sonic foundation yet still stretch their creative limits.  On Truth Killer, they don’t wait long to challenge their audience.  The opening track, I Might Let the Devil Win, in a different context, could find its way up any pop or R&B chart.  Witherspoon is thoughtful about the choice.  “That was very weird because we thought, ‘is that something that is going to weird everyone out?’  Plus, it’s so mellow to the [Sevendust] 101 listener, as I like to say.  But to me, it is probably one of our heaviest songs.  If you think about the production and how the song develops and goes, it’s funny.  If you go to an orchestra, see a symphony play…and I’m there.  Do you see what’s happening with the string section?  They are ripping it! They are playing harder than any guitar!  I think people interpret music differently, but to me, that song was very bold for us to put as the first song.  It lets people know that we’re not afraid, at the end of the day, to show people where we’re at musically in our career.”  It doesn’t stop there for Sevendust.  Many of the tracks pull from an expansive musical history, both old and new.  I Might Let the Devil Win was a risky choice, yet it sets a baseline expectation for what is to come.  If this is the opener, what is to follow?  Get ready.

Lajon Witherspoon is a dynamic and technical vocalist: weaving cleanly from throat-ripping growls to heart-rending melodies.  In an era where many big name singers are suffering the consequences of time and wear-and-tear, you would think maintaining a voice as articulate and powerful as Witherspoon’s would require a complicated regime of prep and care.   “Nope. Just sing! I just sing it!” he tells Screamer.  “I like to be a singer.  I’ve always wanted to have melody.  I want to be the guy that sings his songs forever, as long as I am able to.  But, I don’t want to be that guy going,” ( Witherspoon growls into the microphone and laughs).  “I’m fifty years old now!  Who’s that gray-headed dred dude?  I want you to be able to sing along and remember it.  Not saying anything bad about those songs that are like that, but I feel like it’s okay to evolve and grow and to have melody and soul.  That’s what I always try to bring to the table with Sevendust and anything that I do.”  This approach is Sevendust’s defining characteristic.  Without a doubt, every member is an essential contributor to their overall sound, but Witherspoon’s subtle style shifts give evidence of a life immersed in music.  It is like breathing for him—unforced, natural.

“I want you to be able to sing along and remember it..I feel like it’s okay to evolve and grow and to have melody and soul.  That’s what I always try to bring to the table with Sevendust and anything that I do.”

While Sevendust may be difficult to define, their influences echo throughout their music.  Witherspoon, in particular, has lived a life blessed by musical diversity and unique contact.  When asked about his influences, he, of course, circles back to family.  “My dad.  He was in a disco band,” he says.  “I remember being around the amplifiers, the amps, the double-bass, and everything was so big!  And when they would jam, I would just be mesmerized.  It was different than the church, because I grew [up] in the church choir too.”  Talking about his childhood in the choir, he found himself drawn to the costumes and pageantry of it all.  “I would be more excited about going into the [band] wardrobe room and picking out this red velvet robe, and I’d be like ‘when do we get to wear this blue one with the yellow?  What does that mean?  Is that on the third Sunday?’” he says, laughing.  “To this day, I know it, those outfits made you perform better, man!”  It reflects in Witherspoon’s performance.  Vocal perfection isn’t enough for him.  The stage is a conduit for connection, and Witherspoon, as with all of Sevendust, have always viewed live performance as an integral part of who they are.  Stage presence and performance backed up by solid, nose-to-the-grindstone metal.  The recordings are great, but you get so much more when you buy a ticket.

So, how do we get Sevendust?  Witherspoon has a complicated but revelatory explanation.  “Growing up, it wasn’t just R&B music.  It was country.  It was jazz.  Everything was being played in the house.  I would go down to the farm, and it would be country music, so you go down there in the summer, and it was all rock ‘n roll and country.  You’d go back to the house, and it was R&B.  So, I was able to grow up around all that stuff.  Artists like Stevie Wonder.  Thin Lizzy.  So many influences that I had,” he explains.  “I was able to have Little Richard talk to me about things and give me guidance in my career.  I was lucky enough to be acquaintances with him.”  Out of the soundtrack of his formative years, Witherspoon has honed his own style.  Little Richard is probably not the first person you think of when you here Sevendust, but it’s there—as are Thin Lizzy, Metallica, disco, nu-metal and soul.

As Witherspoon tells us, the path to Sevendust started early and close to home.  “I remember growing up and always wanting to meet my cousin, Charles.  The reason I wanted to meet him was because he was in James Brown’s band.  He plays keyboard, he plays trumpet, saxophone, everything.  Oh, my God, I gotta meet him one day!  Fast forward, my uncle dies, and I know he’s coming to the funeral.  I was very young, but all I was thinking was ‘Oh, my God, he’s gonna be here, and this is the ‘in’ to whatever dream that I have, and, thank the lord it came to fruition!’  But I knew, for whatever reason, this was what I was going to do with my life, even back then as a kid.  “When he [Charles] walked in, everything stopped because he had this outfit on, and the buddy he was with had this freaking captain’s hat on.  He had this long Jeri Curl that no one else in America had at the time.  They got out of this big Lincoln-like limousine car.  And, I was like, ‘I don’t know if it is ever gonna be like that for me, but that is what I wanna be like!’” he says laughing.  Talking with Witherspon, one gets the sense that a life in music wasn’t optional.  His love for this runs years deep and runs through his every experience.

“We’ve been there when someone’s dad has died, and we’re on the road and they can’t get to the funeral.  Who else is there to console you other than your brothers?  We’ve been together down in the trenches.  I feel that has a lot to do with our writing.”

When it comes to his current musical tastes, Witherspoon is as eclectic as ever.  “I would go back to the classics,” he says.  “Every morning, I get up and I put on the Best of the Isley Brothers, something old school, but there’s always music going on through the house.  Like right now, I have jazz playing in the background.  I love old stuff, but now, I like a lot of the new stuff too.  I’m not forced to like it,” he jokes, “but I walk into my house after a tour and my wife, my daughter, and my six-year-old son to say we want to go to a concert.  No! I don’t want to do that after a tour!”  He sighs and says, “’Alright, where do you wanna go?’  They wanna go see Bad Omens.  But, I’m like, wow!  I like that band!  I only know two of their songs, but okay, let’s go!  I was so surprised that my kids knew more about Bad Omens than I did, including the wife!”  Family, it seems, is still opening Witherspoon up to new sounds.

Sevendust are set to embark on a multi-leg tour in support of Truth Killer.  Following the decline of live bookings during the pandemic, Sevendust is set to return to the stage.  “I actually leave July 29th.  I’ll leave to meet up with the band and start the tour with Wolfie Van Halen’s Mammoth and Alter Bridge, which I can’t wait.  It’s going to be a great tour.  Then in October, we’ll be out with our friends, Dope, who we haven’t toured with in twenty-four years.  Static-X too, which is in homage to Wayne Static.  I’m looking forward to that: the production, the whole show.  Everything.”  One thing is clear.  Touring is a fact of life for bands needing to promote new releases, however, there is a sincere eagerness for Witherspoon to return and connect with Sevendust’s fans.  “It’s a good time to be back…It seems like there’s a contagious energy, the new energy that is in the air.  People are excited about these shows, and we’re excited about getting back out there.  I feel music is the medicine, and I’m just the doctor to make sure it’s getting taken,” he says with a sly smile.

“It’s a good time to be back…It seems like there’s a contagious energy, the new energy that is in the air.  People are excited about these shows, and we’re excited about getting back out there.  I feel music is the medicine, and I’m just the doctor to make sure it’s getting taken.”

When asked about touring for decades and whether it still holds the same excitement after all this time, Witherspoon is clear.  “Yeah!  Now, it is again because we hadn’t toured in so freaking long!  It’s exciting.  Touring the way we used to tour was not exciting.  We don’t do that anymore.  When you’re like, ‘see ya later’ and we don’t see each other for three months?  That’s not fun.  We’re older now.  We do it like three weeks or maybe five weeks [at a time],” he explains.  “So yeah, touring is still fun for us.  We get to go out there and workout, do our thing.  Jam every night.  And, I love not being the headliner every night because, in my older age, I like to perform, do my thing, and during the last act, maybe by the third song, I could be at your nearest Applebee’s or TGI Fridays getting me some food to go.”  Again, that infectious laugh.  “Ready to watch a movie on the bus before I go to bed, man!”  Sevendust has found a balance between life and touring that few bands do.  It has kept them one of the best live acts playing today when many are looking to retire.

It’s hard to ignore the youthful energy of Witherspoon.  I might have been talking to a band previewing their first album and preparing for their first stint on the road.  He is almost jittery with anticipation to show the world Truth Killer.  When asked about favorite tracks, he’s no longer the veteran performer.  He’s that kid watching his cousin play with James Brown.  He’s that young man putting on a velvet robe with the church choir.  “Right now everything!, he says about his favorite tracks.  “Fence is my favorite but Holy Water?  I love!  There are so many favorites on here.  When it comes down to it, this whole album is my favorite right now.  I’m excited about sharing it with everyone and to dive back into it.  Actually, I have to start learning everything right now because we’re gonna put it in the set…so, I’ll be conditioning and listening to those songs, but I won’t be listening to the album until it comes out.”   Even now, Witherspoon doesn’t want spoil that moment, that moment every fan knows, when you hear your favorite band’s new album: unwrap the package, stare at the cover art, check the liner notes, then jump in.  Even in the digital age, we still wait for that moment, and, embracing the kid in us all.  So, does Witherspoon.

With their massive history and catalog, Sevendust has played earlier tracks and hits countless time.  Keeping it fresh, especially for the band, can be a challenge.  “Some songs you don’t wanna play,” he says, “but some songs, I don’t mind playing because the energy is there.  It’s like, in the moment, it doesn’t matter how old that song is.  You can see someone in the crowd, and whatever that moment is, it takes them back.  Whatever the emotion that is going on, you can’t deny it, and it swirls in that room.  Even if you played that song a zillion times, it’s new right now, you know what I mean?  It’s real.  We ain’t thinking about the bills.  We ain’t thinking about someone yelling at us. We’re here, in this moment, right now!  We’re gonna make the best of it.  Maybe, after the set, we’re like, ‘damn, we played that song again?’ But, in that moment, it’s fine.” he smiles.  That audiences still connect with Sevendust’s music written years earlier, speaks to the universal and transcendent nature of their work.  And, as Witherspoon points out, it can take them back, both band and fan.

Finally, Witherspoon puts it in perspective.  “At the end of the end, if they didn’t like it, if they didn’t want it, then what are we here for, you know?  It’s a pleasure for people to adore or want to have your music to change their lives, and make them get away from this crazy madness and the crazy world that we live in.  I feel like that’s what music is for.”

Sevendust have survived musical changes and tastes because, not only have they evolved, but because they have a sound that resonates with the past.  You might think you’re listening to only Sevendust on Truth Killer, but Sevendust are the best sort of time machine.  We get to travel back, through the eyes and voice of Lajon Witherspoon, yet maintain a footing in the metal present.  Yet, as few band’s can do, Sevendust and Witherspoon give a glimpse into the future of metal and what is possible.

Sevendust’s latest release, Truth Killer, is out now.  You can see them on tour in the United States now through November. (tour dates)

 

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