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James “The Rev” Sullivan

James "The Rev" Sullivan : Modern Drummer
The supercharged Avenged Sevenfold timekeeper keeps old-school metal alive
with brute force, machine-like precision, and a flair for the dramatic

 

by Michael Parillo

Avenged Sevenfold does nothing halfway. From their wacky aliases to their arm-covering tattoos to their breakneck tempos to their legendary hedonistic appetites, the five bandmembers are devoted to classic metal excess. But behind the carefully cultivated bad-boy image—which is encouraged by the press as much as by the band—lies a simple, not very sensational-sounding truth: This is just a bunch of buddies who love heavy music and have put in all the hard work that metal mastery requires, far from the roaring crowds and spoils of life on the road.

Make no mistake, it takes work. Lead guitarist Synyster Gates (a.k.a. Brian Haner) isn’t just ripping frantic shredster solos while set in a rocking pose at the lip of the stage, though that would be plenty. He’s giving his fans a proper spectacle, running miles up, down, and around A7X’s bi-level stage set, leaving burning runs of dead-on 32nd notes in his wake without skimping on guitar-hero gestures. The same goes for singer M. Shadows (Matthew Sanders), guitarist Zacky Vengeance (Zachary Baker), and bassist Johnny Christ (Jonathan Seward), who get a full cardiovascular workout every night while delivering the musical goods.

But the hardest-working man in Avenged Sevenfold is James Sullivan, The Rev—or, if you prefer, The Reverend Tholomew Plague. Perched high behind his double bass kit, below a huge red-backlit skull with flapping, smoke-blowing bat wings, The Rev punches the clock. And punches it again, and again. And then he just smashes it to bits.

Sullivan is the rare drummer who can combine power, brains, finesse, and good old-fashioned metal showmanship. Like his lead guitarist pal, he gives the crowd a lot to watch while plowing his way through seriously demanding music. He pulls off complex hand-foot combinations with metronomic precision at wickedly fast tempos, and he does it all while twirling his sticks. He slashes and slices at his kit, his long arms flying at full extension, first this way, then that. His all-out exuberance is a big reason why an A7X show is lots of fun.

“It’s funny,” says the drummer, “of all my influences, Tommy Lee is a visual influence. I never thought I’d have one of those.” Growing up with his bandmates in Orange County, California, Sullivan, who’s now twenty-five, had plenty of musical influences as well. His A7X aesthetic has been shaped by listening to vintage metal-heads like Vinnie Paul and Paul Bostaph, but his tastes include everything from Oingo Boingo to Frank Zappa. Sullivan has also sung and played piano in Pinkly Smooth, an occasional side project that includes Synyster Gates.

But of course Avenged Sevenfold is his main gig, and 2005’s City Of Evil is the band’s most powerful statement yet. The LP blends heavy metal with tuneful hard rock, showing the influence of band favorites Pantera and Guns N’ Roses. It also reflects M. Shadows’ decision to move away from the screaming that characterized A7X’s first two releases, 2001’s Sounding The Seventh Trumpet and 2003’s Waking The Fallen.

Evil is a throwback to the age of epic metal, an album’s album that begs to be listened to as a whole rather than slipped piecemeal into shuffle mode. The songs—punishing yet melodic—pushed Sullivan to craft his craziest, fastest, most creative patterns yet. And just wait till you hear how he did it. Keep reading for lots more on The Rev!

MD: Let’s start at the beginning. When did you first pick up the sticks?

Rev: I started taking drum lessons when I was about ten years old. Actually, I took lessons for like two weeks when I was five, but the guy wouldn’t let me play his kit, because I was a little kid. At ten I got a Sears catalog kit, kind of a toy. My parents told me they’d buy me a real kit if I took lessons for a year. And I did. I always wanted to play.

MD: Did you keep up with lessons?

Rev: Yeah, for about six years, until I got into high school. Then I started playing in bands all the time and eventually ended up playing in this one.

MD: Did you study different styles or mainly rock?

Rev: It was mainly rock and funk. But within a year my teacher, Jeanette Wrate, had me playing [Frank Zappa’s] “The Black Page” and stuff like that. She was trained by Elvin Jones, and she’s a really eclectic, really good teacher.

MD: Wow. At eleven years old you were playing “The Black Page”?

Rev: Oh, yeah. She put me in her college percussion ensemble. We’d play Zappa and Bill Bruford stuff, things like that.

MD: Do you like Zappa and King Crimson and other progressive rock?

Rev: I like it a lot. I was raised on that stuff as much as rock and metal.

MD: So you learned to read. Is that a skill you ever brush up on?

Rev: I haven’t been reading much in the past few years, but it’s definitely still there. I was pretty good at it. I could sight-read.

MD: It sounds like you were something of a prodigy.

Rev: Thanks, dude. That’s what they said. [laughs] Any ten-year-old kid who’s good, I’m pretty sure they always say that.

MD: Were you playing double bass from the beginning?

Rev: No. I was always into it, but I never knew how to get my left foot to catch up to my right. I never thought I could be as fast as I wanted to be on the double kick until the past four years or so. I realized it’s a muscle thing: You just train the muscles. That was harder than learning any of the interdependence or funk stuff. Getting your muscles up to par for double bass is ridiculous.

MD: When you first started, what bands were you into?

Rev: I was crazy into Pantera and Slayer and tried to steal all their drum licks. And now it’s cool to be friends with Vinnie Paul. I never thought that would happen. He’s my idol. But I was also buying every Zappa and Chick Corea record, stuff like that, to listen to Bozzio and Weckl.

MD: How did Avenged Sevenfold come together?

Rev: For me the band formed right after high school. I think Shadows and Zacky were seniors in high school and were just messing around. And Synyster, Shadows, and I have been best friends since seventh or eighth grade. We had been in bands with each other before, but not all together.

MD: Did things start happening for the band before you’d even had the chance to consider music as a career?

James "The Rev" Sullivan : Modern DrummerRev: Yeah. We were just doing it for fun. The idea of making money playing music never crossed my mind. And then we were offered some tours, and we were kind of fit into a certain scene on our first record. Just the idea of touring was awesome. Getting to leave the state sounded like fun. Our passion was playing music, so we just did it, and things started happening.

MD: You were just eighteen when you made your first record. Does it hold up for you?

Rev: It’s really fun to listen to, actually. We’ll revisit it and crack up listening to where our heads were at, at that time. The whole record is a drum fill, and it’s all just as fast as I can go with my hands. It’s ridiculous.

MD: There’s a clear sense of melody running through your music. Do you like pop in addition to heavier stuff? I think of Queen sometimes when I listen to the band.

Rev: We listened to a lot of Queen. Freddie is one of my favorite singers, and Brian May is one of my favorite guitarists. All of us are big Queen fans and Dream Theater fans, and I’m a big Rush fan. Even though they’re progressive and they’re insane players, there’s always a hook to latch onto. We’re fans of having poppier hooks—whatever sounds good.

MD: I’ve read that you guys aren’t religious. Why all the biblical imagery in your songs? Is it just because it goes nicely with heavy music?

Rev: We have a song called “Chapter Four” that’s about the first murder ever, which is a story in the Bible. Matt [Shadows] writes all the lyrics, and he just thinks the first murder is a cool story. The imagery has always been in the back of our minds. Matt and I were kicked out of private schools and Catholic schools and raised having the bible thumped at us. But we’re not trying to promote the Bible in this way or that, or denounce it—it’s just imagery.

MD: Shadows had some problems with his voice before you made this album. Did that influence his decision to do more singing as opposed to screaming?

Rev: I remember the day we decided to stop screaming. It was our last show before we went home to write City Of Evil. Matt was just really, really sick of screaming. He’d had surgery a year before. They took out a blood vessel in his vocal cords that would flame up and close up his throat. He could still scream today if he wanted to, but he got sick of it. I’m a fan of some bands that scream, but we thought the whole scene was getting retarded. We wrote everything keeping in mind that we weren’t going to scream anymore, and all of a sudden it was much more fun. Everything’s so musical—it’s all about melody and cool guitar riffs instead of just simpleton riffs over and over again that you can scream over.

MD: You play with serious energy on City Of Evil, like you’re harnessing the intensity of a live show. Was that tough to muster?

Rev: To get the intensity of the stage, I play in the studio with Synyster Gates and a click track. We play the songs with a click live too, so it does feel like the stage, just without the crowd screaming.
On Waking The Fallen, we wanted to simplify everything a lot. We did, but at times I wasn’t very happy with that as a drummer. It was good for the record, but I held back a lot. On this one I didn’t want to hold back at all in places that I thought called for crazy fills.
I decided I was going to have every part written out—every fill, everything—and try to make it as creative as possible and not just as fast as possible. I’m really happy with the way it turned out. And I want to outdo it on the next record by a hundred percent.
It’s funny, because I broke my hand four weeks before going into the studio. It took six weeks to heal, so we pushed it back two weeks and went right in. So I had a cast on, and I was writing out the drum parts while holding the stick with my finger and thumb. It was weird. I was hoping I’d be able to play everything by the time I got to the studio.

MD: You must have had to do some serious woodshedding to get ready to record.

Rev: Yeah, the first week of preproduction we’d play the songs over and over again all day. I’d just exhaust myself.

MD: When you were coming up with your parts, were you just writing them in your head without actually playing them?

Rev: I was kinda tapping them out in the last couple weeks of healing. But mostly when I’d get to a crazy fill, I’d just think it in my head.

MD: Would you write something out, take a look, and then maybe try to take it further over the top?

Rev: Yeah, that would definitely happen, and the opposite too. I’d have something insane written out in my head, and then when I’d play it with the music, it would be totally stepping on everyone’s toes.

MD: Did you ever write out your parts in the past?

Rev: On the first record I didn’t write out anything really. It was all improv, and I recorded it in one day with just one take for almost every song, which is ridiculous. So there are some errors on there, but there’s also some really cool shit.
For the second one I wrote out the beats pretty much, and some of the fills, but there’s a lot of improv on it. It was a lot more simple, so I didn’t need as much preparation. The preparation was convincing myself to take it easy.

MD: How have you built up your speed and endurance?

Rev: The endurance comes from playing live shows. For speed on double kick, I just play to a click and increase the tempo every day and play only with my feet. I pretty much just kill myself in my room. My hands have probably been about this fast for a while. It’s not bragging or anything, but it would be hard for me to get any faster. I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to.
Live, we play all the fastest songs from the album and the faster ones from Waking The Fallen too. Every time we write out a new set list it gets harder. And the first week is a battle. I don’t drink much the first week, because it’s hard to keep my endurance up. But now we’re on the last leg of the tour, and it’s cake. Doing a live show every night really helps in ways you probably can’t get just by yourself.

MD: Do you warm up before you go on?

Rev: I warm up off and on for like an hour before the show, just so my muscles aren’t like, “What the hell is happening?” I’ll play too hard on the first couple songs and start cramping up. It’s hard with in-ear monitors—I don’t have my toms and cymbals in there right now, just kick and snare. So it was hard to adjust to not beating the shit out of them.

MD: Your snare sound is very tight. Is that a function of having such fast tempos?

Rev: Yeah, I kind of need that. I’m always rimshotting, on all the rolls and everything. You need it to punch through, in the same way the kick punches through. I get the kick real clicky as well. “Seize The Day” and “Strength Of The World” are much slower songs, and there’s room for a bigger snare sound. So we went for that a little bit more on those. But most of the songs are written to be fast and aggressive, so I like that tighter snare.

MD: Are you mostly a single-stroke guy?

Rev: Definitely in this band. The way we mix our records and go for our sounds, all my ghost notes and anything with double strokes usually gets lost, because I can’t do it as hard as rimshotting the hell out of the snare. But hopefully I’ll get the chance to expand someday, because when I go to mess around on the kit it’s mostly rudimental stuff and not single strokes. There are a couple parts on City Of Evil that use double strokes, like the break at the end of “Burn It Down.”

MD: You do this on different tunes, but in the middle of “I Won’t See You Tonight Part 2” on Waking The Fallen, you’re playing singles on the basses and then you move them to the snare. Basically the same quick pattern goes from your feet to your hands. Did it take a while to get your hands and feet to sync up?

Rev: I remember working on that stuff for probably a few months. It started off with listening to Paul Bostaph, Slayer’s second drummer. He would do a lot of that kind of thing. And Terry Bozzio would do stuff that I couldn’t believe. So I made a conscious effort to try and master those kinds of fills. Once you think you have it mastered, there are always new things you can do with your hands and feet in that sense. I’ll put straight 16th notes underneath on the kicks when I’m playing straight 16th notes with my hands. It sounds powerful, and it makes people wonder what’s going on, when it’s actually really simple. But mostly it’s going back and forth between my hands and feet. I love that.

MD: Sort of related to that is when you go to double time or divide the beat differently at fast tempos. A lot of drummers will rush or drag when bringing in a double-time double bass pattern. But you achieve evenness throughout, with both your velocity and your placement.

Rev: Thanks, man. The timing is really hard. I used to speed up every fill and every double bass part. I had to consciously work on that. I started off doing four strokes with my hands and two with my feet, and then four and four. I’d switch it up. Once I got that down, I’d move into triplets. And then three with my hands and one with my feet. Then two with the hands and five with the feet. That starts getting interesting. I’m gonna try to do more of that on the next record. Anything that’s hard ends up sounding crazy, you know?

MD: Do you prefer two basses to a double pedal?

Rev: Once DW said I could have whatever kit I wanted, I started playing two kick drums. It’s more fun. I thought it would be weird, but it wasn’t. It was really comfortable.

MD: Before then you’d done most of your double bass work on a double pedal?

Rev: Right. The double pedal is actually much harder. With two kicks, both of them are your lead pedal, and it doesn’t take that extra split second to translate. I mean, double pedals are great. Maybe it’s a mental thing, but it just seems easier for me to play on two kicks.

MD: You’ve clearly spent a lot of time practicing. Do you still practice?

Rev: When I’m warming up is a good chance for me to practice. I can sit and tap with my feet and some sticks, and it’s almost as good as playing on a kit. But just playing your set every night is the best practice ever. You elaborate and improvise a little bit when you’re playing live, and that really turns into the best practice I get lately. Then at home, just thinking and tapping and messing around in your room, you come up with the best ideas. You formulate an idea in your head and then go practice it—that’s when you can tackle really difficult stuff.

MD: You seem to have a style where if you went a week without playing, you would definitely notice it. Does that happen?

Rev: Yeah, totally. When you spend any time away you get a little rusty and your stamina goes down. The most I ever took off was four months in high school when I really didn’t play at all, and it scared the hell out of me. I got back on the kit and I felt like I couldn’t play anything. That’s when I realized drumming is a part of me. So since then I’ve never taken much time off.

MD: You guys are notorious for your wild touring life. Is it hard to stay up for such a demanding show when you’re on the road?

Rev: It is some nights. If you get a little wild the night before, it affects your playing and makes it a little bit harder. I like to take it easy the night before shows. We get a day off every three days, so you can cut loose a little bit on the days off. The first of three shows in a row is always the hardest, because your muscles tighten up on the day off. So as a drummer I actually like to do it every night. It’s like when you’re in the studio and you don’t like to take breaks because you’re not warm after the break. I get mad when the producer asks us to stop. [laughs]
Also, one of the hardest things is just cramping. It’s really hard on your muscles. I do carpal tunnel exercises, just to make sure carpal tunnel doesn’t get to me.

MD: Has it gotten to you in the past?

Rev: A little bit. Sometimes you get cramps, or problems that every drummer has when playing live.

MD: Have you experimented with finger technique to deal with that?

Rev: Not so much, just a couple stretches. I warm up to make sure I don’t cramp up, and I pace myself during the set. That’s pretty much it.

MD: Have you found your grip and technique evolving over the years?

Rev: Yeah, definitely. I’ve changed it up. I have two different grips for my right hand when we play live. When I ride on cymbals, I use the proper grip. Then I close up my grip a little bit more when I’m doing the harder fills. I also throw the stick between my fingers like Carmine Appice. I like to put on a show and twirl all the time, and I can actually do fills nowadays with the stick in between my fingers, which is weird. It’s easy to get carried away with the live show, but I find it adds a lot more than it takes away.

MD: There’s one more thing I have to ask: Is “The Rev” a distinct person from James?

Rev: I don’t feel that way. That’s just Avenged Sevenfold to me—that’s who we are in this band. It’s still a little crazy to introduce yourself as The Rev.

MD: You could call yourself Dr. Plague….

Rev: [laughs] I do that every now and then. My financé calls herself Mrs. Plague sometimes. Actually, I think she’s gonna get that tattooed.

This interview originally appeared in the October 2006 issue of Modern Drummer.

 

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