It’s been seven years since Avenged Sevenfold’s last studio album. But with their new record, Life Is But A Dream…, the band have proved that great art is always worth the wait. Pulling inspiration from Albert Camus’ The Stranger, the desire to take risks and their own unbridled imagination, fans are in for a gripping journey. To get into it all, bandleader M. Shadows connected with his good friend Joel Madden to discuss its creation, but the duo end up in a deeper conversation about their own philosophies and the freedom of expression.
Along the way, Shadows delves into the wider meaning behind the single “Nobody,” tapping designer Wes Lang (The Grateful Dead, Kanye West) for the album’s cover art and embracing the possibility of failure for the sake of art.
The new record is your best. It’s artistically ambitious and still has all the Avenged Sevenfold [elements I love], but it also has this modern sound that I have no idea how to describe. So before we get into the new record, Avenged Sevenfold is one of the few bands that is not dated right now. When you look behind the curtain, you’re still the same guys that are making records you want to make and going on tour.
I feel some of that, but there are parts of the fanbase that really want one era of the band. I also think there’s a lot of people that didn’t necessarily like the band in those eras. If you look at both of those opinions, both of those date the band in a way that I don’t like because as humans, we’re moving forward, we’re growing, we’re trying new things.
We’re also writing with a modern sensibility. So that feels a little bit cheap when someone wants you to be something you were when you were 20. Those are hard things to break. You just gotta be grateful for what you have and then continue to walk the walk, and then you’ll make people believers or you won’t. It takes a lot for a band to stay front of mind for a lot of people because the time economy is so crazy now with all the things you can do besides follow a band.
The good thing about radio and MTV was it really was curating things and bringing the best stuff to the front. Meaning, we’re going to show you these things, and you’re going to have to hear them a few times on the radio. I think people would do well with getting exposed to more now. Right now, you have everything at your fingertips, and it’s just too hard to navigate. I’m one of those guys that’s excited about the future. It’s almost like there’s no rules right now, and you can do whatever you want. You’re not going to get traction on everything. In fact, you’re probably not going to get traction on much, but that’s OK. Keep trying things and doing things, and it gives you a lot of freedom.
Avenged Sevenfold pushes the boundaries of what it means to be a metal rock band. It’s interesting because how the hell did a band that was essentially an Orange County hardcore band starting out go to the level that you’re at? You had a vision, and you executed it. Each record’s special. The fans want that record again, and you’re like, “No, we’re onto this.”
Every record, the bigger the band gets, the more that step is scary. Because it’s like, “OK, now we’re here. Do we do it again?” We wouldn’t even be able to write those records again. They were at the time the step that people didn’t want us to take, and they were exciting because of that.
Almost unconscious — you’re just being artistic.
If you see a piece of art or you’re watching a movie or something just really sticks out to you, you want to capture that in audio form somehow, and that’s when you get these crazy transitions or key changes or weirdness or something moving forward. So to me, it’s imagination. You got to imagine something drastic happening, or you’re just going to be in a box. It’s got to be pulled from everywhere.
Then one thing culturally for us was bringing Wes [Lang] in to do the art on this record or redefining what it means to do stop-motion, like on the “Nobody” video. Not trying to make it look like the ’90s, but where is stop-motion now? After I saw that new Pinocchio movie, I called up Chris Hopewell, and he’s like, ‘I can do that.’ I don’t really want to see 41-year-old me jump around in a warehouse. The ideas are so grand that I don’t think it’s gonna be possible with music video budgets nowadays unless we did something like stop-motion.
It’s about being creative and figuring out how you’re going to get your vision across — and knowing when to cut your losses. Let’s put all the money into one video instead of chopping it into three. You got to do your own thing and live with the consequences. We’re all going to fail so many more times than we’re going to succeed. But it’s out in the world at that point, and let it do what it’s going to do. Because if it came from the right spot, then you should have no fear.
I think you gain that insight over time in having a long career as you’ve had. You’re all still with it, and it’s interesting because you also meet people that don’t evolve. It’s like they’re stuck in a time where maybe it was the height of an era of success, and it feels like they don’t want to leave that time.
Well, there’s that term called audience capture. Say you’re very right-leaning or left-leaning. When your identity is based around one sort of ideal and then you get all these followers, it’s very hard. It takes a very strong person to get more information and change their mind when they know that everything they’ve built up is about this sort of thing.
I think bands do that, too. They become audience captured. The audience somehow gets big enough to where you get stuck in the mud — unless you’re willing to go to war with everyone, including your fans, for your ideals. You have to constantly do it because then there’s going to be a bunch of people that love that next thing you did, and then they all want more of that. Then you got to push them all off again and go over here. So you’re constantly in this tug and pull.
It’s the fans pushing you for what they think they want because of what you did before, and it’s you pushing back with, “No, trust me. This is what you want.”
And you would have never got that if I didn’t push off these people from before. [Laughs.]
I don’t, as a fan, want to get a record that the artist doesn’t bleed for, and I feel that on the new record. I feel like you are dying to get out of some cage and do something that you love. I think you nailed it. Effort over time equals results. The results are going to be what they’re going to be, and then we put more effort forward.
Whatever you’re doing, just enjoy the journey. Because even if you were to be Avenged Sevenfold, there’s a higher mountain. Even if you’re Metallica, you want to be U2 and the Rolling Stones.
You’re always going to want to climb.
There’s always something. But the lesson is that the destination never really comes. You have to enjoy what you’re doing.
I need to remember that more. I always get caught up on my next destination.
We all do. But you got to sit there and observe what’s really happening instead of going, “OK, where’d I come from?” It’s all mindfulness. That’s what you meditate for, or you observe your own thoughts.
Do you meditate?
I practice mindfulness, or I wouldn’t have even come up with that. You find yourself in the rat race, and it’s continuing to think there’s some higher place to be.
Like “here” isn’t good enough — I need to get there.
“Here” is good enough. One thing about this band that I think that’s been great for us recently is that everybody’s got the mindset of, “If we’re going to be in the studio, we want to be there.” Don’t go in on the days that you don’t want to go. It’s nice to put little barriers on yourself and go, “OK, we’re going to get this done.” But at the same time, just do things you want to do and really put yourself into it and be happier there, or go do something else.
You have to care about being there. Most people don’t get the opportunity to live that way because, a lot of times, I think people get trapped in cycles with jobs they don’t really love. I didn’t become aware of this until I was older. Like, “Oh, I should only do the things I really believe in. Then I’m going to do a better job.”
That mindset has bled into Avenged, as well. It’s twisting everything back to the way we think it should be, which is, “Why do you put out a record?” Well, you put out a record because you have to, meaning I have art in me. I have to get it down, and now what do we do with it? The music industry has turned it into, “When’s your next record?” Well, maybe I don’t have one. It has to go back to, “I have to put this out. This is so important to me. I have all these ideas, and I’m bursting at the seams.” OK, now that it’s done, what are we going to do? How are we going to get it to people? Then all of a sudden, it becomes, “Well, what are we really doing here?” You get this very streamlined version.
It even bleeds into the fans because it’s gotten so far to where the fans would rather just be handed some crap. How are you even grading music? It all has to be requestioned, in my opinion. It starts with bands that can be in a position like us to lead the way and do it like, “Well, we’re going to do things over here in blockchain, even if you’re mad. We’re going to put out records we want to put out. We’re going to put them out the way we want to put them out. We’re going to tour how we want to tour.” It’s nothing offensive. It is simply keeping ourselves sane and doing things in the name of art, not in the name of get it out quicker.
You had Wes do the album art. Knowing what I know about Wes, he’s not doing anything he doesn’t want to do, even if you’re his best friend. It’s why people love his art. To me, he’s like the rock ’n’ roll country Basquiat.
It’s a timeless culture that he’s created. I thought I would be able to convince Wes, and he said no multiple times. Then when I gave up, I didn’t talk to him about it for a year. One day he hits me up, and I’ve been sending him demos of the record, and he’s got like five things. He sends a picture, and he’s like, “Did this for the album.” Then he keeps sending them. He knocked them all out in two or three days.
Wes is a great example of someone who just does what he wants. I think you are, too, and I think that’s why you vibe. I also think getting a no from him didn’t offend you. I think it was like, “Well, I want it. I can see it. I’m going to keep trying.”
I respected it more. I think there’s a lot of evolutionary residue with human beings where we want to be a part of the tribe. If you stick out too much, there’s a lot of eyes on you and a lot of judgment. You feel like you’re out of the tribe, and you see that with music. Then there’s those people that march at their own beat. I respect those people immensely. I think that causes a lot of anxiety in society.
It’s sad to see, but if you look back 3,000 years and from what we know of human history, we’ve needed tribes to survive. Now that technology’s moving faster than our brains can catch up with, we’ve got all this ape brain that still fights us, and a lot of it is the social anxiety to think on our own, question things, go a certain route and know that you might be going it alone. That’s scary to people, but it’s OK. It’s good for art. It’s good to be free and think and be interested in things and try to get all the information and do what you feel is best.
What we put out as Avenged Sevenfold will be forgotten in 500, 400 years max. But the point is, it doesn’t really matter. So while you’re here, what’s going to bring you the most happiness? For me, I want to express myself to the fullest while I’m here. I’m here to enjoy putting that out and feeling like I got it off my chest. That’s all art is. It’s contributing to the conversation. But as long as it’s there, it exists now. Now it’s going to inspire someone to do something else and something even cooler and invent something or think about something in a different way. That’s how we as humans stand on the shoulders of each other as time goes on.
So I think art has a huge impact, but not if you’re going to suppress it and try to fit in. There’s new art that’s inspiring me. There’s records right now that I’ve been hearing lately that are blowing my mind. I’m like, “Oh, I want to get back in the studio. I’m hearing stuff that I’d never heard before.”
What’s your latest favorite?
100 gecs. I put that record on [10,000 gecs], and I was like, “This is like my brain on fireworks.” But it’s done so well. As somebody who puts music together, I’m like, “This is not what’s on the surface.” I felt the same way when I heard Yeezus. I felt the same way when I heard Pinkerton. So it made me want to get in there. Art is a part of the human discussion and a part of our evolution.
People will listen to the music of the era, and they’ll be able to understand the fashion more, the way people talked, the way people interact with each other and what issues were important. It’s a time capsule.
It is a time capsule. We’ve got pianists and composers from a certain era that are just on the edge now. They’re obviously very important to modern music, but before that, not much. I assume it’s going to keep funneling through. But these are all important stepping stones. That’s what’s so great about art. It’s important to be yourself. You have one shot at this, and it’s OK to fail every time. As long as you’re doing something and you feel good about it, it’s OK. No one is comfortable enough in their own skin that they can judge you.
That’s the lie we see on social media. We’re all a little bit of a mess in some way. I think people look to artists because we present well in one way or another, but there’s so much more. But the other side of that is I think people who haven’t learned that those are muscles we learn to express ourselves to have the confidence to dress how we want and be how we want. There are people who have never broken out of their shells and never express themselves. We take expression for granted sometimes.
Another lie is that we all start with the same cards. There’s genetics, there’s deep past, there’s a bigger discussion about free will and there’s a big discussion about the things you feel. If you have an urge to do something that’s considered wrong, you need to be able to forgive yourself and work on those things and do it in a way that you realize that the cards you were dealt are not the cards I was dealt. People and social media will make it look like, “Eh, you’re just bad.” There’s no bad, in my opinion. There’s circumstances, and there’s putting yourself in other people’s shoes and trying to have empathy for people in the way they act. If you don’t have the ambition to go do something, you need to forgive yourself first, realize you are what you are, and find the thing that makes you happy.
Every individual has their own potential. Finding something you enjoy is likely connected to your talent. As humans, we tend to want to be productive, so we’ll find a way to be productive.
We want to be productive. This isn’t saying that you don’t need to make a living for yourself, but the thing is, we’ve put up a system that’s actually pretty toxic for what we consider a success. The people that are at the top, even though they don’t see themselves at the top, there’s always the next level. A lot of them are miserable. At the end of the day, we have to create our own purpose. There’s a lot of philosophers that say inherently there is no purpose, and that’s depressing to some people. But then there’s also people going, “Yeah, there’s no purpose, but if you find something you enjoy and you find joy in that, that’s your purpose. Go toward it.”
I was working three jobs while I was trying to make it, and I did it happily because it was fueling my life that I could do this band. We had to fund our life and make the band happen. It was really hard. But we loved it because we had a dream — the dream is what made us happy.
I also think people need to find their dream. People are all dealt these different cards, and we’ll never be able to put ourselves in everyone’s shoes. We can only speak on what we know for ourselves and then be empathetic toward other people’s situations. That’s why empathy is so key as humans. What brought [me] to this? Well, I read a lot of books, started meditating years ago and, I hate this truth, but psychedelics.
I think mushrooms are going to change the world. It does something to your brain that really feels helpful. Is there a book or two that you feel really opened your mind?
I really wanted to have a foundation scientifically because that’s where my brain instantly goes. So there’s a Brian Greene book called Until the End of Time that explains what we know from the Big Bang all the way to where we’re at and where we’re going. It plays into the philosophy of Albert Camus’ The Stranger. There is no purpose to life. Once you realize that, then you’ve unlocked all the doors because now you can do whatever you want. I don’t believe morals are given to us by a higher being. I believe people are inherently good, and I don’t need someone to tell me what’s right and wrong. I can feel it just by how I would want to be treated.
You feel like it’s nature. So you’re not very religious?
I’m not religious at all. But I find beauty in no purpose. I’ve found a lot of positivity in there being no purpose because I feel like that’s the ultimate freedom. I don’t want to be told what needs to happen. I want to have my own path. And for me, it’s all the simple things we all come back to. It’s all the things that religion would teach you. It’s love. It’s my family. It’s empathy. It’s trying to further the human conversation. But the difference here is I would say at the very end, the only reason it matters is because while you’re here, I don’t like to see suffering. I believe that if you look in a five billion-year time frame when Earth gets wiped out, I believe nothing will ever know you’re here. It doesn’t matter.
I think I’m pretty spiritual, borderline religious. I’m definitely a God person, but I don’t have an opinion on anyone else’s philosophy. I think we do make choices, but how I feel is how I feel. I always knew you were a science guy, but I think that’s a really interesting philosophy.
I look at deep history. But let’s say we have a Big Bang. So my question would be at what point did God start taking notice or care? When you want to know what you feel is the truth and you read as much as you can on it, there is a shock to the system, which makes me think it’s very much evolutionary because there are very few things that will make your body chill to the bone. The day I realized that God was not a feasible option for me, my whole body just shook in fear. And I know that is usually the spot where most people go, “OK, I’m going back.”
I’m different. I think part of me is comforted by the size of how big God is that I don’t have to have the answer. I think there’s something about that that calms my mind from going down the rabbit holes that you go down and enjoy. I don’t know if I could handle that.
A lot of the philosophy that I believe in is that there is no you. That’s what “Nobody” is about — there’s no you. You are one with the whole universe now. God might have his hands around the whole universe, but at that point, you’re in an ocean. So when I did 5-MeO-DMT, the point of it is to wipe away you. It’s ego death. It’s very scary. But one thing that it led me to was I have this friend Jeremiah, who’s become very religious as of late. We get whiskey and argue with each other.
I believe that everyone’s having their own experience. They’re living the life that they were meant to live. I love someone feeling like they can tell me what they believe and not feel like they’re getting judged.
When I did this 5-MeO, it’s called the “God molecule.” You lose yourself. You don’t exist when you’re on this. You actually come back, and you can’t even talk. But the next day I saw Jeremiah, and I said, “You were right all along. He exists.” I gave him a hug because I realized at that moment, it didn’t matter. What he believes in and what I experienced was the same thing. He puts a name on it, and I was just one with the universe and with every human that ever existed.
When you listen to “Nobody,” the lyric is “I’m a god, I’m awake/I’m the one in everything.” It’s because I’m taking those words, and I’m changing what you think they mean. I don’t think I’m up there making decisions. I just felt like I was. There’s an old Buddhist saying: Enlightenment is when the wave realizes it’s the ocean. It’s when you realize you’re one with everything, and you’re ebbing and flowing. When I realized that, I realized Jeremiah was right all along. What he believes in and what guides him in life, what he calls God, is just a technicality. It was all the same thing. It was actually an interesting way to come back around to everything.