After a two-year hiatus, hard rock band Art of Dying has exploded back on the scene with their new EP Rise Up. Originally founded in 2004 by lead vocalist Jonny Hetherington and recently departed guitarist Greg Bradley, AOD has remained a steady group of members since drummer Jeff “Jeffy” Brown lured in bassist Cale Gontier and guitarist Tavis Stanley in 2007. With a new project, a new label, and a new sound, Shockwave jumped at the opportunity to talk with lead vocalist Jonny Hetherington about touring, writing, and even the Illuminati.
Shockwave: Thanks for taking some time talk to Shockwave and catch us up on all things Art of Dying.
Jonny Hetherington: Thanks for having me.
2015 has been a huge year for Art of Dying. You released a new EP titled Rise Up on a new label, Better Noise Records. You’ve toured with Apocalyptica, played some big festivals, and now you’re headlining in venues all across the country. Other than being extremely busy, how does it feel to be back on the road and the stage?
*Laughs* It’s great. My head is spinning a little bit but that’s to be expected. Basically we took two years off to go make a record, and we really enjoyed getting our feet wet again with both touring and on the stage.
I caught your Rock on the Range show. The energy was incredible. Believe me when I tell you, you guys were missed. Any tour highlights?
Actually, Rock on the Range was definitely one of them. That’s our second time playing it, and that festival is a really special one. That was our second show of the entire tour, so we were just chomping at the bit. We were just really full of excitement and energy to put on a great show. The Apocalyptica shows were amazing. I really didn’t know what to expect because we’ve never played with them before, but really great shows and great people. One of the highlights for me was they asked me to come and sing with them. Franky [Perez, Apocalyptica vocalist] had to go back to LA and missed two shows, so I jumped up and sang the Adam Gontier song and the Corey Taylor song, and their new single “Cold Blood” with them, so it was pretty fun.
From your 2006 self-titled Art of Dying project to 2015’s Rise Up, it’s pretty clear you guys are bringing it heavier and edgier. What was the evolution like from “Fits of Clarity” for example, to “Rise Up?”
It’s just been my personal journey to be honest. All those older recordings and independent records were just my expression. It was my art, and it had to come out one way or another. I continue on that path my whole life, with music and words, and trying to make it all fit together, and have it come from the heart. Rise Up was just a really, really interesting time for the band because the four of us came together in a new way that kind of, for the first time, I think was less about me and more about us. That became obvious when you listen to the five song EP. The first thing you’ll hear is just the musicianship shining through, and the level of playing is just ridiculous. We got excited about being in a band again together. It’s tough because we’re from different parts of Canada. We all go home and do our thing and write. We try to get on conference calls and Skype and do stuff together, but there’s nothing like being locked in a studio for two months in New Jersey and just having to create something that you’re proud of.
Rise Up was produced by David Bendeth. What was it like working this multi-platinum award winning producer who has worked with the likes of Papa Roach, Breaking Benjamin, and even Elvis Presley?
It was good. It was intense. We all came out of the process I think better musicians, better friends maybe if that’s possible. We went through some real highs and lows. So many things happened to us during this recording, from really bad personal family news for me … Greg, my long-time best friend and founding member, deciding to leave the band during recording. We were stuck under a turnpike in New Jersey with no sunshine at the end of the tunnel. It was just a really, really dark period, but I think that helped us a lot with the edge, and with the aggression and tempos. Everything just kind of spilled out and, not to be cheesy, but we really had to rise up and get past all the personal obstacles in our lives and really make a great record. Now that it’s done it’s easy to look back and say, “Oh yeah, we did it.” * laughs * I’ve often joked that the next time we’re playing a show in New Jersey and we go visit David Bendeth’s studio, I’m wondering if I will be able to open the door and walk in there. I’m not too sure.
In your blog you talk about the words in “Rise Up” being “very important to me, like an anthem in [your] life right now…”
Oh, definitely. It started before we made the record because we actually wrote that song back home in Vancouver. I was sitting at my piano, struggling with the group of songs that we were taking to New Jersey to record. “Rise Up” was my message to myself and the band at that point. We have this journey in front of us. We really need to do the best we can. Then in the studio — that was probably, I don’t know, maybe song 14 of 15 on the record. It wasn’t shining through or anything, but the more the struggle intensified in our own lives and the more the struggle intensified with David Bendeth and with the band members, just all of us, we slowly had to just look to that anthem and that theme to keep going. Even on this tour, Man. Like this tour — wow, it’s so many — I mean, I’ve been hospitalized on this tour. I was rushed to the ER after a show, and I’m sitting in a hospital bed with f*cking tubes coming out of my arm, and I’m just like, “Well you gotta rise up again, man, you gotta just keep going.” We were able to not cancel any shows and just keep going, and I learned a few lessons about dehydration.
The video for “Rise Up” is also really powerful. Can you tell us a bit about the storyline?
Absolutely. It’s a group of kids that have decided to live off the grid and forge their own path in this world rather than stick to the paths that are chosen for us. Of course, the powers that be are not happy with that. It’s so funny, right? Whenever anyone in this world tries to do something a little off the path, you know, without bothering anyone — they’re just doing something off the path. It doesn’t sit well with a lot of people. The sheep love everyone to stay on the path. But basically the video unfolds where the law comes for these kids and there’s a big struggle for them. “Rise Up” was perfect for this kind of idea of following your own path, following your own heart, rising up in the face of adversity, in the face of oppression. A big highlight for us was that our buddy Dan Donegan [guitarist for Disturbed] was able to come out and play the guitar solo in that. It was just awesome.
Speaking of Dan Donegan, he’s a long-time Art of Dying fan and supporter. He recently referred to your harmonies as “some of the best out of a rock band.” It really is so unique in the genre to hear tight three-part harmonies. How do you guys work out those harmonies and how does it shape your sound in live performance and in the studio?
The very first show we ever played together was in Calgary, Alberta and it was back in, I want to say, 2007. And Tavis and Cale were living in Toronto, and the rest of the band was out in Vancouver. We were doing a western Canadian tour, and we were all over the map at that point. I knew the direction we were heading, and we just needed new members. We just needed knew people. And Jeffy knew Cale and Tavis from out east. We decided to take the risk and get them to come up and do the tour with us. So it was fresh; we’d never really played — well, we’d never played together. We sent them a CD of our songs. This speaks to how pro those two guys are; they learned it all on, probably, the day before their flight out. They touched town in Calgary. We drove out. We didn’t have a rehearsal. We just went to the show, loaded our gear in, set up, and had an extra long sound check. I’ll never forget this moment: we walk up to our three mics, Cale, Tavis, and myself, and we start harmonizing on some of the older Art of Dying songs that maybe didn’t have a harmony in that part, or maybe it did, maybe “Inside It’s Raining” or something like that. The moment our three voices started to come together I just knew something way more special than I had considered — I knew they were great musicians, but then the voices came together, and ever since then it’s — we do work on the harmonies but it also, it’s a culmination of all of our musical experiences and voices on their own. I don’t want to say we don’t have to work very hard because we do, but it comes very naturally. It’s just a really rewarding thing to have this beautiful sound come out at the end.
I think one of the cool success stories with Art of Dying is you prove that there’s a place in the world of hard rock for uplifting and encouraging lyrics. As your sound evolves that message is staying constant. Do you have a favorite story about how your lyrics have touched your fans, or maybe just favorite lyrics from your new project in general?
I often get approached by people at the end of the night that have stuck around and have a story for me of how a song has helped them or changed their life. I always go on record as saying that is the most important thing that can ever happen for me. Imagine — it’s just a crazy feeling to sit at home and work on a line of a song, let it come out. Maybe I’m having the worst day of my life and I’m working on this song, and the song is helping me through my day. Then three, four, five, eight years later after the record comes out, you’re playing the song live in some small town in Texas. Some kid comes up to you after the show and says, “I had a gun in my hand and I was pretty much going to end my life. I just put your song on repeat and it gave me the strength to put the gun down and live my life. I wouldn’t be standing here if it wasn’t for you.” And I’m just like, “Oh God!” There’s just so many emotions, right? And that’s rock and roll. That is rock and roll. To me, that’s always just — it’s your friend. It’s there for you. If these words connect with people, then I feel so fortunate.
Your fans refer to themselves as Die Hards. Who coined that term?
I did, I guess. It was kind of by accident. When we started our website and online stuff it just made sense. Die Hards. *laughes* It’s fitting. The Die Hards give us a lot of strength and they live up to their name. They really do go above and beyond the regular fan. Sometimes we’re having a bad day or a bad show and we see a group of our Die Hards, and we use that energy. It’s amazing to have that fan base.
Smeagol the Raven, featured on the cover of Vices and Virtues, has been the symbol and mascot for AOD for a little while. Now we’re seeing a lot of media featuring the cover art for Rise Up. Is there a story behind the new logo?
Yeah, there is. It’s probably a whole other interview in itself, but it’s good. As a band we do a lot of talking and a lot of thinking about the world and our place in it. Perhaps the injustices of, and misuse of, power. So there’s a lot of chats that we have that has led to this. I can’t wait for the actual album to come out because the album cover is a real conversation piece, and it’s a real symbol and archetype that is important to us. We kind of borrowed from that for the Rise Up EP art, just to kind of almost start the conversation, I guess. Right now it’s the all-seeing eye with a tear drop, and it’s a conversation starter. It was funny that when we released it, a lot of people were yelling “Illuminati! Illuminati!” I’m enjoying the conversation because to me those secret and not so secret societies — not so secret anymore. We all talk about Illuminati like it’s a hidden thing, but the real Illuminati is right in your face everyday. It’s everything that’s around you, which speaks to the “Rise Up” video again. If we can inspire people to choose and carve their own path, then I think that’s kind of where we’re heading right now. And that’s what you and I do in our lives. That’s why we’re called the Art of Dying, because the art of dying is your life to live.
I really appreciate your time and I’m looking forward to the full-length Rise Up release, and I wish you all the best. Any final words for your Die Hards and your Die Hards to come?
We love you guys, and we can’t wait to continue what we started. We’re almost done on this tour, and as soon as we get home we’re getting ready for the next one. We can’t wait to be on the road this year.
We can’t wait to see you too. Thank you so much, Johnny!
Thanks so much!
You can catch Art of Dying on the road now by clicking here: http://www.artofdyingmusic.com