“I’m not afraid to write about things that are on my heart,” Witherspoon tells Billboard.
Of all the bands to emerge from the late-’90s nu metal explosion, few have embodied the sense of keeping one’s nose to the grindstone quite like Sevendust. Since forming in Atlanta over two decades ago, the group hasn’t altered its formula much, yet it has managed to weather the changing tastes that have hobbled many of its peers. The band has clearly developed its songwriting acumen along the way, too, as showcased on its 12th studio offering, All I See Is War, out May 11 on Rise Records. The album offers the familiar pummeling, bottom-heavy grooves and piston-like guitar chugs that fans have come to expect.
This time, though, song after song soars with the kind of anthemic chorus that typically elude heavy bands. Sevendust manage to infuse all 12 of these songs with melody without weakening their punch. Meanwhile, as a response to the growing sense of division that has taken on a particularly poisonous tone in the social media age, songs like “Medicated” and “God Bites His Tongue” call for collective healing, both literally and figuratively. With the video for leadoff single “Dirty” now past 2 million views, it’s fitting that frontman Lajon Witherspoon talked to Billboard about his work ethic that encompasses getting his hands dirty — instilled from cleaning horse stalls on his grandparents’ farm as a kid — and spending the last 20 years “in the dirt” with his bandmates.
You recently auditioned for the lead in Jesus Christ Superstar. How did it go?
With everything going on with the band — signing a new record deal and being excited about that — I get a phone call out of the blue to try out for the Chicago engagement of Jesus Christ Superstar. I’d never had anything like that happen before, so I was a nervous wreck. I had already been working on the new album and was actually getting ready to go into the studio — the day that I tried out on Broadway, I left New York that night to go and start recording my vocal parts. I went in, I did one song, and the English producers said, “Smashing!” Laughs] They seem to have liked it. I didn’t end up getting the part … but hopefully my name is in the book and they’ll be calling me again.
You’re originally from Nashville and grew up singing in the church choir. You’re also a fan of country music. How early did that start?
Oh, that’s a lifelong thing. And it’s not only because of Nashville. I think I would’ve been in love with country no matter what. I jokingly tell people that I want to come back out saying I’m Charley Pride’s great-great-great-great-grandson. Laughs] But yeah, growing up in Nashville, I would go to my grandparents’ farm during the summer and that’s what would be playing.Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kenny Rogers — you name it, we listened to it. Starts singing the chorus from The Judds’ “Grandpa (Tell Me ’Bout the Good Old Days)” into the phone.] We’re country folk. Laughs] Ain’t no gettin’ around it.
Your father was a funk singer. What did he think of Sevendust’s music at first?
He’s always been behind my music. He was a rocker, man! It was a full-on bass guitar, big drumset, loud band. That’s what made me want to do what I do. Going into their rehearsal space with my dad and watching those guys turn it up, it was like being in the Sevendust jam room, which gives me that same feeling as when I was a kid. My dad trips out because I can still to this day remember some of the venues he played, from the smells to the candles to how many stairs you had to walk up to the stage.
How much did the other members of Sevendust have to do with getting you into heavy music when you joined?
I dug heavy music. They definitely brought a different element, though. And that was the first time I was writing heavy music of my own. But I was definitely into going out and seeing heavy bands, like the Atlanta band Nihilist, which was a heavy, heavy band from back in the day.
All I See Is War has a strong melodic emphasis. You’ve been singing for 25 years. How long do you feel it took you to get comfortable with melody?
I don’t know, man. I’ve always loved melody. But now, for sure, I’m not afraid to do softer songs. I think we’ve built up enough of a catalog to where people can say, “Let’s not freak out on these guys too much if they do a ballad,” if that’s what we want to call it. I think everything in life has to slow down. You have to understand that we’re not 20-something years old anymore. Now we have families, so different things spark us. I might want to write about having a picnic with my kids. Laughs]
How would you say you have progressed lyrically since your earliest hits, like “Black” and “Bitch”?
You know, I can only write about things I can understand. I feel stronger and more mature, like I’m not afraid to write about things that are on my heart. But no band’s music should only come from one person’s perspective. You have a bunch of grown men, and if anybody knows each other, it’s us. If someone comes to the table with a song like, “I’ve got these feelings about my dad dying,” well, guess who was with that guy when his dad passed away, more than likely? Me. All of us are together all the time, so it tends to lend a hand with writing together.
Billboard is exclusively premiering the video for “Medicated” today. Watch it below:
You actually were with them when your own family tragedy hit. Witherspoon’s younger brother, Reginald, was shot to death in 2002. He received the news right before Sevendust was to perform a show in Minnesota.]
Oh my God — not only was I with them, the tour bus picked me up at my brother’s funeral because we had to continue. If those ain’t brothers, I don’t know who is. We’ve been in the dirt together for over 20 years. We’ve seen it all.
Guitarist John Connolly spoke in a 2017 interview about embracing streaming for his solo outfit Projected. Your new label, Rise Records, is very engaged with social media.
That’s one of the main reasons we signed with them. I’ve already seen it with the last two videos. “Dirty” was out for like a week or so, and had over 1 million people look at it. We’ve not had stuff like that happen before, so I’m really excited about this new venture with them.
Connolly also brought his concerns about the polarized social climate to the writing process. You can hear hints of that throughout the album. How much of your own perspective comes through in these songs?
Oh, all of it, man. Like I talk about it in “Dirty” where I say, “I’m just a passenger.” A lot of people may want to make that more political than I think it really is, but that passenger could be a person that’s going to war, the lady that’s on public transportation, the kid that’s going to school on the school bus. It’s about] that feeling of uncertainty where you’re going into something and you don’t know what today’s going to bring.
When you played Woodstock ’99, Vinnie Hornsby played a bass with a Confederate flag on the body. What's your take on the flag?
Listen, man, I used to wear a belt buckle that had a Confederate flag on it. Just ’cuz I flew that flag doesn’t mean I was a racist. We’re just country boys, and that’s a country-boy thing. That’s what the cool thing about it was — that Vinnie would have a Confederate flag with me a black man] standing beside him. At that point, love sees no color at all. But I can’t say, “This guy flies the flag the same as this guy,” because everyone has different values.
The grandfather you mentioned, Frank Witherspoon, was the first person to desegregate Tennessee walking horse shows.
He’s in the Tennessee Walking Horse Hall of Fame! I had to clean the stalls out on the farm. We still have the Witherspoon stables. That’s something I’d like to get back into. My grandfather was such a massive man. Everyone always came to Big Daddy … even when he wasn’t working with horses, he had a certain presence and air about him that you just knew there was no nonsense and something was getting done. I learned that from him.
What did that do for your work ethic?
I ain’t afraid to get dirty. If you wanted to play, you had to work. If you wanted to ride a horse at the end of the day, you had to clean out twenty stalls and rake the whole stable hallway. It was no joke. You worked from when the sun came up to just about when the sun went down. You’d go back to Big Daddy and Big Momma’s house, and you’d be fed. You’d go to sleep, wake up and have a big ol’ breakfast, and then guess what? You’d be back on that truck or in the back of it going to the farm again. Laughs] That was every day.