“The title of the album is all about rebirth,” says Dez Fafara, captain and power-bellowing frontman for rugged metal institution Devildriver about his band’s new record, Winter Kills. “I love to see things grow from seed. I love to see the dying-off and the rebirth of things—that’s why I had no problems starting a second band.”
In his long tenure on the frontline of heavy metal—first as frontman for respected ’90s nü-metal unit Coal Chamber—Fafara has seen and heard it all. But while he doesn’t appear to be on some kind of invented crusade to “save” metal, he’s quite forthcoming with the respect he has for both his bandmates and the artistry they bring blasting through the speakers of the tiniest earbuds to a PA system the size of a Congressional voting district. “There’s a lot of follow-the-leader going on, for sure,” says Fafara. “But I can’t do it. What I’ve learned about us is that through all of the differences in the things we like, we’ve become a cohesive unit. Everybody can bring their distinct styles, but it still makes it Devildriver.”
While not as fatalistic as its title suggests, Winter Kills does mark a number of significant changes in Devildriver’s universe. The new album will be the band’s first for Napalm, the highly regarded independent metal label that has become a significant force in the planet’s heavy-music scenes. Recent touring bassist Chris Towning will be wielding the low end for the band, full time. The rest of Devildriver—drummer John Boecklin and guitarists Jeff Kendrick and Mike Spreitzer—have taken a huge quantum leap from 2011’s Beast to deliver a whole new level of urgency and musicianship that’s just as vibrant and incendiary as the band’s early recordings. Producer Mark Lewis was recruited to put the band through the paces, as well as their lead singer: Fafara—a homebody who prides himself in living two hours from Los Angeles—wanted to be able to work as stress-free as possible, so he had a vocal booth built in his home for maximum ease, and had Lewis engineer the sessions.
Fafara will readily acknowledge the basic tenet of heavy metal is achieving the essence of power and complete freedom. At it’s most base level, it’s a concept that manifests itself in the form of a high-speed joyride, or defeating one’s antagonists, be they Frank Frazetta-rendered warriors or the guy/girl who was looking at your lover too long at the biker bar and now has a concussion and a collection of broken pool cues. On Devildriver’s sixth release, Winter Kills, the band certainly didn’t skimp on the riffage, the idling-dragster tempos or the sheer sonic drive that makes them one of heavy music’s respected outfits. Winter Kills is all about the creation of flashover moments to empower people with hope and affirmation—or at the very least, the inspiration for people to create great work and their own meaningful universes. This ain’t no tired Tony Robbins posi-posturing or Joel Osteen’s cartoony, cash-and-Christ posing. The world got more oppressive, and both Fafara and Devildriver are stepping up their game to keep hope alive in the most bone-powdering, cochlea-bleeding, neck-snapping way possible.
“I come from a construction-worker background,” Fafara begins. “I want blue-collar dudes to listen to my songs and be able to say, Man, that’s exactly how I feel about today, my boss and the idiot I had to yell at today.’ Metal is a very empowering thing, the same way God is an empowering thing. For kids on the outside who don’t want to wear the polo shirt to school, they have their mystic in whatever singer they choose for their favorite band. And words can be that for you. I want to stress that I’ve never wanted to be all about the negative.”
The way the men of Devildriver ply their aggression on Winter Kills, a listener could get lost in the maelstrom inherent in the band’s power-groove death-metal hybrid. But while the band’s warrior spirit shines like white light from a torched magnesium factory, there’s a lot of heart at play here. You might feel like you could tear down a four-story tenement with your bare hands while playing “Desperate Times.” But the reality was that Fafara was pre-occupied with the cancer diagnosis his sister was given. Other songs like “Curses And Epitaphs” and “Haunting Refrain” are about the deaths of relationships, but instead of playing into hard-guy revenge clichés or sappy pop-heartbreak formulas, Fafara approaches these scenes with a sense of humility, humanity and fortitude.
“I am that guy who always adheres to the ethic of keeping your nose to the grindstone and keep your head above water,” he says. “If there are any outside influences to what we do, it would have to be the watching the daily struggles of people. Even if there’s a negative note to things, [my lyrics] are trying to tell people to keep your head up, keep your wheel strong and follow through with what you are doing. I listen to a lot of different music; so do my kids. The thing is, I’m not hearing a lot of that sentiment.”
A search for that very mindset is a pretty good indicator to why one of the planet’s heaviest bands would want to cover something as unlikely as Awolnation’s biggest hit, “Sail.” But unlike the more irony-laden dimbulbs who would find such a cover gleefully perverse (or at worst merely an elaborate goof), Fafara felt the resonance of the tune right away. He first heard the song blasting out of his 15-year-old son’s bedroom, which in turn got the wheels in the singer’s head grinding. “I’ve always been a lyrics guy, and when I heard that song, I totally got it,” he beams excitedly. “[The metaphor of] sailing is totally about touring. I was on Ritalin for 12 years when I was a kid for my ADD, so I totally understand that line. I just fell in love with that song. I called the band and told them to call it up on the computer. They said, ‘You know what? Let’s attack this.’” (He’s not sure if Awolnation CEO Aaron Bruno has heard the ‘Driven version yet, “but I’d love it if he did.”)
At the end of the day, Dez Fafara is more than the mayor of metal, the governor of groove or the therion of thrash: He’s actually a modern renaissance everyman whose open-mindedness, working-class upbringing and years in the heavy-rock trenches have kept him grounded and in touch with the possibilities that could be achieved within the greater hard-rock community. Like any other rock lifer who has seen music demeaned by everything from downloading to backing tracks being used onstage, he still holds his passion for music close to his soul. Winter Kills is proof-positive of that. Over the course of six albums and countless road miles logged in service to metal, it’s crystal clear both he and the members of Devildriver aren’t going to be phoning it in anytime soon. Because why in the fuck should they?
“I don’t want to dumb things down, but I really want to rock harder,” says the singer. “I have a competitive edge and I find it important to raise the bar musically and bring it to people. Once that desire goes away, I will retire. I think Winter Kills is our best record because it is cohesive and all of the members of the band know where we’re going. It’s good for me as captain not to stifle what the band want to do. The mission is to keep developing and not to become stagnant.
“It’s important to keep people guessing,” says Fafara, pretty much revealing the raison d’etre of his career. “I think people know they’re not going to get the same Devildriver record every time. We’re not going to follow the pack: That’s why our honesty keeps shining through.”