July 2, 2018 Interview – Robbie Merrill of Godsmack
When most bands start out, they are lucky if they even get signed, let alone release more than one album. Then there are others who defy the odds, find success, and are fortunate to sustain that success for an extended period of time. How about 20 years? Inconceivable! Well, that is exactly the plateau Godsmack are about to reach on August 25th when their major label debut turns 20.
Compiling platinum albums, Grammy nominations, and epic world touring, Godsmack are in rare territory as Hard Rock leaders. Yet still, all these years later, the New England based band are hungry for more with the recent release of their seventh studio album, When Legends Rise, as they prepare for a massive summer tour with Shinedown. Excited about the past, present, and future, Bassist Robbie Merrill took the time to chat about life in Godsmack, the glue that keeps them together, taking pride in his tone, plus more.
CrypticRock.com – Involved in music since your teenage years, you have gone on to to be an important part of Godsmack for over 2 decades now. A true working musician, briefly tell us, what has this wild ride been like for you?
Robbie Merrill – It’s crazy! I grew up in the club my dad played, and I have been playing my whole life. I pretty much spent my lifetime there, next thing I know, I met Sully Erna and we start jamming in an attic. Three years later we get signed, and your whole life you want to get signed, but that’s just the beginning.
Looking forward 20 years, it’s just nuts. I don’t believe it, it’s a 20-year career. Sully and I had this talk back in 2007 saying, “I want a 20-year career,” and here it is. What is even crazier is the band is in really good shape mentally. We’re friends and it’s been a long road, but at the end the of the day we are starting this new journey of 20 years and hopefully we can keep it going.
CrypticRock.com – It has been a fantastic run. Godsmack would go on to major success in the late ’90s into the early 2000s and beyond with one top-selling album after another. Beyond talent and the ability to write strong Rock songs, what do you think has been the key to the band’s success?
Robbie Merrill – You have to throw away the egos, because every one of us have egos. We all think we’re good and we all want to contribute 100%. At the end of the day you’re a team and you have a boss, which is Sully, he’s the mastermind of this. He is just unbelievable, I told him a while ago, if it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be here. But he needs all of us, because we are a team – if he had 3 of him, it wouldn’t work.
I think a lot of it has to do with throwing away your egos. It’s pretty easy playing music, it beats banging nails; Tony Rombola and I were carpenters before we got signed. At the end of the day, we know where our place is on the team and it’s easy.
CrypticRock.com – It is good that everyone knows that, and it works well because everyone plays their party extremely well. Over the years, a bold highlight of Godsmack has always been the rhythm section, one of the tightest in Hard Rock. How has the band honed their sound through the years?
Robbie Merrill – That’s a hard question. I have always locked into drummers – I have always played with metronomes and without them. Even before Godsmack, I studied behind the beat, on the beat, and after the beat; I have always followed the drummer. In Jazz, the bass player is the metronome, but in Rock-n-Roll it’s the drummer. With us, we lock into Sully’s mood of the vocals. Sometimes he is exciting – pushes up a little bit and brings it back. Even on the record, we push and pull on purpose. I think it’s just a feel thing.
I am just the bass player. I don’t play any other instruments, I have learned to just lock into the drummer. It’s funny, 20 years ago, Ozzy Osbourne came knocking on the door, after we had been touring with him for about 2 years, and I had only met him twice. He comes in to say, “Hey, I just wanted to say your rhythm section is unbelievable.” I was just like, “Ozzy, really dude, thank you so much!” I just think it’s a passion and we want to play good music. We are good players, so we just play with the feel of the situation.
CrypticRock.com – It shows! Godsmack recently released your seventh studio album, When Legends Rise, back in late April. A really strong record where each song shines, the production is slightly different than in the past. What was the writing and recording process like this time around?
Robbie Merrill – This was totally different, every album cycle is different. The first album, Godsmack (1998), we had a lifetime of writing and recording, because we weren’t signed; you can accumulate a bunch of really good songs, so that is what happened there.
With Awake (2000), we were on tour for 4 years, so we had to write on the road. There was a learning process with that – writing on the road and getting all the material together. The third album, Faceless (2003), we all decided to move down to North Miami Beach, that is when we first got Shannon Larkin as our drummer. We wanted him way before we were signed, but he was never available. We thought it was a good idea to lock in, live together, and get to know everybody, so we wrote the record there in Miami. The fourth record, IV (2006), was pretty much written with Shannon flying in and we would write a bunch of songs, and Sully would write a bunch of songs. That was pretty much ongoing all the way up until 1000hp (2014).
With When Legends Rise, Sully wanted to reach out and try something different. We could always write the same we have been writing for 20 years. We wanted to be Godsmack, but just a push to the right; a little bit more mature. We reached out, got some different songwriters, went in to do our pre-production with our producer/co-songwriter Erik Ron. At the end of the day, we got all the material together. Production wise, he just wanted a newer sound, and that’s how this album came together.
CrypticRock.com – Each song stands alone on its own. It is actually a very uplifting listen.
Robbie Merrill – Yeah, it’s hard to explain this, but when I listen to music, I don’t even do it as I know how to play an instrument; I listen as a fan. I listen to the whole sound of it. I can’t zero in on anything, and it’s awesome and sounds great! Then when I zone in on different instruments, that’s when I can get a little picky. But that being said, as a fan, I really think this album sonically is awesome!
CrypticRock.com – Agreed. If you look at the track record of the band, the last 3 albums have been 4 years apart from one another. Not sure if that was planned, but is that sort of the comfortable timetable the band has?
Robbie Merrill – Honestly, we got beat up the first 2 records where we were just on the road for 11 months at a time. I think that beat us up to the point that after that we wanted to slow down. Probably Faceless was a 4-year run. It just happened that way. What happens is, once you get off the road, you get some time off, you write, everybody writes individually, and the band started to have side projects – Sully had his side projects, Shannon has a Blues project. I would personally rather get in right away and get another record out in 2 years. I think that is what we talked about wanting to do this time around, but that being said, once we do a world tour for 2 years, you get tired, burnt out, and things might change. Right this second, that’s our goal.
CrypticRock.com – We will see where it goes. Speaking of touring, Godsmack are preparing for a summer tour with Shinedown. Always changing things up live, without giving too much away, will there perhaps be some new tricks up your sleeves this go around?
Robbie Merrill – We are going out big with big production because we are sharing with Shinedown – they have their stuff and we have our stuff. We always get burnt out of playing the same songs over and over. At the beginning of the tour we always say, “We are going to play the whole new record.” Right now, we are playing a lot of the new stuff. We have played some festivals and we played 3 or 4 new songs. On our tour, we want to bring in as many as we can.
That being said, we know people who come to see us want to hear the hits. We will play it by ear when it comes to that, but if I was everyone, I would listen to the whole record and expect to hear a lot of new songs on the tour.
CrypticRock.com – That is good to hear, because it will be fun to hear the songs live. You have worked with other projects include Another Animal. Releasing an album in 2007, is there a possibility of any new Another Animal material or has that ship sailed?
Robbie Merrill – It’s on the way backburner, maybe someday. Everybody is too busy with everything else going on. We had a top 10 single which was awesome! Personally, for me, I learned I want to put all my heart, time, and effort into Godsmack. That being said, would I love get back together and do Another Animal if we had the time or we have material that we love? Yeah! But I wouldn’t hold your breath. (Laughs)
CrypticRock.com – Understandable, you never know what may happen. Many times bass guitar can bleed into a recording or live set, but you have managed to keep the low-end of Godsmack strong while standing out. How have you refined your sound?
Robbie Merrill – I have been working at my live sound, and even studio sound, up until this record. This was the first record I let all my control go. Usually I have 3 different amp sounds, I have some preamps to get distortion, and give them to engineer/producer and say, “Here you go, do what you want with them.” I do the same thing live: I set up what I want with the different tones, and I give them to the house guy. He is on his own, I have no say in what he does.
On this record, I changed it up; I started from scratch. I found this new company called Darkglass, they have little boutique amps and preamps – our Producer Erik Ron turned me on to them. I even use them in my Spector basses, there are preamps in them that are awesome. I ended up running 2 different systems with that. We ended up going with the Kempers, and I basically profile all my tones through the years. It’s pretty much, almost to the T, you get the sound of your amp into this. I profile all my amps through the years and this new, new Darkglass amp, and that made the cut. This record is all Darkglass amplification, some Gallien Krueger speakers, and my Spector basses. My engineer said this is the best sound he has heard from me, so that’s pretty cool.
CrypticRock.com – That is awesome. It is great how you were able to take a lifetime of sounds and organize them like that.
Robbie Merrill – I take pride in my sounds. For example, when I go see Rush, and you know he is a badass mofo, he is playing and sometimes it’s too boomy in a room. I spent a lot of time in the last 20 years setting up different EQs and different things to get the engineer the tones that he needs without him going in and doctoring them up. It’s something I like to do, it’s fun.
CrypticRock.com – You certainly have a distinctive tone. My last question for you is pertaining to movies. CrypticRock covers music and Horror/Sci-Fi films. If you are a fan of the genres, what are some of your all-time favorites?
Robbie Merrill – I hate Horror movies. My wife loves them, and I went to go see a couple with her. I told her, “If you want us to stay married, do not ever let me go see one of these movies again because they scare the shit out of me!” When I was a kid I loved them, movies like Halloween (1978), The Omen (1976), and The Exorcist (1973). But as I got older, something happened. Shannon loves it, that relaxes him. Whatever floats your boat! As I have gotten older, I don’t watch a lot of movies.