Lamb of God started in 1990 as an instrumental metal band called Burn the Priest. But it wasn't until 1995, after recording a few demos and playing countless house parties, that the band recruited singer Randy Blythe and started developing into the band you would recognize today as Lamb of God. With the release of 2000's New American Gospel, the band's first album with that moniker, the group began reaching wider and wider audiences with its evolving amalgam of groove-laden thrash, death metal and hardcore.
The 2006 album Sacrament was Lamb of God's breakthrough offering in terms of both artistic and commercial success. We recently had a chance to chat with the outfit's charming and drily humorous bassist, John Campbell, while Lamb of God is on tour for its latest album, Resolution about how he got into metal, the aftermath of the unfortunate incident over the summer in the Czech Republic and how his brother Jeff from 3 Kings Tavern once defiled his Star Wars slippers one Christmas.
Westword: When you started Burn the Priest, you were an instrumental band. Why that route initially, and how did people respond?
John Campbell: When we were an instrumental band, we were playing house parties in Richmond, Virginia, playing to tens of people. From the beginning, we wanted to develop the band and make the most insane, brutal music we could. In the process of doing that, we realized, "Man, we need a singer! Let's get a singer." We originally thought about getting a girl singer, and that would have been great. As it happened, there were some line-up changes, and we got a guitarist that happened to be in a band with Randy [Blythe], and the band broke up they were in.
Randy hopped trains for a summer, and the guitarist came into the folds of Burn the Priest -- we were a three piece at that point. We played a few shows, one of which Randy came to when he got back into town. Shortly afterward, we were talking about still needing a singer and that guitarist said, "Well hey, Randy's back in town. He used to sing for my other band." It just worked out organically [from there].
What got you into playing bass instead of another instrument?
When we were going to school in Richmond, everybody there is in a band and plays music or is an artist of some sort. [Virginia Commonwealth University] was a huge art school, and that was a draw to the community then. A friend of mine had a drum set up in his room with a bass rig and a guitar rig, and his roommate played bass, and his other roommate played guitar. I asked him if I could play drums, so I played drums for a little while with those guys, until the bass player took off for the summer and my friend said, "Man, you should play bass. I'm tired of listening to you beat the crap out of my drums." So I picked up the bass, and he started playing drums.
What kind of bass did you play at that time?
I think it was a P.O.S.? I'm not sure what model. The first bass that I bought that actually was not just a complete piece of junk was a Guild Pilot, bright blue. That thing had a tiny little neck and EMG pickups in it. For what I was doing, it fit the bill nicely.
Is that the one where, for reasons you can probably explain, you had only three strings on the bass?
Yes, it's really odd that that's become something that's become discussed at this point because the truth of the matter was that the tuning peg broke that held the lowest string, and I wasn't getting too busy on that string. Necessity being the mother of invention, I just took the tuning peg off the high string and plopped it in where the broken one had been and kept playing bass. Here I am several years later talking about it. It's kind of funny, though.
Presumably you didn't stick with that arrangement.
Oh, no, I've moved on since then. We're talking fifteen years ago.
What do you play these days?
A signature Jackson model, a Concert series that's basically modified to my specs. We're working on developing that a little bit further. I have a call with them later to discuss tightening up the specs on that, the Jackson with EMG pickups and a nice, tight little neck that is, in a lot of ways, similar to the Guild Pilot that I first started getting good at playing bass on.
Is it a four or a five string?
A four string. One of the bonuses of having three strings back in the day is when people started adding the fifth string to their basses. That's already two strings too many, right? I've never monkeyed around with a five string, to be perfectly honest. The opening track on the new record, I think, is in drop D. If you're playing songs like that all the time, you're going to need a fifth string for sure to hold that big a string that won't sound like total crap when you play it.
Do you have a bass tuned to drop D when you play the song live?
Oh, we don't play that song live. We're at the point in our careers where we have so many records, and we're playing about an hour and twenty-five minutes, which keeps us from wearing ourselves out too much and from wearing out the crowd and the crowd getting tired of listening to heavy music for so long. But in that amount of time we have, we have a lot of music we have to shove in there, so with each record it gets more and more difficult to put together a set list.
You've said that Lamb of God is a punk band that plays heavy metal. Why do you feel that that's true?
I guess that was a very self-absorbed answer I gave [when I said that] because I didn't listen to heavy metal growing up. I was aware of it, and I had friends who listened to it, but I listened to punk rock. I grew up in the DC suburbs, and the hardcore scene was going incredibly strong. I kind of had my head in that world. When I came to college is when I finally had someone say, "Hey, man, no, seriously, check out heavy metal." So I guess I went to college and got experimental and checked out heavy metal.
Actually the first record that somebody -- it was Chris Adler when we met in the dorms in 1990. He sat me down, and he had a bass rig, because he was a bass player at the time; he had this giant, fucking, Peavy cabinet, a 2 X 15, if I remember right; and he had his stereo set up through that and would play through the rig, at incredible volumes, the kind where you'd have to time it to turn it off and hide everything when someone came around to figure out who the fuck was making that much noise. But we were blasting ...And Justice For All through his fuckin' bass rig, and I've been hooked ever since. That grew into Slayer and Megadeth and what I consider classic heavy metal.
Are there any bass players who you admire these days?
I can say when Crack the Sky came out, I called up Troy [Sanders] in Mastodon and told him that after I listened to that record, it made me feel like I was standing there picking my nose with my thumb up my butt while he was playing circles around me on bass. But I'm not really one to pick a hero to emulate. There are definitely people I respect as bass players and otherwise.
For Sacrament, you had that Deluxe Producer Edition. How did that idea become a reality and what made it an interesting project for you guys?
If I remember correctly, some other artist, maybe a DJ or something, had released one of their tracks broken down like that, and Chris Adler said, "Let's do our whole record like that!" We went to our label, and they thought it was a great way to sell more records. But we were really behind it because nobody had ever done that before and what a cool idea -- let people get in there.
When you're the band putting stuff together, you spend time with these tracks, not necessarily by themselves but you get the opportunity to mix on a somewhat limited level but similar to what we've gone through to get mixes done. It's a really cool way for people to get in and appreciate the music in a completely different way.
How much creative input did you have, likely a lot, in the video for "Ghost Walking," and what was the concept behind that?
Well, I'm here to dispel your assumptions because it was very little. We saw a treatment of the style before it was done and a treatment of the story, and we approved it. Then some very talented people got to work on developing the idea they had for the video. Not having seen the video in a long time, I couldn't really tell you what the story might be.
Why did you work with Josh Wilber again for Resolution?
Josh is a great dude. I wouldn't say he's a soft-spoken guy; he's not a pushy guy at all, but he's definitely opinionated and really creative and talented. It's really comfortable having him around, and when you go to make a record, getting into that creative space, that's kind of important. We met him when we record with Machine.
He came in and did some engineering. Machine taught us a style of record-making that included a lot of pre-production before you go into the studio. Since that record, that's the style we've been using. With Josh, it's a continuation of that. For a lot of reasons, it made a lot of sense to continue working with him. I love working with Josh Wilbur. I love hanging out with the dude. He's an amazing guy.
Obviously, you're on tour now. And you may have talked about this ad-nauseam, but there was that incident that happened in the Czech Republic. Has that been resolved at this point?
Definitely not. We're waiting to hear what the next step is going to be. We're waiting to see whether they feel like they have a case to take to trial or whether or not it's going to be over and done with.
There's no delicate way to put this, but you were there when the authorities, for lack of a better word, came to get Randy?
Yes, I was. When the SWAT team showed up at the airport in Prague. I walked off the third plane of the day. I was on the skyway walking up to the fourth airport of the day, and we were met with guys in the middle of the skyway checking passports, and I guess he was sending some people to the left and some people to the right. I was sent one way and got to the top of the skybridge and bummed into a ski-masked SWAT team and a plainclothes homicide detectives asking me for my passport. It was a party.
Yeah, that's probably not the kind of thing you have to deal with very often, fortunately.
No, it's not. I think the important thing in all of this is to not lose focus on the fact that a young friend died. That's what really started this whole tragedy off.
Exactly. No one wanted that to happen in the first place. Hopefully the tour is giving you some time away from having to dwell on that too much.
We're incredibly stoked to be getting back to Denver. I actually have family in Denver. My brother and my dad live out that way. Hopefully I'll be making it out to my brother's establishment, 3 Kings Tavern and do a little bit of rock and rolling. Believe it or not, looking at him, Jeff is my older brother. He's alright. I could tell you some stories. I'll tell you a quick one. He farted on my Star Wars slippers that I got for Christmas one year, and it really upset me. He did that on Christmas day as I gloated over the fact that I got these dope Star Wars slippers. It broke my fucking heart.
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