By Ola Mazzuca
Three times a charm for Hellyeah, playing Toronto for their third time as one of metal’s most popular supergroups. Their prominence radiates from the prolific drumming of Vinnie Paul Abbott – a founding member of Pantera with his late brother and guitar hero, Dimebag Darrell.
Though Darrell’s physical presence is absent, the band has a consistent spiritual connection to the musician and it’s all because of a lucky number.
“His favourite number was three and 333,” says vocalist Chad Gray of Mudvayne fame. “We’ll get bills for dinner and it’s $333.33 or I’ll wake up in the morning and its 3:33am.”
The band is supporting Danish rockabilly skids Volbeat on a North American tour, kicking it off at Toronto’s Kool Haus. Guitarist Tom Maxwell asks about the hot dogs being sold outside the downtown venue after his night out at Parkdale hipster haunt The Drake Hotel. And even though he felt the bar full of “beautiful people”, ego is nothing for Maxwell and Gray, who believe the longevity of Hellyeah is fueled by a lack of.
“Some people say, ‘who are these jackasses in a band with this guy? They should be in a band with people their own stature’,” Maxwell says of Abbott’s role. “He doesn’t have an ego and that’s why we’re six years into it.”
In that time, Hellyeah has produced four albums – their latest, Band of Brothers, oozes with tones of comfort and solidarity. Gray feels that each artist contributed their personalities and musical styles rather than experimenting with “uncharted waters” like he had done with content on Stampede.
“I had never written country songs like ‘Alcohaulin’ Ass or ‘Pole Rider’ about strippers,” he says. “For the first two records, we wanted to experiment, fuck around with new sounds and different approaches.”
Jeremy Parker, who has worked with Disturbed and Slipknot, produced Band of Brothers with a “breath of fresh air”, as Maxwell says he engineered the record rather than ripping songs apart.
Maxwell has produced records with his Mudvayne cohort, Greg Tribbett while Abbott is known for polishing every Pantera release. This makes completing albums easy for Hellyeah, a unit the guitarist describes as “self-contained.”
In this tight-knit supergroup, lyrical content hits close to home, as Gray describes the album as a redemption piece. He found inspiration from a mid-life crisis concept, depicting a “40-year-old guy that sits in a cubicle” with a family, longing for a vivacious past.
“I was kind of feeling that way, getting away from who I was in life,” he says. “You don’t have to be tethered to that person, letting out so much line to where you can’t get back.”
With the death of Darrell in 2004, Abbott’s loss is profound. But every member of the band has faced some level of adversity that translates into music. During the recording of Band of Brothers, Maxwell was addicted to Percocet, simply a bad habit derived from treating a broken foot. While Gray remains quiet on his personal life, he feels the need to write songs applicable to a vast audience going through tough times, rather than having his lyrics dissected.
On Stampede, the song, “Better Man”, received a positive response from many young fathers on their previous tour. A lament to deadbeat dads and broken homes, Gray wanted to inspire his audience by making them realize the “damage they can do” by not being there for their children.
“They wanted to get back into their kids’ lives because they wanted to be a better parent, for their kids to love and respect them,” he says. “They touched me with their compassion for a goal. That was so fucking rad.”
Band of Brothers extends beyond the relationship between the five, as it reflects a union between Hellyeah and their metalhead fanbase. Gray feels that the metal community has always been full of underdogs – and in a good way. In a battle term, he says mainstream enemies expect to “walk in and knock out hundreds of them,” while thousands remain.
“Metal culture is forever and the fanbase is rabid,” Maxwell adds. “The trend from the popular kids is ‘mall’ mentality and what’s popular today might not be 20 years from now.”
Gray also believes that “flying your flag” by wearing a Slayer shirt is comparable to driving a Volkswagen. He equates two actions: throwing horns and honking them.
This widespread acceptance metalheads hold so dear is a symbol of solace within the genre. As the musicians have left their grief-ridden past behind, Gray and Maxwell believe that Hellyeah “saved” Abbott when he was struggling with his painful void.
“It brought him back to what he loves to do most,” Maxwell says.
This reconnection is like Hellyeah’s relationship with their audience. During the band’s high-energy set, Gray paused between songs to control the crowd in their raising of metal’s most universal salute. He affirms Hellyeah’s mission to overcome in a statement contradictory, yet appropriate: “This is not a rock concert, this is therapy. We all need this.”
Band of Brothers will be released on July 17th through Eleven Seven Music