Nu-metal Meltdown

In 1994, Tommy Stewart spent a year in limbo. Actually, it was in Houston, which for aspiring nouveau-metal drummers, is basically the same thing. At only 29, the Boston-bred musician was burned out. He had split with his band, Lillian Axe, and spent some time in Las Vegas before deciding to get away from it all by moving to Houston with his girlfriend.

Though he can't recall anything crappy about the Bayou City during a lengthy conversation, he can't recall anything cool, either. For Stewart, now the primal pounder for aggro-rockers Godsmack, the best thing that happened to him was a demo he got in the mail from fellow Baw-stonian Sully Erna. It was his ticket out of here.

The demo "wasn't really that great," Stewart recalls. "But I knew that Sully had this real charisma." That simple understatement about Erna's ability to get what he wants whenever the hell he wants it was enough to send Stewart back to Beantown where he, Erna (former singer for Strip Mind), bassist Robbie Merrill and carpenter-turned-guitarist Tony Rombola formed Godsmack.

Seven years after Stewart's brief H-town exile, he still can't believe how lucky he was to hook up with a band that has since released two zillion-selling albums, done big numbers at Ozzfest, put in an impressive night's work back in November at Compaq Center on the Limp Bizkit show and now returns on its own headlining gig.

That package in the mail was the catalyst. But it all boiled down to a Boston radio jock doing the unthinkable. He ignored his demographic-dictated playlist and stuck a Godsmack CD demo into the machine, just because he thought the artwork was tight. When he played "Whatever" or "Keep Away," two songs that ended up on the band's 1997 self-titled debut, disillusioned suburban headbangers lit up the DJ's phone lines.

Stewart brightens somewhat when discussing how a band that zipped from relative obscurity to living the high life can sustain that rush of celebrity well into the future. The legion of head-banging bands that has emerged since the '80s can only marvel at the likes of Ozzy and AC/DC still plugging away. Anybody remember that old band Soundgarden? Will anybody recall "Whatever" and "Keep Away" in 2020?

"Sure, it would be cool if in 50 years people still wanted to hear Godsmack songs," Stewart says. "But part of the reason musicians don't seem to stick together has to do with the nature of the band and the musicians themselves and the rock music that's being written these days. I think it's much tougher to keep a band together now than it was back in the '70s.

"Certainly it's hard to find many timeless songs today than 30 years ago when you pretty much knew most of the bands out there -- Aerosmith, Zeppelin and Sabbath -- and it was all still pretty much one genre of what was called rock music. Now rock has so many branches; there are so many styles overlapping that you can have a big impact with your songs, but it's on a more focused audience. So it makes for an interesting question, considering 'Whatever' had such an incredible run at radio. I don't know if it would be called a classic in ten years."

Well, if a classic is strictly interpreted as a song that might be played on the classic rock radio of the future, likely not. The percussion is the only interesting element in "Whatever," which leans heavily on the drone of Alice in Chains, Metallica's clipped vocal style, and rehashed woe-is-me lyrics.

It's hardly surprising that the rhythm and percussion are the only things that stand out in the song, one of Erna's early compositions, considering he was a drummer in a previous rock 'n' roll life. "Voodoo," the heavily played single from the debut album, is memorable only for the fact that the tom-tom beats interact with the melody line. Back in the Lillian Axe days when Stewart was checking out the competition in bars around Boston, he saw the devoutly Wiccan Erna play drums with Strip Mind. Even back then, when Erna was toiling away on the back line, he was a showman, Stewart recalls.

Stewart plays down any notion that having another drummer as the band's leader puts extra pressure on him, though he concedes Erna is certainly the guy in charge. "I wouldn't really say he was a dictator. He has a vision of what he wants; he's the force behind Godsmack, and we've all bought into it."

Still, there have been times during the creative process, when arrangements are being fleshed out, that Erna has laid down the law. Band members have mentioned incidents when the singer stomped out of rehearsals or mooned Rombola for screwing up. So wouldn't it be a bitch for the band's drummer to have a former skinsman peering over his ride cymbal?

"Sully doesn't really do that," says Stewart, who gets rid of his day-to-day frustrations by playing pickup hockey. "If he has something to say, he comes right out with it. We have a way of dealing with it. He may bring a certain drum groove to me to use in a song, but then I will flesh it out."

Technically, Stewart is among the better drummers in nu-metal circles, right up there alongside Korn's David Silveria or Sevendust's Morgan Rose. He handles the band's abrupt time signature changes (a nu-metal must) with ease, but you never get the idea that he's showing off his speed. He builds in plenty of space between the beats, something he's done since he was five and pounding on anything he could find around the house.

At this point in Godsmack's ascent, the only inconsistency is Erna's lyric writing. The self-loathing, social-outcast, women-don't-get-me theme was old news by the mid-1990s. We know about the rough upbringing Erna endured, and we know he likes to think of his fans as fellow cynics who take no shit whatsoever. But it's time to move on.

Stewart stick-handles his way right to Erna's defense, though his rationale doesn't exactly wipe the slate clean. "If people are taking stuff like 'Whatever' or 'Sick of Life' and synopsizing that this is everything that he has to say, they're wrong. The songs are pretty simple, but there is an energy there that is just as important. For us, the energy is what we bring when it's time to get up there on stage, when people want a band that kicks ass."

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Greg Barr
Contact: Greg Barr