Interview: Johnny Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd
Lynyrd Skynyrd has seen its fair share of tragedy, including the loss of two band members in 2009--Billy Powell and Ean Evans. But the Southern rock outfit is still in it to have fun.
On Sept. 29, the band will release its 12th studio album, "God and Guns," produced by Bob Marlette and featuring guest appearances by Jerry Douglas of Alison Krauss' band, as well as Rob Zombie and his guitarist John5. So far, two singles from the set have hit radio; "Still Unbroken" was released on July 27, followed by another track, "Simple Life" on Aug. 4.
Lead singer Johnny Van Zant took the time to speak to SoundSpike about the album, being in the studio with Zombie, and the Skynyrd Nation.
SoundSpike: I understand you were in the studio yesterday. What were you working on?
Johnny Van Zant: We did a video for a song called "Simple Life" off the new record. So we've been here [in Nashville] doing CMT and GAC, the country music channels. We're doing a special products thing with a live DVD that we did about a year ago for DirecTV. We've been trying to look at it and make sure it's all looking good and sounding as good as we can get it.
You must be pretty excited about the album coming out.
Oh yeah, sure, sure. It's been about six years since we released a studio record. We always have compilation stuff coming out. As far as the last studio record, it's been about six years. To be honest, we just hadn't really found the right record label. We had left a label called Sanctuary that we were with for quite awhile. We didn't want to be on one of those corporate labels, to be honest. We were looking for some people that were real music people. We ended up with Roadrunner. Loud and proud. Those people got it going on. They're just rock-'n'-rollers. Surely, they need to make a buck, but it's more about the music. It's a little different label than what we're used to being on. They're a little heavier. They've got Slipknot, Nickelback and Black Stone Cherry. That's OK; we love that kind of music too.
Why did you decide to name the album after the song "God and Guns"?
Well, we love the song, for one. We wrote everything except for that particular song. Our management had brought us that song. It was just a guy playing acoustic guitar and singing it. So we took it and made it Skynyrd-ized of course. Just fell in love with the meaning. When you look at what's going on these days, this country was built on God and the rights to bear arms. Our view is, no matter what religion you were raised as, that should be your right. You're in America. As far as handguns, surely we don't think criminals should have guns, and run around like the Wild Wild West. If you're a criminal, you shouldn't have any rights, of course. But there are people who are working who love to go hunting and shoot as a sport. We believe in bearing arms.
The song "Skynyrd Nation" is really a tribute to your fans.
Yes, it is. We went through some bad times at the beginning of this year. We lost two members of the band. So I was on the computer just looking at our websites, seeing what the fans were saying--we always take that into consideration. A lot of it was, "Is Skynyrd Nation going to keep going?" "Is the Skynyrd Nation going to survive this particular tragedy that's happened to the band?" They kept referring to the "Skynyrd Nation." I thought, "You know, I never really thought about it, but it really is kind of like that. It really is a nation." There's a line that says "three generations of old." It's the God's truth. There's three generations out there every night watching us play. Coming to a Skynyrd show, especially in the outdoor amphitheaters, it's more like a football game than it is a concert. People are out grilling, having a good time, throwing a football or a Frisbee. It's an event. It's a get together. It's the music that brings them all together. But it's people from all over the country.
How did those collaborations come about with Rob Zombie, John5 and Jerry Douglas from Alison Krauss' band?
We record in Nashville, so Jerry was easy. We thought Jerry would be great on this particular song to come in and showcase his talents. He played on "Unwrite that Song" and "God and Guns." It was more or less pedal steel and that kind of thing that he did. Rob Zombie, we met through John5 out at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. We were out there playing and just became friends. We had this crazy song called "Floyd" that's on the album. We said, "Man, that's kind of dark and mysterious; would Rob like to sing on the chorus?" Of course, he said yes. He just directed the new "Halloween" movie. For him to take his time out of that was cool. Of course, he got paid a lot more for directing than singing on the Lynyrd Skynyrd album. But it was quite an honor.
What was it like to work with your producer Bob Marlette?
It was great. Again, my hat's off to John5. He introduced us to Bob. We didn't really know Bob that much. When we thought we were going to take a meeting with him, we said, "We'll go back and listen to what he has done." We liked what he had done. We didn't really know his personality or anything like that. We said, "Let's go in the studio and cut a couple songs and see how it works," which we did and we just all got along really good. It really makes a difference when you get along with your producer. Believe me, I've been in situations where I've wanted to knock a producer out. When you're in a studio, in a closed environment making music, you really need to get along and see eye to eye. Bob was just wonderful.
What was the songwriting process like? Had you been writing these songs during the past six years?
Off and on. There's a song called "Still Unbroken" that's probably about six years old that we put on the album. It was the first single to rock radio. After we lost Billy [Powell] and Ean [Evans], we were in the studio and we were looking through our song catalogs--because we write all the time--and Gary Rossington had a little cassette and said, "Listen to this song here." We were like, "Wow that's really good." And it just kind of evolved from that. Some days, it works; some days, it doesn't. Some days, God gives it to me; some days, I have to pray for it. It's a fun time. We try to make it as fun as possible. A lot of times, it becomes a job to people. Music's supposed to be fun. ... That's why we all got into it. Of course, we do it for a living now. We're still trying to keep it with the fun factor.
We enjoy getting out in front of our fans. We've been very blessed. But we've had a lot of tragedy too. But any big family that's around forever is going to have that. If you live a full life, you're going to experience some kind of tragedy. But for us, the fans, getting out and playing the music in front of them, seeing them; that's what it's all about.