On Lamb Of God’s Omens, John Campbell Summons Beefcake The Mighty & Other Cult Classics
For a guy who doesn’t consider himself tech-savvy, or studied, John Campbell sure is effective in one of the most demanding gigs in the business. Campbell’s role in the mighty Lamb Of God (LOG) might appear unassuming upon first impression, as LOG’s wicked guitar riffs, titanic drums, and provocative lyrics garner most of the attention. But underneath those signature attributes, Campbell holds the line, determinedly plowing the subterranean depths of LOG’s music with a unique, highly proficient sound and style that belies his unstudied approach. Derived mostly from homegrown influences and an innate desire to buck the status quo, Campbell’s guttural approach to bass provides the perfect foil to the band’s technical precision and other overt musical elements.
LOG was formed in 1994 under the moniker Burn The Priest, when Campbell, guitarist Mark Morton, and original drummer Chris Adler met at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. After some early lineup changes, including the addition of vocalist Randy Blythe, they signed with Prosthetic Records in 2000 and released New American Gospel under the Lamb Of God name, quickly becoming the prime architects of the New Wave of American Heavy Metal. They toured incessantly, and their work ethic and a growing fan base earned them esteemed gigs, including Ozzfest and the first-ever Headbangers Ball tour. They also released now-classics of the genre, including As the Palaces Burn and Ashes of the Wake, and earned two Grammy nominations along the way (losing to Judas Priest and Iron Maiden). As perhaps the loftiest acknowledgment of their status as pop-culture icons, LOG has also been featured in the games Guitar Hero II, Guitar Hero Smash Hits, and Rock Band.
At the heart of LOG’s sound is John Campbell’s unfettered bass playing. The development of his singular approach to the instrument can be traced back to two important factors. The first was whittling his Guild Pilot bass down to a 3-string (sans the G) during his formative years, at a time when everyone else seemed to be gravitating toward 5- and 6-string basses. The second was eschewing the usual “essential listening” bass players, choosing instead to absorb the live playing of musicians in his vibrant local music scene in Richmond, including GWAR’s Mike Bishop (a.k.a. Beefcake the Mighty), John Peters (Alabama Thunderpussy), and Chris Bopst (Mao Tse Helen/GWAR). His instincts for bucking trends and his reverence for homegrown talent have resulted in a style that was recently acknowledged when he handily landed in the top spot of Bass Player magazine’s 2020 reader poll of the 10 Best Bassists in the World Right Now.
On LOG’s latest release, Omens (their ninth overall), Campbell expands his repertoire beyond his well-respected ability to match, note-for-note, the insane riffage of guitarists Mark Morton and Willie Adler. His playing has evolved, and he now also demonstrates maturity and restraint, often playing more foundational, bass-centric parts, particularly on songs like “September Song,” “Nevermore,” and “Omens.” BM talked with Campbell in late August, at home in Richmond, as he was gathering up his recycling (believe it or not) and gearing up for LOG’s summer/fall U.S. tour with Killswitch Engage.
For Omens, LOG cut basic tracks together in the same room. Why did you decide to go in that direction as opposed to previous records, where you all overdubbed individually?
One of our strengths as a band is how we perform together, how we connect, and just the feel that we have going on. When you go into your own corner and create your piece that then gets fit in with the piece that somebody else created in their corner, with a reference to what you were doing, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for nuance. When we’re all in the room [playing], it helps to set the feel for the song. And, as a basic team-building exercise, it’s a hell of a lot more fun to work with the dudes than it is to go in your corner and hyper-focus on one part.
It would seem there’s more opportunity for spontaneity and interplay recording that way.
Over the history of the band, that’s something we haven’t leaned on very hard. We’ve been continuing it on this latest European run that we did — we’ve been developing a little “jam-ish” intro into one of the new songs [“Omens”]. It’s all about continuing to grow that aspect of what it is to be in LOG.
Is the jam something that’s improvised in the moment, or does it have some sort of framework?
We had the fill-in villain [Machine Head guitarist] Phil Demmel filling in [for Willie Adler], and we had some days in Hamburg for pre-production, and Mark had the idea: “Hey, instead of just doing this intro straight like on the record, why don’t we do a little jam? Take turns as guitar players doing stuff, and John, you do something underneath.” We took a few days to work out the basics; then it’s a whole new beast to take it out in front of people. That developed after some experience doing it — new and exciting ways to do what we do that I think may have developed from working together in the studio as we did, as opposed to in our own dark corner.
Was it fun to a stretch out a bit live, rather than sticking to the script?
Absolutely. And honestly it’s a little scary, because we’ve been a fairly scripted band for a long time. It feels good; it’s great and it’s a lot of fun. It definitely requires a heightened awareness about what’s going on.
What’s your philosophy when it comes to the role of bass in a band like LOG? How does the bass work within the framework of a guitar/riff-oriented band?
We’ve spoken many times over the years, and I’ve admitted to you that I’m playing guitar riffs on a bass because I love riffing [laughs]. But that’s another thing on this new record, especially with the closing track, “September Song” — there’s a little more stretching out, as traditional bass might be meant to be played, locking into the drums. The chorus is also a little more of a departure from the bass just nailing the riff behind the guitar.
Omens is the second LOG album with Art Cruz on drums. Has that continued to influence you in unexpected ways, versus your previous battery mate?
He continues to be a really positive part of the experience, being in the studio with a dude who’s bringing that much good energy into playing the drums. He’s growing, and we’re connecting more, with more shows and hours that we’ve logged onstage, in the studio, and in rehearsal spaces. We’re gelling even harder. And it is, I think, at least what we had hoped. So, I wouldn’t say it’s unexpected, but it’s going great and smooth. Each of our records has evolved regardless of who was sitting back there, and I think he’s simply become a piece of that.
What I’ve been listening to sounds really inspired.
I think that’s a good word for it. Art is very motivated, very inspired, and he’s not wasting this opportunity. It’s great to be working with someone who has an appreciation for that work ethic.
What bass did you use for the recording?
I used my LTD Signature Series JC 4-string mostly, with Fishman pickups in it, and I had an ESP Stream that was set up for thicker strings for some of the drop-C tunes. That was pretty much it; no pulling crazy boutique instruments off the shelf.
How do you like those Fishman pickups? Quite a few people seem to be gravitating toward them lately. Mike Inez of Alice in Chains is using them now, too.
They sound great. I’m not a very tech-savvy person, but I heard them and immediately could hear that they were crisper and clearer. I play with a lot of attack, so they complement what I’m pushing through them.
What about your signal chain for recording?
There’s a bunch of different stuff coming off there, but there was definitely a mic on the cabinets. I think there might have been a Mesa Boogie Subway TT-800, and I may have also had an EBS MicroBass … but I can’t swear to that [laughs]. I know that I had those there, and I’m pretty sure there were lines coming off that and then they probably even split it, just [direct] off the bass.
Are you are you using amps and monitors live, or do you use in-ears?
I use in-ears, but I’m using an amp, and part of what I’m listening to in my ears is the cabinet. This last tour we did in in Europe, we brought the cabinets back onstage, and that was incredibly fun. Even when I’ve got ears on, just the feel of the pressure wave coming off a speaker — it’s exciting stuff.
That’s the one thing folks miss most with in-ears, feeling that pressure wave.
My cabinet used to live off stage, turned in a corner with a mic on it, and it had been years since we played with them onstage — and shoot, I’ve missed it. I’ve got to figure out something to do to get that to happen again.
You have some atypical influences, like Mike Bishop from GWAR. What it was about his playing that inspired you?
The dude played with his fingers with an insane, very clear and percussive attack, but he was also very melodic — and doing so while singing. He’s actually the current front man for GWAR, known as Blöthar. I can’t say enough about how great GWAR is and how they’ve influenced my life since I moved to Richmond.
I think about all the local musicians that I watched when I was a kid, growing up on Long Island. When people talk about influences, there’s something about the richness of the local talent around you that gets overlooked, even though GWAR is more than a local band.
I have to appreciate being in Richmond at the time, because it was a financially depressed city with an art school that attracted a bunch of creative types. Since then, the city has changed dramatically and grown and become more successful, but I’m thankful there was this talent pool that I was able to see firsthand. For me, I think the importance was that it was in front of my face. I could experience it in the moment, as opposed to listening to something on a record or on the radio. If I could see somebody do it, that was how I connected with that stuff.
Do you feel that you’re in a similar position now with LOG for young, aspiring musicians?
I suppose I would have to be [laughs]. If somebody was into heavy metal and wanted to learn how to play bass, LOG’s got some pretty decent songs that might be fun to learn.
When did you record Omens?
We recorded it in February of this year in Los Angeles at Henson Studios. I almost bruised my toe dropping that name there [laughs]. But on top of us recording it together, to be in this world-class, historic spot in Hollywood, and being able to live in L.A. for three and a half weeks, was amazing.
Do you think that had any influence on the record, sonically?
There was a good mood, and maybe it amped up the excitement a little. What we’ve done in the past is go as far away from everything as we could. I was almost like going camping to go to the studio. Being in a big city to record was a completely different vibe.
Tell me about the live stream that you guys did during the pandemic.
We did two of them where we played our self-titled record, which dropped right at the front of the pandemic. We played that front to back. And then we also played Ashes of the Wake front to back. We filmed those locally at The Broadberry. It was like filming a video, but you can’t mess up and you have to just roll straight through it, which made it very frustrating, because there was no way to exchange energy with a crowd — there wasn’t that dialogue, and that made it not as fun as a normal show. It was great to do those as an exercise, and I think a lot of people enjoyed it … but let’s avoid pandemics in the future so we don’t have to do that again [laughs].
There’s probably something counterintuitive about trying to get it right, versus just feeding off the energy of an audience in the moment.
Well, the adrenaline—as well as the execution, and the state of mind to play these parts correctly—is part of the performance, at least for me.
I’ve always been impressed by the power of LOG as a live band. I saw you a few years ago on Slayer’s farewell tour and realized, finally, what everyone was talking about with regard to Slayer. I never really got into them, but seeing them live totally changed my mind — I was blown away. Do you think folks have that reaction to LOG as well?
I think studio recordings are just a way to package and commodify the live experience, which, in turn, leads to content that feeds concert sales and that whole little cycle. So, I don’t know. I think we win people over who may not even be heavy metal fans — if they’re annoyed by their girlfriend’s kids who love LOG, we can change their minds live, ’cause they saw us when they went to see Judas Priest and now they finally get it [laughs].
I believe it because I experienced it myself firsthand with Slayer.
That’s a ringing endorsement for people to go check out live music everywhere, whatever type it is. Save your judgment until you’ve seen them live. –BM
Omens, Lamb Of God, [2022, Epic]
Bass ESP LTD JC-4FM John Campbell Signature Series, ESP Stream
Pickups EMG 35P4X neck, EMG 35JX bridge
Amps Mesa/Boogie Bass 400+, Mesa Boogie Subway TT-800, EBS MicroBass
Cabinets Mesa Boogie Standard PowerHouse 8×10
Effects Darkglass Microtubes B7K analog bass preamp, EBS MultiComp True Dual Band compressor,Tech21 SansAmp Bass Driver DI
Strings DR Strings Drop-Down Tuning DDT-45
Picks InTune 1.14mm GrippX
Visit John online @ https://www.lamb-of-god.com/