Penthouse Retrospective

by David John Farinella Originally Published: May, 2001

Godsmack | 20 Years Ago This Month

Their self-titled debut sold three million copies, and the follow-up Awake went platinum within weeks. But the latest saviors of rock ‘n’ roll aren’t about to let success go to their heads.

Penthouse Magazine - May, 2001Godsmack Leaves Its Mark

“I want you to get off your ass,” barks Godsmack singer Sully Erna. “Yeah, you.” Fans spin dervishly in the mosh pits (four are churning away) while the band plays songs from its self-titled debut and its latest, Awake, but Erna is stalking the stage, aiming his rage at the more docile concertgoers sitting down. “See that mother-fucker?” he says to someone to the guy’s left. “Pull him by the back of his pants and get him up. There is no fucking sitting down at a Godsmack show. I will come out there and get you.” The guy finally stands up, and Godsmack bums through “Whatever,” the song that took the group from little-known Boston club band to among the saviors of rock ‘n’ roll.

Erna laughs a bit when asked later where his stage persona comes from. “I don’t know,” he admits. “I’m a completely different animal when I go onstage. I’m actually pretty humble in life. I mean, I’m hyper, and I have my moments where I get a wild hair across my ass and I have to go out and rip it up, but for the most part I’m kind of laid-back. I think the music takes me over when I get onstage.” He pauses, then adds, “It comes from the people. The energy we get from the audience is what drives us to do what we do onstage.”

So far, the Godsmack quartet — Erna on vocals and guitar, guitarist Tony Rombola, Robbie Merrill on bass, and drummer Tommy Stewart — has opened for Black Sabbath, toured with Ozzfest in 1999 and 2000, and performed a pre-riot set at Woodstock ‘99. Their first album sold more than three million copies, and their second sold 250,000 the first week, debuting at No. 5 on the Billboard album chart. It went platinum (selling a million copies) within weeks. The group has done its fair share of headlining dates, but it’s still all about converting the un-believers and getting the lazy members of the rock ‘n’ roll audience off their asses.

The first Godsmack seeds were sown six years ago when Erna, a former drummer, met Stewart. Erna had already run a band by the name of Strip Mind up the major-label flag-pole, but Strip Mind was dropped because, as Erna has said, “we were young and into drugs, drinking, and fighting … your typical rock-star crap.” He and Stewart hooked up with Merrill, who was working as a roofer, and guitarist Lee Richards, who left the band six months after its genesis. Rombola, who was working as a carpenter, replaced Richards.

Stewart, looking at other career opportunities, had become a certified physical trainer, but always held out hope for a future in music. “I was considering opening my own business and started doing that,” he says. “But somehow or another, I just knew in my gut that to be happy I had to play. I just had to. As much as I thought I had to start supporting myself and making a living, in other ways I didn’t really have a choice. I knew I had to play, because I’d be miserable if I didn’t.” Though Stewart was there at Godsmack’s genesis, he took some time off to move to California so he could tackle some personal issues. His return to the band in April 1998 was like coming home. “I tell people all the time that never has anything made so much sense in my life,” Stewart says.

The lads picked up their Godsmack moniker during Stewart’s sabbatical. As the story goes, the interim drummer came to practice one day with a huge cold sore on his lip. On any other day, it would have been no big thing, but they had a photo shoot scheduled. Erna not only refused to cancel the shoot, but he wouldn’t let up on the guy, accusing him of acquiring the wound by engaging in various sordid activities. The next day, when Erna walked into practice, he was sporting his own dime-size cold sore. Rombola said with a laugh, “Ah, you’ve been Godsmacked.” And while the name is also the title of an Alice in Chains song, for the band the title merely stands for instant karma.

Although Godsmack’s debut album eventually went to the top of the charts, this is not a story of overnight success. From 1995, when they first started playing together as the Scam, to 1997, when they borrowed $2,500 to record a demo, All Wound Up, the guys played just about anywhere and everywhere. Using Merrill’s cargo van, they traveled like the proverbial postal carrier — through snow, sleet, rain, and dark of night — to shows both small and large across the New England area. “There were only two chairs in the front, so we had to sit on our gear to ride to the gigs,” Stewart says. “I can remember being all bundled up, riding to shows, then unloading our equipment in the snow. It’s funny, because I look back now and say, ‘Those were really cool times.’ Because there was an essence of something about it that was really neat. Other parts of you are like, ‘Fuck, I don’t miss that shit at all.’”

Guitarist Rombola also remembers those early days. “We used to just bum around and play clubs with other bands that were playing kind of heavy stuff,” he says. “We were in there with everybody else doing it. It didn’t seem like we were any better or any worse than some of the bands — there were a lot of good bands at the time — but we just kept at it.”

Name your band Godsmack, and you have gone a long way toward identifying your philosophy if not your music.