How Halestorm was able to really let loose on new album, ‘Back From the Dead’

Halestorm will play Stir Cove on May 13. Tickets and information at Photo by Jimmy Fontaine

It’s a big year for Halestorm.

Pre-pandemic, the rock band was getting ready to make a new album. Of course, the pandemic derailed things, but it also gave the band space to really take their time making that album. And the resulting effort, Back From the Dead, is coming out May 6 on Atlantic Records. It will be followed by a summer tour where the band will get to show off its new songs every night.

On the latest episode of Pops and Hisses, I caught up with Arejay Hale, drummer and vocalist for Grammy-winning rock band Halestorm.

Arejay and I talked about all kinds of stuff, but mostly Halestorm’s new album, Back From the Dead. Halestorm is also on tour this summer, heading on the road with Black Stone Cherry, Wolfgang Van Halen’s Mammoth WVH and Stone Temple Pilots. Check out their website for tour dates, ticket information and the lineup for each date.

So you guys are starting tour and just a couple of weeks. Are you excited to be back out there?

I’m really looking forward to this run. Just because I’m such a massive fan of all the bands that we’re with. If you would have told me 10 years ago that Stone Temple Pilots would be opening for my band, I probably would have slapped you like Chris Rock. Not only does that sound insane, but that sounds blasphemous. And even now, it’s still kind of seems blasphemous, but I’m just really excited to get to see him every night.

Yeah, the lineup’s a lot of fun.

It’s cool for us. On the other hand, it’s a good ticket to buy. It’s really good to see everybody have a really good time. STP, Black Stone Cherry, which we’ve been friends with since the beginning, we’ve known those guys for like 20 years, and we’ve been super super tight with them for so many years. And of course, Wolfgang Van Halen, who we got to meet when we were making our second record. We were making Strange Case of Halestorm when we met Wolfie. It was before I Miss the Misery was even a song of ours. So we’ve known him for a long, so I’m really so amped to finally see what he can do live. I’ve never ever got to see him perform. So I’m really excited about that.

The only time I got to see STP, I got to see them one time with a Chester (Bennington) a long, long time ago. And that was really cool. But I’m really excited to see them in their new lineup. I mean, we did Download Festival with them. All of them absolutely crushed it. I’m just excited I get to see Stone Temple Pilots for free every single night.

It’s an exciting time for you guys. You did some dates last summer. Last year, you guys played with Evanescence in the fall, as well as festivals and stuff. Now you’ve got the new album is just about to come out. And then the summer tour. There’s all kinds of momentum. It seems like such a great time for Halestorm.

I’m just glad to that we came out of on the other side of, you know, that really weird, crazy time where everything was shut down. And we were just kind of not really sure what the future of our lives were going to be. Because we had been dependent on touring. Touring is pretty much 90% of our income now because of how music is. In the old days, you would make an album and then you would tour to promote your record. And to sell your record. Now you make an album, and you put it out for free to promote and sell tickets to your live show. So it’s completely backwards. So during the whole lockdown, we were just like, “Oh, no.” Touring was all we had left. And now that’s gone. It’s like well, now what do we do? So it was an unsure time.

In another interview, I saw Lizzie said you guys actually started making the record before but then kind of continued on writing songs. Like you said, you just didn’t have a lot else to do.

There was really nothing else we could do. It was bizarre. It was bittersweet because like the hard part, of course was obviously not being able to perform that be able to play and having our entire world flipped upside down. And to be honest, the hardest part for me was just talking our have fans online and trying to be there for them and trying to provide entertainment for them because they had dependent so much on going on live shows to help them get through their daily trials.

And same thing with us. Music is our therapy. It’s what helps us.  I am diagnosed with anxiety, depression, just the kitchen sink. I’m a messed up individual. So music is what keeps me balanced. And so for me, like, I could still get through the pandemic, because I was actually really excited to actually have time to focus just on writing without being pulled in so many different directions.

It could be much more organic, and just kind of take your time. I would just hang out on Zoom with with some of my friends and some of these legendary songwriters that I looked up to my whole career. And now I’m just hanging out with them drinking wine, or drinking coffee and just sitting down and just writing music and just coming up with ideas and in a very organic way. So I I think the silver lining to the whole pandemic, for us was that we just, we were really able to really hone our songwriting because that’s all we could do.

I think when we finally got in the studio to make the record, we all just felt like we were much stronger as writers.

I love especially the ones that we got to get experimental with it with the writing, but also the recording process.

I just loved the rhythm section. You guys sounded awesome. It sounds you sound so dialed in on the record. I wondered if you just had lots of time to just lay that stuff down.

The process of recording was kind of backwards, like we started with the vocals. And that was our, our co-producer and main songwriter, Scott Stevens, who had written most of our bigger songs — he wrote I Miss the Misery, he wrote Apocalyptic and Amen — he was the number one person we wanted to recruit to write with. And he ended up co-producing the record, because he ended up producing the vocals overtop the demos. That beneficial for us, because when it came time to then track in the studio, we had a better understanding of what the finished result was gonna sound like.

That’s really cool. I liked the songwriting themes that popped up on the record like Back From the Dead. It’s kind of like a rebirth song. And The Bright Side was kind of similar. I don’t know if this was on purpose, but it felt like you had new things to look forward to coming out of the pandemic.

I think it inevitably seeped its way into the writing, because we were all going through it at the same time. And we were all staying in constant communication with our fans and hearing their ups and downs. And that was a lot of fodder for songwriting.

I did want to ask you in particular about the drums on the song Back From the Dead. This track is just very, very ominous, but man the drums are really hard hitting. Can you tell me about recording that song in particular?

Oh, I can. I think I can thank the pandemic, and working with Scott over the pandemic to what you hear on the album now.

When we got signed, it was mid-2000s. When we first went to the studio to make our first record, not only were we inexperienced players, or somewhat semi-inexperienced players, it was our first time making a major album on a major label. We felt like we had to kind of play it safe in the studio. We couldn’t really do anything too crazy, had to keep everything very simple, because it had to fit on what was currently on rock radio at the time. We were competing with bands like Creed and Nickelback and stuff like that.

We had to kind of keep it in that same vein of not getting too crazy. Now fast forward to this album. It was my first experience in the studio hearing a producer tell me the play more all the time. It used to be, “Oh, simplify. Play less. Play more basic.” Which was fine. That was what we had to do at the time, but I feel like not only are we at this point in our career, but I think that music fans in general, they want to hear cool parts. They want to hear cool musicianship, they want to hear fun stuff.

When I was writing with Scott, not just for Halestorm, but with you know, various other things I would send him — drum tracks and drum files that I would write — he would listen to them. And he called me and he was like, “You can play this stuff.” And I was like, “This is the way I like to play!” Obviously, I have had to kind of compromise with all the stuff that we put out, but this is the way I like to play. If you want to hear me fully unleashed, this is kind of like stuff that I like to play just on my own.

Scott was like, “Dude, I didn’t know that! We need to apply this energy to the Halestorm record.” So he starts throwing me all these curveballs with all the Halestorm demos. He’s like, “Dude, let’s do something insane.” Then I got in the studio with Nick Raskulinecz, who needs no introduction. He’s one of the best producers and does work with some of the most legendary drummers in the world like Dave Grohl, Brann Dialor from Mastodon, Neil Peart, Will Hunt, Ray Luzier from Korn, and, of course, Taylor Hawkins — RIP, buddy!

I feel like we had gotten to a point in our relationship as a producer and as a drummer, where he felt more confidence in me as a player, and I had so much trust and faith in him as a producer, because of his track record and how we have this great mutual respect for each other. And with this record, you know, it kind of felt like let’s just make this record as if it was the last record and the world was gonna blow up tomorrow. What would the record be like if it was our last ditch effort?

We were all on board. Let’s really just go for it! Let’s just give it our all! And so that was a really fun process of making this record.

It was so challenging, because Nick doesn’t like to do things in sections. He wants me to play a full tape front to back. So I had to, after we wrote the song and programmed all the drums, I had to memorize the entire track and play it front to back. And sometimes that would take like, three, four hours just to get just to get a full track where not only was it were all the parts were right and correct and perfect but also the energy was there. He’s like, “I want you to visualize playing this live. Don’t worry about being so accurate. And, and, you know, obviously, just just hit them hard. And pretend that you’re playing live. Give, give me that energy! Give me that unleashed Arejay!”

So that was the challenge. And you know, obviously, I don’t have a crowd in front of me. When you’re on stage and you get the energy from the crowd, you just inevitably go into that. But when you’re in a studio with two guys behind the glass, it’s hard to get in that mindset. So that was the challenge. Closing my eyes and trying to visualize playing on stage. I could feel it. It was it was interesting, I kind of felt like I was acting. Like maybe this is what actors have to do to prepare for a role.

And keep that going for three or four hours. That sounds tough!

I came home, and I would take like ice baths. My body was killing me. But I was committed. I was like, “I want like this.” When you’re playing live, you can mess up here and there. But when you’re making an album, it’s forever. So I need to make this count. I really can’t mess this up.

I’m so happy how it turned out. Because not only are the parts really interesting and fun and cool. But um, you know, Nick and Nathan, his engineer, are just masters, just mad scientists when it comes to drum sounds! Thanks to them, the record sounds amazing. Thanks to Scott, the parts are amazing. So it was just a great team effort.

Everything you’re you’ve been talking about is just what every drummer wants to hear. Like go big, go huge, do what you want. Like try something, be aggressive. Like don’t simplify it and just like go really hard. That must have just been a great experience.

It really was. When we go into the studio, we like to create space so when we perform these songs in arenas, they don’t sound like a jumbled mess. There’s space, there’s room to breathe. When we started doing that on this album, we would listen back and be like, “This sounds kind of dull.”

I think all those things combined is what is what made the decision to be like, “You know, OK, scratch all that. We want to give the listener energy. We want to keep them engaged. We want to give them something crazy and fun and interesting to listen to!”

It comes through on the record. It’s such a dynamic, big, full sound. I’m excited to see that live. I know you’re not able to play the whole record, start-to-finish, but are you excited to play these live? Get these out in the crowd? And like you said, just kind of go for it?

We’ve been rehearsing them. And we’re still rehearsing them. This is our next challenge. When we were first getting together and trying to remember the songs and relearning them and figuring out how to play them live, that was when we all looked at each other. We’re like, “Man, we really made our bed, didn’t we?” By the time we hit the road, we’ll have these songs down. We’re gonna slowly start putting the new ones in the set.

It’s funny, we had the same experience in the studio, because by the time we recorded Wicked Ways and Bombshell, we went back and retracked all the old songs and tried to up the energy. So now we’re kind of in the same situation where we’re looking at all the old songs now and thinking, “How can we rate because now there’s such a stark difference between the energy level of the new songs and the simplicity of the older songs?” So now we’re trying to think of ways of bringing the older songs up to that level of energy.

That’s really fun. And you have to figure it out without without breaking yourselves, your arms, your voices.

There were some of those moments where we looked at each other like, “Now I understand why bands use backing tracks.” We don’t use backing tracks. We have to figure out how to make all these sounds just amongst the four of us. And that is the one of the biggest challenges. A real big challenge for me, too, is playing all these crazy parts. And I’m doing so much singing! There’s so many vocal parts that I need to sing, and so many high notes and screaming parts.

Playing drums, the physicality of doing that, and then doing that every night for a couple hours for two months. is gotta be a lot.

It is. Kind of going back to your other question of, “What was the pandemic like for you?” I’ll be honest, it was hard at times, but  I would be a complete liar if I didn’t tell you that I did fully embrace the rest. From 2009 to 2019, that’s 10 years of constantly going, going, going, going going. And my body was just deteriorating. My entire right side of my body was just getting messed up. My right shoulder, my right wrist and then my right elbow started feeling it.

The pandemic also gave me a chance to really focus on rehabbing my my body and just learn how to maintain better. I think that from now going forward, I have a better understanding of what I need to do to be able to continue to play the way I play. I made my bed by coming out my 20s and and playing like crazy, being the crazy performer that I wanted to be. As I got older, I’m just like, “Oh man, I’m having a hard time keeping up with this now.” Now I feel like I’m just really focused on my health. I exercise every day. I eat healthy. I don’t drink a lot, I have like wine or two at the end of the day. I get enough sleep. I ice. I do sing conditioning. I do stretching. And that’s really just been really helping.

I also have a drum kit that I warm up on before before I hit the stage. So I feel really good and primed before we go on stage.

This summer feels like the summer back to music. Everybody’s on tour. Everybody’s got a new record out. And it’s if you’re a music fan, it’s just the best thing ever, because it’s all coming back.

Yeah, totally. I’m seeing that now. Not only are all the bands, including us, really amped and giving it even more than 110% on stage, but even the crowds do and I think it’s just that usual appreciation and realizing how important it really was to us. Before it all was taken away. Talking to the fans online, I was hearing about how much they missed it. And now it’s back how grateful they are for it and how grateful I am for it.

We don’t take it for granted anymore.

You never know. Poof! It could be all gone tomorrow. So make it count.