James Owen Sullivan is staring at his feet. It’s a sole-melting afternoon in July and the Avenged Sevenfold drummer is fumbling with his black nail-polished fingers inside a discreet, air-conditioned studio on 23rd Street in Manhattan. The Rev, as his bandmembers call him, is clearly uncomfortable, made only more so by the way he has draped his tat-on-black, more than six-foot frame across the black leather couch nudged up against the soundproofed back wall. The clinking of the assortment of metallic jewelry around his wrists is one of only two sounds in the room. The other is a muted ticking of the mechanism within the CD player three feet to his right. He has said nothing; he has been silent since entering the room and now he seems even more distant, gazing past the pink pastel polo shirt of his preoccupied manager to the other side of the glass beyond the rows of sliders on the soundboard, where a naked collection of microphone stands are huddled together and covered with a canvas tarp. The Rev knows it’s just another day in the process of recording his band’s follow-up album to their gold-certified hard rock/metal hybrid City Of Evil; but seeing those microphones has distracted him from the task at hand.
It’s been a long couple of months for The Rev. Much of his year has been spent writing and recording basic tracks for the album, and just a few days prior, his iPod went berserk, vaporizing the 4,500 rare and vintage songs he had stored for inspiration. “I don’t do too well with technology,” he professes, arms held wide in surrender. But there is a sort of sadness in his words, a longing for a simpler time echoed in the sentiment that was evoked when he saw the microphones in their glass prison in the studio. For certain people, it’s a moment of distraction in a busy workweek. But for The Rev, his lament is an unguarded moment of truth: The Rev just wants to play. And he’s been cooped up in the studio far too long.
For such an avid drummer, The Rev started his musical career with the most ironic of words: “No.” At only five years old, the Huntington Beach, California, native was urged by his parents to take piano and drum lessons with the goal of learning an instrument, any instrumement. Little Jimmy resisted with all of the passion a child can muster. “I fought them on it,” he says. “But I was always kind of interested.”
That kind of constant resistance and curiosity was a part of what inspired The Rev to press on with his musical education. He began lessons at age ten on “a serious mail order drum kit — a piece of crap,” he says, laughing. “I got my own kit a year later.” The Rev started with what might be seen as an unusual cocktail of basic drumming fundamentals for an elementary school student: rudiments, composition, and thrash metal.
“I started learning stuff like Metallica,” The Rev says. “I started transcribing that stuff. I started with Carmine Appice and rudimentary basics and technique training. The music I was listening to was metal, so I started transcribing it.” It was an upward climb from there. “I started tackling more difficult stuff. I started getting into faster stuff, first Pantera, then Slayer, classics like that. Then I started getting into prog — Dream Theater and Rush. Then I started getting into funk, like Dave Weckl and Terry Bozzio. I tried to pick up as many things as I could from all of those influences. Then I joined a percussion ensemble at Harbor College in L.A. I was in that from sixth to eighth grade.”
It took virtually no time for The Rev to impress his fellow students. After all, if being a drummer in a punk band impressed his female classmates, imagine what a double bass setup before puberty can do. “They loved it,” he says, smiling. “When you’re playing double bass and you’re in middle school, no one can believe it. I started in sixth or seventh grade. But no one ever taught me, so I didn’t really figure out how to build up your endurance and stamina to just do straight sixteenth-notes as fast as you want until much later, until I was about 19 or so.”
The Rev says he began to branch out and develop his own style of playing — and composition — between the ages of ten and sixteen, bolstered by the technical base he developed while under the tutelage of L.A. Harbor College professor Jeannette Wrate. “She was very influential in me being a musician in general,” he says. “She took me into her percussion ensemble, which kind of ended up being a band, and she taught me about music theory as well as drum theory. She’s always pumped me up and never failed to point out to me that she thought I had a lot of potential as a drummer. I think a lot of drum instructors don’t really influence you to try to write music; they mainly focus on drumming, you know?”
That support was crucial to developing the fundamentals behind his current style of playing. “It was very important because I think technical training can help accelerate the learning process,” The Rev says. “For example, what would take someone without professional training a year to learn might take someone with good instruction, a month. It can accelerate the process an awful lot.”
By his sophomore year of high school, The Rev parlayed his interest in girls and reckless abandon into playing with punk rock bands at parties. Far from the ideal student (he was kicked out in 2000 for “a whole slew of behavioral infractions”), The Rev began to put his energy full-force into the burgeoning scene, starting a metalcore-sounding Avenged Sevenfold with childhood friends M. Shadows and Zacky Vengeance and using the stage name “The Reverend Tholomew Plague.” Synyster Gates was added soon after. “We’d always been best friends growing up,” he says. “Right when the first album was being recorded, we added him because we needed that crazy lead influence and all his musical knowledge.”
The ink still fresh on their high school diplomas, the bandmembers went into the studio to record what would become their first album, Sounding The Seventh Trumpet. It was a shoestring affair from day one — but the effort started the domino effect that would launch their career. “We pretty much fully funded the recording of our first album on our own, just doing lousy day job kind of stuff,” The Rev says. “That recording actually got noticed by the owner of Hopeless Records, who offered to sign us. That was step one, getting on that indie label and putting out Waking The Fallen, which got noticed by all the major labels. And now we’re on Warner Brothers.”
With a major record label contract came a major recording, 2005’s City Of Evil. Recorded in Houston, the album spawned a solid showing on the charts, a licensing agreement with gaming giant Electronic Arts, a video by top director Wayne Isham, and an appearance in Guitar World’s list of 100 Greatest Guitar Albums Of All Time. The album’s popularity and subsequent tour also sparked opportunities unlike any the band had ever expected, bringing The Rev full circle with his idols.
“The biggest headlining show that we’ve ever done was at the Gibson Amphitheater [in Los Angeles],” he says. “That was an overwhelming moment. Also, a great moment was the first time we went out on stage with Metallica. Oh, and meeting a lot of my idols, like Vinnie Paul. Those moments are always really rewarding.”