You're Hollywood Undead. You've sold millions of albums. Played sold-out shows and tours on four continents. Seen your streams surpass the 1 billion mark. Fifteen years in, and in an industry where careers are often measured in months, you're releasing a killer new album, New Empire, Vol. 1.
Which at first glance doesn't make sense; where traditional flywheels are concerned, music and marijuana don't really go together.
But as a lifestyle flywheel? Then it makes a lot more sense.
To find out more, I talked with Johnny 3 Tears (George Ragan) and J-Dog (Jorel Decker): Johnny about music and the new album, J-Dog about the cannabis business.
First up: Johnny 3 Tears.
I read a quote where you said you wanted to approach this album like you had never made one before. How do you balance "new" without leaving loyal fans behind?
Trust me, it's something we think about about a lot.
While maybe not as much as with the new album, we have changed quite a bit from record to record. It's certainly a risk.
But I would be more worried about duplicating what we've done. After fifteen years, taking risks keeps it interesting for us. And, it turns out, for our fans.
Even so: You're in the music business. You have to balance creating music you love with creating music people want to hear.
True. It is a business. And it's a cutthroat business. (Laughs.) You can quickly go from being at the top of the game... to yesterday's news.
Generally speaking, the first benchmark is our own. If we don't love what we make, it's hard to "sell" it. If we love it, things tend to fall in line after that. It could be coincidental, but I think it's due to the energy we communicate.
And also it eliminates self-doubt: If I believe, I can push through.
That benchmark is where we set the standard. We've had A & R people who wanted changes, who wanted us to go in different directions... and every time we have, it didn't work out for us.
Never take belief away from the creators and put it in someone else's hands, Then you're counting money instead of songs.
You mentioned self-doubt. Art is subjective. How do you deal with people who may not like what you do?
We've had our share of adversity. When we started going to Europe... the audiences can be really rough with you. (Laughs.) We've gotten booed, had bottles thrown at us, gone through a long hazing period... if you don't believe in what you're doing, you'll quickly start to believe those people are right.
My approach was to give it back to them. If someone gave me the finger, I gave it back to them. If someone yelled at me, I yelled back. I turned it into a game. (Laughs.)
But I always believed in what we were doing. I figured, "We just need to do a little extra to convince these assholes." (Laughs.) So we would just get into it with them.
Germany was the hardest European market for us, and ironically it's now the biggest. Push back and they gain respect for you -- like they let you join the club.
Basically, it never affected me as much as it would now. I was young and full of ego and pride... a dangerous amount of ego can get you through a lot. (Laughs.)
On the flip side, you broke really quickly in America.
The U.S. was almost instantaneous. I'm not going to lie: It was mind blowing.
We had all been trying with different bands, in one form or another, and nothing happened. Hollywood Undead was really just an outlet to write music. We didn't have high hopes.
Then things blew up. We started touring and playing for ten or fifteen people... and suddenly we were playing for 500 to 1,000.
We would look at each other and say, "All these people want to see us?" (Laughs.)
But what really tripped me out was going to Europe and South America, where English isn't their first language... and the audience knew every word to every song. We were in Russia and people knew every lyric.
There's magic in music. Music lets you touch people you never would have otherwise met... but through music, you have a connection. That's one of the best things about music: The ability to touch someone who, in any other circumstances, you would never cross paths with.
Plenty of artists say albums no longer make money. What's the strategy behind the new album?
It is hard to make money on new music.
Speaking just for myself, it's all about expression and connection. I make a lot of music I don't sell. Not for a label, not to perform... just for my personal use. Whether or not someone was paying me, I would still spend the same amount of time making music. I'm just fortunate enough to be able to make a living doing what I would do anyway.
I know a lot of really good musicians who have never been as fortunate. For whatever reason, it didn't click, they didn't get the right connection... there are plenty of people whose music never sees the light of day. I was lucky in the opposite sense.
Of course, it does take dedication, too. If you're not working hard, someone else is... and eventually you'll be left by the wayside. You have to get better.
Bottom line, I will always write music. I'm just lucky I get to do it for a living as well.
Do you get nervous before a show? And if you do, how do you work through that?
I'm fairly introverted. Before I go outside to get the mail I check to see if anyone is out there I might have to talk to. I'm exaggerating, but not a lot. (Laughs.)
As for performing, I don't have a system. I just go.
I read an Elvis interview where he said there was never a show he played that he wasn't nervous. If someone like Elvis got nervous... it's definitely okay for someone like me. (Laughs.)
If you want to give the audience something that makes them happy, you're going to be nervous. You should be nervous.
That means you care.
Some artists also say their level of creativity has diminished as they'e gotten older. You?
I lived a really self-destructive lifestyle for a long time, and I find that the things I went through have always been there for me to draw upon when I write music. Going through experiences that were rough... whenever I need to write music I can dig into that well. Even though I don't live that way anymore, the pain is still there.
I don't write songs about parks and sunshine. I love bands like that, but it's not what I do. So: For all intents and purposes, all I have to do is sit for a few minutes and think about something from the past.
Think about it this way. If your life is great, it's hard to write music. Music comes from the heart, and more specifically heartache, so I've always been able to draw upon those experiences.
Plus the biggest commonality between people isn't positive experiences. Many people don't get to experience a lot of positives. But everyone goes through heartache. Everyone loses people. Everyone falls in and out of love.
No matter who you are... we all go through it.
My job is almost like therapy in that sense. If I do it well, I might say something you can't say, something you can't express... but that connects with you, and possibly helps get you through.
It's a cliche, but it really is a blessing to be able to share those moments with other people through music.
And now my conversation with J-Dog:
I saw your video about the cannabis business and it struck me that you love the process as much as the end result. And that you're also maybe just a bit obsessive when you find something you want to learn about.
I do love the process. If I never made another dollar, I would keep on doing what I do.
Humans have lost their connection with plants. Taking care of plants woke up something inside me. It's in our DNA. Everyone should have at least one plant to take care of. It teaches patience and responsibility... and maybe would put a little Zen in people's lives.
Taking care of plants is a great metaphor for life. With plants, you have to figure out what is great for them, adapt the environment to them... you can't just do what you want.
It really puts life, and our place in it, in perspective.
Between music and the cannabis business, how do you balance your time?
It's extremely hard. Fortunately, I get bored really fast. (Laughs.)
I have problems relaxing, used to drink a lot of alcohol... and I realized I was killing myself.
Music is therapy. Plants are therapy. Music and plants have soothed me. I can't sit still for five minutes anywhere else, but I can sit in a garden, alone, for hours.
You talk about your team a lot. Like it or not, you had to become a leader.
To be frank, being a leader is something I don't particularly like. But it's obviously important.
I got sent to a boot camp when I was thirteen years old. They made me the foreman of fifty kids, most of them older than me, most of them worse than me (laughs)... somehow I figured it out.
I told them, "If we work hard and fast, then we can relax. That's a lot better than working slow and long."
And it worked.
Ultimately leadership is about helping people figure out their own purpose, their own reasons for doing what needs to get done.
And then there's this: I don't want to lose the camaraderie, the "teenage friendship" aspect. As soon as something becomes strictly business, it's not fun anymore.
Money is also not the answer. I'm lucky I figured that out. You don't need a lot of stuff, you don't need big houses... I have friends that travel the world who are dirt-broke and they're happier than me. (Laughs.)
Big players have come into the industry. Yet as you become more successful, you'll also become a big player. How will you guard against some of the things I imagine you don't like about big money operations?
You're right. The last thing we want is to become the machine we're fighting against.
It can be done. Another brand, Jungle Boys, they're very successful. They're also anti-establishment. They won't sell to large corporations. They're home grown. They're about their own communities, giving jobs to locals... it can be done. Operations like that are an inspiration in this industry.
At face value, there doesn't appear to be any synergy between Hollywood Undead and Dove & Grenade.
Not as of yet, and maybe not ever.
For example, people overvalue the power of social media. They think if you post about a product on a band account... your product will be huge. That's just not the case.
As for promoting it, for promoting Dove & Grenade to Hollywood Undead fans... while many fans do support the brand, I'm not pushing it. The last thing we're doing is trying to get kids to light up. We're just growing something we love to grow, and if you like it, that's awesome.
I've been immersed in the business, in growing, for a long time. I could have done it by myself.
But the guys in my band are my best friends. I want everyone to be happy. I want everyone to be successful.
I don't want to be the guy living in the big house on the hill, with my friends down below.
I've seen that -- and I just don't like how it looks.