When Zoltan Bathory calls Tommy Vext and says, “turn on the news,” the latter has learned over time that it’s never going to be good.
Bathory, who manages Vext’s band Bad Wolves (along with Five Finger Death Punch, both of which, along with Three Days Grace, will perform Friday at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville), go back a ways. In 2017, Bathory was the one who called Vext and told him about the shootings from the Mandalay Bay Hotel that killed 58 people attending the Route 91 Harvest music festival.
This time around, Bathory’s call came in January 2018. Vext and his Bad Wolves bandmates were putting the finishing touches on their debut album, “Disobey,” which would be released that May. The crown jewel, they all believed, would be the group’s cover of “Zombie,” the alt-rock hit for Irish band The Cranberries in the 1990s. Cranberries singer Dolores O’Riordan had blessed the group’s version and even agreed to add guest vocals to it, Vext told The Daily Times recently.
“I went to bed the night before to a voice message from Dolores, saying how excited she was to work on the song, and then Zoltan called the next morning,” he said. “I turned on the news, and it was everywhere.”
O’Riordan had died the night before from an accidental drowning in a New York hotel bathtub.
“Then the phone started ringing, and we started trying to figure out what to do,” Vext said. “We kind of unanimously said that we should just shelve the song and move on. Then the idea came to us to reach out to the family and see if they would accept the proceeds from it. It was her last thing she was meant to work on, and she literally meant to go into the studio the next morning. So we wanted to take that and give it back to her family.
“As much as it was tragic for her fans and her band, the thing that really hit me was that her kids had lost their mom. I’m an adult, and my mom’s on vacation in Europe right now — I bought her a European vacation for her 70th birthday — but if anything happened to my mom, I don’t know what I would do with my life.”
Those familiar with Vext’s story, however, know that despite the pain, he would persevere. It is, after all, what he’s done his entire life. Abandoned by their birth mother, Vext and his twin sibling were adopted as infants. In the beginning, it was an idyllic childhood, but as his brother’s mental health began to deteriorate, it became a nightmare.
“I didn’t learn until I was an adult that, while he was in and out of mental institutions by the time he was 16, that doctors deduced that he would be a serial killer,” Vext said. “He exhibited all of these precursor behaviors, and they said that by the time he was 30, he would have fully grown into being a murderer. But my parents thought the doctors were crazy, so they took him out and brought him back home with us.”
The family slowly fell apart, Vext’s father succumbed to alcoholism and Vext himself got caught up in the rough streets of Brooklyn. Music, however, became a balm for his savage soul, and he found his calling in neighborhood freestyle rap battles and the New York hardcore scene. One of his first bands, Maniacal Disciple, eventually changed its name to Vext, and in 2006, Dino Cazeras of the band Fear Factory tapped Vext to front his new project, Divine Heresy.
Over the next couple of years, he exited Divine Heresy and was tapped to sing in a reformed version of Snot — a West Coast metal outfit that came to an abrupt end in the late 1990s when singer Lynn Strait died in a car wreck. That band’s guitarist, Sonny Mayo, took Vext under his wing and introduced him to recovery, where he found a way out of his growing addiction.
That was in 2009, but the path was still arduous. Back in New York, he tried to get his brother help but was met with violence. In the aftermath, his brother took out a contract on Vext’s life, and he had to go into witness protection. Even after his brother was sentenced to 17 years in prison, depression and a series of personal setbacks led Vext to contemplate suicide, but helping another struggling addict led him to the field of recovery peer support, a cause he still champions today.
He put Vext (the band) back together, it put out two EPs in 2012 and 2013, and he moved back to California, where he reunited with Snot. That’s when the pack that would become known as Bad Wolves began to coalesce — Vext, on vocals, along with drummer John Boecklin (formerly of DevilDriver), guitarist Doc Coyle (of God Forbid), guitarist Chris Cain (of Bury Your Dead and For the Fallen) and bassist Kyle Konkiel (of In This Moment and Scar the Martyr).
“What you have, essentially, is a band that’s filled with veterans, because everyone in the band comes from some sort of successful band already,” Vext said. “I think all of us are very seasoned, and with this kind of collective, it just seems to work. We all came to the table not wanting to have any creative limitations. I know John and Doc wanted a band that had more melody, and I wanted to sing more, but also have that edge and aggression. It just happened to be the right time and the right guys.”
It started out as a commercial endeavor, actually — Boecklin was working with a former project of Vext, and the two began collaborating on a song that BMW had opted to use for a commercial. The results were so electrifying they kept the track themselves and began seeking out like-minded collaborators.
“Me and Doc played together in a band when I was 21, so we go back almost 20 years,” Vext said. “When Sonny and I played in Snot together, we toured with DevilDriver, and that’s where I met John. Chris and I have toured together, and I’ve known Kyle since we were 18 and I was in Divine Heresy.”
As a single, “Zombie” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock tracks chart, and “Disobey” cracked the Top 25 of the Billboard 200 albums chart. It’s follow-up, “N.A.T.I.O.N.,” was released last month, and the momentum is fuel for Vext’s creative fire. He’s already started writing on the next album, the band has kicked around the idea of a covers record and Vext himself is considering a solo album. (He’s also working on an autobiography.)
“Bad Wolves is constantly evolving,” Vext said. “I have an unsatisfied mind, and that goes for creative things, too. The band is definitely a vehicle for the message, but as far as I go, I’m never going to be satisfied with being one-dimensionally creative. This band is a collective, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes from here.”