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On Nov. 13, 2015, when a terrorist attack took place at Paris’s Bataclan venue during a concert by California desert rockers Eagles of Death Metal, killing 89 people, it seemed like a relatively uncommon, isolated incident at the time. However, since then, similar tragedies have occurred at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub and at an Ariana Grande concert at Britain’s Manchester Arena. EoDM frontman Jesse Hughes tells Yahoo that the Manchester attack definitely triggered him — “The Ariana Grande one was a big one for me; I had already felt better, like I had settled into being a casual mass observer of the news like everyone else, and then this happens” — and exclusively reveals that he was there to help Grande in her time of need. The two artists could not have been more different musically but were now unexpectedly united by a common grief.
“I was in a studio when that story hit. I went outside and I felt a bizarre — I almost hate to admit this — but a bizarre relief of sorts that I wasn’t the only one,” Hughes admits. “We ended up talking, having a conversation, and she was the only girl in the world that could relate to me, to my particularly unique lead-singer experience. A mutual friend of hers got in touch with me to say, ‘Hey, dude, you’re the only person I know to go to.’ Within moments of the attack, her tech was on the phone with my tech and already arranging [for us to speak], so that I was available to her if she needed me.”
Hughes says of their conversation, “I just gave her some words of encouragement. I didn’t really know what to say. I almost felt like I needed to talk to her more than she needed to talk to me. I thought she handled herself and did the right thing. She did it perfectly, keeping it honest and not allowing anyone to grandstand.” As for the specific advice Hughes gave the young singer, he reveals, “I’m kind of a corny religious dude. I told her, ‘You’ve always got to pray for your enemies.’ I know that seems hard, but that’s my attitude to everything. I just make sure that it’s never about anything but the right reasons. ‘Don’t take anything personally, and remember you’re already doing everything for the kids that makes it possible for us to do this beautiful thing. Just continue to do that. And don’t think for a second that you are the reason they’re hurt. You might have the ability to be the reason that they keep smiling or keep dancing.’ There was not much more I could say.”
Another commonality between Hughes and Grande now is that both artists returned to the scene of their respective tragedies very quickly. Grande hosted her all-star One Love Manchester benefit concert less than two weeks after the Manchester Arena bombing, and EoDM returned to Paris just three weeks after the Bataclan shootings to triumphantly perform with U2 at the Accorhotels Arena. “This is the thing that equalizes us. Because U2 had helped me so much [I felt the need to help Grande],” says Hughes. “She and I had a beautiful dialogue. I just wanted to be useful. It was a tragic thing, but I could be useful here. The way we handled s***, the mistakes we made or lessons we learned — I wanted that to be available to her. Because unfortunately, [EoDM are] the first ones that went through it.”
Hughes elaborates on how important U2’s kindness was to his and his bandmates’ recovery. “I’ll tell you right now, if U2 had not insisted, made it a priority that we hit the stage so fast, I don’t know if I ever would have gotten onstage again. I really don’t,” he says, breaking into tears. “As much as I was trying to get better, there was some really serious fears going down. U2 are really the most beautiful people I’ve met in this business. Their sincerity was so critical to our recovery. They were so concerned that we wouldn’t get back onstage. That’s what they were worried about. For a band of such stature to give us their stage and let us play to a crowd so large, so quickly, was crucial. When I hit that catwalk, that’s when I came alive again. I watch that footage and I see myself coming back to life, my whole band coming back to life. U2 did this with such charitable intentions. They haven’t really grandstanded and paraded around all the great things they did for us. They brought us out there, they paid for everything, they each took time to spend with us — like, real time, you know? Incredible.”
EoDM have since resumed touring, and one of their most important post-Bataclan gigs was their headlining show at Paris’s Olympia venue on Feb. 16, 2016, attended by 900 Bataclan survivors (admission for them and the victims’ families was free); that event was captured for the recently released concert DVD/album I Love You All the Time — Live at the Olympia in Paris. In the intense and candid Yahoo Q&A below, Hughes opens up about that night and the traumatic night at the Bataclan — revealing where his head is at these days, reflecting on some of his past controversial remarks, expressing his love for his brave fans, and explaining why there is one song that Eagles of Death Metal may never play again.
Yahoo Music: I am actually very surprised at how open you are, how willing you are to talk about such a horrific experience.
Jesse Hughes: I don’t mind in any way talking about it. It is not a problem for me. It’s part of my therapy. … I’ve never before in my life had such a clear memory. I could walk you through everything of that day [of the Bataclan concert] in real time, from the second I got off the van at that venue till I walked off the plane in Burbank. And there is no way to explain how to react to it. There’s no frame of reference.
What do you remember most vividly?
You know, from the second the bullets started flying, I saw some of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life — terrible, beautiful things. People giving their lives to their friends. People reacting and coming together in the right way. In retrospect, I got to bear witness to some of the most noble things I’ve ever seen. I witnessed moments when people gave their lives for people they loved. That’s the greatest love a person can have. That’s beautiful. That is wonderful. But it’s terrible. And it makes me fearful of what I pray to, when I pray to God.
When you pray now, what do you pray for, or about?
First, I pray for my bandmates and my son and my family, of course. And then I pray that the hearts of those who are filled with hate will be touched. That’s really it. I pray for the ones that want to kill me the most. Because they’re the ones that need the most help. If you only pray for the people that are nice to you, where’s the reward in that?
Was it difficult for you to return to Paris and play again? What was that like?
I finally tried to watch the DVD, and to me, it’s doing the right thing. That’s all it was. It could be said that it was “brave” or whatever for us to go back and finish that show, but what else could we do? Plus, we have security and stuff. To me, the scary and bravest part — the part that I was counting and needed the most — was the folks who had been at the Bataclan and then afterward got on a subway alone, walked through the streets in the dark, and then waited in line again [to see us at the Olympia]. That’s where the bravery was. I saw how many beautiful people were there, and it just makes me grateful. I feel like we have the best fans in the world.
Do you grapple with survivor’s guilt at all?
Because I was able to focus on being the spokesman for the gang of us, I had something to aspire to. I didn’t want 89 souls to haunt me. So that guided my actions. Survivor’s guilt … maybe I had that, a little bit. But I wanted to get better from the get-go. I made certain that me and everyone in my band were in therapy from the jump. The FBI crisis counselor was part of our weekly regimen. We all got separate counseling too, and we all stuck together. You know, I don’t have any problem sleeping. I don’t have nightmares. I wake up some mornings and can’t help to cry, but I feel like I’m better than I could have been.
I love my fans, because they’re my friends. These weren’t just 89 people who showed up at my show. These were people that I knew. I hope you can see that on this DVD. We’re all clearly shaken up. It was one thing to play with U2, but to do our own tour is where it got scary and real. Like, for instance, when a microphone falls perpendicular to the floor, it sounds like a gunshot on the PA. And it was one of those tours where, of course, Murphy’s Law, that s*** happened a lot.
But the greatest honor of my life has been to entertain my friends, and I am not going to stop for anyone. Especially not an a**hole. My grandmother used to say, “You want an a**hole to hate you!” I mean, if Adolf Hitler wrote you a letter saying, “I think you’re a bad person,” let’s face it, that would get you laid.
Overall, though, the mood at the Olympia seemed celebratory.
Our recovery became such a community effort, and that quickly dictated to me that I just want to deserve all of this. The ability to come back to France — and not just come back but to play a larger venue — when I hit that [Olympia] stage, I saw people who I had talked to in the hospital. There were seven cops in the audience who I’d met the night of the attack, and they were all in uniform and spread out, and I would look out and they would point to their firearms and give me the thumbs up; it was like they were saying, “Not tonight. You rock. You’re safe.” There were kids who’d I’d been with, crouching on the side of the stage, who’d walked out of the [Bataclan] covered in their friends’ blood, who were in the front row again [at the Olympia]. There’s no way that’s easy. And I could see it in the faces of every kid that they were there because they genuinely loved us.
One song that was not on your set list that night — or any night since you started playing again — was “Kiss the Devil,” the song you were performing when the shots rang out at the Bataclan. Will you ever play that song again?
That is such a good question. Thank you for bringing it up. You know, I am a gung-ho, old-fashioned redneck; I don’t have it in me to let the bad guys win. I wanted us, instead of playing “I Love You All the Time” [with U2], to play “Kiss the Devil.” My theory was, if we were going to “finish” our set, then we should play that song when we f***ing played with U2. But [guitarist] Dave [Catching] and [bassist] Matt McJunkins aren’t like me. They’re brave in their own way, but Davey saw some of the ugliest of it at the Bataclan. He spent an hour in the bathroom with one of the bad guys trying to kick it in and kill him. Davey spent an hour with death on the other side; I didn’t have that experience necessarily. So I saw the look on his face when I even broached the subject [of playing “Kiss the Devil” again], and I love Davey so much. So for him, I didn’t even push it. Now I feel like, because we didn’t play it from the very beginning, how do we play it now? I don’t know if I’ll ever play it again. I want to, but how? Maybe just casually, like I’ll just get up onstage in a bar with my guitar, by myself. Maybe that’s the way to do it, so it becomes no big deal. But then again — and wow, I’ve never really thought of this before — this is a song that me and 2,000 people mutually own, that was paid for with blood. So maybe, honestly, [to play it again] is not a decision I could make on my own.
You generated controversy a few months after the Bataclan attack, and just one month after the Olympia comeback show, when you made comments, implying that the attack may have been an inside job. I know you later took back and apologized for those remarks, but it squandered some of the goodwill surrounding the band. Why did you say that, and do you regret it?
I never should have said anything, because it polluted the whole thing, and I was really quite ashamed of that. But I wasn’t ashamed of wanting the truth to be out there, because obviously there are still some questions. I don’t know if we will ever know everything that happened. I never thought the security were part of some terrorist plot, I just thought there was a whole lot of, maybe, understaffing. Inaction to me is also the same as doing something wrong, and they were just gone. There was no one there. F***!
I will say, to that point, that now when I go to concerts and clubs following what has happened at the Bataclan, Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, Manchester, et cetera, I realize how easy it can be for people to sneak in weapons or bombs. Sometimes there isn’t much security present, or there are no bag checks or pat-downs.
Yeah, you realize how much trust we really are extending in the community — just for our entertainment. It becomes so obvious what’s at stake here. I have a son, and I want him to inherit a world that … I mean, I love Israel, but when you go there, you’re scared 24/7. I don’t want that to be here. And that’s why we went back to Paris. It was trippy, I ain’t gonna lie.
Do you feel a sense of responsibility now — to be more careful of what you say, how you behave?
All I am is a rock ‘n’ roller. I just wanna have a good time, shake my d***, and dance. Before the event, I was protected by this feeling that [musicians] could say whatever they want and go, “Oh, it’s not serious!” That everything is tongue-in-cheek. “Oh, Marilyn Manson isn’t really saying that you should eat the Bible!” But that isn’t the way it is now. Never has absolute, unmitigated sincerity been so important as it is now.
Eagles of Death Metal were not a household name before, but now the wider public knows who you are. So there is also a concern that you don’t want to seem like you’re capitalizing on the tragedy for your own publicity…
That’s a fair statement to make. But the 89 people who died, their beautiful last moments on this earth, the choices they made — those stories don’t deserve to not be told. That doesn’t deserve to not be celebrated. And for good or bad, I was the one in the best position to be the representative, the spokesperson for this. That had to be done. There was no attempt to capitalize, just to memorialize and move forward in the right way. Davey and I are also on an ISIS death list. So yeah, I guess you could say we got more famous. But at quite a cost.
How did this whole experience change you?
In the corniest of ways, I call my mom more. I am more conscious of my behavior. I no longer believe in my concept of entitlement. I enjoy life a little bit more, or maybe it’s just that I’m paying more attention to what I am enjoying. I’m just filled with gratitude. I’m left with a sense of absolute awe of my fellow man. My faith has been renewed. This is a beautiful job. Rock ‘n’ roll is the luckiest job in the world. And I still feel like I’m the luckiest son of a bitch in the world to get to do this. I just also understand that it can be at great cost.
Eagles of Death Metal’s music has always been hedonistic and, as you put it, tongue-in-cheek. Your last studio album, Zipper Down, came out before the Bataclan tragedy. Will your next music be more serious, more sad?
Girl, I’ve made it my mission to truly not be f***ed. I promise you this: All the new music will have a bigger d*** than every other Eagles album combined. It will sound precisely like Little Richard getting bent over a couch and, pardon the expression, getting butt-f***ed by George Clinton, with Chuck Berry as a d***. I give you my word, darling.