The hazan who became Disturbed

David Draiman has taken a winding path from promising but rebellious student of Judaism to front man for one of the music world’s most popular heavy metal bands.

Disturbed 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Disturbed 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
With his bald plate, ominous double labret vertical chin piercings and chic, black, embroidered T-shirt and pants, David Draiman doesn’t look like anyone else in the David Citadel Hotel business lounge. Not that the 37- year-old native of Chicago looks much like anyone you might see anywhere else in Jerusalem either. Let’s just say, he’s got a style all his own that sets him apart from the normal street scenery of the Holy City.
But one of the many ironies surrounding Draiman is that he can move around Israel in relative anonymity.
People look at him and can’t help but immediately comprehend that he must be someone famous. But unless they’re under 25 or a fan of American hard rock bands, they won’t pick up on the fact that the muscular, confident tourist is the vocalist for Disturbed, a heavy metal band that has sold over 11 million albums world-wide since its 2000 debut. Each of their subsequent four albums has debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 list, a testament to the rabidity of Disturbed’s fans and the apparent chemistry its explosive music creates.
Another irony surrounding Draiman is that when he wants to jump off the album/rehearsal/tour merry-go-round – or recuperate from the rigors of rock & roll life which include a throat infection which caused part of a tour to be canceled – he doesn’t opt for a secluded Caribbean beach or a French Riviera resort. He returns to Israel.
“I love it here! I come every year or two,” said Draiman last week. He claims to have close to 200 relatives in the country, including his brother Ben, also a musician, and his grandmother. However, that isn’t what keeps him coming back repeatedly since he made his first trip with his parents when he was six years old. It’s because Israel and Judaism are part of his being, and though they aren’t as dominant in his life as they were, Draiman remains one of the few high-profile hard rock singers who are defiantly Jewish – imagine a young Ozzy Osbourne as the spokesman for the Jewish Defense League.
And in what is perhaps the greatest irony in the Draiman saga, the same voice heard belting out the angst-ridden, menacing vocals that characterize Disturbed’s music used to regularly inspire teenage yeshiva students as the shaliach tzibur for Shaharit, Maariv and High Holy Day services. In fact, the young Draiman was well on his way to achieving smicha (ordination as a rabbi) when secular music changed his destiny.
Hours before taking off to Eilat for a New Year’s weekend of scuba diving with his stunning girlfriend – model and former pro wrestler Lena Yada – Draiman loquaciously discussed his transformation from brilliant but rebellious Jewish day school student to heavy metal hero.
When did your relationship with Israel start?
I came here many times as a kid with my family. I think the first time I was six. I used to come here for summer camp a couple times in my childhood, and I spent the year after high school here studying at Neve Zion yeshiva [in Telz Stone]. I was one of those guys you used to see getting into trouble or hanging out on Kikar Zion in Jerusalem.
You attended your brother’s show last night in Jerusalem (at the Off the Wall Comedy Club). Did you get up and perform with him?
No, no, no! I didn’t get up and perform. You know, the last time I went to see him, he called me up and I told him then to never do that to me again. I don’t mind being put on the spot, but I’m coming there for my brother and it shouldn’t be about me. I didn’t wear these [pointing to his oversized chin piercings], I went to watch his show, I’m off the clock.
It also makes me feel uncomfortable if I think that he feels any residual feelings over attention being given to me – I want it to be all about him and to honor him.
When did you first become enamored with music?
With me it was ever since I was a little boy. The first record I ever bought was Kiss’s Destroyer. And those classic bands like Black Sabbath were my first loves. When I was a teenager in the 1980s, I was split in two directions.
On the one hand, I focused on the seminal metal bands like Metallica, Iron Maiden, Pantera and Queensryche.
There were two different cliques in my school – those that liked glam rock, the teased hair, the Cinderella bands and all that, and the others that liked what we called “real rock.”
But I could also appreciate the hair metal bands – When you hear Whitesnake, you can’t deny their greatness. Then I went in the direction of punk and new wave, groups like the Sex Pistols, The Ramones, The Misfits and later The Smiths and The Cure – that’s was my ’80s.
And then when the grunge revolution happened, it was like a wakeup call. I’ll never forget getting my first Nirvana, Soundgarden and Alice in Chain records, and hearing that wonderful, beautiful darkness. And the rhythmic intensity, that’s what attracted me more than anything else.
I formed my first band when I was going to Valley Torah High School in Los Angeles.
What was your Jewish upbringing like?
I attended five different Jewish day schools as a teenager. I mean, I was trained as a hazan! I led High Holy Day services a number of years in Chicago. If I did a little refresher I could still do it, but I don’t think I’d be a really good representative before God for anybody these days.
My freshman year of high school was at WITS, the Wisconsin Institute for Torah Study in Milwaukee. And I got asked to leave after my first year there. It wasn’t because of my studies – they were always way past the norm, I graduated with a 3.75 GPA and scored just under 1400 on my SATS. Academics were never the issue. The issue was suppression of normalcy. I couldn’t really stomach the rigorous religious requirements of the life, I just wanted to be a normal teenage kid, and here I was being shipped of to a yeshiva.
In an environment where you’re not allowed to watch television, you can’t read magazines or go to the movies, you can’t fraternize with the opposite sex whatsoever, you have to wear the uniform every day of tzitzit, the button- down the shirts, the dress slacks, the shoes, you have to make sure you’re not even wearing a kippa sruga, it was just stifling. So what did that end up turning into? I’d set my friends up on dates with girls that I knew, in defiance of the school. So I became the “pimp” of the school even though no such thing was happening Or I’d smoke a little bit of weed here and there, I‘d get my buddies high, so I was the drug dealer on campus even though that’s not what I was doing. I just rebelled against the conformity – the gag reflex worked.
When I got sent to Los Angeles, it wasn’t any better – it was easier to get away with it because I wasn’t in a dorm and living at the rabbi’s house. Unfortunately, during Pessah cleaning, the rabbi was searching for hametz in the drawers and he found a half empty box of condoms and a half empty bag of weed, and that was the end of my living in the rabbi’s house. I actually ended up graduating high school from the Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago, which was the school I wanted to go to in the beginning.
Were you resentful of your parents for shipping you off to these schools?
Yes, I was a bit resentful, because like I said, I just wanted to be a normal kid. But I was the one who introduced religious observance to my family. They weren’t dati to begin with, and I’d go to spend Shabbat with school friends and I fell in love with the whole experience and the warm feeling of family and togetherness.
And my father would go to work every Saturday. I said to my parents, “Why aren’t we keeping Shabbat?” So my father said, “If you won’t watch TV and play video games I won’t go to work.”
So we started down the path, only my father went further than I did. And today they’re still modern Orthodox.
Did you go on to college?
I attended Loyola and worked at many jobs – as a bank teller and in phone sales for Granger Parts Supply. I got a degree in pre-law but once I took my LSATS and I had been accepted to good law schools, I didn’t have the heart to pursue it. The only law that interested me was criminal defense law and I couldn’t really look at myself in the mirror and say I’m going to lie for a living and protect criminals. A colleague of mine told me about an administrative assistant position available at a health care facility, and since one of my degrees was in business I applied and beat out 30 other applicants.
I learned the business and within a year’s time I had my own administrators license and a year after that I was running my own facility. I was health care administrator for five years prior to leaving my job for Disturbed once we got signed.
How did you end up in Disturbed?
I was in seven bands through high school and college before joining Disturbed. But it was first hard rock/ heavy metal band I was ever associated with. The first band were more punk rock and the couple after that were more in the vein of Red Hot Chili Peppers and Faith No More with a rock funk vibe. That’s where I started forming a lot of my rhythmic sensibilities.
I was managing the health care facility and saw an ad for a singer in a local Chicago music publication. It was a band called Brawl and the singer they had was much more abrasive than me. The ad had these exaggerations like “on the cusp of being signed” but what piqued my interest was their list of influences.
My roommate at the time was a friend named Jordan, and he was a big fan of the new wave of metal – Korn, Tool, The Deftone – and he turned me onto them. And the ad listed similar influences and that’s what made me respond. I had been to about 30 auditions in the last couple months since I decided to find a band to sing with.
I had a good conversation with Dan [Donegan, the band’s guitarist] and when I went in to audition, they said, “Ok, do you know any covers?” I said that I knew lots of covers but to be honest, I didn’t come to sing covers, let’s do some of your originals. That surprised them since I had never heard their music and it didn’t have words, but I just said, “Give me the mike and let’s see what I can do. I should be able to come up with something.”
So they started playing this riff, and I listened for a couple minutes and starting singing this melody over it with lyrics I had written for another song. That song became “Want” from our debut album Sickness, so right away, there was energy and vibe and magic between us.
I was still very intimidated – I had never sung to anything that aggressive before and I wasn’t confident that my vocals would be able to accentuate the ferocity of their sound. But Jordan, my roommate, who had heard the audition, convinced me to call them back and pursue it. They were being evasive, although they couldn’t hide the shit-eating grins on their faces, and it took a week or so for them to say, “Ok, you’re the guy.”
Were your parents supportive of your decision to join Disturbed?
Initially, no, they were not at all. I was leaving a career as a successful health care administrator making over six figures and with a chance to own a piece of the business in order to try and be a rock star.
It’s amazing how success seems to justify things over the course of time – they ended up becoming very supportive of my decision. It took them two record cycles to come to a show, and my mother said after seeing us for the first time, “Even though I may not agree with your decision to do what you’re doing, after seeing you I cannot deny that you were born to do this.”
Playing heavy metal, you must run into fans occasionally who espouse anti-Semitic or neo-Nazi sentiments.
How do you deal with it?
I’m incredibly defiant against neo-Nazis and skinheads.
In fact, here’s a true story that occurred in the band’s infancy when we were playing Southside Chicago clubs.
One of the guys who would come to see us was a skinhead, he had a swastika tattoo, the whole nine yards.
After he became a die-hard fan, the band was sitting down having drinks after a show and he comes in and starts going on about niggers and Jews, and I interrupted him and said, “Dude, I don’t know if you realize this but I’m Jewish.”
He responded, “You’re Jewish! This completely changes my whole idea of what a Jew is supposed to be.” And soon after that, he had his swastika removed, and denounced the skinhead culture.
I’ve always been very proud of my heritage and where I come from, and I’ve defended it to the extent of being bloodied on many occasions. In fact, most of the fights I’ve been in my life – and there have been many – have been because I was defending my family or my faith. And I don’t apologize for it.
There’s still anti-Semitism everywhere, and unfortunately, what has happened with our people no longer being the underdogs in this region, peoples’ perception of Israel has changed dramatically. I find myself more and more having to defend us, and I will continue to do so.
I wrote a song on our latest album Asylum called “Never Again” about the Holocaust and the people who deny it, like Ahmadinejad, that piece of shit. And part of our live show includes a video presentation depicting him as the new Hitler. Believe you me, I’ve always been direct about hits, I never pull any punches and I will never apologize for who I am or where I come from.