Kings of the Game

“You get to encourage the guys from the church that are struggling and trying to make sense of it, and you get to encourage the guy that doesn’t think he’s good enough to go to heaven.”

By
Photo by Brooke Long

“When we play, I’m still always looking for those people that want to have real conversations. I still love hearing about lives that have been changed by God and by this music. I’m thankful for everyone still paying attention.”

At 41 years old, Sonny Sandoval has spent his entire adult life surrounded by the same guys, touring the world in his band, P.O.D. While many have taken on the job of performing live for a career, it’s hard to match the experience of the boys from Southtown. They achieved top tier success in the Christian market with their triple-platinum album Satellite and have sustained a following 14 years later up to their latest album, The Awakening. The band that was equally cool in youth group and MTV continues to sacrifice their adult years for one reason: their listener.

If the commercial success of an album means anything to Sandoval, he doesn’t show it. As he spoke with us about the band’s new album, the tenth studio release of their career, he made it clear he isn’t writing for a label, a hit or a raving review. The only thing the band is writing for is to provide hope.

His tone shifts from tired when talking about his career to pure excitement when talking about fan interaction. “It’s awesome, man,” he says with a newfound energy after 20 minutes of talking about the new album. “You get to encourage the guys from the church that are struggling and trying to make sense of it, and you get to encourage the guy that doesn’t think he’s good enough to go to heaven.”

When I asked him for a time fans have reminded him of his purpose, he doesn’t need to search for a distant memory. He pulls out a story from the night before when he was in Idaho hanging out with a circle of people at 1 a.m. talking about faith. The truth is, every night shows him why he’s still in the business.


Hey Sonny, what have you been up to this week?
First, please forgive my no sleep and sore throat. We’ve been out for about two weeks now. We just went up to the West Coast, did about four shows in Canada and then came back down through Montana. Now we’re back in California, but we’ve been going non-stop, so it’s been tiring.

I can imagine, especially with a sore throat. How do you perform when you’re this sick?
It’s tough, man. I’ve been sick going through different weather changes. You have to baby yourself. I’m sipping on tea all day, going through all my vitamins and cough medicine (laughs). I’m like, “Man, this is horrible.” You just gotta rely on the band to help you out. I guess there’s this fear thinking, “Can I even do this tonight?”

Was this last run with Islander or are you out with ICP?
No, no. We’re wrapping up with Islander in another week. Then we’ll fly out and meet up in Chicago and do about six weeks with ICP.

Out of curiosity, how on earth did the tour with ICP come up?
Interesting enough, we got a call from our booking agency and they said they had a few different tours. We were shocked that ICP was one of them. We played with them at their Gathering a few years ago, which was crazy. But I guess it went over pretty well. For some reason, P.O.D. has respect from the Juggalos. We’re one of the bands they actually dig.

It was a decision we had to make: Do we go on and do the same tours or do we do something different? For me, I want to get in front of a different crowd than that same old rock crowd. Everybody is all skeptical and scared of the ICP crowd, but this is what we’re supposed to do. I’m excited about it, man.

It is probably one of the most unique opportunities you will get in a band. I’m very curious to hear how it goes. What’s the strangest thing you saw at the Gathering of the Juggalos?
Oh dude, it would take too long to explain (laughs). It blew my mind, man. I’m guessing now we’ll be in major cities and there will be a lot more rules and laws to follow. Out there, it’s in the middle of nowhere. I don’t even think there is any law enforcement, just (festival) security. Everybody is really free to do whatever they want.

I won’t give my opinions, but it blew me away. Like I said, they’re doing what they want. You can imagine. It was definitely an eye-opener of what’s going on. But that kind of stuff has been going on in rock and roll forever – everybody portrays something onstage.

I remember feeling the same way with Ozzfest. You go out front and you have this sense of evil where there are gargoyles, sideshows and freak shows going on with people walking around. You go to the back and a lot of these band guys are vegans and doing yoga, hanging out, golfing. They’re putting on a front. But with Juggalos, they’ve taken on their own movement.

I was wondering how it compared to Ozzfest. That makes sense. The responses from the ICP crowd have been mostly positive online. I think it’ll be a good tour.
I think it’s going to be awesome. Some people just don’t get it. We get Christians going, like, “Why are you guys doing that?” Which to me is moronic. I mean, why do you think we’re doing it? Then we get people who are like, “Dude, I want to go see you, but I’m not really into ICP so I don’t want to pay for a ticket.” Whatever. It’s probably going to be mostly Juggalos anyway. We want to get in front of a new crowd and see what happens.

POD

When is the last time you played a show where you felt like you had a totally new crowd?
Hm… We get cool opportunities to play a lot of different cities’ street festivals. When they mix up the music, you get a variety. Just recently, I think in Omaha, we played with, like, Lupe Fiasco, Matisyahu, DJ Snake. There was a bunch of different people. It seemed like a young, Nebraska crowd. You have those that know your stuff and those that are a little younger and are checking you out.

I definitely love getting in front of younger crowds. You realize, man, we’ve been doing this for a while. We’re still fighting to do 21 and under shows, but we’re realizing our crowd is older (laughs). If anything, the younger kids are our older fan’s kids. They’re bringing them up to check out P.O.D.

Good. Out of all the festivals you’ve done, what are one or two of your favorites?
Going over to Europe, a lot of those summer festivals are always amazing. We got to play Download in England and Iron Maiden was one of the headliners. That’s insane. I mean, it’s chaos. It’s huge. It’s a sea of people everywhere you go. That’s a unique experience.

What else have we done? Rock im Park in Germany is huge. I think you’re more of just blown away because it’s massive. A couple weeks ago, we did Colombia and there were over 100,000 people there. It’s pretty nerve-wracking when you look out and go, “Oh my gosh, there are so many people.” But we’ve been doing this for so long, it’s all exciting. We never take it for granted.

Good. You guys recently dropped a new album called The Awakening. Can you tell me about it?
Sure. It’s a concept record. We’ve been referring to it like a book: ten songs, ten chapters. There (are) a lot of underlying messages and funny things. If you’re a fan, you’ll figure it out. There’s a lot of cool stuff in there. The idea was to get fans to listen to the record from beginning to the end over and over and try and find those things.

It was a risk for us because a lot of young fans don’t even know what concept records are anymore. But we were doing it for our hardcore fanbase that care about what instruments we’re using, who produced the record, who they thank, where they recorded it and what’s different than the last record or the last ten records. It’s for that fan.

Without giving too much away from the story, it is about a character who is going through a lot of crazy things in life — there’s a lot of backstory to it that would be awesome to do a short film or short story about — and he has got decisions to make. Everything the world is throwing at him, he has got to face. You get to the end of the record and he has some decisions to make. He’s trying to find himself. Like all of us, you choose between good or evil; between love and hate; between forgiveness and redemption or bitterness and hatred. It’s this character’s life.

What were some of the challenges of writing a singular story over ten tracks?
We have a hidden theme that threads the entire story, so I didn’t find it difficult. When we get together and jam, that’s the fun part. Rearranging some lyrics and trying to tie it all in was new to us, but I didn’t find it that difficult. I was having fun with it.

I guess the one thing is trying to hit every point. But it tends to fall in place as you’re writing out the plot and the story. I think, if anything, it was more fun than difficult.

Do you find it easier to write one story rather than ten separate songs?
Yeah, for sure. For me, I don’t carry around a journal and write down my thoughts every day. A lot of the time, the music inspires the direction the lyrics will go. A lot of people will write a poem and throw it on top of music. It might work, it might not. But for us, it’s always been, “The music makes me feel this way.” I tend to write in that direction. You let the music guide you.

Do you think you’ll revisit the concept album format later on in your career?
Given the opportunity, why not? At this age, you can do what you want. It’s not like people buy records anyways (laughs). It’s easy to record nowadays, so we’re already talking about doing an all reggae EP or a half-and-half reggae-punk EP.

That’d be perfect.
Or we can do some covers, whatever, because you can just put it out there and it’s just more content. Before, everyone got excited about a new record, but now people take it for granted. If there’s new music out there, they will discover it searching the Internet at some point.

It’s the hardcore fans that are waiting for the record, but most people are fickle and are like, “Ah, cool, man. I didn’t know you had a new record. It sounds great. I listened to it on YouTube” (laughs).

That’s the music industry, in general, right now. There’s less of a focus on albums and more of a focus on picking and choosing tracks.
Right. Who knows what the next step is?

POD

What are some of your personal favorite concept albums?
When we were young, I remember, as a kid, seeing Tommy, the movie by The Who. It was creepy. Being so young, I didn’t understand it, but I knew who The Who was. Then you’d see artists like Elton John on there, so it was kind of confusing. Like who’s who and where’s the band? What is this? This story is kinda tripping me out (laughs).

And not that they’re concept records, but I remember seeing the old Kiss movie and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and being tripped out seeing Steven Tyler from Aerosmith and going, like, “Whose song is which? What’s going on?!”

…by the Kiss movie, are you talking about Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park?
(Laughs) Yeah!

Oh dear (laughs).
I was little! I think it would come on during Halloween. I couldn’t wait for it to come on.

(Laughs.)
But Marco’s biggest inspiration is Operation: Mindcrime by Queensrÿche. Back in the day, it was cool what they were doing.

Then, obviously, you listen to a lot of hip-hop stuff growing up, and they would always interlude a lot of cool stuff, whether it was a concept or not. It might have been a theme throughout the whole record or just leading up to the next song.

“We’ve learned a lot. We’ve spent half of our lives doing this. We’ve grown up in this business. When it comes to the industry, money, successes, failures, arguments and breakups, we’ve gone through it all.”

We’ve always been that way with stuff in-between (songs), trying to do something cool, like some type of freestyle or some little skit. Just something so it wasn’t another song-after-song rock record.

One thing that surprised me while listening through the new album is that you have a guest appearance from Lou of Sick of it All. What was it like working with him?
It kind of worked out like our last record did with Jamey Jasta. He’s an East Coast guy, so you get a hold him and go, “Hey, here’s a track. What do you think?” He’s like, “Yeah man, I’ll do it.” “I’m sending you over a track. Find yourself a studio (and send it back).”

He listened to it; he dug it. We already had his parts ready for him. I did some scratch vocals, and he went over them and sent them back. It’s as easy as that – it’s a mutual respect for each band.

We’re always trying to feature people that we were listening to growing up and influenced us. Sick of it All is legendary as far as East Coast, New York hardcore.

They have an incredible history.
Yeah. We’ve featured people like H.R. (of Bad Brains), Mike Muir from Suicidal (Tendencies) and Helmet. The list goes on.

And then we’ve (featured) new artists too like Matisyahu and Blindside, who are friends of ours. Maria from In This Moment is on this record. They’re blowing up right now.

POD

Oh yeah. Who are some artists you would still like to collaborate with?
I mean, lucky enough, I think we’ve done it. From Santana to H.R. to Mike Muir, they’re huge to us. I mean, if you can go all over the board, we’re big fans of Björk and Sting. I talked with Dave Mustaine. He was going to jump on the (new) record, but his schedule didn’t allow it.

P.O.D. has been around for 23 years. What are some of the most crucial moments that stand out in your career?
It’s all been such a whirlwind, man. I mean, if you’re asking me spiritually, it’s every conversation I have with someone or had the honor praying with and leading to the Lord. That’s what matters the most at the end of the day.

But we’ve learned a lot. We’ve spent half of our lives doing this. We’ve grown up in this business. When it comes to the industry, money, successes, failures, arguments and breakups, we’ve gone through it all with this band. We’ve learned a lot and have taken it all in now.

It helps us where we’re at 23 years later. We’re not trying to chase that next thing or trying to chase success and being on top. It’s like going full circle and being that band that was playing for fun, jamming out in a garage and stoked to get a gig. We’ve always been a working band. It’s not like P.O.D. can retire because our bank accounts are full. We still need to work just to pay the bills, but we do it because it’s still fun and because people still come out to the shows.

We’ve learned to appreciate the ride. Looking back, I might have done this differently. Like, why did I act this way? Why did I make this mistake? But you learn. Now, here you are and you don’t want to make those mistakes again. That’s business-wise, that’s personal, spiritual and emotional. It’s all these things. You learn so much. I guess it’s just life experience. We just happen to be in this music industry and happen to be some of the very few in a rock and roll band.

What do you think is the most underrated P.O.D. album?
Aw, man…

The one you thought was incredibly solid but didn’t get the proper attention.
That’s tough, because you like everything for that moment. You know what I mean? You’re hoping it’ll connect.

For different reasons, I loved Payable on Death and Testify. Obviously, Jason Truby was on them, and I love Jason. We had a good time. Maybe it was just a season we were going through, but I love those two records. There are a lot of great songs on there. It’s not the heaviest stuff, but there’s a lot of (experimentation) because we’re always trying different things. When it came down to trying to sing, I experimented a little bit. To this day, I hear people say (they) love Payable on Death. It just didn’t get its fair shot.

It was a good one. I got it for Easter one year. “Asthma” was fantastic. What advice would you give younger touring bands to avoid some of the mistakes P.O.D. made?
If anything, watch the way things go. I get real annoyed with the phoniness of it all. You know what I mean? I come from an era where it wasn’t about fame. We got through that era of glam and Hollywood rock. It was just ordinary guys from the neighborhood jamming. The hardcore scene was around because you had something to say. It wasn’t about being famous, making money or having a million “Likes.” It had nothing to do with that.

When I see these younger bands, I still look for that passion. Why are they doing this? Is it because they love it? Talking with Islander, we say, “Careful on the business end that you’re not making mistakes, and you’re not signing something and giving your life away to someone who doesn’t care about you. Nobody has millions of dollars in the bank. They just want to take advantage of you.”

“I battle that all the time: How long can I keep doing this?”

So, first of all, you gotta do it because you love it and it actually means something to you. Second of all, you have to be business-smart about it because this is your career. When you are led by your passion, you tend to go for things and not think it through. I’ve seen that happen to a lot of young bands. They’ll sign contracts because they’re 21, 22 or 23 and are ready to tour for the next 20 years. They just want to play their music. They start to sell records and become successful, but at the end of the day they don’t even have enough money to settle down, get married and have kids because somebody else is making all the money.

And if they settle down and have kids while in a band, that’s difficult too. How do you balance being a parent, husband and touring for 20 years?
It’s tough, man. I come across guys that (being in a band) is what they want. They don’t get married and they don’t have kids. To me, it wasn’t like I needed to be in a band all my life. Having a family has always been the most important thing (next to) my relationship with the Lord. Being in a band was just an extension of that. I got married fairly young, had kids and had to adapt. I don’t think I realized how difficult it was.

In some ways, it’s been limited, even at our highest point. I look at these guys in bands that tour 13 months out of the year. For me, that’s what I don’t want to do because I have a family.

POD

Right.
I think the longest we’ve been gone is two months. My first daughter grew up on the road, and she got in her routine of school. (Same with) my second daughter. Now my son’s out on the road and I’m homeschooling him so he can be out here with me.

But it still doesn’t add up to me being full-time at home. That’s a sacrifice we’ve all made because we believe in this (band). But I battle that all the time: How long can I keep doing this? It definitely has to be for the right reasons. I don’t want to just tour to tour; I’m not out here to be a rock star. But like I said, you still come across those people that are like, “Your music changed my life; I was contemplating suicide until I heard this song.” I still hear that from people. Man. I’m waiting for the time when I don’t hear that anymore! (Laughs). Then I can be done out here! There are no lives being changed out here; I can go home.

“One biker was telling me that he loves God and believes in Jesus but isn’t perfect and doesn’t know if he’s going to heaven or hell. It’s conversation. That’s how it starts.”

(Laughs) That’s the best sign of retirement. What are some recent interactions you’ve had on the road that have reminded you of why you’re doing this?
Dude, just the last show coming out of Boise, ID. You play a show, get in line to jump in the shower and get out there because you know there will be a handful of people hanging out.

Walking to my bus, we ended up hanging out for another 45 minutes to an hour at 1:30 in the morning right on the streets of Idaho. All of a sudden, I’m hanging out with ten people and we’re talking about the Lord. You have some guys that are Christians, some pastor’s kids that are sick of Christianity, then you have bikers that believe in Jesus but have their own take on stuff. But it was an awesome, open conversation. One biker was telling me that he loves God and believes in Jesus but isn’t perfect and doesn’t know if he’s going to heaven or hell. It’s conversation. That’s how it starts. I don’t go out to pat myself on the back to see how many people I can lead to the Lord so I can report it to the church.

You just have conversations with people and find out their stories. You listen to people. Half the time, I can’t talk anyway because my throat’s hurting. You just have to listen. People start sharing with you. How do I know their story unless I listen? They want to tell (you): “Your band means so much to me. It helped me. This is the first time I’ve seen you in 23 years.” And they have a story over the past 23 years they want to let you know.

It’s awesome, man. You get to encourage the guys from the church that are struggling and trying to make sense of it and you get to encourage the guy that doesn’t think he’s good enough to go to heaven. You bring it all back to faith in Jesus and what He has done, not what we’ve done. As long as you come at them in love, it’s awesome man. Even the guys going, “What are you doing touring with ICP and the Juggalos?” We’re like, this is an awesome opportunity, man. It opens up conversation. It’s great. You get enough fuel and energy in your tank that you keep going.

On the flipside, what have your fans taught you about God?
It’s such an unbalance of things, in a good way. The moment you leave your community of faith and believers, you find out that Christianity is different all around the world. Jesus is the same, but Christianity is different all around the world, and everybody thinks they’re right. No matter who you talk to, everybody is right. Their way is right. Their denomination is right. Their church is right. Their ministry is right.

In fact, they have the ONLY right ministry.
(Laughs) Yeah! The only thing that remains the same, the only thing that is true is Jesus. You meet those believers that make you bitter and make you want to give up (on Christianity) because they’re “right” and “perfect.” They got it all figured out.

And then you meet those that are honest and vulnerable, going through life’s struggles, not claiming to be holy and righteous. They’re just broken. They love Jesus and want to keep going and don’t want to mess up. You learn from that, too. I’m encouraged by this, strengthened by this. And then there are things you see and you don’t want to be like that. I don’t want to be judgmental. I don’t want to be hypocritical. I don’t want to be lacking in love or grace. I don’t even want to be right all the time! I still want to learn, man. I still want to change.

It’s hard to learn when you assume you have all the answers.
Yeah, but the majority of people that continue to come out to shows get it. At least we don’t get people out there picketing us anymore. We get the people that actually paid for a ticket. People who love the band and still pray for (us) all the time. Those things are always encouraging and lift us up.

Now that you mention it, the last time I saw P.O.D. in concert was 2006 in Columbus. There was a group picketing the show. One guy had bagpipes and would play “Amazing Grace” between shouting Bible verses against P.O.D. It was weird. The bagpipes were kind of cool though.
Yeah, it’s crazy man. But I’m grateful and thankful people keep coming out to shows and showing us love. When we play, I’m still always looking for those people that want to have real conversations. I still love hearing about lives that have been changed by God and by this music. I’m thankful for everyone still paying attention.

Now that you’ve been talking about fans sharing stories, I have something. Back in 2004, P.O.D. was on a headlining tour with Blindside and Hazen St. I was in youth group at the time and only listened to Christian music. P.O.D. was cool because my non-Christian friends knew who they were. It was a big deal to me to make it out to the tour. The show date was in Columbus. The afternoon of the show, I got a call from my dad who teased me by joking that the show is cancelled. A few hours later, he heard that it actually was cancelled because you broke your back stagediving. I was bummed.

Because my dad felt kind of bad about me being disappointed, he decided to take me to Cornerstone Festival that year because P.O.D. was headlining. We probably never would have gone otherwise. I went every year after that. Cornerstone probably became the single most influential place in my life. That’s where I met some of my closest friends, where I started reading HM and where I found like-minded Christians. It changed my life.

All of this happened because you broke your back and had to cancel a show in Columbus.
(Laughs) Oh, crazy. Cornerstone was awesome, man. It did the same thing for me. Getting over there for the first time in ’94, it was like “Wow! There are all kinds of crazy Christians. This is cool.” That music was new for me, as well. We were playing with secular bands, but these were some great Christian bands! It was awesome. You meet people like you. I can dig it.

P.O.D. was posted on October 22, 2015 for HM Magazine and authored by .