There has been a lot of noise around Breaking Benjamin for the past five years, but unfortunately for the multi-platinum-selling heavy rock band's rabid fan base, none of it was in the form of new music.
An intra-band dispute over the inclusion of certain material on a greatest hits package led to a lawsuit and frontman Ben Burnley dismissing original guitarist Aaron Fink and longtime bassist Mark James.
Combine those events with Burnley's ongoing health issues, and you couldn't blame the Pennsylvania-born band's followers for feeling that Breaking Benjamin's future was in jeopardy.
With the lawsuit resolved, however, Burnley has moved forward with the band and put together a new group of musicians to accompany him in Breaking Benjamin - Jasen Rauch (guitar), who comes to the group from alternative hard rockers Red; Keith Wallen (guitar, backing vocals), formerly of Adelita's Way; Aaron Bruch (bass, backing vocals); and Shaun Foist (drums), previously with Picture Me Broken. The band will release an aptly titled new album, "Dark Before Dawn," on June 23.
Despite the drastic changes to the lineup - Burnley is the only holdover from the original group or the configuration that recorded the band's most recent album, 2009's "Dear Agony" - the outfit's fan base has welcomed back Breaking Benjamin with roaring approval: recent shows have included sold-out headlining concerts, as well as slots at larger festivals like Rocklahoma and Rock On The Range, and "Dark Before Dawn's" first single, "Failure," released in May, topped Billboard's Mainstream Rock Songs chart and cracked rock radio's Top 10.
In an exclusive interview with HNGN, Burnley responds to the recent return to success, saying, "We're just really grateful to be able to continue to do what we do."
That humility, however, should not be mistaken for a lack of confidence. He adds: "I wouldn't have put the band back together if it wasn't a better version of the band."
Backing up his assertion, Burnley stresses the current lineup's versatility on stage, saying, "there's just factual things that make the band better, like background vocals" and the fact that the group no longer plays to backing tracks - pre-recorded sounds that allow artists to recreate their albums during concerts.
"Fans are seeing that the band is better than it ever was and are responding that way to us, so we don't have any feelings of entitlement or anything like that," he says. "We're just grateful to be able to do it together because we're all friends and we all want this band to be the best that it can possibly be, so that's what we're bringing when we go out and play, and that's why people are responding so great to us."
Asked if it feels better to perform with the new incarnation, Burnley answers, "oh, absolutely."
"Because nobody was really a singer, except me, and when I hired new guys to play in the band, I basically just scoured all of my friends, and picked out, like, 'Oh, this guy is an awesome singer, this guy's an awesome singer, this guy's a great writer and guitar player,' so on and so forth, so it was a really conscious decision to put everyone that's in the band," he explains.
While Burnley goes on to talk about a guitar synthesizer that allows the band to play orchestral strings and choir in real-time rather than via backing tracks and technology that allows Foist to trigger sonic augmentation from his spot behind the drum kit, there seems to be an underlying sense of relief and renewal that lingers in his voice that has nothing to do with the Roland GR-55 or a V kit.
"The conflict between the ex-members sort of arose, to me, in my eyes, as sort of a judgment in character, and so that's sort of what I'd been dealing with for years and years," he says in a bit of a tangent while discussing his health issues (more on those later). "It really wasn't anywhere near as fulfilling and rounded as now because I'm playing with people who are my friends first that couldn't really care less about [joining] the band because they were doing their own thing. So they're not motivated by money and success, they're motivated by getting together and playing together in a band with friends and going out and having a good time and doing our best to give our best."
The lengthy hiatus since Breaking Benjamin's previous albums and related tour dates was not time spent entirely on litigation. Burnley, who had revealed publicly that he had battled alcoholism, has been dealing with health issues since at least the making of - again, aptly titled - "Dear Agony," which features a scan of his brain on the cover.
"Unfortunately I got absolutely zero answers from the medical community," says Burnley. "I did a lot in the time that I was off to try to get some answers, and the medical community is really just a sham, it's flawed, it's not at all what it should be. I'm not the only sick person out there in the world, I'll tell you that, too, but doctors just don't have the answers that society is somehow lead to believe that they do, and I put that responsibility on them because it's up to them to inform people that they don't have all the answers.
"But I basically got nowhere, I'm just as sick now as I've always been, but the sicker I get the more determined I become to not let my sickness hinder me in any way, and with every second that I suffer, my will grows stronger to not let this affect me in anyway. So that's why I'm able to continue on."
There has been some major positive news in Burnley's personal life, however: last year, his first child, Benjamin Jackson Burnley V, was born. When we ask if fatherhood has changed him, the singer, songwriter and guitarist says, "I'll be the first to admit that when I'm saying something it's totally cliché." "So all I can really say or my stance on it is that all of the stuff that people say is true, and I don't need to say it because it's been said a thousand times before, and everybody's children are the best thing that's ever happened to them, yadda yadda yadda, so it's no different for me," he shares.
It's not out of the ordinary for a songwriter to draw inspiration from his personal life, but Burnley's life and art have often collided in obvious ways. There's the aforementioned brain scan on the "Dear Agony" cover, the sonogram image of his son worked into the cover image for "Dark Before Dawn," and the title of Breaking Benjamin's 2006 album, "Phobia," which opens with airport sound effects; Burnley's fear of flying has kept the band from ever performing overseas.
"We've actually been talking about that quite a bit recently, because it's something that I feel strongly that I really want to do," he says. "I'm definitely on board to take a boat and go overseas, so as we speak we're planning way ahead of time to see what we need to do to make that happen."