The ’90s were dominated by an alt rock explosion, but as the decade came to a close there was a shift in sound to a harder edge. One of the leaders of this heavier sound was a young band out of Chicago who called themselves Disturbed, and on March 7, 2000, they released their debut album, The Sickness. Over the next few years, The Sickness spread throughout the rock world and became a multiplatinum smash.
“People think it was like this meteoric rise. It really wasn’t,” frontman David Draiman told us. He recalls, “We beat the hell out of ourselves for two or three years as a local band, our own self promotional mega machine, every band member in a different venue of the city every time a rock show would come through town, passing out our promotional material — cassettes, stickers, t-shirts, whatever we could. [This was] in addition to playing strategically where we thought it made sense and in addition to building our following on the south side of Chicago. So there was a long period of time before that and a lot of struggle in a city that wasn’t conducive to hard rock and heavy metal. Chicago was an alternative town. It was Smashing Pumpkins, Local H. It was not metal. So we were blacklisted. We couldn’t even play inner city clubs. We weren’t cool enough. We were too metal. That was something that wasn’t considered cool enough. We had to force our way in.”
But persistence eventually paid off as a late ’90s shift in sound found labels moving on from grunge and looking for something heavier on the rock side. Eventually a label called Giant came calling and Disturbed got their big break.
With a record deal in place, the group refined their sound ahead of recording. Guitarist Dan Donegan told Guitar World that while guitar solos have found their way into more recent recordings, he stepped away from it early in the band’s career. “In the beginning, before we were even signed, I’d solo all over the place and it didn’t really work, so I pretty much cut out the solos altogether until the last album or two. That’s the way it’s worked with us. Over time we’ve pushed each other to become better musicians,” said the guitarist.
Meanwhile, Draiman was becoming comfortable with the themes he was writing about even if it did unnerve him a bit. “It’s very frightening,” said Draiman to the Phoenix New Times. “Because here you go, you’ve decided to be open and bare a part of your soul to these people, and lay it out on a platter for them to observe. So until you know that the listeners are getting any part of what you’re saying, it’s incredibly frightening.”
Joining Draiman and Donegan in the group was a powerful rhythm section — Mike Wengren on drums and a bassist named Steve Kmak who went under the moniker Fuzz on bass. After their signing, the band turned to another Windy City denizen to help them realize their vision. Producer Johnny K had gone to high school with Donegan’s brother and a relationship formed over the years. By the time The Sickness came around, there was already a bond and the band went to bat for the relatively unknown Johnny K. to produce their album.
He told Guitar Edge, “They fought hard to get me to do their record. They didn’t want to go to L.A. and make a record that wouldn’t be any better than their demos. I felt that with a budget and time, I could make a record everyone would really like. I told them, ‘If I demo you, I want you to go to bat for me [with the label],’ and they did with no contracts or production deals. It was a great thing and I can’t say enough good things about them. It’s your break, everyone wants one, and they made it happen for me. We all worked really hard to make the record as good as it could be. I pushed them as hard as I could, and we felt successful before it sold one copy. All of that hard work, and the fact that they are such a good band, made it easy for me to get other jobs. People liked it and would say, ‘Who did the Disturbed album? Let’s get him.'”
As 1999 progressed, the band chipped away at their debut disc and on March 7, 2000, the album finally arrived. But as Draiman stated earlier, it wasn’t an instant success. The band started off by releasing the single ” Stupify” in April of 2000. “[It] was actually a hard sell at radio,” Draiman told us. “It’s not like it shot up. They worked it. Giant Records at the time, they worked it. They pushed it to where it got enough awareness that it did start to chart decently.” The track addressed themes of racism and discrimination, loosely based on one of Draiman’s own experiences. It would climb to No. 12 on the Mainstream Rock chart and No. 10 at Modern Rock and remains one of their most well-known hits.
” Voices” got the next look from the album and it too enjoyed a solid but modest run at radio. Dealing with the lyrical theme of insanity, the track delves into psychosis of the mind. Helping to sell the point, in the early days of the band’s performances, Draiman would be wheeled onto a stage in a straitjacket and muzzle much like the film character Hannibal Lecter, before breaking free to perform the track. “Voices” would reach No. 16 on the Mainstream Rock chart and No. 18 at Modern Rock.
It was their third single, ” Down With the Sickness,” that finally solidified Disturbed as a force. With the tribal beat from Wengren and chugging guitars from Donegan, the song pulled in listeners even before Draiman’s animalistic sounds. The vocalist told MTV2, “That noise just kind of came one day. The song originally was written and it just had a pause. Mike, his beat is just so tribal, and it just kind of made me feel like an animal.” While the meaning behind the lyrics has been debated, Draiman says the lyrics are merely inspired by personal history and not a literal interpretation of his own upbringing. He told the Phoenix New Times, “I’m really talking about the conflict between the mother culture of society, who’s beating down the child yearning for independence and individuality, and the submission of the child.”
The rocker went on to state, “It’s kind of weird, because I try to write these songs cryptically, so that it’s open to self-interpretation. But then, so many people take the songs literally. I mean, what do you do about all these kids who are thanking you for dealing with abuse in one of your songs, when that really wasn’t the point? There were so many kids who found greater meaning in the literal notion of thinking that it was about a specific abuse situation, that I finally had to let go of my grander notions and just say Have at it.’ I’m not going to tell you what this song should make you feel. If that’s how it makes you feel, and it helps you deal with that situation and come to terms with it, then use it. That’s what music is for.”
Reflecting on the success of the song, Draiman credits it for catapulting their career. “That’s when things really took a significant, dramatic shift because that song resonated with so many people,” said the vocalist. “It became such a worldwide phenomenon that really took things to the next level for us. Then things became slightly meteoric. But it wasn’t until really the tail end of the cycle.”
The album also featured a few other standout tracks. ” The Game” kept things rolling at radio into 2001 and the electronic-sounding, aggressive rocker showcased a more industrial feel to their sound. Meanwhile, Disturbed took Tears for Fears ’80s nu wave classic “Shout” and made it uniquely their own. ” Shout 2000″ had a darker, heavier vibe while Draiman’s vocals kept the anthemic qualities that made the original such a fan favorite intact.
And while the music sold itself, the band took no chances, proving themselves to be road warriors. Much like their early days of strategically picking Chicago venues to target, the band made the most of their touring in support of The Sickness, working in back-to-back Ozzfest appearances, opening dates for Black Sabbath and launching their own Music As a Weapon trek for maximum impact.
Once asked about the meaning of The Sickness album title, Draiman told KNAC, “It represents the philosophy of individuality, the development of self, and finding the things in life that you are passionate about that brings you meaning.” That passion in the band’s own life resulted in one of the most highly regarded debuts in rock history. The Sickness only topped out at No. 29 on the Billboard 200 Album Charts, and it is the only one of the band’s studio albums not to reach No. 1. However, it remains their best-selling album, having been certified four-times platinum by the RIAA.
David Draiman Reflects on The Sickness Album