AARON LEWIS’ FINGERS fumble around a small glass ashtray cluttered with Newport butts until he grabs the inch-long remainder of an extinguished joint. In the grip of the Staind singer, such a find rarely goes unsmoked, but this one stays cold and dead. Lewis – his five o’clock shadow nearly as long as the prickly black stubble on his shaved head – is slouched on the black leather bench in the front of his tour bus, fidgeting distractedly with the crumpled roach. With his other hand, he twists the small silver ring piercing his left eyebrow and then buries his head in the crook of his arm, his gaze directed no place in particular – at the floor, at the ceiling, anywhere safe from eye contact. For a full minute, he is perfectly silent.
A typical conversation with Lewis is filled with such silences – awkward, drawn-out moments when the twenty-nine-year-old lingers in contemplation. When he does speak, Lewis goes slowly, sounding exhausted by the endeavor of choosing words. His voice, a soft baritone, is punctuated by the hint of a lisp, and his train of thought often derails as he works his way through his sentences. “I’m not a very good conversationalist,” he admits.
Staind are due onstage at the Polaris Amphitheater in Columbus, Ohio, in less than an hour. The concert, a radio festival thrown by local station WBZX, is only the band’s third show since learning that its new album, Break the Cycle, sold more than 700,000 copies in its first week, knocking Tool out of the Number One spot on the album charts. Guitarist Mike Mushok was at a mall in Norfolk, Virginia, when Elektra Records head Sylvia Rhone called him with the news. “I started crying,” he remembers. “I could cry right now, because I can’t even believe it.” Mushok immediately called Lewis, who was out on the links with drummer Jon Wysocki, a devoted golfer. Later that day, all three went out and bought themselves Rolexes to celebrate.
Yet the success of Break the Cycle – an album of dark rants and brutally confessional ballads – has Lewis baffled. “All I did was be extremely honest with myself and put it in songs, and here I am,” he says after one of his long pauses. “Never in my music have I pretended that things were all right. I might have done that in life, just to get through. But in my songs, I’ve always been very candid and straightforward with what I had to say.”
That candor has earned Lewis adulation that extends beyond typical fan behavior, and the band’s most ardent followers treat the singer’s words like the proclamation from the burning bush. In April, a month before Break the Cycle came out, Lewis was stopped by one such fan at a show in Ypsilanti, Michigan. “A kid came up to me in the parking lot who had a full-blown portrait of me tattooed on his arm,” he says with disbelief. The portrait was so detailed, it included the watch Lewis always wears, a gift from his friend Kid Rock. The fan’s tattoo collection also included the word TORMENTED, the title of the band’s 1996 debut, inked in red on his back, and EVERYTHING FALLS APART, a line from Staind’s previous album, Dysfunction, on his forearm. By the time the band rolled back through Detroit in early June, the fan – also named Aaron – had added two more Staind-related tats. While hovering around the catering table, Lewis gave the kid his watch – a gesture that spoke the volumes Lewis couldn’t otherwise articulate. “It’s really hard for me to talk to fans now,” Lewis says. “It feels like they’re teetering on every word I say.”
He calls the attention “unnerving,” but it’s something he’s had to get used to. He tells two stories that particularly haunt him: After a show at Detroit’s St. Andrews Hall last year, a woman knocked on the door of Staind’s bus and asked to speak with Lewis. She had recently lost her son to suicide, and he had left behind tickets for that night’s show. Overwhelmed, the singer remained secluded on the bus. “It made me feel like she wanted me to give her answers for it,” he says. “I did get a little angry, but I was angry at everything – angry that he killed himself and angry that so many kids feel that’s the only way out.” Lewis later wrote Break the Cycle‘s “Waste” in reaction to the boy’s death: “I’ve had doubts/I have failed/I’ve fucked up/I’ve had plans/Doesn’t mean I should take my life with my own hands.”
And then, just a few months ago, Lewis says, a boy in Peoria, Illinois, felt that Lewis’ words so perfectly summed up his misery that he hanged himself as a tape of his voice singing Staind’s “Outside” ran on a continuous loop. “It’s a heavy weight on my shoulders,” Lewis says. “It’s strange to be put on a pedestal.”