Sal Costa is cooking — literally. Having just returned from a trip to the grocery store, he’s at home in his kitchen, answering questions while preparing a meal. “I’m making organic quinoa pasta,” he offers, running through a list of just-purchased ingredients. “We’ve got mushrooms, basil, onions, quinoa spaghetti, garlic, tomato sauce and a whole lotta love.”
Costa puts “a whole lotta love” into everything he takes on, whether it’s culinary work, music or the many causes he embraces and defends. As another year of touring with My Darkest Days winds down, having crossed the U.S. and Canada several times behind the band’s most recent album, Sick and Twisted Affair, Costa settled in to discuss a variety of projects, from cooking to playing guitar to fighting Canada’s Breed Specific Legislation.
Who taught you to cook?
I’m Italian, it’s kind of you have no choice. When I was a kid and I would go to my friends’ houses for lunch or dinner, it was always order pizza, microwave dinners, order Chinese food. When friends would come to my house they’d say, “Does this happen in your house all the time? A man and woman who constantly cook?” I said, “Yeah, Italians are passionate about their food.” My parents grew all their own vegetables.
Did that shape you in terms of your search for organic food? You eat constantly and talk about food a lot, but you look for healthy food.
I would say a good 90 percent of it is from that. I used to be a football player. I was much heavier; I lifted heavy weights. That was in high school. I got into nutrition and reading labels. I would go to the grocery store and buy tomato sauce and, “What are all of these things?” My parents used, literally, tomatoes and basil. I started to question that, and over the last ten years I’ve been into researching and understanding why there are certain preservatives in our food. My parents never chose to be organic. They just were by nature. They grew their own food; everything was fresh. When I talk to them about organic, they still don’t get it because to them it’s always been organic. “What do you mean? We grew this in our backyard.” So it’s a huge part of it for sure.
How difficult is that on the road?
It can be very, very difficult. I’m vegan, it’s been about half a year now, and it’s in the rider: there has to be a vegan meal in catering. If there’s not, I’ll go out and find a natural foods store, or I go to a restaurant and find something I can make into a vegan option. If there’s nothing around but a pizza place, I will go there and ask if there’s any egg or dairy in the crust, and if not, I ask for tomato sauce and every vegetable, no cheese. I learned to adapt, and my conscience feels way cleaner and so does my body.
How much mass did you gain playing football?
I did martial arts for maybe seven years, and that really leaned out my body. I started playing football, I was a defensive back, and in those positions you need to be very agile and quick, but you still need to have quite a bit of power to tackle. I played running back as well. I’m 5’10, and I would say I’m 122 or 123 pounds now, and I was probably closer to 170 then. I wasn’t a muscle man by any means, but I was much thicker and I ate way more protein. I did lower reps with higher weight and I tried to bulk up.
You’re 122 at 5’10? But you’re always eating!
I eat twice as much as everyone in my band, and on tour, if anyone needs to find me, they say, “Go to catering. He’s most likely there.” I eat all the time. I just don’t eat crap. Your body digests the food much quicker. I’m starving every hour and a half and I have to eat. I was a chubby kid. I have pictures of me when I was 8 or 9 years old and I was overweight. Now I do yoga and stretches and meditate and do a lot of calisthenics, like sit-ups and pushups using my own body weight, and that is what has happened to me. I don’t feel sick. I always feel good and high-energy. I guess for what I do it’s how my body ends up reacting to it. I could eat chips all day and put on weight, which I have done before, but I don’t do that. I’m very disciplined. When I put something in my head, it happens, and if I decide not to eat junk food, it’s not because I’m worried about gaining weight. It’s because I don’t want to put unhealthy things in my body. A large portion of people I know who stick to a healthy diet have similar bodies to me. It just takes a lot of discipline. So yes, I’m very skinny and sometimes people say I’m too skinny, but I don’t want to change my diet because I feel good.
What are your protein sources?
I think politics have quite a bit to do with our perception of what protein is. When people think of protein, automatically they think of meat, red meat specifically, or lean white meat and lots of it. A lot of people don’t realize that the FDA and the people who create our American and Canadian food guides are funded by the biggest companies in the world, which are beef and meat companies. So when we’re getting this information, it’s very altered. You can eat a quinoa salad that has just as much protein as a steak, but it digests quicker, it’s cleaner for your body, and you’re not harming an animal. If you’re going to make a salad and you add chickpeas, beans, quinoa and dark greens, you get carbs, protein, vegetables, vitamins, nutrients, fiber and protein. People see this grain and say, “It’s not a steak.” It’s just our way of thinking. You can look on the back of a package and do the math yourself. It’s just not advertised. I’m constantly making sure I get enough protein and fiber, and if you do the research and find out what you can eat that gives you those types of vitamins, it’s not that hard.
How did martial arts help discipline you?
Everyone knows I was hugely inspired by Slash and all those great musicians, but what most people don’t know is that one of my biggest, biggest influences ever was Bruce Lee. I remember watching videos of him and I was in awe at how much dexterity and focus went into his incredible agility. He was just over 5 feet tall, weighed less than I did and could completely take over a man three times his size. I really wanted to be like Bruce Lee in terms of having that ability, so I started going to martial arts. I studied Tai Kwon Do from a master who was in the Korean Special Forces. He was like a ninja. I would go five to six days a week for a few hours every day and it really, really makes you focus. For example, we would meditate every day, we would have to stretch every day, and the stretches are very intense, but if you don’t do them you won’t be able to do the kicks, so it really focuses on making your body do things that naturally you are probably not able to do. It focused me so much and got me in great physical shape, and it built a lot of confidence. Now I don’t practice martial arts anymore; unfortunately, I don’t have the time to commit to it. I still stretch every day. What I took from it is treating my body well, stretching and keeping my body in a good state of dexterity and flexibility.
How has all of this helped you on the road?
It’s very difficult. For example, everybody will make fun of me on tour, because after the show, people come into our room to collect our gear so we can go out, and I’m in shorts, stretching or meditating. It’s focus. It’s very difficult sometimes. A lot of times I feel like quite an outcast in this field. There are more people becoming aware of health, but at times there’s a giant party going on and I’m in the dressing room by myself, stretching and focusing on my body and eating well and being healthy. I think that’s more the difficult side — being able to do it in a situation that is sometimes not the most peaceful. I can’t do that outside the venue. I can’t do it on the bus. Our changing room — the band and people are coming in and out. That’s the challenge for me, finding the space and quiet time to do it. People always say I disappear for hours, and I have to for my own sanity and what I want to accomplish. When we’re on tour, I try to find out if there’s an extra room where I can practice guitar and meditate. Sometimes there is, most of the time no, and sometimes I hang back in the hotel for a few hours.
Do you still lift?
No, not at all. Not that I think it’s a bad thing. It was just very hard to maintain on the road. I would come home and get into a great lifting schedule, then I’d go on the road and it would be hard to get to gyms, to get the same equipment, and I felt I couldn’t be as committed. I went back ten years and rethought all the calisthenic workouts I did in martial arts — lots of pushups, lots of sit-ups. I have elastic bands with handles to do different types of exercises, mainly using my own body weight. That’s something I can do anywhere.
You auctioned a guitar during the Nickelback tour to raise funds for breast cancer research. How did all of that come together?
My cousin Dominic and I are the same age. We went to the same high school, we were best friends and inseparable. My uncle, his dad, was very close to me. Our families would go on vacation together. We were like one family. I watched him die of cancer from when I was 15 until I was 17. I watched a big, strong, 190-pound man who used to work out become a 90-pound man. I was there, I watched him physically take his last breath. After that happened, I couldn’t believe how ridiculous the idea of this disease — how it can just take a completely functioning, loving human being with so much to offer the world and whittle them down to nothing. A few years after that, my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. The whole previous experience horrified me. It’s what probably started to develop a lot of my panic and anxiety disorders that I went through afterward. I saw my grandmother diagnosed and right away all these thoughts went through my head about how close we were, how she raised me, and I couldn’t see it happen to another loved one. Luckily, my grandmother caught this on time and she is a survivor, so to pay homage to my grandmother and raise awareness for women to get checked, and men, I wanted to create a guitar to bring awareness. I teamed up with Kramer and asked if they could make a custom Flying V with all of my usual specifications. They put it together, I looked into a bunch of organizations and hooked up with Rethink Breast Cancer. Someone at Gibson told me to check them out, I met with them, and they were very excited about the idea and I was as well. We created this guitar, I played it every night on the U.S. tour and every member of Nickelback, Seether, Bush and My Darkest Days signed it. We auctioned it off, it was bought by somebody for $5300, the money goes to Rethink Breast Cancer’s research and development, and the person who bought the guitar gets a piece of rock memorabilia that was played on tour.
On the scale of grand touring, was this the biggest so far in terms of venue and audiences sizes? How was it being on tour with Nickelback, given Chad’s longstanding working relationship with My Darkest Days?
Yes, absolutely. It was really, really amazing to play venues like Madison Square Garden and Joe Louis Arena. I grew up going to concerts in Toronto at the Air Canada Center, so to play there, the whole experience was extremely surreal. It was amazing. There was no pressure at all. Chad seemed really proud. He hadn’t seen us play as a band in a really long time and it was cool for him to see what we’ve turned into as a show. We had a good time, we hung out a lot, it was a very enjoyable environment.
How do you communicate with fans in venues that size?
I always say that when you’re playing a bar, you want the people to feel like they’re at an arena show, and when you play an arena, you want everyone to feel like they’re in a bar. So no matter what situation I’m in, I’m always trying to obtain the opposite experience. When I go into an arena setting, I’m always trying to make people feel like they’re right there in front of us. I want everybody to feel like they can touch my hand. When we play bars, you want people to feel like they paid the admission to see an arena show. When you put that mentality in your mind, the energy transfers into the audience. It was different, definitely. We’ve done big festivals with 60,000 people, so we’ve played in front of large audiences before, but indoors it’s much different. Outdoors, people are there to go crazy and drink and barbeque and have a good time. It’s an experience. In an arena they’re there to watch and take in the atmosphere, so it took a little while for us to feel out the audience, and the audience is different every night, so we got better at reading them and giving the performance that came most naturally in front of the people we were playing for every night.
You’re now endorsing Blackstar amplifiers. How did that come about?
One of the head reps came to a show. We had lost our guitar tech and Bush’s guitar tech was teching for me. I was warming up onstage before the show and Herb, the tech, called me over and introduced me to Phil Jaurigui from Blackstar and told him that he thought I would be great for their company. Phil said he would watch the show, get a feel for my playing and send me two amps. Two weeks later, he called to tell me the amps were showing up that day at the venue. I completely fell in love with them and we went from there. He sent a few. I’m using the Series One 100 right now and it’s a super bad-ass amp. I brought one home and I’ve been using it to mess around and record and it’s giving me every sound I want. I used to run a few amps onstage and it’s eliminated every amp I had. I’m running one Blackstar now and one backup for it, where before I had several amps for different sounds. It’s also eliminated a few pedals that were in my rig that I used to compensate certain frequencies and sounds that this one has been giving me.
What is in your signal chain now?
I run into a wah pedal into my Blackstar head. I have a Midi pedalboard. I don’t have the Wobo anymore. I would definitely use it again, but this one is so old and the guy takes a very long time because he custom-makes all of them. So right now I’m using a Voodoo Labs foot controller and a few effects pedals and that’s pretty much it.
What do you look for in an amp?
My style of playing is kind of like a blend of ’70s all the way to modern, so if I would want to go into a bluesier-type, less distorted, more clean, overdriven-type solo, I would want to use an amp more of that style and era to get that sound live, but usually that amp can just do that. Jimmy Page would use the Marshall sound; those players, their sound was a Les Paul plugged into that Marshall head. Sometimes I would want that sound, so I had my old Marshall with me. But I would go into a heavy riff, more reminiscent of Metallica and that heavy sound, and I would want to use a Mesa Boogie head. But the Mesa doesn’t give you what the Marshall gives you. I ended up having all these heads going through all these signal chains. I got the Blackstar and it’s four channels and every channel is like having a different amp. The amp is huge. It weighs so much. The power tubes are massive, so all of these channels are being powered by these giant tubes. I have been able to use this amp to get every tone I want. I’m very picky, which is why I have so many amps in the first place. I tried a different Blackstar before I met Phil. At Guitar World I did their “Lick of the Day” in New York. I went upstairs to record and you’re only allowed to use what’s there. I was upset that I wouldn’t get my tone. My sound is part of what I do, and the engineer that was recording me said, “Trust me. We’ve got this Blackstar head, it can get any sound you want.” I said, That’s bulls–t, but whatever.” I plugged in, I did three licks — a metal, a blues and a rock — and within seconds I dialed in the correct tones and I said, “You weren’t kidding.” That was my first experience with one and I fell in love with it.
What’s going on with Road Eatz?
We’ve been in a lot of meetings about the show and we’re trying to find the right network and team to continue. We’re still developing the show and the pilot. We’ve had to create a few different episodes that haven’t been shown to anyone and have just been sent to networks. If it gets picked up by a food network we’re going to have to clean up the dialogue, but if it’s a music network it can be raunchy and funny. So we’re dialing in a bunch of different versions and trying to solidify the direction we want to take it in. There’s a lot of interest in it and we’re working on it, so it will be interesting to see what happens. It takes a long while to put together a show. It’s like putting together a band and getting a record deal, so I’ve been through this process before and we’re going through it again.
How challenging it is to find places to eat and try food now that you are vegan?
Usually they will make something. A lot of people have learned from me ordering a weird meal and they’ll try it and they didn’t know people could eat that way. I would say that 85 percent of the people I run into don’t know what it is, and that can be difficult. I was at a restaurant that had a vegan option a few weeks ago and the owners of the restaurant made me a vegan wrap and told me there was mayonnaise and cheese in it, which is eggs and dairy. I asked them if they knew what vegan meant, and it’s cool if they don’t, but you should learn before you advertise it as one of your features, because I came here to get this advertised vegan meal. That’s been a weird thing for me — some people have no idea what it is and they ask, “Is it a religion?”
Recently, you began posting about breed-specific legislation. When did this come to your attention? Do you presently have a companion animal?
I have a cat, and whenever we stop touring this record and I have actual time off, I’m going to try to find a rescue dog. I’ve always been a huge fan of bully breeds. I had a Boston terrier, and again, it’s unfortunate that people just believe blindly sometimes, whether it’s a religion or some type of law or the news or media. People have the ability to research and create their own opinions and their own information and they choose not to. I can speak for Ontario because I was there when pit bulls were banned in Ontario. Out of the blue, over a span of about six months, there was an outbreak of pit bull attacks. Now, first of all, I don’t understand how that can happen that one breed starts going insane and everybody’s dog starts attacking people. It didn’t make sense to me. In Ontario it happened to be around the time of an election, and everyone was looking to grab ways to make themselves look like a hero, the politicians. I was in high school and researching the attacks and I’d look at the pictures and say, “That’s not a pit bull. That’s an American bulldog,” or “That’s a rottweiler mix. What the hell is going on here? How is this one breed getting pinned as a man-eater?” It really upset me because I feel like, in general, people are told something and they just believe it, and if they’re told that a certain person or animal is bad, then everyone teams up together and, “Oh, we have to do something about this,” and now these dogs are being killed, you’re not allowed to own them.
No pun intended, but I’ve always been one to stick up for the underdog and just encourage people to do their research. The dog, if you look at its history, was actually called the nanny dog because people would trust this breed enough, because they’re super-loyal to their owners, to watch the babies and children. Although they’re very powerful and very strong animals, it doesn’t mean that they are man-eaters and that they will kill somebody. Another issue with the breed was the fact that because of its power and its undying passion for its owner, it will do anything you tell it to do. Now, if you teach a Shih Tzu to do something horrible, the outcome isn’t going to be so bad because it’s a small dog, pretty weak, but pit bulls are strong dogs, and in the wrong hands it can be a very, very dangerous animal, but so can any other dog.
The problem is they started breeding pit bulls in back yards. There was an area 20 minutes from where I live where people were breeding them in their backyards constantly, mostly for dog fighting, taking these animals, who have a lot of strength and tenacity and will do anything for their owners, and it became overpopulated dogs in low-income areas and people using them for terrible things. The few attacks were from those areas and those owners. They weren’t people like my brother-in-law, whose pit bull is a family pet and is the most docile, loving dog. That dog isn’t biting. It’s sad, because the people get way less of a sentence than the animals. They’re getting a tap on the wrist, and the dog, which is just doing what it was told to do, is being murdered and the dogs that are just associated with them are being put down and taken away from families and being banned. It has really upset me because I don’t like when people put blind faith into our government. I think that’s when things turn terrible for the economy and for society, and to me it wasn’t the right thing to do. So I contacted some politicians in Ontario who are trying to uplift the ban, and essentially I’m trying to work with them in the best way I can. The only thing you can do is get enough people on your side to say, “We don’t want these animals banned anymore.”
You’re involved with so many things. How do you divide your time equally, manage it properly and prioritize?
I’ve actually been in talks with a lot of organizations for a campaign I’m trying to put together as well. I’ve asked myself many times how I will have time for anything else, but I feel like I was put on the earth for more than just selfish living. I think I was given the musical ability to get myself to a point where I was recognized as a musician, but that was part of my life goal. The other part of my life goal was to use that platform to reach out to a greater amount of people. I decided over time that that’s how I want to live my life. Maybe I won’t get to spend as much time going to the movies and doing extracurricular stuff, but that time is going to something much greater, so it’s going to take over my life, but if my one life can help other lives, it’s worth it in the end.
How difficult is it to find friends who understand and support you?
Just being real and 100 percent honest, I have hundreds of acquaintances, but very few friends that I would consider real. To me, my real friends aren’t people that necessarily agree with me, but they don’t patronize what I think and I don’t do that to them. I believe in equality and freedom of speech and the ability to form your own opinions based on the knowledge that’s in front of you. I don’t distance myself from anybody who doesn’t agree with me, because that would contradict everything I believe in. However, the people who are very close to me hear me out and listen to me and they love me unconditionally for who I am. Some of them are the type who say, “Here he goes again,” but they still love and respect me. It’s very hard to find people that are just true and real, and sometimes the people that are true and real don’t believe what you believe. They’re being true and real as well. I have very smart friends with great perspectives and I learn a lot from them.
How are you doing in the midst of this?
I’m an outcast in my field, and there are times when I feel so out of place in many situations. In previous times I might have gone through a depression or become very anxious. Sometimes it still happens to me, because in the moment you can’t control your emotions. What you always have to do is sit back, take an objective view of the situation and think, These are the bad things and these are the great things. If you take the time to do that, you will see that there are way more great things coming out of the situation than bad. You can never get stuck in the eye of the storm, because the storm passes and you don’t want to stay there when it does. I think everybody goes through some type of emotional turmoil, whether you want to call it anxiety or depression. Not one person doesn’t go through some type of turmoil. If a person like that exists, I wouldn’t call them a human being. When people go through these things, you always need to think that this moment that is happening is going to pass, and when it does, there is a world full of opportunities that are right in front of you.
You’re very open on Facebook. Do you ever feel that you’ve said too much or revealed too much personal information?
People tell me I’m going to kill the mystique. I say f–k the mystique; I’m a human being. When I was growing up, “rock stars” were like gods, they were untouchable, and people see them as more worthy and better. To me, that creates the mystique of the rock star and athlete. As much as I want to be respected as a musician and tour the world and do all these great things musically and for my career, at the same time, when people tell me that I’m killing the mystique, well, so what? I don’t want people to not think I’m human. Part of my journey is to help other people, and how can anyone relate to someone they don’t think is a person? I want people to always know that I’m no different. You can relate to me and I can relate to you because we’re exactly the same. I see mega-celebrities who never interact with their fans and then come up with this message. How can you do that? How is that fair? These people don’t look at you as a person. They only see you at the shows. They never see you or hear from you. You put yourself in a situation where you’re on a pedestal and then you put out a message that means nothing because people don’t look at you as a human. They look at you as a super-hero. I don’t want people to see me that way. I want them to always see me as a human being first. At the same time, having some level of celebrity and whatnot, you expose yourself to dangerous situations, and that’s why social media has been great. It allows me to express myself and reach out to a vast number of people in a safe way.
Read Sal Costa’s previous interviews at the links below.
Special thanks to Sarah Dunbar, Music Binge Photography, for graciously providing additional images of Sal Costa and My Darkest Days.