The Big Über Rock Interview: Alan Robert (Life Of Agony) Print E-mail
Written by Jonni D   
Sunday, 14 May 2017 05:00

Life Of Agony has always been a wonderful enigma of a band.  Taking influence from a plethora of musical sources, the band has defied categorization for years, consistently delivering music that is both challenging and utterly unique to them.   However, there have been peaks and valleys throughout the band’s illustrious career. 

 

‘A Place Where There’s No More Pain’ is the band’s first recorded effort in twelve years, following the turbulent experience surrounding their major label release, ‘Broken Valley.’  Although this new album is a resounding creative success, it was a rather long journey to get to this point.   A lot has changed in the interim years, as Alan Robert [bass/songwriting] explains.  Prior to the release of ‘A Place Where There’s No More Pain’, I had the opportunity to speak with Alan about the gradual process that led to the album’s creation, as well as the inspiration behind the music and some of his other rather notable creative endeavours…

 

LoA Alan 1

 

From a fan perspective, it’s always been really interesting just how collaborative the creative process has been in the past for Life Of Agony when it comes to making an album.  It seems that every member has always been fairly involved from a song writing standpoint. Was that still the case this time round?

 

I would say that every song had quite a different origin, actually.  It was a super collaborative record, probably the most collaborative of our career.  To your main point, I guess we decided early on that if all the band members weren’t happy with every single individual part of the record then we wouldn’t use it. And so, everyone had that freedom to voice their opinion whereas in the past…you know, contributing music as a group can sometimes be a sensitive topic, as you can imagine.  Someone can submit an idea they feel really strongly about and maybe someone else doesn’t feel the same way.  Sometimes not to ruffle any feathers, some people don’t open up about their true feelings about it.  But this time around we were all on board to make the absolute best songs.  Everyone spoke their mind.  I think it made for a much better record because we pushed each other to the full potential.

 

And it really shows, it’s definitely an immediate album.  Personally, I find it refreshing that it’s only ten songs long.  It really makes it feel like there’s no filler on there, whereas so many albums these days are released with fourteen/fifteen tracks that maybe could’ve lost a couple along the way.  Did you have more material and whittle it down, or was it always this base core material?

 

I suppose as we were working on it, if a song didn’t feel like it was up to the quality of the rest of the stuff on the record then we just put that idea to the side and chose to work on another thing.  We really only developed the ideas that all four members loved.  All the other material was demoed, but it just didn’t make the cut in the end.

 

 

Obviously, a lot has transpired since ‘Broken Valley’ was released in 2005, with Mina’s [gender] transition and all the hurdles you guys had to go through as a band.  What was it about now that felt right to get some new material out into the world?

 

Well, when we put out ‘Broken Valley’ - man, that was a totally different era for us.  We signed to a major label for the first time and we were extremely disappointed with how Sony handled the band and the album.  I’m not sure if you’re aware but they released that record in 2005, which was the same year they released twelve other titles that they had put illegal spyware on.  They were trying to prevent piracy.  Basically, you would put the CD in your computer, and this was supposed to prevent you from downloading music illegally.  This was Sony’s way of combating the issue, but they got caught.  In America at least, there was a class action lawsuit, so they had to pull all of those records off the shelves.  So we got caught up in all that.  About three months after our record was released in stores, it was completely unavailable.  I mean, you work for a year or more on writing and recording an album, then do all the press and marketing only for the product not to be available.  It was a big kick to the gut for us.  After that, we just went through a period of time where we didn’t want to make new music because of that whole ordeal.  It took us just about twelve years to get over it! [Laughs]  You know, to be inspired again because the state of the music industry was so terrible. 

 

So, did Napalm [Records] contact you guys and make an offer?

 

They did.  We started playing shows again with Mina fronting the band in 2014.  We had such a great time…She was just into the band like I’d never seen her before, just nothing but energy and positivity.  Our fanbase seemed thrilled with it and it was a really great experience for us.  That was really the catalyst to get back out there and to do things on our own terms like in the beginning of our career.  We wanted to be completely hands-on.  I mean, when we travel these days, we do it very similarly to how we did when we first started the band.  It’s really just the four members and one other driver.  We really scaled back our whole entourage, ‘cos we felt that was too much of a distraction for us.  The more people involved, the more drama you’re surrounded by! [Laughs]  I guess we just wanted a real positive and healthy environment for us to have fun.  And all those changes that we made have had a huge difference; we’re all a lot closer personally as friends.  I think that’s why we felt it was the right time to accept the offer from Napalm and make new music, but to do it on our own terms.  Napalm gave us the freedom to write and record this record without their involvement, without them even hearing a demo.  The first time they heard a stitch of music was when the record was completed and mastered when we handed it over.  You really can’t ask for more creative control than that.

 

LoA group 1

 

That was exactly my next question, regarding creative freedom.  With Epic [Records, owned by Sony], did you feel there was kind of a stranglehold there, with a “too many cooks” situation going on?

 

Oh yeah.  They wanted daily updates on songwriting, and do we have enough radio songs…They were kind of trying to mould the band into something that it wasn’t.  You know, they saw a band with an existing fanbase that they didn’t have to nurture, and figured they’d get ‘x’ amount of sales.  But along the way they also wanted us to lean into being a radio rock band, and we don’t really fit into that mould.  Sure, we have some material that you could hear on the radio, but we’re not a Creed or a Nickelback.  It’s a completely different animal.  And so I think they were just looking for us to be that next big radio band, but…we’re just something a little different.  And like I said, they were stifling us and wanted to be very involved in all the decisions, including touring decisions, which led to us partnering up with bands on the ‘Broken Valley’ tour that we probably shouldn’t have.  They were just trying to make everyone else happy except the band itself.  So we’ve learned from those mistakes. We’ve turned the page, and since 2014 we’ve run everything as we see fit for the band.  The connection that we have with the fans doesn’t have any kind of a filter; we run our own social media, so we keep that direct relationship with the fans.  I really this is the record that we needed to make for a long, long time.

 

It’s funny that you mention the radio rock situation.  Ironically, having more freedom has led to you guys writing some massive songs.  I mean, take the title track.  You could imagine that being a huge hit on rock radio if it was given the chance.

 

Well I appreciate that.  I think there is potential on there.  Even going back to some of the earlier albums, we had quite a lot of success on radio with the song ‘Weeds’ [from ‘Soul Searching Sun] and other songs like that.  That was in a time before rock radio was what it ultimately became.  I mean, I don’t listen to rock radio, so I don’t really know…

 

You’re really not missing anything!

 

[Laughs]  I don’t really know what’s appropriate or what’s not for radio.  Like, when they were trying to pick singles off of this record, they sent it to radio folks that know that world.  I think we’re a little out of touch with what’s going on there these days.

 

 

Well, you’re kind of elder statesmen of the alt. metal scene at this point.  Do you guys feel like veterans at this stage, or do you feel a kinship with any of the modern bands?  In the past you’ve felt pretty separate from all that.

 

You know, we’ve always just done our own thing.  Even in our scene when we were coming up, we never really fit anywhere.  We kind of had a metal sound on some of the records and a little bit of hardcore…I mean, we played with metal bands, pop bands, even David Bowie, for Christ sakes!  You know, we’ve played with Foo Fighters, Metallica and Tool.  We just played with Wu Tang a few years ago.  So we kind of fit everywhere and nowhere all at once.  I don’t even know who our contemporaries are! [Laughs]  We always did our own thing, got put on bills that made sense for promoters and seemed to go over with a lot of different crowds.  No complaints.  We have a load of friends all over the place.

 

Being a major songwriter in Life Of Agony, how cathartic was the conception of this album?  Ever since ‘River Runs Red’, all your records have been unflinchingly personal, and ‘A Place Where There’s No More Pain’ seems to continue that.

 

Yeah, this is a deeply personal record.  All of the lyrics come from a really honest place, and hopefully they’re presented in a generalized language that won’t alienate anybody, you know?  I think that’s something we’re known for – that the words can be expressed in many different ways, even though they’re all deeply personal and deeply introspective.  A song like ‘Dead Speak Kindly’ for instance, that was inspired by a family member of mine who recently lost their battle with brain cancer.  And cancer is such a prevalent topic for any family; there’s likely at least one person you know that’s been affected these days.  So that song came from a really dark time and still weighs heavily on me.  There are a lot of very topical themes on this record, but it’s generalized just enough to allow others to relate to them.

 

That’s definitely been one of the great aspects about the band throughout your back catalogue.  To talk a little bit about the musical aspect of the songwriting, the groove element on this album has really been pushed to the foreground.  Songs like ‘Meet My Maker’ and ‘Dead Speak Kindly’, which you mentioned, have got those massive, pendulum-swinging riffs.  Is that the hardcore influence we’re hearing there?

 

[Laughs]  Well first of all, Sal contributed a ton of great riffs.  He’s not only a fantastic drummer, but he’s a great guitarist as well.  He gave us a lot of those huge riffs you’re talking about.  And Joey too, he provided that big riff from ‘World Gone Mad.’ When I first heard that riff I was blown away.  Some of them come from seeds of songs; progressions of songs that are submitted and once they get through everyone’s hands they just evolve.  Some of the best riffs develop out of those group ideas.  Like I said earlier on, every song had a different origin; whether it was a cool, big riff that inspired everyone else’s input or a bunch of parts together that just needed the right arrangement to inspire the right vocal.  I think we all were on the same page as to the direction of the music, from the get-go really.  We all knew what the music should feel like, and what songs were gonna translate live with the right energy.  Like you said, it was all about that groove that we were looking for. 

 

‘Bag Of Bones’: I understand that’s something of a musical tribute to Peter Steele?  Was there always the intention of giving it a Type O Negative vibe?

 

Oh, absolutely. Musically that was totally an homage to Pete.  As you know, Pete was a huge influence to all of us.  We grew up around each other and he was kind of a father-like figure for the Brooklyn scene.  Life Of Agony simply wouldn’t exist without Pete.  Some of our first shows were opening up for Carnivore [Steele’s band before Type O Negative], so we had a lot of history.  He was always such a big influence.

 

Another really cool moment is the intro to ‘Song For The Abused,’ which I understand utilizes one of Lou Reed’s fuzz pedals?

 

LoA Group 2

 

Yeah, I believe Joey did use it on that one.  What’s interesting is that Matt Brown, our producer on the record, used to work with Lou Reed.  He toured with him back in the day, and had a working relationship that lasted many years.  He definitely brought that influence on the album.  All of his creative input was really valuable.

 

Another particularly striking song is the closer, ‘Little Spots Of You.’  That song’s a great example of how Life Of Agony plays with the audience’s expectations, in that it initially appears to be a relatively straightforward piano ballad but becomes something quite different with a really atypical delivery.  How did that composition come about?

 

That one was entirely a creation of Mina and our producer, Matt Brown.  We wanted Mina to write something of a funeral march as an outro to the record, so that’s what she came up with.  It actually had a lot more parts originally, but Matt made the suggestion of stripping it back to make it have that creepier feeling.  The arrangement really gave it a haunting vibe.

 

Of course, you have another creative outlet that’s personally of interest to me, with your involvement in the comics industry.  Has that been put on hold while Life Of Agony is back in full swing?

 

It hasn’t! [Laughs] If anything it’s amped up a bit!  I’m not sure if you’ve seen it, but last year I put out a horror themed colouring book, ‘The Beauty of Horror.’

 

Yes, I understand Kirk Hammett is a big fan.

 

Right.  So, that became a number one bestseller, and I’m actually working on part two as I talk you! I’m drawing away this very second.  It actually was a bigger seller than any of my graphic novels, so it’s a fantastic surprise.

 

Well congratulations on all the success.  The graphic novels are great reads too, with ‘Killogy’ being a particular favourite of mine.  Has there been some talk recently of ‘Wire Hangers’ and ‘Crawl To Me’ possibly becoming movies in the near future?

 

More so ‘Crawl To Me.’ I think that one’s a lot closer at the moment.  Early on we had some interest in ‘Wire Hangers’ but funding became a bit of an issue with that one.  But ‘Crawl To Me’, we’ve partnered with some great producers for that one.  We’re just trying to get the timing right as to when to start shooting and get casting underway.

 

That’s got to be exciting for you.  Do you feel that your creative energy comes from a separate place when you’re doing the art and writing for the comics work from when you’re being musically creative?

 

LOA - Alan

 

You know, one thing I’ve found out about myself over the years is that I just really love the whole process of creating something from nothing.  Whether it’s a sketch on a napkin or humming a song idea into my phone to remember it, I love to see those little seeds of ideas grow into tangible projects.  It really excites me to get to release something into the world that wasn’t there before.  Whether it’s a comic book, or an album, or adapting a comic to the screen, I just dig the whole process.  It’s all from the same source.  I just need to get that stuff out of my head so I can get some sleep.  Because believe me, they do keep me up at night! [Laughs]

 

So what does the upcoming touring cycle look like for the band?

 

We’re kind of jumping around a bit.  There’s some US dates in the coming weeks and then that will take us overseas in May.  We have a bunch of August dates that we’re close to announcing.  Then I believe we head to England in the fall.  We just want to see the reaction to the record, which hopefully will present us with some new opportunities.

 

‘A Place Where There’s No More Pain’ is out now.  Read Jonni D’s review HERE.

 

www.facebook.com/lifeofagonyfamiglia/

 

PHOTO CREDITS: Band and live photographs © Tim Tronckoe/Courtesy of www.lifeofagony.com.  Portrait photograph of Alan Robert © Peirre Veillet/Courtesy of www.alanrobert.com.

 

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