It’s a nondescript, grey morning in west London, but inside the photo studio Metal Hammer are calling home for the next few hours, something much more exciting and blood-curdling is happening; a bunch of guys are rising from the dead.
Well, sort of. They’re taking it in turns to be zombified in the make-up chair before doing their best Thriller impersonation for the camera. It’s your standard Hammer weekday. The reason for this theatricality? Atreyu have returned from their four-year hiatus. Among the commotion and unholy amounts of coffee, inky powerhouse frontman Alex Varkatzas is explaining the reasons behind it.
“We burnt out,” he says. “It was like taking a nap. When you take a nap at night, it’s not like you’re dying and you decide not to die. We just needed a break ’cause we were tired. We worked and toured and played more shows than most bands ever will. During an 18-month record cycle, we’d be on tour more than a year of it, which is gnarly to do consistently for 10 years.”
It’s easy to see how the band got to this point. Following the release of their debut album, Suicide Notes And Butterfly Kisses, in 2002, they were on the road relentlessly and delivered another four full-lengths, two of which even crept into the Top 10 of the US Billboard charts. The venues the metalcore heavyweights were calling home were expanding, and it wasn’t hard to imagine them topping bills at festivals in the future. Then, after years of recording and flying around the globe, with little time off, Alex and co realised they were unhappy. So they decided to take a break. They stopped all activity; there were no performances, no meetings, and no interviews to work through. Rather than feeling a loss of identity about switching up the same routine he’d had since high school, Alex felt relieved.
“I genuinely didn’t want to be ‘Alex from Atreyu’,” the vocalist admits. “So it was really cool not to have people talk to me about Atreyu, to not have people want things from me ’cause I’m in Atreyu.”
During the hiatus that followed, the vocalist found time to unwind and think about his life in terms outside the band. He worked on visceral, back-to-basics punk project I Am War with Bleeding Through’s Brandan Schieppati. He pursued his passions of tattooing and painting flash. He got a mortgage and opened his own gym. And he became a father, to a son who’s now one year old, which brought with it a new perspective: “I take myself less seriously and I take life less seriously, but I take the awesome things that happen to me more seriously,” he tells us.
Meanwhile, the rest of the band expanded their horizons, too. Bassist Marc McKnight travelled the world, guitarist Dan Jacobs concentrated on his own merchandising company, and fellow axeman Travis Miguel (not here today due to personal reasons) worked on 90s-influenced project Fake Figures and played in Trapt. Drummer/vocalist Brandon Saller was writing songs and licensing them for use on TV, as well as doing side-project Hell Or Highwater. It’s perhaps not the most ‘middle finger to the world’ attitude from a band who see themselves as embracing the hardcore ethos, but Alex says he’s a “punk rock businessman”.
The members of Atreyu had settled down. They were giving each other space to grow.
But last year, the five brothers started to gravitate back toward each other – they began to talk, and eventually met up for dinner. Everything just clicked.
“We’d talked before about writing a song and just giving it away,” Alex reveals. “But we couldn’t get our shit together to do it, and then Dan got fired up about it again and started sending texts to get the ball rolling. So Others May Live is the song that started it – that was the first song we wrote back together, which was a step in the right direction. Then it went from there. We played a 10th anniversary show for The Curse [in November], then kept doing stuff in a natural way.”
Realistically, though, there was no question that eventually the band would reunite. These guys are like family. “No kid reading this has ever had this type of relationship as I get to this point in my life,” Alex states flatly. “I met Dan and Brandon when they were 13 and 12, and now I’m 33. We played music together starting at that point and started touring when we were 19. So we’ve been around each other more than anyone else in our lives other than our parents. Most people don’t know about that.”
Soon, the time came for the guys to step back into the studio for the first time since 2009’s Congregation Of The Damned, to start work on album number six.
It’s a record Alex describes as more performance-based.
“Every time I went in there, the shoes came off and I dug my feet into the ground, or I put my gym shorts on and got pumped up and went for it as hard as I could,” he admits.
In fact, Alex went so hard the band could only record one track per day, and then he’d need a day to rest because he was so drained from the process. Every ounce of sweat, blood, piss, tears and every other fluid imaginable was poured out of the five men into the album that would become Long Live, driven by a deep desire to get back in the game.
“This record matters more than any other,” Alex says, matter-of-factly. “If this record sucks, no one will care about us ever again. But it doesn’t, so I’m fucking stoked.”
The recording sessions were even more intimate as they’d signed to metal-centric label Spinefarm, meaning they were left to their own devices to make the album, and just emailed it over once it was finished. It was a far cry from the working processes of former label Hollywood Records (owned by Disney, and home to Queen and Demi Lovato), which Alex seems bitter about but doesn’t regret.
“I learned a lot from it, it paid for my house,” he says. “Miley Cyrus’s album sales on Disney are what funded Atreyu – fuck yeah! That’s awesome; we took money from the man and they let us make records like [2007’s] Lead Sails Paper Anchor, which is experimental as fuck for our band.”
Being away from the “ass-kissers, band whores and fucking lame people” of the industry for four years was a huge positive for Alex, who feels that “the music industry sucks dick. Most of the people in it are really cool, but there are a few people that really, really fucking suck.”
In control and working on their own terms, Atreyu are now poised to release Long Live – a title that reads like a statement of intent, though Alex is keen to reaffirm that the band never died. “It’s not like a ‘Fuck you’, but, ‘We’re here baby, let’s rock,’” he states. “We can still get down with the get down; old dogs can still hunt, and we’re not old, so I’m not worried about it.”
It’s a record full of heavy metal, hardcore punk and, most noticeably, rock’n’roll. It ducks, dives and swerves all over the place, but there’s that unmistakable sound holding it all together and driving their personal brand of metalcore onwards – from the 80s-influenced Brass Balls to the punishing Cut Off The Head, which stands out as the most visceral and aggressive song on the album, partly down to its controversial subject matter and just how violently passionate Alex feels about it. That new perspective that being a dad has given him? It’s at the forefront of the lyrics and it prompts some rather fiery opinions.
“It’s about what I’d like to do to those people who abuse,” he says, peering over his sunglasses. “There’s a line saying I want to cut off their head with a burning axe, and that’s what I think is justice for any sort of paedophile or rapist. Not necessarily bullies; bullies should be taught a lesson by being beaten. I’ve got no sympathy, especially now I’m a father – I would gladly take the life of a paedophile. But there is no justice; even if you did kill that person, what they took from their victim is never given back.”
With a comment like that, is it fair to say Long Live is a more serious album? “Everything I do is pretty serious lyrically,” says Alex. “But it’s much deeper in subject matter than, ‘My girlfriend left me and now I’m sad,’ which is basically [2004’s] The Curse hidden under the guise of vampire bullshit.”
One question still remains unanswered, though: is it too late for Atreyu to take it to the next level? They seemed destined to follow their OC brethren Avenged Sevenfold toward serious headliner status. But since their hiatus, the new breed of metalcore bands such as Of Mice & Men, Asking Alexandria and Architects have found themselves at some of the biggest venues the world has to offer. In comparison, Atreyu’s UK comeback show was at the 500-capacity London Underworld. Although, as it sold out in seconds, Alex is adamant the band’s career trajectory has not altered in their time away from the metal world – and they want the biggest stages possible to house their meaty slabs of metalcore.
“What’s the O2? What’s Wembley? Let’s go for that!” Alex says excitedly. “It’s better to aim for the sky and miss than to aim for a pile of shit and hit it… I’m an artist, I’m focused on the art – the management should be focused on venue size. I just wanna fucking crush shit.”
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where the ferocious five-piece are playing, as long as they’re given the freedom to scream bloody war. They’ve risen, they’ve regrouped, and they’re on the rampage. Long live Atreyu.
Atreyu play Reading Festival on Saturday 29 August and Leeds on Sunday 30 August. Long Live is released on September 18 via Spinefarm/Search And Destroy
THE Z TEAM
If the zombie apocalypse really happened, who would you want on your side?
Let’s face it – you’re gonna want someone who’s burly as fuck and could shatter a zombie’s skull with his bare fists. Plus, he pretty much always carries a chain on his wallet, guitar strap or mic stand, which can only be a good thing.
Zombie apocalypses have featured so heavily in horror movies, you might as well get the guy who’s seen them all on your team, so he can hatch some kind of survival plan. And his surname is Zombie, for Satan’s sake!
Zoltan drives a fucking tank – what more could you possibly want in a zombie situation?! Sure, you could try to outrun the undead, or you could just run them over and turn them into guts and goo. We know which sounds more fun…
New Years Day frontwoman Ash collects the blood of her ex-boyfriends, so if there’s any way of finding a cure for zombiedom then she’s your woman. And she won’t be squeamish when it comes to decapitating your best mate when he turns.
In a last ditch attempt to save humanity, there’s a strong possibility Devin Townsend’s sidekick has some kind of alien technology to reverse the zombie process and turn Earth back to normal. With better coffee.