Located incongruously in the heart of Los Angeles’ Koreatown, The Wiltern is a gilded, 2,300-capacity Art Deco concert theatre that dates back to the days of vaudeville. It sits a mere six miles from the Troubadour, the famed 500-capacity nightclub in Hollywood where, 16 years ago, Angela Gossow made her live debut with Arch Enemy, taking over from original vocalist Johan Liiva.
Since then, the multinational band have graduated into larger venues as they’ve become one of metal’s leading forces, although the journey hasn’t always been easy. Most notably, Angela stepped down in early 2014, stating the need to “be with my family and pursue other interests”. The band subsequently recruited Alissa White-Gluz of Canadian metallers The Agonist to lead Arch Enemy into Mk III.
It’s hard enough for bands to survive one singer change, much less two – yet against all odds, Arch Enemy managed to not only weather both storms, but thrive in their aftermaths. The band’s 10th album (their second with Alissa), Will To Power, achieved some of the highest chart positions of their career, including a Top 40 debut in the UK; their live shows – including a particularly memorable performance at Bloodstock festival last year – are receiving rave reviews; and Alissa has cemented herself as one of metal’s most celebrated modern personalities.
The band seem to be firing on all cylinders as they roll into LA with co-headliners Trivium for the 24th stop of a mostly sold-out six-week North American tour, which will be followed by a month-long European trek that wraps up with five dates in the UK. Prior to an afternoon meet-and-greet with around 50 diehard fans (who each pay around 75 quid to shake hands and take pictures with their heroes), we find Alissa and founding guitarist Michael Amott to be in good spirits as they reflect on a whirlwind four years.
“It’s always exciting to release a new album, but to see it do so well – to make an impact – is what you always hope for,” Michael says, settling into a couch backstage. “A lot of people are paying attention to the band.”
As the band’s vocalist, much of that attention falls on Alissa, who – despite calling herself “super-shy” – has not only embraced the spotlight, but increased its wattage substantially. “Ever since I started being in a band, I said, ‘As long as opportunities are going to come my way, I’m going to take them,’” she says. “I’ve learned a lot over the past few years about how life doesn’t always go the way you think and how you have to take the bad with the good, but focus on the good.”
As the enthusiastic response to tonight’s blistering 15-song, 75-minute set proves, there’s plenty of good to focus on at the moment. Anchored by the band’s longtime rhythm section of Sharlee D’Angelo (bass) and Daniel Erlandssson (drums), Michael and lead guitarist Jeff Loomis – who just celebrated his three-year anniversary with the band – deliver a Gatling gun-like barrage of memorable riffs and blazing solos, while Alissa stalks the stage and bangs her head with purpose.
When asked about Alissa’s impact on Arch Enemy, Michael is quick to offer praise. “People were always saying in the beginning that it’s big shoes to fill, but I started saying that she brought her own shoes,” he says. “She’s a great singer, a great performer. She and Angela share some similarities, which was great to have it somewhat consistent – but it’s also different, and I think it was different at the right moment. I think we were getting stale there for a while, even though we didn’t want to see that at the time.”
He goes on to say that after the band’s final two albums with Angela, 2007’s Rise Of The Tyrant and 2011’s Khaos Legions, it seemed to him as if Arch Enemy had “plateaued”. “We were just cruising at a certain level,” he explains. “It was a nice level to be on, but we kind of felt that, ‘Well, maybe this is it – we’re not going to get any bigger.’”
When Angela told her bandmates that she wanted to step down, Michael was initially unsure whether they should continue. “I was really afraid of change,” he admits. “I’m an old-school metalhead, and old-school metalheads don’t like change. We fall in love with a band and want it to stay like that forever, no matter what it takes.”
With Alissa, however, Arch Enemy have scaled new heights. The band performed more than 300 shows around the world in support of 2014’s War Eternal, and if they continue at their current pace, they’ll do even more in support of Will To Power. Yet despite having so many shows with the band already under her belt, Alissa says she’s still evolving as a performer.
“I think it was my tour manager who said it once: ‘You have to understand, your face could start a war or end it.’ I never thought about it that way, but it’s totally true,” she says. “If I go onstage and my sound is off, or I’m not feeling well, or something messes up, and I let that get in my head and I start having a bad show, I can tell that the audience feels my negativity radiating out.”
So, what then? “I don’t let that happen,” she says. “I go, ‘Nobody saw that. It’s OK. I fucked up – move on.’ When I do that, I can feel myself sending good energy out and then receiving it back. It’s almost like if you’re walking down the sidewalk and you see a stranger and you smile, and then they smile back. That’s what happens onstage, but times 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 – however many people are in the room. It’s a strange feeling being in the spotlight like that, but I’m coming to realise that that’s a lot of what the fun is – having control over the energy in a room.”
In 2015, Arch Enemy had the chance to play some of the largest rooms of their career when Nightwish – another act that continues to prosper despite two vocalist changes, and for whom Alissa sang with during one show in 2012 – invited the band to open their month-long European arena tour, which concluded at Wembley. Michael says he initially wasn’t sure whether the tour would be time well spent.
“I was highly sceptical,” he admits. “I thought, ‘Great opportunity’ – why not play our music in front of 10,000 people a night instead of 1,000? – but I didn’t think it was going to go down that well. But we were playing in front of a lot of people who were not familiar with the band and we gained so many new fans, and I think that tour helped us a lot setting us up for Will To Power.”
When the band returns to the UK in February, Michael – who is half-British – promises shows to remember. “We’re bringing our biggest stage production to date, so we’ve really stepped it up,” he says. “It’s an exciting setlist – it’s got a lot of focus on the last two albums, but also some gems from the past. I think the band’s on fire now. We’ve got a lot of confidence, actually. It’s a great show, and we’ve got a killer package – we’ve got Wintersun, Tribulation and Jinjer, some diversity there musically as well.”
In years gone by, Arch Enemy were lazily classified as a ‘female-fronted metal band’. Thankfully, times have changed and now they’re a metal band, plain and simple. Similarly, Alissa has proven that she’s not just one of the genre’s most prominent female figures, but one of its figureheads, period – a fact that’s not lost on her.
“I’ve never really wanted the spotlight, to be perfectly honest,” she says. “People might think that’s bullshit because of how I look, but the thing is, I do want people to consume my art. I don’t want them to consume me. The way I dress, the way my hair is, the way I act onstage, that’s art to me. But me as a person, I like to keep to myself. That being said, I have a lot of causes that I firmly believe in and that I want to draw attention to, so whatever attention is pointed at me, I’ll divert it to my band, or to animal rights, or to women’s rights, because if I have a certain amount of reach, I want to do good with it.”
When asked where he wants the band to go from here, Michael – soft-spoken and considered to begin with – pauses even more thoughtfully than usual. “Any time you try to predict this and that, I don’t think it really works,” he says. “I guess I have some sort of vision, but I’m never satisfied. I’m satisfied for a little while, and then doubt starts creeping in – ‘I think we can do better.’”
“I was talking to Robb Flynn in San Francisco,” he continues. “I said to him, ‘We’re like rats – we just refuse to die.’ Because even though we’re different in many ways, we share that we’ve been around for a long time and we’ve managed to come up with music that people still really like. I’ve given up everything else to do this. And that’s not me whining about it – I’ve gladly given up most normal things that people feel are important to make music, travel, perform almost constantly. It’s a life that we love, you know?”
When asked if the world is hers, Alissa laughs. “It feels good, but I can’t have an ego about this,” she says. “I always keep in mind, ‘OK, how are we going to get this even better?’ We sold out The Wiltern; next, we’ve got to sell out the bigger one. I want the band to be as successful as possible. Everything I do, I want to promote Arch Enemy; I want people to listen to our albums and come to our shows and tell their friends about us.”
Will To Power is out now via Century Media. Arch enemy play the UK in February