DATE OF INTERVIEW:
21st October 2013
Releasing their third album, 'Prisoners', last year, Canada's The Agonist continued their sonically progressive journey with an even greater innovative impetus than on 2009's 'Lullabies for the Dormant Mind'. Consolidating their credentials as true metal iconoclasts and purveyors of some of the most exhilarating and technically creative heavy music since the turn of the century, they are indubitably a unique entity. And with compositions characterised by a finely crafted balance of both accessibility and experimentation, the band's appeal is far reaching, evidenced by an ever-growing fanbase. And, beyond the actual music, frontwoman Alissa White-Gluz's lyrics are some of the most intelligently provocative words ever penned within the metal genre. Materialising in sincere expressions of her philosophical world views, she deploys both metaphorical and literal critiques to convey her benevolent and altruistic concerns in a fight against global injustice, malice and prejudice.
At the tail-end of a European tour, The Agonist find themselves in the UK for three shows, their first since 2010, and it was at the first of these, in Liverpool, that Metal Discovery met up with Alissa to discuss the band's genuinely progressive aesthetic, her altruistic ethos and its positive affects on people's lives; and cat Skyping...
METAL DISCOVERY: So you’re back in the UK finally – am I right in thinking it’s been 3 years since you were last here?
ALISSA: I think so, yeah.
(Alissa White-Gluz on the benevolent affects of her cognitively provocative lyrics)
"I have fans that either write to me or I meet them at shows, telling me that they’re vegan now or they’ve been vegetarian for a few years after listening to my album, or they’ve made some positive changes in their life... So that’s like the biggest compliment I could ever receive."
Alissa White-Gluz backstage at The Kazimier, Liverpool, UK, 21st October 2013
Photograph copyright © 2013 Mark Holmes - www.metal-discovery.com
Interview & Photography by Mark Holmes
MD: Has the UK been an important audience for The Agonist thus far; do you have a healthy fanbase over here?
ALISSA: I don’t know, actually. I guess we’ll find out tonight!
MD: I gather you’ve been writing for the fourth album between tours?
MD: How’s the new album shaping up and can we expect more wild innovation from The Agonist?
ALISSA: In my opinion, it’s the best ever. Like, I’m really happy about this new music, I think it’s gonna be awesome.
MD: How far are you into the writing now?
ALISSA: Very preliminary. Just some instrumental tracks but nothing concrete yet.
MD: Do you have studio time booked already; are you writing to a deadline?
ALISSA: With The Agonist, we’ve always kind of just been putting our music first and foremost, and not really caring too much about deadlines and stuff like that. So we just kinda do it when we’re ready.
MD: Is there likely to be a stopgap EP again, as there was with ‘The Escape’?
ALISSA: Probably not, no. We’ll probably just have the album.
MD: ‘Prisoners’ is phenomenal stuff – one of the best metal records I’ve heard during the last decade…
ALISSA: Oh, thank you very much.
MD: I reviewed it after around 3 listens and rated it 9 out of 10 but if I’d waited until 3 or 4 more listens, it would’ve been a solid 10.
ALISSA: Oh, that’s cool.
MD: Have you found that’s been the general opinion where people have needed time to digest it properly and fully appreciate it?
ALISSA: Yeah, yeah. Even me, as I was writing it, at first, I was like, “I don’t know if this is good.” I had to sort of really question what I was doing, but I think one thing The Agonist has developed over the course of our albums is longevity in the songs because there’s a lot of depth to it. So, on the first listen, it might go over your head but then, as you listen, you keep hearing new things; you know, little pieces of ear candy that make it interesting. So, yeah, I think that’s one of the strong points of ‘Prisoners’.
MD: Although ‘Prisoners’ is a challenging listen, the accessibility’s there, ready and waiting, for people who are willing to be challenged in the first place so do you think that, because the album’s a grower, it’ll stand the test of time in the future? Like, it’s still an album people will be listening to in twenty years’ time rather than just for a couple of years now?
ALISSA: I hope so. I mean, that’d be cool… [laughs]
MD: You always manage to balance out the innovation and musical progression with accessibility, so is that balance something you work hard to attain or just a natural quality of your songwriting?
ALISSA: I think that’s a natural thing because Danny is really good at doing that when he writes guitar riffs. He has a really good ear for verse and chorus balance. And, then, all of us coming together and putting our respective instruments on it sort of makes for that dynamism. But I think we’re gonna try to get even more dynamic with the next album.
MD: Do you have boundaries to your innovation or is it a matter of anything goes within The Agonist aesthetic; whatever feels right?
ALISSA: Pretty much anything goes! [laughs]
MD: So there’s never a case where you’ve written anything too wild and had to pull back a bit?
ALISSA: No, I’ve never said this is too anything. I’ve always been, “I want it to be more like this!”
ALISSA: So that’s one thing that’s really fun with The Agonist, is we don’t have any limits; we just do whatever we want.
MD: No rules.
ALISSA: Pretty much, yeah! [laughs]
MD: I’ve read somewhere that the aggressive feeling in the songs on ‘Prisoners’ was channelled quite naturally through the music due to the hard time you had in making the album?
MD: Do you think some of that aggressive edge would’ve been diminished had the whole process of making the album been a much easier one?
ALISSA: I can hear how, in ‘Lullabies…’, it’s very polished and it’s very clean and it’s still true. But, in ‘Prisoners’, a lot of the screams were the first take. A lot of the screaming patterns were written in the studio – I just had the lyrics, and just tried something, and we kept it. Because that was a really tough time for me to write that album, and even following the release of the album it was a really tough period of my life and so, for a long time, I think I had a lot of disdain for the album because it represented that. But now I’ve sort of come to love it because I’m through that.
MD: So the record’s actually been a grower for you as well then?
ALISSA: Yeah, yeah.
MD: There are so many labels bandied around when people try to describe your music which, in one sense, is testament to its diversity, but do you ever worry that any of those labels could potentially delimit your audience? I hear the metalcore one used so often and, for me, that’s nonsensical in the context of your music.
ALISSA: Yeah, I don’t get that one either. Definitely, labels in metal are a really stupid thing that a lot of people use to fit themselves into a category or fanbase. But there are so many. We’ve gotten the metalcore thing – I don’t think that really applies but I don’t really care, you know. It’s just metal, you know. Just call it metal, I guess. I don’t know what else to call it.
MD: There are only two genres of music – music you like and music you don’t. Simple as that.
MD: Interestingly, progressive is a term you don’t hear so much in relation to The Agonist although your music is, effectively, thoroughly progressive – in a genuine sense, rather than a generic sense. Do you regard yourselves as a progressive band in that sense?
ALISSA: Yeah. I mean, it’s funny, I think, for the most part, we agree with the label progressive but not so much with prog. Even though prog is just an abbreviated version of the word progressive, to me, prog sort of talks more about Dream Theater type bands that don’t sound like us at all but the music itself has a progressive nature to it in the sense that riffs don’t always repeat, there’s not a solid structure for every song that is the same on all the albums or all the songs. So I think that’s a label that does fit in the true sense of the word.
MD: Your songs are always lyrically provocative, but is it about airing your concerns on whatever issue you’re writing and singing about, or is it your aim and hope that some people are actually provoked into thinking more about those issues and changing their opinions?
ALISSA: I think I definitely like to provoke. I’m very carefully delineating that provoking and persuading are two different things. I never want to persuade anyone of anything but I would like to provoke people to think and make their own decisions on certain subjects. So, I mean, when I write songs, I write them for the music and for me. I don’t write them thinking, maybe this word’s gonna make somebody think about this but, I think, more than understanding the lyrics, people just get a general sense, overall, after listening to a song and that’s cool.
MD: Do you regard The Agonist as an effective platform for trying to change the world for the better?
ALISSA: Yeah, absolutely.
MD: And have you ever had any feedback from fans who’ve said their opinions have changed for the better, and awareness heightened of certain issues, after listening to your music?
ALISSA: Yeah, yeah, a lot now, actually. I have fans that either write to me or I meet them at shows, telling me that they’re vegan now or they’ve been vegetarian for a few years after listening to my album, or they’ve made some positive changes in their life like they’ve stopped smoking, or something like that. So that’s like the biggest compliment I could ever receive.
MD: It must be very gratifying to know that you are changing the world in a positive way, and people’s lives.
ALISSA: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s more and more. I’m meeting more and more people who are telling me that, which is amazing. And, you know, there’s always people too that are like, “I like The Agonist but I don’t like Alissa because I’m not vegan and I don’t wanna hear about it.” And I’m like, “whoa, that’s fine too but if you like the music, just rock out to the music.”
MD: Exactly. It works on different levels for different people, I guess.