DATE OF INTERVIEW:
24th August 2016
With their fifth studio album to date, the aptly titled 'Five', Canada's The Agonist have delivered yet another masterwork, characterised by naturally progressive proclivities within the context of their refreshingly diversified metal vocabulary. Reasserting their musical mastery, once again, they remain one of the most exciting bands currently exercising their seemingly boundless creativity within the genre. A few weeks before the album's release, Metal Discovery spent half an hour on the phone with vocalist Vicky Psarakis to chat about The Agonist's latest record, from lyric writing and David Bowie tributes to melodramatic singing and covers, as well as, amongst other insights, wet video shoots; their new label home; switching producers; and promo photo (over)reactions...
METAL DISCOVERY: Congratulations on an utterly awesome new album; it’s absolutely fantastic.
VICKY: Thank you very much.
(Vicky Psarakis on the transcendent potential of music)
"...a lot of people go through meditation or psychedelic drugs to try to tap into that universe of things that we can’t see or hear. But we, as a band, feel that if you truly lose yourself into music… and close your eyes and listen to an album, you might be able to achieve that through music."
The Agonist - promo shot
Photograph copyright © 2016 Deepti Suddul - FAYA - www.thefaya.com
Interview by Mark Holmes
MD: Album number five, five band members… but I’m guessing there must be a more profound reason it’s been named ‘Five’?
VICKY: [Laughs] Yeah, those two are the obvious reasons. The other, more hidden reason, I guess, is the fifth element that we’ve kind of incorporated into our logo since ‘Eye of Providence’. And it’s, basically, the whole concept of things that we can’t feel or see, necessarily, and how a lot of people go through meditation or psychedelic drugs to try to tap into that universe of things that we can’t see or hear. But we, as a band, feel that if you truly lose yourself into music… you know, you shut off your phone, you turn off the TV, and you just lie down and close your eyes and listen to an album, you might be able to achieve that through music.
MD: And, fortunately, there are more than five songs!
VICKY: [Laughs] Yeah, five wouldn’t really be enough!
MD: Is there any particular reason or logic in having all the songs prefixed with “The”? It implies there could be a narrative running throughout the songs? Some kind of story, maybe?
VICKY: Yeah, that was kind of the idea. It was something that sort of just happened midway through the pre-prod’ process. We had five or six songs and it seemed like the songs were telling a story. All the songs on the album, they’re not connected; they don’t revolve around a specific theme; it’s not a concept album in that respect. But, it is in that storytelling sense or, especially since we named them that way, it’s very obvious, in the title, what the song is about. And, the way the lyrics are written, it’s in a storytelling vibe. So, that’s the reason we went along with it; it felt right.
MD: The album starts very low-key with ‘The Moment’, compared to the frantic opening tracks on the previous three albums. That, for me, is kind of a statement of “expect the unexpected” with this new one? Is that the kind of sentiment you were aiming for?
VICKY: [Laughs] Hopefully. I mean, it wasn’t intentional. You’re right, though, to observe that all the other albums never started off that way, and it’s something that I sort of suggested, because we were trying to figure out how we were going to open the album. I feel that the first song on an album should be representative of the band’s style and of the album you’re about to listen to, and I feel like ‘The Moment’ is a good middle-ground song. It’s mid-tempo; it’s still very heavy; it still has screams… because I’m sure you’ve listened to the whole album and you know there are songs that are purely singing.
VICKY: Yeah, so I feel that it’s a good middle-ground song but, also, another reason is I feel if someone has no idea who The Agonist is, and they just play the album, I feel like it’s a song that’s easy to follow; like, you can bob your head to it. If you start the album with a crazy, frantic type of song, and someone has never heard of us before, it’ll be like: “What is this?! I don’t understand!”
MD: That’s the second song!
VICKY: Exactly! Because, that was the debate – it was like, “are we gonna start with that song or are we gonna put it second?” I feel it’s better this way.
MD: Absolutely, it works very well. There are a lot of songs on the album that work off simple riffs and ideas, but still sound massive and epic. Was the idea to tone down a lot of the frantic stuff this time around, and concentrate on achieving immensity from simplicity?
VICKY: Well, thank you. I don’t think that was necessarily what we were going for because, when we write songs, it’s more just about what comes out in the moment. There’s no plan beforehand - like, “we need to sound like this; we need to do this.” But, I really think that is partly the fact because the way it works, the guys write the music and then, later on, I put lyrics and vocals over the riffs, and Danny writes the majority of the music. So I feel, what it is… after four albums and this being the fifth one, and you get older as well and your tastes in music kind of calm down, and I feel like you learn to respect that simplicity that you’re talking about; how I feel like something simple can hit you harder than something super-technical or super-fast and frantic.
MD: Absolutely. There’s a great power to the simplicity on the album, I think, which is remarkable. It’s nice not to have that franticness all the way through, but still feel that power of the emotions. It’s very clever.
VICKY: Yeah, absolutely, and I’m really happy that you say that… [Laughs] And, also, to add to that, I feel like a little bit of chaos is good but when it comes and goes. You can’t just have a full album of chaos because… I guess some people like that but, after a while, it could be exhausting to listen to that! [Laughs]
MD: Yeah, I guess that was more ‘Prisoners’… obviously, before you joined the band, but that still has some light and shade on there, and I guess the franticness of that album is its own thing and still really good.
MD: One song that’s really grabbed me, which is quite a unique song on the album is ‘The Trial’, as it verges towards melodrama, particularly in your vocal delivery. Was this always intended to be a more theatrical sounding track?
VICKY: Wow… actually, you’re the first person, in an interview, that has isolated that track. I think the fact that it’s the last song on the album, people don’t pay attention to it as much, maybe… [Laughs]… I thought I should mention that! But, actually, that was the song that I wrote last, as well, but it was one of the first songs I got from the band. I got that song along with ‘The Resurrection’ and I wrote the lyrics and the vocals to ‘The Resurrection’, and I literally had nothing for ‘The Trial’. I just left it on the side and then I did all these other songs that I kept getting from the band and then, in the end, I listened to it again and, I guess, after three or four months, I had a fresh take on it. I think what it was initially, in the beginning, I was thinking of doing the signature thing where some parts have singing, some parts have screaming. But, after a couple of months of leaving it on the side, I realised that song needed no screaming, just full singing on it. That kind of unlocked my brain, I guess, and I started singing on the verse riff initially, and that sort of theatrical thing kind of came out and I just worked on that, and I had the song done in a day.
VICKY: Yeah. Sometimes, that’s all you need. Sometimes, your brain gets stuck and you don’t really know what to do but, once you get a really, really good idea, creativity and inspiration just really flows after that.
MD: I think the whole album has a really natural flow to it, particularly vocally, so it sounds like the vocals might’ve come quite easily to a lot of the songs? You make it sound that way, anyway.
VICKY: Thank you, and that is actually the case because, I mean, the way I write lyrics and vocals, if I don’t have anything, I just leave it on the side and I work on something new. I’m not one to play the same riff for an hour and try to exhaust my brain to find an idea. It’s like, I either have an idea or I don’t and, if I don’t, I move along; I revisit it, and that’s that.
MD: Talking of melodrama, you also have a bit of mid-album melodrama with the cinematic, instrumental interlude, ‘The Wake’. It’s such a cliché with so many metal bands opening their albums with a short orchestral piece, you know, and you’ve got yours bang in the middle of the album… again, maybe that’s expect the unexpected! So, what’s the story behind that piece?
VICKY: Yeah, well, that was actually an idea of mine because I did play piano and I always enjoyed creating orchestral pieces on the side, you know, even before joining the band. I did want to contribute to the band, musically, but we’re not a band that has keyboards and we wouldn’t suddenly start doing that just because I joined the band. So, about three or four songs in, in the pre-production, I had the idea of trying to create a piece that would incorporate a lot of main melodies on this album. So, if you pay attention on ‘The Wake’, there’s a lot of melodies in the violins that are actually singing melodies from other songs. So, I started composing that track based on that and I did a very basic arrangement… because I’m not a Hollywood arranger when it comes to orchestras! When we went down to LA to record our album, it just so happened that Mike, our producer, he had a really good friend named Igor, who’s just an incredible string arranger and musician overall, and he listened to the piece and he really liked it, took it home and, a few days later, he sent us the version that’s on the album. So, basically, he just took my arrangement and made it better! [Laughs]
MD: It sounds absolutely fantastic. Another song on the album, ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’, is it too obvious to ask if that’s some kind of David Bowie reference or tribute?
VICKY: Yes, that’s exactly what it is. Danny wrote the lyrics to that song because David Bowie was one of his biggest inspirations. And, what he did, actually, is used one of David Bowie’s lyric writing methods for that song…
MD: Oh, to cut up and mix up words…
VICKY: Exactly. So, what he did, he took a bunch of reviews from his last album that he put out before he died and he just took the key words that hit him from the reviews. And he sent me those lyrics and I just sort of looked at them and I heard the music, and I ended up using maybe ninety per cent of what he sent me, because the song’s very slow too, so there’s not many lyrics to it.
MD: Were you a David Bowie fan, yourself?
VICKY: Yeah, I love his work, absolutely. But, I think the difference is, for Danny, he’s one of his top five artists that have inspired him, musically.
MD: It’s an interesting choice of cover song on the album, with Hozier’s ‘Take Me to Church’, and an amazing version you’ve done, I must say. As good as the original. How did you arrive at that particular track to cover?
VICKY: Again, that was something we wanted to do as a band for a very long time. We wanted to do a cover; we just couldn’t seem to find a song. We wanted a song that’s out there and a lot of people know outside the metal genre, but we couldn’t really find a pop song, let’s say, because, mostly lyrically, a lot of things wouldn’t fit for us to do as a metal band… [Laughs] So, when we heard this song, and I saw the lyrics, I felt like, “hmmm, this is interesting and this is something that could work with The Agonist’s touch to it.” So, we took the song and we raised it a little bit in terms of key, and made it a little bit faster, and it was a last minute thing as we decided this just before going into the studio, so we didn’t have time to jam it out as a band, or create a pre-prod’, or anything like that. So, we just kind of did it all in LA as a spur of the moment thing.
MD: Oh wow.
VICKY: Yeah, and when I entered the studio to record, I knew I was going to keep the choruses as they are because they’re the chorus and I didn’t want to change them. But, for the rest of the song, I didn’t really know what I was gonna do, so I just sort of improvised and it turned out to be what it is! [Laughs]
MD: Listening to the song, it sounds like you spent a lot of time working on your arrangement, but the fact it was more spontaneous makes it even more spectacular, I guess!
VICKY: Thank you!
MD: Did you discuss any other covers that you might want to tackle, maybe in the future?
VICKY: We have but I don’t remember, because a lot of them were ideas that came and went. We did, obviously, have a bunch of ideas for older rock songs, like, maybe, an Iron Maiden cover. But, in the end, we decided that it doesn’t really make much sense to take an already metal or rock song and cover it, because our goal was to do a mainstream song and try to turn it into a rock/metal version of that song. So, I feel like, yeah, if we end up covering a band like Iron Maiden in the future, that would probably be like a live version, let’s say. I don’t think we’d ever put it on an album.
MD: And it’s kind of clichéd… everyone covers Maiden.
VICKY: Yeah, well, that’s just an example of the style that we were considering; not necessarily an Iron Maiden song… even if it’s Black Sabbath, or Dio, or any of the classic rock or metal songs, I don’t think we’d put it on an album. I think we’d just play it live, you know…
MD: Just for fun.
VICKY: Yeah, yeah, exactly, because that’s what it is to do a lot of that music. Like, the eighties, it was really a lot of good live songs that you wanted to hear in the audience, even if you don’t know the band, it just really captures you. That’s what the genre was back then.
MD: I know you’re a big Anneke Van Giersbergen fan, so would you ever want to tackle a song by The Gathering, maybe?
VICKY: Er… yes. I mean, I know every single song they’ve put out. I’m a huge fan, but I don’t know if it would fit our band, musically.
MD: I don’t know… I think an Agonist version of ‘Travel’ would be magnificent, I’m sure!
VICKY: Hmmm… perhaps, perhaps. I mean, I can see myself, as a solo artist, maybe covering something in the future…
VICKY: I’m not sure if we would do another cover right now, anyway, because we just did one.