"You’ve got to keep pushing forward because being stagnant sucks."
Photos by Fred Pessaro
The title of the Atlas Moth’s upcoming third album, The Old Believer (out June 10 via Profound Lore), is inspired in part by the concept of sovereign citizenry; cutting off all allegiance with greater society and defiantly standing alone. In this Chicago quintet’s case, of course, any cutting is more metaphorical than legal, but given its history of redefinition, it’s a sound analogy. With its acclaimed second album, An Ache For the Distance, the group unhinged its early, sludgy leanings for a more progressive, psychedelic palette, and The Old Believer (at least the tracks the band graciously let me preview) turns even further away from those beginnings into a markedly pretty, spacious terrain interlaced with dark, ambient experiments. It’s a testimony to where these guys have been these last few years, and a signpost for what may be yet to come
I recently caught up with the Atlas Moth’s co-lead singer / guitar slinger and de facto art director Stavros Giannopoulos (though this time around, he’s handed off cover duties to one of his favorite album artists, Ryan Clark of Invisible Cities). Along with preparing for the album release and a month-long tour with The Ocean, Scale the Summit, and Silver Snakes that kicks off in Seattle on March 5, he’s also had his hands full with an impending move from the house he’s lived in for a decade on the city’s edge to a more centrally located apartment. Not that he’ll have much time to enjoy the new digs as the band launches into what’s looking to be another heavy tour cycle for this seasoned group of road warriors. We spoke at length about the new album, friendly competition, and forging a path towards progress and longevity in an often stagnant musical world.
The Atlas Moth begins its trek west this Thursday at the Cactus Club in Milwaukee. Complete tour dates and our interview follow:
Noisey: Thanks for talking with me today. I know this is a pretty crazy week for you.
Stavros Giannopoulos: Yeah, I’m actually packing everything up right now. I’m taking a little break, so you’re actually sort of helping me out in that regard because I don’t really want to fucking do this, to be honest.
Moving sucks. I won’t keep you too long. So, a lot has happened between Ache For the Distance and The Old Believer. Can you bring me up to speed?
We recorded Ache at the beginning of 2011, and it didn’t come out until September, 2011. The release date is over two years old, but it’s more like three already for us and a ton has happened. Before we signed to Profound Lore, we had been bugging Candlelight, which had put out our first record (A Glorified Piece of Blue-Sky), about our recording budget for the next album. Literally a week before we were supposed to record I got a letter addressed to “Simon,” which was hilarious, especially considering my email has a signature line. It was so impersonal. “Hey, Simon, we’re not going to put out your next record. Feel free to sign to any other label you want.” It was a big letdown and it was super stressful. We were very excited to even be on a label to begin with.
I was friends with Chris Bruni who runs Profound Lore, and he was very interested in signing us for what would be this record coming out, once our contract with Candlelight was done. Immediately after reading that email, I talked to the rest of the band about what we should do. I said, “My number one choice would be Profound Lore. Let me text Chris.” The rest is history. We were signed and recording a record for them in a week. We toured an insane amount. We did everything you could possibly imagine, over and over again.
There was a divide between our drummer and the rest of the band, and it all came to a head when we were touring Europe last spring. When we came off the tour, everyone was on the tip of being, “We can’t do another record with this guy.” When we were talking about who we’d want to replace him, the only name that came up was Dan [Lasek], who was in Why Intercept, who we had toured with in 2009. They were an indie rock band, so it was definitely different than what we had been doing, but we never wanted things to be so typical anyway. And he was our friend. We asked Dan and he was down, so we got it all together and it’s been great.
It’s been quite a journey since ‘08. We’ve all had our share of tragedies. My mother passed away. I had a girlfriend pass away on me. Dave’s [Kush, guitarist] grandfather, who he was very close with, passed away. Andrew [Ragin, guitarist and synth player who also produces all the band’s records] had double hip bone replacements. It was a very trying time and we all kept going. The more I listen to the new record, the more I think all of that has come out. Even losing the drummer, which is like losing a friend, comes out on the new record. Three years of a lot of shit going down and us coming out on the other end of it.
I knew your mother had passed away, and there was one song you sent me, ”The Sea Beyond,” where I didn’t know who inspired it or if it was a combination of things, but you can definitely hear that you guys have been through a lot.
Right when my mother got really sick, we had just finished up the instrumental demos for the record and we were sitting down to record demo vocals at my house. Dave had written “The Sea Beyond,” and he had kind of written it for me. From there, it was like we hit the ground running. I just went with it and he and I bounced [ideas] off each other hard. My family had been close with the band since we started. They had helped us out in jams when they could, so we were all really close with my parents. There was no way for it not to come out vocally. I needed it to. It was cathartic, for sure. As cliche as it may sound, it totally saved my life at that point because I was totally losing my mind. It was definitely a trying time, and this definitely gave me release.
So Dave wrote that song and you added to it?
He had written a couple of parts and I added some other parts. We had always tried really hard not to step on each others toes with vocals ideas and placement, but we kept getting told people really liked it when we sang together. Obviously you don’t want to overdo that. Too much of anything isn’t going to make it any better. We had never really sung “together, together.” In the past, it was more Dave’s doing his thing and I’m doing my thing, and sometimes it just happened to be at the same time. But he had written these words and it just resonated so much with me I was like, “Let’s sing this together.” It totally opened up the record to this whole other level.
It was really great. It was a rekindling of the fire through all the stuff we were going through, and bringing in a new guy. We’re starting our tour and it’s nice to feel this way again. We’re lucky to be where we are right now and able to do this at this level. Hopefully this record cycle won’t try to destroy us like it did last time.
Let’s not jinx it! It’s probably nice to look back at those hard times and be able to have documented them into something really beautiful. The songs I’ve heard so far sound, musically, a lot lighter. Not that it’s not heavy, but it’s very dreamy.
That was definitely an idea, for sure, so I’m glad we succeeded, at least in your eyes. I remember saying the last one was the most personal I had gotten on a record. When I said that, it was very true, but this takes it to a whole new level. We really play from the heart. I don’t think we try to maintain something like, “Oh, we’re a doom band,” which has never really been something I’ve ascribed to. We just let it come out. It felt really dreamy, and kind of spacey. I don’t think we ever set out to do that, but it kept going that way, and I can’t say I’m not a fan of that style.
Given what we’re going off of lyrically and emotionally, it is kind of odd. I had thought of Ache... as our love letter, but Ache... was punishing and very harsh at points, so if that was supposed to be my love letter and this is supposed to be my sad record it is very odd because I don’t necessarily think they sound that way. We haven’t really done something that has sounded like this before, but we had always tried and developed it in our sound. Obviously, we’re all big Deftones fans, and things like Slowdive and Squarepusher and stuff like Catherine Wheel and early shoegaze shit. I think that came across more than the Pink Floyd soundscapes that we had always had going.
You’re born and raised in Chicago. Over the last few years, especially, it seems that the metal community has really embraced progression. Do you think the bands in Chicago challenge each other in that regard?
I’ve been involved in either watching or playing shows around town for a long time, and obviously I’ve always focused on the indie-metal genre. At one point, the example of a metal band in Chicago was From Zero or Disturbed. It was really fucking abysmal here. When we started, I think I could count the bands who were doing doom, or stoner, or progressive metal on one hand and we definitely got flack from some of those bands. That’s in the past and I don’t hold grudges in that regard, but we were forced to really kick it up a notch because we were forced to fight for the same handful of shows. Back then, it might have been more out of spiteful competition, but granted, we were the new kids on the block so it was going to be harder for us. Over the last few years, when a band has a presence and puts out a killer new record, yeah—and not coming in an angry, spiteful way.
A more healthy competition?
Absolutely. These bands are coming out swinging and you’ve got to stay on your game. I embrace all bands and people creating music—I’m like a hippie in that way where I’m all about things continuing and progressing—but that doesn’t mean you can lay down and not try your hardest. I like where we’ve gotten, but I want to keep going and I want to go further. I think that’s healthy in any sort of field, whether it’s music or not. To be on your toes is necessary. The minute you get comfortable, that’s when you’re going to split. I’ve seen that all too often.
So how do you guys keep it fresh?
We always want to outdo ourselves. Every once in a while I’ll hear a riff that Dave or Andrew wrote, and I’ll be like, “You fuckers, that’s really good!” and I’ll want to do something better—not out of spite, out of friendly competition. In that case, it definitely helps. I feel like I can do better every time, even now when I’m listening to our new record, which is only a couple of weeks old. I guess until I don’t feel that way anymore I’ll keep going. You’ve got to keep pushing forward because being stagnant sucks. That goes along with how the new record sounds. The first record to Ache was not just the next step, it was a few steps forward. It was a band that had toured a bunch and had learned what worked, what didn’t work, what we liked, and we went forward. This time it’s the same thing. I don’t think it’s our next step, I think it’s our new few steps, and it’s definitely a natural progression on our end.
A thread that’s come up in your previous records are these ideas of traveling and wanderlust, and also the things that bring you home. How do you feel going into this new tour?
I have quite the obsession with wanderlust. None of us have a bad thing going here at home. We’re in good places in our lives, but I love being out on the road and I love playing live. That’s my favorite thing in life. Now that I’ve been home since April of last year, I am fucking dying to get the fuck out of here and it has nothing to do with having a lot on my plate at home, it’s more like I need a change of scenery. The grass is always greener. When I’m on the road I hate the idea of going home, when I’m home I can’t imagine leaving.
It’s hard sometimes, but I feel insanely lucky that we get to do this at this level. It’s a really special gift that a lot of people take for granted. Just recently something came up where someone was going to be on our show and they were being offered more to play another show. I’d take less money to play to a lot more people than to not play for anyone and get a lot of money. That, to me, is silly.
It’s definitely something to think about with the tour you’re going on now with The Ocean and Scale the Summit. You could probably go on a different tour and headline.
The Ocean are friends of ours but also, we’re out there to play for as many people as possible. If we have the opportunity to play to a different crowd of people, turn their heads, and maybe open their eyes up to this world we came from, this world of Eyehategod, this world of Neurosis, they might not even know about that stuff. I think that’s awesome.
I’d imagine that since your music is so different now than where it was six or seven years ago, it could also makes sense musically.
It blows my mind, definitely. When we got offered that tour with Gojira, I said, “Really? I don’t know if that even works” and my manager was like, “No, you guys will fit in great, and they want you guys.”
I know we can play smaller tours and headline, we did that a couple of years ago with Altar of Plagues and we switched off headline every night, and it was great. We’re not necessarily playing much bigger venues this time around, but I think it’s good to spread your wings and cover more ground. I think that’s healthy. I can play to the same people over and over and over, but I’m not increasing my reach. We questioned the Gojira thing and that turned out great. The people who came out were super receptive to us. I remember telling people we were going on tour with Gojira,” and they were like, “Oh my God!” and I thought, “Really? I’m totally missing something here.” That’s something a lot of dudes in bands don’t really accept—how out of touch they are. I’m terribly out of touch—I’ll be the first to admit it. When I come back from tour the last thing I want to listen to is some guy screaming into a microphone. I want to put on a Depeche Mode record or something. I want to listen to Duran Duran, leave me alone.
Are you guys going to do your dance record next?
Yeah, I’m mixing computer beats right now…That might be a bit of a stretch. That might be the Saint Anger of our catalog.
I don’t know, Depeche Mode has some pretty dark progressions too...
Absolutely. The bands I look up to the most are the ones who have progressed. That’s what I aspire to be, not just as a songwriter, but as a professional. I’m here for longevity. I don’t want to have to do anything else. There’s no way to predict what’s going to happen, but I think a billion things come naturally without questioning it. Having an open mind and being honest with yourself definitely sets you up for longevity. That’s something we’ve always maintained. There are certain things where I know that just because everyone else is doing it, I don’t want to do with it. I’d rather try something different. Doing that makes you stand out a little more, and give you a little edge on maintaining your own identity. With a little more focus outside your comfort zone, the results will always be greater.
Jamie Ludwig will help you take a break from moving. Not moving, but taking a break from it. @unlistenmusic