Burn out is the antithesis to effectiveness and left unchecked and free to run unfettered, can wreak havoc with most aspects of life, especially when it comes to relationships and professions. It’s something that didn’t quite crush the spirit and existence of psychedelic/stoner/post metal quintet The Atlas Moth the same way you might swat out a real atlas moth floating around your porch light – though, you’d better have an extra large fly swatter handy as the insect native to Southeast Asia are massive buggers with foot-wide wingspans! – but it definitely put a halt on the freight train pace the band had been going at since forming in 2007.
After taking some down time to recharge after previous album, The Old Believer, and a punishing touring cycle, the Chicagoans have responded with their new and fourth album, Coma Noir (due February 9th courtesy of Prosthetic Records.), their most spirited, dynamic and compelling work to date. We caught up with vocalist/guitarist Stavros Giannopoulos to discuss having the luxury of time, death metal hulks, how Brooklyn is cost-prohibitive even for those planning to visit and why this interview almost came to a screeching halt.
It’s been about a four year break between records, which isn’t characteristic for you. What’s been going on? Stavros Giannopoulos: Well, it starts with The Old Believer not being as well received as we thought it should have...
Really? Giannopoulos: I don’t think so, man. It definitely didn’t seem like it. It came out and it got all this great press but we didn’t really see a turnaround in show attendance or people liking our band. We were pretty stoked and things were happening and we toured harder than we ever had before. The record came out in 2014 and by the end of 2015, our drummer at the time was bumming us out, I think we were all pretty down on touring and we put a lot of work into a record that didn’t really seem to move the scale at all. It seemed like we were still in the same position we were after [2011’s] An Ache for the Distance, which isn’t a bad thing, but it wasn’t what we were hoping for. We were hoping to move up a notch. So, we got rid of our drummer [Dan Lasek] and after that we were just like, “let’s just take our time.” We didn’t have any tours being offered, nothing was going on and we all kind of needed a break mentally. That was really it: just write the new record, but take our time doing it. We had four deadlines and we wound up saying, “fuck it, we’re not ready.” There was no point in pushing it, if anything rushing it was going to make it worse.
Watch the music video for the single and title track "Coma Noir".
Tell us about your new drummer. Giannopoulos: Our new drummer is Mike Miczek [also of Broken Hope] and what we didn’t see coming along was that he’s a fucking hulk who added a whole new element because he’s a death metal dude. It was like he was playing to the riffs we recorded, but turning everything into a whole new and different thing. Basically, we had all these demos and he made them sound completely different. So, we wound up going back and taking bits and pieces of the songs we already had and sometimes taking what was a bridge riff and throwing out everything else and working out an entire new song on what was one just a bridge riff. With him playing such a different style, we were inspired to write towards him.
Coma Noir seems more upbeat, more up-tempo and, I’m not sure what you’ll think of this comparison, but I hear a lot of Metallica in there. Giannopoulos: Oh yeah! I am a Metallica-aholic. I don’t know if you’re aware of that. I could actually probably write a dissertation on Load being a very awesome Metallica record.
Alright, this interview’s over... Giannopoulos: [Laughter] I’ve heard that a lot.
Well, I’ve never heard what you just said. Giannopoulos: [Laughter] I absolutely love Load and I’m a big fan of Metallica. I can’t say that I’m not always trying to bite them.
So was it a combo of that fandom and a new drummer that made for the more up-tempo pace? There’s a lot more staccato, tight down picking stuff and not as much of the loose, sort of post-metal structures and riffing? Giannopoulos: Yeah. I’d totally agree with your description, but what I can say for all of us is that none of us ever sit down and write a riff designed to sound like a specific band. One thing with The Old Believer that I didn’t notice until after the fact was how it was all at a real steady mid-tempo. The thing with that album was that we wrote a lot if it with Dan, the drummer at the time, not being here. We were putting it together without him being around. Then, we went right into the studio and recorded it. We literally didn’t play any of that album in a room together before we recorded it. It was all demoed, written into a computer, demoed through that and then we went to the studio and did it. That was also kind of how we did about half of Ache, but not nearly as much as The Old Believer. We did that “The 6th Passenger is Death song” for a split with KEN Mode and we wrote it as a demo, recorded it into Pro Tools and then we went into our practice space to actually play the song and ended up kind of re-writing it.
We went back, re-demoed it and then when we recorded it, we felt really strongly about that song. So, coming around to this record, we said, “Let’s do that method again.” It’s actually easier for us to write into a computer to get our ideas out and play around because we have three guitarists all playing loud and trying to learn songs and then there’s keyboards and bass. It’s a cluster fuck and not very concise for us to write that way. The idea was to do what we did with “The 6th Passenger is Death” where we got our ideas out, got our parts down and built a song. Then, all five of us went to the rehearsal space, played it, re-edited it, rewrote it and went back and re-recorded a demo. Some songs were done after one revision, some took four or five, but we kept going back to doing it, playing it live and getting a feel for Mike. It was going with the feel and gut reaction. The whole up-tempo style came from it being more exciting in general. Anything that we had that was more mid-tempo or slow kind of fell by the wayside. It felt more right to go in that direction and keep it rocking because after playing those Old Believer songs for a couple of years it became quite difficult to stay interested in a six-and-a-half minute song that’s all plodding.
With that process, did you ever encounter difficulty in knowing when to draw a line on tinkering with a song? Giannopoulos: We definitely threw out some stuff and we had so many songs demoed before Mike was even in the band. We started going back through it and we had no lack of material which is awesome and all you can hope for when you’re in a band. On that note, if we weren’t feeling it, fuck it. Or if we had a song that was dragging, but someone really, really liked a riff in it, we’d see what we could do differently with that part and go that route. The cool thing as well was that it was very collaborative. Me, Dave [Kush, guitar/vocals] and Andrew [Ragin, guitar/keyboards] would bring a lot of riffs to the table and I can say that between the three of us there were times we edited and rewrote each other’s riffs. And it was kind of nice because I feel that our egos totally went out the window. There was no stepping on each other’s toes or people saying stuff like, “No, it has to be this way,” which was also like the first time that’s ever happened. Not to say we’ve had a bad relationship, but we’re also three guitar players who are headstrong. Things were really chill and I think that came with the whole thing about taking our time and not feeling rushed or like we had to do anything.
How did you end up working with Sanford Parker as producer? Giannopoulos: We had plans for over a year-and-a-half to record with Joe [Duplantier] from Gojira. The original thought was that we were going to go to Brooklyn to his studio. When Chicago Open Air Festival happened and Gojira played, we all went and hung out and we were all stoked about going to do it. But, as I’m sure you know, money to record nowadays isn’t what it was, even compared to five years ago. People are just not giving out the cash they used to. With his studio being in Brooklyn, we started thinking about expenses. I was the first to be a realist about it; I said to the other dudes one day, “Hey guys, cigarettes are like $20 and we’re going to be there for two-and-a-half or three weeks and even our closest friends in Brooklyn have no room for five dudes to hang out and live with them.” No one had any room for us to crash.
We were planning to record in the fall of 2016, then it was December of 2017, then it was January of 2017, then it was like, “Ok, I think we’re going to be ready in June.” At that point Joe was like, “Uh, guys, I’m going on tour. We’re opening for Metallica.” It just didn’t work out. I wound up going out and having a beer with Sanford and asked him, “Dude, how much money would we need to go and record this fucking record in Brooklyn?” He was like, “$12,000 and that’s if you get a deal and if you guys are diligent and work through it. You’ll still need a few grand for five guys to live in Brooklyn for almost a month.” We weren’t getting $12,000 from anyone, that wasn’t going to happen. So, that whole plan was out the window. After we came to that disappointing realisation, because we were really excited to record with Joe, we decided to go with Sanford. I did those Twilight records [2010’s Monument to Time End and 2014’s III: Beneath Trident’s Tomb] with him, he’s super fun in the studio, the most fucking fun I’ve ever had recording and I figured everyone in my band would get along with him and his sense of humour.
And this was the first time you’d used a producer outside of the band? Giannopoulos: Yeah, it was the first time we’ve had anyone besides Andrew record our band, which was another thing. We were all very much on the tip of getting an outside ear. At some point or another, every band that has a member that produces their records is like, “Wait, hold up, maybe an outside person doing all this will make it work better?” With Andrew having to run the ship and worry about his own parts, it seemed like a lot on his plate and he also kind of stopped engineering. He was kind of burnt out and over the gig, so he wasn’t really an option and we wanted to bring in some outside help.
So, how did it go? Giannopoulos: It was drastically different for me, personally, in that I hate recording records. It’s probably my least favourite part of being in a band. I think it’s so tedious and time consuming and the epitome of ‘hurry up and wait.’ But this time it was so efficient, the perfect way of doing it. We recorded all the demos on Andrew’s laptop to clicks and we took all those demos – we’re talking full songs – put them all in the computer, dropped out the drums so Mike played along to that. He did all his drums in eight hours, like a psychopath and then we all went in there and did everything song by song. It was super efficient and fun every day. I walked in there every day and never had a problem being in the studio, which is a big thing for me.
The Atlas Moth explore their "Galactic Brain" in this new track.
At what point did Prosthetic come into the picture? Giannopoulos: We had talked to Chris [Bruni, of former label Profound Lore] and it seemed like he wasn’t going to do the record, so we didn’t really push it. Then, [Prosthetic A&R] Steve Joh, who used to work at Century Media and is one of the best dudes around and one of the few people I totally trust 100%, said he had moved over to Prosthetic and was asking what was up. [Prosthetic owner] E.J. [Johantgen] wanted to sign us and said that if we did we’d be like their number one priority in 2018. I talked to a few people who were saying that they didn’t hear that kind of stuff very often. It’s one of those things that you hope you’ll hear from a label about your band and when you hear it, it’s something you should jump on and go for. I’m really into the idea of going in and working with the people who are really excited to be working with us. It doesn’t matter how big or small they are, if they have a passion to work with your band it means they’re ready to work, are actually going to do it and that’s huge. They were so enthusiastic that it wasn’t even a question for us.
What’s behind the theme or concept of the new album? Giannopoulos: Obviously, it took us a long time to write and record and in the very beginning of getting a new drummer and all that, it was slow going. I always kind of need to be doing something’ y’know idle hands are the devil’s play tool or whatever. If I’m not doing something, I’m losing my mind. So, I started writing a story, along the lines of screenplay, which would be a high, high hope. I love movies and I love comic books, so the idea was that I was going to write whatever comes to me and maybe it would be a graphic novel a film or whatever. So, I started writing a film noir horror movie about a detective investigating this cult called the "Coma Noir". I started writing it and as I was getting into the meat of the story, things started picking up with the band. I wasn’t writing lyrics yet, but I thought I should take all the themes of the story and adapt them to a record. Also, the idea of how to relate this to my own life came up and up came the idea of our band being this cult where nothing is all good or all evil, but a little bit of both. I also wanted to include the idea that maybe we’ve been looked over a little bit after all the things we’ve accomplished, so there was this idea of ‘follow us or die’ as well.
I see that the limited edition vinyl version comes with “case files.” Is that your way of keeping up with special packaging, visuals and design? Giannopoulos: With any sort of film noir thing, the mystery aspect is 100% and I’ve always enjoyed the idea that we’re not the band that posts about our daily lives on Instagram or whatever. I come from the age of the ‘90s when a band put out a record and maybe they had a website and maybe they updated it once when the album came out and you’d be wondering that if this band that I totally love is even still a band. I like the mystery aspect of it and that was a way to tie it all in. After The Old Believer’s cover, which was packaged in material that changed colour when you got it wet, it feels like we went so high that I couldn’t possibly top it. It also plays into the whole film noir aspect where everything is black and white and kept really simple and mysterious.
I understand that your philosophy on touring has changed. I’m assuming you’re going to be running things different operationally so you don’t fall back into a rut? Giannopoulos: That’s exactly it. More or less, we toured our goddamn faces off on The Old Believer to the extent we were burnt. Things had to change; we had to step back a little bit and breathe for the first time in ten years because pretty much since we had started, we hadn’t fucking stopped. We’ve been able to step back, find a nice little niche at home and get ourselves a little more stable. I think we come from that age of “If you want to be popular, if you want people to notice you, if you want to get a record deal, you better live on the road” and I feel that idea is antiquated and I don’t feel people are that apt to be spending money to come see us play eight times a year.
I don’t want to see my favourite band that many times a year; it doesn’t make it special. It’s not like we’ve ever had total disasters on the road, but people know we’re going to end up touring with a bigger band and when you do that then go out on your own or with another band that tours all the time, people are like, “I just saw them, they tour like maniacs, they’ll be back.” So, it’s kind of silly to keep killing yourself for no real reason. At the end of the day, we were just over saturating our market and exhausting ourselves and that’s just as bad as not doing anything. At the same time, since our last record, there’s been 8000 new festivals pop up everywhere so it’s much more plausible for us to route a tour around a festival in some region for two weeks then come home and not put our rent or relationships in jeopardy.
And since we’re lucky enough to get the opportunity to tour with bands like Gojira, Devin Townsend or Between the Buried and Me, then we can take six weeks to go out on a killer tour that’s totally worthwhile and not jeopardise our band. That’s really what it comes down to; we started this band when we were in our early-to-mid 20s and now we’re all in our 30s so it’s a little bit harder to justify going out for six weeks and eating shit. We can go out for six weeks with a huge band that wants to take us out. I’d rather play New York three times a year, once headlining and two support or whatever, than six times for no real reason. I’d rather make our appearances worthwhile, for everybody. The idea is to work smarter, not harder. I think we’ve done our days of busting our faces for anything out there.