THE AGONIST - A Message At Full Throttle

April 3, 2008, 10 years ago

Special report by Carl Begai; picture by Ken Pierce

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Quite often what looks good on paper isn’t as attractive in reality. The Agonist learned the truth of this with the summer 2007 release of their debut album, Once Only Imagined, which saw tour dates for the last quarter of the year pile up even before the record had hit the shelves. A dream situation for any newcomer band bent on making a name for themselves. Following dates with Epica and God Forbid the band bounced from supporting Sonata Arctica to Overkill to Enslaved from September to November with nary a break, The Agonist was finally forced to cut the Enslaved run short following a car accident. The band survived the touring marathon and the accident relatively unscathed, but it was a baptism of fire that tested the members’ limits. Vocalist Alissa White-Gluz looks back on the adventure with a sense of accomplishment but the band’s next road trip, following the 2008 release of their work-in-progress second album, will be decidedly different.

“That was hard,” Alissa says of the non-stop grind. “The first run with Sonata Arctica, the first two or three weeks, I think the guys handled it a bit better than I did. For the first little bit I was saying ‘I quit, I’m not doing this band thing anymore, this is hell, I hate this.’ I couldn’t stand it. It’s not that I mind roughing it, but roughing it and still having to look good, and stay healthy enough to perform on stage, and then meet tons of strangers with a smile after trying to sleep while travelling…I hated it. That part of it was pretty hard on us even though the shows were really good. With Overkill, who were really nice to us, it was a bit easier. The shows weren’t as big as the Sonata Arctica shows so it wasn’t as tough. Then we had a week off between Overkill and Enslaved, and luckily, when we went back out on the road with them we had Arsis and The Faceless there, so there was a lot more diversity in the number of people I could chill with (laughs). It wasn’t just my band all the time which made it easier, so it was a fun tour for us. So, of course, that was the one that had to be cut short…”

The experience has since been filed away under the heading “Live And Learn” rather than “No Risk, No Fun”. The Agonist will be taking an ultimately healthier approach to touring next time out.

“It’s something we talked about a lot on the Enslaved tour,” says Alissa, “because even though the Enslaved tour was more fun it didn’t make a lot of sense marketing-wise. It’s hard to predict which shows are going to work and which ones aren’t. I thought the Enslaved shows would go over really well and that people who liked Sonata Arctica wouldn’t like The Agonist because of the growling vocals, but it didn’t work out that way. In general the people that liked Sonata liked us because of the melodic parts, and the Enslaved fans hated us because of the melodic parts and the breakdowns. They really hated us, and The Faceless kind of got the shit end of the stick because they have a bit of a hard core feel. I was really surprised, and because of that we want to make sure the tours we get are appropriate and make more sense in terms of how many people we’re going to reach. It makes more sense to do a smaller tour where the bands fit really well together than a huge tour that doesn’t fit at all.”
“That was our motivation for pulling out of the Nile tour, actually,” she adds, referring to the cancellation announced in February. “We could have done that tour, which has bands that we love on it, but there’s a chance we wouldn’t have been taken very well by the audience. So we decided to cancel and work on the new album instead.”

With regards to Once Only Imagined itself, Alissa and her bandmates have no real complaints with regards to how it performed in terms of getting The Agonist’s name out there.

“It actually did much better than the label expected. I guess we really didn’t have any major expectations because we didn’t record it for the label. It was recorded and then Century Media picked it up. We never intended to have thousands and thousands of people hear it (laughs). We’re pretty happy with it, and since the touring started we’ve decided we need some more mature material to work with because we’ve been playing those songs for four years. We’re proud of it as our debut album.”

Once Only Imagined not only introduced The Agonist as yet another fine example of French Canadian metal and Alissa as the ultimate – and unintentional – cross between Angela Gossow (Arch Enemy) and Cristina Scabbia (Lacuna Coil), it came with a very strong social and environmentally conscious message. A self-proclaimed animal activist and a vegan, Alissa’s beliefs are an integral part of The Agonist’s songs. That said, do fans actually understand and respect her points of view?

“I’d like to think so. As with everything I do, I get positive and negative reactions. There are certain people that tell me ‘I’m getting your album artwork tattooed on me right now because your music saved me from addiction…’ or ‘I became vegan because of you..,’ and that’s amazing. That’s the best payoff ever. At the same time it also happens there are people that will just see the word ‘vegan’ and say ‘Stop preaching at me!’ It’s like, did they read what I wrote? When I write my blogs I’m always very careful, to the point it’s almost like I’m putting a disclaimer on it saying ‘I’m stating my opinion, if you don’t agree or you don’t want to know about this feel free to not read this.’ I’m not forcing my views down anyone’s throat.”

Raising the question of whether she feels she has to write songs with a message in mind, or if it’s possible to reduce lyrical subjects to something rather basic or even trivial. It’s an idea Alissa is exploring to a degree with the band’s new album, due out this September.

“It’s crossed my mind,” she admits, “but the motivations that drove me to write with a message for the first album are still there. I’ve actually written some songs based on more personal things, but I have a certain style of writing so it’s not too noticeable that it’s a personal subject rather than a political one. With the way the new songs are going right now there are two or three that are personal, and if anyone asks me what they’re about I’ll be ‘It’s a secret!’ (laughs). As for the rest of the songs, they’ll be pretty obvious.”

Alissa offers some insight into The Agonist’s all-important sophomore effort.

“Logically, with our timeline it makes sense for us to do an album now, but to the public it doesn’t necessarily make sense because the only got the debut less than a year ago. We decided that we were going to take everything we’ve ever wanted to do musically and do it with this new album. It’s been causing a lot of disagreements because me and Danny (Marino/guitars) don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on everything, but it’s definitely heavier. It has a bit of a different feel compared to the debut. It’s heavier, and it’s got a darker feel, which is good because I’m constantly trying to pull us to go darker and heavier and faster, and Danny’s always ‘No, rock n’ roll!’ (laughs). We’re all pretty excited about it. There’s also the possibility that a certain guitarist from a certain well known and well respected metal band will produce it for us, but I don’t want to jinx it (laughs). We’ve demoed the material and we’ve gotten some pretty good reactions.”
“Being on tour I discovered new ways of singing that I didn’t know I could do,” she continues, “and because it’s our second album I’m not as scared to try out new things. Maybe something sounds weird when I record it, and if it does someone will tell me and I’ll change it. There’s probably about the same amount of screaming and growling as on the debut, but it’s more mixed up and not as clean cut.”

Speaking of trying out new things, it might be interesting to hear some songs done in French…

“I’ve thought about that, actually,” she admits. “I’ve been debating about singing in French on certain parts of the songs I’m writing now. Sort of as an homage to where I come from, but also because I feel it would add something interesting. At the beginning of ‘Business Suits And Combat Boots’ (from the debut) there’s a spoken word thing that I do but it’s whispered and I do it in such a way that you can’t really tell what I’m saying, but I know it’s there. If I do sing in French on the new album, sure, not everyone is going to understand it but I’m going to know what it means. I’m from Québec and we have two official languages here, so why not?”

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