Tear It Down
You don’t fuck with Atreyu frontman Alex Varkatzas. Behind the two full sleeves and penetrating stare, the singer for Orange County’s most vicious metalcore band is currently in the midst of a training regimen worthy of a gladiator. During his rare moments of downtime from the road, Varkatzas fills his week with 10 two-hour workout sessions that include private jujitsu lessons, high-impact kickboxing, and strength conditioning with an ex–football player. So would Varkatzas ever use his physical prowess to intimidate a shady promoter? “I’m very nonviolent,” he clarifies. “That said, if someone swings at me, my fiancée, or one of my brothers, then shit’s on. But I think our booking agent will ruin your day up if you try to fuck us for money,” he adds with a laugh. “I don’t have to worry about that.”
Besides, these days Varkatzas has more important things on his mind. His band, Atreyu—which also includes drummer-vocalist Brandon Saller, guitarists Dan Jacobs and Travis Miguel, and bassist Marc McKnight—are releasing their fifth full-length, Congregation of the Damned. It’s an album that sees the band’s signature sound finally coming full circle. Since the group came out of the Orange County, CA, scene as teenagers in the late ’90s (alongside acts like Eighteen Visions and Avenged Sevenfold) and exploded in 2002 with their metalcore opus Suicide Notes and Butterfly Kisses, their music and image have matured. They’ve evolved from an Anne Rice–obsessed goth metal group to one of the genre’s most unique and celebrated acts—a progression that hasn’t come without its fair share of misconceptions.
“I don’t like being asked questions about makeup,” Varkatzas says dismissively. “We wore that literally not even a year, but there was a shitload of pictures taken around that time because we were always on the road,” he explains. “We got stuck in that makeup-wearing goth metalcore band thing that we definitely never wanted to be, so I think it’s liberating now to be free of that.” After two more albums on Victory Records—2004’s The Curse and 2006’s A Death-Grip on Yesterday—the band left the label and released their major label debut, Lead Sails Paper Anchor, in 2007. It was a polarizing album that saw Varkatzas taking a more melodic approach to his vocals. “I think, if anything, Lead Sails served the purpose to sever any of those ties to the goth metal thing,” he elaborates. “Any close-minded kids who just thought we were going to be one thing and that’s all they wanted to hear probably checked out on that record.”
But even fans who stuck around might not be ready for Congregation of the Damned, a master opus that’s both a huge sonic step forward for the band and proof that adulthood hasn’t dulled their ability to shred. If anything, Atreyu sound more energized than ever. “When we started writing [this album] it was a 10-year anniversary, which was big for us and made us think back on all the things we’ve accomplished,” Saller says. “It’s kind of a reflective record but at the same time I refer to it as a ‘best of’ because it’s really a collection of highlights from what we’ve done so far,” he says. “In a lot of ways it’s a cool retrospective of who we are as a band.”
From hyper-melodic, radio-friendly rockers like “Gallows” to raging thrash like “Stop! Before It’s Too Late and We’ve Destroyed It All” and glam-friendly anthems like “Insatiable,” Congregation of the Damned sees the band once again reinventing their sound without abandoning their hardcore roots. “Life is all about reevaluation, or you’ll never grow,” Varkatzas explains. “I think the piano ballad ‘Wait for You’ will definitely surprise people because there’s absolutely no screaming on the song at all and it has that ’80s rock ballad feel, but I love keeping our listeners on their toes.” Via shredding guitar solos and Jacobs’s pointy, splatter-painted axes, the band never made their love of glam metal a secret. But Varkatzas says he feels like this is the first Atreyu album to incorporate those influences in a cohesive way that doesn’t sound forced or contrived.
“I’m gonna catch heat from the dudes in my band on this, but I’m going to say it anyway: We all love the song ‘Blow’ and think it’s a cool track, but I almost think it’s just too tongue-in-cheek for me now,” Varkatzas says, referring to the Skid Row–worthy single from 2007’s Lead Sails Paper Anchor. “I really like playing [that song], but I think we could be a little more tasteful when we throw in our ’80s elements instead of making it so obvious,” he continues. In other words, “guilty pleasure” isn’t in Atreyu’s collective vocabulary. “You look at bands like Aerosmith or Bon Jovi and they’re humongous years and years later, and there’s a reason for that: It’s timeless, classic music,” Saller says. “I really think people who immediately write off arena rock are close-minded, and ultimately they’re cheating themselves out of some amazing songs.”
In a constantly shifting musical climate, the one constant in Atreyu’s career has been the fact that they’ve always been slightly ahead of the trends, both musically and aesthetically—an attribute that has ended up biting them in the ass when it comes to their copious tattoos. “When I started getting tattoos there weren’t as many douchebags in Orange County running around with sleeves,” Varkatzas explains. Jeremiah Barba at Outer Limits did his first tattoo, a traditional-style rose and dagger on the back of his right calf, the day before Varkatzas turned 18 (with the envious underage duo of Jacobs and Saller at his side). These days Varkatzas has more than 15 roses tattooed on his body in addition to a Japanese-themed sleeve on his right arm and a horror-centric sleeve on his left arm that features Frankenstein and his bride, a severed geisha head, and a zombie Virgin Mary. “I wish I planned out [my tattoos] a little more, to be honest,” Varkatzas admits. “But I don’t mind getting it done over the years because that shit hurts.”
Saller’s tattoos are more tribute-based and include a halo and wings on his shoulder as a memorial to his sister who passed away; a skull and crossbones with a whisk and a wooden spoon replacing the bones, in tribute to his bakery-owning mother; and a old-school radio with crosses as an homage to his musician father. And all of this is in addition to a back piece that acts as a memorial to his grandfather. “I like memorial tattoos, but now that I think I’ve got them out of the way my tattoos are just about fun stuff I’m into,” Saller says. “I like them both; I think everyone should have a few funny tattoos, but I also think it’s a great way to express something that means a lot to you.”
That said, Saller also professes a distaste for people who have turned his outlet for self-expression into something trivial. “There are people who just get tattooed as a fashion statement and don’t realize that five or 10 years later, they might be bummed about the tribal on their throat,” Saller says with a laugh. “I love tattoos but I definitely wear long sleeves sometimes because when you get tattoos you want to be different, and that becomes difficult when they become so popular.”
The same thing can be said about Atreyu’s music. Despite the fact that metalcore has now fully transitioned from VFW halls to Hot Topic, the band have always felt a need to evolve instead of blindly fitting in with the masses. Part of the evolution on Congregation of the Damned comes lyrically, as Varkatzas stretches out to address government corruption as much as his own personal demons. “I wanted to have every song have both a political and personal meaning at the same time,” says the typically apolitical frontman. “I think the leaders of our country are full of shit; I’m not super intelligent and don’t follow politics very much, but for the past few years I have. So there are a few songs where I just kind of open my mouth and throw out a ‘What the fuck?’ because I think we’re getting screwed,” he continues. “Right now I think the few people in charge are leading us like lemmings to the slaughter and they’re picking our pockets and throwing us off the cliff at the same time, so that’s kind of where the title Congregation of the Damned came from.”
And if you’re part of an act that has ripped off Atreyu’s massive breakdowns and arpeggio-infused leads over the years, you’re not safe from the band’s fire either. “We’re sickened with how mundane a lot of bands are today,” Saller says when asked what he thinks of the current music scene. “There are so many copy-and-paste bands out there and we don’t want to sound like them, even though that’s something that we started.” In the simplest sense, Congregation of the Damned is as much a gigantic middle finger to those aforementioned acts as it is the sound of Atreyu finding their identity at a distinct moment in time. “We don’t want to get pigeonholed into one place because that’s just who we were at that time; we all still love vampire movies and books and dark imagery and all that stuff—but we don’t want our music to be all about that,” Saller says. “We’d rather evolve into something that’s cooler than what we started out doing.”