Interview with Alissa White-Gluz of The Agonist - August 14th, 2011

Interview with Alissa White-Gluz of The Agonist
Conducted on Sunday, August 14th 2011

Interview and photos by Mike Bax

I’m going to preface this interview with a bit of a disclaimer. I was attending a Toronto performance by The Agonist knowing absolutely nothing about the band. It was a place to meet and have a few beers with some friends – the fact that the evening would include a live show featuring some Canadian metal was just icing on the cake.

It was suggested that I interview the Agonist before the show, and seeing as I’m always up for learning more about musicians, I quickly arranged a time to meet up with Alissa, the band’s front woman.

It wasn’t until the day of the show that I really started searching the web for info on the band, in order to put some questions together, whereupon it became apparent that The Agonist have two things working for them - firstly, they are capable musicians and craft a mixture of ultra heavy metal with moments of melodic harmonizing by vocalist Alissa White-Gluz. And secondly, White-Gluz’s fashion model good looks have garnered much attention both in print and online.

Upon arriving at The Rockpile (in Etobicoke) and asking around for Alissa, a girl at the bar said she’d have her come up from the dressing room. It was minutes later, when five-foot-five White-Gluz approached me and shook my hand. She was carrying a small cup of hot chocolate, and as she introduced herself, one of the bands on the bill started sound checking. We went outside the venue, took a quick photograph, and then jumped into my car to avoid an imminent late afternoon downpour and got down to chatting.

Mike: So, if I’ve got my facts straight, The Agonist has been functioning as a band for seven years but really five years with Century Media?

Alissa: Yeah, we formed in early 2004 and we were signed not long after that. Our first release was in 2007.

Mike: How did you guys meet and form as a band?

Alissa: I was in another band when I was seventeen, eighteen, and we were all in other bands. In the Montréal metal scene everybody knows everybody knows everybody, but especially in Montreal. This was before Myspace, Facebook, and all the social networking stuff. Danny (Marino) and (Chris) Kells from the Agonist were in another band and they lost their singer right around when I had just quit the band I was in. They just ended up getting in touch with me, we got a drummer, we started writing songs together and eventually we got Simon in the band. We got Paco in the band to be what we are now. It’s funny because I was watching videos of shows from my old band and you can actually see Danny and Kells in the audience, talking to each other and watching the stage.

Mike: So were you guys just using session drummers before Simon?

Alissa: We had another drummer that had been drumming with Danny and Kells in their old band. To be able to move forward creatively we needed a different kind of drummer so we got Simon.

Mike: Well, you guys tour a lot, it takes a certain type of mentality and freedom of employment. Did you record any material that got cut to demo with another drummer?

Alissa: Yeah, actually the first album is all done by our old drummer, it’s not Simon, and you can tell by the drumming. We recorded the entire thing as the tempest and then prior to releasing it we changed the name.

Mike: Changing the name from The Tempest. Was it like the Shakespeare thing, or was there another band with that name?

Alissa: There are lots of bands with the name the Tempest, but I think we took the name because I was reading the book at the time and I had to come up with something quick because we had shows. When it came time for people to have something to associate with us we had to come up with something better.

Mike: How did Century Media find out about your band? Did they come to a show and see your band?

Alissa: No, unfortunately in Canada it’s not too frequent that that happens. Actually the producer who did the first album (2007’s “Once Only Imagined”) and “Lullabies for the Dormant Mind” is also doing the third album. It’s Christian Donaldson, he’s in Cryptopsy, and he was on tour in Europe and was working on some mixes on his laptop. Their manager (Cryptopsy) was an A&R rep for Century Media for years, heard him working on the mixes; he liked what he heard and took it from there. We ended getting signed in Germany, but we got a worldwide deal.

Mike: That’s pretty awesome. Century Media seems like they’re good at signing bands and being pretty hands off about the material. But that’s just from my perception from the outside looking in.

Alissa: I guess it depends on the band, but as far as our relationship goes with them, I’ve never felt like a product with them. Maybe they should be a bit more hands on in some respects, but they’ve been really hands off with the creative aspect - which is good because I’ve never felt like I’d have to change my look or the way I write or what I write about because my label wants me to. It was never like that. We really just do exactly what we want to do creatively with the benefit of being independent while being on a label.

Mike: Speaking of that, I really do like that your songs are about something and it’s not like your whole shtick is on Norse Mythology. It doesn’t have to be lifted out of a book like Lovecraft or something. You’re active against animal testing and other philanthropic efforts and actually stand for something.

Alissa: Well, I’ve been active with a lot of different organizations, some of it was helping kids, some of it was helping third world countries, and some of it was helping animals. But my passion is in animal rights, or animal welfare I should say. I got involved in some campaigns that were more popular than others like the one against the Seal hunt, a campaign against KFC. It’s funny because we’ll hear from fans that are pissed off we’re involved with this stuff, but they wouldn’t be surprised if they actually read the lyrics.

Mike: You can be a fence-sitter as a band – lots of bands just play music and tour, but you’re actually active at it. I have seen other bands get active in stuff they believe in. Some bands help the homeless or kids, or raise money and awareness for cancer research.

Alissa: For me, if I’m going to attract hundreds or thousands of people to what I say, I might as well say something important. If they want to listen to it - that’s great.  If not, they can just listen to the music too. It’s not like I get offended when I hear bands talking about drinking, whatever, if you want to talk about prostitutes and drugs, go ahead! If I like the music, I’ll like it, if not, I won’t.

Mike: My business partner was at Ted Nugent’s show last night and he’s got blatant hunting footage, and she was just like, “I could’ve done without that”.

Alissa: Well, I’m not a fan of Nugent! (Laughs)

Mike: The music itself that The Agonist plays is a mixture of growling and harmonics. It must be pretty grueling on tour. Do you suffer from laryngitis or throat tension?

Alissa: Not really, only sometimes if we’re flying from place to place and I’ve got jet lag, or if I’m tired or somebody in the band gets sick, we’re all in such close quarters everyone gets sick. As long as I don’t get sick or over-tired that’s fine, but if I do, that’s a huge issue because strangely enough you would think it would make my clean voice disappear. But it actually makes my growling voice disappear and my clean voice is okay.

Mike: Who are the primary songwriters in the Agonist?

Alissa: It’s pretty much Danny and I. For the first album it was all Danny structuring the songs and then Kells would come in and do his bass part. I’ve always been in charge of writing the lyrics, naming the songs, naming the albums, writing the melodies, harmonies, rhythms and that stuff. On this album there’s actually quite a few songs written by Simon (McKay).

Mike: How does all this stuff happen? Do you have certain time set aside to write or does writing tend to happen when you’re on the road?

Alissa: Honestly, the system we have, it works but everyone writes separate. I don’t know how Danny writes actually, I just pretty much get a recording one day and I write my part on it. For me, I can’t really allot time to it like, “I’m going to work on this song for the next four hours”, it doesn’t work. I can sit there for four hours and have nothing or have a ton of stuff and it’s all horrible. It’s kind of like I just need to let the inspiration hit, so when it does hit I just roll with it, which is probably why this (new) album has taken so long to record (Laughs).

Mike: Is it finished recording yet?

Alissa: No, we’re still in studio and I’ll be in the studio for a few more weeks to come. Then we have another musician who’s going to be putting orchestrations and little pieces of ear candy here and there. Once that’s done we can get it mixed and mastered.

Mike: Because you’re going back out on tour in what, ten days or twelve days from now?

Alissa: Yeah. The studio’s going to have to wait, but this upcoming tour aligns with the Cryptopsy tour, so we wouldn’t be able to record anyways because Christian isn’t here.

Mike: Do you think it’ll come out next year?

Alissa: Probably early next year.

Mike: But it’s all written now? You’re not still writing?

Alissa: I am still writing. I wish I wasn’t, I wish I had it done, but this album has been really hard to write for some reason. So far what I have written I really like, but I think I’m sort of stuck in this dilemma, oddly enough, I still really like “Lullabies”. Usually you get over an album after a while, but I’m still not so I’m trying to out-do “Lullabies” rather than writing new songs. That’s been a wrench in the works for me.

Mike: Yeah, I can see that being a bit of a challenge. Is there any material that’s a change in direction so far?

Alissa: My vocals sound a little bit different this time. I don’t know if my voice has matured or if it’s intentional, but I do find it’s pretty different. Because there’s Simon and Paco actively writing songs, that makes it a little bit different too. I also find that the album also has definite Agonist elements, but I find every song sounds really different from all the other songs. That could be really good for somebody that has open minded taste, or it could be really bad for somebody that just really likes “Thank You Pain”. Even for me, there are some songs where I’m writing and its like, “This doesn’t feel like me, but I’m going to give it a shot”. I’m keeping open minded about it too, so I’m hoping that the people who pick up the album will really, really love a couple of the songs and really like the other songs too.

Mike: I think if you’re a fan of a band, they’re going to throw something at you to challenge you and change yourselves as musicians.

Alissa: I think there are a couple different kinds of bands. Like Foo Fighters or Muse they do one thing, but they do it better than everybody else in the world so they keep on putting out the same kind of album. Because it’s always amazing, it’s always interesting and they’re the best at. Then you have some bands that are better off evolving and changing, not just because they’re following trends, but because they want their music to keep sounding fresh.

Mike: This Pandemonium tour you’re leaving on in ten days, how long is that?

Alissa: its five weeks, so it lasts until the end of September. Then when I get back it’s going to be severe album writing brutal crunch time until Christmas, then the album will come out early next year.

Mike: How involved are you guys in album art?

Alissa: Very involved actually, I’m a visual artist myself and I would love to do our album art myself. The only thing is that because I’m a member of the band I find it’s really hard for other band members to take something without question by a member of the band. If it’s an outside third party it’s cool, but if it’s someone in the band it’s always like, “Change this and revise that”. For the first album I tried to do the album art and I think doing it for my own band, as much as I would love to, I don’t know if it would work. I actually do art for other people’s bands. So far for the new album coming out I’ve been checking out student art because I really like to help local artists and I found one artist who really stood out in my head.

Mike: Your last album and tour took you to a number of different places all over the world. Do you anticipate touring even further to places you’ve never been this time?

Alissa: I think so, I hope so because so far with all the foreign territories we’ve been hitting we’ve gotten really good responses and always had a good rapport with the promoters. I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t go to those territories again and go beyond the usual cities into some smaller cities, different countries. That’s what we like better than touring in North America, is going to different places and seeing that our music has made it there. That really pays off for us. It must be internet related because as we all know; traditional media is kind of archaic at this point.

Mike: Well, that’s the thing, a lot of the stuff I love isn’t even in print anymore, and it’s all online.

Alissa: Magazines now are almost all advertisements or you’ll get “The Hottest Chicks” Metal magazines, but it’s really just to sell magazines more than anything else.

Mike: Do you feel that that kind of Revolver ‘hot women sell’ promotion hurts your band in any way, or takes away from what you guys are trying to do?

Alissa: I think it probably does in some respects. I’ve read some reviews before where people were like, “Oh you know, Alissa is renowned for in-depth lyrics, but here she is posing for ‘the hottest chicks in metal’ so now I don’t believe any of it”. It’s like okay; first of all your argument is that you don’t think someone can be attractive and intelligent, which I don’t think is true. Second of all, I didn’t say any of those things anyway.  Those are just labels being put on me. That being said, I don’t love doing things like that, but honestly I don’t see anything wrong with it either. I’ve never done any photo shoot I didn’t want to do, same as I’ve never done a photo shoot specifically for any magazine, and they always just use pictures I already have. I don’t feel like I have to use my sexuality to advertise my band, I just embrace the fact that I’m a woman. Women are often seen as sex objects, but if I choose to accept that and then turn it against anyone who sees it that way, then I’m sort of getting the upper hand on the situation. I think a lot of pop artists do that too, like Lady Gaga; she’s pretty scantily clad in a lot of things and has overtly sexual lyrics, but its tongue in cheek. Really, in this day in age, there’s a lot of ADD going on and not much in depth reading.

Mike: We’re trying to put everything we do into one hundred and forty characters or less these days.

Alissa: Exactly! That’s why even a lot of bands that don’t have girls in them have them in their video or on their albums covers. People like looking at women, people like looking at explosions, its the lowest common denominator. As much as I do not like that, I have to keep in mind that there is a majority out that will be attracted to that as to something else.

Mike: Metal’s prominently male listeners. I was at Heavy MTL last year and the amount of girls coming over the rails was almost equal to the amount of guys, which was interesting to me. But there is this: there’s no Revolver’s “Hottest guys in Metal”.

Alissa: Exactly. It’s funny because there’s that double standard, but for some reason, and I admit it too, if there’s an attractive dude walking down the street and there’s an attractive girl, I’ll look at the girl first. Not because I’m sexually attracted to her but because I’m a visual artist and there’s something attractive about women that a man doesn’t have.

Mike: Girls are usually better put together than guys are, like if you see a guy in a nice suit or whatever. You look on TV right now; what’s a sexy guy? Pitbull? I don’t want to look like that guy.

Alissa: (Laughs) Yeah. I mean, really I’m glad I’m not a guy because you don’t have much to work with. You can kind of change your hair, you can kind of change your beard, and you can change your clothes, put on muscle or get skinny. If you’re a girl you can change your hair, put on make-up, a million different kinds of shoes, shirts or skirts. We have more to play with and that’s why I usually have different hair and make-up all the time because to me that’s just fun.

Mike: Thanks for your time.