INTERVIEW WITH ALAN ROBERT BY SYLVIA LENORE
PHOTOGRAPHS BY GINO DEPINTO
Twenty-six years later, we finally discover the fate of the protagonist from Life of Agony’s groundbreaking debut River Runs Red at a time that couldn’t be more fitting in the rise of support for mental health awareness. With a reinvigorated lineup, featuring drummer Veronica Bellino, the band has returned with unwavering passion and relentless energy on their new album The Sound of Scars. Find out more as we chat with bassist and songwriter Alan Robert.
It’s been 26 years since the release of Life of Agony’s debut album, River Runs Red, and a lot has changed since then. What made you decide to continue to develop its harrowing tale on The Sound of Scars?
It came along very naturally. Our new drummer Veronica Bellino joined the band in January , and we had two sold out shows lined up in our hometown of Brooklyn for her first appearances with the band. So, to prepare the set lists for the shows, we really wanted to play some rare, deep cuts from the back catalog—some real fan favorites we haven’t played in decades, some we actually never played live. We went back and listened to all the old records together with fresh ears. Veronica learned something like 20 songs for those shows. Anyway, while we were soaking in all the old material, something really clicked with us. It occurred to us that over the course of our career, we unintentionally abandoned some of the signature songwriting elements that made us Life of Agony—some things were just left behind as we evolved from record to record. Things like including these big gang vocals to create real anthem-like choruses or kicking into a breakdown riff unexpectedly in the middle of parts, things like that. So, by the time we started with writing sessions for The Sound of Scars in the winter of 2018, we were definitely already headed back in that mindset. I remember we were at Joey’s house sipping on some coffee in between rehearsals. We must have been about four or five songs into writing the new album when I presented the idea to the band about making another concept record that continued the story of River Runs Red. The whole band was immediately very excited about it.
“WE ALL ARE SURVIVORS, BECAUSE WE HAD AN OUTLET TO EXPRESS OURSELVES THROUGH THIS MUSIC, TO GET OUT OUR FRUSTRATIONS, AND WE FOUND A WAY TO DEAL WITH OUR OWN DEMONS BY GETTING CREATIVE.”
Lyrically, there was already a common theme tying the songs together, and the end of Rivers in my mind kind of left the door open for a continuation. We left it ambiguous. Since we recorded that album back in 1993, it has made such a positive impact on so many troubled souls all over the world. Countless fans have come up to us over the years, telling us how that album literally saved their lives because they felt less alone in this world. They’re survivors, and at the end of the day, we all are survivors, because we had an outlet to express ourselves through this music, to get out our frustrations, and we found a way to deal with our own demons by getting creative. And ultimately that saved us. Well, that got me thinking. What would have happened if that troubled teen on River Runs Red survived, too? What if he had a band that he connected to that made him feel less alone and got him through the tough times? What would his life be like now? The gears started turning, and the whole idea really came together in a cohesive way. Everything from the production, the songs, the dynamics, to the album artwork, to the audio scenes—really everything came together with a unified vision. We made it happen and we’re super proud about that.
With mental health awareness being a huge talking point in our current society, did that inspire you at all? Have you noticed any significant difference in how those topics were received when River Runs Red came out in 1993 compared to The Sound of Scars now?
It’s a great thing that mental health awareness is way more part of the conversation these days. When we were young, there really weren’t many places you could turn for help. When we were talking about suicide and depression back in 1993 on Rivers, it was a bit taboo. Now, in 2019, you see those topics everywhere. It is inspiring, but we have got to do much, much more. Most of my heroes are dead now. Chris Cornell, Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, Scott Weiland—the list goes on and on and on. Thankfully, we continue to help listeners through our music. I’ve already seen some fans talking about how The Sound of Scars came out in a time in their lives when they really needed it. If we can help even just one person get through a dark period in their lives, then we’ve done our job.
“IT WAS A LOT OF WORK, BUT WE HAD A GREAT TIME. A LOT OF LAUGHING. IT WAS LIKE THE OLD DAYS IN A LOT OF WAYS.”
The Sound of Scars is co-produced with your guitarist Joey Z. and the legendary Sylvia Massy. What was it like working with her in the studio?
We really had a blast going out there. Sylvia has a great recording studio in Ashland, Oregon that she converted from an old church. It’s unique in the sense that there is literally no separation between the live tracking room and the console. She’s got a ton of vintage gear, including a badass 1970s era Neve and an extensive tube microphone collection. Veronica performed the entire record on a handmade drum set Sylvia had waiting there for her. Sylvia captured some amazing organic drum sounds, and Veronica nailed every song with passion, precision, and energy. That was a great foundation to build on. Joey produced and recorded bass, guitars, and vocals in various studios throughout New York, including The Meth Lab Studio, which Wu Tang’s Method Man was a partner in. It was a lot of work, but we had a great time. A lot of laughing. It was like the old days in a lot of ways. Joey has really become a phenomenal producer in his own right, and he left no stone unturned. I remember when we were at Strange Weather studio in Brooklyn, and Joey got my bass sound. It sounded like Godzilla. I was so happy. I’ve been chasing that bass sound for 20 years! We did a lot of preparation for the audio scenes as well. I wrote them out in script form, and Joey brought them all to life through sounds and by working with the voice talent. We used all of our friends and family to create those pieces. Even Mina’s little pup Toni can be heard barking in “Now” (laughs). We had our daughters sing backup on the song “I Surrender.” We connected with some of our friends on the police force to research the correct radio codes for the police dispatch sequences. We really wanted everything to feel and sound authentic.
Aside from being in the band, you’re a well known comic book artist and have a hugely popular horror/gore themed adult coloring book series, along with being credited for creating the cover artwork for several of Life of Agony albums, including The Sound of Scars. So, first and foremost, will we ever get a Life of Agony coloring book?
Now that would be interesting! A few years back, I was kicking around the idea of possibly doing a comic book series about the band where we told some road stories in comic form. I drew a few pages, and it was fun, but there’s only so much time in the day. I am usually juggling about five different projects at any given time, and there just wasn’t enough time to complete it. Maybe one day! The Beauty of Horror coloring series really kind of exploded, and it takes up a lot of my time outside of the band. The illustrations are very intricate, so I could be drawing one page for like nine hours straight. I love it. It’s just very time consuming. There are a bunch of new products scheduled for 2020 releases already! We made some cool announcements at NY Comic Con the other day. The Beauty of Horror, Volume 4: Creature Feature comes out next August, and we announced a tarot card set that launched on Kickstarter.
“WHAT I REALLY LIKE ABOUT MAKING MUSIC AND MAKING COMICS IS THAT THE PROCESS ITSELF IS EXCITING FOR ME.”
How does your creative process differ when you’re writing lyrics versus when you’re writing/drawing comics? Or is it the same? Do they ever influence/inspire one another?
I consider it all storytelling. Sure, there are different inspirations for each art form, but at the end of the day, you’re telling a story. Writing songs is more spontaneous for me, as opposed to writing and drawing comics. If I feel a melody or lyrics come to me, I’ll pick up my guitar to figure out some riffs to work with it on the spot. That inspiration could happen any time of the day. With writing comics, I will usually have the core idea and then do a ton of research to flesh that idea and its characters out. It will take several weeks to hone in on the drawing style I want to use to tell the story as well. A lot of time and effort goes into the preparation of a project like that. Especially because in general, with the comics, I write and draw everything myself. I even do the lettering and the book design, so there’s a lot to think about. What I really like about making music and making comics is that the process itself is exciting for me. I love coming up with a rough idea on a napkin and watch it develop over time into something real and tangible. Most people only get to see or hear the final product. I dig the whole process of bringing ideas to life.
Speaking of horror, you filmed the new music video for “Lay Down” at White Hill Mansion—one of the most haunted houses in New Jersey. What was that like? While you were there did you have any paranormal or spooky experiences?
You could definitely feel the energy in that place, for sure. There are some hidden rooms upstairs as well, so it was all a bit creepy. The basement, especially. Someone was murdered down there, I think stabbed to death, and it used to be a speakeasy during prohibition. You can tell that some crazy stuff went down in that place. You could feel it.
Is there anything else you’d like to add or share with Outburn’s readers?
We’re just really psyched about the new record finally being out there after working so hard on it this past year, and all of the positive feedback coming our way from fans about it is just so humbling. Our buddy, director Leigh Brooks, put together a cool little mini-doc on the making of The Sound of Scars. We’re about to kick off the S.O.S. World Tour in Europe this month. We’re taking our brother Doyle of The Misfits, so that’s going to be a really fun time. Then we’re home for Thanksgiving and then head out for a Canadian run until Christmas. We pick up the tour with more dates in January. There’s a lot going on to support the album.