FeaturesAllegaeon - Always Learning, Always Growing

Allegaeon – Always Learning, Always Growing

After 5 albums that have had a very solid science backing behind them, lyrically, Allegaeon is trying things a bit differently for their sixth album, Damnum.  With a shift away from direct science-y lyrics and injecting more personal ones in their place, that’s not the only change one can expect from the death metal act’s latest.  More dynamic than ever, Damnum feels more creative in tone and sees the band truly taking their heavy yet incredibly catchy formula to the next level.  We got a hold of Riley McShane right around the holidays of 2021 to get his thoughts on the material and lyrical direction, as well as his thoughts on video game/anime/metal cross-pollination, his gig with Metal Blade Live, and much more!

Dead Rhetoric: With this being Allegaeon’s sixth album (and your third one with them), what stands out about Damnum to you?

Riley McShane: It feels like our most real album.  It feels like the album where we released any and all inhibitions that had been keeping us from exploring certain aspects of our creativity that didn’t fit the mold of Allegaeon or weren’t going to push the band forward.  Any doubts that we may have had in previous album cycles, creatively or otherwise, we left at the door with this one.  Because of that, we ended up with an album that feels more like an album than anything we have done before, at least while I have been in the  band.

It sounds strange to say, because Proponent for Sentience had this huge concept attached to it, and Apoptosis had a lot more musical experimentation than Proponent had.  So there has always been an element of us chasing after those sort of goals with each album.  With this one, we went into it from the perspective of making an album we wanted to make and express what we wanted to express with it.  That was the dynamic that we had in mind, across instruments.

Dead Rhetoric: With those instruments, not just with this album, since you have been in the band, there have been a number of line-up changes.  How do you feel that the band has benefitted from each one of those changes?

McShane: I think the change has been bringing us to this settling point that we are finally at now.  With Corey Archuleta quitting and us replacing him with Brandon Michael, that was a step in the right direction.  With us getting rid of Brandon Parks and hiring Jeff Saltzman, that was a step in the right direction.  Even with myself, replacing Ezra, it was a step for the band.  They were all steps moving us towards where we are now.  We are finally there.  I think that, not to take anything away from the previous members – obviously they contributed in their own way to help form how Allegaeon sounded up until their departures.

But I think with this album, everyone is finally on the same page.  Everyone is contributing equally to the creative process and pushing themselves as musicians and people to explore certain parts of their creativity to the point where other previous members might not have been willing to rise up to.  I think that all of the line-up changes have been nothing but positive and allowed us to open doors that we might not have been able to before.

Dead Rhetoric: So you are saying there is a certain level of comfort to be able to toss something out there and no one is going to just shoot it down instantly?

McShane: Right.  And even if it does happen, we have an unspoken rule where if you don’t like something, meet it with a suggestion.  There is no reason to just be like, “Yeah, I don’t like that, fix it,” and bring that sort of negative energy into our creative space.  We all have immense love and respect for each other as people, and even more so as musicians.  So we want to keep the dynamic of the band healthy and keep that creative energy…even if there are disagreements and someone suggestions something and the rest of the band says, “Nah, let’s try to do this instead,” we aren’t out to step on toes or hurt feelings, or like you said, shooting down ideas without trying to figure something out as a group, or suggest something as an individual that might take its place.

Dead Rhetoric: You were mentioning about leaving those hesitations behind.  I know you have had a bit of hesitancy when it comes to clean vocals.  There’s a bunch on this album.  Was that a big thing for you to finally say, “Alright, this is okay?” 

McShane: Honestly, not really.  It felt good to be able to write those parts, since I have been singing much longer than I have been screaming.  But at the same time, the rest of the band got to that point.  I never want to square peg-round hole any type of vocal style into the band.  With Damnum, there was just much more opportunity  within the music itself, for me to listen to it and have it go with different types of singing/screaming.  So I think that because we were all on that same page as a band, it made it easier for me to just listen to the songs as they were presented to me and recognize that a part needed clean singing.

Dead Rhetoric: Could you talk a little about the lyrics this time? It’s kind of a big thing that the band is moving past the limitations of just doing science lyrics with each song/album.

McShane: When I went to write the lyrics, I tried to keep things on-brand and within the realm of science, but as I was continuing to write stuff, I just found myself not really mirroring the excitement that I saw in the rest of the band for the music and that sort of stuff.  So I let them know that.  I said I was having a really hard time writing another science album.  I just wasn’t excited for it, or in that headspace.  I brought it up that I don’t think a lot of other people are either.  With everything that has been happening in the world and with the pandemic, it seemed a little tone-deaf.  It was like, “Hey guys, I know everything is horrible right now, but here’s some science!”  It felt very disingenuous.  I wanted to try writing some lyrics that were a little more meaningful to me, that will help me use this musical outlet the way that I have always used it for other musical projects, to help me channel some of these emotions that I’m experiencing and provide my own closure and catharsis through my creativity.  The rest of the band was on board, so I started writing in that direction.  The album came out with much darker lyrical themes and much more personal I think.

Now we have the first Allegaeon album with no science attached to it.  Although a prior interviewer had mentioned to me that it might not necessarily be true.  They were a Psych-major and had a degree in one of the more sociologically-based sciences.  They said that if we wanted to, the science thing could be looped in, because there is very scientific reasoning behind why people feel these things and how they channel their emotions.  While I’m not necessarily talking about the scientific process, I think that someone who approaches it from that process, with psychology in mind, might be able to take something away from it.  Try as I might, you can’t escape the science in Allegaeon [laughs].

Dead Rhetoric: I will be perfectly honest, when I first heard Allegaeon was moving away from science, I was like “Oh my God!”  Being a science teacher, I always get stoked when you release a new album because I like to use some of the songs in my classes.  But I think it fits really well, and it’s a nice move for you.  Hearing the music this time, I couldn’t imagine if you had just done another science-y thing.  I just doesn’t fit for me when listening to it.

McShane: Right.  That is exactly where I was when trying to write the lyrics.  I just thought it didn’t feel right.  There was no way to discuss this left-brain subject matter, and match the emotional output that the rest of the band put into the music.

Dead Rhetoric: The closing song, “Only Loss,” has some mental health connections to it.  You see mental health come up in a lot of music, do you feel musicians are more attuned to that sort of emotion or acknowledgement of it?

McShane: I wouldn’t say that we are more attuned to pay attention to it, but we all share a common ground of processing those things through our art.  Everyone has different coping mechanisms and levels of awareness of their own mental health or the mental health of others. It may just come across that musicians are more in touch with that, because oftentimes we fuse our music as the way that we cope with emotions that are positive or negative.  So in a way, maybe we are more in touch because we chose to confront those emotions in a way that makes them tangible.  But there are lots of other people who feel and experience these things, and recognize them for what they are, but don’t have the same way of articulating them that someone in my position might.

Dead Rhetoric: It’s nice to have that use within music – it makes for an easier connection to the listener.

McShane: Yes, absolutely.  That’s my hope with this album.  That people will be able to listen to it, and put into words something that they haven’t been able to before.  To be able to latch onto and relate to, that might help them process the things they are feeling, rather than have it build up as something negative that affects them and the people around them.  Hopefully they will just be like, “Having a shitty day, time to spin the new Allegaeon record.”  That would be ideal.

Dead Rhetoric: In the press release, you noted that the cycle for Apoptosis was a bit negative.  What did you learn and apply for Damnum that helped make it more of a positive experience?

McShane: The things that made the Apopotosis album cycle particularly challenging for me, at least, was just how busy we were.  I felt like we really didn’t shell out or budget the necessary time to really focus on the creative process, or the production process.  The year that we recorded Apoptosis, which was 2018, we had spent more than half the year on tour.   Trying to put ourselves into creative spaces while traveling and being on the road and all of the stress of touring was challenging.  I can look back on it and think about if I had more time or more awareness of my creative space I would have been able to do something better.  That’s not to say that we all aren’t still proud of Apoptosis and how it came out, but I think we could have used a little more time and space.

That carried on into the production process.  We were listening to test mixes for the album on our phones in venues and trying to give feedback to Dave Otero.  Like, “I think this sounds good, but I can’t really tell on my $15 Skull Candy’s that I bought for tour [laughs].”  There were a few things that were challenging.  But I think every negative experience is a learning opportunity.  We definitely took that into the new album cycle.  With touring being gone, we didn’t have a choice, but we dedicated more time to the creative process.  We used that time to work collaboratively on this album, from inception to conclusion.  We took the fact that we weren’t touring to make sure that we were all a part of the creative process together.

Dead Rhetoric: With Dave Otero, do you consider him a part of the band at this point, since he has done almost every release since the band started?

McShane: Yeah, there’s no trepidation with Dave.  In my experience working with producers over the years, you don’t want to step on anybody’s toes or create a weird dynamic in the process of recording and you are shooting down each other’s ideas.  But Dave is such a hands-on producer.  He really does feel like a part of the band at this point. He will be listening to what we are recording, we send him pre-production versions of the songs so he can get some ideas before we even hit the studio, and as we progress through the recording process he will be there to be like, “Oh, I think this would really add to this, or what if we move this part to a different section of the song,” it’s little things like that which give the album flavor.  Dave’s input is always invaluable and he really does feel like an important member of the band.

Dead Rhetoric: I’m going to shift gears a little bit.  I know you also have Proponent Games in addition to Allegaeon.  What are your thoughts on the cross-pollination between video games, anime, and metal?

McShane: The metal community is made up of huge nerds, at least to my experience.  Even to the point where you  have bands like Brand of Sacrifice, who are named after the Berserk manga series, or Shadow of Intent, whose first two albums were based on Halo.  Then there’s Capra, who are named after a boss in Dark Souls.  There’s so much cross-pollination between the video game/anime community and metal.  I think that being said, it’s also important to acknowledge that within the video game and anime community, the metal community makes up a pretty small fraction of things.  The video game and anime communities are a little more diverse, so the metal community fits in there.  But, I think that it’s really cool to see how modern interests are making their way into metal and other forms of music.

You look at metal in the late 80s and early 90s, it was all based around horror movies and slasher films and things like that.  That’s what alternatively minded people were into at the time.  I feel like metal has always had some element of reflecting the community that creates it, and their influences have made their way into it.  So it’s cool to see the representation of those interests turn from gore and more traditional themes into, ‘fuck it, we are going to write an album about Halo.’  It’s super neat to see these current metal musicians bring those influences into their music.

Dead Rhetoric: I think it’s interesting too, watching the metal community be more open to that sort of stuff.  There’s always going to be room for the horror/gore/sci fi stuff, but it’s nice to see some fresh injections of outside influences.

McShane: I couldn’t agree more.  Metal has always been about being true to yourself and yourself as an artist.  It’s never been that kind of thing with pop music, per say.  But the real work in pop music comes in the production side of things.  The subject matter of pop music, since the 1960s, has been kind of the same shit.  It’s been love songs, party songs, songs about relationships, or being out at the club, or doing drugs.  It’s rinse and repeat with the top 40s bands with the subject matter, but the work really comes in the production and songwriting process, which is what I think makes pop music special.  But I feel like metal has always been about writing about whatever you want to write about.  If someone doesn’t like it, fuck them, who cares?  That’s kind of the point.  It’s cool to see, like I said, those interests shifting into a more modern space, with people writing about things like video games and anime to complement the more traditional horror and sci fi elements.

Dead Rhetoric: Are you still doing the Metal Blade Live thing?  I know I have seen a couple from a few months back…

McShane: Yeah, we took a little time off for the holidays.  It’s kind of a slow season across industries.  The purpose behind the live series is to have artists promote what they have going on, and people generally slow down during the holidays and winter.  So we took the opportunity to put it on hold for a little bit.  We will be starting it up again [soon] but it also gave me an opportunity to focus on the new Allegaeon.  It was a well-timed break, but something we plan on bringing back.

Dead Rhetoric: So other than being a part of Metal Blade Records, how did this come about?  What do you like about hosting it and chatting with other artists?

McShane: Vince and Ryan over at Metal Blade if I wanted to cohost a podcast with them that they had started way back in 2013 or 2014, which was very on-again off-again for a few years.  They wanted to stick with it this time, but they felt they needed a third person: a person in a band, who has experience streaming and podcasting, so they reached out.  I was stoked, and happy to be a part of it.  We did quite a few episodes together, but as seasons change, their job first and foremost, is working at Metal Blade.  When Metal Blade gets busy and they start pushing out releases, their priorities have to change.  So they told me that they didn’t have time to continue the podcast, but they still wanted me to be doing something like it, so they decided to have me host one-on-one interviews on a regular basis and we can just transition the podcast into that.  Again, I was happy to do it.  That’s kind of how it started.

It’s been a really great thing for me, being able to interview artists and peers within the industry that I can learn from.  I think that is the biggest take away for me, and with this interview series.  I have a unique opportunity to talk to people who have been doing what I have for so much longer.  A lot of times interview series are hosted by people who are more on the journalism or industry side of things, so being in a position where I am on the artists side, interviewing people who are artists, or even sometimes not artists but strictly industry people – it gives me a lot to think about.  I try to take things away from every interview I do, in that regard.  When I was speaking to Trevor from The Black Dahlia Murder, and I asked him a question about staying fresh and how he looked at his career being one of the premiere death metal bands, and continuing to push the needle forward.  He said something like, “look man, there’s no finish line for success.  You can’t set yourself up so that when you reach a point, you know you’ve made it.  By then, you should already be working on the next thing.”  That was very inspiring to me.

When I spoke with Brody from Rivers of Nihil, I asked him about Owls being such a huge success and how he planned on moving forward.  Did he think that people would be as excited about it as they were about this one.  He said something along the lines of, “Honestly, I don’t really think about it in that way.  Once I release something, it’s not mine anymore.  People are free to take away from it what they will.”  That was also hugely inspiring, especially to hear that from someone in a band similar in size to Allegaeon, saying that when something comes out they stop being married to it.  To be working on the next thing, and if they love it – great, and if they don’t – oh well.  Little examples like that, I feel like I have taken something away from each interview I have done.  It’s been a great experience for me and given me a lot of food for thought about how to be an artist and continue to progress in the industry.  For that, I’m super grateful.

Dead Rhetoric: I don’t know how I missed this last year, but you did the ““Last Christmas” in 2020 with Travis [Ryan] and Travis [Strnad]. Do you think the out of the box stuff has always helped the band…having a sense of humor?

McShane: It’s hard to say.  I think there’s a bottleneck on that type of presentation as a band.  We’ve always been very much in touch with our sense of humor and we want to bring some of our lightheartedness into our music.  But at the same time, we do take our music very seriously.  I had tried to approach the band in a way of taking what I do seriously, not myself.  I think it does help in some ways.  That we have more relatability than other bands who are strictly, ‘we are this super serious death metal band and everything we do is super serious.’  There’s a market for that, and some people are super into that stuff. But I think for us, it makes it feel more natural to be ourselves.

Sometimes, we are goofy.  It’s Christmas time, so let’s cover a Christmas song!  This was right after I had interviewed Trevor from Black Dahlia, and Travis Ryan from Cattle Decapitation are really good friends.  We go back to like 2010, geographically.  So I asked him to be a part of it, where I was Mr. Christmas Spirit and he’s the Grinch, and it was just a fun time to hang out with fellow musicians, after not being on tour for so long.  It was nice to get in touch with people that we would normally be seeing out on the road.  It was a lot of fun, but I think we released it a little late, and that’s why it didn’t get picked up on a lot of people’s radars.  But when this year came around, we pushed it out in early December to get people to look at again, since it’s a fun video to put on in the background.

Dead Rhetoric: A lot of times, you have those super heavy covers of Christmas songs, and it’s so off-putting and weird.  But the combination of the music and the video, it’s perfect!

McShane: I’ll never forget the lightbulb moment that Travis had.  I called him and asked him if he wanted to come over to help, and he asked what I wanted him to do.  I told him I had Trevor Strnad on board too, and was thinking about a verse/chorus/verse with everyone taking turns.  He suggested having him do the chorus in his fry vocals and I was like, “Holy shit!  Do that!”  So we ran with that, and it was a lot of fun making it.  I’m glad people are enjoying it a full year later.  It’s a new holiday classic [laughs]!

Dead Rhetoric: Allegaeon has done a bunch of covers.  Are there any dream covers that you’d like to do?  I think you guys do a great job of capturing the essence but still making it your own.

McShane: I would personally do some stuff from the early or mid 90s era.  I think Allegaeon would crush a Soundgarden or Alice in Chains tune.  I would love to do something in that vain.  That being said, we are all on the same page as a band right now, and we are ready to put the covers to bed.  We don’t want to be Alien Ant Farm, where they have a ton of original music, but people only want to listen to their Michael Jackson cover.  We don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves as a super sick band that releases all this original material, but always have our highest played songs be covers of bigger bands.  So we might put out a few covers or a short EP of them a few years down the line, but for now, I think we have made the decision as a group to push our original material and leaving the covers in the closet for a while.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the agenda for 2022?  I know you have the Omnium Gatherum tour in the winter planned.

McShane: It’s hard to plan.  But we are still operating under the assumption that everything we have booked is going to happen.  It’s better to be prepared and have it fall through, than be unprepared and have it go through.  So we have Omnium coming up soon, for the bulk of March leading into spring.  We are going to try to schedule some stuff for summer and late summer/early fall.  We have the Faces of Death over in Europe with Archspire, Black Crown Initiate, and To the Grave that was supposed to happen last fall but got postponed for a year, so that will be in November/December.  So there are a few things on the books now, but again, you plan for the best case scenario and if it doesn’t happen it doesn’t happen, but it’s important, especially with an album release, that you have as much planned as circumstances allow rather than just waiting and seeing.  If we did that, we could be waiting a very long time.

This is our careers, our livelihoods, and our jobs.  Even though the industry is suffering right now, it will take everyone being forward thinking to bring it back.  We are just trying to play our part in that regard, and treat our plans like we would treat any other normal year.

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