Metal Monday: Atheist Q&A

There are instances in modern music where a band breaks up, only to become more famous. How many of these bands get back together and put out an album worthy of their material of two decades prior? However many there are, Atheist joins their ranks with the release of Jupiter”an honest and authentic follow-up to 1991’s Piece of Time that will not leave long-time fans disappointed. Drummer Steve Flynn took time to answer our questions about the groups reformation, the release process of Jupiter and more.

OS: Back in 2007, Kelly said that there would absolutely be no more albums under the Atheist name.  When did that change?

SF: In fact, we all kept saying that, and we continued to say it.  We even said it when we were playing Hellfest in France, which we intended to be our last show because we had song several and we said How much longer can we keep reuniting so to speak, and playing the same songs? We had felt that things had sort of run their course, and the reception was amazing at that show”we said this was our last show, we left the stage and went home with all intents and purposes of that being our last show.  The demand just kept coming at us, people kept requesting shows, and asking for tours, and Season of Mist were very, very persistent in their pursuit of us.  We kept saying no, we discussed it amongst ourselves, we discussed it with our manager Ula Gehret, and I had around that time too, Gnostic, that I had started before the Atheist reunion stuff had kicked off so that was in the mix. Season of Mist said, Listen, we want to do an Atheist record. We’ll make you a reasonable offer. They were going to sign Gnostic as well, and we still were saying no.

It took us about six more months before we said we would do it.  I think there were so many people after us to keep playing and keep doing it that we said, Okay, we’ll give it a shot.  And we were nervous, you know, because we hadn’t written any material together (me and Kelly) since Unquestionable Presence, which was 1990.  They did the Elements album, which was a whole different lineup, so that one is sort of set apart quite differently from the other records”so we didn’t know what would come out. We agreed to go ahead and do it, and it took us quite a while to get it done because that was a year and a half ago when we signed the contract with Season of Mist and we just completed it in July. So, it took us a hell of a long time, but we eventually got there.

OS: Do you think that the result of playing the festivals and getting the chemistry back had anything to do with making Jupiter, in addition to the label pressure from Season of Mist?

SF: Oh, absolutely. Excellent question, and no doubt about it; there’s no way we could have just jumped in and said Hey, let’s do a record together and we hadn’t done anything. I think in that case perhaps some of the worst fears for some of the people who were nervous about us doing another record and tarnishing our legacy would have been realized had we done that because it did take some time to get back into the swing of things.  I didn’t play drums for about fourteen years. I quit the band in 1992 and went to grad school and all that, and I didn’t pick up drums until I started Gnostic. It took me a while to get back into the swing of things. When we got back together for our first rehearsal before our first reunion show it was just kind of like Well, what’s it going to be like? In some cases it was like we had just picked up from yesterday, and things kind of fell in place.  In some places it felt like there were huge gaps in between, so it was a little strange at first.  We were able to spend a lot of time playing together, and we realized that whatever it was that made Atheist was still there and very clearly. We knew it, we could tell, we could feel it”we didn’t know how we would write”and that took some time to figure out.  Once we did, we realized things hadn’t really changed and we kind of picked up right where we left off.

OS: Were you or Kelly more for or against Jupiter when Season of Mist approached you for the first time?

SF: I think we were all kind of in lock step. I don’t think there was any level of agreement or disagreement between us. We were both in agreement that we couldn’t do it; there would be a ridiculous amount of pressure. Too many people would just not like because it had been so long since the last record, we knew that there would be people who liked it just because it was another Atheist record, and there were a lot of people telling us not to do it in fear of tarnishing our legacy. We all sort of shared in the collective thought process there. We also, after talking with Ula Gehret, and amongst ourselves”and realizing the fan demand that was still persistent and growing”we realized at the same time that we were in the same boat the whole way.

OS: So, a couple months ago you mentioned that there might be some tour plans in the works, but nothing concrete.  You mentioned bands like Gojira, Cynic and Pestilence as potential partners in crime.  Have any of those ventures evolved or developed?

SF: They are evolving.  We’ve talked about all those bands and we’ve been in contact.  There’s lots of interest back and forth.  It’s a matter of scheduling and logistics, and working things out.  Now that the press has started about the new records, we’re starting to confirm festival dates in Europe. We just got confirmed for Hellfest in France, but that’s not until next summer. Looks like we’re going to be confirming for a run of dates in Europe in April, but we’re not sure with who yet.  We’re talking to our US booking agent setting up a US run”so that’s all definitely in the works.

I think what we’re going to do is a series of short runs, but we’re not sure when or with who yet, because like we said it’s trying to find the right partner.  We can’t devote six to eight weeks for touring like when we were nineteen, you know, we just can’t do it. I’m a senior executive type in a global fortune 500 communications consultancy called Millward Brown.  I mean, I can’t be gone for two months. I have two kids and Kelly has a child, and Chris Baker owns his own business, etc.  We just can’t be gone for two months at a time. What we are going to do for sure I can tell you, we’re going to do a series of six, seven, eight show runs.  We’ll go out to the west coast, come home, then go out to the midwest, etc.  Hit all the major markets.  We won’t be able to do an extended 250 show tour, and I’m not sure even if we could we would want to. It’s a brutal grind.  After about fifty shows, things change, and it becomes a totally different ball of wax.  We’re older now, and we really thoroughly enjoy touring and playing to the extent to which we do it.  Once you get to a certain point though, it ceases to be fun and becomes more of a job. Anyone who tells you differently is not being honest with you. We do this because we absolutely love it.  We don’t make shit for money touring; we just love hanging out and playing music.

We plan on supporting [Jupiter] extensively; it just won’t be in the traditional fashion where we’re doing 200 shows.  We’ll probably do forty to fifty shows and space them throughout the year.

OS: In terms of style and feel, Jupiter isn’t that far off from Unquestionable Presence or Piece of Time. It’s definitely an Atheist record “ perhaps a bit more aggressive.  Do you think that old school diehard fans of Atheist or even new people will react well to the album immediately?

SF: I do think so, because of what you just said. I think a lot of people were concerned that it would come out sounding like something that was half-assed and just thrown together. Or it would have lost some of the energy or intensity, or would be stale in some way.  Whether or not you like it, everyone has said (almost unanimously) that it sounds like and Atheist record, and like something that would have followed in line from the first two records (Elements being a different animal).  But to that point also, it’s not for me to judge whether or not new fans will get into it.  If you weren’t a fan, you might not be now. Although, as you said it sounds more modern and the music is more aggressive than Unquestionable Presence was.  We didn’t set out to make it that way”it was a completely organic process.  What came out is what came out.

I think if you like aggressive, technical music and you like that style that Atheist has been known for, I think you’ll like it.  I’ll be surprised if it disappointed fans from back in the day or fans of the first two records. I’d be surprised if they were disappointed in the direction of this record.

OS: In terms of production, Jason Suecof helped you come up with a more a different sound, a more modern sound certainly, bringing out the low end and the fierce guitar tones. Is this something you wish you had on Piece of Time and Unquestionable Presence?

SF: It’s funny, I think a lot of it is strictly due to the technology, the ability to have a very clear and very powerful production. Back when we did Unquestionable Presence and Piece of Time, everything was analog and done on one-inch tape.  On Unquestionable Presence there’s four or five songs where I just sat down and played it, what you see is what you get.  There’s no editing, there was no Pro Tools, there was nothing. To sit and to edit you had to manually raise and lower the volume of each drum as you went through so you could hear it.  It was a very lengthy and cumbersome process.  The result was good,

Unquestionable Presence is a very clear production, but I always thought it lacked the real punch.  What we talked about was going back and recording some of the songs from those albums. We had in mind a couple here and there with today’s production quality to see how they would translate and we thought they would just absolutely rip your face off.  There’s a song Unholy War on Piece of Time and if we played it today with the speed and clarity of production it would just be so balls out; heavy and fast.  It would have been nice.

I’ll qualify that by saying I think a lot of bands these days overuse the technology and so much of what is done is clinical and sterile sounding.  Often times it doesn’t translate live, just because the technology and the way it’s abused I think over compensates for a lot.  We were very specific when we did Jupiter to make sure it was a sit down and click the sticks together.  There’s a song, Faux King Christ”that’s it, I just sat down and played it.  We didn’t track sections and we didn’t piece it together.  I just sound down and played it, just as you heard it, just as you hear it on the record.  There’s a song Live and Live Again ”I did the same thing.  I tracked the drums in six or seven hours, the guitars took a couple hours, and we spent the rest of the time mixing.  Jason knows what he’s doing and he was able to EQ everything and tune it in, he got such a strong drum sound and a ferocious guitar sound, as you said. The studio where we did the tracking, Ledbelly Sound in Atlanta”Matt Washburn is a solid engineer and was able to help dial in the initial tones”then Jason took it from there.  It’s a modern sounding production, but it definitely has some throwback feel.

OS: Recently you put out a statement regarding Tony Choy departing the band.  Are you still on good terms?

SF: Yeah, it wasn’t handled well. There was a lot of he said, she said”he decided to leave about four weeks before we were supposed to be in the studio, he just didn’t really have the time.  He couldn’t come up to finish rehearsing, we wanted him to come up and track the bass parts in the studio, he wanted us to save the wave files down to him and he would track the bass parts in Miami”and we didn’t have the time for that. It had to be finished by July 31 and he just couldn’t do it … We tried to say that “Yes, Tony left the band”, but it’s not going to make any difference because we’ve already written most of the material for Jupiter, and the stuff that we’re known for Tony had nothing to do with anyway.  It’s not like anything is going to be missing”whatever you thought of Atheist before, whatever music was churned out before, is going to be churned out now regardless of his involvement.  We just wanted to make that statement, and it didn’t quite come out the right way.  It sounded like there was a huge feud, but there wasn’t. In fact, Tony and I talked just a couple weeks ago just to chat and I said we were starting to plan tours and he said to let us know, and he said to keep him in the loop because he still wanted to tour with us. We’ll probably end up touring together, schedules pending.  That’s the plan is for Tony to tour with us”we’re still on very good terms.

Jupiter‘s release date is November 8th in the US, and can be ordered from the Season of Mist web store or from iTunes after the album is released.