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:: Spotlight :: Interview with Alchemist

By: Justin Donnelly

Throughout their twenty-years together, Canberra based outfit Alchemist have become one of the biggest and most highly regarded metal acts within the Australian progressive metal scene. Never ones to release anything that falls below the standard they’ve set for themselves, the four-piece act took four long years to follow up 2003’s ‘Austral Alien’, with their sixth full-length album ‘Tripsis’ finally surfacing in August 2007.

The release of the album was followed up with an extensive tour throughout Europe, which coincided with the international release of ‘Tripsis’ in October. And in-between plans for a return assault in June, the band have decided to play a string of dates along the east coast of Australia. Upon returning home from a visit to Brisbane, I caught up with Agius to discuss just how successful the group’s venture over in Europe was, the near demise of Alchemist following the resignation of one of the members, the status of their planned DVD, the possibility of a resurrected Metal For The Brain and just how well ‘Tripsis’ was doing some nine months after it’s release.

“There have been some pretty consistent comments about ‘Tripsis’ and it’s all been very positive. I think you could go as far as to say that it’s a lot more straight-forward sounding for us compared to some other releases, and that seems to be really striking a chord in a lot of people. There’s definitely a lot more aggression on this album than ‘Austral Alien’, and that purely came out of us wanting to do something a little bit different once again. ‘Austral Alien’ was really as progressive as we could take things within our sound. It’s definitely the most progressive sounding album we’ve ever done. But rather than just repeat that, we reacted to that, and ‘Tripsis’ is what came out. It’s all about keeping ourselves interested in what we do, and also keeping the fans interested as well. We haven’t sold a million albums, so we don’t have any use repeating ourselves. If we did sell a million albums, I think that when we’d realise that we’ve found the perfect formula for success. I think that’s what happens to every band that becomes successful in a sales sense. I think they tend to think, ‘Well s**t! We’ve hit something here. So let’s do it again!’ But like I said, that’s something we really don’t need to think too much about. The making of ‘Tripsis’ all came about naturally, with the sole basic idea behind the album being that we wanted to headbang to this one! And I think everyone agrees that it achieves what we set it out to do. But having said that, ‘Tripsis’ was created using the same processes we’ve used in making all our albums. We gather these small bits and pieces of ideas, and spend around six months just warming up to those initial ideas. We all get together three days of the week for a couple of hours and jam together and write. Anything that we generally like straight away ends up being some of the weaker ideas we’ve come up with. The whole process just happens naturally. It takes us a while to figure out the direction of the album, and ‘Tripsis’ was no different. The only things we knew about this album prior to starting work on it was that we wanted a straight forward heavy album. None of us wanted to think too much about the direction of the album, so I suggested that we just sit down and write what came to us. We over-thought ‘Austral Alien’ a bit by making sure that certain songs contrasted against others, and that each song had a certain direction and sound. This time around, we just worked on the album with no preconceived ideas, and I love it. The only other thing I didn’t want on the album was esoteric lyrics or anything that was conceptually based. We all agreed, and there was a big contribution from everyone to try and keep things more personal, and not esoteric, spacey or environmental. I still care for a lot of the lyrics we’ve had in the past, but I have already touched upon those subjects. Those issues have been spoken for. I wanted to say something else. Take for instance the song ‘Anticipation Of A High’. It pretty much speaks for itself. It’s about being a pot head, and it’s a retrospective song on how it can adversely affect you. Stuff like that was never said in the past, but now we’re open to anything. It’s good, and I think it’s a corner that we needed to turn. Overall, ‘Tripsis’ is doing really good stuff for us. But you wouldn’t think that it took four years to write would you? (laughs)”

Indeed, the four year gap between ‘Austral Alien’ and ‘Tripsis’ is the longest break between releases for Alchemist, but what a lot of people don’t realise is that it was Holder’s resignation that brought the band to a complete standstill.

“Wow! You know about that! OK, well here’s the story. When Holder moved up to Brisbane, the distance between where he lives, and us in Canberra was really hard. Holder was going through a bit of a rough time then as well. So yes, he officially left the band there for a while. Our European tour was supposed to be his last shows with us. There was a lot of tension within the band for about a year, and then he decided to leave. But within a couple of months, he was back in the band. It became so f**king obvious to us that there were only three of us left. We didn’t want to play with anyone else. It was obvious to him as well. I think it needed to happen in some ways, because it’s improved the communication between us all. We all know what we’re doing now. But when he left, we simply didn’t want another drummer in the band. We did try a couple of people out, and while all of them could play the songs, we’d been playing with Holder for so long that it just seemed really weird to see someone else sitting there behind the kit. I rang him and said to him that I really wanted to keep doing Alchemist, because I didn’t like the idea of doing something new and starting from scratch. Basically I didn’t want to do it unless he was in it. And he told me that it was pretty lucky that he still wanted to be in it too! (laughs) So getting Holder back in the band was as easy as that. It’s just too hard to replace a member of the band when you’ve been the same guys for so long. Sometimes you don’t see it, but that’s a really big bond between us all. I just have a hard time explaining what the four of us have together. The good thing is that the split never really eventuated. It’s not like it was really talked about publicly much. Holder told us before we went to Europe that they were going to be his last shows with the band. We’d been together for twenty years, so we made sure that it ended up in the right fashion. We went out there and blasted through Europe, and said goodbye peacefully. It was all amicable, but we all realised when we got back that we needed Holder back. It was a hard time, and hard to explain why it happened, but we didn’t come off worse for wear. We’re used to it now, but there was a lot of pressure at the time. We’re better off now because it’s back to the four of us now. If Holder didn’t want to come back to the band, I don’t think Alchemist would be here today. The hard stuff’s gone. Well I would like to think so, but you just never know. But I think the feeling in the band right now is that we’re happy to have each other. I think we appreciate the fact that we didn’t just let it go.”

But while Holder’s position within Alchemist has remained intact, Alchemist has had a minor line-up change since the release of ‘Tripsis’, namely live sampler Nick Wall.

“Basically Wall wanted to do his thing with his own band, and that’s fair enough, because his band is a really good band. We’re happy for Wall to go do his own thing. But aside from wanting to do his own thing, Wall always found it hard to relate to us because we’re like ten years his senior, and it was becoming more apparent that he wasn’t interested in the band. There were some performance problems at times. So we parted ways amicably. Wall was only a hired hand anyway and never contributed to the band musically, so nothing has really changed apart from a performance point of view. There were problems, but not anymore! (Laughs) I’m happy to be doing the samples and keyboards once again, and the last couple of shows we’ve done we have noticed a great vibe within the band.”

With Holder living in Brisbane, and the remaining members residing in Canberra, Alchemist had to completely restructure the way they worked together. And while the process was a slow one, full of trials and errors, the band have come up with a workable solution to most of the logistical problems.

“You could say that the whole situation with Holder really slowed things down. We had to reinvent the way we write songs. And it took a bloody long time. We had to learn how to be Pro-Tool experts. We knew a little bit, because we’ve always been involved in the recording of our albums, but we were hardly experts. So between having to use the Pro-Tools we have set up a little studio here at my house, and we send things back and forth between Brisbane and Canberra through the post, we got to be pretty good at using the system. It was a case of the three of us getting together downstairs, and coming up with a drum beat with the Drumkit From Hell program we have. We would write that up, and Holder would improve on that on his end. That’s the way we went about creating ‘Tripsis’. Funnily enough, and drum beat we programmed in would inevitably sound like something Holder would come up with, because we don’t know any other drummers! (laughs) It was uncanny how many of those programmed beats Holder would say he would have come up with. We were really in synch with each other. We knew what we would expect Holder to play in those songs. It’s so easy for me to say now that it’s really the way we do it now. But at the time, I can tell you that there were plenty of times throughout the process where we seriously questioned whether we really knew what we were doing. But in the end, it’s worked out really well.”

Indeed it has worked out for Alchemist, with ‘Tripsis’ doing well in Australia, and more importantly over in Europe, where the group’s previous visits made a real impression.

“Things are really taking off for us over in Europe. We were over there in October 2007, where we headlined the Prog-Power Festival in the Netherlands, and played around nine other shows. It was great. The Prog-Power Festival crowd are an appreciative crowd. They’re not wild, and they tend to stand around and listen, but they certainly let you know when they like what they hear. We were very warmly received. And the right people were watching the shows this time around too. We went over there with Relapse Records booking it, with the Prog-Power Festival being the only show that was on offer. That resulted in a couple of big time promoters coming knocking on our door. That was our original idea. We wanted to do the tour, and try and impress the right people. And we did, because we’ll be back there in June this year. We’ll be doing some really big things there too. We’ll be playing Graspop Metal Meeting (In Dessel, Belgium) on the same day as Iron Maiden, along with Hellfest (Clisson, France) and Waldrock (Holland). We’ll also be doing six or seven headlining shows in Germany, and one in Poland. But it’s those big summer festivals that are the real payoff from our last tour over there. We had a great time in October. It was a headlining tour, and then we headlined Prog-Power Festival. It’s a little festival, sort of Metal For The Brain kind of deal. But on the festivals we play this time around, we’ll be playing to like fifty thousand people. So it’s all paying off for us at the moment. We haven’t had any financial gain from Alchemist, even though we’ve spent a lot of money. I can’t complain though, because we’ve been able to survive financially. The band has always got some money. It’s not necessarily in our pockets, but we can go out on tour in Europe and do things like that. But we’re not in it to make lots of money. We’re doing it for other reasons. We’re doing it for the sake of doing it. And when you do it, you can see that there is a potential there. We have been rewarded so greatly in Europe over four years, as opposed to the twenty years here in Australia. We’re hitting heights over there that we have never seen down here in Australia. It’s pretty obvious what we have to do. All our money has to go towards that. We have to really try and conquer it. We’re getting some great opportunities at the moment, and we’re really happy with that. Aside from that, we’re playing with Kiss, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden one week followed by Slayer, Death Angel and all our heroes the next. We’re on that bill! So I think there’s a real excitement in the band at the moment. Sure, there’s more talk about logistics (cargo, t-shirts, flights and all that boring stuff) at the moment than anything else, but we’ll touring in Europe for a third time soon, and that’s good for us.”

One topic that has been brought up plenty of times between Agius and I is the much talked about DVD that has been in the works for several years. But in recent times, some of the footage that was scheduled to be included on the DVD has made its way onto YouTube for all to see, leaving many questioning the fate of the work in progress.

“We found heaps of people were interested in it since we posted up bits of it up on YouTube. But that’s still a tough question to answer. There’s mixed opinions about the whole thing within the band. Actually, the subject hasn’t been touched upon since Holder’s return to the band. It is something we’ve got to address, because a lot of fans really liked it. It’s not that Holder’s effort has been half assed. It’s far from it. But all it so far is interviews. What we really want to release is a DVD with lots of things on it, to make it really interesting for the fans, rather than a bunch of interviews talking about the band’s history. And there’s been a lot of history since we did those interviews too. The thing is that we’re as boring as hell, and that’s evident from the footage that’s up on YouTube! (laughs) I’m glad s**tloads of people have watched it. The feedback has been really positive. You can’t always be right, and obviously I was wrong when I said that nobody would be interested in what we had so far. When I watched it, it was so boring because it features the three guys I see every other day. I kept thinking to myself that there’s got to more to this than our boring f**king heads. What I think the DVD is missing is the funny assed bulls**t that goes on. It’s missing the shit stirring that goes on within the band, and those people cracking the shits. What Metallica did was unbeatable! You can’t match that doco! (laughs) I think we need to put together a good DVD, and something more than just those interviews. But I’m glad they’re on YouTube for people to see for nothing. While it’s like that, it’s not a problem for me, because they don’t have to pay to see it. And heaps of people are downloading it. That’s fine with me. But when it’s an official DVD, it has to be more than what we have at the moment. We have to get together and nut this thing out. We’ll try to compile some live shows that we recorded for the DVD, because we have a heap of video footage. We had the plans to get the festivals recorded while we’re overseas this time around too so that we could really make something of this. It’s still a work in progress, and all I can say is that based on what I’ve said in the past, I’m simply a man of contradictions! (laughs) I’ve warmed to it, and it’s been those reactions from the fans that have helped me became more favourable to the idea of doing a DVD. And you have to listen to the fans. I think the interviews are good, and there’s some good info in there, so they’ll be used someday. All I will say at this time is that it’s still a work in progress.”

Another topic of recent discussion is the possibility that Alchemist may at some stage resurrect the annual Metal For The Brain.

“My official stance is that I’m still undecided. I don’t know if we’ll bring it back or not. At the moment, I can say we stopped doing it for the right reasons, because it gave the band the opportunity to do what we’re doing now. And I’m so glad that something’s come out of it at the end of the day, because it would be hard giving up the opportunities we’ve been offered in the last couple of years. These tours are happening frequently now, and things are picking up over in Europe for us. And with all these opportunities, we just knew that putting in the time to put on a show like Metal For The Brain would simply be impossible. There is a possibility that it will return, but not this year. I can honestly say that. I did get a call from the university a few weeks ago asking us if we wanted to do it. I mean obviously they want us to do it, because they always make good money out of it. But I told them that I couldn’t commit to doing it this year, but we would talk early next year. So it’s still on the cards and there’s a real possibility that it could be done, but not until next year. To tell you the truth, I think the only way it’s really going to come back is if things really quieten down for us. And at this stage, it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen anytime soon. I know that resurrecting Metal For The Brain would be a lot of hard work, because the scene has changed a lot. And I suppose that’s a big problem too. I don’t know who’s who at the moment out there. I just have my head buried in this band, and it’s actually a breath of fresh air. I used to have to think about it all the time, keeping track of who’s doing well, who’s out there having a go, and who really wants to be on it. I really don’t think of things like that anymore, and I’ve really noticed. I don’t know what’s going on out there anymore! (laughs) But the good thing is that all my energy is going towards Alchemist, and I’m fine with that. It’s a good thing. We stopped Metal For The Brain for a reason, and we haven’t proved ourselves to be liars yet.”

Prior to the band’s return to European shores, Alchemist is doing a small national run down the east coast. And so far, the material the band has been playing live from ‘Tripsis’ has been fully embraced by diehard Alchemist fans.

“We’ve played Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane so far, and it’s been good, even if the crowds are a little smaller than the last run we did in August. Both Canberra and Sydney were great shows, with about three hundred people turning up. That’s excellent for us, because we average around one hundred and fifty to two hundred people a show. And this time we’ve averaged two hundred to two hundred and fifty people a show. There was three hundred in Brisbane too, so that was really good. It’s a mad scene up there. They’re a keen as, and they really love to chant! (laughs) There’s a big alternative scene up there, and you can really tell. We’ve had a really good run up there in the last couple of years. And with Holder up there to promote us, it’s really made a difference too. The crowds have been the most enthusiastic we’ve ever played to, so it’s been a lot of fun. We’re playing six songs off ‘Tripsis’ too. That’s the good thing about this album. It was designed to be able to be played live. We had that in mind while making the album. We didn’t play f**k all off ‘Austral Alien’. We can physically play it, but it just doesn’t sound good. There are a few songs that are great live, and it’s still a great album, but it just didn’t give us a good live representation. I think ‘Tripsis’ does that, and I think that’s because it’s really intense and condensed sounding. These last few shows have been our best shows so far, and it’s been a total blast. We’ll be hitting Melbourne next with Terrorust and a new young thrash band called Scratch N Sniff. So I suppose to that degree, we’re still helping out some new acts. They’ve only had a couple of gigs under their belt. So when they approached me, and handed me their MP3, I thought why not? So it should be a good night, and another gig to add to what has been a great tour for us.”

I would like to thank Adam Agius for his generous time, and Brian McDonald at Chatterbox Records for making the interview possible.

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