Thirty years ago, New York alt-metal heroes Life of Agony released River Runs Red, a record that not only defined the band at its onset but, in many ways, linchpinned an entire genre of music in the ’90s.
Through its emotive lyrics, grooving riffs, and thunderous rhythms, Life of Agony added heaping doses of spice to an already varied metal scene. In the face of grunge and slick radio pop, Life of Agony provided shelter for fans looking for something more than tired tropes and MTV darlings.
While each piece of Life of Agony’s puzzle has proved critical, it’s bassist Alan Robert that provides the seething fire that burns deep within the band’s loins. To this day, with a vintage Fender Precision bass in hand, Robert’s skeleton-crushing licks are the backbone of Life of Agony.
Taking a break from celebrating River Runs Red’s 30th anniversary to the delight of adoring fans, Alan Robert dialed in with Metal Sucks for this far-reaching interview covering Life of Agony’s long history, his choice in gear, and what’s next as the band moves forward.
Can you recall your first bass guitar, how you obtained it, and if you still have it?
Sure! It was a white Charvel. I bought it at Sam Ash on Flatbush Ave. in Brooklyn, NY. I’m really not sure what ever happened to it, though.
What was the first riff you learned? Who most influenced your sound, and how is that best illustrated in your style?
I actually started playing guitar first in the mid-80s. A girlfriend of mine played guitar really well, and she was into Metallica, Anthrax, and Celtic Frost. She showed me how to play some riffs from “Seek and Destroy” and “The Four Horsemen.” I got hooked right away and eventually picked up my own guitar (a red Ibanez) to practice on my own.
I bought a Black Sabbath tablature book and learned about 10 Sabbath songs. Everything from “War Pigs” and “Sweet Leaf” to “Symptom of the Universe” and “Iron Man.” So, I’m basically self-taught. I would start writing my own songs by ear, and honestly, I still don’t know how to read music. I didn’t take formal music lessons until Life of Agony’s second album, Ugly, when I wanted to learn scales and expand my abilities to jam.
Somewhere along the line, I heard that John Lennon never knew how to read music, and he played entirely by ear, so I figured if a musical genius like Lennon didn’t need to know, I’d probably be okay. [Laughs].
Can you recount the origins of Life of Agony?
Life of Agony formed in the summer of 1989 in Brooklyn. Guitarist Joey Z and I were in the same art class in high school and would always talk about new bands and heavy music. I was friends with Biohazard long before they were signed and brought Joey down to one of their rehearsals at the local studio. Joey and I ended up kind of helping Biohazard out at shows, and I started illustrating t-shirts for them (Lady Gaga was recently spotted wearing one of my designs)!
I had known Evan Seinfeld since I was just a young kid. He lived directly across the street from me in Canarsie, and I was close with his family growing up. Anyway, in 1989, Joey and his cousin Keith Caputo (now Mina Caputo) were already jamming in a band called Isolated Fear and would perform at the high school Battle of the Bands. I was singing and playing bass in a three-piece thrash band called Beheaded. We practiced in a garage directly across the street from Isolated Fear. Ironically, the drummers from both Beheaded and Isolated Fear would take turns being drummers for LOA.
Eventually, Isolated Fear lost their bass player, so I ended the Beheaded project and joined Joey and Keith’s group. Once I came on board, we decided to change the name to Life of Agony.
How about the band’s first gig?
We played our first show on February 11, 1990, at Faces Club in Keansburgh, NJ, and started building a loyal following on the East Coast. Around that time, Evan from Biohazard suggested we should record our songs with Josh Silver from Type O Negative at his home studio, Sty in the Sky. So, we began recording a series of demos at Josh’s house and really hit it off with him. We had a lot of fun together, and Josh really helped shape our sound back then. For example, it was his idea for us to tune down to D from standard E tuning. Plus, when it was time to create those audio scenes on River Runs Red, Josh really knocked it out of the park with his production.
After selling out venues like L’Amour in Brooklyn and a bunch of other places as an unsigned band, we caught the attention of A&R man Monte Conner and landed a record deal with Roadrunner Records to release River Runs Red in 1993.
All images courtesy of For The Win Media/Photo credit: Keith Perks
What was the metal scene like when you were coming up, and how did Life of Agony look to change that?
When we first started out, most of the bands in the scene were straight-up hardcore bands. We loved hardcore music, but we had a lot of other kinds of musical influences outside of hardcore that was much more melodic. So because of that, we really didn’t fit in as much. Usually, we were kind of the oddballs on the bill. In the early days, we also had keyboards, and our songs had these very different moods and strange arrangements. Sure, there were hardcore-styled riffs and very heavy breakdown parts, but there was also a unique aspect that set us apart with Mina’s vocals.
We loved Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut and The Wall, and both albums made a huge impact on us. So, I think we started to incorporate more melody into the songs because of that influence, especially vocally, and we started to realize soon after we got signed that we wanted to create a concept album. That was definitely a big departure from what the other bands around us were doing at the time.
Paint a picture of alternative metal in the ’90s. What are your greatest memories of that scene?
Well, signing to Roadrunner in the early ’90s was the place to be for a new heavy band. The label was on the rise and growing quickly with every band they signed. In fact, their roster was so strong that heavy music fans would see the Roadrunner logo on an album in the record shop and take a chance on a new band they never heard of just because they were on the same label as Sepultura, Type O Negative, Fear Factory, Biohazard and more.
We started touring and found our audience immediately., especially in Europe. Our videos were getting lots of airtime on MTV, and that gave us a big push right out of the gate. I’ll never forget when we played our very first open-air European festival… the Dynamo Festival in the Netherlands, in front of like 120,000 people! The crowd completely erupted for us. There are some great clips of that performance in our documentary, The Sound of Scars.
It was an incredible experience and a monumental moment for the band. I think that show really solidified our place on those big stages from then on. More and more festival promoters wanted us on their bills because of how well we did at Dynamo, and we continued to grow our fan base year after year. You could really feel the momentum.
What songs and recordings that you’ve done so far mean the most to you, and why?
Well, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation if it wasn’t for the River Runs Red album. So, we all understand what a game-changer that record was for this band and what it has done to all of our lives. It put Life of Agony on the map and allowed us to create the music we wanted to make for many, many years afterward. The songs on Rivers connected to people in a visceral way, and it has proven to have had incredible longevity, even three decades later.
That being said, there are so many songs in our catalog that I’m super proud of. “Lost at 22”, “Weeds,” and “Scars” definitely stand out off the top of my head and have become fan favorites. The song “Broken Valley,” even though we’ve never ever performed it live, is a song that I feel encapsulates what Life of Agony is all about. It highlights some of the best qualities of the band. That song is a combination of our most unique traits. It’s emotional, heavy, catchy, and extremely honest.
How has your personal approach to the bass evolved?
As the years went on, I found myself chasing more of an aggressive bass tone, more in the vein of Tim Commerford’s sound on the Rage Against the Machine albums. I got very into doing research about distortion pedals and began seeking out very specific vintage instruments, amps, and pedals to create my own gritty sonics. Finding the right sound allowed me to really define my playing style.
I always loved Peter Steele’s bass sound in Carnivore and, of course, Cliff Burton’s classic distorted bass sound on “Anesthesia,”… so those were big influences as well. But, outside of being the bassist in the band, I definitely consider myself more of a songwriter and lyricist. That role was in place from the very beginning of the band and has always been a big part of Life of Agony’s sound.
What guitars, gear, pedals, amps, and effects are you using?
I play vintage 1974 Fender Precision basses… there’s something about that year that is just magic. I’m not sure if it’s the wood or how the pickups are wound, but I just love those instruments. I find them to be very consistent in sound from bass to bass in that year. I have several of them in my collection. The first one I ever purchased was in 2005 during the Broken Valley album. That was the turning point for me. Prior to that, I was playing custom-made, neck-through Spector basses which had active electronics. The Fenders are passive, which is an entirely different sound.
I use Orange tube heads (AD200B MK 3) and two Orange 4×10″ cabinets. I’m currently using a Dark Glass Vintage Deluxe V3 pedal – that’s what gives the gritty distortion qualities without losing the low-end weight. I play stainless steel bass strings, and I’m very close to announcing my own signature bass string sets that will be released by a great gear company later this year. I’m very excited about that! More to come on that very soon.
All images courtesy of For The Win Media
Life of Agony’s last record was 2019’s The Sound of Scars. Is the band working on new music?
Right now, our focus is on making the River Runs Red 30th Anniversary Tour a really special event for fans and giving the shows 110% every single night. On this tour, we perform the concept album in its entirety. Afterward, we add several other tunes from the band’s catalog – a bunch of fan favorites. It’s a solid hour-and-a-half set and a great way to celebrate that milestone with our fans.
This tour will keep us on the road for the majority of 2023, so with all that crazy touring, we’re not really in a big rush to make new music right now. Ideas are always flowing, though. One thing for us is we never like to force it. Songs come very organically for Life of Agony when we have something important to say.
In your eyes, what’s the state of the metal scene today?
I’ll tell ya, we just played in Tampa, FL, to kick off our 30 Years of River Runs Red Tour, and wow – what a great scene they’ve got down there! It was a good mix of young and older fans… and the energy was just off the hook and amazing! It gave me a lot of hope because it was probably the closest feeling to the ’90s shows we’ve experienced for a long time. There are some killer fan-shot clips on socials and YouTube. Look ’em up!
Do you feel alt-metal gets a bad rap?
As far as alt-metal goes… I’ve never really believed in labels for our music. I don’t even really know what alt-metal is, to be honest. All I know is that we have very diverse song styles on our albums, and we can adjust the sets to play with all kinds of bands. We’ve been able to play with bands as heavy as Slipknot or Slayer one day and then Foo Fighters or the Red Hot Chili Peppers the next.
We can also switch things up again to play with bands like Sick of It All, Agnostic Front, or Madball. Over the years, we’ve played with rap artists like 50 Cent and Wu-Tang, too. Our style blurs the lines of all these labels. It always has. Thinking back to our very early tours, we played with bands like Carcass and then with KMFDM! Crazy bills, but somehow it worked out.
Life of Agony has had a few stops and starts over the years but seems to have found balance. To what does the band owe its longevity?
It’s true. A lot of the dynamics of our relationships within the band are documented in the film The Sound of Scars. We grew up together and have overcome a lot of trauma in our lives to get here today. We learn more about ourselves daily, and the band is an important part of giving us a creative outlet. It gives us an opportunity to channel our angst and frustrations into something positive. We’re really grateful for Life of Agony and all it has done for us. Not just as musicians but as people too. Many fans have said that Life of Agony’s music has helped save their lives, but the truth is… it has saved ours too.
All images courtesy of For The Win Media
The post Life of Agony’s Alan Robert Talks 30 Years of <em>River Runs Red</em>, New Music, and More appeared first on MetalSucks.