I love death metal that pulls guts out, smashes faces, rips limbs from the body, and genuinely revels in the squishy feeling of putrefying organs between your fingers. That being said, it’s certainly not an issue when a band has something different to offer. Although gore and horror might be my bag, variety really is the spice of life, and death metal albums that deal with the real world and real emotions are not only welcome within the genre but a vital, needed part of keeping death metal a viable and vibrant art form. After five very heavily science-inspired records, Allegaeon has done just that and created one of the more heavily emotional albums within my beloved prefered genre.
Damnum, released back in February, goes for the heart in a slightly different way than other albums targeting the cardiovascular system. Conceived during the middle of the seemingly endless COVID-19 pandemic as well as amidst shattering personal losses, the sixth and best album from the tech death outfit is one that will stay with you for a while. The record contains some of the most insightful and heartbreaking lyrics about personal pain and loss that you’re likely to see from a band this year as well as music that will stick in your brain and stay there. The level of authenticity on this album is completely off the charts and invites listeners to work through their own emotions along with the band while headbanging along to a variety of sick riffs and heavy tracks.
Allegaeon, a band which is no stranger to changes and evolutions, doesn’t shy away from the unexpected. Whether it’s introducing clean singing elements, changing up lyrical topics, or switching vocalists, Allegaeon is a band that is going to do what they feel is best for their art and let the chips and criticisms fall where they may. Damnum is just the latest example of fearless moves in a career defined by them. I recently talked with vocalist Riley McShane over Zoom about the killer new album, his own personal history with the band, and what makes death metal its own unique beast of a community.
So first off, what got you into metal in the first place and how did you end up a fan of more extreme stuff?
Riley: I started singing when I was a little, little kid. I’m the youngest of five and my oldest sibling, my brother, is about 15 years older than me so when I was starting to learn how to talk and all that kind of stuff, he was already 18, 19 years old and was super into music. I started learning how to sing and harmonize and all kinds of stuff from a very young age. My oldest sister, who’s 12 years older than me, was a little bit younger (than my brother) but was a huge influence on the stuff that I was listening to and singing along to. On my brother’s side it was more classic rock and ’90s grunge kind of stuff and on my sister’s side it was more hip-hop and R&B. I just kind of grew up in a musically diverse family, from a listening perspective. That became a part of what I did. I’ve just been singing as long as I can remember.
As I got a little bit older and my own interests started to form, I started getting into more aggressive styles of rock and metal. I was around as sort of a young kid and teenager when metalcore blew up super big in the early 2000s. I went to a Headbanger’s Ball tour sometime in the early 2000s and saw Lamb of God, Killswitch (Engage), Shadows Fall, and God Forbid and it was at that show that I was like, “This is what I want to do. That shit was amazing!” Shortly after, I joined my first little local band in Escondido with dudes that I went to high school with and played kind of black metal (in) that project. From there it just kind of snowballed. I was in metal bands pretty much everywhere I lived. I moved out of Escondido, up to Los Angeles, for a couple of years when I was 16, 17, and then moved up to Santa Cruz to go to college shortly after that.
While I was in Santa Cruz, I joined up with some local guys from the college that I was attending and recorded our first little EP with this guy named Max Zigman who then asked me to join another project that he was in called Smaragos that he needed vocals for. Through that, I got introduced to all the Son of Aurelius guys (since) Max was their bass player. It was 2010, late 2010, when I was asked to cover vocals on a Son of Aurelius tour, and after that tour I joined as a full-time member and we released Under a Western Sun and, in between that time, I had started kind of becoming a little well known in the Santa Cruz Bay Area metal scene as a vocalist.
I had done vocals on the Inanimate Existence album A Never-Ending Cycle of Atonement, I joined Continuum and did the first album with them, I filled in in 2012 for Fallujah on vocals…so I started working with more and more peers that I still work with nowadays. After Son of Aurelius dropped Under a Western Sun and it didn’t really do so hot, as far as sales and all that stuff goes, I took a little break from metal for about a year and played some other styles of music. Greg (Burgess) from Allegaeon hit me up in 2015 and asked if I could cover some vocals on the tour and one thing led to another and here I am, seven years later and three albums deep.
Were you a fan of Allegaeon before joining? Did you have much experience with the band?
Riley: Not really. I had stayed at Greg’s house on tour in 2011 but I had only met him, very briefly, because I was super fucking sick on that tour. I remember we got to Greg’s house in Denver and I just crashed in the van, I might have gotten out and crashed on his floor but I was not hanging out and talking. I went from sleeping in one place to sleeping in another place. I had met Greg and I knew that he was a fan of Son of Aurelius and my guitar player, Cary (Geare), was more of a fan of Allegaeon than I was. They had just released Fragments of Form and Function and I just hadn’t really heard much from them. My taste in metal, when I listen to metal, has always been more grindcore, hardcore, or death metal like brutal death metal kind of stuff. Allegaeon was a little more melodic than what I had usually listened to. When the tech death thing happened in like 2008-2010 or so, I was into a lot of that stuff but I was more into bands like Spawn of Possession than I was into bands like Allegaeon, who were also doing technical stuff but on the less heavy, evil sounding side of things and more on a melodic, melodeath type of thing.
Who were some of your big grindcore and hardcore favorites?
Riley: I live in Escondido, it’s where I grew up and Travis (Ryan) from Cattle (Decapitation) is a good friend of mine and they were always hometown heroes. Travis also grew up in Escondido and went to the opposing high school that I did so having him in the mix in a place where I grew up, it was always like “Oh fuck, the dude from Cattle is at the grocery store!” Cattle was a big one and from there I branched off to other farm animal grindcore bands like Pig Destroyer. I got into crust punk type of shit like Dystopia and Phobia (and) veered down more into the weird, cerebral type of stuff like Cephalic Carnage, Circle of Dead Children and was just kind of always into that.
On the hardcore side of things, I was more into Bane, Terror, Gorilla Biscuits, and some of the older ones. I didn’t really keep up with hardcore. I’ve been stoked to see bands like Nails and Knocked Loose and stuff bring it back over the past five years or so, but the hardcore scene just isn’t really for me. There’s a lot of tough guys and I’ve just never been into that vibe. Where I lived there were a lot of straight edge crews and shit and I’m just like “Bro, what are these dickheads in camo shorts and trucker hats doing beating people up for smoking cigarettes. Like, get the fuck out of my face.” It kind of poisoned that scene for me a little bit so I got more into metal as time went on, but I still love hardcore as an art. You won’t really find me at a ton of hardcore shows though. I’m not trying to get crowd killed and shit.
I get that. I went to a hardcore show recently and the lineup was great but man, there were definitely some dickheads in the crowd that ruined certain parts of it.
Riley: Yeah. I get it, it’s a part of hardcore culture. I’m not here to be like “Fuck crowd killing” at a hardcore show, but if I see a dude crowd killing at a death metal show I’ll go whoop his ass because there’s no place for it there. In the hardcore scene I get it, it’s a part of their community and something that’s been going on for forever. It’s a “Don’t stand near the pit if you don’t want to get hit” kind of thing.
I remember playing a show in Long Island at this venue called The Crazy Donkey that I don’t think is there anymore. We were playing there with, I wanna say Wretched, (and it was) Son of Aurelius, Wretched, and Last Chance to Reason on in 2011 and I think, just because of geographically where we were, that northeast hardcore scene is the heartbeat of that whole shit, my guitar player was just standing there and some random fucking hardcore dude grabbed him by the back of his head and started pummeling his face and we were just like “Yo, what the fuck?” I get it, don’t stand near the pit if you don’t want to get hit, but there’s some guys who go out of their way to seek people out who aren’t paying attention even if they’re standing on the other side of the room and just try to throw hands with them. I’m not about that. The music is violent enough without having to incorporate that shit into the experience for people.
It’s cool that you mention Cattle Decap. They’re one of my favorite bands and a really interesting one to watch their development over the years. It’s almost like Allegaeon in a way since both have very natural evolutions that don’t necessarily change the heart of the band but that you can hear if you listen through the albums.
Riley: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think it’s cool that they’ve never really stopped being brutal. They started off as this crazy grindcore band and, even today, are just really maniacal sounding the way Josh (Elmore) writes riffs and Travis’ crazy ass vocals. They’re definitely one of my faves and (I’m) good friends with all those guys. I’ve toured with those guys a couple of times with a couple different bands and they’re always a pleasure to be around. I can’t speak highly enough of the Cattle guys.
When you joined Allegaeon, what kind of adjustment process was that like for you?
Riley: It was a little different for sure. I would say that Ezra (Haynes), the vocalist that I replaced, had such a huge cult of personality around him and I would say that was the hardest part for me. Before that I’d never really been the forward facing frontman type of guy. I was always a big nerd on the shy, quiet side of things. Having to not only step in vocally, which was something that I felt confident doing, but also take over that huge part of the band’s personality was really difficult. As time goes on, people get used to the new kid at school and people start liking you for your own reasons. I’d say at this point, Allegaeon is kind of looked at in a Cannibal Corpse kind of way where there’s Chris (Barnes) Cannibal Corpse and (George) Corpsegrinder (Fisher) Cannibal Corpse. There’s Ezra Allegaeon and there’s Riley Allegaeon and fortunately there’s no animosity between any of the past members or me and Ezra. We’re totally cool with each other but there’s fans who will always like that stuff more and fans who are going to like my stuff more. I think that it’s just continuing to grow as a band and cementing my role as the singer.
You jumped in during the writing process for Proponent for Sentience. How much did you contribute to that one?
Riley: I wrote a lot of lyrics for that album. I definitely jumped in more towards the first 25% being completed, I’d say, as far as lyrics and vocal stuff goes. Greg had already had this grand concept in mind for Proponent for Sentience. He had already written most of “Proponent (for Sentience) Part I, II, and III,” I think he had written a lot of “All Hail Science” at that point as well as “Grey Matter Mechanics.” He had, I wanna say, the first verse and chorus for all three “Proponent” songs and “Grey Matter” and he had the chorus for “All Hail Science” written lyrically so then I came in and kind of wrote the back half to those four songs and wrote pretty much the whole thing for “All Hail Science” around it. All the other songs on the album I had pretty much written from scratch. I want to say that he might have had some stuff for “Terrathaw and the Quake” already written but I can’t remember off the top of my head. But yeah, I did most of the lyric vocal writing and definitely wrote most of the vocal patterns for Proponent since I jumped in pretty early in the writing process.
How much of an adjustment was it for you to switch to the Allegaeon style of vocals as opposed to what you were doing before?
Riley: With metal vocals, my style had always been more death metal centric but then, with Under a Western Sun with Son of Aurelius, there was a lot of clean vocals on that record, much more like progressive metal type of stuff. That’s actually what brought Greg to me. He was like “I love the clean vocals on that album.” There was a push pretty much right out the gate to start doing clean vocals in Allegaeon, which is something that they’ve never had before. Me, being kind of shell shocked with my experience with Son of Aurelius where we had the band before me that was crazy tech death and the band after me that was (a) hard left turn into tons of clean vocals like progressive metal type of stuff, I was very hesitant to start doing clean vocals in a band that was much bigger than Sons of Aurelius had been after seeing that kind of reaction to it.
There was definitely an adjustment period where Greg wanted this one thing and I was willing to do it, but I wanted to be as smart as possible about it and introduce people in such a way that was well thought out and strategized. As far as metal vocals go, Ezra’s voice is a little bit more midrange and mine has always been polar. I’ve always done really low lows and really high highs but my midrange has never been my strong suit so I had to work on that a lot and learn how to use that part of my voice a little bit more coherently because, up until that point, I hadn’t used that a whole lot in my other death metal bands. (It was) definitely a little bit of a learning curve but I think by the time we hit the studio with (producer) Dave (Otero) for Proponent for Sentience in 2016, late 2015, it had all been sorted out and smoothed over.
Is that hard for you, switching from clean to harsh vocals and back?
Riley: It’s pretty natural for me. Like I said, I grew up singing so using my voice in that capacity is like second nature. It takes practice, you don’t want to just jump from one thing to another without having your voice warmed up or practicing at lower volumes before going to straight belting. After years and years and years of singing and playing out live and writing music in both styles, it’s something that I feel pretty confident about at this point.
You talked about you having a different style than Ezra and, obviously with metal, as with a lot of types of music, fans are pretty hesitant to things changing and with bands introducing new elements into their music. Does that ever play into your thoughts when you’re working on new material?
Riley: Not really at all, to be completely honest. That’s not to dismiss what fans think. It’s obviously important for us to value our fans’ opinion and value their support and stuff like that (because) we wouldn’t be here without the support from our fans. At the same time, you’re never going to make everyone happy. There’s always going to be some people who hate this one thing while other people love it, and people who hate this other thing while other people love it. It’s a big back-and-forth and you just have to have confidence in yourself and confidence in the musicians that you’re working with to come together and write songs that you all think are good and make you happy at the end of the day.
By the time the album comes out, it’s not ours anymore. It belongs to everyone who listens to it and they’re going to take away from it what they’re going to take away, love it or hate it. It’s not something that I really think about actively but there is a line where it’s like, “Hey guys, let’s switch to being a straight up deathcore band.” We would never do that because we know that our entire fanbase would be like, “What the fuck is this?” There are certain things that you just don’t do out of what I would consider common sense but as far as little creative decisions and choices, that’s kind of up to us to make and, like I said, we are just confident enough in ourselves and in each other to live with whatever that outcome is, whether it’s negative or positive.
What’s your lyric writing process like?
Riley: I usually write (vocal) patterns first and then put lyrics to those patterns and obviously it’s not “Well, now I have these patterns. This is the exact way the lyrics have to flow,” there’s always change. I usually start with patterns and when I’m writing patterns, I’ll usually just pull up random poetry. I’m a big fan of Poe and Shakespeare and Emerson and Mishima and stuff like that. I’ll usually just pull up random bits of poetry, because it’s similar enough to lyrics as far as how it’s structured, then I can take my patterns and put actual words to them so I can see “Oh, this is what this might sound like when words are in there.” When you write patterns, you just do “ba ba ba ba bap” with your patterns, it leaves a lot out of what it’s actually going to sound like because you have to take into consideration what certain consonants sound like with certain drum hits or guitar parts. You have to take into consideration how you’re going to manage your breath as you’re going through all these different words. Using poetry or literature or whatever to just kind of serve in place of lyrics that I actually write is a good way to get a feel for what that’s going to end up being.
As far as my actual lyric writing process when I have those patterns down and placeholders set on our pre-production recordings, writing has been a thing that I’ve been doing for so long that when pen hits paper, I just get into the zone and thoughts start pouring out. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. I try to just figure out the best parts or a good starting point. Sometimes I’ll write something in an order that it won’t end up being when it’s actually in the song, I’ll have to switch verses around. I’m not writing to a timeline necessarily. I’ll eventually be writing one thing after another after another but sometimes I’ll write something that makes more sense going first, even though I wrote it as the second verse so I’ll kind of move things around and see what fits where and all that kind of stuff, but I usually don’t go into it with a particular set of ideas in mind. I usually just let whatever comes out come out and pick and choose what comes out from there.
That’s cool that you mention Shakespeare. I’ve always thought Titus Andronicus would make a hell of a death metal concept album:
Riley: (Laughs) maybe someday!
Getting back to when you first joined Allegaeon, what was that first tour like? Were you nervous to jump in with a new band?
Riley: No, not really. The first tour that I did, I was filling in. They hadn’t established that I was going to be the full-time guy yet so, for me, it was just kind of like a job. It was five days out, we were doing Louisville Deathfest in 2015, I wanna say, so it was like, fly out to Denver, rehearse a little bit, do five shows out to Louisville, do five shows back, so a very short run. It was just like hanging out with guys, getting to know everybody, playing the songs, and there didn’t really feel like a whole lot of pressure on (me). My first tour as a full-time member, the attendance on that tour was super shot. There were a couple good shows but it was mostly just playing to ten people every night. Again, it wasn’t like there was a whole lot of pressure on me to perform. If I had jumped into where we are now, I feel like I would be a lot more nervous playing to a few hundred people every night as the new guy. At the time, it didn’t really feel like there was a whole lot of pressure, which is good because it gave me time to kind of learn the ropes and learn how to test out my new frontman wings a little bit.
Your first album where you were a day one member of the creative process then was 2019’s Apoptosis. What was the production process like for that one then?
Riley: The Apoptosis writing and recording process was honestly kind of miserable. We were working with a management team that was running us into the ground and putting us on tours that we had no business being on over and over and over again. It was the kind of thing where we were writing on the road, we were listening to test mixes while we were on the road, (and) not taking the proper amount of time that we should have been taking to give that album its creative time in the sun. It just felt very…I don’t want to say phoned in because we still tried our best and still did everything we could…but we were working under less than ideal circumstances so it was hard to give 100%, or what I should say is that what we were giving as 100% isn’t what we would normally be giving as 100% because we were so burned out and working under, like I said, less than ideal circumstances. We worked a lot on stuff while we were on the road together. We gave each other lots of feedback while we were in the same physical space, which is nice because we live all over the continent now, with Greg in Canada.
Apoptosis was a tough one for sure. It was tough to find inspiration for me for that album lyrically because I was starting to get burnt out on the science stuff. It felt like I was doing a research paper when I was writing lyrics, which has always been, for me, a very cathartic, creative thing, so it just didn’t feel very natural. It felt forced. The way that we had written music at that point was that it was basically Mikey (Michael Stancel, guitar) writes a song, Greg writes a song, rinse and repeat until we have five or six songs from each guy. Whatever they write, that’s just what the song is so there wasn’t a whole lot of room for creative feedback from the band being like “Oh, what if we tried this with this part, what if we did this and that and this and that.” That stuff would happen in the studio because Dave is a very hands-on producer like that but during the writing process it was very much “Hey, this is what we’re doing.”
Also, our drummer at the time didn’t really contribute anything creatively, he would just add his fills to the beats that Greg and Michael had written. As guitar players, they can write the parts because they know the music, they’re good musicians, but they’re not drummers. They don’t understand certain nuances like someone like our new drummer Jeff (Saltzman) understands. A lot of things just felt flat on that record, to me. Everyone was obviously trying to give 100%, we don’t wanna just not deliver because we are tired or exhausted or whatever. It’s part of the job but of the records that I’ve done with Allegaeon, I would say that Apoptosis is my least favorite, even though we are proud of all of them. It was just a tough album for us.
You mentioned a bit of a lineup change after that record. What do you guys look for in a new member, besides being a proficient musician of course?
Riley: That’s first and foremost. We never want to take a step backwards. We want the person that we are hiring to be better than the person we are replacing. In my tenure, having replaced Corey Archuleta (bass) with Brandon Michael and having replaced Brandon Park (drummer) with Jeff Saltzman, I’d say that that’s definitely the case. That’s definitely what we’ve done. We’ve found people who are next-level musicians from the people that they are replacing. That’s obviously the most important part but a close second is personality. We all have to vibe together. There’s very little room for ego in this band. It’s important for us to realize very early on and very quickly that “Bro, we play death metal. We’re not out here trying to be rock stars. We’re not out here trying to be egotistical dickheads.” Everybody has to get along. Take what you do seriously, but not yourself. Luckily, again, I think that Booboo, Brandon Michael’s nickname, and Jeff have been perfectly in line with that. Very, very cool, level-headed dudes.
After Apoptosis, COVID hits and kind of grinds everything to a halt across the board. How much was Allegaeon affected by the pandemic?
Riley: Pretty drastically. We had a headlining tour that was gonna be us headlining, Fallujah as direct support, Entheos, and another band opening. We had to cancel two weeks before that started. It was supposed to be in April of 2020 so it was, you know, not great. All of a sudden, income that we had planned on was off the table. It was a tough pill to swallow but it gave us ample time this time around to really readjust our creative process going into Damnum and I think that, ultimately, it was a blessing in disguise.
Going into Damnun, you mentioned that you were getting tired of the science theme lyrics. Was that why this one took on a more personal and emotional edge thematically?
Riley: Partly, but I also think that a big part of that is (that) everyone was in that headspace, creatively. The music that I was getting sent by the guys felt more emotionally driven. I think that was just a byproduct of hardship. Everybody was struggling, everybody was having to readjust and figure out their lives. You know, after doing live music as the backbone of your income and the foundation of your life for so long…having that rug ripped out from under you is something that definitely affects mental health and emotional well being and all that kind of stuff. I think that, listening to the music, I tried at first to write sciencey lyrics on top of it but it felt bad (laughs). It just didn’t feel like that was what was supposed to go on top of that music. Once I started writing in a more personal way, everything just felt like it fit a lot better. The puzzle pieces came together. Another thing that we had kind of discussed was that we all felt that it would be kind of tone deaf at that point in time to be like “Hey guys, I know that the world is falling apart and the economy is collapsing and there’s people dying by the thousands every day but uh, here’s a science record! That’s cool, right?” It just felt corny, you know what I mean? I think that it was a natural change for all of us and I think that the timing couldn’t have been better because I think that the science band shit just kind of ran out of rope for us.
How was the process different for Damnum from Apoptosis? You said you had more time but was it a lot different other than that?
Riley: Definitely. Everyone contributed creatively to the music on this album. Like I said, in the past it was a kind of thing where Greg would write a song front to back and that was just a song and everybody would come in and put their parts on top of it. Or Michael would write a song and that was just a song and everyone would come in and kind of put their parts on top of it. There were never any discussions about structure or tone or how one song blended with the other. Pretty early on in the writing process of this one, we were starting to see these seams and these fissures form between Greg’s writing style and Michael’s writing style. Greg’s writing style is very much influenced by melodeath and progressive death metal and old school thrash and stuff like that and then Michael has been moving in more of a moody, black metal type of direction and so, I was hearing these songs, and like “Bro, this shit sounds like two different bands. We can’t do this for this one.” We all got on that page pretty quickly. There were a couple of growing pains…people weren’t quite used to people dissecting their songs and being like “Yeah, let’s maybe try and change this part” or “Can you rewrite this section” or “What if we tried this, what if we tried that?” It took a little getting used to but I think, in the end, everybody kind of landed on the same page where now that we’ve done it this way, we can’t go back to the way that we had done it before.
We had a few writing retreats a couple times where we’d all fly out to the same location, Denver for this one, and everybody would just sit there and we’d listen to the songs and we would make changes on the fly and we would record our little changes in these at-home recording sessions and everybody would get sent home with these new versions and we would listen to it and write to that. It was the kind of thing where it wasn’t just the songs and the structures that were up for discussion, it was every part…everything everyone had written. When I would write my vocal parts, I would do pre-pro recordings at home and I’d send that out to the group. They’d all give me their notes and their feedback like “Oh I like this but maybe try this” or “I think this other vocal style would fit here a little better, what if we put a double on this part.” I would take those notes and make adjustments and, eventually, we got to a point where the majority was happy.
As a five-member band, we fortunately are in a position where there are never any 50-50 deadlocks with decisions of any kind. It’s always very democratic and a “Hey, let’s take a vote” (thing) and usually it’s unanimous but every once in a while you end up with those 3-2 splits and you have to go with what the majority decides on. I would make my adjustments until the majority was happy with what we were doing and we did that with every instrument. Then when we’d get into the studio Dave Otero makes his changes on the fly, he’ll make his suggestions. Usually they’re good ones becuase Dave is a fucking mad scientist so we’d make those changes and we ended up with what we ended up with. I think it’s easily the best Allegaeon album even from before my time with the band.
That sounds like a very no egos kind of process.
Riley: Yeah and we had to establish pretty early on as well that when people put themselves out there creatively, they’re putting out a part of themselves and so you can’t just tear it down. We made a rule pretty early on where it was like “Look, if you don’t like something, before you voice that you don’t like this part or think this part isn’t good, you have to have a suggestion in mind. You have to have something where it’s like, hey, I’m not really vibing with this, what if we did this instead? What if you did something more like this.” Whether you like it or not, there’s always going to be a little bit of creative ego involved in a creative process. You’re putting yourself out there in an emotional way and to do that, knowing that other people are going to listen to it and maybe be like “Eh, it’s alright,” is something that you have to kind of prepare yourself for. Definitely a no ego way of doing it for sure. We just want to do what’s going to be best for the band in the long run.
How much did the current shit state of the world play into your writing for this record? I’m thinking particularly of “Vermin,” which is such a great, pissed-off song.
Riley: A lot. “Vermin,” particularly, is about our old management team. That’s kind of a big fuck you to them because they were awful. That song is a little bit of an outlier from the rest of them because it’s topical, it’s not just what I was feeling, what I was experiencing being (put) onto paper. There was definitely a purpose behind “Vermin.” But yeah, I’d say that the state of the world for sure had something to do with it, as far as my lyric writing process, but I’ve always, for as long as I can remember, struggled with those feelings of anxiety and depression and hopelessness and all that kind of stuff so, for me, it was just kind of a general catharsis rather than one that was directly impacted by COVID and the loss of live music and all that kind of stuff.
I think it’s important to have albums like Damnum within the extreme metal genre that deal with those types of issues like depression and anxiety. How important was it to you to focus on themes like that on this record?
Riley: It wasn’t necessarily a goal that I had, going into it. I didn’t write the album from the perspective of wanting the album to raise awareness on mental health and stuff like that but seeing people take that away from it is super special to me. I’ve always kind of figured that it’s like, if you’re gravitating toward extreme metal in general, you’re probably not a ray of sunshine. Some people are, I know plenty of people who are fans of extreme metal who are just the nicest, most positive people out there but, generally, when people are just getting drawn into this style of music they are experiencing something that the darkness and the anger and the sadness or whatever it might be that this style of music lends itself to resonates with them. Being able to put into words feelings that people are experiencing but might not necessarily know how to put into words themselves is something that I’m really proud of, something that I was really happy I was able to do with this record, even though it wasn’t necessarily what I set out to do with this record. Like I said, it’s very special to me that people are taking (that) away from it.
Staying with that theme, “Called Home” is one of my favorite songs from the year so far. Being that I know it was inspired by personal tragedies, how tough was that one for you to record and get those emotions down in the booth?
Riley: It was tough, man. It was a really hard song to record. For me and Greg specifically…a lot of tears, a lot of parts where we had to just take breaks. It was a little unexpected because I had written my part of the lyrics, because Greg and I co-wrote that song lyrically. I had recorded my sections pre-pro, I had rehearsed my parts over and over again and yeah, it was emotional doing that stuff but it never culminated like it did when I was in the booth actually recording it for the album. There was a time where I was recording the vocals for the dialed back part in the middle and I was having a hard time. It was becoming clear that I was not going to be able to continue and that I would need to take a break. I remember Dave, after taking a few takes that were a little too emotional, he was like “Hey man, do you need to take five?” and I was like “Yeah, dude, for sure.” (We took) a minute to get it out of my system and collect myself a little bit. I opened the door and Dave (is) just standing a few steps away from me and just fucking gives me this huge hug and we kinda sat there for a minute. We were both in tears. Yeah, it was a tough song, a very tough song to record. It is very personal and the people that we lost…I’m glad there’s something out there that’s always going to keep them alive.
I’ve also struggled with depression and anxiety issues for pretty much my whole life and, for me, music is a huge outlet for that. Was this album a cathartic experience for you?
Riley: For sure. Again, especially in the recording process, when you’re performing these parts and, not to take anything away from the other instruments, but vocals particularly…your instrument is a part of your body. You have to tap into a visceral, emotional place when you record, especially stuff like death metal. There’s techniques to it but if you want to capture that emotion, you have to lend yourself to that vulnerability. While I was in the booth recording songs like “Only Loss” or songs like “To Carry My Grief (Through Torpor and Silence)” or even songs like “Into Embers” it was pretty emotional. Whether that emotion was sadness or anger or whatever, sometimes it was hard to separate myself from that emotion while I was in the booth and then when I was not recording. My fuse was shorter while I was recording this album and I think that that was a byproduct of the fact that I was letting those emotions take over while I was recording. It was definitely very cathartic and something that I was glad to be able to do and I think that shows in the final product. This album doesn’t feel sterile, it feels very emotional and very relatable.
I imagine then that the strong reaction the record has been getting from the fans has to be incredibly gratifying.
Riley: It’s awesome, man. It’s the best you can hope for, right? That what you put out there is gonna resonate with people and people are going to attach to it in their own way and it’s gonna provide something for them that they needed or wanted. So it’s been really, really great seeing everyone be so stoked on it and the vast majority of the feedback being “Oh this album helped me through this” or “This album really spoke to me in this way” or even less personal stuff like “Fuck, this album is sick and so dark and moody sounding. I love it!” It’s really great to see that.
The cover for that one is a really cool piece of art. Who did that one?
Riley: Travis Smith did the cover for that one. He’s done all of Opeth’s stuff, Fleshgod Apocalypse, some Death stuff, he’s done Nevermore, he’s all over the place. He’s a very well known and highly decorated album artist. We started working with him on Apoptosis and he’s done everything for us since then so he’s done Apoptosis (and) he did the Roundabout cover, he did the art for Concerto in Dm, he did the art for Counterparts when we released that cover and then he did the art for Damnum. I think that as time has gone on and we continue to grow our working relationship and our creative relationship that his output is just getting better and better for us and I’m also pretty stoked on how that album cover came out.
How much input or direction do you guys give him beforehand?
Riley: At first, a lot but as the conversation went on it was just like, “Dude, do what you want.” It became less about me being (saying) “These are the elements I’m trying to capture” and more like, “This is the atmosphere that I’m trying to capture.” Once that creative shift took place, he was really able to cut loose and do his thing. That’s why you hire an artist, because you trust their sensibilities as an artist. He listened to the record and he read the lyrics and he made what he made and I was like, “Yo, this is perfect.” It perfectly encapsulates that feeling of losing your mind. I told him that when people first look at this album cover, I want it to stress them out but then as they continue to stare at it and dissect all the details, I want it to kind of be a thing of beauty, a thing they can look at and (go) “Oh this is actually really cool and really beautiful and really well put together” but, at a glance when you first look at it, you’re like “Ugh, oh” and I think he did that perfectly. I couldn’t have asked for a better cover to encapsulate that vibe. Very stoked with Travis’ work on this one.
How did you guys come up with the name for the album?
Riley: That was another collaborative process for everyone in the band. We were all thinking about it trying to come up with something. There was a while there where we were really fixated on “Only Loss,” the song title because everyone in the band experienced loss in one way or another during the process of writing this album, whether it was loss of loved ones or loss of jobs or loss of housing situations…everyone experienced some kind of loss that they had to work through emotionally and get back on their feet from some type of hardship that involved something being taken away from them. This idea of loss was really resonating with everyone so it got to the point where we (said) “What’s loss in Greek? What’s loss in, Aramaic? What’s loss in Latin? Oh, loss in Latin is Damnum, that sounds kind of cool.” That’s what we stuck with. Damnum is loss in Latin and that feeling of loss and the cycle of emotions that come with it really matched the energy that we put into the album…grief and sadness and anger and fear and all types of stuff. Everything that we put into it is kind of summed up by that experience of losing.
How excited are you for the headlining tour supporting the album coming up now that you’ve finished your support run for Omnium Gatherum?
Riley: I’m stoked to get back out there and play a bit of a longer set and play directly to our fans. It’s always great being a support band and playing to new fans and getting people on team Allegaeon, but it’s a particularly gratifying feeling to get out there and play to the people that are there for you. I’m stoked to get out there and headline.
How do you guys put together a setlist? You’ve got a ton of classic material to pull from but also a killer new record to support. How tough is it to decide on something that makes everyone happy?
Riley: It’s not too bad. It’s always a discussion to be had. We were actually just talking about setlist stuff earlier today. It’s one of those things where we have to kind of set out in a direction that we want to go before we start putting together a setlist. For this one, we had a choice of are we going to play mostly just stuff from Damnum and push the new record or are we gonna do a full discography best of type setlist, and we ended up settling on the latter so now it’s just a matter of (us having) six albums and we want to play at least one song from each album but we want to play a lot of the newer material so let’s figure out how it’s going to work and how each album and each era is gonna fit into each other and we’re going to make a setlist that doesn’t feel disjointed and is going to keep the energy high. It’s always a discussion but I think we always land on a pretty cool spot for our setlists.
How excited are you to bring the new material to the fans again on this next tour?
Riley: Oh I’m stoked, man. We played “Into Embers” and “Of Beasts and Worms” and “Vermin” on the last tour and people were fucking stoked so I’m glad to play not only those songs again but a couple other new ones and just keep that excitement going.
What was it like to finally get back out on tour after so long off? Was there any road rust to shake off?
Riley: No, (but) there were some nerves before the first shows. We had done our rehearsals and everything had sounded tight in rehearsals but it’s obviously different when you’re performing. I think everyone was nervous after having not played a show for two years. That’s the longest any of us have gone without playing a show in fucking ten years so there was a little bit of nerves but shit’s like riding a bike, man. It’s just a part of who we are and you never really forget how to do it. Getting back out there and playing and doing all that stuff (there was) not really any rust to shake off but definitely a few nerves to work through. Five minutes into that first show though it was like “Ok, I remember this, everything is fine.” A lot of those shows were people’s first show back. I think about how important it is for me playing shows and what an important part of my life that is, and I understand that that same importance is applied to a lot of people for attending shows so seeing people back at a concert after not being at a show for two years, and feeding off that energy and excitement, was so cool. It was something super special. I had a really good experience on this last tour out and I think that is going to carry out and carry on to our tour this June.
You guys have been on Metal Blade for your whole discography. What has their support meant to the band?
Riley: Metal Blade has been great. Metal Blade has always been supportive of the band. They’ve done their best to give us everything we need when we need it. They’ve fostered some relationships that have helped us over the past few years, for sure. I love the Metal Blade fam. They gave me the opportunity to stay visible over the pandemic hosting the Metal Blade live series where I was interviewing tons of musicians and industry people. I think that helped a lot (to) establish not only my own personality by keeping my face in people’s screens, but Allegaeon in general, keeping us on people’s radars. Metal Blade has been great. I love working with them and hope to continue working with them for a long time.
What was it like to do those interviews? Was it an adjustment?
Riley: Not really. I’ve worked in jobs basically my whole life where I’m talking to people and carrying on conversations and stuff like that so it felt pretty normal. There were a couple guests that I had like Devin Townsend and Corpsegrinder that I was trying not to fangirl and that kind of showed a little bit, me being a huge fan of those guys, but I don’t think it was something that took too much adjustment. I had also been doing the Metal Blade podcast with Vince (Edwards) and Brian (Slagel) for a few months before that so it wasn’t necessarily something that I was just thrown into.
How much do you stay up to date on what’s going on in the world of extreme metal? Do you keep current on what’s going on out there?
Riley: Yeah, I listen to lots of metal. I listen to lots of different styles of music and I always try to keep up with not only new bands but the bands that I enjoy. Every time one of our peers drops an album, I’m gonna listen to it. Tons of great music came out over the course of the pandemic. Some honorable mentions or albums that I listened to a lot of were the new Archspire, Bleed the Future, a fucking great album; Death Atlas from Cattle came out a little before the pandemic but again has been a constant rotation kind of thing; both of the Shadow of Intent albums were super fucking great albums; I was a big fan of that Stortregn album that came out, super, super sick; I really liked the new Bummer album on more of the hardcore side of things; See You Space Cowboy released an amazing fucking album; Full of Hell released a super, super good album, I really liked that a lot; Baest released an album pretty recently that is super sick (with) old school death metal vibes; new Rivers of Nihil, by far my favorite album of theirs…I really liked the stuff they did like (Where) Owls (Know My Name) and stuff like that but I feel like this album (The Work) is the most well-structured, dynamically sound piece of music that they’ve ever put out, and it was one of those things where I liked it and then I saw them play songs from it live and I was like “Holy shit, these songs hit so hard” so that one was in constant rotation for awhile. That last Abiotic album was also super good on the more tech death side of things, new Inferi on the tech death side of things as well. There’s too much to name. I could go on for a while talking about all the sick new music that came out, but I definitely try to stay on top of it and support the homies, support the peers and make sure everyone is getting heard by everyone else because that’s important. It’s the glue that keeps our scene together.
Another band I’d be remiss not to mention is fucking Lorna Shore…holy shit. It’s unbelievable how that band blew up and it’s so cool to see because Austin (Archey) and Adam (De Micco)…we toured with Lorna Shore back in 2018 I wanna say, with Rings of Saturn and Nekrogoblikon as direct support and Atheos and Gloom, it was a fucking sick run. Seeing how far those guys have come and overcoming all the bullshit with thier old vocalist who, not gonna give that piece of shit’s name any credence, but overcoming the stuff that they’ve overcome and being so dedicated and so hardworking and seeing it pay off for them is one of the coolest fucking things I’ve seen in metal in a long time. It’s so inspiring to see two dudes, and the whole band are hard workers, but specifically Austin and Adam who have been in it for so long and making top shelf deathcore for a long time and then putting something out that just blew up. It’s unbelievable how quickly (2021’s EP …And I Return to Nothingness) blew up and how many opportunities that created for them. It’s so exciting to see them making the moves that they’re making now. One of the coolest things to come out of the pandemic is Lorna Shore’s rise to power.
You talked about that community aspect of the extreme metal scene. How important is that to you and what has the community support meant to you?
Riley: Like I said, it’s the glue that keeps it all together. Those relationships that you form with the people that play music in the same creative sphere as you do and the relationships that you form with the people who listen to it and support it…we couldn’t do it without it. Our community, in the grand scheme of things, is still a lot smaller than other styles of music. You look at pop and country and we don’t even hold a fucking candle to that kind of shit. A successful death metal band, looking at their metrics and stuff on platforms like Spotify, you can take every song from their career, add up all the plays and find that someone who is an A-list pop star celebrity will release a song and surpass that in a matter of hours. Twenty years of work adding up to something that took six months to make for someone who’s up in the pop world…it’s easy to get discouraged and look at that and think “Fuck, what are we doing” and all this type of stuff. But to me, it’s just as easy to get super excited about it again because our scene and our community and the people who are involved in it are, for the most part, such amazing people and such talented, creative musicians and artists and being able to share that creative space and being able to be recognized by them and by the people who listen to it and support it is incredible. I put a lot of stock into the metal community as far as being responsible for keeping things going and keeping things alive and keeping things growing through the ups and the downs.
Speaking of that community aspect, you guys have had a Patreon for some time now, which I think is a really cool idea for bands to connect more directly with fans. How did that get started?
Riley: In 2016, when Patreon was still kind of a new thing, our friends started one and it was pretty successful. We kind of forecasted that it was like, “Bro, in five years everyone is going to have one of these.” It’s basically the new version of having a fan club but instead of taking 50 bucks and putting it into an envelope and sending it to 123 Fuck Off Street and getting a poster six weeks later it gives you a chance to directly engage with people and they can contribute however much or little they want and still get that same fan club treatment and fan club service.
Because the music industry is the music industry, we were met with a lot of resistance when we first launched it but someone had to. Someone had to take it on the fucking chin so the rest of people could be like “Ok, well, Allegaeon launched a Patreon and Decibel wrote a really shitty article about them and they’re still a band doing better than they’ve ever done before and they still have a Patreon, so I guess I’m going to start one too and not worry about people writing shitty articles about (us).” It was just something that kind of came up because (you) utilize new tools when they come to light. If something is going to be made available that is going to make our lives easier and give us a chance to foster good relationships with our fans and create a friendly rapport there then fuck it, let’s do it. We’ve seen peaks and valleys with engagement and support on there but that’s not why we do it. It’s cool to get the extra money on a monthly basis but it’s not the driving force behind why we do the weekly updates on Patreon. If people want to support it, totally up to them, ball’s in their court but we are going to continue to give the people who do support it that extra mile of engagement.
Yeah I never understood the bad reaction to that, it never made sense to me. It feels like the most DIY thing you could do and a cool way to interact with fans. People have weird reactions to stuff.
Riley: It’s hard to look back, in my opinion, to 2015, 2016 when Patreon was a new thing and put yourself in that headspace now that it’s such an everyone has one type of thing. It’s hard to look back and be like “Yeah, why did people get so upset about that?” I think there was a little bit too much transparency on our end and I think that that gave people a little bit of a shifted perspective of what we were trying to accomplish. A lot of the shitty articles and the bad responses that were sent out there in response to us launching the Patreon were from the perspective of, like, “This band is holding their fans hostage, they’re threatening to break up if they don’t get money directly from their fans” and all this type of shit that wasn’t the case. That’s not what we were saying. We made a whole big video saying “Hey, here’s what is going on. Here’s the reality.”
Like I said, I think we were just a little bit too transparent, just a little bit too outward facing about this (being) how the industry works. A lot of times bands don’t make dick and we’re expected to work super hard to get to a point where we do make enough to sustain ourselves and sometimes that process is too difficult and a lot of bands break up along the road. We (said then) we’re nearing that point because we had to cancel tours and had to dump all kinds of money and all kinds of shit and were just hemorrhaging. We were definitely at a crossroads. When we launched it, we were just a little too transparent with us being like “Hey, it’s a hard industry. If things don’t get better for us we don’t know how much longer we will be around.” We were sending out this call of action to be like, “Hey, if you can, the support would mean a lot to us right now.” That got kind of manipulated by people who are a little bit more on the industry’s side than the artist’s side being like “This band is holding their fans hostage” and “If you can’t afford to be a band, just break up!” and all this type of shit. I get it but again, six years later you look and everyone has a fucking Patreon and I can’t help but hope that the people who were so adamantly against it maybe learned some stuff in that time in between about what bands have to do to stay afloat in this modern industry.
Have you seen much of a difference, either negative or positive, being so deep into the streaming era now?
Riley: We’ve never really seen a whole lot of that, whether it’s album sales or streaming revenue. A lot of that goes to the label and that’s just kind of how the industry has always been. You don’t make a whole lot…unless you’re out there selling millions of copies or getting tens or hundreds of millions of streams…you’re not really seeing anything meaningful and, again, death metal being death metal, it’s a smaller genre. If a death metal band breaks ten million streams (on a single song), it’s a fucking big deal. It’s not something that we’ve ever really relied on to keep us afloat. We rely on touring, we rely on merch sales…those are the two big things that put gas in the tank to keep us going from point A to point B. We haven’t seen too much of a change since streaming and DSPs have become king over album sales and digital sales.
What’s the best way that fans can support the band?
Riley: Buy merch. Merch, merch all the way! Nightshift.com/Allageon, that’s us. Buy stuff from us when we are on the road. We see a lot more direct revenue from you picking up a CD or a vinyl at the merch table than we do getting it online. Don’t let that stop you from buying it online, if that’s your preferred thing, obviously go for it, but it does help us more directly to get from point A to point B if you come to shows, buy merch at shows, buy merch online. I shouldn’t dismiss the DSP thing entirely because the more plays we get, the more viable we are to be put onto playlists and that’s going to get us more plays that’s going to keep us visible and keep us showing up in people’s playlists. People are going to have a lot higher chance of stumbling into Allegaeon at random if the people who already know about us are spinning our shit on Spotify or Apple Music or Tidal or Deezer or whatever it might be, YouTube or stuff like that. Listen to the tunes, come see us at shows, pick up a shirt, pick up a CD, and that’s all I can ask for.
Being three records deep with the band, and the band being six records deep as a whole, do you guys have any big goals you’re still working toward?
Riley: Yeah, man. There’s no finish line on success. We just want to keep growing and continue to capitalize on the opportunities that come our way and eventually be in a position where this is the only thing we have to do. Even a band in Allegaeon’s position, a lot of us still have to do stuff on the side to pay the bills and keep the lights on and all that kind of stuff. We’re slowly moving towards a position where that’s not going to be the case for us any more and getting there is going to be a huge milestone for us in our careers. Being able to be in that position and plan our budgets and our expenses on things like tours and festivals and stuff like that, knowing that that’s what’s going to pay the bills is gonna make things a lot easier for us to increase our production values when we are out live…get lights, foggers, and all types of stuff. We are always one step away from the next step so the goal is to always keep on going and keep on growing.
Last question, when you’re away from music, away from tours, what do you like to do in your free time to relax?
Riley: I’m a huge nerd, big video game nerd. I actually own a video game publishing company called Proponent Games that I started during the pandemic. We released a title onto Nintendo Switch called Antonball Deluxe last September. It’s out on Steam (and) we have a Metroidvania type game out on early access on Steam as well. Video games, anime, all that nerd shit is a huge passion of mine. I want to get more into that side of things as time goes on. I also love voice acting. I did some voices for the video game Dead By Daylight. I did Leon Kennedy from Resident Evil for the Dead By Daylight series and that was really fun. I work with a voiceover company called The Monster Factory that’s based out of Montreal along with tons of other metal vocalists and I really enjoy doing all that stuff. I live in sunny southern California so I’m always out going on hikes with my dogs, going to the beach, and just trying to enjoy the natural world around me and not stay too cooped up despite the fact that I’m a huge nerd who just plays video games a lot. I try to stay well rounded, try to stay busy, and try to stay on top of what the kids think is cool these days. I’ve been playing a ton of Elden Ring lately…shit’s kicking my ass. I love it!
Oh man, I’ve got that but I still haven’t started because I know when I do, I’m going to just sink all my time into it.
Riley: It’s addicting, man. It’s one of those games. That FromSoftware, Souls type template of games where it’s rinse and repeat until you learn enough to get past this part and then do it again. That dopamine rush of fucking killing a boss you’ve died to 20 times is awesome. The next one after Elden Ring is Stranger of Paradise, the Team Ninja Final Fantasy game. Super stoked to play that.