In many ways, The Amity Affliction’s story is one that all of us who have been in bands have lived. Formed in high school (in Gympie, Queensland in 2003), they cut their teeth playing at school concerts and lunch breaks. A three-track self-titled demo was recorded in 2004, and by the end of the year vocalist Joel Birch had joined. And although there have been all sorts of line-up changes since, the combination of Birch, vocalist/bassist Ahren Stringer and guitarist Troy Brady has carried the band through many ups and downs. Mostly ‘ups’, though: debut album Severed Ties hit in 2008, and the Amity sound began to solidify with 2010’s Youngbloods. But it was 2012’s Chasing Ghosts that really announced to the world that The Amity Affliction had arrived. The album was more confident, grander and more aggressive, and it truly pushed the band onto the world stage. So where do you go from here? The answer to that question is Let The Ocean Take Me. It’s as aggressive and abrasive as anything The Amity Affliction have done, and yet more personal and melodic as well. Lyrically there’s an undercurrent of anxiety, stress, panic attacks and the heart-racing aftermath.
“It’s a central theme because I’ve dealt with it over the last year, or the year leading up to writing Let The Ocean Take Me, but I wasn’t planning on writing about it, it’s just how it worked out,” vocalist Joel Birch explains. “I was actually worried that a lot of my lyrics were too dark and people would feel almost a disconnect from it. But from everything I’ve heard so far, everyone that experiences the same sort of emotions has been responding in a better way to how they did with Chasing Ghosts. That album had a third-person narrative to some of the songs, and this time it’s like it’s more about what I feel and how I go through it. And I think a lot of people who have the same sort of issues as me are responding much more positively and in a much more emotionally cathartic way. More so than an in-your-face topic.”
With the album now in stores, new guitarist Dan Brown firmly ensconced in the band and a national tour recently announced, Australian Guitar caught up with guitarist Troy Brady and bassist/clean vocalist Ahren Stringer to discuss what went into the album from a ‘strings and things’ perspective.
What are you guys using on this album?
Ahren Stringer: Me personally, I used a Mesa Classic through a SansAmp, Ernie Ball Music Man guitars – a StingRay – and yeah, that’s pretty much all I used. Keep it simple. It’s a great sound; I love it. It’s nice and easy.
What drew you to the StingRay?
Stringer: I have no idea! [Laughs]. See, I’m not really much of a gear-head to be honest. I’ve got three of them and they’re all exactly the same. Hang on. [Yells] Hey Dan? What model is my StingRay bass? Anyway, I’ve got a black one, a sunburst one with a rosewood fretboard… I’m pretty sure they’re all the same and they’re all new. Sorry I couldn’t go into any more details.
And the SansAmp – have you been using those for a while?
Stringer: Yeah, pretty much since I started playing bass.
Troy Brady: At the moment I’m using a guitar that’s going to be my signature guitar through Maton. I’ve modelled it off the MS2000 Deluxe but I’ve modified it into a longer scale for lower tunings. So we’ve gone from a 25.5” scale to a 26.5” and just kind of bulked the guitar out and shaved it away in a few spots to make it a bit more oriented towards dropped tunings. And we’ve got some custom pickups too which we’ve been working on together. It’s sounding great! The pickup is kind of modelled after a Gibson T500 humbucker. It’s an overwound passive pickup with 42 gauge wire. So it’s a really tightly knit, high-output passive pickup based on the Gibson Black Beauty and things like that.
You go way back with Maton, right? Last time we talked you mentioned something a little shady about your acquisition of a Maton…
Brady: Oh yeah, debt collectors were after it and whatnot… [laughs].
Do you find that a lot of people overseas come up to you and ask, “What is that?” when they see the Maton?
Brady: Yeah. A lot of people are interested in it and a lot of people like it, which is cool. It’s kind of an expensive guitar considering it’s from Australia so it’s more expensive to ship them and there’s less demand, things like that. They really like the guitar but they’re scared of the price a little. It’s a very unique guitar. It looks somewhere in between a Gibson and I guess certain Schecter models. It’s quite unique and it has this great sound compared to a lot of the other things I’m hearing.
And what amps did you use on the album for guitars?
Brady: Amp-wise we tracked out through a DI into multiple heads, so there’s a Bogner Ecstasy, a Diezel D4…that’s kind of a go-to to be on our records. That’s been the bulk amp for a lot of the rhythm tracks. It’s between Marshalls and Bogners for leads and overdubby stuff. Effects-wise we didn’t really track with a lot of effects. A lot of the effects were done later in the process with plugins and if we did track effects, it was mostly reverb. We were actually using a Kemper for a lot of the profiling stuff just for tracking and it was a great toy to have in the studio. They’re very accurate, all the profiles. We ended up getting it loaded up by Audiohammer with a bunch of cool records that we knew. We were flicking through Matchbox 20 guitar tones. They have the 5150 from the Eighteen Visions Obsession record, which we actually were tracking with for just a dub sound, an active sound [before re-amping]. I want a Kemper just to play with but live I’m just a bit old-school. I like using amps. I feel everyone goes for the Axe-FX or the Kemper and they end up going back to an amp.
Well the digital stuff doesn’t make your pants flap in the right way on stage.
Brady: Yeah. But Kemper is now making an amp with a power amp so you can actually have a wattage and an ohmage, and I’m interested in seeing what that one sounds like.
Tell me about the sound of the album. The melodies speak really clearly on this one, not only because of how well they’re written but because of how the whole thing is arranged, recorded and mixed.
Stringer: I just wanted it to be crystal clear. We haven’t really ever been super stoked with the sound of a finished record before. We wanted it to sound modern, clear, crunchy and heavy and I think we accomplished that. The vocals and drums, as you’ve probably noticed, are the shining parts which really add to the clarity. We just wanted a punchy, crystal clear-sounding record and I think we achieved that.
Well there are so many bands that can do “heavy” but there aren’t many that can really get away with ‘heavy and melodic’ to this extent. Where do your melodies come from?
Stringer: Thank you. Yeah, I write all my own melodies. I think a lot of this record, me and Dan were listening to a lot of ‘80s stuff – James Taylor, Steve Winwood – which influenced a lot of the melodic stuff. But then when it comes to the heavier stuff we were listening to our peers like Architects and Bring Me The Horizon and all of the heavy hitters. Just basically a hardcore punk influence with an ‘80s twist for the melody. Y’know, whenever you’re stuck for inspiration melody-wise all you’ve got to do is flick through the past and just get inspiration from all
the hits from the last five decades or so and you can’t go wrong.
Brady: It’s hard to find the balance but that’s the whole game: trying to balance the melodic and the aggressive and not making it too repetitive. Finding new ways to do each thing. We’re a band that has so many components and we’re always trying to find new ways to exploit them and keep it interesting over an hour of music.
I asked Zakk Wylde a similar question recently and he said, “Look, this album is just Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and the Allman Brothers, but you change it just enough that they can’t sue.”
Stringer: Exactly! The proof is in the punch. Everyone knows nothing is ever original. You may craft it originally but subconsciously it’s stemming from all the stuff you’ve ever listened to. I listen to a lot of old rock and blues and all that sort of stuff all the way up to the top 40 hits of today. It all shines through in our music – unintentionally, but there it is.
Do you ever listen to something and think, “If I could only crack this nut and figure out what it is about this song that’s moving me, maybe I can bring that out in my own stuff”?
Stringer: Wow! Oh yeah, sure, always. If I hear a song on the radio and I go, “Goddamn, I love that chord progression” I’ll go home and figure it out and change it up a little. All you’ve gotta do is put a different tempo to it, make some changes and you’ve got a whole new song, just like that. There are only so many chord progressions in music, and unless you wanna make one that doesn’t sound good, someone’s already used it, y’know what I mean?
What was it like recording the album at your home studio this time around?
Brady: Great! It’s nice to work out of a space that you’re very comfortable in. The whole band spent a fair bit of time in the studio prior to the record doing pre-production and stuff and everyone felt at ease, like it was just our own space with all of our gear and we weren’t walking into someone else’s realm. We could do whatever, and that helped us really relax. It was a very casual recording and I think being at my own studio made it more that way.
And what’s the studio like in terms of gear? Are you much of a collector?
Brady: I’m too young to be a gear collector, I think. Essentially I have what I need and I get bits and pieces. I turn things over to get what I need, and that makes it hard to actually collect, in a sense, because I’m always trying to keep myself updated. What I have is very applicable and I can actually use it. It’ll be cool if in like 10 or 20 years I have things where i can sit around and show them off but for the moment we just try to get the things together I need to make a good-sounding record.
Is there any one particular piece of gear that you can’t live without in the studio?
Brady: Yeah. I’m in love with a preamp. We used one preamp for everything apart from the drums. Every part of the vocals went through the same rig, the [Chandler Limited] TG2. It’s kind of an old-school piece of equipment but it adds a little bit of grit, a little bit of dirt. It’s not a clean preamp and it helps things to sound attack-y and aggressive. It’s a vintage piece of equipment and you run the input at basically twice the level it should be so it makes everything quite warm and adds a natural distortion to everything.
Ahren, in terms of matching the music to the lyrics, how closely do you and Joel work together?
Stringer: I just get all of Joel’s lyrics as he sends them to me and I’ll put them to a song, and I’ll even choreograph his words for him as well, and then build around that. And if I need him to change some words sometimes I’ll even hum along to a track in Garageband or something then send it to him and he can change it around in there, which is a funny way to work but it works.
Do you ever get lyrics from Joel where conceptually you’re like, “Man, this is not my view…”?
Stringer: All the time. That’s why he’ll send through all of the lyrics as he writes them and if I can’t put them to a song I’ll just be like, “Yeah… um… can you send me more?” until I find the perfect lyrics for a song. There would have been at least 15 songs that Joel had written that didn’t make the record because they couldn’t fit perfectly to a song that had been written musically.
What has it been like working with Dan and integrating him into the band?
Stringer: He’s just great. He’s got a great musical mind and we think very alike in terms of what we want to write musically. We gel really well. He’s played in bands before and written a lot of music similar to our style – heavier even – and he’s been writing music ever since I have, so we like the same kind of music. It was definitely the easiest writing process we’ve had in The Amity Affliction, for sure.
How are you guys handling the way your career has grown? Does it mess with you?
Stringer: It’s great. It’s become our job and I guess that’s how we’ve grown, by taking it more and more seriously and now realising we’ve got quite a responsibility to our fans and ourselves to produce better music. It’s a rush, y’know? We’ve been on the rise since we started, which I guess a lot of bands can’t really say. It’s a long and steady process and we’re just enjoying it and stopping to smell the flowers, so to speak.
Brady: You still spend the same time sitting in vans but it’s definitely cool to see the fruits of your labour paying off and building and growing with each tour. It makes you feel validated, consistently coming back to territories where if it was stagnant or going the other way it would be very demotivating, but we’re all just feeling that the way things are moving helps to keep us in the right frame of mind. We’re still doing what we’ve always done, which is travel, play shows and try to be the best we can at it. But day-to-day not much has changed.