Greetings from the Concert Closet once again fellow progheads! As I brace for the end of July--slow down summer!!--my never ending search for all things prog has taken the Concert Closet back to Sweden for an in-depth interview with Philippe Longchamps, frontman for Atlas Volt. The band's latest album, "Memento Mori," was released in May and is spectacular. Some may remember my initial review of Atlas Volt in January, when I unearthed a true prog gem, "Eventualities." Atlas Volt is a band that redefines dedication to the craft and artistry that is progressive rock. Join me as as I delve behind the curtain for a closer look and a deeper listen...
Philippe Longchamps: To make a long story short, in 2011 I started recording new demos and by pure coincidence saw a billboard ad at Malmo City Library. Adam (Hansen-Chambers) was offering music production courses. With a personal goal being the release of a high quality self-produced record, I called to find out if Adam could help; he is a skilled engineer and musician with experience in music production. After advising me to record and mix the songs I was currently working on, Adam began adding arrangements of his own to my songs. We decided to share ideas and work together on new material; I started writing lyrics for Adam's compositions and he continued writing arrangements. Our original design was an "open collective" type band, but we decided to play all the instruments on debut EP, "Eventualities" ourselves. This led to the realization we actually were versatile enough to do everything on our own...thus became Atlas Volt.
PL: Yes--it's a great challenge that is about to become greater still...Adam is considering a move to Australia! However; we already proved the "long distance band thing" is possible by exchanging audio files between Sweden and the UK. We can be successful if we put the effort in, but the distance does slow everything down. While recording "Memento Mori" we invited a few musicians to collaborate on some songs and speed up the process. Realistically, we should do the same on future projects as well. Adam and I are open to the idea since the original plan was an indie/prog collective. Our sound is so eclectic and crossover we see this as an opportunity for Atlas Volt to explore new musical boundaries.
CCA: You call Memento Mori a concept album dealing with the secular humanist worldview. My initial listen paints a deeper picture dealing with faith, organized religion. new-age fundamentalism, and the struggle against the powers that "hold all the cards." Am I on the right track and/or can you elaborate?
PL: Spot on; you really get the big picture and the essence of Memento Mori's narrative! I wanted to write thought provoking lyrics that left no one feeling indifferent. Adam and I decided to dedicate the album to all the innocent victims of faith-based fundamentalism throughout history. Every song on the album deals with that theme; we explore the various promises of afterlife and salvation offered by the most mainstream thought systems in the world. We chose every word carefully because there are many different faith-based fundamentalisms and most can be harmful if their doctrines are followed blindly. Memento Mori's lyrics suggest blind faith isn't necessarily rooted in fundamentalist, new-age, or religious doctrines. Nowadays, some forms of fundamentalism are based on economic and socio-political ideologies. For example; many people put faith in the "invisible hand" of the market economy as though it were some omnipotent and omniscient supernatural force! It is strange to see people blindly follow Dow Jones and NASDAQ the same way others put faith in the Vatican or some holy book. Similarly, some people hold profound convictions concerning things like their country's Constitution or their favorite news channel. Believing in the sanctity of these things leads to all sorts of strange moral condemnations, prejudices, and injustices (especially against women) around the world. We introduced that theme on our debut EP in the song "Taken by the Tide." The struggle against these powers cannot start until we realize these are all man-made concepts--nothing but love is truly sacred! In other words, Memento Mori is an attempt to deflate what most people (wrongly) consider to be metaphysical absolutes with a healthy dose of skepticism. The arts have a role to play in the empowerment of the individual against the numerous enslaving imaginary powers we have created throughout history. Memento Mori is an artistic attempt to raise awareness about these topics while using a secular humanistic approach.
PL: Absolutely, our personal experiences definitely shaped this album. The lyrics to Memento Mori are the culmination of a long period of introspection. The process made me realize how my personal perception of reality has been conditioned by selfish elements of religious doctrines I believed when I was younger. The lyrics are an inner dialogue between an "old-self" preaching the value of faith and morality and a "new-self" defending the ethical values that emerged from the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. I agree that Memento Mori tries to tear down the walls our species built on assumptions, prejudices, and stereotypes. I believe secularism does not discriminate--it respects everyone and doesn't claim to have a monopoly on truth. In contrast, most faith-based dogmas claim to hold the truth while (very often) the moral absolutes they promote are unethical and harmful. History has shown that a sense of righteous entitlement accompanying blind faith has done the world much more harm than good. I also believe the various forms of religious and ideological fundamentalism prevent societies from evolving as fast as they should.
CCA: Does "Memento Mori" pick up where "Eventualities" left off?
PL: Yes; our eclectic sound has become our trademark and--more importantly--there is a lyrical sense of continuity. One main difference is the cause we chose to embrace with Eventualities. We gave 10% of the profits generated from CD sales to cancer research. Our goal as a band is to make meaning of everything we do by supporting worthwhile causes. We have not decided yet on a cause for Memento Mori. Musically the songs from both albums are extremely diverse in terms of style, but our fans say all the songs sound as though they are part of the same record. These sharp contrasts exist in most concept albums and we do not want to be limited to a single music genre...we love to explore new sounds and styles. Atlas Volt will not be stifled by boundaries as defined by the record industry; we are and will continue to be musical nomads.
PL: Exactly! This is my main source of inspiration. My lyrics reflect my concerns--more importantly, they convey a message of hope. Parenthood transforms everyone who experiences it. For me parenthood triggered a sense of urgency. I felt the need to make a humble artistic contribution to the world before it was too late. Time flies; as a parent even more so. Becoming a father inspired me to write new songs. "Shine Your Own Light" from Eventualities is a perfect example; I intended it as an inspiration for my children and it will eventually become part of my heritage to them. The simple message the song conveys is the essential self-empowering "recipe" to become a free-thinker. I hope my children and generations after will have the opportunity to break free of the "mental cages" mankind has erected in the past. Individually we often feel powerless to make change. However; everyone has the power to sow seeds of hope while removing the roots of irrationality and intolerance. Everything Adam I have accomplished thus far is in that spirit...and regardless of how successful Atlas Volt becomes our songs will outlive us, and hopefully our music will positively affect some peoples' trajectories. So, yes, we hope the message Atlas Volt conveys will be a modest legacy to the world.
CCA: Despite the dark overtones of Memento Mori, there are injections of light and hope. Optimism, or a refusal to let the bad guys win?
PL: Absolutely. While the predominantly dark overtones of the album remind us of the inevitable, the empowering philosophical discourse emanating from the lyrics simultaneously reminds us that humans ultimately have the wherewithal to make the planet a better place for everyone. The message is also to enjoy life, seek knowledge, live in peace and harmony, value skepticism, and defend freedom of speech.
CCA: Back to the music in general and Atlas Volt in particular; are concept albums a direction the band will continue in?
PL: Honestly, I hope so! I've always loved concept albums; the type you need to listen to from beginning to end. Sitting in a comfortable chair armed with the lyric booklet and headphones on...listening to a new album start-to-finish. Not a fan of shuffle or random play--prog music needs to be put in the context of a broader narrative. Prog rock artists put a lot of thought and effort into building a structure for their albums, and to be frank I don't know if future Atlas Volt albums will be concept albums. Currently I write the lyrics to our songs in my second language--English. To a certain extent it makes song writing about specific topics a challenge at times. Being born and raised in Quebec, French is my mother tongue and I speak Swedish daily since moving to Sweden in 2002. In the future I would love to write in those languages (or Spanish), but that increases the difficulty of making the lyrics fit a concept album. If we release a multi-lingual record it will probably be an experimental EP.