411 Music Interview: RED Guitarist Anthony Armstrong
Meshing rock with symphonic elements, RED has forged a sound all their own in a time where rock music is as stale as month-old bread. Each of their songs feel like a mini-epic, as the lush orchestral instruments clash with the heavy riffs and booming percussion. The band has spent the past two albums tweaking and working out the kinks, and Until We Have Faces proves to be the cumulating sum of all the work put in. It landed at number two on the Billboard 200 charts the week it was released and showed that the band has traction with the rock world. I recently had the chance to speak to guitarist Anthony Armstrong about the high chart position of Until We Have Faces and how the symphonic pieces fit into the band’s sound.
Dan Marsicano: RED is in the midst of a tour with Oh No Fiasco and Red Jumpsuit Apparatus. How is the tour going so far?
Anthony Armstrong: It’s going good man. It’s only the third show, so we’ve had a chance to acclimate to the tour itself. Every tour is different. You never know what you are going to get, but we expect great turnouts and good venues. Things have gone very well. We’ve had a couple really hot venues. Last night, the interior temperature was about 110 degrees (laughs). It was pretty hot, to say the least. Everybody is really cool and the tour is going really good; we’re having a blast so far. It’s still very early on, so that’s always a good thing.
These tour dates are being labeled an “Acoustic Experience.” Can you tell me a little bit about what that entails?
It’s something we’ve been doing for over a year now. It’s a chance for six to eight people to jump on our tour bus with us and just hang out; just talk. They can ask us questions about the band or touring whatever they want to ask us. Afterwards, we play them a song acoustically off the record. We sign autographs, take pictures: stuff like that. It’s just a chance for us to connect with our fans, rather than being on a Facebook or a Twitter account. It’s a chance to be one-on-one or four-on-eight sort of thing. We try to stay connected to our fans. We want to make sure they know we really appreciate what they are doing for us, and that’s keeping us out on the road.
Until We Have Faces is the new album from the band. What did the band set out to accomplish when writing the material for this record?
Like I said, we’re pretty plugged in with our fans. One of the things we’ve noticed in the last few years is that kids are really struggling to look for identities, struggling with what it is they are supposed to be doing in this life. We wanted to write a record that was an anthem for those kids, a kind of an escape. You’re better than what the world has to offer and a lot of kids get swept up in the acceptance thing, and it’s a very vulnerable time for them coming up through the ranks, so to speak. They start conforming to what people want them to be and that’s the world, that’s the machine. That’s what we’re trying to show them…it gets better. Once you realize that and experience that for yourself, your identity will be revealed and you can move on with your life and be the person you were meant to be, rather than being who you were forced to be.
How did the experience recording the band’s past two records play into the band’s time in the studio for Until We Have Faces?
I think every chance to be in the studio just makes us all better musicians. Being in the studio and being on stage is two different things. Having recorded two records previously, we knew what to expect going into it. We know what the process is like. We’re working with the same people. We’re doing our thing and I think with every record, the process is getting easier and easier for us. We honed in on what we are as a band getting into the studio and the chemistry, everything works great.
Did you find that these songs came together a lot easier than past albums?
No, I don’t think any song comes together easy. There are songs that I would say are magical. There are the ones that come to you and end up being a really great single for the band. I think “Breathe Into Me” off our first record was that song that kind of put us on the map. That song burst out of…I was sitting on the back of our porch in our apartment playing acoustic guitar and the riff came to me. I just started playing it and it ended up being the biggest single we ever had. It’s done so many things for the band. Those moments are always cool and you hope to have them on every record.
Did the band feel any pressure amongst themselves in trying to follow up Innocence & Instinct?
I think we would be lying if we said we didn’t feel any pressure, but we try not to conform to those pressures. In a way, I think the pressures are both good and bad. We shouldn’t pressure ourselves to be creative. What we come up with is what we come up with. It’s what we love. In the music business, it’s about doing what you love to do and making great music. Ultimately, people have to like it for you to sustain some type of career, to be on the road and tour. I think the pressure comes from, ‘if it’s not a great record, let’s follow it up with something amazing or even better,’ and keep building that fan base and make sure people see that we are legitimately being as creative as possible. Putting out great stuff, so that they can come to expect that we have a reputation of putting out great music so every time we release a record, they are going to get a really cool 10-12 tracks.
As a musician, do you enjoy working under pressure or do you like a more relaxed environment?
It’s both. Sometimes, the pressure is good. Sometimes, the pressure really makes you focus, but ultimately, especially to put out a great record, you need time. I think we allow ourselves that time because we’re always staying creative. We’re always writing; we’re already working on our fourth record. Songs that didn’t make the third record that we really loved and we just didn’t have time to work out or on the back burner, as well as the new ideas that burst out while being on the road. Being out here in the music scene all day, everyday, you experience really cool things and things just inspire you. You sit down with your guitar and you come up with something cool and you save it for the recording progress. Put a great demo together and if the songs make it on the record, they make it on the record.
Do you find you get a lot of ideas rolling through your head while you’re on the road?
Yeah, I think so. I think it’s because you’re so deeply immersed in music. When we’re home, we’re all family guys. We take care of our families. We’re playing our instruments, and keeping up on the chops and stuff, but I think when you’re on the road and you’re playing the shows every single night and you see people’s reactions to your songs and what people react to and what they don’t react to. When you get to the drawing board, so to speak, you store up these images of what the last show would be like if the song sounded like this and so on.
How much of the new record was actually written on the road?
I’d say over 50% was written on the road. We lock ourselves in our green room for hours and hours everyday. While our crew is setting up the stage and getting ready for us to play, we’re in there trying to write songs and lay down demos. A lot of the sounds we got from the demoing process ended up being on the road, which is pretty cool.
One of the most interesting things about the band is that you use string accompaniment and orchestral instruments in the music. After three albums of using strings and various orchestral instruments, does the band feel comfortable fitting it into the equation?
Yeah, I think it’s something we’ve trademarked as our sound. People ask us what we sound like and I’m like, ‘We’re like cinematic rock.’ We’re real heavy, but we bring that symphonic element to the whole thing. The symphony and the piano and the classical touches in the songs; you feel the ache in the melody. You feel the emotion that went into the song. There’s something about strings…on an epic movie soundtrack, the strings always seem to have this soaring feeling. While you’re listening to it, you get the sensation of the ebb and flow of what the emotion of the movie and song is carried home. We’ve incorporated that in all three of our records and I think people come to expect it. We don’t ever set out to say, ‘Well, this song is definitely going to have strings.’ We let the curtains fall the way they are going to fall. If a song is great on its own, we don’t use strings. If a song calls for something like that, we do it.
When do you make the decision to bring in the strings? Is it in the pre-production stage or as you write the songs, they fit in naturally?
I would say it’s late in the process. Definitely pre-production a little bit, but I’d say it’s late after the songs have been picked and they are ready to go for the record. The musical score won’t happen until those songs are ready to go. You got to have some writing form, whether it’s going to change a bit or not, for the orchestra to be ready.
Obviously, it’s near impossible for the band to bring along an orchestra with them to play these parts live, but has the band ever thought about doing that in the future?
Oh yeah, absolutely. We did it once before. We did a performance on TV for the Dove Awards and we had an eight-piece symphony behind us; cellos and violins and bass. It’s something we’ve always talked about doing, just having a huge symphony for a musical collaboration and doing a live record. It would be pretty awesome.
Until We Have Faces debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 charts and number one on the iTunes chart. Was the band surprised by this high position?
Yeah, I think nowadays, with the way that music is bought and downloaded and stolen and pirated, you just never know how many records you are going to sell anymore. Back in the day, a great band could expect to sell between one and five million in their first week. It was just so different back in the day. Now, to get in the number two spot the week we came out, we sold 45,000 records. Things have changed so much. In the whole scope of everything, we’re always surprised. You just never know how people are going to react to your record. When you have a reputation for putting out great stuff, you can somehow gauge how all of that is going to work out.
How big is it for a rock band like yourselves to debut that high in a market where hip-hop and country dominate the charts?
It’s amazing. To be number two overall, and to find out Nicki Minaj cheated in the number one spot – from what we heard – it was amazing to us. We’re on a small major label, and we don’t have the high-power, the money backing it like a lot of these other artists do. To be holding our own and doing what we’re doing is pretty amazing. There’s a lot of amazing talent out there. A lot of artists that deserve everything that comes to them. I think if you work hard and you put out great music, it’s only a matter of time.
I didn’t hear anything about the cheating thing. Can you go into a little detail about that?
When stuff like that happens, when near the end of the gates being closed on who came in what position on that week, labels are doing their searching and making sure that everything is legitimate. Through circles and labels, representative of people that we know, we found out about some stuff that we thought was shady. We’re not going to complain. At the end of the day, we’re number two. When you’re beating the person hours before the charts close and then they come in with another 10,000 records sold, it’s something fishy.
That stuff is probably very commonplace in music industry. Does that kind of stuff bother you?
Yeah, it bothers me. It’s all about perspective. If Nicki hadn’t come in first place, it just wouldn’t of had the luster of…yeah, if we would have came in number one on the Billboard charts, it just would had been like, ‘We’re number one. In the entire country, in all genres of music, our record was number one that week.’ Yeah, it’s number one that week, but there’s Bieber and all these other bands out there who their first week sold one million to two million to three million. It’s all timing too. In that week we had released our record, there wasn’t a record that was as big as ours that week. We came in number two. Even down to people stealing music, it’s frustrating for musicians. Live shows are getting worse and live shows are going away because bands just don’t have the money to put on a great show for people because nobody is buying their music, but they will show up to a show. There’s a lot of things that are frustrating about it, but you could go on for hours.
Is there a small part of you that really wanted that number one spot?
Of course, yeah. Everybody wants to be number one. Everybody wants that top spot, but…two teams make it to the NBA finals and only one is going to win, but you were in the finals, you know what I mean? We were the second biggest record in the country, in all of music, every genre that week and that was definitely an honor for us. Bands would kill to be in our shoes and we’re never going to take that for granted.
With the economy suffering, and people not having any money to go to live shows, how does the band draw into your shows?
I think there are bands that are drawing and bands that are barely hanging on by the skin of their teeth. It just boils down to what you are going to get for your money, I guess. You put together a great ticket and a great bill and have some cool bands on a four-band tour and people are going to come. They are going to buy a ticket. ‘I love RED to death, but I can’t afford a $30 ticket if they are playing for 20 minutes. I won’t pay if they are opening for bands I don’t like.’ People are willing to go to a show. We see the ticket prices drop down to ten bucks or eight bucks, a lot of people show up. It’s a direct result of it being cheaper.
Ticket prices being cheaper; does that affect the band in the long haul as well?
Not necessarily, no. It doesn’t have to do with the band. It’s all promoter stuff.
You mentioned earlier the band was working on material for a fourth album. How far along is the band on that?
That’s hard to say. There’s no, ‘Well, we got eight songs done.’ It’s not about that. It’s about, ‘Oh, we wrote a chorus.’ There isn’t a song that is 100% ready to go yet.
What kind of stuff is coming out? Is it different from Until We Have Faces? A natural step forward for the band?
Like I said, it’s so early. There’s no way of gauging what the songs are sounding like. We haven’t been able to be in the studio or record anything substantial that would point us in the direction we’re going. That’s pretty far off yet. We just released this record a few months ago. We’re not really focused too heavily on it. This is our first headlining tour on this record and we’re going to focus on this record right now.
“Feed The Machine” Music Video
The band released a music video for “Feed The Machine.” Watching it seems like a mini-movie. Can you explain a bit about the creation of the video?
It was just an idea the band had. The song is very metaphoric. There was no real way to come across metaphorically in the video, so we got more literal with it. The literal side of the video was showing an actual physical machine concept, rather than the world as the machine. There was no way for us to pull that off with people understanding what we were talking about. They turned it into this really cool action epic, a post-apocalyptic type of thing.
It feels like the first part to an ongoing story. Could you see another video continuing the story?
I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think that’s the video, that’s what people are going to get. We would had loved to made it longer, but that video will be there, that song will have its life, and then we’ll move on to the next video for the next song.
What surprised me was that the video was seven minutes long. That’s pretty long for videos nowadays.
Yeah, that’s what we were going for. TV doesn’t show videos anymore, so you can do anything you want on the Internet. There are no restraints. There’s no, ‘Oh, it has to be three minutes long or some TV station is not going to use it because it’s too long and it’s taking up too much air-time.’ With the Internet, that doesn’t matter. We’re just going to do whatever we want to do and that’s all there is to it.
If you could tour with one band, past or present, who would it be and why?
I’d say Muse. We’re all big fans of Muse. Pretty groundbreaking band and they’ve done some really cool things. We love their music. Their stage show is really theatrical and we’re really into that stuff. So I would say those guys, for sure.