Interview: Phil Labonte of All That Remains

[from Metal Heavy, November 30, 2007]

Massachusetts-based All That Remains first made waves with 2002’s Behind Silence and Solitude, then refined its sound and embraced a more melodic brand of songwriting for 2004’s This Darkened Heart. Their big break came with their third full-length, 2006’s The Fall of Ideals, which landed the band two of modern metal’s most coveted gigs: a slot on the Ozzfest tour and a track featured in Guitar Hero II. Metal Heavy recently caught up with singer Phil Labonte to talk about poetry, sightseeing, and the easiest way to become a metal band.

Metal Heavy: A lot of singers talk about “saving their voice” when they’re on the road, and especially considering the type of music that you guys play, do you have any kind of ritual or regimen around that?

Phil Labonte: I usually do warm-ups, and I try really hard to not talk a lot until after the show, and I try not to get too drunk and get loud. That’s what really does a job on your voice: when you either get sick, or when you’re not aware of how loud you’re being. Like I don’t go out in the crowd after the show and talk, because trying to talk over the show, over the bands playing, stuff like that will beat up my voice. But it really is just a matter of trying to keep quiet as much as I can, because if I don’t, it’ll fuck my voice up.

All That RemainsMH: Was that something that came out of studying with [vocal coach] Melissa Cross, or was that an approach you already had?

PL: It was definitely her recommendation, and it’s definitely something she stressed. She was like, “Look, if you don’t feel good, if you don’t feel like your voice is strong, you just need to shut up.” Your vocal cords are just like any other part of your body; if you go and lift weights, and your muscles are sore, that means don’t use them! Don’t go and exercise that next day; you’re sore for a reason. So if you’re singing a lot, and you know you’re doing it every night, you need to be aware of how loud you are and how much you’re talking. And she came right out and told me, “The best thing you can do for your voice, when you’re tired, is just not talk at all.” Because the ideal situation is that you get rest.

MH: A couple years ago, there was a lot of talk about the “New England scene,” as far as metal and metalcore bands coming out of the area. It’s been a few years since a lot of those bands rose up; do you still see much of a scene anymore, or has it become one of those things where a city gets famous for one type of music and everything splinters?

PL: There’s a bunch of bands from western Massachusetts and Massachusetts that are doing well now, but I don’t feel like there was ever. . . the bands that have gone on to do well, it wasn’t like those bands would play on a Sunday night and there would be 500 people every time. There were good shows and there were bad shows, but it was never like there was this huge scene – it just happened that about 15 people were the core of what’s going on in Massachusetts. You’d have different members go in different bands and stuff like that, but it was never like there were these bands in this huge scene. It was just, there were some dudes that started some bands, and sometimes there were some good shows and sometimes there weren’t. They just learned the right things and stuck with it long enough to get out of the area, I guess.

MH: A lot of people say that one of the problems in hard rock and heavy metal is that things have become so compartmentalized – people are very quick to say “They’re a thrash band” or “they’re a speedcore band.” Do you see that still happening, or are people moving past that?

PL: I don’t know about people moving past it. I really don’t see bands worry about it though. Every band you talk to that has some kind of tag on them, the band’ll go ahead and say “We’re a metal band.” Because that’s what we are, you know? If you have all the aspects of a metal band, then you’re a metal band, right?

MH: Right.

PL: People can say metalcore or crossover or whatever, but you listen to the bands that are considered that these days and they don’t sound anything like hardcore bands. There’s not really that crossover there, it’s just that it’s what people have tagged as “modern.” That’s what metal sounds like today, in 2007. So I don’t sweat the tags that people put on it. We really don’t pay that a lot of attention.

MH: You’ve received a lot of favorable press and some pretty good reviews. Do you guys read much of what’s written about yourselves?

PL: Sometimes, if our manager sends something interesting, or if my mom says “I saw this” or whatever, then I’ll check it out, but I don’t do a whole lot of searching stuff out on the internet. We’ve got other stuff to do. I’m going to be on the internet, I’d much rather play video games.

MH: When you’re on the road, do you have any time to relax or check out the cities you’re in?

PL: I don’t usually. When I’m home, I don’t go out much. I stay in my cave, and it’s kind of the same on the bus. I don’t go off to see the sights, because usually I don’t have a lot of time. You roll into town around 10 or 11, you get up around noon or maybe 11. You’ve got a few hours to kill, but you want to find a place to eat, maybe find someplace to shower. It’s not like “Oh, we’re gonna get here and I’m going to get up at 8 and go to the museum.” You just don’t have time for it. On days off we try to, but usually on days off we’re in the middle of nowhere between two cities. So there’s not a lot of time for sightseeing and hanging out. Well, there’s not a lot of time for sightseeing; there’s a lot of downtime, but it’s usually a situation where it’s a pain in the butt to get anywhere. We’re on a bus, so we can’t take the van and you’ve got to get a cab.

MH: How do you entertain yourself when you’re on the road?

PL: I’m on the internet a lot, and I do lots of the business stuff so I’m on the phone with our manager, with our booking agent, stuff like that. So I spend a lot of time working on the day-to-day stuff.

MH: You’re on a two-month tour; how long were rehearsals (if any)? Or was it just a matter of getting up and going?

PL: We did a headliner for about a month before this started, then came home and had about ten days off, then we went to Japan for a weekend and did the Loud Park Festival, so there’s not really a whole lot of rehearsing. There’s a certain level of mediocrity that we maintain that’s sufficient to play shows at, I guess. [laughs] We don’t really try to excel, we just want to stay mildly bland.

MH: Keep that C average going?

PL: Not laughably terrible, but we want to be good enough where if we jump on stage and jump around, and there’s lights and loud music, people won’t notice that we’re terrible.

MH: That’s really the definition of heavy metal spectacle.

PL: Absolutely. We’re kind of like KISS. If we put enough makeup on and blow enough things up, no one will realize that we’re an awful group.

MH: You mentioned tending to business on the road; do you guys ever do any writing or planning any future projects on the road?

PL: I don’t do any writing on the road. I don’t usually write anything until I’m home in my cave. If I’m going to write guitar stuff, I really like to have an amp and I really like to be loud. So I’ll write at home. These dudes, [guitarist] Mike [Martin] and [guitarist] Oli [Martin] – Oli specifically, he’s always writing. I play guitar so infrequently nowadays, I really only write stuff at home when I’ve got time to sit down. As for vocals and stuff like that, I don’t usually write anything until we’re just about to go into the studio – until I have songs I can listen to and get a feel for. Gotta know what you’re working with, you know?

MH: So you’re not the guy running around with the notepad scribbling down three words at a time?

PL: You know, I never got how people – vocalists – can sit there and just write down lyrics. To me, it feels like you’re trying to shoehorn it in. I’ve tried to do it like that, but it’s like if you’re not writing for the song and for the music that’s in front of you, then you have to compromise and you have to make adjustments to how many syllables are in there and how you say it. I don’t think that’s a good thing for a song. If you want to write a song, if you want to say something, then you need to go into writing that knowing full well what you need to work with. I’m not a poet, you know? Some people say the stuff that we write, sometimes it touches people. And that’s great, but I’m not a poet. I’m not some dude that’s saying that the words are so important. No, the song’s what’s important, and getting the idea cross is important, so it’s not about the words that I’m saying. It’s about the idea and the feeling as a whole that the song presents to people. So I personally feel that you have to act accordingly: you have to have a song, or at least the parts where you know you’re going to sing. You have to know where you’re going to start and where you’re going to stop before you even start writing.

MH: And to that end, a lot of your lyrics – at least for this type of music – are very positive, which creates this weird contrast to the very brutal music they’re sung over. Is that a conscientious decision, or is that just what you’re inclined to write about?

PL: Writing stuff that’s positive, yes, because there’s enough shitty things that happen in the world. There’s enough stuff to make you feel bummed out; I don’t need to add to it. People hear the stuff that we do and the first word that comes out of their mouth to describe it is “angry,” or “mad” or “aggressive.” And I understand you can have those types of feelings, but it can be passionate. It’s more conviction than anger. It’s being passionate about yourself.