Georgian modern metallers Halcyon Way have certainly hit a milestone with their latest album Conquer, but that milestone was not approached without struggle. I spoke with founding member Joe Bodan about those struggles, which include dozens of lineup changes and even lymphoma which he was able to personally conquer right before the recording process for the album. Additionally we also discussed some of the band’s lyrical content and Joe’s vast collection of musical influences as well as life on the road. After having leaped as many hurdles as these gentlemen have, Conquer seems a perfect fit for an album title.
Tell me a little about the band and how you got together. What are your influences?
We got together initially in 2001 and I’m the only original member left. It was a pretty laid back situation for a few years; we wrote some songs, did some local shows and weren’t taking it too seriously. Over time, members came & went but it started to solidify a few years later and we began recording what became our debut album, A Manifesto For Domination. When things started to become more real and serious, we broke out through the ProgPower USA scene. That’s how we met Lance at Nightmare Records and our management team at Intromental. So we finally got the first album out in 2008 and our singer Sean left very shortly thereafter in mid-2009. He moved to another state to get married and the long-distance thing wasn’t working out. When he left, we were in a bit of a panic, because we had already been tracking our next album, Building The Towers. We had Pamela Moore booked to come to Atlanta and sing on the album, and we had the photo shoot booked for the album as well – if you’ve seen those pictures, you know it was an elaborate thing. We did it at an airport with two helicopters, a rented vehicle, three photographers….it was nuts. So we were stressing. I called Lance up at Nightmare and asked him for a couple of guys’ numbers, but he said, “You need to call up Steve Braun, he’s in Nashville and is singing for this Italian band called Ashent, but it’s a part time thing and he wants to do something more full-time.” So I hit him up and to make a long story short, things clicked immediately – he was in the band nine days after Sean left. What was pretty funny is that the first time he met two of the guys was at the photo shoot! But it’s been great and we’re going on five years now. Things are going very well.
Fast forward a year and we were finishing up Building The Towers. At that point, we were invited out on our first tour with Fozzy in the UK, so that was a great experience. This was a watershed moment for us as a band and we basically realized at that point that we had a monster album coming out, we had just signed with Intromental Management and we were building up a lot of momentum. In addition, Stuck Mojo invited us out on tour in Europe for a month that fall. So what kind of happened is that our other guitarist Zane, realized that he wasn’t going to be able to stick with the band. It was getting too busy and he was expecting his third child at that point as well. So he stepped back and we prepared to do the Stuck Mojo tour with a fill-in rhythm guitar player. About a week before Building The Towers was ready to drop and two weeks before we were supposed to leave on this tour, I found out that I had Lymphoma. Needless to say, this was a huge shock. So I had to immediately begin chemo treatment and we were forced to cancel the tour with Stuck Mojo, which was a huge blow. Over the next year into the fall of 2011, I was going through some pretty aggressive treatment that culminated with a stem-cell transplant. During this time, we not only got the songs mixed down that would become our third release, IndoctriNation, but I began writing a ton of material, because I was essentially confined to my house for most of that time. I received a clean bill of health in fall of 2011 and we were able to release IndoctriNation shortly thereafter. Missing that tour, which we had viewed as our first really nice break, was a weight on all of us. So as soon I got my “all clear”, we hit up management to get us back on the road. Shortly thereafter, we were booked for our European tour with Delain. At this time, our bass player Kris was expecting a child, so he had to step back from the band. We got a fill-in bass player for that tour and jumped at the chance to get back in the saddle again. That tour went really well for us and we came home with some new swagger and continued to work on the material we had been putting together. Those songs of course, became the new album Conquer. While we were working on the album though, we received some opportunities to get out and tour some more, so we put the album on hold a bit in order to take them. In Spring of 2013, we went out for a couple of weeks in the US with U.D.O. then in late Summer we went out with Saxon and our friends in Fozzy for a month. In winter of 2013, we went out with Fates Warning for a few weeks. We continued to record between the tours, so we kept it moving overall.
You’ve got an interesting style of mixing progressive power metal with death metal elements, a style which isn’t done all too often. Tell me a little bit about why you chose to mix these two alternate styles together on the record.
It was very natural. We all bring a lot of unique influences to the table in this band. Several of us have death/black metal projects and backgrounds. Steve comes from a hard rock background. A couple of the guys are really into prog stuff. I’m personally into everything from Bay Area thrash to death metal to electronica and stoner rock. During the writing of Conquer, it was really just myself, Ernie and Steve, because we were going through so much lineup turnover. Things solidified with Max and Skyler after the album was written and tracked, but they were not involved in the writing. So the way it worked out was this – we had clearly been heading into a heavier direction on Building The Towers and IndoctriNation. We ceased to really consider ourselves a “progressive metal” band several years ago, as we felt that the progressive thing was an influence, but not in the traditional sense and we more or less just consider ourselves to be a modern metal band. We simply feel that writing what you want and not being handcuffed to any one sub-genre is a progressive way of thinking. As long as the songs are great, the rest doesn’t matter. What we play serves the song. So the three of us basically said, “What are we really good at?” and we felt that in addition to wanting to continue in a heavier direction, we were good at writing big catchy choruses, technical riffs that are still accessible to the average listener and using the death metal vocals to good effect, instead of just growling for the heck of it. So we just really focused on what we felt our strengths were and we wrote the best songs we could. It wasn’t about showing off chops or out-wanking the prog darling of the month. It was just about writing great songs.
Tell me about the writing and recording process for Conquer. Where did you record the album and how long did it take? How would you compare the process in relation to your earlier albums? Was it an easier or tougher process this time around?
Overall, the album took about two years from the beginning of the writing process to having the masters in hand, but a lot of that was due to the four tours we did in the middle of it. We could have easily had it out a year ago if we hadn’t chosen to tour, but touring was the right call, because it set us up for a more successful release. We tracked the drums with Lasse Lammert in Lubeck, Germany in October of 2012. Ernie and I flew over there with our session files and we stayed there for about ten days, took our time on the tracking and had a great time. Then, we recorded the rest of the album in my home studio. Once we had finished tracking it, we sent the vocals to Seth Von Paulus in Los Angeles for post-production. He’s a friend of ours from way back and has worked on a lot of platinum pop projects. We wanted a particular ‘sheen’ to the vocals that we felt he could provide. Then we sent the sessions back to Lasse to mix and master. This was the fourth album of ours for him to work on, so we have a good relationship and he knows what we want. Overall, the process was a lot easier than with Building The Towers or IndoctriNation. We were really focused on what we wanted to achieve and we had a clear vision of what it should look like at the end of the day. We pushed ourselves really hard on it and weren’t willing to compromise on the quality at all, so we did whatever it took to get it right. It’s not to say that it was without trouble entirely, because we did have some technical issues at one point that caused us some problems, but we overcame it.
What are some of the things that you felt were necessary to discuss on Conquer? From the title cut to heavyweights like “Save Your Tears” it sounds like the record is all about overcoming your inner fears and facing adversity.
You’re totally right – the events that took place after I found out I had cancer were clearly an influence on what I wrote. I didn’t want to make the album all about that, because I wouldn’t have wanted to listen to it and reenact that time of my life, but it was very important to me to write things that people could latch onto if they were going through some tough times and potentially help them get through it. There were things that I listened to during my situation that I was able to draw strength and inspiration from, and I wanted to pay that forward, so to speak. I also lost both of my parents during the making of this record, so I personally had a lot of adversity to overcome. The song that really sets the tone for this album to me, is “Conceived In Torment” because that song in general really feels like a statement of purpose, but in particular the section that goes “Born from pain – conceived in torment – in faith and flames – with blistered hands we engage”. It’s just about getting up off the ground, brushing the dust off and persevering.
“The Poisoned Apple” lyrically made me think of the biblical story of Adam and Eve. So there’s that religious element. Would you consider yourself a religious man?
I would. I’m a Christian. Halcyon Way is not a “Christian band” though, as that would be unfair to the other guys who may believe different things. But this song in particular is really an allegory for what I went through. You survive or overcome by any means necessary.
There are more death metal elements than ever before on this album, which is something that people have said was a much stronger element in your music on previous albums. Did you take any of that critique into consideration when you made the record?
Not really. Here’s kinda how we approached it. Some people really hate the death metal elements. We’ve gotten a lot of flack about it, like “why do death vocals when you have such a good singer?” Some people call it metalcore or whatever, like it’s a sellout thing. Really? That makes us laugh because we all pretty much hate metalcore in general and sell out to who? We’ve never really made a dime doing this! Some people love the death vocals and don’t like the clean stuff, although we are definitely a melodic band with the death metal vocals as a secondary tool. So we laugh about these comments in general and just do what we want. We figure that if we write great songs and the death metal sections elevate the songs and serve them well, then we’re good. So for us, we felt that on songs from previous albums like “Rise To Revise” and “On Black Wings” the death vocals really took the songs to a better and more intense place and that’s where we wanted to use them. Steve and I actually had a conversation where I said to him, “Just how far do you want me to go with the death vocals? I see a lot of places where I can do some cool stuff, but I don’t want to overshadow you.” He replied, “Take it as far as you want to go”. So I focused on coming up with parts that were catchy and where you’d just have a hard time imagining the song without them.
Musically, what would you consider your top eight albums of all time? Why do you feel each album is important?
That’s a really tough question, but here goes – in no particular order.
Metallica – …And Justice For All – A lot of people really hate this album, but I practically learned how to play metal guitar from it. There’s a ton of great riffs, lots of great guitar harmonies and it was a huge influence on me when I began to play.
Testament – Practice What You Preach – Skolnick and Petersen were huge influences on my playing. A lot of my right-hand rhythm technique comes from trying to capture Eric’s rhythm tone.
Overkill – Horrorscope – This is not everyone’s favorite Overkill release, but it’s mine. A total classic – great songs, great hooks, lots of good layering, it’s what a great thrash album should be.
Queensryche – Operation: Mindcrime – This is my favorite album of all time. The songwriting and hooks are some of the best in metal, ever and I can’t overemphasize how much it impacted me as a player and as a songwriter.
Chimaira – Resurrection – This is a band that I became a fan of several albums in. I’d seen them live before, but I saw them on this tour and they just annihilated me. Such a great album.
Dream Theater – Awake – this is probably my favorite prog album of all time. Great songs, the shredding always serves the songs and the production is stellar.
Skid Row – Slave To The Grind – The best album to come out of that scene, in my opinion. It wasn’t really an influence on my playing exactly, but it’s magic. The songwriting is second to none and they were at their absolute apex.
Galactic Cowboys – S/T, Space In Your Face and Machine Fish – one of the most underrated bands of all time and these albums had a big impact on me because they were so amazing at melding these Beatle-esque vocal harmonies on top of really heavy rock. That dichotomy is a huge point of reference for me and the influence on Halcyon Way is obvious.
Condensing stuff down to a short list is really hard, because there are a lot of ‘go-to’ albums that I have – others might be Carver City by cKy, Parallels by Fates Warning, several albums from Skindred and Monster Magnet, ZZYZX by Zeromancer, Impact Is Imminent by Exodus, The Hinderers by Daath, Dead Heart In A Dead World by Nevermore, Colony by In Flames… it’s really hard to name them all. As I’ve been thinking through this list, it’s really been uncanny as far as how many varied and different influences I have. They’re all over the place and it probably helps explain why Halcyon Way is such a genre-bending band.
Tell me a little bit about the touring process for this album. Where will you be touring and where can we catch you live?
By the time this is published, we’ll have announced a major European tour for the fall of 2014 with Saxon and Skid Row, so that’s going to be amazing. The Saxon guys were really good to us on the road last year and I’ve loved Skid Row for years, so this is going to be a lot of fun. Beyond that, I expect that we will tour behind the album extensively and I’m guessing that we’ll hit the US/Canada again in Spring of 2015. Nothing has been confirmed quite yet, but that’s what we see happening. Overall, though – we plan to support this album on the road as much as we can and we don’t intend to take no for an answer!
Additionally, tell me a little bit about life on the road. What have been some of the best and worst tour experiences that you’ve had as a band? What do you guys do for fun on the road?
We’re five tours into our career now and that’s really pretty unreal to us, to be honest. We feel very fortunate and blessed to be able to do this, especially given the things our band has been through over the last few years. So just to be able to get out there is huge for us and we don’t take anything for granted. We definitely make a point of trying to see the cities we play in, to get out and either walk around or go see the sights – that’s really important to us. Contrary to popular belief, living on a tour bus is NOT a glamorous thing – it smells like smelly dude, butt cheeks, and truck stop food on there. (Laughs) Showers are an unimaginable luxury because a lot of venues don’t have them. Touring is really a lot of hard work – driving, staying on schedule, loading in and out, setting up the merch booth and etc. are all things that keep you really busy. The time on stage is really your payoff for all the effort and is what makes it worth it. We’ve visited a lot of amazing places – Budapest, London, Paris, Hamburg, Warsaw, New York, LA and we’ve played a lot of places in the middle of nowhere as well. Some high points were playing sold out shows in London and Paris, playing the House Of Blues on the Sunset Strip where it all started, and playing the Gramercy in New York City. We’ve played some really legendary venues in front of giant crowds. So many high points that it’s hard to narrow it down, because we never really expected to make it this far, you know? To be able to say that we’ve played in over a dozen countries on two continents is really fairly insane, to be honest. We’ve had some pretty lame things happen as well – we had several blown out trailer tires on tour with Saxon last year, and that really sucked. We’ve bumped into some people having ‘rock star’ diva moments, and that’s kind of lame. But overall, we love it – we’re getting to do something that 99.999% of the planet only dreams about doing and we are very grateful for that.
There’s a song on the record called “World Comes Undone” which seems to relate to the crumbling state of mankind and the world at large. Do you think we’re on the brink of some unstoppable apocalyptic event?
No, not really. We did talk about a lot of issues like that on Building The Towers and IndoctriNation, because we kind of believe that our country has a dangerous ‘us & them’ mentality going on, but the song “World Comes Undone” is really more about a person who creates drama and hassles for no real reason. They pretty much dig their own grave with their words and actions. That’s kind of what that song was about.
Finally, tell me about the name, Halcyon Way. What does it refer to and who came up with it? How does it relate to the band?
That was something I came up with and it’s a lot less interesting of a story than you might imagine. (Laughs) Basically, it was a street near my old house that I used to drive by all the time. I always thought it sounded cool and when we were coming up with a band name I tossed it out. “Halcyon” means ‘peace’ or ‘tranquility’ so we kind of said this means ‘the way of peace’. We felt that it had a cool and subtle meaning, but that it was also a bit ironic for a metal band. Since we were never about singing about goat sacrifice or whatnot, we thought it fit well. People still don’t know how to spell it, though!
Thanks for answering my questions, and for making an album that I’m apt to call my album of the year for 2014. I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ll remember this record for years. – Eric
Not a problem at all, we appreciate the support and we are thrilled that you love the album so much. It means a lot!