“NO SUPERHEROES HERE”
A Conversation with Alan Robert
by K. Allen Wood
The name Alan Robert may not ring many bells within the horror community, but if my measure is correct, that will change soon. Robert first made his mark with the hardcore-metal hybrid Life of Agony, specifically with their 1993 debut album River Runs Red, now considered an all-time classic. Six years and two albums (Ugly, Soul Searching Sun) later, the group disbanded. Robert’s then formed Among Thieves, a modern alternative rock band that should have gotten more attention than they did. The band released a few demos, followed by a full-length and live album (both available only as imports), and, then, they also disbanded.
In 2003, Life of Agony returned—to the stage, anyway. But after some successful reunion shows and a live album, the band officially reformed and released Broken Valley two years later. Life of Agony still goes strong today, and Robert’s newest band, Spoiler NYC, is preparing to release the follow-up to 2006s Grease Fire in Hell’s Kitchen. Life is good.
But Robert’s is not sitting idle. He’s been a bassist, a singer, a songwriter, a graphic designer, and now he’s branching out beyond the music industry with the upcoming release of his horror comic Wire Hangers. And recently he was kind enough to speak to me about that and more. Dig it!
KW: How’s it goin’ bro?
AR: Things are going great, thanks!
KW: Looks like Life of Agony is hitting Europe in August. Any new music planned in the future?
AR: As you’ve probably heard, this year marks our 20th Anniversary as Life of Agony. The tour we’re about to do this summer is really to celebrate that tremendous milestone. We’re really focusing on that right now. We’ve got some killer shows lined up with some great bands. I’m really excited to play with the reunited Faith No More on a few dates. I remember seeing those guys at a sold out L’Amours in Brooklyn, back in the day, when their big album first came out. Very exciting!
KW: Right. I wanted one of those 20 Years Strong shirts, but I can’t rock an XL. [laughs] Any chance of some US dates later in the year?
AR: We did a bunch of East Coast dates that started in the beginning of the year. We ended up playing some pretty cool shows. My punk band, Spoiler NYC, was main support on all the dates which was a lot of fun. We performed with the same bill all over Europe, last summer.
KW: You guys have been back together for a good while now. How’s that been going?
AR: It’s been an interesting run, to say the least. Immediately after the two sold out nights at the NYC reunion shows in 2003, we toured for about a year and a half, released a live CD/DVD (SPV Records), and then signed with Epic Records to record a new full-length album. The whole Broken Valley experience, looking back, was bittersweet. We had a great time writing in Woodstock, NY and recording the album out in Los Angeles with producer Greg Fidelman, but the whole major label thing kind of threw us for a loop.
First of all, Sony released our album with illegal spyware on it without our knowledge (as they did with 15 other titles that year), so the CD was pulled from the shelves six months after its release, once they were hit with a class action lawsuit. We were also pressured to accept tours supporting bands we knew weren’t a good fit for us, just to play in front of new audiences. The combination of those two factors really took its toll on the band. Once we split with Epic, things looked brighter because we were finally free again and we continued to tour and have fun together. But during that time on the label we were really stressed and bummed out by the way they handled us. I’m still very proud of Broken Valley and what we did on that record. It shows a lot of growth from our previous albums. But I don’t think I would ever sign with a major label again.
KW: I think I saw you guys on that tour. I also got the album with illegal spyware. [laughs] And that River Runs Again CD/DVD came out pretty killer, I must say. A rare live performance caught on tape that really captures that same energy you get right there in front of the stage, you know.
AR: Yeah, the spyware was really bad. We had no idea that was on the record at the time. I don’t think we found out until the lawsuit.
For River Runs Again we recorded both sold out reunion shows by a mobile recording truck that was especially set up for live concert recording. So it was really planned well and done right. It was mixed by engineer Brian Dobbs, who has done a lot of great live recordings.
KW: The debut, River Runs Red, is considered a classic by countless people, myself included—not even arguable, as far as I’m concerned. It’s such a heavy album, but even more emotionally heavy, I think. With Life of Agony’s style having evolved quite a bit from those early days, do you think the band could ever create something so heavy again?
AR: It all depends on your description of “heavy.” There are bands like Mastodon or Meshuggah that are 100 times heavier than anything we ever recorded. That being said, River had some really thick, chunky guitar sounds on it and there was a level of intensity in the vocals that really made an impact at that time. I would never want to make a River Runs Red Part Two, but I think the band is capable of writing a “heavier”-sounding album than some of the records that came after River. There are moments on Broken Valley that have some really cool, down-tuned, Sabbath-type riffs that I feel are even heavier than River, but that’s just me.
KW: Well, I was referring more to the emotional feel of the album, I guess. Ugly isn’t as heavy musically, but it’s definitely got a heavy emotional weight to it. But Soul Searching Sun and Broken Valley, I think, reflect a lot more of the emotions most of us go through as we get older. There’s a lot more hope there, you know. Or that’s how it feels to me now that I’m older.
AR: I agree with you. The albums definitely reflect the state of mind we were in at those points in our lives. Lyrically, especially, I can say—those lyrics came from really dark places. But growing up, we’ve all been there. That’s what so special about LOA. It’s always been real. That’s why people connect with us. At the same time, I know it’s tough for Keith to sing some of those songs night after night. The content of the lyrics were always so heavy and personal. Even the songs that I wrote about the tragedies he’s experienced were hard to sing at times. Sometimes it weighs heavy on his head to sing lyrics that are so directly related to his life.
KW: Speaking of those tragedies, some kid made a short movie using the interludes from River Runs Red and uploaded it to YouTube recently (and it’s since been removed). It was brilliant; great acting, excellent visuals, but troubling as well, seeing it all visualized like that. I saw that you’d commented on it. You ever envision your work being turned into film?
AR: The sad thing about that film was the actor who starred in it actually committed suicide recently. I literally just got that horrible news from the filmmaker. I was shocked to hear that, even though I didn’t know him personally. But in regards to the film, I thought it was a brilliant idea and it really captured those River Runs Red interludes well.
KW: Damn. That’s terrible. Not quite the answer I expected. Tragically ironic.
AR: It really is sad, man.
KW: I don’t know if a lot of people realize this, but you’ve always played a big role—probably the biggest—in the creative side of Life of Agony, musically and visually. Even with Among Thieves and Spoiler NYC. Now you’re planning a horror comic series called Wire Hangers, which you’ve not only written but illustrated as well. What can we expect?
AR: I came up with the Wire Hangers concept many years ago and have been thinking about it and refining the story ever since. I originally started writing it as a screenplay, but along the way, I felt that developing it as a comic series would be a more realistic way to get the story out there. So over the last bunch of months I’ve really been focused on bringing it to life. I’ve designed characters, written scripts, illustrated issue #1, and created a complete marketing plan for it. Most recently, I’ve been talking with comic book publishers about releasing it as a 4-issue miniseries to be compiled into a graphic novel More news on that really soon…but I have plans to continue the story down the line.
It’s a dark series intended for mature readers. There is a lot of blood and guts, but not in the typical Jason/Freddy way. This is more of a government conspiracy-type story with lots of twists and turns. Visually, it’s not your typical Marvel-type book, either. There are no superheroes here. It’s dark and gritty with lots of textures and atmosphere. The artwork sets a tone for the series and plays an equal part in telling the story. I use mixed media, such as watercolor and ink washes, to create the artwork and enhance it all on the computer. I’m very much influenced by and am a huge fan of artists like Bill Sienkiewicz, Frank Miller, Ben Templesmith, and Ashley Wood. In my opinion, those guys are brilliant and have really set a new standard for comics. I grew up on comics like The Punisher, but lost interest along the way, when the art started to become too predictable and lackluster. Now, with these more mature comic styles becoming more and more popular, I’ve become really inspired to release Wire Hangers with that similar edgy approach.
KW: Technology really has paved the way for a new breed of artists. And compared to the 70s and 80s, there’s now a much broader range of “freedom” artists have to explore and exploit darker subject matter.
AR: I love the new, non-traditional comic book art that’s out there these days, it’s really inspiring.
KW: A lot of big-name authors—Terry Brooks, Joe Hill, Dean Koontz, R.A. Salvatore, Stephen King, to name a few—are branching out into graphic novels and comics these days. Do you think this is a corporate bandwagon thing, destined for quick oversaturation, or is it a relatively untapped corner of the market which can be beneficial for all involved?
AR: I think that with Hollywood taking such a big part in reviving the comic/graphic novel interest out there, with great movies like Sin City, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight, the market will only intensify. Sure, there are comic book movies that I don’t personally care for, like Punisher, Fantastic Four, and The Hulk, but they’ll never get those right! Generally, though, it’s been a lot of fun to watch movie versions of these stories. I think that Hollywood has made the public more aware of comics, and in turn, the prose writers have become more interested in joining the party.
That being said, I’m a big fan of the comic book/graphic novel format for storytelling, so for me it’s all about creating the book right now. If Wire Hangers ever gets made into a film, I just hope that I can make a cameo in it and get killed off by the main character. [laughs]
KW: And it’ll only get better—visually, at least. Technology is a wonderfully scary thing.
AR: For me, I embrace technology. I’m always interested in trying out the latest gadget, software, or website. It’s helped me in a huge ways when it comes to recording music and creating art. I don’t miss the days of recording analog, where you physically had to splice the tape to change a part in a song. Pro Tools is fine with me. I know a bunch of old school cats that hate it—but c’mon…you can do anything on it. Especially living in a world full of iPods, the music gets compressed to shit anyway…so recording analog doesn’t really make sense anymore, in my opinion.
For artwork, there’s so much you can do with the Adobe Creative Suite that it just blows my mind. I’ve been using those programs every day for the last 10 years and still learn new tricks all the time. It’s pretty intense.
KW: I know we’re a ways off from the debut issue of Wire Hangers, but how has response been so far?
AR: So far, it’s been really great. I’ve received a ton of e-mails from LOA and Spoiler NYC fans who are excited to pick it up when it comes out. The animated teaser I made—with an audio track from friend Josh Silver (Type O Negative)—helped get the word out there. It’s at the point where a bunch of comic book news websites have picked up the story, too. I really couldn’t be happier about the response so far.
KW: Is it tough being so well-known in the music industry and trying to cross over into the literary field as a relative unknown?
AR: I think I’m in a very unique situation. It is very difficult to break into creative fields. I feel really blessed to have accomplished what I have in the music business and now have the chance to express myself in other ways. I think by having the die-hard LOA following that we’ve developed over the last 20 years will help a great deal in getting people interested in Wire Hangers. And I don’t think they’ll be disappointed. I think there are a lot of LOA fans out there that dig comics, and I think that Wire Hangers is dark and interesting enough to keep them coming back for more.
KW: And it can work in the opposite direction, too. It could very well lead a lot of comic book fans to Life of Agony and Spoiler NYC, and then even to Keith’s solo stuff, for instance.
AR: Absolutely. That’s the beauty of it. All this stuff is out there. I’m counting on the fact that a lot of comic book readers will be introduced to LOA and Spoiler NYC for the first time, and that’s great!
KW: Readers can be pretty brutal to the new kid in town; how do you think they’ll react to Wire Hangers? What are your hopes for it?
AR: For one thing, I have never been afraid of putting myself out there. Outside of LOA, I’ve done other musical projects like Among Thieves and Spoiler NYC, as well as artwork for bands like 3 Doors Down, Puddle of Mudd, and Shinedown. So far, people have been pretty accepting of my outside projects so I’m not too concerned about people’s expectations for the comic. In fact, I’m really excited for people to read it because I think that it’s pretty different. I’m hoping to turn on a lot of music fans into comic fans with this series.
KW: What are some of your horror influences?
AR: I grew up on The Shining and Jaws, but some of my favorite newer horror movies are 28 Days Later and the remake of Dawn of the Dead. The Shining was all about the atmosphere and that’s what made it really scary. I’m trying to capture that type of vibe in Wire Hangers. Once you see the artwork, you’ll see what I mean.
KW: The image of the main character looks pretty wicked. Is he stitched up with wire hangers? What’s the significance of the title, if that’s not giving away too much?
AR: I don’t want to give away too much, because there is a big reveal on how he became disfigured…but he’s not stitched up with the hangers. We’ll have to leave it at that for now…
KW: Besides Wire Hangers, do you have any other comics planned?
AR: I do, but it’s too soon to elaborate on. I really want to focus on Wire Hangers right now. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me!
KW: From an artistic standpoint, what can we expect from you over the next few years?
AR: Spoiler NYC is headed back into the recording studio this June with Grammy Award-winning producer Ken Lewis (Lenny Kravitz, Beastie Boys, Fall Out Boy) to record the follow-up to our debut album, Grease Fire in Hell’s Kitchen (SOS Records). The new album will be called Banned in 38 States.
We also plan to film a video for our new song, “Damaged Goods,” with our Belgian friends in Europe (In The Making Productions), who filmed and edited the “Ruined” video. There are plans in the works to promote the new Spoiler NYC album inside the Wire Hangers comic book issues, too—possibly offering some free MP3 downloads, but I’ll have more details on that soon.
KW: So when do you anticipate Wire Hangers being released?
AR: I am actually in negotiations with a publisher right now, so I can’t give specifics just yet, but I expect a 2010 release.
KW: Sounds good. Looking forward to it. And I think that’ll do it, man. Thanks for your time. Really appreciate it.
AR: Thank you! This marks my first ever interview discussing the series, so I definitely appreciate it!
For more information on Wire Hangers, visit: www.wirehangerscomic.com.
Originally appeared in Shock Totem #1, July 2009.