Interview : Steve Flynn, ATHEIST

photo via atheistmusic.com

[buzzsprout episode=”19409″ player=”true”]

Shortly after releasing one the best albums of 2010, we got the opportunity to speak with one of the men behind Atheist. The resurrected Floridians have picked up right where they left off in the 90s with the massive Jupiter. This interview was originally recorded via phone, but I decided to broadcast it during my Xmas Eve special on ‘Mind Over Metal’  (timely, yeah?).

Considering the band’s subject matter, talk of religion is unavoidable (and frankly, lots of fun), but we keep it lively and interesting while delving into the history of Atheist and how it ties together with recent material. You can also hear some of those very tunes behind our chat, in case you want a sampling, and get an update on their quest for a permanent bassist.


MetalMattLongo: So I pretty much had my year-end list compiled, and then Jupiter dropped right at the beginning of November. It not only stands strong against your classic trio of releases, it made my best of 2010 lineup. Can you describe the band’s song writing approach on Jupiter?

Steve Flynn: Well first, again, thanks so much. A lot of people don’t know the adversity that we went through when we released Unquestionable Presence and Piece of Time. People hated the stuff when it came out. We got a lot of good reviews and so forth. People just… we got booed off stages. It wasn’t the right time for the music. Jupiter is the first album that Kelly and I really collaborated on. You can hear the progression from Piece of Time to Unquestionable—and this sounds like it is in that vein—whereas Elements stand out with a different personality in the context of the four records. Our songwriting approach has always been the same when Kelly and I were together. We formed the band, and he and I always spent much of our time contributing guitar riffs. He wrote a lot of guitar on Jupiter. We have spent a lot of time arranging and putting pieces together, and we weren’t together on Elements. That was a completely different band with a different song writing process. I think the result is a wonderfully brilliant album but it is just different for what Atheist sounds like. And the song writing approach really comes down to sitting down with no design as to whether it is going to be fast or slow or heavy, prog or whatever. It was just, “here’s a cool riff, let’s build around that”. What we have always done—and this might sound pretentious—is create a journey that you go on. There are ebbs and flows to it, and one thing we are always known for:  abrupt change

MetalMattLongo: Oh yeah.

Steve Flynn: So if one thing is going really fast, often times you will hear us counterbalance. Or if there is a riff underneath, like the song “Fictitious Glide” on Jupiter, there is a riff underneath that is really complex [mimics song].

MetalMattLongo: “Tortoise the Titan” is one of my favorite songs from the album. It has a slow, groovy bit to it, and then on one of the fastest parts on the album, Kelly sings “slow down”.  Which is great. [laughing]

Steve Flynn: Yeah, and that’s the kind of stuff that he does purposefully. He wrote those lyrics to go with that part because we have always written in contradiction; everything is always supposed to juxtapose. Now from a style standpoint, we have been asked if we intended for this record to be so aggressive and fast. And no, we had no design. We just wanted to sit down and engage in the same exact process we did when we wrote Piece of Time and Unquestionable Presence together. It was just like that, very organic—we had no idea what it would sound like. In fact, we were just as curious as everyone else. When we got out of the studio after we tracked all of the rhythms here in Atlanta, where we live, we were getting ready to go down to Orlando to mix it with Jason Suecof. We put it in for the first time after everything was done and we were like “holy shit, there is a record!”

MetalMattLongo: One of the other distinguishing aspects of the album is its lyrics. I was just wondering why it’s so particularly confrontational. Like “Fraudulent Cloth”, for example.  Well, it is about priest molestation, so how can you not be confrontational…

Steve Flynn: Yeah, Kelly has done some of his best work on Jupiter. This is both lyrically, in the way that he positioned it, and the rhythmic way he sings. If you read the words—which I encourage people to do—not just to get a sense for the meaning, but to see how he will take one word and syncopate it with the music. He has always been really really good at that. In the seventeen years or so between Elements and Jupiter, he has always been playing music and has continued to write just a ton of material through his band Neurotica and other bands he has been a part of. It really honed and refined his ability to create catchiness and there is almost verse-chorus kind of stuff. It just came about because that’s where his head is. To your other point, about the content, at first there was a lot of discussion and Kelly was passionate about calling the album “Faux King Christ”.

MetalMattLongo: A great play on words, by the way. [laughing]

Steve Flynn: Oh yeah, that was all his idea. But we went back and forth on this quite a bit. I said that it’s great for a song. Atheist has never put out an album that is so direct and pointed and narrow in its topic. It is always Piece of Time, Unquestionable Presence, Elements…

MetalMattLongo: Yeah, much more abstract.

Steve Flynn: Right. Ephemeral and enigmatic and hanging out there. And “Fraudulent Cloth” and “Faux King Christ” are very direct statements about very specific topics, whereas the rest of the tunes are sort of quintessential Kelly. He speaks very metaphorically even when we are in regular conversation. I always joke that he is like the Ross Perot of death metal, because Ross Perot (if anyone remembers) was a political candidate ten years ago, and everything was a metaphor. So Kelly would say, “It’s like you’re driving a car, right? And you are at a stoplight and you don’t want to just go…”.

MetalMattLongo: [laughing]

Steve Flynn: And he writes that way and he talks that way and thinks that way so it comes out.  When we recorded “Fraudulent Cloth” and read through the lyrics and listened to the song, I called him up and I said “holy shit, dude!” That is just scathing, calling him a pedophile, hypocrite, beast.

MetalMattLongo: I was just going to say that, right there especially. I was thinking about how you can sit and drop F-bombs all day and call priests cocksuckers or whatever. But the fact of the matter is, if you remember the context, and who it is we are talking about, calling him “the beast”—that which he is supposed to be combatting against—carries that much more weight. His word choice is very impressive.

Steve Flynn: Yeah, and things like the participation and cover-up of a little child that was raped, I had goose bumps when I read it the first time. That is one of the strongest things he has ever said. That is going to stir up some controversy. The rest of the album is quite abstract and metaphorical, which is much more normal for him, but those couple of songs were near and dear to his heart and he really wanted to express it. He does it in a very clever way. It is all his thing. No one contributes to lyrics except for him. It is a collective effort other than just lyric writing; he just has a real gift for it. I have always been a huge fan of how he writes.

MetalMattLongo: Does Kelly maintain the strongest anti-religion stance or is that something you all share?

Steve Flynn: I don’t think so at all. I think we all share a lot of the—and it is not just religion itself—it’s the “organized” thing.

MetalMattLongo: What do you think is the most flagrant shortcoming of organized religion?

Steve Flynn: I think that Communism [Ed: I believe Steve meant Karl Marx] put it well when they said it was the opiate of the masses. It is a drug that is used for control and it is anything but spirituality, because if it was, I wouldn’t care. I don’t care one way or another what you want to believe in. I think it is wonderful, in fact, that if you believe in some spiritual presence and it helps get you through the day, that is wonderful. But its most flagrant shortcoming is the deification, and the making of Jesus Christ into an actual deity. If you are just talking about Christianity, I think that is where things went wrong. I think deifying humans beings and having people worship them to the point of violence is really the downfall of all major religions.

MetalMattLongo: Especially ones that profess to love their fellow man.

Steve Flynn: Absolutely.

MetalMattLongo: It was funny. I was just speaking from Robin Staps from The Ocean just yesterday. Their last two companion albums heavily critiqued Christianity. Have you heard those albums?

Steve Flynn: I see their name everywhere —whoever is doing their publicity, it is wonderful. I see The Ocean everywhere.

MetalMattLongo: That is good to hear. It’s worth checking out—they’re a pretty inventive band. Again, they challenge the origins of god, which many argue, as do you guys right from the start on “Second to Sun”—it is covert sun worship, really. And just ascribing these same values which have been repeated over and over throughout history… Jesus is just the newest one.

Steve Flynn: Yes, exactly right.

MetalMattLongo: One of the things I was intrigued about was in “Third Person” where it posits that, “Historically it has been told, harmonically your soul is sold to old/I was the highest bidder, dripping blood on the dark side”. I was wondering, despite the absence of religion, there still seems to be some belief of something extra—a soul, or whatever it is that you want to call it. I was wondering what you think that is—for you, Steve.

Steve Flynn: Everyone has a different take on a lot of that stuff, and for me, it is much more the universe itself. We always use the phrase like “thank the universe” or that kind of thing. For me, I don’t think any of us are hardcore about whether there is a power or energy that exists. We leave it to the fact that you just don’t understand it, I suppose is the way to put it. We don’t try or question or… you just give yourself up… it is what it is.

MetalMattLongo: It just is unknowable. Like, that is not what the pursuit of life should be: to figure out the “why” of it.

Steve Flynn: I think, from a physical standpoint, when you talk about quantum physics and things like that, to understand what was before the Big Bang and how and why the Big Bang happened—that is actually a passion of mine. I read a lot of books on physics and I love to understand the nature and structure of the universe. When you do, you realize why it is so awe-inspiring, because your body is made up of nothing but inanimate particles that don’t even touch.

MetalMattLongo: Exactly.

Steve Flynn: Then the fact that you’ve never touched anything in your entire life, and the fact that it is just small magnetic fields between you and every other solid surface… and it’s like, holy shit, you are nothing but space. Then what binds you together? We are all intensely interested in that pursuit. Ascribing to it some kind of spiritual overtone is where I think the big departure is. I am not going to question whether there is or isn’t—I don’t know. I don’t really care one way or another. If it is, great. Then there is some kind of spiritual creation that put the Big Bang into motion. It doesn’t matter one way or another and it doesn’t matter what you believe. Understanding it is a great pursuit. Personally, I don’t necessarily think there is anything except the forces of physics, but I don’t know, and I am open to whatever the hell it is. I think we all are. I think I speak for everyone in the band when I say that.

MetalMattLongo: There is one more band that I want to invoke right now because they cropped up in my head—remember the band Thought Industry?

Steve Flynn: Yes.

MetalMattLongo: I was checking out this song because I knew I was going to be interviewing you. In “The Chalice Vermillion”  they talk about something brought up in The Ocean‘s last track, “The Origin of God”. It talks about how can you figure out where it came from, if he is the architect who is the architect of the architect, etc. Thought Industry posits “God is good, God exists, God is omnipotent: you can only have two of the three/ to have them all, you contradict”.

Steve Flynn: Yeah, of course.

MetalMattLongo: At the same time, I thought it was interesting that they had a quote at the beginning of the track by Edward Young that said “By night an atheist half believes a god”. I was wondering if you could speak to that at all. Does that ever ring in the back of your mind that there is some kind of grand designer?

Steve Flynn: You know, it does. I wonder at times, when I catch myself wondering that how much of it is cultural. If you grow up in a country like the US, and from your various early memories it is beaten into you that this exists in every possible way, so you wonder—for lack of a more elegant term—how much of this is brainwashing and how much is an innate sense of that existence.

MetalMattLongo: That is a very interesting point—I like that.

Steve Flynn: I question my own questioning of it and I am comfortable not knowing, but I am intensely curious and the pursuit of understanding is intense for me. But yeah, I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t know if it is innate in all of us. I think in everybody there is always the innate “Why are we here?”, “Who are we and what are we doing?” and “Who created everything?”. We used to worship trees and rocks, and when the solar eclipse would come, we would freak out and run into caves. We are scared and we need to understand why we are here and we are scared of our own mortality. But, I am perfectly comfortable living like that. I don’t need to know. And I certainly don’t need to know there is a grand design or some calming presence watching over us. That doesn’t give me any comfort. But yes, of course, in the back of your mind you question. Especially when I read books about physics and you go “What is there? What is holding it all together?” There are some great lines. I think of the movie The Matrix. It is kind of cheesy to quote it, but you know, there are some great lines that are up that alley. When Morpheus says,“If ‘real’ is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” …that is absolutely true. What is reality? Are we sharing it? Are we not? That runs through my head constantly. I don’t find any comfort or need to understand if there is a benevolent father or god guiding me through it. It is a brutal existence full of pain and it is full of pleasure. I am just along for the ride.

MetalMattLongo: That is a great way to end, too. I just want to ask you a couple of simple band things too before I let you go. How is the permanent bassist quest going?

Steve Flynn: Good. There is a young man we have been talking to who is supremely talented, and we are going to see if that works out. He is a huge fan of the band. There are just so many gifted players.

MetalMattLongo: What is his name?

Steve Flynn: I can’t say right now until we know for sure. There are so many gifted players nowadays. Finding a player isn’t the problem—it’s making sure that everything else is right. There is chemistry.

MetalMattLongo: There is a right person.

Steve Flynn: Jonathan Thomas—who did the bass on Jupiter—is brilliant. He is just as good as Tony [Choy], or anyone else physically, but he is a better guitar player. I want a pure bass player to play Atheist. Tony has expressed a lot of desire to continue touring. We have a lot of tours planned in the US.

MetalMattLongo: What is coming up?

Steve Flynn: We are going to do a run of shows starting March in Seattle and then L.A. for the Toyota Scion Rock Festival. Then we are going to hit Toronto and Montreal, then the east coast, and then we are going to Europe. We will come back here and do more shows. But literally as we speak, it is being planned and venues and routing is being worked out.

MetalMattLongo: Well hopefully when you hit the Montreal and northeast area I will be able to catch you guys. In the meantime, go to atheistmusic.com for more info on all of you, and go to MindOverMetal.org where we Document the Metalverse.

Steve Flynn: Cool.

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