Argus: Full Interview With Butch Balich

If you’ve gotten bored with the endless fracturing of metal into brittle microgenres – and if you haven’t yet heard the latest opus from Pennsylvania trad dudes Argus – then get your ass in here for a dose of anthemic rawk. From Fields of Fire is the band’s fourth full-length, featuring a pair of new members who breathed a little fresh oxygen into the band’s glorious blaze. We asked vocalist Butch Balich some questions about the band’s current incarnation, and he responded enthusiastically. You can read some of that interview in this month’s issue (#156, October 2017, Myrkyr cover), but Balich had lots to say, so be sure to catch the rest of his comments here while you take in their new music.

Can you talk about the changes in band membership since your last album and how that has affected the way this new album came together?

The writing prior to these changes was not going well. Only two songs survived – “Death Hath No Conscience” which we released as a 7-inch, and “216” which is on From Fields of Fire. [After bringing on bassist Justin Campbell and guitarist Dave Watson] we started writing and gelling together as a live band. I think both guys bring a lot to the band both on stage and both have a lot of good ideas for the band, from music to the business of the music. Justin is a great player and has been valuable in jumping right in with his ideas and opinions as we wrote this album. Any time you have new members it will affect an album, especially losing a player like Andy [Ramage, bass], who is a brilliant player and writer, you never know if you’ll be able to fully pick up and keep moving forward, but we have been able to seamlessly bring them in without it changing who we were – we’ve expanded who we were but it is still Argus.

Were these songs the results of specific writing sessions, or have they been developed more casually over the last few years?

Dave and Jay wrote the music. Jay is a more deliberate writer. He’ll write at home and bring in a more or less fully fleshed out piece of music that just need tweaks and me to add my parts. He won’t bring anything in until he’s happy with it. Dave, on the other hand, is always writing and will bring in close-to-done songs but also riffs to jam on and hammer out/build at rehearsal. Our rehearsals are usually based around writing unless we have shows to prepare for. So generally what happens is Jay or Dave bring in a song or riff and we’ll work on it as a band over a few sessions with Kevin and Justin working their magic and get a rough arrangement put together. At that point I’ll take a recording of it and start working on vocal melodies and lyrics ….though in the case of this album only two of the songs had melodies fully written before recording began. So we never knew what the final versions of these songs would sound like until the vocals were done. It’s a process that seems to have worked for us. Even musically things are getting tweaked up until the tape starts rolling on drums. It’s a group effort and it can shapeshift as we go and

What was the recording process like this time around?

We had a slightly more limited budget to work with so we needed to be creative about how we were going to do it. We tracked drums at Tonic Studios, did bass and guitars both at home and in the studio, and vocals were done at my house. But no real problems to speak of. It was more getting to the recording that was the long road. Once we started it moved along well. We are always taken aback by how well one or more [of the songs] turn out. All of us brought our A-game to the table for this record and in the process created an album that is the most complete album we’ve ever done.

Are the music or lyrics on this record influenced by any specific outside material?

Not really on this outing. All the lyrics are centered around personal experience – grief, regret, rising from adversity, anxiety… It’s probably the most personal I’ve ever gotten on an album. Once I started writing the words that is what came so I never forced anything based on literature, history and the like.

What have been some of your favorite live performance experiences? What have been your favorite kinds of venues, and most enjoyable bills to play on?

My personal favorite gigs have been our first appearance in Europe at Hammer of Doom, Roadburn in 2015, Hell Over Hammaburg in 2016, and the shows we did in Ireland in 2013 were great….the crowds were really into it and active. That is always a blast. I’m not sure we have a favorite venue type – we enjoy big stages at fests but some of our best shows have been in small places like Lil Devil in Tilburg to 20 people or packed in the Bela Lugosi club in Nurnburg for 50 which packed the place out. The crowd was right up against us – it was really awesome. The best we’ve ever sounded and performed live has been with Dave and Justin in the band since 2015. The tour last spring with Stereo Nasty was a lot of fun. For me, as far as bills go, I really like bills where all the other bands are bands I would want to see live. It’s fun playing anytime but more special with bands we dig a lot.

Argus have a pretty traditionally heavy sound… What are your thoughts about more extreme approaches (black, death, grind, etc.)? What would you say drives Argus differently from what drives those kinds of bands?

I think most bands are driven by a love of the music, be it traditional or more extreme. Certainly with us we have no illusions that we will become famous so it really is all about creating great music and playing great shows for us. We have a number of bands that we love in common and for us it’s about taking our influences and filtering through ourselves to make music we’d like to listen to.

I’m neither the most knowledgeable or biggest fan of more extreme music but I’ve certainly widened my tastes over the years. You’re supposed to mellow as you get older but I find I am appreciating heavier music. I’m more apt to dig bands who lean towards death metal especially if they have a doomy slant or a whiff of Entombed in them (love Entombed). I love the epic vibe in some black metal. It’s just for me the vocals are a big deal, so I don’t hang too well when I can’t understand the words at all or if it is really screechy. Other guys in Argus enjoy more extreme music as well – we’re all over the map really. I often ask friends of mine who I respect to tip me to some death or black metal to check out. Music would be really boring if it all sounded the same. It’s funny too – I’ve long read Decibel and other magazines whose focus is more extreme metal and I’ll read cover to cover. The ideas and careers, varying points of view and experience are really interesting.

In the past ten years that Argus have been around, do you feel like the scene you play in has shifted? In what ways?

I’m not sure a band our size feels the shifts as easily as bands who are on big labels and who tour a lot. For sure, we all feel the double-edged sword of technology in our sales but the exposure and ease of getting music out there tempers that some. Bands are hipper to things now, like figuring out how to make technology work for them, watching that they don’t get screwed over by becoming more self-reliant rather than giving control of their careers to managers or labels. The positive of metal being driven a bit more underground is that no one truly has the weight of creating music other than what they want to create. It’s very freeing. Sales are going to be what they are and that means you should create for yourself and really focus on putting good releases out there. I think a lot of bands get it. Sure you’ll have bands that are no more than clones of their influences, but I see a really healthy scene out there now. And a diverse one. You can see some of the bands that started as strict retro bands start to develop their own personality and that’s a really cool thing. I don’t see a huge shift in fans other than the obvious – that over the years those who see metal as more of a fashion than a passion have faded away leaving smaller but more hardcore crowds. The business end can be a bummer – there isn’t as much money to do things like tour or really push an album. And people are just really feeling the effects the last couple of years but the postage rates have really fucked everyone from bands to labels. It’s really hard to push your music overseas when postage for an LP can often be half the cost or more of the LP itself. I see the bigger labels wanting more from bands while offering less while smaller labels and bands are becoming more partners in this. Enrico at Cruz Del Sur is great to deal with – he loves and believes in Argus and we all know we need to work together to build something good. It’s a good relationship and one I’m glad we have.

Cruz del Sur will release From Fields of Fire this Friday, September 8.