Having appeared from apparently out of nowhere less than six months ago, Altus have taken the Northern Ireland scene by the scruff of the neck and given it a jolly good old-fashioned seeing to! They’ve certainly made some waves in that short period time – with threats of legal action from other bands, and an online hate campaign that includes a ‘Fuck Altus!’ Facebook page – both being fired in their direction…
In the latest of our interviews to preview this weekend’s PlanetMosh-backed Helloween Havoc, we catch up with the four Belfast lads – guitarist/vocalist Dave Brady, guitarist Mikk Legge, bassist Darran Gourley and drummer Kieran Fitzsimmons – to find out where they came from, where they are and where they’re planning to go (one thing’s for certain, and that’s not away!)…
So, first things first – who are they and where did they come from?
Darran: “Altus was formed by myself, Dave and Kieran about a year ago now when the last band we were in, The Fourth Exit, called it quits. We weren’t happy with the band and felt we needed a change in direction, something darker and heavier and so we started Altus.”
Dave: “We focused on a heavier, more sludgy styling, which suited all of our interests in music…”
Darran: “After that we spent month in the studio writing material but we felt we didn’t have the punch in the sound that we were hoping for and decided that a second guitarist could help that. We had a few try outs and had people down to the practice room and one of them was Mikk Legge – and we liked him straight away: Dave and Mikk connected right away through the guitars and we knew he was the man for the job.”
Dave: “We all clicked and that night Altus was born.”
Kieran: “Mikk… slotted in perfectly to our mind set and understood what we were trying to achieve.”
Mikk: “Yeah, we just instantly clicked really. I knew then and there that I wanted to join this band.”
What are your musical influences, both individually and collectively, and are these reflected in the band’s sound?
Darran (pictured left): “One of my biggest influences – and a big influence of the band – would be Mastodon. Troy Sanders has become a massive influence on my own style over the past year and has really pushed me to open up my playing technique. The band itself takes a lot of influence from Mastodon’s ability to experiment with the riffs they use and the wide range of styles they incorporate into their songs.”
Dave: “We all bring a wide variety of musical ability and influences to our music. Kieran loves his stoner/sludge music, such as Mastodon, Black Sabbath, Orange Goblin and Red Fang. During the writing process these influences played a key writing structure for all members in the band: we all had a similar love for this styling of music and it has a prominent place in all our songs.
“Mikk brought along his love of heavy riffs: listening to bands such as Stormzone, Trivium and Black Label Society, he immediately jumped in with low, heavy, head-to-the-ground riffs that filled the emptiness that had been there as an initial trio. It gave us the UMPHHH we had been looking for.
“Darran has very similar music stylings to Kieran: however: he came into his own after the last band. Creating some fantastic bass driven harmonies, combined with mine and Mikk’s guitar melodies, he really pushed our music a step further than we had anticipated.”
Darran: “The thing I feel gives us a massive advantage is that each member of the band has different tastes in what they listen to so we are always able to draw inspiration from so many different areas.”
Kieran: “Everyone’s listening habits have a huge influence on the sound of the band, like with anything what you like is what you’ll make. Steve Vai, for example, was a big influence for ‘Brand New Skies’, which was the first track we wrote – and though they sound completely different it set a mood that helped write the melody for the song. So yeah, all of our musical listening habits are reflected in our music. That is one thing that we aren’t scared to do, a lot of people get criticised for taking too much influence from other artists but we try to take influence and genre our own sound and musical style.”
In terms of live work, you’ve only been playing for about five months now, having made your debut at Helfast (http://planetmosh.com/helfast-metal-festival-2013-the-limelight2-belfast-northern-ireland/) at the beginning of June. But, you’ve put in a prodigious amount of work in that time and played more gigs in that time than many bands play in a year: has this been a deliberate approach?
Darran: “Absolutely. We told ourselves one thing before the summer and that was that we wanted to play as often as we could and in as many places as we could. As a band, we love playing live: every member of the band really comes alive when we hit the stage and it’s a real great energy. We just felt that the best way to get people to know us was to play as often as as possible and have people seeing our name everywhere. It’s a lot better than slitting in front of Facebook getting people to like your page although that is important as well but nothing will ever beat getting out and seeing a band for yourself.”
Dave (pictured right): “We all decided at the start that we would not go half-hearted into this. Before any gigs were booked, everything had to be ready: once the EP was recorded, the setlist was practised and tight, and all the other bits and pieces (T-shirts, badges, backdrop, etc.) were in place, only then did we go about getting gigs.
“Helfast was a great break for us: long anticipated and a lot of hard work put into getting ready for it made it a big deal for us. We had established a large following at this point, without anyone ever hearing us play, so we did not want to disappoint. After the great reception we got at Helfast, gig dates just started piling up: we were being offered gigs left right and centre and considering the amount of work we had already put into this we took everything going. Our view was if people want to hear our music we don’t want to disappoint. By the time of our EP launch we had played at least two gigs a week for two months straight: it is only now that we are starting to slow down and begin work on our album but this will not stop us from playing on stage.”
Mikk: “Yeah, we’ve been pretty in people’s faces over the last six months! We’ll play anywhere there’s electricity! It’s hard to strike the balance between being out there and building a reputation without over-exposing ourselves, but we knew that at the outset we’d have to get out there and do it as much as possible in order to announce our presence, as it were. Plus, we all love gigging – these songs are brilliant fun to play live – and we’ve had the good fortune to play with some great bands, so it’s been hard to turn gigs down really.”
How has such a commitment to playing live helped you to develop and hone your sound?
Darran: “I feel it’s made the band very confident with the songs and the sound we are generating as a band. With the constant run of shows we have been able to tighten the set and even allow ourselves some improvisation during the set. This opens us up when we are on the stage and allows us to focus more on the actual performance that we are giving for the crowd while remaining confidant the all is well on the music side of it. Even when we are not playing you’ll usually find that we are thinking of ways to improve the overall experience for the fans even it is some small detail on stage we are always trying to improve our set.”
Dave: “When playing live we feel most at home with our music. The crowd’s reaction lets us know if we are doing a good job or not and lets us know what we need to tweak or change. Only by playing live can you interact with the people who listen to your music and when you play to a crowd that show great support it makes all the hard work worthwhile. After all, without fans we wouldn’t have got as far as we have in such a short time and we can’t thank everyone enough for the support they have shown.”
Kieran: “Anyone who plays music would probably tell you that live performances really show you your strengths and weaknesses. And we don’t deny this. Helfast was most prolific, it showed us that where really on to something: yes, we had a lot of flaws but I felt that the strengths out weighted the weaknesses and that’s all you can hope for.”
Mikk (pictured left): “It’s had a massive impact on us. One review from when we played Stiff Kitten stated that we looked like “they’ve been playing together for years,” which we were pleased with. The only way to get good live is to keep playing live, it’s a learning curve. It’s really helped us to see what we can bring to our live show – it’s always been very important to us that our set is a performance, rather than a rehearsal in front of a crowd. No one ever says “I’m going to hear a band tonight,” and I think it’s important for bands to work on the delivery of their material in a live environment. It’s also been a great confidence boost, helping us get more and more comfortable with what we do as each show goes on.”
You also rehearse on a weekly basis and you’re constantly writing: which is more important – this or playing live?
Darran: “That is a tough one. Playing live is very important because we want to keep our name out there and give people who may not have seen us the chance to come and see us: however, by writing we are working on new material to let the fans hear and give us the chance to experiment with new styles and techniques. If I had to choose I would say writing is more important because I think it is necessary for a band to take time out and write material as you’ll find for most band its therapeutic for them and especially for a band like ourselves who like to play a lot of live shows it very important that your set doesn’t get boring and predictable.”
Dave: “Both are as equally important as the other. Whilst we love playing on stage as much as we can, at some point we will end up playing the same songs over and over again and people will start to get bored very quickly. We rehearse once a week to stay on top of any inspiration that hits us. As we said earlier, the writing process seems to get easier every week, but this only came because we are constantly on top of any new material that is brought to practice.”
Kieran: “It’s more of a balance than anything: we practice three hours a week, give or take: sometimes if we have a big show we will get another in. Due to this three hour period, we have a structure, we get in set up and run through two tracks that we play live to warm up, and maybe a jam. Then we spend two hours working on new material and then play the set for the next show last, and that’s how we balance playing live and writing new material.”
Mikk: “We seem to have a good balance in that regard, normally for a rehearsal we’ll split the time fairly evenly between writing new material and actually rehearsing. Obviously this shifts a little in the run-up to a show or whatever, but we try to keep it as 50/50 as we can. There are the occasional forays into just cutting loose and jamming on nonsense to have a laugh (we once spent about an hour on a thrash rendition of ‘The Old Grey Mare’… don’t ask…) but we try to keep focussed on whatever it is we need to accomplish at the time, be it writing something new or tweaking one of our established songs.”
You’ve built up quite a loyal fanbase… almost every gig you play, no matter where on the bill you are, there’s a large proportion of the crowd are usually wearing your T shirts: has it taken you by surprise how quickly the local metallians have taken to you?
Darran: “Absolutely! When I think back to Helfast I’m still shocked. We couldn’t believe how many people showed up in our T shirts and stood up front to support us – and it has grown from that which is amazing!”
Dave: “We are blown away with the support and interest that has been shown in us since the word go. Helfast gave us a true insight as to how much support we actually are receiving. To play to an almost full house in the Limelight as an opening act whom people have never heard before proved to us that there is a genuine interest in what we were doing.”
Mikk: “It’s still such a head-wreck for me to look out from a stage and see people wearing our shirts at shows. It’s really humbling and very flattering for us to see that people have really taken us to heart: it’s really inspiring. I’ve seen a couple of guys in bands I really admire wearing our shirts while they play live, and personally speaking that’s been a huge honour.”
Darran: “We are humbled by the support, because we never would have thought it would grow at such a rate. We try to express our gratitude to our fans as often as we can and we work to try and make sure we are giving something back to them as often as we can because they are actually the real driving force behind the band.
“It’s a great feeling when you see people showing up to gigs in the shirts and they are proud to be wearing them and supporting the band, and because of that we always give 110 per cent on stage. If the fans can make the effort what excuse have we not to?”
Dave: “It really scares us when we are walking about town and see someone wearing our T-shirt!”
You’re also quite clever when it comes to using the likes of Facebook, etc. How important is social media to a young band such as yourselves in helping to build your profile, communicate with your fans and attract new ones to the Altus cause.
Darran: “Social media is very important to us because it allows us to spread our name, and even the band page itself far and wide, allowing people who have never heard of us, or who may not even live, to check us out. It helps us ensure that people are seeing our name at least once a day. It also adds a whole different level to the experience because anyone can contact the band if they choose to and we can get back to them. It gives it a real personal feel and connects us to our fans in a way that wasn’t really possible before which is very important to us.”
Dave: “Social media is growing every second and seems to be the best way to keep everyone up to date with what is going on. With Facebook as global as it is, we would be stupid not to take total advantage of what it has to offer. We are constantly building our fan base through these networks and it always seems to pay off. They are great tools for bands to spread their name and should be utilised by anyone out there who wants to make a name for themselves.”
Kieran: “It’s vital – not that I was around when it wasn’t vital! For any band trying to break through these days, it’s the only way. You get a direct tap into your fan base, and if you don’t have one, it’s the easiest way to gain one. We took a bit of a gamble in how we went about it, in that we did all the PR, recording and social networking before we hit the stage, but it got our name out there, and people knew us. All thanks to social network and the web.”
Mikk: “In the digital age, it’s so important for a band to be active and vocal online, as it’s often the first thing a promoter or whatever will look at. Bands don’t have to count on getting noticed by word-of-mouth and live performances anymore, it’s really handy that such a large catchment can be so easily accessed as it really helps to get the word out there.”
When you first started out, you took a fair amount of flak from a certain Irish website, especially over the band’s name… what was all that about and has the issue been resolved?
Mikk: “Ah man, I knew this was coming!! When we started out there was an underground black metal band who reckoned we’d ripped their name off. A bunch of users on said forum (none of whom were even in the band!) took it upon themselves to “instruct” us to change our name, logo, the whole shooting match, and some of it got a bit vitriolic.”
Darran: “We looked the band up – in fact we didn’t know they existed until the whole thing started – and they had been inactive for over a year!”
Kieran: “To be perfectly honest, it was myself who brought the name the guys (Dave and Darran) as Mikk wasn’t in the band yet. I was trying to come up with a name, and was messing around with Google Translate, and it turned out that high in Latin was Altus along with a host of other meanings including lofty, tall and profound.”
Dave: “We were unaware of any band with a similar name at this point we received word that a band named Altus Astrum had taken offence to our name, saying that we had copied them. By all means, there is a clear similarity in both names and we would not argue that: however, what followed with the blog on the website made us decide not to back down.
Darran: “We couldn’t really see any reason that the name needed changing. Some threats started over the internet, which we ignored, and they eventually stopped. It’s been over a year and the band hasn’t become any more active since and we have heard nothing from them since.”
Dave: “If we had originally been approached by the band in question and had discussed the name in a civilised manner maybe we would have changed it: but to be completely attacked on a well-known website and essentially dragged through the dirt because a band who has not played or been heard of in two years suddenly decides to take offence to something as silly as a name, we weren’t going to take it laying down. We received a lot of negativity around this – but I am pleased to say we came out on top and maintained the professional standing that we always strive to keep.”
Mikk: “[It was all a] storm in a tea-cup really… we’re not about to lose any sleep over a bunch of keyboard commandos who are just trying to get a laugh out of their buddies. Any band is going to have its detractors, and online everyone’s an expert. But if taking some abuse on a web forum is the worst we have to deal with in our career, then I’ll settle for that. We’re out there doing what we do, and nothing will stop that. The whole thing was only a controversy in the minds of those causing it as far as I was concerned and only strengthened our determination to stick to our guns.”
Is such controversy a positive or a negative as far as you’re concerned?
Darran: “No one really likes people talking about them in a negative way but it did work out well for us haha! Within a week this whole website had our name all over it so we went from a being a band that no one knew and that was just starting out to being a band that had whole forums about them both positive and negative. We had complete strangers standing up for the band which was cool…”
Dave: “We do not take these accusations lightly, but we have always fallen under the premise that any publicity is good publicity and all negative comments relating to the band so far have pushed us even further than before.”
Kieran: “Obviously we don’t want to step on anyone’s toes because that’s just childish, but on the other hand we aren’t going to be bullied out of our name because a forum page does not like it – though they are entitled to their opinions. I see most publicity as good publicity – within reason obviously: in this case we didn’t really take it either way, we just rolled with the punches and tried to deal with it as professionally as possible without being pushed around.”
Mikk: “There’s a world of difference between the “scene” on a website and the actual on-the-front-line doing it. People take the internet so seriously at times, like it’s really serious business. Step away from the keyboard people, and actually go see bands instead of just talking about them.”
Darran: “We are a band that takes great care in how we present ourselves and we always maintain a professional stance and we remained civil through this matter because we weren’t about to act like children over the internet. I personally would look at it as a positive, because a lot of people heard about us and we had a lot of buzz about us, but I wouldn’t set out to try and get people into an argument over the internet.”
On the other hand, and on a very positive note, you also received quite a boost recently, when you signed to Blink Management, who also include Rage Of Angels and your personal heroes Stormzone on their roster: how did that come about and can you talk about any of the plans Steve has for you?
Mikk: “Yeah, that was a big step for us. Our previous management team, Paradise City, had done an absolutely magnificent job with us: they gave us our start and were a massive part of our early success as we got some great guidance from them.”
Kieran: “One of the main reasons we are with Blink is because we were taken under the wing of a PR company on the day of Helfast: the stepping stone came mainly in the form of advice on how to go about tackling the music business. So, when it came to Blink approaching us, we knew how to react…”
Mikk: “Basically an offer to manage us was made by Blink and we took it as we thought it would be the right thing to do for the band. It’s a huge honour to be on the same crew as bands like Stormzone and RoA, they’re in the sort of position and playing the kinds of venues that we’d like to be hitting in the future so there’s so much we can learn from them, and we have a lot of time on our side.”
Kieran: “From the get go, when Mikk joined the band and we found out about Blink we knew that was who we wanted to represent us. So it was awesome to get on their roster.”
Mikk: “As regards upcoming plans, I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you! Suffice to say next year is going to be a big and very busy one for Altus.”
As we’ve mentioned, you’ve been gigging almost constantly over the summer and autumn: but, you’re about to come off the road and go into the studio, isn’t that right?
Darran: “Yes, that is correct. We are doing a last run of shows then we are taking some time out to go into the studio to write some new material and get it recorded.”
Dave: “We will still do the occasional gig now and then to keep on top of things, but for the rest of 2013 and start of 2014 we will be pushing our writing.”
Mikk: “That’s correct. We’re planning to cut and release a new EP around the end of the year just to keep us ticking over, then it’ll be all guns blazing for our first album. We’re really going to be throwing the kitchen sink at this one: we want it to be a real statement of intent as regards who we are and what we can do. We’re a very different band to the four guys who were trembling under the bright lights at our first show – we’re really starting to find our sense of self as a band, and we think the album will reinforce that.”
How far along are you with preparations for the album, in terms of song writing?
Darran: “We have a lot of ideas running about at the minute and we have some songs in the grind, though nothing has been finalised. We have a large amount of riffs, beats and general ideas that have built up over the summer that we can now draw on over the break – so we have a lot of material to work with.”
Dave: “We have possibly the guts of twenty songs in the initial stages. We seem to write quick and then build on the ideas set out. It is basically a case of sitting down, taking all that we have and starting to structure it into something that first and foremost we like to listen to. Then we will decide on what does and doesn’t make the album.”
Mikk: “We have one song finished already and at the risk of sounding like every guy in every interview ever, it’s the best thing we’ve written so far. Obviously there’s a lot of work goes into writing a record, but our writing process is really quite easy and most importantly, it’s enjoyable – I have the time of my life writing music with these guys. We just seem to really be on the same page when it comes to writing and nothing is off-limits, everyone contributes to everything.”
Do you have a timescale for the recording and release?
Mikk: “In an ideal world, I’d say we’re starting recording today and it’ll be out next week, haha!”
Darran: “We hope to start recording in December and hope to be ready for release in early 2014.”
Dave: “Hopefully next spring if not early summer, depending on how much we get down over the rest of this year.”
Mikk: “We’ve known from the beginning that this is a marathon, not a sprint, and we don’t want to fall in to the trap that a lot of new bands seem to, record an album for the sake of recording it then a few years later realise it has aged badly. We want to take our time and get it right. That being said though, we’ll work as hard as we have to in order to get it done and get it out… we don’t want to be waiting around!”
Finally, do you have a message for those attending Hellowe’en Havoc – and especially maybe those who have not yet experienced Altus live?
Dave: “This is going to be a brilliant night, we are so excited to be playing with some great bands. Please everyone get down for a wild night of music and who knows….we may even have a new song for y’all to hear!”
Kieran: “GET THE FUCK DOWN! Dress like an eejit, drink too much and ROCK OUT. And you do NOT want to miss NASA Assassin. And if you haven’t seen us yet come down and see what all this drama is about and make your own mind up about us.”
Mikk: “Bring earplugs. Seriously, I’ve seen airplane take offs that weren’t as loud as us. Joking aside though, I’d love to see some people there who maybe haven’t encountered us yet: it’s always a real kick to know you’re reaching new people. All the other bands on the bill are amazing and Voodoo is one of our favourite places to play, so we’ll be giving it 110 per cent on the night and delivering the best gig we possibly can. We’re looking forward to it even more than most of the crowd I think! We’ll most definitely see you down the front.”
Altus play Hallowe’en Havoc, at Belfast’s Voodoo, this coming Friday (November 1), alongside NASA Assassin, Scimitar, ForChristSake and We Are Knuckle Dragger. Tickets are £5 on the door. https://www.facebook.com/events/213248798814720/
Photographs courtesy of Altus, Paul Wharton and Robbie Rooney.
In the next of our interview previewing Hellowe’en Havoc, tomorrow we talk to We Are Knuckle Dragger.