THE MAKING OF THE HUMAN ABSTRACT’S DIGITAL VEIL, PART 1: GUITARIST A.J. MINETTE AND VOCALIST TRAVIS RICHTER
Back in July, Vince and I visited The Human Abstract at the Machine Shop in New Jersey, where they were recording their new album, Digital Veil, with producer Will Putney. Between the (then) six members of the band and the two of us, there were way too many people to do one interview, so we ended up splitting up into groups and conducting three interviews. Below is the first, with guitarist A.J. Minette (before he was a MetalSucks columnist) and vocalist Travis Richter; we’ll run the rest in the coming weeks.
Even though these interviews were conducted before the album was even completed, in a lot of ways, they’re far more interesting now that Digital Veil is done and released (it came out Tuesday on eOne, in case you somehow missed it). For one thing, now when the band talks about the music, you will have already heard it and will know what they’re talking about. There’s a lot of discussion in here about music composition and theory, and about lyrical content; having now heard the album, these interviews feel like having running director’s commentary. After reading this, you’ll be able to go back and re-listen to Digital Veil with a fresh perspective, as well as a better understanding of what the band was aiming for.
But for another thing… yeah, a lot has changed since this interview was conducted. As you’ll see, at the time, the band hadn’t even finalized the name of the album; they had three guitar players, not two; hell, they were still signed to a different label than the one that ended up releasing the record! It’s definitely thought-provoking to see how much things have changed in just eight months.
And so, without further ado, here’s my chat with A.J. and Travis…
AJ: Right, I wasn’t there during the process of making Midheaven at all. I had left and was in school. I didn’t hear anything until the album came out.
And the official story of when you left was that you weren’t feeling it with metal anymore.
AJ: I think a big part of it that wasn’t really talked about or mentioned was that I really wanted to go back to school and study music. I’d done one semester before leaving school to do [THA’s debut] Nocturne and tour on that. I really wanted to go back and study. Part of me was feeling that I might get pigeonholed as a metal guitarist, and I wanted to grow as a musician.
Being out of the band for Midheaven, what was your perception of that album, and what did you want to accomplish coming into this record?
AJ: I felt like Midheaven was a big departure from what the first album was. [With this album] the guys wanted to make an album that was technical and classically influenced and heavy. Coming into the writing process, I had all that stuff in mind also. I wanted to do something that was heavy and fun but also utilize what I had been learning in school with classical composition and classical guitar studies.
Travis, how did you come to join The Human Abstract?
TR: I parted ways with From First to Last in November of ’09. I was an original member in that band since 2002. We got the opportunity to tour with The Human Abstract on the Take Action Tour in 2007 or ’08… it was pretty recent, I can’t remember the exact year. I met all the dudes, but A.J. wasn’t in the band then or anything. I made pretty good friends with all of the other guys. I hung out with [Andrew] Tapley, the guitarist they got after A.J. left a whole bunch. [Since the time of this interview, Tapley has left the band. -Ed.] Then I saw them again on the Warped Tour and kind of just worked on our friendship.
When that went down with From First to Last, Tapley actually gave me a call and said, “Hey, a little birdie told me that you might be available right now.” I was like, “Yeah, I was thinking about you guys. I was wondering if you ever found a replacement singer or anything because I would love to try out.” He was like, “Well, I’ll send you the e-mail that we sent everybody. It’s for ‘Vela’ – go back over the song.”
From First to Last went on a tour, and that was supposed to be my last tour with them, but instead I stayed back. While they were on tour, I was actually demoing vocals to ‘Vela’ to be in the Human Abstract. I sent that in, they really liked it a lot and sent me a demo of the first song they recorded for the new record. I was left to my own devices and wrote vocals and did the best I could and sent it in. They liked it and offered me a chance to come out to L.A. and kind of write and demo and see what the next step was going to be.
When I came out, it was still kind of up in the air whether it was going to happen. I wanted these guys to be with the best that they could get as much as they wanted it to work out for me. It took a minute for it to become concrete, but then once we had about three songs demoed, it was like everybody’s head was really in the game. The vision was really starting to come together. Right when I got there, A.J. was just going to write and produce. It was kind of unclear what the rest of the vision there was, but slowly over time it all started making sense. A.J.’s role came back into play in more of a permanent kind of way. He was still going to college and everything, but we are going to try and tour when we can and focus on getting A.J. back out there.
[To A.J.] So your plan is to go out and tour?
AJ: Yeah, I want to do as much touring as I can. I also am going to be starting a Masters program at USC in September in Classical Music Studies. I’m trying to find out how I can balance both of those, and so far it’s looking good.
What is it like now having three guitar players? You guys were always crazy guitar players, but now there’s more of you.
AJ: Right. Well, writing for this album, I was thinking more in terms of a classical string ensemble sound, where they have four string players.
So do you feel like you’re short a guitar player?
AJ: As weird as that sounds and as stupid as that sounds — yeah. There are parts where there are four guitars going, and we can figure out what’s the filler line for live and work it out for three guitars. It’s really great for those bits where there are three independent parts going on. My mind gravitates towards that thicker texture, dense counterpoint. It’s nice to have that option of doing that live also.
I was going to say it seems like live this might allow you guys to be even more loyal to the recordings.
AJ: Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny, because I hadn’t considered too much live stuff during the writing process, because I was thinking of pure composition, and I didn’t want live limitations to inhibit any of the writing. Now I’m trying to think of ways that we can pull everything off live and make it happen. Having a third guitarist there makes it totally possible.
Was there any struggle to figure out how all three of you are going to fit into this new dynamic?
AJ: Not necessarily, because my role in the band kind of started slowly. It was coming in, listening to some stuff that had been there, writing some stuff, and it slowly developed in the camaraderie between the three of us, which grew as the record was being written. We all found what we’d be able to bring to the table as players.
TR: Yeah, of course.
From First to Last was very successful on their own, so you’re not new to this.
TR: It’s also two different worlds. I think it’s caused a lot of people to wonder what [THA is now] going to sound like, because I did come from From First to Last. These guys’ fan base is little shredder dudes and people who can play and like metal. A lot are legit musicians and stuff — not to say that From First to Last isn’t legit or anything. It’s just two different worlds.
I definitely have tried to set the bar high for myself, and focus on what needs to get done, and challenge myself really hard, because Nathan [Ells, original THA vocalist] had a big following. A lot of people dug what he did over the music and stuff. My whole idea coming into this was I wanted to actually be a little less vocally obtrusive — I wanted to kind of fit in more with the music. A lot of that came with working with A.J. We spent the last five months with him coming to the studio where I was at living, and we would just… instead of getting in there and recording or getting in there and playing as a full band, he’d sit down at the piano and I would sit at the stool and just sing. We would work out harmonies, and he was coaching me on my tone and stuff like that. I was just really open to hear what the people would envision the band as needing vocally. I just wanted to make that happen, because I feel like that’s the best way… in a band where the music is so composed and thick and dense, the best thing you can do is work with the people composing it, so that what you do doesn’t take away from the music, but is actually sitting there with it, embracing everything going on. That was a huge goal of mine, as far as listening to the previous records and this new stuff. It’s like, “What am I going to bring to the table as a singer?”
Of course there are going to be people who hate it and don’t like this and don’t like that. Honestly, I don’t even have my head in the game like that. I’m more focused on my job and working with these dudes. When they’re happy, I’m happy. That’s my whole goal coming into this for sure. It’s, like, musically beyond me. I come from more of the screamo, radio pop world or whatever you want to call it. Even just doing the singing on this is funny, because coming from that world, I realized, “Wow, we were only hitting two or three notes in a chorus.” Now I’m in a G minor scale. Now we’re working with Neapolitan scales, chromatics.
AJ: Chromatic harmony. Sometimes the melodies are a little challenging to sing at first, just adapting to the aesthetic of the band.
TR: Memorizing the moves. Piano totally played a huge role, because the chords and stuff are not pop or where I come from. It’s been a big challenge, but it’s been fun. I feel like I’m growing old — not that I’m an old guy. [laughs] I turned 28 in November. I’ll be 29 this year. I spent eight years on the road doing this already. I don’t think I could be in a better position. I was ready to step up and be challenged again and work hard to do something that I believed in.
How are you approaching the lyrics? Is this going to be concept album like the last one?
TR: It’s not a concept record. Like I was saying before, I didn’t want to be sticking out front like a sore thumb. That really played into the lyrics a lot, too. I try to write almost like social-type situations and stuff. We try to have a clear-cut theme for every song, but there’s not one overall theme for the entire album.
AJ: One of the cool things is that more people have gotten in on the lyric-writing process. It’s been really great to talk about the music and talk about some ideas that we have lyrically and bounce ideas off each other to use as a jumping-off point. That way, we have a cohesive idea and theme for the entire song.
A lot of lyricists like to use really poetic and ornate language, and sometimes it doesn’t have a meaning, and it’s very obvious that that’s the case. They try to say, “Oh, it’s multifaceted. It has whatever meaning you want it to have.” I don’t like that approach. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having really beautiful words next to each other. I think that’s a total valid way of writing lyrics. But I wanted some idea to be conveyed. I don’t want to say “concrete,” but ideas that we’re talking about in the song that people will pick up on if they listened.
TR: We worked together on some lyrics for one of the experimental tracks on the record. Right now, the working title of the album is Digital Veil. It’s pretty much about a future dystopian society that is dependent on technology. And how awkward being social has become.
AJ: We’re online and on social network sites all the time. I’m just as guilty of it as anybody, but you can be somebody totally different online. It’s so easy to interact with people when you’re behind that digital veil. Because of that, we’ve sort of become more socially inept. It’s harder for us to have face to face conversations without being awkward, which is a really modern notion.
TR: A modern dilemma, maybe.
TR: Because that didn’t exist pre-internet.
It seems like a) we’re training ourselves to to be shut-ins if we want to be — thanks to the computer, I can live my entire life from my apartment, no problem — and b) we’re training ourselves to have A.D.D. I can have fifteen windows open on my computer at any one time.
TR: No need to learn anything because I can just Google it. You don’t have to memorize anything. Hook it into my veins and I’ll never have to remember anything. I’ll just go around drooling everywhere. [laughs]
And now we’re carrying computers around in our pockets — so you can really do anything from anywhere.
TR: Have you seen the slap bracelet that’s a phone?
No, get out.
TR: I think Nokia is making it.
I remember the original slap bracelets. Now they’re turning them into phones?
TR: It’s a smart phone, too.
Awesome. There’s something the world needs. [laughs]
I know that neither of you guys were on the last album, but from the music you played for us before, it sounds like you’ve gone 180° away from that. Was that a conscious decision?
AJ: It was. The guys wanted to write a heavy, technical, classically influenced album.
That music you guys were playing for us was the best music I’ve ever heard the band make.
AJ: Absolutely, and I think the darkest in terms of the mood. That classical influence… getting that dark sound was something that I was studying in school. So I was able to put it to metal music.
We’ve talked on our site before about the relationship between classical music and metal. Are there any classical composers that you especially look to for inspiration?
AJ: Absolutely. Chopin is one in particula,r because his melodic voice is incredible. His melodies are… he was maybe the best tunesmith that ever lived. His harmonies are just so adventurous, so interesting, so unexpected, but the writing is so smooth. When there’s a surprise, it doesn’t make me cringe. It makes me go, “Oh, didn’t see that one coming.”
There’s also Bach. His counterpoint. The fact that he could just stack four independent melodies on top of each other, and it worked. It was intellectually stimulating as well as emotionally stimulating. That’s another thing that I aspire to, but Bach is as close to a god as as I’ve ever experienced.
There’s Brahms and Beethoven, who I look up to for their architecture of pieces. The way that they have this ability to make a piece reference itself throughout using small motives.
So do you guys discuss this stuff as a band, or is this just like the little A.J. corner of The Human Abstract?
TR: There’s some learning sessions that go down.
AJ: I talk about it so that the guys know where I’m coming from. If I have an idea or reason I didn’t like something that was written, or if I’m trying to convince them why I think something is good, I’ll explain. I usually have some sort of reasoning behind it.
It’s funny, when we started writing for this record, there was this really cool article written by a composer Aaron Copland. And it was talking about how we listen to music. It’s actually called “How We Listen to Music.” [laughs] He talked about how we hear as something as logical, something emotional or sensuous — just the sound hitting our ears. We hear it as rational people. There are different ways to listen to music. It’s not always just background or something that sounds nice. There is also this rational element to it. That, to me, is something that I wanted to really motivate this record. Every single member of the band read it.
AJ: Read it and we talked about it. It’s kind of funny how it all fell in line.
AJ: Yeah, it seems a little pretentious but it’s cool.
It’s only pretentious if it doesn’t mean anything.
AJ: Yeah, totally.
Like what you were saying about flowery prose — it only becomes pretentious when it lacks meaning.
TR: That’s a good way of looking at it.
Cool. So you’re working on vocals right now?
I wasn’t hearing a lot of clean vocals, but it sounds like you’re still working on those?
AJ: The clean vocals… the reason why it’s taking longer to get mixed and done is that there are parts where there are three and four part harmonies. I just love harmonies. Like Bach, stacking the melodies really thick. So getting the balance worked out in the hierarchy of the vocals — which is the predominant line and that sort of thing — takes some time.
TR: It’s cool. We sit in there and A.J. has a keyboard, and he has GuitarPro. So all the notes and everything is right there, and we just instantly know whether something is right or not. It takes a bit of time to track all those layers and stuff. Will [Putney]’s head getting all busted and obviously slowed us down for a minute. [The producer fell down a flight of slippery stairs and split his head open during production. -Ed.] At first it was like vocals and guitar everyday to keep up. When [Putney was injured], it was like, “Eh, let’s throw some more logs on the guitar fire and get that done a little more and then we’ll jump into the vocals.” But I really can’t wait to get it out. Screaming… I’ve been doing that my whole life, since I was a kid.
It seems like there’s way more screaming on this that there was in From First to Last.
TR: Oh, totally. I’m lucky I got to do on this side project with the drummer from From First to Last, called the Color of Violence. I got to scream over that whole thing, and it kind of got me back into having to do a bunch more of that, because as From First to Last got older, they wanted less and less of that and more singing. Which is noble.
I feel like screaming is almost second nature these days. I’ve really worked hard to improve on my tone, improve my pitch, and really make the singing not just the secondary thing, where you’re like, “Okay, get to the metal.” I would love it if when it hits, it actually hits and means something. I’ve really been working hard and trying to be patient and do it right. It’s going to be a process, but I’m feeling really good about where it’s ending up right now.
Right on. Anything you guys want to add before I let you get back to work?
AJ: Will’s story about his head has got to make it in there somehow.
TR: Yeah, totally!
AJ: Essentially, the guy split his head open from one side to the other, at the top of his head. He got 57 staples, and he was only able to get 2 shots of novocaine; he couldn’t be put under.
AJ: Apparently, they were only able to do two shots of localized novocaine, because that was like the legal dosage they were allowed to give there. They couldn’t put him under, because it was a head injury. If there was head trauma, like a concussion, they can’t let you go unconscious. So he had to sit there and grind his teeth through it.
He literally missed one day of work. He came in and basically woke us up and said “Let’s get to work!” that following day. We were all just like, “Wow, this is a real man’s man.” [laughs]
TR: I heard him on the phone and he was saying that had he been here at night by himself working on something in the studio with no one else here, he would have bled out.
Did you guys find him?
AJ: He called Dean [Herrera, guitarist], and he said “I hit my dead, and I’m bleeding. Can you bring some paper towels?” [laughs] He totally underplayed it. We go out there and see him down under the stairs taking shelter from the rain, and we see a puddle of blood. We just ran down the stairs, giving him a sweatshirt and towels and something to keep pressure on it.
TR: It’s funny how the amount of blood directly relates to your sense of emergency. [laughs] “Oh, wow, I know that’s too much.” [laughs] You instantly run to get help.
AJ: I’ve never seen blood like that.
Head blood looks different from regular blood.
AJ: You’re right. It’s thick and a little bit gooey.
AJ: Yeah. That was not good.
TR: It was a very intense moment. I’m just glad we were able to rush him off to the hospital. He was literally blacking out. “Wake up!” A.J. rode in the ambulance to the hospital and stayed with him. We were pretty much like… one day went by that he wasn’t here, and we still tried to work a little bit. We got a little bit done. Everyone was just hoping he was going to get better and stuff. The next day when he showed up and woke us up, it was mind-blowing. I was like, [adopts a child’s voice] “It feels like Christmas!”
Now if anybody tries to complain about anything, he’s like, “Fuck you, I split my head open.”
TR: He’s the toughest, most metal badass.
AJ: Yeah, most badass dude I ever met.