ATREYU BLITZKRIEGED THEIR WAY TO THE TOP OF THE ORANGE County metalcore scene in the late ’90s, largely on the strength of Dan Jacobs and Travis Miguel’s dual-guitar onslaught and the fervid vocals of charismatic frontman Alex Varkatas. The band, which also features drummer and vocalist Brandon Saller and bassist Marc McKnight, brought an atypical melodicism to its impassioned din, attracting legions of fans, and the attention of Victory Records.
After three victorious releases, Atreyu migrated to Hollywood Records and released 2007’s Lead Sails Paper Anchor, which eschewed the death growl or “Cookie Monster” vocals prevalent on its previous recordings, and flirted with mainstream hard rock sounds. The album, along with the enhanced Lead Sails Paper Anchor 2.0, topped Billboard’s Top Rock Albums, Top Hard Rock Albums, and Top Alternative Album charts and sold more than 300,000 CDs, and well over double that number of digital singles.
Despite that success, Atreyu’s latest release, Congregation of the Damned [Hollywood], takes a different tack, returning to the band’s hardcore roots while sounding even heavier. “Each album is a stepping- stone to the next one, and we couldn’t have made this record if we hadn’t made the previous one,” says Miguel. “We’re always trying to travel down new roads while at the same time revisiting stuff that we have done previously, and I think this record is definitely a good representation of that. It’s kind of an all-encompassing work.”
Jacobs and Miguel bring distinctly different approaches to the band’s sound. “Dan is more of an all-around, straight-up, solid, rock player, with lots of finesse, whereas I’m more outside and left of center,” says Miguel. To which Jacobs adds, “Having two different sounds and styles brings more to the table than if we both played in exactly the same way, and it gives us more to work with when writing songs.” Nonetheless, when queried about the secret of crafting distinctly different tones, Miguel quipped, “We just plug into Marshalls and let them do all the work.”
You get a much bigger sound on the new record than previously. Did you do anything different this time?
Jacobs: This one was a little more thought out. We’ve done a lot of records with different producers every time, so we’ve learned so much that we now have a system for putting everything together, sort of like feeding a machine. We’ve always tried to make things sound bigger on every record, and this time we figured out more of the tricks behind it.
What were some of those tricks?
Miguel: Lots of reverb [laughs].
Jacobs: Yeah, reverb and delay and maybe a little chorus make everything sound bigger. Sometimes we would track with those sounds and sometimes they were added while mixing. But what really makes the parts sound big is layering. We start off with very bare-bones rhythm tracks and from there we might record the actual rhythm tracks, then add some overdubs with different guitars and amps, then add a little ear candy or “shenanigans” as Marc [McKnight] would put it, then the leads. It’s like building a high-rise, if you will, and almost literally becomes heavy because you are stacking so many guitars on each other.
What were some of the different guitars and amps that you used?
Jacobs: Our signature ESP guitars [the Dan Jacobs LTD EX and DJ-600V models, and the Travis Miguel LTD TM-600 model] reigned mostly, but we also used others including a ’69 Gibson Les Paul goldtop, an Ibanez Talman, some sort of Fender Strat, and a Fender Sub-Sonic baritone Telecaster that’s a bitch to play but sounds amazing and adds heavy bottom end.
Miguel: The producer, Bob Marlette, had a huge wall of guitars, so it was a “kids in the candy store” situation where we could just grab what we wanted. We used them to add octaves and harmonies. There’s not necessarily more going on musically, but everything sounds bigger.
Jacobs: Bob also has this really cool setup with lots of amp heads and a room that’s sectioned off with about ten cabinets miked up and ready to go. He also has drawers full of vintage and modern pedals, and he just flips a few switches and suddenly you are playing through all of this different stuff. “Let’s try these two heads and these two cabs and these pedals.” It made it really easy to try new things really quickly.
Miguel: We used everything from a single amp to five amps chained together, and when we recorded multiple amps we’d just blend them onto one or two tracks for a combined sound.
I thought you just played through Marshalls?
Jacobs:We use Marshall amps live, and we tried to keep from going too crazy with other amps to make sure that the record sounded like we do on stage. But in the studio we blended our Marshalls with a Bogner Ecstasy Classic, a Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier, a Fender Twin for clean stuff, and some amps by Lone Wolf and Diamond.
Which Marshall amps do you use?
Jacobs: I use a Vintage Modern for my main dirty sound, and a JCM 800 as a backup if I need it. I also have a Roland Jazz Chorus 120 that I use for my clean sounds live.
Miguel: I like the JCM 800s and 900s. Right now I’m actually playing through a 900 that I bought back when Atreyu first started out. I sold it at one point, but the guy I sold it to just sold it back to me for half what he’d paid.
Are there any pedals that you use regularly?
Jacobs: I have an Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer, a Boss wah, and a Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor to keep everything quiet.
Miguel: I use the Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler and ML4 Modulation Modeler, a Boss RV-5 Digital Reverb, a DigiTech Whammy, and a Morley Bad Horsie wah that I like because it comes on when you touch it. I’ve never been good at using the typical wah that you have to stomp on, because usually by the time I figure out whether it is on or off my solo section has passed [laughs].
It sounds like you mostly prefer to get distortion from an amp rather than a pedal.
Jacobs:Yes, sometimes with a little overdrive to boost the amp a little bit more. Pedal distortion doesn’t have the same balls as amp distortion, and if you use a lot of stuff it gets too synthetic sounding. Our ESP guitars also have EMG 81 active pickups with AB Afterburner boosts in the bridge slot, which give you up to 20dB of additional gain for high-energy amp distortion.
Speaking of your signature model ESP guitars, how closely do the commercially available versions resemble them?
Miguel: They are just more affordable versions of what Dan and I play, but the electronics, hardware, wood, and inlays are the same. You can buy the commercial versions for $1,000 and $1,500, whereas if you ordered an exact copy of one of our guitars it would cost two or three times that much.
Jacobs: The main difference is that ours are handmade, whereas the others are massproduced, and there are a few shortcuts that make it possible to make a lot of them. The paint jobs are also a little different. We wanted ours to be special because they are our personal guitars, and we are the only ones in the world to have those particular instruments.
The Travis Miguel model has 24 frets. Why did you want to have 24?
Miguel: I wanted to have as much as possible and I figured that if I could have those two extra frets, why not?
Though you didn’t opt for an additional string.
Miguel: I think we are about as low as we want to go in terms of heavy low end. We’ve been playing in dropped-C [C, G, C, F, A, D, low to high] pretty much from day one and it is kind of home for us. Maybe one day we might get a wild hair and play around with the 7-strings, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon.
Jacobs: On the song “Lonely,” we tune down another half-step to dropped-B [B, F#, B, E, G#, C#, low to high], which is the first time we’ve ever gone that low. Dropped-C is sort of the Atreyu sound.
What gauge strings do you use with those lowered tunings?
Jacobs:We both use Dean Markley Blue Steel medium sets gauged .011 to .052.
Miguel: We use fairly heavy picks, though. Dan uses 2.0mm Dunlops and I use 1.5mm Dunlops, but I’m not choosy. As long as there’s a pick in my hand I’m okay.
Is heaviness in the fingers, the gear, or is it a state of mind?
Jacobs: Heavy is in the riff. You can obviously stack on a bunch of distortion and bass and have the kick drum hitting at the right time, and it will sound brutal. But there were old school bands that didn’t have anywhere near as much distortion as many bands use today, and they were actually heavier in many cases. The riff in “Black Sabbath” is one of the heaviest ever, and it consists of only three notes played through a low-gain amp on a guitar with super-light strings.