Some bands have seen enough of the world together to have smoothed out the jagged edges and settled into a tremendous peace with one another. That is the best and only way I can describe my conversation with Anthony Notarmaso, vocalist for djent kings After the Burial. For 15 years, the Minnesota-bred progressive metal band has honed their craft and reinforced their mark in the heavy music scene. Record after record, the band has let their purpose drive each song, building a landscape of art and sound.
But, in the summer of 2015, the band’s guitarist, Justin Lowe, abruptly left amid bizarre circumstances and was later found dead by a hiker beneath the Arcola High Bridge in a manner consistent with a fall. So, early in 2016, they released Dig Deep, the final album they would ultimately release with Lowe. The band considered ending the journey as a result of the loss, but, instead, they opted to pick up the pieces, and, out of the ashes of Dig Deep, transform tragedy into self-discovery, translate a journey into an anthem, and tell the story of humanity with grace and strength. That result would be Evergreen.
While talking through the writing process and Notarmaso’s new inspiration, he spoke of his bandmates with respect and discussed his music with appreciation and vulnerability. As our conversation progressed from songwriting to band dynamics and the way circumstances have shaped his band and as an individual in an unimaginable way, the thought kept running through my head that After the Burial truly is a force of nature.
You all have been a band for more than 15 years now. Can you tell me a bit about how life has changed for you over the years?
I think we’re like veterans, in that sense. We all understand what it’s like to be on the road, so everyone’s really peaceful with each other. You know, if you spend so much time together in a confined space, you can get on each other’s nerves in the wrong situation, but we all do really well together. We’ve had the same crew since 2016, and we have a good family aesthetic. We have things ironed out.
That must be nice.
What do you do outside of the band?
Well, the band is based out of Minnesota, but I live in St. Petersburg, Florida, and I live next to the water. I’m out on the water a lot. I have a boat, and I do a lot of fishing and taking the family out on the water. We’ll hang out and have picnics. My wife and I are in business together so we run that. It’s a lot of time with the family. When you’re gone so much, you really miss being home. You miss laying in your own bed and being around your dogs. It’s a lot of family time.
The new album is incredible. How do you feel now that it’s out?
Well, thank you! I feel good because I know of a lot of people that have been responding really well to it. We’ve got some great feedback. Not everyone is going to like it, which is totally fine. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion – but that’s what makes music great. So far, the majority of the feedback has been really positive. It’s cool to hear.
When you put some much into a song that has meaning to you and then all of the sudden you start seeing responses online about that song and that people are getting it… that’s such a good feeling. You can say, “I did that song right,” you know? “I was able to do what I was trying to do, and it resonates with people.”
“That’s how powerful music can be, and I think if we’re helping people in any way, we’re on the right track.”
Absolutely. Is that what you would consider success, in your mind?
Yeah. To me, success isn’t measured by us being on a bus or something like that. Success, to me, is measured when a fan comes up to me and is like, “Hey, the lyrics in this song – when you said this – that means so much to me and it helped me through a really hard time.” That’s all I’ve ever wanted. So when I hear that, it’s the best thing anyone could ever say to me.
Do you have a specific story like that that sticks out as a pivotal moment in your career?
Not one, necessarily. But I’ve had so many people message me on Instagram, and they say, “Hey, thank you so much for playing music. I was going through a really hard time and this helped me navigate that. Keep playing music.” Either someone passed away or they’re going through a break-up or having a hard time with life, and they say that this song or this album helps them get through it. That’s so cool to me. It’s not cool because I want those people to be suffering and have to use our music to get through. It’s just so cool that someone can get that from our music. That’s how powerful music can be, and I think if we’re helping people in any way, we’re on the right track.
Can you tell me more about the title of the album and the artwork?
I had the name for the album before it was done. I had it in my pocket and didn’t share it with the band, but they knew I had something. I told them I had something, but I wanted to wait until the album was done to make sure it fits with the way the album sounds and the way the music was written. I wanted to be sure it all added up. And once we were done, I told them I had this title. It’s called Evergreen.
It’s more of a progression of where we are as human beings and being in After the Burial. We’ve been through a lot, and Dig Deep was this concept of being underground, buried under these roots, of saying that the light is there, you just have to find it. And once you find it, you can show the way for other people who might be struggling somewhere in their own lives. That’s what the theme of that album was and now you have this progression.
Now that there’s light under those roots, there’s this tree – an evergreen tree that stays green year round. And there’s a connection between California and Minnesota – I’m from California, but Minnesota is such a big part of my life and vice-versa with the guys – so it was the natural progression of things. When you see one of the evergreen trees 200 yards away, those trees are connected and communicating. It’s like this when we’re going around and playing music. We’re planting seeds, and, you know, that one person that we win that night – the one who says, “I understand this band now” – maybe they share our music with somebody else and they share and they share. It’s like these trees are growing.
As far as people go, I don’t know how long we’ll be a band, but I know that in the end, our music will always be there. So in a sense, we’re evergreen.
That’s packed with meaning.
Yeah, I know I can start to ramble on about it, but there is a lot going on up there.
How do you think the band has grown since Dig Deep?
You know, when tragedy happens, sometimes it can totally disrupt everything – and it usually does. And, in its wake, is everyone else that’s left. I think it was something that was incredibly hard for us as a band. We were on the verge of breaking up, and we decided not to. To just see what happens.
And it actually brought us a lot closer. Not just as a band playing music, but as friends and family. It’s like, man, I’ve known these guys for so long. We spend so much time together. Trent, Dan, and Adrian – that’s my family. We all care for each other. So, if anything, it brought us closer as a band. When we’re out here on the road, there’s this peace. And it’s never going to get better, but it gets easier over time.
We all miss Justin a ton, and it’s really sad. Sometimes I think about how we weren’t doing good before that album came out, and I wish he was here to experience all the good that came after it, you know? But you can’t dwell on those things. It is what it is, and this is what we are now as a band. We have to keep moving forward because we’re still making an impact on someone’s life somewhere.
For sure. That takes a ton of courage to move forward. Do you have a favorite song on the record?
My favorite song is “11/26.” Sometimes there are songs on our records that I just put my everything into, and it has happened on just about every record we’ve written. “11/26” is that song. It was written for my daughter. She’s this very special person, and she’s helped me grow as a human being. She’s shown me a lot, and so I wrote a song about her.
And how long was the writing and recording process this time around?
It was about a month. We all flew out to New Jersey and lived in a studio for a month. It was like, wake up and start writing, eat lunch, then start writing. It was 24/7 writing and working. And if you weren’t working and someone else was, you would think, “Oh crap, I gotta work because I’m going to look bad if I’m not working, too.” So we all lit a fire under each other. Everyone was doing something, and if you weren’t, you were going to get made fun of, you know what I mean?
(Laughs) I definitely know what you mean. So what typically comes first for you: lyrics, music, rhythm?
Sometimes music, but, for the most part, it’s lyrics. Sometimes I’ll hear a song before (I write), but, typically, I try not to let that influence the lyrics unless I get a vibe from it. Once I hear the music, I’ll know which piece I’ve written will fit that tone or that theme. So, most of the time, it’s lyrics with no musical influence. Actually, I do listen to music, it’s just all instrumental music. Usually, before we record, I’m not listening to any similar music at all so I don’t have any outside influence.
And is that intentional? Or does that happen naturally?
Yeah, it kind of happens, but it’s also intentional. I don’t listen to a lot of metal because I do it for a living, but, when I am writing, I listen to instrumental music. It’s just notes and sounds, so there are no vocal patterns or any type of lyrics to copy. I’m trying my hardest just to be myself, to be organic.
Yeah, I find when I have to focus on something, I can’t listen to anything with lyrics or drums because I’ll analyze both of those.
Yep. That’s 100% what I do. I will especially analyze all the vocal patterns, the lyrics, and the way the song went. I’ll analyze why they used that major or minor chord. I cannot help myself. It’s actually really hard to listen to music and fall asleep because, even if it’s instrumental, I’ll start analyzing the whole song.
In another interview, you talked about how, when you write, you let pictures and scenes form inside your head and play out. Do you find it difficult from time to time to manufacture inspiration like that? Or are those pictures constantly coming through?
To be honest, I’m still laying in my bunk right now because I have a horrible time sleeping. And one of the reasons is because my mind never shuts off. I’m always questioning things. It’s like this, in and out of thoughts. I can’t shut my head off, and it gets super annoying. I’ve been like this for a long time. It is what it is. I’m not saying feel sorry for me or anything, it’s just how I am. So, when I’m writing a song, usually that happens pretty easily for me because I can go there pretty fast. I just let my imagination take over. I don’t try to force anything. I’ll close my eyes and these stories will start playing out, or I’ll get these images and I’ll start writing what I see. Then, I expand from there. That’s the jumpstart. Once I get started, I can keep rolling.
If I have a hard time in the middle of the song, which happens sometimes, I won’t force it. I’ll write something and then stop, and then I’ll come back to it a day or two later, and I can get something that I want from it. That way, I have a fresh palate.
Do you take a story or narrative approach, or is it more concepts and ideas that you put words to?
It’s narrative, but it can be a little bit of both. It’ll be a story or I’ll see these little movies, but then it’s like, what does that mean? So it becomes a concept. It’s like, Why am I seeing this and what does it mean to me? Then I break it down, and that’s what the song ends up being about.
Like concrete pictures of concepts. Giant metaphors.
Yeah, and you know, there are some times – like the song I wrote for my daughter – where I already have this whole vision in my head before it happens. And that’s great because it was my favorite song on the record. So I guess it’s like having this foundation and building off of it.
You can hear so many different genres and influences on this record, but it’s still so cohesive and solid in its identity. How do those influences come into play when you’re writing?
I think it’s about not having any boundaries. When we’re writing, we’re not saying, “This song has to be like this,” or, “We need a brutal part,” or “We need a melodic part.” No, we just write what we think is going to sound good. I don’t put any thought into the way the song should sound as far as structure goes. It just goes where it needs to go organically. I think Trent (Hafdahl, guitarist) does an amazing job bringing in all these different sounds and styles of music which makes us who we are. We have some slower songs on the record – it’s new or different for us – and instead of being abrasive toward it, we just accept it and go with the flow. We say, “Okay, does that sound good to you? Yeah, that sounds good to me. So let’s use it.” There are no set boundaries for us.
“People tell us we’re one of the tightest bands live. We all care so much about holding our own weight. None of us want to let the other person down.”
What do you think is the most monumental factor in how the band got where it is now, whether that’s a sound or an event or a dynamic? Is there something you think defines this band?
People tell us we’re one of the tightest bands live, and I’m not too surprised by that. What I mean by that is, I think it’s because we all care so much about holding our own weight. None of us want to let the other person down. I don’t want to mess up a vocal part and let the band down. Dan (Carle), our drummer, doesn’t want to drop a stick in the middle of a part. Adrian doesn’t want to forget a bass part or drop a pick, you know? No one wants to be that guy. And it’s not because we’re scared of failure, but we have so much respect for each other.
I think we all inspire each other. I think we’re constantly just trying to be the best versions of ourselves, and I think that’s what After the Burial is. It’s us trying to be the best versions of ourselves, whether that’s in life or in writing the music that we share with people. This is our sound, and I think the main thing we figured out is not to try and sound like anything but ourselves. Stick to what we like and don’t focus on a concept. Don’t think you need to stick to some sort of structure. Don’t think, “I can’t do that because it’s not metal,” or, “I can’t do that because it’s hip-hop.” Just do what you think sounds good, and it’s going to be your sound.
After the Burial was posted on May 16, 2019 for HM Magazine and authored by Nao Lewandowski.