I hesitate to call him old, but he’s definitely wise. Youth have yet to find a way to buy experience, and it’s something Phil Labonte, vocalist of the metal band All That Remains, has a ton of. But these days? He just wants a stage, a microphone and some rock music
We’re here to talk a little bit about the new album, but I want to start a little bit further back because of the research I was doing on you. One of the things that stood out to me was that you left music to join the armed forces at one point in your life.
It’s 20 years ago.
Twenty years ago, right. When you left, did you ever feel at some point you had to be ready to die or anything like that? It takes a special mind to go into those situations.
Like I said, it was 20 years ago. It was in the ’90s. We had just gotten done with Desert Storm a year or so, a year and a half before. I didn’t grow up in a military situation. Growing in the ’80s and stuff, we didn’t have to worry about wars, for the most part. There were a few military actions. There’s Grenada and there’s Panama. But for the most part, until the Gulf War, there wasn’t any serious U.S. action, or U.S. military action pretty much anywhere. It wasn’t something that was really on my mind.
At the same time, I was only in for a year. I got a medical discharge. Thinking about it from that perspective — thinking about it now — we’ve been at war for over ten years. It’s a different perspective I had than, say, someone who joins the military now or has joined in the past ten years or so.
Do you feel like anything you learned there you apply in your day-to-day life today?
No. I think it let me know what the difference between uncomfortable is and when something really hard is.
There are a lot of people, especially in the music industry, when something’s a little difficult and they get some kind of resistance, then it’s like, I don’t want to do it anymore. I don’t want to try anymore, because it’s hard. Human beings can do far more than they think they can do when they’re really put to the test. I think that most people in the music industry haven’t really pushed themselves further than getting behind their instrument and practice.
I think it let me know what the difference between uncomfortable is and when something really hard is.
My dad was in the army. He used to say, “We do more before 5 a.m. than most people do in the whole day.” That always stuck with me. Every time things get hard in my day, I’m like, “I could be awake at 5 a.m.” It helps me keep going.
People that exercise, jog, go to gym, once you feel start feeling that burning in your legs and stuff, they know there’s so much further you can go. Just because it’s uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s going to stop you. It’s a decision in your head if you’re going to do it or not. It’s not about anything actually stopping you. It’s just a matter of, “Do you want to continue?” The decision is the hard part, not the actual getting through your legs burning or your chest burning or whatever. It’s making the decision you want to keep doing it and keep going.
Nowadays, there are a lot of people aware of the special forces community, whether it be the SEALS or whether it be Delta and the Army and stuff.
Yeah, the Rangers, sure.
Some of the stuff that the SEALS have to do, there’s a lot of times where, physically, people are unable, but most of it is all mental. Most of it is a decision that you’re not going to quit, you’re not going to stop.
Have you ever tried to do a Navy SEALs workout?
I would really love to do that just to see how far I could make it (laughs).
I’ve seen the Tough Mudder and Spartan Race and those other races and those are little bits of it. When it comes to the SEALS and stuff, though, it’s not just, “In this particular exercise, for the next hour or two hours, it’s difficult.” It’s that it’s going to go on for days and days and days. It’s going to suck.
There’s a term or a phrase that you hear a lot in the military: You got to learn to embrace the suck. It sucks. You know what I mean?
(Laughs) Yeah, I totally understand. Let’s talk a little bit about Josh Wilbur, because you’re going to get this question a lot. For the first time ever, it looks like from my notes, you guys worked together. Is that correct?
Yeah, pretty much. Most of the music was written before Josh came. He helped with the arrangements and the music, and then when it came to the vocals, me and Josh wrote the vocals together, which is a new, experience for me and for All That Remains. Most of the stuff had been done almost exclusively by me beforehand. Adam (Dutkiewicz, former producer for the band’s albums) would come up with some ideas once in a while, but they were just little bits of ideas where Josh would be like, “I got this great idea for a chorus,” or “I got this great idea for a melody.” Working with (Wilbur) is great. He’s just really easy to work with.
Why decide to write with someone else now? What was it this time that triggered, “Hey, we got to do something new, and this is the way we’re going to do it”?
I trusted him. Working with him is really good. We had really good ideas. It was a very easy and smooth thing to slide into. It was great to work with him. He is a smart guy. It was easy.
Do you think that he helps accelerate the songwriting process for you guys? When you got in, did you ever use him when you found yourself in a creative rut?
Yeah, definitely. There were times where I would be like, “I’m not sure how to make this idea work in a song. I’m not sure what I want to say here or say there.” Josh was really good about coming up with ideas, or at least inspiring ideas. He’d be like, “What if we do this?” We might like it or maybe we wouldn’t like it, but the important part wasn’t whether or not I really liked it, it was the fact that it continued the creative process and spurred more ideas in it.
Josh was really good about working with me and making sure the vocal performances were as good as they could be, so the vocals probably were the biggest difference.
How about this: Where do you feel like where you’ve grown the most from A War You Cannot Win to The Order of Things?
I don’t know.
I don’t know. Josh was really good about working with me and making sure the vocal performances were as good as they could be, so the vocals probably were the biggest difference. It wasn’t that dramatic, but I feel like he really only said four things to me. He would say “timing or too fast,” “too slow,” “pitch,” or he would say, “I don’t believe it.” I don’t believe it means you have to do it again and really do it with conviction, especially, if it’s something you just wrote. A lot of times, we’d write something in the control room, just sitting there, coming up with ideas. We’d write it, and then I’d have to go in and sing it right away.
I’m trying to remember lyrics, trying to remember the melody and I’m also trying to deliver the performance. He definitely kept me on my toes about “I don’t believe it” or “your pitch is off” or “Hey, this is too fast or whatever.” It was a really good teamwork.
That’s great advice for people just starting to get into recording and for anybody getting into the studio, because you can always be out of tune, you can always be fast or slow, but if you don’t have the belief or conviction, it’s really worthless. You know what I mean?
Yeah. I think that’s really the important thing about singing. Most people don’t have perfect pitch when they’re here. If you’re a little sharp or a little flat, especially live, people aren’t really going to notice. If you don’t have the performance, if you’re not delivering it, if you don’t believe what you’re singing… One of the things that Josh made me think about and told me is that singing is kind of like acting. The whole facial movements and the body language and stuff like that can be done differently, but you do have to deliver the feeling. That’s the most important thing about acting, I guess, is delivering the idea to the viewer. When you’re singing, it’s how to deliver the feeling to the listener.
When we write, it’s just, “Do we like it?” If the answer is yes, then we use it.
Definitely. Did you feel any pressure after you got into the studio and started writing because your last album was super successful? Was their active thought about doing something different? Or did you go in and let it happen organically?
Yeah. It’s usually what happens. We’re seven records in now. We’re done worrying about, “Is this good enough for group X?” or whatever. When we write, it’s just, “Do we like it?” If the answer is yes, then we use it. If we don’t like it, if the answer is no, then we don’t use it. It’s really that simple. We don’t put a whole ton of thought into it.
What makes the music connect to you, then? If you’re used to embracing the Suck, what is something that embraces the Like when you hear it? Is there something in your heart that says, “No, I have to say this and I’m going to write around it.”
For me, first, it’s just a vibe. If it sounds good and it’s got a cool beat or a cool vibe, that’s really what I’m looking for. Honestly, as simple as it sounds, it really boils down to “Does it sound cool?” Really, the only thing that I’m worried about, “Does it sound cool? Do I like it? Cool, awesome.” For anything else, I just don’t sweat out.
I was having this type of conversation with our Managing Editor the other day. He says sometimes you just want to get in there and rock. That’s a fully appropriate reason to listen to music. I think people get too used to writing that off.
Absolutely. I read an interview that Dimebag and Vinnie Paul had done. They were talking about their vision for music. They were like, no, we just want to be the most kick ass — and cool and write stuff that’s fun stuff like Van Halen — band. Even though Pantera sounds nothing like Van Halen, I think the attitude Van Halen had or has and the attitude Pantera has is the right attitude to have. It was all just about, You know what? We just want to write some kick ass songs, some songs that we dig, that are cool music, and I think that’s a great position to have if you’re a musician writing music.
Especially if you’re seven records in, like you guys. Because things are still going in your life but if you tried to make something out of nothing, then you not only would be a liar but it wouldn’t even be representative who you are right now. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah, definitely. Definitely.
It’s great when you get to a spot where you can make a living doing what you love. I think that’s what all artists aspire to do. It’s tough to get there.
I love the ideas you put out there. I think a lot of it applies to the young readers that get into metal and think it’s all about the breakdown or whatever. That’s fun and that can be a big part of it. But challenging their motivations, seeing what they’re actually getting into the industry for…
I think a lot of the times, people get in the music and they think that there is some standard that they have to meet. Really, the only standard that you have to meet is, do you think it’s good? It’s your music. If you’re writing music, the only thing that matters is, do you like it? Hopefully, other people do. The real important thing is, do you like what you’re doing? Are you having fun? Are you enjoying listening to your own songs?
I know a lot of them will write a record and then they’ll just be like, “Yeah, I don’t listen to our stuff anymore” or “I don’t listen to it after a couple of weeks after we’re done, I just stop listening to it because of blah blah blah…” Well, the reason I write music is because I like the stuff that I write. So you know what? A lot of times, I just put on one of our records and just rock out to it, because I dig it. Write stuff you like.
What I heard you say there is the key point is writing for you and not writing for someone else, because when you do write that record for someone else and then you have to play it for the next 20 years, if you’re lucky? You want to be able to play it again and again and again. You don’t want to have that one album where you were like, “I don’t want to play anything from that album.” I appreciate your time, Phil. I’ve heard your new album, and there are some great melodies on there. Some of them are very, very catchy.
That’s my thing. I’m a hooks fan. If I can get through a song two times and I already know the lyrics and melody for the chorus, then I’m sold. Hooks are where I live.
All That Remains was posted on March 11, 2015 for HM Magazine and authored by David Stagg.