With an extensive touring history at their feet and a versatile sound that can fit just about any bill, Atreyu now faces its next chapter with boldness and grace as drummer and clean vocalist Brandon Saller assumes the frontman position, following the departure of their former vocalist, Alex Varkatzas.
After the seamless move from behind the kit to the front of the stage, Saller talks with us about Atreyu’s history, the recent changes in the band’s lineup, and their brand new album, Baptize. His easygoing and candid approach to the band’s hard-earned success is accompanied by undeniable gratitude and grit. Throughout our conversation, every word reflected Atreyu’s humble roots and echoed confidence in the band’s future.
Their latest timely release, Baptize, brandishes all the elements that have made Atreyu a household name in rock music for the last two decades. From party songs and ballads to colossal rock anthems, each moment uniquely testifies to the band’s recent journey and the universal changes within the music industry. And true to their identity, every track is laced with a force that can only be attributed to Atreyu — something fans are anxious to encounter again on the band’s upcoming U.S. headline tour.
I saw that you all just announced your headlining tour for the album — congrats on getting back on the road!
We did, yeah. Thank you, it feels incredible. It’s fun to see people talking about it, just as excited as we are.
That’s great. I’m a total fangirl, and I remember the first time I saw you guys. It was probably 2007. You guys were playing the Family Values Tour with Korn and Evanescence.
That tour was so good!
It was so good! I think I was there the first day of the tour in St. Louis.
That sounds about right. That’s great, I love that. That was a great time for our band too.
Do you hear that all the time — “Lead Sails, Paper Anchor, that’s when I discovered you guys?”
One hundred percent. It’s our biggest record, period. So a lot of people came on board at that point. And it makes sense, it was the first moment of mass exposure we really had. So it makes sense that that’s when a lot of people joined Team Atreyu.
Yeah, I think especially back then, you guys were a gateway band for a lot of people.
Yeah, we’re like the weed of bands (laughs). In multiple ways — we just start growing and you can’t stop us, and also, once you smoke a little bit of Atreyu, you’re probably going to try something a little heavier.
That’s cool that you can fit so many different bills. I feel like the music industry right now is so DIY, and even though there’s always been an element of that, is it different for you guys now?
When we started, DIY was the only way. It was getting out, feet on the concrete, flyering shows, word of mouth. It was a mystery that we got signed to a record label first in North Carolina, and then in Chicago. It was so much harder to find, so DIY was all we knew. And I think that mentality has always stuck with us. We’re a very self-sufficient band. Our bass player probably does 75% of our merch designs, and he directs half of our videos and does album artwork. Our guitar player owns a merch company that prints all of our merchandise. We’re very, very DIY to this day.
That’s great, so it’s mostly bands that you all do those side hustles for?
Yeah, our bass player does design work for a ton of people. He’s done video work for Circa Survive, The Sound of Animals Fighting, and he’s done a couple tours with bands. Our guitar player’s merch company is massive. He’s done everything from licensed stuff for Disney and Walmart to bands like Falling in Reverse, Avenged Sevenfold, you name it. There’s so much stuff going on.
Just creativity, I guess. Gotta keep it moving.
Exactly. Gotta keep the ball rolling.
“For us, creativity-wise, especially going through what we went through, we had a whole new purpose and motive to prove to ourselves and the world that the decisions we were making were the right decisions. We knew internally that they were, but you still have to give that validation and prove yourself again. It’s like we’re a new band again.”
Not to say that this last year stopped creativity, but did it change anything for you guys as a band, other than touring, obviously?
I think it did quite the opposite. Luckily, we were already coming to the end of our recording cycle for In Our Wake. We went to Australia and literally, when we landed back home, Covid hit the states two weeks later I think. So, we were kind of done anyway — I think we had to cancel one show in Indonesia, but that was about it. Schedule-wise, everything just got pushed back about a year. This record was originally supposed to come out last October, in 2020.
But for us, creativity-wise, especially going through what we went through, we had a whole new purpose and motive to prove to ourselves and the world that the decisions we were making were the right decisions. We knew internally that they were, but you still have to give that validation and prove yourself again. It’s like we’re a new band again. A lot of our fans are just rabid and die-hard, like we live in a little place in their heart, that it was not even a stutter. It was just, “I love you, no matter what,” you know what I mean? We truly have an unconditional thing with some of our fans, which is beautiful. But there are a lot of people that were like, “Fuck you. Show me why I should stick around.” And that was a big inspiration for us. In finishing the record, and doing the live stream events that we did.
Those live stream events were work. We rehearsed for months. When we have a tour, we practice for two weeks before the tour starts. But for these, we were rehearsing 3-4 days a week for months. The production was bigger than we’ve ever done.
There’s so much more that goes into it because everything is on camera and you’re not standing so far away from people.
Absolutely. You’re under a microscope. When people can rewind and go, “Woah, what the fuck did he just do?” and watch it again, it has to be the best it’s ever been.
From every angle.
Yeah. So we just did everything in our power to make sure it was as good as it could be — hiring the right people to do the mix and the lighting. Again, our bass player did all the video content for the back wall. It was very meticulous, and I think that inspiration came from knowing we have to show people why they should still hang around.
So many bands are taking so many different approaches to livestreaming. It’s just a whole new wave of creativity in the music industry. Where do you see it going? Do you think it’ll stick around?
I think it should. Obviously, the allure and sparkle has kind of faded away because in the beginning, people had nothing else to do. They weren’t even working or going out to bars. It was their only means of some sort of entertainment, so they were such a huge deal. And then, once the world started opening up again, people still wanted to see shows but they were also getting some of that social itch, you know? Where they could go to a restaurant with their friends and people are vaccinated and this and that. For us, it was the only means we had to show people what the band was and introduce new music. I really think they should stick around.
We just launch the Atreyu Twitch channel, and we’ll be doing a lot of your average guitar play-through and drum play-through streaming, but we’re also going to be streaming rehearsals and I think we’re going to start streaming weekly shows while we’re on tour because even if you live in the United States, you might not live in one of those cities. You might not live close to those cities. You might live in that city but you can’t afford to go or you can’t go that day. You might live in another country. We want to provide that for people to just build that sense of community within our fan base, and I think live streams are going to continue to do that.
Whether they’ll end up being massively profitable spectacles still? I don’t know about that because people can just go to the show, but I think they should definitely stick around as a new means of connection with your fan base.
Yeah, I think even in the last two years, I would have loved there to have been livestream recordings of some of the bands I missed. Especially now that we regret it so much since there have been no shows for a year.
For sure! I think that’s happening now as bands are touring again. Not only are people just starving for that, but also, I think a lot of people gained a lot of perspective in the last year and a half. With us, for an example, they’re like, “Shit, Atreyu came through Dallas three times in the last four years and I didn’t go because I worked. I’m never missing them again.”
Right. “I’ll catch them next time…”
Yeah, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. In this case, the entire world was gone, you know (laughs)?
It’s so wild.
It’s interesting, for sure. We’ll see how it goes.
I know you guys have always had a wider reach than most because you’re so versatile.
We’re really lucky. It’s obviously in large part because of our sound, but it’s also how we approached touring early on.
With a “yes” mentality?
Yeah. I think when we were literally on tour with Lamb of God and Primera and 18 Visions, we got a call from our manager and he was like, “Hey, we have two tours for you next year. It’s going to be direct support for The Used on the west coast, and then direct support for Taking Back Sunday on the east coast.” And we were like, “You’re on drugs. What are you talking about?” And he said, “No, just trust me. This is going to be fucking crazy.” And that made it so we could do Warped Tour one summer and OzzFest the next summer, and Projekt Revolution one summer, and Family Values the next summer. It’s been one of those things that has just been such a huge blessing for us to straddle the line.
But also, our music. We are a hard rock band with metal riffs and pop choruses. So you can fit us into a bunch of different holes. It’s not on purpose, it’s just how it panned out.
That was my question — was that strategic? Or is that just how it happened in the songwriting?
We’re very much a band that just shoots from the hip, especially in the last couple of albums. We write all of our music in the studio. It’s like, “How do you feel today? What do you want to write about right now? What’s coming out of you right now?” And that’s really the only intention — to get a timestamp on where the five of us are mentally, in that moment.
There’s never been a thought like, “Guys, we need to write a more metal record. We want to sound more like this band.” We just go with what’s existing within us at that moment and that’s what Atreyu sounds like at the moment. It’s funny, because sometimes, it can be a bit polarizing, but a lot of our fans are open-minded in the sense that they like that polarization.
It’s great to listen to an Atreyu record and be really pissed off and want to punch somebody, and then on the next song, grab your girlfriend and cry. I like that in music! It’s never been intentional really, it’s just what has kind of existed. We’re sort of just a vessel, you know?
I love that.
Yeah, without sounding pretentious as fuck (laughs).
No, I love it (laughs), because it’s also very accurate. As someone who has followed you through the years, that makes 100% sense.
I think a lot of people like to assume what goes on in a band’s head. You assume the term “sell-out” and assume people have involvement in things and all this stuff. But if people only knew…If people only knew what actually went on in the brains of the five dudes in Atreyu. Actually, I don’t want that to exist.
As far as making music, there’s never been this idea like, “Alright guys, we’re gonna write the radio hit, and then we’re gonna buy the Lamborghinis, and then all the girls will like us.” It’s never been that thing. It’s just like, “Oh fuck, this is happening? Cool!”
And for the record, none of us have Lamborghinis…
“People have really strong ties to certain periods of their life that were special, and I think most of the people that complain about us not sounding like we did 20 years ago are people that have not surpassed that great moment in their life 20 years ago.”
A pattern I see when talking to bands is that there is a constant tension between being nostalgic for people and remaining the same, as you’ve always been. But then, at the same time, you’re a human being, and that’s not fair for people to hold you to that standard.
Yeah, for us it’s not possible. We can’t stay the same. But there are bands that do the same thing forever. And that’s great. I just did an interview with some friends of mine yesterday, and Doc Coyle from Bad Wolves is the one who said it; He referred to Hatebreed as the Motorhead of hardcore. And he’s like, “Exactly, Hatebreed is Hatebreed is Hatebreed. Always and forever. And I don’t want it to be any different. And that’s why I love Hatebreed.”
We’ve just never been that band. I think people just get emotional, you know? People have really strong ties to certain periods of their life that were special, and I think most of the people that complain about us not sounding like we did 20 years ago are people that have not surpassed that great moment in their life 20 years ago. I think the rest of them are just normal people that grow and just live.
Maybe I’m reading too much into it at this point, it’s all philosophical, but do you think that has anything to do with Atreyu’s transition recently? Your band kind of took a flawless step into the next chapter, at least from my perspective. I had to read about it to know it even happened…
Yeah, you’re not the only one that’s shocked. For us, this was a gigantic leap of faith, and it could have all been over. Everyone could have said, “Fuck you. We’re out,” and we could have been back in a van, trying to fill 100 capacity rooms. But we just kind of did what we always do and followed our gut.
And that was the only real intention — just trying to be honest with yourself. I feel like most of the time, at least in my life, that usually pans out for one reason or another, for better or worse. I mean, sometimes it pans out for the worse, but then ends up being fine five years down the road and you realize what that lesson was, and you realize why that happened. But again, like you said, without being too completely philosophical, that was a huge piece of all of this. We didn’t know what was going to happen. So far, we’re very happy with what’s happening. We’re very grateful.
I’ve listened through the album, and I think you should be very proud.
Thank you. What’s your fave? What are your top two or three?
Okay, I was gonna ask you a question first, because I want to know if I’m a really predictable listener. So, what do you think is going to be the fan-favorite?
I think that “Fucked Up” is going to be a fan song, just because of the bonehead sing-along element of it, and I think everyone feels that way at some point. It’s relatable.
I think “Stay” is gonna rip people’s hearts out. And I think “Sabotage Me” is going to be a big one for people. Those are some of my favorites, but I think that’s my prediction.
Well, “Stay” is definitely on my list. And, another fangirl moment here…I just absolutely love your voice.
So, it’s got to be that one and “Dead Weight” for me, because the second the runs came in during that chorus, I was like, “Listen…”
My wife calls those my ‘Yonce moments. I needed some inspiration for this album, and I was like, “I’m going to do some Beyonce shit,” as a joke. And then I just did it and that was it (laughs).
All about it, for what it’s worth.
I’m glad, I’m glad. I love that.
There’s a lot of different stuff in there. In “Warrior,” the drumline threw me, but it makes sense considering your background. I don’t know if that even played a part in it.
That’s funny, because I was in marching band as a child, but I never really dove into that realm of drumming. That’s why we got Travis (Barker) involved, because if you do that without authenticity, you can hear it from a mile away. It sounds like a computer and it sucks. But he is really good at that. So we asked him to do it and it was a straight-up text message, like, “Yeah, be there next week.” So we just threw the Hail Mary for that one and it worked out.
I just love the energy. We had a song on the last album called “The Time is Now,” and it did such magical things for our band because it was played in, quite literally, every arena or stadium for every sports team ever in the world. Basketball, baseball, football, soccer, European soccer, everywhere. It had that half-time, high school football game energy, and there’s something palpable about that. It just gets people going. So we decided to do that again, but dive even further into that exact energy. Bring in the marching band…
Was it a full marching band?
It was Travis playing tons of shit, me playing a bunch of shit, and then our friend, Johnny ConCannon, playing a bunch of shit.
We started with myself or with Travis, and then added, and we just kept going and going and going, because you have to reach a certain level of gigantor. I think collectively, there are probably about 150 tracks of drums in that part. It’s ridiculous.
“There’s a lot on the record that I felt related all too closely from what to what happened with our band, months later. And there’s a lot on that record that was written for what we were about to go through.”
So, going back to the whole shooting-from-the-hip thing, for this album, what was that timestamp? What was going on when you wrote it?
The weird part is that a lot of it was written pre-pandemic, which is strange when you look at songs like the intro track, “Strange Powers of Prophecy.” There’s a lot on the record that I felt related all too closely from what to what happened with our band, months later. And there’s a lot on that record that was written for what we were about to go through.
We wrote “Save Us” in January and for six months until it came out, we were like, “Can we please put this song out now? Can we put it out now? Can we put it on now?” Every time something horrible would happen, it was like, “Can we put the song out?” We wrote this song when we thought the world was fucked up. We thought the whole planet was crumbling. There were fires all over the place, and the fucking president was a piece of shit, and everything was just falling apart, and then, 2020 happened… There are all these little moments that are strangely fortune teller-y. So it’s weird how that happened, but I think a lot of it just came from where we’re at. The world was already a crazy place and it got even more horrific.
Then, we went back in towards the end and we wrote “Underrated,” we wrote “Catastrophe,” and we wrote “Fucked Up.” And those were really “timestamp” songs.
“Catastrophe” was a love song with a very theatrical, almost apocalyptic twist put on it. That came from me having those thoughts of, “Wow, the world sucks, we can’t go anywhere, our kids can’t go to the park, I can’t see my friends, I can’t work, I can’t play music, but my wife’s awesome and we make everything cool day to day.” It was a blessing to have that time. So even though everything sucks, if you have someone to go through all this with, that kind of makes it okay. So that’s where that song came from, in a very real place from where we were at.
“Fucked Up” was just about some people that I know that just continually make the same fucking mistakes over and over again, and don’t change anything about it.
And then, “Underrated” was the first song we wrote back in the studio, just the four of us. It came from a place that was a bit cocky, but more so, just a bit confident. We said, how can we tell people how we feel about what’s happening right now or what’s happened? How can we tell people how we feel about what we think is going to happen? We’ve always been a band that’s had to kick and scratch for every bit of success we’ve ever had. That song’s kind of our own anthem, but at the same time, there’s a lot of us out there that just feel like they live at the bottom of the barrel and no one will ever let them rise up, you know? So it became a super powerful song for us.
The way our studio works is we build a song in the morning, have lunch, we go back after lunch to start crafting and tracking guitars, finishing lyrics and by midnight you have a song. And we’re sitting there listening through and everything’s done, and me and Porter look at each other and have that nod moment, and we physically saw the sigh of relief in all of us. It was like, “This is gonna be fun. This is gonna be good.”
So yeah, we’re just writing about real-ass stuff all the time, guys.
You guys worked with John Feldman again, yeah? How was that compared to the last album?
Yeah, he’s the only producer we’ve ever worked with more than once. He’s essentially become a sixth member of our band.
It was fantastic. We had done Lead Sails with him over a decade ago. And it’s like the Great White Buffalo — you have the love of your life and then they get away from you and then you reconvene 10 years later and realize you never should have left in the first place. He just has something special. He has such an incredible way of getting our band to just drop our guard and be honest. It’s like, throw everything else out the window. Throw the question “Why?” out the window. It’s, “Do you love it or not?” And that’s the only thing you should worry about. That’s how you write honest music, and he is the only person that’s ever been able to do that with us.
Also, he’s just an audio fucking guru. He’s a genius — with his ideas, with his songwriting, with production — so it’s a no brainer for us. In Our Wake was such a great record for us and we loved it, and from there it was just, “Hey, call John. When can we get back into make another record?” I don’t see us changing that anytime soon. It’s just a great fit.
That’s really great. You said you write in the studio. So you literally say, “We’re going to the studio for two weeks, and we’re going to write this album?”
Yep. Exactly. With In Our Wake, we kind of started breaking the albums up. We’d go in for about three weeks and then we’d take two or three months to do whatever we wanted, whether that was touring or nothing. We’d be thinking about the songs, digesting and dissecting what we’ve done, and then go back in and write a bunch more and finish everything.
For In Our Wake and Baptize, aside from maybe having a couple riffs or a melody idea, we would just get in the room and say, “Cool, what do we got today?” “I got this chorus idea,” or “This lyric popped in my head and it kind of goes like this…” John would say, “I have this idea,” or Dan would be like, “I’ve been toying around with this.” From there, we’d decide which one we like best for the day and just run with it. We’re not Dream Theater or anything. It’s not over-thought and technical, where we’d have to work on a riff for about two and a half weeks to get it right. We’re just not that band. For us, it works to just feel what you’re feeling right now and just go for it.
The way John’s studio is set up, it’s so fluid. Once you get the idea, you run in and throw drums down real fast and then I’ll come back and throw down the guitar, and then let me hit the chorus, and then let’s eat lunch and then we’ll try to write the rest of the lyrics, and then just keep building. Everything’s at your disposal, within arm’s reach, so it’s really easy to just dive in and get creative.
As you’re talking, I’m thinking about that process, and something I have always loved about Atreyu is that you’re not afraid to embrace the feel-good parts of a song. Obviously, some people can make it cliche, but you guys really seem to embrace it in a way that almost gives you more freedom to be creative with it because you’re not trying to avoid anything.
For sure. We’re a bunch of goofs. We’re very jokey, happy dudes. What’s that quote from The Crow? “It can’t rain all the time.” You can’t be serious all the time. We have songs that are so tongue in cheek, and a lot of it comes from Dan. Dan is such an 80s dude. Every bit of our 80s element comes from Dan, and that’s all about fun, party songs, you know? You want that emotion and that’s kind of the root of our music, but sometimes, you also just want to party, have a good time, and let loose. That’s just where we’re at, and like I said, it’s losing the questions about “Why?” or “Can we?” or “Should we?” It’s just, “Do we love this or not?”
Take “Blow,” for example. “Blow” is such a ridiculous song. The lyrics are ridiculous. The music is ridiculous. But people hear it and just want to freakin’ party. It works. It’s just the other side. But it’s nice, what you said, we’re not trying to avoid anything. It’s very true.
It’s funny, I played the record for some friends, as you do when you’re in a band, and some of the friends I always share with are the guys in Avenged. So, I was playing the record for Brian and we’re listening to “Stay.” Then the drums came in with that full-on The Cars, 80s pop everything, right? And he said, “What the fuck? You don’t do that!” And I said, “Dude, yes you do,” and he’s like, “No, you don’t go 80s pop song!” I go, “Dude, it’s an 80s pop song! What do you mean? Listen to the song. That’s what it is!” And he said, “You threw me off.” I’m like, “I’m sorry you’re afraid of that.”
Yeah, that’s exactly what mean. Those big moments, big wailing choruses…everyone thinks, “No we can’t do that, it’s expected,” and I’m like, “Yeah, because it feels good. Do it.”
Yeah, I like people to be able to sing our songs by the second chorus.
That’s the school I come from. I come from Tom Petty and The Misfits. Just give it to me sweet, you know? I don’t want to have to think about this, it’s music, not math. I just want to freakin’ rip and have a good time.
So is that the scene you grew up in?
We came from the punk and hardcore scene. When I was a young kid, I grew up on Misfits, The Germs, Dead Kennedys, and The Joykiller. And then I got more into the hardcore scene locally and got into bands like Adamantium and Throwdown, and got into the European things like In Flames. But my dad comes from Tom Petty and the Traveling Wilburys, so my real roots are in the best rock music ever to exist and punk rock. It’s just bare bones —beautiful where it needs to be beautiful and smart where it needs to be smart, and just to the point, you know?
And angsty all around.
Yeah, my dad comes from classic rock, so those are my roots. I turned out a little heavier though…
Well, you always go a little bit more extreme than your parents. I mean, my parents were hippies. My dad had a huge afro that he would hide joints in and their parents were like, “What the fuck is this?” My version of that was, I had blue hair and my lip pierced. So you’re always one step further than your parents were.
That’s right. And it’s only going to get worse.
I know, I’m horrified…
Yeah. So you made a comment somewhere, I don’t know in the online cosmos that you think this album is the heaviest album you’ve written.
Yeah, some pieces. I love heavy music, like I said, I come from a hardcore scene and I’ve always been seeking that part that just destroys everyone. I always wanted the breakdown or the riff that every band hears and is like, “Damn it.” Most recently, I call them Architects parts. Architects is a band that I’m like, “You guys did it again.”
So, there are parts on this record that are just nuts. The bridge of “Catastrophe” is brutal. “Underrated” is a straight-up blistering song. The middle of “Fucked up” is just crazy. There’s so much groove and heavy roots in this record.
I think a lot of people were like, “Okay, Brandon’s singing now…” and no one’s gonna care. And, you know, is what it is but, I think people are already aware of the fact that it’s the opposite.
Also, you were always singing…
Once you get on tour, what will that change for you personally? Will it feel like you’re like missing a limb?
I think I’m gonna have like, it’s like I got one less bag to take to the airport (laughs).
A few, I imagine.
Yeah, exactly. I’ll be fine. I’m excited. Our new drummer is so good. I’m just excited for people to hear him and also being able to play shows with him. I’m a dude who likes to get up close and personal and run around and get wild. My wife tells me not to jump off things so often, but I don’t listen as much as I should. But I’m excited for that.
Yeah, and I have a lot of respect for how you all parted with Alex.
I know people are always looking for the drama but I think, like I said before, it was just a seamless transition from the outside if you’re not digging for the drama.
So, yeah, without sounding overconfident, I just don’t think we needed it. You know, I’ve said this before, but we’ve never been a controversial band. There’s no bar fights, or sex scandals, or drug arrests, anything like that. We’ve never been about that. It’s not who we are. So, to have this thing be some big dramatic dogfight — we’d rather just let the music do the talking and just kind of move forward.
And that diffuses it.
It really does, yeah. And of course, people have a sense of entitlement, but it’s not really our problem. I’m happy with how we’re doing everything exactly the way that we always talked about doing it.
With that, I guess my last question is really just, have your goals changed as a band? Not even considering his departure or anything, but just 20 years later, have your goals changed as a band?
Yeah, I mean there’s just so much more that we still want to do. We’ve been a band for so long and accomplished so much, but at the same time, we’ve never been to South America. We’ve never played a lot of Asian countries, or Russia, or Eastern Europe. We’ve never headlined festivals. We’ve never headlined arenas. Those are all things that we should do.
Tonight, we’re going to rehearse for two acoustic performances we have this week. The first thing that anyone’s going to see on the internet from Atreyu post-pandemic is going to be two back-to-back acoustic performances. Who would have ever thought that? But that’s cool as shit to us. Give me the challenge and let’s show people what we can do. I think the list is so long and we’re just at the point where we’re just going to start checking off all that new stuff that we want to accomplish.
Atreyu was posted on June 30, 2021 for HM Magazine and authored by Nao Lewandowski.