(Comrade Aleks returns to NCS with this interview of Butch Balich, vocalist of the Pennsylvania heavy doom band Argus.)
Despite the Lovecraftian monstrous form of giant Argus who dwells on every artwork of this band, the Argus outfit doesn’t exactly resemble such a brutal creature. Since the year 2005 they have played a solemn and stoical blend of doom and heavy metal, bringing down on listeners stories of endurance and damnation.
The band regularly play live shows, and usually Argus do not make their listeners wait for too long before giving them some new music periodically, but three years have gone by since the release of their third full-length Beyond the Martyrs, and it’s time to ask the obvious question about new material the band has to offer. This question is well-timed, as Argus’ voice Butch Balich has some important news for you.
Hello Butch! What’s new in Franklin? What is the latest news from the Argus lair?
Greetings! We are working on our next album which should be out in March or April of 2017. That is really the main goings-on for us right now.
Your previous full-length Beyond the Martyrs was released almost three years ago. What did you do during this period?
Well, we toured after the album was released and then one of the guys wanted to take a break rather than roll back into writing. We tried doing some writing that never really took off for whatever reason. Then we had to make line-up changes and that took some time. We were fortunate to be asked to play Roadburn in 2015, so we did that as well as a show in Dublin.
We then began writing again and just wrapped a tour back in March of this year that took us to Germany (including the excellent Hell Over Hammaburg and German Swordbrothers festivals), Netherlands, Poland, France, and Ireland. Right now we are finishing the writing for album 4 and we will begin recording in late August. Otherwise we have had normal day-to-day things to do – families, jobs… time moves quickly, and sometimes you look up and see that much time has passed.
What is your progress in composing new material? How many songs do you plan to record?
The music for the basic tracks is 99% done… Might be a couple tweaks but we’re ready to go into the studio. I have some things done as far as vocal melodies, but I usually don’t have that finalized until I’m actually in the studio. It’s just the way things end up with me. I think we will record about 8-9 songs for this album.
Argus – Hell over Hamaburg live
The band toured in Europe in March 2016. What are your overall impressions of this voyage? How do you survive such tours as that one?
It was a great experience. The good far outweighed the little bumps that cropped up that all tours have. We had great touring partners in Stereo Nasty. We were treated very well by all the promoters, and the folks who came out to see us were fantastic. From the biggest show in Hamburg to the smallest show – all were fun.
I’d like to think we broke some new ground for the band in Europe but we’ll see after the next album is out and when we tour again. I know we gave it our all every night and held ourselves to a high standard, which those who saw us hopefully agree with. Of course there are things I’d do differently next time, but every tour is a learning experience. Overall it was an amazing experience.
As far as surviving, you just have to learn when to back off of each other and how to pick your battles when any trouble crops up. Sometimes you just need to step back, take some time to yourself, and look at the folks you are with and realize you are in this together and these are your friends and bandmates, and times together should be enjoyed. For me personally – I always, always have my MP3 player with me and those act as my door, so to speak, where I can just get into my own zone.
Does touring in Europe differ from touring in the US? It’s said usually that it’s easier to gather a crowd in Europe if you play doom metal.
European crowds are definitely more actively involved during shows and I do think there is more of a musical community in Europe to draw crowds from. It’s more expensive for us to tour Europe but it is a better market for us. Don’t get me wrong – we’ve played to some great crowds here in the USA too, and there are many dedicated metal fans here, but the overall experience playing in Europe seems to be smoother, easier, and more supportive for a band like us playing traditional metal.
Argus creates the impression of a regular band with gigs, albums, professional studio work, and so on. How expensive is it to run the band in this manner?
Well, we do not make any money doing this, that’s for certain. We definitely have lost more than we’ve brought in so far, but we’re not in this for the money. We’re in it because we love it. We don’t want to lose the shirts off our backs, but we know how to do things so that any losses we incur we can look at as investing in the band’s future or, honestly, sometimes you have to look at it as vacation or a hobby.
Someone who plays golf spends money on equipment and greens fees, etc., someone who collects comic books will spend cash on the comics and attending conventions, etc…. MUSIC is our hobby. We take it deadly seriously, but ultimately we’re spending money on something we love. We have a good partner in Cruz Del Sur, who release our albums, and relationships building with folks who help us be able to tour, so it makes it much easier to maintain the band on a professional level.
Does Beyond Martyrs have some concept that ties together all songs included in the album?
No, there is no tie between the songs.
Okay, what are your main lyrical influences? What are the topics you usually express through Argus’ lyrics? Do you have some things which you find unsuitable for the band?
There are a lot of lyricists I like, though I don’t see shades of them in my own writing. Phil Lynott for his storytelling. Dave Wyndorf for the colors he paints with his words – the imagery. Guys like Ian Gillan and Steven Tyler are very clever with their words. Steve Harris for historical topics. Mike Scalzi from Slough Feg is very interesting and unique in what he writes about. Tom Phillips of While Heaven Wept is brilliant as well.
I’m all over the map from personal/emotional to historical to songs based on literature. Just depends on what I feel the mood of the song calls for. I’m fairly straightforward. I don’t usually bury my meaning too deeply under mounds of metaphor or imagery – a lot of times it sits at the surface or just below.
You won’t find me singing about politics. Nor will you find me writing songs about “Metal”. That’s just not my thing and I can’t imagine I’d do a very good job writing an anthem about heavy metal. There are some vocalists that do it well and convincingly, but many are so bad and cheesy… and that’s not necessarily a bad thing because music is escapism and often fun. I just think I’d do a really bad job of it and would come off like the cheesiest, most cliché-ridden nonsense ever.
Argus – Death Hath No Conscience
Argus has two new members since 2015. How have these changes affected the band? Do Justin and Dave already take part in creating new music?
Dave brings in playing abilities that match up to Jay’s and that opens up what we can do musically. He’s great on stage as well – his visual presence and tight performance has definitely improved us as a live band. Dave has written a ton for the next album. He’s been with us as engineer/producer since the first album, so it has been natural for him to step right in and know what will work in Argus. He’s brought ideas to the table that both remain loyal to Argus AND push out our boundaries.
Justin is a fantastic player and a maniac onstage and also brings a bit more business sense into the band that was needed. As we all do, his opinions while we write are important to the process. Although Dave and Jay are the music writers – the rest of us have a say in how the songs gain life.
Cruz del Sur Music released Argus’ single “Death Hath No Conscience” in 2015. Does it show the direction the band will take on next album?
Not really, not overall. But it fits within the context of Argus. It would be at home on the album but it would not tell the tale of the album. Our direction is not too far removed from what we’ve been doing. Dave brings a fresh perspective to the writing but he writes as if he’s been in the band from the outset. His material fits like a glove. I think we stayed true to ourselves and managed to push the edges out some at the same time. The next record will sit alongside Boldly Stride the Doomed and Beyond the Martyrs no problem, yet stand on its own.
Butch, did you ever discuss with the other guys some future changes that you’d like to add in Argus’ sound? Or can you say that this amalgam of doom and heavy metal is something you find perfect?
We don’t so much discuss our style in a strategic manner. When we write we edit as we go, and decide what we like and don’t like and what fits and doesn’t fit our collective vision of the band. Everyone has ideas about things they’d like to try, and sometimes it works and sometimes not.
The push and pull between us all gets the music to where we are all happy with it. I’m sure there are directions I’d like to see the band go that the others are not as in tune with, but we are a band and so we compromise. It’s a very natural process with us. Nothing forced.
How was that vision of Argus created as such a horrible figure that is represented on your albums’ artworks?
Brad Moore had sent us a pencil sketch of his ideas for the first album cover and it originally featured a warrior-type figure. We wanted to avoid going that route, so we asked him if he would develop something Lovecraftian instead, and so the creature was born. Brad has a mythology behind the character too.
Argus – By Endurance We Conquer
The giant Argus image is brutal, it reminds more about Lovecraftian horrors than about ancient Greek myth. How would you describe the general idea of the band? What is its core?
The art is really a separate thing from the band. We don’t so much deal in the fantastic all the time. It’s been a part, but the thrust behind the band is to write and perform great heavy metal – music we in the band love and hopefully other people do as well. It really is that simple for us.
Butch, you also took part in such bands as Molasses Barge and Penance. Have you left both of them?
Molasses Barge is a band I’ve been involved in for many years now. It’s fun and with really cool people and it’s different from Argus. Much more earthy doom than metal. Our album is in the mixing/mastering stage now. I’ve no plans to leave anytime soon. It doesn’t interfere with Argus, and like I said, I love the folks in the band.
Penance – I’ve been out of Penance since 2005… except for one show I filled in at Days of the Doomed Fest when Lee Smith couldn’t make it over to sing. I will always look back fondly at my time in Penance. That was the band that allowed me to start down the road I’m on now and where I really developed my voice and lyric writing.
How did it happen that you were involved in Penance? And what part did you take in the songwriting process?
They were a Pittsburgh-based band and had advertised for a singer. I wasn’t sure I could sing that heavy at the time but was a fan, so I auditioned. They liked my voice but the timing for them seemed a bit off — BUT we remained friends. Eventually it worked out that we started jamming and progressed from there.
I started out splitting lyric writing and melody line ideas with Mike (and Terry too on a few things). By the time we did the second album I was involved with, I was the main lyric writer and did my own melodies. But everyone threw ideas around at rehearsals, so I would have a say on the music and they would have a say on what I was doing.
What are your best memories of being the part of Penance?
It was a great experience overall and I love all those people to this day, even if we don’t always stay in touch. I loved the music we created and we had fun when we played live.
Our tour in 2004 in Europe was an amazing experience for me. Headlining one of the nights of Doom Shall Rise is a moment in time that will always be special to me. I wish we could do a gig once every year for fun. Or even do new music, but those dudes are busy with Dream Death. And Terry and Matt are in Blackfinger with Eric Wagner. But Penance will always be the band where I turned the corner and found who I was as a singer.
Penance – The Innocent
Can you share more details about Molasses Barge? The band isn’t well known, and you have only one demo record and an EP.
This is a band that came together when Justin Gizzi (guitar) and Wayne Massey (drums) asked me if I wanted to do a doom metal project for fun. I’m not even sure how many years it’s been going now exactly, but it’s been fun and our lineup shifted a lot early and settled a couple years ago and it’s a fun band.
I love the people in it. Amy (bass) and Dave (guitar) are great – we get along. There are no fights. We keep things in perspective. Justin does the writing, and we learn it and play it and have fun with it. We’ve gotten to play with some really cool bands when they come through town – Pentagram, Saint Vitus, Mortals, Elder, Stinking Lizaveta, and more…..Our debut album is nearly complete and will hopefully be out this year or early next. I don’t know about a label yet. We have a Facebook page that Justin maintains.
Butch, you also sang for one song on Tortured Spirit’s album The Mentally Ill. How did you become involved with it?!
I have known Reverend Odd for a long time and he asked if I’d like to work on a song with them and I was honored to do so. I actually used lyrics originally intended for Penance for “Message from Hell”. It’s a cool song. I’m honored to have been a part of that album.
Thanks for your time and patience Butch! I wish you all the best with finishing the new Argus and Molasses Barge albums! Come back to Europe when you’ll be able!
Thank you for your time and for this interview! We hope to be back in Europe the Summer of 2017. And thank you to everyone who took the time to read this interview and take an interest in Argus.