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Phil Labonte on Evolution of All That Remains: ‘I Don’t Want to Be a Formula Band’ [Interview]

Chad Bowar
Chad Bowar

All That Remains frontman Phil Labonte was the latest guest on Full Metal Jackie’s weekend radio program. The singer discussed the writing process behind their new album, Madness, what’s changed during his 20-year career, the importance of discussing post-traumatic stress disorder and the band’s future plans. Check out the chat below.

Usually a band writes music first, then figures out how to fit the lyrics in melodies. But this new album was the other way around for you guys. What did that allow you, the vocalist, to do different than before?

Well, this time it focused on the vocals. It allowed us to make the vocals the primary focus, I guess. We’ve always been a guitar band. I play guitar, Mike and Ollie, our guitar players, are also the primary writers, so we’d always come with riffs first. I don’t know how other bands do it, but we’d always really just thought of songs as a collection of riffs first.

It really let us look at songs as the vocals first and kind of focus on the story or focus on melody or making sure that the idea got across well without — I don’t want to say clutter because that sounds like it’s minimizing guitar and stuff like that. Again, I’m a guitar player, the last thing I want to do is minimize the guitars in All That Remains, but it does allow us to not have parts that aren’t necessary and riffs that just don’t go anywhere. It really lets us focus on stuff.

The new album, Madness, showcases the band trying different songwriting techniques — trying programming, electronic ideas and covering Garth Brooks. How does trying something different invigorate you creatively?

Well, I mean, it makes it more interesting. We’ve been a band for almost 20 years now, honestly. Our first demo, three-song demo CD, we did and we had that done in 1998. I was handing that out at the Milwaukee Metal Fest. It allows us to keep growing and change and keep it interesting to us.

I think that if writing music isn’t interesting to you then I think that it shows in the music, it shows in the song. If you’re just trying to go through a formula that you’ve used time and time again, it kind of shows. That’s something that I don’t want to happen with All That Remains. I don’t want to be a formula band, I don’t want people to think that they know what the next All That Remains album is gonna sound like.

The “Madness” video depicts PTSD. Why is calling attention to that so important to you and what stayed with you from your own military experience years ago?

Most people know that I was in the military and most of my friends that I spend time with at home or when I’m not out on the road, or not touring or not in the music business side of my life, most of my friends are either former military or in law enforcement or in that world. To me, it’s really important and post-traumatic stress is something that I think people always need to be reminded of. I think it’s something that shouldn’t be a, “Hey remember, this happened,” and then it goes away.

I think it should be an ongoing conversation because we’re still at war. There are still Americans that are deployed to war zones across the world, across the Middle East. It’s a real thing, it’s a present thing and depending on what — it doesn’t seem to matter which political team is in charge, there’s always Americans that are out there fighting. As long as that’s going on, and I don’t see any change anytime soon, this has to be an ongoing conversation. It’s something that’s real and present in people’s lives.

The new All That Remains creative process starts with you and Ollie. How has that creative relationship evolved over eight albums?

Actually it’s me, Ollie and Mike. Ollie comes in with a lot of material. I’ve described him as a firecracker; if you give him a direction or give him just a small little bit of an idea, he can explode with options and ideas and different directions that you can go based on just a real simple small thing. Usually Ollie will come in with a bunch of ideas and then me and Mike and Ollie will sit down and we’ll just take them apart and put them back together and get a vibe for what we feel will be the best things to use for a song and what fits with what we’re feeling at the time.

People that are familiar with All That Remains know that really something that is typical of All That Remains — there’s some stuff that people will say, “Yeah, that doesn’t surprise me that that’s All That Remains.” But really, the thing that we’ve always gone by is do we like it? Does it speak to us? And if we do, we’ll use it. I think that working with Ollie, just the fact that he’s got the ability to come up with so many ideas and so many options, it’s really enjoyable.

Next year is going to be about 20 years since you started All That Remains, correct?

Yes, since we put our first demo out.

What’s different about you now musically and personally?

Oh god, 20 years. Everything. [laughs] I like to think that I’ve learned a lot about music and the music industry. I think that goes without saying to be honest; I think that if you spend 20 years in an industry — especially an industry like the music industry that’s changed so much in the past 20 years. I mean, 20 years ago people bought records and the way people got music was so different.

It wasn’t stuff like Spotify like it is today like Pandora where the vast majority of people get their music. They don’t actually have their music in any physical kind of way. They just have a subscription to a service that provides them anything they want at any time. It just streams out of the cloud. It seems to be the way that music is going, so whether it be the streaming services or the touring situation now with music. There used to be the Ozzfest and the Mayhems and Warped Tour. The only one that is left is Warped Tour, so the music industry has changed incredibly.

I think you have to learn to adapt and change and be able to roll with the punches and assimilate to whatever it is the model at that time. It changes fast. As time goes on the changes come faster and faster, so it’s really really difficult but it’s also — when you get onstage and perform, that’s always been the same for at least us. There are things that are similar, there are things that are different and I’m just happy that we’ve been able to continue to make relevant music for — God, 20 years, I can’t even believe it. [laughs] We’ve been making relevant music for 20 years. Hopefully we can do it for another 20.

Tell us your plans for this summer and beyond.

This summer we’re doing a lot of festivals on the weekends, which is really cool because you get the benefits of being on tour, but not being on tour all the time. When you go out for five to six weeks straight, it can be taxing. You’re away from home, you’re away from things that you’re comfortable with and stuff. It can be rough.

Doing weekends like this where you’re going out to play two to three shows in a weekend, come home so you’re really gone Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Saturday, Sunday, Monday or whatever. Then you’re back. That’s really kind of awesome.

Then, this fall, we’ve got a couple of things that are in the works that I can’t announce yet, but they’re going to be really cool and I can’t wait until I can announce them. There’s talk of Europe and Australia this fall as well, so we’re hoping we can make that happens. It’s been two years since All That Remains has been to Europe and probably five since we’ve been to Australia. So hopefully we can make this happen and get out to see our fans overseas.

Thanks to Phil Labonte for the interview. Pick up your copy of All That Remains’ ‘Madness’ through Amazon or digitally through iTunes and follow the band on Facebook to keep up with everything they’re doing. Find out where you can hear Full Metal Jackie’s weekend show at this location.

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