False Idol, True Self: A Conversation with Veil of Maya
Rewind time a decade. I had a portable Sony CD player with, like, ten-second skip protection (still useless on a bumpy bus). I had long, under-washed hair and probably body odor. I was just picking up guitar and spending basically all of my free time practicing instead of being social. I fucking loved breakdowns (still do) and anything hyper-technical. I blew a speaker in my car, then I blew another one. When I wasn't playing guitar, I was searching for new music -- anything more intense, more extreme, more impossible. Drop-drop tuning? Yes. More and more strings? Yes. Lots of triplets, quadruplets, and all permutations thereof? Yes, yes, yes.
Naturally, I was attracted to bands like Born of Osiris and After the Burial -- their early albums were entirely guitar-centric, all about riff-smithing and calisthenic power, but not at the expense of aggression. It was way different than prog, but the appreciation is similar. I ate that shit up, and then I discovered Veil of Maya's The Common Man's Collapse (2008). Its nutty rhythms, pithy songwriting, and outrageous catchiness sold me immediately: this was my new number one favorite album, and favorite band. I couldn't play any of their songs -- too challenging, too fast, too many notes to remember. Too goddamn frustrating, but this only drew me closer still.
My tastes have changed since then, but one fact stands strong and true: I loved Veil of Maya with a type of love I simply don't have the ability to give anymore, the special adolescent type of adoration, infatuation, obsession. Veil of Maya has changed too, and significantly. There's clean singing now (lots of it), and the guitars are deeper enmeshed within the music. Choruses now have supreme importance, and segments repeat more often. These brand new Veil of Maya songs are still catchy, but more like pop instead of groove metal. The production is far heavier, and songs developed greater variance in their styles and arrangements. Some think this is ruinous -- I think it's maturation.
When I first heard Veil of Maya's upcoming False Idol (out this Friday via Sumerian), I had to take a step back: was I being transported ten years into the past, or was this the real and current me just absolutely digging it to death? Both, really. In some respects, False Idol ties back to olden times better than the lukewarm Matriarch (2015). In other respects, False Idol is entirely fresh: a new haircut, some impressive weight loss, and a new outlook on life. Instead of just boggling your mind, Veil of Maya now wants to boggle your heart. Indeed, vocalist Lukas Magyar's supreme highs and boisterous lows (both clean and screaming) transported the band into uncharted dimensions.
This isn't to say founding guitarist Marc Okubo doesn't have a say in things: False Idol is a warehouse of serious riffage. And, fuck yes, there are breakdowns. The album's first single "Overthrow" won me over immediately with its sweet guitar build-up toward Magyar's vocal climax. Meticulously synchronized, Okubo and Magyar make room for each other -- one huge issue with this subgenre of metal is overload. Maybe Matriarch suffered from this; False Idol does not. Relying on the power of chorus, Veil of Maya now writes songs to both sing along and mosh to. Their breadth of their songwriting has never been greater.
There's a new wave of popular modern death metal characterized by an instrumental technicality de-sterilized by gritty and emotional clean vocals. False Idol reigns supreme here: chock it up to poppy catchiness, memorable lyrics, and a dose of unashamed style. Progression certainly invites detractors and traditionalists, angry at the way things have evolved -- these folk exist, but they change nothing. Besides, The Common Man's Collapse will always be available. False Idol is undeniably Veil of Maya: greatly contrasting the band's past, it serves as a companion and booster for their older work. Part of the enjoyment of an album comes from context: how the band sounded before, and what the band sounds like now.
We had the pleasure of talking to Okubo and Magyar about False Idol, the importance of clean vocals, Veil of Maya's fanbase, and more. Once the album hits the shelves Friday, be sure to check out the balladic "Manichee" and the furiously aggressive (and slightly throwback) "Follow Me." These two tracks are wildly different, yet they compliment each other in the same way that new Veil of Maya complements old Veil of Maya. For a band with an established sound, finding a new sound is tough work. Needless to say, they pulled it off.
I was just chatting with Lukas about his first stint with the band, specifically that Slipknot show where I read that was one of his first shows with Veil of Maya -- I wanted to go back to that period in time and let you guys introduce Lukas' new involvement with the band, leading into Matriarch. What was that like picking up a new vocalist, and what happened around that time to get you guys moving to where you are now?
Okubo: Things on the Internet were pretty hectic, but at the shows and on tour, everything went pretty smoothly and quickly, actually.
About False Idol specifically, I read that it was written around the vocals -- and Lukas, I'm sure at this point you're used to the limelight and attention -- with respect to the recorded material, how does it feel to have the album resting on the vocals as the primary attraction for the album itself?
Magyar: Well, vocals weren't written first, and the record definitely showcases Marc and Sam [Applebaum] and Danny [Hauser]. Marc would probably put it better -- it was just an album written with vocals in mind, knowing what would happen.
Okubo: Yeah, in the past we never had singing before, so we didn't really write choruses or repeating parts because there would be almost no use for them. But now that we knew we'd have them -- singing as an option -- almost like a requirement we put big choruses in the songs. So we used that to our advantage. With Matriarch, we had choruses, and we chopped the songs up and had parts to repeat, but we didn't really plan out big choruses in the same way that we did with False Idol.
So it sounds like tracks like "Manichee" off False Idol probably wouldn't have existed back in the Matriarch days -- to me, "Manichee" feels like a ballad, very chorus- and vocal-driven.
Okubo: With that song, it could be all screaming and still passable, but it's cool that that's the first Veil of Maya song that's 100% singing.
Lyrically, what are the concepts behind False Idol -- what's the album really saying?
Magyar: The whole album is a story told from first person, so you follow this one gentleman's life and his ups and downs. It goes all the way to the end of his life, actually. It's interesting and was fun to put together. Everything is told from this one person's point of view -- a lot of it is more about his thoughts, not necessarily things which were spoken when I was writing. It was more of the things he was going through mentally, and the things he was envisioning in the world around him.
And on the other side of the coin, we have the guitarwork. Guitar-wise, how is False Idol a development for the band? It seems like a lot of the tracks on Matriarch felt similar in their pace -- it's a pretty fast album. Whereas on False Idol, tracks to me feel a bit more varied, like you guys slow down a bit more and take more time.
Okubo: Well, we definitely put more content on this one than previous albums. I wrote the music with our producer -- working with him was very helpful because he added a whole different perspective on everything. We would write our songs on the spot. I would say there were maybe two songs that I had written completely and brought in. Everything else, we would just meet up and start jamming. It naturally happened that way, we didn't plan out "this would be a slow song or a fast song." We were vibing together, and it worked out. It was really weird because none of it was premeditated, it just happened.
Have you guys played any of the new tracks outside of the first two singles live yet?
Okubo: No, we haven't. We don't want the hype to be spoiled over really shitty YouTube videos -- we were going to let people marinate for a while, learn the words, and then we'll start busting them out so people can actually be excited when we play them.
Related to that, have you seen a difference in the crowd's reactions to your songs, let's say around the [id] or Eclipse days, now moving into the Matriarch and False Idol days? With the clean singing now there, it gives the band a different dynamic -- how's that reflected back?
Okubo: When we play old songs, people still go crazy. When we play the newer ones, people sing along. It doesn't really hurt us in that aspect. The only negative feedback I've seen has been on the Internet -- that's maybe 1% or less of our old fans that just didn't get enough attention from their parents and wanted to vent their frustration. But, honestly, at the shows it's still been energetic. We try to put on an energetic performance, so I think the energy translates and spreads. With "Mikasa" [from Matriarch] being our biggest song still, I wouldn't say people are punching and kicking each other to it, but we still get a long of people singing along which is a cool development we didn't have in the past.
Now for Lukas, how does it feel to be on stage as a singer and feel that energy reciprocated -- is that empowering for you as a singer and as an artist?
Magyar: It's a very rewarding feeling to have this opportunity to go in and create something from the ground up, and to have people appreciate it and care about it and actually know the words. It's a very fun thing.
Are you actually trained as a singer -- have you taken formal training?
Magyar: Are you familiar with Melissa Cross? She is a legend in her own right in the metal world. She's classically trained and she was the first person to figure out how to explain to vocalists the anatomy of the voice as far as how to perform metal vocals properly and not destroy yourself. After I started touring with Veil of Maya, I did a couple lessons with her. So I wasn't classically trained at all until a few months after being in Veil of Maya. It's definitely helped a lot, helping me conserve a lot of energy live and be more precise and accurate.
So I guess it's also about not tearing up your vocal cords when you're screaming -- I wanted to ask how it works with the dynamic between clean singing and screaming, switching back and forth on the fly.
Magyar: It's not difficult, but I think that's credited to having done it for over ten years; also, understanding what my body is doing and these sounds and textures and frequencies are actually created. It's not something that's difficult now; however, in the past, it was extremely difficult. It's hard to explain what that process of learning was like. But now, I'm broken into it, so I don't put much thought into it anymore.
Slight segue, but regarding the differences between the Lukas-era Veil of Maya and the [id] and The Common Man's Collapse days: when I first got into Veil of Maya, it was 2008, and when The Common Man's Collapse came out I was listening to Born of Osiris, After the Burial, and Within the Ruins. Then I found you guys and was like, "holy shit!" But then I kind of fell out of the Veil of Maya loop around the time of Matriarch, and I've only recently gone back and listened to it to find a new appreciation for it. What is it about False Idol which might connect back to the The Common Man's Collapse days -- are there any threads of the late 2000's now in False Idol?
Okubo: Definitely. I wouldn't say the singles are the songs which were pushed toward the older fans. I'd say we put the two singles out for those who have never heard us before. There's a track on False Idol called "Follow Me" which I feel like could have been straight off of The Common Man's Collapse for sure. There are a few other tracks too. The whole thing with every album is that we tried as hard as we could to make it sound completely different -- the same band, but we don't want to have the same song over and over again. I'm hoping that we can continue that with this album.
Also, you mentioned the Internet hater thing -- the Internet is a wild place, and if you ever go to MetalSucks comments, you can see that very obviously. I'm an older fan, but I still really dig False Idol. What's the draw for older fans who might be on the fence about, let's say, clean singing? Or on the fence about the way the band has evolved? What's the message?
Okubo: Well, that's just too bad, you know? When it really comes down to it, when The Common Man's Collapse came out in 2008, that sold 1,100 copies the first week, and nobody came to the shows or showed us any love at all. Now everyone wants us to go backward in time to do that over again, when our band has only gotten better with every release. To me, the kids with the elite comments are a bunch of teenagers that live in their basement who went on the Internet and found out about us like a few weeks ago. They're going to form an opinion and tell us what we need to be doing, when I've been here the entire time and know that none of those kids bought our album, none of them bought The Common Man's Collapse or [id], none of them came to any of the shows. What's really happening is what's in front of us, and the Internet is just the Internet.
Do you guys have a favorite track from False Idol? Maybe one sticks out to you -- more fun to play on guitar, more fun to sing? Maybe a track that listeners take a peek at with you specifically in mind?
Magyar: I like "Graymail" a lot, I think that track is badass. It's a fun one.
Okubo: I like that "Follow Me" song that I was talking about earlier -- the super death metal one. That's a super cool song too.
For me, I still think -- and I usually try to avoid making the singles my favorite track, it feels like singles are usually the most broad tracks, they showcase as much as the album as they can -- nevertheless, "Overthrow." I absolutely love "Overthrow." It's such a great jamming song. Is that one of the first songs you guys put together for the album, or one of the two that you [Marc] brought to the table already?
Okubo: Aw, that was one of the songs we wrote in a day.
Okubo: I think that surprised everyone, it didn't turn out the way I expected it to turn out. My expectations were definitely a little lower for that song, so I was very surprised and quite happy. I think it was a good song to release as a single as well.
A confidence booster then, right?
Okubo: Sure, yeah. I thought it was the most similar to "Mikasa" on the album.
What did you guys feel about "Doublespeak" then, the second single?
Okubo: I really liked that one a lot, but I can see how it would be isolating for some of our fans. That was actually the first song that Matt [False Idol producer] wrote together. We actually met each other and wrote that song all within two hours. And after that, we were like, "yeah, we should probably keep working together."
So both of you [Marc and Matt] have found a synergy together in terms of writing? Do you feel like something clicks, like maybe you have a long-lost ancestor or something, connected somehow?
Okubo: I tend to form a close relationship with every producer we work with in the studio. They've all been super-talented guitar players, every single one of them. I like that since I'm the only guitar player in the band, and I like to work with other really good guitar players to bounce ideas back and forth. It makes me doubt myself a lot less -- if a riff sucks, having someone to say it so I can write a different one. We've actually never had two guitar players on any album -- when we were just starting, we had two. But they weren't really able to keep up, we had to dumb down parts to make them easier to play, and it wasn't working out.
Around the time you guys were writing False Idol, what were your influences? What were you listening to during the writing period to fuel your artistic spirit?
Okubo: For me, I was listening to a jazz pianist called Tigran Hamasyan, and then also a lot of rap music. Some electronic music as well, plus a little bit of pop.
I guess on your [Lukas] end, any singers you can tie yourself back to in terms of influence?
Magyar: There's definitely not one singer I can pinpoint. You hit me with a good melody, and I'm hooked forever. It's kind of the way my brain works.
Speaking of other singers, I just chatted with Mike Lessard of The Contortionist. They're on tour with Between the Buried and Me and came through Chicago -- it was really interesting talking to him about shifting from screaming to building in a lot of singing into his sound. Do you guys see any reflections of yourselves in The Contortionist?
Okubo: Oh yeah, he's amazing. Actually, before Brandon left the band and I was writing Matriarch, I called up Mike to do some of the singing parts for the album, and that's the way we were going to do it. We've actually known him since he joined the band [The Contortionist], and I think he's been an amazing addition that made that band better than ever. But yeah, we're friends, we've toured together in the past and I would definitely tour with him again.
Are you guys going to open up some of the new tracks live once the album is out?
Okubo: Maybe we'll start playing "Doublespeak" again, we've only been playing "Overthrow" lately.
Cool, I guess we'll leave it to the album for listeners to get acclimated with the new work.
Okubo: Yeah, we gotta see if people will like the album first, right? I remember we were on a week-long tour when "Mikasa" was put out, and we didn't even play that song. We let that just marinate for a while before integrating it into the set.
All Things Set Aside came out in 2006, so it's been 11 going on 12 years that you've been kicking ass. Looking back on how far the band has come and evolved, do you have have any sentiments or deep feelings, nostalgic tie-backs to how the band used to be? Do you feel any nostalgia for back then, was there something about then which made it more magical than it is now with all the limelight?
Okubo: All Things Set Aside was all magic because we hadn't really signed to a booking agent or a real label or anything like that. We'd be booking shows in areas with our friends, shows with After the Burial and Born of Osiris -- that's how we developed friendships. For multiple shows, there's be like maybe 300 kids coming out, which felt amazing at the time, like little rockstars. But at the same time, you'd know every single person at the shows, and we'd have parties together. That was really, really special. I feel like it bummed a lot of people out when all of our bands got signed and touring full-time because we couldn't be that band which could play Milwaukee or Chicago or Minneapolis every other week. Those were the days, that was all magic. I wish that the scene had that same camaraderie that we had back in 2006.
Speaking of the past and its magic, for the future now -- what's the magic of False Idol and where the band is now. You have magazine covers, all kinds of coverage, dead-center in the light right now. Is there magic there too?
Okubo: Yes, absolutely. It's amazing that we can keep doing it this long and still be considered fresh -- young fans coming to shows, not out of gas yet. We're still going to new places: we just announced a tour in India. I hope we can just continue to build and eventually make it something that lasts forever. I never expected The Common Man's Collapse to be considered a classic album, especially because when it came out nobody really cared. It seems like people want us to go back to that sound now, it's still really hard for me to comprehend [why]. There's still magic: I've seen kids crying at shows. Still an emotional experience.
I think that's what I like about False Idol a lot -- not that The Common Man's Collapse wasn't an emotional album, certainly all music has an emotional element -- it feels like an especially close, intimate album, especially with the vocal choruses, especially with the lyrical content. Does that signal the band becoming more emotional overall, more expressive in that way?
Okubo: Definitely. I feel like music has always been an emotional outlet -- instead of any of us doing completely destructive in our lives, we can channel our energy into music. I feel like a lot of people in our audience feel the same way. They can feel that they're not alone when they hear our band. We give them a safe place to get their energy out. If we can make people happy by playing music, then I just want to keep doing it.
Speaking about what Marc said about music making you feel not alone, being close to you and supporting you in times of need: did you guys run across any challenges writing False Idol, anything that you learned a lesson from?
Magyar: Yeah, there were definitely some parts of the record that were a challenge to put together. That's always fun for me, to figure out and experiment. But lyrically, everything is always an expression of myself, even though the story isn't about me -- if it was about me, I'd be concerned about my well-being. In any way, shape, or form, the experience has to stem from somewhere. So every song I can relate to, and just the average listener, I want them to understand what's happening, even if it's not telling their story. So they can comprehend it, and feel it.
What do you see in Veil of Maya's future? Where do you go from here, what developments are you looking toward?
Okubo: I would like to see what the general reaction to this album is. At the same time, we've been done recording for months now, and I'm kind of in the mood to get creative again. There's always going to be The Common Man's Collapse-over-anything fans, so I just won't pay attention to that. I feel like this album [False Idol] needed to happen the way it did. Maybe next time I'll pay a little more attention to the old fans, but we'll see. Can't promise that, though it's a fun thing to do and think about.
Pre-order False Idol here.