On May 27 2017, Atreyu played at the Blackest of the Black Fest in Oak Canyon Park, Silverado, California. Oak Canyon Park is a sprawling 750-acre forested area in Orange County with mountains, a lake, plus fishing & camping. It was a sufficiently remote and creepy setting for the two-day long event that included sword swallowing, fire breathing, hook suspension performances, and a fake human sacrifice along with performances by some of the biggest names from the darker areas of metal music such as Danzig, Ministry, Suicidal Tendencies, Venom Inc, and Combichrist. The crowd was certainly an interesting mix of people donning black leather, spikes and band shirts supporting various sub-genres of extreme metal, including the skinny jean clad metalcore types inspired to attend because of Atreyu’s presence.
Many may remember when Atreyu exploded out of Orange County in 2002 alongside their friends and peers in what some call the New Wave of American Heavy Metal. The band started in the 1990’s with Dan Jacobs on guitar, Brandon Saller on drums and Alex Varkatzas on vocals when they were only in junior high school. Named after the character of the same name from Michael Ende’s fantasy book The Neverending Story, Atreyu released their first full-length album, Suicide Notes and Butterfly Kisses in 2002 and broke down the barriers between rock, melodic hardcore and metal. Atreyu has maintained a fairly solid line-up throughout most of their career. The three friends, Varkatzas, Saller, and Jacobs, remain in the band to this day along with Travis Miguel on second guitar and Marc McKnight on bass. According to Varkatzas in 2015, Miguel is more or less an original member since he’s the first second guitar player and the “new guy” McKnight has been in the band for over 10 years.
After a few albums on famous hardcore label Victory Records, a couple of albums on major label Hollywood Records, the adoration of fans, clothing lines, praise and festival billing, in 2010 Atreyu disappeared for a while. During the hiatus Varkatzas mostly concentrated on fatherhood and his CrossFit & Muay Thai gym in Costa Mesa, California, while Saller became the front man for his solo effort Hell or Highwater. Varkatzas explained that the hiatus occurred partly because he was burnout and unhappy with the direction they were going. He said it felt like a redundant cycle because they were always either touring or making another record.
In 2014, on their Facebook page, the band announced that they were back making music again. They released their triumphant return Long Live in 2015. Their sixth studio album, it peaked at #26 on the Billboard Charts. It was Atreyu’s first album since they released Congregation of the Damned in 2009.
At the Blackest of the Black festival, on a beautiful May Saturday in 2017, Dan Jacobs and Travis Miguel explain what they were up to during the break. Jacobs elaborates, “Travis and I in particular do a lot of writing for other artists. We’re with BMG publishing, so we do a lot of developing artists, a lot of bands in the rock/metal world, or even other types of music. They get songs written for them or we help them write their songs.” However, both Jacobs and Miguel confirm that Atreyu is the main focus again: “that’s out bread and butter the rest of it is just margarine and pita bread.” Jacobs jokingly claims that the band does not plan to go on another hiatus “unless it’s cool again to go on hiatus. Then we’ll go on hiatus when it’s the thing to go away and come back.”
Long Live was certainly a worthy return for the band with its stripped down in-your-face style both musically and visually. For example, the video for Do You Know Who You Are, a heavy but introspective anthem, was released in 2015, and features different people holding signs that say things like “I am a fighter.” Jacobs explains, “Our bass player Mark had a lot to do with the visuals when it came to Long Live. He did Do you Know Who You Are and any music video stuff we did for this, as well as the album art work itself. We wanted everything to tie into that vibe, and that was more of a stripped down thing.”
Atreyu just finished up a major tour at the end of 2016 in support of this latest effort and was spending some time off when the opportunity to play the Blackest of the Black Festival in 2017 came up. Jacobs explicates, “This is a pretty mellow year for us. It’s kind of an off year. We finished our album cycle for Long Live last year, but it’s a nice local show. This is our backyard. It makes it way more convenient. We can just drive home because its right around the corner. We figured why not do a metal festival?” When asked if they attended the Friday night performances at the Blackest of the Black fest, Jacobs admits, “It’s like the calm before the storm. I thought ‘do I want to go crazy and then like go crazy again tomorrow?’ We decided let’s just save it. We’re too old. You’ve got to learn how to pace yourself.” In their mid-thirties, they hardly seem too old, but it is still understandable that they stayed home on Friday May 26th 2017 to prepare for their own performance the next day. Aside from their own performance on Saturday, Miguel revealed that he’s “psyched to see Ministry. I’ve never seen Ministry before. I remember I bought Psalm 69 on CD when I was a wee lad and still haven’t gotten to see them so today’s the day.”
Since Atreyu has progressed so much throughout their career, Jacobs discusses what has changed from the beginning to now as far as their music goes: “You start to smooth things out a little bit. When your younger everything’s a little bit crazy and a little bit chaotic. You’re not sure exactly who you are as people or musicians and musically. Then you get older and you learn more about who you are as a musician. I think also working with different producers who’ve worked with different bands you just become more knowledgeable and more experienced and you can hear all that experience in every album. We’ve learned these new tricks now, or we don’t want to do this anymore because we didn’t like that, or it didn’t feel right, or it did at the time and now it doesn’t. You ask ‘why did I do that?’ or ‘how come I didn’t do this sooner?’” Miguel adds, “When we first would go into a new album we were pretty much going into it blindly because we had never really been outside of California, let alone in the studio, so we learned things on that end too, like when you go back into the studio for your second, third, fourth album, or whatever it is, so were seasoned vets now.”
As for what’s next for the band, Jacobs and Miguel confirm that a new album is in the works. Although, Jacobs says that “it’s still very new we haven’t really dove into it yet, that’s the next move.” Miguel interjects, “we have some ideas floating around, but nothing solid or concrete yet, but it’ll get there. There will be a tour after the new album its standard procedure.”
The band is also excited about their upcoming Foundation Fest event. Last year Atreyu hosted, curated, and headlined the first-ever Foundation Fest held at The Observatory in Santa, Ana, California on Friday, December 16 and Saturday, December 17 2016. Jacobs describes, “Foundation Fest is a way for us to have some hometown fun around the holidays and put together a lineup that showcases some of our favorite Orange County bands, as well as some great acts from around the globe.” Atreyu headlined both nights in 2016 with bands such as The World Alive, Adamantium, Capsize, and Death By Zero. On Friday evening, Atreyu played a special set featuring their A Death-Grip On Yesterday album, celebrating the record’s tenth anniversary. Jacobs says, “We’ll probably start working on our next foundation fest at the end of 2017.” Miguel adds “We’re aiming to do it every year about the same time near Christmas, so hopefully that will pan out to be as awesome as it was last year. It was a lot of fun.” Jacobs goes on to say that he enjoys festivals like Blackest of the Black and Foundation Fest because “it’s like a buffet of bands. Instead of going out and ordering one meal, it’s like, I’ll take a variety, a little of this band, a little of that band, but I’m going to save most of my appetite for that band though that’s the tasty desert at the end there.”
Later that evening of May 27 2017, Atreyu put their heart and soul into their performance at Blackest of the Black Fest. Atreyu has always had a rabid following in Orange County and this still certainly proved to remain true.
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