A Little Bit O' (Atomic) Soul - An Interview With Russell Allen
Russell Allen is probably most known as the vocalist for progressive metal icons Symphony X, who as of this writing are scheduled to perform on the Gigantour with Dream Theater, Megadeth, Nevermore, Fear Factory and others, a tour which treks across the US during July and August. Symphony X are currently working on their next opus as well. Meanwhile, Russell Allen himself is pushing his first solo release, Atomic Soul and spoke with our Joshua Turner by phone in mid-April. Josh notes, "[Allen] is one of the 'coolest' guys in the business today. He is talented, but also happens to make great music. He is one of the top vocalists today in the progressive metal genre. I also found out that he is one hell of a guitar player. Who knew?"
Joshua Turner: Hello.
Russell Allen: Josh!
RA: Hey, it's Russ man. [His voice is soft and subdued, not anything like I expected. It's such a difference from what one would expect that I would consider it is a shocker. -JT]
JT: Hey Russ, how's it going?
JT: Actually, I've been listening to that new album and that's, that's great material. Yeah, and I just want to start by asking, are there any plans to play that material live in the near future?
RA: Um, yeah, definitely. I mean, I don't have any... I haven't booked any dates, you know. But I'd like to do it anyway. I'd like to see if I had the time and stuff, so that's kind of like the next step with it. But unfortunately I don't have any dates playing. The only thing I'm doing is [that] I'm doing an acoustic kind of set in Cleveland on the 7th [of May], so?. Everyone is asking me the same question. I'm like, "oh shit, maybe I should have booked a tour," but ... [we both laugh] But no man, I'm just going to kind of wait and see what happens when the record comes out and maybe I'll, if the people are into it, I'll put something together, you know. So that's all I have planned at the moment. I'll definitely work it out soon.
JT: Atomic Soul is a lot different from your work with Symphony X. I'm just wondering why you decided to take a hard rock approach with this solo album.
RA: Because that's really what I'm about. I mean, I have all my influences and that's what I love. That's the reason I sing the way I do in Symphony X. I'm really not a prog head, you know. I like Rush and Yes and a lot of old stuff. Any of the prog stuff I do like, I like because... it has to have some sort of a feel to it, the background... soul sort of a bluesy thing and I try to do that in the band. But this project was the raw form of my, my influences and what I really, really like. You know what I mean?
RA: It was an easy thing for me, as kind of a natural thing to do, you know. I'm sure a lot of fans, they're like "oh man," [he says it in a let down, blas? sort of a way and I laugh ? JT]. But that's alright, dude. I mean, you know, there's no point in cloning my band. I mean, who am I going to fucking find to play like Michael Romeo, you know?
JT: Right [I laugh].
RA: It's pointless; you know, what I mean?
RA: So, I'm already in a band like that, so... I mean, I could see if it was like Led Zeppelin or something, and then Robert Plant goes and does stuff that's kind of similar to Zeppelin, you know. But I mean, even in that regard, you know, I just can't replace these players. I mean, I wouldn't want to try to, you know, and try to do this type of music with other people. I'm so used to doing it with them, so this just seemed like the right move, you know.
JT: Okay. I like all the songs, but I'd have to say that "Blackout," the first one, is my favorite one. I'm just wondering, what would you say is your favorite song from the album? Which one are you most proud of?
RA: I float from day to day about that, you know, and uh, hold on a second.
What? [he is talking to a woman on the other end and you can hear her talking.] Get out of here! [he says this strictly in a joking tone].
[now he's talking to me again and I'm really laughing at this one] It's my wife Cynthia. She's really giving me a hard time.
[he's talking with her again] I'm making a peanut butter sandwich, can I make a sandwich?
[back to me again] She just cleaned the kitchen and I'm getting yelled at. Anyway, "Blackout" is your track, right, you were saying?
RA: Um... for me it's "Voodoo Hand," I guess, you know. I dig that one. That was the first song I wrote for this record. So, it kind of has a little meaning to me in that regard, but I like them all, man. I didn't really, you know, say, "oh well, this song's alright, I'll just leave it." I mean, those I took off the record. That's why it's not like an hour or 70 [minutes]. I didn't want to do 17 songs, you know. I just wanted to do the best songs I had, and it turned out to be 11 tunes and that's what I put on the record.
JT: I'd have to say all the songs are composed very well. Can you describe your songwriting process? Like, how did you come up with all these songs?
RA: Well, I play guitar, you know, and I played guitar on the record and a lot of people don't know that I play any instruments at all. So it started... a lot of it started on the guitar, which is mostly, you know, sort of bluesy riffed-based rock and roll and that's how I compose most of the material. "We Will Fly," I had a definite chorus idea, you know, so that, the chorus came first. In a melodic track usually the melody sometimes comes first for me, but most of the material I had a riff happening and then I kind of sang along with it. And I usually make riffs that I can... you know, if I can't sing the riff, I can't play it. It's a terrible thing, but that's how it works for me, you know. So that's pretty much... using my voice pretty much to write all the parts and figuring out how I wanted each part to sound, and using the computer, you know, to facilitate pre-production. So that's kind of the process. It kind of starts with the guitar, you know, for me.
JT: Just to change gears, you are a member of a phenomenal band called Symphony X.
JT: I've been hearing that you guys are working on another album and I'm wondering if you can tell me what this next album might be about, what we can expect.
RA: Well, the new album is definitely... it's very riff driven, more so than anything we have ever done. So it's going to be kind of like The Odyssey on steroids. It's got a darker vibe than The Odyssey. The symphonic department is more of... Stravinsky and Wagner and Holtz, you know what I mean?
RA: In that vein, we're not... totally not doing any neo-classical stuff. We have that probably in a few songs, you know. We were trying to mix it up and just always keep the elements from our past, but always we're always try to do it to new ground, you know?
RA: New territory, new places we haven't been before.
JT: You actually seem to have quite a lot of range. I'm wondering if you can tell me a little bit about your musical influences.
RA: Mine personally?
RA: I like all kinds of stuff, you know, obviously. But between rock and metal, it's mostly just the seventies stuff then the early eighties Sabbath, Zappa, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, you know. Deep Purple, Bad Company, Badlands, the first Guns 'N' Roses record, Boston... I could just go down the list, you know. I love all that type of stuff, good, anything good, soulful, sort of rock, hair metal, Dio, love Dio and all that stuff. I really like, love it a lot, it's my first choice of music, but I also like country. I like all the outlaws of country: Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, all the old outlaws, you know. When I was a kid, my mom and dad were country musicians, so that was my first introduction into music, country music. So I would get up and do Willie Nelson tunes at five years old on stage with them and, you know what I mean?
JT: Yeah. That's kind of interesting to hear that, because that's what my dad's into, so I've heard quite a bit of that. I'm also wondering how did you get into music and how did you decide that you wanted to become a vocalist? When did this begin?
RA: I guess five years old. It's the first time I can remember. I mean, you've gotta understand something man. [he gets less coherent and mumbles a few words] I'm sorry, I'm eating a peanut butter sandwich right now. [I laugh]. You've gotta understand something... I mean, I've been singing like this for a long time. Ever since I was a kid, I could sing on pitch. I just always had it, a god-given gift, man. He said, just said, "Whammo! You can sing boy," you know?
JT: That's cool!
RA: And, so I was like, you know, I didn't really realize what I wanted to do with it until I was in my late teens, 19, 17, 18, 19. I said hey man, I want to sing in a rock band, you know. But if it weren't that, it was just, you know, go to school and, you know, do what not.
JT: How did you meet your bandmates with Symphony X and the band that you put together for Atomic Soul?
RA: How did I hook up with these guys?
RA: Oh, I hooked up with Symphony X in a really weird situation. I was in a band room sitting together with Brandon Anthony, who played on Atomic Soul, and we had done a show, a benefit show for Ray Healer, who passed away. I got to be friends with Ray before he died and I got to know his mom, and then his mother asked if I would go and sing a song or two, you know, at his benefit concert in New York City. That's when I met Glenn Hughes. And then I met a bunch of people that night and in the audience were members of Symphony X, so they came and approached me and said "would you like to join our band?" [he laughs] My first thought was, nah, I'm not into it, it's a little too weird of music for me, but after awhile, you know, I started getting into what they were doing. I realized that I could use a lot of choir stuff and just all these different styles. It could be kind of fun, you know.
RA: I didn't put anything into it extra that year, because they had a real small deal in Japan. It wasn't like, you know, hey, you're going to join the next biggest thing. It was never for like money or anything, you know what I mean.
RA: So, I figured, yeah, it will be kind of cool to jam with these guys. That turned into ten years almost. The Atomic Soul guys... I ended up rekindling that friendship with Brandon to do this blues rock stuff, something that I knew he was familiar with. I wanted to give him a shot at it, because, you know, I always felt he was a great guitar player. He never got heard. Then Robert Nelson was a great drummer who Michael Romeo felt that, hey man, this guy never really got a good shake, you know. Why don't you give him a shot, give him a try? And so, so I went to Robert's house and played with him. I'm like, this guy's like... he's perfect, you know.
RA: Like John Bonham, you know. And he understands what I need rhythmically and so he was a gem to discover. And... basically I never really got a bassist unfortunately, so Romeo played a lot of bass [Say what? I find this perplexing.] and I played some bass... still looking for a bass player actually for the Atomic Soul stuff. That's probably why I haven't seriously taken any touring thing, because I really don't have a band really, you know. Romeo's like "I'll do it," you know; he's just messing with me. He would never be happy playing bass. I mean, come on, everyone would be like huh? Boo. [You got that right. I think they would be in shock. It's funny, but somehow I don't think people would be quick to get the joke. -ed]
JT: Yeah, that doesn't seem right.
RA: They want to see him playing guitar man, you know. So... it's weird. It's like the Atomic Soul thing was kind of like, you know, some old friends coming back. I'm glad I did that, because, you know, I could have... all these big cats on it, you know what I mean? I could have had all these monsters, big famous dudes, you know. The only real guy, a "name guy" besides Romeo and stuff is Jens Johansson, but he's, like, a cool friend of mine. We toured together and stopped in Europe for a few months with Stratovarius. We toured with them. Romeo introduced me to him, like, five years ago and got to know him. We had dinner with him a few times, met his girlfriend and everything, a real great guy. He came down one afternoon and [I] said I needed the Deep Purple thing, you know; what do you think? He's like, yeah, I'll come down and check it out. I've never heard it. He comes down... five minutes with the keyboard, [asks,"]how's this?[" and] reooowweeeeowww. [growling sound; I start laughing] We're like, how did you make it growl? How did you do that? So me and Romeo are just getting schooled, you know. "So how did you do that?" "What I did, you know, I put the pedal here" and because [Michael] Pinnella, you know, god bless his heart, he's just not a tinkerer -- he's a great pianist and a good keyboard player, but he's not a tinkerer. He doesn't really... get into the whole development of sound and here's a guy who's really a wizard with the keyboard. He not only plays phenomenally, but he understands the instrument all the way around, you know. Bach to the inside to everything, you know. So that was really cool sitting down and watching him do what he did, and then he just ripped out the track in about ten minutes and said "how is that?" I'm like, "okay, that's cool," you know. Hey man, Romeo was just like, "yeah, dude." We had a lot of fun doing this. You got to remember [that] for guys like Jens... I mean, here's a... good old Deep Purple stuff, things that we all kind of started with, you know, or at least influenced [us] back when we were kids. So it's really great to hear, like, a Jon Lord sort of thing happen, you know.[he chuckles]
RA: For all of us, we are, like,... today it's like dodaladodaladododo. It's like a bluesy Jon Lord [thing] is happening, you know. It's like, that's it man, doesn't that feel great? It's like so it's cool, you know; it's like a lot of friends and just... you know, hanging out. We tracked in the summer, so it was a great vibe and... you know, good times, good experience. But that's pretty much how I met all those guys and got into bands.
JT: Speaking of fun, of having fun... and you've already named a few of them, but I'm wondering if you've got any Spinal Tap moments that just pop out in your mind?
RA: From the Atomic Soul stuff, I'd say there's a few, you know... HA! There was a few... poor Larry. Larry Salvatore, a good friend of ours. He, uh, he came in to play this one track on the bass and he was going to... I was going to get him to do some more and he had his track over. He was playing and playing and the freaking clip broke on his bass strap, you know. He had locking clips and it broke. The whole bass just slammed on the ground, bombababoobooba, [this guy continues to make sound effects and it's hilarious] like this, right?
RA: So... and I'm like just sitting there looking at Mike and... you know, I love Larry, bless his heart, but he's... he never really did a lot of studio work and we both looked at each other like well, there goes the fucking intonation, you know. [I laugh] Oh gawd, you know. But he just kind of picked it back up and, you know, he's trying to tune it again and then... And now every time he goes up for like, you know, a five-fret A or whatever.... It wasn't too bad, maybe eighth, ninth fret, you know, all out of whack... you can't save it now. It's got to be re-setup again. It's got to be re-done by a guy who has gotta set it up. It slammed so hard man, you know, you have no idea. It just like fumbababa, like the whole neck just like had to be reset.
JT: Oh, man.
RA: He had a beautiful five string, too. But he's just like a dude, you know. He goes "oh, shit" like, like a gig, you know. He just kind of picked it up and put it on. Alright man, do do do do, let's go, and then he starts a track like... you know, it was just funny, because he hit his knobs and it's like, "oh man, it's all out of whack" and he's like "I don't know, man, it's kind of cool." [I laugh] So, that was like a catch phrase for the whole record, you know. "I don't know, man, I think it sounds kind of cool." Every time somebody would do some clunker or something... it was just one of those funny moments. But, you know, he ended it. He's an awesome bass player. It was just a shame [that] on a lot of the tracks... he did another track or two and we couldn't use it; it was all screwed up, you know. By the time we started layering guitars in there and stuff, we're like "what the fuck is wrong?" So we listened to the bass with the tuner and the pitch corrector program... whatever. Pitch corrector program. I'm not too familiar with it 'cause I've never really used it, but Mike was explaining to me [that] you can see what it's trying to do; it knows, you know, and then it will tell you. You'll see this wave come up on this like meter kind of thing, like almost looks like a kind of graph, you know, and it'll tell you where the notes are really happening. So if it's a 440 standard tuner wherever you are and you're trying to hit a D, it'll... you'll see the line for D, but then underneath it you will see where the real wave is producing the note. And he was a good... oh my god, you know, a tone or two down, you know. I mean, it was all all fucked up, you know. So we couldn't use it. But it was a shame, you know. That was like a Spinal Tap moment that was kind of sad, you know?
RA: But, it was still funny, you know. It sounds kinda cool, but we had a few of those, man. We had a few of those. We had... um, with Bob [Nelson] was really funny 'cause he would try... everything on the record he did in one take.
RA: Like one take passes, of course, you know. He'd do "We Will Fly" and be like, "I can do a better job." "Even in tune, dude, are you sure? We've got a lot of great stuff, Bob, but I'll just punch you in here" and he's like, "no, no, no, I'll do the whole thing over," and sure enough, man. I haven't really... this is the first time in my life I've worked with a guy like that, you know. I mean, I know they're out there, but they're rare to me. I've worked with a lot of dudes, man, and never worked with a guy like that before. Even... Jay's a great drummer, but can't do that... Bob, Bob's a rare breed. He's a special thing, you know.
And he's going for fills... like, everything you hear, it's like we didn't touch anything, you know. And he'd just come out and he's only a minute there bladaladalala. There's nothing that, you know, you haven't heard before. It's like rock drumming, but he does it so naturally, you know; he's just a natural. So it was a lot of fun. Then he'd track a song beardahear, and sitting there, he'd fold his arms after every take. He looks really pissed off, you know. We're like, "oh man, he must have not liked it," so we'd wait and wait and he wouldn't say anything for like a minute, you know. So we'd get on the microphone and be like, "Bob, what happened man? What happened?" And he's like, "aw, nothing, nothing, did you like it?" We're like, "yeah, we loved it, but you look so pissed." "Oh no, no, no I... after every song I just or whatever, I just fold my arms and make sure that I don't hit any cymbals or anything." [I laugh] You know what I mean? Like he'd sit there very mean, but he's still very serious, "yeah, I kicked ass," you know.
And it was funny at, uh, "Blackout," you know. "Blackout," you'd be like "'Blackout, Blackout'" and he's like babaladalablablabahnow, and he'd sit with his arms folded and he'd look like, "yeah, fuck ?em, fuck yeah." [I laugh] You know what I'm saying? Like yeah, it rocked, you know, but he would just sit there like... like a dude who had to take a shit or something.
JT: Oh, man. [I laugh]
RA: And looking in the booth, you're like watching, it's so funny. Me and Mike are just in tears, laughing. And then he'd [tell] us what was going on and I'm like, "wow, that makes a hell of a lot of sense, doesn't it?" you know. Like, hold the arms out where the sticks don't touch anything, you know.
RA: To do a great take like that and then drop the fucking stick or something stupid, now the take is gone, you can't use it, you know. Or whatever, unless you're going for that... that thing where you want some slop in there, you know, for artistic purposes. But you know that was really cool. And so we just laughed about that for hours. He'd go outside and he'd be like, "what do you want on your steak?" He cooked for us, like, everyday he played. So, yeah, it was a good time, man, a lot of laughs, you know.
RA: A lot of laughs. Anyway, sorry I rambled on there.
JT: No, that's cool. I'd also like to find out a little bit about your current musical tastes and I'm wondering what's the last CD that you purchased.
RA: Mars Volta. I haven't heard anything like that in a long time. Those cats have been around for awhile. I knew about them and stuff, but the latest disc, I really like a lot. It's getting a lot of attention from everybody because of that song, the shadow tune. But phenomenal drummer, great players. The vocalist is so Plant Zeppelin, you know. I just love it. It's like this guy's got some feel, man, damn. I love it, you know. And it's progressive, but it's like feel. Like you were saying, a feel [of a] progressive kind of thing. It's pretty cool. It's my new one.
JT: And along the same lines, what's the last concert that you attended as a fan?
RA: Shit man, I can't tell you. I've been to so many concerts. I go to a lot of concerts, because my friends are playing in the band and I love the bands. But, as a die-hard, like nothing to do with the band or whatever, I'd have to say the last concert I saw was Judas Priest at Ozzfest.
JT: Oh yeah, I saw the same one. That was amazing.
RA: It was weird, because we've played with Priest overseas and hung out with them, but that night, you know, I was in the audience and I was just being a fan. It was great. They were smoking. They weren't as good in Europe. They were just getting warmed up. I know the whole trail, you know, they were starting to get the wheels turning, but [by] the time they hit the States and by the time they hit the Ozzfest, they were on fire.
JT: Oh yeah.
RA: They were great, so that was probably the last one I would say.
JT: That's probably the most memorable concert for me in recent times. [After I conducted this interview, I saw The Tangent a week later and they just blew me away -JT] Seeing Judas Priest here at Ozzfest was something else. I'd also like to ask some of your favorites, and these are hard for some people, but... what would you say is your favorite album?
RA: By anybody?
JT: Just of all-time. Do you have an album of all-time that's at the top of the stack?
RA: Mmm? man, that's a tough one. One of my favorite records of all-time has to be... I've got a couple. If I had to choose between... shit, that's a tough one. I'd say Van Halen's Fair Warning.
JT: Oh yeah.
RA: That's one of my favorite records.
JT: That's a good one.
RA: The whole record; it's not really a popular one by them, you know.
RA: You know, 1984 hits and shit... but that is it for me. I listened to it so many times, I think I wore the tape out. The first Boston album is another one. Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd... the live album from... The Song Remains The Same. The movie. Do you know what I mean?
JT: Those are all good ones.
RA: Yeah; those are like my favorites.
JT: Kind of another difficult question, but who is your favorite band?
RA: That's an easy one, Zeppelin.
JT: Okay. [we laugh] That's difficult for some, but that's cool, it's easy for you.
RA: I can say that, because... they did it all and I like... it's familiar, that's all. So... I love Van Halen, don't get me wrong, you know, the other bands I mentioned, there's albums... But as far as bands go... See now, Zeppelin didn't put everything on one record that I could say, "that's the record."
RA: So, for me they are my favorite band.
JT: I'd like to ask about some favorites that aren't necessarily music-related in order to find out other ways that you might be getting influenced. For starters, what would you say is your favorite movie?
RA: Favorite movie? Oh, that's a good one. My favorite movie. [I hear somebody talking in the background] Scarface. That's her favorite... that's your favorite movie. [I laugh] I'll say Braveheart.
JT: Oh yeah, good selection. What's your favorite TV show?
RA: I like 24.
JT: Oh yeah, that's my favorite, too. That's a great show. Do you have a favorite book?
RA: Lord Of The Rings. Did you hear me?
JT: You've got very diverse tastes. It's kind of interesting. I've got a really stupid, quirky question that I like to add; nobody else asks it and it's something I can identify with. Do you have any pets?
RA: No! Unfortunately, no I don't. I have my wife, does that count? [he starts laughing]
JT: That does count, I think.
RA: I used to have a ferret I named Ponco, and before I had a dog named Zeppelin. Living where we live now, we can't really have any dogs or anything, because we're in a condo, you know. We can't really have any dogs. We can have cats, but my wife is allergic to them, so... The last pet I had was a ferret, a little ferret.
RA: He was funny. [I hear his wife talking] We want a dog, though.
JT: Just before we wrap up, is there anything you'd like to say to your fans at this time?
RA: I just want to say, hey, thanks for hanging in there with us. It's been three years since the band's done anything, but I give you Atomic Soul [he says the title of the album in a slow, funny way] and I hope you enjoy it. Thanks for supporting me and the band. I can't wait to see everybody out on the road somewhere in a bar having a beer, whatever, you know.
JT: Yeah. I hope to see you out on the road at some point, too. And this latest album that you put out is just unbelievable.
RA: Thanks a lot, man.
JT: You just have a real powerful voice and it is funny, because when I picked up the phone and you said hello, I didn't even know it was you. Because you've got such a powerful voice, I expected something totally different, and you've just got a real calm, kind of tranquil speaking voice. But when you're singing, man, that's some powerful stuff.
RA: Well, I just save it all for that.
JT: That's just great.
RA: It's all light and dark, good and evil, right.
RA: So, if I had to talk like that, [he now switches into a scary Bobcat Goldthwaite kind of a voice] "hi, how are you doing?" I wouldn't even be able to sing. [I start laughing]
JT: Exactly. That is pretty funny.
RA: A lot of people say that about me. But they don't see, they don't hear how my speaking is not the same as my singing voice. There goes all my mystique man.
JT: No, it's good. It just adds another level of mystery. Well, thanks for taking the time to perform this interview and good luck with all your future musical endeavors. I expect a lot of good stuff to come from you.
RA: Thanks a lot man, and your website, what's the name of your website again.
JT: This is going to be going on ProgressiveWorld.net.
RA: Cool man.
RA: Thanks for helping me out man. Thanks for supporting this stuff. I'm really glad you enjoy this disc.
JT: Yeah, no problem, and just enjoy the rest of your weekend.
RA: Thank you. You, too, man.
Symphony X - The Damnation Game (1995)
Symphony X - The Divine Wings of Tragedy (1997)
Symphony X - Twilight In Olympus (1998)
Symphony X - V - The New Mythology Suite (2000)
Symphony X - Live On The Edge Of Forever (2001)
Symphony X - The Odyssey (2002)
Atomic Soul (2005)