ALEX VARKATZAS Launches DEAD ICARUS And Puts ATREYU Behind Him: 'I Felt Irrelevant'
November 30, 2023
By David E. Gehlke
Frontman Alex Varkatzas and long-running California metalcore leaders-turned-rockers ATREYU announced their parting of ways in September 2020. Given the band's gradual drift from the sounds that made them one of the defining bands of the early-to-mid-2000s metalcore scene (lest we forget how frequently they appeared on MTV2's "Headbanger's Ball"),Varkatzas's departure makes sense in light of his new band, DEAD ICARUS. Joined by the ENTERPRISE EARTH pair of producer/guitarist/bassist Gabe Mangold and drummer Brandon Zackey, Varkatzas has emerged with an aggressive, if not sometimes extreme band that is best suited for his full-throated vocal delivery — a defining trait of early ATREYU, but used less frequently in subsequent outings.
Varkatzas's final years in ATREYU appear to be stained by ongoing disagreements with producers and his bandmates. And once out of ATREYU, it wasn't exactly sunshine and lollipops for the frontman, who battled depression during the pandemic only to re-emerge with a greater sense of focus and purpose. With DEAD ICARUS having just issued a series of singles and a proper full-length due sometime in 2024, BLABBERMOUTH.NET hooked up with Varkatzas to learn more.
Blabbermouth: Can you detail what the last few years have been like since you left ATREYU?
Alex: "It's been a crazy experience. I want to clarify. The words 'I left ATREYU.' I never made that statement. We legally agreed upon and posted terminology, and as far as I know, the band and I have parted ways. It's so weird. All these people are hitting me up, like, 'I'm so happy you decided to leave and be with your family. I support that!' I'm like, 'Man. I never remember saying that or instigating that.' People will do what people will do. I'm all about the future and learning from the past rather than harping on it and living there. Very abruptly, you could say we parted ways and everything changed for me. If I'm being totally emotionally honest, I lost my life, sort of. Aside from my family, I found myself without a job and any friends, or the majority of my friends were gone. The pandemic and lockdown had started. It was not announced, but I was out of the band in April 2020 at the peak of everything, which is when the shoe dropped behind the scenes. It was super-challenging. My wife was also six months pregnant with our third and final kid. We were told we were not able to have any more children. I'm not a religious person, but I would say that if somebody was putting some big tests in front of me to see what I was made of and what I was going to do, and I failed at first. I failed pretty horribly at first. I had to hit bottom. I'm all about other people's mental health, but I don't want to talk too much about mine other than to let people know we share the same things in the same ways. I fell into a pretty bad depression. I worked out my entire adult life pretty vigorously. I maintained a certain mindset and attitude. I stopped working out and started drinking. Not like a drunk, but regularly drinking, which is something I hadn't done in years. I let myself feel sorry about myself and the situation. I looked around. I'm a role model for my kids. I have three children: Nine, seven and three. It's like, what am I doing? What example am I setting? Even though I don't have to work every day and do stuff, I'm lucky to have other hobbies and interests that make a little money, like painting and art. I don't want my kids to perceive that this is normal. I wanted them to see the hard-working, go-getter of a person. I hit bottom. I realized that I wanted to go up. I wanted to get out of that hole."
Blabbermouth: And DEAD ICARUS is part of that, right?
Alex: "DEAD ICARUS is something I always wanted to do, not always, but ATREYU had changed so much musically over the years. Other people, I don't want to say, had taken over, but their influence had taken over. I had my era of influence, but when a band is around for so long, it's only natural for things to shift and change. It would be unnatural for them not to. Things shifted and maybe I didn't know where I fit into the shift. That put me in a weird place for a few years, even when the band came back. Even when we did, the deal was I wasn't going to sing. I didn't want to. I didn't want to challenge myself that way. I wanted to scream. It was not my intention to have ATREYU with two clean vocalists singing clean. But it's not my band. It's also four other people's band. You got to roll with everybody and meet somewhere in the middle. What's cool about DEAD ICARUS is there is no middle. It's what I want to do. Gabe, my writing partner, we're working on a full-length now, and it's incredible. There's so much ground between 2020 and now. This is the third or fourth interview I've done. I didn't talk or do anything. I fell off. What am I going to talk about? The only things I had to say was negative. I've done that road. I've been the heel when I said some dumb shit like the  'inventing metalcore' comment. When you're disingenuous and emotional and lash out and do things — I had 100 percent said that comment, but I felt fucking irrelevant. When you're an irrelevant artist, you say and do stupid things to get attention. It was dumb and disrespectful. I've moved on from that. The lesson about not being genuine translates to a bigger thing, like 'Why am I acting that way?' It's not characteristic. I do six million interviews and I don't say shit like that, then the few I do, I say shit like that. Something was going on. I couldn't pinpoint it, not even for a long time. It was that feeling out of place. I didn't know where I fit. I have always known where I fit in that band for a long time. Things change. It's hard to change with it, especially in art, if that's not exactly what you see all the time. Now, with this and Gabe, it's so cool. We were talking today and going over some ideas for our full-length; we're maybe three or four rough ideas into writing it. It was a great conversation. It was me and him. I didn't have to worry — I say this respectfully, but I'm not going to lie and say I like to work this way — I don't want to hear six people's opinions. I really don't like producers who are involved that way, but I'm wary. It's a lot cooler having someone like Gabe, who is capable and is only getting more capable. The stuff we did is two years old and he's recorded and done more stuff since then. The new stuff sounds sonically awesome. I'm in this great, excited, creative space. Gabe and I are speaking the same language. It's so important."
Blabbermouth: Have you found it difficult with DEAD ICARUS since you're starting from zero? You will likely have ATREYU fans who follow you to your new band, but it's not easy to get something new off the ground in this day and age.
Alex: "I'm glad I follow that internal compass. I go faster than maybe I should. If I thought about it too much, it would be overwhelming. It is some days. Sometimes it's just me, but sometimes I look at it as, yeah, 'It's just me!' It's not me with the music — I'm not taking credit for that. Sitting here day to day and worrying about this and that, and getting the videos and merch right and doing interviews or masterminding shit, that's me wanting to do it. For years, in ATREYU, I don't want to say I was the mastermind, but I was a large, large contributing force to what was going on, especially 'Suicide Notes [And Butterfly Kisses]', 'The Curse' and through 'Death-Grip [On Yesterday]', my hand is very heavy. Things changed. It's cool when you're so heavily into it you can't help but be invested and think whether it's good enough. Case in point: we're doing demos now. We bounce songs back and forth. I had rough vocal ideas, but not that rough. I don't know how to tune vocals on Logic, but I can record and layer them so I can give Gabe an idea of what I want to do and he does it the right way. It's such a cool tool to utilize and there's no time limit. The way I had to write before became very fast, working with John Feldmann, who wrote and recorded a song all on the same day. Artistically, that's not how I like to create. I can do it if I'm hanging out with the band during the day. It's a vibe and can be done. For me to get out these ideas and have the lyrics be meaningful — I want them to be meaningful. For ATREYU, for certain people, they meant something, the lyrics and it was a big deal. I'm the type of person to whom the lyrics are meaningful. It irritates me when certain pop producers say the lyrics don't matter. That's cool. It's not the type of music I listen to, but it's great for you. That's what is so awesome about music — it's such a personalized experience to what catches you. But I would like my lyrics to make sense and matter."
Blabbermouth: Going into DEAD ICARUS, did you give Gabe any musical direction? The band certainly plays to your strengths.
Alex: "I think I have my own sound. I still sound like me, but I wanted to do other things and I have wanted to for a while. I can still emote aggressively without full-bore screaming. I like to experiment with that. There wasn't a space for it in ATREYU. Some of the vocals in 'The Vultures Circle', like the line 'Savior saint, sinner or thief.' I wrote that whole vocal line for that song a while ago and pitched it to Feldmann, and it got no traction. In my head, the way I wanted to sing was a 'false-chord' type of voice. Whenever I had done that before, John made fun of me, which was fine. He has his tastes. He said it sounded like weird METALLICA and James Hetfield. I was like, 'You're working with a metal band and they're one of the biggest ever.' That was a red flag for me. Now, Gabe and I get each other. You have to work with people who get you. Just like I didn't get him [Feldmann], maybe he didn't get me 100 percent. That's okay, but that part is done. I don't want to deal with stuff like that anymore. I don't see the need to. The last outing with the band, and I want to be careful with how I say these to keep the water smooth, but different guest writers were coming in every day. That says to me, 'Do we suck?' That's how I took it. I'm a critical person."
Blabbermouth: That's curious since why would a band like ATREYU need outside songwriters?
Alex: "Their thought was, 'We want to bring these in to bring cool, different ideas.' I said, 'I thought we already had five fucking dudes who could bring in cool ideas who have a couple of Gold records under their belts, one of which we got without you, referring to John.' I don't know. Do we really need that much outside help? That ruins it a little bit. I think bands should hold off on that. I'm not saying it's not cool to collaborate. Am I going to go to them and ask them to write a bunch of songs for me? No. Maybe for a certain type of artist, it's what they want and everyone else is on board with that, so that could tell you the story of what happened and I wasn't on board with it. Respectfully, and this will be the tagline. Fuck...this will be the tagline and if it's not by you, it will be by the next person who picks it up. I have to think about everything I say. I never saw myself, no matter how cool it is or however much in the pop-punk world I think BLINK-182 has accomplished, but I did not see myself in a band that would be writing and exchanging ideas with Mark Hoppus from BLINK-182 to create an ATREYU record. That wasn't my vision. I'm not saying anything negative about him or pop punk. That is not what I wanted or needed for my band. Respectfully to this hugely, more financially successful musician than me, who has sold more records and is more world-famous, known and loved than I will ever be, fine. I say that with all due respect. I hope no one turns it into bullshit and gets me into trouble. I don't think he wants to write what I want to write, which is songs in B and A and screaming breakdowns and ripping guitar solos and odd-time signatures. I know he doesn't want to do that. None of his music sounds like that. If he had come into the studio that day, the song would have sounded that way, but it sounded differently. With all respect to that, I don't want in on that anymore. I tried it. I did it. Cool. I'm cool with that."
Blabbermouth: It sounds like you're liberated. DEAD ICARUS sounds like what you should be doing.
Alex: "Yes. Even though I have regretted the callous things I said before or the metalcore comment or making a record like 'Lead Sails [Paper Anchor]'. I have regret tied into those moments, but I wouldn't change things. That would change where I am now and my mindset is right now and that feels pretty good. Look, I have days just like anybody. Self-doubt is a motherfucker. I've said in every interview and referenced this Mel Gibson thing he talks about: 'The old me or self-doubt is always there. It never goes away. It's buried in the back in a very shallow grave. And you gotta realize when he's coming out, you have to throw dirt on him.' I'm not saying the old me doesn't come out, but I'm trying to keep it in check with discipline. That takes discipline in other ways. It takes physical discipline. I have my physical discipline back. I'm 41 and I'm doing alright for myself. Physically, I can handle myself quite well for my age. I feel good about that. That gives me energy and strength and confidence in other places of my life. It's like, 'Go forth and conquer.' It is a liberating feeling."
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