Hit The Lights: Protest The Hero: 'Guitarists Make Up A Good Percentage Of Our Audience'

artist: Protest the Hero date: 03/25/2011 category: interviews
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Hit The Lights: Protest The Hero: 'Guitarists Make Up A Good Percentage Of Our Audience'
Influences inform a musician's style, the mixture of ingredients forming the eventual recipe. While some take influence from the more usual suspects, others take influence from less obvious sources. Results vary; some lack focus and experiment for the sake of experimentation, while others have focus with the experimentation having a purpose. Protest The Hero's Tim Millar cites influence from less obvious sources for a heavy metal musician, though whether the eventual recipe is a successful one is ultimately up to the listener. Protest The Hero's third studio album "Scurrilous" was issued on March 21st 2011 through Spinefarm Records UK, and on the 22nd in the United States and Canada through Vagrant Records and Underground Operations respectively. Produced by Julius "Juice" Butty, the record was mixed by Machine. Inaugural single "C'est La Vie" was released a month previously on February 3rd. Bassist Arif Mirabdolbaghi penned the lyrics for the compositions "C'est La Vie", "Moonlight" and "Sex Tapes", while frontman Rody Walker handled the lyrics for all of the full-length's other tracks. "Hair-Trigger" features backing vocals from Canadian folk artist Jadea Kelly, while Propagandhi's Chris Hannah supplies guest vocals to "Sex Tapes". Painted roughly sixty years previous, Arif's grandfather Jafar Petgar designed "Scurrilous"' artwork, providing the album with its title - a disagreement between Petgar and his wife stemming from "conjecture and scurrilous lies" inspired the painting. Forming in 1999 at the age of fourteen, Protest The Hero released inaugural full-length "Kezia" in August 2005, its follow-up arriving roughly three years later in the form of "Fortress" (January 2008). Live CD / DVD set "Gallop Meets The Earth" was issued in September 2009. On March 18th at 18:00 GMT, Hit The Lights' Robert Gray telephoned Protest The Hero guitarist Tim Millar to discuss "Scurrilous". Tim Millar: Hello? UG: Hello. Can I speak to Tim please? This is Robert Gray from Ultimate-Guitar.com. You got him. How are you doing man? I'm doing well Tim. How are you? Very good. Would it be ok if we began the interview? Yeah, of course. Could you provide some background on 'Scurrilous'? The songwriting process, and how Protest The Hero developed the album into what it became? Yeah. Pretty much for this record, we tried to be the most professional. We got a rehearsal space, and came to practice Monday to Friday; the four instrumentalists sat down and just started hashing out rough instrumental song structures, making our way through ten songs. We then recorded them in a pre-production state, and sent them off to Rody the singer. He took his time getting to know them and recorded some ideas over them, and we went back and forth from there. Is that how the songwriting process usually takes place? It's relatively similar. We feel the most comfortable sitting down and writing instrumental structures, and then bringing Rody into the picture. Pretty much we give him what we have and say "Deal with it", but at the same time if he's having trouble or if something's not working then we go back and restructure anything, lengthening things or shortening things and stuff like that. That's what works for us. How would you compare 'Scurrilous' to Protest The Hero's previous two albums? I just think we had a little bit more time to comfortably get all our ideas down, and we didn't really rush anything. I guess with 'Fortress' it took us three months to write and then we recorded almost directly after, but with this record we had a year and a half to let the songs sink in. In the studio the whole recording process took over four months, and it was just a more laid-back environment than in the past. I guess 'Fortress' was a record where we felt a lot of pressure and a need to get something out there to start getting some attention. This time we wanted to take our time and give it the best quality we could I guess. Is 'Scurrilous' a tighter album then? Yeah, I think so. When we approached the songs in the studio we were very conscious of being able to perform these songs live, where in the past sometimes we went in and we did whatever it took to get it done, doing some studio magic here and there or whatever it was. Going into the studio with these songs though we were very comfortable playing them, and everyone knew more or less what their part was. We didn't wanna be making stuff up on the spot because that's where it gets confusing. That's why I guess we were tighter as a band going into the studio.

"We had a little bit more time to comfortably get all our ideas down, and we didn't really rush anything."

Has making up parts on the spot confused things in the past? Yeah. It always happens because sometimes you get to a part and think "Ok, this doesn't work as how I thought it worked". I guess for me sometimes I was recording after drums, bass and Luke's guitar, so if one of them had changed something or was different than I thought it was I would have to improvise or do something different, but the amount of times that happened was far less than before. With 'Fortress' we hit a lot of walls and thought "Let's try this" or "Let's try that", and then by the end of the day we would forget what we had done. You then hear the record four months later or whatever it is, and you totally forget parts on there that you did. Going in I think we had a better idea of exactly what we wanted to do, and how we wanted to do it. Protest The Hero formed in 1999 during the members' teens, so how does the group contrast from 1999 to 2011? I think actually Rody captured it best on one of our songs; in "Tapestry" he said "Everybody's getting older, but no-one's growing up". If you look at a picture from when we were fifteen and a picture from nine years later we don't look like the same people, but we're older and we're still doing what we're doing when we were teenagers and somehow making a living from doing it. I think we have slowly learned a lot of lessons in the time it's taken us to get here, but we're still the same jokers and immature high school kids that we were when we were in high school. Looking back, what are your thoughts on 2005 full-length debut 'Kezia'? It's funny cos we're a band that always like playing our most current material, and the older things get then the harder it is to go back and play some of these songs. Not too long ago though I had a couple of listens, and we even tried to play some songs that we hadn't been playing, which was actually really refreshing. 'Kezia' came out in 2005 so that was six years ago, but listening to it I think "What were we thinking trying to pull that off in the studio?". At the same time though it's nice that we were able to capture those young adolescent ideas, and it speaks a lot about where it came from and where we were at as people and musicians. Was Protest The Hero quite ambitious at the time? Trying to play really technical parts? Well, yeah. It was our first full-length record, though we had some recordings out that were just released in Canada which were very low quality or whatever. We finally got to go into a real studio with a real producer. I think all five of us were excited and had all these ideas, and we needed to find a way to get it all captured on a full-length record. Looking back from a songwriter's perspective, it just seems like with some of the things I think "Why did we ever think that was a good idea? To jump to this part, then this part, and then this part?". At the same time though it forced us to become better musicians because after we recorded it we thought "Ok, now we have to play all these songs", and we did. I think it taught us a lot about playing and made us better musicians. What are your thoughts on its 2008 follow-up 'Fortress'? Again when I look back, I think it captures where we were as people and musicians. I guess 'Kezia' got some small attention when we finally got a US record deal and played some places outside of North America. We started listening to different styles of music and more aggressive stuff, and got a lot of experience being on the road and being in a band and other things. I think 'Fortress' was us refining that chaotic side in a way where it was maybe a little more together, but still fast and loud. The album is a collection of ten songs that are just in-your-face. Would you describe your rhythm work on 'Scurrilous' as unconventional, which is what it has been touted as? I guess so. I have trouble with a word like "conventional" because I just imitate the guitar players I like, and maybe it's because I listen to a bunch of different styles of music. I think the biggest thing for me as a rhythm guitar player though was getting into the rhythmic side as well as the chordal side where I backed off from trying to harmonise everything that Luke was doing, but at the same time was finding creative ways to play around and compliment what he was doing. A big thing for me was learning some theory and getting some four-note chords, and really taking the time to voice them in certain ways. It's really cool playing intricate rhythms with wacky sounding chords, which just makes for a sound that I don't know if a lot of metal or progressive guitar players particularly play. Are Rush and those types of groups an influence? Yeah, a little bit I think. We feel a need to relate to Rush because they're from our hometown, they're Canadian and we like their music. I listen to a lot more jazz and even some classical now and again, but I really stopped listening to a lot of current heavy music and just wanted to explore my playing. I learned how to fingerpick and learned some jazz charts and things like that, but when I tried to apply a lot of that it didn't work. You have to use that idea and then think of how a lot of the Protest The Hero material sounds, and come up with a happy medium. I was happy with how it came through in the end. Which jazz musicians influenced you? I guess as far as the old school stuff I really got into (John) Coltrane and Miles Davis, which I guess aren't guitar players. I forget who it was, but it might've been Steve Morse playing "Giant Steps" by Coltrane on the guitar. I just tried understanding the technical ability of some of these players where to the common ear you'll pick up on it, but those were the two big jazz influences. It's more just about learning the repertoire, all these standards, and then playing along. I really like Chet Atkins playing - I can't even keep up with him at all. It sounds so simple and it's so sweet sounding, but you try to play it and it's going back to the basics. So that makes your playing stand out then, considering they aren't usual influences for metal musicians? Yeah. I find if you are able to pull influence from a place where maybe a lot of other bands and guitarists aren't getting it, at least you end up with this unique sound where people might not know where that sound comes from. It sounds familiar sometimes where someone might say "This sounds like this person" or "That...", but I find that when it's just a confused blend of styles you end up with your own unique sound I guess. Rody handled a lot of the lyrics on 'Scurrilous'. With that being said, do you know if there were specific topics he was delving into? The way it's worked in the past is that Arif was our main lyricist, but it was because he just chose to do it - it was never his responsibility, but he started writing a couple of sets. We had more music than lyrics, so we needed Rody to start doing something. He shyly approached me with a set of lyrics, to which I said "Dude, these are really good... Keep going man - we need this stuff". On the last two records maybe he had a lot to say that he didn't get to say himself, so he just went for it and I was happy with how everything turned out in the end.

"Pretty much for this record, we tried to be the most professional."

In terms of the lyrics, which specific places is Rody coming from? Since there's no concept tying everything together, it's just ten selections. A lot of it is personal to him, but it's also to our history; for example, he talks about the music industry in "Dunsel". Not that we grew up on punk rock and think "Fuck the labels", blah blah blah, but some people in the music industry have taken advantage of that young kid vibe and it has given us a very jaded opinion of the industry in general. Somehow Rody was able to articulate a lot of my thoughts in his own lyrics though. I read them, and they gave me shivers because he said everything that I would've wanted to say but didn't know how to. There's even a song called "Tongue-Splitter" where he alludes to this and that, but it's really about how he can't control what comes out of his mouth. He apologises to the rest of the band, saying how he says a bunch of stupid shit and gets us in a lot trouble, and that he's sorry. He goes on to explain how he can't control it though, but he's trying to be conscious of it. It was nice to be able to read his lyrics and get a personal insight into some of his issues, and his take on things. It was nice that he could maybe clear the air. I don't know if people will pick up on a lot of the inside meanings, but I guess to the five of us it makes us feel like we can get behind the album a lot easier. What insight does "C'est La Vie" provide then, the first single from 'Scurrilous'? "C'est La Vie" was one of the lyric sets that Arif wrote, but pretty much Arif is detailing these methods of suicide. It's kind of graphic; you read through it and you get a very strong visual, but at the end he's saying that the little things which kill you make you glad to be alive. I guess c'est la vie, such is life. People are killing themselves every day, whether it be a drastic thing or by smoking and drinking and enjoying yourself with the little things that in the end take their toll on you. It doesn't make light of suicide, but it talks about that and then it goes to the end where.... I think it's more of his artistic thoughts on life and death, and everything in between. What does Arif talk about in the songs "Moonlight" and "Sex Tapes", which he also wrote the lyrics to? "Moonlight" is about the mundane life of touring; you get in the van and you drive to a new place, and the scenery's changing. Once you get to the venue though, it's kind of the same shit but in a different pile. The room number in your hotel always changes, but you're still doing the same things. It's a love song about touring, and life on tour. How did Chris Hannah from Propagandhi come to guest on "Sex Tapes"? We did a tour with Propagandhi back in 2009. They were idols of ours, so it was crazy to be touring with them. We got along friendly and exchanged contact information. It came up in the studio that if we could get Chris to sing on the record, that would be a dream of ours. We just emailed him, sent him a song and said "Go nuts on this man". He got back to us, and two days later it was recorded. It was that easy. Why was Chris Hannah deemed suitable to guest on "Sex Tapes"? It wasn't the track per se, but we wanted him to sing on something. We had a spot where Rody had an idea for that song. One thing that we admired about Chris best was that he knows how to sing a "fuck", so we tried to give him a vulgar passage. It sounds like him when he's cussing and being angry. When I first heard it I thought "This is crazy" because it almost sounds like Rody if you don't know that it's Chris, but our dream of Propagandhi being on a Protest The Hero album came true. "Hair-Trigger" features background vocals from Canadian folk artist Jadea Kelly. How did that come about? She lives in Toronto where we live, and we've grown up with her. She was on 'Kezia' as well, so when we wrote "Hair-Trigger" and there was a female vocal she was the obvious choice. We just brought her up to the studio for a day, threw her in the booth, gave her some booze and we got what she recorded there. How did a sixty-year-old painting by Arif's grandfather - Jafar Petgar - titled 'Scurrilous' come to be selected as the album's cover artwork? Sometime during the writing process Arif showed us that painting, saying "My family have dug up some of my grandfather's work, and I really like this painting. If I can get permission to use it, it'd be awesome to include that". We loved the painting and loved how different and great it was. It was just a matter of him seeking permission from his family, and they just said "Yeah, please do". Not that we spend too much time thinking about what our album artwork should be, but we like to use anything that's a nice piece of art and not just slap our name on the record with a black background and make it look stupid. We're happy that it was that easy. Is Arif's grandfather Jafar Petgar a well-known artist? 'Scurrilous' seems like a professional artwork. Yeah. I think he was quite an established painter from Iran, but I don't know how much of his work really got outside of that country and I don't really know much about the history of his life. Yeah though, he lived as a painter and that was his profession. His family are putting a book together of all his work, and I would really like to learn his history now that we've used part of his work to help our artistic career. Might Jafar's artwork possibly feature on the covers of future Protest The Hero albums? Yeah. It's nice when you can keep a theme going, so when we do some other releases - we were talking about doing some wacky seven-inches or whatever - anything that needs artwork, like posters or whatever, it's nice to have this theme. I'm definitely gonna look into that.

"I think the biggest thing that I'd like to see the band accomplish is to just develop the name internationally."

A guitar tablature book has been printed for 'Scurrilous'. Yeah - it went to print this week. We lost a lot of sleep and tabbed our brains out, and tried to make it the best one so far. We made it look prettier and we got some appendices in there to explain some of the stuff, and some funny pictures and this and that. So yeah, I'm excited to see what people think. Does Protest The Hero have a big following amongst guitar players? Yeah, I think guitar players make up a good percentage of our audience and just musicians in general. Usually if I'm ever talking to a fan, there's usually quite a few that say "I'm a drummer" or "I'm a bass player" or "I'm a guitar player" and so on. With the tab books, Luke and I wrote them and printed them up ourselves. I've been shipping them and with the 'Fortress' one we've got rid of quite a few pretty quickly, so it was nice to see such a positive response from the guitar community. Where can guitarists purchase these Protest The Hero tablature books, should they wish to? The best place is sheethappenspublishing.com, which is the name of the publishing company that we started. Online is the best route, especially internationally because we only have distribution in Canada. We're working on having distribution in other places, but right now until we have a good understanding of how this business works we just have them in boxes and ship them out ourselves (laughs). If a guitarist purchases a Protest The Hero tablature book, what potential challenges will they encounter in learning the tabs? It's funny because I've actually sat down with some guitar players with the guitar where they've said "I can't learn this part, so can you show me?". I think the biggest challenges are the array of techniques; between Luke and myself, we're doing a lot of different stuff because I think we're two very different players. If you're trying to learn Luke's guitar parts you better know how to multi-fingertap and all that stuff, and sometimes that's a technique that you'll have to work on to develop, like sweeping or alternate picking and this and that. The hardest thing is being a diverse player and being able to switch from tapping to alternate picking to sweeping and mix it all together, and get your chops together for that. The way I've always learned music is I just sit there with the tab book, put my metronome on about fifty beats a minute, play through it, and then slowly speed it up. If you wanna play a song note for note that would be the best approach, or just skip over the stuff you're having trouble with and come back to it. So you were never taught by a guitar teacher, or anything like that? For a while, but I was just starting. Since we started touring from such a young age it was hard to have a weekly lesson, so most of the stuff I've learned from instructional videos, books and even just sitting down with people we've been on tour with and saying "Show me this... Show me that". Are instructional videos the next step for you? Yeah. We're interested in doing that, but it's just a matter of doing it in a way where it's not like watching paint dry and it's still fun. I really like the Paul Gilbert instructional videos because he doesn't sit there and say "Here it is at half-speed", "Here it is at quarter-speed". Sometimes takes maybe ten minutes to learn one riff. Hopefully if we did an instructional video we'd take the approach of showing what it is, but at the same time not trying to bore people, and having fun. We don't ever wanna be cast as those guitar players who spend way too much time thinking about playing, and don't enjoy the other things that are important in life. What do you feel the future holds for Protest The Hero? I think the biggest thing that I'd like to see the band accomplish is to just develop the name internationally. With 'Scurrilous' we've got some more label backing; Spinefarm is taking care of us internationally outside of Canada, the US and Japan I believe, and already they've shown that they can help in all the places we've struggled. I'm excited to have our music officially released and be available, and hopefully our presence in Europe and Australia and South America and everywhere else that we've yet to visit will grow. Thanks for speaking to me Tim. Yeah, no problem. All the best. Take care man. Bye. Interview by Robert Gray Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2011
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