Alestorm’s pirate metal crusade has gone from strength to strength, with the band well outlasting their initial gimmick and continuing to grow bigger and bigger. After the release of their fifth album No Grave But the Sea, we sat down to talk with keyboard player Elliot Vernon.
S] You’ve just released your new album No Grave But the Sea. How are you feeling about it now it’s out?
E: Wonderful. We’ve been waiting so long for it to be released because we had it finished in February and then it’s that annoying, frustrating time where we have to wait for the label to do everything like promoting and printing so we’ve been listening it ourselves at home for a while.
S] How long does the average Alestorm album take to take shape?
We started writing this one probably about two years ago. It was very slow for a while though. There’s not really much pressure anymore with it being our fifth album, we’re not being forced to release things every year or whatever. Any time we had a good idea we’d just write it down. It’s a pretty lighthearted and fun process which is good.
S] How do you feel this album stands up against the previous ones?
E: We definitely think it’s a step up. It’s progressed a lot because we have a new guitarist this time around which has given us scope to do different things. He didn’t write anything but he’s so talented, we knew we had more ability to do things. We’ve got harmonised keyboard-guitar solos that are on the album that we’ve not done before. There are a few riffs that we probably wouldn’t have used in the past.
S] Do you feel like the previous albums had any specific problems that you wanted to address on this one?
E: We write our songs with Guitar Pro which is this software so you don’t really hear the audio until you actually record the song. There were lots of times on previous albums where we’d get to the studio and realise that once Chris starts singing on it it’s just too low. For example The Sunk’n Norwegian which is a very popular song among our fans, Chris actually hates the vocals on it because they’re so low, he thinks he sounds too growly when it could have been so much more musical. This time around though because our new guitarist Máté lives in Budapest where I live, we had the chance to demo songs properly. We were then able to change some things like put things in higher keys or change tempos, so compared to previous albums we were so much more prepared. With his playing too it’s given me the opportunity to write some of those Children of Bodom-style keyboard-guitar solos which we didn’t really do with Dani. He wasn’t really that type of player. He was very good at playing fast shreddy stuff but the tight, locked-in harmonised stuff is something we’re only now able to start playing with. Other than that we’ve just really refined everything. It’s a very focused, refined Alestorm album. Every song on the album stands up on its own which we’ve not felt that way about with the previous albums.
S] You’ve really nailed getting the different types of songs on albums, with the big singalongs alongside the the longer more elaborate songs which have become a staple since Death Throes of the Terrorsquid really on Back Through Time.
E: Even on the album before that there was Leviathan which was longer and this was before I was in the band but there were a few parts on that album where they got a guy in to do some screams and make certain parts a bit heavier. Then I joined the band and we started doing those things live, we realised we could do that and have those longer songs with different aspects. We could have one section that’s just devoted to doing something black metal for a minute. It gets a bit boring when bands just release the same album every two years and every song sounds the same so we like to shake things up a little bit even though it’s unmistakeably Alestorm.
S] Now you have five albums worth of material including some of those longer songs which you’d want to represent, picking a setlist must be pretty difficult these days.
E: That’s right. The first show we’re doing since the album release is Download Festival where we have thirty-five or fourty minutes. We have to play the three songs we’ve released as singles but that only leaves room for three or four more songs, and we have so many more fan favourites than that. It’s starting to become very tough. With those longer songs it’s gonna have to wait until we start doing some headline shows.
S] You’ve not played on every Alestorm album, so what do you feel your contribution has been since joining?
E: Well apart from the obvious which is that I do all the screamed vocals now, it’s given Chris more scope for writing interesting keyboard parts now that he doesn’t have to try and play live with one hand on a keytar while singing. There are a few songs from the past like on the first album Captain Morgan’s Revenge, that song has a lot of sections where it needs two or three keyboard lines going at once and that song was never really as good live when it was just him playing it. I’m a songwriter as well which the other guys in the band aren’t, so just for him to have someone to bounce ideas off, it’s turned into more of a songwriting partnership instead of just Chris doing everything.
S] This must be a question that always gets fired at you, but how easy is it to keep coming up with subject matter for songs when you’re tied in this very specific theme.
E: Well especially on Sunset On the Golden Age, hardly any of those songs are actually about pirates. They’re just stupid nonsensical things like underwater bees making poison mead. We tend to just think of stupid ideas and somehow shoehorn pirates into it. It’s not really a problem. Sabaton seem to keep finding battles on Wikipedia to write about and Turisas keep writing about Vikings. Mexico on this album, it’s not really about pirates. Fucked With an Anchor, it’s not really about pirates. Alestorm, the chorus has the word “pirates” in it, but it’s just about drinking really. We don’t google famous pirate battles or talk about any actual historical pirates. All of our songs are just about having fun and we put the word “quest” in there sometimes.
S] What’s the deal with the Alestorm for Dogs album?
E: We knew we were gonna get asked that question in interviews so we tried to think of an answer but I’m really not sure. The last album had a deluxe version with two discs, one of which was an acoustic EP with about five songs, which was cool but we knew we couldn’t just do that again. This is just one of those stupid ideas we have. There’s a virtual instrument plug-in you can get which is a dog barking and we decided to use it, and at first we thought it was going to be one section in one song on the actual album with just a dog singing a verse, but then we decided to just do the whole album with it for the bonus disc. We thought it’d be just some stupid thing that no one would actually listen to but it’s been surprisingly popular. A lot of people seem to be listening to it with their dogs which is maybe taking the name far too literally.
S] Meanwhile Fucked With an Anchor takes the usual Alestorm silliness to a whole other level.
E: It certainly does. We were thinking about what makes the quintessential Alestorm song, and by far our most popular song now is Drink. It used to be Keelhauled but Drink has overtaken it, and the chorus of that song is just a football chant really. We decided then to write a song which is basically just that. I’m still amazed that we got away with it. The fact that it’s in a major key as well so it’s essentially like a children’s nursery rhyme but the lyrics are horrendous. The best thing is that if you buy the vinyl, Bar und Imbiss closes the first side and is quite an epic sea shanty type thing which ends with this brass arrangement with some really cool chords, and it really feels like it’s like that last thing before the intermission in the feature. And then you take the needle off the vinyl and you turn it over, and the first thing that plays is that stupid acoustic major chord and the opening lines of Fucked With an Anchor. It does throw people off which I think is fantastic. We’ve resorted to being childish and puerile now.
S] Aside from that, obviously the pirate thing is a huge part of your identity but a lot of work goes into writing what are at their core good songs. Do you ever get frustrated by people who maybe just see the silly pirate stuff and then just write you off musically?
E: Yeah, a bit. We’re now at a stage where we’re unbelievably turning into quite a successful metal band. We play some very big shows all around the world, and yet our drummer still doesn’t have an endorsement for his cymbals. It’s a real pain for him because every time he breaks a cymbal he has to pay out of his own pocket or the band’s pocket to replace them, just small things like that, and we wonder if we were a more serious band, whether we’d get more opportunities and chances. But on the other hand, we’re unique, and we have got to where we are just by playing good shows and impressing fans. We’ve never been on the cover of Kerrang! or done any of that stuff, so the fact that we’ve got to where we are and are now on album five, we now don’t really care if people take us seriously. It might have held us back in some respects but it’s made us unique and we’re proud to be where we are.
S] When the band first came out there would have been that initial wave of curiosity of people attracted by the gimmick, but that the band has now survived a decade past that says something.
E: When the first album came out and the band first got signed to Napalm, the label tried to push the pirate angle really heavily. The photoshoots were in authentic pirate costumes on pirate ships, the video for Keelhauled was on a pirate ship, but we got tired of playing up to that all the time. We let our fans play up to the gimmick, our fans come to the gigs dressed up as pirates and we sometimes do interviews where the guy is talking like a pirate all the time which in truth isn’t very funny. We didn’t really help ourselves with the Piratefest tour which was us and a bunch of other pirate bands, but we try not to do the pirate thing literally. We don’t wear costumes anymore, the only thing that’s pirate-y are the lyrics and album covers and everything else is just us having fun. I think that we have outlived that gimmick-y early phase is because we have distanced ourselves from the stupid costume angle. We are just five guys having a bunch of fun writing good songs, and I think people respect that more than a gimmick or image.
S] It must feel good to be a decade into a career that many people would have said wouldn’t have lasted long and to be continuing to grow and play bigger and bigger venues.
E: It’s nice that we’re playing venues that we’ve played as support for in the past. Our next UK tour is going to be in February I think and I believe the London show will probably be at the Forum. In 2011 we played as the third or fourth band on the bill there, and last year we co-headlined there with Sabaton, and this time we’re just going to be headlining. We’re very happy. One day the time will come, and we won’t know it at the time, where we are going to play our biggest show ever, and from there it’s all going to be downhill, so it’s nice that we can look at our tour dates for the next twelve months and see bigger venues still coming up. It’s a wonderful feeling.
S] Something quite notable is that this summer you guys are going to the States to play the Warped Tour, which it’s safe to say is not the kind of show you’d usually associate with Alestorm.
E: We’re all terrified because we think everyone’s going to hate us and we’ll just get sunburn. We just got an email from our management one day who had been in contact with Kevin Lyman, the guy who runs Warped Tour, who said he was interested in having us. I think he had heard us somehow and he said it reminded him of the first time he’d heard Flogging Molly or the Dropkick Murphys, these folk-y punk bands. It’s very cool for us though to be doing something like that. We just don’t know what it will be like. Every other band there will have a cool hairstyle and then there’s us. People will look at us and think “who the fuck are you, what are you doing”, but then it’s our job to play our show and impress people. We’ve very confident in our live show. Regardless of what you’re into, there’s something for you at our show, and a lot of people come to our shows who aren’t even into metal. So here, with people who are already into rock or metal, we should be fine. We’re terrified more about the weather than anything else really, playing in Arizona in July which is not weather my body is used to.