Life of Agony Never Stopped Dreaming
Alan Robert discusses new album A Place Where There's No More Pain
Posted Apr 24, 2017
“It’s been months and it’s been years;
And I just want to disappear;
And I find my place where there’s no pain;
From “A Place Where There’s No More Pain” by Life of Agony
“The most fond memories I have from the old days are of Joey and I sitting at his mom’s kitchen table in the middle of the night, eating pasta, drawing on a notebook our stage plans for Madison Square Garden when we finally headline it."
“That’s the most fun times – the dreamer part.”
This is how Alan Robert, bassist and one of the main songwriters for the band, Life of Agony, described how almost 30 years ago he and guitarist Joey Zampella dreamed of conquering the world. And why not? Robert, Zampella and the other members of Life of Agony – singer Mina Caputo and drummer Sal Abruscato – grew up in New York City in the ‘80s where the hardcore punk and heavy metal scene thrived.
Anything seemed possible.
“We loved the hardcore scene and New York. And we would be in the pit in every show and watching bands like Cro-Mags, Sick of It All, Agnostic Front and were inspired to play by bands like that,” Robert recalled. “And we grew up in an amazing time for live music in New York. Bands like Biohazard and Type O Negative were coming up.”
Soon, Life of Agony started chasing down their dreams and joined their heroes as part of the New York City underground music scene. The band had a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) ethos and developed a loyal following.
“Really, it’s those dreams that are so out of reach and fantastic that that’s your motivation. And then when you get faced with reality along the way, you’re having fun too, but it’s a lot of work. And it’s hard, it’s humbling. It’s lugging gear up two flights of stairs in a venue. We jumped in a rental truck, loaded our own gear and traveled up and down the east coast. We’d play all night, drive back and get dropped off at some dead end job that you had to do in the morning,” Robert said. “And we were able to develop our own following where we’d draw more people at L’Amour in Brooklyn than a national headliner. And so we got a taste of that local stardom, I guess.
“That was life as an unsigned artist.”
But for Life of Agony, music served a dual purpose. Not only was rock stardom a dream to which they could aspire, but also it was a way of escaping and channeling the harsh reality of their personal lives.
“When we first started this band, we were a bunch of angry kids. Back then we were in these dead end classes and school, feeling like you’re wasting your time when you could be doing creative things and trying to follow your dreams. I know that was frustrating – feeling stuck. Doing things you have to do because other people tell you you have to do them,” Robert explained. “Mina lost her parents to drugs … and Joey was dealing with an abusive, alcoholic father. We struggled with suicidal thoughts and depression.
“And when we started to write songs, it was basically like diary entries.”
Life of Agony eventually signed to Roadrunner Records, and those diary entry songs were what became River Runs Red, an album that Village Voice has since called one of the best albums to come from the New York City metal and hardcore scene. “The darkness of River Runs Red and all of the suicidal themes really expressed who we were at that moment. And that youthful age, dealing with all of the frustration of growing up. Dealing with abuse in the family and alcohol and substance abuse – everything that was around us in Brooklyn – and why we wanted to escape,” Robert described.
And for a time, the band was hurtling towards their dream. “In the height of what you’d call rock stardom I guess – playing arenas, doing big tours with some of your heroes and riding tour buses across the country and having entourages of 12-13 guys,” Robert said. “Sold out, packed shows every night; people in other countries knowing every single word. We didn’t expect any of that. I guess that’s what you see in music videos growing up and bands that you look up to.
“That’s like living the dream.”
And yet while they had label support, Robert felt that the band was still taking a DIY approach. “When we got thrown overseas to support River Runs Red in the early 90’s – Europe – it might as well have been Pluto. We got shipped over there by our manager in the dead of winter for an 8 week tour, with no experience travelling oversees at all. And you live and learn. You just have to figure it out,” he explained. “And some of the stuff – just living on a bus – with two other bands and a crew in the dead of winter for the first time – it’s definitely a scary situation. But it was great, because we were experiencing other cultures. Trying to understand different currency from country to country, that was way before the Euro. Just trying to keep your sanity in that crazy situation.
“It’s like the life camping trip.”
But soon, the band was forced to wake up from their dream. Mina Caputo, who had originally been performing as Keith Caputo, quit the band after they made their 1997 Soul Searching Sun album. Robert later found out that Caputo – who came out in 2012 – was transgender and no longer comfortable leading a public life as a man. But at the time, Robert could not understand the singer’s reluctance.
“That was a tremendous blow. We had Roadrunner’s full support to do anything we wanted. They had so much belief in that record. And "Weeds" was doing so well that we could have written our own ticket. And she walked away,” Robert recalled. “I would watch her onstage doing some of the biggest shows that we’ve done, just kind of not giving it 100% and now I know why.”
Life of Agony did reunite for a 2003 show at Irving Plaza in New York City and tried to run down their dream once more. They signed to Sony owned Epic Records and made Broken Valley. “That’s why the major label thing was so appealing – we feel like we picked ourselves up from rock bottom and rebuilt this thing. And the reunion in 2003 was so powerful. On the strength, of that we got the major label deal,” Robert said.
And having a major label thrusting them forward, Robert believed they were well on their way to achieving the fantastical dream from their early years. “When we did Broken Valley, rock radio was huge in the US. And that was the only way you were going to make it – if you were on the radio. We thought the doors were going to open for us in the states because of the influence that they had at rock radio. They had the world wide machine to get your records in the right places,” Robert explained. “And it seemed like the stars had aligned for us. We had the management, we had the right label, and we picked the right producer – Greg Fidelman – who worked on the Metallica record and worked with Rick Rubin for many years.”
“So on paper it seemed like things were falling into place.”
But soon Robert and Life of Agony became disillusioned. While they wanted to be on rock radio, they did not want to write specifically for rock radio singles. They felt that the organic process that had been successful until then would naturally produce strong songs.
“We weren’t in the business of cranking out rock radio singles. That was never a priority for this band. Creating strong, meaningful songs was always our main goal. But we always felt that our songs could be on the radio because of the big vocal hooks, and we started to hear heavier bands being played more often. So with the help of our producer, we were thinking he'd be able to polish them up a bit and they’d be suitable for whatever they need them for,” Robert explained. “Somewhere along the line of making the record, the label got very nervous about the material and would interfere – they wanted updates, basically weekly updates on the material and to hear stuff as we were writing it and to work with the producer. So that felt like a big distraction as an artist. That was something new.”
“And not really welcomed.”
More, Sony Music was sued for putting anti-piracy software on Broken Valley and other records to prevent piracy, which consumer rights advocates claimed exposed consumers’ computers to security risk.
“The record came out and then three months later it was pulled off the shelves because Sony had released our album and twelve other titles with illegal spyware to prevent piracy. And there was a class action lawsuit and they lost, and they had to pull all of the titles on the shelf,” Robert recounted. “And so all of that work – a year and a half writing a record, all of the thought that went into it, all of the meetings, all of the demo material, everything, recording in several studios in Los Angeles, writing in Woodstock, the whole thing was a waste in our eyes. Because three months after the record came out, you couldn’t even get it.”
“We were so soured by that experience it took us twelve years to get motivated to write another record.”
What got Life of Agony to reform was a lot of soul searching, and realizing that they still had the dream in them. “This band has had so many ups and downs. And even the times that we were on a real high, like signing to Sony – a major label – ended in such a nightmare. So we’ve had incredible opportunities, but we’ve also had terrible, terrible lows. And years in between when we didn’t even talk because we were so frustrated with the music business and our situation and the people we had around us. We’ve gone through these roller coaster rides,” Robert explained. “We wouldn’t have come back with such a fury and such a drive to want to at the very least end this Life of Agony thing on a good note. But we had the drive, where if we were going to make one more record, we wanted it to be great, because there’s no guarantee for tomorrow.”
“And we wanted to put everything we had into this record.”
Robert feels that Caputo’s coming out as transgender in 2012 helped the band to be more authentic and honest with each other, and helped Robert better understand why Caputo often had mixed feelings about the band. “Especially with Mina coming out, and that being such a positive thing for us as friends and just having that kind of honesty between us and understanding for the first time the struggle that she dealt with for so many years in front of my face. But I didn’t connect the dots because I didn’t know that aspect of it,” Robert said. “She told me she didn’t want to be successful as a front man. She wanted to be who she was. And rather sabotage the whole thing than live a lie.”
“And I get that now.”
And that record, A Place Where There’s No More Pain, released on Napalm Records is putting Life of Agony right back into the dreaming business. Rolling Stone called it one of the most anticipated metal albums of the year, and the title track has already been featured in Billboard. But this time, Robert and Life of Agony are returning to their DIY roots.
“We’re at the point where we don’t care as much about the outside. We’re doing it more for ourselves. I think that’s why we’re able to do things more on our own terms, more hands on. And that makes us happier. It makes it more like the earlier days in a lot of ways,” Robert said. “And once you strip away all of those people and it’s just the band again, it makes it so much easier. We’re very stripped down and punk rock in the way we travel these days. It’s just the band and the driver. You’ll see me setting up my pedals in front of 80,000 people with no guitar tech. In our minds, at this age, it’s a lot more work – physical work. But for us, it just makes a whole lot of sense. In fact, we don’t travel around with gear anymore. For the most part, we have promoters provide backline. And we show up and play.”
“You can’t strip it down more than that.”
And in many ways, the emotional core of the band and focus of the songs is just as raw. But Robert feels that the band is in a position to be more hopeful than they were when they wrote River Runs Red.
“Mina says all the time – all her heroes died at 27. So she really didn’t think she was going to make it past then … I don’t think you can fathom long term being where we’re from and what we’ve dealt with back then in the era we grew up in. The first record was living in the moment. There seemed like there was no end to it,” Robert said. “And twenty years later, having connected with so many fans across the world, and people constantly coming up to us and saying that record in particular saved their lives, really made a big impact on us … the thought of helping people get through dark times.
“Now, we have families of our own. Our lives are drastically different and we’ve matured a lot and made it through those times for the most part. You definitely learn from experience and your ability to look at problems with that type of hindsight perspective is really different. And nowadays, you really don’t sweat the small stuff, because you’ve been through so much worse.”
While it’s been over two decades since their first album, at the end of the day, Robert and Life of Agony are still the same kids at heart that they were when they first started playing. And they have the same dreams.
“We never played Madison Square Garden,” Robert said.
“I think that dream is still alive.”
Michael A. Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with offices in Manhattan and South Orange, NJ, and is a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Contact Dr. Mike at michaelfriedmanphd.com. Follow Dr. Mike on Twitter @drmikefriedman.