The Atlas Moth’s expansive, ambitious third album The Old Believer is both a meditation on loss as well as a chronicle of self-discovery. Written after the death of frontman Stavros Giannopoulos’s mother, the record charts the singer’s internal spiritual journey and grapples with the agonies of physical existence. It’s music that requires work — not only to unspool Giannopoulos’s dense, metaphorical lyrics, but also to navigate its shifts between low, baleful vocal melodies and thundering death metal crunch.
Arriving three years after the group’s acclaimed second record An Ache for the Distance, Believer solidifies the band’s reputation for creating dense, challenging music that absorbs a host of influences — doom metal, goth and prog among them — but reconfiguring them into something new and inspiring.
Wondering Sound called Giannopoulos at his home in Chicago to chat about the therapeutic benefits of psychedelic drugs and using songwriting as a way of getting through tough times.
In recent months, a number of activists — as well as some Chicago-based hip-hop artists — have decried the use of the term “Chiraq” [a combination of "Chicago" and "Iraq" that's shorthand for the violent reputation of Chicago's inner-city neighborhoods]. Does living in Chicago — especially this summer, when the crime rate is exceptionally high — have an effect on you as a songwriter? Or even just as an artist who is creating within the city?
Absolutely, but not for the reasons you’re thinking. What a lot of people don’t understand — they watch VICE documentary episodes on Chiraq [that focus on drug and gang activity within predominately African-American communities] and all that shit — there is crime all over the city. All of us live in pretty poor neighborhoods, but not as impoverished as the Chiraq neighborhoods. But this city is incredibly segregated. There is really no reason for me to wander into those neighborhoods; there are no guys standing at my corner with machine guns, like in that documentary. My life doesn’t pertain to those parts of the city, and even the people in that documentary never go downtown. That is what it’s like here: You stay in your little pocket. I buy groceries in my neighborhood; I go to restaurants, I buy my cigarettes, gas all within a six- to 10-block radius. I don’t need to go farther than that. It’s a big city — you have all that you need within your area.
Not being New York and not being L.A. but still being a big city, you develop a chip on your shoulder. Everyone talks about the New York metal scene, and I think that we are always the “little brother,” and we are always trying to fight for our little nook in the the music world. I also think the weather — how it’s brutally cold in the winter and unbearably muggy in the summer — I think that those factors tie into how you write. We are all born and raised here too, so it’s in our blood. I think it definitely leads itself to [playing] extreme metal, as that’s how it can be here.
So what exactly is “The Old Believer”?
It’s actually a couple of different things. For one, it’s a sect of the Russian Orthodox Church that left the founding church because they didn’t believe in some of their ideas. So they are kinda like old-school Puritans, if you will. There’s also the Sect of Sovereign citizens that live in Montana that call themselves the Old Believers. They gave up their basic constitutional rights to live free of the government. But for me, it was about washing my hands of the doom [metal] scene that we’re in. I really didn’t care about being a part of it anymore. It was to separate us from the scene, pretty much.
The lyrical subject matter on The Old Believer is emotionally intense.
Well, if you wanted to describe [our] music based on its lyrical perspective, I guess “emo” would work.
The record tackles spirituality, religion, faith – did you have a particularly religious upbringing?
Well, yes and no. I was born with Spina bifida, so right around the time I was born, my mom lost faith. And that played a big role in my own personal faith, especially going to doctors every week and going to therapy for my legs and my back. It was especially hard for my mother, who figures heavily into the lyrics on The Old Believer, to really suffer from the fact that a baby was born so sick. Being a Christian, she never believed that was possible. Watching her lose her faith as a kid definitely played a big role in my own personal faith. Because to see my mom go through that — the thought that a “being” could put me through the shit that I went through as a kid… Faith was definitely a big deal in my family growing up, but it is the opposite of what you would expect. It was the lack of faith that was a big thing for me as a kid.
[Co-vocalist and guitarist] Dave [Kush] goes more into the spiritual realm in his songwriting. In terms of how we approach our lyrics, I’m the one without hope and he is the one with hope. I’m the one who doesn’t believe in anything, and he is the one that holds out the hope that it’s true. He’s not religious in terms of any formal, traditional beliefs, but he does believe the metaphysical parts of spirituality that really come across on the album.
Did you ever have any hesitation about being so open?
I’ve always tried to write exactly who I am, but also keep a bit of mystery. We had been working on this record since May of 2013, but we didn’t get to demoing the vocals until later in the year. And I actually kind of hit a brick wall, because my mother got really sick — she had cancer for a couple of years and it had gotten worse — so I told the band I didn’t know exactly how present I was going to be in terms of band business, as I needed to be home.
Within a two-week span, my mother went from being sick to passing away, and in that time I wrote all of the lyrics. I wondered at the time whether I should be putting myself out there like that, but I found a great a sense of release in writing. I found a great sense of calm, because I really didn’t think there was another way out. I thought, “Man, this is a little dicey,” because I usually keep it a little more vague and let people have their own interpretations. But then I thought that if anyone heard the record and was going through something similar, then maybe they would get something out of what I was going through. If that were the case, then I would have accomplished a goal. If I could help one person who listens to this record, who went through a hard time, than that’s exactly what should be done.
There is definitely a lot of confusion [about my mother's death], because it happened in such a short period of time. It went from confusion, to anger, to trying to pull myself out of a rut — that’s what it was all about. Within those two weeks, there was a lot to deal with. I needed to write every day. Every day, I would have to deal with family stuff, and then I’d come home to my apartment in front of my recording rig and I would go at another song and leave it all on the table. Without that release, I would have gone crazy.
Has your family listened to The Old Believer?
To be honest with you, I haven’t given it to them yet, simply because my parents were married for 42 years and it’s been less than a year since my mom passed. I don’t want to dredge anything up right now. It doesn’t seem right. And it wasn’t for them — it was for me. I don’t know if they would get the same thing [out of it] as I do. None of them are really metal fans by any means. Well, my sister is, but I don’t know if she would actually grasp what it was about unless she sat down and really listened to the lyrics and thought about what I was saying. I think if she read the lyrics, she would get it. But I don’t think I’m quite comfortable… I’m comfortable putting it out into the world, but not sure about how comfortable I’m playing it for my brother, or father or sister.
In “Sacred Vine,” there’s a reference to a “mind-altering drug” used as a pathway to discovery.
Yes, definitely. Ayahuasca is a drug in its purest sense. Dave went to Peru and participated in an Ayahuasca ceremony there. Dave is one of my best friends in the world, and he definitely took what I was going through and ran with it. With how close we are, everything that one of us is going through affects the other. Something like that, a way of purifying yourself — almost hitting a reset button…I have always used psychedelic drugs as a way to get through hard times. Obviously, there are people who are going to say, “Oh you shouldn’t use those drugs if you aren’t feeling completely stable,” but I feel a bit of clarity using drugs like that. I’ve always used psychedelic drugs as a way to clear my head and try to find some sort of inner peace, to see the bigger picture. So I think that it does work. I’m not sure personally if many people use psychedelic drugs in that way, but it’s always worked for me.
So there is a reason for it, other than going to Burning Man and wanting to have a lost weekend.
Definitely! I’m not the kind of person who is going to do something like that. I’m not the kind of person who is going to take a handful of mushrooms just to have a good time on the weekend. Usually, I’ll grab mushrooms and lock myself in my room for eight hours. I’m 31 now — it’s definitely not my first time at the rodeo, if you know what I mean. And it always has worked. I can sit here and put on a couple of my favorite records and stare off, and I can get somewhere through it. I might have some different mood swings throughout my trip, but at the end I can definitely have some kind of level-headedness, which is what I am looking for.
The Old Believer‘s album cover is causing quite a ruckus. You’ve served as the art director for all of your albums — what was the concept behind the image?
This dates back to our last album [2011's An Ache for the Distance]. We were trying to get [artist] Storm Thorgerson, who did Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon album cover and a lot of the Led Zeppelin covers — [basically] the best cover art you have ever seen. It didn’t work out, but then I saw the documentary [about Thorgerson] Taken by Storm, and they talked about the album cover for Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door. It had this sepia tone cover, but when it was wet, it turned into full color. When I saw that, I was like, “That’s amazing.” When we were on tour in Europe, the plan was that when we got home, to start work on the new record. But while we were on tour, Storm passed away. He was someone I looked up to for my entire life. And the thought of working with him was on the list of things I wanted to do before I died.
I thought about using that paper stock that was used for the Led Zeppelin album, kind of like a tribute to the band. So I talked to the people that manufacture the Profound Lore CDs, and we were trying to find that particular stock. And while we didn’t find it, we found something similar. I finally came up with a concept, but the more I planned it I realized the limitations of my own artwork, and I knew it had to be really special. I didn’t want to have such a cool effect without an image that didn’t fit perfectly. So the second person on my list of all-time favorite artists to work with was Ryan Clark [Invisible Creature], so I sent him my ideas, the ideas on the record, and he totally knocked it out of the park. His skill is far more vast than my own. I trusted his skills more than my own.
You had some guest performances on The Old Believer, most notably, Subrosa’s violinists Sarah Pendleton and Kim Pack. How did that collaboration come about?
We’re on the same label and we’ve always been in contact with them about touring together because we both have this very out-of-the-box, very left-field style within the metal scene, so when we wanted to add strings (check what track) they were the first people to enter our minds. They are really awesome and the band is awesome and we are going on tour with them this summer, so I’m really looking forward to getting acquainted with them better.