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Interview with Alpha Galates vocalist and drummer Matthew Von Wagner

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Alpha Galates is a Toronto-based prog metal outfit who’ve recently been making waves and catching some important ears. Originally forming as The Hollow out in Western Canada, the group was since rerooted to Ontario, released a trilogy of independent albums, added some new members, and united under a new moniker. Prior to my interview with Alpha Galates vocalist/drummer Matthew Von Wagner, the band’s management had sent me a copy of A Stimulus For Reason. Their EMI debut showcases a refreshing take on some throwback progressive metal, with 70s riffing and some very operatic-sounding vocal harmonies. Unable to completely put my finger on what the band was doing, yet still being drawn into the music, I used this interview as an opportunity to dig just a little bit deeper into the mind and vision of the band’s main songwriter.

Introduce yourself to readers and let them know what you do in Alpha Galates.
Matthew: I’m Matthew Von Wagner, and I sing and play drums in Alpha Galates.

Give me a Reader’s Digest version of the band’s history, because I know you started playing under a different name. Tell us how you went from your original roots to the current inception of Alpha Galates.
Matthew: Well, we originally formed in Alberta as The Hollow. That was Karen, the bass player, Todd, the guitar player, and myself. We moved to Toronto about eight years ago, put out three records, did a lot of touring, and then about two years ago we added a new guitar player, Rowan, and then I switched to drums. Originally, I was just the singer. Then we added Harmony on keyboards, and changed our name to Alpha Galates.

So you’ve been in the industry for a while – tell me how the deal with EMI came about.
Matthew: Well, they liked our stuff and offered us a deal. We sort of spent a lot of time negotiating it. I mean, we did a lot of showcases, which I guess is sort of standard stuff, but I guess they wanted to try stuff a little different.... We had three records out independently, so I guess out of curiosity we wanted to see what’d be like to sign to a major label, and so far it’s been pretty good.

What are some of the eye-opening experiences that arrangement has offered the band so far? I mean, I know you guys are doing a few big festivals this summer and that kind of thing. What are the highlights of being on EMI that you didn’t get to experience touring independently?
Matthew: Well, we just actually got back from a tour yesterday, which is why you couldn’t get a hold of us. (Ed. Our interview was originally delayed due to poor cell phone reception on the road). But I guess it’s just nicer to have a team of people behind you, promoting you. That’s a highlight. Mixing the record was pretty cool – I actually produced the record myself. So with EMI, we got to go and mix it with Joe Barresi, who’s kind of a hero of mine, so it was kind of cool working with him. And then we’re doing Rock AM Ring and Rock AM Park in Germany in June, and then Nova Rock in Austrio, and Edgefest (in Toronto), which is neat. [laughs]

Yeah, congrats on that, by the way.
Matthew: Thank you.

Funny you mention you did the production on the record – that was actually my next question. I’ve been listening to it quite a bit lately, and it’s got a real analog feel to it – some really thing, chunky guitars that really stands out in an age of compression as being that juicy, rock and roll sound. Is that something you were trying to capture, and who were your influences when it came to trying to get that sound on your record?
Matthew: I guess my motto as a producer, as a recording engineer, and as a band is to just try to capture what we make, you know? So, the guitar tones I guess is just... like Todd, our guitar player, is just an amazing guitar player, and he just sounds like that, I guess. [laughs] Because we didn’t record it to tape or anything. I mean, as far as influences, I just like old-school guitar, sort of more-raw guitar with really high gain. I don’t know if that makes sense....

Absolutely it does.
Matthew: Yeah, like chunky... kind of roll back the gain and just turn it up, you know?

Yeah, that’s definitely the vibe I was getting. I’m glad you agree, because I do like the feel of the record and the way it sounds. I want to start talking lyrics, because it seems they’re a really big part of what’s going on with A Stimulus For Reason. One thing I noticed is the constant use of the word or idea of ‘God.’ I want to explore some of the different references on the album, and how that fits into your mix.
Matthew: We’re not an overly-religious band, or anything, but yeah. It depends on the song. On the first track (“Conformity”), I was using God in the context of the moral majority. So we definitely don’t try to be “preachy” or diss anybody’s belief system or anything. Our main belief is that people should be able to think whatever they want to think. But I guess that’s growing up in a Christian-based society – at times, you have to question those beliefs that are put on you. Like, the whole theme of the record for me is like a rebirth, more than anything – certain eye-opening experiences in life that change who you are. Like, over the last ten years of my life, I’ve become a completely different person, so I wanted to show that on this album, at least lyrically.

There’s a lingering idea of non-conformity on there, you know?
Matthew: For me, it’s about getting to a point where you’re comfortable with yourself, and not worried about what other people think, but also getting to a point where you don’t have to prove yourself to anybody – you can just be comfortable with yourself. So “Conformity” is the first song on the record, and it’s not about conforming to what other people want; it’s more about conforming to what you’re comfortable with. And it was originally a triple concept record, like a lot of the songs from The Hollow, and we kind of took the best of what we liked throughout the different records and made this album. The original concept was the path of life – birth, life, and death – and how you grow as an individual, so I mean, we all have to conform one way or another. Like, a few years ago I never would’ve envisioned myself being on EMI, so it’s definitely finding a place where you’re comfortable with yourself, and not really worrying about what other people think.

As for the vocal performance on the record, there are lots of layered vocals, lots of two-, sometimes three-part harmonies. How do you pull off that layered sound on-stage?
Matthew: Well, on the record, I do all the vocals, but since we’ve added Rowan and Harmony, who’re both great singers, we pull off as many parts as we can – just fill in the important notes, and then there are points where there are five people singing on stage. For me, harmony and melody is key. I like heavy music, but I think the melodic element doesn’t have to be lost. You don’t have to ignore melody or harmony just because you want to be heavy. Like, I love Queen, but I also love Meshuggah.

Okay, I kind of want to play name dropping now. I try not to fall into the cliché interview questions, but with your band there’s so many different influences present. Who are some other acts you’d consider an influence to your sound?
Matthew: Definitely Black Sabbath. Like, Tomi Iommi is a huge influence to the way I play guitar, because I write the bulk of the songs, and Todd writes with me, and then Harmony writes her parts. But like, Black Sabbath and Yes are bands that I like. Also Tool, and newer bands like Meshuggah. My favourite band would probably be Radiohead, though. I like all kinds of music – all music is good. There’s a mood where I want to listen to something really heavy; there’s a mood where I want to listen to something soft, but as far as our band goes, I want to be a band that bridges the gap where there’s no preset of what parts we have to go into next. It doesn’t have to be the “insert metal riff A” or “insert metal riff B” here. I like having a heavy riff, but then having a five-part harmony overtop of it. I mean, that’s what I’d like to hear in music....

You say you just came off of a tour yesterday, and it seems that lately the hype has kind of been building around Alpha Galates. How’s your reception been on the road, in both Canada and abroad? Like, I know you’ve recently received some praise from Bruce (Dickinson) from Iron Maiden on the BBC – how did that come about?
Matthew: Well, actually we just did a tour with Grimskunk, who are amazing, and a band I didn’t know a whole lot about. Like, I’d heard of them. But it was really fun doing a tour with them because they’re just a great band. We did western Canada, and the reception has been really great, actually, like really positive. The general reaction to seeing us live on this tour seemed to be “what the fuck?” [laughs] Because we pride ourselves in our performances; we try to push ourselves as hard as we can, and it’s been really good. Bruce Dickinson played us on his radio show, and has been saying some really kind things about us, so that’s been really cool because Iron Maiden’s one of our favourite bands, too. I haven’t got to meet him yet....

The video for “Standing” – I know it’s in heavy rotation on MuchLOUD…
Matthew: Yeah, it’s in heavy rotation on MuchLOUD, and it’s been the “Loud Tested” video on much music. It’s been up there for a few weeks; I actually don’t know what’s happening now, because like, I just got our of the van yesterday. [laughs] Like, we drove back straight from Vancouver, so I think you can still request it on Much and MuchLOUD. That was a really cool experience, too, because [the video] is kind of my homage to John Carpenter, and the director we worked with, Margaret Malandrucollo, is a great. So it was a tribute to John Carpenter. I wanted to do a tribute to The Thing, but... [laughs] maybe we’ll do that for the next one.

Final question. You’ve been a part of the Canadian music scene for some time now. Offer some comments on the state of the Canadian music scene for independent music, and how do you think your recent success is telling of the Canadian scene?
Matthew: To me, I feel like sort of a different generation of musician at times. As for as our band goes, we’ve been putting out our own records, and I’ve built me own studio, and we’ve done things ourselves, and now our friends, who are getting success, too, bands like USS and Crystal Castles; it’s more the attitude of people doing it themselves and less the attitude of waiting around for record deals. That’s gone now. Now, you can record an album, and just put it up on MySpace, and you’re off and running. So I think the music is scene is kind of scary, but also exciting. It’s scary that people aren’t really buying albums anymore, but it’s cool that people can download your album for free. I mean, as long as people are enjoying the music. I still like to believe that if somebody really likes Alpha Galates, they’re going to go buy the record because the want the special edition tin, or something you know? I mean, to me, I got sick of... I’m a little older, I’m 29, so I got sick of when albums were getting ridiculous, costing like $22. Like, now our CD is at HMV for $9.99 – that’s refreshing. So, if you like our band, maybe you’ll pick it up. If not, come see the show, come buy a T-shirt. People are supporting bands still. Bands are still thriving. We’re going to play festivals in Europe that draw, like, 70,000 people. So obviously, people still want music. We also get to play with Metallica, which is just amazing. Like, Master Of Puppets, as a child, was the pinnacle of my childhood – at least owning that album. Even though they’re not as great as they used to be, it’s still pretty cool. [laughs]

Final thoughts?
Matthew: Well, we’re getting ready for a tour with Threat Signal, who are a great band, and Hail the Villain, so we’ll ride that out, and then I think our record comes out on EMI in Germany on June 6, and all those eastern European territories, so hopefully we’ll be back there in the fall, and we’re coming out on Caroline, another EMI label in the States, so we should be pretty busy. We just want to tour. We’ve spent a lot of time on this record, and want to be able to show it to everybody. We’re happy to tour for as long as it takes to get everybody onboard. I also want to mention we have two versions of the CD – there’s the normal, $9.99 digipack, and then we have a tin with special surround mixes, a bonus track, and our video, and I think it’s only $4 more. So that’s kind of cool. I mean, we wanted to offer something extra to people still buying music....  [ END ]
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