Opening Up with…Atreyu


Opening Up sees us talk to musicians about the opening track from each of their studio albums. Our next guest is Brandon Saller, a founding member of metalcore veterans Atreyu who recently made the jump from being the band's drummer to its full-time frontman. Last month saw the California natives release their eighth studio album, nearly 20 years after the release of their first and marking Saller's debut at the helm of Atreyu.

There’s a clear and present goal that Atreyu have when they open their records – shit’s either about to go down or it’s immediately going down. No middle ground, no compromise. One way or another, it’s on for young and old – which is fitting, really, given the band’s now-intergenerational appeal. From their 2000s heyday to their 2010s rebirth and now their 2020s reinvention, Atreyu have always held up the long-player as a sacred format. As such, the opening moments of said albums – of which they now have eight – are just as important as their centrepieces and key singles.

“I feel like we’ve always tried to have it go one of two ways,” says Brandon Saller, who’s been with Atreyu since they first started in the late ’90s. “It’s a pummelling, punch in the face of a song out of the gates. If we haven’t had that, it’s been this attempt to bring you into a zen, calm place… before we punch you in the face, of course. That’s what we’ve always gone for.” Either way, someone’s getting punched in the face, right? “Exactly,” laughs Saller.

‘A Song for the Optimists’ – Suicide Notes and Butterfly Kisses, 2002


When it came to creating what would ostensibly serve as Atreyu’s introduction to the world at large, Saller reasons that ‘A Song for the Optimists’ was the one that made the most sense to him and his bandmates at the time. “Look at the anatomy of a hardcore band,” says Saller. “What does every hardcore band do when they come out on stage? They ring out.” Saller then helpfully recreates the sound associated with guitars ringing out through the magic of onomatopoeia: “BOWWWWWWWW.”

“We’d do this anyway when we’d play live,” Saller continues. “Let’s just open with that big ring-out, and then punch you in the face. This is in our DNA, as a young hardcore band, to want to do that.”

Suicide Notes and Butterfly Kisses came out just weeks before Saller’s 19th birthday, and was recorded while the band was fresh out of high school. Like any ageing millennial, he looks back on this time with both a shaken head and a knowing laugh. “I mean, we were literally children,” he says. “I remember going to New Jersey to record, and the five of us shared one hotel room. I remember going completely broke by week two. We did a whole album in two weeks, and in the first week, I spent all the money I had. I didn’t spend the money on food, either –  I got my lip pierced!”

‘Blood Children (An Introduction)’ – The Curse, 2004


The 2000s were rife with heavy bands throwing in sinister, eerie-sounding intro tracks to lure audiences into a false sense of security. Atreyu, trope-codifiers that they were, were not exempt from this at all – in fact, it was a clear and present focus when curating The Curse‘s tracklist. “You look at a song like ‘Bleeding Mascara,’ which was just so punishing from the get-go,” Saller references.

“It’s just such a blistering track. The drums are gnarly, the guitars are gnarly, the screaming comes from out of nowhere. That whole record had such a dark theme, with the vampire element running through it, that we wanted this kind of spooky vibe to open you up. We didn’t want people to see it coming. The game-plan was simple: ‘Mascara’ is too gnarly on its own to be first, so let’s distract people before it hits.”

Although initially brought in solely as Atreyu’s drummer, Saller’s role would expand over the years to incorporate not just his vocals, but his role as a multi-instrumentalist. Many additional guitar parts on Atreyu’s albums are courtesy of him, as well as all of the keyboards and programming. The latter is where ‘Blood Children’ enters the picture: “It was literally just me playing every keyboard in the studio,” says Saller.

“We went in, and one of the engineers was like, ‘What do you guys want to do?’ We started messing around with beats, and it honestly came out to be a lot more hip-hop sounding than we had anticipated. It was different, but it worked. We added a lot of weird guitar swells, and it turned out unlike anything we’d planned from the beginning. It was cool, though – it ended up sounding so different than anything that existed at the time.”

‘Creature’ – A Death-Grip On Yesterday, 2006


Although written towards the end of Atreyu creating their third studio album, it was clear from the moment pen hit paper that ‘Creature’ would serve as A Death-Grip On Yesterday‘s track one. This is made even more interesting when Saller reveals that prior to ‘Creature’ being written, a completely different opener had been pencilled in. “We had ten songs we were putting on the album, and midway through we heard from the producers of the movie Underworld,” Saller explains.

“They wanted to use the song ‘Her Portrait in Black’ in the movie. That was supposed to be the first song on the album, but they wanted it to be exclusive to the soundtrack. So we were like, ‘Shit, guess we’ll need another first song.’ That’s where ‘Creature’ came in. I had come into the studio with a new riff just that day, and the rest came together – honestly – in probably like 40 minutes. It just kind of like poured out.”

With its stiff, relentless riffs and big-swinging 6/8 time signature, ‘Creature’ created an urgency that implored listeners to stick with the ensuing LP. “It was the same thing where we felt like it just hit you in the face from the get-go,” notes Saller. “That felt necessary on this record. We were trying some new things – there were definitely more rock elements and more rock moments within the song. We also wanted to make sure that it was heavy, too – just to make sure people understand that we still do this.”

‘Doomsday’ – Lead Sails Paper Anchor, 2007


Striking while the iron was hot, the band immediately followed up A Death-Grip on Yesterday with Lead Sails Paper Anchor just over a year later. To this day, it remains their most successful album to date – the only Atreyu album to hit number one on the Billboard Rock Charts, while also cracking the ARIA Top 40 here in Australia. It all begins with the relentless statement of intent that is ‘Doomsday’, which similarly charged out of the gates but also proved to be quite a different creature to…well, ‘Creature’.

“I think that it was just such an impactful intro,” says Saller. “It was something that we picked because you could just picture yourself walking out on stage to it. The stage is dark, you walk out and you start that riff. People know exactly what’s coming. As soon as that song got written, I was like, ‘I’m pretty sure that’s gotta be the first song on the record.’ It’s that same thing, man – it’s that ambience, followed by the trademark Atreyu punch in the face.”

‘Stop! Before It’s Too Late and We’ve Destroyed It All’ – Congregation of the Damned, 2009


Saller can’t help but laugh to himself when the full title of the opener for Congregation of the Damned is read back to him – including the exclamation mark. “It’s ridiculous, isn’t it?” he asks incredulously. From there, he speaks about the song – and, by extension, the album itself – from what he calls “a place of honesty,” which can only mean good things, right? “This is the only opener that I truly believe failed at what it set out to do,” admits Saller of the song.

“We tried really hard to write this blistering, heavy song. It’s only one of maybe two or three songs we have that I don’t sing in at all. We were trying to make a point to be heavy, and I think that when our band tries to do something it sparks from some form of dishonesty. That concept doesn’t really work for us – our best material comes from when we’re just honest. It didn’t even end up being all that heavy. That’s why I think that song fizzled and didn’t really get played a lot. We didn’t even open our shows with it, because it just didn’t have the impact that we intended it to have. The reality is that we tried too hard.”

‘Long Live’ – Long Live, 2015


Much like the album Long Live, there was a lot riding on its eponymous intro. Here’s a song that served as Atreyu’s comeback single after five years, as well as a title track and an opening number. But all the uncertainty Saller had about the band and their abilities circa Congregation had flown out the door at this juncture – ‘Long Live’ is big business, and that’s exactly how he wants it. “It’s like fucking Mötley Crüe when it comes in, man,” Saller says excitedly.

“It was this big, heavy song – it was perfect for what we wanted. The message of the lyrics was cool, too – it really cemented that this was a comeback moment for us. It was just blistering, too, the same way ‘Bleeding Mascara’ was. Double-kick drums, that frickin’ epic guitar riff… there’s big, big moments all over the place. It came super naturally to us. It felt like a real no-brainer.”

‘In Our Wake’ – In Our Wake, 2018


Wouldn’t you know it, In Our Wake followed the exact same path as its predecessor. Its title track, like ‘Long Live’, held the triple duty along with being the album opener and lead single. Saller opines that both songs were reflective of each record as a whole – so giving them such responsibilities as songs was seen by the band as being entirely reasonable. “The message of ‘In Our Wake,’ lyrically, bleeds through the whole album,” he says.

“It was a really good statement piece, semantically, about what the album was about. It definitely helped that it opened in such a grand way – straight away, you hear these massive drums and a really big vocal line. Yeah. It was like one of those things where I was visualising it in my head, as a music fan. If I was in a dark venue and the lights went out, and I just heard those big drums, I’d know exactly what was coming. I mean, I’m singing along right away! I think that kind of hype got us all fired up. It had to be first.”

‘Strange Powers of Prophecy’ – Baptize, 2021


For Atreyu, moving forward unfortunately also meant leaving a man behind. In 2020, following a tour of Australia, it was revealed that frontman Alex Varkatzas would be exiting the fold. This brought about several changes – Saller solely taking up vocals, bassist Marc McKnight doing screams and Kyle Rosa entering as Atreyu’s new drummer. Of course, a new era needed to be heralded in with something distinctly different. Album number eight Baptize, then, would open with a mostly acapella number consisting of Saller feeding his voice through a vocoder…at least, that’s what you’d assume.

“People asked about that, but I can promise you that we’re not fucking with vocoders,” says Saller. “What you’re hearing on that track is literally all five of our voices. Every single person in the band is singing about three harmonies each. There’s probably 100 tracks of vocals. Even the low monk-sounding thing is me and Dan [Jacobs, guitarist] pitched down. We’ve always wanted to do an acapella track, but could never quite get there. It felt now was the time to do it, so we went for it.”

The song’s lyrics are made up of one line from every track on the album, although as much isn’t apparent when the album starts. This was an intentional move on the band’s half to make Baptize as much a record of discovery as it is rediscovery. “You’ll hear those Easter eggs when you’re listening to the record,” says Saller. “You’ll be like, ‘I think I’ve heard that before!’ We made it tell us its own story, which was definitely an ambitious thing for us. It was difficult to really dial in, but it’s a super proud moment for us. It’s everyone in our band. It’s just our voices. We’re not hiding behind anything.”

Atreyu’s eighth studio album, Baptize, is out now.