Rotted Futures: A Conversation with Steve Blanco of Imperial Triumphant

I was fortunate to chat with Imperial Triumphant bassist Steve Blanco back in May. We discussed the band’s process, influences, and of course, their new album Alphaville (out Friday, July 31 via Century Media). 

[In a world that seems to get incrementally shittier by the day, I hope this piece offers you a few minutes of refuge. More importantly, though, I hope you’re able to find (as we touch upon in this conversation) well…  hope. Seek out inspiration, a shred of something that can move you to make positive change. It’s cliché as fuck, but the little things really do add up. Request an absentee ballot, scratch out a friendly postcard to a friend, volunteer a couple hours at a local food bank, do something that’d make your grandma proud. Make it a habit. For now, press play and read.
/soapbox]

Congrats on the new album. I haven’t spent a whole lot of time with it at this point, but I am very much into what I’m hearing so far. I appreciate that you guys make an effort to give each record its own personality, and it really comes across on this go.

That’s awesome man, thank you.

You guys have always existed at the cutting edge of more experimental and extreme music. To me, extreme music at large has been embracing more atypical styles, structures, and approaches to the music, so how has that influenced this record, or what kinds of ways has that motivated you with Alphaville

It’s interesting what’s going on in this world of music, because I feel like all these other genres and styles are sort of finally getting… welcomed in or embraced so to speak. For us, Vile Luxury was the first album that came out of us, this particular trio. So, our individual influences, all the jazz stuff, all this other art and film came together as we were touring together a lot before that album. So, that’s’ how i think the sound started to evolve into what Vile Luxury became. Now I think it’s just natural for all of that to just keep going forward, as far as our three personalities will take us. That’s where we’re at now, I think a lot of it has to do with us spending time on the road and playing a lot together.

It’s probably not even something that you’re really conscious of at this point. I don’t get the sense that you’re actively like, “Well, let’s push the envelope in this way. Let’s do this next time.” Are you kind of setting these specific goals, or is it just kind of just a byproduct of your musical personalities?

No, a lot of it definitely just happens that way because it’s just who we are. A lot people ask us about the jazz thing, and it’s not like we actually ever really set out to make a band or a record that was “extreme metal with jazz,” you know? It’s just that we are all jazz musicians on top of being rock musicians or metal musicians. That’s another thing that we just do, it’s naturally part of how we play or how we write and how we sound. It’s a very organic part of this band and I feel like that comes across to the listener, too. Maybe that’s why we’re able to do it in a way that fans are responding positively to. On another note to to answer this question, I would say that we do want to craft something that is an incredible experience for the listener. I think we are trying to set standards and goals for ourselves, to push [forward] in that sense. But I don’t think that what actually comes out is something that is engineered, or really thought about, you know?

I was gonna say in a way It’s almost as if this desire to push yourself in these ways is more or less a blueprint as opposed to deciding, “Okay well we’re working in these kind of drums on this record, we’re gonna incorporate this kind of thing here…” I don’t know, I’m not super into jazz so I can’t speak to the intricacies and musical DNA there, but, you’re not really letting that guide you. That’s not the carrot that you’re dangling in front of yourselves.

No. In fact, you don’t really need to be into jazz to get into what we’re doing. It’s just part of the sound, the landscape of things.

Right on. What that being said, what was your mindset heading into this record? Were you trying to set up a certain like, mood or feel? I sense that there’s a concept in play here that we’ll get into later…

Yeah, I mean it’s funny. I don’t know that we actually set out to make concept albums, but we just seem to come out with these themes, they’re very connected. On the heels of Vile Luxury, we were a bit overwhelmed because we were very pleased with the way that album came out, and it got a positive response. I think it really helped solidify us, you know, as a unit. Right after that, I remember all three of us were kind of just like, “Okay well we’re gonna have to do another album, but like, how the hell are we going to do something else now that we just did this Vile Luxury thing?” [laughs] But you know, I think that’s natural for creative people, artists, musicians to always think about that when you just finish a project, like, “Wow we have to do another one or we have to do something else.” And then as time went on we just started putting songs together and, all three of us definitely wanted to make a big album, not just the music, but content, concept, you know even things that might even be abstract, somehow energetically make a big album that is gonna be another tier up from Vile Luxury. I was thinking it could kind of be like a big dream, like maybe we can get into that kind of thing with layers of consciousness and time, the future and the past, and see if we can put all this stuff into a record.

Totally. I’m assuming that the album shares the title of the [1965 Jean-Luc Godard] sci-fi film, so taking that idea of like future and past… Like, even the project itself pays this homage to the past in a way. You got this art deco aesthetic. You got these jazzy elements that have this retro kind of feel, and then you’re able to kind of mix these with more progressive ideas and what I would consider pretty “out there” experimentation. You always have that jazzy noir vibe, the kind of beauty perverted thing with these warping, nausea-inducing changes of direction and stuff, but there’s a different energy on this go around. Like, Vile Luxury was more suffocating and oppressive to me whereas this one is more open, but it’s just as disorienting, confusing, and unsettling. Like, it has those same kinds of reflections on the past, but also pushes out in new directions.

Yeah, I mean, you’re pretty much nailing it. I think [Alphaville] is probably a bit more futuristic than Vile Luxury. It’s funny how things can just manifest from thoughts. So like, if the three of us are kinda thinking about that, then the sound kind of becomes more futuristic, too, it just happens that way. It’s not even like we try to do it, necessarily. But, the band, we’re just interested in all these themes. We like to look at civilizations, you know, when we’re on the road we’ll have these long discussions about historical things or power centers throughout civilization in different parts of the world and how New York plays a part in that. And then how the art deco thing is a part of that but it’s also like, Egyptian, right? So like futuristic and ancient all at the same time. Like, it’s funny how futuristic art deco things look to me, like, the Chrysler Building still looks futuristic to me. So, trying to capture that is very difficult with art. Trying to get multiple things and layers happening at the same time. I think there have been filmmakers that have done a good job with that, like Stanley Kubrick or Andrei Tarkovsky, the great Russian filmmaker. And even Godard, you can tie it in, you speak about a dystopian future, he’s dealing with similar content.

Right. Like, all those ideas of power and maybe even to a different degree, like how you speak of the future and just the way technology is. I feel like it’s especially pertinent today because there’s this dichotomy where you have people who are like diving into the internet and existing in this technological way that they may not have in the past, and then you have others who are trying to pull away from that. It’s like everyone is steeped in it, but we’re kinda trying to get out of it, too.

I think that’s absolutely a duality of what’s happening. I don’t know if you saw the [Werner] Herzog film [Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World] from like a year or two about the birth of the internet. It’s a really interesting piece, he basically examines the birth of the Internet to now and where we’re at as a result of it all. It’s not really super optimistic necessarily, either, even though sometimes technology is matched with an optimistic future. But obviously, if you look at the society we’re in – we can call it different things – but it’s like a technocratic plutocracy, that’s kind of how I think about it. I think in the Godard film [Alphaville] he’s got a pretty dystopian picture painted. It’s very unique, but it’s definitely bleak. I don’t want to say that Imperial Triumphant is painting a negative picture of the future, because I think there is hope in the future if you look around and observe. But I think that, like you were saying, the way technology can kind of suffocate certain groups of people who don’t want to accept it. It’s pretty bleak, it’s bleak times.

Yeah, no doubt. With there being this connection with the film, were there any other kinds of media that informed you guys during this writing process? Any books, other films, video games, music? Anything else that gets put into the crock aside from your collective experiences?

I mean, there’s just so much, I can’t think of too many things specific. There’s a book for myself that has kind of inspired me called Propaganda by Edward Bernays. It’s a very interesting book published in like 1925 and if you read it now it’s insane how relevant it still is. It’s kind of this interesting look at like marketing, PR and things like that. I would say mostly with us it’s just looking around, you know? Being in a place like New York City, you have no choice but to look at all this disgusting shit that’s going on all the time. I don’t mean this like, disgusting people necessarily, I’m talking about everything from the top like disgusting Central Bank-controlled whatever to the worst of humanity walking around that you’re sharing this space with. I think that is pretty dark, I feel like that’s really a lot of inspiration for us.

Yeah! That’s interesting too because I was gonna say the previous record seemed more obviously “New York” to me, but I don’t quite get that same feel here. Alphaville feels a little bit bigger and broader in scope, speaking to a larger societal thing. Is the concept maybe less specific to the city this time, or maybe the city has been replaced with this concept of Alphaville instead? 

I would say it’s probably natural evolution for whatever it is that we’re doing to maybe… seem more applicable to people all over the place. I mean, we use New York obviously because that’s what we know, that’s the place that we’re from, and that’s the place that we know backwards and forwards and it’s obviously in our DNA. But the thing is, I think you can look at many densely populated cities around planet earth and the thread is going to be universal. I don’t think it’s on purpose that Alphaville seems bigger, like you’re feeling or observing. But if that’s the case, that’s fantastic, because it just means we’re evolving and getting things to become more universally relatable and communicate to more people.

Mmhm. I’m always fascinated by the idea of an “album,” like, you have this kind of “landmark,” this defining thing, but most of your work is occurring between albums, with touring, writing, just living. How do you think this is going to change going forward with this COVID thing? Do you have any specifics on the climates surrounding the support of this record?

Yeah, the album like you said, it’s a stamp, a point in time that exists as a product of this whole cumulative run up. As far as living and touring, I think right now the irony of this all is our current global disruption. It’s sort of made this album even more relevant than we could ever have anticipated. It’s bizarre, like, timing-wise how that’s happened. I think the future for a lot of musicians and bands is, it’s a bit on the dark side, it’s very unknown. Nobody knows what’s what’s going on, really. Live music has come to a complete halt. So we’re trying to have a good attitude about it and we’re staying productive. Zachary, Kenny and myself are in constant communication with each other and you know we’re just keeping everything together and doing what we can during this time. Losing the two tours we had on the books sucks. Like, there’s no way around that, right? It’s a drag you know and I don’t think anyone really knows what’s going to happen.

Yeah, it’s fascinating in a way.

It is fascinating. It’s interesting to observe. Some days I wake up and I feel like I’m just part of this weird experiment. Like, who knows what’s going on right now? We have no idea. But as far as trying to play, tour, and be a band, it’s a very challenging time.

Yeah, I’m kind of interested to see where things go. [COVID] is obviously going to create this need for people, like, what kinds of ways will people get inventive going forward?

I’m kind of hoping that maybe this could be a little bit of a wake up call for people to want to connect in the flesh again. Like, more than the cyber world that we’ve gotten very attached to. Maybe it will make us appreciate live music even more, to try to keep an optimistic spin on it.

You worked with Colin Marston again at Menegroth for Alphaville. I really like his work. I enjoy reading his thoughts and about the recording process and kind of like, I don’t know if you want to call it “philosophy” or whatever, but rather the way he works. It seems like he and the band are on a similar wavelength, like you have a similar approach to caring for an artist’s vision and their creation. 

I love Colin. First of all, he’s an awesome dude. He’s a great musician. Working with him is a total pleasure. My favorite thing about working with Colin is the kind of creative environment he provides in the studio. I think I can speak for all three of us, we feel very open to any creative idea or being able to experiment and go outside the box and take time trying to get a particular sound from something or work a part out. It’s just a really amazing environment that he creates, and then of course there’s just his aesthetic. We have very similar tastes in things, art and music, and he’s just really cool. We did a tour with Behold the Arctopus out on the west coast, I think it was like a year ago, I can’t remember now, but we had such a blast and it was just such a great bonding experience.

It seems like a real no-brainer kind of like pairing, it’s evident there’s some magic happening there. You also bring in a number of other guests to join you on the record some kind of how these collaborations come to be? Do you have specific ideas or tracks in mind for particular artists? Is this more of a collaborative thing where you’re just kind of like jamming these things out? Or or how does this all come to fruition?

It’s kind of a little bit of all of that. I think when we create a piece or write a song, we’ll throw around the idea of like, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we put Yoshiko [Ohara] who does these incredible, crazy vocals in this section?” Or sometimes we might work on a song and think, “Oh, let’s create this part right here because it would be perfect for Yoshiko!” So it’s kind of both. On this album, we had some really cool things happen this time, we got Trey Spruance from Mr. Bungle involved, and I got to play Taiko drums with Tomas from Meshuggah, so that was real fun. [laughs]

I was actually just going to mention him. There’s definitely more than more than a few times where I’ve gotten a sort of Mr. Bungle flavor on this record.

Yeah you know Trey’s got his stamp on there and collaborating with him and working with him was really, really, really cool.

I appreciate that you guys are obviously very careful and deliberate about your craft. You know, just in general, from the music to the visuals, it’s all very purposeful. This being said, there’s a couple of covers on Alphaville, what informed the selections of these songs?

The interesting thing is the Voivod song [“Experiment”], I think we were on tour driving in the van somewhere, I think I suggested “Hey, maybe we should do a Voivod cover, that would be pretty sick for Imperial Triumphant to play a Voivod song,” and then that kind of evolved. Colin Marston is a huge Voivod van. Then it became like, the most fun thing because it was like, “Okay, we’re not going to tell Colin that we’re gonna do this Voivod song until we’re in the studio like a surprise for him.” Then he loved it, and he wanted to play on it, so he plays guitar on that track with Zachary, so that was a super cool thing. Zachary is a huge Residents fan, he brought that to the table and Kenny and I were just like “Hell yeah, that’s super weird let’s try it!” I mean, The Residents are a huge influence on so many great musicians, like, Les Claypool from Primus is a huge Residents fan. It’s fascinating, the impact that the Residents have made over all those decades.

Totally! I love how it just opens these doors, like, whoa, this is a whole ‘nother thing I didn’t even know about. So now all of the sudden I’m tracking down and reading about the Residents and now it’s informing how I look at the other Imperial Triumphant material. It’s crazy how quickly all those doors can open.

Totally.

So given how this project it’s it’s so conceptually well-rounded. THere’s no mistaking seeing or hearing this band. I really appreciate how much attention you guys place on visual art and how you bring that into the fold. So aside from the always awesome album covers, line art, music videos, you guys have done different things like incorporating fan works for posters and even released a graphic novel-type companion piece to Vile Luxury. What fuels this? Where does this visual emphasis come from?

I’m gonna say it’s kind of a trickle down effect. Zachary is very open-minded about collaborating about collaborating and exploring different mediums. As a band, too. As we discussed, we’re very open to collaboration. We’re huge fans of other mediums and want that to be part of our world as well, because there’s so many incredibly talented people out there doing amazing work that isn’t necessarily music. So being able to create a platform… Zachary had built this thing up from the beginning, Kenny came into the band in 2012, and I came around in 2014, so it’s been a very big process to keep on course. There’s a lot to be said for that, because it’s not easy to do. So creating this platform, it’s one of my favorite things about the band, it’s that other art is very welcome to come right in. Even our album covers, I love them, like this is so sick. We like to involve artists and encourage creativity. I think it’s sort of turning into that more and more as we evolve.

Do you have any special plans for anything for this release like the graphic novel?

We’re throwing around the idea of another graphic novel, but we have some things in the works that will be very cool. We have some videos that have been put on hold unfortunately because of the current situation, but we hope to get back to more of that work once we can. Once we can open up the world again.

Hopefully that’s sooner rather than later.

Hopefully, man.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today, Steve.

My pleasure, Jordan. Really appreciate it.

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