The Atlanta progressive metal band Halcyon Way recently released their latest album Bloody But Unbowed. Guitarist Jon Bodan fills us in on their newest members, the new album, signing to a new label, touring, his Transformers collection and other subjects.
Chad Bowar: You’ve had a couple of lineup changes since your last album. How did bassist Skyler Moore and drummer Aaron Baumoel come to join the band?
Jon Bodan: We did have a couple of changes. When Conquer was written and released, we had lost our bass player and our second guitar player. But we were still in touring mode because of the way some things timed out, so we had Max join us to play bass. His first tour with us was as a bassist when we went out with U.D.O. for a couple of weeks in 2013. We also had a guy named Sergio playing guitar with us at that point. Then, we were scheduled to go out with Saxon later that year, but Sergio couldn’t do it and had to step out of the picture. Max continued to play bass, and we reluctantly did the tour as a four piece. But we’re a two guitar band and knew that was not a long term thing.
Skyler was a guy I had known through the scene, and he was also a guitar player. But what we did was move Max over to guitar, because he’s a killer player and had seniority, and then Skyler joined us for our tour with Fates Warning that year on bass. So he was actually around as we finished up Conquer, which came out in 2014, but he wasn’t on the album liner notes because he didn’t appear on that album. But for all intents and purposes, he’s been with Halcyon Way for about five years now, which is crazy to think about. At the end of 2015, our old drummer Ernie decided that he wanted to move on for various reasons, so we started looking for a drummer. However, we were booked for the tour we did with Queensryche in January of 2016, so we asked him to hang out for that run, which he was cool enough to do. I met Aaron at a local tribute night to Judas Priest – basically a deal where a lot of Atlanta musicians get together and do covers. I played guitar on what is probably the worst Priest song of all time – “Hot Rockin’” – and he actually did vocals. We were talking afterwards, I found out he played drums in some local thrash bands, so we had him out for an audition and he killed it. Turned out he’d been a fan of us for a number of years so it worked out really nicely.
Did the fact that they have been in the band for a while make the creation of Bloody But Unbowed smoother?
Well, sort of. (laughs) The downside was that there were more cooks in the kitchen, so we tended to argue and disagree about things a little more than had happened on Conquer. But the upside was that it made the material very strong, so the creative disagreements made for a better album. So overall it was definitely a positive for the band and the writing process.
What will be your strongest memory of the recording of the album?
I think really it was that we worked with Mark Lewis this time as the producer, and he had a very different workflow and way of running the sessions. We tracked the drums at a studio in Florida on a lake that was super nice and comfortable, and they came out sounding killer. Overall once we had the material pretty much written, the recording process was just different and a bit of fresh air.
Did you struggle with song order at all?
We did. We wrote, or had skeletons written for, about 25-28 songs in pre-production. So we really had to cut some cool ideas before we went in to cut the drums. Then we went to the studio with the intention to track drums for I think 18 songs. A few didn’t really work when we heard it all together, so they got killed during the drum sessions. But at that point we had 14-15 tracks that we felt were very strong. So we basically went back and forth, first had to decide on which would be the bonus tracks, and then tried to give the album a good ebb and flow; basically a start and an ending.
There are several songs that would have made good album titles. How did you decide on Bloody But Unbowed?
It’s funny you ask that, because I was just thinking in the context of the song order. We almost called it Burning The Summit. That was one of the first tracks we wrote and the idea was that ‘no matter how high you climb, there’s always another mountain in the distance to scale.’ So we felt that Conquer had been a successful release for us, but we still had a long way to go. But when we got into the artwork with Travis Smith, we were having a really hard time coming up with a concept that wasn’t cliché or really literal. So we decided to change it to Bloody But Unbowed.
Is there a lyrical theme or thread?
Really, we have always felt that we had to fight and claw for anything we’ve ever gotten or achieved. Whether that be from lineup changes, me going through cancer back in 2010-2011 and having to cancel our first big tour as a result, label or management indifference, etc. So we felt like Bloody But Unbowed kind of threw down a gauntlet. When we decided on it, it just felt right. Basically, we’ve had all these things thrown at us, but we’re still here. A lot of our material is about that sort of idea, because we always have a chip on our shoulder and we always feel like we have something to prove. So we go hard, and this album title just made sense.
How did you recruit the Nailhead Choir guests, and what did they add to the album?
This really was a fun thing, and a privilege. I think the idea kinda started when we were out with Queensryche, because we had started the writing process by then for the album. We became good friends with those guys throughout the course of the tour, and Todd started coming out on stage with us and would sing “Save Your Tears” with us, which was really a cool thing. So the idea, for me, started there. I figured, why not ask people that we are friends with, or that we respect the work of, to contribute to the album? So that’s what we did. Really what they added was a bit of drama, a theatrical element in a way – basically we made certain parts like the chorus of the title track, or the bridge of “Crowned In Violence” really big and epic sounding. But also to have these guys share the mic with us was truly a great privilege.
How did you come to sign with Agonia Records?
We changed management around the first of 2018 to The Artery Foundation. At that point, what was going on was that our previous management had sent the album out for label shopping, but it was crickets. Some of it I attribute to the holiday season, and some of it to possibly a lack of reach with the labels. But we were confused. Conquer had done well, we hit Billboard, and when we shopped it Massacre picked us up instantly. So the lack of responses was weird. So I met with Jeff at Artery at the NAMM show in LA, we clicked personally and he loved the album, and basically we had three offers on the table within the space of two weeks.
We all felt that Agonia were the right fit for us, being a smaller label, but they have a ton of energy and dedication. We have been used to a total DIY work ethic, even with labels, and we haven’t lost that at all; but they picked up on it and have supported us and helped immensely. So we are very happy with those guys, and we’re grateful that they believe in us.
How does that affect your expectations for the album?
We don’t have any illusions of riches or anything like that, but sales have already been better than Conquer to this stage after the release. We really just want them to put their muscle and effort behind it as we do the same thing, and just take it wherever it will go. But we think we have a lot of room to grow as a band and a lot of tours to do and shows to play. We’ve been playing the long game for quite some time, and we expect it to be a slow and steady growth trajectory.
What has the early response to the album been like?
Phenomenal. A couple of really shitty reviews of course, mainly people that don’t really get what we’re doing, but overall they have been really good. We’re a bit of a genre-bending band with elements of thrash, power, death, electronic, hard rock, etc – so someone expecting it to be a really straightforward comparison to another band are going to be disappointed. We write for the song, whether that means a death vocal, a big vocal harmony, or a blastbeat.
You filmed a video for “Blame.” How important are videos these days?
I think they’re quite important. First off, you get to create a visual piece of art to go with the audio, which is always fun. It’s an extension of the story you’re telling in the song. But also a lot of people consume music on YouTube and that’s how they learn about bands or releases, so we need to speak to those people as well. But mainly it’s fun. (laughs)
You have a show coming up August 25th. Any other show/tour plans in the pipeline?
Not set in stone quite yet. We have had a number of fall/winter tour offers both in the USA and abroad, but nothing has been 100 percent the right fit so far. But we are actively looking at opportunities and trying to make sure we take the right ones. We 100 percent plan to get out on the road sooner rather than later to support this record.
With four albums under your belt, does that make it more difficult to construct a setlist?
It does. Some of the album tracks tend to work better on the CD than live, and vice versa; but we have probably 2.5 hours of stuff we think works well on stage. So we try to balance playing things that we like to play, with the songs the fans expect to hear, and also to make sure that what we play speaks to people that are possibly hearing Halcyon Way for the first time. So it’s a challenge but we just try to have a good time with it and it works out.
What are some of your non-musical interests and hobbies?
In all honesty, my company and the band keep me plenty busy, but I have a massive collection of old-school Transformers from the 1980s that I’m building up. I pretty much collect the first two waves of them from 1984 and 1985, but I go for the graded ones. So that’s fun. I am a Falcons season ticket holder as well, so I follow football closely and generally live in sports sadness and despair as a result. (laughs)
What’s currently in your heavy musical rotation?
My musical tastes are all over the place these days. I have a giant pop playlist on Spotify that I listen to a lot, I also am really into Retrowave which is basically electronic music that sounds like the 1980s. But I’m also really digging the new Parkway Drive album, as well as the new Skindred and Monster Magnet. Engel are a great band and I love their last few releases. Also plenty of other metal stuff but I tend to fall back on things that have been out for a while. I look for catchy choruses and hooks, and if it’s pop or death metal, I’m down with that.
(interview published August 22, 2018)