Interview with Altesia

On the record we are a prog band, but on stage, we are a punk band

Hailing from Bordeaux, Altesia is a progressive metal band formed in 2019. After releasing their debut album Paragon Circus, they raised the bar with their second record Embryo in late 2021. We talked with Clément Darrieu (guitars/vocals and the main composer) and Yann Ménage (drums, sound engineer) about their albums, tours, production process and more.

Hello! Thanks for taking the time for this interview and congratulations on your latest record Embryo. How are you doing, how is life in Bordeaux these days?

CD: First of all, thanks for having us, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you. I wasn’t prepared for this question! I don’t live in Bordeaux anymore, I live an hour away in the country side. But I have very good memories of me living in the center. I’d say it’s one of the biggest cities in France, but it’s still quite small at the same time, lots of good stuff to do. In terms of culture, unfortunately some venues have been closing doors, but there are still some.

YM: Bordeaux for me not only the most beautiful city I have visited, but also the one I lived the longest, like all my life! Really good city for music though.

Altesia was formed back in 2017 originally as a solo project and became a proper band in 2019. Can you tell us more about the original idea of coming together born?

CD: Actually, it was meant to be a proper band from the start.  In 2017 I was writing the material that would eventually become the songs in Paragon Circus. But I didn’t know the guys in the band by then. When most of the material of the album had been written, I looked for some local musicians. And this is how I found the guys, mostly on Facebook. We exchanged some messages, I sent them the demo tracks and we started to rehearse the songs. Then we recorded the album early in the process. We met early 2019, and December 2019 the album was out, so we didn’t lose any time, I’d say. But it was also a way to discover each other, as we didn’t know each other so well. The recording of the second album Embryo was different in that sense.

YM: Clément has most of the information regarding that. But maybe I can add how I was recruited. Clément here can play all the instruments (laughs). So, at the beginning when he approached me, it was thanks to my first ever band Unicorn Blaster, with whom I play the drums and was also the sound engineer of the band. Clément discovered this band, I don’t know how he found this band, and contacted me through Facebook. I agreed to meet up in a bar. For me it was like love at first sight, not for Clément (both laugh). He made me listen to his demo, it was Amidst the Smoke. I was pretty much blown away by the potential of the song. I thought the composition was amazing, so I said let’s go!

So, there was no audition?

CD: For none of us was there audition. It was more like “do you like the project and the plan?”. I guess we were lucky because we could have had some bad surprises but it didn’t happen. But I spent a lot of time to find the right people.  Luckily it worked right from the start.

You also had a line up change, right? The bass player was changed if I’m not wrong?

YM: For the first album, the bass player was a friend of Alexis (the guitar player). It was a nice call by Clément to hire two friends from the same band. So, Antoine joined the band. But he didn’t like one concert with us, and after recording that he pretty much gave up on music. It was a shock to see a person with such a musicianship level give up. But we moved on.

CD:  So, there is this Facebook page called “Musicians in Bordeaux”. We had a concert in one-month time so we were pretty stressed out without a bass player. I was thinking about maybe playing the bass for the show instead of having two guitars. I got a message from Hugo, our current bassist, we had been talking with him joining the band as a guitarist. But I was looking for someone who could also sing the backing vocals, which was not the case with him. So, I decided to try with Alexis, and Hugo didn’t get the job, so to speak at that moment. But after my post in the Facebook group, he messaged me and I was surprised as in” Are you not a guitarist, man?” And he was like “I play pretty much anything, I just want to make music”. So, I told him “Listen, it’s very simple: if you can learn all the songs and play it live in one month, you are in the band!” And he did it (both laugh).

You have released your second album Embryo a couple of months ago. An album that describes the evolution for the better starts in individuals, that is almost like a counter part to your first album Paragon Circus which had a darker theme with mankind’s destruction. What was the leading motivation for another conceptual album, and how does it link to the previous album?

CD: Right from the start I wanted to make some sort of a double concept album, like side 1 and side 2. I was interested in doing this kind of thing like dark and bright side of man. And especially the bright side, because you particularly in metal music, we like talking about death, pain, blood and all that. So, the first album was kind of easy to write in terms of lyrics. The lyrics were pretty much common. But talking about the bright side of the man was definitely a challenge for me. As you said it was the right counterpart for Paragon Circus. It is like Yin and Yang kind of feel to it. Each time we start from difficult personal situation and try to elevate and try to get some relief and go to somewhere positive. For example, there is song about the need to forgive, something that seems unforgivable at first sight. But at the same time if you want to move forward, you have to forgive. So, the song talks about the feeling of revenge but then the main character of the song is leading to a place where he can forgive, but still he can’t say “I forgive you”. There is this kind of road, I like this kind of way of seeing things.

Clément, you write the bulk of the songs and record demos, and then the others in the band add their sauce to the tracks. You also once mentioned that some of the sections in the tracks were written note by note and any alteration was out of the question. Looking through this frame, what’s the level of flexibility and freedom for the others in the band?  In other words, to what level are you a control freak?

CD (Laughs). I’m still some kind of a control freak but definitely less than before. But I think it’s a normal process, in the beginning we didn’t know each other. We had some demos and ideas they were clear to me. There were some passages I wanted them to sound like that note by note. But once we got to know each other more, play more shows and spend more time, I knew the potential of the guys. So, I guess I’ve learned to trust them and get to know them. Also, I think maybe they wouldn’t really dare to say “I have an idea, let’s try this” (Yann agrees). With time, they took confidence.

YM: I can clearly confirm this! For the first album as Clément said, it was mostly written, and it was not a debatable fact that Clément  was the leader of the band so we followed him. But I remember, nonetheless, we had some debate on some parts. But clearly not as much as the second album. There were some part we had to literally rewrite.

CD: Also, some songs were cowritten in the band, for example Exit Initia. It was one of the most collaborative songs we ever had. Another difference between the two albums is that in the first album I knew the direction that I wanted to go. For me it was a very serious project, but I didn’t know to what extend the others’ involvement would be. But now we can see that we are Altesia, we have some goals, some dreams, some potential. I think now everyone is really involved and try to give their best, more obviously than the first album.

You clearly raised the bar with your second album in terms of composition, musicianship and production. How did you approach to these different aspects creating a new record? What was the creation differences between the two albums?

YM: As for the production, it was a very different process from the first album regarding the elaboration of the demos and what we called “preproduction”. For the first album, it was demos of Clément  and then rehearsal and then we went to record them in our respective studios. For the second album it was again the demos, but I insisted to do what I called preposition. It was mostly demos from Clément  except keyboards, I wrote the drums and Alexis did his one-shot guitars. It was pretty much the first version of the album. Of course, we had a lot of rehearsals as well. But the main reason for stepping up our game was the preproduction.

CD: Yes, Yann is totally right. I think that there was also an effort in the arrangement as well. We tried to fill some parts with keyboards. As I mentioned before, maybe some of us were lacking confidence in the first album. But for the second album, none of parts except the guitars were followed as they were on the demos in the final version. Everyone gave a personal and accomplished work. We decided on every single detail was there for a reason. In the first album this was not the case all along, maybe because we were in a hurry to put it out.

YM:  As for me, the drum parts in the first album was mostly improvisation, maybe just 50% was written. Whereas the second album was written up to 90% of the drums.

You now have an ever-growing fan base after your first album. I assume the core of this fanbase comprises the prog metal fans. Nevertheless, you have some catchier songs such as A Liar’s Oath in the second album from which I get some late Leprous vibes. Do you feel like you’ve reached out to a larger spectrum of listeners? Do you have a motivation as such?

CD: For this song, yeah, totally. That was the goal of the song. The goal was to have a song that would stand out as a single. At the same time, as you know we have a lot of long songs. In the beginning there were 6 tracks, and the two last tracks (Sleep Paralysis and Exit Initia) were the longest in the record. So, I felt that we needed a break in between these songs, and maybe we lacked a proper single. As we like to experiment new musical directions, I think something a bit more djenty, modern metal, pop kind of stuff was interesting. And as you said the goal was to make something like Leprous or Caligula’s Horse.  I discovered Caligula’s Horse during the first lockdown in France. I was listening to this record a lot and I can definitely tell that some sections of the album are inspired from this band. So, I guess the idea was to reach a bigger audience, but at the same time to give a breath in between two songs. Also, from a live perspective, we you have 10-minute song, and then another and then another can be exhausting, even for us. This one is lighter. The funny thing is when we talk with the audience after a show most of them say “oh the song with the chorus, was really a good song you know nanananana! (imitates the chorus in high pitch)”. I say I know what you are talking about man (laughs). So, we have some really good feedback, And the funny thing is I was not really confident about putting this song in the beginning. We had to change some chords here and there to make it a bit more complex so that it would fit to our repertoire. In the beginning I thought like “what are people going to think about this song, have we sold our spirit?” you know.

CY. You shouldn’t be ashamed of playing in 4/4, that’s ok (all laugh).

CD: Exactly, the whole song is in 4/4! Yeah, and also, I tried to write some choruses. Not all the songs in the first album had choruses. But this time, I tried to come up with some catchy choruses almost in each song, even though the rest can be complex with a progressive structure. I think this is nice to experiment something and go to different directions, and then you have a catchy chorus that helps you to grab something. That was one of the goals of this album as well.     

Interludes and interludes… An indispensable part of progressive music. Both your albums have a good amount of mood swings to different genres. I always liked music that surprises me. What is your take on this?

CD: Yeah, it’s effortless, natural for me to write this kind of stuff, because I also like music that surprises me. This is something I guess that has become sort of a trademark of our band. Sometimes we talk about it. I think with this kind of experimentation we are building up a trademark which can help us to sound a bit different from the other bands in the progressive scene.

At a more personal level as a guitarist myself, Alexis plays wonderfully in this album. The level of musicianship is top notch. There are many influences but above all I’m getting some Guthrie Govan. How important it is to have a member like this in the band?

CD: (Smiles) Actually that’s really funny, because we had an interview with him about 10 days ago. And he said that sometimes he was compared to Guthrie Govan and he said he was not really attracted by his playing. I don’t really know this guitarist, but I think he was saying that Govan was a bit arrogant or something like that, I don’t really remember. For me this guy is like an alien, he has no borders, he can play pretty much anything. If you listen to the Aristocrats for example, like Marco Minnemann as well, Yann really likes him, these musicians are huuuuge. This man, Marco Minnemann, he is one of those musicians, even though you are not a drummer, they are spectacular to watch. You look at them, they make a lot of gestures, always smiling. For example, we played in Ready for Prog? Festival in 2021, and the headliner was Leprous. And Baard Kolstad, the drummer of Leprous is same kind of guy, a lot of gestures all around the place.

YM: Their presence is just insane. Drummers like Marco Minnemann, Baard Kolstad, Gavin Harrison of course, in these kinds of drummers, the most important thing for me is that none of them has no wasted movement, everything is musical. As a drummer, to have that kind of musicality, and be effortless at the same time it is really important. It’s mostly about how you serve the music. These guys are masters of this topic. They can be creative and technical and still serve the music at the same time.

The vocals are such a big part of this album. They sound more confident and catchier compared to Paragon Circus. How do you see the role of vocals in this album when the overall composition is considered?

CD: When I recorded the vocals of the first album, we were actually late in the process. I was supposed to record the vocals once everything else have been recorded. But for whatever reason, we had booked a studio and it was hard to do it later. We decided to go into the studio with Yann, who was very helpful. During this time, it was only me behind the mic, who recorded all the vocals. Maybe I lacked all the other instruments in my ear when I was singing.  When I recorded these vocals, it sounded good to me. But when the other guys added their parts, especially on the heaviest sections, my voice sounded a bit weak and flat. I hadn’t realized it that much when we put out the record. A few months after the release, I went back listening to the record and also saw some feedback from people. Some of them were mentioning it was a bit weak.

YM: It was the word “underwhelming” that I saw the most about the vocals in the album.

CD: So, I decided to work on that. As I said before, I think we’ve gained a lot of confidence, humanly, musically within the band. My voice was one the aspects I think I have developed in time. Maybe that’s why it sounds heavier in this album. Maybe I also have tried stuff normally I wouldn’t have dared otherwise, I don’t know. But still, I’m aware of my limits. In some passages I try to improve, even now. Sometimes it is hard to see criticism from people when you’ve been working on an album so hard and they say “well, the vocalist…”.
WE had a review from a very famous magazine in France and the review said “Altesia is definitely one of the most important progressive metal band from France now, but I think the vocalist  is a bit weak in the band”. I can understand him, but at the same time it is a form of art. As you said, something can be good for someone and another guy can say “I don’t really like it”. And when we published this review (on social media) comments were like “whatever! Who is this guy? Who does he think the vocalist should be?!” (laughs).  And you know, sometimes it hurts, but it is also good to be aware and know limits that we have to work on. I know that I can definitely work on my vocal and improve things here and there. We haven’t recorded 10 records like Dream Theater. When we’ll record the third album, maybe you will say the vocals are better than in Embryo. I think it is just a normal process, getting confident and growing as a band.

Maybe Yann wants to answer this question: The album sounds more mature in terms of production. Often times as rule of thumb the better sound you get in the source, the better the end product, like cooking. What was different in terms of recording/mixing/mastering processes compared to the first album? (Any personal favorite in terms of mixing/mastering?)

YM: Oooh, OK, really good question (cracking his knuckles and smiling). Let’s go! As we say “le son a la source”, what has changed? It depends on the instrument. As for me, the drums had massive changes. First of all, it was not the same location of recording. In the first album it was in my family house, not even a garage. It was the same 16-track sound card as the second album. The main difference is the mics. In the first album I used real-low budget shitty mics. And my drum kit wasn’t good. So, for the first album, the source was really bad! (laughs).  For the second album, it was in a semi-professional rehearsal studio in my home town. So, already much better environment. The mics as well, improved mics (the music school lend me some good quality mics). The drum kit itself (Pearl). I did almost nothing to the toms during the mixing for example! For the guitars it was almost the same as the first album, same guitars and amps (Mesa Boogie), because we really liked the tone of the guitars. We just used one more mic as a difference, a back mic behind the cab of the amp and flip the phase to get the thump of the guitar, that was clearly missing in the first album. In the second album we had almost too much of bottom end (laughs), it was really beefy like first Gojira albums! For me it was a great fun to mix the guitars.  For the bass it was a different bass player. So, our bassist sent the tracks already processed, and I did almost nothing. It was a really good sound. Comparing the two albums, guitars and the keyboards were almost identical.  And for vocals, I think it was just the mic that was changed.

CD: And the fact that three people sang this time (smiles).

CY: To add some different timbres I assume?

CD: Yeah, it was definitely missing in the first record.

YM: Another difference for the vocals is that when we had the preproduction, it sounded really beefy. So, it was much easier to let loose a little bit. It also took a lot longer to record the vocals. In the first album it was only two days of recording, whereas the second took about a month or so.

CD: For me it was 6 sessions of 3 hours. At the end of the process I sang some of the stuff again. Of course, we added Alexis’ and Yann’s voices. So, they definitely added something.

YM: Yeah, I think in terms of production, everything just stepped up.

And your personal favorite?

YM: Oh yeah, I forgot! Hmm, it’s a tough question, because it depends on the element of the mix that I focused on. For me it might be A Liar’s Oath (Clément sounding surprised). I think it was less dense than the other songs. It’s hard to tell. For me drums sound in this song is the clearest and the punchiest of the album. For me it was because it was easier in the most part of the song, except the bridge. Bridge was insane, it was really hard to play. But the thing is I was really focused in the recording on the intention instead of the technicality. I remember I was fighting with the mix, Alexis remember quite well that I was upset about it, I tried to translate what I had in the drums for A Liar’s Oath to other tracks, but it simply didn’t work. I don’t know why but everything was clearer and better in this song. I think my hits were more consistent which helped the song.

Clément, your favorite?

CD: So, I can’t talk about my favorite song about mix because I didn’t mix anything (smiles). But in terms of sound, I know it’s obvious. I can’t say anything else than Exit Initia. This is the most challenging and collaborative song that we’ve written. There are so many different atmospheres within the song. So, it is always a challenge to play, and also a great feeling to share the song altogether and share it with people. The only problem it’s just too long. So, we can’t play it every show. When we play this song, I can feel that there is something happening each time. I’m always really excited about the incoming section of this song.

You had tour in France and played in a couple of cities right before during fall 2021. Played in Ready for Prog? festival as well. How did it go? Never had the pleasure to watch you live, how do you approach your concerts? Do you opt to deliver something different form the studio record, or try to approach to that sound as close as possible?

CD: I think there are going to be two elements in my answer. You know there are prog musicians and prog bands have this kind of behavior on stage where everyone is anchored, at the maximum, they are nodding their heads like that (imitates nodding, all laughs). There is this funny sentence I like saying from Alexis, he said sometime during the last tour “On the record we are a prog band, but on stage, we are a punk band”. Because we have a kind of raw energy. We try to give our maximum on the stage, we try to share the passion with people. We have a lot of headbanging riffs, so that helps a lot. I think this is a feeling that is kind of rare in the progressive scene, where generally people are at their places and not really moving. This is the first thing we try to implement on stage. The other thing, I think it really comes from Alexis especially who is into old prog bands like Yes. Yes had a massive song like a 24-minute long song and they had split the song in five sections or something, and positioned these in different parts of the set. Alexis was really into doing something like this with Altesia. For example, he is the one that got the idea to make this from some of our songs. We thought that two songs from the first record (Prison Child and Cassandra’s Prophecy) could work together because both are in E minor and same kind of atmosphere. Normally Cassandra’s Prohecy is 15-minute long song, so we can’t play it each time. But this way it is only 10-minute long and we can paly two different elements. It was a bit of a surprise to those people who knew the songs beforehand. So this is something we try to do, and we have some new ideas for different songs for the upcoming shows. This is not really common in rock. We try to add something different than the studio version, and this is part of the surprise process, you know.

You guys have been together for about 3 years now, you must have gotten to know each other more as a unit. What is the strongest and the weakest sides of Altesia in your opinion?

CD: Hmm, that’s interesting, the strongest and the weakest sides… Let’s begin by the positive stuff (smiles)! The strongest might be the fact that I think are all ambitious, I mean a lot of bands are, but some bands are different. You know, I am the booker (booking agent) of the band, and I talk to different bands mostly every day. I’ve talked to other bands who are willing to do shows and all. But when you send them a message they are like “well… I don’t know if we are available that day, let me ask to the band members…” etc. I send them five messages and one month later it’s like “oh I didn’t ask the guys, so give me some extra time”. I’m not blaming these people. But everyone sounds ambitious but not taking any action. We try to be ambitious, but at the same time move our asses (smiles). You want to play live? Well let’s book a tour! Maybe this is the strong side. As for the weak side, at least this is a personal statement, when you are an independent band you have to deal with everything by yourself. As I mentioned I’m the booker of the band but also when there is a new album coming, you have to send the album to the magazines, webzines, contact factories for t-shirts, records, write the songs record, a lot of stuff! The problem is that I have a full-time job aside from Altesia! I mean I love it, but the problem is that I lack practice as a musician because of all these other affairs. So, the weak side, I’d say it would be great to get a label or some people that could help us in these aspects. Being a musician is first and foremost is being a musician, not someone handling your social networks, you know, even though it’s a part of the job. It’s cool, on the one hand, that we can have control on our brand image etc., but sometimes it is really harsh. I think that’s a really common thing for the independent bands.

YM: Good question. It depends on what we are talking about. As for composition, just like we’ve talked about it, I think we are good in jumping from one style to another and surprise the audience. Because we know it is really hard to make it shine and at the same to not make it sound forced. It’s a challenge and we like this challenge. After the second album, we can see that when we love it, it seems like our fans like it as well. For me, this is really a strong point of the band. As for the weak point, it’s mostly about practice. We know that we don’t practice as much as we should. The last time I hit the drumkit was three weeks ago.

CD: 10 days ago!

YM: Yeah sorry (all laugh).

CY: It doesn’t sound like you guys don’t practice enough in the record, it sounds like you practice every day, so maybe it’s OK (all laugh)!

YM: Yeah, we did a lot of practice before the album, but not as much nowadays. Also, before Altesia, I used to practice about two hours per day, I think it is the same for the other guys in the band. But now we don’t have that much time.

Here is a funny one. I was once asked if I had the power to erase one song from history what it would be. So, if you had the power what song would you wipe off?

CD: Maybe Octavarium, because we could have written that song! (all laugh). I’m just joking it’s a phenomenal song. I’m thinking about it wait.

YM: Oh yeah, I got it! Do you know the generic music of the series Friends? Because my sister watched the entirety of this series I don’t know how many times, I just can’t stand it anymore.

CD: I don’t hate songs really, well, I hate a lot of songs, but then I don’t really pay attention to them. I think I have a problem, this is kind of rare, you will tell me guys what you think about it. I haven’t told about this to many people. There are songs that I’ve been listening to so much, that I just can’t hear again. This is the case for most of the songs on the radio. When I listen to the radio, I spend my time changing stations because I’ve heard them too many times. Even for bands I love, maybe my favorite band of all time is Opeth. I’ve listened to these guys so many times and now I just can’t listen to them anymore. I’ve listened to them for two years literally every day and it’s like I’m disgusted even though they are still my favorite band. But if you want me to pick one song, as I was mentioning Dream Theater earlier, my favorite album from them is Black Clouds and Silver Linings. But there is this song, there is this ballad called Wither, and it’s cheesy as fuck my friend. I can’t stand it. It’s in between maybe two to best songs written by DT, but in the middle, you have this cheesy song that I’ve listened maybe only twice but I can’t stand it and just skip it. Sorry Dream Theater if you are reading this, but this one is hard for me guys (all laugh).

Can you name us three bands you want to play with in your dream festival?

YM: It’s hard because my music taste changes each month! The first is Tessaract, my main influence these days. I’m on my PC I can go check haha. Maybe you heard about them, I know Clément for sure that you haven’t heard them, but there is band called Haken (all laugh). The last one is a solo musician, an insane drummer, composer and producer, Anup Sastry. Maybe with his band Intervals.

CD: It’s tough because there are bands that help me to discover some genres, so they are stars to me. And then there are less famous bands but they seem friendly, you know. I know I can hang out with them, share a few pints and have a great time. Maybe I should try to make a mix. I get into the growls and such with Opeth. So, definitely it would be a dream come true to play with them, even though I’m not a fan of their progressive rock direction they took. Maybe Haken would be an easy answer because they are one of those bands today they surprise me a lot. I’m not a fan of everything they’ve done, but then I’m a very demanding music lover. I don’t think there is one single artist from whom I like the full catalogue. The other band would be Between the Buried and Me. They are twenty-year-old and they are getting better and better. My favorite album from them is the last one, they are just pure gold.  Sometimes you may have very good surprises like blooming bands. For example, Soul Splitter, they played in Ready for Prog? Festival.

Thanks a lot for this interview. Any last words for the Kıyı readers?

Congratulations for having read the whole interview (laughs)! And hopefully see you guys in your beautiful country, I don’t know if we have a fan base there, maybe a few. This is definitely some kind of special place to play some day if we can get the opportunity. Maybe after reading our strange answer you guys will give a go to our music and listen to it. For sure, there is something you will like in our music, maybe not everything but you should give it a try (smiles).

YM: I don’t know, buy our albums, haha! Thanks for going through the interview. As a last word, you should be glad for reading this interview and not having to listen to my freaky accent (all laugh)! 

CD: And thank you Can, for asking good questions that directed us to talk more. It was a pleasure.