Argus: An Interview With Brian “Butch” Balich

It’s been heavy metal’s consistent predilection towards exploring dark themes and pushing extremes that’s pulled so many of us into its tractor beam over these many long years. But during those golden moments of the early-to-mid-80s when the music seemed severe and positively rebellious, the bulk of the genre’s movers and shakers still managed to maintain a strong sense of melody bolstered by powerful clean vocals. Today’s metal fans have naturally witnessed the complete annihilation of metal’s extreme boundaries through mind-stabbing techniques that make the old dogs’ tricks seem downright smooshycuddlycomfy in comparison, but there remains a large faction of fans who still get blown away by bands that masterfully preserve the elder tenets and deliver classic-sounding walloping heavy metal that emphasizes elements such as warmth, passion and melody over attempting to unveil “the new extreme” — band’s like Pennsylvania’s Argus.

Helping to lead the Argus invasion is former Penance vocalist Brian “Butch” Balich, one of the most approachable dudes in our genre today and certainly the sort of guy one could toss down a few beers with while shooting the shit about all kinds of music. I recently had an opportunity to share a few words with the man amidst his busy family life and quick preparations for the band’s appearance at this years Hammer of Doom V festival in Germany, and this is what he had to say about the band, the new record, and a few other miscellaneous points of interest, Including a series of “shotgun questions” intended to be answered quickly and right from the gut…

MetalReview: First of all, greetings Butch! And thanks for taking some time to answer a few questions.

If I remember correctly, Argus was actually alive and kicking before you entered the picture. Can you tell us a bit about the origins of the band and how you ended up the vocalist?

Butch: Greetings!

Yeah, these cats formed the band with Erik (guitars) as the original singer. Erik was a fraternity brother of mine who I got back in touch with via email or Myspace or something, which is where he first informed me about Argus. I missed show after show, initially, but made a point of getting out and catching his last performance with them after he informed me that he was moving. While I wasn’t 100% impressed with all the material they played that night, I thought they were simply killer musicians with Andy (bass) making the biggest initial impression. A few of their songs also broke into these fantastic harmony guitar parts that were just music to my ears. Kevin (drums) and I started talking post-set and discussed the fact that since my other band Penance had bit the dust, I’d effectively become a man without a country, while they’d just sort of become ‘a country without a man,’ so the pieces just seemed to fit. One thing led to another, and with some creative scheduling and patience from my family, this thing that started out as a conversation about “your bassist is a badass” suddenly snowballed into where Argus stands today. Coming full circle, it’s really nice that Erik’s now come back into the fold as an additional guitarist when Mike (Wisniewski) quit a few years ago.

MR: I assume you guys are still on good terms with Mike? Why did he step down?

Butch: Mike’s situation was similar to what happened with Erik: he moved for job opportunities and to be with his (now) wife. Yes, we love Mike, so all is cool between us.

MR: We’ve seen a rather logical progression in terms of labels for all the Argus releases to date. Bland Hand was perfect for getting your name out on the streets with the 2007 demo, and Shadow Kingdom did a fantastic job with the debut, including a beautiful vinyl version that packed in a couple bonus tracks. Was the Cruz del Sur shift simply the next logical step in terms of finding a label with a little more available resources for promotion? And will they be responsible for a vinyl release for the new record as well?

Butch: Shadow Kingdom was fantastic to us. Tim really helped us out in a tight spot and was nothing short of excellent throughout the entire process of getting the debut released. He runs a quality label – one of the best — and he’s one of the most honest people in the business today. For us, it was important to be able to better reach the European market and to have more resources behind us in terms of PR and advertising in order to build the band. I had actually contacted Enrico (Cruz del Sur) years ago after the 2007 demo, but at the time he was not able to take on any new bands. But between the first album helping to establish our name and Tom Phillips (While Heaven Wept: a Cruz alum as well) being relentless in his promotion of Argus, Enrico put an offer in front of us that we just couldn’t refuse. And yes, Cruz del Sur will be issuing the LP version of Boldly Stride the Doomed with a couple [of] bonus tracks. I believe we’re looking at autumn for the vinyl version to hit the streets.

MR: “Bonus tracks” – music to my ears, Butch. Are you keeping those a secret until it hits the streets? Feel free to tell me to mind my own business, as I like surprises just as much as the next guy. I thought the two bonus tracks on the LP edition of the debut were fantastic, particularly the Argus rendition of Maiden’s “Phantom of the Opera”.

Butch: We’re currently debating what songs to cover. We have a list a mile long with songs we’ve talked about doing for years that we never get around to covering. For now, I hate to throw names out there and then be forced to retract the statement down the line if we choose something different. They won’t be culled from Kevin’s Captain and Tennille collection, I can tell you that for certain.

MR: And with one swift sentence, Kevin’s been outed. It is, however, comforting to know that “Love Will Keep Argus Together.” And I’ll go ahead and cast a vote for Dark Quarter’s “Colossus of Argil”. Just putting that out there, dude. Or perhaps “Suck it and See” off Rock You to Hell to keep things classy.

Getting back to “logical progressions,” Boldly Stride the Doomed sounds like the ideal progression from the 2009 debut. It sounds unmistakably like Argus, but you’ve taken all the elements that made the previous release so satisfying and managed to push them right over the edge. Did you guys do anything differently this time around? Or is this simply evidence of the band realizing an ideal stride themselves?

Butch: I’d say the biggest difference with this record is that we actually wrote more together as a band – true collaboration and working collectively being the key elements. Whereas on the debut we were still sort of developing/searching for our sound, with Boldly Stride the Doomed, we all feel that we have a better idea of how we want Argus to sound and understand what we actually want to accomplish as a group. I think the entire band agrees that we effectively pulled off the trick of moving forward and progressing with the new material without neglecting the things that made the debut so good. I also believe we’ve all learned how to walk that line of being picky and critical without actually being dicks to each other. We’re all very open and honest when we sit down and write, and I think that suited us very well with the new album.

MR Shotgun Question #1: Outside of Argus, who do you think is the most underrated heavy metal band in America right now?

Butch: While Heaven Wept and Slough Feg.

MR: I like how you couldn’t give me just one band, Butch.

Butch: You’re lucky I didn’t give you a hundred.

MR: How do you guys approach the creative process behind the music? Does any one person take a primary role in sculpting the songs and everyone else fills in the edges? Are you all living close enough to one another that you can actually get together to write a record?

Butch: Generally, someone will begin a song with a riff or several riffs and showcase them at rehearsal, then we’ll give our initial input and add/subtract/modify/arrange as a band from there. Then I’ll take what we came up with and write the vocal melodies and lyrics. Jay (guitar) is probably the guy most likely to bring full songs to the table, though. Andy’s the man for coming up with a killer riff or section that we’ll build on and complete; Erik contributed a number of riffs this time around (the main riff in “The Ladder”, for example), and our drummer Kevin has a good ear and plays a bit of guitar as well, so we have all kinds of ideas bouncing in from every angle.

As far as where we all live, Kevin, Erik and Andy are actually all very close, while Jay and I have to drive about 100 minutes to get to rehearsal. The distance for Jay and I can make it a little difficult to get the songwriting momentum started, but everyone does their due diligence at home, so we’re always prepared for each rehearsal. It’s a formula that’s been working well for us for 5 years now.

MR: And speaking of that Argus formula, lyrics obviously play a key role there as well. Are you responsible for the lionshare of what’s delivered on Boldly Stride the Doomed, just as you were for the self-titled? And I know you’d rather leave their interpretation up to the listener, but can you tell us a bit about your process for writing them? The flow and choice of words makes it rather apparent that the whole process is rather…painstaking.

Butch: All the lyrics are mine on this record. And yes, I am very self-critical and also prone to very stressful bouts of writer’s block, some of which is brought on by my own anxiety that ends up standing in the way of allowing me to just relax and let the words flow naturally.

The process itself is fairly simple, though, in theory. After the band comes up with a loose arrangement of a song, I’ll take the rough recording and simply hum along/sing along/grunt along in the car until I feel like I’ve got a melody line that fits the mood we’re trying to convey: something catchy and compelling that’ll sound good in my vocal range. From there, it’s a matter of further matching the mood of the music and my vocal melody with a suitable topic, which is where I often get stuck – just what the hell to sing about. Quite often I turn to my personal life, but I’ve also had a lot of fun using literature as a source of inspiration, which is something I rarely did in the past.

I also tried a couple of other more unconventional methods this time around, like flipping through the dictionary and randomly selecting approximately 100+ words that I pare down and figure out interesting ways to link together and make it all sound appealing, if that makes sense. And as far as the whole process being painstaking, I do use a dictionary, thesaurus and rhyming dictionary to help ensure that words don’t get unnecessarily repeated.

MR Shotgun Question #2: Bruce Dickinson or Paul Di’Anno?

Butch: Dickinson.

MR: Agreed. And that seems like a pretty logical choice for someone who’s a vocalist.

MR: I love the fact that your album artwork makes me feel like I could have stumbled on either of your releases in the bins during the 80s. Obviously you guys have a pretty good relationship with artist Brad Moore, who’s also responsible for the artwork on the debut. Did you seek him out specifically because of his rather “oldschool” approach? Is he the type of guy you call up and say “here’s the idea,” and let him just run with it to the end?

Butch: We love Brad. And I’ve actually known him since my Penance days (see: Alpha & Omega) when our paths would cross at the Stoner Hands of Doom and Emissions from the Monolith fests. Because of that friendship, he was my first choice for our debut, and the rest of guys were equally as psyched once they saw samples of his work. As far as the actual content or theme, we had no preconceived notion for what we wanted for the debut. We sent him our music and basically said “Do your thing.”  The bulk of what you see on the debut stems from his ideas alone. Our only contribution to the concept was asking him to change a “warrior type” character he came up with into the Lovecraftian beastie that we all now affectionately refer to as “Vagina-man,” for lack of a more suitable sidekick name. With Boldly Stride the Doomed, we actually did develop a general concept and conveyed that to Brad before he got to work. He then gave us a few sketch options and we ran with what you see today. Again, there were some minor tweaks here and there, but we mostly just let Brad do what he does. The guy’s a brilliant artist and he captured the vibe we were looking for perfectly.

MR: HA! The Vagina-man, huh? I’m so glad you brought that up, seeing as how it perfectly aligns itself with the contest we’re currently running.

I’ve often referred to Argus as “one of the best American heavy metal bands you’ve never heard.” And thinking back on it, I used to refer to your previous band Penance similarly. Does it bother you to be thought of this way? Obviously it would be ideal to have the sort of success a band like Mastodon has managed to achieve, but are you guys happy with your current position? What do you think is the primary motivation for Argus today?

Butch: Our primary motivation is to write music that we love and would actually want to listen to ourselves, and to share that work with as many people as we can while having as much fun as possible. And no, the tag you mentioned does not bother me. I think part of the reason a band like ours gets labeled in such a way is because we’re actually still new. And realistically, we all have family life that’s very important to us that cuts into the constant touring that’d be required to break into a much wider audience. Personally, I do find it frustrating that I finally have my dream band, but have found it during a time when I have so many “real world” responsibilities to contend with as well. I wish a band could simply build on being great, but it’s not the way things work, and I understand that.

As far as whether we’re happy with our position, I’d say we always want more. But like I said, we’re realistic about what the ceiling probably is for Argus. We haven’t yet reached that ceiling, though, so we won’t be satisfied until we push to those outer boundaries.

Shotgun Question #3: Reagers or Wino era Saint Vitus?

Butch: Wino is a better vocalist, but Reagers is a better vocalist for Vitus. That voice of his meshes with that creepy vibe so well.

MR: Right on, brother. I agree 100%. Even Reager’s later stuff, like his performance on Die Healing, is just killer. The way he sings on a tune like “Sloth” just makes your skin crawl.

Butch: “In the Asylum” is as creepy as it gets. Reagers really sets the mood on that one.

MR: Beyond the obvious downer of people illegally swiping music off the Internet, what are your thoughts on digital music and bands that offer their albums through places like iTunes or Amazon? Do you support the “get your music out there by any means necessary?” And how about bands that release material only on vinyl?

Butch: I say ‘to each their own’ in regards to how material gets released. It’s up to the band to decide what they’re willing to risk financially and how they ultimately recoup those costs. If a band thinks they can operate happily releasing only vinyl – awesome, there’s a market out there for that. If a band wants to have their music available on every format known to mankind – awesome, there’s obviously a market for that as well. But we’re living in a day and age where portability is as important to some as having the actual physical product. And personally, I like both worlds. Having hundreds of albums at my command on my MP3 player for flights, road trips, etc. is great, but I still love the sonic quality and collectability of vinyl or CDs. People like me (and you) are the exception, not the rule.

MR: Yeah, I can’t even imagine not being able to take my iPod with me on trips. I’m especially happy with the current labels releasing high-quality vinyl that includes a link to the MP3’s. I wish Buried by Time and Dust would jump on something like that.

Back to family life for a minute. One of the things that seems to happen to bands with members who’ve been around the block for a number of years is that life and responsibilities play a larger role in whatever free time you might have. How do you guys manage to bribe your families to allow you time for Argus? And does your family actually like the heavy metal you create?

Butch: At minimum, I’d say our families appreciate Argus for what it is musically, even if they don’t all love metal. We’re all very fortunate to have family and friends that support what we do and are as patient and flexible as they can be when it comes to band schedules. It helps that none of us really push those band responsibilities over the edge, also. I think we all put family first and work with each other and our families to better secure a schedule that’s least disruptive to all parties involved.

MR: Yeah. Keep the peace, brother. Keep the peace.

MR Shotgun Question #4: All-time favorite Hellhound era Maryland doom band?

Butch: The Obsessed

MR: I know just like myself you hold Ronnie James Dio in the utmost regard as far as most revered vocalists of all time. Can you give us a few examples of other singers in and outside of metal who blow you away?

Butch: As far as metal, I’d say Rob Halford, Jorn Lande, Hansi Kursch, Janne Christoffersson (Spiritual Beggars/Grand Magus), Mike Puleo (Orodruin), Bruce Dickinson, Russell Allen, Tim Aymar (Pharaoh), Rain Irving (While Heaven Wept), Peter Steele, Victor Griffin, Wino and Ian Gillan…to name a few.

And as far as non-metal, I’d go with Robin Zander (Cheap Trick), Paul Stanley, Steve Marriot (Small Faces/Humble Pie), Marvin Gaye, Doug Gray (Marshall Tucker Band), Phil Lynott, Brad Delp (Boston), Frank DiMino (Angel), Adele, Amy Winehouse and Don Dokken. Really, I can’t win with these sorts of things because I always end up leaving someone off and never know whether to limit it to the living or dead.

MR: Living or dead, that’s quite a diverse list there, Butch.

How about bands? Who ‘s hitting your current playlist? I know you have a particular affinity for southern rock, so you’re not allowed to say The Marshall Tucker Band. How about offering up three metal and three non-metal?

Butch: In terms of metal, I’d go with Grand Magus, Slough Feg and While Heaven Wept. Non-metal, I’d say Paul Weller, The Outlaws and Black Joe Lewis.

MR Shotgun Question #6: Favorite Black Sabbath album?

Butch: Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.

MR: Have you guys nailed down any tour plans for 2011? And do you prefer the intimate setting of a smaller tour to, say, The Hammer of Doom fest with loads of bands on the bill?

Butch: Well we just got back from Hammer of Doom V, which was a big success for us. Just a great, great gig from every angle.

We have Days of the Doomed coming up in June in Wisconsin. And we’re thinking about doing some weekend warrior type stuff more locally throughout 2011. Definitely hoping for a Euro tour in 2012 as well. Really, we just love to play. And no one wants to stand in front of a dead-ass crowd, but as long as the folks dig it, we don’t care if there’s ten, one hundred or a thousand fans. It’s a real rush doing something on the scale of Hammer of Doom and hearing that crowd sing along with you and yell your name. But then the nice thing about a smaller tour is being able to connect more directly with your fans and really being up close to them. It’s all good, honestly. On a personal note, however, just once I would love to experience playing something HUGE – you know, arena-sized. I think that would be a blast.

MR Shotgun Questions #7: What’s the most prized album in your current collection?

Butch: ANGEL’s Bad Publicity. This was the initial pressing of the band’s fifth studio album. ANGEL was a very image conscious band that wore all white. Their label, Casablanca, sort of marketed them as the flipside of KISS, so by record #5 the band shoots this album jacket showing them in street clothes playing cards and drinking in a hotel, surrounded by hookers, the press and cops. Neil Bogart (Casablanca founder) sees the jacket, flips out and demands that they all be destroyed. Then he tells the band they have to reshoot an alternate “simple band photo” cover with an alternate album title Sinful. A few of the original album jackets survived, and I scored one. It cost me a few hundred bucks and I bought it about 15-16 years ago — incredibly difficult to find and one of the grails of ANGEL collecting.

MR: Nice score, dude! My prized album was a limited edition Voivod LP promo single for “Jack Luminous” on glow-in-the-dark wax that I scored during my radio station days, but I ended up giving it to a fellow Voivod fanatic friend of mine as a going away present. Now I’d say it’s probably my original LP copy of Saint Vitus’ debut. Not nearly as nostalgic as your find, dude. I think I’m still holding out for my next “true prized possession.” Maybe I’ll eventually track down a copy of the original Force LP or something.

Butch, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions in such detail! As always, it’s been a true pleasure, and best of luck with the release of Boldly Stride the Doomed, my friend. It’s really a monster of a record, and I truly believe it’s packed to the rafters with the kind of outstanding heavy metal necessary to bring Argus to the next level.

Butch: Thanks for the chat, mi amigo! As well as your kinds words about the album. We hope folks will dig this one as much as we do.

Posted by Captain

Last Rites Co-Owner; Senior Editor; Handsome & Interesting Man; Just get evil all the time.

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