Asking Alexandria: "We were all very much under the impression that this record was going to be a step in a positive direction"

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When we were first introduced to the brash and ballsy metalcore madness of British trailblazers Asking Alexandria (around the rise of the Soundwave age circa 2010), they were but wide-eyed teenagers with less f***s to give than a Catholic nun, and more cocaine surging through their bloodstream than pseudo-scientific bullshit out of Pete Evans’ mouth (no, kombucha doesn’t prevent cancer – he hasn’t said it yet, but it’s only a matter of time).

But in 2020, the youngest member of the group is fast approaching 30; the rock ’n’ roll fantasy doesn’t last forever, and if they were to pretend it did, they’d probably all wind up in a set of matching coffins by the decade’s end (not to mention how forced and trite their tunes would become). So, they’ve adapted to the situation – their recent sixth album, Like A House On Fire, sees them embrace a new lifestyle as clean-living adults with smiles on their faces and families to feed. 

Rest assured, of course, Asking Alexandria are still churning out balls-to-the-wall musical mayhem worthy of your thrashing heads – they’re just keeping it real and not force-feeding fans some wank they don’t believe in. The end result is a genre-bending album that’s effortlessly as exciting as their early stuff (if perhaps not as loud or chaotic). And according to guitarist Ben Bruce, it’s also the record he and his bandmates unanimously agree is their strongest work to date. 

How did Asking Alexandria get to where it needed to be for this album to exist? 
I think it’s our past that brought us here, because we’ve had such a turbulent past. I always say to people that we were thrown in at the deep end – we were teenagers when we got signed. Final Episode came out and just kind of exploded, and that threw us into the limelight at a time when we had all just left home and we were young and excitable. And obviously, everything that came with being in a rock band and being surrounded by drugs and alcohol, and people that had been in the industry for a long time and were looking for that next big thing… It all sort of dragged us into this hole.

I would say finally, after all this time, we’ve grown up. We’ve left that lifestyle behind us, we’re all clean from drugs and we’re all happy – we’ve moved on, and I think we’ve embraced that on this record. We didn’t want to make a record about trying to live out some fantasy that we’re not living. We stayed true to ourselves and wrote a record about where we are now, and I think that’s what makes the record so magic and special to us. We weren’t afraid to tell people, “Yeah, f***in’ hell, life can be shit! But it gets better! It actually gets really good, you just have to hold on to get to that good part.”

With our other records, it was all, like, “We’re on drugs! We’re sad! Nothing’s ever going to be good! I’m lonely!” But we’ve embraced the fact that we’re happy adults now. And I know that can be a bit of a scary prospect for a lot of people – especially songwriters. John Mayer said one time that he would love to have kids and stable relationships, but he’s afraid that once that happens, his ability to write good songs will disappear. It is a scary thing, but we fully embraced it and we dove in with two feet.

Was there a very collaborative energy between the five of you? 
As far as the writing went, not so much, just because we know we have a process that works, and has worked for us since the beginning. I’m left to my own devices in the beginning stages, just to sort of figure out where I’m at, where the guitar riffs are coming from, where the direction of the record is headed… And then once I’ve got a grasp on things, everyone else comes in and gets a little bit more involved. 

But as far as where we all were mentally, it was 100 percent a collaborative effort. We were all very much under the impression that this record was going to be a step in a positive direction – this record was going to be something that we hoped would inspire and instil ambition and happiness in people, rather than encourage them to drink and do drugs and, y’know, live that rock ’n’ roll lifestyle – which isn’t even real life.

As a guitarist, were you excited to explore some new playing techniques? 
I was. And it’s really hard for me because I always forget that I’m the guitarist in this band [laughs]. Like, I love the guitar – it’s obviously my weapon of choice, and I’m obsessed with the guitar. Especially blues guitar – Clapton, Gary Moore, B.B. King… Y’know, a guitar, to me, can sing just as well as the best singers in the world. And so I love the guitar, but I’ve never been one of those guitarists that’s like, “Right, I have to learn how to play this as fast and complex as I possibly can!”

I’ve always thought of myself as more as of a songwriter, and over the years, I’ve focussed very much on developing my songwriting skills. A lot of people have sort of said stuff like, “Oh, I’ve noticed the guitar has taken a bit of a backseat on this album.” And in my head, I’m thinking, “Well, it hasn’t, I’ve just used it in a better way.” I look at it like the song is breathing and building up without the guitar, so that when the guitar does come back in, it’s able to really kick your ass, because it’s unexpected and it’s back with a vengeance. 

As far as my style of playing goes, it was a lot of fun writing this record. With some of my earlier work, I definitely fell into a trap that a lot of guitarists fall into, where you find a comfort zone on the fretboard and you get stuck there, and you start rehashing riffs that are all effectively the same, just presented in a new way. On this record, the riffs are nothing like any of the riff styles I played on previous records – simply because Matt Good, our producer, pushed me not to do that. 

Every time I would fall back into that comfort zone, he’d be like, “Nah, I’ve heard it before.” I’d be like, “No, it’s different!” And he’d be like, “Yeah it’s different, but it’s not really, is it?” So he really pushed me to move around the neck more and find other ways to get the idea out of my head. The riffs still have the same effect as they always have, but they just feel more fresh and exciting – and not just for the listener, either, but for me as a guitarist as well.

That’s what you’re saying about the guitar being able to sing just as well as a vocalist – you’re using the instrument to capture an emotion and vibe on its own merit. 
Exactly! And that’s why I didn’t feel the need to just constantly go [mimics breakdown riff] – there’s other ways to get that real driving metal energy. And if you strip the guitar away for a minute, when it does come back in, it really shines, and it really screams. It’s just way more powerful to me. 

Like I said, I’m a big, big blues fan, and the thing I love about the blues is that someone like B.B. King or Eric Clapton, y’know, they can hold their guitar and play one note, and that one note says just as much as Yngwie Malmsteen shredding up and down the neck. They’ve said all they need to say in that simple note or modal scale or lick – whatever. I’m not necessarily playing blues licks, but I’ve taken that same approach with my songwriting where less is more. 

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Ellie Robinson
Editor-at-Large, Australian Guitar Magazine

Ellie Robinson is an Australian writer, editor and dog enthusiast with a keen ear for pop-rock and a keen tongue for actual Pop Rocks. Her bylines include music rag staples like NME, BLUNT, Mixdown and, of course, Australian Guitar (where she also serves as Editor-at-Large), but also less expected fare like TV Soap and Snowboarding Australia. Her go-to guitar is a Fender Player Tele, which, controversially, she only picked up after she'd joined the team at Australian Guitar. Before then, Ellie was a keyboardist – thankfully, the AG crew helped her see the light…