2020 was already going to be a big year for the band Red because it was the year in which they set up their own record label and went independent, with their first release, Declaration, landing in the Spring of the year. It was a move that was not without risks, but it carried the potential for great creative rewards, and the band took the plunge.
With the world in the midst of a pandemic, they actually moved up the release date for Declaration because why not? They had created the album, it was ready to ship, and fans were stuck at home. Being independent made that decision not only easier, but more streamlined for them. But like with most bands, the experience of playing it live next year when concerts (hopefully) resume will seal the deal, and until then it feels a little like they've done something illicit but rewarding, slipping the album into the hands of the faithful at a time when it might do particular good.
Songwriter and guitarist Anthony Armstrong was a guest on our Tower Instagram livestream show a couple of weeks ago, and here he returns for an interview about Declaration, about an internal state of war, about the symbiosis the band has with fans, and about what makes the "real" so very important in music these days.
Hannah Means-Shannon: Congratulations on your new record, Declaration.
Anthony Armstrong: Thank you. I feel like it’s almost going to be a new record next year, like it was just leaked.
HMS: A lot of bands that I’ve spoken to say that it won’t feel totally real to them that they have an album out until they get to play it live. And Red have always gone for a lot of audio visual live, so you must be spoiling for that as well.
AA: The jones is real. We’re all sitting around talking about projects, and we are doing a live project for Octane coming up, featuring four songs for the album, but it’s streaming, so the audio has to be perfect. There are some things the band is going to do to make it more exciting. We’re actually performing on the 14th, but the final product won’t be turned in until July 21st.
HMS: For Declaration, it’s your move to independence. It’s an independent record. Could you talk a little bit about what that’s meant for you and the band, and what the experience has been like?
AA: It’s a lot more work on one end and a lot easier, and relaxing, on another. We started our own label, so, a lot of planning goes into things that a label would usually do, but as an independent artist, with our own label, we have to do. It’s been a rough year and a half starting out figuring out logistics, making all the money to bring everything together, hiring all the right people, and bringing all those things under the right umbrella.
With the creative side of things, the springboard for everything has been amazing. The creative flow and ability we’ve had to spread our creative wings has been phenomenal. I think that’s why Declaration turned out the way it did. We didn’t have anyone breathing down our necks. We just did whatever we wanted to do, what we’ve always wanted to do as a band.
I think from the point that bands start having success with a label, they start thinking, “We’re the masterminds. Leave it to us. We know our fans better.” The labels like to argue those facts. Sometimes they are right. We feel like most of the time they were wrong. We weren’t always agreeing with what they wanted us to do. The fact that we can be truly ourselves finally, and be the band we’ve always wanted to be has truly opened our hearts, and minds, and souls, to the music. It’s poured out of us. So that part has been easy for us.
HMS: You may have the strongest continuous narrative aspect to your albums of any bands that I’ve spoken to or even looked into, really. Even on individual albums, there’s a lot of narrative involved. Does this album break free of that, or continue it?
AA: I wouldn’t say we’ve broken free of it. That’s something we’ve been able to hold onto, that this is the narrative that we want to have. This is the story. This is the theme behind everything that we do. We were always able to choose that. We’ve carried on with that. The band has always been about war and personal struggle, inner turmoil, the war within. The imagery that we’ve always used is very intense in that way.
As a band who have been called Christian artists, we’ve died on a lot of hills with the imagery that we’ve used.
AA: With the imagery that we’ve used, it’s been interesting because so many conservative Christian believers who like our music have had a lot to say about the guns and violence. It’s not so much literal as it is metaphorical for us: the war we fight with ourselves, the war we fight with addiction. All of us have had our ups and downs with addictions and we use our music to talk about it. There’s an entertainment factor to all of this, but there’s also a serious message behind things. War is serious, it’s deadly, but it’s eye-opening and awakening, too. The wars that we’ve fought in this band are everything we pour into our music.
The narrative is alive and well, for sure. Especially with Declaration. Everyone thought it was going to be a political band, but it’s a play on the independence of the band. Declaration is defined as “a strong, aggressive statement”, and that’s what this record is.
HMS: I was going to ask about that. I definitely see the war and struggle themes in your work, but I see that the idea of “declaration” can go two ways: it can signal the beginning of conflicts, or it can signal the beginning of a new phase that might be something constructive, a building phase.
AA: That’s pretty much right on. I’d say the latter. I’d say this is the beginning of a new age and a new world for us. Although I’d say that we still talk about the war. There’s a song on the album, “The War We Made” and it talks about how we did it to ourselves, and it’s still happening to us. There’s a lot of that going on out there. It’s no different for us as individuals, as family men. I think we’re always going to talk about those struggles. That’s what music is for, that therapy. But Declaration is a new beginning and a fresh start for us.
HMS: You mention that idea of therapy. Why do you think that it is important to create music that talks about internal states and spells out those conflicts that we face? Because that’s kind of a downer sometimes.
AA: Yeah, it is. But I think that Red has found a way for that to be redemptive in all our music. Our very first record was called, End of Silence. That’s the problem—everyone is so quiet about their problems. They are scared. They are embarrassed and worried that people will judge them. But look at the world that we live in. Everyone is so much more exposed than they used to be. Rock stars were a real thing. They were like the white Bengal tiger you see at the zoo, who hides in the weeds, but he’s still there even if you can’t see him. Now we’re just these guys with guitars.
The rock star status applies because they see us on stage, but I feel like everyone knows our kids’ names, they know our dogs names, they know that I mowed my lawn. It’s crazy how much access everyone has to us, and it’s made us so vulnerable. The human race is so vulnerable right now on the grid, on social media. As a band, that’s part of how we put ourselves out there. We give people as much access as we can without crossing that line and having these people standing in our front yard. You can’t give them everything. They don’t get Anthony the family man, they get Anthony, the guy from Red.
HMS: Do you and the other band members have to spend a fair amount of time discussing what you release to the public in terms of the band identity and your own identities?
AA: There’s a lot of that. One thing is the marketing aspect. You have to be strategic about that because people want the best of you but they also want “real”. I think some people relate to us because of how real we are. We are just plain old dudes who believe in God, but if we say a cuss word, or have a cigar in our mouth, or a drink in our hand, it’s like World War III with some of these people.
AA: It’s a joke. We’re just human beings. We believe in something bigger than ourselves, and we’ve poured a lot of that grace that we’ve received into our music. That doesn’t mean we aren’t idiots at the same time and constantly reaching for something better than ourselves. I could probably write a book about all that by now. But I think music has a power. People hear that power and there’s no denying how that makes you feel, regardless of your opinion of the guys in the band. Making music that makes people feel things is definitely inspiring to us.
HMS: So you try to make the music more perfect than yourselves in some way?
AA: I’d say that I want it to be real, even more real, speaking truly about our lives rather than just through universal themes. Asking, “What did I actually go through that was devastating to me?” A lot of that came out on our fifth record. I went through a really bad divorce and things were really hard for me. We wrote about that on our record. We’re screaming our brains out on that record, about how pissed off we all were, and how the guys were pissed off for me, about how hurt I was. I think if we keep that “real factor” in the music and talk about those things, people are going to relate to it much more.
“Johnny used to work on the dock.”, you know? Use names. Talk about real life things.
HMS: That’s awesome. I really appreciate that you take that approach. I have a lot of personal experience of religious communities where it really isn’t okay to talk about the kind of pain you go through when relationships end. There was this idea that if you were spiritual enough, it shouldn’t be a problem for you. But there’s a real human experience there. Like you said, people not talking about it can be very damaging.
AA: Very damaging, yes. I think people put on their church clothes. It’s the suit and tie that believers want you to see, being good and proper, singing hymns, putting money in the plate in church. Then he goes home and does whatever, beats his kids, or does drugs. People wear masks. We have even written about that. “When the Mask Slips Away” was a song on a previous record. When that mask slips away and you show somebody who you really are, you’re so afraid that people are going to judge you.
“The Darkest Part” was another song that I wrote on that record, saying, “I never want you to see the darkest part of me.” And I think that’s everyone. I don’t think there’s anyone out there who doesn’t care. And if they say they do, the empty can rattles the loudest!
HMS: Yes, I agree with you on that.
AA: But it’s been a struggle for us. Michael [Barnes'] father is a pastor, and we’ve come up in the ranks as “Christian artists”. And some people don’t respect us for that, because being a “Christian artist” is lame. It’s a fake version of a real band. Red has just tried so hard to not be that.
HMS: It sounds like you get conflict from both sides. Because if you don’t adhere to what more conservative people expect from you, as you’ve alluded to, you get that flak. But if you are too affiliated with a belief system to the general public, you’re going to get sidelined.
AA: Especially in Rock music. Rock music doesn’t like systems. They just want to rebel against the “Man”. I think there’s a healthy medium between all of it. We’re not a band a band that’s going to stand on stage and say, “If you don’t turn your life over to God, you’re going to die! You’re going to die a miserable death!”
AA: That’s bullshit. It really is. We’re not those guys. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened, that a guy comes up to us after the show, and says, “I was going to kill myself tonight. But my friend said, ‘Please come with me to this show and just listen.” And this guy comes up to us and hands us a razor blade. This is real. We’re not the only band this happens to. And we love being part of a community that inspires people.
HMS: I’ve actually heard a version of this story from a couple bands, recently even, across different musical genres. It is real and does happen.
AA: As a band member, you think, “I just picked up a guitar in college and started writing songs. How are you still here because of something I wrote on a piece of paper?” It’s intense. I think once you hear that for the first time, you feel more responsible. It’s a burden you almost take on a little bit, and you can’t save them all, but you’re going to do your very best to affect the small circle of people who will hear your music.
HMS: Does that sense of responsibility relate to going independent, or did it facilitate that change at all?
AA: I think that’s a line you can see going right through our career, so I’d say “No”. From the beginning, with our album, “The End of Silence”, people have been coming up to us telling us about struggling with things, like cocaine, or trying to kill themselves, so it’s been intense. I feel like we’ve experienced that over and over again throughout the years of making music.
HMS: Are there people who have been part of your life who have made a big difference to you in finding your path, or for the band?
AA: We’ve had so many people in the life of the band who have been influential to us. The guy who signed us to the label, originally, has always been a great friend. He’d always bring us back to true North. When we’d say, “This isn’t making a difference. Nobody cares.”, when we’d get butt-hurt about things, he’d bring us back. Even though he’s part of the business and the label, he was a true friend. He’d ask, “What are you guys really here for? What do you really want to do with your music? That’s what you really need to focus on. Keep pushing. Don’t worry about anything else.” A lot of those words would hold true, and still do. They’ve had a profound impact on us as a band.
But honestly? It’s the fans. We do a thing called “The Acoustic Experience” on our bus and sit down with fans. Similar to a VIP thing, but we invite 10 to 30 people at 3 different times of day, and we let them ask us whatever they want. Sometimes we get into talking about spiritual stuff, sometimes we talk about movies or stupid stuff. Sometimes it gets political. Whatever they want to do. Then they’ll file off the bus, and one guy hangs back, and he’s crying. And he’ll tell us something like the stories we’ve been talking about. He’ll say, “I just had to see if you were real.” They wonder, are the things they sing about real? Then they see us and it’s there, and they are happy.
HMS: People desperately need something real.
AA: There’s just so much that’s fake.
HMS: What do you think of our Tower motto, “No Music, No Life”?
AA: Right on! I remember that!
HMS: That’s awesome! It’s actually also written “Know Music, Know Life” too.
AA: I think I gravitate more towards, “No Music, No Life”. I feel like that’s what’s happening with the whole world right now. There’s nothing to do. People are starving for their normal life. Now, more than ever, as recording artists, we’ve heard from droves of people. People saying, “If I don’t get to hear a live show soon, I’m going to go crazy.” And that’s “No Music”. That’s “No Life”.
Being on the road for 15 years, and we’re still a baby band in the grand scheme of themes, but we’ve seen the eyes of people when we’re on stage, and they just light up. They light up in a way that they don’t at the 9 to 5 job that they do all week. They have come to do something they don’t normally do and feel some tension lift off their shoulders. I would say that “No Music, No Life” makes sense to me, though they are both pretty cool.
HMS: Definitely. I’m not in a touring band, but I’ve missed at least ten concerts as a fan since this all started and it’s hard. People think I’m being precious if I complain about it, but it was a normal part of my life. It’s actually quite disturbing not to have that.
AA: Even as a music-maker, I still love going to shows myself. But I feel like when you’re on the inside of it, like we are, to hear that from you is so profound to me. We joke around about being musicians, and other people being civilians, because we’re like animals at the zoo who people get to watch.
I think there could be something really cool to write about there, about what effect this has all actually had on music lovers. Everything about that experience, from putting on the band t-shirt, to hopping in the car, to playing the record the band are going to play that night, to showing up at shows. To when the lights go down and the atmosphere just changes instantly, and all the cortisone in your body just disappears.
HMS: I totally agree that there is a profound psychological and emotional impact that it has on people. We’ll get through this, but I think this really shows what the value of live performance really is, to have it taken away for a while like this.