Interview with Joey Z. (Life Of Agony)

The recent released “The Sound of Scars” became probably one their best Life Of Agony records. Aggressive and melodic. Uniting different musical elements have been presented in their music over the years. Following the words of Joey, it’s also brought the band to their family-type-of-relations.. They’ve always been a team. For sure. On the way through legendary “River Runs Red” inspired by Brooklyn-era of hardcore through “Ugly” and the most criticized – “Soul Searching Sun”. Getting back together and putting out “A Place Where There’s No More Pain”, Life Of Agony’s always been demonstrating their ability to still be a family. After all the changes within the band, their relations and attitude.

At that point, Joey Z. has already moved to the direction of producers’ work. Speaking to him, I notice that Joey is a bit of workaholic. He’s one of these people you’d constantly get new ideas. And the one who never stops works – whether these are Life Of Agony practices or his producers’ projects.

In the interview for Metal Addicts, we speak with Joey Z, about love of Supultura, mosh-pots and hardcore, about current projects and recording principles, about “The Sound Of Scars” and “River Runs Red”.  

Even though the technicality of your guitar-parts always been an important part of Life Of Agony-formula, you took producers’ seat only with the recent “The Sound of Scars”. As a result, it became the first Life of Agony album you co-produced alongside with Sylvia Massey. In what way this particular experience and these recording sessions were different ? In comparison with other albums of yours.

That’s a great question, Dan! The recording process was completely different for me this time. Like you said, I was waring two hats: “I’m the player, but I’m also producing”. So what I did: I did something unique. I said to myself “I need to set my studio up as if I’m playing live on stage!” – I set up wedges, I set up big side fills – I’d just hit “record” having Veronica’s drums previously recorded. Of course, I knew the structure of a songs so well. So I’d just hit “record” and I’d loop the song.  I’d keep playing the song, and riff out, until the guitar would start go out of tune. Then I’d stop, tune the guitar up and hit “record” again, doing more passes. I’d keep doing passes. After a couple of hours, when I got that energy out of me, I’d stop, take the guitar off, sit in front of computer and listen to what I did. I’d find all the sections in the songs, that I really-really like! I’d save those sections. On the next day, I’d do some more recordings on that song. I had this process I did, where I was the guitar-player and where I was the producer. So instead of playing guitar – producing – playing guitar – producing, I played guitar for many hours and then, I produced for many hours. I divided that time up. When I was the guitar-player – I was strictly playing guitar. When I was producing – the guitar was down. And I just focused on finding those great takes and utilizing those great takes. What I also did was hang a banner in my studio with a giant crowd. SO, on my takes I would play for the crowd. It’s a festival crowd from the Live Aid concert. So, I hung this banner on my wall and while I was doing my guitar-tracks, I could look at the crowd getting the feeling I was playing live. Those were the times, I was SO CRAZY within the takes, that I thought about the crowd going in circle pits on my wall ( laughs ).

Isn’t it difficult to unite these two objectives within two these roles you’re holding ? How to find the balance in such situation ?

I really go on how I’m feeling that day – honestly. Do I feel like playing guitar that day ? Do I feel like sitting in front of the computer and kind of looking at what I’ve done already. Kind-of-building those takes into songs. I really go on how I feel. Certain days, maybe I don’t have that kind of frame of mind I need to get into my guitar playing. Maybe that one day, I have more of a frame of mind in a technical perspective where I want to sit in front of computer finding those guitar-parts. But I’m really a day-to-day person when it comes to that. But when I have a challenge in front of me. Such as recording a whole record myself – it’s a big challenge. I just believe I can use my heart and my desire to accomplish the test. I have a strong desire to keep making music and keep creating. Everyday I was recording the record, I had a strong desire to come down to the studio and play guitar – [that’s] how much I love those songs on “The Sound Of Scars”. It was a strong desire. Also, when it comes to producing, I was so happy that the band was behind me. The band was supporting me and happy with what I was delivering. Working with Alan on bass, working with Mina on vocals…Everything was really clicking. We’ve been working so well together. So that was a good feeling. All those good motivations keep me focused. 

At the same time, being songwriter, composer and producer it all gets to the simple question: “What’s the song really needs ?”. But how different is your approach when you’re thinking about it from producer’s angle or songwriters’ or both these, if we’d speak about Life Of Agony as a place where you united these two ?

What I like to do…Life of Agony is a very organic band. The way we create is very organic. If the idea kind of surfaces during the writing process or recording process – Some things get changed during the recording process.  Let’s say, it just sounded better to do it “this way!” – whether these are drum-parts for Veronica… A vocal for Mina.  When we got to Sylvia Massy studio in Oregon, Veronica was in the middle of recording drums. She was like: “What if I try this ? What if I try this fill ? Or try this beat instead ?” and it was very spontaneous! We’re very spontaneous band! If something that sounds better comes out – we’d go with it! As a producer, I help Mina with her vocals, with finding herself in the song. I give her a lot of freedom to express and explore all the possibilities…When it comes to Life Of Agony, “we” co-produce the album. Yes, I was very hands on though! I needed to be somewhat technical at times. I was engineering the album, but everybody has ideas, and we like to explore them all. So, part of my roll is basically to help sort through things, and get the best ideas to shine.

Being a founding member of Life of Agony, you got the chance to work on all these records with all these different producers – Josh Silver, Steve Thompson, Phil Nicolo, Greg Fidelman. What did you learn from all them and how it was for you to get back to writing within the band, after you started working fully as producer ?

I feel like I was always in a studio, I was always very “hands on”. For the years, I’ve always been twisting my knobs to get my tone, I rarely relied on somebody else to get my tone. My work always has to feel good in my hands. The tone had to come out of myself. Although, working with people like Josh Silver back in the days – he really brought out the best in the band.  He was able to help create that massive tone that I was looking for. We definitely owe Josh Silver a lot of credit for the way that record [“River Runs Red”] sounds and the way it turned out. What I’ve learnt over the years is to always keep my eyes open, my ears open. I’m always a good listener. I watch what the producers do. Whether these are any technical move, whether these are any change – within EQ or compressor, whether it’s something they were plugging in, whether these are some kind of outboard gear, some kind of harmonizer – I’m always watching. I ask questions. And I was very observant in the studio. It’s fascinated me! Over the years, I wanted to do more and more studio [work]. Because of the time we spent in the studio with Life of Agony. And then, getting to work with these great producers, learning from them and listening to them, watching the way they worked with people, watching the way they worked with artists like myself or Mina or Alan…There’s a lot goes into producing. It’s a relationship with you and the artist, it’s the way you communicate with the artist. It’s so important. The way you inspire the artist you’re working with – you need to inspire the artist you’re working with. Encourage the artist. All of this is going to getting the best takes, and the best performances. So I’ve learned so much from people I used to work with. Who were amazing at both: working with the artists, encouraging the artists, and nailing all the sounds, tones, finding those tones very easily. Due to their knowledge of gear…And again, watched what these people used on those records. Looking how the console was used, the pre-amps, the compressors. The EQ-s. Watching and learning the difference between these EQ’s and compressors and what they do; the different in sounds and the musicality of SSL or precision of API. This is the stuff I’ve learnt by listening and watching, knowing the difference between the gear and the microphones, the other things. Knowing of what U-87 does comparing to a 47.  Knowing of what you can get out of these microphones. Knowing what the ribbon mic does compared to a condenser, compared to a dynamic-mic. All of this stuff, I really sunk my teeth into over the years, focusing and learning about all this stuff. But you learn by listening. A lot of people don’t realize [that] you learn by listening and you learn by feeling. I always say: “I need to feel the sound! I need to feel the sound in my chest! In my body!” –  the sound has to draw some kind of emotion in me. It’s very important. The sound has to be musical in my ear. It has to draw emotion. And the tone has to provide some kind of physical effect on me. I don’t know how else to describe this. But that’s the way I work. It’s been working for me!

You once commented on recording of Life of Agony albums saying that all you need is to get to the same page, creatively. Which basically was what you did within “A Place Where There’s No More Pain”. But when you’re writing something is it always about bringing your ideas to the table, something you have been thinking about for a while – riffs, structures, choruses. Or it’s more about being at a moment in time with these people ?

I think you just got to stay true to yourself, true to what sounds good, true to what feels good. Every record’s different, Dan. Every record I’ve recorded or every artist I’ve worked with here in the studio. Whether these are local artists or big artists – like Sick of It All. Every recording experience is new. It’s like a learning experience. It’s like you’re constantly learning. And if the producers and engineers tell you that you’d stopped learning – I think, then, their career is pretty much over. Because, you never stop learning! There’s so much more out there to learn and to try. So every record’s different! It’s amazing! Really amazing that you get to have a different experience every single time. Whether you’re working as producer, working with the band – it’s a whole new experience. I always have a new experience with every band, every record I play on, every producer – it’s always a new experience. And it’s all about leaning and education. Then you apply this education moving forward. You apply these ideas, these concepts moving forward.

When you started writing at first, you were basically influenced by hardcore music. This was where you came from. What it was like growing up – mentally, artistically in this kind of environment ?

I think, it was pretty cool, actually. Hardcore scene was a tough scene. In Brooklyn, New York, we had bands -we’d go to see Cro-Mags all the time, Sheer Terror, Carnivore, Biohazard. All these bands we grew up on! It was a great scene because there was a lot of comraderie – a lot of people got together. We were supporting each other, which was great. I could think, back than you had bands like Leeway, opening up the same night like Sheer Terror and Carnivore. All the same night, here at L’Amour, Brooklyn. Yeah, it was a tough scene! People would fight – there were big mosh-pits. And people got cut. It was pretty crazy! I even have scars myself – from the pit, at my lip. But it made us who we are. We were very lucky to experience this level of music. Being able to experience it firsthand. It was a great-time for music. And I’m really sad that those times don’t exist anymore. That scene is gone! With the internet, people are staying home, people watch videos on their computers. There’s no real scene anymore. Years before, when we were younger, you had to go to the club. There were no Internet. You had to do go the clubs, you had to hang out with your friends, you had to go and by records. It’s exciting! It’s a lot more exciting than on the screen ( laughs ).

What helped you to find your identity being a guitar-player at that point ?

Again, I listen to so many types of music! I actually started out listening to rock-music like Kiss and Iron Maiden, Ozzy Osborne and Black Sabbath. Then I moved on to Metallica. It wasn’t until I’d say…I was maybe 17 years old. 16 is when I started listening to hardcore. But I was listening to Metallica when I was 13-14 years old. I started out with a metal\hard-rock scene. I guess my point is that I had many different genres of rock-music I was listening to. And punk…I listened to The Exploited, Misfits, of course…D.R.I. When I was a kid, I liked punk-music, hardcore music, metal music…and, there were all these guitar-players that stood out to me. Guys like Randy Rhoads. I also listened to Pink Floyd, and stuff like that so David Gilmours’ sound and tone grabbed me. Of course, Metallica combination of Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield, inspired me a lot. Then I went on to loving guitarists like Dimebag Darrell and Andreas Kisser from Sepultura. Sepultura is one of my favorite bands…Probably, of all times. I think that’s my favorite band. But those are the guitar-players inspired me. I tell you what: even my good friend – Billy Graziadei from Biohazard, growing up, watching Billy play, and actually working with Biohazard when I was a kid – I was only 15-16 years old. And I was a guitar-tech for Biohazard ( laughter ). It was a really special! All these guitarists influenced me. So I’d say: Randy Rhoads, David Gilmour,  Kirk Hammett, James Hetfiel, Dimebag Darrell, Andreas Kisser, Billy and Bobby from Biohazard…All these guys, all the influenced were coming in! That’s what made me who I am.

I remember seeing the recording of one of your first shows – probably the first one tour. With slam dancing and all this CBGB’s-type-of-atmosphere – how it felt when you became a part of this scene ?

Well, it felt amazing! To get the attention from that scene. We were different, as you know, Dan. Life of Agony was different than a lot of the bands. So at first people were like: “Oh, what’s this ? hardcore metal-guitarist with this singing. Many people at first didn’t quite get in that band. But it didn’t take too long for the scene to really understand what we were doing. And once they got it. Once they clicked – then everybody was full on board. We would have thousands of kids at out shows, showing up to video-shots. It felt amazing – to get the acceptance from the other bands too. Like Biohazard, Carnivore and Agnostic Front. For them to accept us and wanna us to play with them. It just felt great, man. It’s just pretty much amazing. What we were able to do, what we were able to experience with those bands, in that scene in New York it’s something I always hold as something very special into my heart. 

Photo Credit: Tes Wiegerinck

Once you described your approach to the music production as you try to capture everything as it is not to overusing computers and polishing sounds too much. And I think it’s very much punk-type-of-attitude. How can you characterize your producer’s principles ?

Quite honestly, I feel like I have the ability to not just do the old hardcore thing. I have an ear for musicality. I know when something sounds the way it should. It’s hard to describe what I mean in words. I know when something needs to be a bit raw. And I know when something needs to be a bit polished. And it really depends on a song too, Dan. I think, that’s what most people get wrong. The song dictates what it should sound like. A song kind of tells you: “I want to sound like this!”. Some songs sound better polished. And some songs sound better raw and rough. I’d say like – for a perfect example: Sepultura song “Roots”. I think that type of style and that album should be as raw as possible. It should sound like it was recorded in a garage. And it would be amazing! But then you take a band that’s similar. And you have a band like Korn which should be a bit slicker, cause they have a very commercial heavy modern edge.  So, I think you need to have diversity as a producer and engineer. I think you need to be able to recognize it and be able to achieve the sound based on the client.  

To a point, “River Runs Red” sounds like a hardcore record. With this heavy tight riffing of “Through And Through”, “Bad Seed” or “The Stain Remains”. At the same time, this tension of hardcore and all the elements were mixed in the proportion that became a formula of Life of Agony sound. How can you characterize your work on that record and the attitude you approached everything with ?

With “River Runs Red” that album was written in Alan’s basement, the bass-players’ basement. We were skipping school ( laughs ). And Alan and I – we’d go to his basement. We’d wait for his parents to get to work. We’d absolutely wait for them to gone. We’d walk around the corner. And go to Alan’s basement. And Alan would: “Oh, let me show you this new song I wrote!” and that’s how this record was written, basically. Alan had all these song ideas and he wrote a lot of lyrics he’d show me. He had riffs and stuff. And songs were pretty much there. But than we’d jam on it. Whatever, we’d mess around a song a little bit and I would put my touch on it. That was the process.  We got to give Alan most of the credit for that classic album. 95% of that album came about from Alan’s mind, Alan’s brain and Alan’s soul. If you’d read those lyrics – “River Runs Red” is a story of somebody’s life. I think, Alan was speaking of something crazy alter-ego tapping into some kind inner-person on that album. Which made it so classic.

At the same time, you’ve never tried to be purely hardcore band. Songs like “Lets Pretend” or “Weeds” would be a good example of that movement away from your roots. Otherwise, even though it’s different, it still sounds like a Life of Agony – how it felt for you, when you started moving away from your musical roots ?

You know, for me, it was a little tough. I love a lot of heavy music. But at the same time, I really love the way we navigated throughout own musical journey. I love the way the band was able to try new things, not get stocked in the same writing of the same record. I like that we were able to do that. I feel like I recognize that more now than I did back then. Looking back on it, I think it was such great thing for a band. A lot of the earlier fans became disappointed as we released “Soul Searching Sun” etc. They felt it was too far away from “River Runs Red”. But again, we were basically just navigating though our own musical journey. And we were influenced by all these new influences. All this new music that was coming out. And your musical taste, everybody’s musical taste changes. Over the years. We were listening to the music, we were influenced by different bands. I appreciate what the journey we went on. Looking back now, I really understand why we did that. I understand why it happened. And I don’t regret it.

It took a while for you to master your style, and individual style of the band before “Riven Runs Red” came out. At the same time, you’d passed through a series of changes – than and later on, when Sal left the band, and you got Dan [Richardson] to record “Soul Searching Sun”. What, according to your opinion, all these people brought in, to the table and how do you feel like about the current version of Life Of Agony with Veronica ?

Oh, I feel amazing about it! We’re in such an amazing place as a band. Veronica is a very-very talented. Fun. She brings a lot of positivity to the table – for the band. She’s very ambitious. She has a lot of ideas. In an amazing way she approaches the drums. She’s technical, yet she has a lot in her soul… And a lot of fire in her energy. But stepping on the outside of playing, she brings that family-factor to the band. Where if we’re not playing music – we hang out. The other morning, I went to her house – she lives 10 minutes from me, right here in Long Island. I went to her house and brought her a breakfast. Egg sandwiches. So, her and I sat just to have breakfast. We sit and talk, we’re close friends! We’re doing fun things outside of the band…It’s been a lot of fun last couple of years. We found the balance between being serious – like for a show and having fun! It’s a good balance now. Over the years, we’ve always been a tight band no matter what drummer we played with. We’ve been tight. But Veronica brings a new level of technical precision within her playing. Where, she’s very on the meter and in the pocket. I would never discredit Dan Richardson or Sal Abruscatto for their amazing drum-abilities and talents as well. It was great playing with those guys over the years, but Veronica definitely brings something very cool and refreshing to the table, and we’re grateful for her.

After “The Sound Of Scars” you compared this record to “River Runs Red”. What united these two records, according to your opinion ?

I feel a lot of things unite those records.  Presently we’re in our 40’s, so it’s a different life from your teenage years. So you’re not gonna write the same record as “River Runs Red”. But what we did, we took the same approach. In other words: we tried to think, how the songs would feel live. We wanted to bring these songs to the stage. That’s what we did on “River Runs Red”. We’d write the songs to go and play live. So with the energy we were putting into “The Sound Of Scars” we were really thinking: “Ok, what would work live ? How’s this gonna sound live ?”. That was one of the biggest connections right there. And also, the way we wrote the record. Sharing a lot of ideas. Not having completed songs, introducing: “Oh, it’s a finished song! Let’s do it!” – like very organic. We all shared the ideas together, we sat in the room, we jammed all these songs live. That was important. There was another thing: they had to feel good playing them within four of us in the room. And that’s what we did with “River Runs Red” also. There was a lot of studio time and live-jamming. Also, the story-line. Part of “The Sound Of Scars”, the way we continued the story-line from the persons’ life. From the interludes from in-between-the-song. So we really wanted to make something special. What happens to this person ? What happens 25 years later ? And what was an exciting thing to take a look at. Making it come to life. That was an exciting part of a record. All that stuff was recorded here in my house, just like we did “River Runs Red” in Josh’s house. All those interludes. I created those stories in there. It was a lot of fun doing that. Thinking about what would happen to this persons’ life. And it was very cool. Alan and I worked very closely on a dialogue. Basically, how all these stories should get played out. So all those tights on “River Runs Red” really married the two records together, for us. That’s pretty much it. Between music and the interludes. And the vibe going in, intention on the way we tried to write this last record. I think we’d write this next record the same way, with the same intention musically. With the intention to take these songs live.

What made you continue this story line and was it hard for you in terms of thinking that this character would do ?

No, it wasn’t hard! We would think about where we’re feeling our lives now. Sometimes you feel lost. Sometimes you feel like something is going with you – maybe there are things in your past that hard to let go. These are conversations Alan and I had. I feel like the story came together very easily, believe it or not. Once Alan and I started having these conversations and this persons’ live, it was almost like it wrote itself. The interludes wrote themselves, the concept wrote itself. All it was about is handpicking these characters and the voices to play those people. We used family-members, we used friends, creating those pieces.

What are you working on now ?

Well, this band I’m recording right now – I’m recording a band called Killcode. We’re finishing up on their record. I don’t know if you have ever heard Killcode. But they have toured Europe. They’re from New York. Bad-ass hard-rock band. They’re very rock-n-roll – you’d have to go and listen to them and listen what I’m talking about. Very-very killer musicians. I’m recording their record right now – we’re doing some leads and stuff. We’re about to get in some vocals soon.

Then there’s a band in, shortly after Killcode I’m gonna go recording a band called Despire. They’re about to get there and do their record. Another bad-ass Long Island, more thrash metal band. But I also reaching out the bands in Europe right now, at the moment. I put out a lot of emails to many bands in Europe saying that I’m available for mixing and mastering. They record in Europe, they can send me their session files, their audio-files I could mix in here, right at my studio. So far I emailed a bunch of bands, and I’m getting amazing responses. I got connected with these bands when they entered the contest to tour with Life Of Agony.  I’ve been listening to their music and then picking out the ones I’d personally like to work with.  Last but not least, I’m constantly working on music.  I’ve played guitar A LOT during the pandemic. I feel lots of good things will come from all these efforts.

You can find out about Joey Z visiting his website.