Interview with Anthony Armstrong of Red

Photo: Joseph Anthony Baker

It’s hard to believe that Red have been around for less than a decade. Over the past few years, the Nashville rockers have not only devoted themselves to nonstop touring, but they’ve routinely released well-praised studio albums, two of which scored Grammy Award Nominations. The group’s latest endeavor, ‘Until We Have Faces,’ was released in February and has affirmed itself as the band’s highest charting record to date. Their unshakeable determination combined with continuous radio and television exposure gives fans good reason to be optimistic about the future of Red.

Last month, guitarist Anthony Armstrong spoke with Rock Edition about Red’s new music videos, latest album, and haters. Head below to find out what he had to say.

What’s going on, Anthony?

Just relaxing. We’re off today. It’s nice when we get a day to just sleep, do laundry, and catch up with family.

Absolutely. I don’t think a lot of people realize how difficult it is to be a touring band. It can certainly take a toll on you.

Yeah, it’s definitely tough. I think a lot of younger bands don’t realize the sacrifices that you make. It’s not easy. A lot of fans get bent out of shape when we play a show and don’t sign autographs. It’s probably because we have a 13-hour drive ahead of us. We always have to weigh what’s important to do that night. There’s just a lot of things that go into it that people don’t understand.

Red seems to have had a great year so far. Within the past few months, you guys released a new album, made two national television appearances, and have already done quite a bit of touring. What’s been the highlight of 2011 for you?

I think the upcoming touring opportunities and the fact that we got to put out this new album, which is doing pretty well. We’re actually doing the West Coast leg of Winter Jam. Winter Jam was the biggest tour in the world last year. It had over 500,00 people at 47 shows, which was amazing. We’ve also already confirmed that we’ll be out on Winter Jam next year. So we’ll be doing a lot of arena shows. It’s going to be great for people to see us for the first time and on a bigger scale. We’ve definitely had some cool things happen so far. I think the late night shows were really cool. It was a good way for us to promote ourselves on a national level. We’ve never done that before, so we were really excited about it. And those who couldn’t stay up late to watch it were able to watch it on YouTube. [laughs]

It was interesting seeing the band on both The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Conan. They have two completely different audiences.

Yeah, and the musical selection for each show was strategic that way. Conan’s show is basically no holds barred, do what you want. Jay Leno’s show is more of a staple that’s been around for years and years.

Some people argue that television is dying and that you should instead spend all your efforts on promoting yourself online. What’s your take on that?

Any chance for exposure to a group of people who have never seen you before allows them the chance to either like you or not like you. For people to say that TV is dying, that is a pretty strong assumption. The Internet has been growing and growing for years, but I think they both go hand in hand. I think those are the two mediums that are going to last through all the bookstores closing down and CD shops closing down. The Internet and TV aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Of course, you guys also get exposure on the radio. Do you get nervous when it comes to picking the single? You have to select the perfect one because they’re going to play that track over and over again.

You want to put out what you feel is your strongest song off the record. Your strongest song may also not be the best song for radio. We learned that a little bit the hard way. “Feed the Machine” was our first mainstream single that we released. It made the Top 20, but it was such a heavy song that some radio stations didn’t add it. It did really cool things for us and I think the song is popular in a cult way, but it’s not the best radio single for us. So it can be nerve-wracking. Like I said, you want to give them your best. Usually, the single is released before the CD is actually available, so you want to make sure that they’re hearing something that’s worthwhile and will pull them in.

Right. Some people are very opinionated and will judge your song quite quickly. In reality, you might have only a few seconds to persuade them that the song is worth their time.

Yeah, you get about 30 seconds to a minute. [laughs]

I want to talk about “Feed the Machine.” You guys recently released a very stirring music video for it. It looks almost like it starts out in a sewer. Where was it filmed?

The filming was actually done at a historic landmark called Sloss Furnaces. The opening scene is shot in a steam tunnel where they release all the gas and pressure out. It looks like a scene from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or something. [chuckles] That was kind of the point. We wanted it to be very scary and apocalyptic. The Terminator movies were kind of our inspiration. It paints this picture of what the end of the world might be like. The video shows what society could possibly be coming to. It may be an extreme example of what the world could end up as — it’s meant to be both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Was it a grueling process? How long did it take to film?

It would seem like it takes forever, but it’s basically just two days of shooting. The biggest part of it is the post-production — putting the actual shots together and making it into what it is. These guys know what they want and know how to get the shots they need. The guys we worked with were true professionals. When we showed up, they were ready to go.

They’re long days though, right?

Yeah, definitely long days. It was like two 16-hour days. It really gets captured pretty fast.

Is it true that you have a music video for “Lie to Me” in the works?

Yeah. We shot two videos at the same time. We shot “Feed the Machine” one day and shot the rest of it the next day along with “Lie to Me.” It’s pretty much a performance video. I’d like to say it’s not so standard, but it’s just a performance video for people to see us playing the song in a really cool location. There’s not so much a storyline or anything crazy like with “Feed the Machine.”

Do you ever look back at your old music videos and say, “Oh man, what were we thinking? Why were we dressed like that?”

[laughs] Yeah. I think we’ve done five videos — well, six including “Lie to Me.” Actually, technically we’ve done one more, but it was just splices of performance footage. Anyway, this one will go down as probably one of our favorites. We’ll be 80 years old and turn on the TV and watch it again.

[laughs] Let’s hope so. Red’s latest album, ‘Until We Have Faces,’ has been out for a few months now, so the question at this point is always, “How has the response been?” Is the feedback good?

We feel great, man. The response has been pretty overwhelming. There’s just something about this record that people are really gravitating toward. There’s just something about this one that feels different than the other records we’ve done. We had this strategy of releasing music and video clips every so often. We didn’t want to give everything away at once. There’s still so much more to come. We’re talking about a deluxe edition of the record and [putting out] more behind-the-scenes footage. I think the whole concept behind the album is something our fans are gravitating toward. We were just normal citizens before we became musicians, rock stars, or whatever. We’ve struggled with much of the same things and we still go through a lot of the same things that our fans experience. Because we have a platform and microphone, we can have a voice for those who don’t have a voice. I think ‘Until We Have Faces’ is all about that. It’s supposed to give our fans something to scream about and fall in love with and be inspired by.

Do you think that Red is at a defining moment now?

Yeah. Like what you said before, it’s not easy. I mean, people don’t buy music anymore, they steal it. Younger bands just don’t have a fighting chance because not enough people will buy their music. If they like them, they might come to a show and buy a ticket, but that money doesn’t always go to the band. Record labels aren’t giving bands million dollar signing bonuses. You get just enough money to make your record and go out there and tour. Your label will also only pay attention to you after you have some sort of fanbase and you’re selling a lot of records. It’s sad because there are so many bands and peers of ours that are great and so underrated and I wish they had the same opportunities that we’re having.

I know it’s kind of a clich√© question, but what advice would you give to those bands that are starting out?

We get asked that a lot, and most of the time we make a joke like, “If you want to get into the music industry, my first word of advice is don’t.”

Right. [chuckles]

I guess that has so much more meaning now than it did 10 or 20 years ago. The music industry has never been easy. It’s always been very cut-throat and about the big fish getting all the money while the little fish do what they can to survive. I don’t know, man. I think nowadays it’s about being an entrepreneur. You have to treat your band as a business. It’s not always a big party out here. Back in the day, it may have been. Nowadays, you don’t have the luxury to do those things. People don’t have time for burnouts and stuff. Bands that are out there having success are working hard and diligently on their music and live show. People see the passion that we put into our music and show and they feel like we’re worthy of their dollar. We say it a hundred times: we’re only here because of the fans. If you’re going to start a band, or if you’re in a band, just be prepared to give up everything you know and to make a lot of sacrifices.

As many wise people have said before me, “It’s called the music business for a reason.” There’s a lot of people in this for only financial gain.

Yep, and it’s going to feel like everyone’s getting their money before you do. The artist is always the last to get paid. It always seems like everyone else gets their money first. The artist is out there touring and giving up their entire life, family, friends, and home to be out on the road and be surrounded by complete strangers and in different towns every day. A lot of times, that’s taken for granted by the suits. You have to fight for it.

I want to change subjects for a second and talk about something I think not a lot of people ask you about: reviews. If you’re in a successful or well-known band, critics want to write about you and your music. Some people say really positive things, some say really negative things…

There’s never a shortage of haters, that’s for sure.

Right, and that sort of leads me to my question. I’m wondering how much the negative reviews affect you personally and as a band?

Well, it’s like, the bigger critics have a job because of people like us. It gives them something to complain about or critique. [chuckles] It’s kind of funny how it works. The only thing we’ll never understand about the haters that write things about us is that there’s a lot of ignorance in what they say. The things that they’re saying and critiquing just don’t make any sense sometimes. If you have a legitimate comment to make, we’ll be like, “Hm, I see that.” We know that not everybody is going to love us. All bands want everyone to love them. If [everyone] did, we would sell billions of records, but that’s just not the case and it never has been. If you think that everyone is going to love you, the first time someone slings some sort of dirt at your band, you’re automatically going to be on the defensive and become jaded very fast. I think you just have to take the good with the bad. We learn from all comments. To me, with this band, I feel like it’s 60/40. By that I mean that we get positive comments more than we do negative comments. The negative comments boil down to sometimes even the imagery of Red, like the pictures. When it comes to live shows, we don’t get a whole lot of bad critiques on them. We put so much into our live show. If you go and see a band that you absolutely hate, but their live show is amazing, there’s no denying it. Nickelback is a perfect example. I don’t like that band very much at all — their music isn’t something I’ve ever really gotten into, not to say that those guys don’t work hard. The point is, if you go see their live show, they’re incredible. Their show is absolutely that entertaining. If anything, they’re winning people over because their live show is that cool.

Because we’re a “Christian band,” a lot of the arguments and comments are about our spirituality and how it goes hand in hand with our music. We see people fighting more about that than talking about our music. I think that’s the number one most frustrating thing. People get caught up with the spirituality of our music and not so much loving the music. It’s comical in some ways, and the ignorance that comes along with it just makes you want to grab these people and shake them. [laughs]

[laughs] Totally. In some reviews, the critics will really dissect every minor detail. The interesting thing is how, generally, bands don’t seem to even analyze their songs that much.

Yeah, I think if we did that we’d lose our minds. When we write a song, we’re like, “This is what the song is going to be about — bam!” Then all these people see it and decide to comment on YouTube or on forums and say, “Well, this is what the song is really about. I know the guys, I asked them.” That’s not the point of music. We’re artists. If an artist takes an image and puts it on a canvas, it’s not left up to him to tell everybody what it’s about. It’s for everyone else to enjoy. That’s the beauty of art. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t like it, you don’t like it. For an artist to define what their art is for you is basically stripping away the meaning of art. If someone asks us about the songs we wrote, we would tell them what we were thinking about when we wrote it and what it means to us. But, if it doesn’t mean the same thing to you, that doesn’t bother us. It’s a battle we try not to fight because there’s no winning.

Let’s talk about your touring plans for the summer. You have quite a lot of upcoming dates, including stops at a few festivals.

Yeah, we do a lot of festivals during the summer time. What’s cool about the festivals is that there are built-in crowds. A lot kids will come to the festival to see one or two bands in particular and you get a chance to showcase your band to them.

Pick up Red’s latest record, Until We Have Faces.

For the band’s upcoming tour dates, check out their website.