Atreyu’s Alex Varkatzas: ‘If I Can Be Pain Free’ for Disrupt Tour, I’m Stoked
Atreyu are gearing up for one of the summer's biggest tours, taking part in the inaugural Disrupt Tour traveling festival. However, one of the band's two vocalists Alex Varkatzas recently bowed out of the band's European touring while dealing with serious back and hernia issues, attempting to take care of his health before returning to the stage.
We spoke with Varkatzas Thursday (May 30) to get an update on his health, his thoughts on the band's unique shows overseas playing without him and what he's looking forward to this summer with Disrupt and beyond. Check out the chat below.
We recently heard the news about your back and you having to pull out of the tour. Just wanted to ask how you’re doing and if there’s an update on how you’re progressing since you made the announcement.
I’m doing okay and first off, thank you for asking. It’s kind of rough. It sucks, obviously, not being able to be out there with the guys. As far as my back goes, I had an epidural last week and had some strong steroids and stuff and it’s really helped a lot. I can tell a change and it just kind of alleviates the agony that I’ve been in for months, and now I can do rehab and stuff like that.
So it’s fully healing, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I feel it from time to time. But I wouldn’t have been able to perform. Then, on top of it, I also have an inguinal hernia and I’m actually having surgery tomorrow morning (May 31) for that. So I’m definitely out of commission. It’s the first time we’ve had to do something like this.
Beyond the surgery, have they recommended therapy or do you know what the expectation is on the recovery process?
Basically, I’ve been rehabbing my back as much as I could. After you get the epidural, you have to take it easy for a little bit. I’m doing the best that I can, but all parties concerned thought it would be best for me to be taken out of commission right now rather than prolong it. So my back rehab time, it gets put on hold for a while cause I’m out of commission for two weeks after the hernia thing. Then we have four weeks before Disrupt starts. At the four-to-six week mark is when I’m allowed to do strenuous activity again or at least try to do that, so we’ll see how it goes.
The fear was that I would be out on Disrupt or in Europe and I’d have a major situation and we’d be in a lot of trouble. Then I would be having emergency hernia surgery somewhere else in the world other than with my doctor here at home, and that just wasn’t a good thing. So we did what we had to do and the guys are rocking without me. That’s all that matters. I think the people are having a good time and it’s a unique thing. It’s not a forever thing. For me it feels like forever, but I’ll get through it.
It has to be a different experience being at home while the guys are out playing. Do you keep up with what’s going on through social media or do you disconnect and use the downtime some other way?
You know, they’re my best friends and my brothers and we’ve been doing this so long. I wanna know. I want to know if it’s successful, but at the same time it’s hard for me to see. I’ve been a part of the action for so long and my body has just kind of given out on me. It’s a bummer. What are you gonna do though? I couldn’t keep going.
I’m a super active dude and I’m usually working out, going to two times a day almost every day. I take rest days, but I’m smart the way I do them. I never really rest too much, but it’s caught up with me is the only way I can put it. I’ve been riding hard for a long time.
How long has this been looming for you, and can you talk about making the decision of approaching the band's current tour?
Well, we completed the Spring Invasion tour, and I think it’s important to mention that I did that tour not as myself. We went into that with me already having a compromised back. We went out a week or two before and I was really having trouble walking. So I did everything I could to get through that Spring Invasion tour.
I got through it, but I kind of kept a little bit from the dudes about how much pain I was in because no one wants to fucking hear that. It’s a given that my back hurts and that my groin hurts, so bitching about it all the time is what it is. But it sucked because I can’t play the way I normally do. It wasn’t the performance I wanted to give, so when the tour ended I immediately started going to the doctor so that I could try to figure out what’s going on. I tried to get myself into some kind of shape before this next tour, but every doctor appointment I went to, it wasn’t like it was getting worse, but it was becoming more apparent that I can’t go onstage and perform every night. That’s what is making this an issue.
There’s a mild posterior bulge, L-5, S-1, and the disc is like a dried out sponge. Being on it was just too much. So I talked to management and I talked to the guys and told them, “If I do this tour, I’m going to fuck myself up.” Even when I sit down .. if I sit down for 20 minutes after the epidural, I go into spasm. I just lock up. So I brought it to everybody, 'What do you want to do?'
Normally, I don’t want the band to play without me. I don’t know if that’s selfish or not, but if I’m taken out, it is what it is guys. But this is different. We haven’t been overseas in so long and there are really big festivals and people have been excited to see us, so it was like what can we do to make this still be Atreyu.
We thought about maybe having some other dudes from bands just sing for me and keeping it where it’s like getting another frontman. But it was only a couple of days to learn the songs. We wanted to be really sure that I couldn’t do this and we had to get every doctor telling me I shouldn’t. My pain management, my surgeon dude and my regular doctor, I wanted them all on the same page and they told me it was not going to happen. So, with only three or four days, there’s no time for someone to just come in and learn it. I basically dug my own grave, and especially if you’re looking for a vocalist that’s old Atreyu verses newer, it’s my nightmare.
You mentioned this being a special show for fans. Brandon [Saller] is up front, but Porter [McKnight] is stepping up to take the mic for the screams. Did you have any talks with him or offer advice and was he the natural choice to do this when this came up?
What we thought would be really cool was to move Brandon up front and let’s have Porter scream and it’s still 100 percent Atreyu. It’s also not like we got a buddy of ours who could scream and sing a little bit and knew our words. I don’t think people would be as stoked on that. It’d be like who is this guy? But Brandon is used to fronting a band with Hell or Highwater and Porter used to sing in his other band back in the day, and we knew he could pull it off. Although screaming and singing and playing bass, that’s a pain in the butt.
We were super lucky, too, that the drummer filling in for us, Kyle Rosa, is in Brandon’s other band and is our drum tech. So to an extent, he was already very familiar with the songs. That was another thing — how would we get a drummer to learn the set in three days? Drummer are weird though. They learn stuff really fast.
So that’s my long winded answer. We exhausted all the options, but for me, if I was going to see say Rancid, [who] is my all-time favorite band, and let’s say they did a tour and Tim Armstrong got ill and Lars Frederiksen just fronted the whole thing. I think that would be interesting and fans would be stoked to see that. They wouldn’t be stoked that Tim’s fucked up, but it would be an experience that made the show all the more special.
Exactly, it’s a memorable moment and it’s a rarity, and you’re getting something that not everybody else gets …
Right, and I won’t get to see it live, but if you think of it like this, all these people will, so they’ve got that.
Having been a touring musician all these years, the road can be a grind that takes a physical toll. Any piece of advice you can give to young musicians starting out on the best ways to take care of yourself?
In our society, and this is me kind of pushing my agenda, but it seems like everyone is interested in the fast way or the new thing. What is the newest way to be the best singer as fast as possible? What is the newest way to stay healthy on tour as fast as possible? It’s the old stuff. It’s the simple things. You have to drink a bunch of water.
This has been my downfall recently is I’ve got two kids, I work out all the time, I do tattoo pretty regularly as well and I drink a ton of coffee. But coffee just dehydrates you. I know we’re musicians but coffee is caffeine and it’s acidic. If you need the caffeine, switch to a green tea or something like that. I know I sound like an old hippie, but really, just take care of yourself in the simple ways. Drink enough water and it’s something I always try to do except when I’m depressed and injured.
I also started just a few weeks ago, but if you eat every two to three hours, you’re encouraging your metabolism to work. Think of a fire. You start a fire, you put a bunch of stuff on there, but what happens an hour later? It’s burning up. But you want to think of our metabolism as a flame and just keep feeding it and keep putting stuff in the fire to keep it going at a certain level.
But the easiest way to just lose weight on tour is to just eat, but not overeat. But if you’re eating every two to three hours, and I won’t get super into this, but your less tempted to eat. You eat a more sensible portion of sensible things and it two to three hours, you can do it again. But if you wait three, four or even five hours, you start to get really hungry and you start craving anything, and on tour anything is there all the time. Cheez-Its, they were my downfall on this last tour. I couldn’t work out so I just ate Cheez-Its and hung out. That’s not good and Cheez-Its will not help you heal.
So drink water, don’t drink Gatorade. Green Tea in place of coffee, I think that’s a good thing to do. And if you’re kicking out water performing, like on a summer tour like Warped or whatever Atreyu has been, and if you’re a vocalist, you’ve gotta keep you throat at some level of hydration.
You are playing the Disrupt tour this summer, which has a very solid lineup with some great bands on there. What drew you to play this touring festival and what are you looking for out of the summer?
Well, if I am well enough to do some shadowboxing, do a little jog or something, play the set pain free and watch the other bands, I’ll have everything I want out of Disrupt. If I can be pain free for it, I’m stoked. The pain thing for me has been going on for the past year and past few months especially, but I’ve been suffering with this back thing for 10 years.
So for me, I just want to get out on this tour, be healthy, and I’m so used to that summer tour vibe, I just want to get back in my element. There’s just so many great bands, and it’s really going to be an awesome festival. It’s gonna be hot, too! (laughs)
That comes with the territory. I know you probably know some of these bands on the bill or are fans of some of these acts. I want to know if there’s a band on this bill that has a song that you personally love so much you wish you had written it.
I don’t want to leave anyone out. I think there are some Used lyric lines I wished I would have written. And I don’t play guitar, but if I did there’s easily a dozen Sum 41 riffs I wish I would’ve written.
I’m really excited about them. Sum 41, if you haven’t seen them before, they are pretty mind-blowing live. It sounds exactly like an album. That’s hard to do. I think it was Warped Tour a few years ago when we were on it and I’d hear them everyday and just go, “Fuck, they are so good every day.”
I know this has been out there a little bit now, but you’re digging deeper into your album and “House of Gold” is starting to take hold. It seems to be inspired by someone making a difference in someone’s life. If you can share a little bit of where that comes from?
One thing I’ll press is this, it’s always hard for me to say this is what the song is about. As a person coming up and enjoying bands I know what songs mean to me and that’s what really matters, but overall the takeaway is what you said. It’s something that makes you belong and be better. It’s the type of love that makes you feel like you belong there and everything is what it’s supposed to be.
When we wrote it, Brandon and I are fathers and he might have just had his second child or was really really new with it, but it was really fresh for him and he spearheaded that song specifically taking it down that road. It was going to be something other than House of Gold, but we settled there and it’s about that love.
For us, it’s about being parents, and I think, and it sounds weird to say fanbase, but I think our fanbase has grown with us and they have kids now and they can appreciate that sort of emotion. It’s the sort of emotion you don’t understand until you have children. I would kill someone for my wife and die for my wife, but I would fuuuucking kill someone for my kid a million times over. It’s just a different thing. It’s not better or stronger, it’s just it’s own unique thing and we were trying to put a finger on what that is in that song.
You mentioned the fanbase, and I know this is a thing with several of the Disrupt bands. There are VIP packages with meet-and-greet opportunities, including yours. I wanted to get your take on what it means to have more of this up close connection at shows with the fans who get in on these packages.
Well, if I’m being honest, and I hope that this comes out right. When Atreyu stepped away a few years ago, that wasn’t a thing. I don’t remember ever doing meet-and-greets, and if so, very rarely like at an Ozzfest you might do something like that, but never on headlining tours. I also never heard of anybody charging to meet the band. So my upbringing coming from punk rock and hardcore, it was very weird at first. It felt like I was selling something I should just give away for free outside the bus.
But the more I thought about it, it’s a nice gesture, but I can’t stand outside our bus for an hour and a half or two hours every day after our set. So I think this is a cool way that you can interact with people who really want to tell you something or have a more personal moment or give like a cool, funny stupid picture. I’ve come around to it, especially now that everybody does it and nobody thinks the way that I previously thought about it, but at first it was different for me.
It was not what I came up with and I don’t remember going to see bands and that being a thing, so it’s definitely a newer thing. But I think that’s cool, too, because someone like me, you might never get to see. I have my own social quirks if you will, and a lot of people like to go talk about how they’re this and that. I don’t talk about things like that. I keep to myself, and so for me this is a cool way to interact with people and a safe way to hang out. But I keep to myself at the back of the bus or I’m off at the gym and I’m often a solitary creature.
The tour is the big thing this summer, hoping to get back out there healthy, but beyond music, what are you looking forward to this summer?
You know what, my son starts school and his first day of kindergarten is going to be in August and I’ll actually be home for it, which is rad. Disrupt ends like 10 days or 12 days before and I’ll be home to see that dude’s first day of school.
Now that’s going to be a nice moment …
That’s what I live for now. Things are so different. I think people see me and dudes in bands onstage with a certain persona or you hear that old “metalcore” comment or things that people say in interviews that are self-serving or done for press or just to be a fucking cock, just because some days you get a hair up your ass, but you get a fake sense of what the person is like.
I think that for some dudes in bands, and I can say for Brandon and myself, things like being with our families and being with our kids, quiet moments like that, it’s not the glam and fast paced life of being in a band, but I enjoy having a pizza with my son or drinking a beer at the shopping center by my house. Simple things, because so much of our life is spent in a mosh pit if you will.
Our thanks to Atreyu's Alex Varkatzas for the interview. You can look for the band playing the Disrupt Tour this summer. Dates and ticketing information for the run can be found here. The band is currently supporting their 'In Our Wake' album.
2019 Rock + Metal Festival Guide