As they release their new album ‘Not Without My Ghosts’, The Amity Affliction’s Joel and Ahren guide us through the lyrics, sound, collaborations, artwork and more.
Read ‘The Amity Affliction, ‘Not Without My Ghosts’ | The Album Story’ below:
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There are countless stories about finding happiness in the darkest of times. From inspirational tales of overcoming adversity to motivational phrases plastered on tacky wall décor, it’s seemingly everywhere. But what do you do when the thoughts of death, despair, and mortality clouding your head are just too loud to ignore? Following the loss of several close friends whilst dealing with the isolation and long-term mental impact of a worldwide pandemic, The Amity Affliction’s eighth album ‘Not Without My Ghosts’, delves into the darkest caverns of human experience. With no sugar-coating, and no dialling things back, it’s the bleakest Amity release to date, written during one of the bleakest times of their existence.
With Ahren Stringer holed up in a tiny Toronto apartment for an entire year with nothing to do but get drunk and play video games until the early hours, and Joel Birch battling with the depression and uncertainty that came with each new day, through a time of isolation, the two became distinctly unified. Joining forces with their bandmates to create an album of collective loss, grief, and pain, sometimes there’s no light, no hope, and no guiding hand to pull you out of the darkness – you just have to push through.
Though 2020’s ‘Everyone Loves You…Once You Leave Them’ didn’t get to live up to its full potential on the live circuit due to global lockdowns, it still served a distinct purpose. Forming a brilliantly structured bridge between the band’s 2018 pop-influenced ‘Misery’ and a heavier future, 2021 EP ‘Somewhere Beyond the Blue’ served as a prelude to the band’s most unrelenting era to date.
“Once you get in the writing mode, they just start flowing, and we were on tour at the time,” Ahren nods. “That’s when Joel does his best work, and Dan [Brown, guitarist] is always on the computer writing songs. There was lots of downtime for me to compose the lyrics and write the melodies, so it definitely felt like we were doing stuff again, and we were all in a much better place.”
Having previously planned for their next album to be their heaviest yet, the pent-up frustrations of the last two years only added fuel to the fire. With Ahren and Dan listening to extreme death metal and setting themselves a challenge to see how heavy they could push their sound with songs like ‘I See Dead People’ – despite Joel and Joe [Longobardi, drums]’s initial hesitations – soon everyone was onboard with the unrelenting mission.
“There was lots of anger to let out, and I think you can tell that from the lyrics and the music,” Ahren explains. “It’s a very pissed off, ‘go fuck yourself’ kind of album. It’s not just us letting off steam, we also wanted to prove a point. We can do heavy, we haven’t gone soft for good, and we wanted to prove to the fans that we can still do it.”
Trusting the process as they allowed their inspiration to run wild, ‘Not Without My Ghosts’ sees The Amity Affliction at their brutal best. Demonstrating their versatility within no-holds-barred aggression, dynamic guitar work and powerful melodies, after nine tracks of unrestrained chaos – the dust begins to settle. Closing out on the album’s title track featuring guest vocals from Phem, it’s a haunting conclusion to the affairs.
“It’s the perfect follow up for the songs on ‘Misery’, and it’s a very mature version of that,” Joel says. “It’s taken the time and songs in between to come up with that… That’s probably one of my favourite songs we’ve ever done, and it’s the softest one on the album.”
“Not to mention that it was by far the easiest song to write,” Ahren adds. “It took about 45 minutes for Dan to write the music, Joel to write the lyrics, and me to write the melodies. It just fell together so easily, and it was all in a day. It’s always the easiest ones that are the most popular, which breaks our hearts because we slave over songs for years sometimes and they still stuck!”
Self-produced at Grove Studios in New South Wales, whilst the creation of ‘Not Without My Ghosts’ saw The Amity Affliction reconnecting with one another after a period of sheer isolation, it also presented new opportunities for collaboration. Welcoming guest vocalists into the fold for the first time since 2010 album ‘Youngbloods’, they’re calling upon some of the scene’s finest to amplify their message.
“We thought that maybe people were getting bored with our voices, so let’s spice it up with some outsiders! It pricks the ears up a bit to have different sounding vocalists rather than us screaming and squawking at you,” Ahren nods. “We’ve got people like Andrew [Neufeld, Comeback Kid vocalist] who can do stuff that we can’t like insane tunnel screaming. It’s so high pitched, so if he’s not on tour with us, we’re not going to be playing that song.”
With The Plot In You’s Landon Tewers adding some impressive low screams to ‘When It Rains It Pours’ and Phem providing the band’s first female guest vocal on the euphoric title track, each collaboration feels perfectly integrated, but none feel quite as pertinent as the inclusion of late rapper Louie Knuxx on the album’s most brutal cut, ‘I See Dead People’.
“It all came together really well, and I was especially stoked that we got to stick him in the film clip as well,” Joel says. “His family were really cool about it and Dominic Hoey, one of his best friends, helped us out and tracked down the footage for it. It was pretty fucking awesome to see it all come together in the end.”
Few songwriters can capture life and death in all its sheer heart-breaking glory quite like Joel Birch. Following a time in which much of the world was forced to come face-to-face with mortality, ‘Not Without My Ghosts’ deals with the paradox of not wanting to be alive yet needing to remain on earth.
“I feel like someone that I know has died every year for the past three years. Even a few years before that, just before ‘Misery’ another friend killed himself,” Joel explains. “I’ve been dealing with my own mental health struggles, but also Ahren has been going through it. There’s a lot of reflecting to be done on what it means to be here when you sometimes don’t want to be here.”
Both losing close friends to suicide in recent years, each song on the album presents a series of internal battles. From survivors’ guilt to questioning American gun laws to passive suicidal ideations, ‘Not Without My Ghosts’ delves into undoubtedly dark territories, but its words have allowed both vocalists to find some semblances of light.
“I’ve always thought it’s a good space to be open about everything,” Joel nods. “We are male, we’re not great at communicating our emotions, so it’s the one spot where it feels kind of safe to do so.”
“When Joel writes some songs, I will read them and go, ‘Oh, this is exactly how I feel’,” Ahren adds. “It’s crazy because I’m not a wordsmith like him, but if I could write the lyrics, these are the ones I would write.”
That’s why a song like ‘It’s Hell Down Here’ feels so vital, written shortly after the passing of Ahren’s close friend, SK. “SK was obsessed with a song by Palace [called Heaven Up There]. I just love that lyric, ‘Is it heaven up there? Because it’s hell down here’,” Ahren says. “It’s just about how much weight we’re dealing with after his loss. You feel very sad and lonely, and you just hope it’s heaven up there because right now it’s hell down here. It’s pretty self-explanatory, but that lyric really hit home.”
After an album of such dark and vital reflection, how would Joel describe the album’s closing title track then? “It’s a suffix.”
“All of this stuff is going on, but you have to push through with the hope that things get better for you mentally. Things do tend to come in waves, both positive and negative, so you’ve got to try as best you can to ride it out.”
Featuring a girl being dragged back into a body of water by an unidentified set of hands covering her face, the cover art for ‘Not Without My Ghosts’ is the result of an emergency shoot pulled together by Joel after the original idea didn’t turn out as planned, it’s a culmination of effort and talent from within the band’s inner circle.
“One of our close friends and one of our daughter’s friends are in the artwork,” Joel explains. “My wife helped me to bring it together, she styled the photos and everything, and my friend Nathan at home – who’s actually a surf photographer – also helped.”
An uncomfortable image to look at, it’s perfectly suited to an album that at times evokes similar feelings. A band who have never shied away from controversial artwork – with the graphic cover of 2012 album ‘Chasing Ghosts’ sparking outcry across social media – Joel and Ahren are well aware that when tackling sensitive subjects, they’re sure to piss a few people off. But nowadays they’re operating on a simple motto.
“If it looks cool, do it,” Joel laughs. “Inside the artwork, there’s actually a shrine with a gun on it and candles and everything, which is obviously a nod to the religious aspect of US gun worship that ties in with ‘Show Me Your God’. The picture of an obscured religious figure holding a gun to her head is there because I just hate religion and I want to fuck with it a little bit. There’s a bible on fire with the inverted cross, and it’s just kind of fun.”
‘Not Without My Ghosts’ may have come to life close to the sunny skies and crystal-clear waters of the band’s Queensland hometown, but the album’s title actually originated somewhere much further away, namely Sheffield, England.
“I got out of the train station and there was some art show on and that was the name of the show. I wrote it down, and I texted Ahren almost straight away like, ‘I need to use this’. He was like, ‘Okay man’, and then I kind of forgot about it,” Joel recalls. “I am a really visual person, and I just immediately thought of this vision of how we’re just carrying around all our grief, trauma, and dead friends.”
“Whether it’s your vices, whether it’s how your relationship is going, how your friendships are going, how your life in general is going, or how you’re feeling physically, you’re dragging it all around with you. I really liked the idea visually of that. I pictured someone chained to everything and trying to move through life, kind of like Sisyphus. We’re all just pushing a fucking rock up a hill, and I’m gonna watch it roll down and have to do it all over again.”
Two decades on from the formation of their band, The Amity Affliction are sitting in a pretty unique spot. Looking out from the stage each night to see friends, partners, husbands, and wives who found their connections within the band’s music many years ago – they’ve forged a community like no other.
It’s for that reason that whilst the songs on ‘Not Without My Ghosts’ hold deep personal importance for both Joel and Ahren, they hope each new person who listens can find their own meanings.
“That’s the gift of music,” Joel nods. “I’m sure when I’m listening to Elliott Smith when I’m super depressed and connecting with his music, I’m interpreting it differently than he intended. That’s a pretty special thing. That’s one of the main things that has always drawn me to music because it’s pretty special
to be able to put that out there and have so many people listen and appreciate that.”
It’s the gift that keeps on giving, and The Amity Affliction understand better than most the power that just one song can have. Strengthening that connection with one another, and with their fanbase, whilst hitting their heaviest streak in history… what does the future hold for Australia’s finest?
“We’re gonna do jazz,” Ahren laughs. No, but seriously…
“I think we’ve got to do what the people want, and we enjoy writing heavy music and it’s so much more fun to play,” he continues.
“But also, I know for a fact that as much as our fans say they only want to hear heavy stuff, they love the soft stuff. We’ll keep that around, just one or two songs an album. We’ll keep doing what we do best, keeping it heavy and melodic, and everything in between.”