"We have this huge 15-passenger van," says lyricist and resident screamer Alexander Varkatzas, who just turned 21. "It's a '98 Ford Clubwagon. It's a nice van, but we trashed it. We've put well over 100,000 miles on it. It needs a little love."
Judging from its road odyssey -- and the raw-to-the-bone songs it sells -- so does Atreyu. Its trek, according to Varkatzas, began in June 2002, immediately after the release of its full-length debut, Suicide Notes and Butterfly Kisses. Since then, the bandmates have found only days at a time to spend with family, attempt to reconnect with friends and fight the onset of what Varkatzas calls "post-tour depression."
Perhaps the lack of time to fall into a rut is a benefit to the band and its fans. The momentum at least gives Atreyu, part of a burgeoning Southern California hard-core scene, a chance to keep focused in its misery. It gives them the m.o. to continue blending grindcore screaming, traditional punk structure and the lovelier touches of heavy metal, including minor-key piano and warp-speed guitar arpeggios. Over the course of 10 songs and 37 minutes on Suicide Notes and Butterfly Kisses, Varkatzas and co-vocalist/drummer Brandon Saller -- aided by crafty guitarists Dan Jacobs and Travis Miguel -- extract every shred of anger and probe every untapped corner of disgust to lash out on seemingly everyone who's betrayed them, cheated on them, left them for dead or looked at them funny. These guys are big on graphic metaphor. They're especially keen on respiratory functions: "Let it out/Exhale the pain/That strangulates your soul/When will I be free?" Another song earns the title "Someone's Standing on My Chest"; looks like that someone is the narrator, who asphyxiates himself, lets his ears bleed and feels all alone.
"Everybody breathes, obviously," says a terse but polite Varkatzas. "Every second is pain. It's a metaphor for people to easily understand what I'm going for."
To clarify: He's making it easy for the targets of his derision to understand what he means. Varkatzas, whose voice grates like the demons' roars from a Clive Barker novel, is out for blood, which he tastes most sweetly on "At Least I Know I'm a Sinner": "You are now a traitor to your God/Tell me Judas/How does it feel to be looked down upon?"
Whoa, somebody pissed him off!
"They're all based on real people," Varkatzas says of his subjects. "My life hasn't always been positive. I'm just calling it as I see it. Sometimes it's one-sided, and sometimes it's dramatized to make it more than it really is. I could give you names, but that would be f'd up.
"I used to, but that was counterproductive."
Varkatzas, though, doesn't let his postadolescent hang-ups get in the way of a little gallows humor. For starters, there's that album title, a piercing juxtaposition of imagery. And there's the band name. Atreyu is the name of the Indian boy charged with saving the princess from the evil Nothing in the 1984 children's flick The NeverEnding Story. Varkatzas says the name has no significance. A friend suggested it, it sounded cool, so they ran with it That hasn't stopped the band from going the wise-ass route a few times and telling a few journalists they see themselves as the "protector of dreams."
Then there are the song titles, which don't come close to matching Kurt Cobain in the irony department but do nevertheless inspire a nice stoner chuckle: "A Song for the Optimists," "Ain't Love Grand" and "Tulips Are Better." The latter, naturally, is about all those hidden thorns in the rose Varkatzas once coveted.
"I like to wallow in the contradictions. The tongue-in-cheek stuff is pretty funny to me," he says. "It's a totally depressing song but yet Ha ha ha ha ha!'"
An appropriate comment, seeing how Atreyu is on its way to possibly getting the last laugh in a big way. With "emo," a vague umbrella used to describe melodic hard rock that wears its emotions as a bib, seeping into the mainstream, punk kids with a little bit of moxie and work ethic are now taking the time to explore the real "emo." Namely, they're discovering bands at Atreyu's level of speed, volume, guttural screaming and, most of all, precision. While Florida's Poison the Well seems to be leading the charge among those bands (and with Phoenix growing as a big hard-core market, they'll also be playing here October 3), a healthy number of the new hard-core leaders, which include Eighteen Visions, Death by Stereo, and Thrice, hail from Orange County. Casual music observers associate the county, home to the Anaheim Angels, Disneyland and former congressman Robert K. "B-1 Bob" Dornan, with the sunnier music of the Offspring, No Doubt, and Sublime, all of whom became huge in the mid-'90s.
Varkatzas, who grew up in Costa Mesa, says those days have been eradicated, and he reaches back even further to diss the olden days.
"People are just stuck in the past. Bad Religion was like in the '80s," he says. "It's always been happening here. Those types of music are getting bigger, and that's what's been drawing more attention to what's going on."
And from the sound of it, the hard-core scene's profile has grown enough to become clique-ridden and hostile -- hey, what's punk without a few overexuberant assholes in your face?
Varkatzas sounds unfazed by it all.
"We've always done our own thing, not so much out of convenience but out of necessity," Varkatzas says. "We just work our asses off. It's good to have friends, but we don't need anybody else to make this work. . . . People talk shit, but we don't care."
Besides, it's tough to really give much of a damn about your neighborhood when you need to drive 400 miles to your next gig and sleep in a pile of your bassist's dirty clothes in a Clubwagon.
"It kind of messes with your head," Varkatzas says over the sound of Atreyu's van getting its much-needed tune-up. "I don't know what it's like to not be on tour. The way I look at touring is this: It's not really touring until you have your first emotional breakdown. You get mad, and then you get over it. This is our life. No one makes us do it."