Hell or Highwater is the new rock band in town and their latest release “Begin Again” proves that rock & roll is alive and well. Gotham Rocks caught up with lead vocalist/brainchild of Hell or Highwater Brandon Saller (who was also the former drummer/singer of Atreyu) to talk about starting over, honesty in rock music, and the philosophy bands should take in the music industry nowadays.
Thor: Thanks for taking the time to meet with Gotham Rocks Brandon. I’ve been an Atreyu fan for a long time and I think one of the biggest questions we want to know is how did you transition from being this badass drummer in the back to now being a frontman for what is a pretty different rock band?
Brandon: It was pretty smooth actually. I’m pretty comfortable on stage no matter where it is. I guess it’s my comfort zone in a way and I just love performing in whatever way possible. I loved the songs I was writing and I wrote & recorded a majority of the first record myself and I was eager to get out and perform them in front of people and be right up front and interact with the crowd more. I have a great group of guys to work with and we were all confident and eager to get going and everything just worked out real smooth.
Thor: Yeah, that leads into my next question. How did Hell or Highwater form? Do you also play a little guitar or piano to help you with songwriting?
Brandon: Well I play enough guitar to write songs so I started writing a bunch of material and then playing some local acoustic shows in Southern California. It started off as a solo project and although it was cool I felt that the songs deserved more than that and I didn’t want it to be just the “Brandon Saller Project”. I wanted it to be a full band situation with a few other guys involved who have the same mind and creative vision as I do. So I found the rest of the band through other friends from other bands in the area. I found some great players who have already had real band experiences, knew the drill, how to behave, etc. We then just started going for it!
Thor: That’s great man. I really dig the new record, “Begin Again”. Even though it’s stylistically different from Atreyu, I still hear your influence and similarities as far as vocal melodies, phrasing, song arrangement, etc. It all comes down to good basic songwriting.
Brandon: Absolutely, I think people see that connection too. A lot of Atreyu fans are a bit more hardcore into metal/hardcore so it’s a bit of a departure in some areas of the music but there’s a strong connection because I wrote a lot of the music and melodies in Atreyu and what you hear is definitely me in both bands. It’s been good, I think Atreyu fans have been very receptive although some of them don’t like it just because Atreyu isn’t touring or doing anything (laughs).
Thor: Well, you can’t please everybody.
Brandon: Exactly. And if you are pleasing everyone, you’re doing something wrong!
Thor: (Laughs) That’s right! So lyrically I’ve noticed the album has very honest themes to it and feels a bit more in touch with human emotions and with yourself. Musically as well, everything seems to fit and nothing seems forced. Even the new music video I saw for “Terrorized in the Night” shows a bunch of guys who seem genuine and everything makes sense: the look, camaraderie, sound, etc. After listening to the record I feel I get a little insight to your personality- not in the creepy “what did you have for breakfast” stalker way but more in the human, emotional, and honest connection that we all listen to music for. A bit more so than the stuff done in Atreyu.
Brandon: Oh absolutely, I think that’s very true. Lyrically, Atreyu was a little more vague and personal that you have to really figure it out to get the full meaning of many songs. With my songwriting I like to try to take a more open approach so everyone can figure out what I’m writing about. The other guys and I get along so well that I can’t believe we’ve only met each other a little over a year ago! We’ve shared so many great experiences and our camaraderie has become so strong and developed very naturally. That’s something we all share and want to share that honesty in the music, especially now where I think there’s a lack of honesty these days. A lot of bands are focused on some sort of agenda and putting forth some sort of schtick or persona that they want to be rather than just being themselves, you know? None of us wanted to “try” to be anything. The music we play is a reflection of us and we want to be as straightforward with the music and lyrics as we could. I think that’s why people have latched on the band so far is because there are themes that everyone goes through and can relate to. We don’t call our fans “fans”, we call them family because they feel and think similarly to how we do.
Thor: Yeah man nowadays you see so many bands who are overproduced, shined, etc. You guys are a great example on what bands should be doing: don’t try to have a gimmick, be honest, and everything has to match: the music, look, message, lyrics, etc. I see so many bands whose image and audience don’t match; for example, I know a few fun,party, drinking bands but musically their target audience is young teenage girls. How can young teen girls relate to a bunch of older guys who just get drunk at a bar all the time?
Brandon: (Laughs) Exactly!
Thor: But in your case, your band talks about everything. There’s the track “Go Alone” which has a bit of a morbid twist lyrically, similar to Avenged Sevenfold; in fact, it has M. Shadows who sings on it! Did you guys collaborate on that track or was he just brought in to sing it?
Brandon: No, we actually collaborated on that. The song is actually pretty old. When I started this album, I demoed about 5 songs, which were a bit more folky and acoustic. I wanted to do some songs with a bit more energy, especially to play live. I had the music for that particular track and I’ve been friends with M. Shadows for a long time so it came about literally overnight: “Hey what are you doing tomorrow?” “I got this song, want to write the vocals to it?” “Sure.” So we met up, spent a few hours, came up with a concept and the lyrics, and recorded it a month later. We didn’t know if it was going to make the album or not but we felt the album needed that stand alone track that wasn’t like every other song. Lyrically it was more of a fictional story teller style instead of a personal experience style. I wanted that kind of vibe for this track and Shadows is great at that.
Thor: Definitely. So what have been the differences between starting a band now versus starting a band in the Atreyu days?
Brandon: Well, it’s definitely been a lot harder. I mean, starting new, no matter who you were or played with in the past, is very very difficult these days. I feel like every road we’ve taken in this band has been challenging on purpose. Being a rock band now isn’t exactly a cash cow way to go, you know? Although with social media, you do have a lot more of a personal connection and relationship with your fans. Our first album we released on our own only because we didn’t want to wait for someone to tell us when we could or couldn’t release music; we just wanted to get our music out there! It has definitely had its challenges but it has also been rewarding to know that the success we’ve had has been without large dollar signs pumped into the project. In the Atreyu days, the internet almost didn’t matter. Nobody knew how to get a song online and iTunes barely existed. You had to tour a lot. The game’s changed now where a band can’t just tour and keep going and going and expect to get a record deal, make money, make a living, etc. You have to be a lot more strategic these days. It’s almost a complete 180 from what I was used to but I enjoy the challenge now and working hard. People are very doubtful for rock & roll these days and I love to prove them wrong and be an example that rock isn’t dead!
Thor: Hell yeah! How was your recent experience touring as part of the Uproar festival?
Brandon: Oh it was a blast! I knew some of the crew from previous tours so it was very smooth and comfortable getting good sounds and production on the road. The guys we were with were also very cool and we all had a great time. We definitely didn’t get the “opening band” treatment, which was nice! We did a few short runs with several other bands and realized we kind of started on step 4, you know? So we wanted to take some time to build a local following in California and the region.
Thor: That’s great. What’s on the drawing board for the near future?
Brandon: Well we’ve been working on building a strong home base, playing some good shows here and there, become tighter as a band, and started writing again. We’re always writing and always want to move on to the next step. We want to take the next record up a step, you know? The first record is almost a trial run, not so much musically but more establishing the band itself. We were able to reach a level higher than we all expected so we’re all very excited to take it to the next step.
Thor: Awesome. So what new bands have you been listening to recently?
Brandon: Frank Carter, formerly of The Gallows, has a new project called “Pure Love” and even though there’s only one song out so far, I’ve been listening to it non-stop. It’s so good! It’s like if the Cars and Andrew WK had a baby or something. His voice is incredible on it.
Thor: What’s been your favorite food on the road?
Brandon: The Nook in St. Paul, Minnesota is amazing. Their signature burger is called the Nookie Burger, which has cheese on the inside of the patty. All of their stuff is from local farmers, organic, and very fresh. You would never think it because it’s just a dive bar but they have the best tasting burger I’ve ever had in my life!
Thor: That sounds delicious. I’ll pass that info to our bands touring in the Midwest. Besides eating burgers, what do you guys do as a pastime between gigs on the road?
Brandon: A few of the guys play video games but mostly we love to mess around on our acoustic guitar and drink (laughs).
Thor: (Laughs) That isn’t stereotypical rock & roll at all!
Brandon: (Laughs) Yeah we get to a venue, load our stuff, then sit out in our RV or trailer and write some tunes and kick a few back. Writing music is what we love to do and we relax with some drinks before the show, a few six strings, and just play.
You can check out Hell or Highwater’s official website here.