The Voice of a Firefight - Interview with Blackguard's Paul "Ablaze" Zinay

As a band, Blackguard is a lot of things to a lot of people. Symphonic metal. Power metal. Folk metal. Death metal. A band that knows how to raise the rafters, bring down the house and entertain the multitudes. A band that puts on the same show, gives every effort, for forty or four thousand. The public face of this non-stop touring train is Paul "Ablaze" Zinay, lyricist, vocalist, frontman extraordinaire, who beneath all the intense metal carousing is a man with a gregarious personality and an easy smile. He and I sat down just a couple hours before he and Blackguard would take the stage to talk music, his native Canada, the nature of subgenres, where the band has come from and where they're going next.
M. DREW: Begin at the beginning – You’ve had an awful long road to get where you are. The band toiled for a number of years and then you had your first-release in 2007, your first big release in ’08 and now your current release. What’s it been like?
PAUL “ABLAZE” ZINAY: Oh, man, it’s been an amazing ride. I never thought…you always kind of hope that when you start a band it’s going to progress to something. When you start off, you’re playing music, the dream is to become signed and go on big tours and tour with bands who you idolized when you were younger. It’s weird being in this position now, being able to say that I’ve actually been able to do that. Whenever we got opportunities like when I first found out we were gonna tour with Symphony X, I was like “oh, really? This is actually happening?” It’s one surreal moment after another after another after another. Like, oh, we’re going to Europe, we’re going to play Mexico, it’s amazing. I’m still in a perpetual state of shock. It’s been a lot of fun, there’s been a lot of heartache, too. We’ve gone through our fair share of shit on the road, and we’ve suffered in the van for years at a time doing this. But we still love it. We love playing shows and we love the people that we meet and I love performing, so we keep doing it!
M.D: Speaking of everybody you’ve played with, who were you most excited to find out you were playing with, who were your favorites to play with, or who taught you the most, being out on the road?
PAZ: I think Symphony X was one of the biggest ones. It was one of the happier moments in my life when I found out we were touring with them because I was a huge Symphony X fan when I was younger. Actually, when we were touring with Kamelot this past time, I’ve been a big fan of Kamelot for a long time, but I was even a bigger fan of Fabio Lione from his Rhapsody [of Fire] days, because Rhapsody was a band that when I first started getting into metal, there were a huge influence on me in terms of where my musical tastes would eventually lead. Very symphonic, power metal base kind of music. Fabio’s absolutely one of my favorite singers. Him and Russell Allen from Symphony X, those two are it. I don’t sing clean, but those are the guys that I want to sound like when God willing one day I will actually learn how to do that [laughs.] So those were, when we found out we were touring with those two bands in those situations, I was blown away by it. Not only that but becoming friends with some of these people, being on a first name basis with them. Not too long ago, Symphony X was in Montreal with Iced Earth. Gave the guys a call, said “hey, I’m gonna come by, say hi.” Going to dinner with them, I caught myself thinking at one point “wow, man, I’m really sitting down with these guys, if the sixteen year old version of me could see me now!” It’s reall surreal to think about it in that way. And I remember when I used to be all starry-eyed when it came to bands, the people you idolize. As the years go on, you meet more and more people, you don’t get star struck. That whole wall of celebrity façade isn’t really there anymore, you know? It [becomes] these are our peers. They’re not our equals, they’re above, but they are our peers.
M.D: Do you feel like you belong?
PAZ: I’d like to think so! I’d feel like we’ve proven ourselves on every tour that we’ve ever done. Every time we go out there, we perform our hardest and I feel like we’ve won over fans on every single tour that we’ve done. There’s not one tour that I thought was a complete failure…The Nevermore tour was probably the closest thing to a complete failure [laughs.] I don’t know what was up with that crowd, but for some reason the really, really proggy crowds didn’t dig us all that much. I don’t know why.
M.D: Didn’t you say you had similar problems with Epica’s crowd once, too?
PAZ: No! Actually, Epica, the first time we toured with Epica was un-real. We had great reactions. We were obviously a far more aggressive band in comparison to Epica and I like to see mosh pits and circle pits and that kind of stuff. I grew up in the underground punk and hardcore scene in Montreal, so, everything violence [laughs.] Or, energy, you know? So, the Epica crowds were interesting, because the demographic was a lot different than what we had done the last couple tours. And that was within our first year and a half of touring internationally. So we had done the Paganfest which was a lot of young kids, very high energy. And then the Summer Slaughter which was, blech, whatever. I mean, it was a lot of fun, I’m happy we did it, but in terms of our place among that tour, it was really weird. We did Ensiferum after that, again, very much the same in the pagan/folk scene, which are very energetic crowds. They’re down to mosh and circle pit and yell and scream along. Then Epica after that, it was like a completely different beast altogether. I really had to adapt to the crowd, like where I knew I couldn’t ask them to circle pit because most of the people were far older than what we were used to playing to, and this is the kind of crowd that stands and watches, rather than moving around and being very energetic. So I had to come to terms with the fact that even though they’re not moving around, it doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t like what’s going on. Actually, the first time we toured with Epica was one of our highest grossing tours we’ve ever done to this day.

M.D: Speaking of touring, you guys were on the road five times in 2010, six in 2011…when do you sleep?
PAZ: We don’t.
M.D: Is that the secret?
PAZ: Yes.
M.D: What’s the secret to never sleeping?
PAZ: Coffee. Coffee and Red Bull, as you can see from all the cases of it we have lying around [laughs.] You know what, the last two years were really, really rough on everybody and they took their toll. To put it lightly, they took their toll.
M.D: You went from six people to five, did that have anything to do with it?
PAZ: No, not really. When Joe [Jonathan Lefrancois-Leduc] our keyboard player left, we were touring hard, but not as hard as the last couple years were. He stepped away just because he didn’t feel…he wasn’t so much burnt out by the road as he [felt] he went his course with the band. It was a very amicable split, we’re actually still very good friends with Joe. We’re probably going to be working with him on the next record, too. He’s gonna help us out, we’re going to be doing some recording and demoing with him, so we’re really happy that he’s still within the family, still working with the band. Because as far as I’m concerned, he’s like the silent sixth member of the band. He’s given us tons of help in the last couple years, even though he’s not been an official member. He’s always been there and always been there to help us.
M.D: I know Kim [Gosselin] took over a lot of the writing duties after Joe left, how did the writing change? Do you feel your style changed?
PAZ: For sure. That was a very conscious decision of the entire band, we wanted to step away from folk per se. We still love that scene and love those fans and we love that music, but we felt like changing it up a little bit. Which is our artistic right, I guess. So how we wanted to evolve is to move more toward symphonic rather than folk necessarily. We’ve always had a lot of symphonic elements in the music. You could almost say what we did is we took out the accordions and the flutes. That’s pretty much it. We don’t have accordions and flutes anymore, our songs are still really fast songs, it’s almost the same thing as far as I’m concerned. We just wanted to go more symphonic. If I have to think about our style right now, it’s like, symphonic melodic death metal. Or symphonic melodic power death, I don’t know. Something like that. Symphonic power death. There we go, symphonic power death.
M.D: There’s about a hundred subgenres…
PAZ: Yeah, so I’m gonna make one more. We are symphonic power death, but we call it ‘epic metal,’ so when people ask me ‘what’s epic metal?’ well, we play symphonic power death. We have symphonic elements, we have one foot firmly planted in the power metal scene, but we still have all those aggressive tendencies that you see in, you know, death metal and melodic death. This is where we lie. People try to box us into a certain genre, they try to put you somewhere and say ‘this is what you are.’ I don’t really agree and I don’t like doing that, necessarily. I mean, even coming up with something as stupid as ‘symphonic power death,’ it’s kind of a joke in and of itself. I don’t care about giving what we do a very specific name. We are what we are. We’re gonna do whatever the hell we feel like. But you know that whatever we’re gonna write is gonna be within some confines. We’re not gonna come out with a techno hardcore record. The next CD is not going to be that. You know when you listen to Blackguard, it’s going to be something like this. So, that’s all it is and that’s all it needs to be.

M.D: Your videos have always been focused on your live performance. If somebody watches the video for “Firefight” or “The Sword” or something like that, is that what you bring to the stage?
PAZ: Yeah, absolutely, one hundred percent.
M.D: What do you give the crowd and what do you expect to get from them?
PAZ: I give them everything I’ve got, until it hurts. I love moving around, I love being a very physical frontman. I idolized guys like Bruce Dickinson from Maiden and Brandan Schieppati from Bleeding Through, who know how to run around a stage and basically dominate a stage. So that’s what I like and I like to watch very energetic performances, and I like to give very energetic performances. The ideal show or the ideal crowd would be one that’s singing along with me, that’s getting on stage, stage diving, circle pitting…I like energy. I want to see it in people’s faces that they’re enjoying it. A big reason why Epica was really tough for us was because it was hard to see it sometimes. You can kind of see it in their face, they’re nodding, there’s a smile on their face, if you tell them to get their hands up, all of a sudden the whole crowd’s got their hands up it’s like, okay, they’re responding, this is good. Because I’m all about response, you know? I like getting people to go ‘hey, hey, hey’ with me, and I like people to respond when I give them a command, quote unquote. It’s validation, like I’m doing something right here. If I ask for a circle pit or if I ask for a chant and people are doing it, then I’m doing my job. If they’re not, then I’m not doing my job. I’m obviously not being entertaining enough or something’s wrong. I don’t know what’s wrong, but I got to fix this. So any kind of reaction, whatever it is, is always positive. I just want to see people react in a positive way, because the reason why I went to shows when I was younger was to have a great time. I want people who come to our show to have a great time, whatever that is. So in the case of an Epica tour, their version of a great time is standing there watching, enjoying the show. So, I keep my energy level way up there all the time to make sure I’m constantly being entertaining, and it’s fun for me because that’s what I like to do. I like to run around, I like to give that kind of energetic show. But if we’re playing with bands like Ensiferum or Finntroll, the folk crowds where they love getting into it and they want to circle pit and they want to stage dive and they want to chant, then I am going to ask them to do that until they are sick of me [laughs.] Until they just can’t handle the fun anymore!
M.D: In the last few years, it seems like there’s been this explosion of metal out of Canada. There’s you guys, there’s Kittie, The Agonist, Kataklysm, Priestess, even Annihilator had a new album, what is responsible for this? Why the sudden wave of Canadian metal acts?
PAZ: I think it’s always been there, but the attention has only come along in the last couple years. Montreal, I’m very proud of the city that I come from, it’s spawned so many fantastic bands, and there are still a lot of bands that are in Montreal that are not as internationally recognized, but are still fantastic. I remember growing up in the scene and I was very privileged to be able to see Despised Icon way before they got signed when Alex Erian, one of their singers, was actually drumming for them at the time. Even Eye on Dissonance, too. I think it was the same show and you see those bands and you go ‘there’s something to this. This is really, really, really good.’ And these are the bands that I grew up watching, the first shows that I ever went to, when I first started getting into going to metal shows, I would basically just pick up flyers that I would see at other shows, and go ‘I like these logos, I’m gonna go to the show.’ I was just so into going to shows, whether it was any kind of metal, punk or hardcore, I just went. I was out going to shows like five times a week in my mid-teens. I grew up watching these great, great bands and then I thought ‘man, these guys should be signed, they should be huge.’ Then, sure enough, a lot of these bands did end up getting signed, like Beneath the Massacre got signed. They were a band called Observing the Falling Tree before that and I got to watch them play and that was another band I’m watching going ‘this is freaking incredible!’ I love this music and technically speaking they’re so proficient in their instrument and that can be said about a million and a half other bands out of Montreal. Neuraxis, Eye on Dissonance, Beneath the Massacre, Despised Icon, The Agonist, the list goes on and on and on and on. What’s funny is that when I started touring, seeing the local bands in a lot of the scenes…I mean, there’s a lot of good local bands, but there’s a lot of really shitty local bands, too. Listen, Montreal’s not absolved from that by any means, but it made me appreciate my scene that much more, our scene really was very good back in the day, you know? [laughs] And it still is now. It’s still really strong, and there are bands that are still kicking and keeping Montreal metal alive.

M.D: Your cover art is always awesome and it’s always unique. How does that come together? Do you have any input in that at all?
PAZ: I can actually say I was directly responsible for “Firefight’s” album cover. I mean, I didn’t draw the fuckin’ thing, [laughs] but it was my concept. When we were demoing the song “Firefight,” I had this grand image of the whole story behind that song was of a city just being attacked. The whole song is from the point of view of this central character, who’s sort of within the chaos and trying to make sense of what the hell’s going on. So the direction I gave when we were brainstorming the album art was, I want to see a city being burned to the ground, you know, being attacked. I don’t want to see who’s being attacked, I don’t want to see any people specifically, I just want to leave it open to question. Like, ‘what the hell’s going on?’ All you know is that shit just went down. That’s all I wanted for the visual and that’s how it came out. God willing, we’re starting to write for the next record right now, and my plan is to have it be kind of a concept record that’s going to be very much based on that song and this central character from the song “Firefight.” The next record’s going to follow him through the aftermath of the attack. Hopefully, this is how it’s going to work out if I can pull the creativity out of my ass, it’ll be a full concept. It’s going to be almost like a diary of him for a full CD of him going through basically the fallout of having a city destroyed. Having someone’s life crumble in front of you, like ‘what do you do now?’
M.D: At the risk of stereotyping Canadians and people from Montreal…I know the Habs are out, but the NHL playoffs, thoughts?
PAZ: I don’t give a crap. I didn’t care that much when the Canadiens were in, frankly…well, ‘in’, they were never ‘in.’ If they did have a chance, I would be like ‘oh, okay, root for the Canadiens, I suppose.’ Although, I have a Montreal Canadiens towel in my bag. We were on tour two years ago at this time, forget who we were out with, but Montreal was in the playoffs. Until they got kicked out, every night they were playing a game and we were playing a show, I brought my towel on stage and waved it to the crowd. We were actually in Boston, this was two years ago, we were playing Boston, in the playoffs, we were in Worcester, Massachusetts and I brought out my Montreal Canadiens flag for the second to last song. It was hilarious because Worcester is one of our best markets, and I’ve never heard a crowd, our crowd, boo me so freakin’ hard! [laughs] But, we all had a good laugh about it, it was cool, I didn’t get jumped at the end or anything like that. That was the funniest, dumbest thing I think I ever did at a show.

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