Steve Flynn of Atheist: The Hellbound Interview

By Justin M. Norton

If you’ve ever heard Atheist drummer Steve Flynn play you’ll find it difficult to believe that he gave up the instrument for 14 years. For almost eight of those years he didn’t even have a kit in his suburban Atlanta home. For the remainder of the time the drums collected dust in the basement. Flynn had long moved on from playing metal to a corporate career and family life. But something happened about five years ago that could only be compared to Forrest Gump’s seemingly random decision to start a marathon run across the United States. Flynn woke up one morning in January 2005 and realized he had to start playing again. He had no plans to start a band or play with old friends – he just wanted to practice. Six months later he formed Gnostic. Shortly after that he started playing again with Atheist, a band that along with Cynic invented technical death metal.

After years of playing festivals and tour dates Flynn and vocalist/Atheist co-founder Kelly Shaefer ended up back in the studio. The result is the staggering new album Jupiter, which will end up on your best of 2010 list. Flynn recently spoke to Hellbound from Georgia while handling a myriad of domestic duties.

Justin M. Norton: Pretty much every technical death metal out there has borrowed or learned something from you…Decrepit Birth, Decapitated , Nile and The Faceless to name a few. Do you listen to a lot of the genre you helped influence?

Steve Flynn: We all do to one degree or another. Some of us listen to more technical metal than others. We toured with The Faceless in the states and overseas and they are a great bunch of guys. It’s flattering to see guys who play like that say they were influenced by Atheist. We were never the fastest or even the most technical band so when you watch guys like that play it’s mind blowing. I don’t listen to a lot of new metal but enough to know what’s going on. The level of musicianship has come up so dramatically since we stopped playing in 1992 and started up again so it’s a great time to be a fan.

One common complaint is that playing skills have improved but that hasn’t always led to better albums.

You can draw parallels to the advancement of technology and humankind’s ability to wield it. There have been some extraordinary advances in playing but songwriting hasn’t necessarily advanced. You can hear blistering, blinding speed and technicality and sort of get lost sometimes. It’s a blur. (Songwriting) is something that should grasp you and take you for a ride. There’s something to be said about creating moods and song structures and arrangements where you go on a journey with peaks and valleys. You want to go up and down and not just sit on the mountaintop. It makes you appreciate a song, Look at “Tom Sawyer” from Rush. Listen to it and it’s very catchy and has a great hook. But playing it properly is really difficult. The song writing is so good that you forget how technical it is.

Did the progression of technical death metal factor into how you wrote Jupiter or did you try to work in a vacuum?

All we wanted to do is sit down and play and see what would come out of it. We wanted to avoid trying to copy our first three records. And we didn’t want to come across as trying to sound like what the scene is like today. So we used the old template — the process that we always used to wrote songs together. That’s sitting in a room and starting with guitar and drums and trying to find a riff. Jupiter is very organic. The first riff we wrote was the opening riff for “Second to Sun.” We just banged it out quick and pretty soon it sounded like Atheist. It let us know we were in the swing.

Florida and the death metal scene there has changed a lot since the early 90s.

It’s certainly no longer the Mecca for death metal. I always tell people who don’t know about death metal that it was like the Seattle for grunge. Seattle wasn’t really known for producing band after band and Florida is the same way. But there’s still a great scene in Florida and lots of bands come out and the crowds are good.

Are you ever nostalgic for those days?

No, because we were universally disliked. If you got into technical metal in the last few years and heard about us being a founding band you might think it was awesome. But it was horrible. We were not well -received at all. In Cleveland, people would throw dog food at us. People called us pussy metal. There were people writing glowing reviews but when we went out to play people didn’t like it. There were some forward -thinking people but at a certain point we thought it would never work. We didn’t hear a lot that was good. If you asked the guys in Obituary, Deicide or Morbid Angel you’d hear more nostalgia because people dug them right out of the gate. It took about eight years before people liked Atheist (laughs).

What other things were people yelling out in the audience?

It depended on where you went. There were places we were well- received. In Detroit and Chicago Gene Hoglan came out and people loved us. But that was more the excerption than the rule.

Considering those experiences what made you keep going?

We just loved to play. We had put in a lot of time and effort and had a lot of respect in the industry, just not among fans. We were always proud of our stuff. We knew we had something that people would like if they gave it time. It just seemed after a while it wasn’t working. I left and went to Florida State and later got and master’s degree. I have a corporate job. I work for a Fortune 500 communications consulting company.

The only reason we’re back is the love of doing it. There’s no fame or money or recognition and even if there was the ride wouldn’t last long. When I started playing drums again we didn’t set out to make a new album or play shows. We didn’t want to relive old glories. People asked us to come and play and it worked out from there.

How did you end up on Season Of Mist?

(Label owner) Michael Berberian is a long time Atheist fan. He was one of those young kids who recognized the band. He’d been after us for years. At that point I wasn’t even playing drums. When Relapse released the old albums and we played some reunion shows he kept approaching us. It didn’t seem like the right time but it eventually fell into place. I had a band Gnostic and was shopping the album and Michael said, look, we’ll sign both bands. He was persistent. We talked to other people about the label and got a lot of encouragement. We gave some other labels a chance to pitch and put their two cents in but none stood up like this label.

Are you going to tour ambitiously or are you sort of past the point in your lives where you can go on the road for a long period?

We’re going to tour to the extent that we can and support the record. But we can’t do the traditional six, eight or ten week tours like we could when we were 20. I have a good amount of flexibility but I have two kids and a house in the suburbs. None of us want to do touring that requires an enormous amount of time and preparation. So, we’ll do it in short stints, seven eight or ten days and then come home. Instead of hitting every club we try to pick and choose. We have an amazing cult following in some places. But you don’t want to hit the same place three times in eight months. Travel can be pretty mundane and when you are in closed quarters drama can ensue. Playing in short spurts allows us to enjoy it. We played probably 40 or 50 shows in the last few years and were able to hit all the major markets and play good festivals.

Some other bands like that have reunited like Eyehategod and Brutal Truth have done the same thing…

Well, some people tour hardcore even if they’re old school. Malevolent Creation tours extensively and we’re just not there. We like to do it like the guys from Pestilence. We’ll do two or three weeks and then go home. It’s really funny. I’ll be at work and I’ll have a client meeting and we’ll be planning analysis of an ad campaign and then I’ll go into another room and be talking to the label about touring. Last year we were touring and we had a bus. I would work on the bus. During the day I’ll have conference calls and do things with teams at work.

Once we played in Romania, Belgium and France. The last show was in France and on Monday morning I was back at my desk working on a report. Most people at my job know I play in a metal band. I leave work in a blazer and khaki pants and then go put on shorts and rehearse. It’s a real odd transition. Sometimes I’ll go to the local block party and tell people I was in Romania but needed to come home to mow my yard.

It seems having a sense of humor about it makes it work.

Definitely. When I have a 140-page PowerPoint deck I know that I have another life so I don’t get bogged down in my job. On the road I want the boring nature and structure of my job rather than the insanity of that lifestyle. I also handle Atheist’s business affairs because I know the corporate world and can play tour coordinator. We don’t need to pay somebody. And we don’t need to be desperate enough to get into something that’s a bad deal. It’s as much about perspective as it is about business.

Were you ever worried that you might be considered obsolete or do you think people are only beginning to appreciate bands like Atheist or albums like Pestilence’s Spheres, which were completely misunderstood when they came out?

When Relapse said they were going to reissue our records I thought they would sound dated… that it was old-fashioned 80s metal. I was shocked at the number if people who heard Unquestionable Presence for the first time and didn’t know it was a 20-year-old record. I was quite surprised to hear people say it sounded like it could be released today.

Do you think Jupiter will silence anyone who thinks this reunion is just another attempt by a metal band to bank on their past successes?

There were a lot of people who seriously doubted we could pull this off. They thought we’d try to slap something together for the sake of doing it. When they heard (the album) the first time the early feedback was that it’s a natural progression. It will silence a lot of critics. If you liked us then you will like Jupiter.

Did Kelly write the main guitar parts or do his past injuries make that impossible now?

He still plays guitar he just can’t play live because of carpal tunnel. He contributed heavily to the music. It was a collective effort.

Kelly’s lyrics are so different than what anyone else does in the genre. It’s almost like he is writing free verse poetry or pulling excerpts out of a diary.

You can see the progression from Piece Of Time to Unquestionable Presence to now. On some of the older songs he’ll have phrases like “I’ll see you lying windless.” (laughs). He got much better and more sophisticated in terms of content and speaking in metaphors. He makes you think about what he’s saying rather than being too direct. The songs “Fraudulent Cross” is obviously about priests and little boys but some of other songs are about his trials and tribulations.

At this point the conversation stops briefly as Flynn greets his daughter after a gymnastics class and then takes her to a drive-thru to order chicken nuggets.

The vocal lines for Jupiter are catchier than any he’s ever written. He’s honed and polished his ability to craft lyrics and to place them in songs and make them catchy.

Did he follow the corporate and family route like you did?

No, Kelly has just done straight up music. He also owns tattoo stores and head shops but also had his band for ten years. It’s a rough life but had great success with Neurotica. They were on Ozzfest and in Rolling Stone. But the peak of success for a band only lasts a few years. We’re not on the same level as bands in Rolling Stone but the fact that a band could have any success after twenty years off is sort of unheard of.

Do you ever laugh about how your lives have taken such divergent paths?

We’ve always been close and stayed in contact and remained good friends. He was angry at me at quitting playing for so long. He’d say: “You have a Maserati and it’s sitting in the garage. You need to take it out and drive it.” He gave me a lot of shit for not playing. But I was in college and grad school for five years. He kept saying how long does school take? When I had the job and house he saw why I did it.

We have a good time being together and talking about the different things in our lives. He’ll be in Atlanta and I’ll take him to parties in the suburbs or to work functions and he can walk around in that world. Then we go and work in the extreme metal world and we can see each other in a different context. It makes for interesting discussions.

The jazz element is still very present on Jupiter…have you been listening to a lot of jazz during your time away from metal?

Not more than in the past. But my style has matured. I’m a better player than when we did Unquestionable Presence. I felt like I faked things back things. There are songs like “Faux King Christ,” that I couldn’t do back in the day. (On this album) I wanted to play fast. There’s more speed and brutality on Jupiter than on Unquestionable Presence.

My (musical) tastes haven’t changed. I’ve never been a prolific listener. I do like things like the Mars Volta and how they meld stoner rock and Led Zeppelin and jazz and all these things. Those things are inspiring.

What did you want to accomplish with your drumming on this album?

I wanted to show progress and not have people think I play the same as 20 years ago. I wanted to show improvement. I pushed the envelope. Jupiter features a smoother and tighter and more sophisticated style. I wanted to show I wasn’t just doing rehash. A  lot of musicians get stale and lazy. I don’t want to.

What happened with (bassist) Tony Choy leaving the band?

Four weeks before we went into the studio he left. It was quite a shock. It was as much about his scheduling and inability to commit to coming to Georgia. We had to record here. We put out a press release to explain it and it didn’t go too well. We were just trying to say that if someone isn’t in the band it doesn’t mean a foundational element is gone. People needed to understand that if he wasn’t in the band it wouldn’t hurt a record that would already face undue scrutiny.

We’re still friends. If schedules permit he will come out on the road and tour with us. We were disappointed when he quit at the last minute. It hurt us a lot.

There’s a song on Jupiter called “Tortoise the Titan.” The lyrics read “Slow, strong and steady, that’s who wins this race…”Is that song about Atheist?

It is. It’s a metaphor about us. It’s been a long haul. The meteoric rises rarely last. There’s a lot of stuff on that record that is metaphorical. But you are right that’s exactly what (Kelly) was thinking.

Atheist’s comeback album Jupiter will be released by Season Of Mist on Tuesday, November 9th in the US and Canada.

Sean is the founder/publisher of; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.