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Eternal Protectors Of The Forge: An Exclusive Interview With CARLOS ZEMA And GABRIEL GUARDIAN Of IMMORTAL GUARDIAN

By Curt Miller, Editor at Large
Tuesday, March 9, 2021 @ 11:30 AM

"The most important thing we wanted to accomplish with this album was creating material people could relate to and find comfort in knowing someone else felt and thought exactly the way they did."

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Photo Credits: Wilkinson Image & Design, Chuck Marshall & Immortal Guardian

I first encountered IMMORTAL GUARDIAN while scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed in December of 2013. PANTERA shared a tribute Gabriel Guardian paid to Dimebag Darrell on the 9th anniversary of Dimebag’s death. Gabriel played a cover of PANTERA’s “Cemetery Gates” on keyboard and guitar simultaneously and I’d never seen anything like it, his right hand playing keyboard while his left played the guitar. I was the music editor for a custom motorcycle publication at the time and I knew I needed to learn more about Gabriel and, hopefully, interview him as soon as possible. I started digging through the Interweb searching for contact information and, eventually got ahold of the band’s manager. One thing led to another and I featured IMMORTAL GUARDIAN in that publication and others shortly thereafter.

I’ve remained friends with the members of the band, though their lineup has changed over the years and followed their growth and development from EP releases to full-length albums. IMMORTAL GUARDIAN has always delivered a power metal assault, but they’ve really come into their own of late and the band’s most recent release, Psychosomatic, a concept album written and recorded during the pandemic, is their strongest effort so far. It was time for another interview and, thanks to the convenience of ZOOM, I was able to see Carlos (Zema) and Guardian while we spoke, making it possible to fully witness their facial expressions and see the enthusiasm they have for Psychosomatic and the direction in which the band is headed.

When I first saw Gabriel play the keyboard and guitar simultaneously, he was certainly proficient at it, but watching him do so now, made it clear he’d become at ease with playing the two at the same time. I was curious if it was always his intent to make playing both instruments part of his show. “Not really,“ Gabriel told me. “I first did it at a talent show in high school when I was 16 never planning for it to become a fulltime part of my show,” he continued. Gabriel became known for doing it before long and fans began to expect it of him when they came to IMMORTAL GUARDIAN shows. At first, he just wanted to be able to shred on both instruments, playing them as fast and proficiently as possible. “I use it as a writing tool now, bouncing ideas back and forth between the two instruments to create the coolest, most innovative music possible with this unique instrumentation,” Guardian explained.

Given how complicated and progressive IMMORTAL GUARDIAN’s music tends to be, I couldn’t help but wonder if playing two instruments at once presented certain challenges or limitations during the writing process. Did Gabriel have to sacrifice song elements to accommodate his simultaneous playing style? “All day,” Guardian exclaimed. “Especially when I’m writing solos because when I record those, I can’t play them on two instruments at once. I focus on writing good music and then figure out how to play the songs simultaneously for live shows and videos after they’re written,” Gabriel continued. If he’s able to play songs with one hand in the studio, he knows he’ll be able to play them live. Guardian shares writing duties with Zema, the two bouncing ideas back and forth until they’re satisfied with the final product and songs make it onto albums.

“Most of the time Gabriel puts down initial riffs with no vocal melodies and we jam on them repeatedly until an interesting melody comes that we know fits,” Carlos chimed in. “We’re our own toughest critics, always wanting to deliver our best work and make the music and final product more interesting than our previous material,” Zema continued. Carlos is heavily involved in the development of song melodies and chord progressions, at times bringing in an acoustic guitar for ballads and continuously working with Guardian to hone lyrical content until both are satisfied with every aspect of their songs. “The music changes countless times before we reach a final result,” Zema added, “and the two new members of our band are also very creative. They collaborated quite a bit, particularly on their own parts, whereas on previous records, Gabriel wrote most of the syncopations and rhythms.”

IMMORTAL GUARDIAN begins its songwriting process in singer-songwriter format and then goes into an instrumental phase. From there songs are sent to the drummer or bass player who puts rhythms behind them and “makes them metal,” said Guardian. “We’re just writing songs, but the drummer adds the intensity to them. When I get songs back from him, I copy that intensity and that’s when our powerful sound starts to take shape. We listened to the melodies and the vibe they created before writing the lyrics for this record more than we ever did when recording in the past. Each song’s melody had its own feel, so we wrote lyrics to match their moods. “Psychosomatic” had a gypsy melody because it had a weird, psychological vibe,” Gabriel explained.

IMMORTAL GUARDIAN had another album in the works before the pandemic closed much of the world down and their tours were cancelled, but as artists, the band knew they had to write about what was happening. They were living through a major historical event and experiencing the same fears and emotions as everyone else, so they wanted to express them through music and lyrics people could understand, find comfort in and relate to. “Why write about something that happened 20 or 30 years ago when we’re living through this? Years from now, people will look back wanting to know what those of us who went through this thought about and dealt with,” Gabriel told me. With their other album on hold and no live shows to play, the band made quick work of writing their 10-song concept album about the pandemic.

An integral part of IMMORTAL GUARDIAN’s sound comes from Carlos Zema’s powerful vocals, so as they went into the studio to record their concept record I wondered what role his range played during the writing process. Carlos explained that his vocal range covers six octaves and that, the way their songs are written, he sings in one octave while a melody is played at a particular speed. When the speed of that melody increases, he moves up an octave and continues to do so as the melody’s speed increases. “We also layer harmonies over top of one another and break them down like voices in a choir since Zema has such an extensive range. Developing those harmonies is a separate part of our recording process that we do after everything else is finished and doing so takes us several days to complete,” said Guardian. Much like QUEEN, they write chord progressions on top of the music, which creates a base for additional voices to be added in the final stages of recording. Those harmonies are a big part of IMMORTAL GUARDIAN’s unique sound and doing them came from years of listening to bands, such as QUEEN, BOSTON and HELLOWEEN, ones with walls of choir-like harmonies that give them a massive vocal presence.

Our discussion shifted to Psychosomatic and the lyrical content of the songs. After hearing a prerelease copy of the record, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what the album was about, but I wanted to know who was responsible for writing the lyrics and what message the band was trying to send with this release. Carlos explained that he and Gabriel share responsibility for writing the lyrics with help from Brett Rivera, the band’s longtime manager and close friend to both Gabriel and Carlos. “We call him the cheese filter,” Zema laughed, “because he’s totally honest and gives great feedback.” “He’s like the fifth BEATLE,” Gabriel continued. “He’s the third party who comes in and tells us when some parts are a little cheesy or too wordy. We listen to songs repeatedly before they’re released and have a small group, kind of like a control group, that we test our material out on to see how they react to it. I’m not sure many bands do that, but you have to take yourself out of the equation and get outside feedback before releasing material for the whole world to consume,” Guardian went on to say.

“It was never our intent to take anything away from the virus, because we know it’s real and deadly. We’ve all had family members who had it and some who died as a result. In fact, our bass player had it,” Guardian told me. “But at the beginning of the pandemic, it seemed like everyone was experiencing unexplained anxiety and emotions. We were supposed to be safe at home, but people were losing their jobs and watching the news made them afraid. It seemed to us that people were more affected by the mental impact of the pandemic than the virus itself. Friends of mine called me convinced they were sick, but when they got tested, the tests came back negative. That’s what the song “Psychosomatic” is about, the mind’s ability to make people believe they’re sick because they’re scared and getting lots of conflicting information,” Gabriel added.

As our discussion of Psychosomatic continued, Guardian went on to explain that the virus wasn’t the topic of the album, but rather the world created by it and the psychological impact resulting from it. He said that the members of IMMORTAL GUARDIAN have differing opinions on many of the issues surrounding the pandemic, so they never takes sides with their songs, but only question things. Gabriel explained, “The song “Lockdown” asks, “Is this lockdown doing any good or doing more damage? Should we be in it longer or open things back up?” “We saw the psychosomatic effects of all of this when friends reached out and told us how sick they were only to find out they didn’t have Covid. The most important thing we wanted to accomplish with this album was creating material people could relate to and find comfort in knowing someone else felt and thought exactly the way they did,” Zema added.

Given Psychosomatic‘s subject matter, I wanted to know if the band felt the album gave listeners a glimpse of hope at the end or if its dark tenor prevailed. Gabriel explained that the record’s last song, “New Day Rising”, offers a hopeful ending because, ultimately, none of us are experts and shouldn’t pretend to understand the virus. The song recommends leaving it to the scientists, the professionals and taking politics and personal agendas out of the equation. “Let’s brainstorm and figure out how to get out of this, move forward and get our lives back,” Guardian exclaimed. “We want concerts back and we want to hug each other again. We’re hopeful people and making this album inspired us, so hopefully, it’ll do the same for other musicians and they’ll make new music despite the odds being against them. The world is upside down, but it needs music. Making this record during the toughest times proves it’s possible when you put your mind to it and, honestly, it didn’t feel like a struggle because we enjoyed the process so much,” Guardian continued.

Carlos added that now, more than ever, people should be focused on the things that matter most. “It’s time for us to unite and forget all of our differences because this virus has proved we’re all affected equally,” Zema explained. “Everyone faces the same struggles, so there are many ways we can relate to and embrace one another. This album is about those common thoughts and feelings and it offers hope simply because it helps people realize they’re not alone,” Carlos offered. He went on to explain that the pandemic marks a huge shift in people’s lives regardless of how hard they were impacted by it and the only solution going forward is for people to unite, help one another and be more collaborative in their communities. With that, Gabriel chimed in and mentioned, “Find a Reason”, Psychosomatic’s anti-suicide song. “We all had some crazy thoughts during the pandemic, which were magnified for those who were struggling beforehand,” Guardian said. “We hoped to encourage people to do just as the title reads with that song, find a reason, one reason each day to keep going and wake up the next day. IMMORTAL GUARDIAN has never gotten this dark on previous records, but I was definitely overrun with emotions during the pandemic and I wanted to put them into songs to inspire others and let people know we’re in it with them,” Guardian added.

Now that I had an idea what the new album was about, I wanted to understand how IMMORTAL GUARDIAN was able to record it given that its members are spread out throughout the US and Canada in addition to the fact that the world was locked down by a global pandemic at the time it was recorded. As Zema explained, the band embraced lots of new technologies and techniques and, as a result, evolved into musicians who can record proficiently and effectively wherever they are without needing to be in the same room. They discovered countless websites, portals, apps and tools that allowed them to collaborate with decent sound in real time. “When you’re jamming together, things happen quickly, very spur of the moment,” Carlos said. “But now it takes more time. When we sent things to Justin in Canada, we had to wait until the next morning to get his feedback. It gave us a chance to sit with our ideas and think about them before bouncing them back and forth to each other, which ultimately, made the music better. It was a whole new vibe and took some getting used to, but we eventually found a dynamic that allowed the ideas to flow really fast. We discovered ways to write and record music better than we had in the past because of the pandemic and we’re still improving. It’s all part of the growth process and we grew a lot recording Psychosomatic,” Zema went on to say.

“Things move much faster when you’re all together because you can show each other riffs or chord progressions, but now sharing the same information takes sending several messages or videos back and forth via Facebook. We literally sent each other thousands of video messages during the making of this album,” said Gabriel. “Because we weren’t jamming together, we became much more confident in our initial ideas rather than picking them apart and reworking them repeatedly. We didn’t mess with songs as much as when we were in the studio together because it takes so much effort to make changes. If on the last record, the version of a song that made it onto the album was the 50th rework, the version on this record is more than likely rework number eight. We put a lot more faith in each other and rightfully so because everyone was up to the task and the album came together very naturally. We didn’t get overly technical with Psychosomatic, keeping the timing 4/4 throughout. Our goal was to write good songs to highlight our thoughts and emotions elicited by the pandemic,” Guardian continued.

While it could have presented a problem, the fact that the members of IMMORTAL GUARDIAN live in different time zones actually worked to their advantage. Gabriel is a night owl, so he wrote through the night and got his parts to the band’s drummer, Justin Piedimonte, by about 8am just as Justin was waking up for work. And by the time Gabriel woke up later that day, Justin had already listened to the parts and sent back his ideas. There was very little verbal communication, but instead, the band sent video messages back and forth to one another. One member typically worked on parts while the others were at work or sleeping, which allowed them to double their efficiency since they weren’t renting a studio together and all awake or tired at the same time. One member passed the baton to the next making it possible for the band to write and record more quickly and, though they had no intention of rushing through the record, it came together very fast.

Though the pandemic gave IMMORTAL GUARDIAN an opportunity to write a new record, it had a devastating financial impact on the band and the music industry in general that I wanted to further understand. As Zema explained, “We had over 100 shows that were cancelled as a result of Covid, which was devastating for a band like ours since music is our primary source of income most of which comes from playing shows. There’s a lot of preparation before we hit the road and all of it involves an initial outlay of cash. Getting the tour vehicle and manufacturing merchandise costs lots of money that we didn’t make back when our tour got cancelled and those expenses hit us really hard in addition to all of life’s normal incidentals.” “Our tour was scheduled to begin March 31st, only days after the lockdown went into effect,” Gabriel added. “We poured all of our money into the tour thinking the government would have the whole thing figured out relatively quickly and we’d be back on the road in a week or two. But then, the tour got cancelled and we had to find a way to pay all of the money back. Sure! We can sell records, but they sell much better when we play live shows in support of them. This definitely hit us hard just as it did every other musician, but we weren’t about to throw our hands in the air and give up. We’re really grateful for what we have and what we’ve been able to accomplish despite the pandemic,” Guardian continued.

As our discussion went on, I began reflecting on some of the challenges these two faced over the years. Gabriel required an emergency appendectomy while on tour and was back on stage within 24 hours. Carlos was pronounced dead following a car crash, was resuscitated, spent two weeks in a coma and was back on tour a month later. And both dealt with a fake concert promoter who booked an entire tour with IMMORTAL GUARDIAN that turned out to be bogus. I’ve heard people talk about living the rock star’s dream life, but it occurred to me that many of the stories I’d heard from these and other musicians weren’t dreams, but nightmares, so I wanted to know if it was all worth it. “We talk more about the nightmares than we do about the wins. That’s what makes the story so interesting,” Gabriel told me. Zema chimed in, “I once saw an interview with James Hetfield where he talked about how much METALLICA struggled when the band first started out, but the struggle motivated them and inspired the band to write some of its most successful material. IMMORTAL GUARDIAN is very similar in that we all come from simple backgrounds and work hard for the things we have. The hardships and difficulties create lots of inspiration and it comes through in our music. Our fans connect with it in the same way we connect with the artists and music that inspires us. There’s a special taste that comes with hard fought victory because you really value what you achieved,” Carlos continued.

Gabriel went on to explain that social media creates a real problem because bands, and people in general, tend to only share the good things that happen to them. Young musicians and people coming into the music industry shouldn’t get discouraged thinking that everyone else is constantly winning while they’re struggling to succeed. “We’ve been doing it for so long, that we have lots of good content to share,” said Guardian, “but in the beginning, there’s so much struggle. You start wondering if anyone else is having the same problems and yes! Absolutely! Every single rock star that I’ve ever looked up to and, eventually, had the chance to talk with, told me a crazy story I never would have imagined that artist went through. Half of what makes someone a rock star is the character and perseverance to make music despite the struggles and hardships.” Zema added, “I remember hanging out backstage with IRON MAIDEN, watching all of the enormous tractors moving stage props and structures and wondered how you ever get to that level. was right behind me as I pondered the question and said, ‘By spending lots of years sleeping in a van.’”

With Psychosomatic out February 12th and still a bit of uncertainty about what the future has in store, IMMORTAL GUARDIAN is hedging its bets hopeful that touring at some level will be a possibility before long. In the meantime, the band plans to keep writing and recording music and making videos to go along with its existing material. IMMORTAL GUARDIAN has always enjoyed a strong international following, so I was curious if there were a particular audience the band was eager to get back to after the pandemic or if there’s a market they’ve always wanted to tackle. “I definitely want to get back to Brazil because that’s where Carlos is from and he has an established following there,” Gabriel said, “but our new thing is what we’re calling ‘Operation Japan.’ We’ve been focusing on how to impress the metal fans over there and penetrate that market because it’s like a whole other universe. There’s a big language barrier and the format of their videos, ads and TV shows is so different. Without giving too much away, we’ve decided to rerecord “New Day Rising” in Japanese with a guest singer. After touring with Marty Friedman, whose band is Japanese, going there became a top priority for us.”

IMMORTAL GUARDIAN has taken full advantage of the lockdown to not only write and record what is certainly their best album to date, but also to engage with their fans on a very personal level. They’re concentrating on the engagement and taking the time to respond to fan messages because they recognize that we’re all dealing with similar thoughts and emotions and music is a big part of what heals and brings us together even when live shows aren’t possible. IMMORTAL GUARDIAN will be back on the road in front of audiences as soon as the world permits, delivering a blazing, power metal assault as only they can. It will always be a spectacle watching Gabriel Guardian shred on keyboard and guitar simultaneously while Carlos Zema wails effortlessly through six octaves and it is for these and countless other reasons that IMMORTAL GUARDIAN will always remain the eternal protectors of the forge.

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