Drawing inspiration from a variety of styles of metal, Immortal Guardian, hailing from the great state of Texas, refuses to be hemmed in by genre or any other label. The band—guitarist/keyboardist Gabriel Guardian, vocalist Carlos Zema, drummer Cody Gilliand and bassist Thad Stevens—released its debut full-length, “Age of Revolution,” in September 2018 via M-Theory Audio and already has seen seen that lead to a tour supporting guitar great Marty Friedman. The day after the band wrapped that tour, Live Metal’s Greg Maki spoke to Gabriel about his background, his uncanny ability to shred on guitar and keyboard simultaneously, the new album and more.
LIVE METAL: You just last night wrapped a month-long tour with Marty Friedman. How did it go?
GABRIEL GUARDIAN: Man, it was absolutely amazing. In my personal opinion, it was the best tour so far. Marty himself and his whole band are just super cool people. They’re incredibly talented, of course, but they were super awesome and very nice just as human beings. I smelled his feet, he smelled ours—we shared a bus together, so you really get to know someone when you spend a month in a bus with them. I’m very happy with the way the whole thing turned out. Marty’s fans are the best—very awesome group of guitar lovers. I think we were the right fit for the kind of music that he was touring out playing.
Yeah, I was thinking they would be appreciative of what you guys do.
Yeah, it was kind of nice to play for a crowd of music and guitar lovers, which is something we don’t get to do every time. It’s always kind of different for every tour, but so far this has been the best reaction to our music, which is very nice for us.
Are you on your way home now?
I’m going home to our new home in Las Vegas for a few hours, just to switch out some clothes, and then I’m flying to Hawaii. So I’m just gonna be in Vegas for a few hours.
What’s happening in Hawaii, vacation or work?
Half vacation, half work. I have a job out there. I’m gonna be playing in a studio for this new project—helping someone with their project. Pretty excited. I’m looking at it as a vacation, especially after a month-long tour.
You are from Austin, Texas, correct?
I’m actually from the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, which is the Mexican-American border towns. Immortal Guardian, as what you know today, everything that you hear today, was all created in Austin. That’s where we met Carlos and Thad.
Austin is known for having a pretty vibrant music scene. Is metal a big part of it? Is there a metal scene there?
Oh, there’s an incredible metal scene in Austin. Very happy to be a part of it for five, six years. I definitely already miss Austin now that we’ve moved out. But yeah, Austin’s got it going on, man. They have a ton of great venues to play at. They have an insane amount of really talented bands. A lot of metal lovers are in that town—music lovers in general. So if anyone is asking, I think Austin is a really cool place to live, especially as a band.
I just relocated because I got a new opportunity that was based out of Las Vegas. I just kind of have this extra love for that place. I really like Vegas. I brought up the idea to the band that I was gonna move and pursue these things, and the rest of the band liked the idea, too. They were like, “Man, why don’t we all go? That sounds like a lot of fun, and it sounds like a cool place to be.” We’re kind of giving it a shot to see how we like it. If we really like it, we stay long term. If we don’t, Texas will always be there.
Going back a little bit to your youth, how did you get into music, and specifically, what made you pick up a guitar?
I’ve been playing for about 17 years now. I started when I was 10 years old. What really got me into it was I came from a musical family. My father has been a drummer for probably 30, 40 years now. He also taught his kids how to play drums, so me and my older brother played drums together growing up, just for fun. When it came that time where we wanted to start a band as brothers, it was very obvious. He told me, “I play drums better than you. There can only be one drummer in the band. You’ve gotta play something else.” I’m like, “Well, hell, yeah, I guess I’ll play guitar.” That’s kind of how it all started.
The first song I ever learned was the national anthem, and I only learned the very, very first, like, 10 notes. I didn’t learn the whole thing. But for some reason, my mom had signed me up to play in front of my whole school, the national anthem, for some ceremony thing. I was so upset with her. I was like, “I don’t even know how to play the whole thing, Mom. Why would you sign me up without asking me?” She’s like, “Well, you better learn the whole thing, or you’re gonna look like an idiot.” (laughs) I learned my first song not wanting to. I was kind of upset about it. I was like, “Ah, fine, I’ll learn this thing.” So I figured it out and learned the national anthem, and after I did my first mini performance, it just felt so awesome to be on stage. Even though it was the national anthem, it was a very special feeling that made me pursue it for years and years to come.
The keyboard/guitar thing, I started doing that at the same time, just because I thought it was funny. It was supposed to be just a joke for a talent show or something. It was so long ago, but all I remember is that it was with the intention to be funny. I learned something silly. I think it was probably like “The Final Countdown”—some silly something. It was supposed to be something funny, like “Jump” from Van Halen. I don’t remember what it was, but I remember nobody was laughing, and everybody thought it was a cool thing, like a serious thing.
Then I got lazy. I did my first few shows with Immortal Guardian with the guitar and the keyboards, and then I think on like our fourth show, I didn’t bring the keyboard. I just didn’t feel like it. And a lot of people at the show were like, “Hey, man, what the hell? We kind of expected you do the keyboard thing and the guitar.” So at that point, I was like, “Oh, I guess I should keep doing this.” And then, fast forward 12 years later, and here I am—or 10 years; I don’t know how long it’s been, I’ve lost count. I turned it into a career, which is kind of mindblowing to me.
Yeah, that’s become your signature.
Yeah, if you ever have a silly idea, just roll with it, man. You never know what’s gonna come out of it. That’s my philosophy now. (laughs)
How long did it take to master that, playing the two together? It’s gotta be difficult.
Within the first month that I started doing it, I already kind of had the basics down—playing a melody or playing some chords. But to play the way I do now, it definitely took a few years. It took me at least five years to get as comfortable as I did. And when I started learning keyboards, I didn’t learn guitar and then learn keyboards and then start learning them at the same time. I started playing them at the same time from the first day I picked up the keyboard. It was with that purpose. So as I was playing them at the same time, I was also trying to become a keyboard player, which is kind of an ass-backwards way of doing it. I still don’t know how to read sheet music or nothing, so it’s a very long, painful process of learning how to play an instrument without any training. (laughs)
When you’re recording in the studio, are you playing them together then, too, or do you record them separately?
I record them separately, just because the engineer typically prefers that. We focus on the guitar and make sure that’s 100 percent the way it should be, the keyboards 100 percent the way they should be. They’re usually tracked, like, weeks apart, honestly, the guitar and keyboard parts. I have an idea of what I’m going to do way before I go into the studio, but when it’s actually recorded, it’s different times.
The funny thing, a lot of people don’t know, but the majority of my music is written on piano first—90 to 95 percent of it. Even my guitar riffs. Even the songs where I don’t even play a single thing on the keyboard and it’s only guitar, there’s a huge chance that that whole song was written on piano first.
Immortal Guardian, when you listen to it, you can influences from a variety of different kinds of metal. So what are the major influences for you in putting this sound together?
To me, I look at food and music a lot the same. I love to eat buffets. I want to go to a place where I’m gonna have so many different flavors in one sitting rather than just one thing. Because if you eat that one thing over and over again, you’re eventually gonna get tired of it. I try to have that same perspective with what I’m listening to and what I’m writing. If you put on my iPod on shuffle, you’re gonna get everything from Carlos Santana to Dimmu Borgir and Iron Maiden to Children of Bodom. Everything’s just kind of all over the place. I think that’s what really contributes to our sound and our writing, just being able to listen to all these different styles and being able to appreciate each one for what they are, and then throwing that into a mix of your own original stuff.
There are a lot of sounds and things similar to progressive metal—the shredding and the musicianship all around—but so far, you’ve kept it in relatively compact songs. You don’t have these sprawling, 10-, 20-minute epics like progressive metal. Is that on purpose?
Oh, it’s definitely on purpose. That’s another thing, that we all grew up listening to different metal. Even though Zema and I, Cody and everyone have been listening to metal all our lives, the kind of metal we listen to is completely different. Zema’s favorite bands are this set, and my favorite bands are this set, and everybody has their own stuff. It’s kind of like a system of checks and balances. We’ve gotta make sure that everybody’s happy with the sound. Even though we’re mixing all these metals and all these different ideas, we’ve gotta make sure the whole family’s like, “OK, we all feel these lyrics and what they represent. We all feel this riff and the way it feels.” And to me, one of the big things is timing. I don’t like writing short songs, and I don’t like writing long ones either. It needs to be just right. Especially in 2019 when social media’s attention span is shorter than a chipmunk’s, it can’t be too long. It’s gotta be nice and sweet, very short, so that people get the message almost instantly.
Your first full-length album, “Age of Revolution,” came out last fall. That had to be pretty exciting.
Oh, man, it was the most exciting thing last year. We had waited so long to put out our first full-length, and when we finally did and we saw the response from people that have been supporting us over the years, it was pretty nice to see it all come together. That’s the album that got us where we are today, got us the Marty tour, and I’m very happy about it. I’m very proud of how it came out.
What kind of goals do you have now that the album is out there?
When we put out the record, I was really hoping to get on a nice tour, which is what happened. So that’s one really cool thing to have envisioned and then see it happen. That was very special. I’m very glad that Marty and our record label and everybody gave us the opportunity to do this. I’m very thankful to have such an awesome team of people pushing the music and the message. I think that, to me, is the coolest thing out of the record being out.
There’s kind of a loose storyline connecting this album to the previous EP?
Yeah, just about. This is more of a, I would say, our singer, Carlos Zema, kind of question. But yeah, there was a lot of topics and things we wanted to talk about when we were writing “Revolution Part I,” the EP. Our intention was to make part two, but it ended up turning into a full-length, and we ended up signing to a record label. So instead of doing the part two thing, we just called it “Age of Revolution,” which to our fans who have been following along, it is our part two; we just didn’t call it that.
Essentially, it’s a bunch of different topics of revolution, whether it’s one within yourself, one within a community or at a global level. There’s a lot change happening in the world and a lot of change that needs to happen. They’re all different topics and different things. That’s kind of what we talk about on the EP and the full-length.
One of the topics that hits me really hard is growing up in the Rio Grande Valley, seeing all the problems with the border towns and immigration and all that. That impacted a huge part of my life and my family. It’s always been there, but it wasn’t until a year or two that now it’s international or at least national news—this whole wall being built. Writing music about that kind of shows a cool perspective. I’d like to hope that people read it and they see here’s a perspective of somebody that grew up around that and a song that they wrote with their views. It’s from our experiences and viewpoints of Carlos Zema, me and our manager.
You just released a new video for the song “Stardust.” There’s kind of a sci-fi, apocalyptic thing happening there. What was the concept behind that video?
That one was fun. That was a song Carlos wrote, and then our manager, Brett (Rivera), and our director, Andrew Gonzalez—we were trying to find what would be the perfect concept and song to make a killer music video for, for the record. After listening to them all and letting them do what they do best, they put together this really cool storyline. It’s almost like a heavy metal armageddon. I loved it so much. I think the guys did such a killer job. We went out to the desert, middle-of-nowhere, Texas, and filmed it for a few days. Our editors, Andrew and Brett, went hard on it for god knows how many hours, and then we had a special effects dude that also did our lyric video—he did our special effects. He’s this really cool guy from Russia. Everyone just went hard and came together very nicely. It looks very pro, and it was a very small team. So I’m very proud of the guys.
As you said, you’re heading to Vegas and then to Hawaii for some work/vacation. What’s coming up next for the band, Immortal Guardian?
For the band, we’ve got some more touring, and we’re definitely working on new music. We’ll be announcing that shortly, Keep your eyes out on our page. For right now, we’re gonna catch up on some sleep and enjoy this little bit of time off and probably hit the studio while we wait for the next run.
Is there anything else you’d like to say right now?
That’s about it. Just want to thank anyone that’s been following us or anyone that just discovered us on the tour. We’re very thankful that we were given the opportunity and that we got to rock out with everyone. If you haven’t picked up a copy of our new record, “Age of Revolution,” please do so. I promise it won’t disappoint. I think you’ll have a good time, and we can’t wait ‘til we come to your city very soon.