Electronically Charged: A Conversation With Mike Sugars of VATICAN

The frontman talks through the band's new and invigorating era.

Words by Luis (@luis.hoa):


With E3 coming to a close last week, the gaming community gained a considerable amount of choices to look forward to in the coming months and years. All new worlds, all new experiences, and all new encounters await a constantly growing community that use said games to retain some sanity among the turmoil that is the existing state of affairs. Hell, the Elden Ring announcement alone was exciting enough to bring the world to a halt. Among those who use gaming as a driving force is the unique unit of VATICAN, a quintet of limitless proportions.


Tagging them as metalcore would be doing a disservice to the varied layers they pack into their compositions, compositions that breathe with each passing listen. Industrial sound bites and galvanizing technicality speak of the direction the band is heading towards following 2019's acclaimed Sole Impulse. VATICAN's Become A New God, a two-track effort that marked the band's signing to UNFD, set the stage for the impending follow-up earlier this year and though short in length, Become A New God proves to be substantial in scope. The EP's themes are prevalent to the times, reflective of the intentional approach that the quintet are taking to their songcraft as they navigate a need for self-reflection at a time where it's deemed crucial. The path has been paved for album #2 and with Become A New God as a primer, VATICAN have all eyes on them.


We talk through the significance Become A New God with new frontman Mike Sugars:

‘Become A New God’ marks the start of a new era for Vatican with yourself as the new vocalist and recent signing to UNFD, who of course help amplify the extent of your music. Is it safe to say there’s a newfound energy within the band now, as one could say is evident by the explosiveness of the two tracks?


Sugars: Most definitely. Even the title itself, ‘Become A New God’, is a very literal thing where the idea is to level your game up. That applies to both ends: on my side of life and also where the band was. We really tried to level this up and we put all of our energy into doing some of the coolest stuff we could possibly do. This EP got everything we got into it.

It’s noticeable. Though ‘Sole Impulse’ arrived two years ago, it feels as if it were an eternity given the circumstances that came about last year. Regardless, Vatican is continuing an upwards trajectory that was built by the debut in a manner that sets the stage for a much anticipated new full-length. With ‘Become A New God’ being a sample of a new Vatican, where do you hope to build upon the predecessor?


Sugars: I really liked ‘Sole Impulse’, so as you say, we tried to build upon it. You’re still going to see elements of that record going into our new one and the EP of course. We still plan on writing cool riffs and cool breakdowns. That’s really the name of the game. We’re trying to push the envelope on what the band is capable of. With that, you’re going to end up hearing a lot of different things that the band wasn’t doing before. I’m excited with what we have right now before going into the studio.


‘Become A New God’ really sets the stage for this new sonic direction. On the cover and layout end, you worked with Dominic Pabon who put together an exquisite extension of the themes of self-reflection and growth in a cybernetic manner. What drew you to working with Dominic for this project? He has quite the resume.


Sugars: Working with Dominic was something that Josian (Soto-Ramos) our drummer pushed for. We checked out some of his previous works and it all looked pretty dope, so we reached out to him to see if he was interested. We put the idea out there and asked him for Cortana from Halo, but not Cortana of course. The whole idea was to have this idea of self-reflection through a cybernetic lens. It has that Cyberpunk-esque vibe, though I don’t mean to bring up the terrible game and everything that happened with it.


What a moment in gaming history that was. Even despite ‘Become A New God’ being only a two-track EP, it received the treatment of a full-length with an accompanying video by Eric Richter, merch designs by Eric Lish and Rui Carneiro, an Instagram filter, and more. This of course speaks to the investment you all place into your output. How significant was it for you to have built this sense of camaraderie and understanding between the creatives you brought on board?


Sugars: First of all, every single one of the artists in this, whether it’s on album art or t-shirts, came together in such a way that just couldn’t be better. Everyone understood the vision and what we were going for. They were passionate about it and put in all of their energy to make it happen quickly. I’m super proud of it all. Eric Richter went so hard. He did such a great job. That video was recorded 9 days before the song dropped.

What a quick turnaround.


Sugars: Very quick turnaround, and that included putting together the ideas and the camera crews, effects, lights, and all of that sort of stuff. We walked into the video space like, “Wow, we’re really doing this.” It felt like true collaboration. It was such an awesome experience to be on the same wavelength as all of the different artists, even if we weren't in direct communication with one another.


Everything aligned so seamlessly. Touching again on your collaborative process with Dominic for the EP, how was that like? Some artists prefer a lot of direction while others prefer vagueness to allow for creative interpretation.


Sugars: It was mostly handled through an exchange of emails back and forth. The cyborg woman on the cover was a first go. There were no edits or revisions made. There was no back and forth with Dominic to have him add extra things and whatnot. He nailed it on the first go. We may have had one revision related to the text placement, but aside from that, nothing really. It was practically seamless.


Touching back on ‘Sole Impulse’ again, Alex Lang helped create the cover for the record, which depicts a set of spines within a glass case. It’s simple, but there’s much to be derived from it given the significance of the spine to the human body. In the same vein, the cover for ‘Become a New God’ is simple yet effective in a subtle manner, encouraging viewers to think a bit beyond the eyes. Is there an intended effect you wish to create when approaching this aspect of the release?


Sugars: When we talked about what we wanted from this cybernetic girl on the cover, it was really about establishing this idea of where she was staring back into you. Her gaze pierces you. I guess you can say there’s a second entity kind of vibe. Perhaps if you’re not willing to look at yourself, this thing will look right through you. I was aiming towards creating this secondary ominous presence. On our next release, that’s something I want to expand upon in a less subtle and metaphorical kind of way.

vatican
Cover art by Alex Lang

One could say that the cybernetic figure is basically our phone or social media since our lives are essentially there.


Sugars: That’s 100% correct. That’s kind of in a way what I was doing on the second song, ‘Absolute Reality’. I don’t know if you’ve ever played Metal Gear Solid 2 at all, but at the end of that game, there’s a profound cutscene that happens between two protagonists where they talk about mankind in this weird, digital social media age. There’s a vast amount of information that is constantly poured onto the internet. It gets sent out onto the web, no matter how pointless or meaningless or impactful any of it is, it just keeps going at an escalated rate. There’s an inability to keep up and really recognize the world you’re in. The way you see the world isn’t actually the way the world is and it’s really because in a way, we’re living in an algorithm placed view. You could have this total view of one side of say a social argument and you completely demonize the other. You make them out to be an enemy and they likely feel the same way about you. You’ll never really find a middle ground, simply because of the amount of information and content that you absorb on a daily basis. It’s sick.


Definitely, and you bring up a good point. It’s a conversation we should be having more often during these contemporary fast paced lifestyles we’ve been accustomed to live. That sort of came to a halt because of the pandemic, but it’s of course making a return now that the pandemic is semi winding down. Would you say that the EP and the themes you present are a commentary of that in some sense?


Sugars: Very much so. These are things I want to expand upon more in the new album. There’s only so much you can on two songs that are barely edging past 2 minutes. We even had the audacity to throw in a guitar solo on a two minute song because whatever. It gets kind of hard to say everything I can think of within those confines, but yeah there’s lots I’m thinking of and want to talk about. I want to talk more about that social commentary and really what the responsibilities of being a person in 2021 is, specifically the diligence one has to take to be a good person that is hopefully not inadvertently causing pain to someone or some people.


The importance of music has always been there but artists, like yourselves, are taking an intentional approach to the albums being put together. One has to admire the creativity of your releases. For example on ‘Sole Impulse’, you all gave away a PSP with a copy of Metal Gear Solid: Peacewalker. For ‘Become A New God’, you look to have taken the PS2 route and put together copies of the record with the game system’s packaging. Can you touch a bit upon how this idea came about and how you’re all building on that?


Sugars: Vatican’s creativity as a whole is derived from video games. We were all gamers growing up, we’re gamers today. Fun thing about that PSP: that PSP is the one device on planet Earth that has an 8-bit version ‘Sole Impulse’ on it. It’s not anywhere on the internet, downloadable, or listenable, but it’s on that PSP. Whoever has that PSP has something that no one else does. Gaming is a part of this band’s identity and it will continue to be in the future. There are other things we’re working on that will be super dope when they drop. In terms of the PSP, there’s a bit of nostalgia there. It’s a dead console and they aren’t even in production anymore. I personally think the PSP was released too early. If it would’ve been released today, it would’ve been awesome and bigger. That’s neither here nor there, but we’re going to do more of that. It’s a call to doing things related to the stuff that we grew up on. It’s just all very sick for us to be able to do all of this.



Absolutely. Again, it’s one of a kind. The 8-bit intro to the ‘Fractured God’ video really captures who Vatican is in essence. Though I tend to ask bands what some of their favorite album covers are, let’s switch it around given the big video game influence here. What are some of your favorite video game box covers across time that perhaps even introduced you to a new game or captivated you in a way that made you experience it in a different manner?


Sugars: I have three video game covers that come to mind instantly. The first is Devil May Cry 3 because Dante looks so epic.


The second would be Ninja Gaiden 2 on the Xbox 360. It’s so dope. He’s in that field amidst a katana graveyard with a giant scythe in one hand and claw-esque ninja weapon on the other hand. It looks so epic.


The last one would be one Halo 2, simply because I was a high schooler when this came out. I have to pay respects.


I’m surprised you didn’t say anything from Yoji Shinkawa.


Sugars: Metal Gear is definitely up there. Metal Gear Solid 3, that’s a legendary game cover. Metal Gear Solid 2 is also really cool. Metal Gear Solid 4 is awesome. I’d also say Death Stranding has a pretty cool game cover with Sam crying in the rain. That’s a game that people love or hate. For the meme, I’m going to say that Vatican is the first Strand-type band. Vatican is a Strand-type band, a never before seen walking simulator.

Yoji Shinkawa
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2002) by Yoji Shinkawa

I completely missed out on that one since I was Team Xbox during that era. Luckily, there's the Director's Cut version for the PS5 coming. In closing, Mike, shows are slowly becoming a thing again and you have your first one set for this summer in Atlanta where audiences will have their first chance at ‘Become A New God’ in the live setting. How do you hope to translate the brimming energy to the live stage, especially at a time where there’s much anticipation to hit up a show?


Sugars: This goes back to our core plan of leveling up in every single way, but we’re pretty much in the gym all together. We go as a whole unit to the gym for like an hour, hour and a half for about six days a week. The moment that we step back on is a moment where we have to show out. We need the band to go back at 200%. We’re going to go beast mode, truly. We plan on going nothing short of ape. I’m excited and the rest of the guys are excited to get back on stage. Atlanta was where Vatican played last before the pandemic hit, so it’s cool that we get to come back and play our first show there. It’s a bit different now because I’m the new guy, but I’m excited. I feel like I’m stepping back into something and that’s really cool.


You’re kicking things off right where they ended, on a new level.


Sugars: Exactly. We have a place here and we belong. We’re going to bring it to a new level.

Become A New God is available now via UNFD. Order your copy HERE.

vatican
Cover art by Dominic Pabon