For the unacquainted, it might come as something of a pleasant surprise to discover that US death metal outfit Cattle Decapitation are more about animal rights than their mutilation. While only two members of the band – including frontman Travis Ryan – are vegetarians these days (previous lineups saw all members committed to a cruelty-free diet), they’re just as devoted to the cause, and the bulk of their lyrics and album art depict the demise of humankind, usually at the behest of animals.
Take Humanure, for instance: its depicts a cow shitting out some dude that has been devoured. It’s gross, sure, but its none-too-subtle point has been appreciated by the fans of Cattle Decapitation, animal activists and PETA alike.
“I’ve always been a big fan of animals, but in terms of how it came to be part of what we talk about, we sort of pulled it from our love of the band Carcass,” Ryan explains. “They were vegetarian and they mostly sung about medical textbook, terminology kind of stuff and disgusting things to do with death. Their album covers always had people and meat mixed in and that always attracted me. I’ve always been more into bands with something to say, although at the same time, I’m a believer that music is first and foremost and everything else is secondary, but while you’re doing it you may as well make it about something that’s worthwhile. Also, no one else was really talking about it.”
Ryan’s always been something of a groundbreaker in death metal circles for other reasons too. For a start, he sometimes uses clean vocals, which are more akin to a traditionally melodic style of singing as opposed to the guttural, often incomprehensible roar that’s customary of the death metal genre.
“I’m personally into all sorts of different kinds of music and always have been,” he explains. “I really appreciate stuff that can seamlessly blend styles; say a band like Mr Bungle. Bizarre stuff: that’s always been my forte. I brought some melodic vocals to the table, more so just out of boredom and because I’m getting older. I have less and less time on earth to create music, so while I’m doing it I want to be something different you know? Something new. We’ve added a lot more musicality: there are more catchy parts, singing and coherent vocals, especially on the last two albums – but they’re not so much changes as evolutionary points.”
That said, Ryan roars with the best of them. Although, when it comes to that particular topic he lifts the lid on a death metal secret. “Earlier this year we went on tour in Europe with a band called Hideous Divinity and the singer is actually an ear, nose and throat doctor in Italy, specialising in working with vocalists,” he says.
“I did a lot of talking with him and between that and the stuff that I’ve learned from my buddies, I’ve realised that I’m doing the right thing: I’m faking it. I’m not a big scary monster, I just know how to sound like one through a microphone. Where as CJ [McMahon] from Thy Art Is Murder in Australia, he’s this fucking refrigerator of a man. He’s got a gigantic chest and he can do it: he can belt out that shit. Whereas I had to develop techniques back when I was 16 years old.
“I’m 43 this month, so I’ve been doing it for ever and ever now. But honestly between touring as much as possible and experimenting with different house sound systems and monitor set ups, you just develop methods to cheat, if you’re paying attention. I’m longevity minded. I don’t know about anyone else; I don’t know what makes a singer go up there and ‘ARGGHHHH’ yell, because when you yell, you’re just going to lose your voice.
[Australia] was a hard territory to nail down.
“Because I’m in it for the long haul, I realised really early on that the only way this was going to work was to develop a technique that allowed me to do the low guttural vocals. That was the stuff that always made me cough and makes most people cough when they go to do it, but you can employ the same technique to do guttural vocals as high vocals: it’s fakery. Go listen to the vocalists up the side, they’re usually very low in volume.”
Having toured Australia previously, Ryan is genuinely excited about the prospect of returning. In fact, in a recent short doco about the band’s European tour, Ryan nominated Australia as his favourite destination thus far. “A lot of it had to do with the fact that I’ve always wanted to go there,” he says. “To finally get over there was quite an achievement for us and something that I’d personally been trying to make happen for years. It was a hard territory to nail down.”
And sure, the band had a grand old time playing for appreciative Aussie audiences, but it turns out that Ryan’s frothing more over our wildlife. For instance, the local fauna is going off in the background our end during the interview. “Is that a bird making all that noise? Oh my God, that’s awesome. It’s one of my favourite things about out there, the biodiversity.” Ryan’s even cuddled a koala before. When the fact that they kinda stink is put to him, Ryan demurs. When it’s explained that they smell a bit like weed, Ryan has a lightbulb moment.
“Oh, really? I probably smelled more like it than the koala did.”
Cattle Decapitation are playing the Bald Faced Stag on Friday February 16.