Interview: Travis Ryan (Cattle Decapitation)
California’s Cattle Decapitation is the only metal band that’s ever made me cry while seeing them live. Tears aren’t the first thing that spring to mind when thinking of the band’s mixture of brutal deathgrind and socially conscious lyrics, but much of that emotion comes from vocalist Travis Ryan, whose emphatic live performances and unique vocal delivery made the band’s two latest albums, Monolith of Inhumanity and The Anthropocene Extinction two of the most affecting albums to come out of the Metal Blade factory in years. I spoke with Ryan after his set at Seattle’s El Corazon and out came the waterworks.
You’re the only metal band that’s ever made me cry. Am I alone?
Ladies were crying during our song “Your Disposal.” This was in Czech Republic. Never had [seen that], until that moment I think, I just never really... people would come up and say, "Oh, good show," or whatever. But I never had that feeling that they really, really gave a shit the way we've seen some kids over here do. These ladies are crying, and I'm like, "Okay, that's a reaction I've never seen before." I love when that that happens. When I was at Magma, I wasn't ‘crying,’ but there was snot coming out of my nose, tears coming all out of my eyes, just pouring, and sweating profusely. I had had one beer, so I wasn't drunk. I wasn't fucking high on anything, really.
Your band is on a hot streak right now, which is kind of unusual because it's what, 17 years into your career?
Yeah, well, 1996.
That doesn't happen every day. Bands seem to be finding themselves and then right after that breaking up.
Yeah, we've gone the other direction there. I'm a first three [albums] kind of guy. I usually like the first three of the band. So most bands don't go the other direction, where they put out their better shit later, I guess. I don't know. I think that's kind of what's happening. But then again, I'm not trying to squander our fucking past. I do like the new stuff a lot more. Every band says, "Oh, the new record's the best," or whatever. And I feel like we can really say that. Even though I have a soft spot in my heart for Human Jerky. I have a soft spot in my heart for some of Karma bloody Karma, and definitely Harvest Floor. I hate To Serve Man.
I don't know who came up with it, the phrase being thrown around is, "Epic grind." I like that, but I hate the word epic.
Well, it's overused, but I still think it's an appropriate term because, dude, I hate this shit too. I hate these labels and all that stuff. It's been overused, but it still means something. When we're discussing parts and they're like, "We wrote this part for you to do that singy shit over," we always refer to it as an ‘epic’ part. Maybe they got it from the internet, I don't know. On the stickers and stuff, on the European editions, it says something about epic grind. I'm like, "That's interesting. We're not a grind band." We just have not been a grindcore band. Maybe Human Jerky, maybe a little bit of that, but that's it.
Not at all?
Grind, to me, just has so many roots in punk and hardcore that we just never really had, I felt. We were trying, Human Jerky and Homovore were our attempts at trying to do death metal. These guys from more of a grind kind of background, attempting to do [A straight death-metal record] or doing whatever they wanted to do. Back then it was like, "This is our version of death metal.” Which, that's the only way to put it back then. I would not call this death metal. Make of it what you will, I don't know. [“Epic grind” is] a misappropriation of the term grind, but whatever.
Well, misappropriation.On the one hand I'm very much about history lessons. I like people being true to their roots, and being true to the root of the term. At the same time, progress happens. If grind once meant something, grind can, in the future, mean something else.
When we throw these terms around, I don't understand why it has to always center around the themes or topics of songs that they talk about. You know what I mean? It's never so much about the music. So much shit is scene-based in the United States, from what I can tell. Everything's got to have this label on it, and there has to be this uniform. I wear it. I wear black pants and a fucking death metal shirt, or a fucking metal tee. Whatever, I do the same thing, but I just don't think in that mindset. I've always listened to so much other different shit. I personally feel that's what people should do.
When I was researching for this interview, I saw the video you guys did after the last record of you and Amoeba Records, in Los Angeles. Your picks were so interesting. You had Diamanda Galas, who I really have only ever heard metal dudes rep. And that you picked Bethlehem was so interesting to me, because Jürgen Bartsch is on “Pacific Grim.”
Bizarre, but that goes in the vein with that band. That's one bizarre fucking band. There’s nothing like it. He was on a Stahlmantel record. He could have gotten a lot of shit. He just doesn't care. I don't think he pays attention. I can see a lot of true metal warriors being like, "Oh, he's in that pussy vegan band's CD," or whatever. But he doesn't pay attention to that shit.
I see that in myself. Me and him are the same in that way. We don't really pay attention. I think we keep our one foot in it, because we want to see the climate and see how things are going, but we don't really buy into any scenes. I hope that that would be one thing that's keeping us doing something different, because all I'm hearing people say is that we're doing something different. Which I'm happy about. I personally don't want to follow any kind of predetermined anything. I think at one time I might have. The only reason I got into this: I want to do real shit. You get older, and things morph, and we're keeping that same edge, but adding different things to it that don't really go together. There's a lot of experimenting going on. We ditch a lot of stuff. This record was a pain in the ass to write. I'll tell you that much.
I think adding clean singing into death metal has become a cliche or trope, but it was such a left-hook to hear you do it. Your singing stands apart from most people's normal singing, in the same way that your death metal growling stands apart, in that it's got a theatricality, a sense of menace that is, perhaps, obscure. It's not directly threatening. It hints at some sort of greater darkness.
That's how I want to work. Where to go next, that's the thing, man. On this record we liked what we did on the Monolith, but we wanted to perfect, I guess... not perfect. Dial in that sound a little more. We felt like we've found our sound. One thing we got a lot of shit for over the years is that in a lot of the press, I noticed a lot of... it just seemed like we hadn't found our sound with them yet, or something. Not that we're ever going to cater to anybody, but I noticed a lot more heat coming from there since Monolith, and Harvest Floor. What I like about that is, I think it means they're paying attention to something unique. I pay special attention to the Germans. From what I can tell they like their death metal to be death metal, they like their grindcore to be grindcore, they like their fucking power metal to be power metal. Not too much crossing the streams. They're very meticulous. These are all things I admire about them. I'm not talking shit. Meticulous with their crafts and stuff, but at the same time, been hard on us because we like to go over there and play, but it just took a while for them to come around, I think, in Europe. That's a good yardstick to gauge how, I think, our success is, or what we're doing. If it's successful in terms of, "You did something right." I don't think we need validation like that, really, to continue writing. But it helps, a hell of a lot when people give you the ideas. They tell you, "Oh, I like this, that you did this," or whatever. Well, expand a little more on that next time, or whatever. We make mental notes, but at the same time, half the time I don't know what the fuck people are talking about. I don't know what they're thinking, especially over here.
Before the show I was having a conversation with a friend about how many music listeners are willing to overlook uncomfortable things in lyrics and imagery. Slayer’s use of Nazi imagery, for example. My friend said, the thing is these people forgive it because they don't think you can have great music without there being some sort of dark side to it. I said, "But we're at a Cattle Decap show. This is a band that has all of it, where the music's good, and the message is good, and the lyrics are good, and the image is good. It all works together, and you can go into it guilt-fucking-free." There's no, killing of women in particular. There's no fascism. "Guilt-free" is a loaded term, because of the vegan thing, but one cannot feel guilt about liking Cattle Decap. At least I can’t.
I've always been really easily able to separate a band's message, or whatever they talk about, from their music. There's Christian bands I like, man. I despise Christianity. I just do. I think, I hate to say it, I meet so many nice Christians and stuff like that. There's a part of me, any religion, I just don't understand. I just feel like we're not going to be able to agree on much of anything, if that's the case. Because, dude, if you believe in that shit, I'm sorry. I don't know, I have a whole different philosophy that doesn't have anything to do with a higher being.
There's all sorts of Christian bands that I like. I detest what they sing about, and I will sing along to the lyrics just because I don't give a shit. I know what's in my head, and I know what I like. I know where I'm at, and it's not like I'm going to one day go, "You know what, these lyrics really are speaking to me." It's funny, because this is what I do for my band. This is my part of the thing, but I've always been a pretty damn firm believer that the music comes first. Vocals, lyrics, voices, they will always be secondary. Not so much voices, because a choral arrangement is just another instrument playing. Even with that said, I still think if you're going to sing about something, it should mean something, you know? It should have a purpose. It shouldn't just be monotonous bullshit. But it is a secondary part of the process, too. I know it's weird. I grew up playing drums. I was a drummer.
I didn't know that.
Yeah, I always just, I was too hyper. I wanted to be up front and singing, and I just got a weird personality, I don't know. It's not so much being up front, but I just felt like that was probably more where I belonged. Just delivering some sort of fucked up shit to people. To pepper amongst these guys' music, you know?
I think time has bore that out. You're a good front man.
I hate frontman, man. I hate that word. I just, all these guys despise me. They sound like fucking glorified strip-bar announcer DJs. I just can't fucking stand it. So, it's always going to be different. I don't know, I just react with the crowd. Sometimes I'm totally introverted, and sometimes I put the extrovert out, the clinically kind of a whack-job [persona].
Every time I've seen you, you've been very animated.
Animated? Have they been mostly up here, in Denver, and shit like that?
Because dude, the entire west coast... Denver, for some bizarre reason, I think it's just because you guys have such a badass scene. Everywhere there's a bad-ass scene, we'll do pretty damn... we'll have a fan base. Denver has just always been there for us. I don't know, it was weird. So we'll just go east and you'll have good shows or whatever, but the consistency is where you really realize, "This is somewhere we belong." And then we start recording records there.
Denver's always been amazing. Seattle's always been great. Home away from home kind of thing. Dave even lives here, our drummer lives here now, even.
It's a nice town. I like it here. It's expensive, though. For you to be first, there needs to be second.
That's not what I want. I just feel like that's how it is. I just think that's... our drummer and I have had long talks about this. I just feel like that's the truth. It's not what I want. I would like people to say something and mean something, if they're going to say anything at all. I like instrumental music, man. That's what I started out on as a child.
Some of your songs on your new record really have stuck with me. The lyrics on “Apex Blasphemy.” in particular. I work in a corporate environment, but one that’s tried to do good things for the environment in the various ways, and had those lyrics appeared to me in this specific interaction there: We had someone transfer to our office from Dallas, and I had to explain to her that the plastic binder that you put the stuff in can be re-used after you're done with what’s inside. You can just recycle the paper and then put new paper in. That was a mind-blowing thought. She says, "We've never done that before." I'm thinking, "You've never re-used a non-disposable fucking item?" That was a moment where your lyrics became this thing that drew my life into a kind of sharpness, and a kind of clarity.
You can't trust the general public to know what to do, to understand that. So that's why I feel that it does start with unchecked procreation. When people have a kid, everybody's just like, "Oh my god! So happy for you." And I'm happy that they're happy, and whatever, but there's a part of me that's just like, "Haven't you looked around lately? Twenty-five years from now, what's this person's life going to be like? Really?" Nobody's thinking about that. I think that's fucking weird. My wife and I, luckily, I found this person that... we talk about this all the time. She's like, "I don't fucking get it either."
I'm not going to fucking sit here and tell people, "You know what? Fuck breeders, adopt animals from fucking shelters. Don't fucking go to the mall and buy one." “No, I'm going to go fucking have a kid,” you know? I don't know. I've ranted about this on my Facebook before, and that was met with people unfriending me, people fucking just being like, "Fuck you. I have a beautiful baby boy, and I love that thing." And I'm like, "I'm not, you know, that's great..."
No one's saying you don't love your child. That's not the discussion.
That's not the point. I'm saying, fuck, man. Look around. I'm not doing it. I'm not fucking going to do that to somebody.
It seems like a sort of existential cruelty.
Something's got to really change. Something's got to fucking turn around. I'm already 40, it's past... I'm too old to have a fucking kid anyway. Whatever. I just think it comes back down to people saying, "Oh, there's plenty of... there's room for seven more billion." Sure, but that's not how it works. No one's going to move out to the middle of fucking Death Valley.
The resources need to come from somewhere.
Exactly, exactly. So that's just not how it works. Those areas of the world aren't sustainable, and then there's no infrastructure to build it. Just not how it works.