Screaming Bloody Gore #1: Jon Chang (Gridlink, Discordance Axis, Hayaino Daisuki)
Metal loves technique. If you want to shred, you must study and practice. Those who would take up the axe or the drumsticks and learn the discipline have plenty of resources to turn to: interviews with musicians, tablature books, explanatory Youtube videos, and so forth. Those who would seize the mic, though, are often left in the dark. This series aims to shed some light on metal's growlers and screamers. In it, we will sit down with these talented individuals to discuss how — and why — they do what they do.
Some metal vocalists become legends by virtue of their distinctive voices. Decidedly fewer manage the same feat by writing excellent lyrics. Some become stars simply by being in the right band at the right time.
Jon Chang has ascended to the pantheon for all three reasons. His painful shriek is one of the most identifiable harsh vocal tones in metal history. His lyrics, which draw on anime and video games as much as they do on his emotional struggles, were both deeply transgressive and massively influential to the grind scene that they burst onto during the '90s. And all three of his bands — Discordance Axis, Hayaino Daisuki, and Gridlink — have driven the genre forward and excelled in the process. Gridlink's new album Longhena may be Chang's strongest musical effort to date, but it will also likely be his last. Though the album doesn't come out until February 19th, Gridlink has already dissolved, and Chang has no plans to return to music.
Chang, a lifelong New Jersey resident, describes himself as "a really confrontational asshole" who has "a very difficult time communicating with people in general." Perhaps he is in person. But over the phone, he was funny and articulate as he reflected on his two-decade career in music.
How do you think Longhena stacks up against your past work?
From my perspective, it’s the best album I’ve been involved in. It’s one of the most exciting records I’ve heard in a long time. As a career-ender, I’m very happy with it.
When I started doing new bands, Gridlink was basically an accident. It came later, because [Gridlink guitarist] Takafumi [Matsubara] was doing a new grindcore band that was different from his other band Mortalized. I loved Mortalized, but I wanted to do a heavy metal band. We spent a fair amount of time writing the first Hayaino Daisuki record and trying to figure out what the sound was gonna be for it. We tried with more Dragonforce-style vocals and it never sounded right. We had a lot of trouble finding a drummer who play the songs the way we wanted them to be played. But Hayaino Daisuki was still the more exciting project to me for a while.
Ironically, given how against digital recording I used to be, the digital recording we did on the Longhena album kind of makes it the standout of the crew. You can hear all the stuff we’re doing; it has a very aggressive sound to it; it works from start to finish. It still resonates very strongly for me. I’ve heard from a lot of people that it represents a different approach to grindcore. I feel like we did the same thing on Orphan, but you can't really hear it because of the recording. Now the idea has matured since it’s the second time we’re doing it.
To answer the question, yes: Longhena is the best thing I’ve done in my career in music. Like [Discordance Axis's] The Inalienable Dreamless, I didn’t have to compromise one part of my vision, and we were able to get exactly what I thought it was going to sound like. I wouldn’t change a fucking thing on that record. It’s been about five months since we recorded it, and I still wouldn’t change anything on it.
How did you end up doing harsh vocals? How old were you?
The first band I was in, I was 13 or 14 years old. It was pre-high school. It wasn’t good at all. It was in some dude’s basement with a guy I saw once or twice a year. We made a 14-track demo in maybe ten minutes, recorded on someone’s shitty boombox. It was a terrible, terrible piece of shit, but as 14-year-old kids, we were pretty excited about it.
I started playing with Rob Martin in 1991. The band was initially called Sedition, but eventually became Discordance Axis. It was easier to do the darker Goonies vocals at first, but as time went on, those almost completely disappeared from my repertoire. It took a really long time for me to get the screaming stuff to sound good.
You have a very distinctive vocal tone. How did you settle on that delivery?
I’ll be honest: it happened organically. I used to practice and develop my chops by driving around in my car and blast S.O.B. records, and just screaming along with them. During the day, the apartment building I lived in would basically be empty, and I would just turn the stereo up and start screaming along with it. That’s basically how I learned to get to a starting point.
Of all the people who’ve had the most influence on how I started singing, I’ve ironically never met, talked to, or even tangentially encountered Lee Dorian, who’s probably responsible for more of it than anybody. For years, I was really good friends with Seth from Anal Cunt, and I was really good friends with Tottsuan from S.O.B.. We used to talk about this shit all the time. We’d ask: “How do you sing? How do you do this? How do you do that?” And we’d try to figure out how to do it better.
Seth had a whole thing where he’d stick his hand under his arm while singing, because he said that for him, it was basically his positive chi. He never said it that way, of course, but that’s how I would express what he was trying to say. That’s what his body had to do to generate that sound. I did it for a while too, and it really worked.
There was this three-man band called Borbetomagus, who started in the late ‘70s and did what would eventually be called noise music. They would call themselves free jazz or experimental jazz, but they were the guys who inspired Masami Akita to go do what he did with Merzbow. They were way ahead of the curve. We did DA shows with those guys, and even our audience couldn’t take them half the time. I bring them up because I remember Jim Sauter (saxophone) telling me about how they came up with the idea for the band, and the weird stuff they’d do with saxophones. I used to listen really carefully and use that information to figure out how to do other things with my voice. They were really creative people; there was a lot to learn from them.
Ultimately, it boils down to being organic with your body language. That’s how I figured out how to do those vocals. One of the reasons I used to jump around and do so much crazy stuff live was to keep my body relaxed. You can’t do all that shit and be all tense. So many things come down to relaxation: fighting, playing guitar, playing blastbeats on drums.
I read in one recent interview that you stumbled across “proper” singing technique early in Discordance Axis’s career. Can you elaborate on what you meant?
Like I said — it’s about being relaxed and breathing right. I don’t really have a concrete solution or description for it; my body just figured it out. When you’re able to hold a scream for a long time, it’s because of breath. It’s all coming through my chest; it’s not my vocal cords. I’ve done shows where I was sick and completely hoarse, but when you watch the video, you can’t tell, because when I’m singing, it’s coming from a different part of my body.
Do you do any vocal exercises?
No. I prepared for of these Gridlink records by practicing alone, with an iPod run through a speaker, once a week for about twelve to sixteen months. That’s how every one of them was done, and that goes for the Hayaino records too.
What’s your approach to writing lyrics like? Do you assemble them first and match them to songs, or vice versa?
It’s a little of both, honestly. If I’m reading stuff or listening to things, and something catches my mind, I’ll definitely make a note of it. But as far as actually constructing songs goes, it’s mostly driven by the music. In the early days of DA, I would write all the lyrics first, and then give a framework to Rob Martin, and say, “Hey, this is what I wanna do. Give me a guitar part that goes along with this.” By the second album, that had gone out the window. Jouhou had a bit of that, but The Inalienable Dreamless had none of that. All the music was written, and then I wrote the lyrics.
How do you choose which parts to sing on and which parts not to? Is that an intuitive decision by you, or is it a collaborative process with the rest of the band?
It’s not collaborative in any way, shape, or form [laughs]. It’s entirely intuitive. I’ve been told on one record that something really didn’t work and so we cut it, and I’ve also been told on some Gridlink albums that some of the raspy vocals on “Scopedog” and that are on “Last Raven” on the new record didn’t work. But they stayed in there. Some people like them and some people don’t. But in the end, it’s completely my choice.
How would you describe the role that vocalists play in extreme metal bands?
The vocalist is always the frontman, right? Sometimes he shares that role with the guitar player. The drummer and bass player will be the background guys, while the guitar player and the vocalist are the foreground guys, if only because they’re at the front of the stage. AC/DC is a great example, and one of the most applicable examples to grind that I can think of. Essentially, every AC/DC song is the same. It’s all variations on that song, though, so it never feels like the same song. As far as the singer’s role in the creative context of the band goes, I think that’s probably different for every band. I don’t think there’s a formula. What you bring to the table is what you bring to the table.
Somebody told me this once, and I thought it was hilarious: “Every band that’s good has someone with their head up their ass.” It’s not necessarily the vocalist, or the drummer, or the guitar player, but it’s a key component in having a band that stands the test of time. You can totally see that in a lot of different groups. Another example, Slayer — the face of Slayer was always Tom Araya, and Kerry King is the one with his head up his own ass.
Have you ever felt limited or constricted by your delivery? Is it ever difficult to express complex emotions by screaming?
When you commit to doing grindcore as a genre, when you say, “I’m gonna embrace the trappings and limitations of what we’re doing, and see how far I can extend those limitations,” you’re taking on the greatest challenge in music in general. In art in general, really. If you think about a painting: it doesn’t move; it just sits in place forever. That’s what it is. What can you put on that canvas that’s going to have emotional complexity and resonate with people beyond the moment?
Some people consider that carefully, and think “I’m gonna create something that will outlive me, that will speak to other people.” I’m personally a lot more selfish than that. I don’t give a shit if my stuff to speaks to anybody, ultimately. It does, and I recognize that fact, and it’s gratifying, but that’s not a consideration that I make when I’m doing things.
If you take that concept and focus it on music and vocals — let’s say that I’m in a metal band. Take that down to another level; say I’m in a thrash metal band, and I’m focused on just making thrash metal. What I’d very quickly find is that there are only so many Reign In Blood-level albums you can write. Not everybody has multiple records like that in them. And then suppose I’m in a grindcore band instead. I’m at the most deconstructed, primitive level of what the genre can do.
I joke that grindcore has a golden ratio. If you think of the albums that are classic grind albums — Napalm Death’s Peel Sessions 1 & 2, Repulsion’s Horrified, From Enslavement to Obliteration — and you use a timer or watch to figure out the ratio of blastbeat parts, thrash parts, and slow parts are on the record, you come up with a formula that’s consistent across every record that I feel like is a real grindcore record. I actually sat down and figured it out as a joke at one point. I’d have to look up exactly what it was, but it was something like 75% blast parts, 20% thrash parts, and 5% slow parts. That even works for Fear of God.
So that’s a very specific trapping. If I’m playing grindcore, it’s gotta somehow fit into that model. So we’re putting all these restrictions on what we can do to express whatever we’re feeling through these records. When I was doing the first two DA records, I was a really angry guy, and that’s all I was trying to get across. I was just really upset. I wasn’t very social; I have a very difficult time communicating with people in general. On The Inalienable Dreamless, there’s more than just anger. There are other things I’m expressing. I might be wrong, but I think that did get through to people, and that’s part of why it endured.
When we came back to do Gridlink years later, the first couple were mostly just anger and frustration. On Longhena, we were doing something different. That’s one of the reasons I like the record so much. It’s hard to make something that has that degree of emotional complexity when you’re working with all of those limitations attached to it.
What’s the most challenging experience you’ve ever had with your voice?
That’s a good question. One of the most challenging things about doing this kind of music for me is the physical shape I need to get into to do the kind of performances that we do. I’m an old guy now. I’m 40. It’s not easy to get out there and do the kind of shows that I do. I’ve seen pictures of the shows where I’m jumping so high in the air that I’m clearing my bandmates’ heads. I remember Steve (Procopio), who had toured with me twice, told me that he’d never seen me jumping that high, even though I weighed 40 pounds more than I did back in the Discordance Axis days. I’m like 200 pounds now, but back then, I maxed out at 160.
Getting back to the point where I can do the live shows and the vocals — trying to relearn things, relaxing, stretching, and all these physical things I need to do in order to execute these performances — that’s the most challenging part. That’s what I’ve had to learn the most about too, honestly.
What’s your favorite recording of your voice?
Either the new Gridlink album or the last Hayaino record. I’m really, really happy with both of those in terms of the cadences. When I go back and listen to my old vocals in the DA days, there’s a noticeable difference with the way I’m able to lock into the music. Some of that is maturity, and some of that is control. Some of that is planning. This goes back to your earlier question about whether I’m happy with Longhena — I express the greatest range on that album, and I was happy with the way I was able to hit things consistently on the record.
My favorite recorded vocal part that I had prior to that was probably the song “Burning Tiamat” on Amber Grey. There’s a part that I hit in the studio that day, and I’ll be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever hit it again since. I’ve done it live close to it, but not exactly the same. When I did it in the studio, everyone was like, “Holy shit, man!”
But as holistic works, I think that Longhena and the second Hayaino Daisuki were my best. They’re consistent. There’s a lot of things happening on both of those records, and I’m just really locked into the music in a way that I’m not on other records. There’s nothing to hide on Longhena or that Hayaino record. Both of them were really challenging to do. There was a greater emotional range on Longhena than on anything else I’ve done.
When I finished recording The Inalienable Dreamless, I was a different person. It was a cathartic experience to write that record. It didn’t just happen, either. I worked on that record for two and a half years, and I was very critical of myself. This is pretty well-known now, but I saw this Japanese anime: Evangelion: Death and Rebirth. We saw it on tour in Japan. When I walked out of that theater, I completely changed my perspective on who I could be and what I could be as an artist from that point forward. The Inalienable Dreamless was a result of that; my professional work changed because of that. My relationships with people changed because of that movie. When we came back to do Gridlink, I didn’t know what to sing about anymore. I didn’t feel the same way I did before.
This feeling has defined the first decade of the 21st century: this sort of blind obedience, this devotion, this unwillingness to question things and think about them on a deeper level, this willingness to be guided by purely anger, and letting that anger influence every decision — whether it’s overspending and buying too much shit or whatever. It’s an inability to understand that things are hard. You don’t get to have good things in life unless you work hard for them. Just putting a sticker on your jacket doesn’t actually change anything. It just makes things worse. If you’re confrontational with people all the time, you’re not gonna really do anything.
With Longhena the ability to express more than that frustration, the ability to take a step back and talk more about myself than about other people, is a big part of what has made that record better, because that’s a big part of that record as well. It’s a personal record that’s unlike anything I’ve done since The Inalienable Dreamless, and it was a hard record to write because of that. It’s the kind of thing I wish that people would do more of. I wish that people would put themselves out there more, because I ultimately think it creates a more rewarding experience. It’s a hard thing to do, because ultimately, some people are going to reject that. It hurts a lot more when people reject you on that level.