Screaming Bloody Gore #2: Dave Britts (Coffinworm)
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 would be difficult to pick out in a crowd. Dave Britts is not one of those. With his mess of blonde dreadlocks and permanent scowl, he would look at home fronting many different breeds of metal act. And indeed, Britts has done it all: death metal, grindcore, black metal, crust, and doom — sometimes all at once, as in his current band Coffinworm.
Though Coffinworm have a well-deserved reputation for ugliness, Britts was easygoing and genial in conversation. He thanked me for my interest in his band and periodically apologized for rambling, typically just after saying something interesting. His humility reflects his degree of experience; Britts has been singing for metal bands for over 20 years, and Coffinworm is his most successful project to date.
Even he channels the traditional metal-frontman attitude from time to time, though. When I asked him how he maintains his voice, he laughed: "Smoke cigarettes, smoke weed, and drink!"
Coffinworm’s first LP came out in 2010. Your bandmate Carl Byers mentioned in a previous IO interview in 2012 that you guys had written a set of new songs and then scrapped them. How did the rest of the writing process go?
We’re very conscientious and have a very high standard of quality. We don’t wanna release something that’s subpar. We’re down to do things that are maybe a bit different from what people expect from us. But we don’t want to abandon the nucleus of the band, nor do we want people who have appreciated us in the past to feel disrespected, if that makes any sense.
Ironically, we ended up bringing back one of those songs that we scrapped. We kind of rediscovered it. Keep in mind that it took a long time for Carl to make the transition from the drum throne to guitars, and for us to learn how to play with our new drummer Chubbz, who did the artwork for the first album. We’re also just a slow-writing band, period. But that’s because we want to make sure that everything is as good as it can be. When we recorded When All Became None, that was the best record that the band could’ve done at that point. I also feel that this new record is the best record that the band could’ve done at this point.
Do you feel that the lineup change played a significant role in putting together a set of songs that lived up to your standards?
Absolutely. Carl was very much a meat-and-potatoes, punk rock drummer, while Chubbz is an absolute beast. And that’s not an insult to Carl; he’s very upfront that he’s a punk rock drummer. But Chubbz is all over the place — he can blast his ass off, double bass, all that stuff. He’s also just a mean bastard of a songwriter in general. There have been times when Chubbz has come to practice with entire songs that he’s demoed, where he’s played the drums, played guitar, played the bass, recorded it all on his 4-track, and burned it to CD for us. He’s a one-man army, period. So bringing him into the fold definitely changed the songwriting process. It took us all as much time to learn to play to him as it took him to learn to play to us, so to speak.
Once we really locked in, it defined the direction that the new material was gonna go, and how the future of the band was gonna unfold.
So on the new record, IV.I.VIII — actually, how do you guys usually say that out loud?
It’s really meant to be written out in Roman numerals, so I generally refer to it out loud as LP2. I’m sure that in time it’ll be referred to as “four one eight,” but we’ve always had a relative aura of mystique about us, so it was a conscious decision to put the emphasis on the music and not on the packaging. Everything these days is so spelled out and so laid out for you, but it just didn’t seem important to us to be super long-winded about things with the title. The first record had its own approach musically and visually, whereas the packging on the second record is very minimal and stripped down. It’s not super obvious what the cover, the title, or the lyrics would mean. You might think that you know what I’m talking about in a given song, but chances are that what you're thinking wasn’t what I meant at all. And I’m not gonna tell you!
That’s the thing — to me, music has always been a dialogue as opposed to a monologue. To this day, every time I get a new record, the first thing I do is open up the lyrics sheet so I can read the lyrics while I’m listening to the music. It creates an experience. I’m trying to give as much to the music as it gives to me. I want to be like we’re having a discussion. That’s what we wanted to do too. We wanted to say: “This record, these lyrics: how do they make you feel?”
You’ve sang in a bunch of bands over the years. How did you get started doing harsh vocals?
Honestly, it was because I couldn’t play an instrument and I really wanted to play music. I wanted to be in bands. The first band I was in was a black metal band from here — I was on one of their demos. That would’ve been in ’91 or ’92. I was just kinda shrieking and it was not particularly great. Then a couple of friends and I started a fake band that played two shows with two different guitar players — just silly grind with yelling over it. The next band that I started — which ironically was with Todd from Coffinworm; I’m harder to get rid of than herpes — we played in this band in his parent’s basement. I wasn’t really doing metal shit then. It was more like [yelps hoarsely]; it was nasty shit. We’d do a song and I’d go outside and puke. I’d come back in, we’d do a song: outside and puke.
Every time I’m in a new band, I try to put my best foot forward and try to do new things. So in each band I’ve been in, I’ve tried not to repeat myself.
What new things do you feel like you’ve done on the new Coffinworm record?
For starters, almost all of the lyrics were written in the studio over the course of the two sessions. Some really serious stuff happened to me personally just before we recorded. When I looked at what I had written previously for the album at the time, it all seemed very, very fake. It seemed like it was written by a different person for a different band, a thousand fucking years ago. It just seemed irrelevant. I tore the lyrics out of my lyric book, which I don’t normally do, and destroyed them. We had already recorded “Instant Death Syndrome” for the split with Fistula, so I already had that. But otherwise, I had my work cut out for me, since I’m ordinarily very meticulous. I like to take time to really approach it like I’m writing a book or something. But this time, I had to come up with everything on the spot. We had a week where we recorded, then a week off, and then another week where we recorded, and that was it. Before that, my lyrics had always been written over long periods — years, in some cases. So that was a huge change.
I don’t know the fuck I’ll ever top that record. I don’t have any children and I’m not married; when I listen to it, I imagine that it’s what giving birth to your first child must be like. I felt extremely proud of the first record, and I didn’t think we’d ever top that one. Frankly, it’s a minor fucking miracle that we even did a second record. With all the shit we’ve been through as a band and as people — I don’t know how the fuck I’ll ever top that second record.
The vibe in Coffinworm’s music is pretty serious overall, but some of the song titles — “Spitting In Infinity’s Asshole,” “Of Eating Disorders and Restraining Orders” — feel a little more tongue-in-cheek. Why the contrast?
Not necessarily. Some might find them funny or tongue-in-cheek, but to me, they’re just the names of the songs. We spend a lot of time thinking about everything we do, and the song titles are no different. We would never add anything to an album just because we thought it was funny or ironic. I fucking hate irony, especially when it’s applied to music. “Of Eating Disorders and Restraining Orders” is pretty much about those two concepts. It’s just another part of how I express myself.
I can only think of one song we’ve ever done where the name of the song has been in the lyrics. Sometimes the title comes first; sometimes the lyrics come first. They’re just another facet of the expression. They’re not necessarily designed to be a contrast to the dark and somber nature of the music — it’s really meant to be another brush stroke in that nature. Or at least, that’s my intent.
Who were some of your early vocal heroes? Was there anyone you ever tried to emulate?
It’s weird, because I didn’t really do low vocals for a long time. I could do them, but they weren’t really appropriate for the bands I was in. I also couldn’t do them very well for long without going hoarse. So really, when I started, I think I was looking at people like LG Petrov from Entombed, Matti Kärki from Dismember — people who had a voice that was low, but still intelligible, and not burpy like Chris Barnes from Cannibal Corpse. I couldn’t do that and didn’t want to. I wouldn’t say that I was trying to emulate those singers, but I’ve always been a huge fan of Swedish death metal, and those are some of my favorites to this day.
When I envision my lows now, I strive to sound like Antti Boman from Demilich — not so much sound like him, I guess, but to convey that feeling where people think, “Man, there have got to be some effects on that shit!” But no, the motherfucker really just shreds his throat and goes that low. If you look at video performances of us, I usually try to hold the microphone from the base. When I go low, it’s not because I’m cupping or doing “cheating” techniques. That’s just how I sing.
You can do a bunch of different things with your voice. How did you develop your chops? Did you consciously develop a variety of tones, or did the process happen organically?
It kinda happened organically, but it was also done out of my desire not to repeat myself. If I’ve already done it once, why do the same thing again? In my old band Black Arrows of Filth and Impurity, I was really coming into my own in terms of being able to go extremely low and extremely high, and going back and forth between the two in the span of a breath of air. When we started Coffinworm, I didn’t want it to be like, “Oh, it’s that same dickhead from that other band.” So I tried to develop more of a mid-range kinda vocal that was raspier and more depraved. I didn’t do so many lows in the beginning of the band either. I used them more for emphasis and punctuation. But on the second record, it’s predominantly either the low shit or me screaming my full head off. Honestly, a lot of it was trial and error — a lot of hanging out in the basement and trying out different shit on the PA.
Coffinworm don’t tour much, but I know you guys have gone out a few times. What do you do to maintain your voice on the road?
Honestly, people ask us a lot why we don’t tour much. There are a multitude of reasons why we don’t. The one time we did a string of shows — I think it was like four or five. It was from South by Southwest back to Indianapolis. By the last night, my shit was shot! I don’t think that people would want to see us after about a week of tour, because I’d sound like shit.
But when I’m in the studio tracking, I’ll have a thing of hot water with honey in it, a thing of cold water, sometimes some green tea, and some form of liquor. Not beer. My voice doesn’t react well to carbonation. There have been times where I’ve had beer and I’m fine, but usually I drink shit like vodka. Not only does it relax my vocal cords, but it doesn’t seem to choke me up the way that beer does.
I think the main thing that I’ve learned is that in the live setting, it’s essential to get a good monitor mix onstage so I can hear myself. I’ve found that when I’d do shows without that, I’d try to compensate for what I couldn’t hear onstage by screaming way too loud, and then I can’t talk at work for the next week. Figuring that out was honestly more helpful to me than virtually anything else I’ve done. Another thing that’s important is to position yourself volume-wise so that you’re loud enough for the crowd to hear you, but you aren’t drowning out the music. And it’s important to try to do everything from the gut as opposed to from the throat.
Have you ever tried doing vocal exercises?
Outside of singing in the shower and in the car? No. I’m sure my neighbors have heard me singing along to Portal or Cianide from outside more times than they’d care to count, but outside of that, not really. Not because I don’t think it would be helpful; I’ve just never done it. That’s probably because of my background — I come from a very musical background, but not a theory or playing background. It was more DIY and punk rock for me. The approach I grew up with was: “Fuck it, we’re just going to try to do it.”
How do you go about placing your lyrics and writing vocal patterns? Is that a collaborative process, or do you choose your vocal placement yourself?
The way it usually works is like this: someone comes up with a riff and records it on a phone. Then whoever recorded it will Dropbox it to everyone, and we’ll all collaboratively expand on it. When the instrumental songs are finished, we archive everything. That’s really saved our ass — like I said earlier, “A Death Sentence Called Life” from the new record was one of the songs we scrapped at one point. So having archived material has helped us on many occasions.
I fucking hate band practice. Probably every singer hates band practice. So when I do go, I usually just pay practice space rent, make some jokes, discuss whatever needs to be discussed, check out any new material we’ve been working on and give feedback, and that stuff. Then, when we get a finished song, I’ll have listened to it a bunch of times at home or in my car and will have come up with patterns. I think that’s how most people work. You come up with a phrasing and a timing — kind of like the outlines to writing a paper in college. The patterns come first, and I practice on those. Then come the timing and the inflections.
One thing I’ve learned by doing this for a long time is that just because you’re the singer in the band, you don’t need to sing on every fucking part. In fact, knowing what parts need to be allowed to breathe is extremely important. Putting little spins on everything — singing a part one less time here, changing the delivery there, that kinda stuff — keeps it exciting and challenging for me too. Listeners find it more rewarding when they notice things like that. Instead of verse/chorus/verse/chorus, it’ll just be like verse/line/line/verse, or whatever. There are no choruses or traditional song structures in our music anyway, really.
Once I get the patterns down and I’m coming up with the lyrics, I try to intentionally put in as much work on my end as I can, to compensate for all the work that everyone else has put in on the music.
How would you describe the musical role that harsh vocals play in extreme metal?
I personally find that on my favorite metal bands and albums, the vocals and music have a congruence, or are complements to one another. That’s why I’ve never been a big fan of most traditional doom metal bands — I like melodic singing a lot, but not really in metal. Conversely, if a band has a vocalist who’s like [guttural fart noises] all over the place, but the music is terribly boring and uninspiring, the vocals can’t compensate for it.
Just as there are many different styles of music under the rubrick of metal, there are also a myriad of vocal styles. I gravitate towards bands that have feeling and heart. There’s something about hearing someone just shredding their voice — it’s almost like you can see their vocal cords disintegrating through the speakers. That’s something that I’ve always found to be a perfect complement to a style of music that should be about extremity, passion, and emotion. More often than not, those emotions are hate and despair.
I’m not saying that other vocal approaches can’t be done well in metal, because they have been and will continue to be. The band A.M.S.G. is a good example. The vocals on their new album are the most whacked-out thing; I still can’t get my head around them. But I think they fit the style of the band perfectly, and I think it adds to what they’re doing.
What’s the most challenging experience you’ve ever had with your voice?
Any time I’ve ever recorded vocals that was not with Sanford [Parker], as well as playing basements — especially basements where people are partying or smoking, or if it’s extremely cold or extremely hot. Those elements take their toll. I remember playing the Albion House in Chicago, and Jesus fucking Christ, it felt like a crematorium. It was packed and it was hot out. You could look on the floor and see a literal layer of sweat that had accumulated. It looked like a kiddie pool. That was just abysmal, because I couldn’t even fucking breathe, but I still had to hold it down and do what I do.
I also had to learn to bridge the gap between handheld stage mics and fixed studio vocal mics. You’ll probably hear more about this as you do more of these interviews, but there’s a dichotomy between the two. When you play live, you hold the mic, so you do different things — you might bend over, or arch your back, or do something with your arm. Bio-geometry to make your job as a singer a little easier. But in the studio, there’s a popper stopper, and you’re singing upwards, and that makes things different. But Sanford is a fucking genius. He’s had so much experience recording different styles of extreme music — the way he has his headphones set up, and his microphones set up, and the way you can hear yourself, is all great. For someone like me, he makes the shit that sucks about recording not suck. He makes it effortless.
What’s your favorite recording of your voice?
It would definitely be off the new record. Probably “Of Eating Orders and Restraining Orders” or “Lust Versus Vengeance.” Every time I hear “Of Eating Disorders,” the hair on the back of my neck stands up.