Cattle Decapitation – Interview with Travis Ryan

29th October 2019
Interview by Jesse Edwards
Interview with Travis Ryan: Vocals

Before their packed out show in Birmingham, The Independent Voice got the chance to catch up with Cattle Decapitation’s lead vocalist, Travis Ryan, to talk about the current tour, his vocal techniques, and the new album Death Atlas!

The new album Death Atlas is due for release on November 29th, and there’s already been some preview tracks released online. Are these representative of what’s to be found throughout the rest of the album?

TR- What we do with the first tracks that we release from the album is to try and give people a broad taste of what’s on offer, but it doesn’t really have all of the peaks and troughs that are found throughout, it’s a journey that’s meant to be listened to front to back; you don’t have to, but the last few records have taken that into account.

Does the new album feature quite prominently in the set list for this tour?

TR – Oh god yeah, we’re doing like 5 or 6 songs from the new record tonight, so it’ll be a bit awkward until the album comes out, this is the “global warm up” tour, so we’re giving people the preview.

It seems that, with the last couple of albums having featured a cleaner production, you guys have really elevated yourselves to the next level – is this the general feeling amongst the band?

TR – Yeah, it took a while for me at least to realise the drastic shift that there was, but that’s the way the new record is the way it is, I think we found our sound. I mean, To Serve Man, Humanure, even The Harvest Floor, we were trying to find our sound, and then we started working with producer, Dave Otero, and that was the tipping point.

It feels to me like the song writing has also developed at the same time…

TR – Well there may also be personnel reasons leading to the shift also, not so much Monolith of Inhumanity and beyond, but leading up to The Harvest Floor, I think that’s the album where the song writing drastically changed – that was one dramatic shift.

Was there a unanimous decision within the band to introduce a more melodic style into your music?

TR – Well, pretty much, we all just like that kind of stuff. We’re all into slightly different kinds of music, but all can agree on stuff that we like collectively, and emotionally driven music is maybe something that we’re all more into.

It seems that you have a pretty eclectic taste in music yourself, I specifically recall you wearing a lot of Magma t-shirts during interviews, is that the kind of stuff that you’re listening to and drawing influence from?

TR – Oh yeah, haha, they’re one of my favourite bands. Belisaro and Dave are really into the more progressive metal, I’m more into the 70’s prog, Mahavishnu Orchestra, stuff like that, obviously Magma, all their offshoots, the whole Zeuhl form of prog rock, I guess you could say, but I’m just glad it’s not so hard to find a Magma T-shirt anymore: back in the 90’s when I first heard of them I never saw any of that shit, and now metalheads are listening to them and I’m like “alright, now I can buy some merch!”

I definitely get a progressive feel from the more recent song writing, you went from traditional death/grind to inserting some really creative elements into the mix…

TR – A lot of it is not being afraid to try something new. If you’ve got 5 people in a room and one of them is a producer who’s there to put his stamp of approval and you’ve got people into different things who all care about the end product, it’s almost gotta be right if it’s gone through all of those different people.

And you continued to apply this logic to the song writing for Death Atlas?

TR – I feel like Death Atlas is where we’ve really been trying to get to. In my mind, this is where I really wanted to be and I didn’t even realise it. It’s an emotionally rocky album, a lot of depressing dark shit, that’s my jam dude, we’ve become really good at going out on a limb. In fact, this album I’m actually a fan of – I love hearing it!

That’s interesting, I’ve heard you say before that it’s very hard to be a fan of your own music, that it’s easy to be proud of it, but not so much a fan…

I think it’s another thing to be able to say “you’re just regular Johnny walking down the street listening to this thing – are you a fan of it?”. For me, I’ve always drawn a distinction between the two, especially when you’re doing this as a job, it’s very easy to be doing something just to be doing it, but I can honestly say that this is a genuine from the heart record and it’s my favourite one.

The last album The Anthropocene Extinction was a real showcase for what I’d describe as your ‘extreme soprano’ vocal style we heard introduced on Monolith of Inhumanity, how did that style come about?

TR – Monolith of Inhumanity was when the band began to write more traditional verse/chorus structured songs, which is weird because the vocal style is very un-traditional. But writing stronger vocal melodies is something that encouraged me to even try those kind of vocals.

How do you refer to that vocal style in the studio?

TR – We just call it “the melodics”: I do all of those first so they’re not degraded by the harsh vocals because that’s what’s gonna happen by the end of the 4/5 days it takes. It’s a shredded mess in there, so the stuff that’s a bit more delicate than the gutterals gets done first.

The gutterals take a lot of technique. I don’t have this big chest to work with so I had to develop a technique of my own, which is why I started doing death metal vocals in the first place. I realised I had developed this technique based off of hearing Broken Hope, Bill Steer, Carcass with the real gravely and guttural sounds and then it just blew-up with brutal death metal in the 90’s and now everyone’s fuckin’ doing it.

But you’ve got real variety in your vocals, which is what keeps things so fresh, so many different ranges, especially with the melodic screams that have crept in over the past few albums.

Yeah, last couple of albums for sure, we started working with a producer, Dave Otero, he could really bring that out. I’ve always tried that kind of thing since The Harvest Floor but I was never content with the way things sounded when I tried doing them, they just sounded buried and I didn’t go full force and think, “I’m gunna make some notes here”. I didn’t do that until Monolith of Inhumanity where I thought “fuck it, I’m gonna put both feet forward”, it had always been just a layer in the background.

Monolith of Inhumanity seems to have a sprinkling of it, but it’s not brought to the forefront…

TR – Well, I brought it out more I suppose on The Anthropocene Extinction and the new album is where it really found its footing – it made sense.

Was there a sense of ‘testing the water’ on Monolith?

TR – Totally, I’ve been doing that since Karma Bloody Karma, but it didn’t’ really pop through and get to where I was really comfortable doing it. But I didn’t really feel comfortable doing it until Monolith of Inhumanity, that’s where I really thought “I’m gonna do this”.

Was there any trepidation with how you’d be able to replicate it within the live environment?

TR- Well you see, I’ve never been worried about that. I come from the school of Glen Benton and Jeff Walker-Bill Steer kind of combo, they do the lows and the highs, sometimes they overlap, and I would do the same thing. That’s where I developed this really tonguey-scream vocal, trying to replicate doing the low and the high at the same time, so I could give the live scenario the same kind of flavour that it has on the record. But all that ended up doing was coming up with a whole new style, so instead of trying to do the low and the high at the same time – the bear and the snake, I call it – I have this whole new vocal style which came from that. It’s all just been an evolution that came from playing live so many different times.

So you feel that playing live helps to progress your vocal style?

TR – Yeah, you play so many shows with different scenarios: shitty PA’s, different sized venues, house parties, festivals, and everything in between, you just pick up techniques along the way to make things sound good in different environments and then magnify them in the studio.

The first time I saw you guys live I was really struck by just how true to the record your vocals were. I was looking at your schedule for this tour, it’s pretty full on, how do you preserve your vocals and manage to do that every night?

TR – I don’t, and that’s why you’ll see some videos where I sound like shit, you know, I’m probably on day 30 trying to do 6 different vocal styles up there – give me a break! But because of that the live show takes on its own thing.

It’s a unique experience each night?

TR – Yeah, I mean nobody wants to see someone just play the album, there’s a balance between the two, as nobody wants to see something drastically different. I’ve been at shows thinking “this doesn’t sound shit like it’s supposed to”, but somewhere in between is what I aim for.

Has there ever been any talk of re-recording any of the albums pre-Monolith with Dave Otero?

TR – I did actually hit up Metal Blade to gauge the interest in re-recording To Serve Man and to see if that was something they would do, but they generally thought it would be a bad idea, I mean, they’re only looking at it from a business point of view.

Well from a fan’s perspective it’s an interesting prospect, I’d particularly like to hear a collection of choice cuts off those earlier releases with the current production values.

TR – Well we’ve learnt so much since those albums were recorded. I mean, To Serve Man was around 18 years ago, but the production of them is not what we were really going for.

Since Monolith of Inhumanity, I think you guys had been the same unit until Derek left last year?

TR – We brought Belisaro on board for the writing of Death Atlas and that helped change things as well.

And you are now the only member who’s been present for all of the 9 albums?

TR – I guess, yeah, and I’m not even an original member.

I’m sure Belisaro was playing with you last time you toured through the UK?

TR – Oh yeah, he’s been with us for a few years but this is the first album where he contributed to the writing. Olivier lives in Montreal, but by the time he came on board the writing was pretty much done. It’s a miracle, this record is testament to the musicianship within the band, it was written with Dave coming down for 3 days a month. We wrote 3 days a month over a year, that’s how we wrote this album. It’s jaw dropping to me, I’m a drummer myself and I’ve written albums, but I’m honoured to be able to play with these guys.

It seems that you guys just keep raising the bar with every album, is this something that comes from within the band to push each other, or is this more of an individual drive that you all have?

TR – Well timing has a lot to do with what makes something pop. Sometimes people romanticise about a certain album, and it’s not because it’s some amazing piece of art, it’s because it hit them at a certain time in their life. I think that’s what Monolith of Inhumanity did for us, people were so wrapped up in the hype that the album gained this reputation, but I think The Anthropocene Extinction destroys it. It’s always going to be part musicianship, but a lot of it is timing. We’ve had time on our side the past 10 years, there’s plenty of bad ass musicians doing bad ass stuff and it just goes unnoticed.

If Monolith of Inhumanity was your time, do you feel like Death Atlas will serve as your next springboard?

TR – The way you use the word springboard is pretty apt. What I’ve seen from the outside looking in is that we opened the door with The Harvest Floor and it’s just been going up since then. It’s also how the industry works, there’s not many bands that pop straight out of the gate. We began to pop in the grind scene, they were busy doing the Locust thing and it didn’t really solidify until we signed with Metal Blade, that’s when we all felt like we could really do this.

Would you say that the new album is Cattle Decapitation’s crowning achievement?

TR – Now I would, I remember saying the same thing for the last album, I mean I like Human Jerky, but we’re now so far removed from that, we’ve been removed from that for almost 20 years. That’s pure nostalgia and I’m just thinking about how I felt when I first heard myself on a record for the first time, seeing the liner notes etc, so I have nostalgia for earlier albums, but Death Atlas is by far the best thing we’ve done musically to this point and hopefully that’s obvious upon listening to the record.

Well thank you for taking the time to talk with me tonight, we can’t wait for the new album!

TR – Thank you, dude!