What Does it Really Take to Be a Death Metal Vocalist?

Most head bangers realize what separates death metal from other sub genres is the vocal component. Something undeniably demonic sounding, and downright inhuman is what makes death metal music a cohesive force, leaving listeners wondering just how the sounds could be human.

The Weekly got to catch up with four prominent extreme metal singers to get the low down on how their throats work, what it’s like actually singing for a death metal/grindcore band, and just how damaging the lifestyle of constant touring can be on the body. Death metal is fun for the fans, but from the musicians’ perspectives, it’s also way tougher than it looks.

Nile (Karl Sanders)

Sure, if you say Nile is a death metal band you’d technically be right. But you’d also be missing the point. Nile’s music is aggressive, technical as hell, dark, full of speed and mysticism that you might not expect from an extreme metal band, and to confine them to the label of only playing death metal music seems restricting for a band, considering they don’t use the constant bloody, macabre imagery of guts and dismembered corpses, but of mummified Pharaohs, incantations from the Book of the Dead and other ancient majestic tales from Egypt. Vocalist Karl Sanders told the Weekly about staying healthy on tour 300 days out of the year, and how he has no formal education or training in Egyptology, but does research for the lyrics that are within each Nile album.

How do you keep healthy when you go on tour to maintain your voice for each show?

Nile (Karl Sanders): Staying healthy while on the road is such a big deal to all of us. I drink room temperature water before each show, it can’t be cold. For my throat, I try to do some medium length vocalizations like some actual singing real singing for a minute or two as well before we go on stage each night. After that and the water, I am usually good to go and start the show.

As a vocalist what are some of the most challenging things about touring with a death metal band?

I find what is challenging on tour, especially in the winter is losing your voice when you get sick. Everyone gets that tour flu, really its inevitable. First you get that sinus drainage, it goes into your lungs, you start to get a hacking cough, and of course a sore throat, and the works which is never fun. It gets tough night after night to deliver consistent vocal performances. Some days your voice is just shot but you just gotta get up and do the show. The show must go on. You just get up there even if you can’t talk you still have to do the show no matter what.

How do you keep healthy while on tour?

I take lots of vitamin C, get as much rest as I can, and water it’s the most important thing. Water and sleep are essential. Touring disrupts your normal sleeping patterns, and as a vocalist you don’t get a chance to let your body or vocal chords heal, you just go on performing and playing each night, with minimal sleep sometimes. It’s not always easy but we manage.

Have you had any type of voice lessons or vocal training?

I had normal vocal training in school, and was in chorus class a couple years. I also took a few private singing lessons. But learning to sing death metal is another thing entirely it took a while for me. I really learned to sing by singing along with Napalm Death, Morbid Angel and Cannibal Corpse, loud over a boombox; I just did it over and over again practice makes perfect even when it comes to death metal.

How do you come up with lyrics for Nile? Do you know how to decipher Hieroglyphics?

I do a lot of research for the lyrics and songs we write with Nile. But, when it comes to the language, I have to get out my reference books, I am not that good. I can’t decipher on my own yet. I am a death metal guitarist first and foremost. I’m also a touring musician. To be a full on Egyptian Scholar is a full time position in itself. There are only so many hours in the day, and so many things you can be Godly at. Playing guitar and writing songs is enough for me.
Cattle Decapitation (Travis Ryan)

Two decades ago, these San Diego based extreme metal miscreants were thrown into the abyss of underground death metal grindcore, with a slight variation. Not overtly political, the band did take the gore, blood and horrific subject matter to a new level, as the name suggests. Militant vegans and animal rights activists might connect with the band, if not for the skull shattering grindcore, for the songs, albums and lyrics focused on giving humans a taste of their own medicine, when it comes to the slaughter, testing on, and outright torture of animals.

To say this music is bleak, violent and graphic is a huge understatement. Travis Ryan, the band’s longtime vocalist, took time to chat with us about the ills of being sick on tour, and how he views his lyrics during live shows.

OC Weekly: Do you think that people pay attention to your lyrics during a live show even though you can’t really understand from just the sound of your vocals?

Travis Ryan: I see a lot more people knowing the actual lyrics, but up until the last couple records, the kids up front would just be mouthing nonsense that doesn’t at all match up to the lyrics. Basically, it’s obvious they don’t know the lyrics OR, they may just be fucking around and having a good time. I make a big deal out of pronouncing as clearly as possible. Sure, there’s more brutal parts where I just let the toilet bowl go and don’t care if the lyrics read to the listener, but for the most part, I try to be as meticulous as possible with the pronunciation. I want people to know I’m actually saying something, there’s nothing worse than a death metal band that has no lyrics. What is the guy doing up there then? That just seems absurd to me. As if at one point the band just said “whatever, its death metal, just growl or whatever”. Well, that’s a good way to suck and I’d much rather have it mean something.

Being a vocalist, do you find you are more susceptible to throat/voice problems?

Yes, this is completely true. I sound like a broken record because I always say this, but when I get sick, it’s my upper respiratory system and tracts that get irritated, and that’s my instrument! The rest of the guys can get the flu and play through a set, sick as dogs and feeling like hell of course, but at least it’s not their instrument that’s being affected the whole time. It’s like a guitar player trying to play with infected razor cuts all over his fingertips. Shitty thing is, I sound pretty decent when I’m sick and my highs are much better. Go figure. I’ll take vitamins basically but it’s really unavoidable to get sick on tour. I’m almost always the first one to get sick as well. Being sick on the road is one of the most miserable things you can go through and I fucking hate it. Happens basically every single tour. Out of the 45 or 50 tours we’ve done, I’ve managed to do them unscathed only a handful of times.

Phobia (Shane Mclachlan)

As part of the local underground metal/punk community for now over two decades, OC grind masters Phobia have been pummeling out a vicious, caustic urgent brand of death metal meets punk known as grindcore, making them a perfect crossover band, since fans of both punk and metal love and respect the band. With a strong DIY work ethic and street credibility among peers and fans, Phobia’s auditory assault has been raging against the system of greed, animal cruelty, corruption and wars for profit, since day one. Lead singer Shane Mclachlan took time to speak with the Weekly about his warm up routine, or lack thereof, and the health benefits of being a grindcore singer.

OC Weekly: What do you do before shows to get your voice ready?

Shane Mclachlan: I really don’t have a set routine when we play shows or anything, I believe my vocal cords are pretty much molded to my style now, If I do warm up before a show, it’s usually with a single shot of whiskey, then I hit the stage and just grind! I drink a bit, but it doesn’t affect it at all, and after doing it for so long, your body adjust to your habits and it becomes immune and adapts.

How do you keep healthy while on tour? Does being in a grindcore band offer any health benefits?

Phobia: First, you need to take care of yourself, eat well, try and get sleep. Most times, while on the road it can be very hard and unhealthy, so you basically need to watch what you do, keep your body in shape. I would recommend to any touring bands, to definitely bring your own microphone and stay away from bad habits like smoking, fast food, excess booze or drugs; eating right can be challenging on the road as well. As far as being in a band like Phobia, I think it can be very therapeutic and very healthy in a lot of ways. Personally, being an expressive person, I get a lot out of it, it heals my mind and puts my negativity at rest.

Abysmal Dawn (Charles Elliot)

From Los Angeles, Abysmal Dawn was brought to life by death metal guitarist Charles Elliot, a dozen years ago. Elliot, has managed to create a name for himself with Abysmal Dawn, but previously over the years played in bands like Rise, Inhuman Visions and several others. With Abysmal Dawn, the music is a mix of modern melodic death metal that brings together the sounds of bands like Death, Morbid Angel, Suffocation, Dissection, and even Fear Factory, with a similar dystopian motifs and albums. Abysmal Dawn play rapid, unrelenting and technical metal with melody, and hints of black metal.

OC Weekly: Do you think that it’s easy to replicate the sounds made in studio for death metal bands, in a live setting?

Charles Elliot: Yes it can be pretty difficult at times. Lack of sleep and stress aren’t always the best things for your vocals. Talking to fans and having to yell over loud music at our shows isn’t great for them either, and I do that a lot. We played an outdoor festival recently and just being outside in a dry environment made it a lot harder to sing as well. Still, I always make it make it work.

Do you any rituals to warm up your voice before you play each show?

 No, not really. I just try to just drink a lot of water before we play. Maybe sometimes, I might do a little sort of monk style humming overtones and a couple of James Hetfield impersonations to warm up my vocal chords. But that’s pretty much it.

Do you have any tips for other bands, to staying healthy on tour? Do you keep healthy especially while on tour?

I try and eat balanced, take my vitamins, drink lots of water and work out. If I feel something coming on I might take some extra zinc or vitamin C supplements. It’s always best to get vitamins from food as much as possible though. Also, believe it or not, drinking booze actually helps to alleviate stress and kill bacteria either from the local water supply or just the filth that you’re living in for a month plus. I just try not to over do it.

Do you think just anyone has the ability do death metal vocals?

Abysmal Dawn(Charles Elliot): Everyone but Stephen Hawking. 

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