Now You Know: BlackgateThursday, 13th November 2014
Location: Grand Rapids, Michigan
Style: Power/ Thrash, US style. Unafraid of triplets, double bass, and strong, multi-octave melodic vocals.
Personnel: David Cuffman (vocals); Matt Cremeans (guitar); Roger Victoriousaccordingly (guitar); Zach Flora (bass); Ryan Lunsford (drums)
Latest release: Blackgate EP, 2014 (Self-released)
We all have our gateway acts that lead us into the hallowed halls of heavy metal – that once taken in creates an insatiable thirst for more records, more bands, more live shows, and the fix never stops. For this journalist back in 1983, hearing Iron Maiden for the first time at a friend’s house transfixed me, and this genre for three decades plus ever since has been a never-ending quest to learn more about the best bands, small and large, far and wide.
Another band hoping to open people’s eyes and ears just starting to make a name for themselves in the power/thrash realms is the quintet Blackgate. Thankfully turned onto this band from Warriors of Metal festival organizer/internet disc jockey Datis Alaee, their debut self-titled EP impressed me easily because you don’t hear many bands willing to have this attacking riff presence and be very melodic/musically inclined within the same song structures these days.
Since the band collectively answered these questions, all answers will read as Blackgate – and do not forsake the underground, as you never know what awesome material lurks on the independent level these days.
Dead Rhetoric: Tell us about the formation of Blackgate. When did the band start, how did you guys get to known each other?
Blackgate: The whole thing started with our guitarist, Matt. He moved to Grand Rapids to start a metal band. He winded up running into our other guitarist, Roger, through some Michigan Metal pages on Facebook. Luckily, Roger knows just about everyone in the Grand Rapids metal scene. So he’s the one that suggested bringing in Ryan, our drummer, and David, our singer. We worked on the music and were at the point where we were ready to record and play shows, but we were still short a bass player. So we got our friend Zach to fill the spot. He started out as just a temporary member since he already has another established band (Flood the Desert, which he still is a member of. Check them out too!), but he started having too much fun with us so he decided to stick around.
Dead Rhetoric: How did you come about choosing the band name Blackgate?
Blackgate: Matt had that name picked from the very beginning when he started the band. He’s really into comics so pulled the name from a prison in the Batman comics. Not everyone was in love with the name at first, but nobody took the time to come up with a better one so it just stuck around!
Dead Rhetoric: Did you all arrive at your particular brand of power oriented thrash metal easily or were there many discussions/rehearsals regarding what direction you wanted Blackgate to pursue?
Blackgate: Well Matt had most of the music for this EP already written when he started the band. So the style and direction was there from the beginning. The music obviously changed and evolved as we started to come together and rehearse the songs more. But that Power/Thrash vibe was the direction since day one.
Dead Rhetoric: You have a self-titled EP consisting of 6 songs. How long did it take to pull this material together from conception to recording completion?
Blackgate: Well like we said before, a lot of the songs were already halfway developed when we started. It maybe took about 3 months or so from the start of rehearsing the songs to having them finalized and ready to record and play live. The recording process only took a couple weeks to get about 90% of it down. Then it took a couple months for us to put the finishing touches on it and get the editing and mastering done. We got a little distracted because (we) were playing so many live shows. So all that being said, the whole process from rehearsing to printing the CDs took about 6-8 months or so.
Dead Rhetoric: Were there any challenges or frustrations to work through, and what surprised you most about the EP?
Blackgate: This biggest challenge was paying for it! But besides that, it was the first time some of us had been in a recording studio setting. So it was a learning experience. But since we all had the songs rehearsed and knew them front and back, we were able to lay the tracks down without any problems. The most frustrating part was just finding the time to finish it once we got busy playing shows.
And there weren’t really any surprises to it. We knew what we sounded like!
Dead Rhetoric: What types of lyrical topics/content does Blackgate choose to concentrate on?
Blackgate: We don’t have any specific themes we focus on or messages to preach about. We just write what seems like a good idea at the time. That’s not to say we don’t put time and effort or thought into what we write. We’re just not about preaching for or against anything or telling people how to think. Matt likes comics, so he wrote a couple songs about Batman and Superman. David likes setting stuff on fire, so he wrote a song about a pyro. We don’t have any ground rules or guidelines to our lyrics. Whether or not they work for the song is the only criteria we have for them.
Dead Rhetoric: Your singer David Cuffman has a multi-octave melodic range that I believe helps differentiate Blackgate from other acts who may employ more of a straight screamer or growler. Has this been a positive in gaining a different level of acceptance in your local scene?
Blackgate: The funny thing about David is that he wasn’t even a singer before he joined Blackgate! He played guitar in a band with Roger a while back, and he sang a couple times at practices with that band but that’s it. But from what Roger says, he killed it back then. So when we were looking for a singer, Roger brought him up and said he could sing. So we brought him in to try out. We had him do “The Trooper” by Iron Maiden as an audition song and he straight up killed it! We’re pretty sure David didn’t even know he could sing that (well).
His vocal style is definitely one of the key things that make us stand out in the local scene. Not a lot of local metal bands in Michigan have a singer with a powerful clean voice like his. It fits our kind of old school power/thrash vibe perfectly. So we’re all really glad that Roger heard him sing one time a couple years ago!
Dead Rhetoric: How do you view the Michigan scene at this point in terms of local versus national support?
Blackgate: Well there is definitely more of an audience for national acts that come to town. That’s why they’re national acts. But Grand Rapids definitely has a thriving local scene of its own. There are a lot of great local bands that do a great job of promoting and supporting one another and there is a loyal fan base as well that fill the seats as well. Metal is definitely alive in west Michigan!
Dead Rhetoric: I’m curious to know some of your favorite bands and albums in the metal genre; be it power metal, thrash, or other sub-genres?
Blackgate: We all have our own unique tastes. Ryan is the death metal guy, David and Roger are the power metal guys, Matt is the old school thrasher, and Zach is the Prog guy. But we all like a little bit of everything on top of that so we have plenty of common ground as well. Here are a few of our favorite bands:
Matt – Metallica, Megadeth, Testament, Iced Earth, Iron Maiden
David – Symphony X, Iron Maiden, Blind Guardian, Hypocrisy, Dvorak
Roger – Yngwie Malmsteen, Symphony X, Racer X, Stratovarius, Stormwitch
Zach – Mastodon, Between The Buried & Me, Rush, Cynic, Opeth
Ryan – Between the Buried & Me, Opeth, Gojira, Mastodon, Meshuggah
Of course, those are just the first bands that came to our heads. We could have put about 100 more from each of us if we really wanted to.
Dead Rhetoric: Do you notice a difference between bands from North America versus say European acts, South America, or the Far East?
Blackgate: Well with the Internet nowadays, those regional lines have become so blurred that they almost don’t matter anymore. Sure there are still some differences and biases to certain regions. But at the end of the day, metal is metal. I think most metal heads all around the world listen to a little bit of everything.
Dead Rhetoric: What are some of the short term and long term goals that you’ve set out for Blackgate at this point?
Blackgate: Short term – Keep playing shows and work on writing new songs. Long term – World domination.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you consider the most important factors when it comes to maintaining a successful, happy, and harmonious atmosphere within a band lineup?
Blackgate: Basically, just have fun with it! Sure, you’ll butt heads a couple times with your bandmates about some things, but at the end of the day, we’re just making music with our friends. We want to succeed and we work hard to achieve the goals we’ve set out for ourselves. But if we aren’t having fun with it, what’s the point? We take our art seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. And I think that fun atmosphere among us in the band carries over to the audience when we play as well.
Dead Rhetoric: How are you able to maintain that tricky balance between having a metal life and the personal life in terms of friends, family, and work time?
Blackgate: It’s tough. We spend so much time working on our band, but we’re an independent band so we don’t have a record company paying for everything. If we want to record, or want merch or CDs, we’ve got to pay for it out of our own pockets. That means busting our asses outside of the band so we can afford to keep ourselves afloat. When those band costs start to bleed into your living expenses it’s a real gut check of how bad you want it. It’s sure as hell isn’t easy, but it’s definitely worth it!