Cattle Decapitation – Food For the EarthTuesday, 9th May 2023
Not very often do you find extreme metal artists continually challenging themselves with songwriting and distinctive elements to an established sound quite like what listeners are experiencing for Cattle Decapitation. Known for their proficient abilities on their instruments developed into this progressive death metal/grindcore swirl of chaos, their latest album Terrasite also cultivates layers of ambient, effect-laden guitar elements where vocalist Travis Ryan can be more diverse in his vocal approach. We reached out to guitarist Josh Elmore on a very hectic press day to discuss where the band is in 2023 for this record, the lyrical content that shaped the record up to the last minute due to some personal tragedies, the diverse touring package thoughts beyond building extreme metal to new heights of popularity, serious talk about economics and life skills education for the younger generation, plus bucket list hopes in new territories.
Dead Rhetoric: Terrasite is the tenth studio album for Cattle Decapitation. You mention in the background notes that the previous album Death Atlas was a final statement for that point of the band’s career. How did you maintain the balance between exploration of ambient/textural elements while also keeping things on the path that Cattle Decapitation is known for with this new record – are there conscious decisions that are made as ideas flow and compositions develop for this goal?
Josh Elmore: Yeah, I think as far as the writing process goes there is this push and pull. I may bring in more of the textural, atmospheric elements guitar-wise. There is a lot of stuff on Terrasite where you may wonder if it sounds like a stringed instrument – no, it’s guitar with a ton of reverb and delay on it, me using an e-bow. I have one level that can imitate a mellotron. Mellotrons weren’t very accurately copying what they tried to do, I have a pedal set on lo-fi which can have a delay on the cello effect. I used these things in a bunch of songs. I wanted to bring that more to the forefront, it’s one of the things I do for the music part is to add that. We did that a little bit on Death Atlas, but it’s more fully realized on Terrasite. Anything I can do to add depth to the songs where it’s not going to be overbearing, it’s never going to be the identity of the song. If you heard it and it’s gone, you’d miss it – but if it wasn’t there, you may not be like there is some gaping hole in the song, what does it need? It’s made to enhance and bolster what is already there. I don’t foresee my trajectory changing much, just getting further into that.
I don’t want to be a guitar player that is playing keyboard parts on guitar. I still want to have the fullness to the arrangements, adding things more in a cinematic feel.
Dead Rhetoric: Does it also open up horizons for Travis to try things vocally by taking these chances?
Elmore: Absolutely. Our writing style too, we have been paying a lot more attention to leaving him a lot more space. In the past, the arrangements were super claustrophobic, tons of chaos, a million notes here and there, shifting tempos as well – and that governs what he can do. With this he can do as many vocal iterations as possible within this little part, but we weren’t giving him these expansive parts where he can stretch beyond his vocal extremities in these songs. We would go into the writing room, recognize the parts he can kick back on and give him more space. For us as instrumentalists, we weren’t writing with the vocals in mind. Maybe ten years ago, we started being conscious of that. We let him stretch, and in the more atmospheric stuff he reacts to that. It’s a call and response, feeding off of each other. If I create something more mournful, layering it, he’ll respond to that to complete that vibe. Between him and I, when we go to the studio, I won’t know what the vocals sound like until he’s recording. A little time after, I will think about him doing this one thing to enhance what he’s doing. It makes the parts that much sweeter.
Dead Rhetoric: “We Eat Our Young” and “Scourge of the Offspring” are the first two singles from the record. How does the process work when it comes to which songs to premiere for the record – and what do you consider some of the more impressive songs that stick out to your ears this go around?
Elmore: We usually only do two songs as singles but this time there will be five. We had to approach things a little differently. If we are going to have x number of singles, we had to be more strategic. It’s not like ‘here is the song’. We wanted to be mindful of that. “We Eat Our Young” as the first song we released, it’s the most stripped-down song on the record, and the more traditionally Cattle-styled song on the record. We were kind of reacting to people who may say ‘oh, they are going to put out the song with the goblin vocals on it’. We wanted to do one that was savage all the way through – and of course people commented ‘oh good- it doesn’t have those stupid vocals’… but all of us are going, just give it a minute bud (laughs). The next song we released, relatively speaking, was the most accessible one on the record. We’ve had really good responses to that song – and the next song we are releasing is like a mixture of the two. Super brutal at times, also it’s a whole different thing with the guitar layering and atmospheric stuff in it. That’s going to be another thing to throw people a bit.
We were mindful, with that many singles you have to be constructive. As far as songs on the record that exhibit where we are as a band now, I’d say the opening track “Terrastic Adaptation” on the more brutal end, and “Solastalgia” and “The Insignificants”, those have the brutal side plus intricate stuff, and these big, expansive, epic-sounding parts where Travis is doing different things vocals, the layering, the ambient parts. It’s got a little bit of everything that we are about now, the maximized, realized versions of those styles.
Dead Rhetoric: And where did you want to go with the lyrical content for this album? Is it a challenge to come up with stuff that’s captivating to you and your audience?
Elmore: Yeah. On this record, the first half of the record is really supportive of the cover, the references. The last half of the record is about inspiration or references to personal experiences. The pandemic had a big effect on everyone, but for our band, we also lost one of the founding members of the band right when we were done the writing process, Gabe Serbian passed away. He hadn’t been in the band since 2001, but we were all still friends with him. And then Trevor Strnad from The Black Dahlia Murder passed away three weeks after that. While we were in the midst of recording, he had been a friend of the band for over two decades at that point. All of those things culminated in Travis being very reflective in his vocal performance and the lyrical content. The environment and the headspace that those put us in – he would have the lyrics on his laptop, the lights dimmed, and a picture of Gabe in front of him. He was with us every step of the way. There is a different feeling this time.
Dead Rhetoric: Artist Wes Benscoter has been a staple with Cattle Decapitation doing the front covers since your third album To Serve Man in 2002. What do you enjoy most about his style and imagery that he’s able to get across for the band?
Elmore: I feel that he gets it. He doesn’t have to do metal album covers; he has other sources for his artwork. He has probably done us as his longest running band. He’s done stuff for other bands like Kreator and Bloodbath. This is our eighth album with him – we’ve been fortunate that he sticks around, he wants to work with us. He shows interest in what we do – Travis gives him great concepts and then when Wes and he work together, he really runs with it. It doesn’t have to be just a death metal album cover, yes – there are certain elements of that to some of them, but it’s not the typical here’s a rotted body over here, here’s this goat. We have this weird, fantastical, almost sci-fi creature. And Death Atlas was a painting. Each record we are wanting to know what Travis is coming up with conceptually, and we know that Wes can achieve what we see at the end. You may have preconceived notions – by the time we get the finished product, it’s not like anything that I was expecting. That’s the beauty of it. We always tend to get the album cover while we are in the studio because of the timing of things – we open the laptop, we build things up, and the reveal is always a cool moment.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you maintain the balance between creatively satisfying yourselves as musicians while also taking into account the expectations of your faithful following, given the longevity of your career?
Elmore: We are fortunate to have people with us for like most of the time the band has been around – twenty plus years. The band has been around for twenty-six years, but a vast majority of people have been around us for a lot of that time. We have been around long enough that kids in high school, they got introduced to the band, be super into it, then move on to other kinds of music. At that time in your life, you may be into a band only six months, and move onto something else – but then come back to it years later. We’ve talked to people who lost track of us for a while, turn almost thirty, having a kid now, and they started listening to us again. We’ve had a lot of that too. People can come and go, step in and out, and we are still there. They seem pleasantly surprised when they step back into it, not having heard the 2023 version of a band doing the same thing they did in 2002. Just trying to rewrite what they thought was their best record. The best record is always the next one. Hopefully that keeps people engaged, and they can step back in.
We have been consistent live, bringing it as much as we can. Even at our advanced ages. People come back more on that too. They may not buy every record the day it comes out, but they’ll go see us when we are in town. We are very fortunate to be able to keep interest. The covers are cool, we try to have cool merch, and have the music, art and media that just isn’t stamp it out, extreme metal stuff. That keeps people coming back, what the next thing is.
Dead Rhetoric: You are a part of the tenth Decibel Magazine North American tour, with Dark Funeral, 200 Stab Wounds, and Blackbraid. What do you enjoy most regarding these types of tours – and has it always been important that Cattle Decapitation expand horizons with broader tour packages beyond the typical progressive death metal/grindcore options?
Elmore: Absolutely. When we headline and can curate our own tours, we try to have an eclectic lineup. If I or any one of us could have our way, we’d like to have a synthwave band on the tour. It may not be the smartest business decision; we’ll see what we can do when we get to that point. In the past – we did a tour in fall 2019 us, Full of Hell, Author & Punisher, Atheist, and Primitive Man. All varying types of extreme music, but different sounding stuff – and that tour went off great. We try to have… you don’t want to have four different bands that are the same shades of the same flavor. We want to keep things eclectic. I’d like to have more variance; we’ll have to see. Even the lineup you mentioned, the openers are black metal, the headliners are black metal, and 200 Stab Wounds is younger kids doing old school death metal, and then us. Even back in the day, packages like Slayer, Cro-Mags, Venom, and Agnostic Front at a show. That’s a bloodbath, but I love that sort of thing. That mash up is the younger me going, there will be chaos.
Dead Rhetoric: It seems like the extreme metal genre has evolved into a level of popularity many thought could never be achieved due to the nature of the movement – both stateside and on a global scale. What factors do you think have taken shape to bring many more of these acts into higher festival bill slots and prime touring opportunities, growing the appeal of the movement?
Elmore: There are more bands that… maybe not legacy is the right term of a competent band, or they just won’t break up, but these older bands are putting out some of their best material. Immolation has been putting out incredible records, some of the best they’ve ever done. It’s funny to think that younger bands can attract like-minded younger audiences, but I think a lot of the younger bands respect Morbid Angel and bands like that. Festivals don’t trot out the old guard, they give younger bands a chance. The stuff that’s old is not just popular from a historical perspective, it’s because their newer material is relevant and great. For as many handicaps that can take place, we are in a really healthy time for whatever flavors are available in extreme music. I don’t know what it is, it’s gotten – you can see some of this music creep into popular culture here and there. It’s been normalized in some families; grandpa’s music is Deicide. (laughs). It’s funny how it’s the normal thing to them. Back in the day, death metal was the super fringe thing – and it still is to a certain extent. Now you hear people in mainstream shows make reference to it, everyone knows about it.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you think is most difficult for the average fan of Cattle Decapitation to understand regarding some of the challenges or tough decisions that a band at your level has to make this deep into your career?
Elmore: That’s a good question. Travis and I are the two oldest members – he’s 48, and I’m 47. Dave is 40, and Olivier and Belisario are in their early to mid-30’s. Because you have this range of age groups, people are at different places in their lives. Some members can tour all the time, eight to ten months out of the year – other members have financial concerns, relationships, setting up the bills a certain way. The water heater breaks at home, and all of a sudden you have to deal with adult stuff. That complicates things – Dave is in Seattle, Oli is in Canada, and I’m in Berlin. There’s this international thing now going on, a lot spent on coordination, airfares, the logistics get complicated. I would hope that people would respect that it’s a lot to just get to zero, show up and practice, and do something. We are privileged to still have people interested in the band, and that means you are always on the go in a certain way. Now living in another country, I have to get my visas going, be above board with taxes, a million things to think about. I hope people appreciate that musicians have real lives, and you have to have a solid foundation, or you can’t do this as much as you’d like.
Dead Rhetoric: If you had the opportunity to teach a high school level or college course on any subject outside of music, what type of course would you create and why do you consider the subject matter important to learn?
Elmore: It’s almost home economics would be the most practical thing. Our social studies teacher for instance, he taught us how to fill out a 1040-EZ form. You may only work a grocery bagging job, but you are going to have to know how to do this. It was a practical thing. There should be more lessons about tax stuff, things to be financially literate, things that can prepare you for adulthood while having traditional, academic courses. It prepares you for being a functional adult. Deal with banking, utilities, it’s not super fun or interesting at all but I think so many kids – if they don’t go to college, maybe their family situation is they turn 19 and they are an adult and have to go get a job, they are completely unprepared as their family may not have taught them how to do this stuff. Maybe, maybe not. It can cripple you for years to come. There’s so much stuff you are expected to know, and people treat you like an idiot if you don’t know this stuff. No one taught me, you are finding this out for the first time out. There are remedies out there to prepare people and stop them from making mistakes that could be devastating down the road.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the horizon for Cattle Decapitation over the next year or so to promote the record? And are there bucket list items still left to achieve with this band?
Elmore: We have touring – the one in May, we have an international run yet to be announced in September for a couple of weeks. We will get to do some headlining shows – next year in Europe, another US tour in 2024 some time. Probably start writing some new songs somewhere in there. As far as bucket list items – for me personally, I’d like to play in India. We have played Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Africa, South America. We haven’t done Brazil, Argentina. Having these experiences. When we played Osaka, sitting there after having a beer or eating a meal in this tiny little café of eight people at two in the morning, food being made for you, that’s when you really feel like you’ve accomplished something. Having more of those experiences – you are there for the show, but that’s when you have bucket list kind of stuff.
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