Photo courtesy of Metal Blade Records
San Diego death metal outfit Cattle Decapitation are primarily known for two things: their ever-evolving progressive style, and their vegan/vegetarian-themed lyrics. Gory lyrics are common in the genre, but these lyrics describe humans being slaughtered in the same way that we slaughter animals. Although the band moved on to more general environmental and social themes after a few releases, the vegan/vegetarian tag stuck. Even today I speak to metal fans who have avoided the band’s live performances because they’re expecting to hear some kind of political speech, when the reality could not be farther from the truth. Outside of the lyrical content there is almost nothing political about how the band presents themselves.
When I bring this up with vocalist and founding member Travis Ryan before the band’s recent sold out headlining set at Toronto’s Hard Luck Bar, he responds with a smile and a sharp laugh. “As far as veganism or vegetarianism goes, history shows that they’re extremely outspoken” he says.
“That’s the part about it that meat-eaters or people who don’t take part in that lifestyle, or maybe even frown upon that lifestyle, that’s what they latch on to. I know exactly what you’re saying and it’s unfortunate because they skip past the music and lyrics that could be insightful. I don’t think (the lyrics) are preachy or pushy. Maybe preachy in the sense that it’s preaching that humans are... are filth. But then again, so many of the bands that these guys listen to are saying the same fucking thing. But because we have that connotation attached to it that’s what they go to first and that’s a deal breaker for many people. I guess I can understand although I’m not like that because I can separate... I hate Christianity, I hate all religions. I have a deep-seeded... I mean I just really disapprove of all of them for the most part. I can’t feel that way and then go and preach to somebody, that wouldn’t make any sense. So I just don’t do that. We have a theme but it’s no more invasive politically than Rust In Peace by Megadeth and that’s one of the biggest metal albums of all time. It’s funny and that’s their problem, their loss. Not that I’m tootin’ our horn or anything but there’s people that like it, and they could possibly too but they don’t because they have this pre-conceived notion of something we’re about and they have fucking no idea, they really don’t.”
Ryan is quick to add that regardless of what any of their detractors think, it wouldn’t be ideal to only write about one subject. “There’s only so much you can talk about that. We covered some of those topics in the first two records. There’s so much shit to talk about. We couldn’t write eight albums based solely upon animal rights or animal welfare. The whole irony of turning the tables on humans and all that shit. We covered some of that anyway, but not on the level that they’re thinking.”
Ryan’s personality is a huge part of what makes Cattle Decapitation what it is. He is passionately connected to his fans and it’s part of the reason why they’re so dedicated to the band. In general he’s quite outspoken on the internet but it’s never about politics. After nearly twenty years of existence the band is now more popular than ever, so I wondered if it’s difficult for Ryan to refrain from commenting on politics in public or on the internet. “For myself it’s hard... it’s not hard but you have to look at the context” he says after some thought.
“Sometimes the content will dictate: ‘Should I even post this, is this even true or correct?’ I’ve in the past posted things and I just got sick and tired of people talking shit, fucking fights or arguments that I just don’t personally need. I take all this stuff to heart. Talking to these kids, the one thing I try to be is as real as possible in the presentation. As a frontman I don’t do the typical pandering of (lowers voice) ‘Alright you mother-fuckers. Front to back, left to right let’s see you move.’ I just don’t do that. Sometimes it becomes a comedy act because there’s so much shit to laugh at, and I like making people laugh. That’s why in some of the lyrics you have a tongue-in-cheek aspect to it, a lot of puns and shit.”
Another reason why the band’s profile has risen so high is their current sound. In the early 2000’s they sounded tight and groovy, but over time they began to use more avant-garde musical elements. A big part of that has been some distinct changes to Ryan’s vocal delivery. “We did spend a certain amount of time meandering along, trying to find our sound” he says.
“There has been some amount of turnover I guess you could say, in members over the last... well, touring will do that. It basically weeds out who’s in it for the long haul. There’s always different reasons why we’re not with certain people anymore. The majority of them are positive on both sides. But the addition of Derek (Engemann, bass) and Dave (McGraw, drums) I think really helped start changing things with The Harvest Floor (2009). For me it’s been the last three records, dialing in the sound. Josh (Elmore, guitar) has been here since practically the beginning. I think this is the unit. This is the sound that we’ve come to rest on that we like. Like the weird melodic vocals. A lot of that stuff just came from being bored. Not with what we were doing but just bored with... I mean I’m getting older. I’m forty and I’ll turn forty-one this year, and I feel like we’ve just had less and less to lose by going out on a limb, and it’s proven to be the best thing we could have done. The last two records were very closely linked, and we’d like to branch out even further now.”
This desire to continue pushing their own musical boundaries is in part due to the incredible reception of their latest album The Anthropocene Extinction, which debuted at an impressive #41 on the Billboard 200. As they’ve gotten more experimental with their sound, they’ve also become far more popular.“What we learned from the last one was what other people liked and we chose from those. For me a lot of people liked the melodic vocals and I was like ‘cool’ because that could have gone in two totally different directions” says Ryan with a laugh.
“I feel for the most part positive because obviously I did it for a reason. So it’s partial public (influence), but I’d definitely say the majority is what we want to do. Maybe that fucked us, but I think most bands do that, play what they want to hear. Some play what they can play, but when you play what want to hear, that’s different. That takes you to another level or it makes you unique. Another way that happens is having four drastically different opinions and rolling with it.”
Ryan is correct in saying that Cattle Decapitation’s lyrics, though politically charged, are no more preachy than metal’s gods of thrash, death, and grind. Despite those who may avoid the band due to misinformation, they continue to draw in new fans. Their success comes from the high quality of their music and the chances they took to get there. “We’re very happy with where we’re at. We’d never thought we’d get this far, as far as being in the public mind and for me, even playing stuff of this caliber” says Ryan.
“Being afforded that luxury of ‘I can do whatever the fuck I want,’ and you can go play it in front of people in different countries. I just like that experience, getting all the experience possible because that’s what led to me doing these different kind of vocals. Mostly from different P.A.’s and different rooms and different sounds of the crowd, all that stuff comes into play.”
As we wrap things up Ryan makes reference to his oft-stated joke that the band is going to move to Canada. All of a sudden his expression fades and his voice sounds as serious as if he was a doctor delivering bad news.
“If Donald Trump becomes President we may have to.”
Cattle Decapitation is currently on tour in the U.S. with death metal icons Cannibal Corpse. The Anthropocene Extinction is available now on Metal Blade Records and you can listen to the track “Manufactured Extinct” below.