Trevor Strnad might just be the happiest death metal dude in America - at least if you catch him on tour. As a founding member and perennial mouthpiece for long-running Michigan-based melodic death metal outfit The Black Dahlia Murder, the jocular, bespectacled Strnad often finds himself in front of screaming hordes of metal fans, punishing his vocal chords and howling out bloody tales of gore and grievous bodily harm. His lyrics - culled from a lifetime worshipping old-school horror movies and classic death metal - drip with entrails and grave mold, as his bandmates (founding guitarist Brian Eschbach, bassist Max Lavelle, drummer Alan Cassidy, and newly-recruited shredder Brandon Ellis) slice and dice their way through the band's complex, bludgeoning compositions. It's a sweaty, visceral vision of controlled chaos - and as the band's legions of fans already know (and Strnad's own perpetual grin makes clear), he loves every second of it.
He and the rest of the band have quite a lot to be happy about. Their new album, Nightbringers, has smashed the band's previous sales records and made massive waves online thanks to a powerful response from their devoted fans. The Obituarist, Strnad's underground metal column for Metal Injection, is chugging right along, racking up about 10,000 views per article (which Strnad is rightfully delighted about - "That's insane for some of these demo-level bands!") and providing him with a platform to tirelessly advocate for the obscure and oddball bands he loves to hunt down in his scant free time. When I crossed paths with him last month, he'd just come off a music industry panel with Metal Blade's own head honcho Brian Slagel at Brooklyn's Rough Trade. The Black Dahlia Murder are about to hit the road on yet another headlining tour, supported by one of Strnad's own picks, Bay Area death fiends Necrot.
There's a lot going on in Strnad's world right now, and his band seems to have hit yet another creative peak sixteen years into their bloodthirsty existence. All things considered, he's not doing too bad for a weird kid from Michigan who describes himself as "an alien."
I wanted to pick his brain a little bit, and was pleased to have an opportunity to grill him on the darkness that lies beneath that big ol' grin. With the sound of a New York City night providing our soundtrack, Strnad and I sat down with a couple of drinks, and dug in.
Q: I can't imagine that there are any questions you haven't been asked at this point! How do you feel about doing all these interviews and press stuff around the new album?
TREVOR: And getting the enthusiasm to say something for the ten thousandth time? [Laughs] Right now, I'm so pumped on all this press, actually, with the excitement for the record, the pre-orders doing this record-breaking thing - it's blowing my mind, so I'm going so hard in that direction, taking everything I can, filling up my schedule at home. I'll do interviews from noon to 9pm sometimes, just bulldozing them, and I'm thankful for each one right now, trying to spread the word and maximize on whatever this is - it's exciting!
Those are basically day job hours. How long has BDM been your main gig?
It's insane to call it a job, even after this time; I feel so criminal calling it a job, because it's just the really awesome thing I get to do, is how I look at it. Since around Nocturnal, the third record, that was a big jump for us in terms of a lot of things; we got on Summer Slaughter when it was brand new, and huge, we were at the top of Vader, Katakylsm, Psycroptic, just a whole crop of death metal bands, and that was so exciting for us. I think that's a lot of people's first BDM record; if it wasn't Unhallowed, it was Nocturnal. It was a big time, there was a lot of press, and it definitely led us here, for sure.
Something that caught my eye in the promo text for the new album was how you said that, when you were writing the lyrics, you were pushing yourself to find the desired level of horror and violence to the extent that you actually rewrote a few songs to make them even more brutal. What's the impetus behind that - why do you work so hard to find that darkness?
Well, to me, what I like about [death metal] is the gore, violence, macabre, and horror elements, and really, our most successful songs lyrically, that the fans have latched onto the most, are the most heinous ones - necrophilia, love that transcends death, that sort of thing. And I do mostly classic, traditional topics - 'Help, I'm stuck in a grave and can't get out!,' that was "Funeral Thirst." That's been done a million times, but I love tradition in metal; I love representing to someone new hopefully what I like about it, what still draws me in.
For me, it was all about the shock value of Cannibal Corpse and Broken Hope that really stirred my death metal pot in the beginning; Suffocation was my first band, but there was something about Cannibal Corpse, in the three-minute story-song of a Tales from the Crypt style horror story, a one-off episode, that really affected me. So I try to do that in a different way; I try to talk about the psychology of the character and their motives, and make you feel for the character, but I love the classic stuff. I have to stay the course in that way; I feel a responsibility.
And now your band has become a lot of other young people's Cannibal Corpse.
Thats super heavy to think about it that way, because I love them so much, but it's a huge compliment! We've gotten older, obviously; we used to be sold as a young band, you know - 'Look at these kids playing this crazy fast music!' - so now, there's kids in the crowd half my age or less sometimes, who talk to me like I'm an old wizard. It's different! But we've grown up on the road, basically, playing 200 shows a year usually; we're always moving at a thousand miles per hour, writing albums very rapidly. By now, I've just accepted that pace, it's just a part of us, to be like go-go-go! I know when we're going to record the next six albums; it's the same time every year and a half, two years, like clockwork.
Coming into the internet era, and acknowledging how music became disposable to people, compared to the collector's era, and when that door opened, everyone had too much of a good thing, like a kid with ketchup, just piling it on - you realize how oversaturated things are, especially now that you can make things at home with ProTools. So many bands exist right now. You could never meet the members of your band in person; you could do it over the web, and that enabled us to have Brandon, who lives out here; we have guys all over the place now, we have a bass player in Boston, and the other three are Michiganders. I remember not even dreaming, like 'How could you have a band where the members live across the nation?' but so many bands do that now, with ProTools demos, text message groups, taking responsibility for your own craft - you have to upkeep it on your own, because we don't practice weekly like a normal band anymore.
Do you guys feel more pressure individually now as musicians?
Yeah, for sure. We want to show up and be on the level. We'll play for a few days before we leave for a tour, we get together in Michigan, hash it out; everybody comes ready. The drummer has a huge responsibility with upkeep; it's Olympic to do what death metal drummers are doing. So Alan, our drummer, is at the practice space all the time. I go there so little now because of this [arrangement], I don't remember the door code to get in [laughs].
You mentioned Brandon, who lives out here on the East Coast; how did you guys find him after Ryan Knight left?
So Ryan Knight, our lead player was stepping down amicably; he told us a year and a half in advance, just to be the most bro possible and help us segue. That was so huge and so nice of him, and we were like, 'This is on you, man. Who do you think is the guy?' and he's like, 'Well, Brandon's my number one.' They're very much cut from that same cloth of appreciating virtuoso guitar playing, tons of vibrato, 80s shredders, Shrapnel Records, all that stuff, so in a way they're tied by these sleazy rock elements. [Brandon] had more than a year to prepare, which he didn't need because he's a prodigy; he waltzed right into the first show we did in Europe. We did it very quietly, as to not blow our own spot up, because people get so worried and so butt-hurt about member changes, and I get it - well, I do, and I don't. We did these DVDs where you learn who we are, we showed you our personality, and that became a double-edged sword when the members left, because then [some fans] were like, 'It's more than just a band - that guy's got jokes!" [laughs]
People get so attached to bands, especially when they're younger and are maybe the only metalheads in their town or their school; that's where you get this feeling of ownership, and of betrayal, when something shifts, like a band's sound, or lineup...
Or something you consider a compromise of their ideals to achieve some kind of status, like, you know, [whispers] a sellout. It's kind of a balance, what we do. We want to stay the course as a band and represent the same core sound and intent of Unhallowed, but there's a lot of selfishness in it, too; incorporating new ideas, more complicated arrangements, more technical stuff, as we get older and better. We're always looking at what the fans like, too, though, and I think that they like that we're staying the course. Like with Cannibal Corpse - you know what you're going to get, and you're probably going to like it! Or Obituary - their new record is one of their best since the 90s, and it's been huge for them, you know?
I want to be a band that has a legacy. I'm amazed we're still here 8 albums in - it sounds crazy when I say it! It's super cool that we've survived the comings and goings of certain trends, and even ridden those waves a little bit; we were called metalcore, then deathcore, and we got fans from both. We've straddled a lot of different lines. I don't even know what to call my own band genre-wise anymore; so many people have pitched in their two cents, it's confusing! To me, it's kind of its own thing now; it's death metal, but we've transcended some of the glass ceilings by being misunderstood, mislabeled, by looking weird by metal standards - short hair, serial killer glasses, jokes. And for me, that came from the Big Four; it was cool to show that you liked punk, it was cool to wear your influences on your sleeve, but somehow, somewhere, it got all elitist or whatever, where you can only like one thing or the other.
Also, we knew we were weird-looking; at first, we didn't even want to have photos of the band, period. Or videos, or anything. And they were like, 'Well, this is a necessary evil, guys.' So since there was no budget to make an amazing metal video where you turn into werewolves, joke videos came into play; we took the whole budget and drank it for one video, the pictures were us punching each other in the face - it was different, you know? The label was like, 'What are you doing!?' But it's like Anthrax - tongue in cheek, they're a great band, the music's still first, but they have fun doing what they're doing. I cannot not smile up there, there's no point for me to try and wear black metal paint and be serious; it would've not flown! I cannot do it, I just have so much joy, it's like a rapture to play live. It's awesome, it's my dream that has been achieved, but hasn't stopped, so I have to keep going 101 in this direction.
Where I was once so alone, to be surrounded by like-minded people, I fucking love it. I exude that, it comes out, and I see what a smile does, even at a death metal show; it goes a long way, man.
And this new record's been especially explosive for you.
So far it's been amazing, I did not expect this 8 albums in; we've been on a great trajectory, the records are doing better every time, but this is looking so amazing, it's unreal.
Why do you think things popped off so much this time?
I think there's a big thing with this [Blast Fiends] fan club. It existed before, about 500 strong, but we started advertising it, and I consider the heads of it to be the biggest fans we have; they have these insane collections of our merch, they follow us to shows like the Grateful Dead when they can, sometimes fifteen in a row! So I befriended these guys, there's like 8 of them, and once I started advertising the Blast Fiends group, they made this plan to take this somewhere, and started street teaming it so hard, buying multiple copies... they've started this collector's culture for what we do in a huge way, and it's coming full swing after this two year lapse, and I'm feeling it super huge.
People truly, genuinely love what you do. How does knowing that affect the responsibility you feel you have to your fans?
I always take it into consideration - what [the fans] like, what they like about the band, I try to keep it pure to the original intent in a way, and honor what we've done, and their excitement fuels this whole thing. We're a very fan-oriented band, we try to be visible; I try to break down that fourth wall whenever I can, and extend my hand to people. Like I said, I'm coming from being an alien, to jumping headfirst into this bathtub of mercury, of metal, and never coming back out; I love it, I thrive out here.
When I'm at home, I'm back to being that alien guy again, it's like a weird break to get put on. I still live in the same small town in Michigan, everyone knows I'm a penis, they remember, and that's where it ends, basically! So coming home is like a real run into a wall at 200 mph scenario for me. It's not like I need to have my ego stroked, but it's so vastly different.
What kind of impact does that have on your mental health? Going from being the king of the world, to...
To having your mom up your ass, and having real problems. There's too much time to think at home, too; out on tour, it's a blur of excitement, great shows, almost every show we play is great - filled out, fun crowd, everything you could ask for - so to go home, it's sometimes like T-boning the ground. My whole confidence in life comes from this. I was a very quiet person in school; a crack-slipping person, an introverted person, and this is my whole voice, my whole everything in my life came from doing this. All my strength. I try to not only push ourselves, but to be an advocate for the underground, championing bands, because I feel like I have to - I love it so much, and that's how it works. Someone has to; people have to give back for it to survive.
Metal definitely saved my life, and it continues to save my life. Being at home is like when the depression hits, the real things that you are that suck that you can't stop. It's too much time to think about reality. I live in this tunnel-vision-on-metal scenario. Politics, everything I don't like, I keep it at arm's length, and just go headlong into metal.
People who are able to disconnect from the news like that seem so much happier.
The Trump era - I cannot even acknowledge it. I'm like, 'I'm just going to watch Netflix, there's no news there.' And just keep my head down between my legs until it's over. It kind of sucks to say I have that attitude, but like, I'm so fragile - I'm so sensitive, and I cannot think about all the horrible shit that's happening in the world. I can't do it! I can't carry that.
Do you and the band feel under more pressure to be more vocal about political issues now, though?
Yes, somewhat, yes. I feel like it would be responsible of us to vehemently reject Trump outwardly to everyone, for sure, but also, for me, I want to offer the same escape that I get from it. Horror movies hold that same visceral appeal, an attraction to a calamity, in lyrical form, that you can't waiver from. Every single person wants to look, and metal champions that, which is harmless for the most part. By and large, I think metal is an escape for people, an alternate place that's powerful, that's positive. Death metal - it's macabre, it's about death of course, but it's also about bringing people together at a show, under a common flag. I love that vibe, I love that aspect of it. To me it's such a positive thing. Even when people think, 'Oh, what happens at a death metal show, everyone pulls out machetes and hacks up a pig?' It's the same as any other concert, with people smiling, gathering, meeting - it's a different rite of passage that people don't understand. The biggest thing ever for me was finding it, and I went from feeling like this lost person to knowing there was this world out there for me. Metal was so inspiring and satisfying in a way that sports and other typical things just weren't. I couldn't figure out my place, so [finding metal] was huge, and led to me being comfortable being an atheist when I was young and felt kind of fearful; finding your friends, finding your strength. I'm still thankful for the tribe, and I hope people find something in their lives that does even half as much for them as metal has done for me.
And with your The Obituarist column, you've got a pretty massive platform to share that love of metal and of obscure death metal with your fans now, too.
The Obituarist, is really fun for me. It's a really good thing for my soul. I saw a huge hole for so many bands I care about that weren't being spoken about online; brutal death in particular, I love and is on a really big upswing right now, the most popular it's ever been. Largely publications were turning a blind eye to it, so I thought, 'Well, someone's got to do it, and it may as well be me, I'm already buying all this crap, I love it, I'm already Rain Man about it, neurotically hunting for records.' That's the same hunting joy I've had since I was 13, before the Internet era hit and you could hear anything you wanted to and do research. I'm still digging in the crates. I love looking internationally, at third world scenes people don't normally touch, bands with broken English - if that's your problem with it, you're being too guarded, open your mind. So what if they're called BrainAss? They tried, you know? They know one more language than you do.
So many of those brutal death metal bands have the most absurdly sick riffs, but then pair it with brutally misogynistic lyrics, and that ruins it for some of us. Do you ever struggle with that aspect when deciding what to cover in your column?
It's so rampant in that. There's a line for me where it's like, what am I championing here? If it remains in the fantasy world, I can live with that, but in a way it's so irresponsible to let it go, too; it's such a weird conundrum to be in. It's not cut and dry - pornogrind is sick, but it's also sick, you know?
I make the judgement calls when I can. I also feel a responsibility to the genre to not be selfish and be like, 'Only listen to BDM!' Repping a band shirt every day, writing about bands, tweeting about bands, taking cool bands on tour when we can, like Necrot. I do feel a responsibility to the youth to use what I know to help them out, and the column's been so fun, and it gets like 10,000 hits a thing, and that's insane for some of these demo-level bands. I try to distill the overcrowded wheat from the chaff, and love being known as someone who does that. It feels good. It feels right. I was already doing it anyway, but the more people I can affect with this thing, its rejuvenating the scene, it's keeping this alive.
Where do you find these bands?
I get all the promo links, but moreso it's watching the labels, knowing which labels are out there, looking on distros, Bandcamp, trying to get to the band directly in an effort to help them. Bandcamp has been an awesome platform, I would suggest it to any up and coming band; it's like a mini label for yourself, where you can sell your merch, instantly gratify with a download - I fall for that every time. If you sell a physical through Bandcamp, I'm gonna buy it, I'm gonna download the FLACs, and then when the CD comes, I'm gonna be like, 'YES!'
I've been around so many older metal bands whose members have lost that fire to seek out new music, new metal specifically; it's heartening to see how much effort you still put in. My theory is that since a lot of these more old school musicians grew up within these vibrant scenes in the 80s, and 90s, didn't have that feeling of being the only metal kid. All their friends were into the same bands they were, so there was less of that isolation factor, which seems to be a driving force for a lot of us to keep digging into this stuff.
Right, they didn't have to be Encyclopedia Brown to find stuff [laughs]. I've seen tons that don't even like metal anymore; they do it as a function, but they don't have that same hunger and passion for it. It's disheartening to me. I still love the thrill of the hunt, and learning about the past; now it's all in a time capsule via the Internet, it's all there waiting to be found. Metal Archives ruined my life, for all intents and purposes, with how useful it is; I would get a metal archives tattoo, I really would. [laughs] We'll get skewered in the message boards there, but it's such an important part of my life - the site itself, at least. I don't think [forums] represent the metal scene; being angry on a message board means to me that you're not going outside, you're not going to shows. Go get smooched and stop being so angry.
The dark reality of giving people anonymity is that they say whatever they want; they can express every negative impulse with no repercussions. I think it probably becomes addictive. To do what we do, we have to take a lot of abuse from people, so you have to have a thick skin. It's definitely helped my personality to be able to take that abuse in stride and shrug it off, like 'Who cares? Okay, cool, I'm gonna quit now - all it took was one more comment. You're the guy. I'm gonna go work at Culver's and wheeze off the custard and get even fatter.' [laughs]
How long are you going to do this?
Until I can't, I guess? I put every egg in my whole life into this basket; there's no Plan B. Journalism or A&R appeals to me, but we're still seeing the old guard troop on - Cannibal Corpse, Napalm Death, the first generation of blasters - so as long as I don't get too fat to get out of bed, maybe there's hope! We're gonna take this thing as long as we can. It's insane to have new fans come in, younger generations come in, still at this point. It's very cool. I see so many different ages out there in the crowd from so many different walks of the underground - the true long-haired dudes who we eventually broke down and got to give us a chance, hardcore kids, punk rockers, everybody, and being called a million different genres over the years, and being misfits in our own scene, is why we're here, I think. It's helped us transcend the glass ceiling of death metal that we didn't know would be a hurtful thing in the first place, but, you know, we've played Warped Tour! We came there as us, we didn't compromise to be there, but we brought our brand of whatever-it-is to Warped Tour to play in front of people who were going to their first concert. We've respected whatever people have called us, and tried to appeal to all of the different kinds of fans that we have, by straddling different lines and doing different kinds of tours; we've toured with Terror, we've toured with deathcore acts, we've toured with death metal bands. So I guess it's about realizing what you are, and what you're perceived as, and averaging it out [laughs].
So, you've essentially spent your entire adult life in a death metal band, listening to death metal, hanging out with other people who like death metal, and writing songs about gruesome ways to die. How has all that (plus the fact that you're getting older), impacted the way you see death itself?
That's interesting. I see death as a relief, for all of us. I think being a human is like being a wreck of nerves, an anxious freakazoid. I don't think we understand what we are, or why we are what we are, we're just stuck with it, so in a weird way, I look forward to death: no more Twitter, no more problems, just, gone! That's where I'm at with that.
All this macabre stuff has made me appreciate life, though; the camaraderie that's in this weird scene, the friendship - it started with horror movies, and I was drawing people getting their heads cut off, in crayon, that's how early this started; my teachers were like 'Uh, your son, we're worried about this guy' - but it stuck. I've always been attracted to the dark side of everything, so I see it as a relief: the end. An end, not a beginning; not another phase, not a reward for being good on this earthly plane. I think everyone should look forward to it. Don't you want to not worry anymore? Don't you want to not be anxious anymore? I think everyone hates themselves on some level - you try to shove it down, but ultimately, everyone hates themselves. That's just humanity. We're just lizard-brained freakazoids, and we think we're way cooler than we actually are. Live, or shut up.