The Black Dahlia Murder: “Success Doesn't Happen Overnight”
The Black Dahlia Murder have been around since 2001, and are now considered one of the biggest bands in Death Metal, so they know exactly what it takes to get on top and stay there. They've released eight critically acclaimed albums, and their shows are sold out more often than not. We talked to Trevor Strnad, who's not only their frontman, but also a grand champion of the Death Metal scene, working hard to promote unknown bands under the alias Obituarist.
Trevor was happy to give advice to new Metal bands, talk about TBDM’s evolution and missteps, and provide tips on how to handle lineup changes like a pro. With the cancellation of their spring tour due to the outbreak of coronavirus, we couldn’t avoid the elephant in every musicians’ room, so we touched on the effect the pandemic has on everyday life and on the promotion of the band's new album. And yes – he’s sharing his thoughts on a “pretty adventurous record”, TBDM's upcoming studio album "Verminous".
Your new album "Verminous" is just about to drop. Can you share a few thoughts?
It’s a very proud moment for us. It's our ninth album, and I feel like it's something special. I feel like it's the most diversity we've ever had in an album, which is something we’ve been striving for. You know, to have more diversity between the songs and to have each song be like kind of an entity on its own, more so than the other records. This is Brandon's (lead guitar) second album with us having him in the fold, and I feel like he put more of his stamp on this album than he did previously, even on "Nightbringers". He's brought a lot to the band, and I feel like it's an exciting album, an original record for us.
“We don't write a ton of songs that we don't use, like a lot of bands do. What we're going for is quality over quantity.”
You’ve said that “Verminous” is the biggest evolutionary leap you've ever taken from one album to the next. When you’re talking about the band growing, is this what you mean?
I just feel like it's the most cinematic music we've ever written. It has lots of dynamics. Each song is like its own ride, and yeah, we just employed a lot of different songwriting tactics that we hadn't in the past. We used some new rhythmic ideas and a lot of groove in the record. So yeah, there's just a lot of variety between the songs. I think that it just comes with age, this kind of wisdom of how to write better Black Dahlia Murder songs. And yeah, I just feel like we grew a lot, I think that "Nightbringers" was a step in the right direction, and that was an exciting new era for us – having Brandon come into the fold as a songwriter. I feel like he's gotten his wings with this record, like he left his mark with "Verminous". I'm excited for people to hear it. I would say that it's a pretty adventurous record for us.
You’ve said you’re very critical about your writing. Is that the main reason why people respond to your songs so well?
I hope so. I hope that it helped separate us from the pack. We really put a lot of thought in the songwriting. We don't write a ton of songs that we don't use, like a lot of bands do. What we’re going for is quality over quantity. As far as writing lyrics and stuff is concerned, I take it very seriously. Even though it's done tongue-in-cheek at times, I feel Metal is inherently nerdy, corny, and I know talking about these fantasy topics is very cliché, but I just like the tropes of Metal. I like the classic elements like that. I feel like we need to represent them. But I work hard to write for the band, and you know, you gotta be critical of yourself. You gotta do decent rewrites, because you have to live with what you put out there forever, so you might as well do your best.
“You gotta be critical of yourself. You gotta do decent rewrites, because you have to live with what you put out there forever.”
Would you go back in time and do a certain song or maybe even a whole album differently?
I don't really dwell on the past too much, but I know there are certain missteps, I think, within the catalog. The glaring one for me is "Miasma" – the artwork – some of the themes are there that weren't as Death Metal as it should be. They weren't as macabre as I would've liked. But you know, we didn't have the budget back then, to get good artwork or get a painting that we would like. That was like a far-off dream. Still, I stand by everything that we've done musically. I like the songs, but I see growth in the band. Looking back, it was still evolving and growing, which is exciting, and we still have a lot of years left, a lot of juice left in the band.
A lot of young bands give up when they don’t make any progress in the first year or so. Any advice for them?
Well, success doesn't happen overnight. We spent a lot of years grinding it out, playing smaller shows and just like building it up on a show-by-show basis. So really, I think you need to celebrate the small victories, you gotta celebrate a good show. I feel like Bandcamp is the perfect outlet for young bands. You can get your music out to people, sell digital copies of it. In a way, you eliminate some of the needs you have for a label in the early days. If we came out right now, I would be all over Bandcamp.
“I would say to utilize social media – all the different kinds of social media, to get yourselves out there. It allows you to talk to the fans on a one-on-one basis, and that can take you a long way.”
I usually say to the youngbloods out there to keep their heads down, not lose sight, and work hard at it. I think it's more important to work on your songwriting than to just immediately rush out and play shows. I believe that you should work on your songs for a while, before you come out and start playing shows before you're ready. You could be shooting yourself in the foot by giving people the wrong impression if you start too early, you know what I mean? I feel like it takes a while for a band to get its footing, to understand its sound, so just try not to get so excited that you have to release something the first day that you're together, but rather stop and think about it.
The internet is just in total full swing now, even more so than when we were starting, so I say utilize social media – all the different kinds of social media, to get yourselves out there. It allows you to talk to the fans on a one-on-one basis, and that can take you a long way.
As Obituarist, you’re helping people to discover new underground music. It’s what Viberate is also about. Can you give us some of your favorite discoveries in recent months?
Right now, for me, it's all about the Maggot Stomp label. All the stuff that they're putting out is just killer. I automatically buy whatever they have coming out, and my favorites from the label are Mortal Wound – they have like an old-school Cannibal Corpse sound to them. And Frozen Soul – I was fortunate enough to see pretty recently they have a sort of Bolt Thrower influence. There are a lot of young people out there that are excited about the old-school scene and doing those kinds of old sounds, and do a tribute to the past. I'm passionate about that. I'm always checking out new bands. I still have the same level of excitement for discovery as I did when I was a kid. You know, searching through lists and records and stuff. I also feel like we have so much success as a band that we're in a position where we can recommend other groups and try to help out smaller bands we think are good. You know, to give back to the scene and be helpful.
There are just so many great bands in the underground that don't get press, so I just got sick of seeing the same old bands in the media. I felt like there was a voice missing, especially for brutal Death Metal, so the Obituarist was my way of showing people how I see the scene, and of talking about the bands that I think are important. And it's just been a good look for the group overall too. People see that I'm genuine about all of this, and that I care about what happens in the scene, and I'm not just selfish, looking down on anyone. So yeah, the Obituarist has been a rewarding experience.
“I'm always checking out new bands. I still have the same level of excitement for discovery as I did when I was a kid. You know, searching through lists and records and stuff.”
You went through quite a few lineup changes. It happens to every band. Did any lineup change hurt in particular?
Well, really all the earliest ones, I would say. Like when the "Unhallowed" lineup was changing, there was some bad blood between us and the ex-members at the time, and there've been a few lineup changes that just weren't amicable. They weren't, you know, decided by both parties. But the last handful of people that have left the band, Ryan Williams stepping down, Shannon Lucas and Ryan Knight, we're still friends, and they left honorably, helped us into the next phase of finding a new member.
It was so devastating at first. It felt like we're breaking up the family. I took it personally. But now I don't get angry. I understand that people's priorities change. I understand that being in a band takes a lot of sacrifice in terms of your personal life. Basically, you can't say no, if you're in the band. There's always a show to play, there's always stuff to be done, and there's no sign of stopping. I understand how people's dreams can change, so I'm not offended when people have to leave the band. I'm thankful for them. I'm grateful for everybody that's been through the band, and they all worked hard, and they were all cool guys. So I just look at it as a necessary evolution.
Can you give any advice to young bands that will likely go through lineup changes at some point?
Don't panic, and especially take the search for new members seriously. It's not always the most technical guy or the best player that will be the best fit. You have to vet them. You have to find out what they're like as people. I wouldn't invite someone to join the band permanently right away. I think that giving them a trial is way more realistic, because you can't find out how somebody's going to be on tour until you're out there and you're all stuck in a small van. It's just not a glamorous life out there. I think that bringing in somebody that's a good fit personality-wise is just as important as getting a good player. You gotta have both.
Let’s touch on the lyrics a bit. In your songs, you’re mostly telling stories from a villains/monster’s point of view, yet you’re considered a very positive band. Isn’t that a sort of contradiction?
Definitely. Death Metal, I think, is inherently sort of negative music thematically. Lyrically, you have murder and evil and all that good stuff, and a lot of fantastic elements, but when we do an actual show, it's a very positive experience for people. It's a very healthy outlet to get out some of your aggression and anger, and it feels good to connect with so many like-minded people during a show. I feel the most at home in my world of weirdos and people who like Metal.
People now realize that listening to Metal is healthy. It's not going to have a negative effect on you or on your mindset, or something like that. It's always been a healthy outlet for me. You know, the act of performing with a Metal band is very aggressive, and it just makes you feel powerful. It gives you a certain power that comes from deep inside, and it's fun, it's awesome. We've always been a band to joke around on stage. First of all, I can't help it, I'm just having so much fun up there. It feels like a special moment, it's something to smile about. So it kind of put us in a weird position. People know us for our sense of humor, but musically, we've always been very serious, so it's a balance for us.
On "Abysmal", you also did some personal stuff, lyric-wise?
Yeah, sometimes personal stuff will creep into the songs, but on that record, writing a sort of cathartic suicide-related song was very helpful for me at the time. I was in a very dark place. I don't know. It was as if by making myself vulnerable and revealing how I actually felt, I could help somebody else who may feel the same way. They might realize they're not alone in those kinds of feelings, and maybe have a cathartic release. It was a healthy thing for me to do, and yeah, I’ve heard from fans that they were moved by those particular songs – “Receipt” and “Abysmal”. And that just makes you feel great, and I feel that was what the songs were for.
What does it feel like when you have people chanting your name and when you see faces of fans who’ve been at your gigs maybe a week ago? You know, repeat offenders?
It's awesome. There's nothing better than seeing a fan come back. It means a lot that people would stick with us and come to see us multiple times. That hopefully means that we're a good live band. We've always tried to be the best that we could be live, and to be exciting on stage and create a stimulating environment. But looking out at the crowd and seeing people that like our music is just the best feeling. I think that's the real feeling that drives all of the motivation for the band. When you're out there, and you're playing a song, and people like it, and react to it, it's like a high that you just can't get anywhere else. It's a simple transaction, but it's just so pure, and it's like magic. I don't know how else to explain it.
I think it was Mikkey Dee, Motörhead's drummer, who, when asked if Lemmy will ever stop performing, said: »Sure, we’ll have to take him to the morgue right after, but yeah, he’ll stop." And it’s basically what happened. Do you see yourself like that? Performing till the end?
I feel like a lifer. I feel like this is all I know how to do. It's all that I care about, and I feel like the band itself is still very young in terms of how long I want us to be around. So yeah, no signs of stopping. I want to be here. I love being a part of this fabric of the scene, and I enjoy this aspect of life. So much so, I can't imagine doing anything else.
“When you're out there, and you're playing a song, and people like it, and react to it, it's like a high that you just can't get anywhere else.”
The music industry has come to a standstill in recent weeks, with gigs being canceled on a daily basis. How has the outbreak affected your schedule?
Our spring tour with Testament and Municipal Waste is about to be canceled any second now, which is a huge blow to us as a band. We won't be on tour the week the album drops, so we'll be losing a lot of potential sales and promotion there, as well as the fact that people won't physically be allowed to go the record store and pick it up on the street date. It was slated to be the biggest tour we've ever done to this point, so it hurts a little extra. It's a massive financial blow for the band members and crew to lose such a lucrative tour. We also wish speedy recoveries to both Chuck and Steve from Testament, who have been afflicted with the coronavirus. I hear that Chuck is on the up, so that’s great to hear.
How are you spending the time during the lockdown: will you take time to make more music, promote your album, do some live streams, organize everything alphabetically...?
I'm doing as much press as humanly possible right now... sometimes ten interviews in a day. I've also begun streaming on Twitch (my handle is Trevorstrnad), which I will hopefully be able to monetize before too long. Luckily we have a lot of pre-recorded content that is trickling out to the fans right now during all of this downtime.
To wrap it up: do you think the industry will be able to bounce back once things return to normal?
I think that most of us will bounce back from this in time, but a lot of bands and venues are feeling the hurt right now. I'm sure some bands that have been financially ruined are breaking up, and I've definitely heard about some unfortunate venue closures. On the positive side, I think when we're all allowed to go to concerts again, there will be a renewed respect for the touring artists that people once took for granted. I predict that attendance will go up.
Trevor is completely dedicated to music – you can hear that in his every word. As he professes his passion for discovering new bands with: “I'm always checking out new bands. I still have the same level of excitement for discovery as I did when I was a kid. You know, searching through lists and records and stuff,” we can only nod in agreement and say: “Yes, we felt that.”
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Cover photo: Artist's archive
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