Vocalist Travis Ryan has been fronting vegetarian grindcore band Cattle Decapitation since 1997, back when the band was a side project for members of The Locust.
With more than nine albums under his belt, including a new one with his side project, Murder Construct, Ryan recently sat down with Guitar World to discuss all things Cattle Decapitation, including a switch in their lineup and their new album, Monolith of Inhumanity, which came out May 8 via Metal Blade Records.
GUITAR WORLD: Was there a difference in the songwriting process between 2009’s The Harvest Floor and Monolith of Inhumanity?
For one thing, we got a new bass player [Derek Engemann] since The Harvest Floor, and you know that’ll always change things up. We hired him from touring with him, and I was always amazed by how quickly he picked up on things. That always says a lot about somebody. But luckily, you know, we didn’t really know what to expect from him as far as songwriting goes at all. So, it totally worked out. He always told us, “My main thing that I’m trying to do is add structure,” you know, so I think he helped bring a lot more structure to the songs.
We spent like a year writing it, because all of us, we all have day jobs, you know, we’re grown men. It’s not like all these young bands, where I don’t know what the hell they do -- nothing, I guess -- Mom and Dad gave ‘em all MacBooks and they know how to use ‘em. We don’t, we do it the old-fashioned way; practicing an hour or two a night. Not even a night, more like three nights a week. So honestly, it’s a miracle we could even pull off a record.
What we wanted to do was to spend five months writing it, like we usually do, and then another five or six months rehearsing it, playing it live. ‘Cause you know, when you play things live you come up with so much, you come up with so many different things to do to these songs, and it’s usually after the record comes out. And you’re sitting there tooling around on these things going, “Shit, I should’ve totally done that. This song would have been so much better. This part would have been so much better.”
We’ve never really been afforded that opportunity, ‘cause just getting all of us in a room three nights a week turned out to be such a nightmare. But luckily, I think we work well under pressure, you know?
The album cover art is an interesting play on the imagery from Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Do the album and the film have any common themes? Does the album have a consistent theme, or does it vary from song to song?
The album’s definitely got a theme all on its own. I mean, the only thing that it really draws from is the theme in 2001 with the dog-man, and it shows the same kinda scenario, except more so how humans have evolved, but it takes place in the future. it’s just filled with metaphors. It’s about how we’re regressing back to apes as a result of the byproduct of our technological advancements and, essentially what the monolith represents is the unwavering self-destruction of man through our technological advancements.
It really does play into the vegetarian section of the band, and that idea or aesthetic. Again, anything we’ve ever really talked about has been either revenge or anti-factory farming and the industrialization of how we live and our food supply. You know, it’s just more of this condemning humanity for damage we’ve done. Pretty much.
How extensively will the band be touring following this release?
We’re gonna try to cut down; we’re known for doing like five US tours for every album we do. So we’re gonna try to cut that out and do more international touring, stuff like that. We haven’t hit any other countries. We need to do South America, we need to do Australia, we need to do South Africa. We just wanna explore all those areas, you know? As opposed to 50 US tours, ‘cause everyone’s sick of us by the time we’re on our 20th anyway.
How much new material will you be incorporating into your live set?
Currently, I think we do three old songs, and that’s it. It’s funny, dude, because the audience reaction to the new stuff has been pretty unprecedented for us. Usually it’s been like, “Oh, new song? Cool, that’s cool.” And now it’s been like, “FUCK YEAHHH!” just when I say the words, “Okay, we’re gonna play a new one.” I almost feel dumb playing the old shit, anything pre-Harvest Floor, there’s so much other better stuff that’s, you know. But you wanna appease people, you've gotta play stuff they know. Maybe we’ll cut it down to only one or two old songs when the record comes out [laughs] because we really just wanna play the new stuff, to be honest.
The band worked with producer Billy Anderson on your previous two releases, The Harvest Floor and Karma.Bloody.Karma. Did he return to work on Monolith of Inhumanity?
No, we decided to go with this guy Dave Otero. We talked to Billy a bunch, you know, it was almost like we kept our options open, we’ll put it that way. We made sure Billy was going to be available and it was gonna be cool, just in case, but we still just kept our options open. And we went with Dave because we were like, “OK, let’s try something new.” Because we’d already done a couple records with Billy, they’re great, but let’s try something new because that’s what we do.
Especially with this record, and if anything it’s going to be our best one. I keep seeing that on the comments online; I try not to look at that shit anyway. So we’re pretty confident with this one. It’s really helped bring a lot of stuff to the table, as far as like arranging issues. We’d bring something in and be like, “What about this part? I’m not sure what to do with this.” And Dave would say, “You know, why don’t you try this?” We never really had anyone do that before. It’s weird. It’s always been like, we play our part, and that was cool. Little pitchy, or this or that, but it was cool. Not like, “That’s cool, but what if this?” you know, like a producer does.
I think a lot of that’s our fault, because we’ve always been like, “We want production credits on this too. We wanna be in control of what we sound like.” And maybe that was our downfall. Because we came into the studio and we kinda dropped it in his lap. “Work your magic, make us sound cool” [laughs]. The same with the director of the new video. As long as it sounds like the band, and it matches the band, and you’ve got trust in this person that they’ll make it sound cool or look cool, then you can add all these different dynamics by dropping it in this person’s lap and saying, “work your magic.” And that’s kinda what we did here.
You recently contributed guest vocals to Soulfly’s “World Scum” off their new album, Enslaved. What can you tell me about that experience?
That was crazy, I was putzing around at like 9 in the morning, and I got a call from Gloria [Cavalera] saying, “Max [Cavalera, ex-Sepultura] wants you to do something on the new record.” And I was like, “Oh shit, cool! I’ve never been paid to do guest vocals before, so yeah!” We had gone on tour with Soulfly, and Max is actually a huge Cattle fan. It’s pretty amazing how he took to us, but he’s really into us; talks us up in interviews and stuff.
That really freaked our drummer out because he’s a huge Max Cavalera fan; he’s from Chile, and South America really reveres Sepultura and everything Max Cavalera. His whole calf is a Max Cavalera tattoo. He actually called me and was like, “Dude, dude. Gloria’s gonna call you” [laughs]. “She just texted me, Max wants you on the album.” And I was like, “Oh shit.” And he’s sitting there like “Goddamn it, why wasn’t I a singer?” It was actually pretty funny.
So you know, I got a call from their producer a couple days later and he’s like, “Here’s how it works. Max is gonna have you basically write your own lyrics for the part. Did he tell you that?” and I was like “Ahhh, shit. No.” And he was like, “You get a certain percentage of songwriting credits, but yeah, you gotta write your own lyrics.” And I’m like, “Ah fuck.” So here I am sitting in the middle of writing the Cattle record, and the Murder Construct record, writing both records at once as far as lyrics go. And I’d never done anything like that, and it was really freaking me out because I didn’t want either to suffer. Especially Cattle, because I put a lot of personal stock into Cattle, you know, emotional and mental stock. Hell, physical stock; I’m always on the road with those guys and then with Murder Construct too, you know.
So, it was a monumental pain in the ass. I was constantly writing lyrics, and I’m not used to that. I’m used to getting a new song from Cattle, letting it sit for a couple days, and then coming up with something. This was just constant lyric writing. But I looked at his lyrics, and I was like, “Oh, this is a piece of cake.” It was a lot of Cattle’s themes rolled into one song. It was the easiest thing I think I’ve ever done because it was right up my alley. And I remember emailing Gloria and being like, “Oh dude, I got this. I’m glad he picked me for this because it’s right up my alley.” I think I wrote the lyrics in 15 minutes or less [laughs] and went and recorded right in San Marcos, California, close to where I grew up. And it went great; it worked out amazingly.
What are your plans for future Cattle Decapitation recordings? How do you take it further once you’ve released an album with tracks like “Gristle Licker," “Forced Gender Reassignment” and “Projectile Ovulation”?
That’s the thing, man. That’s a good question. Harvest Floor was really well-received. I feel like we used it as a yardstick of what we needed to achieve on Monolith, and I’ve never been stumped on lyrics. But knowing that everything has to be trumped, it just makes everything way harder. Just knowing that everything has to be really good.
We write music for ourselves; what we wanna hear. But at the end of the day, you can’t alienate your fans, you have to not piss ‘em off, basically. They’re why you’re able to do this. It was a challenge, man. But what I do, is I’ve got a folder on various computers and phones that’s a work in progress from over the last three years. And when we finish an album, when we finished Harvest Floor, I just kept this file going and going. Keep adding to it, subtracting from it. I think I have like 65 or 70 stockpiled song titles.
I come up with song titles first, before our lyrics. I’ve always done that. I still already have another probably three albums’ worth sitting right there. Are they good? I don’t know [laughs], but I got a lot of stuff to choose from. There’s already a ton of song titles in there I’m bummed I didn’t get to use but that’s good, because that means I have plenty to work with for the next record. And the funny thing is I already have, or at least I believe I have the next album cover; I’m not sure if it’s ready to go yet. But I definitely have a title for the next one ready to go. I just have to work in the concept.
With this one, I didn’t even come up with Monolith of Inhumanity until I’d say, like, summer of last year. It’s been almost a year. Maybe nine months. And that freaked me out, because usually I have the album title and theme before the last record. Like how I have it now. We just finished the last record, I already have the album title for the next one. And it’s usually that way. Or I’ll skip, like Harvest Floor skipped Karma.Bloody.Karma, which was actually supposed to be called something else entirely. Things have to happen for a reason, they have to fall into place. That’s how you make a near-perfect, or, I don’t wanna use the word "perfect" because nothing’s perfect. So at least an album that the fans find to be near perfection. That requires serious thought. And things have to fall into place.
The band’s lyrical direction has swayed from pro-vegetarian/vegan themes to, in recent times, more misanthropic, anti-human views. Obviously, the underlying theme to Cattle Decapitation will always remain a commentary on the state of factory farming and mass-produced meat. Since you joined the band in 1999, do you feel there’s been any improvement in public awareness of this issue?
I actually joined in early ’97, but we didn’t have a chance to put anything out until ’99 because those dudes were in The Locust, and they were constantly touring and constantly doing stuff. There was almost a point where they broke up the band because we didn’t have a bass player and they were just thinking, “Eh, we don’t need to find a bass player, we’re just not even going to do this anymore.”
And I was like, “Well, fuck dude, I’ll do it!” and I got us a bass player within like, two days. And he stayed with us for 12 or so years. So what was the question? I just woke up [laughs]. Oh, people are definitely more aware considering what we’ve been doing. But you know, we’re only a half-vegetarian band, just Josh [Elmore, guitar] and I.
We hired two dudes who weren’t vegetarian, which was totally cool with us, because we’re not going to put off the band just because we’re searching for top-notch musicians who just so happen to be vegetarian [laughs]. That’s never been a prerequisite to join anyway. A lot of people get it, a lot of people don’t.
But mostly, people don’t subscribe, and those are the idiots at the shows yelling, “Eat a steak!” and other extremely unoriginal shit. I mean, we’re up there playing pretty original music and the only offense that should be taken is by everyone else in the room because it just cheapens the whole experience.
Like what the fuck does that have to do with anything? I don’t give a shit what you eat. We don’t preach to anybody. What we say is more observational; we’re not trying to twist anybody’s arm, because people are gonna do what they want to, you know? So like, fuck ‘em. That’s pretty much what it’s all about. And, of course, the media is obliged to grab onto something flashy, and that’s what it was. The name of the band, the extremity of the whole situation. You know, I understand, it’s just a little off-base I think. There’s so much else going on in our lyrics and what we talk about.
Is there anything else you’d like to add I didn’t already ask you? Any statement to the fans?
The typical bullshit: Check out our album, watch our video, see you on tour!
Cattle Decapitation's latest album, Monolith of Inhumanity, is available now on Metal Blade Records. To learn more about Cattle Decapitation, check out www.cattledecapitation.com and their Facebook page.