Suicide Silence: Silence is Golden

Originally published in Guitar World, September 2009

Suicide Silence are the stars of deathcore’s dark firmament. With No Time to Bleed, the pressure is on to shine even brighter.

Being in a metal band is, by definition, the most metal job in the world. But if any gig is a close runner-up for the title, it’s the one that Chris Garza formerly held. “I worked in a hospital where I cleaned the blood and bones and guts off of medical instruments,” he says. It’s about 1 P.M., and the Suicide Silence guitarist is hanging out backstage before a headlining show in California, enjoying a rare moment of downtime.

Garza was 20 at the time, with a year or so of college under his belt, a close family, and a girlfriend. He says he was making “a shitload of money” and enjoying the responsibility. He’d still be there today, he says, if it wasn’t for one small detail: his band. “We started touring and I left school, left my job, left my girlfriend...” His voice trails off. “It’s not the life I thought it’d be. I thought I’d have everything, but I lost everything instead.”

Mark Heylmun, Garza’s co-guitarist, adds, “You don’t have time for girls—they always want to know why you’re so busy. And being on tour all the time—home stops feeling like home, you know?” At the age of 15, Heylmun lived and breathed guitar; school wasn’t doing much for this self-described “weird little degenerate,” so he told his parents he wanted to drop out to become a musician. Surprisingly, his parents gave their blessing, though the law made him wait an extra year.

It’s easy to dream about playing in a band when you’re a young kid sitting in your bedroom, jamming along to your favorite records while the members of Pantera stare down approvingly from a poster on your wall. But making the dream come true means taking a risk and making sacrifices, things that Garza and Heylmun know well. “There are always risks in life,” Garza says, “but looking back, I don’t have a single regret. It’s the power of music.” It would be tempting to write off “the power of music” as a naïve, even flaky, comment by a young guitarist, were it not for the fact that Garza did give up a pretty sweet life playing in blood and guts so he could tour the world in a metal band.

If he who dares wins, then each of the five members in Suicide Silence get to take a victory lap. Since breaking out of Riverside, California, in 2004, they’ve gone on to become the second-biggest selling act on Century Media, the venerable metal label that’s home to such legends as Napalm Death, Deicide and the Haunted. Suicide Silence are a massively popular touring band, playing 280 shows last year to thousands of fans. Their online presence is nothing short of gigantic, with more than 250,000 friends on MySpace and 70,000 YouTube channel views.

It’s against this impressive backdrop that the band prepares to drop its latest release, No Time to Bleed, and expectations are understandably high. It’s a make-or-break moment for Suicide Silence; the new record either justifies the hype surrounding the band, or it flops and Garza maybe gives some thought to getting his old job back. “There was definitely some stress involved,” he says. “We knew a lot of people would be watching to see how it turned out. We did not want to fuck it up.”

Despite the stress, both guitarists say making the new record was easier than creating the band’s first full-length, 2007’s The Cleansing. The greater amount of time allowed for the new album gave Suicide Silence the freedom to explore their songs. Rewrites were common, and every idea was given at least a test run to see if it might lead to something interesting. The band also took advantage of their producer, Machine (Lamb of God, Every Time I Die), whose experience made him a valuable advisor.

Garza says, “He wouldn’t tell us what to do; he’d just say something like, ‘That doesn’t have anything to it. Find something with more beef. I’m getting coffee, I’ll be back in 20 minutes.’ And we’d work on the song, he’d come back and be like, ‘Yeah, I knew you could do it.’ It was just a really encouraging situation.”

The result is a metal album that’s full of “beef,” as well as fast, razor-sharp riffs, fierce beats and punishing breakdowns. Stylistically, it’s not too far a cry from The Cleansing. However, No Time to Bleed does demonstrate a leap forward in quality and maturity. Suicide Silence clearly benefited from all those live shows, a lengthy writing process and focused studio time. The album showcases a band that’s tight enough to deliver precise, technical riffs that nonetheless remain as heavy and frighteningly effective as a wrecking ball.

“It’s all about the groove,” Garza says. “When that first groove hits, it’s fucking awesome.”

Garza is a man who appreciates “groove,” that musical pulse that can drive a mosh pit into a steadily pounding mass of bodies. He might have been weaned on Jimi Hendrix and Black Sabbath, but he ultimately gravitated to the band Korn, who are, if nothing else, practically all groove.

Heylmun, on the other hand, is just the opposite. He grew up listening to the melodic pop-metal of Ozzy, Mötley Crüe and even Whitesnake before graduating to Pantera and Slayer as he got older. The impact on his playing is obvious. Garza notes, “He’s more of a lead guy, a riffer. I’m a groover, so we really work well together.” He laughingly admits that he felt very different about Heylmun’s playing when Heylmun joined. “He was a shredder!” Garza says. “I hated shredding!”

Obviously the two have since worked out their differences, and as Heylmun says, No Time to Bleed is a reflection of the entire band. In the past, he and Garza would come into writing and rehearsal sessions with large portions of songs already written. This time, jam sessions lead to greater contributions from the other band members: singer Mitch Lucker, bassist Dan Kenny and drummer Alex Lopez. Says Heylmun, “This is what we consider a good record—when we all obviously have our hands in it, when all our different influences are coming together to create something identifiably us. That’s when I’m really happy with what we’re creating.”

It’s particularly important these days, he adds, because it helps Suicide Silence stand out from the rest of the bands playing extreme metal. Or as Heylmun so eloquently puts it, “that whole fucking deathcore thing.”

Deathcore—the black-clad elephant in the room that with every bulky movement threatens to stomp Suicide Silence’s creative ambitions into the dirt. Deathcore is the not-so-subtly-named fusion of death metal’s speed and hardcore’s breakdowns. Depending on who you ask, it might also be the next big trend in metal: many emerging bands, like Job for a Cowboy, All Shall Perish and the Red Chord, fit deathcore’s description. And by most standards, Suicide Silence are leading the pack.

Nonetheless, the guys don’t agree that deathcore is anything to get worked up about; they don’t think it’s anything at all. “When I first heard people calling this music ‘deathcore,’ I thought, Is this a joke?” says Heylmun, who points out that the band Suffocation was playing this style of metal in the Nineties. “It’s such an idiotic term. The music’s a little different than what you were hearing in 2003, but it’s ridiculous to make it sound like it’s bigger than it is.”

It’s not, for instance, rap-metal, a paradigm-shifting sound that launched the careers of bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit. Or hair metal, with its obvious pop hooks and overblown imagery. Or black metal, with its Satanic obsessions. As Garza says, “It’s death metal with grooves, simple as that.” Garza and Heylmun accuse the media and music industry of creating the category as a marketing tactic, pointing out that it’s much easier to push a band if it’s easy to define and identify. On the other hand, the branding can benefit the bands, too. To their credit, Suicide Silence don’t deny this at all. Heylmun admits, “It’s true. If people think they like deathcore bands, and they think we’re a deathcore band, they’re hopefully going to check us out.”

The problem is that categories are like quicksand: once you’re stuck in one, it’s hard to get out. No matter what they release, Suicide Silence worry that they’ll always be seen as a deathcore band. That might not be a big deal now, since they are a deathcore band. But Heylmun says categorization makes it harder for them to develop their sound while still holding on to fans. And worse, metal fans who hate deathcore—and a quick scan of online message boards demonstrates just how vocal these people can be—might ignore Suicide Silence without giving them a listen. Garza says, “I wish people would just call us a metal band. If they did, I’d be thrilled.”

Early in their career, Suicide Silence established themselves as one of metal’s preeminent live acts. They’re heavy, without a doubt, and they bring a fierceness to their lives shows that helped earn them spots on tours with Slipknot, Carcass, Unearth, Nile and others. But Suicide Silence are also as technically precise live as they are in the recording studio. The interplay of drums, guitar, bass and guttural vocals creates some particularly complicated rhythms, and in the hands of other bands it could easily turn into sonic sludge. But Suicide Silence pride themselves on getting it right every time they take the stage. “I think the most important thing is our live shows,” Garza says. “The most metal moment of my life was seeing Cannibal Corpse when I was 14. It was like being smacked in the face. I really understood how powerful a show could be.”

Heylmun agrees. He’s a laid-back guy, quietly intense at times, but otherwise relaxed. In the studio, when he’s not recording, he enjoys having his small plastic bong around. On the bus he plays video games. “But put me on stage,” he says, “and I become a monster. That’s where I let out all my aggression.”

Surprisingly, the band doesn’t practice all that much when preparing to go out on tour. They run through their set for about a week before hitting the road, and Garza and Heylmun will do some basic exercises on the tour bus, but for the most part, Garza says, “it’s all about just getting out there and playing. Two hundred and eighty shows last year, man. There’s no way you’re going to suck when you play that often.”

He says it also helps that the band’s music is disarmingly simple. It’s not something many musicians are willing to admit, but Garza actually takes pride in the fact that Suicide Silence write music that avoids stylistic ornamentation. “Compared to most death metal bands, our music isn’t that insane,” he says. “But less is more—the power comes through that way, there aren’t any distractions. It’s also one of the big reasons we can go nuts when we play live.”

Much of Suicide Silence’s sound comes from their deep, low tuning. Dropping to D on a baritone guitar is one of Garza and Heylmun’s favorites. They also take advantage of seven-string guitars to plumb the bottom of the tuning spectrum. “The seven-string guitar is absolutely vital to our music,” says Heylmun, who runs his ESP LTD Stephen Carpenter seven-string through a tried-and-true Mesa/Boogie Triple Rectifier. “In fact, I’m thinking of picking up a baritone seven-string.”

Garza adds, “The ESP seven-string is, to me, the beefiest-sounding guitar ever.” He plugs into Krank amps, “which I discovered when we toured with Sepultura. In the end, good equipment makes you sound even better.”

And that, after all, is the band’s main goal. Suicide Silence remain indifferent to the embellishments favored by many new bands— the MTV-ready, primped and preened look of so many hard rock groups. If they pull a page from any fashion book, it’s the one written by the same bands that helped influence them musically, including Pantera, Slayer, Cannibal Corpse and Suffocation. It’s a look that says, in no uncertain terms, the music comes first. “We’re a bunch of ugly, long-haired dudes,” Garza says. “There’s no ‘cute’ in metal. It’s not about how you look, it’s about how you sound.

It’s an old-school attitude from a newschool band, one that intends to stick around for a long time. “This is what we’re going to do forever,” Garza says. “When I’m old, gross and wrinkly, I still want to be out on tour.”

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