Interview: The Black Dahlia Murder
I think that some people are drawn to the darker side of life. I feel like horror and metal are healthy outlets for negative energy. I feel like every person is morbidly curious. When you drive past a car crash, people crane their neck. I think that metal and horror both have that same visceral appeal to people. It really affected me as a young kid, I’ve always been into it.
Glowing amidst the chaos and confusion of current times lies the triumph of heavy metal. The fresh yet grisly Verminous by The Black Dahlia Murder deals with the coming of a plague called forth by the rats and wretched rising from the underground, a concept turned serendipitously prophetic. Sandwiched between Tennessee rapper Upchurch and Canadian heartthrob The Weeknd at the number 4 spot on the ‘Top Album’ charts, the Michigan villains have pushed pure death metal to new heights with a successful whilst remaining unapologetic in their love for bloody horror.Robin Ono caught up with vocalist and heavy metal wizard Trevor Strnad last week to learn more about the morbid passions that transpire into his work.
E&D: I understand that you were introduced to metal through roleplaying and horror movies. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you were as a kid and how you were eventually led to the world of heavy metal music?
Trevor: I was always into the gruesome side of things, beginning with horror movies at a very young age. I was drawn to people getting their heads cut off by Jason. I was scaring my teachers a little bit. Then roleplaying came into my life pretty shortly after that, when I was still in elementary school. I was definitely into the worlds of fantasy and horror, and both those things lend themselves to metal very easily. I used to cruise the metal aisle and look at all the artwork at the record stores back in the day. Once I really figured out that there was music about dragons, skeletons and shit like that, it felt perfect for me. Once I had opened that book, there was no stopping me. My first metal record that I ever heard was probably the Black Album by Metallica. It was all over the radio. I must’ve been nine or ten years old. Shortly after, I found Countdown to Extinction by Megadeth, and that was the one that really made it clear in my mind that metal was my thing and that metalheads were my people. I found my identity all at once through Megadeth.
E&D: Going deeper, have you ever thought about what made you interested in horror and gore? What elements of it?
Trevor: I think that some people are drawn to the darker side of life. I feel like horror and metal are healthy outlets for negative energy. I feel like every person is morbidly curious. When you drive past a car crash, people crane their neck. I think that metal and horror both have that same visceral appeal to people. It really affected me as a young kid, I’ve always been into it. The gravitation towards metal, especially death metal, was very magnetic. I feel like it was bound to happen at some point.
E&D: The title of the record is a nod to the underground death metal scene as a whole. Death metal is the plague and we’re the slimy, marginalized and feared creatures that keep this underworld bustling with life. I would imagine this early interest in horror must’ve also been a source of marginalization.
Trevor: Absolutely. Definitely more back then than I do now. Right now, I’m so focused on the band and the metal scene, so I don’t feel it as much. But people used to see me as an alien as a kid, especially since I was the only one I knew that was really into death metal. It was sort of an isolating feeling. I see metal as this hidden world. You take the plunge for the first time and you see how awesome it and the whole culture that revolves around it. I feel like the average person doesn’t see the merit in our culture and our world and doesn’t see how passionate we are, how it gives us so much life. It’s definitely been instrumental in shaping who I am. My favourite part of life is focusing on the underground and hearing new music. It keeps me feeling young.
My parents were pretty lenient during the early phases when I was drawing Jason, Freddy and Michael Myers all the time. When it got into death metal territory and my parents started paying more attention to the music I was bringing home or the music I would ask for Christmas, it would start a fight with my parents [Laugh]. I remember I wanted a Blood Duster album and my mom took a look at the back of it and saw songs like ‘Knee Deep in Menstrual Blood’. It’s just stuff that’s funny to us, but she didn’t find it so funny and didn’t want me to have it. So there was some resistance. Some people at school were curious about my lifestyle and made jokes about me being a cannibal or asked me if I was a graverobber, silly stuff like that. That’s the public perception of the metal fan, you know? It’s why we’re seen as the verminous on the outskirts.
E&D: How would you explain metal to worried parents now?
Trevor: I would tell them that it’s a big inclusive scene, that a metal show is not what people think. It’s not some big celebration of violence. It’s a place where people are happy, a place where people are smiling and around their own kind. Metal shows are a very healthy outlet for aggression. We’re really a bunch of nerds. It’s the biggest gathering of nerds that you can find, you know? It’s less like a prison riot than people imagine [Laughs].
E&D: Having toured the world with The Black Dahlia Murder, is there a place that made you feel particularly marginalized as a metalhead in a metal band?
Trevor: That’s a good question. I guess I felt it a bit more in China. For the most part, my world revolves around metal while we’re gone. We’re at concerts surrounded by likeminded people. But there are some places where I definitely feel more at home, namely with Europe’s scene, having so many European influences in our music. The really strong festival scene is really cool, and it’s a really cool culture to observe and be a part of for a brief amount of time. I definitely feel that aspect a lot.
E&D: I hear that you’re not that big of a reader, yet most of your lyrics are written in a fairly old-fashioned, gothic literary style. To what and to whom do you attribute your writing style to?
Trevor: I guess it has a lot to do with what we read in school. I had to read a lot of Shakespeare at school, and I didn’t really care for it at the time but I definitely like the kind of language that it embedded in me. Dani Filth was another influence with his nursery-rhyme-like approach and his use of prose. I definitely still enjoy writing for the band a lot. It’s a great outlet for me. I take it very seriously and I put a lot of energy into it. I think death metal is best told from the villain’s point of view, and I think there’s a certain kind of catharsis to write as all-powerful creatures like werewolves and vampires. I think it gives me a voice for where I lack power in my life.
E&D: Were there any particular lyrics that were particularly challenging to write from the villain’s perspective?
Trevor: ‘Threat Level No. 3’ was a hard song to write. It’s written from the point of view of a serial rapist who has been chemically castrated and who is trying to re-enter society whilst wrestling with his own demons. It was a crazy perspective. I had never really put myself into that kind of person’s mind and imagine the things that they might be thinking about. It was definitely a very different territory and it had a real-world creepiness to it. It was a hard song to write, but I think that they’re some of the best lyrics I’ve ever written. I definitely am on a mission to creep people out, and it’s hard to do in metal. I feel like everybody in death metal is so used to horror and violence. I try to be poetic with what I do and hopefully put a creepy spin on things that give it merit.
Another song that really stands out to me and that I’m really proud of is ‘In Hell is Where She Waits for Me’. That song took a lot of extra energy and a lot of research. I really wanted to honour the case in a profound way. I had it in my mind that we would write a song about the case at some point, but I was saving it for the right occasion. When we lost two band members going into Everblack, I wanted to have a song that would be the most Black Dahlia song possible, to remind fans that we’re still the same band that they love. It was very challenging to do. It was very fun to write and I tried to make it historically accurate. I’m really proud of that one.
E&D: Were there any challenges or goals you wanted to set yourself lyrically or vocally for Verminous?
Trevor: I wanted to slow my delivery down and have fewer lyrics per song. I wanted a clearer delivery in hopes of having the song resonate harder. I made it a mission to sing. I tend to overwrite and cram in so many syllables. I feel like it was a step in the right direction to let the music breathe and have a little more of its own life, with more instrumental parts. I think it made the end-product more epic.
E&D: What is the most interesting figure or horror trope to write about?
Trevor: Necrophilia has been a really lyrical topic for us and an important one that I keep revisiting. It’s really influenced by the Grave album Hating Life. It’s kind of an underdog Grave record that not everybody likes. However, the way they lyrically portray necrophilia was just so different than your average metal song. It was romantic! That really scared me, as a kid. It made it seem so real, the idea of people going insane and still being in love with someone who is not on this plane anymore. I just found that it was a really creepy vantage point, one that was really powerful for evoking emotion in people. It’s definitely something that has resonated with people in songs like ‘Deathmask Divine’, for example. That song is probably our flagship song.
E&D: The Internet has definitely changed the game when it comes to the accessibility of media, especially with regards to metal and horror-related media. Horror is now firmly implanted in the digital age of information. Has this changed your relationship to horror or are you still attached to the horror subculture that you grew up with?
Trevor: I think it’s definitely cool to have access to everything that you’re into, but I think that it makes people take it for granted too. Back in the day, you had to work so hard to find things. Word of mouth was so important. Some horror movies were traded around with bootlegs, like Guinea Pig. People were getting fourth generation copies of it and thought that was real! In a way, it’s awesome that you can comb the deep-ends of metal, which I totally enjoy. The Internet has empowered my metal knowledge thirty-fold, of course. But everything is so readily available now that people see it as a little bit more disposable than it was. You really cherished getting a new album, back in the day. It felt more special because there wasn’t so much ready information as there is now.
E&D: There was some mystique behind it.
Trevor: I remember people talking about Deicide being the craziest satanic band and how they’d have satanic rituals and eat goat heads. You were young and this exciting new music was coming out, which definitely lent itself to rumours and legends. Cannibal Corpse were one of my first death metal bands, and before I had any intel on what they were like, I was literally afraid of them. I was wondering how they were able to do what they were doing. Nowadays, the information is so ready that you can just find an interview with Cannibal Corpse and find out that they’re all gentlemen. A lot of that is sweet, but the mystique of the early days has definitely vanished.
E&D: Do you keep up with the new ‘digital horror’ tropes and formats?
Trevor: I definitely appreciate that new style with the ‘dark future’ perspective, but I don’t really see it as something that will trickle into Black Dahlia. I’m more staked in the old-school slant of horror, like you mentioned. But I do respect it and I do think it’s cool. I definitely appreciate new ideas in horror.
E&D: So we’re definitely not getting any 4G horror lyrics in TBDM anytime soon.
Trevor: [Laughs] No. I don’t think so.
E&D: Given your impressive game and CD collection, do you play music whilst playing video games? Do any great album and game combos come to mind?
Trevor: I haven’t done it in a long time, but I recall certain times as a kid when I definitely did that. I remember playing Road Rash II whilst listening to Countdown to Extinction by Megadeth all the time. I would set the settings so that there would be no music from the game but you’d still have the game sounds. I’d just crank the Megadeth over it and it would just make the perfect combo.
E&D: Finishing off, can you name one of your favourite albums, movies and books?
Trevor: I’ll recommend checking out Runemagick Enter the Realm of Death. It’s a hidden gem of death doom. Book-wise, my biggest influence was Henry Rollins’ Get in the Van, the Black Flag story. That book was what got me curious about DIY, touring and getting out there. For a movie, I’ll recommend Beyond the Darkness, which is a movie that influenced the lyrics to ‘Deathmask Divine’. It’s a very gory and grisly movie. I highly recommend it.