Interview: Cattle Decapitation
I try to play four nights a week. On the weekends, say my wife goes out for a couple of hours I’m like “BOOM”: a little five-watt amp, go to town, the dogs stare at me and that’s it. . . I do play a lot of Cattle stuff: the leads I’ll play over and over to stay in shape – some of them are kind of obnoxious to play!
Before things kicked off at Fuel in Cardiff, I hopped on the Cattle Decapitation tour bus with guitarist Josh Elmore for a chat about touring, crisis, performance, local scenes and violence. I was struck by the thoughtfulness he brought to the conversation and the gentle humanity in his approach to playing inhumanly vicious music.
E&D: How’s the tour going?
Josh: Thus far it’s going pretty smoothly, we’re almost a week in. We played in Iceland for the first time, started the thing off – that was an amazing experience, checking out the natural wonders; and the show itself was really good and the people who put it on were pleased. Any opportunity we can have like that to have a new experience and play for different people is supercool. Aside from that we had a show in Germany and the Netherlands, the rest in the UK, and after today we’re headed back over to the mainland and Brussels is the first stop.
E&D: How is touring for you? Is it just a thing you have to do, or something you love?
Josh: It depends. I think you have to find something with touring, an aspect you can fall in love with. Otherwise, I mean a lot of people like it a little too much [laughs] and it kind of hurts them, they embrace certain elements of it – shall we say “extracurricular” – and that can wear on you and all of a sudden you wake up one day like “I can’t do this anymore”. It’s almost like, I mean I don’t want to call it a job but it kind of is, and you have to find positive aspects among the negative. The negative being you’re thrust into an irregular sleep cycle and all that crap, and the older you get the more important that becomes [laughs]. We’re on a nightliner now, so it’s kind of nice compared to what we were used to for any many years; but y’know, you’re just a lot of dudes in a giant metal tube [on which note, tour manager Erol was complaining that they’d been fed chilli that evening, which is not good news for 22 dudes in a metal tube] so whether you can handle that or not you learn to live with it. This is pretty cushty accommodation compared to what we’ve had in the past. I’m not complaining!
E&D: I was going to ask whether you were sleeping in a van or flash hotels, then I came round the corner to the venue and saw a huge bus!
Josh: Yeah, in the States the past couple of years we’ve got this thing called the Band Wagon. It’s not a tour bus, but it’s like a semi-tractor front with a giant box on the back with about seven bunks, couch, fridge, shower, bathroom and it’s dramatically less than a bus, and for the shower alone it’s better. But then over here, like last summer we were out for about seven weeks – that was pretty much sitting in airline seats for seven weeks.
E&D: So, you say touring can be wearing, what do you do about looking after yourselves?
Josh: I think you have to develop a routine beyond what you’re required to do for the soundcheck, the show, whatever your preshow ritual is with warming up or putting yourself in the proper headspace. You have to almost create habits for yourself to give some sort of air of normalcy. Whether that be every morning when we get up I take a half-hour walk, or get a cup of coffee with my buddy; whatever your thing is I think it’s beneficial to have habits you can go back to, to give some sort of centre point of sanity to things. Although some people thrive on the opposite, not knowing what I’m going to do every day and that’s cool too, having times like that – that’s life, that’s adventure. But other times you just gotta have something to centre yourself.
E&D: How did the tour come about? Did you know the other bands before being stuck in this tube with them?
Broken Hope we’ve known for a while. Jeremy and those guys, we’ve stayed in Jeremy’s house before, he’s come out to see us a few times when we’ve played Chicago. Hideous Divinity we played a couple of festivals with in the past but never hung out, but they’re super guys, and a supertalented band, it’s good to get to know them. Gloryhole Guillotine is Jeremy from Broken Hope’s step-son’s band [bassist Tyler] so we’ve met him before. They’re a straight grind band, they’re fun to have along – good band, good guys.
E&D: I wanted to throw in a current events question – from a Cattle Decapitation point of view is the current state of affairs about us getting ready for extinction, or is this just the same perpetual crisis?
Josh: Well as far as our lyrical narrative goes it’s the same as usual, that’s going on; but you look at recent history and it’s the same kind of stuff: you have breaks from it and then, uh-oh, it’s crazy again. Cold War kind of stuff. Right now, Russia’s watching both sides saying, “don’t make a mistake”, and it’s getting heated – like North Korea’s trying to provoke us into doing something, into acting first and making us the aggressors. At the same time, well there’s different schools of thought; speaking to Americans there’s people who say, “You got to act first, act strong” and other people who don’t see that as the first answer. Of course, that’s a grossly oversimplified version, but that’s the constant tug-of-war over what steps to take. But it’s a very complicated subject and I don’t purport to have any practical solutions to any of it!
E&D: Don’t worry I don’t ask you as an international politics expert.
Josh: No, I mean my exposure is just reading Reuters, something that is perceived to be just “news” and not hidden editorial.
E&D: So last night I was watching the Clandestine Ways video, it’s really fierce.
Josh: Yeah, it’s pretty gnarly.
E&D: And also, fun! And I was thinking about the performative aspect of extreme music. For instance, you go to see Dragged Into Sunlight. . .
Josh: They’re a sick band. So good. . .
E&D: . . .definitely, and they are a real example of the tension there. They have the fabulous goat-skull candelabra thing up front, but they’re also just some guys in black t-shirts who mostly don’t engage with the crowd at all, just turn up and play. So where do you – Cattle Decapitation – fit into that tension between performance and it being just the music?
Josh: It’s hard to say, I’ve always had this very. . . tense attitude towards performing. It’s what you do, it’s what you look forward to; but also, there’s a part of you not sure of yourself. And the tension just comes out. It’s not like we’re a bunch of super-confident dudes. There’s something personal comes out. I don’t mean that like “oh he gets crazy!”, but there’s a lot of internal warfare; a dialogue within yourself that gets brought out on stage. That can be someone “rocking out”, or can be some personal thing that manifests itself differently, in how you present and in how people view you. There are some nights people will be like “you were rocking out”, but it seemed there was just this point you were staring at something invisible at the end of the room. And maybe. . . well it’s not that I don’t care, but I’m on autopilot, there’s this event in my life. . . in fact you probably play better then because you’re not overthinking! Other times you’re super engaged, looking at people, having that exchange – y’know, the classic entertaining band thing. It’s night-to-night, people’s moods, depends how you’re feeling that day.
E&D: So, are we ever going to see a full stage show from you guys, pyro, costumes, dancers?
Josh: Ha! Black shirts is pretty much all you’re going to get from us. Although we’re trying to do. . . in the U.S. this Fall we have access to some more production tools shall we say, enough to give the stage a bit of atmosphere. There’s a guy we know – doesn’t everyone have “a guy we know” – and he has some stuff we’re trying to incorporate. I mean we couldn’t do it here [gestures towards the venue] for space constraints; but on larger stages here we have our banner – whoop-de-do! I mean, it’s a nice banner, but still; and these two scrims we had made over here which are great. If you get a place with nice big lighting, and all the bells and whistles, it does look really cool. We’re going to try to build on that in the States with some more light-uppy-explody stuff – that’s the technical term obviously! [laughs].
E&D: Do you play music for yourself at home? Or is making music just for the band?
Josh: At my home I have three or four guitars and some amps and stuff. All the big stuff’s at the practice space; I have space limitations at home and my buddy has a bunch of my stuff at his place too. I mean I play a lot, I try to play all the time, y’know – it’s hard when you’re married. We don’t have kids but we have a couple dogs and it’s like “You going to pick that up again?” – “Yeah, it’s what I do!” So, outside of band stuff, actually physically being at practice, I try to play four nights a week. On the weekends, say my wife goes out for a couple of hours I’m like “BOOM”: a little five-watt amp, go to town, the dogs stare at me and that’s it.
E&D: And is that you running through CD riffs, or playing folk, Americana or what?
Josh: Oh, there’s writing going on, or it’s me tooling around, not even organised, that it’s going to be an hour of technical practice or theoretical stuff, or this is going to be just playing for enjoyment. I’ll just get stuck on something for twenty minutes, practise it over and over and over, mess around for twenty minutes, practise something else for twenty minutes, very freeform. Structure within no structure! Unless there is something I have to do – then it’s metronome on, or click, and just practise over and over and get it the best I can. I do play a lot of Cattle stuff: the leads I’ll play over and over to stay in shape – some of them are kind of obnoxious to play! [laughs].
E&D: So here we are in South Wales, always puts me in mind of some of my favourite bands – Taint, Spider Kitten, Hogslayer. . . Who is good from your neck of the woods?
Josh: That’s hard. It’s weird actually in San Diego right now – I mean there’s tons of bands – but as far as metal’s gone it’s gone through several different eras of a lot of bands being active, then other times where it’s just a tiny handful. Disgorge are still around – Diego who’s playing bass for Broken Hope plays in Disgorge. I mean a couple of them have kids now, and one of them no longer lives in California; they’re trying to do stuff, but not as active as they’d probably like to be. There’s a band called Lurid Memory from San Diego – they’re our friends, they’re really good. It’s weird, San Diego, it’s like there’s bands you’ll see are playing shows and find out they’re from the area – and it’s not like I’m constantly scouring for local bands – but I’ve never even seen any of these guys. You’d expect at least “oh, he used to be in so-and-so”, or “I’ve seen him at shows”, but these guys I’ve never seen before suddenly get up and play. I couldn’t even begin to name those bands off the top of my head. There’s all the old surf rock/metal bands that have been around forever, but only a tiny handful of bands that are active. The early 2000s there was a wave of people at that point; but those people they get older, maybe they want to go to school, maybe they want to start a family, so they pull back a bit from that. . . I’m sure I’m going to forget the most obvious band now. Bands that play out a lot, that’s the thing. There’s a band called Necrochamber, a black metal band, they’re really good. Just a lot of people have their regular lives and maybe play out once every few months, and you’re like, “oh they’re still around!” Actually, Blue Cheer was from San Diego. A lot of 90s grindy, assaulty, hardcore power-violence bands back in the day. It’s a pretty military town: generally, it’s got that Orange County, California conservative thing; and a lot of people who create art or music there seem to have to work really hard to make theirs as obnoxious or shocking as possible – to be sonically the foil to that atmosphere.
E&D: Small venue tonight. . .
Josh: Yeah, in fact I think we were supposed to play here last time but ended up at the Full Moon or something just down the road?
E&D: I heard the Underworld went off. . .
Josh: That was probably the best show we’ve played there, by far, by a dramatic amount. We’ve played London before, but that was silly. Like, grab all your stuff, it’s going to get trampled. There were several people who got messed up, I rarely notice those things, usually someone asks me later “did you see?” and I had no idea, but this I saw – or maybe that was last night, everything runs together – this one kid had blood coming from his hairline, and next to his eye, and another kid I saw the immediate aftermath, he got elbowed in the face or something, he’s all like super-crusty punk kid with patches, holding his face, blood everywhere. The security took him outside – “here I’m going to get you out of here because you’re going to bleed on everyone”– one of those vascular head injuries. . . I’m sure he’s fine.
E&D: There’s another tension there, between freedom and. . .
Josh: Exactly, I mean, people know, there’s no excuses. Pay your money, watch the band, don’t beat the shit out of people. I hope people are self-aware enough to know what’s OK. I guess unless you’re under the influence of whatever. . . I mean, I see stuff all the time at shows – this is coming from an old guy, who’s seen some crazy shit at shows, brutal stuff – but I never cease to be amazed.
E&D: So, what’s next for the band? You’ve got another few weeks touring, then home and back to work?
Josh: Yeah, I think we come home eighteen days from now on the Monday, then back to work on Wednesday. Tuesday is my day to try to sleep and get back to feeling normal. Then we have fifteen–sixteen days, then back out in the U.S. for five weeks until 22 November. After that we have a show in Puerto Rico on I think December 2, then nothing until I think February – we’re doing Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, that’s a first. But through most of 2018 we’re going to try to write the next record. That’s going to be a little different this time because whereas before all of us were in in San Diego now our drummer lives in Seattle, so we’ll be doing a lot of Dropboxing and Facetiming and all that stuff. We’re going to try to work out where he comes down regularly, like once a month for a long weekend; then once we get closer maybe for a couple of weeks. We’ll figure it out. That’s going to be a new way of writing. Normally it’s just Dave, Derek and I in a room staring at each other, then Travis comes in. We’ll give him songs we feel are completed and he’ll make comments; and then when we’re good to go he’ll write lyrics to that song, and add the title. But now we’ll have this added element of telecommunication with Dave.
E&D: So, is there anything you are burning to talk about, or do you need to say hi to your mum or anything?
Josh: I doubt she’ll see this, although sometimes I’m surprised and my mum will post a comment on something and I’ll be like – how the hell did she find that?!
Photo: Zach Cordner