Divine Heresy – Travis Neal
Interviewed by Alan Gilkeson
After the unheralded departure of their former lead singer, Divine Heresy sought a vocalist who was not only better with the pipes, but who had it all together in the head. They auditioned many guys and settled on Bereaved front man Travis Neal, a young but motivated talent with the bravado to take on the world. With the recent release of the band’s sophomore effort BRINGER OF PLAGUES, Neal’s first with the band, Divine Heresy has stepped thing up a notch, going full throttle with brutal and extreme music. Combine Neal’s talent with the legend of Dino Cazares, mix in one of the best rhythm sections in Metal with Tim Yeung and Joe Payne, and you’ve got quality of epic proportions. Here’s our interview with Travis…
What’s it like being in Divine Heresy thus far?
It’s been a great experience for me. I’ve been welcomed in pretty much like family since I got in and it’s definitely still a surreal experience having this record out. Even though I’ve been in the band for about a year it still hasn’t quite sunk in yet. I think once we go out on tour it’ll hit me and it’ll be a whole other world.
I know you had a pretty in depth interview process to even get in the band. Was it the longest and toughest interview process you’ve ever gone through?
You know what, it wasn’t to bad. Basically, before I came and auditioned I talked to Dino on the phone for about an hour and kind of got a little history of the band and stuff like that. Questions that any fan would ask. It was definitely a stressful thing, I didn’t think I was going to get it, but I was going to give it my best shot anyway. I came down with seven songs instead of the two that they had wanted. The hardest part of it was knowing that they had an amazing singer before and I’m going to have to fill those shoes, and who knows how fans are going to take it.
Is it difficult to replace somebody, even though there were problems with the last guy (Tommy ‘Vext’ Cummings) it must be stressful to come in and be the new singer?
Yeah, it was something that weighed on me. Especially just wondering how people were going to react to it. Still now, there are fans out there that are pro Tommy and stuff like that. He was a good front man and he had a hell of a voice so it’s definitely a big set of shoes to fill. I think I’ve done an alright job so far, everybody seems to think so, so I guess I’m good.
Obviously the band liked you and chose you, but how did you know that you fit in well with the guys?
Well a while back, maybe 2005, my old band opened up for Assesino and I had a chance to meet Dino. He was talking about doing a project and I told him I would love to audition, so I sort of had somewhat of a history with him. I didn’t know the other guys to well except for meeting them at the CD release party for BLEED THE FIFTH, and everybody was very cool and down to earth. It was definitely an easy thing for me to feel a part of this band. There’s no egos, no Rock stars. They’re just regular people and that makes things easier.
What’s it like to have an opportunity to work with legends?
I was, and still am, an extremely big Fear Factory fan. When I was playing in some of my first bands and I was listening to stuff that just sounded different, like the first Korn CD. I was into White Zombie, Metallica, stuff like that. It made me want to play in a Rock band. And when I heard DEMANUFACTURE, I had never heard anything like that, heavy with clean, and I never heard melody like that, so it instantly grabbed me. To be in a band with a song writer who was one of the big influences I had growing up is definitely a surreal experience. It’s cool, like I said, it still hasn’t all sunk in yet. It’s definitely an amazing experience. Whether I got in the band or whether it was just a chance to audition and be in a room with those guys and jam with them would have been the experience of a life time.
When you work with such talented guys does it sort of force you to be even better? Is there pressure to be even better?
I definitely had to step up my game when I got in. I know what I can do, but playing in L.A. or San Diego in an unsigned band in front of 150 or 200 people just doesn’t compare to this. I had to step it up a lot. I knew that these guys were 100 percent professional and straight to the point. They obviously saw a talent in me, but they also didn’t expect me to just come in and adapt. They’ve taught me a lot and helped me a lot. Dino and I talk a lot about stage etiquette, working on stage presence, all kinds of stuff. After seeing my old bands he said it was good but this is a whole other level. They did help me out quite a bit, it wasn’t something I was expected to be able to do.
As far as your other bands go, especially Bereaved, are you still going to be working with those guys?
Yeah! A lot of people and a lot of interviews say ‘ex-Bereaved singer Travis Neal’ but I’ve never left the band. I recorded with them, we put out the record. I’m still going to be involved. My goal is to do the same thing that Corey Taylor would do. If this band’s not busy I want to be working full time with another band. I’m definitely going to be working with them. I have another unsigned band in L.A. called HateTimesNine that I’m doing a show with this weekend. Just little things to keep up my chops and to get that band out there too. I will definitely be doing other projects on my down time.
Are you able to do music full time nowadays?
Unfortunately, Divine Heresy is the only band that I have that I actually get paid to do. Right now I’m on an extended lunch break, I do concrete work. I think that after this tour schedule is done I’m going to have no choice other than do music full time. I’ve been doing a lot of production work with other bands and stuff like that. I’m really trying to open that door so I can do music full time. Unless I’m out playing shows there’s no real money coming in. Bereaved isn’t that big. HateTimesNine is obviously not signed so there’s no money there.
Is it tough to balance all that you have going on?
No, not really. Divine Heresy is obviously priority number one. I do other things when it’s not interfering with our schedule at all. Right now it’s been a lot easier because Dino’s busy working with the Fear Factory record and Tim is on tour with Vital Remains, and Joe is in North Carolina doing his thing. So there’s a lot of down time, there’s never an issue balancing them. When Divine Heresy isn’t doing anything than the other bands take priority.
Though you’re not on the first album, how would you compare the new record (BRINGER OF PLAGUES) to the last one (BLEED THE FIFTH)?
The first record was amazing in my opinion. It was very brutal, it was very in your face. The melodic stuff was amazing and I feel like the first record was a pilot record to get the band out there and noticed, and it did exactly that. I think the new record, with other writing from Joe, Tim, and Myself… the first record had different drummers in different parts. It had been compiled over time. But this record is a more mature and evolved version of the band, adding the extra song writing. I’m not going to say it’s better than the first one, that would be bad of me to say. I think both records are amazing but I think the sound on this one is a more evolved sound. With every record that we do we’re going to keep evolving and not try to sound the same.
There’s a rumor that Dino can be a bit controlling when it comes to writing. What was your part in the process?
Dino can be, but I came into it knowing that. To me it’s not necessarily a controlling aspect, he’s a perfectionist. Because he is such a stickler about what he does and what he releases, I think that’s why he’s been so successful through out the years. I didn’t really give any input into the music because I knew that those guys are amazing musicians. The other instrument I play on a normal basis is the drums so once in a while I’d say ‘hey Tim, what do you think about this?’ But pretty much I let them handle the music. I took care of all the lyrics except for the one song, ‘The Battle of J. Casey’ which was written by a really good friend of mine and I was really inspired by it. But other than that, all the rest of the lyrics I took care of, plus the arrangements and melodies, Occasionally Dino would throw me an idea here or there, or Logan and Lucas (producers) would give me an idea. My job was to handle all the vocals and the arrangements and that’s what I did.
I think the ballady song ‘Darkness Embedded’ really shows your versatility. I even read an interview with Dino where he said you can sing like Justin Timberlake if you wanted…
(laughing) I’m not supposed to say but I’m going to say it anyway, but I think Justin Timberlake is amazing. I actually did a couple of karaoke version covers in the studio just to see if I could do it. But yeah, I definitely keep a well rounded music approach. I don’t want to lock myself in a box when it comes to music. He’s amazing in my opinion (more laughing).
How did you learn to sing, especially the really brutal stuff, and what made you want to be a singer?
Well, when I first started I was about 15 and I started playing bass. The way I started singing was that the little garage band I was in with my friends had a singer, but he just wasn’t cutting it. He ended up leaving the band and we had no singer so I was like, ‘I’ll do it", playing bass and singing, doing covers like Type O Negative. We actually played ‘Replica’ from Fear Factory… it was horrible but we did the best we could at 15. That’s kind of how it started. I’ll be honest, I am not a naturally gifted singer. It wasn’t something that came to me easily. I didn’t open my mouth and have doves fly out. I could yell my heart out, but I couldn’t hold a note. Just repetition, practice, and then I got into this band called Push, with John Denny and Greg Christian who both played in Testament. It was definitely a step up so I sat back and wondered how all the singers, like Corey (Taylor) or the dude from Mudvayne, got their mid-tone. I was more from the gut. I would end up blowing my voice out every night. I just practiced and reinvented myself as a singer. It’s something I’ve built over time and has gotten stronger and stronger over time. I’ve never taken any vocal training. I do my own warm ups before a show and drink a Monster, it seems to coat my throat just fine. Maybe a little olive oil if I start to lose my voice, and that does it for me.
What do you think you add to the sound of Divine Heresy?
I think, with my voice, without sounding egotistical, I think I add more of an evolved sound, more of a well rounded sound. When I came into the picture I was willing to do whatever the guys wanted me to do. If I don’t know how to do something I will bust my ass to learn. I want our band to have no boundaries. I want us to be able to write basically anything and be able to pull it off. I think that I opened a lot of doors for the band as well. I think Dino felt he could write a lot more than just a heavy record. It can be more melodic and it can be more heavy. I think I brought in a new road that we can take this band in any direction without jeopardizing the integrity of the songs.
Obviously the band is always going to be compared to Fear Factory because of Dino. Do you think the comparisons are fair and what do you see as the difference between the two bands?
Dino’s got a tone. When you would hear Dimebag Darrel play you instantly know that that’s Dimebag Darrel. Dino is the same way. He has his tone and his sound. As for getting compared to Fear Factory… yes, he has a style with fast picking and a fast double bass and drumming behind it locked in sync with each other. I think that Divine Heresy is a lot more heavy and brutal. I think Fear Factory could be considered a more toned down version of what Divine Heresy is. In all retrospect it’s really totally different realms. The only thing you can only really compare is that yes, I am influenced a lot by Burton. Sometimes that will come out in me, and the guitar tones. The guitar player for Divine Heresy is the guitar player for Fear Factory, his sound is his signature, why would he do something different?
How do you compare your other projects with Divine Heresy?
I was thinking about that the other day. I have the band here and the band in Sweden, plus my unsigned band and another studio project, and they all fit in tiers of Rock. My studio band Kemikal Burn is sort of like 30 Seconds to Mars with a little Perfect Circle, barely Metal at all. The next step up would be HateTimesNine which is heavy and progressive and is 30 percent screaming and 70 percent clean. Bereaved is more Metal, more Thrash and it’s 50/50 on the vocals. Then there’s Divine Heresy which is also 50/50 on the vocals but the music is extreme. Divine Heresy is the heaviest and most brutal project that I am in right now.
What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome throughout this process of getting into and becoming a part of the band?
The biggest obstacle is coming from a local band where you might play one or two shows a month to a national act that plays 5 or 6 shows a week. The stage presence and the demand to be able to get the crowd in the palm of your hand, seasoning yourself to be able to do it every single night. A big obstacle was training myself, getting in better shape, getting myself ready to be on tour. It’s a whole different world. Obviously it was a big obstacle coming into an established band that had an established vocalist. I’ve got to make sure that not only do I fill his shoes, that I step up above him.