The Black Dahlia Murder – Interview with Trevor Strnad

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Interview with frontman Trevor Strnad

By Peter Atkinson

Photos from Metal Blade Records

Michigan’s The Black Dahlia Murder have been one of America’s most consistent and successful melodic death metal bands for more than a decade, despite persistent lineup turmoil that only recently seems to have eased. Every two years, here they come with another album and a ton of shows to support it – and it’s been like that since their debut album Unhallowed in 2003. Their seventh and latest effort, Abysmal, was issued via Metal Blade on Sept. 18.

From their rough and tumble metalcorey early years, to the sleeker, tech-death turn of 2009’s Deflorate and the more brutal histrionics on 2013’s Everblack and the black metal-tinged Abysmal, Black Dahlia have always retained their death metal core while at the same time showing a willingness to explore other realms of the genre. They also are one of the most exuberant and engaging live acts around, led by often-shirtless Tasmanian Devil-like frontman Trevor Strnad, equally at home playing ahead of Behemoth and Cannibal Corpse during the 2009 Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival or performing as part of the 2013 Warped Tour.

On the phone, in the first of what was going to be more than 40 interviews in 20-minute increments over two days, a suitably high-spirited Strnad offered the following about Black Dahlia’s enduring work ethic, musical growth and place in the modern death metal pantheon, his love of and obsession for extreme music, and his all-around enthusiasm that is as infectious when speaking to him as it is when the band plays live.


You all set? Got yourself a beverage and snacks and such? I guess this is your next two days right here.

Trevor Strnad: Oh yeah, this is the tip of the iceberg, man. I’m getting my lips all oiled up for this (laughs).

Do you usually do press in huge bunches like this just to get it out of the way, or is this kind of a worse-case scenario?

Strnad: Normally, it’s like 10 at the worst. This is probably the most I’ve ever seen. I was going to throttle George [Vallee, publicist with Concrete Marketing] actually. I suppose it’s a good thing ultimately, you know. If there’s this many people who want to talk to us, because Brian [Eschbach, guitar] is on the same schedule I am, maybe it means the record’s good or who knows? Maybe they’re just looking for advice or words of wisdom (laughs).

An odd question for you before we get rolling, a friend of mine’s mother has the maiden name Strnad. You are the only two people I’ve encountered who have that last name. Is that a somewhat common Midwestern name – they are from Nebraska – given all Northern and Eastern Europeans who settled there?

Strnad: I haven’t run into anyone really either. I’ve only heard of one person that I didn’t know, and this is the second. But whenever I go to the Czech Republic, they seem to think I’m from there. I don’t have any heritage that I know of, but it’s a really common name over there.

That really surprised me, because I thought it was an error or something someone made coming over here, some kind of missed vowel action on the paperwork. But it turns out there’s more of us. I guess it means “bird” in Czech. That was kinda cool to find out.

The Black Dahlia Murder. From the left, guitarist Ryan Knight, bassist Max Lavelle, vocalist Trevor Strnad, guitarist Brian Eschbach and drummer Alan Cassidy
The Black Dahlia Murder. From the left, guitarist Ryan Knight, bassist Max Lavelle, vocalist Trevor Strnad, guitarist Brian Eschbach and drummer Alan Cassidy

You guys just got back from visiting “the homeland” as it were, then, playing the European festivals?

Strand: Yeah. We did a little Australian romp first, our first tour back, and then we went through Europe bouncing around from festival to festival. We’re still kicking the dust off after recording Abysmal and being home for so long. We were off for six months while we were doing that and that is just unheard of. That’s the longest break we’ve had since 2003 when we started to tour, man.

It was well needed. Everybody needed to decompress a little bit, be a little bit human-like for a while and I think it made for a better record, just more time to do things because we’re always working at such an accelerated pace.

You also spent some time writing for Metal Injection [he has a monthly column, The Obituarist], which I guess is not your first foray into “music journalism,” such as it is?

Strnad: I used to write for a site called Gun Shy Assassin, but this is my first foray into something where anyone’s gonna read any of it (laughs). It’s been fun and I know the guys really well. They’re jokesters and they pretty much just let me do and say whatever I want, which is pretty much what I was looking for.

My mission there is really just to get some eyes on a lot of really cool small bands that I don’t see in the press. Bands that I think just deserve some attention. I’m already doing the work for it, I already buy a million CDs. I’m kinda like a “Rain Man” for death metal. I’m always checking it out, always checking out the new bands. At least I get to do something positive with all this obsessiveness, I guess.

Kudos for buying all the stuff, I just assumed you got loaded up with promos and freebies from being one of the bigger dogs in the scene.

Strand: You’d think so, but no (laughs). Maybe some day, that’s something I’ve been thinking about, getting some free promos and stuff. Definitely save me a couple bucks, because I’m shelling it out, but then there’d be [in a hippie voice] “one less person supporting the seen, man!”

I was reading through some of your articles and one of them mentioned Pale Chalice, who’s EP I got a couple years ago. I didn’t realize they had something new out, so thanks for the tip.

Strand: (Laughs) Anything I can do, man. The new one is going to blow you away, dude. It’s extremely good.

The Black Dahlia Murder
The Black Dahlia Murder

How do you end up hearing about a lot of this stuff, most of the bands you mention seem too obscure to even encounter when you’re on the road?

Strand: It’s mostly combing the annals of the web. I keep my eye on all the labels that are out there, pretty much (laughs), that put out decent extreme music. If you follow every band and every label’s Bandcamp you can keep track of new stuff that’s popping up. And a lot of it, too, is word of mouth from friends and other bands. You’ll run into somebody, and they’ll be like “Oh my god, have you heard Artificial Brain?”

I dedicate a lot of of my time to it still. I get the same thrill out of it I always have, since I was 13. New records, new bands, there’s always exciting stuff going on in the underground.

At the magazine level, since there are so few of them now, you see the same bands all the time, from the same labels. A lot of it is really label-driven, who will appear in the magazines, and shit like that, so that was my thought with Metal Injection. I could just put whoever I wanted on there, however small, based on the merits of their music, and that’s it, you know?

The back-to-back tours you will be headlining here pretty soon seem to have same kind of mentality. There are bands like Iron Reagan, Maruta, Entheos and Artificial Brain, who you just mentioned, opening who aren’t necessarily the most household names?

Strnad: Yeah, just bringing out some stuff that I really like. Artificial Brain is one of those bands, they have a good buzz, they are on Profound Lore, which is a good underground label, and I think that they just need a little push and they could be big. I get a kick out of that, helping out the scene and helping out cool bands.

We don’t always have the opportunity to do that, sometimes it’s wiser for us to go with Suicide Silence or go with Children of Bodom, the most popular thing we could go with at the time, so it’s kind of a give and take, you know. For every Suicide Silence tour there’ll be a Carcass tour or something. You have to realize who likes you and go for it, whether it’s in your personal wheelhouse or not.

Did you have much say in the upcoming tours?

Strnad: Oh yeah. Those two Indiemerch tours are really cool because I was kind of working with Karim, who works at Indiemerch, who used to be our merch guy for a long time, so we’ve had a good relationship with them and it was fun picking out the bands and stuff. But, man, assembling tours sucks (laughs). It sucks so bad.

A 16-year-old kid probably imagines that it’s so cool, you know, you get on the phone and you call up Iron Maiden and you’re like “Hey man, you wanna tour?” It just doesn’t work like that. There are so many factors. There’s the money, egos, oh my lord, it mostly sucks.

Every time I have a dream tour I’m trying to assemble, Plan A never happens. By the time the tour’s ready, we’re at Plan Z (laughs). It’s definitely an uphill battle.

If you could have a Plan A tour, who would be on the bill?

Strnad: Oh man, if I really got to tour with whoever I wanted? I don’t know, I think Watain would be fun. I wouldn’t mind the smell. I’d bring whatever that shit the coroner puts under his nose before he goes to work …

I think it’s camphor or Vicks Vapo-Rub.

Strnad: Yeah. We’ll have to get some of that for all blood and animal parts and whatnot they slather themselves in (laughs). But back to what I was saying about Plan A never working out, I think a lot of it is bands seeing us as kid’s stuff because, I don’t know, we’ve gotten too popular or we’re in the press too much. That’s another factor that comes into play with assembling shit.

The Black Dahlia Murder and their little ponies.
The Black Dahlia Murder and their little ponies.

That actually brings me to something I was going to ask you about later, Black Dahlia’s sense of humor. A lot of death metal is so damn serious and you guys can be pretty witty and loose when you play live and actually seem to be having fun, which other bands might not find so amusing.

Strnad: Oh yeah. I’m sure. Somebody that’s head to toe spikes, there’s a million bands like that who might see our guy in the ape suit run out [during “Statutory Ape”] and are just like “what the fuck is this?” But I mean the comedy and the attitude is an afterthought to the music. The music is approached very seriously and playing live and playing tight is the most important thing to us, and then after that, I can’t help but celebrate.

If I was up there all spiked out and corpse-painted out, I just don’t think it would be believable. I’m just too happy to be there, I’m up there smiling. I smile at every show. It’s just the coolest thing that could happen to me, it’s hard to contain my excitement for things.

Ultimately, no matter how fucked up and evil your band is, you want people to like what you’re doing and enjoy what you’re doing, because it’s all about escape from your crappy job. Even Watain wants you to smile at their show and enjoy it (laughs), you know what I mean?

Goatwhore is on the second leg of your tour and they seem to have a good balance of the spikes and evil and making sure people to have a good time.

Strnad: We’ve known those guys for a long time. The singer, Ben [Falgoust] is an idol of mine actually. Before we got signed, and we were touring and stuff, I saw Goatwhore come through town on their first record and the way he controlled the crowd and used his hands to tell a story and a lot of his stage presence I just totally ripped off. He knows it, I’m totally open about it. I think he’s one of the most underrated dudes out there in metal, I could gush about him for about two hours if you wanted me to. Ben Falgoust! The man!

You have a pretty ambitious schedule coming up. After the break you mentioned, it seems like you’re making up for that once Abysmal is out.

Strnad: Yeah, pretty much, man. It starts out this way every time where we’ll be waiting at home for the album to drop and then it’s like, yeah, full-scale attack. And keeping the albums coming is what makes the tours go, it’s what makes the tours good and makes people come out. New stuff, new songs, new artwork, new merch, so that’s been the credo. Keep it coming at this two-year pace because it seems to be working.

And I think that is a response to the modern attention span, especially in the Internet era bands and albums are just so disposable to kids, especially if they’re not paying for them. Keeping new stuff coming, keeping things fresh, keeping it interesting for the fans has worked so far. It’s definitely hard to write at such an accelerated pace, but it’s all we’ve known for 10 years.

Because you guys have this sort of regimented schedule, when it comes time to start working on what comes next, do you go in with any kind of game plan, or just start writing songs?

Strnad: We really haven’t approached anything with a game plan, any of the records, it’s always just what comes out. The album starts to take shape with whatever emotions start coming out, you can kind of sum it up after that. Really, it’s just approached song by song, man. Ryan [Knight, guitar] and Brian, they kind of work at home with their own ProTools rig, and by the time I’m hearing a song for the first time it has programmed drums that sound pretty good, guitars and bass. It sounds like a real song, so from my standpoint, I love writing with them.

I love waiting for that song to come and checking it out for the first time and being like “wow, man, this is what we’re going to be doing for the next two years.” I get a kick out of it, I get a kick out of seeing how they’ve grown as writers, and it seems to just keep going and going, and Absymal is even further down that path that we were headed since Ritual [in 2011]. We started to incorporate other instruments and have more variety in the songs and some samples then, that was a big turning point and kind of paved the way for what was to come.

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The new album definitely carries that spirit forward. There’s some strings, you’ve got that dirgey song “Stygiophobic” …

Strnad: Realizing that we need to incorporate more dynamics, that was really the hugest thing for us. I feel like we’ve had the riffs for a while now. Around Deflorate, we couldn’t figure out why that album didn’t hit as big as [2007’s] Nocturnal, and we were frustrated at the point. But I think it was we were just going too fast and being to technical and didn’t really give the listener anything to chew on or build anything up or really have any parts that were emoted very much. And that was a big realization and that’s what led to Ritual being how it is and then everything to come after that.

I was going to add that this one’s also got more than a little black metal vibe to it.

Strnad: It’s always been there in some regard. Mostly like Swedish sounding black metal I would say, Dissection and Sacramentum, that kind of stuff. But I think that the vocabulary within black metal has widened as they [his bandmates] have gotten to be better players and better songwriters, so I think we’re really approaching the same three genres – melodic death metal, black metal and thrash – the guys just have gotten better. They’ve got better chops, they can do more with it.

When I listen back to Unhallowed, there’s some ideas that are good, we just couldn’t execute anything yet (laughs). It was a very sloppy record and we were very green, and we hadn’t even left the friggin’ state at that point. It’s come a long way and I’m really excited about the future as well. There’s no signs of slowing now, even though we have so many albums, I just look forward to the future, creating more and the excitement is there for all parties.

That’s one of the advantages of your steady schedule, you’re playing and writing so much that you’re constantly honing your chops, you don’t give yourself time to backslide.

Strnad: Yeah, definitely. At the rate we’re touring, there is a constant amount of upkeep for the guys. They work very hard. We don’t practice very much anymore because we have people living all over the place, but we get together like a week before a tour and we’ll bang it out every day and get caught up.

There is a lot of upkeep at home, Alan [Cassidy, bassist Max Lavelle rounds out the band] has to go home and play the drums by himself. He’s got the hardest load out everybody, and that’s death metal. The drumming is quite Olympic (laughs) and I’m glad it’s not my job.

And I’m counting on a lot of shit coming up, a lot of tours, and when the album comes out and if it does well, who knows what kind of opportunities can arise from it. I look forward to it because it seems like there’s a lot of excitement for it from the fans and they seem to like the preview stuff. Right now, man, I’m happy dude. Stuff is looking really good.

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