Latest Release: Pinnacle of Bedlam [Nuclear Blast]
New York-spawned technical death metal band Suffocation are both influential and sonically brutal. The complex ferocity of their music in recorded form is even more confronting in the live setting. Set to return to Australia on a co-headlining tour with Decapitated, the band will almost certainly deliver an eardrum pummelling. Prior to the tour, Loud Online got a hold of bassist Derek Boyer to discuss the upcoming tour, delve into the song writing process for such off the wall music and the bass guitar sections offer an anchor in the wild ride that is Suffocation’s relentless musical blasting. Bassists into extreme metal take note as Derek has some great playing tips.
Suffocation are returning to Australia but this time with Decapitated. Their Winds of Creation album was done in 2000 when they were in their teens, which is pretty impressive.
Yeah man, these shows are going to be killer and we’re excited to get down there.
What have you noticed as a change in your bass playing style over the years?
I don’t know about my style changing but I’ve become much more comfortable from practising and have gotten used to playing with a specific drummer or all of the guys in the band. In the last five to seven years I’ve started to feel more that my instrument is part of me. Before I was just playing this instrument but now I feel that the instrument and I are one. So my style hasn’t really changed but I’ve just become so much more tuned in with my instrument.
How does the down tuning in extreme music work given there is always the temptation to make it as low and thunderous as possible?
Suffocation has always been standard tuning but with the entire instrument a step and a half down. We don’t do any dropped tunings. So, we’re in C sharp standard across the board.
Do you have to use heavier gauged strings on the basis that it will loosen up when playing really fast?
Yes, what is going to happen whenever you tune an instrument down is you’re going to lose tension so the string that was tight in the key of E doesn’t retain the same tension in the key of C sharp. So we use heavier gauged strings. Something I have learned over the years is that people associate that using the heavier gauged string on the bass gets a heavier sound. For me, that can be true if you’re talking about resonance or how well a note sustains. Maybe a heavy gauged string with a little bit of tension is going to have a longer lasting sustain but what I have found is that if I use a regular medium of even a medium light bass string, you get more punch. With a really heavy gauged string you’re going to have to hit it really hard to make it sound like you’re hitting it hard because the heavier the string, the tighter the string. You get a lot of punch and pop out of the string by not using a really heavy gauge so I use a medium or regular set.
Some reviews over the years of Suffocation tend to effectively say that the bass is the focal point because there is just so much going on with the sonic barrage. Are you conscious of that?
Yeah, I’ve always taken a lot of pride in playing the bass. A typical muso joke is that the bass is hiding in the background and is just a low rumble. I want to be a really active part of the sound and putting a really tight foundation together with the drummer to give the guitar and the vocal a really solid platform. So yeah, I definitely take a lot of pride in not being a typical bass player who wants to hide in the background. I try to play really punchy and accurate with the drums to give a really nice foundation for the rest of the band to play on.
Has that approach evolved with the help of producers or is it just within the band?
I’d say it is just from playing a lot. Producers and engineers have suggestions like, ‘hey, maybe don’t play so crazy here’ or ‘wow, that’s cool, you’re playing really complex’ but for the most part I think it is just a matter of doing it, playing a lot and then you find out what works for you.
How do you keep in time? One of Suffocation’s signature aspects is a wall of musical onslaught followed by a breakdown before going at it again.
I really think that in your soul you have an idea of the movement of the piece. As a bass player, I am looking for a lot of kick drum because the kick drum is really going to be the timing for me whereas the guitar players are usually following the hi-hat or the ride cymbal. They are going to cut a real staccato and be with the [drummer’s] hands whereas I feel that as a bass player, I am going to lock in with the feet of the drummer, the bass drums. So it all works out great with Terence [Hobbs – guitar] wanting to lock onto the ride cymbal and I’m wanting to lock onto the bass drum. I think everything is working but I am definitely using the drums and the feeling inside of myself. You know, what do I feel? That is what is keeping me in time or ahead of the beat or behind the beat.
Is this something you’ve instilled in the latest drummer [Kevin Talley]?
No, I think it is with anybody whether I am sitting at home with a metronome or when we’re playing with Dave Culross, Doug Bohn, Kevin Talley or with Mike Smith. You are going to have to adjust a little bit to find their temperament but once you get a feel for that drummer’s feel, the rest comes naturally. It is just a matter of tuning in with who or what you are playing with.
Do you spend a lot of time on pre-production?
We spend a lot of time on pre-production because that is how we do a lot of our writing. Terence and I will sit together and he’ll have some rhythm ideas. We’ll get a tempo map going and we’ll say, ‘okay, this is the aggressive feel here and this is the real anticipation style rhythm with a lot of anxiety’. So, we’ll come up with the tempo and the time signature. We’ll do the pre-production stuff, where Terence will just whack on a fucking midi keyboard, like a plastic midi sequencer piano and that’s hooked up to Superior Drummer, a tune track product and he’ll sit there whacking away on it. All of a sudden he is putting the bass drum down and he’ll go back to put the hi-hat in. We’ll do a lot of pre-production where Terence and I will mock up the drums with a little fake keyboard and we’ll play all the bass and the guitars plus we’ll actually even place the vocals. So we do a lot of pre-production just working out of Terence’s home studio and then everybody starts getting the material, getting comfortable and rehearsing. The ultimate goal is that everybody can get together and learn the material before we get into the studio. That is ideal.
The technicality of the music is intense, I’m guessing getting it tight is simply from lots of rehearsal.
Yeah, I don’t think we really rehearse a lot, it is just a matter of sitting there and thinking. When you’re composing the material, you’ve got a lot of options and there are no limitations. The technicality side is like, ‘okay, we don’t want to go over the top and write too technically’ but naturally we do write pretty complex material. We try to keep the structure straight forward if the rhythm is complex or if the structure is complex, we try to keep the rhythm simple. So, there is a happy medium. You want the listener who is a musician to be challenged whilst we don’t want it to go over their heads of the listener who isn’t a musician. We try to write really complex songs but something that still has a catch or a hook to it.
Do you find yourself a bit chained to classics like Pierced From Within and Effigy of the Forgotten?
Yeah, those are the staples. We’re always going to have those really rhythmic oriented, groove parts and then the really heavy slam parts and with Pierced From Within, the technical parts. You’re always going to feel some of those attributes in our writing no matter what. It is always going to go back to that simple slam, groove or hook. We’ll never stray too far from that path.
Does that mean that for the set list for the coming tour, the classic albums might dominate?
It is hard to say. We’re going to be doing a little bit of everything. In my opinion, it is a lot of Effigy of the Forgotten, Pierced From Within and we touch on the Despise the Sun EP but I think we’re only playing one or two songs from the reunion albums. So, it is a couple of songs each from the latest Pinnacle of Bedlam album, Blood Oath and the self titled album. There will be more than two songs off of Pierced From Within and Effigy of the Forgotten plus we’ll touch on Breeding the Spawn. I would hate to come out to see one of my favourite bands and have them only play one record. We’ve got a lot of records and we want to make sure that everybody gets a little of something.
For the latest album, did you have to do anything to your bass playing to replicate the bass tones and playing that was on prior releases?
Not really, the latest one was a lot of fun and I had free reign. I was able to sit up there late at night and record. I was happy with the way this one came out from the sound to the performance and the writing. So, all in all I was satisfied. Looking back at the other records, you always want to do what you like from a previous record and learn from the things that you didn’t like. So you try to get the best of both worlds. I look forward to trying to out-do what I did on the next record.
You’ve toured with Napalm Death. Did you learn a lot from them in a live setting, being that they are seasoned veterans and grindcore pioneers?
Napalm Death are classic man, we love those guys and have played all over the place with them. They are really good guys and we consider them our brothers. We do the slam thing and they do the grind thing so we’re all just blasting, having a great time. It is always an honour to play out with those guys whether we’re in Europe, the States, and Japan or wherever. They are a blast to play with and we love taking the stage with them every night.
They influenced so many bands, do you feel that Suffocation had a similar underground influence in death metal?
Yeah, you know what, there is a lot of influence going on. Regardless of your background, when you hear something you like, you want to imitate it. You’re not going to totally rip it off but a lot of bands take from other bands what they like and that is flattering. It is great to be inspired by other bands. If other bands or musicians are inspired by you then it is just an awesome circle of enlightening each other. Someone turned us onto something so we play a certain way and that turned others on to playing the way they play and it just a great cycle. It’s cool.
Finally, what do you prefer, headline shows or festivals?
I like the tight, punchy venue which is not too big or not too small. The real tiny stages are great for intimacy but if the stage is physically small so that I can’t move around, that is not fun but I do love the intimacy of a small crowd. Anywhere from 300-1000 capacity is my favourite. Sometimes we play these festivals and there are ten and twenty thousands of people, all the way up to a hundred thousand people at these events. It is awesome because you’re reaching a bunch of people who wouldn’t know of Suffocation. So in that aspect, we love playing the big festivals. But there is something to be said about playing a nice, tight room but not too small though. If it is too small, as musicians we cannot move around freely. Anyway, anywhere between 300-1000 people is ideal.
Paul is a Sydney-based writer who also contributes to Australian Guitar magazine.
Suffocation is touring with Decapitation next month:
7/5: HiFi Bar, Brisbane QLD
8/5: Manning Bar, Sydney NSW
9/5: Corner Hotel, Melbourne VIC
10/5: Rosemount Hotel, Perth WA