Cattle Decapitation’s Travis Ryan Talks ‘Terrasite,’ Writing Emotionally Intense Songs

Cattle Decapitation Photo by Nick Van Vidler
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After ferociously grinding and creating some of the most extreme music in the genre, Cattle Decapitation has cemented itself as one of death metal’s greats.

Having formed in 1996, the band released their first album, To Serve Man, in 2002. Over the course of their career, the band would go on to release seven more albums, including the newest release, Terrasite. Throughout the band’s life, Cattle Decapitation vocalist Travis Ryan has been dedicated to creating harsh and depressing music; death metal that is not fantastical and meant to play into horror tropes, but metal that speaks to the horrors of life (e.g. environmental destruction of the planet, the greediness of humans, and atrocities we commit against one another).

Their latest record, Terrasite,  is an astounding achievement from Cattle Decapitation; while death metal doesn’t often get thought of as “emotionally moving,” Ryan and the band have crafted an experience that has the power to fuel listeners with rage and sadness. Ryan sees a world tearing itself apart, and through the songs on Terrasite, he brilliantly presents a world aching with pain.

In a new interview with The Pit, Ryan reveals how some of the lyrics that make up Terrasite lean toward personal, providing a glimpse into topics such as mental health, as well as him writing about the late Gabe Serbian (the band’s former drummer, as well as a member of The Locust). He also opens up about the band’s beloved 2012 album Monolith of Inhumanity – a record he felt represented “career suicide” and believed was going to be Cattle Decapitation’s last record.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Pit: As a writer, what do you hope to evoke from listeners through your lyrics? Speaking to Terrasite, what particular ideas were really inspiring you throughout the writing process?

Travis Ryan: Well, unfortunately, I completely missed the mark from what I had in mind at first and to what you see on the finished product of Terrasite. I think the only thing that was maintained and actually survived the process was the cover concept. Instead, it forayed into things I never thought I’d talk about in a Cattle Decapitation song, such as mental health and how we rear children. Making records is a process and every single album ends up being completely different than I imagined when going into it. Every single one. I thought Monolith Of Inhumanity was going to be our last record because I thought people were going to hate it for being too far off the path. It’s just all part of the process and I made peace with that many, many years ago.

What’s the process like in terms of writing such emotionally intense songs? Do you find writing lyrics to be a catharsis? While writing Terrasite, were they any particular songs that brought you into a deep emotional space?

TR: It’s absolutely cathartic. I guess you could apply the old dumb saying, “Doing this keeps me from killing someone” or some shit. I found myself in the most emotionally distressed point I had ever been while having to write a specific song and that would be the last song on the record “Just Another Body.” I was in a bad place mentally and emotionally. Just a fucking wreck. We had lost a couple of dear friends within just a couple weeks of each other, one being my good friend and a co-founder of our band, Gabe Serbian. This happened the day we left to record Terrasite and I still had one song left to write which also happened to be the most emotionally wrenching track on the record. I never thought I’d get that personal in a Cattle Decapitation lyric. There are a few on this record that hit a little too close to home and in hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have written it because I’m not exactly out here trying to talk about this shit with other people.

It seems like, considering all of Cattle Decapitation’s albums, Terrasite features the most singing from you. Would you agree? And when it comes to singing, what inspires that vocal approach out of you? What are some vocal challenges that come with singing the way you do?

TR: I’d say it’s about the exact same amount as the last few records, I personally don’t think there’s “more” necessarily. With The Anthropocene Extinction, the guys started writing songs with those vocals in mind and so we’ve ended up doing more of a traditional song structure. I’ve seen people say that they’re “predictably placed.” How sad is it that people don’t understand how songwriting works? Honestly, the drive behind adding something like that to this kind of music was sheer boredom and experimentation. I really started going harder with it on Monolith of Inhumanity and seriously, I honestly thought that might be our last record at the time. Doing the band was getting tougher and I was like “fuck it, I’m gonna have some fun” by doing those kinds of vocals. I thought we were committing career suicide but it has the absolute opposite effect.

Last year marked the 10-year anniversary of Monolith of Inhumanity, and when it comes to that record, what do you fondly think back to? Is there any one thing (or multiple things) that stand out big time in regard to the album?

TR: While I’m glad people like it so much, I have some thoughts on it. My opinion as well as that of the rest of the band from what I’ve gathered from our conversations is… The Anthropocene Extinction wiped the floor with Monolith of Inhumanity and Death Atlas wiped the floor with The Anthropocene Extinction. The albums have gotten so much better since that record, yet people are still so hung up on MOI.

But here’s the thing… I watched this happen to Job For A Cowboy. It’s not that the Doom EP is some magical, amazing piece of art, it’s that it benefited from timing and a cultural shift and hit a certain amount of a certain age and type of people at a certain time. Around when that EP came out, they and Suicide Silence both went out on a two-week west coast tour and when they came back, the world had changed. JFAC’s manager/label guy was a friend of ours and was asking us to take ’em out at the same time; I’m getting messages from Suicide Silence’s old bass player telling me they were blowing up and we should take them out on the road with ’em. A year or two later we would have to open for them. Things just happen how they happen and that’s evolution for ya. I call it “the Doom EP effect.” It’s not that it’s this amazing, bulletproof piece of art, it’s just something that had the right amount of variables for it to pop. Just look – all of their records were objectively getting better and better musically until they stopped. They were turning haters into fans.

Each record we’ve done since MOI is simply better than that album. Not trying to shit on it, I’m glad that we did something that resonated with so many people, it really did breathe new life into the band.

With the band’s history thus far, what is one thing you are glad has remained consistent about Cattle Decapitation, and what is one thing you are glad has changed? And in regard to Terrasite, was there anything during the process of creating this album that caught you by surprise? Such as a creative technique or approach that felt new and/or exciting.

TR: Intensity. Whether it’s sheer franticness of the blasting and grating guitars or down in the dirt depressing parts, it’s all pretty intense. When I started and especially when we went to Human Jerky, I just wanted to make the most frantic stuff out there. Of course, that was a dumb venture considering bands like Discordance Axis and Gore Beyond Necropsy existed, but it was a valiant try. Took us years to find our footing which was only gained between Karma.Bloody.Karma and Monolith of Inhumanity. As far as changes, I’m glad we finally started doing stuff with emotion. My favorite stuff is depressing, suicidal-sounding stuff for lack of a better term. The coolest reaction I’ve ever seen to our music is when I see people crying in the audience. I love it not because I’m some sociopath or something, but because that’s an honest reaction you can’t really fake. If you’re faking it, fuck you and maybe consider getting some help [cause] that’s really sad, but if it’s for real then thank you.

Considering that Cattle Decapitation’s music primarily focuses on the horrors of humanity, and acknowledging that the future does look awfully bleak at times, what is something that brings you hope?

TR: The promise of endless sleep and the end to my wretched internal chemistry.