In a genre where easy classification is a virtue and humorlessness is the law, a band like The Black Dahlia Murder reminds us all why we became metalheads in the first place. Since the release of 2003’s crushing Unhallowed, this Michigan quintet has explored the boundaries of their genre, penning ultra-catchy melodeath anthems and unlistenable grind assaults alike. Meanwhile, their two DVDs, 2009’s Majesty and 2014’s Fool ‘Em All, introduced fans to a gang of wisecracking stoners who are just happy to be here playing music that sounds like a stabbing. On top of all that, they tour like fucking crazy; their longest break in recent memory was a six-month period to write their latest album, 2015’s hugely successful Abysmal. The band is currently preparing for a US tour, on which they’ll play Unhallowed in its entirety at the sort of intimate venues they used to play when that album first dropped.
Talking to Black Dahlia Murder frontman Trevor Strnad is like chatting with an old buddy over beers and a Deicide album in someone’s basement. A hulking blend of nerd and hesher with the word ‘HEARTBURN’ tattooed across his belly, Strnad is both passionate about his craft and at quick to laugh at himself. When Noisey reaches him, Trevor is chilling at home in his pajama pants, which, he assures this reporter, are super-warm. “They’re black and blue with skulls on them. My girlfriend’s mom got them for me for Christmas.”
Noisey: How’s the social climate in Michigan right now? Is everyone pissed?
Trevor Strnad: I think they’re always pissed here. I mean, you look around at the city, and it’s pretty much shattered. But at the same time, there’s a lot of good shit going on here—a lot of young people, a lot of art, a lot of rock’n’roll.
When did the idea to play Unhallowed in its entirety first come up?
It’s something that we’ve been flirting with for a long time. And I know it’s a big trend now, to go back to your old catalog and play a classic album. It’s just been so many years since we played a lot of the songs, and people are still asking for them. A lot of it is just changing members. It seems like every time we change members, we lose a couple of songs from the back catalog. It’ll take some work. I’ve been listening to Unhallowed all the time, which is kind of a trip for me. We thought we’d take it to 300-cap rooms. You know, where we started.
How’s Unhallowed on the re-listen? Are you transported back to 2003? Are you hearing things you wish you’d done differently?
I mean, there’s a lot I wish I had done different. I still like the songs, but we were so green at the time. We hadn’t even left the state. So we didn’t have any touring under our belts. That was our first time being in the studio for an extended period of time. It was very intimidating. So of course there’s stuff I’d like to change. But it does transport me back to another time. It kind of led me to listening to a lot of the albums, actually, and reflecting, looking at old photos, and all kinds of cheesy stuff.
If you could talk to Trevor from 2003 right now, what advice would you give him?
Man…I’m not sure! I’m not sure I’d change too much! It’s been really fun to say the least. I’d just say, Dude, hang on tight!
How does the album sound with the current lineup?
I think it sounds great! When I listen to the record, I hear a lot of great ideas, but I think we were a little too naïve, or maybe just not good enough, to flesh them out all the way. So even the songs that we’ve been playing for a number of years, “Funeral Thirst” and “Elder Misanthropy," I really love how those have shaped up, and the rest of the songs are doing the same. They sound how they were meant to sound, fully realized. The players we have now, everybody’s just extremely, extremely good. Another reason we decided to do this Unhallowed tour was because we knew we were losing Ryan, so we wanted to drop some good news, to take the heat off the member change.
Is there a track that you’re especially excited to play with this lineup?
I think that’d be “Hymn For The Wretched”. It’s the fastest track on Unhallowed. It used to be a mess when we played it back in the day, because it was a mess, and we…weren’t any good! [Laughs] So far it sounds awesome, and people are going to be amazed.
It seems like Ryan’s departure went as amiably as a lineup change could have.
I’ve never even heard of a member change in another band that was done in such a way. He made it as easy as possible. There was still some heartbreak—he’s a great guy and I wish he could still be here. But the moment that he joined the band, I saw a shelf life on it, because he has a kid. He rushed from the hospital the day the kid was born to start writing and practicing with us—that was the very beginning of things with him, when we were wrapping up Deflorate. So it was bittersweet—we had this guy come into the band who was amazing and who could write songs, but I always knew in the back of my mind, he’d have to go and tend to his kid, which is totally legit. The guy we have was playing with us now, Brandon Ellis, he’s really good. It looks like he’s going to be a member of the band—we’re just holding it over his head now, the way we do. He was selected by Ryan, and he’s a lot like Ryan in his playing and influences. He just made it as smooth as possible, and I’ve got nothing but love for the guy.
That’s great. I know in the past you’ve had issues finding someone who could fill in when a member left.
That’s the thing—when you’re in a band of this size, it’s hard to even announce the news of losing a member, because people get so up in arms about it. You can’t just get on Facebook and say, “Who wants to be in the band? We’re having open auditions!” That’s just a shitstorm you don’t want to sort through. In the old days, especially looking for drummers? Aw, that was the worst. Finding a drummer for Nocturnal was a stressful time. Checking drummer message boards, calling everybody from every CD booklet I owned…when we came back again looking for a drummer, when we found Alan [Cassidy, the band’s current drummer], there were so many young drummers who had popped up in that six-year span, it was a different ball game. So glad not to be putting an ad in the paper!
You guys are losing all of April and May to tour—is there a period of time you just haven’t had to yourself in the last ten years? When’s the last time you had a September without a tour?
Well, the longest break we ever took was six months to do Abysmal. That’s the longest break we’ve ever taken. Period. Since 2003. But yeah, man, September’s prime time. Summer, too. Anytime a cool show pops up that I want to go to in the summer, it’s best to not even get excited about it, because it’s almost guaranteed that we’ll be on tour. But living in Michigan, not a lot of good shit comes through here anyway, it being a peninsula, so it’s good to leave. I get to see a lot more good shit in Europe at festivals and stuff like that.
It’s cool that you’re playing big European festivals, but still down to book a tour of small venues.
I guess we feel more at home in a small venue, where you can smack the people in the front row. You can’t break down the fourth wall at a festival. People can’t get onstage and jump off. They can’t come and sing into the microphone. But if it goes well, you get that mass hysteria feel at festivals. You look out there and there are thousands of people out there with their hands up. Those outdoor festivals are huge exposure for us. We’re still trying to get in front of new people all the time, in new ways.
Is that ever tiresome? You guys have been doing this for thirteen years, you’ve had massive success, but you still need to get on that grind to make new fans?
It’s just part of it. I remember when we were a young band, and that was part of the advertisement. Oh, these guys are so young! Now kids are coming to the show and they’re talking to me like I’m their grandpa.
Your recent video for “Threat Level #3” is incredibly unsettling. How much involvement did you guys have?
It’s based on the lyrics kind of loosely. It’s telling a parallel story of a similar character. But a lot of ideas, the suckers flying around and the hypnotic nature of it all, was my idea. A lot of the stuff you see—the candy, different symbolism like that—was stuff we talked about. But besides that, he just took it and ran with it. I love how unsettling it is. It’s hard to shock people anymore. The Internet era has ushered in this coldness. People are looking at shit porn by the time they’re seven, so death metal loses its punch in modern times.
It’s rare to see metal bands putting their time and money into videos. I think a lot of bands see that money as better spent on a tour.
We try to do the best we can. I think that’s what we started doing with the “Miasma” video, where we spent the money on a bar tab. That blew the door open for what kind of stupid anti-videos can we make. The photo element started the same way. We knew we had to have photos of us out there, but it wasn’t a priority. We’re not a cool-looking band. So we started doing stupid stuff in the photos, punching each other in the face and whatnot. And now that stuff’s all commonplace, but it was different at the time for a metal band.
You guys did a lot to change the image of a death metal band, especially with the DVDs. Seeing you guys as chill pot smokers really endeared you to fans. It’s opened to door for bands like Party Cannon for sure.
And you know, part of that was just the inability to keep a straight face. We just have so much fun, and I’m personally so thankful to see a crowd of people out there smiling and having so much fun. I can’t pretend I’m Nergal.
Did you ever try to be the ultra-grim death metal dude, or did it never fit?
I didn’t get that I couldn’t do that at first! I really wanted to have the long hair, and the gauntlets, and all of it. And one day it clicked—that’s never going to happen, dude. You’re never going to look cool.
Catch The Black Dahlia on the Unhallowed Resurrection MMXVI Tour with Fallujah and Disentomb:
04-08-16 Dayton, OH - Oddbody's Music Room
04-09-16 Morgantown, WV - 123 Pleasant Street
04-10-16 Harrisburg, PA - The Champ
04-11-16 Poughkeepsie, NY - The Loft
04-13-16 Burlington, VT - Higher Ground Side Room
04-14-16 Long Island, NY - Amity Music Hall
04-15-16 Worcester, MA - The Palladium
04-16-16 Brooklyn, NY - Knitting Factory
04-17-16 Philadelphia, PA - The Voltage Lounge
04-18-16 Virginia Beach, VA - Shakas Live
04-19-16 Chapel Hill, NC - Local 506
04-20-16 Spartanburg, SC - Ground Zero
04-21-16 Atlanta, GA - The Masquerade
04-22-16 Jacksonville, FL - Jack Rabbits
04-23-16 Orlando, FL - The Social
04-24-16 Gainesville, FL - High Dive
04-26-16 Tallahassee, FL - 926 Lounge (formally Pug's)
04-27-16 Birmingham, AL - Zydeco
04-28-16 Pensacola, FL - Vinyl
04-29-16 Houston, TX - Eastdown
04-30-16 Austin, TX - Mohawk
05-01-16 Lubbock, TX - Jakes
05-03-16 Albuquerque, NM - Blu Phoenix Venue
05-04-16 Tucson, AZ - The Rock
05-05-16 Phoenix, AZ - Rebel Lounge
05-06-16 Las Vegas, NV - Divebar
05-07-16 Anaheim, CA - Chain Reaction
05-08-16 Glendale, CA - The Complex
05-09-16 Bakersfield, CA - Jerry's Pizza
05-10-16 Fresno, CA - Strummers
05-11-16 San Francisco, CA - Brick and Mortar Music Hall
05-12-16 Sacramento, CA - Boardwalk
05-13-16 Portland, OR - Analog Theatre
05-14-16 Spokane, WA - The Big Dipper
05-15-16 Boise, ID - Mardi Gras
05-16-16 Salt Lake City, UT - Kilby Court
05-18-16 Grand Junction, CO - Mesa Theatre
05-20-16 Sioux Falls, SD - The District
05-21-16 Des Moines, IA - Vaudeville Mews
05-22-16 Madison, WI - Frequency
05-23-16 Chicago, IL - Beat Kitchen
05-24-16 St. Louis, MO - Fubar
05-25-16 Indianapolis, IN - Emerson Theater
05-26-16. Grand Rapids, MI - Pyramid Scheme
05-27-16 Kent, OH - The Outpost
05-28-16 Grand Rapids, MI - Hartland Performance Arts Center
Chris Krovatin is emptying graves on Twitter.