The World's Only Parrot-Fronted Death Metal Band Just Released a New Album
We spoke to the metalhead behind the feather-pummeling, plumage-ruffling of new album 'Number of the Beak.'
Forget whiskey and women—when the lead singer of the grindcore band Hatebeak refuses to perform, his bandmates coax him back to the microphone with dried bananas. It's a rather wholesome indulgence for the frontman of a band that claims to thrash with "face-crushing guitars" and "bass so low, you'll vacate your bowels." But that's because he's a bird.
Waldo, a 21-year-old African grey parrot, is the world's only heavy-metal rocker with wings. The feathered frontman screeches brain-rattling songs for the Baltimore-based three-"man" studio project, whose first new album in eight years, Number of the Beak, dropped last Friday.
Aside from a rare interview with VICE in 2005, the band's human members have always been cagey about their bird-centric sounds, citing "trade secrets." But last week drummer Blake Harrison (who also plays keyboards in Pig Destroyer) hopped on the phone with me to talk about what it's like to collaborate with an animal, how they keep PETA from squawking, and why, after all these years, he still won't let the joke die.
VICE: Where did the idea for a parrot-fronted band hatch?
Blake Harrison: [Guitarist]Mark Sloan and I had known each other from playing music in different bands for a couple years, and basically both of us were between bands. So, you know, I'm kind of like a goofy guy, I like to have fun, so we thought up the concept and we were like, "How stupid would it be if we had a parrot for a singer?" It makes sense because of the mimicry, and the type of stuff that parrots can do. We thought up the name, drew up the logo, and it made us laugh. So we were like, "OK, let's do it."
And there's a spoof behind the name?
Yeah, there's a hardcore band called Hatebreed that is pretty popular. So Hatebeak was the perfect name for a parrot-fronted metal band.
It's been 12 years since the band formed, and you've put out four records. Why keep it going after the initial joke?
[Laughs] Because we kept thinking of things that made us laugh. Part of it is coming up with goofy song titles. Song titles that are puns on preexisting, well-known metal songs. I guess a better answer for an interview would be, "We still have something we have to say." But that's absolutely not true. As long as we keep having fun and keep getting a kick out of it, we're in good shape.
'[Waldo] likes to whistle the Andy Griffith theme song. A Lot. And Obviously that's cool, but it's not something I can use on a metal record.'
What is it like collaborating with a bird? Are there animal-specific challenges?
You know, there's the old Hollywood trope: "Never work with kids and never work with animals." It can be a little bit of a pain at times. Most of it is getting Waldo to relax. The mimicry is a form of play for him. So, to get him to do anything, he's got to feel comfortable. And then he kind of spouts out whatever. But he likes to bite your ear when he's on your shoulder sometimes. He likes to whistle the Andy Griffith theme song. A lot. And obviously that's cool, but it's not something I can use on a metal record. There are challenges, but I've been in tons of bands, and lead singers typically tend to have pretty big egos. I know because I sang for a band myself. So I would say it's not much different than working with a [human] lead singer because there are still challenges.
How do you encourage Waldo to perform?
He likes bananas—dehydrated banana chips. Stuff like that. That kind of makes him comfortable. Weird story: Waldo likes bananas, and he also likes crackers. So we got him dehydrated banana chips, and he pieced it together and called them "banana crackers" on his own. It's a little creepy. You're like, "What else do you know?"
So he's smart.
Oh yeah, they're really, really intelligent animals. Scientists mostly kind of say that they have the intelligence level of like a three- or four-year-old child. It can be a little weird.
What's his personality like? Does he have quirks?
He likes interaction. He will call in the dog using one of [his] owners' voices. And when the dog comes in the room—because it thought the owner had called it—the parrot will jump down and bite the dog's tail and jump back up real quick.
Can you walk me through how one of your songs gets made?
Either Mark or myself will come up with a riff—guitar usually is how we start it—and we will build. We bounce ideas off of each other, then we write the drums, then we kind of throw the bass in. We'll record that stuff and work with it. If we like it, then we will either put a microphone in front of Waldo or have someone else put a microphone in front of him, and get anywhere from ten to 40 minutes of him just doing what he does. And then we cut it up, move it around, shift it, put it over top of the music, and that's it. We put distortion on it, put various effects.
Do you put Waldo in a vocal-recording booth?
Yeah, kind of. We don't go to a studio to record this stuff—we do it in Mark's band room or a spare room. We have set up a microphone in front of him, like a studio setting, but it's not really a vocal booth. With modern recording technology, it's a lot easier to get stuff done than it used to be. So it's not like we have to put him in there with a bottle of Jack Daniels and whatever else, like—
A pair of tiny headphones?
Right, no headphones, no pop-screen. That's a funny image, but we don't really have to do that.
Have you ever caught flack from PETA?
No [laughs], not yet anyway. I mean, we're not doing anything wrong. A frequent question is if we would ever play live, and it's just kind of an impossibility. The decibel levels would be really unfair, to do that to any animal. And Waldo does what he does when he does it—not when we want him to do it. So we would look like absolute idiots up there, bashing away on these instruments and having a bird stand there. I would be upset if I paid money to see that and the bird didn't do anything. And that is a huge potential. I think PETA would be a little pissy with that.
You mentioned before that Waldo can be a diva when he's uncomfortable. How does he act when he's being high maintenance?
You know when a smoke detector makes a really loud, high-pitched chirp to tell you it's out of batteries? He will mimic that, and it's ear-piercingly loud, and it's really fucking annoying. Or he'll fly around and not really cooperate. You gotta talk in soothing tones, and try to get him relaxed, and maybe scratch his head a little bit. He's not really my bird, so I don't know if my interaction is as good as the owner's.
How did you meet Waldo?
We had the [band] idea, and we were talking to the guy that owns the record label that is putting our record out, Chris X from Reptilian Records, and he was like, "Well, I know somebody with a parrot." So I was like, "Hey man, um, how you doin'? I've got a really goofy idea, and you probably think I'm nuts, but what do you think of this?" And he was like, "Yeah, man. It's totally cool. Let's do it."
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A reviewer compared Hatebeak's sound to "a jackhammer being ground in a compacter." They've called it "unlistenable" and "ear-bleeding." Do you care what they think? Do they just not get it?
That's probably from our first one-sheet, which is like a promotional tool. Labels send them to reviewers, kind of describing the band and what the sound is. So, actually, that's something I think we wrote.
Wait, the jackhammer part?
Yeah, absolutely. I don't know about the ear-bleeding part. Like I said, it's been 15, 12 years, or something like that. But yeah, we want it to be kind of obnoxious-sounding. It's supposed to be kind of—not offensive, but irritating or grating. "Unlistenable" might be a little extreme; I think it's more palatable than that. It's about wanting to out-extreme other extreme bands, like, who can swing their dick the farthest and hardest.
Judging from your experience with Waldo, do you think that animals can be music fans?
I don't know if they can discern certain things, but people leave their TV on for their dogs when they're gone. There was a quote—have you ever heard of a band called Possessed? They are one of the first death-metal bands, and they recorded their first record on a farm. They said, "If you play death metal, 99 percent of everyone will hate you, including animals." So yeah, I think if you play some nice classical music, I mean, it kind of calms infants down. If you play really loud, obnoxious hip-hop or metal, it's gonna piss 'em off, or get 'em wound up. Just kind of different strokes for different folks. I think animals can be fans of music, but I don't think they have any say in the matter. [Laughs]
Has Waldo actually heard any of his songs?
Oh yeah, of course!
How does he react?
You know, bobs his head up and down. That's basically it. I don't know if he likes it or not. Typically, he's in a cage so he can't really do shit about it.
Is Waldo available for comment?
What do you think?
I could put a phone up to him and he wouldn't do anything. Also, we want to keep him a little sheltered.
You once said your ultimate goal is to "raise the bar for extreme music." Is that still your goal, and what does that mean?
Absolutely. It's like a competition, almost. Not for everybody, but a lot of extreme music wants to out-extreme the generation of bands that influenced them. You have Metallica, and then you have Slayer, which is much heavier. And then you have death-metal bands that just want to be like, "Oh yeah, you're fast? Well, check this out, we're faster." Or, "You're heavy? Check this out, we're heavier." And I think that's engrained in the culture of heavy metal. So it's kind of like you want to do a little one-up-ship. It's also kind of a machismo, bragging, bullshit thing. When we thought of this I was like, "Well, no one's really going to be able to one-up this one." And if they do, more power to them.
Number of the Beak is out now from Reptilian Records.
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