(In this new installment of a series devoted to metal drummers, Karina Noctum talked with David McGraw of Cattle Decapitation, and we join Karina in thanking David him for his time and attention.)
Cattle Decapitation is definitely one band that leads the way when it comes to extreme metal. Their blend of Death, Heavy, Grind, and Black Metal with a complex arrangement of progressive riffs and top-notch technique is something I have always admired. So I had to include David McGraw in my series as he is definitely one of the best drummers in the genre.
Due to the pandemic he is currently home and available for drumming coaching while he should be on tour. He took some time to answer my questions, something I’m pretty grateful for. What’s left for us in Europe is to hope their superb tour together with Disentomb, Internal Bleeding, and Gloom will be re-scheduled, but things look certainly gloomy grim here when it comes to shows in the foreseeable future.
You grew up in Chile then moved to the States, what kind of Latin musical influences did you have when you started?
I was born in Miami, and was raised in Santiago. I moved to the States right before my 17th birthday. Latin music is definitely popular, but nowhere near as huge as most people think it is down there. Chile is more of a Rock & Roll kinda country. I was always around Metal, Jazz, and Prog growing up in Santiago.. And the tiniest bit of Latin music hehe.
Tell us about you becoming a part of the North American scene, how difficult was it?
At first it was challenging because I had just moved to Little Rock, Arkansas.. Which is not exactly the best place to move to pursue a career in music. At the time it was the only place we had to go, so that’s where my mom, sister and I went.
When you live in a place like Little Rock, you get to know what’s around very fast. Since it’s a small city, I ended up meeting two of my best friends (to this day) Phillip Marfoglio, and Nick Joubert. We discovered this place called Downtown Records which at the time was owned by some of the guys in Rwake and Shitfire. It was a metal Oasis in a desert of shit haha… Seriously, they brought as many cool tours as possible, sold merch, and had really cool rare bootleg VHS tapes for sale. It was a haven, and the only place to be able to go see underground shows in Little Rock, aside from this other place called Vino’s, but that was more of an indie venue. Still awesome! Saw some good shows there as well.
I started my first grind/death band in Little Rock with Phillip and Nick, but after living there for 2 years I decided to move on since two of my brothers and my cousin were living in Seattle, so I decided it was time to get the hell out of Little Rock.
Once in Seattle, I met Luke Jaeger from Sleep Terror via a craigslist ad, in which he was actually looking for a singer. But when I listened to the demo, he had programmed drums on there, so I figured I’d hit him up anyways and see if he wanted to jam. We had the same influences at the time, bands like Cephalic Carnage, Dying Fetus, Origin, Dillinger Escape Plan, Meshuggah, etc.
We ended up playing a lot of shows in the Seattle metro area with our good friends in this band called Barefoot Barnacle. Those were great times for sure. We practiced at a venue called Studio 7, which had just opened, but became legendary over the years. I had the chance to see so many great bands there, while being able to have my practice room in the same building, so we were exposed to a lot of cool tours and bands, plus we met a lot of people who would become lifelong friends.
Around 2004 we got invited to play a one-off special show in San Diego at the original Brick by Brick venue. It was Deeds of Flesh, Disgorge (US), Decrepit Birth, and Element. Those were the MySpace days, and bands would really blow up from that site, so we had a little bit of hype at the time. That was my first “out-of-state” show I ever played.
About two years later we went out on our first US tour, which we booked solely via MySpace. We rented a “soccer mom” type van, and just went on tour as a two-piece instrumental band. We had no cases for gear, it was a ‘throw and go” operation to the fullest! haha. That tour was great though, and we got to open for a lot of awesome bands like: Suffocation, Origin, Elucidarius, etc.
We also played a fest in Wisconsin called “Robot Mosh Fest” which was where I met Travis Ryan. At the time, we were talking about me trying out for Cattle Decap, but I was very devoted to my current band, and it sucked because I really wanted to join Cattle, but just couldn’t. I needed to see where my band was gonna go, and I had a lot of time and sacrifice invested in Sleep Terror.
About a year later, and after the 4th time my band split up, I had enough and called Travis to ask if they still needed a drummer. They were having drummer issues for a while, and I was ready to take on that opportunity. Luckily for me, they had a tour in the works, and shortly after that, I packed my stuff and moved to San Diego to start rehearsing with them for my first tour with the band in the fall of 2007. I had talked to Travis around 2006/07 about filling-in for tours, but didn’t actually do anything ’til the fall of 2007, for the “Death By Decibels” tour. After that, I became a full-time member, and immediately started songwriting for The Harvest Floor.
David McGraw playing Robot Mosh Fest, 2006
Now that your touring is postponed I know you are giving lessons. How do you conduct the lessons? How difficult is it to teach drumming?
I’ve been giving online lessons or “drum coaching”( as I prefer to call what I do), for about 8 years now. I call it “coaching” or “coach sessions” because most drummers who contact me have already been playing for a while and have specific questions about certain techniques and other questions about industry stuff as well. I just share what I’ve learned through my own personal experience, and I hope they can gain something from what I have to offer. I personally don’t find it very difficult, as I am used to talking to people, for the most part haha.
What advice would you give aspiring drummers who want to become more technical?
Just keep playing, and have fun doing it. It’s super important to not lose focus as to “why” you started playing drums in the first place. But also remain focused on your goals as a drummer. Keep at it, and you’ll get there eventually. Practice!!
Cattle Decapitation are pretty complex, progressive, and blend many genres and tempos in every song. Taking this into account, how do you keep the songs’ cohesion?
We take cohesion into account at every stage of our songwriting process. At the end of the day, we’re still trying to write songs and not just show off how fast we can go, or how brutal we can be. We like to write songs that we are going to enjoy performing live and in the studio. We definitely keep each other in check if we start to lose track, or start writing stuff that doesn’t flow with the rest of the material.
With all that said, we still like to keep it somewhat experimental, and like to take chances. We’re not into putting out “safe music”. We write what we think is good at the time. Pretty straight-forward.
It’s pretty demanding to play the way you do, so what routines do you do to stay fit for long tours?
I like to hit the gym when I’m home, and when on tour (if possible). Eat well, and take it easy on the booze. In order to be able to do this for years to come, you absolutely need to take care of your health. Draw a balance between having fun and staying in shape. I have gone through all kinds of weight gains and losses, so I am very familiar with what I’m talking about.
What kind of routines do you have to prevent injuries?
I like to stretch before every show, as well as warm-up on practice pads before hitting the stage.
What role do discipline and practice play when it comes to achieving and maintaining an advanced drumming playing style? What’s the most important to become a professional tech drummer?
I think that practice is as essential as taking breaks, when it comes to maintenance. If you’re on tour for 6 months out of the year, and you don’t take a break, you’re gonna burn yourself out. It’s all about balance. You should be able to recognize when it is that you need to pick up your instrument and keep your chops up. But I also find it very important to take breaks and enjoy the other things in life. Taking breaks also helps you be more creative, so yeah, just find that balance, and go from there.
Do you keep up with the metal scene? Are there any bands that stand out in your opinion? Why?
I do, and I don’t hehe. I do go on searches looking for something to listen to, often. There’s definitely a lot of great new bands out there, but they all seem to be following a formula, so I’m personally not into most new bands out there. There is, however, a “recent” discovery (actually I got into them about 5 years ago), this one-man band Midnight Odyssey. It’s been my favorite band for a while, along with Soreption.
How do you go about composing your drumming parts?
My drum parts usually come last as I like to write riff/sections/melodies first. I usually just go with whatever pops in my head, there’s no particular order to it, so what I do is I log the idea into my phone via voice recorder first, then in a few days I revisit the idea to see if I still like it, and build it from there.
What other contributions have you made to Cattle Decap’s latest album Death Atlas when it comes to composing or lyrical themes?
Josh, Bel, and I write the music, and we all help with arrangements. Travis takes care of all the conceptual stuff and the lyrics.. He gives us input with song arrangements as well if we need to change something so it fits with the vocal parts.
Do you strive for uniqueness in your drumming? If so, could you describe how? Why is it important?
I strive to play what I think is best for the part. You can always count on having blast beats, and fast parts. That’s always going to be expected from this style of music. I like to let the songs breathe, and therefore, sometimes, I find more complexity in playing it simple. It’s all relatively tough, and I think it’s important from an artistic perspective to keep that balance. If you’re playing crazy parts all the time, then nothing will jump out to the listener, and it will be boring and repetitive. Impressive, but boring.
The North American scene has always counted with musicians of Latino ancestry — you have bands like Fear Factory, Slayer, Sepultura, Morbid Angel, Possessed, Brodequin, to name a few. They have all contributed and influenced entire genres, so what would you say is your contribution to the Metal genre?
I personally don’t look at it like that. Like certain bands are a certain way because they have members of Latino origin. A lot of the bands you mentioned (minus Sepultura) were all raised American, and are just of Latino descent. Sepultura was entirely from South America and faced a unique set of disadvantages, which is why it’s relatively “more” impressive that they broke out of that scene and made it up in North America.
I don’t know the background of some of those musicians, so I don’t want to say much more without really knowing. I will say though that, overall as countries, it’s easier to get started as a musician in North America because of all the resources. But no matter what, the only thing that is going to allow a band to succeed is GRIT, and when it comes to that, it doesn’t matter where you come from, or what your ethnic background is. It takes a special kind of human to want to take on this lifestyle and pursue it till the end.
How did you improve your drumming? Did you have any mentoring along the way?
I’m always learning, that’s key. I keep learning from my mentors, and I’m always learning from new drummers in the scene as well. As long as they are into that kinda thing. Not every drummer is into talking drums and exchanging tips. But for the most part, I rarely encounter people like that.
What other side projects or session bands are you working with currently?
I’m not currently working on any side projects, but I am however looking to start producing my own stuff, at least well enough to get ideas through to the band. But no serious side bands at the moment. Cattle Decap takes up all my time.
What are you most proud of when it comes to Death Atlas?
I can’t really think of one thing that trumps another, if I had to choose. I’m really proud of everyone involved, and for all their hard work. It takes a lot to be able to write and record (organically) like we usually do, considering that a couple of us live in different cities, so it can be challenging at times to make it work. So I’m just proud of the overall effort..
Anything you would like to add?
Thank you for the interview, and we look forward to getting back on the road once this whole COVID-19 gets under control.. We miss the road and playing shows for our friends, so.. see you all very soon!!