Travis Ryan has never really liked the taste of meat.
"I always thought there was something wrong with it," the singer for death metal lynchpins Cattle Decapitation says during a recent phone interview. "My body always kind of rejected it, long before I ever claimed to be a vegetarian."
Since 1996 the San Diego band has inveighed against the factory-style slaughter of animals for mass consumption — and humankind's deplorable treatment of our natural environment — through ghastly artwork and a vertiginous blend of death and grind metal.
As a teen Ryan was inspired by the clinical sound and lyricism of legendary metal band Carcass. When he met the rest of Cattle Decapitation, who were just getting started as a group, he realized he could marry both influences. Ryan admits he's changed more minds through Cattle Decapitation than he ever thought possible.
"A lot of kids come up to me saying they've gone vegetarian or vegan from reading our lyrics and being disgusted by the imagery," he says. "It made them look into it. I always say please don't do anything just because of us. Look into it yourself and see if it's something you think you should do. We don't want to twist anyone's arm. I wouldn't want anyone doing that to me."
In fact, not everyone in the band is vegetarian. Derek Engemann, their new bassist, is a carnivore. Drummer Dave McGraw eats seafood, mainly shellfish. Only Ryan and guitarist Josh Elmore maintain a strict diet.
"We're a band first and foremost," Ryan says. "We're not going to abandon those ideas, but it's never really been a requirement. It just kind of happened that way. Music comes first. Otherwise we wouldn't be a band, we'd be an organization."
While Ryan doesn't entirely align himself with the animal rights movement, he works with San Diego-area animal advocacy organizations
"That's the best way to see any kind of action," Ryan says. "Unfortunately it seems PETA kind of gives vegetarians a bad name. I think universally they've left a bad taste in everyone's mouths. They mean well, but I think some of their methods are kind of ridiculous."
While Cattle Decapitation's music is manically fast and aggressive, their latest work, last year's The Harvest Floor, includes instruments like the electric cello that are generally foreign to the death metal genre. Female vocalist Jarboe also guests, a hookup courtesy of album producer Billy Anderson.
"It totally fit; that's the thing," Ryan says of the unusual elements. "It wasn't just, here's our wacky cello part. That's one of my favorite things about the record – a lot of the more musical things you don't find too much in extreme music."
Ryan's throat-rattling growl has made him one of metal's most notorious vocalists. Now 35 years old, he's honed his demonic roar since age 15 by performing everywhere from backrooms with PA's on sticks to venues where the sounds are ruthlessly amplified.
"It sounds a lot different when I'm just sitting here in front of you," Ryan says of his vocal style. "You'd be like, 'Oh, that's it?'"
Cattle Decapitation's message is conveyed just as much through their album covers. Two of them – To Serve Man, which shows a guy filleting himself and Humanure, which depicts a cow excreting human remains – were either censored or outright banned in some places. Reaction to The Harvest Floor's cover, by contrast, has been subdued. Ryan doesn't understand why.
"If the image of a slaughterhouse on a hill with the world's populace being herded into it by some fascist-looking regime is tame, then what does that say about us?" he says. "That's the flip side of what the cover represents – first being the obvious and second being if people are going to talk shit about this not being a metal enough cover, then what can you do? Because that is a horrible image."