Discovering New Elements- Shawn Cameron of Carnifex

 Carnifex - Die Without Hope album cover

Drummer Shawn Cameron is a professional ravager of drum kits, his punishing blast-beats forming the rhythmic bedrock of San Diego deathcore band Carnifex’s music. However, the 35-year-old Californian entered the percussive realm fairly late, only picking up the drumsticks when he was 17.

By the time Cameron started jamming with somebody, he was 21. And that somebody was his older brother Ryan Cameron, then 23.

We used to play covers in the garage, a lot of covers,” said Cameron, who grew up in Orange County, California. “We played Incubus and ‘90s rock stuff [such as] Creed.”


Apart from starting out as an appreciator of mainstream rock, the full-time drummer also has a history with Classical music. He laughed as he recalled playing the baritone horn during seventh grade.

It looks like a tuba, except a lot smaller. I started playing it ‘cause I was really small and I could barely hold the tuba—it’s huge.”


Cameron then started learning to play the piano when he was 15. But he hated practicing on it, and that was when his foray into rock music began.

My brother started learning guitar, so I started to learn to play guitar. But I just had a twitchy foot, so I eventually started playing drums, and we started playing in a band together.”

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Despite his short-lived affair with the piano, Cameron’s interest in keyboard melodies has intensified in recent years. In 2013, he formed symphonic metal band Unicorn Death with his wife Diana Jasso. Additionally, Classically-influenced keyboard melodiesstarted appearing in Carnifex’s output from 2011 onwards, as evidently heard in Until I Feel Nothing (2011) and Die without Hope (2014). The band hired Ashley Jurgemeyer (ex-Cradle of Filth, ex-Abigail Williams) to write all the keyboard melodies for the former, and Cassie Morris (Unicorn Death) to do the same for two tracks from the latter.

We’ve always wanted to do [the symphonic] kind of stuff, but mostly, the reason is because we’ve gotten better at pre-production, writing and recording the albums. We hired Cassie Morris from Unicorn Death, and she wrote the keys for ‘Dark Days’ and some of the keys for ‘Condemned to Decay.’ But for the most part, on this new album, I wrote most of the symphonic stuff.”


Cameron’s “symphonic stuff” is of the ambient variety, composed digitally on a computer. It would sound perfectly at home in the film score of a psychological thriller. But this is not surprising, considering that he is a fan of film music composer John Williams.

However, Cameron is “not a Classical buff at all.” According to him, he just likes listening to Classical music in general. If he had to choose between playing the drums and programming the synthesizer on a computer, he would pick the drums.

I definitely feel drums are more necessary. (laughs). The synthesizer stuff is more of the icing on the cake. You know, that’s something we’ve been able to add to this last couple of albums because we’ve polished the core of the music: the guitars, the vocals, and the drums. So we can add in a new element and bring out a brand new feeling.”


Between the keyboard and drums, Cameron thinks that the former portrays emotion a lot better than the latter. He feels that the job of the drums is to accent whatever emotion the keyboard is conjuring.

You know, the right drumbeat really does matter if you’re trying to portray a certain emotion. You could either make or break that whole emotion, like a melody could sound really sorrowful or really aggressive depending on what you do with the drums, so [the keyboard and drums] work together.”


Easily their strongest effort to date, Die without Hope sounds like a record that American melodic death metal band The Black Dahlia Murder could have produced. The only distinguishing traits that give away its Carnifex origin are vocalist Scott Lewis’ deep growls and the band’s penchant for heart-stopping breakdowns.

Deathcore did not originally contain Classically-influenced keyboard melodies. So Carnifex’s recent dip into the refined waters of Classical music seem to have blurred the line separating symphonic deathcore from melodic death metal containing many breakdowns.


But Cameron thinks that Carnifex has achieved no such thing.

First of all, I think that deathcore is just a sub-genre of death metal, so it’s just a different type of death metal. So I mean you could say it’s both: It’s an evolved [form of] deathcore, and it’s also just melodic death metal with breakdowns.”


On the topic of breakdowns, Cameron expressed some regret over how the band abused the musical technique when writing their Victory Records debut The Diseased and the Poisoned in 2008.

We like melodic death metal, and we like to be able to use breakdowns to make it heavier, but you know, they shouldn’t be overused. If you overuse them, they are not as heavy, and [I think] we overused them on The Diseased and the Poisoned. They were way overused.”


We had about a month to write that album, so we kinda used breakdowns as a crutch. But we’ve grown from that. We’ve learned from that experience. On Hell Chose Me, the record right after The Diseased and the Poisoned, you could definitely tell that we grew a lot from that first experience.”


The sonic brutality and speed of deathcore might make the sub-genre as a whole seem chaotic and hence, sound like noise. Cameron, however, would only classify some piece of music as noise if it were not organized. And he thinks their music actually has some sort of underlying structure beneath all that overwhelming aural elements.


The thing about our music is that it’s very organized, it’s very precise. If it’s not structured, if it’s just random, that’s noise. I mean, some music may sound like noise to others, but that’s just ‘cause you don’t understand it.


He gives a vivid simile to illustrate his point that people who hear deathcore as noise simply do not understand it.

It’s like the difference between Chinese and English. If you don’t speak Chinese, [to you] it’s just gibberish. Until you understand it, it doesn’t make sense. When I listen to a death metal band, I can pretty much understand the lyrics.


Taking a jab at popular music, Cameron finished his explanation with a hilarious observation.

People who don’t listen to death metal, they can’t understand the lyrics. But they can understand the lyrics to a rap song, and I have no idea what the hell [the rappers] are saying when I listen to it.”

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Naturally More Extreme: Chance Garnette of Skeletonwitch

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While on-stage, Chance Garnette may be the wrist-spikes-wearin’, mean growler of Ohio blackened thrashers Skeletonwitch. Once off the stage, however, the man is an affable character who laughs as often as he swigs beer. During the last stop (at The Firebird, St. Louis, Missouri,) of the band’s recent North American tour, Ghost Cult contributor Dane Prokofiev spoke to Garnette about, among other topics, the meaning of black metal, the role of humor in extreme metal, and of course, cats!


The band is fresh off of their celebrated US tour as support for Amon Amarth and Enslaved. The tour sold out many stops on the tour, in a time when some tours are having a hard time filling venues. Garnette shares his feelings on the success of the run:

It was really good, we had toured with Amon Amarth before—I think it was in 2009, but I’m also 41 so my memory’s not the best [Laughs]—so we knew the guys already. We’ve been fans of Enslaved forever as well, so it’s really cool to meet those guys—and those guys are really fun. It was really good, the shows were almost all sold out [especially those in the] House of Blues type of theater. People were there and packed early [into the venue] every night. I couldn’t ask for it to be any better man, it was awesome.”

Although the band takes their performances very seriously, they know how to kick back, cut loose, and have some fun. There was an incident during the tour when the guys trolled Ice Dale of Enslaved with hilarious shirts. Laughter just helps pass the malaise of long drives, and longer days on the road.

[Laughs] You know, at this point it’s not really about getting crazy and stupid anymore. Maybe when we first started we would try to do tour pranks. Well, Enslaved did come out in their last show to prank us. They took orange yarn and put it in their hair like it was my brother Nate, the red-headed guy in our band, and they put pillows under their shirts, so they had a belly, and then they just walked across the stage with the big bellies and a red ponytail. So that was really funny. But just little shit like that, nothing crazy like, you know, we’re going WILD or anything. It’s a long tour, and it is our job—and it is also the best job ever—but I’m just not really into fucking around too much. I just want to do what I have to do, what I love to do, do it well, and do the best I can. You know, you get in trouble, it screws ya, and I’m just not into getting in trouble.”


Musicians and music bloggers alike have blogged before that metal bands don’t earn much money from their record royalties, and that the money, instead, lies in touring and selling merch goods while on tour. We asked Garnette for his take on this topic: “Oh, absolutely, it’s true, yes. You definitely pay your rent by your merch. You know, your guarantee, or the door money you get for your show, that fee, at our level, usually is gas money and for per-diems per band member, and then it’s gone. So the money you take home, I would say, 80 – 90% is your merch money. And then you have to pay that bill back, and then you have to divide by the number of people in the band. So the big pie gets really small really fast!”


Furthermore on the subject of making money Skeletonwitch (with the help of their label Prosthetic) has been one of the leaders of making cool and unique merch. They have released quite a few limited edition products lately, namely: the “Beer helmet” T-shirt and the Forever Abomination picture disc. We asked if limited edition merchandise plays a role in the success of a band? 

It doesn’t make or break a band. It’s just little fun shit to do. The Forever Abomination record is out of print. I mean there are still a few trickling around in stores here and there, but is there a stockpile [of it] at Prosthetic Records or at my house? No, it’s out of print. Every one that is printed is out there.


Instead of just re-printing the same thing again, [we wanted] to do something different. We haven’t done a picture disc before, and we like to do new things. The picture disc isn’t a new idea, but it’s new for Skeletonwitch. But I don’t think putting a picture disc out or bringing back an old merch design for two weeks and then killing it is necessarily mandatory for success. I mean it’s just some neat little things to do to keep the wheels turning and to keep, er, you know, you need to super-serve your fans. You need to be there for ‘em, or they will forget about you.”

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One of the things that sets the band apart is the prominence of melody in Skeletonwitch’s music. It’s a big reason for the success of the band to date. Not many blackened thrash bands have a knack for melody like they do. Some bands and boutique record labels don’t seem to think that melody is important to extreme metal music. We wondered if Chance had to convince them that melody is important to extreme metal, we asked how he would go about it:


You know, I don’t know if I’d try to convince them. I mean, just do what you want and I’ll do what I want. I believe, for what I do, [melody] is very important. I like to write songs that are memorable, and I think melody, for us, is very important. You can walk out the door whistling or humming a Skeletonwitch song. I don’t think you can do that—[Pauses]


To a Portal song?


Right, I mean I never heard someone whistling or humming to that before. [Laughs] It doesn’t make it any less relevant or better or worse or anything—it’s just a different style. I prefer the songwriting approach instead of just [writing] parts, ‘cos there’s definitely overly technical things [out there]. To me, sometimes, it’s just like, “Brutal part! Brutal part! Brutal part! Brutal part!” You know, nothing that you can remember. I mean, what’s the biggest band in the world? Iron Maiden. That shit is memorable as fuck. [Laughs]”


Serpents Unleashed not only contains great melodies, but also possesses a more black metal sound than previous records. Chance answered our charge it a conscious attempt to pay homage to the Norwegian black metal scene, or if it just came naturally to the band:

We never really set out before writing a record that “this one needs to be fresher, or this one needs to be more black metal.” It’s just where we were at that time, or where we are at any time. When Nate was demo-ing the stuff, it just came out that way. And we were all really stoked about it and we were feeling it, and we just kind of went with it. We didn’t decide to have a meeting beforehand to sit down and say, “We need to make this one more black metal” or “We need to make this one more extreme.”



Following the band since Beyond the Permafrost, and when I heard Serpents Unleashed after Forever Abomination, I thought it sounded kind of like old Satyricon. Perhaps to the casual listener, he or she might be thinking that they tried to pay homage to Norwegian black metal.

I mean, we love it, and I love—since you mentioned Satyricon—I love The Age of Nero. It is so catchy and memorable—like we were talking before—but you know, if you listen to Serpents Unleashed and The Age of Nero, it’s not like, “Oh, they totally copied it.” It’s not like that at all. I think it’s just kind of like what you are listening to at the time or just where you are in your head at the time, and that’s the product of what comes out. That’s the basis for it all. It was not a conscious effort.”


I do agree that from Permafrost to Serpents, it’s different but it also is the same. You can tell both of them are Skeletonwitch. [We’re satisfied] as long as we can keep progressing and not change crazily, ‘cos I don’t think we’re ever going to just make a real hard turn and do something different. We just want to get better each time. And I do believe that Serpents.. is way better than Permafrost. I enjoy it way more.”


To some diehards in the scene costumes, spiky accessories, corpse paint and pyrotechnics are essential elements of a black metal band. But can a band play “black metal” if they sound black metal, but do not have any of these elements?


Sure, but on the other hand, I wouldn’t want to see shorts and flip-flops. You know, I don’t need to see the full regalia, but I do love to see the corpse paint and the spikes, I think it’s awesome. I love looking at that, yeah. I mean it’s part of the show and it’s part of the whole thing. So let’s just say someone is in the most brutal or I guess the most perfect black metal band in the world, but then they’re wearing shorts and flip-flops? I could listen to the record, but when I see them live, I’ll be like, “Aw, man.” [Laughs]”


Speaking of which, have you heard of this parody band called “The Black Satans”?

Basically they make fun of black metal in a few music videos they did, and there was one particular music video in which it had a lot of footage of the band members wearing corpse paint, but in swimming trunks and dancing on a beach.


You know, that kinda bums me out. Right now, last year and this year, it seems to be in style to make black metal goofy, and that’s really not at all what it’s about, or at least, what it’s about to me. You know, like you see the shirts that say, “I like my metal like I like my coffee—black!” I mean, come on, quit making fun of it man. Or like people putting corpse paint on Santa Claus for Christmas cards.”


Or corpse paint on cats.


[Laughs] The Purrzum shirt. [Laughs]


I don’t know Matt. I do not. But I love cats, aaand also black metal. But I don’t need to combine the two [of them], man. So yeah, I think the parody is getting out of hand, and people are watering it down, and I don’t love to see people do that.”


Road warriors that they are, Skeletonwitch is in the middle of an extensive tour cycle that will take them all over the globe this summer:


Yeah, we are going to do some European festivals in the summer. I think we are… I don’t know the dates exactly, but it looks like it’s about 20 dates—obviously not all festivals. The festivals I do think we’re confirmed for—or might not be playing—are like Brutal Assault, Bloodstock, well, you know, you have the early and late spring ones, and then you have the later summer ones, so yeah, like the August ones, we will be in Europe doing those.”


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by Dane Prokofiev

Live photo by Hillarie Jason Photography



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