I talked to Without Mercy's frontwoman Alxs Ness for the Straight blog about her Youtube death metal covers, reserving all the gory stuff for that conversation - but there was a lot more to our talk than that. If you haven't heard this band, check out their Myspace - you'll be amazed that the singer is a woman.
Allan: How do you sing like you do?
Alxs: A lot of it has to do with technique. To some people it sounds like you’re just screaming your head off, but you really have to do a technique. For me, because I do death metal grunts, or death growls, some people call it, it’s coming from the diaphragm, or from my stomach, so there’s a certain posture involved. It’s hard do if you’re sitting down. Doing warm-ups is really important, as well, and staying focused. That’s the weird thing about it - if you listen to it, it just sounds like really angry vocalizations, but if you let emotion take over too much, it can result in, like, throat wear and tear.
Allan: Is there a bit of that, anyhow?
Alxs: Yeah, there’s a bit. The style I do - I do different techniques for different sounds. For the low stuff, it is really hard on the throat. I don’t have too many problems, because when I’m doing that vocal technique, I’m really aware that there is potential for hurting my throat, so I just have to stay really focused. But I’m usually pretty good. A lot of the issues you get with vocals has to do with what you’re doing after the performance - for example, being in a bar and talking loudly to people? That’s the worst, because then you’re not mindful of technique, you’re just screaming in a bar, without being focused on how you’re doing it. It’s not as calculated I guess.
Allan: I know you don't smoke - but how bad is smoking for a singer?
Alxs: If someone was asking me if they should smoke if they’re a vocalist, I can’t really say. I mean, look at Lemmy, for instance. He’s the poster child for smoking and drinking and whatnot, and his vocals are doing all right! I think obviously, being a smoker, drinking heavily - it will give you a hoarser voice over time.
Allan: What does your throat feel like, after a performance?
Alxs: Usually it depends. If I’m able to stay focused and do things properly, then it’s fine. And sometimes - you know, you get up there, you get really excited, you get really into it, and I find if I push too hard on my throat, then I might have a little scratchiness after, but it’s nothing too serious. I have two different techniques - the death metal grunts, and then I also use a false chord technique, where that sound is coming mostly from mouth shapes. It sounds weird - but it’s really easy on the throat. The death metal grunts - you know, I live in an apartment; if I were to do it right now, people would probably call the cops - it’s really loud! But the false chords are quieter and not as hard on the throat.
Allan: I gather from your Youtube clips that you also do some inhales?
Alxs: I do inhales sometimes, to get a really low, gurgly sound, but basically, they’re exhales. People ask me all the time, what’s the best way to learn, teach me how to do it, and the easiest way I can say to try to get the feeling for that song is, bark like a dog (laughs). People think I’m shittin’ ‘em, but I’m serious - if you bark like a dog - not like a Chihuahua, a Rottweiler; a large dog - you’ll get the feeling in your stomach, because you really have to push that sound. And that’s the best way to explain it. It’s hard to really talk about it - you have to just try it.
Allan: Does the fact that you’re a woman give you disadvantages? I mean - I studied linguistics, so I've actually seen a larynx in a jar...
Alxs: Oh, wow - creepy. You should say that to all vocalists you interview!
Allan: But, like, the physiology is different, between men and women, men have bigger resonating chambers, which is why they have deeper voices. I'm interested in how being a woman affects you, as a vocalist...
Alxs: Well, obviously, I was born a woman, so I can’t really compare, but generally women do have higher voices. When I do the death grunt, I’m able to achieve a low sound. Maybe it’s genetics, or whatnot - I don’t talk in a (drops voice) super low voice, my speaking voice, but it is lower than some women. And it might also be the technique I’m using. I’m able to get that sound when I’m doing death growls… which I’m happy about! I’m glad that’s the case.
Allan: Yeah. I guess I was wondering if your larynx was actually bigger - like, if you’re physically abnormal.
Alxs (laughs): Maybe mentally! Psychologically abnormal, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Allan: So where did the desire to sing death metal come from?
Alxs: I’ve grown up listening to rock’n’roll. And Janis Joplin and… I can’t think of anyone else off the top of my head, but Janis Joplin is one of the biggest influences on me. I just loved that scratchiness she could get, like, those screams she would do? Which to me are almost like the ultimate metal screams, really. Some of the stuff she did really could have influenced metal now. So I grew up always listening to that, and I loved that - I grew up wanting to be a singer, but I didn’t know I could actually do metal vocals until I joined the band.
Allan: How did that happen, by the way?
Alxs: Well, DJ Temple, the guitarist, him and I met in Value Village - like, I used to work there a long time ago. I think we met in 2004. And he asked me, he said, “We’re looking for a vocalist for our band.” And that was before we were called Without Mercy. We were actually called something else. We were called Shinstrike back in the day. Anyways, he said to me, “We’re looking for a vocalist, can you do vocals?” And I was like, yeah, sure - and I never did it in my life! I sucked, it was the worst, it was so bad. But he kept on encouraging me - let’s keep this band going! - and I kept on practicing and working on technique. And went from the stages from causing my throat to bleed inside, and having just horrible, not-really-knowing-what the hell-I-was-doing… that band was together for about two years or so, and then Without Mercy formed in 2007. Or 2006?
Allan: I notice in your cover of Cannibal Corpse's "Maniacal" that there's a lyrical reference to "without mercy." Is that just a coincidence, or did the band name itself from that lyric?
Alxs: It actually is just a coincidence, but when I covered that song, I was like, ‘yes!’ I didn’t even realize that that was in the lyrics. And also it’s in a Slayer song, too: ‘destroying without mercy’ - in the one about the Holocaust, "Angel of Death."
Allan: Another cover I wanted to ask you about - you do an Arch Enemy song, the original of which has Angela Gossow on vocals. Is she a big inspiration for you? Is she useful as a source of technique?
Alxs: Yeah, definitely, on all fronts, it's great, especially when I found out - I listened to Arch Enemy, and I didn't know she was a woman [note: which is true also of this writer's experience of Without Mercy!]. And that was like, the lightbulb moment. It's like - wow, a woman can actually do this with her voice. I didn't know it was possible, so I definitely checked out female fronted bands, to see what they're doing with their voices. Because - like, you're asking me, can women do the same things as men, because they don't have the big larynx, or whatever. And I like to listen to different female vocalists to see where they're going with it, because - not just the low end, but guys can sometimes get these really high, high voices, like high screams, which I haven't heard as much from women. So it's really interesting to see - I think maybe it doesn't have so much to do with gender, it just has to do with the person, and what kind of a voice they have, naturally, and what they can do with it when they're singing.
Allan: A final question - I wondered, seeing Without Mercy live, you got into this chant of "Fuck Pussy Metal." But, I mean, as a woman - uh, isn't that a bit of a loaded term?
Alxs: We take it seriously - but it's also a joke. I mean, it obviously have certain connotations to it, having a woman in the band, fronting the band - "fuck pussy metal," ha-ha, it's kind of funny; but what we really meant by that is, "fuck music that doesn't have passion to it."
Allan: What is "pussy metal," though?
Alxs: Well, every member of the band has a different way that they look at it. Personally, for me, like I said - music that doesn't have guts to it.
Allan: Yeah, but who? Can you name some names?
Alxs: (Laughs): I would rather not! I think it's kind of obvious, there's some bands that go through the motions. I've always idolized frontmen like Iggy Pop or Janis Joplin, people who almost hurt themselves on stage. Well, Iggy Pop, he literally did hurt himself on stage. But that's part of the performance!
Allan: How does it feel when you're performing? The gender aspects of it onstage are really confusing to me, because there's no way for me to describe what you do without having recourse to the word, "masculine." You seem like a tough guy, when you're singing - but you're not. Do you feel like there's something inherently masculine about metal, that you're channeling, or...?
Alxs: Well, I mean, it depends how you think about it. I think of metal - the kind of performances that I like and the kind that I'm trying to do onstage all the time - as aggressive. That's the rage-outward part of it; if I'm onstage, and you're in my face, I'm gonna scream in your face. It's what's gonna happen, you know - the spit's flyin', the hair's flyin', I hate everybody in the room, not literally but that's how it comes out, right, just this rage? And I don't know if that's really masculine. I think women have rage, too. I'm a woman, and I rage. On the stage. [Alxs chuckles and comments as an aside, "oh, there's some lyrics for you."]. Again, that's an ideology - that women are supposed to be feminine and quiet subservient or whatever; it's okay for men to be assertive. I think that's kinda bullshit!