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David Draiman is the lead singer of the Chicago-based, acclaimed heavy metal band Disturbed. He is considered one of the top heavy metal vocalists and one of the few Jewish singers in that genre. Disturbed has 4 albums under its sleeves: The Sickness (2000), Believe (2002), Ten Thousand Fists (2005) and Indestructible (2008) which together have sold over 11 million copies worldwide. Their music is, of course, heavy, but it has a unique colourful rhythmic tribal accent with social commentaries on suicide, the September 11, 2001 attacks, relationships and more!

Interview by: Valerie Bastien

Valerie:   When you started out as a singer, you only knew how to scream. You were also really young and probably around puberty. Did it have anything to do with your voice changing and being self-conscious about your singing voice?

David:    Yeah! When I was first asked to sing for Trivium—I wasn’t the original singer; there was one two weeks before me—I was around 13 so I don’t think that there’s really any 13 year old that can sing that well. Maybe there are a couple, but I don’t know about metal! So I tried “clean singing” but it was way above my range. It was weird because of my range; I couldn’t sing high at all. I still can’t go that high but it was even lower, which is weird because it should be the opposite. Throughout the first year of singing, I discovered that I could scream kind of well. The original style was stripped-down thrash with screaming vocal on top. When it came time to do our Blue demo I became a little better at singing and better at screaming. So that’s when we started doing about 50/50 and we just kept progressing.
Photo by Joey Lawrence
Valerie:   How did you learn to sing?

David:    At an early age, as a young boy, I was actually trained as a chazzan, which is someone that leads the Jewish delegation in prayers at the synagogue. That was the foundation of my singing education. I didn’t take formal vocal training until we got signed in August of 1999. We were still pretty much underground so I only really took formal training once we were officially signed. Then, I trained with a vocal coach off and on for about two to three years.

Valerie:   Are any of those vocal coaches well-known?

David:   One of them you might know: Ron Anderson. He’s trained a whole bunch of rock and pop vocalists.

Valerie:   Yes! His name comes back quite a lot; you’re not the first one to tell me that! He’s really good! That’s really nice. It’s interesting how you said you were leading the Jewish congregation. I’ve never heard that one before; it’s pretty cool!

David:   Well, thank you!

Valerie:   There is a very interesting rhythmic component to your vocal style that has sort of become your trademark. I was wondering, how did you come up with it? Was it by accident? How did it happen?

David:   It was not really by accident. Some of the music that I listened to back then was very barbaric and primitive. The band that I’d been in prior to Disturbed was pretty much like the Chili Peppers and Faith No More, so it still called for a rhythmic and a sort of folk-oriented style. It was where, at the very beginning, the rhythmic nature of my vocal approach came from. In Disturbed, it became a further extension of it. Because their rhythms were as tribal as they were and so dominating, I figured instead of trying to fight it, I should become part of it, so you don’t have any instrument fighting against each other.

Valerie:   Good answer! About your clean tone now: I was at the show in Toronto on Wednesday, which was really great. I loved your energy!

David:   Thank you!

Valerie:   I really enjoyed your acoustic version of “Remember” because it brought attention to your natural voice and we could really hear your nice, warm, beautiful tone. What comes the easiest to you: singing with a clean tone or screaming voice?

David:   The clean tone is certainly easier at all times. When you get into the higher parts of your range, any vocalist will tell you that it’s harder to hit the higher range when you try to stylize it; makes it more difficult.

Valerie:   Around the bridge?

David:  Any proper technique that doesn’t necessarily incorporate that every so slight closing of the vocal cords that creates a little bit of gauge on the vocals. It’s really a balance where you really need to be careful. There definitely is a technique to chill it to be able to pull off the more aggressive style of vocalizing without injuring yourself.

Valerie:   Correct.

David:  Especially considering how often we play shows, and how long the sets are. It definitely takes practice and it definitely takes technique. But far and away, it is always easier to sing clean!

Valerie:  I guess it’s the biggest challenge for everyone: to work around the break area to unify the head and chest voice, so that is definitely where the difficulties arise, right?

David:  For me, it’s always primarily head voice that I strive to get. My breath structure is supported by the muscles that align the mid to lower back—the muscles that are right around the rib cage. There’s a common misconception to be reckoned with, with vocalizing in terms of adapting normal technique or classical technique to rock that incorporates the common principles of diaphragmatic breathing

Valerie:  What’s that?

David:  I kept being told that the diaphragm is a subconscious muscle. Especially when it comes to rock, the implication is not meant to be kept consciously. When you do, in fact, concentrate on your diaphragm—bringing in your diaphragm—your body locks up. Trying to force the air firmly and so close to the vocal apparatus is gonna be damaging to anyone. My resonance chamber really is, I would say, 70% head voice and 30% chest. It’s interesting because the nasal passages and the nasal cavities start to act like a relief belt. It projects up towards the roof of your mouth—at the top row of your teeth—and that excess pressure is released by the nasal passages. It enables the voice to come out with a lot more ease. That is part of the technique that I have attempted to deliver.

Valerie:  You’re doing great! Of all of the singers I’ve talked to so far, you’re probably one of the most knowledgeable, or at least, in the way you are able to express it into words! Good on you for that!

David:  Thank you!

Valerie:  I’m impressed! How do you keep your voice and body healthy, especially on tour? How do you keep your voice going night after night?

David:  It is very difficult. It’s always a balancing act. I try to hydrate myself beyond belief. I probably consume maybe about 12 to 14 500ml bottles of water a day. I have to watch my caffeine intake. I have to watch my dairy intake 4 hours prior to the start of the concert so as not to build up any additional mucus. I also suffer from acid reflux so I have to make sure to take my medication, and I avoid eating 4 hours prior to going to sleep. For my physical regimen, I hit the gym a minimum of 5 days a week. I do anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour of cardio with a natural workout session to keep the breath up, particularly because my style of vocalizing is as staccato and rapid-fire. It’s very demanding. Also, to start a song, you have a lot more vocalizing in them than most songs do.

Valerie:   Yeah, and you do move a lot.

David:   Yeah, so I don’t have a whole lot of rest areas. That’s another reason why my body has to be in good condition. I have to be very disciplined: I don’t drink, I don’t smoke… I kinda live in a bubble.

Valerie:   It’s all good. You have to make it work for you. Whatever it takes, right?

David:   Right!

Valerie:   Regarding acid reflux: Have you heard of apple cider vinegar?

David:   Yeah, I’ve tried it before. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to be quite effective with me…

Valerie:   Ah. Sorry to hear that! Oh well… I thought I’d mention it just in case!

David:   I appreciate that!

Valerie:   Other than that, have you ever had serious trouble with your voice on tour and how did you turn it around?

David:   Yes. It happened on a few specific occasions during my career in a sort of extensive issue. I’ve never developed any nodules or nodes, but I have developed certain vocal strain from time to time. It comes from a number of different factors: lack of sleep, a very dry environment, indoor re-circulated air, the environment on the bus or airplane transport. Dryness is certainly the enemy when it comes to saving the vocal cords. Then you also have temperateness; or too much moisture in the air is also a breeding ground for bacteria. So it’s a double-edged sword. You really need to know how to balance. For vocal strain, unfortunately, if you have to get by a specific tour run, and you have a few days that lead to the shows; you don’t want to force yourself into cancellation. DOES THIS MAKE SENSE? I’M TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHAT HE SAYS HERE!!

There are some exercises that you can do. There is one that is similar to blowing up a balloon and that forces the vocal cords to expand. It minimizes their swelling. Part of the vocal technique for warm-up that many people are familiar with is the lip bubbles. That also is very effective. But when it comes down to it, inflammation is inflammation. You don’t want to drink hot liquids on top of that because heat that will only increase swelling. You also don’t want to consume cold liquids because it will constrict the vocal folds. I drink room temperature liquids at all times, especially when I’m injured. I’m a big believer of Throat Coat tea. From a holistic standpoint, it speeds the healing of the vocal cords. But truth be told, when you’re talking about a very severe case or scenario, sometimes a short course of cortisone or some other steroid agent does the trick.

Valerie:   Isn’t it a little taboo amongst singers because everybody talks against it? You’re the first person to talk to me openly about taking those shots!

David:   You know what? Honestly, everyone does it! I don’t care who they are! Everyone gets into trouble. You know, it’s like you’re gonna have players that don’t want to admit they took steroids to beef them up. Steroid agents, like cortisone in particular, is an anti-inflammatory. There is nothing that will directly decrease the swelling of the folds more effectively than that. If you’ve done everything that I’ve already spoken about and you still can’t get away from it, then there really isn’t any other choice. Like I said, it’s balancing of the body: balancing of the kidney; balancing of the liver. Again, another adverse affect is that you have commitments that you don’t want to even risk. There’s only been one occasion so far since the Indestructible record where I really had to take it and that was only for about a week. So in a year and a half’s worth of touring, to only have to go through that once for a weeklong period is pretty good!

Valerie:   Yes, it is. Also considering trying to stay away from catching colds is out of your control!

David:   Yeah! Having too much mucus that constricts the cords can also occasionally be a problem; it can weight them down. Sometimes, if you are feeling a little phlegmy, a little gargle session will do the job to shake off the extra layer of mucus in that area. Otherwise, the cords vibrate a little bit more obstructively than the way that they should.

Valerie:   Next question: On your last album, Indestructible, you sing about many dark themes—notably on relationships and suicide. These can be quite difficult subjects to talk about, especially when they were inspired by your own personal life. Do emotions come in the way of singing sometimes?

David:  They do and they should! Without your genuine emotion behind what you’re singing, you lack conviction. It is important that it comes from a higher and a real place. It is also to be understood that all these emotions when I sing those personal songs—they are cathartic and it’s meant to be a release.

Valerie:   Very good. What inspires you and helps you reinvent yourself creatively to stay fresh?

David:   From a creative standpoint, I really haven’t had a charmed existence and unfortunately, I don’t always have the best of luck… Hopefully that’s changing!

Valerie:   It will!

David:   There definitely is enough to draw from my own personal life experience. If you are a person that is aware of the things around us and of the world we live in then there is no shortage of inspiration.

Valerie:   personality traits made you successful singer in this business?

David:   I would say two things: perseverance and determination. A lot of people, they are just lazy! They expect success to be handed to them! A lot of people neglect themselves and they don’t do what is necessary or aren’t willing to sacrifice what’s necessary in order to reach those goals. You will have to be surrounded by all the right connections to that.

Valerie:   Well, that’s great! This is a really good interview. Thanks, David!

David:   You’re very welcome!

Valerie:   My last question: Are you having fun on this tour? What are the highlights so far?

David:   Well, you know, the Canadian crowds are amazing! They can definitely teach me and other crowds a thing or two! In terms of passion, they really take it to the next level! Montreal was my favourite show by far!

Valerie:   Oh yeah? That’s where I’m from!

David:   Quebec City might be a close runner-up; we’re looking forward to that as well! But Moncton was great. Tonight in Halifax should be fun and certainly, Toronto was great too! It’s hard to pick the key favourite moments because many of them have so much poignancy.

Valerie:   Well, David, thank so much again for taking the time to do this interview with me. You’re very kind! Have a good show tonight!

David:   Thank you! Take care!

Valerie Bastien is a vocal coach, teacher, musician and freelance journalist.
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