Learn to Sing

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My Music
Matt Heafy is the lead singer and guitarist from the acclaimed rising young thrash metal band Trivium. Currently signed under Roadrunner Records, Trivium already has four albums under its sleeves: Ember to Inferno (2000), Ascendancy (2004), The Crusade (2006) and Shogun (2008). A bunch of 80s children, Heafy and his bandmates, still in their early 20s, all display an impressive level of musicianship capable of amalgamating technical instrumentation with catchy melodies and rhythms, and dark lyrics enveloped in a mature, aggressive, and overall heavy sound. It is not surprising that Trivium caught the attention of the legendary Iron Maiden, Metallica, Machine Head and Korn, with whom they have toured. They are currently opening for Slipknot before they headline their own tour later this year, once more travelling across the globe to bring you the thunder.
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?

Matt:    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.

Valerie:   At what point did you feel that you needed extra help?

Matt:    From the beginning, definitely! I remember one of the first demos we did at this demo studio. The guy looked at me and said, “You’re not a singer and you never will be able to sing. You can’t sing!” And I was like, “Aww?!” But I just kept doing it anyway. I don’t know why he told me that; I was just 14. It’s a pretty bad thing to say to a kid!

Valerie:   Yeah, that was really mean.

Matt:    I will always remember that guy saying that to me. I took it with a grain of salt and we went with it anyway. Around the time for Ascendancy I remember talking to one of my classmates—she was in choir—and I was like, “Hey, do you have a vocal teacher I could maybe hang out with sometimes and take a lesson or two?” So I took a week’s worth of vocal lesson with a church choir teacher. It helped a little bit with the idea of warming up, but not too much, because it was at the time when I was still singing and screaming 50/50 so she didn’t even know what to say about the screaming!

Right before The Crusade, I took two lessons with Ron Anderson and two lessons with Melissa Cross. Before we did pre-production, I took a lesson with a classically trained opera singer, more as a joke. We videotaped it kinda like, “Ha-ha, look at this guy taking an opera lesson!” But it actually was one of the most helpful vocal lessons I’ve ever had! When it was time to do Shogun, I said I was gonna scream in the studio but not do any live. It’s a weird thought that I was even thinking that. As soon as we started touring for Shogun, I did it all. Nowadays, I guess my voice either got used to it or I figured out how to do it right. But I can sing and scream every night, go lower and higher for screaming and nothing never hurts! I just warm-up pretty well and take care of myself.

Valerie:   Since you studied with Ron Anderson and Melissa Cross that are really well known amongst professional musicians, are there any exercises that you learned that stuck with you and that you’re still doing?

Matt:   It would definitely be pieces both of the four people that I’ve been with that I’ve picked up. Every teacher has different styles of teaching students and I kind of picked up the parts for me that worked the best from each one. I do the Melissa Cross warm-up every single day, plus I sing for about 1 ½ hours with her ten-minute exercise. Something that stuck with me from the last guy—Jay, the opera guy—was when I sang in the studio: when I stood, I always held my hand right where my stomach is and made sure that they were always pushing against each other. I’m not sure if I was supposed to do that but it definitely make me sing way better. I made sure it wasn’t going down.

Valerie:   You want your diaphragm to stay expanded. When you do that, you’re keeping it wide. You can also put your hand around your hips and feel your ribs expanding in the back, too. Just like a belt around your stomach.

Matt:   Definitely! It was so helpful, even with screaming, because I see lots of screamer guys who hunch way over or stand way back. Sometimes my head tilts upward slightly as well. When I used to first sing and scream live when we started touring, I had horrible posture! I was really slouched over! It didn’t really mess my voice much, but… Now I keep very good posture standing and that is also very important for the way I sing.

Valerie:   You mentioned that you weren’t the first singer for Trivium at the beginning. Why was it important for you to step up to that role? Singing is not always about having a great voice. Why did you want to be a lead singer; be the frontman for the band?

Matt:   The way I remember is that we were looking around and it took us kind of long and we had a big show coming up: our high school battle band! Travis, our drummer, who’s always been like brother to me—some days I’m a brother to him but since he’s older than me, he really is like my older brother—he pretty much told me to do it! At that time, I was really scared of him so I just listened; but now I’m bigger than him so I’m not scared anymore! [laughs]

Valerie:   I think it’s pretty interesting to see how your voice changed from your beginnings to Shogun. At first, your influences were very obvious and you got compared to another very well-known band…

Matt:   Yes, all the time!

Valerie:   Which I’m not gonna mention here! [laughs] I’m sure that was pretty annoying but flattering too!

Matt:  It was 50/50! To be compared to the best metal band in the world is so much better than to be compared to the s***tiest! To be positive, we were always thankful because they are our favorite; without that band we wouldn’t even be here! But we never really tried [to copy them]. When I compare it myself, it doesn’t really sound like it to me!

Valerie:   I have to say now that your tone has become unique and when we hear your voice, we know it’s you!

Matt:  Thank you!

Valerie:  I like how you went from unconsciously imitating someone else to becoming your own true self. So how do you feel now about your voice?

Matt:  Where Trivium is right now: musically, instrumentally and technically, Shogun is the best record that we have ever done because it connects everything right we have ever done as a band, but it’s not the best that it will be. I think it’s the same for my voice and my guitar: There is always room for improvement. I think I’m a decent singer, I think I’m a really strong screamer, but there is so much more to go!

I’m really into the idea of learning the classical way. As soon as we finish this next record, I want to learn classically, and music theory because I really want to get into classical composition. I’d like to learn about classical voice but I want to wait until this record is done. I really don’t know that much about theory and I like it that way because I just go by the sound of it for vocals and guitars. There’s always more room for being better! There is so much more I have and can learn.

I’m definitely happy about nowadays that the singing and screaming can live so perfectly together and not affect one another. I love that on all of our records and successions you hear where they all came from. It’s crazy to hear Ember to Inferno. Musically, the idea is there. It wasn’t perfect but it was very close to where Trivium’s sound was going, but vocally, I sound so young!

Valerie:  You were young!

Matt:  Even from The Crusade to Shogun to now, to the way I sound live, I think I sound better now than I did on the record! I think it’s just getting better!

Valerie:  Imagine how good you will sound in ten years from now!

Matt:  Yeah, I hope it’s good!

Valerie:  On your DVD, you mentioned that you recorded all of the clean parts first and you kept the screaming for the end. You said that you don’t strain when you scream but it obviously affected your voice. How did you overcome that?

Matt:  I’ve only had a few lessons with a couple teachers so it’s really a matter of trial and error. When we first started touring, it was really hard for me to do both and one would always give out before the other and I remember saying to the band, “I really don’t think I can do it!” I was passing all the screaming to Cory and I was just singing. Paolo was the one who said to me, “Dude, don’t give a f***! Just do it!” So with that attitude, I was just like, “All right!” I tried and ever since then, I’ve never had any problem. The only problem I had with that way of thinking is when I was actually sick, so I’m really happy about that!

I’m really an annoyingly regimented, organized person! I like to make everything in successions. If I’m screaming first, it messes up the cleanliness of my really cleans. I’ve got the clean, middle and hard so I like to nail all the clean for all the songs first. Then I do all the middle ranges. Then slightly harder, and then all the extreme screaming. I didn’t do too much on Shogun of what I can do now: I can do the high pitch black metal screaming now and the death metal, low “Cookie Monster” stuff. I don’t know why I can, but I can all of a sudden and they don’t affect my clean anymore! I don’t why it is but it just is so I’m happy about it!

Valerie:   Do you think that it makes it harder in a way to interpret the song if you break it apart like that?

Matt:   For our producer it was a strange idea; he wasn’t used to doing things like that, but I’ve always jumped around. I like to finish all these specifics. It’s the same way as when you record all the click tracks, then the rough guitar tracks, then the drums, the guitars, the bass and the vocals. That’s the same way in which I want to do vocals. I guess people normally think of it as all in one package but I like to separate it so each one can be better.

Valerie:   I’d like to go back to what you were saying about not caring anymore. It’s a great attitude because when you care too much, you become self-conscious and start making mistakes.

Matt:   Yeah, exactly. It’s really cool that from all the band members, between me and the other three guys, I’ve learned a lot about myself and they’ve all helped me get better. If it weren’t for Travis, I wouldn’t have started singing at all in the band. Paulo helped me sing and screamed. Cory’s also helped me numerous times. It’s really cool when that happens.

Valerie:   What else did you learn about yourself aside from your singing?

Matt:   A lot! It’s so much! This is the first band I’ve ever been in; the first job I’ve ever had. It’s the first time we started touring and playing in front of people. When the positives came out, it was the first time we ever had good stuff happen; when the negatives came out, it was the first time. I never got used to people saying bad stuff before about our band and about us. The first time it happens, it sucks but after a while, you get used to it. For us, we just appreciate the good. Just have a good time while you have it because life is really short.

Valerie:   Right, because you never know how long it’s gonna last.

Matt:   Exactly!

Valerie:   Live the moment!

Matt:   Yes, we very much are!

Valerie:   That’s good! I like your answers! Do you have a health routine that you follow to keep yourself in shape vocally?

Matt:   All four of us in the band, we’re really healthy guys. We are health freaks! I guess it’s just a personal thing… Some dudes will go out there and smoke a ton of cigarettes and weed, and scream and sing fine, but I can’t. I recognize the fact that I can’t. I always make sure I eat right during the day and drink tons of water; sleep right… It’s the same fundamentals that athletes do to take care of themselves, and we try to apply that to ourselves in the band: Conditioning when we’re home, cardio, exercising, eating right, and staying away from crappy food that are chemically injected. I never really drink before a show; afterwards I will sometimes, if we have a day off.

Valerie:   It makes sense since because your body is your instrument so it matters what you put in it. Going back to your screaming, I know Melissa Cross talks a lot about keeping your volume low to protect the vocal cords. Do you do that?

Matt:   I’ve always heard that Dio sings at a talking level and has total control like that but with me my singing is really loud. I’ve tried to pull back but I can’t! I talked to Travis about it: “Dude, I’m trying to pull back!” And he’s like, “Dude, I know but you’re not going to be able to!” So my singing is about the style and my screaming is about a little quieter. It’s more of a distorted tone. Same with guitar: the clean tone is naturally louder than distortion so…

Valerie:   I know it often important for singers to sing their own words. Is that why you like writing lyrics as well?

Matt:  I’ve always been the one to do it. Cory helped me do two of the songs of Shogun: “Upon The Shores” and “Resurrection”. I’ve always had a thing with bands that don’t perform their own music or don’t sing their own stuff or just play by their people. When I started learning that bands have songs written by other people, that other people will play them for them or use backing tracks, it’s always killed it musically for me. So it’s always been our thing to write and play our stuff; believing in our stuff.

Valerie:   Do you consider yourself more of a guitar player, a singer or a songwriter?

Matt:   A lot of people are really concerned with playing a million notes on the guitar to the second. Or for singers who can do ridiculous stuff; but for me, the most important is to have a good song. Whether you are performing your songs or not, what is important is to have something that makes you connect with your audience. People will always remember a good song before they remember technical ability. I guess I was a guitar player first. I was learning other people’s songs; that helped me get into it.

When I write, I always write the guitar first and then I add the vocals on top of that. I like the music to create a picture or a mood for myself so I can write words on top of it. I remember Paulo gave me the scratch tracks to play for production before we had words or a title on it. I heard that middle section and I pretty much wrote the words instantly as soon as I heard the guitar part because I pictured these words in my head. So I usually let the music tell me what to write.

Valerie:   So what is your secret recipe to write successful songs?

Matt:   You just have to write songs that connect. Songs that you like to play… You know what? You’re never gonna know what people want to hear so as long as you’re being true to yourself—if they’re gonna love it, they’re gonna love it! Everything has originated from inspiration of things and it’s a matter of you taking what you’ve learned throughout your life to make it you own.

Valerie:   Earlier you mentioned that you wanted to expand your range and study something more classically oriented. Your songs are melodic even though the screaming parts are usually more rhythmic. Are you going towards writing even more melodic tunes? Is that where the yearning to learn classical technique comes from?

Matt:   I’m not sure. I think it’s more along the lines of wanting to learn more things about life. I want to learn more languages, more techniques, more things just that I can apply them into these songs and see what I can do with it. I think I’m a baritone because that A; it’s really hard for me to hit! I wish I were a tenor! I wish I had Freddy Mercury’s studio range. I always try to expand that way. I just want to be able to do it all! But I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to!

Valerie:   You will!

Matt:   I was able to do the really high Halford stuff a little while ago but now it’s like I either do the Halford stuff or do the screaming stuff! The screaming kind of takes that away sometimes. I want to see if I can do it all! I’ll learn it the way I’ve been taught first and then see if the formal way of learning it will help me out.

Valerie:   What are the highlights on this tour?

Matt:   Ever since we have been touring with Slipknot and we did the whole American run—that was the best US tour we have ever been on. We’ve done maybe 30-35 different US tours already, and that one was like 5,000-15,000 people a night and every single person was incredible every single night. And it’s not normally like that. When you open up for a band and you’re the first of three, it’s not normal that you get any more then 50%-75% to the crowd. I felt like by the end, 100% was into it. 100% was curious who we are. That is such a great thing. The Slipknot crowd was so receptive to our music. Coheed’s crowd was incredibly receptive to our music as well. I definitely feel like we’ve made a lot of fans! We knew the Canadian one would be incredible, too. Quebec City was insane; Montreal was insane! For some reason, we are actually bigger in Canada than we are in the US.

Valerie:   Really?

Matt:   We have direct support here. We have more album sales per ratio than we have in the US. We’re very happy about it! Tonight in Toronto and tomorrow will be incredible. Then we’re going to Japan, which is my favourite place to tour. Since I’m half-Japanese, I love being there. Then Australia after that, so this is a really good run!

And just being able to do this for a living—because, I mean, we only get to work for 30 minutes a day! That’s it! The rest is sightseeing, and we get to hang out of town in the cities and countries we’re in! It’s a really fantastic way to do it. I love it! It’s a lot of fun! There’s a lot that goes into it but we love it.

One thing we’ve been doing (I may as well spread the word on this) is encouraging anyone that’s a Trivium fan and that owns our CD to burn their ten favorite Trivium songs on a CD and pass it out to as many people as they can. I put that on my Twitter site one day—it was Paolo’s idea—I posted it, and next thing we knew, thousands of kids around the world were already doing it! Also, different countries picked it up on their websites: “Trivium encouraging people to copy their music!” So it’s been going well!

Valerie:   So I guess you don’t have a problem with people downloading your music for free off the net?

Matt:   I remember for me when Napster was first around: The only way I could hear new bands—like the way I got into melodic death metal, which is the kind of music that helped me so much for writing… For example, somebody transferred me “Jotun” by In Flames; I was like, “Holy s***!” I downloaded the whole album on Napster, ordered it on Amazon the same day, and listened to the CD as soon as it showed up in the mail. So I just kept learning about new bands! I learned about Boden; through that, Cannibal Corpse, all through the Internet. I always bought their album after I downloaded it first. It’s a great thing for us.

Metal recently really isn’t about album sales; it’s more about touring live and merchandise, and people being into your band for the long run. Why not have people that wouldn’t normally hear it, and who can’t buy our CD, just have one of our diehard Trivium fans go, “Dude, check this out!” And so we’re telling everyone that gets it: Pass it up, tell those people to pass it up and just keep going!

Valerie:   Is the recession affecting the business at all?

Matt:   The economy is hitting bands really hard. Last year we found that touring Japan and Australia is 25% more expensive than it was the year before. Just for plane tickets! That eats up your cost.

Valerie:   You should do like Iron Maiden and get your private jet! [laughs]

Matt:   When we can, but that might only be in about 10-15 years from now! [laughs]

Valerie:   Did you see their new movie?

Matt:   Which movie?

Valerie:   “Iron Maiden: Flight 666”. It premiered a couple weeks ago?

Matt:   I’ve got to check that out! We got to open up for them for about 7 weeks in Europe and that was awesome! They are so good! It’s insane. They run more onstage than I think we do!

Valerie:   I know. Bruce Dickinson and Steve Harris are amazing!

Matt:   They’re all amazing! We learned a lot from that band.

Valerie:   I have to tell you that I saw Trivium a long time ago when you were opening for Iced Earth in Pittsburgh.

Matt:   Wow! That was our second tour ever!

Valerie:   I thought you were pretty good!

Matt:   We were OK then. [laughs]

Valerie:   Because most of time, especially in small venues, opening bands are just local bands but I remember being impressed by you guys. You were really cool!

Matt:   Thank you! We were in a van then; we were selling about two shirts a night making like $50 a show! No one liked us on that tour that I remember. Yeah, it’s definitely taken a long time to get there and it seems like a quick time for a lot of people but Trivium has been a band since 1999; signed since 2003 and pretty much touring since 2004. So it’s taken a while to get where we are but it’s a lot of fun! Now we tour all over the world. It’s pretty cool!

Valerie:   What would you be doing if you weren’t doing music?

Matt:   I’d probably be in business school.

Valerie:   That sounds so boring compared to this! [laughs]

Matt:   Or maybe video game programming or something! But I think this is what I’m meant to do.

Valerie:   Yes, for sure! Well, I really hope that your success will last.

Matt:   Yeah, we plan on doing this as long as we can.

Valerie:   That would be wonderful! Thank you again for accepting to do this interview; you’re very kind!

Matt:   Merci beaucoup!

Valerie:   You’re welcome!

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