Suffering Success: Cryptopsy’s Matt McGachy on Life in an Independent Extreme Metal Band

The name Cryptopsy is well-known and highly regarded in the realm of extreme music, with albums None So Vile (1996) and Whisper Supremacy (1998) considered brutal classics of technical death metal. During their recent Vancouver show, vocalist Matt McGachy pointed out between songs that since ending their contract with Century Media several years ago, the band has persisted as an independent.

The determination and effort it takes to survive in today’s music economy is well known, but to do so in Canada without label support  is an inspiration to bands everywhere. We spoke with McGachy about the release of the band’s current EP, The Book of Suffering – Tome 1, and about day-to-day life as an independent.

CRYPTOPSY (click to enlarge)

Having worked with label support in the past, the decision to go independent – it’s not something that a band would undertake lightly – how and why did you commit to that path?

Matt: Before I joined the band, the band was running for a long time. I think it was a six-album deal with Century Media and from what I’ve been told by members of the band it wasn’t the best, most favourable deal for the band. So albeit the labels do a lot of work, the guys just weren’t satisfied with what they were receiving, you know, the way the recoup happens. I think when we left they claimed that we owed them almost $100,000 or something. Which is very standard, it happens to all bands. When the option came up that we could terminate our contract, instead of doing the last album we gave them a greatest hits, which is nothing new, and we decided to just go independent.

Is it easy? No, it’s not easy. It’s a lot of work, labels do a lot, and it’s not like us as just four guys, handling the work – they have a whole team, a slew of people and sub-companies that do a lot of work. It’s a day-to-day thing, we’re constantly criticizing ourselves and looking at who should be doing what within the band; if certain people have strengths, they should be doing that. I luckily have a wife who knows how to do internet stuff, like website stuff, so I’ve taken on a lot of that, like building the website, setting up the Indiegogo campaign, the Bandcamp page, all that is basically run by me. Flo (Mounier, drums) will take care of more of the talking to people and dealing with the business side of stuff. We did the last release, Cryptopsy self-titled, and one of our major complaints within the band was that it didn’t receive enough publicity. And we are still at this point now – are we doing the right thing, have we hired the right companies, have we hired enough companies in the right areas of the world to get us the most exposure that we can get; because the label will push a lot more, it has a lot more funds than we do. We will never pay for an ad in a magazine, we just don’t have that capital, and honestly, we don’t know if that brings us anything. And there are arguments within the band, like we should be on a label, we shouldn’t be on a label, and we’re not completely opposed to ever being on a label, it’s just as of right now we haven’t received an offer that we would say yes to.

Now, having gone through that trial and error and seeing how best to approach this independently, have you found anything that does work really well that you would want other bands to be aware of?

Work with your strengths. Luckily Bandcamp is a really easy platform to use, and a lot of bands use it, and I strongly suggest that people should use it it’s just super easy, easy to set up easy for people to find. It’s not easy being independent it’s a lot of work. Just this week for example our CDs were super delayed from the manufacturer for numerous reasons. We had to physically take the CDs, pick them up, drive them to our shipper, all these things that bands on record labels don’t do. As my dance number was doing this he had just made that trip and it’s a good two or three hour drive to get it to our shipper so we had just done it previously for the shirts and now we had to do it again so I said, isn’t it fun being independent? [Laughs]

Are there any advantages to being independent at this point in Cryptopsy’s career?

Matt: I doubt that the label ever tried to control the music side, so that’s not something – it’s just that we have complete control over the finances, we know where each dollar is going. We get to decide where to put it best. Last time around we didn’t make music video from the funds in this time we did and I am really happy that we did feel like it was something that was missing on the self-titled, and we feel that the video that we made with Chris Kells from front to back productions, it really helped to boost the awareness for people that we actually did have something coming out. So that’s something new.

Are there prerequisite skills just in terms of business background or negotiation skills anything that band needs to be independent. You mentioned do what you do best but is there anything that really helps straight out of the gate?

Matt: Well, if everyone in the band is on the same page and knows what the band wants, then if you have someone that is good at negotiating good at putting their foot down which at this point I believe flow is, there is no secret formula to it, either you’ve got it or you don’t. You just have to be ironclad. I’m a bit too nice so I would not get very far.

In terms of the industry response, going from being on Century Media to being independent at this stage you find, do you get any backlash from promoters or anybody who might be hesitant because you don’t have that industry backing?

Matt: I don’t think so, no, I think the name speaks for itself. One thing that we wouldn’t do that labels would, which once again comes back to the bank account that we just don’t have access to, is buying onto tours. You know certain festivals or big tour packages, you have to do a buy-on to actually get onto the bill before it even gets organized. So that’s something we never get, those offers we don’t know about them, because we just never do them. And we’re still on good terms with Century Media. We still see reps that we used to work with, they’re always very nice to us and give us positive criticism, things that we can improve upon. They still think that we should be on a label obviously,. because that’s their job, but they are definitely not opposed to us. And I don’t think bookers – the name speaks for itself and the material speaks for itself, which is why with this release we just wanted to let the material speak for itself and hopefully get the most amount of people to hear it and give us a chance to keep pushing the fan base and keep our name fresh in people’s minds. We’re still here, we’re not just None So Vile and Whisper Supremacy, we’ve got some new stuff coming and coming hard.

The new EP is great, I’m very excited to hear how that continuum of material develops.

Matt: Yeah, that’s the whole point of doing the series of EPs as opposed to an album – because it takes so long to write a Cryptopsy album! It’s like three years to finish a whole touring cycle for an album and then get back in the room when we actually want to see each other’s faces again, to start the writing and the nitpicking and dissecting, to make sure that a solid eight songs come out of this. It takes a long time and we just don’t want to be sitting on the shelf for that long. There’s no money to be made in record sales anymore, and at this point people are going to download it – the people who want to buy are going to buy, and the people that are going to download it are going to download it. We just know that on tour you can’t download a t-shirt, as of yet. Thankfully, we’re lucky that we still have fans that come to our shows and buy merchandise. We just want to have a reason to tour and for a booking agent to get us dates, once or twice in the same area on one release. So now we’re just trying to constantly have fresh material out there, constantly being in people’s minds, getting on the right tours, playing with bigger bands that are not mainstream – like bigger extreme bands – just broadening the spectrum of Cryptopsy’s reach.

Cryptopsy - Tome 1 (album cover)

Cryptopsy – Tome 1 (album cover)

Are there any advantages and drawbacks to being independent, anything you’ve come across that you weren’t expecting; you mentioned transportation – having to ship product back and forth yourselves – but is there anything else that has been problematic?

Matt: Well, publicity. Trying to get people to actually know that that we have something out there, that’s really I think our biggest obstacle, finding the right people to hire in the right areas, because there’s a whole bunch of different markets. I’m honestly not sure if we’ve hit them all this time, we will find out as we start touring. We’ll see if people actually know that we have a new EP out. Another thing that’s really tough is, this time around, on the self-titled we did a distribution deal and we put CDs in stores; but this time around, we’re doing it all through Bandcamp, there are no CDs in stores.

There’s always this second-guessing, are we making the right decision or is that a mistake? I know that shipping is – that’s another drawback for us – shipping from Canada is brutal. So everyone in Europe is complaining that it costs three times the price of the CD to ship it, and the States are not happy because in the States they get free shipping on everything, just about. That’s something else that record labels will never have a problem with, they just set up a distribution deal, have it all organized and put it in stores; they can ship from each continent because they have it set up that way. It’s just at the point where we have to, we still have a garage full of the self-titled; not that it didn’t sell well, just that we ordered more because it’s cheaper. And we have to ask ourselves the question, is that the right thing to do? But we don’t have the answer right now, we will find out. In the future I would set up shipping agencies in each region and let people order for a more reasonable cost, that would be the next step in my mindset.

Both collectively and individually, how have the band members responded to the addition of responsibilities that comes with being independent?

Matt: Not everyone has a task, everyone has a little thing but not everyone is interested in pushing it, and there are members that are completely opposed to us being independent. Every time we have a few too many, it’s a cyclical argument that’s always the same and not everyone satisfied, it’s hard. We know that we’ve had countless meetings about, “This is what were doing and this is why we are doing it”, but there are people worried that there’s just not enough of an audience that are going to hear it. The exposure, how are people going to know, how are we going to compete with these bands in our genre that have this whole team behind them when we’re just four guys? We’re just never satisfied, it’s a typical musician thing I think. The really hard thing is that, when things go sour we can’t say, “Oh, but the label” – it’s us! Then it just builds in an endless cycle – but the next morning we always wake up and hug it out.

CRYPTOPSY (click to enlarge)

Have you found that you have to approach things differently when you are communicating as a band with those things in mind, so that it doesn’t become a matter of just pointing fingers?

It depends on how late in the night it is and how many we’ve had. Early in the night and during the day we are always very political and nice. Sometimes some stuff starts up, but if you’re not part of it you know, “I’m not going to say anything!” It’s always best to go to bed when it starts.

Where you’re at right now, over time it will probably become clear that this is a really good way for bands to be approaching things now and it’s just a matter of waiting to see how that compares with what the record labels are able to do. If you wind up having the longevity that you wouldn’t get through record deals, where you always have to wonder if they are going to pick you up the next time around, at least now you’re in a position where that’s no longer an issue. Everything that you have control over you can manage from day to day rather than being limited to revisit it from contract to contract.

That’s right. It would be awesome if we could just have a multi-publicity person who just takes care of the whole world and is actually very competent but we haven’t found that person. We have a fantastic team and I’m super in love with them – we have three of them right now – but I’m always just doubting whether we’re doing enough; that’s my biggest doubt. And it’s not them not doing enough, it’s not them, I’m just worried that, as they’re all based in North America, do they have the touch to get Japan, Australia, Indonesia, all of Europe, the UK, retouching South America, retouching all these bases? Now the internet is all just one big jam so everyone just ends up picking everything up, but is it really the way people find new music?

It’s a tough question. I didn’t go through PR to get in contact with you guys and normally that’s the first thing that I look for – who’s their publicist? – and I try to track down the band that way. But in this case I just went straight through the Facebook page; how much is social media helping or hindering the cause for independent bands? Do you find that it has more noise to the signal?

Absolutely helping. It takes time – I answer all the emails – it just takes time and diligence. Certain fans get a bit too much, but you’ve got to be respectful. Another thing we tried, I’m not sure if you’re aware of it, we did a crowd fund for this album and I doubt we’ll ever do it again, it’s just not something that our fans felt comfortable with. I feel like crowdfunding is on its way out. It’s really hard to ask someone to give you money, it’s really hard to ask for help from someone when they’re not receiving the product in-hand right away. You have to wait for it, there’s that trust – like they’re not sure what they are buying and they are not sure what they’re getting themselves into. We had a huge amount of support, which was amazing and we cherish these fans; I think it was 360 people that raised almost $10,000. So that’s unbelievable, but in the meantime we were also on Bandcamp getting a huge amount of support through other merchandise sales. I just feel people weren’t comfortable supporting through Indiegogo. So we won’t do it again, it was a stressful stressful time, just trying to brainstorm all the time, trying to see how we can get more people interested in supporting us, trying to make it cool to support. We had too many conversations. Very stressful, constantly refreshing my browser trying to see where we’re at, it was nerve-racking. Everyone that was living with me and around me at the time knew about it and we all breathed a sigh of relief when it was over. And we’re still dealing with it, taking care of the perks, making sure that the supporters hear this stuff before all the rest of the world does.

CRYPTOPSY (click to enlarge)

Would you consider doing something more focused next time? You might not want to do crowdfunding but if you find that it’s appropriate for, if you want to be able to guarantee a summer tour schedule, for instance, and you can tell people, “Look, if you’re helping with this then we are going on tour, but if not, we probably can’t” – that’s less a question of quality, they don’t have to wonder if an album is going to be good or not.

No, I don’t think so. We’re just going to, for all the future stuff, we’re just going to do presales and move forward.

Have business considerations created any conflict with your creative process? Has there been anything where you were thinking, this is a huge risk financially, should we do it? For instance, whether or not to book a certain amount of studio time, or to record the sound a certain way, or make certain songwriting choices that are more experimental than what listeners are accustomed to hearing from Cryptopsy.

No, but we are extremely lucky that our guitarist records all of our stuff, so we can just take our time and they hammer it out in the studio. This time around we did take mixing outside of the house, to Jason Suecof down in Florida, and that was a bigger expense than we normally would have. We debated that a lot but we know what’s best for the band. And we know what Cryptopsy needs to sound like now, so if it’s not Cryptopsy then it’s definitely not going to go into a Cryptopsy song. There are parts that were cut, I really trust Chris (Donaldson, guitar) and Flo to come up with Cryptopsy stuff, I just let them do their thing and once they’re satisfied with something I’ll come in and add my parts to it. But I don’t think financially we will ever hold ourselves back, no. As I said, with the last one we didn’t do a music video because we just didn’t have the funds at the time. We always try to find a way financially to make what we want to make.

Do you think for younger, less established bands, having a firm idea in mind of what Cryptopsy sounds like versus being a new band that is still trying to find their sound – the obstacles that they might face to go the independent route, it might work against them if they’re not sure whether to change something, whether to try something different from what their established sound is. Do you have any advice for those bands?

I think, Cryptopsy, as much as we stick to our sound, we make songs for ourselves. We really just want to make songs that we like, something that we would want to listen to; we’re not necessarily writing songs for fans. You write songs that we liked that we hope our fans will like. But for young bands, you have to play as many shows as you can and record as much as you can and release it, just get it out there on, if people like it then keep going with it. But I don’t think you should be flip-flopping styles, absolutely not, just stick to what you like, what you are, then write songs for yourself. Be true to yourself.

For a lot of the younger bands it seems that they take on multiple projects to see which one sticks, which one is doing well, and they wind up spreading themselves really thin – all of the factors that need to go into each independent project to make them work – any suggestions in those terms?

I’m a big fan of projects, we all are, in Cryptopsy. I would suggest to play, write, record and if you take on responsibility independently then you sadly have to fulfill it! [Laughs] It’s never a fun thing to do, but you have to sit down and get through it.

In terms of the bigger-picture plan for the Book of Suffering, is this going to be a series of EPs or is it going to become an album down the road?

We have a plan to do at least one EP a year for the next three years, so, a total of three EPs minimum, depending on how our creative juices flow. We have an ultimate idea of doing a box set, say, the Complete Book of Suffering at the end, that’s the ultimate goal.

***

In closing, McGachy says the band will be announcing a major tour shortly. “ I can’t say anything about it but it will be really, really cool.” You can follow along for updates via Crytopsy’s Facebook page and check out The Book of Suffering: Tome 1 on Bandcamp here.

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