When Chuck Billy belts out Metal music with his characteristic death-sounds, he is treating his voice with care. VoiceCouncil caught up with Chuck on his European Tour with Judas Priest and Megadeth to ask him how his voice has survived a Metal career.
Heavy Metal University
You’ve been in this business for some time. Were you always a Metal singer?
I started as a guitar player and got thrown into a singing position when my younger brother’s band needed a singer. I felt this was a serious change that demanded that I spend some time doing some equally serious learning.
I suppose you couldn’t enroll at Heavy Metal University?
We’re talking about the early 80s when there wasn’t a lot of Metal around; I hadn’t even heard of Metallica at this time. I was more of a melodic singer; the bands I was playing with were harder, guitar driven— not real Metal as we know it today.
Tell us about your early vocal training.
I went off to college for a year and enrolled in theory and vocal classes. I also took private vocal lessons for a year and a half in San Francisco
Is there anything you learned vocally at that time that continues to help you today as a singer?
I was really lucky to get in with the legendary vocal coach Judi Davis—she was in her seventies by that time and she had taught people like Barbara Streisand, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland. I went as far as I could go with her. I still do her vocal warm up program; it’s an hour long warm up with her playing the piano and doing scales—it gets me stretching and warming up the throat. I have molded this routine into my own pattern. I couldn’t go out there and sing day after day unless I did this. I do it before every single concert.
Give us a little more insight into what makes a great vocal warm-up.
Well, the majority of it is just humming. Once you’ve been humming for about 15 minutes or so, your nose starts to tickle and you know then that you are getting ready. I just have to warm up like this because the stuff I do is so extreme—the “death voice” or “Cookie Monster” sounds permeate this kind of music.
Did you always take this kind of vocal care?
I learned the hard way: relying on my throat instead of my wind. I just couldn’t consistently reach the notes without controlling my air. I’ve come to the understanding that as a singer you have to put some time in running and making your lungs stronger and controlling your air. You can’t smoke and do this. These insights and practices have saved my voice.
From Rock to Metal
How did you make the transition from Rock to Metal?
Steve Souza left Legacy to join Exodus and I got an audition. I thought I would be ready for this but when I got the three-song demo, I knew this was a totally different kind of style. It wasn’t as melodic as I had been singing; it was more about timing and the beat. I kinda did a crash course in how to sing metal overnight.
What are the most essential aspects of singing Metal?
Like other vocal forms, it’s about knowing the music inside and out. Metal is especially focused on timing; you’ve got to follow the drums a lot and there are guitar riffs all the time. It’s tough. I really wanted to get the vocal position with Legacy and I did everything in my power to make it happen; I tried to really mimic where they were at, but I also recognized that I had a different voice and put in a little of my own flair.
In order to reach new levels with your vocal art, maybe there is no substitute for scrambling for a great opportunity.
Yeah. Just jump in—music works in cycles and you’ve gotta be in the right place at the right time. I’d also say you can’t worry about ever giving away too much; you can make friends everywhere, all over the world. Put yourself out there; its never too much.
Did your background influence what you gave to Legacy?
In the second record I brought more melody to the project—having melodies on the timing—and this made us distinctive in those early days of Metal.
Does mic technique play a part in your vocal performance?
Not usually. My mouth is right on the mic. The only time I use mic technique is for a ballad, for singing soft and clean— then I pull away a little from the mic.
What does it take to really peak in your performance?
I think a lot of it is in the attitude of the music; it is an aggressive form of music, so much so that you look at the front man and think he is pissed! However, like any musical style, you have got to get into he right attitude to get into a good performance. But not all Metal music today is the same. I was older than the rest of the guys when I joined the group and I brought with me a desire to add melody to the hard Metal drive.
For an example of my melodic stuff listen to “Return to Serenity” – at Christmas we actually performed it with an orchestra—that’s different for a Metal guy!
For the hard driving Cookie Monster sound, see “More than Meets the Eye” from our new Formation of Damnation album—its pretty full-on all the way through, a full-barking sound.
Metal music sometimes comes under fire for its “attitude” but do you think this is justified?
In Metal we are willing to deal with important themes and dark images. Much of it is about the struggle between good and evil—that’s one of the greatest stories out there. You don’t see other forms of music going there. Everybody associates Metal music with evil—they figure that since you sing it you must be evil. Then your Grandmother comes along and thinks you need to go to church as an antidote. It’s not that we are Satan worshippers: it’s a persona and it’s a vehicle for talking about certain themes.
Getting the Sound You Want
Who are your vocal mentors?
There are many: Phil Lynott, Bon Scott, Rob Halford, Ronnie James Dio, Bruce Dickinson—they all have their own identity and you can hear their creativity. I have to say that I’ve always appreciated Phil Lynott for his story-telling abilities and depth of lyrics. Phil had a unique sounding voice that was able to sing pretty and sing heavy. You always knew it was him.
What would you say is key to standing out in today’s Metal world?
We are in a world where there are tons of Death-Metal and Black-Metal singers and sometimes it’s hard to find a singer’s distinctive features. I like singers who are unique; you just know it’s them.
What’s important for you getting your vocal sound on stage?
I like the stage to sound like it does at the rehearsal room. In fact, when rehearsing, I put a delay in my monitors to simulate the live event. Rather than having standard wedge monitors on stage I like the side-fills—this gets me closer to the sound I get in the practice room. Wedge monitors are too close in the studio I would never sing that close to the sound.
Any other “tricks of the trade” for getting a good vocal sound for Metal music?
Most delays repeat 5-6 times—that doesn’t work for me because I often need lots of volume; feedback is too easily created with so many repeats. TC’s D2 delay processor gives me just 2 repeats, so I can have it as loud as I want. I also have my own pedal on stage so that I can change the delay time. Completing the picture is my Shure Beta 58A.
You’re singing in huge, state-of-the-art venues. What advice do you have about achieving a good Metal or hard-rock sound in a more modest setting?
Well, we’ve certainly played in our share of small clubs. You often find that the PA is worn-out and this can lead to problems with clarity. In this situation I over-compensate on treble and high end. I suggest tweaking the EQ to your liking, to what you are used to hearing. Make sure you spend a good ten minutes doing this before the show. Once you get up on stage its tough to communicate to the soundman and attempts to fix it then can ruin the flow of the show.
How are Metal vocals and singers are going to change in the future?
What I see is that a lot more guys are putting more melody on their Metal. There’s been a noticeable increase of this in the last 5 years. Judas Priest and Megadeth have always done this but now lots of newer bands are actually having memorable lyrics and vocals. This means that the fan-base is expanding.
Are vocalists going to be more or less in control of their live sound and the recording process?
Many Metal and Rock artists have their own home studios now, so it seems that technical understanding is increasing and that singers know more about what it takes to get a quality sound.
Who would you love to sing with on stage?
James Hetfield. He’s one of our hometown heroes—I’d love to perform with him one day.
What is your final word for vocalists?
Here’s the number one thing: create your own identity, believe in it and stick with it.