This article was originally published in June 2014.
Back in 1999, when Dillinger Escape Plan vocalist Greg Puciato proposed to Sepultura and Soulfly legend Max Cavalera that they put together a one-off project in the vein of Cavalera's 1994 industrial-thrash group Nailbomb, he had no idea what he had started. There was no way of knowing that the band, which he suggested calling Negative Fucks, would mutate into the supergroup Killer Be Killed and include Mastodon vocalist-bassist Troy Sanders and ex-The Mars Volta drummer Dave Elitch. And Puciato would have needed a crystal ball to fathom that Killer Be Killed would help him through one of the most traumatic periods of his life.
"I was in a really weird place, mentally," Puciato reveals. "I was dealing with post-traumatic stress. Basically, a bomb exploded in my head that involved incidents from my childhood, which I won't go into. But these things ripped into me unexpectedly and caused intense anxiety and debilitating panic attacks. I would be frozen for hours on end and not be able to leave the house."
For Puciato, Killer Be Killed was the right project at the right time. Working on it with three friends distracted him from his personal demons and also allowed him to approach music from a fresh, creatively liberating perspective.
"I got out of my black headspace a little, looked at what we had and thought, Well, this is great because if Troy is mostly singing and Max is only screaming, that frees me up to be the floater that goes anywhere in between the two of them to fill in the gaps," he says. "I was a part of a group of vocalists and that made everything more enjoyable."
For Sanders, too, Killer Be Killed was about making music for the escape and joy of it. "It was almost like a flashback to being in your first band where you're with a bunch of friends that you really like and you're creating music that you love playing," the Mastodon singer-bassist says. "You don't have to claw at your skin for hours at a time wondering whether other people will like it. It almost doesn't matter, and since we had nothing to live up to, we could do absolutely anything."
That sense of freedom is apparent listening to Killer Be Killed's self-titled debut album. The record is rife with free-wheeling, yet surprisingly coherent, songs like "Wings of Feather and Wax," "Face Down," and "Dust into Darkness," which effectively blend elements of thrash, hardcore, and alt metal, as well as progressive and psychedelic rock. Unabashedly experimental but frequently more accessible than any of its members' better-known bands, the project proves to be more than the sum of its parts.
This is all the more impressive considering how haphazardly the group's debut was crafted. The songs were written in short spurts over a period of two years, and then the album was recorded over a final three-week burst with producer Josh Wilbur, who has previously worked with Lamb of God and Gojira.
"We would have loved to have spent lots of time on it when we realized how great it was turning out, but that wasn't an option," Cavalera admits. "From the start, it was clear to each of us that this was very much a side project. It's a band, but our other bands all take priority, and maybe that's one of the things that makes it so special."
Killer Be Killed isn't the first time that Cavalera and Puciato have made music together. In 2010, the duo co-wrote the Soulfly song "Rise of the Fallen," so they knew they had a good chemistry. "When I first met Greg, my impression was that if a Red Bull could turn into a person, that would be him," says Cavalera, looking back at the 2009 Deftones concert where the two first connected and where Puciato proposed a collaboration. "Greg has got this amazing energy that's really contagious."
Shortly after the Deftones show, Puciato called Cavalera at home to re-express his interest in working together. "Next thing I knew, I drove to Phoenix [where Cavalera lives] with my guitar," the Dillinger singer recalls, "and we did three or four days straight of waking up at 9 a.m. and staying awake until 2 a.m. sitting in his compound, using his Chaos A.D. four-track and the drum machine he had back in the day. It started out as a hardcore crust thing. It was great, but I didn't think we'd do anything with except maybe self-release an EP."
The original demo sessions included the album tracks "Face Down," "Set Fire to Your Flag," and "IED." Puciato brought in a finished demo of "Darkness into Dust," which was ultimately reworked by the full band. As productive as the initial writing session was, it became clear that Killer Be Killed needed a flesh-and-blood rhythm section. Puciato recommended two friends: Elitch and Converge bassist Nate Newton. Since Newton couldn't find the time to meet when Killer be Killed were writing, Sanders entered the picture.
"Dillinger Escape Plan and Mastodon were on tour in October 2011, and Troy asking me who was playing bass in the band I was doing with Max," Puciato recalls. "I said, 'I'm not really sure.' And Troy said, 'OK, well, I'm doing it, and if I'm not doing it, I'm going to be highly offended.' That totally reflected Troy's sense of humor. He said, 'Go ahead and tell Max I'm in, and let me know when to be in California.'"
Puciato relayed the news, but while Cavalera was a huge Mastodon fan, he had never met Sanders. So during a South American festival show that included Cavalera Conspiracy and Mastodon, Cavalera walked up to Sanders backstage. "It was really funny," the Soulfly frontman recalls. "I went, 'Hey, I'm Max. I think we're in a band together.' Troy laughed and said, 'Yeah, we're gonna make some cool shit.'"
In January 2013, Sanders joined his new bandmates at a rehearsal space in Los Angeles for a one-week writing session. With him and Elitch in the group, Killer Be Killed evolved from a hardcore-based entity into a more musically intricate project. All of a sudden, Cavalera and Puciato had to up their game and think on a more expansive scale.
"Once we heard Troy playing off parts and going, 'Hey, I've got this idea for a melody,' we went, 'Wait a minute,'" Puciato says. "We had to change our thinking and write real songs instead of Neanderthal riff-fests."
At that point, the greatest obstacle was time. Songs like "Wings of Feather and Wax" and "Melting of My Marrow" may sound like they were painstakingly labored over, but they weren't. The band worked around the clock to create 12 songs in seven days before everyone returned to their msain gigs. They talked frequently, but didn't find another window of time when they were all free until September of last year when they recorded the album over 21 days.
To add to the urgency, none of the songs had lyrics. As soon as they arrived, Cavalera, Puciato, and Sanders sat down at a table with notepads and started scribbling down ideas. Cavalera stuck to his trademark topics of police brutality ("Face Down"), war ("IED"), and rebellion ("Fire to Your Flag"), and Puciato and Sanders delved into more personal themes.
"We sat and talked about what was going on in our lives and there were a lot of common themes," Puciato says. "That's how we got on the same page. And that ended up being the glue that tied a lot of the lyrics together."
Once the lyrics were written, the vocals came together quickly. "Almost everyone's first idea, first hum, first scream would take the cake," Sanders enthuses. "It was like waking up and being able to run a marathon without even preparing for it. We got to the finish line much easier than I thought we would."
Having completed the best side-project and supergroup of the year, Killer Be Killed are in the difficult position of trying to find the time to play some shows. At the very worst, they should have no problem eclipsing the number of gigs played by the band that initially inspired the project: Nailbomb had just two concerts to their name.
"Alex Newport [Nailbomb co-creator and Fudge Tunnel main man] is a funny guy," Cavalera explains. "After we played together, he came up to me and said, 'Uh, I gotta make a confession.' I was like, 'Yeah, what is it?' And he said, 'I hate the sound of the crowd. I can't stand it.' I was like, 'Aw man, you're in the wrong business.' Fortunately, everyone in Killer Be Killed loves to play shows so we're gonna do our best to do some concerts in the States and some in Europe. Considering the amount of energy Greg, Troy, and I put into our own bands, if we put all of that together in Killer Be Killed, I think it would make a for a very, very explosive live experience."
In addition, everyone is keeping an open mind about someday creating a follow-up to Killer be Killed. "Who knows?" Cavalera says. "I'd love to get back together with the guys in a couple of years or something. Nothing's planned right now, but the thing is, there are no rules. We make our own rules in metal."