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Zen and the Art of Extreme Metal Production

Dave Otero has worked with everyone from Primitive Man and Khemmis to Cephalic Carnage, so we went to Denver to find out what makes him tick.

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Dec 13 2017, 8:04pm

Photo by Brent Boutte

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Engineer and producer Dave Otero has worked with some of the biggest names in underground metal today, from Cattle Decapitation to Primitive Man to Cobalt. Otero-helmed albums have even landed extreme outfits on the somehow-still-a-thing Billboard charts. Despite the accolades awarded these artists, the man responsible for the soundscapes themselves remains absent from the limelight. For him, this is not remotely problematic.

“[Producers] are the behind the scenes guys. Producers, press agents, all of us. I’m that way for a reason. I did my time in bands—and it was fun, at least when we were on stage—but I like the slightly more predictable life of doing this work, being able to do it by myself, and not having to coordinate with four other dudes.”


He pauses for a second, shakes his head, and chuckles. “Holy crap, I do not miss that last part at all.”


We meet at a hip pizza joint a few miles from his studio, Flatline Audio. Clad entirely in black, the two of us earn more than a few worried glances from the fashionable young couples brunching nearby. While he may be fine “behind the scenes,” the man can certainly hold his own during a lengthy, beer-fueled interview. Our conversation quickly dances from Emperor (“They’re the best band ever”) to “selling out” (“I chuckle when I hear death metal guy A say ‘ugh, maybe I should just sell out and write a pop song.’ Bud, it doesn’t work that way”) to bands wearing shorts on stage (“Metallica can do it, fine, but otherwise just dress the part, man”). He offers insight on myriad subjects and anecdotes about his earliest days recording, punctuating his statements with warm laughter.

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As our first round of slices and craft beers arrives—I soon learned that he is an aficionado of both—I ask him for his “elevator pitch.” Despite his initial protest that he is ill-prepared to summarize his profession for fear of oversimplifying the requisite skill set (engineer, producer, pick slide master, part time babysitter-meets-motivational-coach, janitor), he stops to better consider the question while thumbing the condensation on the side of his glass. “My job is to remove roadblocks, to provide the clearest path from an artist’s song or vision to the listener.”

He pauses, sips his beer, and adds, “Sometimes that even entails manipulating the artist’s vision if I think it’s necessary and… you know, if they’re willing to listen to my opinion. I’m pretty opinionated, but, really, you have to be to have a job that’s literally telling other people what to do [laughs].”

A quick glance at his resume makes it clear that bands from across the underground are quite willing to listen to his opinions. While Otero has been professionally recording bands since the early 2000s—his earliest professional credits include Cephalic Carnage’s Lucid Interval and Halls of Amenti—he points to his work with Cattle Decapitation, and those records’ success, for his reputation as a go-to producer for extreme outfits.

Photo by Brent Boutte

When asked how he hooked up with Canadian tech-death quintet Archspire for their newest album, Relentless Mutation, he explains that, “The last two [Cattle Decapitation] albums did really well, other extreme bands saw that, and more of them started reaching out. It put my name out there in that extreme, technical genre as a guy who can service your music well. Next thing you know, Spencer [Prewett, Archspire drummer] just sent me a Facebook message [about working together]. That was it. That was cool, and it’s from working with Cattle.”

Since Monolith to Inhumanity’s release in 2012, his client list has expanded to include everything from death sludge (Primitive Man) to old school heavy metal (Act of Defiance) to atmospheric black metal (Wayfarer, Nightbringer). Because of the variety of bands he works with, he stresses the importance of understanding each project on its own terms. Otero explains that his role in the studio is that of a facilitator, prioritizing the artist’s sound over any desire to imprint his “sound” on them.

“A lot of [people] do what I do, broadly speaking, but a lot of them have their ‘sound,’ and it’s a thing they do for each band that comes to them. After a while, it all sounds similar. I’m sure I have some of those qualities, but I work with such a variety of music, moreso than a lot of [underground producers], it seems, that I really try and approach each project differently. I try to put myself in the band’s arena, do what’s best for them and their music, rather than force everyone into my stylistic ‘box.’“

Though he’s best known for his work fine-tuning blastbeats, Otero has expanded his areas of expertise to include radio rock, EDM, and (gasp) nu-metal. Why would someone so closely connected to the underground work with accessible forms of music?

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“Look, my job’s really cool. I’ve been doing it for a long time, and I just want to mix it up. These [projects] are very different, very pop-focused production-wise. You’re always concerned about the hook, making the chorus slam, and getting these giant pop/rock style sound shapes. It’s a huge challenge in a different way [than with extreme metal]. As a producer, you’re manufacturing emotion rather than capturing emotion.”

He’s quick to clarify that his comment isn’t a knock against popular music. “This music has value. It is easier to digest, and it’s what a lot of folks want to hear. Something they can jam on the way to work, get stuck in their heads for a while, and then go about their lives. They don’t necessarily want a band like Primitive Man to expose the world for the fraudulent piece of shit it is. Many of them couldn’t handle it. They would crumble as humans. [laughs] And that’s fine.”

He goes on to explain how genre boundaries inform his approach to such projects. Extreme metal, he contends, is so compositionally complex that a slight change in instrumentation is often lost within the finished product. For heavier projects, he must be selective about his feedback, weighing time and energy spent modifying a part against the contribution to the song itself.

“Death metal or black metal [works differently], it’s so packed with layers. But on a pop or rock song, saying ‘Hey, open that hi-hat up a tiny bit as this part transitions to the next one’ can make a huge difference. It ushers in all of this energy, and you think ‘Oh man, the song feels so much more natural now.’ It’s fun to make such tiny changes that completely alter the emotion and the swing of the song.”

Although established underground acts constitute the bulk of his recording schedule, he still enjoys helping newer outfits find and refine their sound. To that end, he offers some advice to ensure productive and positive studio experiences for younger bands and producers alike.

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“Everyone should know their parts," he says. "Everyone should be able to play the entire song through by themselves. Don’t rely on cues like watching the other guitarist’s hand. Don’t just know your parts, understand how they work in the songs as a whole. If you can, have tempos maps and scratch tracks ready to go on day one. With the availability of home recordings setups, many folks are comfortable using DAWs [digital audio workstations[. Come into the studio with full pre-production done. It saves days, and money, in the studio.”

Otero also cautions bands against entering a studio with an inflexible vision of their music.“That’s not to say that all your ideas are all locked in. While you’re doing all that [preproduction] work, keep an open mind. Don’t get 'demoitis,' where all you can hear is what you’ve already done. If you start being resistant to input, it’s just gonna turn the producer off and they’re gonna stop giving a fuck.”

That advices extends to the person at the computer as well. “The person doing the recording needs to be open, too. A huge part of my job is learning from my clients. Even if an idea seems counter-intuitive or something that I don’t think can work, I will almost always give it a shot. “

Photo by Greg Mason

He references his time with Cobalt to illustrate his point. “On Eater of Birds, Erik [Wunder, principal songwriter and instrumentalist] wanted to record four songs with the snare wires off of the snare drum. You take those off and it’s essentially a shorter, higher-tuned tom, and I was like ‘You’re fuckin' crazy, man! That’s gonna sound so dumb.’ [Wunder] says, ‘No, this is what we’re doing.’ So we did it and it totally makes those songs. It sounds so cool, we’ve used it since then, and I’ve even brought it up to other bands.”

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“Producers should be open to ideas like that, especially when you’re working with a guy who is forward thinking and has this unique element that can be appreciated outside of his own brain. There are plenty of people who say ‘I got all these great ideas,’ but they don’t work outside of that person’s brain. Learn to differentiate between those kinds of ideas and learn to give most things a chance.”

I asked for the wildest in-studio stories—vocalists cutting themselves while singing, guitarists who would only play with after multiple shots of whiskey, occult rituals in the studio kitchen. After almost two decades at the console recording some of the most extreme bands in America, I assumed he had enough material for a book or two.

“I mean, not really. Except for the time Cephalic Carnage took all those mushrooms.”

Oh boy.

“The craziest recording session I’ve ever done was for [their album] Lucid Interval," he explains. "I was super young. I didn’t have a studio. I was 19, I think. I had been recording bands in my mom’s basement, and we could not do a Cephalic album there, so we did it at their warehouse practice space. This was the first actual label-funded thing I’d done, in fact. It was their idea to have all the instruments set up one night, do a bunch of mushrooms, and try to write and record a song. We did a half hour recording of a song they tried to write on the spot, which was… [laughs] it was OK. I don’t do drugs, but I swear I felt high as fuck just being around dudes who were so out of it. They just made noise for hours. We had mics everywhere, we were throwing things at other things, breaking shit, all of this was being recorded*. This went on for hours. Hours. It was a weird blur. And we used it…well, a little of it. It’s all over the album for texture, but most of it was way less cool when we listened to it the next day. But recording that shit for a whole night? That was intense.”

(Former Cephalic members Jawsh Mullen and Zac Joe confirmed the evening included “throwing filing cabinets at each other” and “hitting shit with hammers.)

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Even though things have calmed down a bit since then, Dave Otero’s 2018 is already shaping up to be a busy one, with sessions scheduled with Allegaeon, Un, and Khemmis, among others. Bands interested in working with him and/or debating the production on Emperor’s Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk can get in touch through his website.

Ben Hutcherson plays in Khemmis and drops knowledge on Twitter.

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