Drummer Shawn Cameron is a professional ravager of drum kits, his punishing blast-beats forming the rhythmic bedrock of San Diego deathcore band Carnifex’s music. However, the 35-year-old Californian entered the percussive realm fairly late, only picking up the drumsticks when he was 17.
By the time Cameron started jamming with somebody, he was 21. And that somebody was his older brother Ryan Cameron, then 23.
“We used to play covers in the garage, a lot of covers,” said Cameron, who grew up in Orange County, California. “We played Incubus and ‘90s rock stuff [such as] Creed.”
Apart from starting out as an appreciator of mainstream rock, the full-time drummer also has a history with Classical music. He laughed as he recalled playing the baritone horn during seventh grade.
“It looks like a tuba, except a lot smaller. I started playing it ‘cause I was really small and I could barely hold the tuba—it’s huge.”
Cameron then started learning to play the piano when he was 15. But he hated practicing on it, and that was when his foray into rock music began.
“My brother started learning guitar, so I started to learn to play guitar. But I just had a twitchy foot, so I eventually started playing drums, and we started playing in a band together.”
Despite his short-lived affair with the piano, Cameron’s interest in keyboard melodies has intensified in recent years. In 2013, he formed symphonic metal band Unicorn Death with his wife Diana Jasso. Additionally, Classically-influenced keyboard melodiesstarted appearing in Carnifex’s output from 2011 onwards, as evidently heard in Until I Feel Nothing (2011) and Die without Hope (2014). The band hired Ashley Jurgemeyer (ex-Cradle of Filth, ex-Abigail Williams) to write all the keyboard melodies for the former, and Cassie Morris (Unicorn Death) to do the same for two tracks from the latter.
“We’ve always wanted to do [the symphonic] kind of stuff, but mostly, the reason is because we’ve gotten better at pre-production, writing and recording the albums. We hired Cassie Morris from Unicorn Death, and she wrote the keys for ‘Dark Days’ and some of the keys for ‘Condemned to Decay.’ But for the most part, on this new album, I wrote most of the symphonic stuff.”
Cameron’s “symphonic stuff” is of the ambient variety, composed digitally on a computer. It would sound perfectly at home in the film score of a psychological thriller. But this is not surprising, considering that he is a fan of film music composer John Williams.
However, Cameron is “not a Classical buff at all.” According to him, he just likes listening to Classical music in general. If he had to choose between playing the drums and programming the synthesizer on a computer, he would pick the drums.
“I definitely feel drums are more necessary. (laughs). The synthesizer stuff is more of the icing on the cake. You know, that’s something we’ve been able to add to this last couple of albums because we’ve polished the core of the music: the guitars, the vocals, and the drums. So we can add in a new element and bring out a brand new feeling.”
Between the keyboard and drums, Cameron thinks that the former portrays emotion a lot better than the latter. He feels that the job of the drums is to accent whatever emotion the keyboard is conjuring.
“You know, the right drumbeat really does matter if you’re trying to portray a certain emotion. You could either make or break that whole emotion, like a melody could sound really sorrowful or really aggressive depending on what you do with the drums, so [the keyboard and drums] work together.”
Easily their strongest effort to date, Die without Hope sounds like a record that American melodic death metal band The Black Dahlia Murder could have produced. The only distinguishing traits that give away its Carnifex origin are vocalist Scott Lewis’ deep growls and the band’s penchant for heart-stopping breakdowns.
Deathcore did not originally contain Classically-influenced keyboard melodies. So Carnifex’s recent dip into the refined waters of Classical music seem to have blurred the line separating symphonic deathcore from melodic death metal containing many breakdowns.
But Cameron thinks that Carnifex has achieved no such thing.
“First of all, I think that deathcore is just a sub-genre of death metal, so it’s just a different type of death metal. So I mean you could say it’s both: It’s an evolved [form of] deathcore, and it’s also just melodic death metal with breakdowns.”
On the topic of breakdowns, Cameron expressed some regret over how the band abused the musical technique when writing their Victory Records debut The Diseased and the Poisoned in 2008.
“We like melodic death metal, and we like to be able to use breakdowns to make it heavier, but you know, they shouldn’t be overused. If you overuse them, they are not as heavy, and [I think] we overused them on The Diseased and the Poisoned. They were way overused.”
“We had about a month to write that album, so we kinda used breakdowns as a crutch. But we’ve grown from that. We’ve learned from that experience. On Hell Chose Me, the record right after The Diseased and the Poisoned, you could definitely tell that we grew a lot from that first experience.”
The sonic brutality and speed of deathcore might make the sub-genre as a whole seem chaotic and hence, sound like noise. Cameron, however, would only classify some piece of music as noise if it were not organized. And he thinks their music actually has some sort of underlying structure beneath all that overwhelming aural elements.
“The thing about our music is that it’s very organized, it’s very precise. If it’s not structured, if it’s just random, that’s noise. I mean, some music may sound like noise to others, but that’s just ‘cause you don’t understand it.”
He gives a vivid simile to illustrate his point that people who hear deathcore as noise simply do not understand it.
“It’s like the difference between Chinese and English. If you don’t speak Chinese, [to you] it’s just gibberish. Until you understand it, it doesn’t make sense. When I listen to a death metal band, I can pretty much understand the lyrics.”
Taking a jab at popular music, Cameron finished his explanation with a hilarious observation.
“People who don’t listen to death metal, they can’t understand the lyrics. But they can understand the lyrics to a rap song, and I have no idea what the hell [the rappers] are saying when I listen to it.”