Suicide Silence Guitarists Chris Garza and Mark Heylmun on the Dark, Complex Evolution of Metal

Since forming in Riverside, California, in 2002, Suicide Silence has followed its own path to metal eminence.
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Since forming in Riverside, California, in 2002, Suicide Silence has followed its own path to metal eminence. The band members—guitarists Chris Garza and Mark Heylmun, bassist Dan Kenny, drummer Alex Lopez, and vocalist Eddie Hermida—inhabit the deathcore cosmos, but while they share the screamed vocals, complex time signatures, chunky and stuttered rhythms, and choreographed head banging of their peers, they’ve also channeled tragedy, hard work, and their musical heroes to carve out a singular identity.

In addition, Suicide Silence has managed to find success in the old-school record industry and the new media. Several of their YouTube videos have hit tens of millions of views, and they currently have 4.1 million Facebook fans, as well as 614,000 Twitter followers and 394,000 Instagram followers. But, combined with its popularity in the online galaxy, the group has managed to do something that has been brutally difficult for musicians of late—sell records.

Starting with The Cleansing in 2007—which cracked the Billboard Top 100 and became one of the best-selling debut albums in the Century Media label’s history—Suicide Silence has continued to zoom up the charts and move massive amounts of CDs and downloads. They even won “Best New Talent” in the 2009 Golden God Awards held by GP’s sister publication, Revolver.

Chris Garza (left) and Mark Heylmun.

Unfortunately, the journey has not been without heartbreak. On November 1, 2012, founding vocalist Mitch Lucker was killed in a motorcycle accident. It took about a year for the band to regroup with former All Shall Perish singer Hermida stepping into the role of new vocalist.

In 2016, recording commenced on an album project produced by Ross Robinson, who had discovered Korn and Slipknot, as well as other successful metal acts. This meant the band was in the hands of a producer who had made some of the very records that had influenced their own music, and, in Garza’s case, at least, actually kick-started his desire to become a guitarist. The self-titled album is scheduled for release in February 2017, but an early listen revealed that the sonic vistas of the new music are diverse and wonderfully strange. Guitars undulate in trippy delays, stab the frequency spectrum with fuzzed-out madness, shimmer with phased jangles, swirl in tsunamis of distortion, and, ultimately, conspire to totally and completely kick ass.

What kind of rigs did you guys pull out while recording the new album?

Heylmun: My main guitar is my custom, 7-string ESP V with an alder body, a 26" scale, and a camouflage finish. I had a 6-string ESP SV-II at home that I jammed on a lot, and when I had to make a decision on my custom model, I asked the factory, “Can you make me a SV-II in cammo with an extra inch?” I feel the longer scale really handles the tuning better. It was basically taking one of the guitars ESP already made, and then making it a 7-string, giving it a different camouflage finish, adding the longer scale, and putting a Floyd Rose on it. I designed it for what I call the “isms” of my playing. I’m all about scrapes, pinch harmonics, and anything I can do to surprise people, and the whammy bar adds to all of those little off-the-cuff things I like to do. Since I started using the Floyd again, I went with lighter gauges—a .062 on top of a standard set of .010s. I feel the Floyd works best with lighter strings. I try to have more restraint, even though I’m playing this crazy wild aggressive music. But it’s a good test for my playing—like, can I actually pull back and play dynamically?

The main tone on the album is from my Mesa/Boogie Mark V—which is a million-trick pony—but I also used an original 5150 amp to get a harsher sound with more bite on some solos. We’d also throw in a bunch of distortion pedals and overdrives to find something crazy, bright, and out of control—like on “Conformity.” Before I start playing the lead, there’s this squeak that’s super overdriven. In addition, a vintage Memory Lane delay from the ’70s was integral to a lot of the tones. It’s one of Ross’ pedals. It’s huge, it has one knob, and I don’t even know how to describe what does. Listen to the end of “Dying in a Red Room” to hear it battling itself along with a Boss Octave pedal to get this psychedelic, Mars Volta feel. That ending was actually a scratch guitar track we did while we were recording drums. It was cool, so it ended up being a part of the final product.

Garza: I’m currently using a 7-string Ibanez RGD7UC Prestige Uppercut. The top string is .066, and from B to high E is .050 to .010. I tried a whole bunch of top string gauges from .060 to .070, and .070 was too tight and .060 was too loose. The vibration I get from the .066 is perfect. Ross—being the badass he is—still has the Marshall head and cab he used on some of my favorite Korn and Slipknot records. My amp is a Mesa/Boogie Rectifier, but once I plugged in to that Marshall—that was the sound.

What informs your solos and riffs? Do you have a specific influence or two flying along with you, or is it more of an amalgamation of everything you’ve ever heard?

Heylmun: That’s a great word—amalgamation—because I can’t help being a vessel for every piece of music I’ve ever enjoyed, or even didn’t enjoy. Steve Vai was somebody I was listening to before I even started playing guitar, and my dad had tons of Shrapnel albums by George Lynch, Steve Lukather, and all these dark rippers. Tony Iommi and Angus Young were huge. My first guitar was a Gibson SG because of those two. I loved Pete Townshend’s compositional skills. I think the Who has done everything with music that I ever want to do. Then, the super rippers like John Petrucci and Alexi Laiho. There was a big phase when I was listening to Friday Night in San Francisco by Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, and Paco de Lucia. It’s an insane record. I was just like, “Damn, there’s so much you can do with a guitar. There’s no right way, there’s no wrong way, and there are so many different ways of killing it.” Hearing Dimebag Darrell flipped my world upside down. I went into a 100-percent Pantera hole for two years. His playing was melodic, it had style, it was impressive, and it almost seemed impossible—so fast and so precise and so awesome. I’d ask myself, “How is he even doing that?”

I’m not specifically digging into some player’s bag of tricks, though. And I don’t compose solos. I take one or two days in the studio, and those are my solo days where I track all of the guitar leads. I’ll record takes until I get one I like. Sometimes, it’s one take and that’s what it is. Other times, I’ll listen and go, “Oh, I like what I did at the beginning of this one, and what I did at the end of that one.” Then, I’ll redo play the parts as a single solo take.

A lot of guys would just say, “I’m done. I’ll comp this to that, and go have a sandwich.”

Heylmun: I’ve done that in the past. But it doesn’t feel like it’s as much me as I’d like it to be. Now, I avoid comping. I just like to slam it out, have fun, and be that communicator for all the music I’ve ever listened to.

You know, for our previous albums, I wasn’t always soloing over a chord progression, whereas this record actually has progressions. I know people will read this and say, “What—you didn’t have chord progressions in your previous music?” Well, no. We didn’t. We were going against the grain all the time, trying to be extreme and wild and different. So a lot of the things I was soloing over were literally either one note, or a polyrhythm breakdown kind of thing. But even when I have harmony to follow, I’m absolutely not thinking about what note I’m playing, or what the chord is. I just know how I want it to feel. When I prepare for an actual take of a solo, I’ll try different things, but I’m thinking about numbers and notes. I’m really thinking, “Am I getting out of this what the music deserves?” For example, on “Conformity,” I played this super-long classic guitar solo, because that song is about the fact there’s so much conformity all around us. The solo is a cliché. It’s satirical. And it fits the song to a “T.”

Chris, what about your influences?

Garza: I started listening to music when I was still in diapers. I’d watch my dad practice in our garage—which is the same garage that we still practice in. I knew I wanted to play music, but I had no idea what I wanted to do. Fast forward to when I’m 13. I heard Korn’s “Got the Life,” and that was it. “Oh sh*t. I want to play guitar. I want to do this tuning. I want to play 7-string.” It wasn’t until I got older that I realized how seductive Korn’s A tuning was to me. It was like the frequency inside my body. It was me. And that’s why I’ve never switched tunings. I stuck with A. Some bands think if they tune lower, it’s going to be heavier. And what is heavier? You just play what feels heavy and it will be heavy—no matter how it sounds, or what tuning you’re in. For me, it’s when I open my heart, and play notes that I’m feeling, as opposed to playing something that sounds heavy just because it’s low or thick or overdriven. If the emotion isn’t there, the riff will mean nothing to you, and nothing to the people who hear it. But if you can tap into your emotions and play what you’re truly feeling—anger or sadness or whatever—that riff will hit hard.

What kinds of things did Ross bring to the party to inspire, challenge, and guide you during the sessions?

Garza: When the drums were done, he would have Mark and I play our rhythm tracks together. He wanted the tracks to have a real intense live feel, so he’d have us jamming and rocking out right next to each other in the control room. We’d lay down a foundation of fire, and then go back and put some more gasoline on the fire until the whole world is on fire [laughs]. During the “more gasoline” part—where we laid down overdubs with all these crazy riffs and things—if Ross felt something was needed to bring out the intensity or interest, he’d get down and fool around with the knobs on the effects pedals while we were playing our parts. He knows how to nail the emotions you’re feeling and amplify them through your playing. It was weird, but given that Ross’ records saved my life in a way, I trusted him with all my being. His ideas are so crazy and unorthodox that you don’t have time to process whether you like what he’s doing or not. I mean, I would get so confused at times with what was happening, but he forced me to dive into my subconscious and play from my heart. And, by doing that, I started playing like I had been trying to play since I was 13. He opened me up to find my true style, and I guess that’s only possible through pure love and confusion.

Heylmun: There was a lot of tripped-out stuff that happened when we were playing together [laughs].

Garza: I remember seeing these super short clips of Slipknot tracking their first record, and Mick [Thomson, guitarist] is playing on “Surfacing,” and he’s f**king going ape sh*t. He’s rocking out like it’s a full on show. At the time—and for so many years afterwards—I thought, “They must have been joking for the camera or something. They couldn’t have been making a record in the studio and playing like wild men.” So when we were making this record, I finally had the opportunity to ask, “Hey Ross, was Mick tracking in that video?” He’s like, “Yep.” And then it clicked—I want to do that, too. I want to play with that kind of intensity and abandon while recording. I want the record to sound live!

What kinds of things do you feel make Suicide Silence unique amongst its metal peers?

Heylmun: My dad taught me how to play guitar, and he’s like a frickin’ savant about music theory. I had already taken band by then, so everything else I learned about music was from sheet music and brass instruments. But the application of that knowledge wasn’t helping me write music, and it wasn’t helpful in my early bands, either. I wasn’t surrounded by people who knew music theory. And, in reality, I tried to fit into their mold. With Suicide Silence, for example, I was more enthused to learn what they were doing. And my dad told me that if I didn’t want to apply theory to my guitar playing, then I should just play what feels good. He said I didn’t have to stick with what is “correct,” or always think inside of a musical box. I feel that my constant search to work outside of that “box” helps me contribute to what makes this band so special.

Garza: Some bands are afraid to be themselves, and that results in records that suck, and the band has no idea why. You have to face your feelings and your pain to make great records, and that’s f**king terrifying, but if you can do it, your songs will communicate truth. It really opened my eyes when our singer Mitch Lucker passed away. I was the only member of the band at the hospital, and it happened in front of me, so it feels like a movie to this day. In that moment, I got clarity and purpose. I talked to the band and asked, “What if this was our last record? We did we want to leave behind? What do we really want to do?” And we all went into our musical future as if it were life or death. No rules. No fear. If you’re afraid, that’s fake metal. Fearlessness is true metal.