Matthew Attis, the lead singer/screamer of local metal band Prokaryon, is lying on the floor of the Indy’s newsroom working on his “strapless bra.” A few minutes later he’s practicing “the dump,” an exercise reminiscent of exactly what you think. Then he’s making sounds like a monkey, hands placed firmly to the side of his black Origin band sweatshirt, and a No. 2 pencil jutting from his teeth; he’s trying to enunciate like an ape “over the pencil.” For a frontman in a metal band, Attis knows he’s flying dangerously low to the cool bar, and he couldn’t care less.
“It’s pretty hard to look badass doing this,” he admits.
But here’s the thing: Attis, who’s a remarkably good sport, is in good company as he goes through the exercises of a new vocal training DVD called The Zen of Screaming. The program is designed by New York opera-singer-turned-metalhead Melissa Cross specifically for hardcore and screamo bands that typically belt out their lyrics at a volume that would drown out a 747, and Cross’ clients include a who’s who of the genre: Slipknot’s Corey Taylor, Lamb of God’s Randall Blythe, Shadows Fall’s Brian Fair, Every Time I Die’s Keith Buckley and many other high-profile rockers. So Attis is at least partially comforted by the fact that he’s following some of hardcore’s best in trying to learn what the self-described “Scream Queen” is teaching. Plus, he says, “I’ll try anything at this point. It’s worth it for me.”
It’s worth Attis’ effort—and potential embarrassment—because ever since he started singing with Prokaryon in 2003, he’s been painfully losing his voice after nearly ever show. In fact the band’s upcoming performance in Metal Mania at The Other Side Saturday, Aug. 26, will be Attis’ first show since having his tonsils removed in July, an operation he thinks was necessary at least partly because of the strain his singing style puts on his vocal cords. Attis only recently started singing again; the last of his throat scabs from the operation just fell off.
“I’m nervous, but confident,” he says about the upcoming show. “My throat still hurts a little bit, but it certainly doesn’t hurt like it did before.”
Before you go judging Attis a reckless screamer, you should know that he’s gone to great lengths to try to take care of his voice. It’s just that, like a lot of hardcore singers and most of Cross’ clients, he’s never received any expert advice on how to protect his instrument. Attis had no idea that screaming could be taught, and learned, and he had resigned himself to the belief that losing his voice was a necessary sacrifice to the genre.
“I’ve always been really superstitious,” Attis says. “I’d follow what worked, or what I’d hear worked for someone else. I’m a big fan of apple juice. I will not eat anything two or three hours before I sing, and I stay away from caffeine because it dries out your throat. I’ve never smoked or drank alcohol, so that’s never been a problem. The day of the show I’ll only have the apple juice—organic, unfiltered—and some green-onion-and-yogurt potato chips. I don’t know what it is with the potato chips, but I had them once and didn’t have a problem so I kept with it…It gets to the point where any time you hear of something that works you go out and get it. You’re always searching for that magical cure.”
Attis, 24, first heard of The Zen of Screaming during a show in Great Falls earlier this year. The lead singer of former metal band Tears Fall Red, Marty Burckhard, saw Attis struggling to warm up his voice before the show and recommended Cross’ DVD and series of CDs. Attis considered buying it (retail price: between $28 and $68, plus shipping, depending on which package you order from melissacross.com) but couldn’t swallow forking over that much dough. That was before he completely lost his voice and needed his tonsillectomy. When the Indy received a promotional copy of The Zen of Screaming, Attis was eager to help test its merits.
“The thing that always bothers me is those who don’t scream and say that if you keep doing this, you’ll lose your voice,” says Attis. “That’s a fear tactic. Fear is the mind-killer, you know that don’t you? What I like about this is that [Cross] starts out by saying she’s not your mother, she’s doesn’t have a bunch of rules about singing.”
After a short introduction, the DVD begins with a series of breathing exercises—including one Cross refers to as “the strapless bra,” which deals with expanding the ribcage—and then goes into some basic voice lessons tweaked for screamers, such as the one aimed at lowering the larynx by singing with a pencil in the mouth. Interspersed with the instructions from the peppy, red-haired, hip-looking middle-aged mother are testimonials and private-session excerpts with her big-name clients. It’s eerie that whenever Attis turns away from the screen to relay his thoughts on what he’s seeing, it’s almost always followed by a testimonial from some metal idol saying essentially the same thing; right after Attis’ “badass” comment, for instance, Mike Ski from The A.K.A.s explains the importance of getting to “that I-don’t-give-a-fuck level,” beyond embarrassment. “See?” Attis says. “That was my entire walk over here.”
When Cross spends an entire section discussing vocal damage, showing precisely how and why hardcore singers develop nodules and polyps on their vocal cords, Attis leans forward and simply listens. His wife Shannon, who’s tagged along out of curiosity and support, pats his knee. “I remember when I lost my voice after that Great Falls show I started doing research on all of this,” Attis says after the segment. “I went to the doctor—they stuck this camera down my nose and throat and said everything was fine. Then they found my tonsils were white with bacteria.” Watching Attis take in Cross’ lessons, it’s easy to see precisely how directly he plans to utilize them. Even in the short time he spends practicing with the DVD, there’s a noticeable difference both in how he sounds and, more importantly, how he feels.
“I probably need a couple weeks to see how it fits,” Attis says, “but this is probably the closest I’ll ever get to formal voice lessons…My throat was a little sore when I got here, but it feels fine now. I think that says something.”
Prokaryon is one of 10 bands playing Metal Mania Saturday, Aug. 26, at The Other Side, beginning at 3 PM. Also on the bill are headliners Take Over and Separation of Self. $10.