Trying to hold a conversation outside of Mulligan’s Pub at 1:30 in the morning is never easy, especially when you want to have deep and meaningful conversation about local music.
For Dave Cuffman, lead vocalist of the Grand Rapids based power/thrash metal band “Blackgate”, this setting works perfectly. He drinks here, his band often performs here, the staff loves him, and about every hour or so you can catch him during a smoke break talking about a metal band he loves, or doesn’t. With the July release of Blackgate’s first album “Ronin”, I was able to catch him outside of Mulligan’s and talk one-on-one with him about the band’s rise.
Anyone who’s seen Blackgate live know’s how well they’re loved by West Michigan’s metal community. Whether it’s the ferocious power of Dave’s mid range vocals, the blazing riffs and dual leads of the guitars, or the hellishly fast bombast of the drums, these guys are respected by both your casual rocker and heavy metal purist alike. But a band that takes a maximalist approach to their music sure formed in a rather nonchalant manner.
“Our former guitarist Roger randomly asked me ‘hey Dave, wanna be the singer for my band?’”, said Dave, grinning and laughing. “At first I didn’t take him seriously and was like ‘oh, haha’, but he asked me to come try out. The guitarist Matt had some lyrics written for a few songs. So we got those together for our self-titled EP, started playing some shows and went from there.”
Blackgate’s music combines the speed and heavy riffs of thrash metal with the epic vocals and melodic guitar range of power metal. While their sound is unified under this sonic mix, the band members have diverse heavy metal influences.
“Personally I have my tastes, but as far as the band goes the way I sing often reflects the mood of the song. I try not to be an ‘artist’, rather I immerse myself with the song. I see it as theatrical. The band has their riff heroes on their instruments and we all have our own influences but we’re all very much into Iced Earth, Iron Maiden, Megadeth, and so on. We’re very much into riff-based metal and we try to meld all our favorite sounds together. We make it work”, he says.
Currently Dave is using a Ronnie James Dio/power metal influenced vocal style, but since the release of their first album, he’s open to more styles in future recordings. “The direction I went with when we started the band was definitely power metal based but as we keep going I really want to experiment with new styles. I wanna try a more thrashy vocal style, and maybe even something heavier,” says Dave. “Eventually we’re gonna start making heavy riffs and beats, maybe something more than thrash, even some straight death metal. We’ve been trying a lot of tremolo picking and minor thirds with our guitars on some of our new stuff we’re making.”
Most of their lyrics are your classic heavy metal subjects; historical figures, mythology, fantasy stories and comic books (Blackgate is the name of the prison in Batman after all). Escapism is always a joyous thing in metal music, but even the most imaginative amongst us want to express how we personally feel from time to time. Blackgate is no exception.
“With the expanded darkness of our new sound we’re trying out, we wanna get more personal with the lyrics. It’s not something we’re used to but we’re gonna try it. Our first album was based mostly around fictitious subjects, so I think we’re try to write about ourselves on a few songs. Past or present, or however we’re feeling in the moment of recording”, explained Dave.
Some musicians and artists, before their performances, require a sort of warm up ritual before going on stage. Looking at yourself in the mirror for motivation, push-ups to get the blood flowing in your veins, even a prayer or two if you’re religious. Dave plays things a little more close to the chest. “Honestly I like to be as chill as possible”, says Dave, “I like to just show up, not really think about it. It’s like a lose yourself alter-ego type mindset. A light warm up is important for my voice, but I like be natural and let the feedback of the crowd and the band’s performance really amp me up.”
The future of Blackgate looks prosperous. Right now they’re taking a small break from performing shows and are focusing in on recording new riffs and lyrics. They plan on releasing a cover album, which Dave joyously calls “self indulgent”. “Honestly it’s something we’re very excited for. At the end of the day we’re just as big of metal fans as everyone else. Having the opportunity to play our own versions of our favorite songs that have influenced us is like a dream come true. We get our jollies playing those riffs and singing along.” Dave said, chuckling. “And everyone sure goes wild when we bust out an Iron Maiden song onstage.”
The debut album by Blackgate, “Ronin” was released in late July. Look for it on Youtube, Soundcloud, their Facebook page, or your local record store. But better yet, see them live and truly understand why they are the best of West Michigan metal.