The Deciblog Interview: Rae Amitay (Immortal Bird)

Immortal Bird vocalist Rae Amitay isn't a stranger to the Deciblog or our monthly magazine. Last year, she wrote a column on how she fell in love with drumming (My Kit) and appeared with her Mom in our Metal Muthas column, where we learned she was graduate 666 at the vaunted Berklee College Of Music. Amitay has been playing music since she was a child but Empress/Abscess sees her grow as both a vocalist and lyricist. She talked to us about Eminem albums, music school and the difference between keeping the rhythm and fronting a band. A vinyl version of Empress/Abscess is forthcoming. 

You grew up in Northern Virginia, correct?  It was home to a lot of classic 80s punk rock.

I had a very generic and privileged upbringing with piano lessons in the suburbs and private school for a minute. I wouldn’t say I was aware of the rich punk scene in my backyard but I got into angry music pretty early. I remember going to shows all the time in high school at The Black Cat or the 9:30 Club (in Washington, D.C.). It shaped who I am and how I feel about live music. There’s been a change and now a lot of kids can’t go to shows until they are 21. I feel like I got in by the skin of my teeth for the all ages thing. But I didn’t go to just metal shows, probably because my Mom was looking up the names of bands I was going to see. My Mom and I did go to see Porcupine Tree together when I was 16.

When she was looking up band names did she ever say you couldn’t go to a show?

Never because of the lyrical content or the aggressiveness of the music – she worried about the aggressiveness of the fans. I got my lip busted open in a pit when I was 14 and had to explain that to her.  

What did you say?

Someone hit me by accident.

It’s funny that she screened band names. My parents read a newspaper called The Catholic Standard that would have movie ratings. All the movies I wanted to see were rated "MO" – Morally Objectionable.

My Mom is a pretty hardcore atheist so she wasn’t looking up things on religious blogs. But we did go to a bunch of different stores when (Eminem's) Marshall Mathers LP came out because she wanted to get me the edited version. The edited versions of rap albums are so fucked.  My Mom eventually decided to listen to it. I can honestly say listening to it with her was the most embarrassing moment in my life. So I sort of live with no fear at this point (laughs).

I wanted to have a band for a long time but had been doing all of these drummer-for-hire gigs. I was having a particularly shitty night on tour with a band and decided I can’t do this and needed my own band.

When you moved to Boston to go to college was live music still a big part of your life?

I went to a ton of shows but they were mostly kids in school. There was a House Of Blues around the corner from my apartment and I could see big shows like High On Fire or Converge. There was a really good underground scene in Allston but I was so busy with school. Most of the shows were jazz and fusion. It was nice to get away from metal a bit.  

When you attended music school how did the faculty respond to your desire to play extreme metal?

Berklee has a massive metal population; everyone in Dream Theater went to my school. One of my teachers was Rod Morgenstein, who played in Winger and Dixie Dregs. The first semester I took lessons with the drummer from Into Eternity Steve Bolognese. There are a lot of Nile worshipping blast beat kids there. So it wasn’t a big deal; there are all sorts of extreme tech death shredders.

There must have been some kind of shift because Paul Masvidal (Cynic) has talked about when he went to music school in the 90s metal was an anomaly.

No, there was a little built in metal crew right away. It was kind of clique but you also knew they were the people you’d hang out with for a few years.

Did you ever have any kind of conflict studying something like metal in school?  A lot of metal was written by people who learned to play by copying records.

A lot of music I love comes from people who were self-taught and it is visceral and natural. I really don’t like overly technical music; I’m impressed by it but not inspired by it. There are so many micro genre tags these days that if you want to be microtonal you can do that. If you just want to pick up an instrument and see what sounds come out there are people who will respond to that, too.

How do you bridge the gap between your musical training and inspiration?

I wouldn’t say my musical training helps a lot with Immortal Bird because I’m writing a lot on bass which isn’t my chosen instrument. We just try to go for things that sound tight. Evan (Berry, guitar) does the vast majority of the actual arranging. I’m sure he uses school to his advantage. He’s like this genius musician who can mix education with creativity. I take the emotional creative approach.

What makes your partnership with Evan work?

We have a very deep connection that’s existed for years; I’ve known him since I was 18. If he thinks an idea won’t work he will just say so. We don’t waste time trying to stroke each other’s egos. We can look at each other and know when something is going to be a song. There couldn’t be an Immortal Bird without him; our connection is integral to what we do.

How did you friendship start?

I met him a few weeks into school in a drumming practice room. He was probably wearing a shirt for a band I liked and the rest is history.

How did all the pieces of Immortal Bird fall into place after that?

I wanted to have a band for a long time but had been doing all of these drummer-for-hire gigs.  I was having a particularly shitty night on tour with a band and decided I can’t do this and needed my own band. I called Evan and I asked him to promise me we could have a band. I got home and started writing and we got John Picillo on bass and Garry Naples to play live drums.

What is it like to be a drummer-for-hire?

Honestly, I love it because you get to do what you love every night but the pressure of it being your own music isn’t there. You just need to show up and do a good job. If people don’t connect with the music it’s usually not your fault and you don’t take it personally. Still, I like to have a stake in things. It’s a little difficult when you know you are completely replaceable and it’s you or the next guy. Music is about connecting with people. I’m grateful for the experiences and got to do what I love but it’s hard to be a hired gun, especially when you are 20 years old.

Did your youth work for against you for those gigs?

I think it worked for me because I was just excited to be on the road having new experiences. I’m also low maintenance and the older you get it gets harder to sleep in a sleeping bag in a bathtub in the middle of nowhere. 

How did Immortal Bird bird become the band where you decided to step aside from drumming and take a forward-facing role?

I wouldn’t say I’m stepping back from being the drummer because I played drums on the first EP (Akrasia). I didn’t play drums on this album but will probably play our future releases. I need to be screaming a little bit more than just hitting things. I still play drums all the time and Thrawsunblat is a really helpful outlet. I started playing classical piano when I was four and didn’t pick up drums until high school. No one has ever pigeonholed me as just a drummer.

Did you train vocals at all in college or is this relatively new?

I started doing vocals in high school as a hobby and kept doing them in college in various projects. But I wouldn’t say I’m a trained vocalist. I’ve had a few basic lessons but I didn’t watch The Zen of Screaming. I just figured it out on my own. I wish I had a list of cool vocalists to rattle off but I just did what I could to sound the angriest night after night without blowing out my voice. I’ll hear cool vocalists that I admire but usually when I hear them I want them to guest on our albums.

Do you keep notes for lyrics?

I have a crappy notebook I keep things in and a bunch of memos in my phone. I think it’s good to be constantly writing – to put into words what I’m feeling in the moment. Sometimes you feel like you find good ways you articulate how life is hard (laughs). On this record we were better about setting up time to write and arrange.  And lyrically I think it’s a step up. I fully back the lyrics I wrote for Akrasia but I took a lot of time on these. I wrote and completely trashed lyrics then rewrote them. I really like what we’ve come up with.

What are some of the challenges of working as vocalist and how are they different from percussion?

I have vocalist guilt because I hate not having a ton of gear to set up and take down at the end of the night. I can just jump off the stage and sell merch but I feel kind of bad for my bandmates. 

Do you ever find yourself walking back to the drum kit to take it down?

(Laughs). Occasionally. Last night, I tried to help Garry but he’s a big kid and likes to do it on his own.

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