Right to Life
Twenty years on, Maryland death-metal veteran Dying Fetus is still in it to win it
Published: February 16, 2011
It’s a tiny, dingy, windowless room with patches of cruddy beige carpet, and it looks like it’s been a good while since anyone attempted anything like cleaning it. Sean Beasley, a towering ponytailed guy in sweatpants and Nikes, steps outside for a smoke. Trey Williams, also ponytailed—dirty blond to Beasley’s brown—strips down to a sleeveless T and gym shorts. John Gallagher, meanwhile, sports a zip-up fleece and a knit cap pulled low to shield his clean-shaven scalp from the chill of an icy January dusk. Milling quietly around in the confined space, they look like they might be getting ready to watch a playoff game, maybe in some slightly nicer, bigger room.
But this isn’t a casual meet-up. Each has driven more than an hour (Beasley two hours, from Delaware) over ice-dotted roads to a Southwest Baltimore industrial park to spend a few hours in this tiny, dingy, windowless room, as they do twice a week. As the tour posters on the wall and the logos on Williams’ twin bass-drum heads announce, this is the practice space of Dying Fetus. Getting down to business, the three men close the sound-baffled door, insert earplugs (airport-style ear protectors for Gallagher), pick up their instruments, and launch into a furious synchronized explosion of tumbling guitar riffs, pummeling double-kick-drum barrages, and guttural grunts called “Bathe in Entrails.”
In the ringing quiet after each song crashes to a halt, someone calls the next tune.
“What about ‘Your Blood Is My Wine’?”
Eventually a longer pause turns to discussion of the makings of a set list.
“We didn’t do ‘Pissing in the Mainstream’ last time.”
“We gotta do that.”
This rehearsal is a regular event, but it’s also a tune-up for a looming tour—a headline spot on a traveling bill called the Bonecrusher Fest, which hits 21 of Europe’s metal capitals, from Bratislava to Vienna, between late February and mid-March. The band is still waiting to hear from its booking agents about which of the big touring metal festivals it’ll join to spend the summer crisscrossing the States, hauling along the storage bins full of Dying Fetus CDs, LPs, T-shirts, hoodies, posters, and booty shorts (for the ladies) stacked against the wall in a tottering heap they call Merch Mountain. Sometime toward the fall, Gallagher, Beasley, and Williams will enter Baltimore’s Wright Way recording studio to track a new album, its seventh full-length, for U.S. metal standard-bearer Relapse Records. To celebrate the band’s 20th anniversary this year, Relapse is also rolling out deluxe reissues of its early albums, including the death-metal touchstone Killing on Adrenaline, which is planned for release later this spring.
In other words, Dying Fetus is a successful working band, the biggest metal band ever to lurch forth from Maryland, one of the biggest death-metal bands in the United States, and a pillar of extreme metal worldwide. At 38, sole remaining original member Gallagher has been in the band more than half his life. As they vibrate every molecule in the tiny rehearsal space with brutal metal noise, it occurs that they could keep doing this another 10 years—maybe even 20—just like this.
A pleasant lane near Upper Marlboro, just over the line in bucolic Calvert County, leads to the still-snowy driveway of a tidy tan brick rancher. It’s a somewhat surprising place to find the frontman of a death-metal band with such a scabrous name. Yet John Gallagher answers the door and shows a visitor to the oil-clothed dining room table under a clock that chimes the hours with bird calls. Taking a seat, Gallagher explains the disconnect: It’s his folks’ house. Three years ago he “came back with my parents to save money ’cause we’re always on the road,” he says in an laconic, unhurried drawl light years away from his throat-scraping metal roar.
This sleepy rural corner of the state shaped him nonetheless. Gallagher says older neighbor kids trying their hand at Eddie Van Halen-style fretboard tapping convinced Gallagher to ditch the saxophone, his grade-school instrument, for guitar. Once hooked, he practiced incessantly. “I was kind of a nerd and stuff, growing up down here,” he says. “Didn’t really have many friends. So that was my deal.” As he practiced and listened, pop-metal acts like Quiet Riot and Twisted Sister gave way to first-wave American thrash titans Metallica and Slayer. In the spring of 1988, a mutual friend introduced Gallagher to fellow high school sophomore Jason Netherton.
“Not too talkative, a nice guy, we had a lot in common,” Netherton recalls of his first impression of Gallagher over an intermittent phone connection. He’s in Puerto Rico, where his current band, Maryland death-metal powerhouse Misery Index, is performing. “We just had a jam session, and his playing was already above and beyond anybody else we’d played with.”
Gallagher and Netherton first tried their hand at thrash metal, but thrash was on its way out, brought low by the rise of the knotty, high-velocity, gore-spattered underground sound known as death metal. With friend Nick Speleos they reconfigured as a death-metal band in 1991 with Netherton playing bass, Speleos singing and playing guitar, and Gallagher playing drums.
“We came up with all these crazy names—Phlegm, Decompose, Genital Rot,” Gallagher says. “We were Dead Fetus for a while, but then we noticed [in the liner notes for] Cannibal Corpse’s Tomb of the Mutilated album that there was already a [band called] Dead Fetus.”
He recalls trying out alternate names during a phone call with Speleos: “How about Mangled Fetus? How about Dismembered Fetus? How about Dying Fetus? That has a good ring to it.”
Gallagher soon took over guitar duties after Speleos left the band, alternating his guttural growl with Netherton’s anguished screams. The earliest available recordings of Dying Fetus, collected on the 1994 Infatuation With Malevolence compilation, capture a band beholden to the standard death-metal sound of the day: “Cookie Monster” vocals, near-continuous fusillades of double-bass-drum blast beats, furious switchback guitar riffing, and bloody-minded lyrics and song titles. But even then Dying Fetus had its own take. Gallagher says they were “just emulating the other bands at the time,” but in fact he and his bandmates cherry-picked and mixed and matched their favorite aspects of their favorite bands, from dexterity-stretching “technical” riffs to the kind of half-speed hardcore-style breakdowns that send mosh pits into frenzy.
“I wanted to bring all the different styles of bands I liked into one band,” Gallagher says. “I was like, ‘Well, let’s mix it all up, you know, and that way it might be a little more interesting.’”
Gallagher, Netherton, and a series of other guitarists and drummers played as many shows as they could, circulated their demos hand-to-hand through the last days of the pre-internet metal underground, and released early classic Killing on Adrenaline in 1998. The band slowly expanded its touring, and its fanbase, first nationally, then internationally. But by that time, death metal was “played out,” Gallagher says. “You can only sing about raping corpses so much.”
Netherton, who was studying international relations at American University, began writing lyrics that looked beyond gory mayhem. By the time the band signed to Relapse and released 2000’s Destroy the Opposition, many of Netherton’s lyrics raged against societal complacency rather than bayed for blood. He was hardly Bob Dylan, and you needed a lyric sheet to decipher the actual words, but a couplet such as “The bottom line is money on the Western power scene/ where celebrities and porn can let the population dream” (from “Pissing in the Mainstream”) is no less applicable today than it was 10 years ago.
Netherton’s caterwauled political/social critiques added the final piece of the enduring Dying Fetus template just as he left the band. “We were down in El Paso, sitting around the van,” Gallagher recalls, “and he was like, ‘Guys, I’ve gotta tell you something. I wanna give this up. I’m just not into this anymore.’” Netherton planned to go on to graduate school and give up music altogether.
“It was a hard hit for me, man,” Gallagher says. “So then it was like, I wanted to find someone with similar vocals to Jason.”
“Everything was really kicking into gear when I left,” Netherton says. “Offers for tours and all kinds of stuff were coming in, so I knew they were gonna keep going. John has a passion for what he does that carries through. It’s his number one thing, and I had no doubt he’d keep it going if he could.” Netherton formed Misery Index as a studio-only project in 2001, though it now keeps a recording and touring pace similar to Dying Fetus’. He and Gallagher both confirm that, despite the metal rumor mill post-split, they remain close friends.
Gallagher pressed on, touring, recruiting band members (including bassist Beasley, who joined in 2001), losing band members, replacing band members, touring more. Three years later, Dying Fetus released a new album. It was called Stop at Nothing.
John Gallagher has seen his face on a billboard. On several billboards, actually, dotted around the Indonesian city of Solo, to hype Dying Fetus’ headlining spot at the Rock in Solo Festival in September 2010. “That was pretty weird,” Gallagher says with a tight grin. “That doesn’t happen every day obviously.”
The band played for more than 5,000 screaming metalheads in Solo, one date on an Asian tour that also took it to Australia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and China. A more typical draw elsewhere, even in the States or Europe where the band’s been touring for years, might be 300 people. But Dying Fetus plays about 200 shows a year and has sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000 copies of its more recent albums, including 2009’s Descend Into Depravity. In the world of extreme metal, this constitutes outstanding success.
“That is one of the biggest little metal bands out there,” says Albert Mudrian, founding editor of U.S. metal magazine Decibel. “They’re bigger than I think a lot of people realize.”
Gallagher had worked as an electrician and done other manual labor between tours during Dying Fetus’ first decade, but says he hasn’t done anything but music since the mid-’00s. Still, he drives a modest late-model compact, not a Ferrari. “I’m living with my parents,” he says. “Trey has a job when he’s not on tour. Sean is married and his wife makes a good living. We’re not making enough in this to be living a lavish lifestyle. But I wouldn’t want to have it any other way.”
What Dying Fetus’ career lacks in fat checks and buzzworthy fame it makes up for in fairly steady checks and a well-established rep. “Some bands get bigger than us, they get a hit, but then they fall off, they’re yesterday’s news,” Gallagher says. “We have some longevity, we stay consistent, and we have a pretty loyal fan base. And there are always new kids getting turned on to us.”
In fact, Gallagher notes, teen-fashion mall chain Hot Topic recently started selling the band’s merch. “What better way to piss your parents off than a Dying Fetus shirt?” he asks with wry amusement.
The name that Gallagher says he and Nick Speleos came up with on the phone 20 years ago remains emblematic of the band in more ways than the obvious one. Like the band’s music, it is designed to shock and galvanize, to exemplify the extreme, and to appeal directly to a certain type of person. It is also designed to completely alienate everyone else.
“‘I just had a miscarriage,’” Gallagher says. “That’s when people really hate us—when they’ve had a miscarriage or something like that.” He adds that the band was once canned from a prospective appearance on The Howard Stern Show, apparently because of the name alone.
But Gallagher says he would never change the band’s name, and while he works hard to make the band’s music better, he would never adjust or soften its attack. Indeed, while it has subtly altered and improved over the years, in many respects the band has barely changed at all. Beasley, an affable 37-year-old native of Prince George’s County, not only took over Netherton’s role on bass, he eventually took over screaming out the thrash-style vocals that have served as a foil for Gallagher’s growls since the band’s earliest days. And on Descend Into Depravity, he wrote the politicized lyrics the band has hung onto since Netherton introduced them, despite the fact that Gallagher acknowledges he’s not much interested in politics and has never voted.
Beasley does vote, though he declines to divulge whom he voted for in the last presidential election Asked if fans ever want to talk politics with him, he says, “Not really,” then pauses and chuckles. “Some conspiracy people, but that’s not me.” While he acknowledges he “wants to kinda do my own thing, but especially live, doing the older songs, I try to do ’em like Jason did. People like the old songs and there’s no reason to change them because there are different members.”
After all, in the end, Dying Fetus fans are fans of, well, Dying Fetus. “Styles change, but we’ll always do what we do,” Gallagher says. “We don’t follow the trends. This band will never change its style or start getting weak. I’d rather do another project if I want to do something with other styles of music.”
“There’s usually some kind of give at some point, if you’ve been around that long,” Mudrian observes. “And they’ve definitely evolved, but [John’s] remained committed to the vision of Dying Fetus as an extreme-metal band, an underground band, a death-metal band, grindcore-influenced, with political and social leanings. Considering that the biggest band of that ilk is Napalm Death, and they’re a band that can barely headline in the States 25, 30 years after they formed, it says a lot that [Dying Fetus has] continued on that path, knowing that there’s a clear ceiling career-wise.”
Trey Williams used to work full-time as a project manager at AVI-SPL, a company that installs industrial-grade audio/video systems. A 32-year-old Montgomery County native, he came of age seeing Dying Fetus “almost every weekend” at venues like Wheaton’s Phantasmagoria or Baltimore’s Hal Daddy’s. He joined in 2007 after he caught Gallagher and Beasley’s eye while his band Covenance opened for a Dying Fetus Canadian tour.
Williams takes a break from his between-tours part-time hours at AVI-SPL to take a phone call. Asked if he’s content with the fact that the band will probably never rise above a certain level of success and notoriety, will never win a Grammy, he says, “I would have chosen a different style of music to play if I was looking for that type of career. I play the music I play ’cause I like it, and I know what kind of band we are. I know what piece of the metal pie we can carve for ourselves. I know we’re only going to appeal to the people we’re going to appeal to.”
Williams pauses, then says, “I mean, c’mon, are ya metal? Do you like playing extreme music?” He does, and that seems to settle it for him.
Beasley agrees. “All you can really do is write music you would like to hear yourself,” he says. “The rest is a crapshoot. John’s still into it—he’s enjoying it, it seems like.”
He is. Gallagher has seen his share of peers leave death metal behind, including Netherton, but often not for good. “Ex-girlfriends and ex-band members, they always come back,” he says. “People leave, but then they miss [it]. I think it’s boring just having your 9-to-5 job.”
Not that he doesn’t ponder what it means to be nearing 40 doing something that he once thought he’d be all done with at 30. “At one point, I was like, Should I stop?” he says. “And I was like, Screw that. I can’t give up yet. It’s still in my blood. To this day, it’s all I do.” He cracks a slight smirk: “I’m still in it to win it, man.”
He says he’s been diverting part of his income into savings for a house. But asked what he’ll do once the band is finally through, he says. “I’ll probably be back out there [working as an electrician], but the bad thing is I’ll be 45 and be working as an apprentice and there’ll be some 20-year-old bossing me around. Construction guys love to mess with people, and it’ll be like, ‘You’re not a rock star now.’ I can see that day coming.”
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