THE BLACK DAHLIA MURDER Speak About Loss, Grief and Continuing Their Career
Photos by Shimon Karmel
Death changes worlds, especially when it arrives early or unexpectedly. Trevor Strnad’s death at 41 was both early and unexpected. The Black Dahlia Murder frontman had been open about his struggles with mental illness, but, in conversation with close friends, hinted that his struggles were in the past. With the worst of the pandemic in the rearview, the Black Dahlia Murder were ready to start working again and finally get on the road to support their 2020 album Verminous. Tours were planned and there was talk of recording. Everyone in the band was thrilled to return to doing what they love after two years of enforced solitude.
The news on May 11, that Strnad had taken his own life, stopped everything. In addition to the mammoth personal loss of a longtime friend, it left the band members with one crucial question: Where do we go from here? What do we do with our lives? The Black Dahlia Murder’s members don’t have side jobs or tour a few weeks a year; they are full-time musicians who make their living on the road. The band is, for better and worse, their life.
Here’s the bottom line: The Black Dahlia Murder will continue as a working band. Guitarist and co-founder Brian Eschbach will move to vocalist and be replaced on guitar by Ryan Knight, who left the band amicably in 2016. Guitarist Brandon Ellis, drummer Alan Cassidy and bassist Max Lavelle will keep their spots. All the band members say that Eschbach’s move is the only way forward; Eschbach has been with the band since the beginning in Oak Park, MI in 2001, and honed the group’s identity. Inserting an outsider as frontman would never work because of the band’s close-knit, almost familial ethic.
“We spent many days thinking things like, ‘Is this over?’” Eschbach tells Decibel. “None of us wanted it to be over. We still feel like there is a lot left to do. I know Trevor would keep this band going if I went down a deep, dark path and weren’t here. It’s bigger than us. When we finally started talking about it, we thought, ‘Let’s remake it from within and see if Ryan wants to return. And I’ll take a crack on the vocals and see how it goes.’ I can’t go out there and do Trevor’s voice or try to be him. I can only execute the music of the Black Dahlia Murder with respect and try to do it the most justice I can. I’ve heard Trevor perform more than anyone else alive.”
Knight says the decision to return was easy despite the difficult circumstances. “The time I’ve spent with this band is the best time I’ve ever had,” he says. “Being away has given me a lot of time to reflect, and it always occurred to me that being in BDM is the best use of my time. I’ve thought a lot about the band while I was away and realized how much value this band has. I almost feel like I let some opportunities slip, being away from the band. So, it feels great to be back and like everything has come full circle. I’ve realized how much I love being in this band.”
Replacing Strnad—who was no mere frontman—does present challenges. Strnad was a once-in-a-generation metal talent who related with fans personally (more on that below). In addition, he’d been Dahlia’s chief spokesman and messenger for the entirety of his two-plus decades in the band. He was usually the person out front in interviews when the band promoted new albums. During the pandemic, he kept the group’s name in circulation through podcasts, web conferences, interviews and more. He even took viewers inside his apartment and showed off his massive death metal T-shirt collection. Despite Strnad’s ubiquity, many people helped shape BDM’s music, vision and career, chief among them Eschbach. Eschbach had been a stalwart through several lineup changes, not to mention during the band’s ascent to the upper tier of the metal club circuit.
Social media allows anyone to second-guess or criticize a band’s plans. Even when you replace Strnad with the heart and soul of the band, criticism is inevitable. “Of course, it won’t be easy, but BDM is a family,” says E.J. Johantgen, the Black Dahlia Murder’s longtime manager. “Once you’re in, you’re in. There’s no replacing Trevor, but Brian is as much BDM as Trevor. They started the band and worked hand-and-glove to drive the band to where it is today. They are keeping it in-house, which is the only way forward. If you’ve seen a BDM show, you know who Brian is and what he can do. Ryan is an important part of the band’s journey, too. I’m excited about their future.”
Ellis, who joined BDM in 2016 after Knight’s departure, said he was initially worried the band would end. The band members couldn’t even have a conversation about their future because their emotions were so raw. “We were dealing with everything that happened, not the future,” Ellis says. “The prospect of getting on the stage with a stranger and having someone else become the face of the band after nine albums didn’t seem to work. Trevor was the public face of the band. To put someone else in that place would not have worked. It wasn’t even a consideration. Brian called me and asked what I thought about the future. I loved working with everyone in the band. I told him it wasn’t a good idea to replace Trevor. I wondered if it might need to be another band. But I thought we needed to continue.”
“This band is all about freedom of expression,” Cassidy says. “We’re playing exactly the kind of music we want to play. We want to be who we want to be without hiding anything. We are goofy people and don’t need to be anything we’re not. We don’t need to be super serious or write things we think people care about. This is just pure self-expression. That’s what I love about this band. If you watch DVDs, you will see a bunch of guys who are unapologetically themselves. I never feel like I have to put on a show. To be able to play heavy music and not even worry about the mainstream means so much to me. [With these changes] we’ll be able to continue doing what we love.”
When Eschbach told Ellis he planned to move to frontman, it was a proverbial light bulb moment. If anything would work, Ellis says, it was Eschbach as frontman. “It was the only way it could work,” he asserts. “Brian has been the president and mastermind of the band from the beginning. He’s our leader. For him to take over as the face and frontman of the band is the only option. We are all so thankful that there is a path that seems to make sense. Because if we don’t continue this band, all of this music and all of these songs—everything we worked on with Trevor for over 21 years—just goes away. That didn’t seem like an option. This is the only way forward that is authentic, respectful and genuine. We have five guys that are and have been the Black Dahlia Murder. No one on the planet knows this band like Brian.”
Arriving at this decision, however, was not easy. Each band member had to navigate their grief during the reconfiguration. During a lengthy roundtable interview, Decibel talked to all five members of the Black Dahlia Murder. In their first and only interviews on Strnad’s passing and their decision to continue, the band shared everything they went through and why continuing with Eschbach up front was the only choice. The good news: There are many more horrible nights to have a curse in our future. “I’ve said this to Brian before, but this band is the best family I’ve ever had,” Lavelle says. “Everything feels right with everyone here. I have a real sense of purpose. We’re on the same mission.”
“HE TRIED TO FIND SOMETHING THAT WORKED”
Almost everyone remembers where they were when tragedy strikes. Ask someone who was around during the September 11, 2001 terror attacks and they’ll tell you the precise moment they heard the news that planes crashed into the Twin Towers. Similarly, the Black Dahlia Murder’s members can remember what they were doing the morning of May 11, 2022. Eschbach got a call from Strnad’s sister. Cassidy was just getting up. Ellis was in Los Angeles working on a video shoot. Knight got a call from a former tour manager. None of them could believe that their jovial frontman was gone.
Eschbach says he never expected to get that phone call because he knew how hard Strnad worked to address his mental health issues. “Trevor was pretty open about struggling with his mental health for some years,” Eschbach says. “I know that he tried a lot of things, and he’d paid a lot of different people and tried a lot of different prescriptions. He tried to find something that worked for him. When he talked about his struggles with me, he talked about it like it was something he had gone through recently and had been at a dark point. I didn’t have an idea of how bad things were. The pandemic exacerbated and amplified everything people were dealing with in their lives. There is no way that people not being able to live their lives didn’t impact everyone.”
“When he told me that Trevor was gone, I was just in such disbelief and shock,” Cassidy explains. “I kept thinking back to the text messages I received. I thought [Brian’s] call was about the tour on deck. From his wording, I thought Trevor was missing or in critical condition or something. It took me like five or 10 minutes to process it. It was so surreal and heartbreaking. I felt the pain, but I also felt like I was crying at nothing because I didn’t even believe it.”
Ellis was in Los Angeles and had just finished a video shoot for a guitar company, playing one of the Black Dahlia Murder’s songs. Eschbach asked if he was sitting down and said, ‘Trevor is gone.’ “At first, I thought [Trevor] was missing,” Ellis recalls. “I couldn’t even understand. I understood it, but I couldn’t believe it. It was almost like I disassociated. At this point, it’s still like I can’t believe this even though I know it’s true. It just doesn’t register that he is gone and I’ll never see the guy again. I was on a flight home crying and trying to come up with some words. We tried to take care of everything and arrange it so we could honor him. After that, we met up in Atlanta, where he was living, and tried to take care of his personal affairs.
“During the pandemic, a lot of people experienced depression or had negative feelings,” Ellis adds. “Having our careers taken away from us the past few years affected everyone. There were a lot of times I was feeling down [during the height of the pandemic], and I’d see that Trevor did a podcast or an interview that was an hour long. I would always listen to the whole thing. Hearing how he talked about us and the band always lifted me. It reminded me of who I was and what I was supposed to do—that we are one of the most kickass metal bands out there. I wish I knew he was struggling and could have raised his spirits as he did for me so many times. He was a larger-than-life character that always made everyone else feel good.”
While most metal fans wouldn’t consider the Black Dahlia Murder a legacy band—their oldest members are in their early 40s—they have a long career and a deep catalog. Many fans first discovered them during childhood in the ’00s and have grown up with the band. The members knew Strnad’s death would deeply impact their lifelong fans, and that attachment became clear in the hours and days after his passing, as social media feeds filled with tributes to the frontman. One, in particular, stuck with Cassidy.
“After a gig, Trevor walked through the crowd and a guy grabbed his hand and high-fived him,” he offers. “He told [Trevor] it was a great set. Trevor said, ‘Let’s get shots.’ They went and had some drinks. This guy said Trevor just treated him, a random fan, like he was a friend. He had never talked to or met Trevor. But Trevor pulled him aside and then made him feel special. He always gave fans the time of day. He befriended so many people who have stories of getting to hang out with him. I always knew Trevor would sign anything for a fan. But after he passed, I was reminded of all the other things he did to make people feel special. He went out of his way to make that connection. There were so many of those stories. He was much more involved with the fans and more of a friend to the fans than I ever realized.”
Ellis says Strnad’s “superpower” was his ability to make people feel seen. “People felt like, ‘This guy sees who I am and we are friends forever now,’” he explains. “The next time he saw them, he would remember exactly who they were and what they talked about. People just felt this intense connection to him. When one of your friends dies, you go through all of these things in your head. I wondered if I was more like Trevor if he would still be around. Maybe he would have known how appreciated he was. You always hear people saying, ‘Check on your friends,’ or ‘Tell people you love them.’ Everyone just goes back to their life. I’ve learned something from this and will forever be a different person. Everyone needs to realize life is fragile. Your friends might be struggling, and you might not even know it or understand it. But you can still help. If there is any way that this tragedy can help move forward, it’s understanding that this guy was such a positive force in people’s lives and uplifted people’s lives. But even he was struggling.”
In the days after Strnad’s passing, many tributes were published—both on websites and in comment sections. However, some sites ran pieces speculating on the cause of Strnad’s passing or even the state of his relationships. The band members say that tributes far outnumbered clickbait, but still found the tabloid approach to Strnad’s death distressing, especially when it came from within the metal community.
“Ninety-nine percent seemed to be love and positivity and sharing stories about Trevor and the time they met him,” Ellis says. “Beyond that, people trying to read into things based on social media posts or make a narrative out of someone else’s life is disrespectful.”
“The furthest I will go is to say that some outlets want to post as many stories as possible after a tragedy,” Eschbach adds. “They are pulling up stuff from years ago trying to cultivate clicks. Some of it is distasteful, especially when you’re in it.”
“EVERYBODY KNOWS WHAT THIS BAND SHOULD BE”
It’s not uncommon for bands to replace frontpeople, and many do it seamlessly. But replacing the public face of a band and a universally beloved vocalist is a trickier proposition. For many fans, a band’s identity is inextricably linked to whoever is at the microphone. Still, some bands manage to make a change and continue—if not go on to greater success—after such losses. The death of Bon Scott floored hard rock legends AC/DC, but the band soared to even greater commercial heights with Brian Johnson on Back in Black, an album of mourning that strangely became a party staple. Joy Division lost its visionary frontman and lyricist Ian Curtis to suicide and ascended to worldwide popularity as New Order, with guitarist Bernard Sumner assuming vocal duties.
It’s hard to find a similar situation in metal, but there are a few. Power Trip frontman Riley Gale died in 2021 from a fentanyl overdose; the band has hinted that they plan to continue but provided few specifics. Chester Bennington, vocalist of the enormously popular nü-metal act Linkin Park, ended his life in 2017. The band never replaced him or recorded new material, and it seems unlikely that they will return under the same name.
Steve Waksman, a music professor at Smith College and author of the upcoming book Live Music in America, says a band’s relationship with its fans ultimately determines whether replacing a frontman is successful. “AC/DC is a good example,” Waksman explains. “You would think Bon Scott was irreplaceable because he brought so much of his voice into play. Was it that Brian [Johnson] was so good that he overshadowed the baggage? I think it’s more than when a frontperson dies, the fans have an investment in seeing a band continue. I was a kid when Bon Scott died, and I was a fan, and I certainly didn’t want them to quit. [Guitarist] Angus [Young] was also a huge personality, and people are drawn to him. At the same time, I remember when [Led Zeppelin drummer] John Bonham died, and he wasn’t even the singer and Led Zeppelin decided not to continue. That also seemed like the right decision, and it was easy for people to let go of Zeppelin because they’d been around.”
What makes it a challenge is that a frontperson is a singular presence and that most fans identify with a vocalist first and foremost. “It’s not always easy even when you have the same people involved to hold on to an identity a band has established,” Waksman says. “The frontman defines the relationship bands have with the audience because the voice is what we respond to most strongly. Metal fans also think the best bands are defined by their vocalist. A vocalist brings their whole being into what they do, and fans strongly identify with that person. So, when you bring someone in—even from within the band—to be the new frontman, it can work, but there will be a process of redefining the band.
“Bands should be allowed to continue when someone is taken prematurely,” Waksman adds. “It’s about the strength of the connection. A lot will depend on how [the band] acknowledge the loss and justify continuing, especially with social media providing a powerful way to communicate with the fans.”
Metal Blade Records founder and CEO Brian Slagel, who signed BDM in 2002, says the band is up for the challenge. He also says he knows the switch can work. “Trevor was a one-of-a-kind person on many levels. So, there are some difficulties because there are so many things he brought to the table,” Slagel reasons. “But the Black Dahlia Murder are all such good guys and have always been a people’s band. I think they will find a path to continue that. Strangely enough, we went through a similar situation when [GWAR frontman] Dave Brockie passed away. As everyone knows, Michael Bishop came back [as a new character Blothar the Berserker] and they are going strong. I remember now from the early days of GWAR that Bishop spoke even more than Oderus, and he was able to jump back in and continue. I hope this is a similar situation. This has not been done often, but there are occasions when this works. I feel good about this, and I know Brian [Eschbach] is putting his heart and soul into it.”
The surviving members of BDM say none of them could envision a future without Strnad, yet none wanted to stop making music together. One thing was certain: If they were to have a new vocalist, it couldn’t be someone from outside the band family. The first step was Eschbach calling Knight and asking if he’d return to his old job. It wasn’t a tough decision.
“I didn’t even need to think about it,” Knight says. “I never wanted to leave in the first place, but there were other things I needed to do then. It was an easy decision to come back. Honestly, coming back was always in the back of my mind. I thought it would be cool if the opportunity came up and I was in a place where I could do it. The way it happened sucks, and I would never have dreamed it would be this way. But I am grateful to be back. Before that, I was going through scenarios and couldn’t imagine anyone replacing Trevor. It irked me to even think about it. But when Brian said he was taking the spot, I said that was the way to do it. I’ve been gone for six years, and when I got in, it was full speed ahead. It was like almost no time had passed.”
When you make globally popular music, you will encounter opinions about everything you do. The BDM say they’ve heard every conceivable comment about new members and albums, and they won’t overthink choice words in comment sections or social media. “I know we’re going to encounter criticism. But I think all of us agree this is the right decision, especially bringing Ryan Knight back into the band,” Ellis says. “The people who love us and buy our albums—the majority—will be excited we are continuing it into the future with this lineup. As the guy who replaced Ryan Knight, I remember many people saying, ‘Bring Ryan Knight back.’ At least they were honest. [Laughs] But I look at it this way: We now have three guitarists and three prolific songwriters. There is a lot to look forward to with the five of us. We’ve all made music together, so it feels familiar. And people already know Brian’s voice.”
“I don’t think we could make any move that wouldn’t upset some group of people, whether it was getting a new vocalist, moving Brian to vocals or anything,” Cassidy adds. “But we’re adding an ex-member back to the band. Ryan knows what Dahlia is. We don’t have a new vocalist who has to figure out how to fit in with us. We’ll just continue to do what we do. We’ve all been working together a long time, and the consistency and overall feel will be there. That keeps the cohesion of the band together. Everyone knows what this band should be like.”
Another bonus: The band won’t need to find out six months into a relationship with a new vocalist that he doesn’t want to tour or isn’t into metal. “We aren’t going to need to find out that someone sucks way after the fact,” Cassidy says, laughing. “We don’t need to find out that this isn’t the group someone wants to be with or what they want to be doing. We all know we want to be here and have the same goals. We all know how to keep this sounding the right way. We won’t need to fight with some weird direction change someone wants to take. It just feels right, like Ryan said. It’s full steam again. We’ve been doing this for a long time, and it all makes sense. We can carry on without even needing any discussions.”
A RISING TIDE LIFTS ALL BOATS
One of Strnad’s missions in life was to introduce the world to new metal music and bands. There are countless videos of him showing off obscure death metal CDs or going record shopping. All the band members say that part of the reason they will continue is to carry on that mission and help new bands get the break they deserve. But first, it’s back to business. The Black Dahlia Murder will play a hometown show in Detroit on October 28. Once that’s done, they’ll see where things stand with the pandemic and consider some tours in 2023. There is already talk of writing new music. The band will record a few demos and share digital skeletons. They won’t record until they are all in the same room. But after everything they’ve been through, there is a plan to be a viable band and steps to move forward.
One thing that won’t change is their approach; BDM will stick with the same aesthetic they’ve had since the turn of the century. The style and delivery of the lyrics will change—Strand could weave stories like they were out of 1950s EC horror comics. But there will be no changes in themes or topics; personal and global horror and terror are still on the menu.
“I don’t have any doubts about what we’re doing,” Eschbach says. “We are making the best out of a shitty, horrible situation. We are the people to do it. It’s always a challenge to write a new album, but it will be a different challenge this time to keep this legacy alive without Trevor. We aren’t going to start writing a bunch of political songs. In the early days, we would always talk about horror comics. We wanted to tell dark and scary stories. That was the foundation of it, and will stay the same. [Second-guessing] is going to happen. We’re a big band. Some people will reject it just hearing about it, but this is just something we have to do. This is us, and we can’t stop it. If that bums them out, well, that bums us out, too. But we can’t stop doing it.”
There are also plans to adopt Strnad’s “help bands achieve what we did” ethic. It won’t be easy—Strnad was so good at spotting talent that Slagel once asked him if he’d consider working in A&R. (Strnad declined, saying he could do more as an influential frontman.) The band members say they can work together with similar goals. “Have you heard the saying, ‘A rising tide lifts all boats?’” Cassidy asks. “Trevor always thought that the more extreme stuff he could get out there, the more people would care, and the more we could do what we love in a larger fashion. It popularized this music and got more people into stuff they had never heard or thought they would like. I love that we were this band that helped all these people that never heard of this music become fans.”
“We’ve all loved being in this band,” Ellis says. “When we get to do it, it just feels natural. There are things Trevor would do that he’d consider his duty, not even as the frontman of our band, but as someone with influence. It was always about uplifting young and new bands. He’d always keep his ear to the ground and give new bands opportunities. So, we will still take out new and extreme bands who haven’t had the exposure they deserve. It will take a cumulative effort from all of us to continue this, because he was the king of it. But this band has always been the sum of its parts. There is no hierarchy. We are five partners. Like Alan says, there is always freedom. Freedom is almost part of the mission. People need to feel like they can be themselves. I remember when I joined this band and it was time to write an album. I didn’t feel like I needed to change. It was like what I did naturally was now part of this band. So, we need to carry on this tradition. There are so many bands that don’t carry on like we do, like a democracy.”
Slagel says the Black Dahlia Murder once held contests where they’d try to find a band Strnad hadn’t heard before. The five remaining members, he says, are just committed to scene-building as their late frontman. “It’s one of the amazing things about Black Dahlia,” Slagel explains. “When a band like BDM unearths a band and gives them a platform, it helps the scene. I am guilty of hearing new bands and telling people about them, but Black Dahlia has been at the forefront of this and will continue. I’m hoping everyone will give them a chance. I know this will be difficult, but they are doing this for the right reasons and from the heart. The BDM fans have always been incredible, and that will not change. I hope everyone can have an open mind.”
Ellis says that, even after tragedy, the band realizes how fortunate they are to contribute to something larger than any of them. “This band must carry on, and this is the way to do it,” he says. “The only thing we could do in the wake of this tragedy that honors and respects Trevor’s legacy is what we’re doing. It would almost be disrespectful to let this fizzle out. Trevor wouldn’t want that, and anyone who is a fan of us wouldn’t want it. This is what must be done.”
“I’ve spent the last 21 years of my life doing whatever it took to keep this band going anywhere and everywhere,” Eschbach says. “This band is the right people writing music that reaches people. This band is our purpose.”
This story appears in the November 2022 (No. 217) edition of Decibel, which can be ordered here.