Q&A: Sean Rivera of Coffin Hunters on the Lost Art of Clean Metal Vocals

Photo: Glenn Herring

Ever since Grim Reaper vocalist Steve Grimmett passed, I’ve thought about metal vocals. Why have clean vocals fallen out of favor? Will there ever be a time when clean vocals rule the roost again? True, some bands like Smoulder (featuring powerhouse Sarah Ann on vocals) do clean vocals well but most metal singers now scream and growl.  If you remember when most vocalists shot for the stratosphere and just a handful of people growled (hello Cronos and Tom Warrior) the lack of clean singing can be a bummer. Metal is big enough for both approaches but clean singing is firmly in second place. 

It was a big surprise when I first heard the classic Bay Area metal band Coffin Hunters opening a Nite-Persekutor show in Oakland earlier this winter. Frontman Sean Rivera sang clean and wonderfully, filling the entire room with his voice in Dio-Dickinson-Halford fashion. I’ll keep it simple: it was fucking great. I hadn’t heard clean singing in metal this good in a long time and was blown away by the set. Not only can Rivera belt it out but he also has a wonderful band behind him laying down a fat and powerful groove.

Decibel tracked down Rivera to talk about the art of clean singing and how he learned to sing in his car. Check out Coffin Hunters and spin their albums The Fire Knight and Wake The Dead on Bandcamp. The band is working on a third album now. More people need to hear it. 

When did you start singing?

It was something I discovered.  I’ve always been musical and I started playing guitar as a teenager. But I never wanted to be a vocalist. I enjoyed singing in my car and doing it casually. I’m reserved, so being front and center initially didn’t appeal to me. I overcame the fear of singing, mainly by singing Dio, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden in my car. Singing was always there but I was afraid to commit to it fully. I just wanted to play guitar and find a singer. But it was hard to find someone to do what I wanted. It happened out of necessity. Your voice seems more vulnerable than an instrument. An instrument is still an extension even if creativity comes from within. 

Was the idea of Coffin Hunters to showcase your voice or did the voice work for the material?

I started a three-piece band. The guys in Coffin Hunters saw it, liked my voice, and reached out. The way I sing stylistically worked.

You mentioned it’s different when your instrument is your voice. Moving on is easy if you hit a bad note on your instrument. If you sing a bad note, you feel exposed. 

I agree. Going to something else is hard when you sing a bad note.  The audience will hear it naked and out in front. They will probably know it’s a sour note. That can hit you like you are the sour note. When I play guitar and mess up, I will move on. It’s easy to go to the next note and everything is fine. When I mess up vocally, I internalize it. 

Singing has become a bit of a lost art in metal. Why do we hear great singing less? Has metal moved forward or is clean singing just harder?

A lot of it is style. I love extreme vocals and it takes so much talent. I’m not great at doing them (extreme vocals); learning to do it right is an art. Extreme vocals have become associated more with the sound of metal. But Sabbath set the template for metal with clean vocals. Then Judas Priest and Maiden came along. All the early stuff was clean singing and sometimes operatic vocals. Everyone tried to emulate that for a long time and it was the concept of metal almost throughout the 80s. As metal got even heavier with black and death metal and metal became about pushing the envelope, the vocals changed with more screaming. Now it’s most of what you hear. It’s not a surprise it went in that direction because things got heavier and heavier to the point where clean vocals seemed too light.  

Is metal missing something with less clean singing or do you need to look for bands with great clean vocals?

There is room for more clean vocals. You can search around and find great bands that do great clean vocals. I don’t see why there is any reason the two can’t coexist.  The Sabbath and Priest sounds have this ethereal quality that aligns with the power that metal was after. The spark that started metal had soaring vocals. It’s a shame not to hear it as much because it’s so rooted in metal. It (clean singing) has taken a back seat to the point where you think of extreme vocals when you think of metal.

Did you have any issues initially with pitch or could you find your comfort zone quickly?

I’ve grown as a singer, but finding pitch and my range was fairly easy. I’ve become better at it. There is always room for improvement and there are times when things are pitchy or it’s hard to hit higher notes. The proper technique helps a lot with those things. I just practiced a lot in the car to classic metal singers and they were always soaring through the stratosphere. I tried to capture that sound and push my voice. There are so many resources available now to get better at singing. Vocal coaches are great but can be expensive. You can go online and get vocal tips. It’s a great resource that didn’t exist in the past.  

Are you more comfortable singing in a higher register?

I can also sing as a baritone. My speaking voice is baritone but I sing in a tenor range. I’ve just practiced singing a lot in that (higher) range. I like singing in the range and I think I can convey more emotion with my voice. 

Did you collectively decide that your voice out front works or did that come with time? This music is vocally driven. 

It evolved naturally when we were writing songs. My voice started going front and center and it became vocal and melody-driven. When we were mixing albums, we wanted to have the vocals up and front so I guess there was a conscious decision to showcase my voice.

Did you ever work with a voice teacher or have any vocal instruction?

I’m self-taught. The only coaching I had was looking at Internet videos when I felt stuck or wanted to improve my technique. I’d look at YouTube vocal coaches to try to get better. I emulated what I heard from other singers and tried to duplicate it.

When people kick around names like Halford and Dio when they talk about your voice you are in heady company. What do you think of these comparisons?

I’m flattered and honored to be compared to those singers, especially since they are my vocal heroes.  It feels good.  It shows that all of those years singing in the car have paid off (laughs). 

What is your favorite song from each of those artists and why?

Oh, wow. For Judas Priest, it might be “The Sentinel.” It’s so metal and driving and has a killer chorus and Rob hits those highs at the end. The guitar work is also great. It’s a very well-constructed song that makes you feel like you’re going to battle. For Dio, it might be “Don’t Talk To Strangers.” It has that clean intro with Dio’s lighter vocals. Dio has great range in that song and it’s very emotive and the lyrics work. Dio’s work in Rainbow is also phenomenal. For Maiden, it’s “2 Minutes to Midnight.” 

Did you like Paul Di’Anno as well?

Paul Di’Anno is good too although it’s a different style. Those early Maiden albums are killer. Bruce Dickinson took them in some other directions and I love his voice. Di’Anno has a different style, a bit more aggressive. 

Di’Anno was more street and Dickinson more theatre.

Totally. Dickinson has this soaring voice and DiAnno is like “we’re going to get into a fight.” 

How do you want to continue to grow?

We’re working on a new album. With every album, we evolve. The first album had some more thrash elements. The latest album Wake The Dead has more of a 70s feel. I’m playing the keyboard on the next one to add to the 70s Deep Purple vibes. We might even bring back a thrash element. We want to keep changing but stay true to that traditional metal sound. As a vocalist, I’d like to keep perfecting my craft. There is always room to improve my voice, get more endurance, and find easier ways to hit all the notes. I want to be a stronger vocalist all around. 

What would you tell someone who asked how to start singing? Only some are willing to learn it all on their own with a little help from YouTube. 

If someone wants to do clean vocals, I’d say listen to the bands you like and listen closely to the vocalists you aspire to be like. You will find your sound eventually but it’s a great idea to emulate sounds you like. If the only place to practice is your room, do it. Take any opportunity you have to sing. The more you do it the easier it gets and the more progress you’ll see. You can be as loud as you want in your car and anyone who sees you will only see you for a few seconds. Take every opportunity you have to sing. Maybe even try to write some lyrics and poetry and get fascinated by the written language. It will all come together.