It’s always an honour to speak with a person who has been a role model and inspires me in more ways than one, and to have had the opportunity to connect with none other than Mallika Sundaramurthy is one that I am eternally grateful for. Known for her unbelievably fierce vocal abilities and being a strong female presence in the metal scene, Mallika of Abnormality fame has been a significant member of the metal scene in the United States and now in Europe for close to two decades. Hailing originally from Massachusetts, she has dedicated most of her life to art in some form, being both a professional visual artist as well as a touring and professional musician. Currently, Mallika is the vocalist for Abnormality, Castator and Nidorous, truly bringing the brutality to the genre of brutal death metal. It was a pleasure spending some time getting to know her story, learning about her experiences and talking about her journey through the years as a woman in the metal scene.
Being of Indian descent, we connected instantly on our origins, a shared city of familial origin and how in touch she is with that side of her roots. She spoke excitedly at the thought of bringing her bands to India some day as well as how varied the scenes are in the States and in India. Allowing my fangirl wave to momentarily pass, it was truly wonderful to hear another side of Mallika - one that is less guttural.
“I love India, it’s part of my roots and heritage, something that’s important for me to stay in touch with, as well as getting to know that side of my father’s family. I have all of my father's family in India. He’s from a place just outside Chennai and my mother is American but of British descent. I’ve always had a very supportive family and it has been a dream of mine to play in India for a long time. I’ve only visited three times and once was for my sister’s wedding so I would love to go back!”
“I’ve been trying to get my band over there. But the guys have mixed feelings about it. They really want to as well but they’re not ready to do it because they’re not entirely sure and unfortunately, there isn’t a ton of money in the industry there to fly the band over there. The only way we can is if we invested in our plane tickets. I think it’s more doable if we did a whole Asia tour just so we can make up the money. But it’s something that I dream of! I’ve been keeping in touch with the scene over there, I’m friends with some great musicians, I recorded a track with the band Gutslit a few years ago. It’s an exciting scene over there, very reminiscent of early death metal in the 90’s. You have big crowds and big festivals but it’s quite different in the States in that we have a better smaller scene and shows. It’s great to talk to the musicians there though; understanding all the different struggles and realities but the music ties us all together worldwide which is cool.”
The struggle truly is real in the industry on a good day, but especially now during a global health crisis affecting the businesses, opportunities and lives of many that keep it alive and it hasn't been a walk in the park for Mallika’s businesses either. Owning two horror movie themed bars in Prague, Czech Republic as well as running an underground label has been a trying time but she remains positive nonetheless.
“You’re right, it has been difficult. My husband Serge and I own a couple of bars and they were shut down for three months. So there was no income and a lot of expenses and eventually we had to close down one of the bars. We’re glad we were able to hold out with one and save it which opened a few weeks ago. We had a lot of support from our family and friends which we’re very grateful for and that’s helped to keep it going even while tourism is down .It’s really hard and I’m sure there will be a recession to follow but we’re hanging on as best as we can!”
As is the case with bands all over the world, the bands on Mallika’s label ‘Ultimate Massacre Productions’ have also had changes made to their planned releases and she explained how a lot of thought has gone into rethinking ways in which to continue helping bands even during this time.
“The label is another collaboration I’m doing with my husband and we’ve been doing it since 2015. He started it in 2012 and had only released one album when I met him so it’s something that we’ve built together. Now we have about 9 bands on our roster. It’s fun to see the music industry from the other side and to help other bands, build their fanbase, using both of our experiences to help them. We sign bands worldwide; we’ve got bands that I’m friends with from the States that we’ve signed and bands from different countries in Europe that we met on tour and we have one band from Mexico.We’re not limited. Given the current situation, things have definitely changed, we’ve had to rethink when we’re releasing things and bands aren’t able to tour at the moment so that affects everyone too. Album sales are another thing, so we’ve delayed some of our releases but we’re already working on the next release which will hopefully be out in the fall so hopefully that band will be able to have, at least a CD release show.”
Mallika and her husband Serge who plays in the death metal bands Epicardiectomy and Fleshbomb have also embarked on a new project along with a drummer friend of theirs called Nidorous, an aptly chosen name if you ask me because an awful, rotting stench of decaying animal matter is probably one way you could describe the sound of this new project. Or at the very least it’s what the music reminds you of.
“Since I live in the Czech Republic with my husband Serge, I’ve been missing my band, playing shows, practicing and singing. So we just started Nidorous for fun. When I’d get together with Abnormality, I’d fly to the US a month before the tour so we’d have time to practice and things but it’s so different now. When I lived there, we’d practice every week, twice a week sometimes, so it was a big shift when I moved over here. For now it’s just a recording project with my husband and our friend who is the drummer and who is also in Epicardiectomy. We don’t have live show plans, not to rule that out because it can happen in the future but for now we just wanted to have some fun, write some music and I get to play together with my husband which is great.”
Reality has really hit the lives of many and hard, and it isn’t the easiest time. However, it is important to stay focused on the positives and good memories of the past. Having been a fan of Abnormality since 2015 when I came across the band through a random German guy at Hellfest who pointed at my Cryptopsy shirt and said ‘check these guys out!’, not only did I become a diehard fan of Mallika’s vocal prowess and presence on stage but the sheer energy the band brought. Delving a little into Abnormality’s history, we talked about how things were when they released their first album ‘Contaminating The Hive Mind’ in 2012, the atmosphere at the time and how things have changed since then.
“That’s such a great story! Thanks random German guy! We love Cryptopsy, they’re such a great band and one of our biggest influences so that definitely makes sense that he recommended us, that’s really cool. 2012 feels like so long ago, but it was definitely a turning point for the band, things got more serious and we got a lot of exposure from our debut album. Then we started touring more, we did our first coast to coast US tour, we played Las Vegas Deathfest, it was a fun time getting out there and playing that album live. The response was great too, it was just the beginning of what was to come for the band.”
It was around this time too that while the brutal death metallers had been signed to Metal Blade, Mallika made the difficult decision of moving continents too. But this had little effect on the band's ability to consistently put out music that was a bludgeoning riff fest.
“People loved our music and things were leading up to the second album ‘Mechanisms of Omniscience’ with Metal Blade which was when I met Serge and soon after decided to move to Europe to be with him. It definitely created some challenges for the band but I guess I’m up for a challenge. That being said, it definitely was a big change for Abnormality, we’re a tight-knit group and they didn’t like that I was leaving. I had to reassure them that everything would be fine with the band. We stuck to our original plans with Metal Blade, I flew back and forth from Europe to the US, they saw that I was committed to the band. But it wasn’t easy. Now we have to have a lot of conversations online, on skype because of technology it’s possible to still do it. I even used my other band with all women, Castrator as an example since we had been making it work somehow. We’ve managed to keep that going because me and the other musicians think it’s important to bring up the issues and struggles of women over the years into our music. We’ve stayed in touch even though we all live in different countries.”
“So yeah we made it happen, we did some heavy touring with ‘Mechanisms of Omniscience’ , got some huge opportunities, playing with Suffocation, Soulfly, Napalm Death, The Black Dahlia Murder, that was a big year for us. Right after that was when we started writing for our third album ‘Sociopathic Constructs’. That was the first album we did from a distance, so we were sharing files, they were still rehearsing, I was writing lyrics here. That’s just how we made it work, and it works if you’re dedicated and put your mind to it.”
While all of Abnormality’s albums are enough to rattle your brains right out of your skull, ‘Sociopathic Constructs’ sees the band brutalising their music even more, with Mallika’s vocal range seemingly even more diverse but also bringing in some straight up old school influences into the mix.
“Musically and lyrically, there are different sources of inspiration for sure. Jay, the drummer and I, write all the lyrics and a lot of the times in our conversations, it’s about what’s going on in the world so that’s largely what the music is based on. Things like the pedophilia coming out of Hollywood, different socio-political aspects from the States and around the world. Musically, we’re always listening to different things and sharing it with each other, not just metal but also I think a large part of our evolution has something to do with the fact that we’ve had a couple of different guitarists in the band, bringing their own style."
“Our current lead guitarist Sam who has been with us since 2016; he joined when we had already written most of the second album so ‘Sociopathic Constructs’ is Sam’s debut album with us in terms of writing. He wrote a lot of the songs on this one. Jeremy, our other guitarist has been with the band since the very beginning so there’s some of the same sounds with Jeremy.The foundational members are still the same but the lead guitarist has changed so the new album still sounds like us but has that something added on because of the new guitarist.”
That story isn’t complete yet. Five years later, the love and respect I had for her increased when Obscene Extreme posted footage of Abnormality’s set at the 2019 edition of the festival with her performing a full set, while pregnant. If ever there was a superwoman amongst us, it’s 100% Mallika Sundaramurthy.
“Around May last year is when we released ‘Sociopathic Constructs’ followed by a European Tour in the summer and we had this tour planned before I got pregnant and Obscene Extreme was already locked in place. I had been dreaming of playing the festival for ages as well - I had been there as a fan and with my label but I really wanted to play so when the opportunity came about, it was around the same time I found out I was pregnant. I was so excited but a little bummed because I was looking forward to touring.”
“So I talked to my doctor and asked if I can do just the festival and she said it would be fine as long as I didn’t do anything crazy! Definitely no stage diving, haha. But touring was out of the question - who knows what kind of hospital I’d be in if I had complications on the road! It was great and wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be, I could breathe fine while I was on stage. There were nerves, for me it was more nervous excitement but my husband was very nervous and insisted on being on the side of the stage prepared to jump in if necessary! The fans were super respectful though and it was just such a fun time. I highly recommend Obscene Extreme if you haven’t been there yet - you get the craziest, most diverse crowd of any European festival and it is honestly just the best vibe!”
While the world has slowed down, especially for touring artists such as Mallika, the death metal vocalist is focusing on a new aspect of her life, motherhood. Expressing my sheer joy at the thought of her gorgeous little daughter growing up with metal all around her, Mallika was excited at the thought of sharing her passion for heavy music with the little one. Parenting done right!
“She’s growing up with metal around her. Around the time I performed at Obscene Extreme when I was pregnant was about the same time I recorded the new Nidorous demo and that was interesting; she’s heard it all in the womb. We usually play heavy metal for her, maybe something softer with the vocals but when we do play death metal, she’s used to it. She definitely likes music because we see her react to it. I think she’s destined to be a musician or at least a fan of music, knowing her parents. It runs in the blood!”
And runs through her blood it does. Mallika lives for a life of heavy music and art having been involved in the metal scene and a very dedicated vocalist from the time she was in high school. Forming her very first band during college, she recalls how it was back then, the support she got from her family and how her music career eventually started.
“My parents were and have always been supportive of any career my siblings and I chose so I was lucky that way. I mean, my parents didn’t really get the metal thing like many others, they just scratched their heads. I remember my dad even said to me once when I was starting out, ‘why don’t you sing nice, you have a beautiful voice, what's with the screaming’. Everybody sings nice is what I tried to explain to him - this is exciting, challenging and different. Eventually he got it when he saw I was taking it seriously and when my band started succeeding he started to brag about my band! He’s not a traditional indian father at all, he’s more open minded and was always supportive, even when I wanted to go to art school.”
Although times have changed, it is known that a lot of Indian families are quite conservative given the country’s cultural customs and background too. Many Indians in the scene, especially women can relate and while it can be a difficult part of life to navigate through, Mallika throws light on patience being an important virtue and that parents, at the end of the day, just want what's best for their children.
“I had been doing some music stuff in high school but it was during college that I started my first band. There were downsides to my parents' ways too but I take the positives; they encouraged me a lot and that's important. Having a lot of indian friends and seeing the way their parents were, especially when it comes to things like arranged marriages or career choice, it comes from a place of parents wanting the best for their children. So to anyone reading this, know that it is coming from a loving place, try not to get too upset with them. My parents were easy going, but maybe a little too easy going sometimes. Parents have good and bad sides too, take them as they are. They’re doing parenting the way they know how from their experience - they're just people like us. And now as a parent myself - I feel more empathy for them.”
There were various points in our long conversation where I felt so connected to this incredible woman in so many different ways - one of which was being passionate about more than just one thing in life. Not only is Mallika one of the fiercest death metal vocalists in the scene, she is also an artist and visual artist, a businesswoman, a label manager, a mother and more. Declaring that she was superwoman in my eyes, Mallika revealed how important it was to her to follow her heart but how it’s not an easy path to choose.
“I’m not going to lie to you, it’s really hard sometimes. Trying to balance my personal life, my musician life and my professional career and finding the time to do everything is difficult. The term I heard coined for this is a multi-passionate entrepreneur - I have passion for so many different things so I find the time to do it. I’ve never limited myself and my husband is the same; he’s also artistic, musical and business-minded and we support each other in following different pursuits. I’ve been married once before this and divorced - it was messy and I didn’t have that support in the past so to have a partner who is so supportive and understanding now is really nice. It’s really important to me. “
In all her fields of expertise and work, Mallika has been a prominent figure and deeply involved for the last 15 or more years and I wondered out aloud to her as to how she ended up being a woman of many talents and what advice she would give to people on the same path.
“It’s not really a conscious choice; there are things I’m curious about that make me want to pursue them, there’s things I need to do and then things I want to do and so I do them. Being lucky enough to have the right contacts and getting the right opportunities to do different things; like being in the video game industry after art school. I worked with Harmonix, who did the Rock Band video games which coincidentally saw Abnormality’s music on the second edition. My visual art was an early career that helped support me financially and so I have that art career to fall back on before music took off. I do think if I had focused on one of my passions instead of a few of them then I might have gone further in that one thing but I like to to think that each passion of mine has inspired the other. Art and music are very similar in that they are creative outlets so if I’m feeling burnt out on one, I have the other to work on. I can’t really picture not doing the things that I am now.”
“If I were to give advice to a younger person right now, it’s good to have one main focus and get it to a really professional serious point and have a career in place before you put too much time, money and energy into your other pursuits. It helps being more stable. You only have one life so if you’re passionate about something you should go for it but if you can balance your time in a way you have your career where you’re supported financially you can work on your passions the rest of the time. It does depend on the society you're from - it’s not really supported to do so many side hustles. But don't let other people's expectations limit you.”
Another thing we shared was our mutual vegan philosophies of doing it for the animals and the environment, it was wonderful to hear her thoughts on veganism and how she manages while touring and traveling.
“As you know in India, vegetarianism is very common and I was exposed to it from an early age. My mother is vegetarian, and veganism is something I discovered through my best friend who I met in sixth grade. I was vegetarian until then but after I met her I thought I’d try veganism because of her. So, that was 1994? That’s when I started Veganism! It wasn’t as widespread then, and there weren't as many options back then. I did a lot of cooking myself back then but the world is really changing for us vegans now and it’s easier than ever.”
“I love exploring new places, new worlds, and have always loved travelling. Anytime I could, I was always flying somewhere new and wanted to know more about different cultures and languages. That comes from being in a multicultural family too, having your mind open to the world and wanting to experience different things. So I love finding vegan food in all the places I visit which I share on my Instagram account. I would definitely encourage people to try it, I’m glad it’s catching on. I did it for the animals but then also discovered how much of a healthier life it is and keep learning new reasons everyday to do it. My secret power is definitely veganism, it’s why I can do what I do! I care so much about animals and the environment and that’s why I chose to do it. It’s really the way to live a good life, have good karma as it’s said in Hinduism and Buddhism, and advance your soul, live in harmony with nature. There’s a reason for it.”
With many years of experience being one of few women in the metal scene, Mallika expressed how it isn’t easy being a woman in metal and the important things to remember when you are.
“We’re still outnumbered and that’s the difference. It’s hard when you’re one of the only females and most people treat you differently. It can get hard because sometimes when you do speak up there’s a backlash but people are paying more attention and it’s getting much better now and things will really change once there’s more women in the scene. It’s nice when the guys treat you like one of them but sometimes you’re like ‘I’m not a man!’ haha, we have different experiences. I’ve always had a good time with my bands and I do my best to support other women in metal and It’s hard especially because it’s not a black or white issue. Being a women in metal can help you stand out and get some exposure but then there’s a lot of challenges that we have to face such as discrimination and sexism but you’ve just got to keep going.”
Inspired to no end in the hour that we spoke by everything she had said, I asked Mallika, as a strong role model for me personally as well as for women in the world of metal to share some wisdom and advice.
“Speak up for yourself if someone is disrespecting you, keep strong boundaries with people around you. Build solid relationships with the people around you but with other female musicians, reach out to other women, support each other. If you’re in a band, choose a band with men who are respectful of you and what you do, ready to make you feel safe and if you’re not, find a new band! Surround yourself with like-minded people, good mentors and supportive people. Women have been a part of the scene since the beginning and we’re equally important.”
Sociopathic Constructs is available on Bandcamp now. Check it out here.