Interview: The Makers of Metal Evolution

With possibly one of the coolest job titles of the face of the planet, heavy metal anthropologist Sam Dunn has previously chronicled the world of heavy metal music with his Banger Films cohort Scot McFayden in the Gemini award winning Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey and in their follow-up Global Metal (as well as doing some work following Rush and Alice Cooper specifically). But when dealing with a sub-genre of music that has so many smaller sub-genres and styles within it, two movies just aren’t really enough.

Partnering with VH-1, the duo has crafted the ultimate Heavy Metal Family Tree in the 10 part documentary series Metal Evolution (out today on DVD from Alliance Films) spanning metal’s history for several episodes to start before getting into more specified questions about everything from Glam and Nu-Metal to Power Metal, Prog Rock, Thrash, Shock Rock, and the possibility that Grunge might even have some decidedly metal roots. It’s a sprawling an immensely fun journey down the rabbit hole of one of pop cultures more decidedly tawdry and primal pleasures.

With the honest and self effacing Dunn front and centre, who refuses to hide his dislike or disappointment towards certain aspects of metal culture, the series offers a great insider look for both fans and newbies alike. Dork Shelf had a chance to catch up with Dunn and McFayden in Toronto last week to talk about all things metal, and some not so metal parts of the filmmaking process.

Dork Shelf: Academically you guys have pretty much been able to carve your own path, so I guess my first earnestly nerdy question is, how do you guys feel about having one of the coolest jobs out there?

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Sam Dunn: (laughs) I like to think Iron Maiden has the coolest gig on the face of the planet.

Scot McFayden: (laughs) I mean, you kind of lose perspective sometimes. If someone had told us five, six, seven years ago that this was what we would be doing we wouldn’t have really believed it. When we were making Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey and it took five years to raise the money and you told us it would have been successful and that we would have all of these other films under our belt it would have been hard to believe. So sometimes you lose that perspective and step back and realize that it’s pretty amazing. But it’s also hard work because we have a staff now and we have to figure out what we want to do for the rest of the year and what we want to do for the following year. It becomes a real career and it just dawns on you suddenly that it’s what you’re going to be doing your entire life. (laughs)

SD: I remember Lars Ulrich said that it’s harder to stay successful than it is to become successful, and I think there’s a real element to that, especially for us because I think we’ve always been our own toughest critics and we set the bar higher for ourselves than anyone else. We probably could have done less and we might still be here, but who knows if we would be totally happy with the results? I think that it’s that challenge of what happens when your livelihood depends on your creativity and your ability to brainstorm and execute projects there comes a certain stress and pressure with that, but hey, we’re not going to complain because it’s a great thing to be doing, especially something like that that fans can directly identify with. I think that’s a real added value to what we do is knowing that we’ve connected with people with what we do. That’s nice.

DS: You kind of mapped out a little bit where this series was headed in Global Metal, but what were some of the actual logistical challenges of bringing something like this together that finds you having to deal with all of these artists’ schedules or flying all around the world to shape an entire series?

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SM: Man, there’s so many. Just the fact that scheduling and timing and getting over 300 artists together and trying to figure out when you can get them and when you can edit and trying to fit everything in together, and not everyone’s available. I think one of the first groups we called was Slayer and they said the guys were busy right now, and we we’re just, like, “What do you mean? We’re making the biggest thing on the history of metal ever!” (laughs) We thought they were going to be a sure thing. I mean, we got them eventually, but we thought after making all these films that it was going to be a no brainer, but we still had to go through the same processes on this one that we did in our previous films.

DS: I’m sure it didn’t help your case that metal bands, especially in this day and age where album sales don’t really mean a lot, make most of their income through relentless touring, which is something you guys definitely touch on.

SD: Totally, and just to take another perspective on that, I think that’s the reason why metal is doing relatively well. It’s always depended on the live abilities of the bands. Of course record sales are important to metal just like any other style of music, but I think to really be a metal band that has endurance and stamina, you have to be able to perform live. I think interestingly that the reason that we still see festivals like Dokk’em or see Iron Maiden on the road is because touring has always been a huge part of the pie for these guys. I think that’s why it’s remained hot.

DS: Was there ever a branch of metal where you felt like you needed to know more, like with Power Metal which you admittedly stated you weren’t all that familiar with?

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SM: Well, we had researchers and writers as well on this one just because of the scope of it. Certainly one of our writers was a huge Prog Metal fan, so it was difficult to not make that into a four hour episode…

DS: …which would be fitting for Prog Metal…

SM: (laughs) Exactly! I mean, Sam obviously knows a lot more specifics than I do, but in general it was a long process for all of us. With this one, even when you think you know a genre, you have to break it down and look at that in the writing. For each episode it was a question of how we would tell that story, and it’s never easy.

SD: Compared to say Headbanger’s Journey roughly seven years ago now, one of our biggest challenges was access to the artists, like we just talked about. Although it was tough to get some of the access, people know us now, so the challenge here was taking something as potentially dry as all of this history and build compelling stories out of them. Most often there would just be too much information, too many bands to consider, too many different paths to follow, and which ones to follow, and when we follow them how far do we want to go when we’re talking about something like double bass drumming or distortion or any number of nerdy details that we think are really interesting and cool, but you can’t turn it into an instructional video. (laughs) So I think, really, for the most part the scale and the scope and condensing it was the biggest writing challenge overall.

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DS: In terms of setting things up, you guys are dealing with people that can sometimes be considered as being somewhat eccentric. Did you have any strange requests or people that were difficult to deal with or anything you had to walk away from?

SD: Hmmmm… Right now I’m flashing back to Gene Simmons for the Rush documentary we did (Beyond the Lighted Stage). He walked into the room and demanded that we change our entire lighting set-up even though we had already done hundreds of interviews with the same set-up.

SM: Well, I’m thinking of someone else, but that’s also for the Alice Cooper thing we were just working on…

SD: We often get asked who were problem interviews or if any crazy things happened, and there really wasn’t a lot. The only person that stood us up in all of the hundreds of interviews was Stephen Pearcy, the lead singer for Ratt. I think it certainly didn’t do my very open anti-Glam Metal perspective any favours. I was just thinking that we were out to debunk stereotypes or to at least bring more light to the subject and it’s, like, “Fuck, this guy is totally fulfilling every stereotype that I thought of.” (laughs) I don’t think he did Glam Metal any favours on that day, but, you know, I struggle to really think of something. I think what’s really driven us to this point is that we’ve humanized metal. We tried to put a human face on something that people didn’t always consider to be human and something that people can still to some degree see as Cro-Magnon. I think that what we found in large was that these people were musicians who were fully committed to what they do, they have families. We don’t want to make metal boring, but we want to show they are real people.

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DS: When you guys are talking about the birth of American Metal early on in the series, and specifically when talking about Aerosmith, there’s an interesting point that gets brought up about how critics and connoisseurs tend to over-intellectualize things. Do you think that’s something that has led to metal having all of these different sub-genres?

SM: I mean, that’s a great question. Who created it? Was it the fans or was it ultimately something more critical.

SD: Yeah. I guess what we tried to show – and I’m not even sure if this answers your question – was that metal HAS an evolution, and I think no matter how much work we put into conveying that, the masses still think that there was this big bang in the 1980s when all of these people showed up with hairspray and spandex like it came out of nowhere, almost; that it didn’t have a history. But, then again, everything and everyone has a history, and when you look at it there’s a definite clear and connective tissue between different sounds. That’s what we tried to show.

SM: And I think also, to compare it to film, you can take something like The Exorcist, which was this explosive new thing when it came out, and then there was a whole bunch of movies that tried to copy that. I think that we noticed that within each of these subgenres that there were these bands who were doing something relatively new compared to the rest of the genre. Then people would try to do that and then it would die because too many people were trying to do the same thing. Just like anything in pop culture it all rises and falls somewhat on trends and longevity is about being able to overcome them. Some of the early bands that we found that started these subgenres were almost always the most interesting and the most successful, with a few exceptions. And with something like early US and UK metal it’s not something you can easily classify because it doesn’t really fall into any sort of sub-genre because they didn’t exist yet. It was always something almost regional and that region created its own specific sound that was unique and brave.

SD: Metal fans are the genre’s own experts, right? The musicians are fans, the fans are often musicians, and in many cases both are experts, and it just goes around and around in a circle. I think when that happens the whole community becomes involved in telling this history of this music, and I think that the sub-genres of metal are very much a product of fans caring too deeply about the music (laughs) and wanting to create their own history of this music. Even Rolling Stone, Time Magazine, People, none of them give a shit. So the fans are going to do it themselves, and really the breakdown into all of these subgenres is really a product of fan dialogue over the decades. It’s really true! It’s kind of great that there aren’t any hired intellectuals that can just sit back and tell this history of metal. Maybe that’s our job. (laughs)

DS: The show is very self-effacing and truthful towards the audience, especially when you, Samm, say that you really don’t like Glam Metal and Nu-Metal. If you had to choose one of those two to chronicle again, which would you most likely revisit?

SD: Neither. Is that an option? Actually, I think that Nu-Metal is kind of more interesting because of the roots of it and how they came from somewhere that was quite groundbreaking when we talk about bands like Rage Against the Machine and Pantera and Faith No More and the Anthrax/Public Enemy collaboration, those were bands that were dabbling in something new in combining that groove element with the heaviness of metal. That was a really important time in music, and one of my favourite lines in the whole episode and the whole series overall was that it makes known that since Led Zeppelin that the groove had kind of been lost in metal, and it wasn’t until someone said that when I realized it was true. It disappeared then, and it was brought back with those bands. So when you put it in that perspective, I think this was something that was really stretching the boundaries of metal in a new way.

DS: Which is something that Glam Metal never had…

SM: Nope. I mean, it’s great drinking music, but yeah, Nu-Metal just turned out to be something we thought was going to be a challenge, but really the early stuff and talking the roots of it became something that was hard to cut down because you have something like the Beastie Boys which we had something about but we didn’t get a chance to include, but it turned out to be a really interesting episode, even though a lot of hardcore’s might have skipped that one initially.

DS: Conversely when you start talking about Grunge and Power Metal, those were two sections that seemed to give you the most trouble because it was debatable if Grunge had any metal elements at all and because you guys knew so little about Power Metal going in.

SM: Those two were definitely the hardest of the episodes to lock. You know, Power Metal is a hard topic to make interesting because a lot of the bands are ones that people have never heard of, so you have to figure out some way to tell the story in a different way. And with Grunge, there really wasn’t  a lot of love for metal, and people’s attitude for being included in the history wasn’t the greatest. There were some people we just couldn’t get.

SD: Power Metal was very, very difficult because it’s an unusual genre because it’s a genre that’s been created retrospectively and is made up of those more obscure bands. Then again, when Deep Purple came out, they weren’t even thought of as metal, but now we call them power metal because they inspired Blind Guardian. It’s inherently backward looking, so we had to tell the story of Power Metal in a totally different way where the bulk of the episode is actually made up of pre-Power Metal bands and not the proper movement. That’s also because it’s a very European genre. In North America, the bands are often small because even in the underground here, it’s less familiar than in Europe. It was really challenging. We beat our heads against the wall for way too long on that one.

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