Florida dominated the American underground metal scene at one point, and if that place can be an epicenter of doom and gloom, then surely the Bay Area can, too. After all, we are the birthplace of the satanic church, free love, and one really creepy mortuary school. Surely we can rival a state that has given us such burnt offerings as hot boiled peanuts and the town of Celebration (population 9,500). To prove California's metal mettle, we need only consider the serial killer factor: Ours are better than Florida's, ergo we are more metal. Aileen Wuornos? Ha. Try Richard Ramirez. You say Ted Bundy was executed in Florida? Well big whoop. We have Charles Manson, and he's still alive.
In fact, according to Aesop (just Aesop), drummer for S.F. black metal band Ludicra, “San Francisco is being looked at as the new capital of metal in the United States.” High on Fire, Asunder, Impaled, Exhumed, and many more rest their mildly satanic and/or pestilent heads here. If TRL decides it's time to commercially mine metal, we could all be sitting on a fortune. And do you want to be jump-starting your Modest Mouse sound-alike when that happens? Of course you don't. It's time to start up your own metal band before the label feeding frenzy arrives.
It was with this in mind that I sat down recently with Aesop and Ludicra singer Laurie Sue Shanaman to talk about the intricacies of the metal zeitgeist in an effort to create a primer for those just starting out. Most underground metal bands have great senses of humor, even if it's not reflected in their music (intentionally), so let's peel back metal's pretentious layer of self-importance and peer into the abyss, shall we?
The first thing you need to do if you want to start a band is figure out which genre of metal you are going to dip your toe into: death or black? What's the difference, you ask? Ah, well, that is like asking the difference between a cadaver pregnant with a demon's child and a forest haunted with pedophilic Viking spirits. Like, duh.
“There's a raging controversy around these definitions,” says Aesop. We're wedged into a booth in the back of Benders on South Van Ness, drinking pitchers of beer. “Some people feel that for black metal, you have to have satanic lyrics. But for me, it's the style of music that we play.”
For starters, black metal is usually in a higher key than death metal, and the vocals are screechy, as opposed to Cookie Monster-y. Then there are the lyrics. “Death metal deals with death and gore, serial killers and whatnot,” explains Aesop. Death metal is also about, shall we say, medical malpractice, and many a crypt. Black metal is more interested in the mystic.
“Black metal is more Middle Earth,” interjects Shanaman, refilling her glass.
And, says Aesop, “Death metal is full of redneck jocks.”
Indeed, black metal is comprised mainly of nerds, ex-Dungeons & Dragons players, and sci-fi dorks who outgrew Queen. But they like to call themselves innovative. “There's more room to grow in black metal,” asserts Aesop. “It is less rigid.” Apparently so, as there is a polka black metal band, a flamenco black metal band, and even a pedophilic black metal band. What color is your parachute?
OK, now that you've figured out which side you're going to play for, you need to figure out your name. This is probably the single most important thing you can do. Not only should your name convey the message you're sending — say, “We like to cannibalize corpses,” or “We died in a sewer” — but also, regardless of the metal category, it should fit neatly across a T-shirt and be completely illegible when written out.
“We wanted to pick a name that could grow with us,” says Aesop, who chose “Ludicra” for its several different meanings. “Look at Metallica. There is no way a band that is making the music they are making now should be called that.” The members settled on “Ludicra” after doing what every burgeoning band should do: They consulted a Latin dictionary. Ludicra means “the art of drama,” and seemed to fit. “We thought it was appropriate,” says Aesop, “because there's sort of an air of female hysteria to our band: drama, catfights ….” (Ludicra is composed of two women and three men.)
So go to your nearest Latin dictionary and start skimming for a name that sounds imposing but also has meaning for you and your band.
“Medical dictionaries are good, too,” adds Shanaman. “You want to call yourself something like 'Embryonic Inhaler.'”
“Yeah,” says Aesop, “or Extreme Unction.”
“Ooh, yeah,” says Shanaman, “there is the -tion factor, very important.”
In the event that you do not own a dictionary, Latin or otherwise, here are some words we found: nidor (smell); pravus malum (evil); scelero (to pollute with blood or guilt); improbus (wickedly); voluntas (last will and testament); abutor (to use abusive language); ulciscor (to avenge); vorago (chasm, pit, abyss); acerbus (bitter, gloomy, dark); diabolas (Satan); trucida (to kill cruelly); volutbrum (filthy pigsty); demens (insane); viscus (entrails, bowels); turpis (morally corrupt).
When it comes to naming, it's probably better to combine two words, like an adjective and a noun: Acerbus Nidor or Viscus Turpis. You can also just randomly throw in the name of a badass animal, like Wolf Demens or Goatus Improbus.
Or you can just wing it. Make up your own Latin, like Gluteus Gaseus or Squamous Speculum. If you're going for a black metal vibe, use names that have satanic overtones or are magic-y in origin, like Luciferous Whiff or Chalice.
If it's death metal you're after, the name will have to be more clinical or morbid, like Stemcell Regurge or Abortigenic. Or you can straddle both genres and try combining medical with animal, like Infanteater.
Once you've named yourself, it's time to work on your look. We know, we know, it's not cool to let on that you actually pay attention to this, and frankly, all the best bands probably really don't pay attention to this, but you are new and, let's face it, not very good, so listen up. First off, don't dress like you live in your parents' basement and play Castle Wolfenstein all day. This is metal, not wood shop. You gotta put some thought into it, especially if you want to copy European black metal musicians, who aren't afraid of painting their faces black and white, wielding gigantic axes, and dressing like a human bed of nails.
“Some of my nonmetal friends will come over and look at my records,” says Aesop. “And they say, 'Man, these guys are just trying to be Kiss.' But they aren't, it's really more like kabuki — it's high art.”
Aesop says that the face paint and capes worn by many European black metal bands are a reaction to the doofus factor in death metal, the doofus factor being (and this is where the class warfare comes into play) that the stereotype of most death metal bands is that they are rednecks in sweat pants and big fat white high-tops. Hmm … so, the black metal folks are making fun of the death metal folks for looking silly? “It is an extreme reaction to it,” Aesop admits.
Which side you choose will also depend on how hard you want your kids to laugh at you when they grow up. Which is more embarrassing, a black metal picture of you with Alice Cooper's face makeup locked in an iron maiden, or a greasy-haired death metal shot of you gnawing on a limb torn from a zombie? Tough call.
Finally, there is the music itself. Despite the aesthetic differences between both sounds, an important consideration your new band needs to consider is: How good is your bass player? A death metal band has more low end, so that sucka is going to have to carry you pretty far. If you really want to impress the chicks, death metal bands are also more noodly and chop-laden.
The second musician factor to examine is: How interested is your drummer in playing the same beat over and over again extremely rapidly for 1.5 hours? If he or she is very interested, death metal is your bag. If he or she is more open to breaking time signatures, try black.
Then there is the singing: Would you rather scream for vengeance in black metal, or chew gravel with Yoda on the side of death? All of these things need to be taken into account. And here you thought this was going to be easy.
But here's good news: Songwriting can be made to sound all the more sweet when combined with choice album art. If you have a cool picture of a shotgun blast to the head for your cover (death), then all of your songs can be about suicide. Or you could go the even creepier route. “You would want a zombie or a real evil landscape that might be hell, but might not be,” says Aesop about death metal album art. “A cavernous landscape, a waterfall of blood ….”
Black metal usually reflects the myths of the countries it's from, like Norway or England. Ludicra sings about relationships and urban landscapes, “not forests or Satan,” says Shanaman. But then, you know what they say: You have to learn the rules before you can break them.
Whatever you choose, black or death, or any of the many other subgenres, metal is the wave of the future, people, and we are living in the center of it. “Hipsters and indie rockers are just now figuring it out,” says Aesop. “They used to listen to black metal and be like, 'Wow, this is crazy, this is so ironic, these guys dress up like pandas in the forest!' But now I think that some of them are realizing that the bands are really interesting musically, more interesting than 101 Pavement offshoots. And that's how it was for me, too — it was more of a morbid curiosity, like, 'Look at these freaky people.' But then the records were so good.”
So there you have it. Now go out there and create your own doom.
Nine Nuggets for Becoming More Metal
By Ross Sewage
Hello true believers. My name is Ross Sewage, and I play bass guitar in Impaled and Ludicra, two bands that are more metal than tungsten. I've been asked by the poser staff at SF Weekly to provide some advice on how you, the poserish white-belt-wearing readership of this decidedly nonmetal rag, might at least appear more metal. Here are nine of my top tips, because nine is an evil number according to The Satanic Bible. Well, that, and 666 tips are just way too many to write — I've got headbangin' to do, damn it!
No. 1: There's a fine line between metalhead and leather daddy. Never don a leather cap along with your studded armbands.
No. 2: If you can't name the first Slayer album or a member of Venom, a studded belt will not make you metal; it makes you stupid.
No. 3: Never wear eyeliner. A face full of panda-style greasepaint, however, is A-OK.
No. 4: Be sure to use the words “gay” and “faggot” to describe things or people unfavorable to you, even though you totally look gay, you faggot.
No. 5: Pointy guitars are a must. This is sure to make up for your alcohol-induced impotence.
No. 6: If someone brings up a metal band you've never heard of, just say that band sucked after its first demo. Note to hipsters and white-belts: This works for you, too. [page]
No. 7: Guys: If you're in your 30s, date someone in college. If you're in your 20s, date someone in high school. If you are 10, date a fetus.
No. 8: Girls: Date me. Hell, yeah.
No. 9: Let all your frustration and anger surface. Focus on things that matter, and feel the need to change the world. Become impassioned, confident, and realize your limitless potential. Now … grab some beers and drink away all that hogwash. You are metal.
Pop Quiz Hotshot!
By Kary St. Clair
OK, now that you've read our handy guide, test your metal fortitude with this quiz. For each item, try to figure out, is it: A) black metal; B) death metal; C) neither; or D) both.
No. 1: Sherlock Holmes
He may have been a cocaine addict, but that's really more disco then metal. Answer: C.
No. 2: The Old Testament
Black metal is all about myth. Answer: B.
No. 3: Abortion
Many a death metal band's cover has featured just such an event. Answer: B.
No. 4: Hieronymus Bosch
“Anything Renaissance or medieval is going to be black metal,” says Aesop. Answer: A.
No. 5: Chinese Water Torture
Science and psychology used to torment is definitely death metal. Answer: B.
No. 6: Homosexuality
As of yet, there is no place for gay people in metal. (Don't believe those rumors you heard about Rob Halford.) Bands can, of course, sing about Sodom till the sacrificial lambs come home, but try to tell them that butt-fucking is the antithesis of Christianity and therefore right up their sacrilegious alley, and they will kick your ass. Answer: C.
No. 7: Pawnee Indians
These guys were bloodthirsty and took a lot of scalps, which is death metal territory, but they were ancient warriors and part of the American legacy, making them black metal fodder. As of yet, no band has gone there yet. “Face it,” says Aesop, “[metal] is a bunch of white guys singing about white guys.” Answer: C.
No. 8: The Munsters
“Actually, they make me think of surf music,” says Aesop. But when push comes to shove, the Munsters are monsters, and even though they may be plucky and lovable, monsters equal death metal. Answer: B.
No. 9: The Addams Family
The Addams family had an interest in bastardized science and medicinal plant life, making them death metal. But then again, they had a mythic quality and an interest in the tango, and that spells black. Plus, adds Shanaman, “Cousin It was sort of Middle Earth.” Answer: D.
No. 10: The Golden Girls
This could really go both ways, because the ladies live in Florida (death metal!) yet they're also ancient elders (black metal!). But the tie-breaker is Betty White. Her character, Rose Nylund, is totally Scandinavian, making The Golden Girls black metal all the way. Answer: A.