As longhaired narrator Sam Dunn introduces “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey,” he proudly proclaims that he grew up a metalhead. First, it was Iron Maiden, Motley Crue, and Van Halen. Soon, however, his nervous system had acclimated to these relatively light-alloy bands. At the jaded, callous age of thirteen, Dunn required something heavier to clear the ol’ auditory canals. Suddenly, Slayer was all the rage. Eventually, Cannibal Corpse became his muse.
Dunn loves metal music, and makes no bones about it. But he’s painfully aware that this extreme style of sound is society’s ugly stepchild, locked in the dank, musty basement of pop culture. Quite astutely, this Victoria, BC – bred Canuck confirms that metal is occasionally embraced by commercialism. Its marketability will wax and wane, depending on how fashionable the genre is at any given time. But even when it’s selling, one senses that this is based around some mercenary, fat-cat executive’s decision to grudgingly cash in. Do people in the music business really have an emotional connection to metal?
Who knows? But one thing’s for sure. Dunn and other hardcore enthusiasts will wave the genre’s battered, tattered flag during the hungry periods, keeping it afloat.
And I can relate. Like Dunn, I was – and am – a headbanger. As I get older, with family obligations in tow, I try to grow up. But if growing up means sacrificing enthusiasm and the joy of living life to its fullest, count me out. “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey” captures the ironclad spirit of an underground army assembling in full, “Braveheart”-caliber force. Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler once told me, “Even as you get older, you have to find a way to let the kid out.” I concur. Metal lets the kid out.
“Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey” has plenty to gawk at. There’s wart-encrusted Motorhead man Lemmy Kilmister, reminiscing about growing up in a town so grim, boring, and depressing that neighbors assembled around the central phone booth for social gatherings. “That was the only light in the whole village,” he explains.
You have ex- Rainbow, Elf, and Black Sabbath singer Ronnie James Dio humbly admitting that he did not invent the devil’s horn sign flashed by millions of metallists during concerts – he only perfected it and made it important. “Gene Simmons will say he invented it,” jokes Dio with one of many playful jabs at the Kiss bassist. “Then again, Gene invented breathing and shoes.”
You have Mark Morton of “new generation” metal band Lamb of God explaining, “The root of all rock and roll is in the blues. It’s enslaved music. The guitar is an African instrument. That’s where it all started.” Legendary Kerrang! Magazine writer Malcolm Dome expands on this overview of metal’s origins, calling blue music in America “an oppressed music.”
Alongside its impressive black carpet of musicians, “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey” also asks musicologists, sociologists, and one-time groupies for their perspectives. The tritone – or diminished fit – is cited as the magic formula that makes metal sound evil. Meanwhile, longtime hard-rock producer Bob Ezrin gives us some historical data, explaining that classical music composer Richard Wagner added an utra-low end “octa-bass” to his orchestra that required two musicians. “One guy fingered it,” explains Ezrin, “and one guy played the bow. (Wagner) just loaded down the bottom end of his orchestra. The rafters shook, there was so much bass.”
Would Wagner be a heavy metal virtuoso if he had lived during contemporary times? Dome certainly thinks so. “He’d probably be in Deep Purple. Beethoven probably would have been in Led Zeppelin.”
To me, however, the most integrity-laden scene in “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey” comes early, when Dunn’s school days are compiled in a visual collage of yearbook photos. Inscribed amidst geeky junior high pics are logos of Dunn’s favorite bands. Name me a true metal fan who didn’t engage in this telltale form of graffiti, and I’ll eat my leather jacket and studded wristbands.
After dialing Dunn’s number from the Puget Sound area, I was lulled into lethargy by a lengthy dial tone. Abruptly, a Toronto-based voice identified itself as “Banger Productions.” For the next hour, Dunn and “Metal” co-producer Scot McFayden explained the cranium-imploding process behind their epic tribute to headbangers everywhere.
KJ: At the beginning of “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey,” I noticed that Sam explained his upbringing in Victoria, B.C. I immediately thought of what most people probably associate the town with – Butchart Gardens.
Sam: You’ve got it. Victoria in a nutshell right there. Nice gardens and old people.
KJ: When you were growing up in the “metal stronghold” of Victoria, how did you acquire metal?
Sam: With great difficulty. There was one independently run record shop in my hometown. You could order vinyl on import. The only other way to get more obscure, extreme metal was through tape trading. Pen pals, or different people who had demo tapes. That was really how I got most of that music at that time. Or you could write to the record labels and ask for copies of the records. Luckily, I had my radio show, so I got a lot of stuff for free. It was called “Overkill” and it was handed over to me by a guy about ten years older than me. I didn’t know what I was doing, but it was fun.
KJ: You got into the genre really early. By 11 or 12, weren’t you already into Iron Maiden, Motley Crue and Van Halen?
Sam: Yeah. I was even younger than that when I first got into the more accessible stuff. At the time, metal was on the radio – the pop, glam-metal stuff like Twisted Sister and Motley Crue. When I was 12 or 13, I started to discover bands who weren’t on the mainstream radar, like Slayer and Metallica.
KJ: Did the “Overkill” Radio Show go beyond Victoria and reach metal fans in Seattle or Port Angeles?
Sam: No. It barely made it over the hill. It was rumored than there was more wattage in your average toaster than in the entire radio station. As long as you had a good supply of tin foil, you might be able to pick up the show.
KJ: Did both of you meet up in Victoria?
Scot: No. We met later. We’ve been good friend for about thirteen years now. Growing up, I was not a metalhead. I was more into the indie rock scene. But Sam’s always been into the metal scene, and been my “metal friend” (laughter).
KJ: Did you suggest the film, or did Sam initially bring up the concept of “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey?”
Scot: I suggested the film. I met Sam in Toronto, producing soundtracks. Sam came to get his Master’s Degree. We would go to a lot of concerts together. I was doing the soundtrack for a cool Canadian film called “Ginger Snaps.” We were going to a lot of shows together, and Sam would talk about wanting to do a book on heavy metal. Going to those concerts opened my eyes, and erased my stereotypes about what metal was. I was pretty shocked by how alive and vibrant the scene was.
KJ: It sounds like he won you over, despite your initial misconceptions about the genre.
Scot: I think that’s what we wanted to do with the film, as well. The combination of Sam being a total insider, and me. I wanted to make the film entertaining even for people who weren’t into heavy metal.
KJ: We live in a very cynical age, with people questioning documentary films about their authenticity. But in “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey,” there’s a sense that Sam absolutely loves and lives what he’s talking about. It’s refreshing to see that.
Sam: I think you’re right. I think we’re in an age where people are starved for authenticity. I think that’s actually a huge reason why not only myself, but most people, are drawn to metal. It gives people something that feels authentic. It feels real. It feels, at least comparatively, a little less tainted by the brush of commercialism. Of course, at various points metal has been highly commercially successful music. No doubt about it. But the music, the feeling of it, and what it represents for people, is something very real.
Scot: I had to persuade Sam to be the film’s narrator (laughter). He was kind of reluctant. But it was fun to capture his enjoyment, without him fully being aware of it at times (laughter).
KJ: Sam mentioned something late in the movie, in terms of metal’s mainstream support coming and going over the last 35 years. Even so, it’s kept alive by the core of fans who create fanzines, and helm college radio shows and record labels. Were there any icons of the indie scene who really impressed you?
Sam: I always really admired those people who started the metal-specific record labels. People like Brian Slagel of Metal Blade Records, and Monte Conner from Roadrunner. They put this music out, because that was the only way to put the music out. They had to do it. They took the risk to start these labels, and get them going.
KJ: In one scene, you photograph several vintage magazines, like “Metal Forces.” Did you ever meet (legendary British headbanger) Bernard Doe?
Sam: Bernard is really hard to track down. I did get in touch with Dave Reynolds, who worked with him. “Metal Forces” is a great example of a fanzine where it was really the only place to expose us – in Victoria – to a world that was really hard to get information about. Of course, now we have the Internet, but back then, photocopied fanzines were the only way to get info about the bands you were interested in.
KJ: There was another one called “Aardschok,” out of Holland…
Sam: Yeah. In fact, as far as I know, “Aardschok” is the first all metal-specific magazine ever made. It even precedes “Kerrang!” (all-metal mag from the UK)
KJ: Did you have your own metal band in Victoria?
Sam: I’ve played in several bands growing up, and started some fledgling metal bands back in the day. I have a band now. Playing the music has always been part of it, for me.
KJ: When you’re setting up interviews with some legend like Alice Cooper, how do you locate them, and persuade them to participate in your project?
Scot: I don’t recommend it. It’s one of the more difficult parts of making the film. We wrote letters. A membership in Pollstar gets you contacts for all management companies. Early on, we had some support from Iron Maiden’s manager, Rod Smallwood. Very early on, he got what we were trying to do, and showed his support. Actually, he just called yesterday. At one point, he said, “Just write the letters, and I’ll send them.” Once we started doing interviews, and people started realizing what we were trying to do, they would refer us to other people. Bob Ezrin, for instance, suggested that we approach Rage Against the Machine.
Sam: There’s one way to do it, and that’s the hard way (laughter)!
KJ: Were there any performers who disappointed you, in terms of being reluctant to appear?
Sam: We were lucky to get a good breadth of metal artists. We wanted to be comprehensive, and at least touch on the different styles of metal, and different artists who were prominent in different periods of metal’s history. We had a rather unfortunate incident with Sharon Osbourne, however. We were planning to interview a number of bands touring with Ozzfest. We thought the best strategy would be to call the individual managers for the bands. We didn’t really have any interest in filming at Ozzfest. We just wanted to meet up with bands on tour buses, on the way. Sharon got wind of it, and assumed that we were presuming to film at Ozzfest without asking her first, which is really not what we were intending. Unfortunately, she kind of shut us down as a result. We had really wanted to interview Ozzy…
KJ: But you did get guitarist Tony Iommi (Osbourne’s ex-bandmate from Black Sabbath).
Sam: A lot of people admire Tony, not only because of his playing, but also because of his personality. He’s a very humble person. I feel he speaks very honestly about his music.
Scot: We had some trouble with Judas Priest’s management. They didn’t understand what we were doing. We sent them the film, because at one point we did have a Judas Priest track in it. They were unhappy about the way we presented Judas Priest. They said that it wasn’t a gay band. I said, that’s not what we were trying to say. We were just showing one part of it (gay frontman Rob Halford).
KJ: Did you ever hear from Metallica (who have little screen time in the film)?
Sam: Yeah. We definitely contacted Metallica early on, and were interested in doing an interview with them. After all, they are one of the biggest metal bands of all time, if not the biggest. It was just a matter of timing. They had just completed “Some Kind of Monster,” and spent two years with cameras in their faces. The last thing they wanted was to have another camera crew pop in for an interview. Their words were, “We are all documentaried-out.” We were really pleased that we included (Metallica song) “Master of Puppets” at the end. We sent the film to them, and they really liked it. So even though Metallica aren’t there in the flesh, we feel like we have their stamp of approval.
KJ: How did you secure the licensing for so many songs? Is it a complicated process to obtain the rights to this material?
Scot: Yeah. I worked as a music supervisor for four or five years. If I had not done that before, I’m not sure we could have pulled it off. It’s very difficult, with a lot of contracts, and negotiations involved. We spent $300,000 dollars for world rights. If it were a feature film, we would have spent two million dollars. My biggest suggestion to other people trying this is to hire a music supervisor. They can negotiate for you. You’ll pay more if you go straight to the labels yourself. We actually finished the film using the songs we wanted, then sent (artists) the copies, in hopes that they would like the way we used their material.
KJ: “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey” is a handsomely shot visual rollercoaster ride. How do you afford a project like this?
Scot: It was $1.3 million for the film. We’re lucky in Canada, because we had a broadcast deal. We have something called the Canadian Television fund, which matches the broadcast funds. There are also tax credits that we have in Canada. That gets you close to half your budget. We had an international sale to Sanctuary Records at one point. A long story. We ended up buying it back. Seville Pictures pre-sold it to Warner Brothers before we were done, and gave us an advance on international sales. It was pretty tight. There’s no formula for it.
KJ: I asked about setting up interviews with prominent people, like Alice Cooper. On the other end of the spectrum, how did you unearth the obscure Norwegian black metal bands, like Gorogoth?
Sam: Well, I really like a lot of those bands. My tastes in metal gravitate toward the more extreme styles. I knew a lot of those bands. In the case of the Norwegian bands, we felt that we wanted to look at the church burnings that happened in the early nineties, because we were exploring religion and Satanism in metal. We wanted to include that in the film. There’s a fairly well known book called “Lords of Chaos,” about that scene. I read it cover to cover a few times, and found it really fascinating. It was partly the combination of that, and just knowledge of the types of bands out there. Like Arch Enemy, with Angela Gossow (vocalist), a woman who has really carved out her identity in metal.
KJ: You mentioned in the films that the church-burnings associated with Norway can be more attributed to cultural factors concerning religion in that country than to metal theatrics. From an anthropological and historical standpoint, can you explain why Christianity and Norway don’t always seem to jibe?
Sam: It’s good that you ask, because for our DVD – which is gonna be a two-disc set – we actually created a separate documentary that’s about thirty minutes long. It specifically asks, “Why Norway?” It looks at the black metal scene, and asks why it comes from this relatively safe, comfy, wealthy country in Europe. In a nutshell, I think it’s important to remember that Christianity came to Norway quite late, compared to many other European countries. Prior to Christianity, there was a very well entrenched way of life built around Pagan, folkloric beliefs and Norse Mythology. It was already there. And in some cases, Christianity came and quite violently wiped that out. I think we were struck by the fact that even though this happened a thousand years ago, this is part of Norwegian society that kids grow up learning about in school. They develop their own opinions about it. In the case of the metal bands, they’re using the music to express their own beliefs about Christianity, and about spirituality, in their culture. We went back to Norway to show our film at the Bergen International Film Festival. We filmed one of our Q & A’s, from a rock and metal bar. We filmed some reactions from fans. This will go on the DVD.
Scot: Gaahl from the band Gorgoroth was in the audience. He said, “I really think you captured the essence of what I was trying to say.” Then he bought us flaming absinthe.
KJ: There was one confrontation in the film that you attributed to “beer and interviews” being a “bad combination,” when the band Mayhem began swearing at you. Do you think that was because they were really inebriated, or are they always like that?
Sam: I think probably a bit of both. They were really amped, coming offstage after performing in front of 40,000 people. You don’t see the thirty-person crew behind me, watching the interview. You’re interviewing a performer performing. He’s still putting on a show. Mayhem are also notorious for being embroiled in controversy, especially Necrobutcher, the guy who goes off in the film. Some people call him the Lemmy of Norway.
KJ: Do you see any correlation between your Master’s thesis on Guatemalan Refugees, and your love of metal music?
Sam: On the surface, they appear to be as far apart as you could possibly imagine. I suppose the one piece that translates across those two, for me, was the interest in gender and masculinity. In my thesis, I examined hyper-masculine cultures, and looked at the whole notion of machismo, and where that comes from historically. How it’s changed over time. And “Metal” also examines a masculine culture. So there was definitely some crossover there.
Posted on June 6, 2006 in Interviews by KJ Doughton
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