Story by Andrew Bonazelli
Brian Slagel, Founder and CEO of Metal Blade Records
John Darnielle, Decibel contributor and frontman of popular indie rock act the Mountain Goats
Keith Abrahamsson, Founder, Kemado Records, which has released the self-titled debut from the Sword and the Invaders metal compilation this year
Kory Grow, Decibel contributor, Music Editor of CMJ New Music Report
Joe Gross, Decibel contributor, Pop Music Critic of Austin American Statesman
It was so much simpler 20 years ago. Thrash was more or less thrash, death metal was more or less death metal, and the slovenly longhair scumbags who gave a shit were, for the most part, not self-aware. Cue a few decades of hybridization, evolution and irony, and while there have been no reports of anybody getting punched out and/or laid as a direct result of rocking a DFA1979 hoodie, “hipster metal” is the connotatively impaired buzz-phrase on the extreme community’s lips. Like some crippling, cheesy virus concocted by Stephen King, its origin, definition, and implications are unclear. Thankfully, we at dB World HQ have many esteemed colleagues with way too much time on their hands to sort it all out.
Gross: This all sort of depends on what you mean by the word “hipster.”
Darnielle: I don’t think there is such a thing as a hipster. I’m not blaming you, because that is the subject; I’m not blaming anybody. I’m just saying that I think it’s a weird name. I feel like a person using the word “hipster” is using it mainly to announce, “I know what a hipster is.” I mean, it’s my own personal shtick, but I’m just getting that out.
Gross: I think there are a couple ideas at play and I come at this from—there’s an old Sonic Youth song called “Non-Metal Dude Wearing Metal Tee,” but at the same time, there are always metal bands that are authentically metal bands that appeal to audiences that metal fans might try and beat up. I mean I would think that if you’re looking at the long-term idea of this—a great example of a band that I think fits into this is Motörhead, because they were a band that was totally cool for punks to like, absolutely without question a metal band. I literally don’t know anybody who doesn’t like at least one or two Motörhead songs. And you can’t say that for something like Morbid Angel on one end or Coheed and Cambria on the other.
Abrahamsson: I think there are a lot of bands that tread those lines, though, like the punk rock, hardcore and metal bands like Corrosion of Conformity. I think with hipster metal, which I hate by the way, I hate that that term was even coined…
Darnielle: Are there bands that you consider hipster metal that you hate because that’s what they are?
Abrahamsson: Absolutely not. When I think of what hipster metal encompasses, I feel like people might be taking a real stand that’s not over substance or something like that. I think that any band that might be categorized as hipster metal these days, I feel like they’re really solid songwriters but I think the craftsmanship is what I find the most engaging about these [new] bands. It’s not heavy for the sake of being heavy. It’s heavy, but the song is there.
Grow: When I listen to a band like Wolfmother, I think more White Stripes than I think Black Sabbath, which they always seem to be compared with.
Darnielle: I hear that White Stripes/Wolfmother thing—they’re huge there in Australia; they just count as a rock band over there. I always feel like when I hear hipster metal, I assume we’re talking about Southern Lord, because that’s who is getting all the ink now. I feel like all that’s happening is the same sort of thing that happened with rap around ’98-‘99. The indie rock people—many of whom get jobs writing, especially for middle and mainstream outlets like, you know, eventually the New York Times and Harp—the indie rock kids sort of got tired of their own little ghetto and they start branching out. They start listening to a little metal, but they sort of want to describe the metal in terms that makes it part of their shtick instead of its own universe. Their mode is sort of the gateway drug to that. It seems a little intellectual sometimes.
Slagel: The hipster kids are writers—the indie rock people—they’re no longer going, “Oh, metal. Behemoth, they’re horrible!” So now all of a sudden some of these really cool bands are really good and those people are getting into [them], but I think it’s more a validation of the people, especially like the indie rock people—the writers and stuff. They kind of validate it; “Well, it’s part of hipster metal so that means it’s going to be cool for us to listen to.”
Darnielle: I think that’s a temporary thing. It’s like they do that while they’re getting comfortable with the music. I know for me when I was like 19 or so, I’d listen to the Birthday Party and goth-y stuff. Then I got really interested in Celtic Frost, so that was my first big metal show and then I could justify seeing Megadeth and so forth. I feel like that’s what’s going on with the indie folks; they’re trying to ease into metal, but they don’t want to start by listening to guys who they’re afraid of.
Slagel: As a metal guy, if that’s the gateway for them start listening to Unearth, As I Lay Dying and Killswitch, I’m all for it. [Laughs]
Abrahamsson: I think if that is the definition of hipster metal, then it’s more palatable and easier for indie kids or whoever to get into metal and maybe go out and buy Slayer records.
Slagel: I have a question for you, Keith: I love the Sword, amazing band. To me, they’re sort of just a metal band. I don’t think they cross a lot of different boundaries. I kinda feel bad that they’re getting this mark a little bit too. What’s your feeling as a label guy in terms of how you look at this? Obviously every band just wants to be a band, they don’t want to be categorized, but in some ways you kinda have to do that. Do you look at them as a metal band or a rock band?
Abrahamsson: Absolutely a heavy metal band. That’s how I’ve looked at it from the first second I heard them. I mean, yeah, it’s definitely something that wasn’t what people expected from the output of Kemado. I grew up on metal and that’s kind of the bottom line. I just want to put shit out that I like.
Slagel: By the way, in case you don’t know this already, Lars from Metallica is a huge Sword fan. He loves them.
Gross: The Sword’s drummer is a little better. That comment will further my status as the false metal guy.
Darnielle: When it comes down to their scene, metal fans are purists. They don’t want outside attention. Any time there’s any band that can make any noise outside of that circle, they’re going to brand them as poseurs, false metal, or hipster metal.
Grow: We’re talking about two things here. First off, we were talking about the Sonic Youth t-shirt. I always thought that a hipster is someone that will sort of enjoy it for ironic purposes. I was at the Sunn0))) concert where the guy from Nachtmystium denounced the crowd as “Nigel hipsters.” There was a guy in the audience that was like “Oh yeah, woo-hoo! Black metal! Come on, people.” And the guy from Nachtmystium was basically like, “Fuck you, you Nigel hipsters. We’re not doing this for that.”
Darnielle: My long-standing shtick is that ironic appreciation is actual appreciation, but it’s hesitant. It’s sort of wanting to maybe dip their toe in, but in the event that the whole subculture goes “What the fuck are you talking about? We don’t listen to polka,” they can go “Ah-ha, I was just kidding.” As a culture all indie rock people sort of gradually are like, “I like this metal, but it’s intelligent metal, but they’re kind of our people” and this and that. Ironic appreciation is one of those ways of not having to do what is a very scary thing. Most people who grew up metal will acknowledge that if you decided you were going to fucking wear your cut-off jeans and vest and put fucking Iron Maiden on the back of your jacket, you were going to get clowned, right?
Gross: When I was a kid, I was scared shitless of the guys in, like, C.O.C. shirts. But at the same time, I loved those sounds. I loved the music for the music. The fans scared the crap out of me.
Darnielle: That was why I used to wear a shirt and tie to my metal shows, because then they would just assume I was a label rep and leave me alone.
Gross: I wore a suit to a hip-hop show once and it totally worked.
Darnielle: I did the same thing! The guy started busting rhymes at me out of nowhere. He just walks up to me and starts giving me his flow.
Abrahamsson: This is kind of interesting that you guys are talking about the fashion angle of this thing. I recently read an article that suggested that hipster metal bands are more concerned with what they’re wearing and I just found that hilarious. More than almost any other scene, heavy metal has always been about a uniform.
Slagel: When you think fashion you’re completely right. I do the same thing. I go, “What cool metal shirt am I going to wear today?” But it’s not like we’re trying to impress anybody other than on a level of like, “Hey, we think this band is cool so we’re going to wear this t-shirt.” We’ve gotta wear the right shoes, the right pants, the right shirt—whether we wear jeans or shorts, we’re going to put a cool band shirt on. It is true that people have to think somewhat about what they’re wearing, but they’re also not trying to spend a lot of time dressing a certain part, which is certainly more apropos to so many other genres of music out there.
Abrahamsson: There are definitely bands out there right now that take the idol worshipping a little too far.
Gross: The Sword are not one of them.
Abrahamsson: Definitely not. They’re regular dudes.
Darnielle: Metal has always been—or if not always, most of the time—a very forward-looking genre. The whole explosion of metal in the late ’80s/early ’90s was bands who were trying to do something nobody had done before, to try to make music that you hadn’t heard, to be more extreme, more out, and harder to get. I think some of the bands that people would call hipster metal are the ones who actually take the older stuff and give a spin on something that has already been through its rise and fall. With doom stuff, that was something that’s been around for 20-something years, right? So it’s already existed, so doing something postmodern with it and re-contextualizing, you will hear a so-called hipster metal band doing shit that nobody’s heard before.
Grow: Something I wanted to add before we get too far away from the topic: I’m looking at the Invaders comp right now. It reminded in a way of the Yes New York comp that came out a few years back, which is kind of like the same cover found in the No New York comp of the early ’80s. Was the purpose to capture the same zeitgeist that Metal Massacre was? Was that the idea behind that?
Abrahamsson: That was part of it. I really respect what Brian did with those comps in the early ’80s. I’m not comparing what’s happening now in any way or comparing bands to those bands, but I just felt like there was something there that needed to be documented. I guess it was mainly something I thought that there seemed to be a really great crop of newer bands and not even newer bands, bands that had been around, obviously Matt Pike and High on Fire. It just seemed like a good time to document that stuff.
Grow: Speaking of promotions, I remember that the Sword was working with a metal/rock publicist and mainstream agency Girlie Action, which really doesn’t do metal stuff. They’re mostly indie rock.
Abrahamsson: When I met with the Sword and when we decided to work together, it was like, “All right, you guys are a heavy metal band. I think you guys have potential to go somewhere else too.” These songs can absolutely exist and be big within the metal scene, but I feel like they could maybe transcend that and also go somewhere else. I think that they really liked that idea too. They didn’t really want to be pigeonholed, which is why they didn’t sign with Relapse.
Darnielle: Which, by the way, is fucking great. I think if bands start insisting on sticking in their own little neighborhoods and refuse to branch out, then the scene dies.
Slagel: I agree 100% with that. I love seeing these boundaries be broken. We were really lucky to be involved with marketing on Faith No More’s The Real Thing record. It was really great at that time because that record really broke so many boundaries. Before that, if you listened to Slayer, you couldn’t listen to Queensrÿche or vice versa. That really bummed me out because I loved all those bands and I hated to see things so microscopic that you could only be into one thing. We try to do that on our end too. I think that’s awesome. The more people that get involved in this thing, the better it is for everybody.
Darnielle: If I can ask a question, maybe I’m alone on this, but I expect I’m not: When you find out that the indie people are starting to attach themselves to one of the metal bands you already liked, do you not feel bummed out?
Slagel: I guess it depends on which indie person is it.
Darnielle: When you watch Boris, do you not go, “Oh, the Boris party is over?” I think it’s a weird feeling because I come from an indie rock background—my band is an indie rock band on 4AD—and I know that the indie rock bands sign and they all get mad paid and they’re going to be making more money and we should be happy for them, but there’s always this vibe in the indie community of “Well, there goes the neighborhood.”
Slagel: As soon as the major labels get involved, we’re all dead unless it’s really done the right way. The indies can kinda control that. That’s what happened with metal in the ’80s. As soon as the majors started getting involved and putting tons of money behind the bands, then they get a great review in The New York Times. As soon as that happens, you’re dead. Your parents go, “Oh, Johnny look at this, there’s this band you like that has a good review in The New York Times.” Then it’s over.
Gross: I’m not completely convinced that music works that way right now. A very smart friend of mine recently said signing to a major label in 2006 is like joining the Japanese navy in 1946.
Darnielle: We like to say that, but it is a fact that the major label is going to give the band enough money to stay on the road. They will advance them. It may be against recoupable. They may never actually recoup, but in the meanwhile they will all quit their day jobs and be on the road and their profile will rise.
Gross: That’s absolutely correct. But at the same time, I think two bands that are going to be a very interesting test of this [theory] this year are Lamb of God and Mastodon.
Slagel: But if you look at the last Lamb of God record and virtually Sony is a mess right now, that’s certainly not going to help Lamb of God. I mean, that last record would have sold the same amount of records if they had been on Prosthetic than they would through Sony. My whole thing about the majors—because indies are so good now and there are great indie alliances, even Tooth & Nail… what they’ve done is really great—indies can do so well and you can get a band who can really sell 300,000 to 500,000 copies on indie distribution.
Grow: I recently interviewed Mastodon and put them on the cover of my indie rock magazine. They’re a little nervous about being on a major but they seem to think it’s the right thing for where they are. They couldn’t do any more being on an independent.
Darnielle: But the thing is with indie rock, you reach a certain level where you either have to sign or agree to die a slow death. You reach as high as you’re going to go in that neighborhood. Otherwise you’re just going to watch diminishing returns and wonder why.
Grow: I also want to say at the same time, speaking about the hipster culture, with my experience here, the people that have been writing about metal have been honestly into it and I myself am a longtime metal fan. I’ve been raving about Mastodon since their earliest stuff, so it doesn’t seem like that strange of a move to put them on the cover.
Gross: Well, I think Mastodon are at a really interesting stage. Would anybody here consider them hipster metal?
Abrahamsson: I wouldn’t think so. I think they came before this whole movement.
Gross: I agree that they were around before this somewhat unfortunate label, but at the same time, hipsters like them. At any Austin show after Remission came out, let me tell you, the beautiful people showed up for those shows. It was not just metal fans. They were certainly there in force. Everybody was just equally amazed at how fucking amazing this band was and how they could play with a death metal band, a grindcore band, or at a basement punk show.
Darnielle: I feel like there’s this overtly literary quality to Mastodon and I think that’s what indie rock hipsters are looking for in metal—something that they can tie in to their own tradition, which is largely a liberal arts school tradition where they can say: “Here’s how this connects to the literature that I read or the films that I like and shit.” They don’t want to seem boneheaded.
Gross: I also think that they are looking for someone that’s not necessarily growling at them the entire time. It’s really funny—I don’t know if we’re at this point yet, but if there’s one thing that separates serious long-term metal fans from fly-by-night metal fans, or whatever you want to call them, it’s your relative tolerance for cookie monster vocals. Like, if you can put up with them over an album, you’re in it for the long haul. If you get 15 minutes in and you’re just like, “I can’t fucking stand this any more,” like, you may be a hipster metal fan if…
Darnielle: They’re liking Nachtmystium, though, and they have classic black metal vocals.
Gross: That’s a fair point. They also have kinda catchy-ass songs and super riffs.
Grow: I recently saw that Guitar World had a big feature on hipster metal. I’ve seen hipster metal spun in a negative and a positive light. Obviously Guitar World had a more positive slant to it. When you’re working with, like, the Sword or Southern Lord, how do you approach the two different sides—the positive and the negative side—from a label perspective?
Abrahamsson: I read that Guitar World and I thought that it was completely backhanded. I read those things and one part of me is really appreciative of even having that kind of press and the other half is like “Wow, is this really hurting or helping us?” It just hurts me to see a band spun in that way because I don’t agree with it, but you take the press. What else can you do?
Darnielle: For me the main issue is: “Did they send a prostitute to my hotel room?” Then I will give them even more press. If not, then fuck ’em.
Gross: Yeah, the hipster metal thing in Guitar World is kinda funny in that when you think of Guitar World, the first thing you think of is—
Abrahamsson: Yngwie? [Laughs]
Gross: Yeah, you think of technique. I remember when Kylesa moved from Prank to Prosthetic and I was talking to [Prank Records owner] Ken Sanderson about that. He was like, “Yeah, I don’t know if that’s going to work out real well for them because metal fans really fetishize technique. Punk fans are a lot more forgiving about that kind of thing.” At the time I didn’t really think about it, but the more I thought about it, I think that the idea that hipster metal would get a backhanded response from Guitar World makes sense in that these are not bands that posit themselves as the fastest guitar in L.A. I mean, who would be the Trey Azagthoth of hipster metal?http://www.decibelmagazine.com/features_detail.aspx?id=4912