“In 1970…people would have called Black Sabbath extreme metal.” Talking Heavy Metal with Sam Dunn of Banger Films
Heavy metal music has the most passionate, dedicated, and loyal fans of any genre in the history of modern music. As a lifelong metalhead I can make this bold statement because I’ve spent time with musicians and fans of other types of music, and although they may love it, they don’t live the lifestyle like the heavy metal folks. Fans of the genre have gotten tattoos of their favorite bands, been buried to heavy metal music, and based their lives on a band’s tour schedule. Sure, fans of One Direction may turn out in the hundreds of thousands for a few years, but fans of Iron Maiden have been doing it for a few decades.
Within the realm of heavy metal, certain people function as ambassadors. Two that I’ve interviewed further the same cause in different ways. Bill Peters is the godfather of classic metal in Northeast Ohio and Don Jamieson waves the banner nationally on That Metal Show. My guest this week has helped to dignify the heavy metal culture and protect it from those that like to claim it’s primal and aggressive. It is. But it is also sophisticated and complex and nobody illustrates that better than Sam Dunn. Dunn broke onto the scene in 2005 with Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey and has continued to produce professional, educational films about the often misunderstood genre.
Along with Scot McFadyen, Sam Dunn runs Banger Films. Over the past seven years they have created Global Metal, Iron Maiden: Flight 666, Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage, Metal Evolution, and Rush: Time Machine 2011: Live in Cleveland. Dunn also has a documentary in production aptly titled, Satan. Sam is a Canadian and a musician as well as a film director. He has interviewed some of the biggest names in hard rock and heavy metal, including Bruce Dickinson, Geddy Lee, and the late Ronnie James Dio.
The widely-successful series that aired on VH1 Classic, Metal Evolution, chronicled the history of heavy metal through the decades but did not include the most recent strand, extreme metal. With an IndieGoGo campaign running through October 8th, Dunn hopes to raise enough money to finish the episode on his own. Sam is an intelligent, articulate, metalhead and I enjoyed talking to him about the moms of Slayer, Norwegian church burnings, and Satan. Not necessarily in that order.
I feel like I have somewhat of a personal connection with you because you chose to film Rush: Time Machine 2011 in Cleveland. Tell me about your experience doing that project.
Cleveland is an extremely important city, not only for a band like Rush, but for rock and metal. Generally, it was those northern American towns that were the bread basket for bands like Rush touring in the 70s where they found an audience for their music. So Rush wanted to give a little love back to Cleveland because it was the city that broke the band in the U.S. and they knew it was going to be an amazing crowd. It all worked out really well.
Why the Midwest? What does the Rust Belt mean to Rush?
I think it’s got a lot to do with the fact people in that part of the U.S. feel a really personal connection to the band because they toured early on in the small towns of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, all through the Midwest. So they’re going back and playing where they played in 1973, 1974, 1975 to people who saw them when they were in their early teens. And at that age, those are your formative years. You’re starting to cement your musical tastes. So going back to those places, you see a lot of people who saw them back at that time. In that part of the world, there’s a little bit deeper or personal connection to the band because they have such a long history together.
I couldn’t believe that it’s been eight years since Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey was released. I’m wondering what your thoughts are looking back on that? How do you feel about it these days?
It’s a film we’re still really proud of. It premiered at TIFF [Toronto International Film Festival] in 2005 and really opened a lot of doors for us. It was really the first documentary that took metal seriously as a style of music and as a culture, and really tackled the question of why it polarizes people. The film really resonated with a lot of people and did really well around the world. We were obviously pleased. I think that there was this whole world of metal and rock that hadn’t really been paid attention to in documentary or film form with a few small exceptions like Spinal Tap. So it helped us establish a lot of relationships with artists like Geddy Lee and Bruce Dickinson—two good examples of musicians who we went on to make movies about. It really helped us and is still doing something for us now.
I think one thing that sets it apart is that it’s a real cultural study. It’s an anthropological study of not only the music but also of the subculture. Was that something that you had in mind at the outset or did that evolve as you worked on the film?
It was always our goal to make a film about metal that wasn’t just for metalheads, that would connect to a broader audience. One way to do that was not to talk only about the intricacies of the music or do a super-detailed account of the history of metal, but rather look at it as a culture. I wanted to look at it as something that was born in the 70s and is still going strong today. I wanted to ask, “What is the appeal of this music and why does it cause so much controversy with things like the PMRC?” We looked at the church burnings that happened in Norway in the 1990s and bands like Cannibal Corpse getting their records banned around the world. It was about much more than just the music. It was about the culture and the impact. We felt that it was that part of the film that could interest even Kerry King’s mom.
Well, when you can get the moms of Slayer to watch, you must be doing something right. [laughing]
We know a few moms of metal guys that understand their sons a little bit better after our movie, so I think that’s a good thing.
Definitely. It seems like it also planted the seed for Metal Evolution, which to no surprise, did so well because it’s such a comprehensive look at all of the branches of the metal tree. I was wondering if you had a particular episode or sub-genre that you found particularly engaging as the creator of that show?
Metal Evolution was born out of the heavy metal family tree that we created back when we did Headbanger’s Journey because we knew that film wasn’t going to be a detailed history of metal. We thought that maybe somewhere down the line there’d be an opportunity to do something more in depth and that’s what Metal Evolution became—eleven episodes on the history of the music. When it comes to specific episodes, I’m a big fan of the thrash episode because that’s the one sub-genre in the series that is really close to me and includes a lot of bands that I love. But I think from a storytelling perspective, the shock rock episode was fascinating to make because it allowed us to take a step back before Alice Cooper, who many people attribute to being the godfather of shock rock. We looked at people like Arthur Brown, and even PT Barnum who wasn’t a musician but was an entertainer, that used shock to entertain the public. So it was a lot of fun because it allowed us to do something that touched on things just beyond the metal realm.
It seemed as though you went into the 80s metal episode a bit skeptical but you came out the other side with a new appreciation. That time in metal often gets a bad rap. People call it hair metal or glam metal with a derogatory tone. Would that be a fair assessment? Did you come out of that episode with a different perspective on the 80s metal scene?
Glam metal in the 80s when I was a teenager was not my cup of tea. I was more into the heavier styles. Granted, my first cassette was Twisted Sister’s Stay Hungry and Ratt’s Out of the Cellar. But I quickly got into the heavier stuff. When it came to the episode on glam metal, from a documentary perspective, it was great because it’s always more interesting when you have two sides represented. There’s a debate still about whether this should be called metal or not. I am still not a fan of those bands. [laughing] When I come into the office in the morning, I don’t put on Poison to get me going. [laughing] However, I always had the preconception that these bands were manufactured, that they were the products of record executives in skyscrapers. But I learned that’s not the case. In fact, it’s not the case with bands that did quite well. I’m talking about bands like Poison or Mötley Crüe, Twisted Sister, etc. They were doing exactly what they wanted to do and not solely because they thought it was going to be commercially viable but because it was a bit of a “fuck you.” I learned a lot from Rikki Rockett who said, “People wanted to fuck us or fight us and that’s exactly what we wanted.” So there was a weird twist. They almost had a punk kind of attitude with what they were doing and that’s not what I expected at all. I didn’t come away a bigger fan of Poison’s music but I certainly came away a bigger fan of Rikki Rockett and his attitude. I thought, “That’s fair—I don’t have to love your music but I respect your attitude.”
I think in a way the industry came to them as opposed to the industry creating them, and that’s an important distinction to make whether you like the music or not.
Don’t get me wrong; the hair is ridiculous. [laughing]
It was even so back in the day, wasn’t it? The great thing about Metal Evolution is that the series isn’t quite done. I was wondering if you could talk a little about the Indiegogo campaign you have going on? Me and my band [Threefold Law] have already contributed. Tell us about the campaign.
Well, we did the main series—eleven episodes—and it was always our hope that we could do an episode on extreme metal but the broadcasters thought it was a little too heavy, a little too niche for their market. And that’s fair. I understand that. We were happy that we got to do this massive series on metal and it made a big contribution. Of course, the one glaring omission was extreme metal so we decided to get an Indiegogo campaign started and fund it that way. We know its music that is underground but that has a really passionate fan base. The people who like extreme metal, love extreme metal. They live and breathe it. Once you find a stronger cup of coffee you can’t go back to Folgers and I totally understand that because a lot of the music that I listen to is at the extreme end of the spectrum. We had one campaign and raised almost $40,000 which was amazing and that helped us pay for the first phase of the project. That involved a lot of travel, a lot of equipment, vehicle rentals, a crew, and travelling around the world. We went to New York and Florida. We filmed in Toronto and we went to Norway, Switzerland, France, and the U.K. And so here we are. We’ve got all of this great footage, we’ve got an episode mapped out, we’ve got it planned and ready to go, and now we’re in the second phase fund raising campaign because we’ve got to turn that footage into something. We pay our editors because our editors are some of the best in the business and that’s what’s allowed us to create the good work that we’ve done so far. That’s one part of the cost. The other part of the cost is paying for all of the photos, footage, and music that we use in the episode. That can get quite costly especially if you’re dealing with major labels. So there are still costs. We’re right smack dab in the middle of the second campaign and we’re pushing. We’re releasing little snippets of interviews every week. I’m writing a blog on Revolver on the top five metal albums of all time. We’re keeping the campaign really active, so we hope we can get to the finish line and make it.
And every couple of bucks helps. So I would encourage all the readers out there to go the Indiegogo page and contribute—let’s get that episode made.
In your travels documenting extreme metal, I’m assuming you had an interview with Satan and then you signed him on to do a documentary. Is that how that worked out? [laughing]
If you’ve met Satan, you should be part of our team because I’m still looking. [laughing] Satan [the documentary in production] is something separate, obviously, but it does have a connection to the extreme metal episode. In Headbanger’s Journey we looked at all the church burnings that happened in Norway and covered that part of the story. But it revealed that no one had really looked at the musicality of Norwegian black metal. I think because of all the controversy and the theatricality of the music, people have lost sight of the fact that what happened in Norway musically in the early 90s was pretty important. Extreme metal was getting pretty glossy at that point and the Norwegian scene was reclaiming a more primitive or raw sound that had been lost in metal and then added their own little twist to it. It was kind of like a bit of punk rock meets a bit of KISS with a dash of anti-Christianity in there. I think that’s an important story to tell because I think people have forgotten that this was also music and some really great bands came out of that era. Bands like Emperor, Enslaved, and Immortal who struck this balance between being raw but also epic. Before that you could be one or the other. You were either epic like Iron Maiden is epic or like Dio is epic. Or you had to be raw like Napalm Death or Bolt Thrower is raw. I think what the Norwegians did is they found a way to combine those two things. So from an historical perspective I think it made a pretty big contribution.
So the Satan documentary might hint at some of these misconceptions? I remember back in the day when AC/DC was satanic and KISS was satanic. Was that a label thrown around by conservatives to undermine the music?
The Satan documentary has a longer backstory. It did come out of our conversations with the Norwegian black metal-ers. We were fascinated by their perspective. What we’ve embarked upon for the Satan film is a much broader story. It’s not just about Satanic music. It’s also about Satan in film, literature, media, and pop culture. We’re taking a broader look at why the Devil has made such a big impact in the creative and entertainment world over the past several decades. Satan is a big topic, so it’s hard to wrestle Satan to the ground.
I wish you luck with that. [laughing] Whenever I interview people in the heavy metal realm, I like to ask their opinion on the future of heavy metal. Some of our pioneers are aging and in declining health and it always begs the question. What do you think?
I think the future of heavy metal is bright. It’s never going to go away. I’m going to make the argument in the extreme metal episode that it’s actually the extreme bands that can be credited with really pushing the music forward. It is by far the most adventurous, risk-taking, sub-genre of metal and because of that it’s always carving out new directions for the music to go. It’s like an art. Often it’s the underground, avant-garde artists who are the ones that push it to the next place and then everyone follows. In 1970, if the term had existed, people would have called Black Sabbath extreme metal, right? I think that’s where it’s going. We’ve got the grandfathers of the genre that are still going pretty strong— Maiden, Rush, Sabbath. And in my personal opinion, Sabbath put out a pretty damned good record. At that same time, you have to remember that metal is a breed of the underground and that’s never gonna change and that’s where the real vitality is going to continue to come from. So that’s part of the story we’re telling…
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