In this article I interview Dr. Keith Kahn-Harris whom is the author of 'Extreme Metal: music and culture on the edge'. You may remember seeing him in the metal documentary 'Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey'. I'm glad that Keith agreed to to this fascinating interview and hope you enjoy reading it.
I chose to interview Keith because, like myself, he is keen to study metal music from an academic point of view. He is able to see beyond the apparent noise and sensationalism, he sees something deeper. He also provides an interesting insight into his childhood -- growing up in a Jewish family and listening to metal music. Find out more about him on his website.
E: To get started perhaps you can introduce yourself by talking about how you got into metal. When did you get into metal and what were the reasons for seeking out this music? Was this something that you kept quiet and hidden from your family/friends? It seems that metal music would not be respected or welcome in a Jewish household or community. Was it hard for you to combine these aspects of your life?
K: I first became interested in metal in the early 80s, when I was 9 or 10. I bought the singles of Iron Maiden's 'Run to the Hills' and 'The number of the Beast' and a few other metal 7 inches of that period. I didn't have much money to buy albums but I bought 'Screaming Blue Murder' by Girlschool and a couple of compilations. A friend taped me the album 'The Number of the Beast' by putting the tape recorder up against the speaker! I used to listen to the first 30 minutes or so of the Friday Rock Show until it got way past my bed time.
This is starting to look like any number of narratives of how people my age got into metal. In the early 80s metal was pretty visible and I've met plenty of people who took their first tentative steps into the metal world at a similar age to me during that period. Where my story takes an unexpected turn is that after a year or two I totally repudiated metal. I threw away all my metal records and stopped listening to Tommy Vance. I did this histrionically in front of my parents proclaiming that I was 'through with it'.
So why did I do this? It wasn?t that I went off the music. It had more to do with not being able to cope with being a lone metalhead anymore. I grew up in a middle class Jewish family just outside London and I went to a top private school. This isn't an environment particularly conducive to the child metalhead. I soon drifted apart from the friend who taped me the Maiden album and in any case it was actually his brother's album and he soon lost interest in metal. I was the only metal-inclined person I knew and while being a lone member of a subculture is thrilling for many teenagers, for pre-teens as I was it can be very intimidating. Not that I was a conformist necessarily, in fact I was pretty eccentric in many ways, but for some reason I didn't seem able at that stage to go down the route into being a lone metaller.
It also had to do with my family. Let me be clear: my parents have never stopped me from doing anything I wanted to do or from consuming whatever kind of music and media attracted me. In fact they were much cooler than many parents in this respect -- I remember watching Apocalypse Now at the age of 10 and was thrilled by the Woodstock movie at a similar age. But my parents made it clear that they didn't like metal. That doesn't mean that they tried to stop me listening to it or disapproved of me doing so. No, they were liberally minded Jewish middle class intellectuals and they thought metal vulgar and noisy. At that stage in my life, as a pre-teen, I wasn't able to handle this.
To answer your question, my jewish background wasn't conducive to metal, but not in the ways you might think. I wasn't orthodox, we were practicing reform Jews, and this is a liberal environment without censorship or such things. There was no religious disapproval or anything like that. But early 80s metal didn't fit in this milieu, not so much for ideological reasons as for cultural reasons. The over the top imagery and sound of early 80s metal, its blue-collar earthiness, was a world away from the aspirational, educationally-minded, relatively abstemious environment of British Jewry.
Anyway, my rejection of metal didn't last that long and in some ways was good for me. For the first half of my teens I listened to a wide range of stuff. I became obsessed with Talking Heads and Peter Gabriel. I investigated anything from African music to King Crimson. Gradually though I gravitated towards the indie scene and started going to gigs with schoolfriends. I listened regularly to John Peel and through him I discovered grindcore. The early sessions by Napalm Death, Bolt Thrower and the like completely blew me away. I wasn't the only indie kind who experienced this. There's a whole generation of us who moved back and forth between indie to grindcore/death metal.
Through Peel and grindcore I began to rediscover other kinds of mainstream metal. Although I continued to repudiate NWOBHM and anything with much of a melody I got into thrash and death metal and the like. By about 1990 I was going to extreme metal gigs.
By this time -- 18 years old or so -- it didn't bother me that I was the only one I knew who was into this kind of music. I didn't care what my parents thought. In fact, I quite liked the avant garde cachet that grindcore and extreme metal had.
I have always been involved in the Jewish community and its incredibly important to me. What I learned in my late teens was that I could combine my interests in metal and extreme music with my Jewish interests and commitments. I haven't always shouted from the rooftops that I was a Jewish metaller, but I have never hidden it either.
Today, in my late 30s, I relish moving between worlds. What felt impossible as a kid feels essential now. I am a more rounded person for my love for very different communities and aesthetics.
E: I, too, feel that I move between worlds when I state that my interests include astrophysics and metal. Both have a history or appealing to geeks or people that are not quite part of the 'popular world'. Astrophysics, my degree, is very academic and perhaps lacking what Jung and Pauli would call 'sensing' (as it relates to feeling). Extreme music on the other hand is characterized by extreme personae, extreme actions and often extreme points of view. A typical conversation among astrophyicists might be about the nature of the universe, while a typical conversation among metal fans is about beer.
While this is a generalisation, I do believe that non-metal fans believe metal to be of a non-academic nature. Hence, it would seem that astrophysics and metal are opposites. Despite this I've met many people that I consider intelligent whom are able to have both an intellectual discussion (about anything) and enjoy listening to metal.
So, I'd like to ask you what it is about metal that makes you believe it can be discussed from an academic point of view? That metal isn't just about making dissonant noise. What do you think is needed for metal to be taken (more) seriously as an academic form of music?
K: Well the simple answer to your question is that anything can and should be discussed within academia. The humanities and social sciences should be predicated on the assumption that human beings should interrogate the social and cultural world. From this perspective, anything is interesting and worth studying -- including metal.
Now it has often been true that the study of art/music has tended to neglect anything other than canonical high culture. Low/popular culture was often seen as not worth studying. This has been challenged in the last few decades by perspectives that have questioned high/low cultural distinctions and -- more importantly -- not seen academic research as being ideally confined to 'worthy' forms of art. So this has opened a space for the study of all kinds of cultural forms.
It is also true though that even when researchers have seen popular music as worth studying, it took a long time for 'metal studies' to develop. The interdisciplinary field of popular music studies took off within academia in the 70s and 80s, but for a long time popular music scholars tended to consciously or unconsciously reproduce an idea of the canon, in which metal was viewed highly suspiciously. Metal's apparently reactionary nature meant that popular music scholars often avoided it. This changed gradually in the 90s following the pioneering work of Deena Weinstein and Robert Walser, who both wrote excellent monographs on metal in the early 90s.
I started my research on metal in 1995. I was in part inspired by Walser and Weinstein, but it was also clear that they had neglected extreme metal and I found their American focus problematic. Since finishing my PhD in 2001, and particularly since publishing my book in 2006, metal studies has taken off. There are now more and more scholars interested in metal. While metal?s presence in popular music studies is still small compared to other genres such as electronic dance music, its historic neglect is beginning to be remedied.
In part I think that metal's reputation has, in the last few years, finally begun to improve. There is increasing awareness among taste-makers and intellectuals that metal has an innovative avant garde side. In addition, mainstream metal, which was once seen as simply crass and sexist, is looked on increasingly fondly. So I think it is finally starting to happen that metal is attracting the kind of serious analytical attention that it deserves.
E: I agree very strongly with the comment that anything can be studied from an academic context. It is worrying when topics are omitted and as annoying when certain topics receive a heavy bias. Trying to criticize/praise something from a neutral perspective is very difficult but that doesn't mean we should bend to popular whims.
With the already released and upcoming films/documentaries about metal, I'm hoping that metal will receive a larger audience from interested academics. How many of these documentaries have you seen and would you be willing to offer comment upon their impact and usefulness in promoting metal? Examples that come to mind are Metal - A Headbanger's Journey, Once upon a time in Norway (from Norwegian TV can find on youtube), the soon to be released Until The Light Takes US.
Many books and documentaries like to focus upon the most infamous of all metal scenes: Norwegian Black Metal. It isn't the only part of metal worth talking about but I'm certainly biased to consider it as the most interesting and most important. That said, I'm still waiting for a documentary to cover it properly. When I say properly, I think there is a need to study the underlying reasons for why the music exists and what it has to say. The actions of the people involved and their personalities are interesting but in most studies of Norwegian BM the music takes a back seat. The technical aspect of the music as well as the themes/ideas of the music are important and sadly not enough attention to paid to them.
I know that you're specialty is in the sociological aspect of metal and certainly I welcome further developments of this, so I'd be interested to know what else you have planned for future publications and if you could offer some insight into these future projects. Have you considered going down the video documentary route?
K: To answer your questions, I’ve seen quite a few documentaries on metal. In fact I was interviewed for Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey (I appear for about 20 seconds talking about Cannibal Corpse) and helped Sam Dunn get in touch with Israeli metallers for the Global Metal film.
In general I enjoy documentary films as a genre and the gradual increase in numbers of metal documentaries is a positive development. They offer an opportunity to represent metal in interesting and innovative ways. I thought the Anvil documentary was particularly affecting. It offers an insight into a side of metal (and of popular music in general) that is rarely publicised – that is the indefatigable commitment of metal band members. While some reviews made predictable references to Spinal Tap, the film was well received even by people who hate metal.
You are correct that the more spectacular sides of metal, such as Norwegian black metal, offer temptingly sensational subjects for film makers. There are of course many dangers here. The Anvil film though showed that it was possible to represent metal without sensationalism, that the mundane reality of the majority of metal bands could be made interesting to viewers.
I myself would love to make a film – who wouldn’t – and I even had an exploratory chat on the subject a few months ago with a university friend who is now a director. I doubt it will ever happen though!
Last Updated (Friday, 05 October 2012 17:25)