Axe to Grind: Heavy Metal in New Orleans
February 6, 2009
Internationally known New Orleans metal bands power what’s still a locally underground scene
Heavy metal stars Pepper Keenan and Phil Anselmo and their band Down just completed a tour opening for Metallica at the New Orleans Arena. Along with Mike IX Williams, they are three of the city’s best-known musicians — outside of New Orleans.
“You know, I can remember being nominated four different times, back when I was in Pantera, for Grammys,” Anselmo says. “And they’d have on the news all the local New Orleans stars who were nominated. My name was never up there. And nothing against them — the Harry Connicks and the Aaron Nevilles. I even went to Lakeview high school with Harry Connick, and summer camp. But Pantera, we sold more records than them. So I always took it with a grain of salt.”
In the early ’90s, he and Keenan were both living outside New Orleans and playing in hugely successful bands: Anselmo in the metal megamonster Pantera and Keenan in Corrosion of Conformity, a North Carolina-based band. Though they visited New Orleans often and remained a part of the fast-growing scene, they then — and now — received very little notice from the city’s music industry.
“They acted like we had leprosy,” Keenan says.
The three rockers don’t seem to hold a grudge. In fact, with cash and name recognition to work with, they’re more dedicated to the city’s underground music scene than ever. Now that he’s back in New Orleans, Anselmo is, along with Williams, focusing his energy on Housecore Records, an indie label on which he hopes to recreate the honest, DIY energy of two decades ago.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, New Orleans’ underground punk and metal scene was thriving. Artists like Keenan, Williams and Anselmo emerged from a close-knit crowd of tape traders and zine makers, and they became international celebrities, selling millions of records and influencing generations of new bands claiming New Orleans metal as an inspiration.
The idea for Housecore dates back to his Pantera days, when Anselmo was shuttling back and forth between New Orleans and the band’s Texas base. His Lakeview house became a regular stomping ground for local musicians who hung out, played together and formed bands.
“A good majority of bands would hang out there,” he says. “We were making so much music coming out of that house, it was unnatural. It was just an idea at first, because I was so busy touring and whatnot with Pantera; it was a hard thing to organize and make a realistic approach to attack it. So my God, 20 years later-plus, it’s finally a reality.”
More than two decades ago, punk rock and metal shows at clubs like Jed’s, the Rose Tattoo, Andy Capp’s and the Franklin Avenue VFW Hall attracted a small corps of dedicated young punk rockers and metalheads rabid to hear — and eventually play — loud, hard, nasty music. There was no Hot Topic, and MTV’s Headbangers Ball, which started in 1988, was only a rumor from the few people who had cable. New Orleans’ better-known musical heritage influenced some of them, alienated others, and did both for a few.
“Back in the day, the Meters were a very vicious band,” Keenan says. “You couldn’t touch them with a 10-foot pole. They had some songs that were heavy as lead. But I did not want to play a hollow-body guitar and jangle around.”
Sometimes, New Orleans music and metal didn’t mix. Keenan remembers a show at Jed’s when Dave Turgeon of the Sluts, with a 100-foot mic cable, ran out of the club and into the Maple Leaf across the street to continue singing — in the middle of a jazz set. Another time, opening for the Circle Jerks with his band Graveyard Rodeo at Tipitina’s, the two groups decided to fill gift-wrapped boxes with raw fish and throw them into the crowd.
“So the crowd was tearing open these boxes and they were full of fish, and they started slinging fish all over Tipitina’s,” Keenan recalls fondly. “So that kind of ended that. We never played there again.”
New Orleans rose to the top of the national metal scene in the ’90s. Pantera’s superstar presence and its New Orleans-born frontman did a great deal to solidify the city’s fame. (Fact: Louisiana is the only state with its own full page in the Heavy Metal Fun Time Activity Book, published in 2007.) But in a story that’s typical of New Orleans’ music history, a local underground sound subtly changed the path of American music.
Mike IX Williams, one of the most influential musicians in New Orleans metal, was actually born in North Carolina. He lost both parents as a child and moved to New Orleans in the care of a brother 15 years his senior.
Williams’ first band, Teenage Waste, began playing at the Rose Tattoo when he was only 15. When he wasn’t playing, he remembers going out to see early local punk acts like the Sluts, Shell Shock and Graveyard Rodeo. His brother would sneak him in to see seminal New Orleans punk bands like the Normals
“Back then, a big punk show at the Rose Tattoo would be about 50 people,” he remembers. “Jimmy Bower became the drummer for Shell Shock, and me and him started hanging out.” Williams worked as a roadie for Shell Shock on an early U.S. tour, and the two became friends. By 1987, the seeds for Eyehategod — the band most pointed to as the root of the New Orleans metal sound — were planted and starting to sprout.
“We started talking about it and saying, man, we’ve got to do a punk band that plays really slow.”
The band didn’t take the idea seriously at first. “It was mainly to open for some of the faster metal bands in New Orleans and play really slow, and kind of piss everybody off,” he says. “Lots of feedback and noise. But it ended up being taken seriously, and we ended up getting a record deal out of that from a French label called Intellectual Convulsion, and that’s where it all started, really.”
Brian Patton, guitarist for the veteran thrash-band Soilent Green, who also plays in Eyehategod, says the sound gained quick recognition. On Eyehategod’s first national and European tours in the early ’90s, the press had already recognized it as the next big thing. “It’s a bluesy, slower sort of sound. What Soilent Green does is actually the opposite — we’re a fast thrash-metal band, which was a big thing at the time, and the slow stuff that’s now the New Orleans sound was kind of a rebellion against that. That’s what Eyehategod was all about. They were tired of the fast stuff. They wanted to play slow and just aggravate the f—k out of everybody. And it worked, man. Eyehategod was hated in the metal scene when they first came out.”
Eyehategod progressed from hated upstarts to godfathers of a new sound that swept through the city and the metal scene at large. At the same time as Eyehategod was attempting to irritate audiences with slowed-down crunch and grind, the short-lived band the Slugs (featuring members of the early thrash/hardcore band Shell Shock) also began playing slowed-down, drop-tuned metal in the style that would soon be recognized as New Orleans’ signature. The Slugs featured Jimmy Bower on drums and Kirk Windstein (later of sludge-metal band Crowbar) on bass and guitar. Eyehategod continued to tour the U.S., Japan and Europe and put out several albums, building an international cult following.
Williams’ band Outlaw Order existed on a virtually parallel timeline to Eyehategod, and features the same members except Jimmy Bower. Williams lost his house to a fire after Hurricane Katrina and left town, but he’s back and working on the Housecore label, as well as shopping an expanded version of his 2005 book of lyrics, poems and short stories, Cancer as a Social Activity. Outlaw Order recently released a new album, Dragging Down the Enforcer.
In 1995, Bower, Windstein, Anselmo and Keenan released NOLA, their first album as Down — a supergroup of members still partly from the underground — which went gold.
“When the Down thing started, we focused on making the licks real slippery and not mechanical,” Keenan says. “I don’t know if it was Southern, but you could tell we weren’t from Berlin. It was very not what other bands were doing, trying to sound like machines. That whole attitude was very influenced by New Orleans, the feel of it, the greasiness.” Years later, the Sabbath-via-swamp sound continues to re-emerge in iterations of sludge, doom and stoner metal, in popular bands like High on Fire, Mastodon and the Australian group Wolfmother, to name a few.
Chris Terry, a musician from Hot Springs, Ark., traveled to New Orleans in late January to shoot parts of his documentary on Southern metal, Slow Southern Steel, which he expects to release in the fall. He’s interviewed metal bands in six Southern states, and Louisiana’s impact on the sound has been something he can’t ignore.
“Oh, man, it is such an influence on the scene,” he says enthusiastically. “Eyehategod, obviously. It was New Orleans who really hooked it up and infected the underground with such a cool sound. To me, the New Orleans sound is what really helped to give birth to the sound I’m trying to capture in the movie.”
“I’ve always felt that New Orleans bands in general have something other bands do not have,” Anselmo says. “It’s tough to pinpoint. I could point out several different details — the drummers know how to play behind the beat, the feel of the riffs is more slippery, the attitude, the frontmen — I hate to use the word flavor, but New Orleans definitely has its own style.”
At the end of 2008, Housecore put out its first two releases: a self-titled demo from Anselmo’s longtime black-metal-influenced project Christ Inversion (whose MySpace page describes its sound as “the venomous vomit of Satan!”) and a vinyl EP from Arson Anthem, a thrash/hardcore band featuring Anselmo, Williams and Hank Williams III. In 2009, Housecore’s scheduled releases include a compilation of early Soilent Green recordings featuring Glenn Rambo, the band’s first singer, whose death by drowning during Katrina was the focus of a fall 2005 Revolver cover story on the state of the New Orleans metal scene. The label also plans to put out new full-length releases from Arson Anthem, the heavily Metallica-influenced, Memphis-based thrash-metal throwback trio Evil Army, avant-garde tape manipulators the Sursiks, and the up-and-coming New Orleans sludge-metal band Haarp (of whom Anselmo says, “They’re the best f****n’ New Orleans band I’ve seen since the late ’80s. I saw them last Friday and they ripped a hole in New Orleans via Fat City.”) As it’s shaping up, the label will be a collection of Anselmo’s side projects and personal enthusiasms.
“With Housecore, I want to bring a bit of realism back,” he says. “Whether it be hardcore, noise and kind of extreme metal-ish music, beautifully played acoustic music, anything.” Housecore, on its Web site (www.thehousecorerecords.com) also features original radio and video content from Anselmo and Williams.
Yet for all the accolades heaped on New Orleans metal by international fans and media, its major bands still receive limited attention in their hometown, which is usually quick to celebrate homegrown talent. So why would bona fide rock stars choose to keep living in their own underappreciative backyard?
“It sucks you in, man,” Anselmo says. “There’s no place like it; there never will be. We might be the next Atlantis, but till that time comes, I will sit back in a recliner, and in a couple of years, they can find my skeleton underneath all that water with a Saints shirt on and a fleur de lis tattooed on what’s left of my flesh. I’m stayin’.”