States of Metal: Arkansas Has An Honest DIY Ethos And A Vortex of Darkness At Its Core
Each month, Kerrang! examines the history and current scene of one of the 50 United States in order to better understand the American landscape united under metal. These are the States of Metal.
To an outsider, Arkansas might appear to be a typical Southern territory, full of good ol’ boys and laid-back livin’. There are mountains to the north, swamps to the south, and the mighty Mississippi along the eastern border. Meanwhile, the state’s most famous public figures include Bill Clinton, Billy Bob Thornton, Johnny Cash and Al Green. On paper, Arkansas is a picture-perfect snapshot of the American south.
Talk to the metalheads from 29th state, though, and they paint a very different picture. While Arkansas’s headbangers are quick to tell you about the local scene’s creative figureheads and strong DIY work ethic, they’ll also tell you about something that lurks beneath the surface — something way less Faulkner, way more Stephen King.
“Little Rock makes Salem’s Lot look like fucking Disneyland,” says Nate Garrett. A former resident of Fayetteville, Arkansas, Nate is best known as frontman for epic doom metallers Spirit Adrift and guitarist for OSDM crew Gatecreeper, both from Arizona. Perhaps it’s that distance that allows him to so hauntingly describe Arkansas’s undercurrent of menace. “People have different theories about it — there are Native American burial mounds there, for example. I don’t think it’s something anyone can quantify. But the people that have grown up there their whole lives, it’s as accepted as gravity.”
Above: Nate Garrett and Deadbird’s Chuck Schaaf in Schaaf’s studio, circa 2009.
The darkness that runs through Arkansas might surprise some people, who take its musical history of gospel and country at face value. But as any metalhead knows, religious fervor often hides intentions more hellish than heavenly, and even the dulcet tones of church music can lead a God-sick listener down the left-hand path.
“My dad ran a gospel quartet, so I was pretty much on the road with him any time I wasn’t in school, and I think hearing those four-part harmonies my entire life has something to do with my songwriting,” says Jacob Sawrie, frontman for Arkansas stoner doom band Sumokem. With a mixture of grinding guitars and ecclesiastical vocals, Sumokem use each album to examine ancient philosophies from different cultures — none of them Christian. “And the religion part of it has a lot to do with all of those bands. Being in the bible belt has affected all our attitudes.”
Though its early musical development matched that of other southern states, violence and fear have alwasy pervaded Arkansas’s sound. Johnny Cash’s outlaw country was filled with violent junkies (Cocaine Blues) and the ghosts of everymen (Dark As A Dungeon and Long Black Veil). Al Green’s songs were soulful and sexy, but he didn’t really find Jesus until his girlfriend scalded him with hot grits and committed suicide. In his autobiography, Miles Davis describes coining his sound while thinking of “them spook-filled Arkansas back-roads after dark.”
It only makes sense, then, that when the ‘70s and ‘80s rolled around, rock music in Arkansas took a turn towards the distorted and depressive. On one side, the mainstream media was feeding the local kids arena hair metal shows and MTV’s Headbangers Ball. On the other, from areas within the state like North Little Rock and Batesville, a burgeoning skateboarding scene brought hardcore and punk into the mix.
“I thought punk was just old British guys,” laughs Alan Short, guitarist/vocalist for legendary Batesville sludge artists Deadbird, whose new album III: The Forest Within The Tree dropped last week. As a teenage skateboarder, Alan grew up listening to speed metal and hardcore — but like many kids from way outside New York and LA, he was forced to find his own way. “All I’d seen on TV were huge stage, bright lights, the metal barrier in front of the stage, and all of a sudden I was at an all-ages show at a club called Vinos. I saw two local bands, Trusty and Fishwagon, opening for Jawbox. Next thing I knew, my friends and I were listening to a Minor Threat tape and practicing slam-dancing in my garage.”
“And while Alan was seeing punk shows, I was going to the arena to see Cinderella!” laughs Deadbird guitarist and local legend Chuck Schaaf. “I will admit, when I was twelve or thirteen, I had a Winger cassette!”
For many metalheads, Deadbird is the quintessential Arkansas band; their mixtures of chugging riffs and harsh chanting sound like woody hymns to rotting trees. But for Alan and Chuck, Arkansas of the late-’80s and ’90s was a beautiful time, when lifers like themselves had to build the scene from the ground up and touring bands helped each other out (“Mastodon slept on my couch one time,” laughs Chuck. “Brent left his sleeping bag at my house!”) To these dudes, the fact that acts like like furious political hardcore band Econochrist and dark experimental metallers Sickshine never received widespread recognition is a fuckin’ tragedy.
“It’s a shame that no one outside of here got to hear Sickshine,” says Chuck. “The problem was these guys were all just so unlike everything else. People like music that sounds like what they know, and Arkansas bands are just weird.”
While cock rock and hardcore gave Arkansas’s metal scene its base, the secret ingredient to its signature flavor bubbled up from further south. The humid sludge metal of New Orleans, championed by ugly-sounding acts like Eyehategod, Crowbar, and Acid Bath, slowed down the riffs coming out of Arkansas and created what most consider the Arkansas sound: a catchy yet harrowing form of doom, full of venomous honesty and spooky backwoods spirituality. The style, present before its time in Sickshine’s terrifying sludge-core, was championed by bands like Deadbird and Seahag, and then later refined and streamlined by modern doom crew Pallbearer. These bands rallied around Little Rock’s central venues, specifically Vino’s and Downtown Music, the latter owned and operated by local musicians and created solely to give AK bands a place to hear cool new music.
“Downtown Music was sort of the mecca during the heyday of the Little Rock metal scene,” says Pallbearer bassist Joseph D. Rowland. With their powerful brand of infectiously mournful doom, Pallbearer introduced fans around the world to the Arkansas sound. “It was a venue that some folks in the local scene (particularly Alan Wells, who was the original owner) started in the early 2000s in the then-languishing downtown part of Little Rock. If not for that venue, Pallbearer wouldn’t even exist. Our first goal as a band was to play a show there. Sadly, I think the building is getting turned into condos.”
In other states, Pallbearer’s success might have sparked envy or bitterness among local stalwarts — but after striving to get their sound heard for so long, Arkansas’s musical veterans are just happy to see their countrymen succeed. “We’re so proud of those guys,” says Chuck Schaaf. “They were part of this wave, and they really blew this scene wide open.”
For Joseph, this attitude is Arkansas embodied. “I think what has stood out to me about the Arkansas metal scene is how inclusive it has been. It’s always been relatively small, so there’s not a lot of room to be clique-y. You would, and still do, see a lot of the same folks at shows no matter what type of music it is.”
To be fair, not every band from Arkansas is an underground sludge act — Little Rock is also the hometown of goth metal chart-toppers Evanescence, who channel the state’s inner blackness in a more dramatic and palatable fashion. And yet for all their international acclaim, Evanescence aren’t on anyone’s lips when they’re asked about the band that most embodies Arkansas metal.
“If I was going to die tomorrow, and could see only one more band, it would be Rwake for sure,” says Sumokem’s Jacob Sawrie. “That band does something live that no one else touches.”
Ask a young Arkansas metalhead about Little Rock’s Rwake (it’s just pronounced “Wake” — the ‘R’ was added due to a mispronunciation of the name after a long night of drinking Robitussin), and you’ll hear equal parts fanboy devotion and superstitious fear. If Deadbird’s music is a prayer to an old god, then Rwake’s is a plea for mankind. The band, led by Christopher Terry (a.k.a. “CT”) is known for their unique combination of thousand-ton groove metal, far-out experimentalism, and crushing emotionality, which feels like a natural reaction to living somewhere that is karmically poisoned.
“Dude, I don’t even know how to explain it,” Nate Garrett says, voice tinged with awe. ”I think what they channeled is the most evil, scary shit that has ever fucking existed. There’s some profound misery, and torment, and dark shit about that band. They’re as real as it gets. Period.”
“When I write for other bands, it’s not the same…and I hate it!” laughs CT, who also plays in Deadbird, black metal act Ash of Cedars, and hard rock band Iron Tongue, all from Little Rock. “Rwake just comes very naturally, and it hurts…and feels good. It’s all about sad, sad moments that have helped us grow. And when it comes, it comes. Jeff [Morgan, drummer] makes this joke that it’s Rwake and not us, and it does what it wants when it’s time to do it.”
“To me, Arkansas is that extra element in our band,” continues CT. “Rwake is the compass of that weirdness. When I think about the lyrics in Stoner Tree, or The Finality, or It’s Beautiful, But Now It’s Sour, those songs are all Arkansas songs. It’s something that happens by living here, and knowing it, and being sucked into it. It’s a weird Twilight Zone black hole kind of place, for sure.”
But like his fellow Arkansans, CT talks about the overwhelming darkness of his home state with good humor and a positive view of the future. He sees Arkansas, and the people in it, as growing into their own. The void is still there, but those that experience it are a little more mature in how they channel it.
“Us old guys see the Downtown Music era as a heyday, but these days, the people coming to shows are way more open-minded,” says CT. “Jeff used to have four serial killers tattooed on his arm, and he had it covered up with a pretty lady’s face. I used to have a Confederate flag tattooed on my hand, and I got it covered up with a pink and purple butterfly. The kids who used to come out to those shows years ago are now business owners. We’re parents. We’re still very much full of contempt…but it’s on a different level these days. We have a different fight.”
Every month, we update our States Of Metal playlist with killer tracks from the state we’re currently featuring. Scroll through to listen to music from Arkansas and all of the states we’ve profiled!
WORDS: Chris Krovatin
FEATURED PHOTO: Deadbird, by Adam Peterson.