I started an American Sign Language metal band so deaf people can enjoy Black Sabbath

We sit down with Sound Of Metal star and ASL bandleader Paul Raci to chat about his Sabbath tribute band, the power of music and why we should protect our hearing.

I started an American Sign Language metal band so deaf people can enjoy Black Sabbath
Paul Travers

Admittedly we haven’t had many new films over the past year or so, but Sound Of Metal would have deserved all the accolades and award nominations it’s received whenever it was released. Subtle and intense, it tells the story of a metal drummer who is both losing his hearing and struggling with addiction.

It’s currently in the running with six Oscar nominations – one of which is Best Supporting Actor for Paul Raci. The veteran actor plays Joe, the deaf mentor to Riz Ahmed’s Ruben, and his real-life story is as remarkable as any movie. As the hearing son of deaf parents, he’s fluent in American Sign Language and has worked in numerous roles as an interpreter. He suffers from tinnitus himself – due partly, he says, to his love of loud music, but also because of a stint as a hospital corpsman aboard an aircraft carrier in the Vietnam War.

He’s also a lifelong metal fan who has played in a number of bands. Currently he fronts Hands Of Doom ASL Rock, a Black Sabbath tribute act who incorporate signing into their performance, tailored for both hearing and deaf fans.

Here, Paul tells us about the project and why he hopes Sound Of Metal will spark a cultural coming together…

What’s the idea behind the Hands Of Doom ASL Rock project?
“The idea is crazy, it’s insane. Deaf people coming to a rock club – how’s that sound? My father never really cared about music, but my mother did. She lost her hearing when she was five so I was always signing the songs of the day to her, whether it was Sam Cooke or The Beatles. Back in the day when I got back from Vietnam, I was in a band in Chicago. We used to do a lot of Bowie, a lot of Aerosmith and she would sneak into the club and watch the band because she loved her son, and I’d do a little bit of signing if she was there. As I got older here in California being an actor, I got the urge to start singing again because I love it. I love Sabbath and I love metal.

“I ran into these guys who were a Black Sabbath group. I have a lot of deaf friends out here and I decided to do one video and it went viral out here in California. So the lads in the band came to me and asked, 'Hey, why don't we do the whole show that way?' So when we do clubs out here in Southern California there will be 40 to 50 deaf people who show up, with hearing loss anywhere from minimal to a lot, ages 21 to 50 years old coming to see Sabbath. And the lyrics for Black Sabbath, as you know, are prolific. War, the Devil, God, destruction, all these things. I have a headset on and I do them in American Sign Language while singing at the same time. It's not a small feat; it's difficult because of the translation. However, it's fascinating, it's visual, and they love it. And you have the hearing people – the headbanging crowd in there – and my crowd comes in and you watch them mingling and gesturing, just making gestural language work, meeting and greeting a different culture within this rock club. It's crazy, and it's eye-opening to hearing people, I think.”

Is Sabbath particularly suited because of that low bottom-end?
“It is particularly suited. Geezer Butler is famously just… pounding, so there is that to it. We do N.I.B. and it’s so bass-filled. God, every song is just crazy, but yeah, I think they are more suited to a deaf crowd. They're loving it so far, so it's really fun.”

Are there any other bands doing this sort of thing?
“No, it's kind of a specialised thing. I worked with a deaf band called Beethoven's Nightmare a few years ago: deaf drummer, deaf bass player and a deaf guitarist. That's an almost impossible scenario to set up but they're still doing it today. That's the only other band that I know of. There's a few people across the country that do music with sign language, but if you come to watch my band, I'm going to give you an hour and a half of the first eight Sabbath albums. All the Ozzy stuff, the only stuff that really counts. It's a serious business and I love it.”

You did a cover of Metallica's Enter Sandman with Elise Trouw, blink-182's Travis Barker and Carey Watkins recently, with an arrangement designed for a deaf audience. How did that come about?
“Darius Marder [Sound Of Metal director] recommended us to Amazon and they decided to put that together. It's interesting, you can see the metal shavings on the floor as they're vibrating up and down [in the video]. That in particular is a very cool deaf image that really speaks to them. So there's a lot of imagery in that video that has to do with vibration. Everybody has an opinion on the internet, so people can say, 'What happened to the metal, where's the Metallica?' Well this thing was suited for deaf people. You've got three drummers, you've got vibrations. Everybody can have their opinion but the deaf experience is way different from a hearing experience and it's good to try to understand both of them.”

There was a signer who went viral after signing Lamb Of God’s set on Slayer’s final tour. Do you think more bands should take signers out on tour and do that sort of thing?
“I do. There are deaf people who actually love and live for music, so that sort of thing should be done just to provide more access. If you want to bisect with other cultures and invite them in, that is providing some access to pop culture, which is what I was doing as a boy with my mom. She wanted to know what The Beatles were about and why I loved them so much, so I would interpret the lyrics for her, give her a little opening into what pop culture was saying at the time. When Helen Keller mentioned which was more isolating between blindness and deafness, she said the loss of hearing was. Right now if you think about it, it would be very difficult for me or you to be without music. It's just my lifeblood. So it breaks down that isolation a bit and yeah, I think it would be a good idea.”

You’ve spoken about being a conduit for your parents, was that a huge part of your life growing up?
“It was my life. There was no texting, no technology, no captioning on films… nothing. So if my father wanted to watch television, he would watch the screen and make up the story in his head, unless I was there to tell him what each character was saying. Again, I’m talking about access to pop culture, so you're not in this little isolated world.”

On the plus side, could you blast your own music out without being yelled at to turn it down?
“Amen, that’s true (laughs). But there was that bass effect that my father would go, ‘What's going on up there?’ ‘Boom, boom.’ It's so annoying to a deaf person.”

You’re a native signer, you’ve had your own substance abuse issues in the past, you love metal – was Sound Of Metal the perfect role for you?
“Nothing’s perfect, but it's the perfect storm you might say. In the original script he [Joe] was an Iraq war veteran, but when I read it they made an adjustment and made him a Vietnam veteran. And coming back from Vietnam with the addictions that I brought with me, that I learned over there because of the situation I was in, running a deaf ministry out here in Los Angeles, being part of the 12 Step Program as a sign language interpreter, all of that stuff. But mostly Joe – the character in the movie – his philosophy is what my philosophy has kind of shifted into out here. That God is here, the kingdom of God is here [taps chest], not out there. And when I read that line, I knew that was the part of me that really is Joe.”

Your co-star Riz Ahmed learned drums from scratch for the role. How do you think he did?
“I think that was a brave thing for him and Olivia Cooke to do, becoming a band like that. I was also impressed with the way he was immersing himself in the culture with a tutor for sign language. We had interpreters on set because we had a lot of deaf actors, but most of the time Riz didn't employ an interpreter, he'd communicate directly. The drumming thing, that's crazy. For six or seven months he went in and did his exercises. I think he did pretty well with the drumming and his American Sign Language. Not to mention he's just a tremendous and intense actor.”

What do you hope people take from the film?
“First of all protect your hearing, you crazy guys out there. But most of all not to be afraid of the other, not to be afraid of another culture. We're having a problem out here with Asian culture being attacked because of this pandemic situation. We should be intersecting and mingling as one. I would hope people would look at this as an eye-opener into another culture that is ‘other’, but it's us, it's the same. Deaf people are the same as us, man. There are deaf addicts with just the same kind of problems as everyone else."

Riz Ahmed and Paul Raci behind the scenes on Sound Of Metal

You mentioned to protect your hearing. Is there a problem with a lot of people losing hearing through loud music?
“Yes. Look, I got these Eargasms [earplugs] and I take them everywhere I go, just in case. Because I have tinnitus from being in the band and from the ship that I served on in Vietnam, there was all the loud noise from the flight deck. If I'd had these at the time I wouldn't be having these problems, they’re life-savers for your ears. That 'Eeeeee' noise that Riz hears in the movie, that is real. I know a lot of musicians that have hearing problems because we didn't know how to protect our ears. When you just have a monitor feeding back to you and you're trying to hear your guitar and sing in tune without protecting your ears, it's crazy. This is a real thing and a lot of musicians have a hard time watching this film because it's uncomfortable. They don't want to think about it but dude, you'd better start thinking about it, otherwise it just cuts your career very short.”

Sound Of Metal is available on Amazon Prime Video on April 12 and released in cinemas on May 17.

Read this next:

Check out more:

Now read these

The best of Kerrang! delivered straight to your inbox three times a week. What are you waiting for?