Banger Films‘ (“Metal: A Headbangers Journey“, “Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage“) groundbreaking documentary series “Metal Evolution” premiered on November 11 on VH1 Classic. The latest passion project from Canadian documentarians Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen, “Metal Evolution” is dedicating each episode of the 11-part series to a specific facet of the heavy metal sound and culture. New episodes of “Metal Evolution” are premiering every Saturday night at 10 p.m. ET/PT on VH1 Classic.
John Semley of The A.V. Club recently conducted an interview with Dunn about “Metal Evolution“. Check out the interview below.
You’ve done so many in-depth metal documentaries—or anthropological studies on metal, as you tend to frame them. Was there any worry, going into a series like this, that you’d have to dumb it down for people who aren’t as familiar with the genre?
Dunn: Scott and I, we really thought we’d get even deeper than before. It seemed that, with the films we made before, there was still an unsatisfied need for metal. A lot of people who saw Headbanger’s Journey came up to us afterwards and said, “We wish this was eight hours long.” So what we’re saying now is, “Here’s 11 hours.” A lot of people really wanted to see that Heavy Metal Family Tree broken apart and analyzed. You’d think that people would be burned out on metal, but it’s clearly the opposite. There seems to be this undying appetite for more metal.
AVC: And what about you guys? Do you feel at all burned out after four films and a documentary series?
Dunn: Yeah, well, for us this was an opportunity to actually talk about the history of metal. Headbanger’s Journey was really an overview of the culture of metal and the effects of metal as not being just music for [Cro-Magnons] and people who like to smash beer bottles over their heads. What Metal Evolution allowed us to do was to dig into the sound of metal and where it came from. At first, we worried about retreading the same ground. Then we kept digging and realized there were all these fascinating links between metal and all other kinds of music we hadn’t even thought about before we started.
You trace it as far back as classical, and especially Paganini. There are some fans who would say you don’t need to connect metal to classical music to legitimize it. Was there any worry about this? Or is the aim to remove your presence as a metal fan and approach metal from this anthropological distance?
Dunn: What we don’t want people to think is that we’re connecting metal to jazz and classical and blues because we want to legitimate metal. Metal’s already legitimate to us. And metal is already legitimate to a lot of people. What we wanted to do, quite simply, was show where this music came from. We weren’t trying to dignify it or impress jazz aficionados by showing that Bill Ward, the drummer from Black Sabbath, grew up on the Glenn Miller Orchestra, or that the MC5 were into Ornette Coleman. That’s not the point. What we wanted to show is that there are connections between metal and other kinds of music that surprised us, and hopefully would surprise others as well.
It works very well, as in the films, how you treat it as if it’s your own journey, and you’re very much a part of discovering all these connections. Do you find that putting yourself at the centre helps you lead people down the path a bit?
Dunn: When we set out to do Headbanger’s Journey, Scott and I were setting out to find a way to do a film that wouldn’t alienate the metal community, but also wouldn’t alienate the general music fan. What we found was that by having me be in front of the camera as a fan of metal, but also as someone who has a background in anthropology and has a real curiosity about this music, was a great way of bringing everyone in. We like to think of it as being a good referee. Referees know when to step in and when to let the game play out. And that’s what we try to achieve. And with Metal Evolution, we found no need to change what we were doing. It worked in Headbanger’s Journey and Global Metal, and we figured it would work here as well.
As far as this referee aspect: You must be familiar with a lot of the subjects you were talking to in Metal Evolution, from working on the previous films. But are there any times when it gets a little tense? In the second episode, you’re talking to Ted Nugent and mention it’s hard to keep on track and not go off on tangents about hunting or the Obama administration.
Dunn: There are a lot of challenges. When the chips are down, no musician likes to be categorized. No one who has invested their life in being creative wants to be put in a box. So oftentimes we’re starting from a disadvantage, because I’m walking in there with an idea of where this band is going to fit in the story, and musicians are understandably opposed to that. They don’t think, well, “Oh, I’m going to start a band, and we’re going to be thrash metal band, and that’s where people are going to put us.” That’s not why people pick music. It’s our job as nosy filmmakers and documentarians to try and make sense of it all.
A great example is Nickelback. Nickelback is the most abused band in the present day. Everyone beats up on Nickelback. As we were working on the episode about grunge, we realized that grunge kind of died off. But where did it go? Well, it was bands like Nickelback and Creed, and these late-’90s rock bands, that picked up the sound of grunge and turned it into something a little more straightforward and a little more accessible. We did an interview with Chad [Kroeger], and he doesn’t take kindly to being labeled a “grunge-lite” act or a “post-grunge” band. But luckily I walked out of the interviews with all my limbs intact.
He’s probably getting off easy, being called a “grunge-lite” band.
Dunn: [Laughs.] Yeah, well, we may be the first series ever to actually take a balanced look at Nickelback’s music. Actually, I think that’s more ballsy than beating up on Nickelback.
You mentioned how people don’t like to be categorized, but metal especially seems to thrive on differentiating between genres and subgenres, like the Metal Family Tree that you mentioned. Are most people in metal bands used to being grouped off in that way?
Dunn: We had an advantage in that we’re not the first people to talk to these guys about this. Lars [Ulrich, Metallica drummer] has been asked a lot about inventing thrash. And the guys from Mudhoney and the Melvins have been asked plenty about creating grunge. There seems to be a lot of goodwill in the metal community, and I think people know that we’re not coming at it from a tabloid, sensational, news-gathering approach. The musicians we approach realize that we’re doing something respectful. We’re not just putting them in a box because it’s convenient. We’re putting them in a box because we want to see how all these decades and hundreds of years of music actually connect.
It makes sense that they’d be open to you guys, because your other films are different from what we’ve seen in previous metal documentaries. Films like The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II or Heavy Metal Parking Lot almost celebrate what you call the “Cro-Magnon” aspect. But there’s also something likeable about this aspect. Like when you see the guys from the L.A. hair scene in Decline Of Western Civilization, it’s hilarious.
Dunn: Absolutely. Believe me, I think Spinal Tap is one of the best movies of all time. It’s brilliant. Because metal is all about being over-the-top and creating a sound and an image that is larger-than-life. And when you do that, you’re ripe for parody. You’re setting yourself up to be made fun of. What we realized making these films, is that as much as metal musicians and fans want to be taken seriously, they also have a really great sense of humour. Certainly, I was worried about how much humour we wanted to have in our original film. But our episode on glam metal has got tons of hilarious shit from the Sunset Strip and people falling on their faces.
There’s a lot of really rare footage in Metal Evolution of bands performing, especially in their earlier days. Did you get your hands on this because of that goodwill you share with the bands you’re interviewing?
Dunn: We have a team of researchers that are very good at digging into the deep corners of the past. The footage we’ve collected has come from all sorts of places—from personal collections to record labels to the bands themselves. We’ve tried to find footage that hadn’t been seen before. Everyone’s seen the “School’s Out” video, but we tried to dig up some photos and videos of Alice Cooper that are a little more rare. It’s hard, when you’re doing 11 hours of TV, to keep everything unique. Sometimes you have to show people that iconic photo of Van Halen or that famous Iron Maiden cover. But for the most part, we try to find these diamonds in the rough.
In your first two films, metal seems pitched very much as a kind of “outsider music.” But nowadays you hear terms like “hipster metal” to describe bands like Mastodon or Kylesa. Michael Fassbender showed up to the Toronto International Film Festival in an Iron Maiden shirt. How do you feel about this mainstream acceptance? Is it just fashion?
Dunn: All music goes in cycles, and metal is no exception. Over the last 40 years, you see various points where metal becomes a little more visible on the mainstream radar. It happened with glam in the ’80s; it happened with nu-metal in the late ’90s. And you see it now, but I think it’s in a more honest and meaningful way. Yeah, you see celebrities wearing Iron Maiden T-shirts, but that’s going to disappear.
What’s not going to disappear is multiple generations of fans that are into this music. Everyone said Black Sabbath was a fad that would fade away. Everyone said Metallica wouldn’t last. Every big metal band that there has ever been was supposed to be a flash in the pan. When AC/DC, Metallica, and Iron Maiden are three of the biggest touring acts on the planet, you can’t deny that. That’s longevity. If it’s accessible, I think it stems from the realization that this music has some pretty strong legs. It isn’t going away.