When anthropologist and metalhead Sam Dunn co-founded Banger Films in 2004 in Toronto with Scot McFadyen, it was the start of a company headed for global notoriety in the name of heavy metal.
The pair became known the world over in large part to “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey,” which premiered on VH1 Classic. With Dunn conducting interviews and narrating, and McFadyen doing behind-the-scenes work, they also received once-in-a-lifetime access aboard Iron Maiden’s Ed Force One for the band’s 2009 DVD “Flight 666.” The film earned recognition from the Juno Awards in their native Ontario to right down Interstate-35 by winning the SXSW Audience Choice Award. They put together a documentary on Rush called “Beyond The Lighted Stage” (my review here), a DVD that was nominated for a Grammy and won the 2010 Juno for Music DVD of the Year and Audience Choice Award at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Last year, the duo looked into the history of heavy metal, family-tree style, in the 11-episode “Metal Evolution” that also aired on VH1 Classic (watch them all here if you live in the United States; here if you live in Canada). Dunn and McFadyen have other projects in the works. But first, there’s unfinished business regarding “Metal Evolution.”
After dedicating episodes to genres such as hair bands, thrash, nu metal and progressive metal, Banger Films is intent on airing the “lost episode” of extreme metal. The company is hoping to raise $175,000 in 90 days through the IndieGoGo campaign, which would take Dunn and McFadyen from San Francisco and Tampa to Norway, United Kingdom and Sweden interviewing the likes of Cannibal Corpse, Dimmu Borgir, Morbid Angel, Napalm Death and others.
I phoned Dunn, 38, in Toronto last week to talk about it all:
Hey, Sam, how are you doing?
Pretty good, how are you?
Really good. Thank you for taking the time to do this. I know you’re an extremely busy man these days.
Oh, no worries. Well, this is an important campaign, so I appreciate you helping us get the word out there.
My pleasure. Let me congratulate you on everything you’ve done with the DVDs with Maiden and Rush, and of course the documentaries for “Metal Evolution” and “A Headbanger’s Journey.” Truly insightful, eye-opening coverage and research that you and Scot have undertaken, and I know you’re very proud of it.
Well, thank you. Sounds like we should hire you as our press agent.
Q: To start with some background, what makes this the “lost episode?”
A: We initially approached VH1 Classic to broadcast “Metal Evolution.” We presented them with several episodes for the first season, and in that proposal was an episode on extreme metal for a couple reasons. One, we’re fans. And two, it’s not sort of underground obscurity that I think a lot of people believe it is. Extreme metal for a lot of young metal fans is heavy metal. And I think it’s very important to the evolution of the music. It’s really helped drive the music forward, and I see it as kind of like the genre that’s the testing ground. It’s out there on the edge of the genre as sort of seeing where it can possibly go. But, the downside was that VH1 Classic saw it as being a little too extreme for their viewers. Their custom lead spot is ’70s and ’80s metal, like KISS and Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, you know, Metallica. So they were interested in doing a thrash metal episode, but extreme was just a little too out on the edge for them. So here we are now trying to do it another way.
Q: How close are you to the $175,000-in-90-days goal that started in mid-September?
A: Well, the good news is that we’ve recently had a private corporate donation for $40,000. That actually brings our target down to $135 (thousand), and we’ve raised about $10,000 now. So, we’ve got a long way to go. I’m on the phone daily spreading the word about the episode. We’ve also got some new perks up our sleeve which we’re going to be announcing shortly, which we think the people are going to get pretty excited about and hopefully get some more people contributing. You know, nothing with extreme metal has ever been easy (laughs). We’re doing this because we’re passionate about it and we know that there’s also people out there who are passionate about it too. We didn’t expect this to be easy, but we’re going to do everything we can to see that goal.
Q: Some of the bands, such as Dimmu Borgir or Cannibal Corpse — have you interviewed them before?
A: We’ve interviewed a few extreme metal bands for previous films. George (Fisher) and Alex (Webster) from Cannibal Corpse were in our first documentary. We interviewed (Mark) “Barney” (Greenway) from Napalm Death for our second film “Global metal.” So we’ve crossed paths with a few of the bands that are going to be in this episode, especially the Norwegian black metal bands: Emperor, Mayhem, Darkthrone. All of them we’ve talked to before. So it’ll be a combo of bands we know but also bands that are unchartered territory.
Q: Regarding the family tree of metal, Pantera being in the nu metal episode had some people scratching their heads. How difficult was it categorizing some of the bands throughout the family tree including the fact that some bands can be lumped into more than one category?
A: Well, you and I know how passionate and opinionated metal fans are. And that’s actually really what makes the genre unique and actually drives the genre moving forward. I think it’s that passion that’s kind of at the core that holds the underground metal community together in a lot of ways. But the minute you decide to put your face out there and say that you’re going to be able to categorize this stuff, it’s like putting my face on the dart board. We know that everyone is not going to agree. And that’s fine. I never expected everyone to agree. In fact, we see the family tree and the whole “Metal Evolution” series as just part of that debate. The case of Pantera is an interesting one because the important thing is that, on the chart, they’re in thrash metal. We’re not calling them a nu metal band by including them in the nu metal episode. We put the Sex Pistols in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal episode. We just felt that Pantera was an important precursor to that nu metal sound. But I agree with people that have responded. There’s a much bigger story to Pantera in nu metal. Who knows? Maybe one day we’ll do something on Pantera.
Q: How many years was “Metal Evolution” in the making, and roughly how many miles have you logged?
A: From the very beginning to the very end, “Metal Evolution” took two years. It took several months of research and writing, and then we filmed it over the course of about a year-and-a-half. We edited it over roughly a year-long period. So, it was a massive undertaking. By far the biggest thing we’ve taken on at Banger Films. As for how many miles, I don’t even know if I can count that high. I think I need an abacus. We did over 300 interviews, we went to dozens of countries across three continents, and a lot of gray hairs.
Q: Which episode was your favorite and why?
A: As a fan, thrash metal was my favorite episode because that’s the music that means the most to me. So to be able to go to Oakland to the rehearsal space where Testament and Exodus and Death Angel and all these classic bands rehearsed, that was an amazing moment. In terms of the story, I think shock rock is a real favorite of ours because it was a genre that I think took people out of the purist and metal mentality for a moment because we talked about circus sideshows. We talked about P.T. Barnum, we talked about Arthur Brown, we talked about Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. And all of these entertainers were precursors to Alice Cooper, who many see as kind of the ground zero for shock rock. So I’m really proud of that episode because it covered so much ground from P.T. Barnum to Slipknot to Rammstein to Marilyn Manson to Venom. It’s just a story that we really got excited about.
I have questions from some of my readers via social media.
Q: Dave from Iowa wants to know if there was anyone you tried to interview who refused or blew you off, though I seem to recall an episode where you flew halfway around the world to meet Joey DeMaio.
A: (Laughs) Yeah, well, one of the episodes was power metal, and when you think of power metal, definitely the biggest band and the biggest American band that comes to mind is Manowar. Unfortunately, Joey didn’t want to be part of the series. And to be honest with you, to this very day, I don’t know why. He just simply refused to be part of what we were doing. It’s a real shame because everyone else is in the series (laughs). We got every other power metal band to participate. All the European bands — Blind Guardian, Hammerfall. Newer bands of course included Dragonforce and Nightwish. But unfortunately, Manowar is a glaring omission, and I think it’s sad for Manowar fans that they’re not part of the biggest series ever on the history of metal. And also for the story of power metal. It’s not really complete without having them in there. But, you know, out of 11 episodes, we got 300 interviews, so overall, at the end of the day, we’re happy.
So was there anybody else where you had a situation like that?
Robert Plant, from Led Zeppelin of course, didn’t want to be part of the series. That wasn’t a huge surprise to us because Led Zeppelin has always shied away from the heavy metal image and association. But I think the positive thing about that is we found a way to actually turn that into a story and point out that in the ’70s, heavy metal wasn’t really born yet as a culture or an identity. There were bands like Sabbath and Zeppelin and Purple that critics were calling heavy metal, but the whole — to use a sociological phrase — the whole self-identification as metal didn’t really start until the New Wave of British Heavy Metal with bands like Maiden, and of course Priest and Saxon and Motorhead and so on. So, believe me, I would love to interview Robert Plant.
Q: Joe from San Antonio wants to know if there were any bands you weren’t necessarily a fan of but did become a fan of through your research and interviews?
A: Hmm, that’s a great question. Don’t know if I’ve ever been asked that question. I became a big fan of Arthur Brown (laughs). Arthur Brown is as a musician and entertainer, that growing up in Canada, I knew nothing about. And I think most people in North America don’t really know about. But here’s this guy who was playing in the late ’60s who was dressing up in outrageous costumes, who had a helmet that he lit on fire, and he did these insane dances, and he wore a mask. He was freaking people out. I just became a fan of not just his music but his whole attitude and his whole purpose that he was just out there to create something that really shook people up and took the whole visual side of rock music to another level.
Q: I don’t know if you’ve ever been to San Antonio or how often you have been if you have, but ’70s and ’80s bands such as Priest, Scorpions and Queensryche played some of their first American gigs here thanks to a late DJ named Joe Anthony. Because of that, San Antonio was labeled for many years as the “heavy metal capital.” So Carol from San Antonio wonders if you’d ever come here and explore that part of this city’s metal history as far as the scene with the bands and promoters that made it thrive during that time.
A: Well, I’ve been to Dallas, I’ve been to Houston. I’ve been to Austin. I’ve been to Ted Nugent’s ranch in Waco (laughs). So I’ve seen a bit of Texas, but I’ve never been to San Antonio. Although I didn’t know about the DJ and his influence, and that’s really interesting, I did have a sense that San Antonio was a big, thriving metal community in the U.S. Who knows? Maybe one day we’ll come to San Antonio. Right now, no big plans. But one thing we’ve learned with our work to date is that one thing always leads to another, and that’s a good thing. Because it means we can keep putting bread on the table and keep doing what we love to do. So you never know. San Antonio might be on our map in the near future.
Q: Regarding “Flight 666” — Maiden has always struck me as a band that’s very cool to its fans but not always accommodating with the media unless it’s a well-known publication or TV show. You got the kind of access where no man has ever gone before aboard Ed Force One. Did you have any prior background or experience with them before being afforded that access?
A: Well, there’s a really important story here. Rod Smallwood, Iron Maiden’s longtime manager, was one of the very first supporters of the idea of “Metal: Headbanger’s Journey,” long before other managers or record labels or musicians believed in what we were doing. And so our relationship with Rod and Bruce (Dickinson) and some of the other Maiden guys goes back to 2004, where we interviewed Rod, and Rod liked us. I think he saw something really interesting in our approach, that we were taking metal seriously, that we wanted it to be an intelligent documentary for heavy metal music. And so he granted us an interview with Bruce, and that was the beginning of it. Fast forward to 2008, where we’re on the Tarmac of Stansted Airport in London, England, getting ready to set off on probably the most ambitious rock tour of all time. So, our relationship with Maiden goes back a long way. The band is very special to us because we’re fans, because the durability and stamina of that band is truly remarkable. There’s very few bands of any genre that can put on a show that they put on that have retained a loyal fan base. Maiden continues to be a fascinating story. They continue to defy everything that anyone ever said about heavy metal, that it was going to disappear. That it was the sort of flash in the pan, teenage devil worshiping music that was never gonna go anywhere. Maiden plays to 40,000 people in soccer stadiums in South America. They’re not going away whether you like it or not (laughs).
Q: What struck you the most about Rush when putting together “Beyond The Lighted Stage?”
A: Rush is a unique band because of the juxtaposition between the music and who they are as people. Their music is very complex, very cerebral, grounded in fantasy and sci-fi. Some songs are over 12 minutes long with multiple time signature changes. They’re 12-bar blues (laughs). Complicated stuff. And yet, as people, they’re not the people you would expect to create this kind of music. They’re down-to-earth. They’re funny. They’re really funny. They’re family men. They’re kind of normal guys. And it was really, I think, if you step back and look at that movie, it’s that juxtaposition that really makes it work. People who weren’t Rush fans, who can’t stand their music and may still even after watching the movie can’t stand their music, they were really endeared to them as people because they’re growing up in suburban Canada and sons of immigrant families trying to make it and decided to get into rock music. Like their parents wanted them to get a real job as a doctor or lawyer and then going on to have this career. I think they defied a lot of people’s expectations, and as Canadians, they’re like our, you know, if a rock band was going to write our next national anthem, it would be Rush. In fact, I think next to our national anthem, Geddy Lee is the most iconic thing about Canada. Geddy Lee’s voice, I should say (laughs).
Q: Something that’s always been interesting to me about Rush, like you mentioned, they’re either a love-’em-or-not-like-’em band. I know when I was in high school, I didn’t give them a chance until CDs came out, and a buddy of mine had all their stuff on cassette, and he says, “I don’t need cassettes anymore. CD’s are out. Why don’t you have all these Rush cassettes?” And I listened to them. Fast forward 30 years, I have every single thing they’ve ever put out. They strike me as guys that are harmless and wouldn’t do anything to hurt you. Why would you ever hate them? So, why do you think it is — is it just one of those bands that either you get ’em or you don’t?
A: Absolutely. I don’t think Rush is for everybody. Geddy, Alex (Lifeson) and Neil (Peart) probably agree with that. I think they appeal to people that are looking for something more substantial in music than just a hit song or another love story or boy meets girl — these kinds of scenes that really drive pop music. A lot of people who love music aren’t served by those kinds of needs. They want something that they’re not going to understand on the first listen. If they’re a guitar player, they’re not going to understand how Alex achieves a certain tone or if they’re a drummer how Neil manages to sound like he’s got 15 limbs, right? It appeals to people who don’t necessarily want to get it right away. It takes a little bit of work. Speaking personally, that’s the music I’ve always been interested in. Whether it’s ’70s, ’80s, ’90s or now, there’s always going to be people out there who want that depth, who want that mystery, who want that kind of hidden quality that you get in Rush’s music.
Q: How is the Alice Cooper documentary coming along, and what else can metalheads look forward to from you and Scot?
A: We’ve got two feature documentaries in post-production right now. One is the story of Alice Cooper from the beginning of his life up to his comeback in the mid-’80s. It’s a film with interviews with Alice, obviously, former band members from the original Alice Cooper group, his longtime manager Shep Gordon, his legendary producer Bob Ezrin to musicians who have really been influenced by Alice and played with him over the years. It’s really about this guy, Vincent Furnier (laughs), who grew up in Detroit and moved to Phoenix and eventually went to L.A. and set off on his dream to become a rock star. How this guy Vince became Alice and what happened when he became Alice. The other film we’re working on is a cultural history of the devil. It’s a film that asks, why is the devil such a pervasive character in popular culture — to music to literature to TV? So we’ve interviewed Linda Blair, who was Regan in “The Exorcist.” We’ve interviewed Zeena Schreck, who’s the daughter of the founder of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey. We’ve interviewed Mike Mignola, who created the Hellboy character. Sally Jessy Raphael had talk shows about Satanism and devil worship back in the ’80s. We’ve interviewed the head exorcist of The Vatican. So it’s a real range of personalities and perspectives, and we’re hoping to release that in the fall of next year.
Q: I know people probably hit you up for future documentary ideas all the time. Is it possible — on a couple of fronts, I know Iran and Afghanistan are places you may not want to go to anytime soon, but there’s a growing scene out there with bands coming out of there. Is it possible we might see something on bands trying to make it out of those countries, and also the abundance of metal cruise festivals that are popping up like Shiprocked and 70000 Tons of Metal?
A: Yeah! Well, I mean, we did do “Global Metal” in 2006 which looked up the globalization of metal, and we spent time in the Middle East talking with fans from Kuwait and Egypt to Iran and Iraq. Why they love heavy metal and the dangers involved in being a metal fan in that part of the world. We’re certainly familiar with the experiences in the Middle East. There was a great film made about an Iraqi metal band, “Heavy Metal In Baghdad.” Not sure. That may be kind of covered for now. As for the cruises, yeah, wow! Who would’ve known (laughs) that metal cruises would be a popular holiday destination? I’ve never been on one, so perhaps I need to go on one first.
Well, I went on the first two 70000 Tons of Metal cruises last year and this past January and, no pun intended, they’re quite a trip.
Yeah, they sound exciting. All the musicians I talk to and fans who go, they all say it’s an amazing experience, and the musicians love it because they were all initially worried that they would get swarmed by fans and kind of get harrassed, but none of that has happened. So I think it’s great because it’s a positive thing for the musicians that they can enjoy it too.
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