RICHMOND, VIRGINIA--METALLIC PROVING GROUND
Notorious Richmond faggots Randy Blythe, Oderus Urungus, Chris Bopst, and Tony Foresta
in front of the city that sucked them off.
By David Brockie
Greetings, metal-mongers, from the conquered capitol of the Confederacy, Richmond, Va., as far north as south gets in the good ole’ U.S.A. Called by many a cultural morass in the midst of a sea of mediocrity, this may be true! But on the throbbing underbelly of this oft-burned locale, past the buried ghost train inside Church Hill, beneath the skeletal remains the 20,000 rebel dead in Hollywood Cemetery (one of this countries craziest necro-plazas), there is a vital and powerful music underworld—a place where metallic titans stride the earth, spitting bullets and breathing flame! Or at least they rock really hard.
Or, in other words, the slightly backwards, perpetually sleepy southern town of Richmond, Virginia, USA, is home to some of the heaviest and most successful bands in the hard and heavy music underground, all of whom sprang from their humble roots to rise to an international level. Shock metal gods GWAR, punk poets AVAIL, thrash metal kings MUNICIPAL WASTE, and current scene lords, fucking LAMB OF GOD, all sprung from and prospered on the fertile loam that is the Richmond, Va. music scene. One might think it more likely to find this group of elite misfits originating from a more cosmopolitan metropolis like San Francisco or New York, but you’d be WRONG! Because it is Richmond, Va., population 200,000 (soaking wet), that is home to this amazing collection of musicians, an un-recognized Mecca of metal deserved of closer inspection and perhaps even a cookie.
A word of introduction from yours truly is in order, as my story mirrors that of many of my peers, and besides that I just love talking about myself. I came to Richmond in a desperate escape from the confines of a typical suburban existence, longing for the “Animal House” -like life style that I assumed college was all about. I had spent several years in the slam pits of D.C., watching and participating in the birth and rise of hardcore (that’s right, I’m fucking old), but had succeeded in little more than earning the wrath of Ian MacKaye and his crew of “straight-edge” punks, who used to beat me up because I was slam dancing “the wrong way”. Indeed, my first attempt at a band, “Nuclear Dog Shit”, had been an unparalleled failure. So when I arrived in Richmond, Va. I was delighted to discover a crumbling, decrepit, decadent and dangerous place, chocked full of slobbering bums, aggressive transsexuals, and a vibrant musical community which grudgingly accepted me and my idiotic attempts at this thing called “music”. My first band, the notorious “Death Piggy”, earned a reputation as one of the stupidest ever, staging epic pie-fights, pouring mayonnaise down our pants, and vandalizing any public surface with our infamous “Piggy” moniker. With our motto, “Smile or Die”, we blazed a bumpy path into local music history, and eventually began to grow and mutate with alarming force until we had formed into one of the most notorious bands in hard rock history…the mighty GWAR.
Chris Bopst, local radio personality and a founding member of GWAR, arrived in Richmond for similar reasons.
“D.C. was full of dicks”, said Bopst, “I went to Richmond to escape their pompous attitudes and go to art school.” The school Bopst refers to is Virginia Commonwealth University, a reputable and affordable institution that became a cultural magnet for creative malcontents from all over the East Coast. What they found when they got here was the perfect breeding ground for art and music of all forms, and a local heavy music scene that was already well established. Seminal hardcore bands like White Cross were already touring nationally, and as Crossover combined the best of hardcore and metal the Richmond scene became a crucible of music where bands were formed and discarded with astonishing rapidity.
The low rent and generally depressed economy was another important factor in the development of Richmond’s music and the effect it had on the world. The incredibly cheap cost of living routinely made visiting musicians from New York or L.A. soil themselves with envy (and poo).
“Practice spaces are 200 bucks a month and in New York, that’s like two hours…”
So says Randy Blythe, a.k.a. Shark, lead singer for LAMB OF GOD, the biggest thing spawned by this town since lung cancer (Richmond being the headquarters of Philip Morris, creators of Marlboro cigarettes, responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths yearly), “I came to Richmond on the pretense of going to school, but really I was there to see hardcore shows. But because of the art school thing, there was a high level of artistry involved. The work ethic was fucking unbelievable.”
Shark’s band mate and LAMB OF GOD bassist John Campbell (who doesn’t have a cool nickname) continues the thought. “We became a band in an already thriving musical scene, and in that scene there were people who whupped ass, and unless you whupped ass, they didn’t have time for you…the bar was set extremely high…”
Bopst echoes the sentiment, saying, “If you are looking for the immediate adulation of total strangers then you’ve come to the wrong place. Nobody cares what you do because their band is much better than your band.”
It was music for music’s sake, created not for money or the attention of some hot chick you wanted to nail (well, maybe a little…), and that was typified best by the style of riff-oriented bands that pushed the boundaries of musical compositions well past the comprehension of the audiences they played in front of. Bands like BUTTERGLOVE, BREADWINNER, and ALTER-NATIVES (who moonlighted as GWAR in it’s earliest incarnation), did away with the supposed necessity of a lead singer and went straight for the musical meat, creating the genre of “math rock” long before it became a catch phrase to describe the hordes of less-inspired bands that followed in their wake. Much of this was due to the efforts of legendary Richmond guitarist Penn Rollins, whose first notable project, hardcore heroes HONOR ROLE, helped pave the way for the onslaught to come. Perhaps no other single musician better typified the Richmond attitude where the music was never about anything other than the music itself. His latest project, LOINCLOTH, continues to expand a musical legacy that his fellow Richmonder’s refer to with something like awe.
Says Bopst, who was the bass player for the aforementioned ALTER-NATIVES, “Everywhere you go, when people find out you are from Virginia, the first thing they ask is “is that where Marlboro cigarettes come from?” and then next “do you know Penn Rollins?”
Richmond has produced tons of kick-ass bands over the years, bands that that had both regional and international success, and always presented a variety of diverse styles that still had the influence of the Richmond community at the core of their music. Bands like UNSEEN FORCE, ABSENCE OF MALICE (another Bopst band), FOUR WALLS FALLING, SLIANG LAOS, THE DEAD POETS SOCIETY, STRIKE ANYWHERE…the list goes on and on.
Adam Green, longtime Richmond soundman, offers his take. “When bands like the ALTER-NATIVES starting doing their own thing, the very thing that made it interesting is that is was not emulating anything. It was original and as far as bands went, originality was what counted, even if you did not like or understand it, you respected it. And this is what helped produce so many really good musicians. Plus the scene was small enough that everyone was influenced by everyone else, so bands would be made up of other band members and this melting pot produced a great amount of diversity.”
One of the most notorious havens for young artists and musicians coming up in the scene was a hulking structure that dominated an entire city block in the middle of one of Richmond’s poorest and most crime-riddled neighborhoods. It was called “The Dairy”, or “The Milk Bottle”, named after the gigantic porcelain milk bottles that dominated the corners of the building. Built like a fortress in the latter part of the 19th century, the structure had long served as Richmond’s main milk-bottling plant and distribution center for all things dairy. For many years, horse-drawn wagons shuttled to and fro from the buildings loading bays, providing local families with the stuff of life, before technology and economics spelt doom for the buildings original purpose. But it wasn’t long before people found other uses for its corridors and chambers--uses that would have made the buildings original occupants gag on their ice cream. For it was in the shadowy confines of this labyrinth that GWAR was born.
Around 1960 the building was bought by a local real-estate mogul who did nothing with the building except allow it to be overrun by an odd collection of hippies and rednecks that used the place to do everything from make t-shirts to experiment with a bizarre collection of electronic gadgetry. The place was littered with dusty transformers, vats of industrial solvent, and rusty milk-bottling equipment.
Said Bopst, an early dairy-dweller, “It looked like Frankenstein’s laboratory, and Frankenstein couldn’t drink enough milk. The dairy made everything possible. I rented out the dairy freezer. It allowed us to get together, someplace cheap, and allowed us to grow together. We could make noise all the time. Except for music, Richmond was painfully boring. You had to make your own entertainment. Making art and music was a great way to entertain yourself on the cheap. The dairy had a lot of effect on what goes on today.”
But like everything must, the Dairy died, a victim of “progress”, eventually becoming a trendy loft complex for yuppies. A chainsaw coming through my wall was a definite symbol that it was time to go. The artists who had filled the Dairy with life were dispersed to the winds, and many of them ended up congregating at or living in the area that had traditionally served as Richmond’s main party drag and center of the live music scene—Grace Street (“dis”-Grace St. to many).
Shark gives his perspective on traversing this arena of urban decay. "Walking down those few blocks of Grace St. was always an exercise in adventure for me. Would I get accosted by a creepy old man lurking outside the Lee X? Would I have to fight drunken hessians pouring out of Newgate Prison? Would I meet the Punk Rawk girl of my dreams at the Jade Elephant? Who the fuck knew? Only one thing was certain- SOMETHING would happen."
A three-block strip of this tawdry boulevard was home to a profusion of bumping biker bars, nasty-ass strip clubs, and punk rock venues notorious for cheap alcohol, random violence, and endless shows. The GWAR “Slave Pit” was just around the corner, located in an old massage parlor right across the street from a building that transformed into no less than three clubs over a ten-year period. GWAR members would get into their rubber suits and walk straight across the street to perform. It was along these scary blocks and inside the sweat-soaked clubs that lined them that today’s Richmond scene percolated, mutated, and was finally born amidst a hairy stew of stale beer, bloody fingers, and blasted eardrums. It was rock at it’s most primal, it’s most vital, and supplied today’s scene heavyweights with the perfect training ground to take their noise to the world of today.
And what the hell is going on today? Its simple-this town has produced some of the biggest names in the heavy music scene and continues to do so. Vets of vulgarity GWAR continue on their bloody path, churning out albums and tours with unceasing regularity, all the while drawing closer to the amazing anniversary of 25 years as Kings of the Underworld. The elusive AVAIL (who at the writing of this article were on the road, or maybe just wouldn’t return my phone calls…) continues to satisfy and astound the punk community with their singularly unique vision—a vision that perhaps typifies the spirit of Richmond more authentically than any other. LAMB OF GOD, after enjoying a brief respite from their arduous and world-wide tour schedule, are currently finishing up their new record, which promises to be yet another addition to a catalog of music that has consistently defined the cutting edge of metal music. Richmond’s underground scene continues to mutate and astound, with bands like SUZUKI TON and MENSREA setting a new standard of masterfully self-indulgent, brain-splitting musical mayhem. And finally, the latest local success story and thrash masters MUNICIPAL WASTE have established themselves as the latest successful addition to the stellar pantheon of hard rock heroes that this amazing, crappy little town has produced.
Tony Foresta, lead singer of MUNICIPAL WASTE, reflects on why Richmond was and is such a excellent place to rock. “A lot of the older bands, like GWAR (thanks for the reminder, I already said I was old…), had this work ethic that other bands can’t touch. It’s inspiring. You do whatever it takes because you love it. Then you see these same people hanging out at the bar, and nobody cares, because everybody is the same.”
He continues. “Richmond, it’s great to come home to. Your friends are always there to support you. It’s different everywhere else. Maybe it is a southern thing--southern hospitality is the truth.”
Perhaps it was gratitude to the city that spawned them that drove Tony and a small group of co-conspirators to organize an event that both celebrated the music of this town and gave people from all over the opportunity to fucking party like mad. “Best Friends Day” has grown from humble beginnings to a mammoth event that attracts people from all over the world.
Says Foresta, “Richmond is a melting pot of bands, and a lot of the bands play together. Best Friends Day is basically that. Let’s get a lot of different bands together, get a lot of different events together, to show everyone else in the country that you can come to Richmond and see all the amazing things that Richmond has to offer. Last year was 1200; this year will probably be 2000. People flew in from Australia!”
Though Richmond is still off the radar of most people, there have been indications that the more “professional” musical community have noticed that something significant has been going on here. Both GWAR and LAMB OF GOD have garnered Grammy nominations for their efforts, and MUNICIPAL WASTE has been nominated not once but twice for the Metal Hammer Golden Gods “Best Underground Band” award. Not surprisingly, nobody seems to give a rats-ass.
“Fuck a bunch of Grammy’s,” says Blythe, “If I go out there I’m gonna get drunk and punch some fucker from American idol in the face.”
“We got nominated for best underground band twice and lost both times,” says Foresta, “I guess we’re stuck there.”
As of today, nobody has won shit, and that suits everybody just fine.
So where’s the scene headed? I sat down with Erik Larson, one of those inherently prolific Richmond artists whose ties to the city and the music it creates run deep. Erik played drums for AVAIL for many years and more recently was the guitarist for ALABAMA THUNDER PUSSY, whose brand of southern-fried metal wowed audiencs all over the U.S. and Europe before their recent demise. Erik is currently working on at least five different projects, including metal outfit PARASYTIC, as well as his solo stuff, so be on the lookout.
“There are a lot of new, cool bands, but there isn’t an all-ages venue for them to play at, and it seems as if a lot of the old guard is dying out. There’s a lot of potential, but the scene is in a state of flux.”
Unfortunately, the corporate beast is rearing its ugly head in this town. The last decade has seen V.C.U., the entity that had so much to do with drawing all of these artists together, grow from a mid-sized liberal arts school to a hulking education monolith, gobbling up property and destroying historic architecture only to replace it with sterile and charmless education-hives. The emphasis of the college that has been the magnet for so many creative individuals seems to have shifted away from its art school origins to a more conventional, profit gaining formula with the expanding sports program as its centerpiece. Undoubtedly the “corporatization” of V.C.U. will trickle down to the students who give it life, and the end result may well mean a dilution of the creative pool that has made this town so singularly unique. The dudes seem to agree.
“There are too many bands with access to digital recording equipment,” says Shark, “things have gotten too easy. The work ethic just isn’t there.”
“Instead of getting a demo tape, somebody hands you a piece of paper with a MySpace address,” agrees Tony.
“My band doesn’t have a practice space, we’ve never played a show, we don’t have any members or songs, but we have a MySpace page. Can we get on your tour?” says Brockie…oh wait…I am Brockie. Can you quote yourself if it’s your own article?
And there you have it, the inside scoop on one of rocks least known but most heard breeding grounds. Not a bad turn-around for a city that once fought to keep people enslaved and was originally settled by the exterminating the local native population. For Richmond has risen above a it’s dark past, rebuilt its burnt and shattered structures, and become one of the best places in the world for up-and-coming bands to hone the skills that pay the bills (which are cheap as hell). And the best part about it is that nobody really seems to realize any of this. And this suits the denizens of this bastion of bestiality just fine. Because it was never about the attention, the fame, the phony awards or the funny money. It was never about the drugs or the sex (well, maybe a little about the sex), it was about…amazingly enough…THE MUSIC, and it always was and hopefully always will be. Richmond is nothing less than a cultural treasure, and to imagine the world where the bands in this article didn’t exist is to imagine a world that quite frankly, SUCKS. So let’s throw on “Sacrament”, and follow it up with “Dixie”, “The Art of Partying”, and finally “Scumdogs of the Universe”, and while your friends are trashing your room, let’s hope the future of this once-cursed town is as bright (and loud) as it’s recent past. We’ll let local loudmouth Chris Bopst wrap this up…
“The best thing about Richmond is that it has no defined scene. We are not known for any one thing. We weed out the assholes and play to entertain ourselves and please your friends. We get to operate in any capacity that we want to and its always evolving and it’s always different. People don’t understand what’s happening here…and I hope it stays that way.”
So do we Chris, so do we…
(Catch Chris’s radio show, “The Bopst Show” on the world wide web, and support anything and everything from Richmond by buying the cd’s and going to the shows. Hail Metal!)