The Story of Lucifer’s Hammer: Part 1

Matt Harvey and Ross Sewage live with Exhumed at the Covered Wagon. Photo by Sean McGrath.

About a month ago, I made a trip home to the San Francisco Bay Area. I boarded my flight departing from LAX with one goal in mind: spend three days immersing my ears in live thrash, punk, and death metal. The setting for the aural assault would be the Tankcrimes Brainsqueeze festival in Oakland, CA. Day one of the festivities was already well underway by the time I found myself conversing with Oakland’s resident bass wizard/mad scientist Ross Sewage. He perked up with interest when the words “Lucifer’s Hammer” were mentioned and he pointed his thumb to the scene behind him; youngsters moshing about, his friends and other lifers populating the floor with beers in hand, and local act Fucktard playing their strange, genre-defying brand of theatrical punk. “This, all of this, probably exists because of Lucifer’s Hammer,” the bassist hypothesized. “A lot of the musicians from around here. . .everyone that’s around my age — maybe a little younger, maybe a little older too — they were there for it.”

Bands and crowds consisting of fellow musicians and their friends are common sights in the Bay Area. This weekend, there could be a show made up of strange acts at Bender’s in San Francisco. On the same night, something fun might be happening at Eli’s Mile High in Oakland, or at the First Church of the Buzzard. When the touring bands come through, the locals get the chance to really flex their muscle and show off to the pit-hungry kids. It isn’t a bad problem for a city to have, bursting with so many killer local showcases you just can’t catch them all. The scene is in its most vibrant and creative state yet today. However that was anything but the case 20 years ago. This is the story of how San Francisco was resurrected from beyond the thrash grave, as told by the people who brought the Bay back to life. This is the story of Lucifer’s Hammer.

Aesop Dekker and John Cobbett at the Covered Wagon. (Source: Cobbett)

The year was 1995. The great Nevermind massacre of ’91 had wiped out a vast majority of metal music from the mainstream. On top that, after nearly a decade of mining the same sounds and themes, Bay Area thrash was effectively dead. The bands from that movement had either broken up or, worse, discovered A Vulgar Display of Power and were incorporating “groove” into their sound. The former all-stars were chasing audiences or lost in their own creative limbo. Nu-metal was only a few short years away from exploding, and early adopters of that sound were cropping up throughout the Bay Area. For creatively inspired, technical, and rocking heavy metal music, the Bay Area wasn’t the place to be.

In a conversation over the phone, Slough Feg frontman Mike Scalzi still vividly recalls the time. His perspective from those days was immortalized in the aptly titled “Life in the Dark Ages” from Slough Feg’s Twilight of the Idols record. “We were the only Bay Area band in the early ‘90s that played total old-school heavy metal. Around here, nobody wanted anything to do with New Wave of British Heavy Metal,” Scalzi says. “No way, forget it. In ’95, I remember Iron Maiden playing places that we would play. Seriously. Can you imagine? Iron Maiden playing a place smaller than Slim’s? It was insane!”

Though heavy metal was more or less extinct, punk rock was experiencing a minor renaissance in San Francisco. The roots of this scene could be traced back to The Summer of Love, when Bay Area counter-culture was at its peak. That 1967 season would forever associate San Francisco with the hippie movement, which came with two (of many) particular pillars: drugs and an appreciation for genuine art. While punk rockers disdained most hippie ideals, they valued sincerity in their music and certainly loved cheap highs — so, the heavily urban Mission district in San Francisco with its Summer of Love vestiges would be a logical hub for their sound and attitude. Then the broke and starving punkers added one more value, DIY. They realized if they wanted to play shows and make music, they had to do it on their own. The result was a community of punk bands in the Mission that placed music, independence, and a raging affinity for crystal meth above all else.

Two former leaders of that punk society, John Cobbett and Aesop Dekker, now stand at the forefront of modern, forward-thinking heavy metal. According to Mike Scalzi, the two were among those who fought the hardest for the return of heavy metal in the Bay. “I met John and talked to him about it in ’96 or ’97, we had played in the same clubs and been to the same shows, but never talked for whatever reason,” Scalzi says. “He said to me half-joking, ‘I’m starting a metal scene, want to be involved?’ I thought that it was a funny thing to say. A lot of people said that kind of shit and could never do it — John did it. I knew, and we all knew that at that time, that the hardcore scene in the Mission was dying. It was old and it was tired. Those people were starting to accept black and death metal, and maybe they were even starting to accept old-school heavy metal. And so, we could bring heavy metal back into the San Francisco music scene really strongly if we used that [punk] scene and those people in John and Aesop’s bands.”

The original Hammers of Misfortune lineup when they were still known as Unholy Cadaver. (Source: Cobbett)

My conversation with Scalzi leads me to a coffeehouse in San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighborhood, where I meet with three veterans of that punk scene in the Mission — Cobbett, Dekker, and Matt Shapiro. Cobbett and Dekker will forever be known as two-fifths of the legendary black metal outfit Ludicra, while Shapiro is a stealthier character. He has spent the last four years behind the scenes as the owner of a popular San Francisco bar, Elbo Room. 20 years ago, the three were known for roles history has mostly forgotten: John Cobbett, guitarist for Thunderchimp, Aesop Dekker, drummer for Hickey, and Matt Shapiro, vocalist for Fuckface. We assemble a round of beers (that’s right, a coffeehouse with beer on tap; welcome to San Francisco), and a two-hour discussion on the Bay Area’s heavy metal community ensues.

“There was a really bustling punk scene in the Mission district in the mid-90s that was pretty much spearheaded by Hickey and Fuckface,” Cobbett begins. Dekker joins in: “When we’d see good bands we liked playing to six people, we’d sort of invite them to play warehouse shows and kind of made a weird community. It wasn’t based on genre, it was just if we liked the band, they were cool and wanted to play a show.” Shapiro confirms the DIY attitude and the no-fucks-given sensibility that the Mission punks took when it came to genre boundaries. “We all had a common goal of doing it ourselves and doing it right because we loved it. We’d have, like, Lost Goat play with Fuckface and Hickey. They didn’t sound alike, but it made sense. There was a common thread and you could feel it, and we were all open-minded with music as well.”

That open-mindedness eventually made the Bay a welcome place for some of the most inventive and daring heavy metal bands around. Though punk reaped the initial benefits, it wouldn’t last; the scene would slowly decline as the mid-’90s progressed. Cobbett explains that by the end of 1997, punk rock in the Mission had come to a close. “The whole scene fell apart. I think it was right around New Years Eve 1997 because there were a couple overdoses, Hickey broke up, Fuckface was dissolving. . .it’s a shame because it was a really interesting and vital scene, but no one ever ‘made it’ out of that scene,” Cobbett laments. “It never had its Green Day or Rancid, which should have been Hickey and Fuckface. No one ever made it out of that scene and so now it’s largely forgotten, which I think is really a shame. There was a lot of energy there. It’s kind of like when a supernova happens, it’s like a dirty supernova.”

A Hickey/Fuckface/Lost Goat flyer. (Source: Quintana)

The maturing musicians had already realized that punk’s strict guidelines severely limited the scope of the genre. Dekker acknowledges that as he grew up, he began to see the downsides of the punk rock mentality. “The reason why I kind of stopped liking punk, well I never stopped liking punk, but stopped being interested in current bands was because punk had all these rules! It got really sanctimonious. . .the problem with punk was that the dirtiest word was ‘success.’” Cobbett retorts: “The second dirtiest word was ‘metal.’ That’s part of the reason that I think we got into metal at the time was to rebel against punk, the hegemony of the fucking punk scene and its sanctimonious attitude, the tyranny of this politically correct, holier than thou attitude. You know what, I’m listening to this band called Mayhem and two of the guys are fucking dead and these guys are more punk than you could ever hope to be.”

Dekker knew that he and Cobbett weren’t the only punks expanding their horizons. Others would follow similar paths, opening themselves up to heavier music. “There were these punkers in San Francisco that were listening to metal records at home and wanted to play metal, but just didn’t know other people,” he remembers. “I knew John and at some point it was like, ‘Have you heard Burzum? Have you heard Mayhem and Darkthrone?’ and it would be like, ‘You’re one of five other people in this city that appreciates death metal and black metal. We should start playing together.’ That’s how Ludicra formed.”

— Avinash Mittur

In the next installment, Dekker and Cobbett formulate a plan and the scene gains traction. Part 2, Thursday.