Interview: Harald Oimoen (Coauthor, “Murder In the Front Row”)
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Bassist Harald Oimoen spends the better part of his year touring with Dirty Rotten Imbeciles. Long before he joined the band, however, he was busy taking photographs of Bay Area thrash bands that eventually became legends. He shot the images for the back cover of Possessed’s death metal classic Seven Churches, photographed Metallica bassist Cliff Burton on and off the stage, and sparred with English Metallica photographer Ross Halfin. His best work is included in the upcoming Bazillion Points book Murder In The Front Row: Shots From The Bay Area Thrash Metal Epicenter (with Brian Lew). A perennial joker, Oimoen discussed his memories of the Seven Churches photo shoot and shared exclusive photos with Invisible Oranges. He feels fortunate to be a lifelong part of Bay Area metal. “I think we have the best scene in the world,” he says. This is the second part of my interview with the principals behind this book; also read the first interview, with Brian Lew.
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Harald & Jimmy Hetfield 1985 Kabuki
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I asked Brian the same question to start: which photo of yours is going to surprise people the most?
I think it’s just that in these photos all the bands seem to like each other so much. You can see how much fun they are having. It’s become a big business. There’s a recent photo at the end of the book of Gary Holt (guitarist, Exodus) with Kerry (King) and Jeff (Hanneman) from Slayer. No one is smiling and everyone seems serious. It’s almost like Slayer and Gary Holt waving goodbye. There’s also a picture of Kerry on his knees on the stage. He has a big armband on and people are mobbing him. You’d never see that now. Slayer doesn’t play stages that are three feet off the ground anymore. Back then, it was all grassroots.
How did you and Brian decide to work on this book together?
I’ve wanted to do this my whole life. I’ve always taken pictures. I talked to Monte Conner of Roadrunner Records and asked him if he knew anyone that might be able to put out a book on thrash. Nobody had done it. He recommended Ian (Christe) and Bazillion Points. I liked Bazillion’s Tom G. Warrior book and other things he’s done. I got hold of Ian, and he mentioned Brian, said he had a bunch of old stuff no one has seen.
Did you know Brian when you were both coming up in the Bay Area metal scene?
For sure. We both grew up in Sunnyvale and rubbed elbows at Y&T shows at the Keystone in Palo Alto. I was in a metal band called Hellhound, and he was good buddies with them. The book project was a natural thing.
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Anthrax – Kabuki Theater SF 1984 after getting stomped by Exodus who opened
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When did you start taking photos of bands and why?
It was about 1979 or 1980. A buddy of mine was taking photos of big outdoor shows like Aerosmith and Van Halen. I thought I could do it, too. Once the Metallica shows started happening, I wanted to document stuff. I had a 35 mm camera. Basically, it was just to document the scene and the fun times. A lot of times I’d get drunk and wouldn’t remember what happened, but the photos would show you after (laughs).
I would love to hear the entire story of the shoot for the back of Possessed’s Seven Churches.
I’d known those guys for a long time from shows at Ruthie’s Inn, and they needed photos for their album. I was really good friends with Debbie Abono, their manager. We did a few shoots, actually. We did one in their practice place which was a basement. We let off an orange signal flare because we thought it would look cool. Smoke engulfed Debbie’s house. You couldn’t even see your hands in front of your face (laughs). This big orange cloud descended on the neighborhood–it was horrendous. So, that didn’t work out because the smoke was just too much.
We tried again in Debbie’s backyard. She had these big white chunks of Styrofoam left over from packaging. We thought they’d look cool set up behind the band. We made up a bunch of fake blood with food coloring and syrup and put it all over the Styrofoam. Unfortunately, we tracked it all over her house because it was so sticky. In the book, there are other photos where we used catsup for blood. You can definitely tell it’s catsup.
The photo shoot that stuck was taken after a long night of partying at Debbie’s house. We were totally drunk on grain alcohol, Everclear. Gary Holt was there and so was Paul Baloff (Exodus vocalist). We did the photos after partying all night and were buzzed. Gary gave (Possessed vocalist) Jeff Becerra a really hard time because he was going to paint his fingernails black and started doing it with a sharpie. Gary thought it was lame or at least thought he should use fingernail polish.
Debbie’s son made a fog machine out of a pickle barrel and an air dryer and it worked really well. Somehow, it ended up being a classic death metal album. And it was all done in Debbie’s backyard in Pinole (California).
Who had the idea for Jeff to hold that big upside down cross and how was it made?
It was a silly prop someone had lying around. We did some shots of them in front of a barbecue pit, a hibachi thing, and those didn’t work out. So instead, we got lighter fluid and lit the thing and held it upside down, and it looked amazing. It was total spur of the moment. We also set the drummer’s sticks on fire and put a fog machine behind the Marshalls. Someone had to hold (guitarist) Larry LaLonde’s legs when he stood on the Marshall stack because he was so drunk he almost fell off! Good times, for sure.
The shoot sounds like a lot of fun but when I first saw the back of Seven Churches I thought the band looked like total lunatics. So you did your job.
It does give off that vibe. You should see some of the outtakes where Larry couldn’t even keep a straight face. Unfortunately, Larry doesn’t really embrace that part of his past now that he’s in Primus. Whenever I bring up the Possessed photos to Primus shows he’d be kind of embarrassed. But, I think it’s awesome, and he should embrace it.
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You also had a close connection with Metallica bassist Cliff Burton. How did you get to know each other?
He was the guy in Metallica I could relate to the most. He liked to have smoke now and then and was very laid back, the most down to earth guy in the band. I was an aspiring bass player, so I looked up to him because his style was so original. He was just a really cool guy.
I went out to Castro Valley with him once. He grew up there. All of his high school friends were looking at him like “wow, he’s a star”. He couldn’t stand that. He hated being called a rock star. After he passed away, there was this thing in the paper that said “Castro Valley Rock Star Passes Away”. His sister and a bunch of his friends were pissed, because he would have hated that. He was as cool as you would think he’d be.
You captured a lot of images of him in more personal moments, and they show what he was like as a person, not just Metallica’s bass player.
He was really photogenic. I could get shots of him with his hair sticking up, and I wouldn’t even try. There are at least 50 photos in the book of Cliff, some that haven’t even been seen before.
Had his family seen these pictures?
I got to know his mom and dad well after his death and interviewed them for CREEM magazine. I gave them a bunch of photos. They were so nice, and it’s so sad what happened. His mom passed away a few years before the Hall Of Fame induction, so unfortunately she couldn’t see that happen. But his Dad, Ray, is the coolest guy ever. He recently did a message to fans on YouTube. They are great people.
When you were taking these photos, were you playing in bands?
I’ve always played in bands, but in the past it was a hobby, just for fun. I was in a band called Terminal Shock for a while, a metal band in Hayward. The guitar player got killed, so we broke up after that. The D.R.I thing came up because I roadied for their second bass player. I’d known them for a long time, and it just worked out. One of the bass players quit in the middle of the tour, so they looked at me. I had to learn 32 songs in two days. My first show was the Milwaukee Metalfest in front of thousands, and I’ve never looked back.
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Lars shopping for Vodka 1985 El Cerritto
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What was that experience like?
Nerve-wracking. Spike (Cassidy, guitarist) and I sat in a studio for two 12-hour days. We drove to Milwaukee, and I had this thing called an Ibanez Rock-and-Play. I played along to all the songs through my headphones and learned the whole set. It’s been a total blast. People take photos of me now for a change (laughs).
What was the hardest song to learn?
“Equal People”. It’s really, really fast. When we practiced it, Spike looked at me like “I don’t know if we’re going to be able to pull it off”. But I did and now I can’t think of not playing it.
Do you find that people now know you as D.R.I’s bassist or as a photographer?
A lot of people primarily thought of me as a photographer. I’ve had people come up to me at D.R.I. shows and be like “damn, I didn’t know you played bass”.
What changes have you noticed in the Bay Area scene from its inception until now?
All of the record stores are folding, and fast. When I was younger, it was really hard to find stuff. You couldn’t just go on the Internet and order things. Finding albums was so rewarding because you’d search high and low for things, and when you found it, it was amazing. But it’s still pretty cool. Things will never be the same. But Testament and Machine Head are still putting out incredible music. And D.R.I. is getting back in the studio after 15 years to record some new stuff. So look forward to that.
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Slayer at the Kabuki SF 1985
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Brian mentioned that in the early days you didn’t need to get a photo pass to take pictures. There was a lot more freedom. Now it’s something handled by professionals.
Photo passes didn’t exist. Once I got to know Slayer and Metallica and Megadeth, it was always cool to shoot. It’s changed and it’s all about the mighty dollar. That’s why the book is so cool, because it shows everyone smiling and laughing and having a good time. It conveys the camaraderie between the bands, that there was no distinction between the bands and the fans. It wasn’t like “there’s James Hetfield”. He was just one of the guys.
One of the big themes in the book is that people always seem to be giving the finger or holding a beer. We were going to go through the whole thing and count the number of beers and fingers (laughs). There were hundreds.
Would kids now be able to do what you and Brian did? Or would they be forced to stand in the back of the crowd with an iPhone camera?
Photo passes are all about big business. Back then, it was about fun. The first time I took photos of Cliff from Metallica I got shots for Ride The Lightning. Slayer used one of my shots on Hell Awaits. It was a thrill to get my shots on the albums.
There was this other jerk photographer then named Ross Halfin. He’s a total English asshole. I can’t stand him. He’s made it tough for me to shoot. Brian and I went to the Hall Of Fame induction for Metallica a few years ago. Jimmy Page and Joe Perry were hanging out. I was taking pictures of Hetfield hanging out with Page, and Halfin came up and put his hands in front of my camera and was like “No!” (impersonates English accent).
What did you do?
I just kept taking photos. Fuck him. I also sent him an email calling him a wanker and a greedy bastard. I had to get it off my chest. Then he released this book called The Ultimate Metallica. He printed the letter on the last page of his book, printed every word. It was awesome. He thought it was great enough to put it in his photo book.
What else did he do to try to stop you?
He just wanted exclusives, so he would put his hand in front of my camera. But Metallica management said he’s not the only one authorized to take photos.
Did the confrontations ever get physical?
I wanted to pop him in the face. The email pretty much says it all. Once, I tried to find a hotel room where he was staying so I could send him a bunch of pizzas (laughs). Unfortunately, he’s kind of untouchable. I’m not a violent person, but he did come pretty close to getting his ass kicked.
Are you still active as a photographer now?
I still shoot stuff and will get photo passes for, say, Megadeth. Now it’s more on the back burner because I’m so busy with D.R.I.
I have to ask you this . . . what exactly happened when you ran onstage during Watain’s set during the Maryland Deathfest?
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I got drunk on Southern Comfort. I didn’t realize they were so serious or hardcore. I talked to the promoter and said “I’m going to go up and do my dance”. I’d done it with a bunch of other bands. I call it the Russian vodka dance. It’s like Lord Of The Dance and you put your feet up in the air. I went up there and did the dance, and the band started beating the hell out of me. It was crazy. Luckily, Dan Lilker (of Brutal Truth and Nuclear Assault) saved my ass. The promoter told me it probably wasn’t a good idea because security didn’t know who I was.
After the band beat the hell out of me, and I got off stage a bunch of security guards grabbed me. They thought I was a crazed stage diver and tried to kick me out. It was a stupid thing to do. I got bad puncture wounds on my ribs and my side from the nails. It was scary.
I didn’t even really know what hit me. One of the roadies was behind me and clobbered me on the side of the head. People were kicking my head into the stairs. I came up with a bunch of scrapes and bruises. I had no idea they were that hardcore.
We did a few shows with Watain in Europe last summer. I bumped into Erik (Danielsson) and apologized and he said no problem, they laugh about it every day.
Didn’t you have to play later that night?
Yeah, and that’s why some people thought it was rigged. But those guys are spooky. They take their shit very seriously. I heard they let sewer rats loose at a show in Paris.
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Harald’s Russian vodka dance does not translate into Swedish.
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SNEAK PEEKS AND PREORDERS OF MURDER IN THE FRONT ROW
This massive volume is due December 2011