That’s When I Became A Metalhead II: Kim Kelly
Invisible Oranges readers will need little introduction to Grim Kim Kelly. Her words have graced many a respected metal publication (Terrorizer, NPR, Metal Maniacs, Metal Sucks), and her own blog Ravishing Grimness; she also was recently published in The Atlantic (check out her must-read piece, ‘The Never-Ending Debate Over Women in Metal and Hard Rock‘) She’s also publicist for Catharsis PR, promoter for Doomed To Suffer Promotions, and spends a good chunk of her year road-dogging and hawking merch for bands like Saint Vitus, Corrosion of Conformity, and Black Tusk. With such an osmium-clad CV, Kim was one of the first interviewees I had in mind for this column. I was most curious to learn how she came to this music, growing up as she did in the remote Jersey Pine Barrens — and how her passion for this music eventually led her down the path of metal writing and PR work.
Take me back to your earliest memory of hearing heavy metal for the first time.
I have some hazy recollections and jumbled-up half-memories of hearing Metallica and Linkin Park on the radio, bemusedly glancing at my dad’s dusty Black Sabbath 8-tracks, and listening to nü-metal on my friends’ Walkmans around age 12, but it’s probably a bit more relevant to talk about the first few extreme metal songs I came across. Growing up in the middle of nowhere (we’re talking full-on nature preserve) meant that my exposure to metal was more or less nonexistent until my classmates began to discover file-sharing sites like Limewire and Kazaa around sixth or seventh grade. My family had (still has!) dial-up Internet, so that strategy didn’t work too well for me; soon, song fragments and tracks I had to wait for hours to download populated my legions of multi-colored burned CDs. Keep in mind I was a child of the early 2000s (I started high school in 2002), so I listened to a lot of wretched music in the beginning. There was a point in time where Slipknot and Static-X were the heaviest things I’d ever heard, and even that small semblance of brutality and aggression really resonated with me.
I muddled along as best I could until I made it to freshman year of high school, and then, things began to click. The real game-changers were Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse, and Deicide. “Dominate”, “Pounded Into Dust”, and “Bible Basher” scared the hell out of me the first time I heard them. They were buried in the depths of my mix-CDs, the tracks I’d listen to for a few bars then have to skip. Slowly but surely, though, I started listening longer, and longer, until finally I knew all the words and genuinely loved what I was hearing. I began collecting Cannibal Corpse’s discography, getting in trouble for wearing pentagram-emblazoned Morbid Angel shirts to school, and ditched my subscription to Revolver for Metal Maniacs and BW&BK. My Christmas lists started looking drastically different–I fondly remember the year I convinced my Catholic, gun-totin’, good ol’ boy of a father to stick Deicide’s greatest hits in my stocking.
After making friends with a few older metalheads who had driver’s licenses, I started going to shows in Philadelphia and NYC, lying to my parents for the sake of rock ‘n ‘roll. My best friend Kelly and I had already been going to lots of shitty metalcore gigs in the next town over–neither of us really cared for the music (she was a street punk, I was a goregrind fanatic) but there was simply nothing else to do out there in the sticks. Gradually, happily, things began to change as I got a little older, got a driver’s license, and discovered the magic of the PATCO and NJ Transit trains. These pilgrimages were my first experiences of travelling outside of my 600-person-strong town, and I guess you might say that I developed my taste for travel there.
My high school teachers never knew what to make of me. I’d come to class in a still-sweaty Decapitated shirt, reeking of other people’s cigarettes and sporting some damn impressive dark circles from staying up all night after a show in New York (three hours away), but I consistently made the honor roll, was an award-winning member of the school’s Model Congress debate team, wrote about politics for the school paper, and excelled in all my classes. It’s nice to think that I did some damage to the deadbeat-metalhead-stoner-in-the-back-of-the-class stereotype. Eventually, I graduated high school with a 4.0 GPA and a fading black eye from some now-forgotten moshpit.
Do you remember the first metal record you owned?
Discounting the terrible nü-metal/hard rock/punk/etc albums I got when I was in middle school, I’d say the first ‘proper’ metal records I owned were Reign in Blood and Master of Puppets. I don’t really listen to either band anymore, but those albums definitely made their impact on me at the time; Slayer especially helped to open the floodgates.
How about your first metal concert?
I’d been to a few concerts when I was in middle school, but the first actual metal (well, sort of) show I made it to was 36 Crazyfists, Kittie, and Candiria at the Trocadero in Philadelphia when I was 15. Even then I was incredibly unimpressed by the former two bands, but had heard Candiria on some compilation CD and wanted to check them out. If I’d had my way I’d have already been to see Jungle Rot and Deicide by that time (I still remember what those flyers looked like) but living as I did in the depths of the Pine Barrens, I had to take what I could get.
What I did have was a best friend with an older brother, whom I somehow managed to convince to take us to the show (lying to my parents through my teeth, of course). My friend was still in her Hot Topic/gothy phase, while I was already getting into proper death metal. But since she liked Kittie a lot, and I’ve always been a bit of a smooth talker, after much pleading and cajoling we found ourselves at the show. I remember Candiria seeming like the angriest band in the world at the time, and enjoying Kittie’s angry-girls-playing-metal routine (keep in mind I’d never heard of Bolt Thrower or Bestial Holocaust at that point!), as well as thinking 36 Crazyfists were wussy bullshit.
It’s funny thinking back to that. A lot can happen in eight years.
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Was there one particular family member, friend, or acquaintance that ‘turned you on’ to this music; someone in your life who stands out as an influence on your love of metal?
The first vinyl record I ever owned was my dad’s copy of Black Sabbath Vol. 4 on beat-up black wax, but that’s about as far as any familial ties to metal go. I was always on my own when it came to metal; I had a handful of guy friends in middle-school who were into the same nü-metal stuff that initially caught my ear and would burn me CDs, but we all rapidly grew out of that phase.
The biggest influence on my metal evolution wasn’t a person at all–it was the written word. Once I discovered that there was such a thing as a “metal magazine”, I promptly began subscribing to as many as I could, and religiously hunting down issues of the ones I couldn’t. My room was littered with wobbly piles of Metal Maniacs, BW&BW, Explicitly Intense, SOD, Pit, Terrorizer, Zero Tolerance, Brutallica, Metal Hammer, and even the odd Revolver, since once in awhile they’d spill some ink on a band I cared about. I devoured every word, fantasized about seeing MY name at the end of those articles, and spent god-knows-how-much of the money I made as a dishwasher at a shitty “family restaurant” on the records they recommended (to various degrees of success) at places like FYE, Sam Goody, and Virgin. Back then it didn’t faze me to drop $22 on a Blut Aus Nord import, and even when I wasted 17 bucks on things like Vader’s lackluster The Beast, it still seemed worth it. Spending hours engrossed in those closely-spaced pages, learning about bands I could never have imagined seeing live, let alone meeting, was the foundation for a lot of my metal knowledge. Those magazines, alongside books like Lords of Chaos, Sound of the Beast, and later Choosing Death, taught me what I wished I could learn from other metalheads (whom I knew existed, but had never really encountered).
Once I started making the trek over to Philadelphia to see shows at the Trocadero and TLA, though, I began to meet other heshers, and made fast friends with a group of slightly older guys that had been into metal for years. Matt, Scotty, and Metal Joe started inviting me to more shows, showed me how to find out about tour dates and album news online, took me to the independent record stores like Relapse Records’ brick-and-mortar incarnation (R.I.P.), and introduced me to tons of new bands, genres, and styles. I’d found a tribe. From that point onwards, I was hooked. Moreover, I was home.
Growing up, did you ever encounter any persecution as a result of your love of metal? Was there anyone in your life who took umbrage at the music you were interested in?
My family still can’t understand why I’m into this stuff, and you don’t even want to know how many times I’ve had to attempt to explain why I like it, what my job actually is, and that ‘No, Grandma, just because I travel around the world in vans with a bunch of hairy guys does NOT mean that I’m some kind of harlot’. They can’t really ground me nowadays, though, so they just have to deal. Couple my metallic existence with my long-running interest in body modification and plethora of very visible piercings/tattoos/etc, and my mother’s penchant of calling me her “devil child” makes more sense. They weren’t very excited about my developing interest in metal when I was younger (they were much more concerned with the holes I was putting in my ears, and figuring out why my earlobes seemed to be getting bigger), but they never tried to discourage me from listening to what I wanted, dressing how I wanted, or reading what I wanted. I wasn’t allowed to go to shows, but snuck out and went anyway until I got my driver’s license and could disappear at will.
My grandparents (the family members I’m closest to) think it’s all very silly, but are proud of me and what I’ve accomplished, even if they don’t exactly understand it. My granny does have a habit of telling me that with all my piercings and black clothes, I’ll “never get a boyfriend”, which prompts me to remind her that I already have a boyfriend (who’s in a few extreme metal bands and is chuffed to be dating a tattooed broad with more records than him!) and that getting guys has never been a problem, Sargeist shirts or not.
Nowadays, I get more shit and more rude behavior from people about my piercings/tattoos/microdermal implants/etc than the music I’m into, but that’s another story.
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What was the best and worst part about meeting your metal heroes?
I’ve met a bunch, and toured with a couple! Meeting and subsequently working for/bonding with Wino and Kirk Windstein was an amazing experience–they’re two of the most interesting and good-hearted human beings I’ve ever encountered. Interviewing, and then keeping in touch with Tom G. Warrior has been a total trip–he’s another highly intelligent, articulate, and surprisingly fragile metal titan–he gave me some wonderful compliments that I’ll never forget. Getting to know the EyeHateGod guys has been fantastic–they’re my favorite band, and being able to call them my friends as well is invaluable to me. I’m incredibly privileged to have met and connected with so many amazing people through my involvement in metal, and even though I don’t really get “starstruck” anymore, once in awhile I still get a little giddy going through the numbers in my phone. The worst part is saying goodbye, but once you realize you’ll probably catch them again in a few months, in some city somewhere, it doesn’t hurt too bad.
What’s the most-prized piece in your collection, the thing you’d save in a fire?
My records. I’ve spent years accumulating the rare gems, sentimental slabs, and expensive investments lurking within those crates. I’d toss my tangled mess of tour/press laminates, the blown-up photo of me stagediving to EyeHateGod that my beloved friend Samantha Marble took, as many posters from shows I’ve booked/worked/attended as possible, and maybe a couple shirts (Altar of Plagues, Necros Christos, and Nunslaughter) on top. Oh, and the painting Wino made me on the last Saint Vitus tour!
At what point did you realize that this music was going to be an intrinsic part of your identity for the rest of your life?
It’s hard to say. As soon as I discovered it, I was immediately taken in, and lost all interest in any other kinds of music. It gave me an identity, a place to belong, an image, a way to vent emotionally, people to confide in–everything you crave when you’re at that age. Hell, those factors are still things that matter to me, because by now they’ve become a part of me. It also gave me a purpose. I started writing for publications at the age of 15, beginning with my county newspaper. One day, they handed me a Full Blown Chaos album and asked me to write a record review for it, “since you like stuff like this”. After I wrote those few hundred (disparaging) words, something clicked. I’d always been a good writer, and had dreamed of seeing my byline appear on the cover of Metal Maniacs or Terrorizer someday, but it never actually occurred to me that I could do it. Now, I had my opening. I remember being 16, interviewing Behemoth and Cattle Decapitation for that poor newspaper, and writing endless record and show reviews for my high school paper. When I was still 16, a friend (to whom I’ll always been in the greatest of debts) hooked me up with a gig writing CD reviews for this webzine Pivotal Rage, and, well, things just snowballed from there. I ended up getting that Terrorizer cover after all–when I was 21.
When I was first really getting into more extreme metal, all I can remember is the excitement of it all, and how it all seemed to make so much sense. Here was this music–this loud, abrasive, alien sound, with all its different nuances and subgenres–that sang of rage, of alienation, of war and warrior, of sickness and despair, of triumph, of hatred, of philosophy, of lust and sometimes even love. The bone-rattling brutality of death metal, the cold hatred of black metal, the manic intensity of thrash, the despondent heaviness of doom, the no-holds-barred insanity of grindcore–it just spoke to me and still does. The fact that hardly anyone else cared about it made it even more special. It was a refuge, a secret club, whose membership was to be earned and protected. This was before the Internet made it possible for any weekend warrior to amass a lifetime’s worth of metal knowledge and music within the space of a few hours. We still had to try. I bought up magazines, spent thousands on CDs and concert tickets, corresponded with metal pen pals and traded CD-Rs, drove hours to see even the lamest metal shows, just because it was metal. We had it easier than metalheads did in the ’80s, or even the ’90s, but there was still some effort required. Things are different now.
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What is it about this genre of music that causes such dedicated, lifelong devotion?
I think I may have answered this above, but to reiterate–it is more than just a style of music. It’s a tribal identity, an inspiration, and a refuge. Metal is global. We are everywhere. I remember sitting in my car one night, on break from one of my shitty high school jobs, and listening to Dissection’s The Somberlain with the windows down, with cold air drifting in. It struck me–“Somewhere out there, someone is listening to this same album, and loves it just as much as I do”. That realization meant a lot to me then, and the memory has stayed with me throughout all of my travels and experiences. The sense of community, of (for fear of sounding Manowar-ian) brotherhood/sisterhood that heavy metal provides and encourages is unparalleled and that feeling of belonging is something that metalheads will fight for.
The music itself means everything, and the opportunity to share your love of this much-maligned, socially-unacceptable, difficult music with someone that GETS IT is priceless. It’s outsider art for an outsider culture; not many of us were the homecoming queen or the star quarterback, but within these walls of noise we’ve thrown up and rallied behind, none of that matters. All that matters is the riffs. There is room here for those who desire that sense of community, but also ample room for the lone wolves, the misanthropes, those that desire no connection but appreciate and worship the music on its own.
Metal is love. Metal is war. Metal is what you need it to be. Yes, there are some glaring flaws and issues within the metal community, and the times keep changing faster than some of us can bear to see, but the bigger picture is what matters. Seeing the sheer passion and devotion of metal fans in hardscrabble Russia, in sunny Portugal, in outlaw bars in Texas, in isolated South Dakota, in Philly basements and Berlin squats, London pubs and Helsinki nightclubs, is so inspiring and so empowering. Ultimately, it all comes down to the music–this at times deeply emotional, highly intellectual and complex noise, this brainless gory fun, this nihilistic evil, this fuzzed-out amplifier worship, this vicious brutality, this delicate beauty, this wacked-out experimentation, this heavy FUCKING metal.
It is not a perfect world, but it’s mine. It’s ours.
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