Decibel’s Albert Mudrian Talks Magazine’s Ever-Popularizing Metal + Beer Fest (LA Edition is this Friday, Saturday)
I’ll never forget the first time I tasted a beer. I couldn’t have been older than ten, maybe, when my father let me sip from his bottle of Moosehead lager. I believe he gave a hefty laugh when I spat out what little I’d drunk with the lingering bitter taste making me grimace. I imagine many others had similar first experiences. Wine, I somehow recall, came a bit easier thanks perhaps to a Catholic upbringing [maybe some forewarned early blasphemy born in me for enjoying the blood of Christ] while my first real enjoyment of beer came some time later after tasting a Guinness. Along with being raised Catholic, my mother is a proud Irish American, so she saw no harm introducing me to our motherland’s favorite beverage, at least in small portions at home during holidays and special occasions. Finally, something at first bizarre and repellent became enjoyable and much welcomed. Much the same could be said about my initial perception of metal music, as that, too, became an appreciation that would ever grow stronger with age.
Metal and beer have always had a close relationship. I, for one, often think of thrash metal in particular for my earliest associations between the two what with the back of Slayer’s legendary Reign in Blood featuring the band clutching a six pack or how Metallica were even once dubbed Alcoholica for their levels of intoxication. I also fondly remember a scene in their home video release Cliff ‘Em All where they casually grab some beers from a convenience store without seemingly ever paying for them. Of course, if more proof was needed, then nothing tops Tankard’s many odes to sudsy intoxication.
With the relatively recent explosion of craft beer in the US market -- with that industry’s constant pursuit for ever more unique and often extreme experiences between unexpected taste combinations and high alcohol contents -- it absolutely makes sense that someone would pair that experience directly with metal. That someone in large part has turned out to be Albert Mudrian and his staff at Decibel Magazine who have gone from covering beer in their pages to creating the unique experience of the Decibel Metal & Beer Festival, now in Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
I wanted for a while to attend the festival in Philadelphia, but good fortune landed far closer to home as Decibel expanded out to Los Angeles in 2018, with headlining sets from Testament playing two classic albums while Triptykon performed a set of only Celtic Frost songs. The two December nights were an absolutely joyful experience not only for the many great bands performing that weekend but just as much for the beer on hand. With a “Metal & Beer” ticket in hand, I received a special sample cup that allowed me to obtain unlimited pours from something like 17 breweries. Every type of beer imaginable was at hand, and good god just about every one tasted better than the last going, from refreshingly tart sours, heavy-as-all-hell IPAs, imperial stouts that made me think I’d just drank liquid Christmas joy, and much more. The biggest difficulty of the fest was reminding myself to properly balance between headbanging away to bands and socializing with friends, staff, and cheerful strangers over some of the best suds ever poured.
This was all possible thanks to the vision and work of Decibel Magazine and their leader Albert Mudrian. Albert and I have known each other for a long while, having first met at the Decibel headquarters before a Dimmu Borgir concert in Philadelphia during the end of my college days in that city. I became a regular on the perhaps infamously cantacorious and opinionated Decibel online forum, defunct now for a few years, where Albert would occasionally drop in to offer his thoughts or knock heads about. Years later, I’d see him again a number of times at annual installments of Maryland Deathfest where Decibel always held a table in the merch marketplace. And sure enough, we reconvenied at last year’s eponymous Los Angeles expansion of the magazine's Metal & Beer Fest where we discussed the workings behind the fest, what sets we were most excited to see, and of course what might come next in the near future.
Leading up to the Los Angeles installment of the festival this weekend (poster below), it was a real pleasure to chat again with Albert about the fest, where it's been, and where it might be going.
-- Joseph Aprill
How did the idea for the Decibel Metal & Beer Fest start for you, and how did the idea develop into the actual first fest?
The first Metal & Beer Fest was put together in 2016 and it happened in 2017. I had the idea, I’d say, back in 2013, and the truth is I got close to it becoming a reality in 2014. You know we do the Decibel Magazine tour which is a much different animal in being a bit more predictable. Along with that, I had booked some minor one-off like minor festivals but nothing crazy. So, I was a little tentative of doing something like this on my own. There was this production company, I think they were called AC Entertainment, which is kind of funny because Anal Cunt entertainment is the first thing I think of. But anyway, they do a bunch of big stuff -- like I’m pretty sure they do Bonnaroo and some other pretty large titles. They created this business model where they assumed the majority of the risk but they also took the majority of the money if it was successful. The more we talked and got further down the line with them the more it sounded like we were going to co-curate something where we’d holding the branding for it but we wouldn’t own it. We got pretty far down the line before we got uncomfortable with that, but also the one guy at the company who was like our biggest cheerleader in understanding us and what the event was going to be about… I got wind he wasn’t super happy at the company so it was getting clearer he might not be there, so we didn’t really want to hitch our wagon to that and ended up pulling the plug on that at the 11th hour.
From the rest of 2014 through 2015, I didn’t have the time as I was working on the revised version of Choosing Death [Albert’s book detailing the history of death metal and grindcore], but by 2016, we had some significant personnel changes at Decibel where a staff we had maintained for ten years decided to break up and bring in some new people. One of those new people was a marketing person named Alex Yarede. She wasn’t a traditional metalhead or anything like that, but she had some event planning experience along with being passionate for craft beer. She and I got to talking and I was like, “Well, let’s try and do this.” I was confident enough that I could put together a band lineup and we had enough contacts with breweries.
I mean, back in 2014, I was talking to Hammerheart, TRVE, and Three Floyds about like, “Hey, we want to do this event. Are you guys into this if we do it?” They were all into the idea, so when I came back in 2016 saying this is actually going to happen, everyone got pretty excited, so all the breweries bought in and it became on me to make the talent happen with a sort of aesthetic that was appropriate for Decibel and for craft beer nerds. So that was our first festival in 2017 which was going to be in a different venue than where we ended up with. We booked a room similar in size to the Observatory [the Orange County venue also holding the festival this weekend], but as we were getting closer and closer to the announcement, actually only a week away, it was becoming clear that the venue was getting cold feet about all the beer stuff. I guess they had done some beerfest previously that had been some kind of bro-beerfest with fucking beer helmets and shit, which I tried to explain, “no, no, no… this isn’t like that. This is a much different audience.”
They weren’t hearing me, and kind of removed the teeth from the event. It turned into them saying, “Well, we don’t want to do unlimited pours. Everyone’s just going to get a ticket to try two beers from each brewery. Oh and we’ll have the breweries stationed outside the building.” So it was turning into a tasting event rather than a beerfest at that point. I was able to find another venue, the Philadelphia Fillmore, who totally understood the event and were really accommodating. We announced the finale line-up for the fourth annual one that will happen there in April next year. Obviously, it’s been a great thing for us and a great thing for them. I couldn’t be happier as I absolutely love the room and the people who work there.
How did you get to the point where you wanted to expand out to do a second version of the fest elsewhere than Philly and ultimately what made you decide on Los Angeles?
It was something that I felt after two years in Philly. It felt like we had something. We were approached by a lot of different people in different markets saying we should do here or there. For us, it was first of all a question of do we have the bandwidth to handle another one because we’re a small independent company and it’s fucking hard to do one of these things. So, to do another one, it has to be worth our while in having it in a large market where we’d make a big splash. Where it would benefit the bottom-line but also expand the brand in the right way.
Definitely not expanding in a gross way, but something that felt natural. Los Angeles is a big market, so it just seemed right to try it there just because we thought there would be interest from breweries and potential sponsors. It’s a densely populated area that you have a decent chance to draw a good crowd. The only drawback at first really was learning the difference between booking in a market like Philly versus LA, in like how a band’s guarantees are much different in what’s essentially the second largest market in the country. So there was a bit of a learning curve… a lot of a learning curve for a lot of shit out there honestly.
That all said, we thought we’re into is, the bands are into it, the breweries are in… so I thought we could handle it. I mean, why not? We have had offers in other markets to do this and I hope one day we have that bandwidth that we could actually try it in another place that works in addition to all the other things we do over a calendar year. That remains to be seen if we can with it being just a question of time and man power rather than lack of interest on anyone’s part. So from a business perspective it’s like, “We like doing this. We generate revenue and people respond well to it. Why not?"
For either fest, and I think you touched on it a bit already, what have some of the biggest challenges been and along with that at the end of the day what has been the most rewarding part of it?
Philadelphia is a challenge because it’s a bigger event with 2,600 people with a bigger room so there’s more pressure to get that many people in there. So you gotta bring a bigger lineup to make a bigger splash and etc. But it is our home turf, and while I haven’t lived in Philadelphia for years, there’s people with the magazine who still live there and we’re extremely tight with the venue in Philly. We’ve booked four of them there now, so they know what to expect from us and we know what to expect from them. We’ve developed it, tightened it, and improved it in all these areas from trial and error. In that sense, there aren’t a lot of those kind of challenges, whereas in Los Angeles, you’re on the road and on the other side of the country. There was five of us who flew out there last year to work it and there’ll be four of us working it this year. We’re in a smaller room this year so we should be fine with a slightly smaller staff. But still there’s an unfamiliarity. I’ve been to LA a number of times over the years, it’s a cool place and I like it, but there’s a different vibe, expectations, and rules. The metalheads are a lot different out there. Not in a negative way either, just different.
No, I know what you mean. I’ve lived on the East Coast for a while, in the South for a bit, and now I’ve been in LA for about ten years. It is for sure different.
So yeah, unless you’re there experiencing it first hand it’s difficult to believe and understand the place. I don’t want to talk any smack on the Wiltern who did the first Los Angeles Decibel Metal & Beer Fest last year because I thought they were good hosts but the room, well only after we were there did it feel kind of inappropriate to me for the fest. It’s a gorgeous place with so much history in it and really just a fucking cool building I liked a lot. However, there’s certain amenities there that didn't feel right for the Metal & Beer fest crowd. Like, the orchestra pit in the front where only a certain amount of people are allowed, the sightlines are a little odd, the way the balcony is limited by seats and the pricing by tiers. Again, it’s a really fucking cool room but for whatever reason it just didn’t translate that well naturally to like how the Philadelphia venue is, and that’s not something you can really know until it’s actually happening.
Obviously, you’re not going to get the same experience everywhere you go, and it’s not my goal to create a carbon copy of Philly everywhere else. Every event is going to have it’s own vibe and feel but you want it to be the best fit wherever you put it. This year we’re at the Observatory, and we’ve done a number of the Decibel Tour dates there over the years and those have been great. I feel like the vibe there might be more in line with the Metal & Beer Fest crowd than the Wiltern. In short, I wish the Wiltern well, but I don’t think we belong there.
Transitioning from that, this festival has a lot to do with craft beer, so I’m interested in how you personally got into it. Clearly it fits well with metal and extreme music but why do you think that is?
I personally got into craft beer probably around 2006 or so. When I was living in Philadelphia, there was a bar there that’s no longer there sadly named Eulogy in Old Town. They had bottles of Weyerbacher there, which is a Pennsylvania-based brewery I would come to really like over the years, but they had an [imperial] stout called Old Heathen. The imagery on the bottle looked really metal to me almost like a Cirith Ungol album cover. So I was like, “Yeah, let me get one of those and try it.” It was incredible. So flavorful and not like any other type of beer I had at that point in my life and I felt like, “Oh my god, this is fucking awesome!”
Within a year with my girlfriend, now my wife, we drove out to Weyerbacher in Easton, Pennsylvania to check out the brewery, grab some beers, and take home a bunch of swag. From that point on, it’s really been learning about the different types of beer to trying as many crazy microbreweries as possible. At that point it was a different time for that industry in the US where it hadn’t really exploded yet. I think around 2008, Adam Tepedelen, one of our longest tenured Decibel contributors, pitched the idea of doing an extreme metal and extreme craft beer story for Decibel. He’s actually a beer expert and was writing for a bunch of beer magazines, even winning some awards for beer journalism. So he has some legit cred in that world. So I was like, “Yeah, I like this stuff. This is exciting and no one else is doing this stuff. Why don’t you do a column for it every month?” That turned into the Brewtal Truth column which he did for like a decade.
It started off with a focus on extreme metal and extreme beers, so basically finding metalheads with an appreciation for craft beer, worked at a brewery or were a head brewer. Over that decade, it evolved into just being about craft beer and the metal stuff was almost incidental after a while. It made sense because after a while people associated Decibel with craft beer more than any other metal magazine. I think in 2014, it was TRVE Brewing in Colorado who are one of the most overtly metal breweries, I mean they’re the first brewery I ever heard refer to themselves as a metal brewery, brewed a beer with us called the Decibrew. I still have a few bottles of, and a few that were drank, it was definitely taste tested and it was awesome. So I think the connection is there in the sense of extreme metal, extreme personalities and extreme beer. People pushing the envelope in terms of their craft. Not accepting the mundane in life whether it’s 4/4 time or 4.4% ABV.
I saw that Brimming Horn Meadry have been added to the Los Angeles edition, after previously working at this year’s Philly edition, and are collaborating with Spirit Adrift on a mead. So I’m wondering are you opening the fest to all sorts of alcoholic beverages or was this just too perfect of a fit to not have them?
It’s one of those things where Brimming Horn in particular is such a metal operation and is run by serious metalheads. They brew mead, well obviously you’re aware of Scandinavia’s role in extreme metal with the vikings and all, which is cool but also mead is pretty extreme as a high pretty high ABV drink. So I think it’s a cool twist and we’re also going to have in Philly next year a cidery [Blake’s Hard Cider]. So, we’ll have a meadery and cidery along with 18 craft breweries on top. I mean, I’m not looking to have five meaderies or anything like that soon, but I think that variation is cool.
In particular, the Brimming Horn guys are rad like how in Philly they brewed a mead with Enslaved when we did the Frost set this past year and along with the Spirit Adrift collaboration they’ll be doing another for the 2020 Philly edition. They’re truly invested in these events and are enthusiastic about it. They really get it and I love that. Having people that not only want to be there but feel there’s no other event they’d rather do than this one. The vibe at our Philly fest is just insane. I’ve never seen so many people hugging each other in one place [laughs]. Everybody is just smiles. The breweries are so excited to talk to metalheads who are interested in their beer and the metalheads are stoked to drink something that isn’t Shock Top. So there’s this mutual appreciation that everyone is having for this experience.
But yeah, the idea isn’t so much to expand into every realm, like I have no interest in putting in a winery or distillery. I mean I guess it’s possible it could happen one day but the beer will always be the main focus.
Like you mentioned earlier, the Philly edition now is full announced for the bands. Of particular note have been between last year’s edition and the upcoming one seems to be getting these legendary bands playing classic albums and often they’re Decibel Hall of Fame entries. Do you have to convince these bands to do sets like that or is it pretty straightforward for most of them?
We’ve done now… jesus, if you count the three that are going to happen in Philly, the two that happened in LA last year, and the two that happened in Philly this year, that’s like seven of them. For the most part, with the exception of Testament [who played at the last LA Fest complete sets of albums The Gathering and The New Order], I know these bands personally as friends of mine so it’s generally easy for me to say, “Hey, how do you feel about this?” Though I don’t want anyone to do anything they don’t want to, obviously.
The Celtic Frost set [at the 2018 LA Fest], I was really fortunate in that I have a good relationship with Tom and he was into the idea, which is one of those things I still can’t believe happened [laughs]. It starts really with me having some kind of relationship with the band and them knowing I’m coming from a genuine place when I ask. They know I’m a fan so it’s, “I think this would be cool, what do you think about it?” This is as a nerdy fan something I’d be excited to see, and when they hear a fan saying that, I think it means a bit more than some guy who books an event that they don’t know who’s going on, “You know I need to get x amount of people in this room and that set would make it happen for me.” So I think that helps.
I’m definitely fortunate with some of these bands where I know they’re not going to do anything like this with anyone else. The Napalm Death and Pig Destroyer sets next year I know in particular aren’t happening anywhere else ever again. Part of that is a byproduct of a very long friendship with those dudes and I feel super fortunate that I can even broach that subject with them. Of course, there’s other times like with Testament where it was hashed out with their label and their agent before I spoke to any of them but they were really cool about it and totally into the idea. Amazingly, the Enslaved set this past year in Philly came about when the year before they headlined the Decibel Tour, and I had a conversation with their manager in New York during the tour. He was like, “What do you think about Enslaved during a full set of Frost for Metal & Beer Fest next year?” And I’m like, “Are you fucking kidding!? That could actually happen? Okay, I’m interested.” [laughs]
So, sometimes it does just drop in your lap, but you generally have to make an approach… and there’s an evolution to it. Originally the pitch to Napalm was just a straight Harmony Corruption set, but Barney and Shane talked it over and asked if they could do something even crazier by adding Utopia Banished as well. When you have a direct line with guys like that and can talk it over the likelihood of something even cooler happening increases exponentially.
Just for fun and within practical reason, are they any specific classic album sets you’d like to book on future fests?
Fuck yeah! [laughs] I’d love to drag Paradise Lost here to do Gothic.
I knew you were going to say that, or Draconian Times.
I think they’d do it. But yeah, I gotta be realistic about it. They have to get over here, it has to be worth their while, and we’d have to do it where it financially makes sense for us. It would be a big deal for them so they should be well compensated for it while it also has to be within the framework of a budget where it’s going to draw more than you, me, Chris Dick and a couple other dudes [laughs]. You go back and forth between weighing it as a fan and whether it’s going to work. I think it could work, but also I am an unrepentant Paradise Lost fanboy who would be happy to hear them play any record other than Believe in Nothing [laughs]. So maybe or I might not pull the trigger on that and just want to book a regular set for them. Who knows though, that’s for sure one.
I can tell you there are other bands where there were things discussed for the version in Los Angeles that’s coming up and for the upcoming Philly one. There were bands spoken to about an album in particular that didn’t work for those events because of their schedules, but it might work for LA 2020 or Philadelphia 2021. When you go through this process you speak to so many artists and figure on so many iterations of what the lineup could be that, if it doesn’t work one year, you table them and then it might appear later. I think that very well could be the case with the next couple fests after these two. But yeah, My Dying Bride doing all of Turn Loose the Swans would be something I would enjoy.
Yeah, I’ll buy five tickets myself just to make sure you put that on.
Hey, whatever would offset some of those costs, I’d appreciate it [laughs].
Decibel Magazine Metal & Beer Fest: Los Angeles is happening this weekend, December 13th through December 14th at The Observatory in Santa Ana, California. Tickets can still be purchased for weekend passes (with options including or excluding unlimited beer pours), or individual day tickets.
Next year, Decibel Magazine Metal & Beer Fest: Philadelphia runs from April 3rd through April 4th, 2020 at The Filmore in Philadelphia. Tickets are available still for all options. The Decibel Magazine tour runs between mid-March to April 2020. Tickets for the numerous dates of the tour can be purchased here.