Blood of the Scribe #2: Louise Brown of Terrorizer and Iron Fist
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Louise Brown recently left her post as editor of Terrorizer, and almost immediately launched Iron Fist, a new magazine devoted to die-hard metal bands and their fans.
Brown grew up in Luton, 30 miles north of London, a “cultural desert” that undoubtedly drove her toward music. She fell in love with the riff early on – U2 and its noisy cover of “Helter Skelter” in particular – and came into metal via a friend's brash older sister, who made Brown a mix-tape of Ozzy, GNR, Skid Row and others.
Metal magazines like Raw and Kerrang! provided the adolescent Brown a respite from Luton's blandness; her bedroom became a cave of posters. This, among other reasons, is why she's backing a print magazine in an increasingly digital world: “There's nothing like the feeling of ripping a picture of a half-naked Kip Winger from a magazine and finding room for it on your bedroom wall.”
When I interviewed Brown in September, she had just sent Iron Fist #1 to the printers, but it hadn't yet hit newsstands. Readers can buy it in UK shops, or order it online at www.ironfistmag.com. The second issue is in the works now.
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How did you become a metal writer?
I've been lucky to be in the right place at the right time for a lot of things in life. I dated a boy who wrote for the student paper at university and sort of followed him along to editorial magazines and got a few bylines on bad album reviews and even worse films. This was around the time where I'd start a fanzine at least once a week but never really get it together enough to print it, so I just sort of preambled along.
After graduating, I got a job as a runner for a big television company and fell into a career as a music consultant and production coordinator, which I loved. I had the best job in the world. I got to suggest music to be played on pop music shows, cookery shows, gardening shows, it was bliss. While my days were spent knowing the Royksopp and Air discographies back to front and negotiating with publishers about sync fees, my evenings were when I would “do” my own thing, and I had my toes in wherever people would let me: running a record label with my roommate, promoting gigs, DJing at clubs – my life was run by music.
At this time, I'd got really into dreadful power metal and had a show on Total Rock radio where I would evangelise the greatness of bands like Sonata Arctica and Stratovarius. This was 2003/2004, and that style of music was just starting to get popular in the UK, thanks to bands like Children Of Bodom and Nightwish. Katie Parsons, who now works for Kerrang! and is utterly lovely, was the reviews editor at Hammer back then and had the Total Rock show after me. Needing someone to write about those bands at Hammer, she roped me in and I was hooked. So really I owe it all to her and the Finns.
When did you start working for Terrorizer, and how did you become its editor?
After writing for Hammer for some time, as well as a few webzines, I realised that a lot of my favourite bands were massive in Europe but completely ignored in the UK, and I decided that enough was enough. I somehow convinced labels like Spinefarm and Napalm to hire me as a PR despite knowing fuck all about it (I still don't).
Two things happened, thanks to my hairbrained idea to be a PR. One, I was straightedge and had been for ten years, that is until a press trip with one of my bands (Ensiferum – thanks guys!) in Helsinki. Forgetting that I didn't drink they handed me a vodka orange and for some reason I didn't spit it out and bring the firestorm down on them. I just kinda shrugged and went “oh well” and ordered a White Russian. Two; my newfound drinking habit meant that the notorious music hack hangout Crobar in London's Soho was now a near daily-experience, which meant I could actually be social with the journalists who hung out there. This new social circle introduced me to Jonathan Selzer, then editor of Terrorizer, and for some reason I wasn't drunk enough to put him off putting me forward for the role of assistant editor when the very capable Marion Garden moved to Canada in summer 2007. I left my well-paid job in TV to be an underpaid music nerd and never looked back.
In what ways did you seek to define – or redefine – Terrorizer during your time as editor?
Everything happened very fast at Terrorizer, and sort of outside the realms of normality. Only at Terrorizer can you go from tea boy to head of accounts in an hour. Okay, maybe not that drastic, but it sometimes felt a bit "Press Gang" (a fantastic '80s British TV soap about a group of teens left in charge of a newspaper). In some ways this was fantastic, as we were left to negotiate our own way through the crazy politics of music magazine production and forge our own little niche in the market.
After joining the team in July 2007, Jonathan was soon nicked by our pals at Metal Hammer to head up their reviews section, so there was a shuffle for a brief period where news editor Joe Stannard became editor and then a very regrettable period (on many levels) where I put ambition before common sense and was promoted to editor with absolutely no experience except knowing how to colour-code an Excel spreadsheet and nail a deadline (that soon went out the window!).
I'm extremely driven, maybe too much, and as a result I got a bit sideswiped by Terrorizer and I allowed it to swallow me whole so that I lived and breathed it. At the time, I loved it. I would work 26 hours a day, 8 days a week, but it's only when you come out the other side that you realise your best work cannot be done on that much pressure. Sometimes it's good to sleep, see friends, have a glass of wine and some healthy food, go for a walk, leave the city . . . However, despite all that I had a fantastic time and learned so much from an amazing publisher who would drive me to distraction most of the time but who pushed me to be the best and always supported my most crazy decisions.
When I was promoted officially in January 2009, Terrorizer, like a lot of magazines, was in panic mode. Digital was a scary word and there was a cloud looming that wrote 'Print Is Dead' in grey, rainy cumulus form. I was convinced, and still am, that print is like vinyl. No matter how many modern-day teenagers pick up a 12” of black wax and wonder what the heck it is, there will be hordes of people nostalgic for the days of tearing Kip Winger out of Kerrang! like they are for proper LPs. I believe that if you can produce the most authoritative, exciting, well-written, well-designed physical magazine, then there will be a market. I didn't think that Terrorizer should be too broad, I believed that it should become a specialist magazine that catered to a niche crowd.
What are some of the issues or articles that you're most proud of from your time with Terrorizer?
There is so much to be proud of, despite all the craziness. I'm most proud of riding it out for five whole years without anyone figuring out that I was completely blagging it. I'm most proud of some of the out- there things we pulled out of the bag at the last minute. Like convincing Jeff Walker from Carcass to get done up like a zombie for my favourite ever cover shoot. Or chatting to Attila from Mayhem for an insightful interview about the making of De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. Or becoming friends with Gaahl from Gorgoroth and him trying to get me out of my cheap white wine phase (it never worked). I'm proud of the sleepless nights putting together Terrorizer's guide to black metal. I'm proud of standing my ground on many issues. I'm proud of bringing on board some super talented young writers. I'm proud of the risks I took and the bands I supported years before the rest of the world caught up.
Which issue of the magazine was the least popular with readers?
The way each magazine gets annihilated online by small sections of keyboard warriors makes you wonder if anything's ever popular. Put a band that's too mainstream on the cover and you've sold out. Put put a band that's underground on the cover and the band gets slagged off for being sell outs – you can't win. So I stopped trying.
There were a few issues during my time there that surprised us by not selling and ones that surprised us that did. For example, when we put Diamanda Galas on the cover, I was convinced it would bomb, but it was one of the most successful issues. And the first time I did Slipknot, I thought it was a sure thing but there were bigger mags out there covering them at the time, so we were seriously overshadowed. We went through a period when the powers that be kinda let me have my way and try to turn Terrorizer into a serious heavy metal powerhouse, but we played it too safe and never got the balance, and the readers responded with inevitable apathy.
I think Terrorizer soars when it finds the right balance between covering established veterans of the metal scene, and respected bands on the cusp of breaking through. And they have such a reputation of nailing the band just as they're about to go interstellar, which I hope they never lose. Bands like Watain, Amon Amarth, Converge, Slipknot, Sunn 0))), Turisas, etc., are examples of bands that Terrorizer discovered, built up and closed the deal with a cover an album or two before the other mags catch on.
When the bigger magazines are watching for your next move it's a real buzz. Least, or most, popular can be gauged by how many you sell in a month, but I was always concerned more for an issue's legacy and how it's remembered. Like when I got Darkthrone to edit the magazine or put the unknown Enforcer on the cover; they might not have shifted copy at the time, but people remember and talk about you years down the line, and I think that's something that gets forgotten in the economics of it all.
Which bands do you think Terrorizer helped launch?
I mentioned a few above. However, this is quite something . . . On my last day at Terrorizer, my publisher and I were talking about the good times and we flicked through the first issue where I'd officially taken over as editor. It had Bodom on the cover but inside, and this is a complete coincidence, there was a “Breaking Faces” on The Devil's Blood and a four-page Swedish metal scene report with Bullet, In Solitude, Enforcer, Portrait, etc. Those that know me will laugh when I tell them I didn't even consciously manipulate it like that, but it just goes to show that I really put my stamp on Terrorizer from the word go, as I'm utterly obsessed with those bands still. I don't think we launched those bands, but I'm glad to have played my part.
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In Solitude - "Serpents Are Rising"
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How has the metal-writing world changed since you got your start? What role do online magazines and blogs play?
I got into writing for print just as the digital publishing boom was really getting going, so I've never known of a world where print didn't have to fight for elbow room. I started at Metal Hammer and then was recruited afterwards for a webzine as my cachet was proven. Back then webzines were seen as something innovative and exclusive, and you were “lucky” to write for them. Now they're two-a-penny, and have lost all their authority and sense of expertise. I feel sorry for the real mavericks who started something with vision only to have to copied to the point of extinction.
But on one hand, that type of citizen journalism has put an end to the fear that digital was going to take over from print. Faced with too many options, readers are looking for one voice of authority. That's why magazines like Metal Hammer have been so successful. They perfectly provide a voice of a generation that is crossing into digital, radio, TV and social networking by placing their magazine in the centre of their brand and hailing it as the ultimate bible for their ever-growing network of insatiable fans. I think the more that established print magazines embrace the other possibilities of spreading their gospel and promoting their print brand, the longer they will survive. Then again, I'm going in the opposite direction by starting a print magazine with a deliberate lack of digital strategy, because I like to be stroppy.
Have the relationships between writers, musicians, labels, publicists, and managers changed in that time? If so, how?
Oh, gosh, yes, definitely. I think I was naïve when I started doing PR. I thought you could play someone a nice piece of music and they'd like it and write about it. I didn't realise you could threaten them with loss of advertising if they don't cover your band, or bribe them with cake and demand a hospitality budget from your label manager to take an editor to lunch (thank you label managers for many, many lunches). You gotta get in the game to play the game. I always hated PE!
Luckily, I love most of the PRs I've worked with, and we had an understanding that I wouldn't compromise, but I was open to working together, and that's when some of my proudest moments came to fruition. I refused to “sell space” in Terrorizer, as I called it. I wouldn't let some advertiser demand that I cover their band if I thought they were terrible and I think they respected that.
Why did you leave Terrorizer? What made you want to start Iron Fist?
I mentioned earlier that I was exhausted after five years at Terrorizer, and it took a lot of soul-searching to give up the best job ever but I knew deep down that I needed a change – not just to my job but to all aspects of my life. So I took the plunge and had a massive time-out on life, and it's been amazing. I can understand why people take sabbaticals now, and can't believe it took me so long. I'm starting to sound a bit like a hippy, but I've become a lot more grounded and aware of who I am in the four months I've been bumming around.
I was considering getting out of the fire completely, by training to be a teacher or something like that, but I'd missed the sign-up date and kept coming up with excuses that would avoid the fact that I just couldn't escape the music. When I was working out my notice period at Terrorizer, I got talking to a friend and I admitted that in a win-the-lottery situation, I would love to start my own magazine and he just said to do it. I found enough friends stupid enough to trust me with their life-savings and a publisher with experience in taking massive risks in a dying market and who knew the need for a good, authoritative heavy metal magazine, like the one I always yearned to make at Terrorizer.
I couldn't have done it there; it would have killed it. Terrorizer is Terrorizer and should always be Terrorizer. It was wrong of me to try and steer it down a more traditional metal path, but now I have exactly the right vehicle to write about the bands that excite me. This is completely crazy and totally self-indulgent, but I'm so happy to be beavering away on this. It's kept me sane. And if it doesn't pan out? Who cares? I would have made a magazine that I'm 100 percent proud
of and that's incredible. I had a few amazing job offers when I left Terrorizer that I was still too frazzled to take, and I'm pretty sure I'll regret that foolishness, but there's always teaching . . .
You named your new magazine after the Motörhead song. Why was that the perfect choice? What other magazine titles did you consider – did any of them come from old-school metal songs?
I didn't name it. My friend Will did. My publisher rents an office in the same building as my ex- boyfriend and three mates of mine who do PR and run a record label, so it's all sort of incestuous at Iron Fist HQ, but it also makes for a cool hub of metal geekery, the perfect setting for a magazine like Iron Fist. When the mag became a possibility, coming up with a name seemed impossible. I didn't even know where to start. However, all throughout my inner-wrangling about whether to leave Terrorizer or not, my ex kept telling me to “demonstrate the iron fist”, as in “put myself first for once and screw what anyone else thought.” It became a sort of motto, so Will suggested it for the magazine title, and it seemed too perfect to even think up an alternative. It's a great name, especially as the album is about to turn 30, but it's the sole reason this magazine is born, because I finally got tough on myself and demonstrated the iron fist, literally.
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Motörhead - "Iron Fist"
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You've described Iron Fist as a magazine for die-hard metal fans. Aren't all metal magazines trying to do that, to some extent?
Yes, they are and should be; it's the die-hard fan that would forgo lunch to get his monthly dose of print. You have to cater to the obsessives, and this is where my specialist or niche theory comes in. I don't think that putting Pantera, Pig Destroyer, Behexen, Gallows and Between The Buried And Me in the same magazine is conducive to success. The die-hard Behexen fans will always hate the die-hard Gallows fans, and neither will buy the mag. And the Pantera die-hard fans will buy it this month, but when you put Neurosis or Devin Townsend on the next cover ,will they necessarily still buy it? I dunno, I'd hope so, however, I'm not so sure.
Iron Fist is for the die-hards, yes. It's just that it's for one type of die-hard. I'm narrowing the pool of potential readers, which some might say is suicidal, but by catering to one sub-section of the wider heavy metal sphere, I will hopefully build a readership that share our passion and values. It doesn't mean we can never deviate from that template, but becoming a name they can trust is very important to me.
What kinds of metal do your ideal Iron Fist readers listen to? What don't they like?
We've got a long way to go as we're still, even as Iron Fist 001 is about to go on sale, evolving the magazine, but my idea is to become a magazine for music nerds (I use that word in the nicest way). I want to do a mag that is on fire because of a band we just discovered, y'know? My favourite film is Almost Famous. Sapphire's line, “They don't even know what it is to be a fan. To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts” has always meant a lot to me. So I want to cover bands that play like their life depends on it.
You can tell which bands burn with a fire they can't put out, and Iron Fist won't be defined completely by genre, but more with the attitude of the bands. We don't care whether it's black, death or classic heavy metal – if it has the fire, then it's for us. In my first issue, I've got an amazing personal and in-depth interview with Erik Danielsson from Watain, who's been one of my biggest supporters and ass-kickers throughout this whole process. But I've also got an interview with Manilla Road mainman Mark Shelton about his new Lovecraftian band, Hellwell. And then we chat to Geof O'Keefe from Pentagram about his labour of love in finishing the Bedemon album. We've also scored a rare interview with Sarcofago and have spoken to Shining, Grand Magus and Sodom. You might think these bands are all over the shop and not from one genre. No, they're not, but there is a link holding them all together and that's the heavy metal spirit.
What did you learn from your time at Terrorizer that is helping you most as you launch your own magazine – both in terms of what to do, and what not to do?
Everything! I owe them everything! I'm still learning. Every day something new hits me in the face; some new challenge, something I didn't know to do with Pantone colours or Photoshop, but imagine if I was doing this without Terrorizer. I was so fortunate there to have quite a big team around me, so I was protected from a lot of the more technical or back-end aspects of putting a magazine together, and I will never underestimate that.
You've defined yourself as a feminist. How does your perspective as a feminist play against your perspective as a heavy metal fan? Is there ever tension between them?
I am a feminist, but I don't think I've become a feminist; I think I always was. This is due to my upbringing and my constant sense of entitlement. My parent's didn't raise me in a “no” environment and didn't put any boundaries on my achievement, so I had no sense of prejudice, whether it be down to my class, race, religion or gender. To this day, I still get shocked by discrimination, because I was never victim of it. I never allowed myself to be. Try telling me “no” and see what happens!
The older I got, the more I met other feminist or liberal thinkers and that opened my eyes to the privilege I had and how I should always fight for others to have the same strength. But I have always been challenged about my position as a feminist in metal and I am quick to say that I very rarely see examples of gender-based discrimination in heavy metal. I have always been treated very fairly and I think it's easier for women to be embraced and celebrated in metal than in other genres. Maybe due to the typical metaller being a well-raised mummy's boy (ha ha).
Particularly in black metal, the feminine is celebrated. Of course, there are the depressing elements, like in all walks of life, like rape culture glorified in death metal, portrayal of woman as sex symbol in glam rock or the ever-present groupie culture, but I've found that in metal I've always been surrounded by some very powerful women who are challenging the status quo and putting themselves on top.
Is there room for women and feminism in the kind of “old man metal,” as you've called it, that is the core of Iron Fist?
The phrase “old man metal” was a funny throwaway comment, but I stand by it in a way as a lot of the music that I love was played by men for men. But dig a bit deeper and you'll discover Kate from Acid, Great Kat, Leather Leone, Rhiannon Tomos, Kim Sixx, Betsey Bitch; girls who were doing things on their terms in the same era. I had a lot of those Ladykillers posters from Kerrang! on my wall as a teen and, while for most of Kerrang!'s readers they were there to provide wank material for hordes of boys too scared to talk to real women, for me they were inspiration that women in metal ruled the world. And for every Lita Ford poster being fawned over by my male peers there was Kip Winger for me! It goes both ways, you know what I mean?
Shortly after you left Terrorizer, you wrote a piece for The Quietus contemplating the Butcher Babies, “slut rock,” and women in metal. How has the place of women in metal shifted since the 1980s?
I think if you dig hard enough, you'll discover the women who wouldn't fall into the “groupie” trap. It's easy to look at metal as a sub-culture and see the men, but behind the scenes, and occasionally onstage, there were sisters doing it for themselves. As a gender trait, I think women tend to get on with things without seeking mass approval, so we were always there, kicking ass; we just weren't interested in self-promotion.
You can tell the women who are involved in heavy metal from a passionate point of view, and the women who are manipulated into that role by the machine, such as record labels and stylists. While Butcher Babies might smack of a massive marketing ploy, and fair game to them, it's sadder still when genuine artists like Huntress or Mares Of Thrace, who I mentioned in my article, are put on a pedestal for being “hot” rather than talented, because they are.
By being such a patriarchy, women in metal are few and far between, but I would rather that than be a sub-culture where bands are manufactured to provide a steady stream of “sex symbols” for the male gaze. It's been tried again and again by the labels, but the male listeners aren't interested in talentless titillation, or at least not for long, so those bands tend to fail and the true talents gain the respect they deserve, whether they be male or female. No one talks about the musical legacy of Lisa Dominique, y'know? And no one will talk about the legacy of Butcher Babies.
How do you think metal journalism can move forward from where it is now?
I think that writers and publishers should be taking risks to stake their claim as a voice of authority. It doesn't matter if you're publishing a print magazine for 40,000, a cut-and-paste zine for 1,000, or a webzine; if you find your niche and hone that specialist voice, then people will look to you to influence their listening tastes.
There was a time when magazines were taste-makers, and now fans are discovering music on their own through the Internet, so magazines are constantly playing catch-up and playing the waiting game where they cover bands only when they've “made it,” as they think that is the key to enviable readership figures. But I would like to see a return to the times when magazines built the bands up and told the listeners what was hot and what's not. Maybe I'm naïve and way too nostalgic but that is what Iron Fist will represent. Interview me in a year and see if I'm still here – ha ha.
Photos of Louise Brown by Ester Segarra