Into The Inferno: The Story Behind A Shanghai Metal Bar
“I’ve opened a metal bar, and it’s doing pretty well." These are words I can imagine many metalheads would love to be able to say. Running a bar – it’s the classic “every man’s dream." Forget about all the administrative headaches of being a business owner for a moment; who wouldn’t want the over-idealized, carefree life spent slinging booze to your best buds all night? Even better, when you slap the “metal" label onto your watering hole, you’re freed from the burden of secretly having to enjoy the fact that “Despacito" is playing for the twentieth time tonight while putting on a practiced public face of disdain.
Smash pop hits aside, it takes a certain type of mindset with a hunger for challenges and no shortage of fuck-it-let’s-do-thisness to sink yourself into a brick-and-mortar business venture – much less one operating in a seemingly niche music market for which the mainstream demand is so low that the majority of actual bands themselves lose money by participating. Then, trying doing it in China, where the chances of your average Zhou being able to name his top five metal bands are about as good as Zhou’s chances of filling in for Randy Blythe on Lamb of God’s next record.
By opening Inferno in Shanghai back in 2011, Danish transplant Martin Aamodt did just that – and the craziest part about the whole thing was that it worked like charm. It’s hard to overstate the role Inferno played in the lives of me and so many of my friends through those years. Whenever the question was asked about where the night would be going, the answer was always “Inferno," and everyone knew exactly the type of night it was going to be.
Without fail, when I’d inevitably stumble out of Inferno at some point after midnight, my wallet would always be empty. It didn’t matter how much I had with me – by the end of the night, it’d be gone. Inferno had that type of effect on you. You’d want to stay as long as you could, soaking up the atmosphere and the fellowship with your crew as you crushed beer after beer to the soothing melodies of Suffocation and Cattle Decapitation. People go extra hard in Shanghai, and to consider why brings up a bit of a chicken-egg quandary. Does Shanghai turn its denizens into alcohol-abusing degenerates, or does the expat lifestyle hold a special attraction for people with these inherent characteristics? Did the city make us crazy, or did we come because we already were?
Regardless, for me and many others, Inferno gave us a home, and it’ll always hold a special place in my crusty, grime-caked heart.
Let's start from the beginning: what's the album that got you into metal?
MTV got me into metal. I remember watching the music video for “She Sells Sanctuary" by The Cult for the first time and being completely in awe with the whole thing. My parents were very supportive and let me stay up that one day of the week where Headbangers Ball was on. That’s how I gradually got into the heavier bands. Hair, glam and sleaze is still very dear to me though.
What originally brought you to China? Did you plan to get into the booze business the entire time?
My father’s work brought us to Hong Kong in 1997, one week after the handover. We were there for three years, which was my first stint in China. During my time at university in London, my family had moved to Shanghai, so I had the pleasure of visiting during holiday periods. After graduating, I decided to give Shanghai a shot.
The only plan I had concerning booze at that time was putting it in my liver. The nightlife in Shanghai is second to none.
How did you arrive at the idea of opening a metal bar? Where did the idea come from?
It was a combination of my passion for the genre and the fact that there was no place to really listen to metal aside from the occasional Black Sabbath or AC/DC song played in sports bars. There were of course some live venues and “DJs" floating around that would occasionally arrange rock nights, but nothing I would consider metal. I wanted to contribute to the scene, saw a potential niche and jumped on it.
What sort of obstacles did you face throughout the process? From the very beginning all the way through.
I’d say overall, licensing was the biggest headache over the years. The authorities are oftentimes vague with communicating the rules, so that they have cause to “investigate" and ultimately demand payments and/or issue fines. We got shut down eight months in due to a fire code violation we didn’t know about, which ended up costing us dearly. Had it not been that it would have been something else. We were lucky to bounce back.
Then, there was the ongoing issue of fake alcohol, also known as bathtub or knock-off booze. It’s basically really poor quality or even toxic. Suppliers would offer discounted parallel imports, so it was sometimes difficult to judge. We made a point to always politely decline and pay up to assure our liquor had not been tampered with.
It was also quite challenging to get the local crowd into the concept at first. We basically survived on expats that already had a strong relation to the genre. That changed gradually though, and now it’s a wonderful mix of people.
Speaking of which -- you moved locations a few years ago. What were the factors behind that decision?
We moved from the original location on Yong Jia Road in the former French Concession to the current location on East Long Hua Road (Bund Square) in 2015. That was due to neighbor complaints mostly. After much turmoil, they took us to court and we eventually got evicted. The official story is noise, but it was more likely that they didn’t appreciate a bunch of “Satan-worshiping metalheads" hanging out in their courtyard. Fair enough.
As much as I sometimes miss the old location, it presented us with the opportunity and challenge to take the concept further and expand our offerings.
What was the metal scene in Shanghai like while you were there?
Shanghai can be a bit challenging, mostly because it’s a very transient city. That’s of course also what makes it interesting. I saw a lot of rock/metal acts appear and then disappear during my time. It all came and went in waves. That could be a real source of frustrating because just when you felt content with the progress, things would die down.
What I enjoyed most though was the spirit and comradery that transcended racial and cultural barriers. It was not uncommon to see locals and foreigners playing together in bands. Not that I was surprised – metalheads are some of the most tolerant people you’ll meet, generally speaking. It was an absolute pleasure to be part of it all.
What are some of the craziest stories you have that took place inside Inferno? For better or for worse!
My dear friend Owen severed his ulnar artery in a freak accident on opening night. That was pretty terrifying for everyone involved. Luckily, we got him to a hospital in time. Today he jokes that Satan demanded a blood sacrifice. Thanks buddy!
Looking back, I can’t pinpoint many bad times, really. We had a lot of fun, made loads of friends, had tons of support and were fortunate enough to contribute to the scene. We hosted epic events in collaboration with Converse and Shanghai Tattoo. Our annual Air Guitar championship was always a blast. Perhaps my brain is fried from all those Jager shots – shout out to Benny at Jagermeister – but that’s how I remember it. Then again, it’s always the good old days, right?
For sure – it was definitely a very special place for all of us too. How about a crazy China story?
The craziest thing I did was marrying a wonderful Shanghainese girl and starting a family.
What are your thoughts on the role of metal music in Chinese society today? Does it have one?
I’m convinced it does, increasingly so. China is massive and extremely diverse which is great inspiration. Like other such countries, there are many hardships though. I’ve always felt metal to be an amazing outlet. It tends to unite people, regardless of background. Metal will thrive in China.
You've now brought Inferno back to your home city of Copenhagen. How does it compare with your experience back in China?
In many ways, it’s quite similar. Once you’ve learnt to navigate the bureaucracy things become manageable, at least with respect to operations.
There are cultural nuances, however, that dictate what works and what doesn’t. Shanghai is fast-paced and ever evolving, so people are continuously on the prowl for new experiences and happenings. Denmark is a very homogeneous society. They seek acknowledgement from their peers and don’t want to draw too much attention to themselves, generally speaking. This obviously has an impact on the overall mood and things like events. A lot of what works in Shanghai fails in Copenhagen.
We are only six months in here, so I’m still learning. Wouldn’t be rewarding without a challenge.
Who are some of your favorite bands in both China and Denmark?
Current releases are my thing mostly, so I’ve been spending a fair amount of time getting up to speed with the local metal acts here. I’d recommend checking out Bæst, Slægt & Orm.
Some Chinese bands to check out would be Horror of Pestilence, TumourBoy, Spill Your Guts, Loudspeaker, Hitobashira, Thy Blood and loads more. Massacre of Mothman from Hong Kong…there are so many!
What advice would you have for other metal-minded entrepreneurs?
Be generous, don’t overthink and Hail Satan.