Interviewed by JP
We had the chance to speak to Keith Kahn-Harris, one of the world’s leading Heavy Metal academic researchers and authors. Kahn-Harris’ numerous publications, papers, lectures and books have put him at the top of the heap of the field of study. Feel free to check out our review of his book EXTREME METAL and our review his contribution to the recently published collection of essays METAL RULES THE GLOBE.
When did you make the transition from simple ‘fan’ to a scholar of Metal?
It’s a bit more complicated than that! My metal history was always a bit turbulent. I started getting into metal when I was about 9 or 10 years old. The problem was that I didn’t know anyone else who was into it and I wasn’t yet a sulky teenager who wallowed in solitude. So I kind of repudiated metal until my mid teens, when I started getting into metal again, initially via grindcore and death metal. Metal was only one of a number of genres I listened to though. I started thinking about doing research on metal when I was an undergraduate and I wrote my masters thesis on metal before starting a PhD on the subject. The strange thing though is that becoming a metal scholar actually made me more of a fan of metal. I tried to immerse myself in metal music and culture and that exposed me to lots of stuff I’d never heard much of before (like doom metal). I also started writing for Terrorizer and that also bought me closer to the scene. So being a fan and a scholar have gone hand in hand really.
Tell us about your first book EXTREME METAL.
It came out at the end of 2007. It’s based on my PhD that I finished in 2001, although I updated it quite a bit. The book/PhD was the first extended study of extreme metal as a scene and a genre. I did research on the Israeli, Swedish and UK scenes, including a lot of interviews with scene members. The argument of the book is a little too complicated too easily summarise here! In brief though, I tried to make sense of the concept of scene and to show how scenes overlap and coexist with each other with varying degrees of autonomy (so, for example, the Israeli metal scene is both independent and at the same time a part of the global scene). I was also interested in particular in questions of power and ‘capital’ in the scene. I showed how power relations work in metal and how women and members of certain minorities are sometimes discriminated against in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. One thing I’m particularly proud of was my discussion of humour and irony in metal – no one had ever really talked about it before, at least not in a scholarly way.
How was response to EXTREME METAL?
It’s had a pretty good reaction overall. In metal scholarship its referred to constantly, although some have offered critiques of certain elements of my argument (which is fine – that’s how scholarship advances). In the metal world it’s been reviewed a fair amount and I’ve been interviewed quite a bit. Metallers have generally been very positive and I think they appreciate the stuff on humour a lot. A few people have been impatient with the academic language, but believe me, my book is a model of clarity compared to some academic tomes!
When were you asked to contribute to METAL RULES THE GLOBE and how did that come about?
Most metal scholars know each other. I’d been in touch with Harris Berger and Jeremy Wallach for years. There’s only so many metal scholars to ask when compiling an edited collection!
Why do you think there has been a massive increase in the number of academic papers published about Metal?
In part it’s to do with the overall growth in studies of popular culture and popular music. That said, ‘metal studies’ was fairly late in developing compared to other sub-sub-disciplines (hip hop scholarship, for example, goes back to the 1980s). One thing that made a massive difference was the first international conference on metal, called ‘Heavy Fundamentalisms’, held in Salzburg, Austria in autumn 2008. That brought loads of people out of the woodwork and encouraged others to start researching metal.
Is there some (or any) resistance to your field of study from the more conservative halls of academia?
I personally haven’t experienced much, but I don’t doubt that it happens. Generally though, popular music scholarship has been going for decades now so it has a certain amount of credibility.
Do you have a specific routine when you write? Ie. night vs. day, lots of coffee, deadline pressures?
I have a family so that constrains when I can write! I try not to write under pressure of deadlines and to do things far in advance. However, as I’ve gotten busier in the last couple of years I’ve had to accept a lot more pressure. Writing’s always tough though.
What are you currently working on?
Metalwise, I’m co-editing a couple of collections. I’m also going to be giving a keynote address to a metal conference next year and I’m starting to think about what to write for that.
Outside of metal, I’m working on a book about Jewish political divisions over Israel. I’m also crowd-funding a book called ‘The Best Water Skier in Luxembourg: Tales of Big Fish in Small Ponds’ (unbound.co.uk/books/
Are there different pressures when writing Fiction vs. non-Fiction?
I don’t write fiction I’m afraid so I wouldn’t know!
In your words, what made you decide to accumulate mundane sub-cultural capital (writing) rather than accumulating transgressive sub-cultural capital? (performing) Have you ever been in a Metal band or play an instrument?
I used to play bass in my late teens and early 20s. I’d have loved to have been in a metal band, but I didn’t know anyone who wanted to form one during the time I was playing. Also, I have to admit that I was pretty lazy in terms of practice and it would have taken a lot of work to have been fit to play metal! The closest I got was a two-man band I formed when I was 18. We were kind of imitating Godflesh in that we had a drum machine and I used a distortion pedal on my bass. We played a few tiny gigs but split when we went to university.
This next question is tough but fair (I hope.) I’m not sure I worded it correctly.
Much of your academic career has been examining the relationships between Jews and Heavy Metal. Why is it important? Do you feel that music is an universal language that transcends race, creed, colour, gender, age, sexuality, politics etc… or are these factors inextricably linked with the creation of transgressive music like Heavy Metal, in that Metal must embrace these factors to rebel against them?
I’ve always enjoyed finding connections between worlds that people assume to be entirely separate. So looking at Jews and metal has always been fun for me. It’s fair to say though that it’s not intrinsically important in that the Jewish contribution to metal has never been as important as it has been in other scenes such as punk. To address your broader question, for the first couple of decades of its existence, metal was much more about transcending its origins than engaging with them. It was really only in the 90s (although there are some earlier exceptions) that metal bands started to get seriously interested in exploring ethnicity, nationhood etc. I think metal is all the richer for it – it’s broadened the available musical palette. I don’t think that this is antithetical to transgression. The key is how you do it! So bands often draw on the darker side of national mythology for instance.
Where can people learn more about you, your publications, lectures and your activities?
My blog/website is www.kahn-harris.org