Interview with Mats E. ERiksson
author of Another Primordial Day.
(all photos and images courtesy of M.E. Eriksson)
Tell us a bit about yourself as a Metal fan.
Because I was born way back in 1972 (and thus am nearly a fossil myself) I have gone through much of the natural evolution of Metal. So, I started off with old “Godfathers” such as Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Alice Copper, Black Sabbath, and their peers. This led me to the NWOBHM movement and, successively, the constant need for heavier and faster stuff took me through the thrash, speed, death, and black metal waves. Currently I jump between those different styles with ease, depending on my mood, and I also tend to go through time periods devoted to a particular (sub)genre, or band. For the last year or so, old-school Death Metal has been particularly pleasing to my auditory sensors.
In order to satisfy my Metal cravings I ingest copious amounts of not only audio pleasure through records, club and festival gigs, but also regularly read and, to some extent, write about the scene. I am a keen record collector and vinyl junkie and I like to support my favorite bands by purchasing their (physical) records and merch, while using online resources mainly for discovering new stuff. I tend to listen to Metal music both while working and exercising, and sport band shirts more or less on a daily basis (since that is mostly what is in my closet anyway). So, I would say that Metal permeates my life and – as for so many others – gives me great pleasure, strength, happiness, and energy.
Tell us a bit about your career.
Whereas some inspiring souls on this planet are in the life-saving business, as a professor of paleontology I am rather in the death saving business – meaning that I do love my extinct critters and what they can disclose about the evolution of life on Earth (leading up all the way to the Metal loving representatives of Homo sapiens). Also, because I work with the (long) dead for a living, I am probably more metal than most people;-)
Growing up I loved bugs and music, or beetles and The Beatles. As it so happens, I am now an adult who stillloves bugs, though particularly the petrified ones, and I still love (a wider spectrum of) music and art. As a research scientist and teacher of paleontology I think I have the delightful opportunity of not really growing up. Or, at least, it kind of feels that way. I am allowed to keep “playing in the dirt” (that is, conducting fieldwork), pant with excitement over new fossil discoveries, and still learn and satisfyingly muse over the weird Latin names of extinct organisms. Although my work days are primarily devoted to research, teaching, and supervision of students, I am also a keen advocate of scientific outreach. And it is there my love of art comes in to play. Thus, I am at a stage in life when I have the wonderful opportunity of combining my life-long love affairs with such seemingly disparate subjects as paleontology and heavy music, but also visual art and (popular) culture, into one peculiar melting pot. I know that it might seem eccentric and perhaps some people even frown at this, but I do not mind, primarily because of the simple fact that it makes me happy! And, as an added benefit, I have personally witnessed how I can transmit these matters to students and friends and watch first-hand their excitement. The reason I think is simple – passion is contagious (and that is almost irrespective of its nature)! Thus, regardless of what anyone might think of my specific type of cross-fertilization shenanigans, at least it is oneway of reaching out with the wonderful world of the history of nature; it simply represents my open invitation to everyone to marvel over the amazing smorgasbord of peculiar prehistoric tales that are continuously being unearthed.
When did you first come up with the idea of writing a book about Metal and paleontology? Is this a Heavy Metal book about paleontology or a paleontology book about Heavy Metal?
As noted above I have been interested in scientific outreach, that is, the dissemination of research results to the general public for years now and which has manifested itself mainly through various public lectures, but also a lot of popular science writing for different outlets in both Swedish and English. Then in 2017 I published my first book (Hårdrockfossil; in Swedish) with a collection short stories on Earth History. That book included some material exploring the connection between science and art, and more specifically paleontology and metal. Already by the time that book was being printed I realized that I wanted to refine the “paleo/metal concept” even further and, perhaps more importantly, share my work with an international audience. So, from there on I started working on Another Primordial Day.
Is this a Heavy Metal book about paleontology or a paleontology book about Heavy Metal?
Well, I would say neither nor, or all of the above! First and foremost it is a book on the amalgamation of science and art in general, and fossils and metal in particular. I figure, why limit yourself? This is my way of expressing my love for seemingly disparate subject matters. I also had a cunning scheme to provide information in semi-stealth mode; meaning that after accidentally having digested some material in my book, your subconscious will be on high alert for things you never thought you wanted to be aware of or care for. This also means that perhaps some “metal heads” will fortuitously learn about the history of nature, whereas some deadites (that is, paleontologists), or of course any open-minded people in general, may become intrigued enough to unlock and peek into the gigantic vault of great new (metal) music. I have also attempted to write reasonably clever about seemingly stupid stuff, and nonsensically about clever stuff. Whether or not I have succeeded will be up for the readers to decide.
How long did it take from inception to printing?
I would say between one and a half and two years. The book is something I did more or less as an extracurricular activity, so lots of early mornings, weekends and holidays were devoted to this project.
Was it easy to get the participation of the various contributors you interviewed?
Actually, yes it was. The main reason I guess is that I had already established a little bit of personal contact with most of the interviewees through other previous projects (that is, my Paleo Metal records – more on those in the book, if anyone is interested). So, I simply reached out to them, explained the concept and asked if they were willing to answer a few questions for my book. I wanted to have people representing different aspects of the Metal scene and ended up with five very inspiring individuals; painter Joe Petagno, journalist Tim Henderson, and three musicians; Alex Webster, Snowy Shaw, and Karl Sanders. They were all very supportive and I could not have been more grateful for their participation. I also think that their replies are both interesting and insightful while simultaneously oozing of warm and witty humor.
How did you arrive at the idea for the cover and the title? There is quite the story behind that!
Thanks, glad you like it! To me the title of a book is hugely important as it (in a best case scenario) transmits a first and immediate message of its content, philosophy and scope. Therefore, I also found it agonizingly difficult to come up with something suitable, and I had been pondering this for some time but nothing seemed to exactly capture the mood that I wanted to portray. Then all pieces suddenly fell into place when aforementioned Heavy Metal painter extraordinaire, Joe Petagno, was working on a project for me (an artistic rendering of an extinct monster worm – Websteroprion armstrongi – that we had named after Alex Webster) and referred to his new canvas as “Another Primordial Day”. Now that was bloody spot on I thought! Why? Well, first and foremost it makes for an excellent analogy for my work days, which are all characterized by journeys into ancient times, in one way or another. Moreover, the name certainly put a huge grin on my face as it is a word-play and clever reference to one of Joe’s famous cover artwork pieces for Motörhead’s (beloved and hated album) Another Perfect Day from 1983, combined with his previous work for me for a Paleo Metal record entitled Primordial Rigor Mortis (2017). Thus, the title should indirectly be credited to Joe, and with his consent there you have it embroidering my tome. And I think the whole cover design of the book scream’s Motörhead references (complete, of course, with the added umlauts in my family name;-)
Once you started your research, were you surprised at the amount of cross-over between the two topics?
Man…you have no idea! Even if I (obviously) find the connections between paleontology, music, pop culture and art not only to be a match made in heaven (or maybe hell), even I was thrown back at the wealth of points of interface. They really are as plentiful as they are unexpected, and particularly so between paleontology and the realms of Metal music. This is not least evident by the often-times common language used (which perhaps is not all that strange considering the copious references to death, destruction, skulls and bones in the respective fields). Thus, I had no problem whatsoever to find inspiration for chapter and paragraph titles from Metal music, and vice versa. But there are many other aspects as well, some of which are clearly expressed in the book, and others that are used more like “clandestine Easter eggs” for the Metal aficionado. I also believe that both scientists and metal musicians know that the devil is in the details and have a nerdy interest – perhaps obsession – for mastering their crafts, and making the best possible final products (whether it is a record or a research paper). Without having any statistical backing for this, I do have a feeling also that there is an overrepresentation of “metal heads” among paleontologists. If correct, that obviously must have to do with the fact that our research field is filled with people of highly refined taste;-)
Have you ever been to the World Heritage dinosaur site, The Royal Tyrell Museum in Calgary, Alberta? You should sell your book in the gift shop there.
Unfortunately I cannot say that I have. Despite not working specifically on dinos I sure would love to go there some day. What a great suggestion with the gift shop, thanks Joshua! I will reach out to them and see if they find interest in my crazy concoction.
How has initial response been to your book?
A one-word-reply would be: heartwarming! If I would elaborate a little further I can say that I am fully aware of the fact that my book is nerdy and super niche, so I was neither expecting it to fly off the shelves, nor was I under any impression of becoming rich from this – after all, it was a labor of love and nothing else. With that being said, the reviews that have come in thus far have all been killer, and without trying to brownnose you, the one you did for Metal Rules was the most spot on in my opinion, both with regards to capturing the overall scope and mood of the book, and also for specific details.
Very significant to me from a personal perspective has also been the awesome words from people that I look up to and admire (the opinions of friends and family obviously are very important, however, I think they are inevitably biased towards me…). A couple of things stand out to me since they also show that I have managed to reach people who do not necessarily have an in-depth background in natural sciences. For example, Moyses Kolesne (guitarist of Krisiun) left me a message saying “your book is amazing…I’m reading it now…congrats very well written, great words and wisdom”. Damien Thompson of Sacrilege stated that “It’s a fantastic piece of work, congratulations on the result, I’m delighted that Sacrilege are included.” Heavy Metal painter Joe Petagno simply said “Wow Mats this is really a beautiful book…well done…what a great job you have done with it all. I hope you sell all of them (copies)”. And perhaps the most inspiring words came from award-winning author Joel McIver (of whom I have read many excellent books); “Enjoying the hell out of your book, it’s amazing!” It is stuff like this that is my reward and pay-off for all the grit and I am truly grateful!
Tell us about your travelling exhibits that you are involved in.
Well, this is another pet project of mine that I run together with four other people; two Danish artists (Esben Horn and Rune Fjord Jensen), a Danish paleontologist (Jesper Milàn), and a German geologist (Achim Reisdorf). The underlying principle goes back to the fact that when scientists discover new fossils they get the right to formally name the creature. Some people choose names that reflect the distinctive looks or place of finding, whereas others (such as myself) take the opportunity to name the petrified beasts after their favorite rock stars! So, our travelling exhibition “Rock Fossils” explores this more amusing side of natural history by focusing on a series of bizarre long dead creatures that are all named after famous musicians. And to our great pleasure it has become hugely successful and been touring around Europe almost non-stop since it was first opened in Denmark in 2013.
As the name implies, the exhibition showcases fossil organisms baptized predominantly after heavy metal musicians, but also other rock stars and legends from the punk rock scene. These extinct organisms with a musical etymology have finally come to magnificent “life” by means of amazing sculptural reconstructions by Esben Horn’s company 10 Tons (Copenhagen, Denmark), and are now literally basking in the spotlight. The exhibition allows you to gaze into the eyes of the long dead while it also conveys the history of the fossils, the rock stars and the scientists, alongside anecdotes about how the names originated. Thus, here one can learn about ancient worms named after King Diamond, Lemmy Kilmister and Alex Webster of Cannibal Corpse, watch and even comfortably straddle a huge trilobite named after Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols, study a blasphemous “black metal” brittle star named after Rotting Christ, and get inspired by extinct bird Qiliania graffini, named after Dr. Greg Graffin of Bad Religion, just to name a few.
In my book I provide the whole story on the birth of the exhibition alongside lots of photos and peculiar anecdotes related to different exhibitions around Europe. This past summer of 2019 was special to us organizers as the exhibition was being showcased for the first time at not one, but two, Metal festivals (as opposed to our normal setting of natural history museums); Sweden Rock Festival, followed by Copenhell in Denmark. It was definitely a first for me to give lectures in such a setting; somewhat daunting but very rewarding. And what a magnificent fit it was have the exhibition at those festivals!
Do you have any words of encouragement or advice for young scientists and authors across the globe?
Well, I know that it might sound cliché but I would simply say; follow your heart and passion! Because doing so will shine through in your work (and, inversely, it will become obvious pretty quickly if there are other, hypocritical ulterior motifs working as guiding lines). Moreover, do not care what other people think and say! Be prepared to work hard in competitive fields (that goes for both scientists and authors). Be curious and try new things and techniques but screw trends (unless of course the trends happen to be in line with what your heart really desires). And, above all; have fun!
Thank you Joshua for an amazing interview!
Also here is a link to a short video from Sweden Rock Festival:
And here is the link to my distribution company for the book: